The Quantum Theory of Proto-Consciousness: a Critique and some Perspectives


« Roger Penrose »



Paramecia are organisms composed of a single cell. They can swim, find food, mate, reproduce, remember their past experiences, derive patterns of behavior, and thus « learn », – all this without having a nervous system, having neither neurons nor synapses. How are such behaviors requiring a form of consciousness and even intelligence possible in a single-cell organism without neural networks?

The question is important because it opens new perspectives on the nature of « consciousness ». Indeed, one could infer from these observations that part of our own cognitive capacities are not of neuronal origin, but are based on other, more fundamental, biological phenomena below the level of neural networks.

According to the hypothesis of Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrosei, the ability to learn from single-cell organisms and the emergence of elementary forms of consciousness within our own neuronal cells could originate in the microtubules that form their cytoskeleton, at the level of the dendrites and the cell body (soma).

The microtubules would be the place where tiny moments of « proto-consciousness » hatch, – tiny moments but constantly repeated, millions of times a second, and whose aggregation and integration at a higher level by the neural networks would constitute the « consciousness » itself.

One could also assume that these moments of « proto-consciousness » that constantly emerge in the billions of microtubules of the dendrites of each of our neurons form not only the source of consciousness but also the basis of our unconscious (or at least of its biological substrate).

It has been shown that the brain waves detected by electroencephalography (EEG) actually derive from the deep vibrations that are produced at the level of the microtubules composing the cytoskeleton of the dendrites and the cell bodies of the neurons.

Neuronal membrane activities can also resonate throughout the various regions of the brain, depending on gamma wave frequencies that can range from 30 to 90 Hz.ii

The vibratory phenomena that are initiated within the microtubules (more precisely at the level of the « tubulins » of which they are composed) modify the reactions and action potentials of neurons and synapses. They participate in the initial emergence of neurobiological processes leading to consciousness.

However, these resonance phenomena, considered from the point of view of their profound nature, are essentially quantum in nature, according to the thesis presented by Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroffiii.

The molecules of the membranes of neuronal cells possess a dipolar moment and behave like oscillators with excitation quanta. Moreover, according to the laws of quantum mechanics, they can give rise to quantum entanglement phenomena linking and correlating in this way the particles of the microtubules of several adjacent neurons, allowing an increasing integration of networks at the neuronal scale.

Hameroff and Penrose assert that proto-consciousness events are thus somehow the result of « quantum computations » performed in the microtubules (this term ‘quantum computation’ is associated with the image of the microtubule as a quantum computer). The results of these ‘calculations’ are ‘objectified’ after their quantum ‘reduction’ (hence the term ‘objective reduction’, or Diósi-Penrose’s ‘Objective Reduction’, noted O.R., to qualify this theory).

But does it make sense to speak of ‘moments of proto-consciousness’? Isn’t consciousness precisely first of all the feeling of a unity subsuming a whole, a whole made of myriads of continuously integrated possibilities?

Consciousness is described by these theorists of quantum neurology as a sequence of discontinuous micro-moments, quanta of emerging consciousness.

However, consciousness is also defined, macroscopically, as a presence to oneself, as an intuition of the reality of the self, as an ability to make choices, to have a memory founding the persistence of the feeling of the self, and as ‘thought’, capable of preparing and projecting the expression of a will.

Are the two positions, that of the succession of discontinuous, quantum, proto-consciousness moments and that of the unitive consciousness of the Self, compatible?

The Sarvāstivāda school, one of the major currents of ancient Buddhism, goes in this direction, since it affirms that 6,480,000 « moments » of consciousness occur in 24 hours, that is, a micro-salve of consciousness every 13.3 ms (frequency of 75 Hz). Other Buddhist schools describe the appearance of a thought every 20ms (50 Hz)iv.

Consciousness would thus consist of a succession of discontinuous events, synchronizing different parts of the brain, according to various frequencies.

From a philosophical point of view, we can distinguish three main classes of theories of the origin and place of consciousness in the universe, as Penrose and Hameroff do:

A. Consciousness is not an independent phenomenon, but appears as a natural, evolutionary consequence of the biological adaptation of the brain and nervous system. According to this view, prevalent in science, consciousness emerges as a property of complex biological combinations, and as an epiphenomenon, a side effect, without independent existence. It is therefore fundamentally illusory, that is, it constructs its own reality rather than actually perceiving it. It may have arisen spontaneously, and then be preserved because it brings a comparative advantage to the species that benefit from it. In this view, consciousness is not an intrinsic characteristic of the universe, but results from a simple chance of evolution.

