Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Mortality, Eternity
by Joseph Green

Absolute Pony
by Alisa Alering

Quisic Smith and the Russian Puzzle Doll
by Sean Monaghan

Clever Bubble
by Antha Ann Adkins

by Matthew Wuertz

To Walk the Earth
by Rebecca Birch

Five Stages of Future Grief
by Gary Cuba

Lost Planes, Lost River
by Michael Hodges

Funny Money
by Chet Gottfried

Insanity Machine
by Lawrence Buentello

Ten Minutes
by Eamonn Murphy


A Quantum Mind
by Eric M. Jones

What is Science?
by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



A Quantum Mind

By Eric M. Jones

THE MOST PROFOUND MYSTERY of the universe is not up in the firmament, but is sitting right between our ears: It is the 1.5 kg of amino acids, glucose and micronutrients that has somehow evolved to become capable of wondering about itself and its place in this apparently insentient cosmos.

The problem of consciousness—how we feel and think and experience reality—has historically been thought to be “spiritual” or “supernatural,” because reductionist scientific explanations had been inadequate to explain it.

For millennia science has avoided studying consciousness because it seemed more the dominion of religion and philosophy. There are whole quarreling academic-paper creating armies who believe in some particular philosophy of just how consciousness works. Amongst the many: Property Dualism—a physical property, like electromagnetism; Pan Psychism—consciousness is just the psychic part of our brain; Behaviorism—we behave in a conscious way, thus we appear conscious; Epiphenomenalism—an accidental side-effect of complex physical processes in the brain; and the related Emergent Dualism—a thing that grows inevitably out of complicated brain states ... like the hierarchical group dynamics, called an emergent property, of a swarm of fish or birds.

The behavior of large and complex aggregates of elementary particles, it turns out, is not to be understood in terms of a simple extrapolation of the properties of a few particles. Instead, at each level of complexity entirely new properties appear. —P.W. Anderson, “More Is Different”

This problem of consciousness has been around for millennia. Many solutions have been proposed for what consciousness is, and why it is such a slippery problem to set a hook into. Some believe, axiomatically, that the problem cannot be solved because we are swimming inside it. Some have proposed that the tools required by human minds to solve the problem of consciousness are necessarily (and must remain) just beyond the capabilities of human minds. Can you ever teach algebra to a dog? Probably not.

But even if human consciousness must forever remain a mystery, we still should be able to figure out the consciousness of a mouse for example ... a notion that has undoubtedly caused hellish torment for a millions of laboratory mice, and led exactly nowhere.

Before we undertake any serious discussion of consciousness, there are some issues to be settled: First we must assume that most people experience consciousness in the same way you and I do. And second, that what are called philosophical “zombies”—creatures that look and act human but have no consciousness—are generally impossible. This historical-philosophical notion might be supplanted someday with “the Star Trek Transporter Problem,” i.e., after having been rematerialized by a Transporter, are you the same? How does the Transporter move your consciousness and memories, especially if it is not a simple emergent property?

So why do we need to discover the nature of consciousness?

• Because it is the fundamental problem of the universe, because all the so-called reality that we experience is actually inside our heads. And it is after all ... ahem ... physics.

• Because it might reveal that intelligent life in the universe is unique to Earth creatures, because the quantum connection of brain cells is such a frightfully strange thing that we can expect no similar arrangement to have evolved elsewhere. (The same hyper-uniqueness might even be true of DNA.)

• Because much human suffering can be alleviated if we can get a real understanding of what is going on in our heads.

• Conscious computers are coming. Wouldn’t it be helpful to know what consciousness is?

Let’s dig into some basic brain anatomy: The human brain differs fundamentally from most other animal brains by having a much larger cerebral cortex. Unfortunately, this measurement shows that dolphin brains are superior in every way. But for land animals at least, we claim to be pretty smart.

The human brain evolved from early ancestors who left their cerebral histories as layers in the brain’s structure. We share the brainstem and cerebellum with ancestral animals. This is called the “Reptilian Brain” because it handles most of the routine functions common to animals with spinal columns, legs, hearts, lungs, guts, etc. It works mostly on autopilot.

The next layer to evolve is called the “Mammalian Brain” or the limbic brain. It is responsible for emotions, maybe. The limbic brain might be the seat of the unconscious value judgments that we make. But not much is actually understood about the limbic brain ... partly because it is so hard to explore. The limbic brain, and all the brain-matter from here on up has two distinct halves, and comprises the hippocampi, the amygdalae, and the hypothalamus.

The hippocampi look remarkably like sea-horses, and Hippocampus means “sea-horse.” Humans have two of them, one below each hemisphere ... and despite what your textbook says nobody is exactly sure what they do.

The amygdalae look like almonds, and amygdala unsurprisingly means “almond.” Humans have two of them, one below each hemisphere ... and again, despite what your textbook says, nobody is exactly sure what they do either.

