Does consciousness explain quantum mechanics?

Concept art of quantum mechanics, theory of superstrings.
(Image credit: PASIEKA via Getty Images)

One of the most perplexing aspects of quantum mechanics is that tiny subatomic particles don't seem to "choose" a state until an outside observer measures it. The act of measurement converts all the vague possibilities of what could happen into a definite, concrete outcome. While the mathematics of quantum mechanics provides rules for how that process works, that math doesn't really explain what that means in practical terms. 

One idea is that consciousness — an awareness of our own selves and the impact we have on our surroundings   — plays a key role in measurement and that it's our experience of the universe that converts it from merely imagined to truly real. 

But if this is the case, then is it possible that human consciousness could explain some of the weirdness of quantum mechanics?

Quantum measurement

Quantum mechanics are the rules that govern the zoo of subatomic particles that make up the universe. Quantum mechanics tells us that we live in a fundamental nondeterministic world. In other words, at least when it comes to the world of tiny particles,  it's impossible, no matter how clever scientists are in their experimental design or how perfectly they know that experiment's initial conditions, to predict with certainty the outcome of any experiment. Know the force acting on a proton? There's no set location where it's certain to be a few seconds from now — only a set of probabilities of where it could be.

Related: Spooky action is real: Bizarre quantum entanglement confirmed in new experiments

Thankfully, this indeterminism surfaces only in the subatomic world; in the macroscopic world, everything operates according to deterministic laws of physics (and no, we're not exactly sure why that split happens, but that's a problem for a different day).

When physicists perform an experiment on quantum systems (for example, trying to measure the energy levels of an electron in an atom), they're never quite sure what answer they'll get. Instead, the equations of quantum mechanics predict the probabilities of these energy levels. Once scientists actually conduct the experiment, however, they get one of those results, and all of a sudden the universe becomes deterministic again; once scientists know the energy level of the electron, for example, they know exactly what it's going to do, because its "wavefunction" collapses and the particle chooses a certain energy level.

This flip from indeterminism to determinism is outright odd, and there is no other theory in physics that operates the same way. What makes the act of measurement so special? Myriad quantum interactions happen in the universe all the time. So do those interactions experience the same kind of flipping even when no one is looking?

The role of consciousness

The standard interpretation of quantum mechanics, known as the Copenhagen interpretation, says to ignore all this and just focus on getting results. In that view, the subatomic world is fundamentally inscrutable and people shouldn't try to develop coherent pictures of what's going on. Instead, scientists should count themselves lucky that at least they can make predictions using the equations of quantum mechanics.

But to many people, that's not satisfying. It seems that there's something incredibly special about the process of measurement that appears only in quantum theory. This specialness becomes even more striking when you compare measurement to, say, literally any other interaction.

For instance, in a faraway gas cloud, deep in the vastness of interstellar space, nobody is around; nobody is watching. If, within that gas cloud, two atoms bump into each other, this is a quantum interaction, so the rules of quantum mechanics should apply. But there is no "measurement" and no result — it's just one of trillions of random interactions happening every day, unobserved by humans. And so the rules of quantum mechanics tell us that the interaction remains indeterministic. 

But if those same two atoms bump together inside a laboratory, scientists can measure and record what happened. Because a measurement occurred, the same rules of quantum mechanics tell us that the indeterminism flipped to become deterministic — that's what allowed me to write down a concrete result.

What's so different between these two cases? Both involve subatomic particles interacting with other subatomic particles. And every step of the measurement process involves subatomic particles at some level, so there shouldn't be an escape from the usual quantum rules that say the outcome should be indeterminate.

Some theorists, such as pioneering quantum physicist Eugene Wigner (opens in new tab), point out that the only difference between these two scenarios is that one involves a conscious, thinking observer and the other does not. Thus, what's called a "collapse" in quantum mechanics (the transition from indeterministic probabilities to a concrete result) relies on consciousness.

Dreams of the universe

Because consciousness is so important to humans, we tend to think there is something special about it. After all, animals are the only known conscious entities to inhabit the universe. And one way to interpret the rules of quantum mechanics is to follow the above logic to its extreme end: What we call a measurement is really the intervention of a conscious agent in a chain of otherwise mundane subatomic interactions.

This line of thinking requires consciousness to be  different from all the other physics in the universe. Otherwise, scientists could (and do) argue that consciousness is itself just the sum of various subatomic interactions. If that's the case,  there's no end point in the chain of measurement. And if so, then what scientists do in the laboratory really isn't any different from what happens in random gas clouds.

While not strictly a physical theory, the concept of consciousness as different and separate from the material universe does have a long tradition in philosophy and theology.

