"The Big Wow"


A reader writes:

Re: your latest response to Sam Harris, I've been researching the latest scientific theories on supra-normal human experience, for an article in a future issue of Discover. Near Death Experiences (NDEs), out-of-body experiences (OBEs), reincarnation - nothing's off-limits as long as there's been some kind of serious scientific inquiry into the phenomenon. The most fascinating stuff I've come across in my research, by a long shot, is in the area of quantum mechanics, as presented in the work of the Oxford mathematican/physicist Roger Penrose and his colleague Stuart Hameroff, an anesthesiologist and professor at the University of Arizona.

Together, Penrose and Hameroff have developed a theory of consciousness called ORCH OR (Orchestrated Objective Eduction of Quantum Coherence in Brain Microtubules) which posits that consciousness "occurs" not at the neuronal level in the brain, and not in algorithmic processes mimicking on a grand scale the way computers work, but at the sub-neuronal level, in the microtubles (crystal-like lattice structures that help organize cell structures and enable information processing)  in which quantum processing interacts with classical physics. It's that intersect, between classical and quantum physics, to drastically over-simplify the Penrose/Hameroff model, that "provides the global binding necessary to consciousness."

Why is this interesting? Two reasons: because it suggests that the brain functions not like a computer but in a non-computable (i.e. non-reproducible by artificial means) way, and because Penrose goes further, and theorizes a stable set of Platonic ideal structures residing at the very lowest energy level of the Planck scale (where quantum gravity, whatever that is, would be strongest), which inform and influence at least our unconscious minds. Because quantum mechanics allows for non-local patterns, and because these non-local patterns repeat everywhere, the implication is that the universe is in some way conscious, and that we are part of that consciousness.

The Italian physicist Paola Zizzi, taking the Penrose/Hameroff model a logical step forward, has developed the theory that in the moment of the Big Bang, the universe also acquired consciousness (in the sense of these Platonic ideal structures), which she calls the Big Wow. The immediate implications of this theory are profound, and echo some of the basic tenets (though certainly not much in the way of dogma) of our major religions: that we are all connected; that consciousness exists apart from the purely mechanistic or biological workings of our temporal bodies; that consciousness exists outside of classical space/time; and that when we die, or when our brain activity ceases, to be precise, the quantum information that has accreted through a lifetime of experience does not disappear. It may decohere, in the sense that the individual information is no longer organized the way your brain organized it, or it may remain semi-coherent in what Hameroff suggests as some kind "hologram," (he is after all still a scientist); it may even float around and reconstitute itself in some other form, that's to say as some other person. No one knows.

What Penrose/Hameroff do claim to know, or at least strongly suggest, is that individual consciousness does remain, after death, in some form (perhaps outside the ken of current science, or even philosophy, though certainly not religion). I'm probably doing grave injustice to Penrose and Hameroff by summarizing their theory with such radical simplicity. Penrose's two books: "The Emperor's New Mind" (written before he'd come into contact with Hameroff's research into microtubules) and especially "Shadows Of The Mind: A Search For The Missing Science Of Consciousness," are undoubtedly better resources if you're interested.

I have no expertise in this area, and pass this on in good faith, so to speak. Wiki's entry on Penrose argues that no one doubts his brilliance but that some of his theories are not accepted by many in the scientific community. I find the whole discussion fascinating, in so far as I can understand any of it. I'm sure Sam Harris knows more.

(Illustration: Oil painting by Urs Schmid (1995) of a Penrose tiling using fat and thin rhombs.)