I have landed. . . to find quantum quackery

November 16, 2017 • 4:00 pm

. . . in Houston, that is. The George Bush airport is HUGE and not pleasant. Next I have a 2-hour flight to Puebla.

I have no time for posting, but here’s something to examine very critically. The famed physicist Roger Penrose, over at the Daily Galaxy, says he has a reliable physical mechanism for producing a soul. Have a look at the piece and then have at it. I’m told by a friend that this stuff is all over social media, since it has the imprimatur of a genuine Famous Scientist.

One quote:

While scientists are still in heated debates about what exactly consciousness is, the University of Arizona’s Stuart Hameroff and British physicist Sir Roger Penrose conclude that it is information stored at a quantum level. Penrose agrees –he and his team have found evidence that “protein-based microtubules—a structural component of human cells—carry quantum information— information stored at a sub-atomic level.”

Penrose argues that if a person temporarily dies, this quantum information is released from the microtubules and into the universe. However, if they are resuscitated the quantum information is channeled back into the microtubules and that is what sparks a near death experience. “If they’re not revived, and the patient dies, it’s possible that this quantum information can exist outside the body, perhaps indefinitely, as a soul.

Not only that, but others (who are unnamed) agree:

Researchers from the renowned Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich are in agreement with Penrose that the physical universe that we live in is only our perception and once our physical bodies die, there is an infinite beyond. Some believe that consciousness travels to parallel universes after death.

Well, all I can say is that there is no evidence I’m aware of that quantum-mechanical phenomena operate in the brain, much less that they play a role in consciousness and memory. And even if they did, how does any “information” in the brain stay together as a coherent unit after death? In what form does it exist? (It can’t be particles or forces, as Sean Carroll has shown.)  And how does it get into another body?

Oy gewalt! How does a renowned physicist who did important work get involved with this stuff? But I’m just a poor country biologist. I wish I had Sean Carroll here behind this sign. . .

108 thoughts on “I have landed. . . to find quantum quackery

  1. This is what happens to some otherwise smart people when they get close to the end and are desperate to find a loop hole to escape mortality. Unfortunately, to the best of our scientific knowledge, when you’re dead you’re really dead.

    For a book length account:

    The Myth of an Afterlife (K. Augustine Ed.)

  2. Penrose is getting weird. He is a fine mathematician and theoretical physicist but seems to be extending his ideas into the realms of fantasy. I read “The Emperor’s new mind” and it’s sequel. The arguments made in the first book were at least reasonable if not entirely correct (I still sit on the fence about strong AI for various reasons).

    The sequel is where the microtubules idea is expounded. It always struck me to be a rather large leap of reasoning and a rather ad-hoc hypothesis.

    At least Penrose tilings are still cool and Penrose diagrams are the only way I really understood some aspects of General Relativity.

    1. It actually has *two* sequels, where Nancy Cartwright (who I am iffy about as a philosopher – some of her stuff is ok, some rather missing-the-pointish) and, IIRC, *Stephen Hawking*, give him the benefit of the doubt on this stuff. But none of the space of _The Large, The Small, and the Human Mind_ is from real critics, like Stenger or Pat Churchland. (See above.)

    1. Sounds like it.

      When you’re dancing on the edge of the known, there’s always the risk of slipping over the edge.


  3. “…if they are resuscitated the quantum information is channeled back into the microtubules….”

    It’s also possible the quantum information is channeled into someone else’s ass and comes out again in a much more prosaic form.

  4. The same brand of woo he has been peddling since his 1989 book “The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics”. I can’t believe he is still being taken seriously.

  5. As a physicist, this is total garbage. The charitable interpretation is that Penrose may be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

      1. No, he has been this way for decades, at least since The Emperors New Mind. Which is both an excellent and a ridiculous book. It’s like reading a book that explains tough concepts well but then mixes in absurd woo constantly. Imagine the Selfish Gene mixed with Chariots of the Gods.

  6. I suspect that among the relatively few in Britain who recognise his name the description would be “nutter” rather than “physicist”.

  7. So, if 2 people temporarily die near each other and are resuscitated, can their quantum information return to the wrong microtubules?

    Do they become the other person or do they have the wrong near-death experience?

