Consciousness – By Jesús Zamora

This post is also available in: Spanish

In your blog you mention the distinction between mind and brain, clearly placing yourself in the monist side.

I am a radical monist. For me, the mind is the workings of the brain. In this dialog you’re referring to, the view I wanted to defend was a criticism of the idea that the qualia -subjective qualities of things perceived- are not reducible to what we know about the brain materially speaking, what we know about its physical operation. And my thesis was that, in fact, we have absolutely no idea -from the scientific point of view- about how the brain is in its qualitative aspects. Not only do we have no idea about the brain, but also about any object in the universe. All we can scientifically know about objects in the universe is their formal aspects, that is, we can say which equations describe them more or less adequately, but we cannot say what their qualities are. Therefore, there’s no reason to assume it’s impossible for the qualia, which supposedly -or intuitively- are realities of the qualitative type and apparently not describable by natural science, to be part of the brain. We just cannot know other qualitative aspects of the brain beyond those qualia. On the other side, we cannot know anything but formal aspects, that is, which mathematical structures describe the brain well. But it’s perfectly possible for the real structures contained by the brain to contain qualitative aspects, of which the quantitative, formal description is the one given by natural sciences. And therefore the point of that debate was that the existence of the qualia does not prove the mind to be something different from the brain. Both can be one and the same thing.

What do you think about theories like Penrose’s, who claims that consciousness is intimately linked to Quantum Mechanics?

Since I’m a monist, I believe consciousness is a natural phenomenon, just like any other. Therefore consciousness is based on Quantum Mechanics, just as a glass breaking as it falls to the ground is also based on Quantum Mechanics. That is, we’ve discovered the quantum laws because they were the only way we had of explaining certain phenomena we observed in the universe. And those quantum laws are the ones which give rise to all realities, including the brain and the mind. When Penrose and other people say that consciousness can be only understood as a quantum phenomenon, it seems kind of trivial to me, since absolutely everything is a quantum phenomenon, everything is made up of quanta. What happens is they simply mean something else and my problem is I still haven’t been able to figure out what that is. I’m not really sure whether they are right or not because I don’t fully understand what they’re trying to say.

They seem to suggest that the brain is capable of things a classical computer is incapable of.

If they are trying to say the brain is a kind of object where quantum superpositions happen at the macroscopic level, that seems to me a very dubious claim. If that were true, it should be possible to prove it empirically and I don’t know any kind of empirical proof of anything remotely similar. On the other hand, a reason why all of this makes me suspicious is that, from the quantum perspective, the brain of a lizard is exactly as complex as the human brain. It’s less complex from the classical point of view, we could say, but from the quantum point of view, seen from the perspective of an electron, the brain of a lizard is as complex as that of a human. And, therefore, I don’t see any reason why, if the biochemical structure of the neuron’s organelles was responsible for consciousness, for free will, for our capacity to perceive mathematical truths -the kinds of things Penrose talks about- I don’t see why lizards can’t have free will and know Pythagoras’s theorem and humans can. So I’m very doubtful about the part that refers to the empirical consequences of this train of thought. On the other hand, I still think that we can’t describe a classical computer exactly using only the classical description, since the classical computer is a quantum system which works the way it does due to quantum laws.

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