B. Consciousness is a separate phenomenon, it is distinct from the physical world, not controlled by it, and it has always been present in the universe. Plato’s idealism, Descartes’ dualism, religious views and other spiritual approaches posit that consciousness has always been present in the universe, as the support of being, as a creative entity, or as an attribute of an omnipresent « God ». In this view consciousness can causally influence physical matter and human behavior but has no (yet) scientific basis. In another approach ‘panpsychism’ attributes a form of consciousness to matter, but without scientific identity or causal influence. Idealism asserts that consciousness is all that exists, the material world (and science) being only an illusion. In this view, consciousness is outside and beyond the cognitive capacities of ‘scientists’ (but not of philosophers, mystics or poets).

C. Consciousness results from distinct physical events, which have always existed in the universe, and which have always given rise to forms of ‘proto-consciousness’, resulting from precise physical laws, but which are not yet fully understood. Biology has evolved to take advantage of these events by ‘orchestrating’ them and coupling them with neural activity. The result is ‘moments’ of consciousness, capable of bringing out ‘meaning’. These events of consciousness are also carriers of ‘cognition’, and thus capable of causally controlling behaviour. These moments are associated with the reduction of quantum states. This position was presented in a general way by A.N. Whiteheadv and is now explicitly defended in the theory of Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, which they call the « Orch O.R. » theory (acronym for « orchestrated objective reduction »).

The three main classes of theory on consciousness that have just been described can be summarized as follows:

A. Science/Materialism. Consciousness plays no distinct role, not independent of matter.

B. Dualism/Spirituality. Consciousness remains beyond the cognitive capacities of science.

C. Science/Consciousness. Consciousness in fact plays an essential role in physical laws, although this role is not (yet) elucidated.

One could add a theory D, I would suggest, which would take up some salient aspects of the three previous theories, but to derive an original synthesis from them, by finding a way to eliminate the apparently dire incompatibilities that seem to radically distance them from each other.

Personally, this seems to me to be the most promising path for the future.

The Orch O.R. theory represents a first step towards the integration of the theories A, B and C.

It tries to explain how consciousness can emerge from what Penrose and Hameroff call neuronal ‘computation’.

But how can proto-consciousness events arise spontaneously from a computational complexity synchronized by successive ‘flashes’, and cooperatively bringing together diverse regions of the brain?

The observation shows that gamma-wave EEGs (above 30 Hz) are the best correlate of consciousness events, in that they denote synchronicity with the integrated potentials of dendrites and neuronal cell bodies.

Microtubule Associated Proteins (MAPs) interconnect the microtubules of neuronal cells in recursive networks. They facilitate the « integration » of dendrite and soma activity of these cells.

The Orch OR theory innovates by positing that this complex integration, in time and space, is in fact made possible by quantum entanglement phenomena of the tubulin particles of microtubules belonging to adjacent neurons.

Through these quantum entanglement phenomena, dendrite networks thus collectively integrate their own computational capabilities. This integration is not deterministic, passive. It involves complex computational treatments that use lateral connections between neurons and the differentiated polarization synchronization of their membranes.

The neurons connected by their dendrites synchronize their local field potentials (LFPs) during the integration phase, but they do not necessarily synchronize their electrical discharges in the axons afterwards. Other factors are therefore at work.

It can be observed that molecules used in anesthesia selectively ‘erase’ consciousness by associating with specific sites in the post-synaptic dendrites and soma.

What is established is that dendritic and somatic integration is thus closely related to consciousness, and it is this integration that is at the origin of the electric bursts of the axons that ‘convey’ the carrier processes of ‘proto-consciousness’, which will eventually be integrated by the brain to allow ‘conscious’ control of behavior.

Descartes considered the pineal gland as the possible seat of consciousness; Penrose and Hameroff believe that this seat is in fact delocalized in the microtubules.

This theory also has the advantage of explaining how intracellular processing in the cyto-skeletons of unicellular organisms is the means by which they can have cognitive functions even when they are devoid of synapses.