However, until someone can figure out a way to test this concept of consciousness as separate from the rest of the physical laws in a scientific experiment, it will have to stay in the realm of philosophy and speculation.

This is part of an ongoing series describing potential interpretations of quantum mechanics.

Paul Sutter
Astrophysicist

Paul M. Sutter is a research professor in astrophysics at  SUNY Stony Brook University and the Flatiron Institute in New York City. He regularly appears on TV and podcasts, including  "Ask a Spaceman." He is the author of two books, "Your Place in the Universe" and "How to Die in Space," and is a regular contributor to Space.com, Live Science, and more. Paul received his PhD in Physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2011, and spent three years at the Paris Institute of Astrophysics, followed by a research fellowship in Trieste, Italy. 

  • Eclipse718
    Quantum measurementQuantum mechanics are the rules that govern the zoo of subatomic particles that make up the universe. Quantum mechanics tells us that we live in a fundamental nondeterministic world. In other words, at least when it comes to the world of tiny particles, it's impossible, no matter how clever scientists are in their experimental design or how perfectly they know that experiment's initial conditions, to predict with certainty the outcome of any experiment. Know the force acting on a proton? There's no set location where it's certain to be a few seconds from now — only a set of probabilities of where it could be.

    Related: Spooky action is real: Bizarre quantum entanglement confirmed in new experiments
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    Thankfully, this indeterminism surfaces only in the subatomic world; in the macroscopic world, everything operates according to deterministic laws of physics (and no, we're not exactly sure why that split happens, but that's a problem for a different day).

    When physicists perform an experiment on quantum systems (for example, trying to measure the energy levels of an electron in an atom), they're never quite sure what answer they'll get. Instead, the equations of quantum mechanics predict the probabilities of these energy levels. Once scientists actually conduct the experiment, however, they get one of those results, and all of a sudden the universe becomes deterministic again; once scientists know the energy level of the electron, for example, they know exactly what it's going to do, because its "wavefunction" collapses and the particle chooses a certain energy level.
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    This flip from indeterminism to determinism is outright odd, and there is no other theory in physics that operates the same way. What makes the act of measurement so special? Myriad quantum interactions happen in the universe all the time. So do those interactions experience the same kind of flipping even when no one is looking?


    The role of consciousnessThe standard interpretation of quantum mechanics, known as the Copenhagen interpretation, says to ignore all this and just focus on getting results. In that view, the subatomic world is fundamentally inscrutable and people shouldn't try to develop coherent pictures of what's going on. Instead, scientists should count themselves lucky that at least they can make predictions using the equations of quantum mechanics.

    But to many people, that's not satisfying. It seems that there's something incredibly special about the process of measurement that appears only in quantum theory. This specialness becomes even more striking when you compare measurement to, say, literally any other interaction.
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    "For instance, in a faraway gas cloud, deep in the vastness of interstellar space, nobody is around; nobody is watching. If, within that gas cloud, two atoms bump into each other, this is a quantum interaction, so the rules of quantum mechanics should apply. But there is no "measurement" and no result — it's just one of trillions of random interactions happening every day, unobserved by humans. And so the rules of quantum mechanics tell us that the interaction remains indeterministic."
    -
    This is not an accurate understanding of quantum mechanics, its a pseudoscientific understanding that says quantum mechanics has anything to do with conacious observation. If two atoms crash into each other in space or in a lab they will decohere from their quantum mechanical state.
    The thing that people say about quantum mechanics being reliant on measurement isn't about measurement itself, its about the fact that in order to measure something you have to bounce a beam of light into that thing or somehow force an interaction that decoheres, or breaks, that quantum mechanical state.
    I'm kind of confused how an astrophysicist didn't know that about quantum mechanics. This idea overall doesn't even make sense. It implies that when a conscious entity observes something some part of its consciousness literally reaches out to that thing and then breaks its quantum mechanical state faster than the speed of light.
    Reply
  • Lewis Goudy
    It implies that when a conscious entity observes something some part of its consciousness literally reaches out to that thing and then breaks its quantum mechanical state faster than the speed of light.When you see something, for example, an exploding star, the signal is where you are--not where the event that produced the signal happened (long before humans existed). Likewise, when you see it is when you are then--not when it happened. No transluminal velocities are involved.
    Reply
  • cacarr
    Copenhagen smells like woo. Wave-function collapse-schmalapse. In the absence of a definitive test, I'm an MWI guy.