    I affirm that this nonsense is more fun to read than science fiction.

  8. If Penrose thinks it’s possible for a person to die “temporarily”, then he hasn’t thought very hard about what death actually means.

    That said, I have to take issue with Jerry’s claim that “there is no evidence I’m aware of that quantum-mechanical phenomena operate in the brain”. Since all matter and indeed all physics is ultimately quantum-mechanical, then of course quantum-mechanical phenomena operate in the brain, as they do everywhere in the universe. When your retina captures a photon, or when chemical bonds form or break in your cells, those are quantum-mechanical phenomena.

        1. Fair enough, but I don’t see where Penrose and Hameroff are invoking quantum indeterminacy. Rather, their claim seems to be that microtubules act as quantum computers, encoding subjective experience as coherent quantum states and exploiting the (deterministic) evolution of those states to process information.

          On a side note, I find it hard to watch Penrose speak without imagining Michael Palin delivering those lines.

          1. And, at least a while ago, doing such in a way that is (strongly) not computable, either. I don’t know if he’s doing that part of it still, but that’s how I got into it all. My first paper on the philosophy of science as an undergraduate was primarily a response to Penrose and my own teacher, Mario Bunge, about their views on AI.

    1. Yes, but physicists distinguish one type of quantum phenomena that involve or rely on entanglement, something Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Quantum computers will rely on entangled particles, but I don’t know if Penrose is really thinking of quantum-computer like processes in the brain.

      1. Back in ’94 (I think) when I heard him talk on this subject, I believe his argument for quantum behavior in the brain was based on the diameter of microtubules in neurons being small enough such that quantum effects are significant. Perhaps he has sharpened the argument since then.

        1. Right but like most quantum woo, he doesn’t really describe how he gets from the word “quantum” to the conclusion “the unobserved phenomena I hypothesize exists.”

          Just saying quantum doesn’t mean a phenomena is necessarily counter-intuitive or unpredictable. It can be, but nuclear decay is also quantum mechanical, and it’s extremely predictable. Analogously, the roll of the dice in craps is not predictable, but the casino can certainly predict they will make money every night on it. If microtubules in the brain are the right size to act as quantum wells, this doesn’t necessarily imply anything about any spooky action at a distance or other weird effect. The activity of thousands or millions of microtubules in the brain could be QMical and yet entirely predictable, producing a reliable and consistent biological effect at the same time.

      2. But again, all particle interactions involve entanglement. Entanglement and decoherence are how the illusion of classical physics emerges from quantum mechanics.

      3. Not quantum *computer*, at least originally. He postulated that there is some process which is not even weakly computable that allows us to “see the truth of the godel sentence” or solve arbitrary halting problems, etc. “Non-computable”, in Bunge’s sense. Bunge of course seems to have been the better physicist and found the idea that one would “do this” by quantum stuff ridiculous. In fact, the only time Bunge ever came to the McGill philosophy department vistor’s seminar was when Penrose was the guest. (This was 1998.) One of my other professors invited him and I was embarrassed to hear a trained logician (as this person was) not seeing that the logic stuff was fallacious, but …

        1. Your comment reminded me of Penrose’s talk on this subject. He said that his biggest motivation was his own mathematical intuition. As a mathematician, he could see the truth in mathematical statements that, in his opinion, computers could never do.

          This is a very common point of view that I believe comes down to a failure of imagination. They have no idea of the possibilities of software. They claim that a computer program can only compute what the programmer told it to compute. Of course it isn’t that simple. In a recent talk, Dennett responded to an audience question that expressed this idea. He disdained from giving a detailed response, suggesting the audience member learn computer programming first.

          Penrose probably knows programming but only has familiarity with simple programs. As smart as he undoubtedly is, this is not the level of knowledge needed to judge the capabilities of AI or the simulation of brains on digital computers.

          1. He tries to deal with Turing’s old point that if you allow a computer to make mistakes, it can seemingly do uncomputable things. The “aha!” moment I had as an undergraduate was realizing that was true of us, too.

            1. Mistakes are as much a part of computing (or thinking) as non-mistakes and, therefore, are just as computable. Pronouncing some computation (or thought) as a bug (or mistake) is just a judgment made after the fact. The person (or computer) making such a judgment could just as well have called the computation in question “blue” or “windy”.

