There is increased evidence that also our biology (as part of the cosmos) is underpinned by quantum mechanisms. Quantum processes take place at a subatomic level where the photons show a ‘weird’ behaviour. What causes this remains yet unexplained. However, some of these processes can be observed for example in photosynthesis, optical reactions, smells and interestingly the transformation from tadpoles into frogs.
In these processes, photons often show wave-like behaviour that for example allow them to tunnel through fixed structures. Another interesting phenomena is entanglement, here two elementary particles that arise from a single reaction share complementary properties (for example electrons with a spin + and a spin -), the value of which is only determined at the moment of observation of one of the particles. The moment an observation shows that a particle has a certain value, the value of the other entangled particle is immediately established. Even though the particles are thousands of light years apart. If you measure a particle that has spin +, then you know for sure that the entangled particle has a spin -. The fact that a variable of an entangled elementary particle has two values simultaneously is the basic principle on which quantum computers are built.
If quantum mechanism is so widespread in biology it will also most likely be part of our brain. Also, here certain processes – for example consciousness – can hardly be explained without referring to quantum processes. Furthermore, if quantum mechanism underpins the cosmos, why would humans be exempt or special?
If we link this to consciousness it is interesting to philosophise what quantum theories could mean for us humans. Consciousness is our ability to be aware of ourselves and our surroundings. While on the one hand quantum biological structures have determinate structures however (at least for the foreseeable future) the outcomes appear to us in a rather indeterministic way, as there are potentially trillions of possible outcomes of quantum reactions in the trillions of neurons that we have in our brains. It looks like quantum processes are doing their work before we make a deterministic decision, be it in for us totally unpredictable ways.
The question is if we will ever be able to understand these processes to such an extent that we can predict those outcomes, that is if they are indeed predictable at all. The issue of Free Will fits into the same category. As a matter of fact, perhaps many of the complex issues might need to be looked at through quantum processes.
Traditional mathematics is not able to assist us here and that led computer scientist Stephen Wolfram to come up with the term “computational irreducibility”, basically meaning that certain processes can only be proven through observation and experimentation. That is not to say that we will increasingly be able to understand these processes better. Will we ever be able to reach the full truth? Of course, we also can ask other questions. Is the cosmos just one computable entity? Are we simulations of ourselves in this cosmos machine, simply a process of observation and experimentation? Are there reset buttons in this process?
The more we look at these structures the more we need to see ourselves as a part of the (quantum) cosmos and our behaviour is equally ruled by quantum mechanism. What does this do to the notion of soft determinism in the context of free will? The quantum concept indicates that while we are part of the cosmos’ rules and regulations, do we still have an influence in this? Or is everything we do simply pre-programmed. However, for the moment at least this does not really matter as nobody can at this stage predict any future outcome of our actions.
Let us take climate change as an example is it predestined that we either ruin the planet or save the planet. Does it make any difference what we do or do not? Or perhaps is it predestined that doing something is also predestined and as such leads to a certain outcome? Obviously as we can observe, the larger ‘cosmos machine’ is also making its decisions in relations to such events. Again, it is important to not overestimate our own influence in this process.
Our consciousness is also heavily influenced by our environment. Our brain is a hub where all external and internal information arrives and get processed in some form of swarm computing.
Ludwig Witgenstein also linked language to the evolution of consciousness. He argued that the logical structure of language provides the limits of meaning. The limits of language, for Wittgenstein, are the limits of philosophy. Ralph Adolphs added to this that this evolution is at least also partially driven by a ‘mental arms race’ that collectively allows us to outsmart others. This would include tools such as collaboration but also trickery and lies.
Isn’t it wondrous to experience what consciousness has to offer us and the unpredictability of our free will is most certainly influenced by actions we undertake (soft determinism). With this in mind we should live life the fullest and perhaps that is the meaning of life.
Above I concentrated on the potential involvement of quantum mechanics in our brain and the effect it could have on consciousness. Another study that is currently underway is to look at the relationship between consciousness and thermodynamics and its property entropy. The 2nd law of thermodynamics shows that systems (cosmos, humans, things) move all in the same direction from order to disorder. Looking at our brain which is also subject to entropy the question that researchers are looking into is, could consciousness be a side effect of that process where the brain is trying to maximise information exchange? Professor Graziano adds his ‘Attention Shema Theory’ to it. Consciousness is not physical so in that respect it is more metaphysical, it is an inner subjective experience. Something like ‘what it feels like‘. Consciousness therefore doesn’t have to be totally accurate, as a matter of fact it will seldom be. The way we see our-self (feels like what it feels to be me) is subjective and even doesn’t need to be coherent. Graziano argues that in order to better understand consciousness we have to abandon the traditional concepts that links the brain to consciousness. In that respect the entropy research could well fit into such a different approach.