    I don't know why people default to Copenhagen. Many-worlds sounds crazy? Not *as* crazy.
    Reply
  • Dennis P Waters
    Reminiscent of Howard Pattee's classic paper from 1971: Can Life Explain Quantum Mechanics? CAN LIFE EXPLAIN QUANTUM MECHANICS? https://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/scientists/pattee/Pattee_life_quantum.pdf
    Reply
  • Brian J Flanagan
    Freeman Dyson wrote that "there is nothing else except these fields."

    On a mind/brain identity theory, such as we find in Russell, Feigl, Chalmers, and Lockwood et al., it seems fairly clear that our sensory fields must be quantum fields.

    This idea would seem to go a long way toward explaining why these "two" fields reliably co-vary.
    Reply
  • write4u
    Question: if "differential equations" do not work at quantum level, does that mean that all those particles at that level have the same value?

    And if that is true, how can consciousness learn to make distinctions between values?

    There seems to be evidence of "differential" based processes at quantum level.

    Quantum probability in decision making from ... - Naturehttps://www.nature.com › scientific reports › articles
    by A Khrennikov · 2018 · Cited by 65 — The QP-approach to modeling of decision making is a purely operational approach describing probability distributions of observations' outputs.
    Evolutionary Processes in Quantum Decision Theory - PMChttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov › articles › PMC7517214
    by VI Yukalov · 2020 · Cited by 19 — The review presents the basics of quantum decision theory, with an emphasis on temporary processes in decision making. The aim is to explain the principal ...
    Decision field theory - Wikipediahttps://en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Decision_field_theory
    Decision field theory (DFT) is a dynamic-cognitive approach to human decision making. It is a cognitive model that describes how people actually make ...
    ‎Introduction · ‎Explaining context effects · ‎Neuroscience


    https://www.academia.edu/10282970?auto=download&campaign=claiming-recommended-papers-download-button
    Fig. 4. A map of the electric potential on the surface of a tubulindimer with C-termini tails.
    Red regions represent positive charge,while blue regions indicate negative charge. The intensity of coloring indicates the local surface strength and polarity of the field. Figure prepared using MolMol (Koradi et al., 1996)
    Reply
  • write4u
    Microtubules as One-Dimensional Crystals: Is Crystal-Like Structure the Key to the Information Processing of Living Systems?
    Abstract:
    Each tubulin protein molecule on the cylindrical surface of a microtubule, a fundamental element of the cytoskeleton, acts as a unit cell of a crystal sensor. Electromagnetic sensing enables the 2D surface of microtubule to act as a crystal or a collective electromagnetic signal processing system.
    We propose a model in which each tubulin dimer acts as the period of a one-dimensional crystal with effective electrical impedance related to its molecular structure. Based on the mathematical crystal theory with one-dimensional translational symmetry, we simulated the electrical transport properties of the signal across the microtubule length and compared it to our single microtubule experimental results. The agreement between theory and experiment suggests that one of the most essential components of any Eukaryotic cell acts as a one-dimensional crystal.

    https://www.mdpi.com/2073-4352/11/3/318
    Reply
  • 011eNigma235
    As a lay person I've always thought Heisenberg's "Uncertainty Principle" was a bit hubristic. To believe our observation can affect the state of matter on the quantum level is like placing man in the role of a god. After all the Big Bang and universe all came about without humans and their consciousness.

    As for Schrödinger's cat, the unfortunate creature is most likely going to pass due to the isotope of known half life, irregardless of someone peeking into the box or not.

    The great French philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, believed we 'reshape' our reality based on the way we want things to be and not the way they are. Might this not be what is occurring with reality vs. the Quantum State?
    Reply
  • AlexFox
    Hello!
    If our universe is flat (with zero curvature), then it can be smeared on the surface of a ball (soap bubble), then what inside expands this ball (dark matter and dark energy) is inaccessible to us.
    Then, perhaps, based on the theory of the flat surface of the universe, by determining the top and bottom of our location in space, it is possible to determine with greater accuracy the superposition of particles in quantum mechanics.
    Is this possible?
    Reply
  • write4u
    011eNigma235 said:
    To believe our observation can affect the state of matter on the quantum level is like placing man in the role of a god. After all the Big Bang and universe all came about without humans and their consciousness.
    Roger Penrose sees this exactly as the opposite.
    He proposes that a quantum event creates a moment of consciousness.
    This is how he and Stuart Hameroff have joined in a theory of ORCH OR (Orchestrated Objective Reduction) which proposes that microtubules in the brain are sensitive to quantum and that is the reason for human consciousness.

    So, "observaton does not cause quantum collapse, but quantum collapse causes observation" !

    like that logic.
    Reply