The hypothalamus, whose name means “under the room (or chamber),” is an entirely different matter. It is a complex factory producing dozens of hormones used by various parts of the brain and body. If the brain uses or needs a chemical, there it is. It regulates the release of gonadotropic hormones, vasopressin, corticotrophin, dopamine, thyrotropin, oxytocin, growth hormone-releasing hormone (GHRH); it controls thermorbrainsegulation, panting, sweating, shivering, circadian rhythms, thirst and hunger, blood pressure, heart rate, gastrointestinal stimulation, satiety, neuroendocrine control, sexual issues, pupillary dilation ... you name it. But it doesn’t seem to do any actual thinking.

The twin hemispheres of the cerebral cortexes occupy most of the skull and are tied together rather loosely by the bridge of the corpus callosum. These hemispheres are believed to have been responsible for the development of language, abstract thought, imagination, and consciousness; in short ... they make us human.

The cerebral cortex of the human brain is made up of about 100 billion neurons, which couple to other neurons through about 100 trillion synapses. But 90 percent of the brain is made of glial cells and blood vessels which don’t do any thinking. This 1:10 ratio between neurons—which are believed to do the thinking—and glial cells and blood vessels—which feed the whole neural 3D maze, is the reason we have the urban legend that we use only 10 percent of our brains.

When the cortex skull cap is removed, a little poking and prodding produces movement, memories, auditory effects, and a range of hallucinations. Thought and memories do not exactly occur in a single place, but motor areas seem to be located in general areas, and can be reassigned, especially in young brains. One hesitates to say much about these particular brain locations. They are not the same for everyone, and electrically stimulating a spot, and getting some response—is still light-years from understanding consciousness itself.

Brain synapses regulate the flow of electrical nerve signals. They act like little insulating gaps that prevent a continuous and overwhelming flood of electrons, yet can be triggered to conduct as needed. Things get a little fuzzy here, because how the synapses are fired off has always been a mystery. There are chemistries in the synapses, but as brain science advances, the function of these chemicals becomes more puzzling. Apparently too much or too little of some chemicals makes you feel better or worse, and stimulates or retards the synaptic functions. What this has to do with consciousness or thinking is not settled.

It is a struggle to say anything about the workings of the brain that is undeniably true. Much of what we know about the brain is taken from brains that are elderly, diseased or traumatized some way. Indeed, the variation in human brains disclose how very little we know about consciousness and the brain’s dark depths, and studying them hasn’t cleared up much compared to what we learn from other organs.

Human savants, politically incorrectly called “idiot savants,” perform prodigious mental feats, and the best neuroscience can point to is that the MRI, SPECT, EROS, DOT, or other multimillion-dollar scanner shows somewhat different brain activity or structure here or there. The late megasavant Kim Peek, inspiration for the movie “Rain Man,” had a veritable sideshow of severe brain abnormalities, which included macrocephaly, damage to the cerebellum and a missing corpus callosum and anterior commissure, along with FG syndrome, an X-linked recessive syndrome of multiple congenital anomalies and mental retardation.

Some savants seem to get their special powers because their brain gets injured. How does brain damage create savants? Arguably, much of the structure of the brain seems to be just a filter so that we don’t experience everything at once. When those filters are damaged, the brain can be overloaded with stimuli. Much of the brain shuts down, leaving some parts working without having to compromise with other parts. Maybe.

But these savants, extraordinary as they are, still don’t give us much insight as to what consciousness is. Consciousness seems to be a quality that is binary. One can have more or less consciousness, perhaps, but animals’ consciousness seems to be either switched on or off. Consciousness seems to be a quality common not only to higher animals, but also to lower forms of life, such as insects. One can maintain the opinion that ant lions are conscious but ants are not, but it seems facile to make these distinctions. Where is the bright line, if it exists, that separates consciousness from merely bio-mechanical but unconscious? Even creatures without a distinct brain have distributed neurons or something similar. And even humans, which we assume are conscious, have vast but unconscious sub-basements in their brain.

Many people less imbued with Western Orthodoxy see consciousness as being a continuum where anything we call “alive,” including plants, contain some grain of universal consciousness. Animists believe there is consciousness in all things, not merely living organic things. Native Americans consider all things to be alive ... rocks, clouds, stars, pickup trucks, casinos ... whatever.

But we Western Science students still think there must be a dividing line. Are viruses alive? Are they conscious? Are bacteria alive and conscious? If so, where is the consciousness stored? Mitochondria-associated membranes? Some vacuole? RNA? Some structure built of half-a-dozen complex molecules or a tiny crystal as yet unnoticed? Many different ways? Is “Junk DNA” really junk, or an extraordinary and compact quantum mechanical mechanism that makes everything consciousness? There are hundreds of bits in the cell not yet identified. Does it have to be stored somewhere unique at all? Is it diffused within the creature? Is it everywhere? Is it neutrinos?

I especially like the elegance and simplicity of Ray Kurzweil’s prediction of computer consciousness. He claims that quite soon computers will claim to be conscious (and will pass any test we can give our computers to prove the claim—Turing Test be damned) and people will believe them. That will end the conscious computer problem.