    2. I agree that quantum processes are relevant to some brain activity. Hameroff and Penrose propose that quantum entanglement spans the breadth of the brain. That’s not physically plausible. Too much thermal noise.

      Quantum randomness probably cascades up to affect overall behavior on occasion. I regard this as a bug in evolutionary design, not a feature. Your mileage may vary.

    3. That would be trivial quantum phenomena, apart from the part about photons and retinas. I think what PCC-E is saying is that there is no evidence for non-trivial quantum phenomena in the brain.

        1. Things that can only be explained using quantum mechanics and not classical physics. Your statement that “Since all matter and indeed all physics is ultimately quantum-mechanical, then of course quantum-mechanical phenomena operate in the brain” is describing trivial quantum phenomena.

          1. I’m afraid that doesn’t really clear it up. Electron orbitals, for instance, are ubiquitous in ordinary matter (i.e. trivial), but lack classical explanations (i.e. non-trivial).

            This is why I think this distinction people are trying to make between “normal” or “trivial” QM on the one hand, and “spooky” or “non-trivial” QM on the other, is fundamentally misguided. QM is what it is, and its counterintuitive aspects are in play everywhere, all the time. So to say that the spooky stuff doesn’t happen in brains is just wrong. It does happen, but we don’t usually notice because most of the time, on large scales, the spookiness averages out to classical behavior.

            1. “we don’t usually notice because most of the time, on large scales, the spookiness averages out to classical behavior.”

              It is interesting to note that the physics Nobel laureate Gerard ‘t Hooft tries to find a basis of quantum mechanics in classical physics, that is, quantum phenomena are still Newtonian.

    4. The main weakness I see in this idea (Penroses’s) is the implication that information stored at a quantum level in microtubules somehow enables consciousness but information stored at some larger scale does not. The only difference would be capacity. This seems completely irrelevant to me, as in Penrose is looking for a solution to a problem that has yet to be demonstrated to actually be a problem. It seems to me that evidence has not led him to this conclusion but rather that a fuzzy prior conclusion reached due to incredulity or longing has led him to make assumptions far beyond any reasonable interpretation of the evidence. And like so many people “quantum” is mysterious enough that he is using it here as a magic black box.

      He has no plausible explanations for how any of this works. How is the quantum information written? How is it read? How does it leave the microtubules when the body dies? How does it go back when the body is ressucitated? What specifically is different about information stored at a quantum level vs stored at larger scales that enables consciousness? How does it lead to or enable consciousness? It’s like a MacGuffin.

    5. I think the claim could be restated as “the workings of the brain are understood on a neural level, rather than the workings of sub-atomic forces.” The “computation” of the brain, as far as the evidence goes, can best be understood by the relation of neurons and synapse firing.

  9. Penrose has produced a number of interesting ideas and writings over the years; it is unfortunate that his future reputation is likely to be linked to his obsession with consciousness and microtubules. I have never understood why microtubules in neurons are supposed to be special: if his ideas are correct, why don’t the microtubules that exist in all cells participate in consciousness, memory, etc?

    Maybe the fact that he is a nephew of Roland Penrose, leading English Surrealist of the 30s (not that that is saying very much), has something to do with his capriciousness in later life.

  10. Penrose jumped the shark quite a while ago. He and Hameroff have been pushing the microtubule/quantum idea at least since 1996. They are part of a larger group, often called the New Mysterians (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_mysterianism) that believe that human consciousness is beyond human understanding or not computable. This is an example of a reasoning mode that has been going on since the dawn of man: “If we don’t understand something immediately, we never will and it is probably magic.”

  11. I understand that no information is ever lost, the information that ends up in black holes is somehow projected onto the event horizon (? something like that).

    Such physical facts would be consistent with the preservation of our minds, wouldn’t it? (I’m not going to die!)

      1. Does information become particlized, though, or does it stay in context — gathered? I would think it has to stay together to be considered information. So, after death, the information that is your mind would be preserved in context and would not require anyone to gather it.

        1. I think Paul is referring to information in a formal Shannon sense. There is a good possibility that a fundamental law of nature is that information is conserved.