However, this theory does not explain at all the nature of « proto-consciousness ». It only describes the conjunction of two phenomena, the reduction of quantum states linking by entanglement sets of microtubules, and the appearance of supposed moments of proto-consciousness.

But the causal relationship between « orchestrated objective reduction » and proto-consciousness is not proven. There is no evidence of the « production » of proto-consciousness during this « reduction ».

It could just as well be that there is a « transmission » of proto-consciousness elements, coming from a sphere other than material.

This is where theory D seems to me to be able to come to the rescue, by proposing an active synthesis between the theories A, B and C.

As theory B posits, we can consider consciousness as a pre-existing « web » in the entire universe, surrounding matter on all sides.

Universal consciousness can be represented as a « web » of connected points of existence, of connected quanta of consciousness.

Matter, on the other hand, can be interpreted as a « web » of energetic existence points.

These various kinds of existences (spiritual/conscious and material/energetic) have in common the fact of « being ».

The reality of « being » would then be their fundamental basis, their common « ontic » essence, and consequently also the framework of their potential mutual interactions.

In some cases, for example during the instantaneous change of state (such as during the quantum reduction occurring in the microtubules of neuronal cells), the layers of consciousness and matter interact within what I would call a « qubit of existence ».

This qubit would not be unrelated to certain fundamental constants, such as Planck’s constant, or to the dimensionless relationships that exist between the fundamental phenomena of the universe (such as the relationship between the influence of universal gravitation and electromagnetic fields in all parts of the universe).

In the qubit of existence, or qubit ontic, two forms of being coexist, the « being » based on energy associated with consciousness or spirit, and the « being » based on energy associated with matter.

These two forms of energy, which are probably also two phases of the same more fundamental and even more original energy, can interact or resonate under certain conditions.

Since their common point is « being », according to the two energetic modalities mentioned, one material, the other spiritual, it is not unimaginable to suppose that these two energetic modalities can intertwine with each other.

We know Einstein’s famous formula, E=MC², where E is energy, M is mass and c is the speed of light. This formula represents a kind of quintessential result of hard science.

I would like to propose a comparable formula, which would be an attempt by soft science to transcend the separations of worlds:

E=M©²

E here represents spiritual energy. M stands for spiritual ‘substance’, i.e. consciousness. And the © sign represents the « speed », the « wind », the « breath » of the Spirit.

The Spirit, which moves at speed ©, creates a sheet or field of consciousness that envelops the universe in its smallest crevices and farthest confines.

The speed © is much greater than the speed of light, c, which does not exceed 300.000 km/s.

The speed © may even be infinite. We know at least experimentally that we can think much faster than the speed of light. Thus a metaphor can instantly bring two worldviews as far apart as one wants to go. … In a flash, the mind of man can link the barking little dog and the Great Dog star, or Canis Major constellation, which is 25,000 light years away from the solar system…

If we continue the analogy, a qubit of primordial energy can be modulated, at any point in the Universe, into a spiritual qubit and a material qubit, according to several phases, combining in various proportions, and which can occasionally enter into resonance, as has been suggested.

The energetic (spirit/matter) vibrations are the means of coupling the two material and spiritual worlds through their « ontic » vibrations (the vibrations associated with their way of « being »).

The place where this coupling takes place is, for example, in the microtubules which concentrate an extraordinary density of active molecules, and which are, through the resonant forces of Van der Waals, intertwined.

The appearance of consciousness within the microtubules would therefore not be the result of a local production of proto-consciousness, initiated by quantum reduction, as Penrose and Hameroff posit.

It would be the result of a transmission between the pre-existing world of consciousness and the material world, here interfaced at the microtubule level.

This is the hypothesis known as the theory of transmission, which was formulated by William James in 1898vi.

« The brain is represented as a transmissive organ. (…) Matter is not that which produces Consciousness, but that which limits it, and confines its intensity within certain limits: material organization does not construct consciousness out of arrangements of atoms, but contracts its manifestation within the sphere which it permits. (…) One’s finite mundane consciousness would be an extract from one’s larger, truer personality, the latter having even now some sort of reality behind the scenes. One’s brain would also leave effects upon the part remaining behind the veil; for when a thing is torn, both fragments feel the operation. »vii

The brain can then be represented as an organ of transmission.
It can be argued that Matter is not what produces Consciousness, but what limits it, and what confines its intensity within certain limits. Material organization does not construct Consciousness from arrangements of atoms, but reduces its manifestation to the sphere it constructs. Everyone’s consciousness, finite, common, would only be an extract of a greater consciousness, of a truer nature, which would possess a kind of reality behind the scene. Our brain could produce effects, leave traces, on this greater level of consciousness that remains behind the veil.