What makes this scenario so compelling is that we can imagine a proximate future where computers have become “conscious” without anyone specifying exactly what this thing is or when it happened, or who was responsible. The computers suddenly appear to be conscious just by our asking the question ... a kind of quantum-mechanical state reduction, where this consciousness “thing” exists in all states simultaneously and only becomes “actual” when we look at it.

This smacks of the process that goes on inside the human brain all the time.

Quantum Mechanics was once believed to be only the domain of the very tiny and had extremely limited applicability to the sciences of biology, most chemistry, garden-variety physics, gravity, or even astronomy and cosmology ... or perhaps no applicability at all!

But two things have happened: First, a number of hitherto puzzling phenomena like photosynthesis, bird migration, even the odor of perfumes, have been disassembled carefully and found to have shiny little quantum mechanical working parts. And second, a number of long-intractable phenomena have begun disclosing compelling hints that quantum mechanics is at the bottom of it all—even consciousness.

Theoretical physicist Sir Roger Penrose, and anesthesiologist Dr. Stuart Hameroff (anesthesiologists tend to know more about consciousness than all the philosophers and neuroscientists put together) in the 1990s collaborated on a theory called Orch-OR—Orchestrated Objective Reduction—that detailed how animal consciousness might depend on structures called “microtubules” in the brain which might just operate quantum mechanically, and perhaps use quantum entanglement, too. This seems to be the most promising approach to understanding much of—or at least the mechanism—of consciousness, but there has been little recent progress on this and ultimately one suspects that it will still leave another puzzle ... sort of like a Russian Matryoshka doll.

I don’t believe that the power of the mind can bend spoons or channel dead ancestors. Ghosts, ESP, parapsychology and telekinesis are hokum. I don’t believe in the supernatural. Occam’s Razor and P. T. Barnum still rule these sorts of claims. Fraud, poor test design and bad lab techniques are the order of the day. But I do think—even allowing for the vast complexity of the neural structures— that orthodox science cannot yet adequately explain:

• What is the functional connectivity diagram of brain circuits?

• What detailed computations, if any, actually take place?

• What are the interactions that underlie cognitive functions and behavior?

• What are the paths of information flow?

• When the brain ‘‘organizes’’ itself during development, or ‘‘reorganizes’’ itself after an injury, what actually guides this?

• Is there an underlying functional architecture to the brain’s networks?

• What are the true functional underpinnings of perception, recognition, emotion, understanding, consciousness, and subconscious processes?

• How are memories stored and retrieved? (Megasavant Kim Peek memorized up to 12,000 books!)

• What does the astonishing capabilities of savants say about human potential?

• How is the ability to recognize human faces stored and accessed?

• How is information coded in neural activity?

Nobody yet knows how the assortment of brain sub-organs interact to generate “consciousness.” But I cannot leave this subject without mentioning Peter Russell’s novel proposal in his excellent talk on the Primacy of Consciousness. His basic point is that consciousness is a primary part of the universe and might even be considered its most basic ingredient. He proposes that mind is more fundamental than matter, and convincingly argues that consciousness is not created by the brain, but flows throughout the cosmos and is inherent in all beings ... perhaps in all things.

Philosopher David Chalmers asked what is called the Hard Problem: “How does something as immaterial as consciousness arise from something as insentient as matter?”

And Peter Russell responds that—assuming that the universe is filled with consciousness—the Hard Problem is actually “How does a cosmos filled with consciousness manifest itself into all these diverse forms?”

It is not possible to formulate the laws of quantum theory in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness. —Eugene Wigner, “Symmetries and Reflections: Scientific Essays,” Indiana University Press

A bold and astounding claim: The Universe might simply be conscious, and we are a part of it. But does this make any sense, or is this just some sort of whimsical New Age happy-talk? Well, you don’t have to venture very far into quantum mechanics before the notion that something like awareness and consciousness probably fills the cosmos and creates the reality we experience inside our heads. This begins to answer a whole lot of questions.

Several associates who read the early draft of this article commented that this was pretty close to a proof of “God” ... whatever that might be. But I seriously doubt anything can be done to repair the gulf between Science and Religion. More data and a better understanding of quantum phenomena are not going to give the power of belief any credence.

The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism. —Albert Einstein, “The Human Side,” edited by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, Princeton University Press

That’s Einstein’s opinion, not mine, but take it for what it’s worth.

Note: I admit that was a little hard on brain scientists, mostly in fun. But, just like the search for consciousness, it is a five-millennium-old profession which has accumulated a lot of baggage. The answers might require a fresh start. END

Further Reading

Roger Penrose on Quantum Consciousness.
Wikipedia: Quantum Mind.
Wikipedia: Quantum Biology.
Peter Russell’s excellent talk on the Primacy of Consciousness.
Information is Beautiful.
The Brain Activity Map Project and the Challenge of Functional Connectomics.

Eric M. Jones is the Contributing Editor of “Perihelion.” He is an engineer, designer, consultant, and entrepreneur. His Internet business PerihelionDesign, builds and sells products, parts and materials to the home-built experimental aircraft community.