        2. Quantum information is never created or destroyed; however, the quantum bits become ever more entangled with each other. The information is scattered across the universe as things interact with each other and exchange information. So the state of everything depends on the state of everything else.

          The fact that the information still exist represents nothing more than the unitary evolution of the universal wavefunction. It is just a statement about how the laws of physics have never changed. However if the universe has stopped computing your mind then you will stop existing surely. The fact that it is theoretically possible to reconstruct the state of the universe back when you were alive does not have any bearing on the fact that you ended up dead.

  12. This is old, old bullshit not new bullshit


    [1] The two top videos are from 2013
    [2] No author byline
    [3] Robert Lanza, a biocentrism proponent & first class self-promoter, is someone you covered back in 2013: https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/12/02/biocentrism-is-it-woo/
    [4] Everything is copied from a Daily Express [Brit daily newspaper] article from a year ago: https://www.express.co.uk/news/science/728897/LIFE-AFTER-DEATH-consciousness-continue-SOUL

    The embedded 2015 video in the Express article is from the Closer To Truth YouTube channel. TEMPLETON-FUNDED [in part] ‘Closer to Truth’ is the beast of Robert Lawrence Kuhn who has a weekly PBS programme: https://www.closertotruth.com/about/overview

    Robert Lawrence Kuhn of course has been a speaker at the Chopra Foundation…

    nuf said! 🙂

    1. Just one more: at the bottom of the Galaxy article is a link to the Sunday Guardian Live. Clicking that gets you:
      404 – Page Not Found
      Which is all you need to know about life after death.

    2. That was what I was going to add – The Daily Galaxy is most often (bad) rehash of old ‘news’. Nothing to see there, move on.

  13. Penrose is right. AFAWK, information is conserved, so information in a dying brain cannot be lost to the universe whether it was stored in some quantum form (which I doubt) or otherwise. But so what? How does that imply a soul? It is like restoring a burned tree from its ashes.

        1. Susskind is correct [I suppose], but so what? He is saying the quantum world, as far as we know, is exactly time reversible in principle [& So is the Newtonian world of physics in principle].

          All that means is information isn’t lost globally [it’s there somewhere in the universe], but information is lost locally at the speed of light to the rest of the universe. How do you propose to catch the escaping light speed information in your small sub-region of the universe system & return it to the place where you can reverse engineer a previous state of the system that interests you?

          Plus this all requires ‘work’ you must create heat/noise to reverse stuff – entropy continues warming our bones at the expense of order

  14. I hate the word quackery. I have to find an article from my other computer. This sounds interesting. I don’t use the word soul and I find it odd that they are using it.

    1. Quackery is a fine old word. Probably stems from the old 16c Dutch word kwakzalven or ‘quack ointments’ – where kwak/quack means to hawk [sell] rubbish.

  15. even if they did, how does any “information” in the brain stay together as a coherent unit after death?

    I have no problem thinking that a physical structure can go into a no-activity period and then – if it’s decomposition isn’t too severe – re-produce a nearly identical pattern of activity if something restarts it. That is, after all, what computers often do. And it’s pretty much what happens to humans when we get knocked out, and then recover. There is IMO no prima facie reason to think a brief period of body or brain death wouldn’t be recoverable in the same way.

    However, the pattern doesn’t go anywhere. It just dissolves, and then is reproduced at a later time. There is no reason why the observed reconstitution of the pattern need imply that that pattern had some continuous existence ‘outside the body’, any more than the fact that I can save where I am in my Agricola game implies there is some supernatural Agricola game continuously running in some metaphysical Game-space, until I decide to turn on my iPad again.

    1. “There is IMO no prima facie reason to think a brief period of body or brain death wouldn’t be recoverable in the same way.”

      As I understand it, brain death is by definition unrecoverable.

      1. Well if it’s ‘by definition’ then I guess I’d accept that definition. But I think you get my point: I see no prima facie reason why turning off a brain and then turning it back on couldn’t result in it re-producing a similar pattern of activity.