After death, this greater consciousness would keep alive theses traces, left over. For when something is torn, both fragments undergo the operation.
The consciousness that we have when we are awake, and which we renounce when we sleep or die, is only one of the faces, one of the phases of a much larger consciousness to which we are permanently linked (for example through quantum reduction of microtubules…).

This greater, much larger consciousness is still ours. Its other name is the “Self”.

It extends our consciousness from here below, and is perhaps also the origin of it. It feeds on our earthly consciousness, and in return feeds us also, permanently, subliminally, or sometimes, illuminatingly.

It should not be confused with an infinite ‘ocean’ of undifferentiated consciousness in which we are only ‘dead swimmers’ following its course ‘to other nebulae’viii.

Mind can thus interfere with matter in the form of waves or shocks of proto-consciousness, on the occasion of ‘quantum reduction’.

What is the metaphor of this « reduction »?

I would gladly argue that the spiritual influences the so-called « real » world by means of the « reduction » of the possible, and precisely its « reduction » to the real, the « reduction » of the potential to the actual.

A « reduction » represents a certain closing of local quantum indeterminism, but also the infinitely rapid opening of an immense field of new potentialities, to come.

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iStuart Hameroff, Roger Penrose. Consciousness in the universe: A review of the ‘Orch OR’ theory. Physics of Life Reviews, Volume 31, December 2019, Pages 86-103

ii « The best measurable correlate of consciousness through modern science is gamma synchrony electro-encephalography (EEG), 30 to 90Hz coherent neuronal membrane activities occurring across various synchronized brain regions ». Stuart Hameroff, Roger Penrose. Consciousness in the universe: A review of the ‘Orch OR’ theory. Physics of Life Reviews, Volume 31, December 2019, Page 41

iiiStuart Hameroff, Roger Penrose. Consciousness in the universe: A review of the ‘Orch OR’ theory. Physics of Life Reviews, Volume 31, December 2019, Pages 86-103

ivA. von Rospatt. The Buddhist doctrine of Momentariness : a Survey of of of the origins and early phase of this doctrine up to Vasubandha. Stuttgart, Franz Steiner Verlag, 1995

vA.N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 1929. Adventures of Ideas, 1933.

viWilliam James. Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine.Ed. by Houghton, Mifflin and Company, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1898.

viiWilliam James. Human Immortality: Two Supposed Objections to the Doctrine.Ed. by Houghton, Mifflin and Company, The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1898.

viiiGuillaume Apollinaire. The Song of the Unloved

YHVH and AI


« Leshan Giant Buddha« , built during the Tang dynasty (618–907)

At the time of the introduction of Indian Buddhism in China, the scholars of the Chinese Empire, confronted with the arrival of new ‘barbaric words’ (i.e. the sacred names and religious terms inherited from Buddhism) considered it preferable not to translate them. They chose to only transliterate them.

A tentative translation into the Chinese language would have given these terms, it was thought, a down-to-earth, materialistic sound, hardly likely to inspire respect or evoke mystery.

Much later, in the 19th century, a sinologist from Collège de France, Stanislas Julien, developed a method to decipher Sanskrit names as they were (very approximately) transcribed into Chinese, and provided some examples.

« The word Pou-ti-sa-to (Bôdhisattva) translated literally as ‘Intelligent Being’ would have lost its nobility and emphasis; that is why it was left as veiled in its Indian form. The same was done for the sublime names of the Buddha, which, by passing in a vulgar language, could have been exposed to the mockery and sarcasm of the profane.”i

There are words and names that must definitely remain untranslated, not that they are strictly speaking untranslatable, but their eventual translation would go against the interest of their original meaning, threaten their substance, undermine their essence, and harm the extent of their resonance, by associating them – through the specific resources and means of the target language – with semantic and symbolic spaces more likely to deceive, mislead or mystify, than to enlighten, explain or reveal.