        1. When you turn a PC off/on in the approved manner it has built in programs that remember its state – it is robust at the mega-scale that we care about

          But even simple physical systems don’t behave that way – they don’t have a means to recover a previous state were it possible to freeze/unfreeze it. Say you have a piston engine & you could instantly ‘freeze’ it there’s no mechanism that remembers the forces & momentums in the gasses, pistons, cams, flywheel, voltages & currents in the engine management system and etc. All that info is destroyed as heat when you apply the magical ‘freeze’ brake.

          I assume quantum systems are even trickier given that the more accurately you record one property the less accurately you can record another e.g. position & velocity

          A dynamical process called ‘mind’ can’t be frozen & restarted in the brain unless it somehow has the qualities of a PC – a brain can go to sleep & awaken, but it never really stops – there’s processes always running AFAIK [& I Know little!] 🙂

          1. In fact a PC, once stopped, is in a *different* state from what it was when running – precisely because shutdown processes have carefully recorded selected parameters and written them to the hard disk. None of this happens inherently, it all has to be specifically designed into the shutdown routines.

            I’m not aware that the brain is designed to be shut down in this fashion.

              1. Errm, yes. I was just emphasising the fact that the PC can’t just be switched off at the wall and recover its state on switch-on. There’s all sorts of transient information in RAM that goes pffft when the power is cut off. It requires (as you noted) specific programs to save it.

                So far as I know the brain doesn’t have any mechanism to do that.


  16. Wouldn’t a soul have to, y’know, stay as one coherent entity? If the information is scattered everywhere, with no practical way to gather it back together, how does that qualify as a soul?

  17. Below link is to HuffPo where the Hameroff guy, mentioned in Galaxy, that worked with Penrose – babbles above his pay grade. He’s an “M.D.” & thus even further removed from expertise on quantum phenomena than Penrose.

    An enjoyable, deranged article that wanders about using buzz words

    “Is Your Brain Really a Computer, or Is It a Quantum Orchestra?” by Stuart Hameroff M.D.

  18. The Emperor’s New Mind is one of the most frustrating books I’ve ever read. The first half is a brilliant, insightful summary of the history of physics and computing. And then it all turns to absolute nonsense.

  19. Questions to ask:

    Are ‘essences’ in the Greek philosophical sense ‘real’ or are they subjective projections of meaning?

    Are souls (personal essences) ‘real’ or are they subjective projections of meaning??

    Is information (personal essences) ‘real’ or is it subjective projections of meaning??

    If you accept that there is no magic, no supernatural, then there is no dodging that what is ‘real’ must be processes that are determined by known forces and processes. Any new force or process would be folded back into the natural. So anyone who believes that ‘essences’ exist separately from the natural world is just kidding themselves – they are projecting their subjective desires on objective events.

    1. I don’t know about “personal essences”, but information is real enough to be rigorously quantifiable. A 64GB USB stick holds twice as much as a 32GB stick; that’s a fact, not a subjective projection. And the quantity of information is conserved when copied to different physical media.

      1. But the arrangement of junctions and their charge is not the same as the interpretation you, or a computer, makes of them. The ‘information’ is apparent only when something ‘reads’ it according to an agreed protocol.

        It’s the tree falling in the forest scenario. We have no reason to doubt that a tree generates pressure waves in the air when it falls but only an observer can translate those pressure waves into a ‘sound’.

  20. BS or not (and I’m inclined to think yes), this hypothesis is not dualistic nor metaphysic by any stretch of the imagination. You can call this extracorporeal preservation of information “soul” metaphorically speaking, but Penrose’s idea is strictly materialistic.

    1. I don’t think he has explained it in enough detail to be able to claim that it is strictly materialistic, though I can accept that that is his intent. He is using QM/QFT as a magic black box to account for something that he sees no other way to account for. And for no apparent reason other than that both QM/QFT and consciousness are both mysterious. This is exactly what woosters like Deepak Chopra do. Though admittedly Penrose is more respectable than Deepak Chopra.

  21. Yeah, wishful thinking runs amok. I always ask, why would anybody go looking for a soul in the first place, there being no evidence for the existence of such a thing except in imagination.

    The telling quote is “Penrose argues that if a person temporarily dies, this quantum information is released from the microtubules and into the universe. However, if they are resuscitated the quantum information is channeled back into the microtubules and that is what sparks a near death experience.” The “information” exists in the microtubules and then “is channeled back” into them. First I would like to know how they figured it “left” and if it did, to where did it go. And secondly if the information can exist outside of the microtubles, why would it “go back” once released. This is a little like claiming if you fart in polite company and then regret it, the fart can be recalled. Also, the implication is that the information is tightly bonded to the physical structure it was encoded into and when that structure degrades (due to, you know, death) how does it latch onto anything else. What the hell is disembodied information? (If printed words are burned, does the information embedded in those patterns live on when the patterns have been made to naught?

    Balderdash I say!

    On Thu, Nov 16, 2017 at 4:00 PM, Why Evolution Is True wrote:

    > whyevolutionistrue posted: “. . . in Houston, that is. Next I have a > 2-hour flight to Puebla. I have no time for posting, but here’s something > to examine very critically. The famed physicist Roger Penrose, over at the > Daily Galaxy, says he has a reliable physical mechanism for prod” >

  22. Penrose’s prediction of the ‘soul’ would equally apply to ALL lifeforms that share the microtubule state = a very crowded afterlife.


  23. The root to that is that (mainly) mathematician Penrose et al.claim to have found “coherent quantum vibrations” in microtubules – that according to e.g. back-of-the-envelope estimates by physicist Max Tegmark should not exist. [Penrose et al here: https://phys.org/news/2014-01-discovery-quantum-vibrations-microtubules-corroborates.html , http://www.esalq.usp.br/lepse/imgs/conteudo_thumb/Consciousness-in-theuniverse-A-review-of-the–OrchOR–theory.pdf ; Tegmark in arxiv or his blog.]

    How the source papers could be published beats me. I can access one and it is tantamount to make odd interpretations of fuzzy STM images by drawing arrows in chemical structure diagrams, using non-biological voltage ranges to study conduction properties, and without showing similar measurements making a sketch claiming 3 orders of magnitude less voltage can be used [ https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Anirban_Bandyopadhyay/publication/257953778_Multi-level_memory-switching_properties_of_a_single_brain_microtubule/links/02e7e526f888007a08000000/Multi-level-memory-switching-properties-of-a-single-brain-microtubule.pdf ].It is not convincing as published of whoeing DC effects, I cannot see coherence effects and it is not a basis for claiming to understand how the brain works.

  24. Any evidence offered or is this mere speculation? Penrose has had some intriguing ideas including that the Big Bang is cyclical is that once a Universe approaches heat death, it explodes into a yet larger Universe. The death of one Universe is the singularity of the death. This works out mathematically with simple scaling. Does he have any such evidence for quantum consciousness reaching other Universes? How does it get there?

    1. There is absolutely no evidence to support quantum processes as being involved in consciousness & it’s the same for microtubules.

      The most important person in the field is unfortunately dead! That’s Minsky who called ‘consciousness’ a “suitcase word” that lacks rigour – it isn’t defined. Minsky said “We have to replace it by ‘reflection’ and ‘decisions’ and about a dozen other things. So instead of talking about the mystery of consciousness, let’s talk about the 20 or 30 really important mental processes that are involved. And when you’re all done, somebody says, ‘Well, what about consciousness?’ and you say, ‘Oh, that’s what people wasted their time on in the 20th century’ ”

      Then there’s people like the philosopher David Chalmers, he coined the term the “hard problem” & invented “philosophical zombies” – he’s a non-reductionist who thinks there’s consciousness everywhere – yes including your hallway thermostat!

      Most people in the fields of AI & neuroscience regard consciousness as an emergent property of the brain in action, but Penrose believes computers can’t emulate wet brains.

      His premise is that consciousness is not computational & he thinks quantum mechanics is the doorway into Summer. He got a call from an American M.D. anaesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff years ago who proposed ‘microtubules’ as the seat of all this frantic quantuming [they are intracellular structures that are responsible for various kinds of movements & functions in all eukaryotic cells].

      Penrose has stuck with microtubules through thick & thin for years despite people [Max Tegmark & others] explaining why it’s nonsense.

  25. Chopra’s Law: Whenever you read an article which contains both “soul” and “Quantum”, you are reading pseudo-scientific bullshit.

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