Many sacred names of Buddhism, originally conceived and expressed in the precise, subtle, unbound language that is Sanskrit, have thus not been translated into Chinese, but only transcribed, based on uncertain phonetic equivalences, as the sound universe of Chinese seems so far removed from the tones of the Sanskrit language.

The non-translation of these Sanskrit words into Chinese was even theorized in detail by Xuanzang (or Hiouen-Thsang), the Chinese Buddhist monk who was, in the 7th century AD, one of the four great translators of the Buddhist sutra.

« According to the testimony of Hiuen-Thsang (玄奘 ), the words that should not be translated were divided into five classes:

1°) Words that have a mystical meaning such as those of the Toloni (Dharanîs) and charms or magic formulas.

2°) Those that contain a large number of meanings such as Po-Kia-Fan (Bhagavan), « which has six meanings ».

3°) The names of things that do not exist in China, such as the trees Djambou, Bhôdhidrouma, Haritaki.

4°) Words that we keep out of respect for their ancient use, for example the expression Anouttara bôdhi, « superior intelligence ».

5°) Words considered to produce happiness, for example Pan-jo (Prodjna), « Intelligence ». »ii

Far from being seen as a lack of the Chinese language, or a lack of ideas on the part of Chinese translators, the voluntary renunciation to translate seems to me to be a sign of strength and openness. Greek once allowed the Romance languages to duplicate each other, so to speak, by adding to the concrete semantic roots of everyday life the vast resources of a language more apt for speculation; similarly, Chinese has been able to incorporate as it stands some of the highest, abstract concepts ever developed in Sanskrit.

There is a general lesson here.

There are compact, dense, unique words that appeared in a specific culture, generated by the genius of a people. Their translation would, despite efforts, be a radical betrayal.

For example, the Arabic word « Allah » literally means « the god » (al-lah). Note that there are no capital letters in Arabic. There can be no question of translating « Allah » into English by its literal equivalent (« the god »), as it would then lose the special meaning and aura that the sound of the Arabic language gives it. The liquid syllabes that follow one another, the alliterative repetition of the definite article, al, “the”, merging with the word lah, « god », create a block of meaning without equivalent, one might think.

Could, for instance, the famous Koranic formula « Lâ ilaha ilâ Allâh » proclaiming the oneness of God be translated literally in this way: « There is no god but the god »?

If this translation is considered too flat, should we try to translate it by using a capital letter: “There is no god but God” ?

Perhaps. But then what would be particularly original about this Islamic formula? Judaism and Christianity had already formulated the same idea, long before.

But the preservation of the proper name, Allah, may, on the other hand, give it a perfume of novelty.

The Hebrew word יהוה (YHVH) is a cryptic and untranslatable name of God. It offers an undeniable advantage: being literally untranslatable, the question of translation no longer arises. The mystery of the cryptogram is closed by construction, as soon as it appears in its original language. One can only transcribe it later in clumsy alphabets, giving it even more obscure equivalents, like “YHVH”, which is not even a faithful transcription of יהוה, or like “Yahweh”, an imaginary, faulty and somewhat blasphemous transcription (from the Jewish point of view).

But, paradoxically, we come closer, by this observation of impotence, to the original intention. The transcription of the sacred name יהוה in any other language of the world, a language of the goyim, gives it de facto one or more additional, potential layers of depth, yet to be deciphered.

This potential depth added (in spite of itself) by other languages is a universal incentive to navigate through the language archipelagos. It is an invitation to overcome the confusion of Babel, to open to the idiomatic lights of all the languages of the world. We may dream, one day, of being able to understand and speak them all, — through some future, powerful AI.

Some words, such as יהוה, would still be properly untranslatable. But, at least, with the help of AI, we would be able to observe the full spectrum of potential semantic or symbolic “equivalences”, in the context of several thousands of living or dead languages.

I bet that we will then discover some gold nuggets, waiting for us in the collective unconscious.

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iMéthode pour déchiffrer et transcrire les noms sanscrits qui se rencontrent dans les livres chinois, à l’aide de règles, d’exercices et d’un répertoire de onze cents caractères chinois idéographiques employés alphabétiquement, inventée et démontrée par M. Stanislas Julien (1861)

iiHoeï-Li and Yen-Thsang. Histoire de la vie de Hiouen-Thsang et de ses voyages dans l’Inde : depuis l’an 629 jusqu’en 645, par, Paris, Benjamin Duprat,‎ 1853 .