By Misbah Noorani '17
Here at Brown, “consciousness” is an oft-touted concept. It's ontologized by philosophers, attempted by artificial intelligence researchers, black-boxed by cognitive scientists, and reduced to its neural correlates by neuroscientists. Step into the physics department, though, and you won’t hear a whisper of the Hard Problem; at least, not in the bubble of academia. Now try typing “consciousness” into your Google or YouTube search bar, and it’s a different story entirely.
Furthermore, with enough practice, belief, motivation, monetary donation…any individual can tap into these psychic powers and change their life and the world around them. For, there isn’t a distinction between the individual and the world; it is from this universal consciousness that we arise, and to it we return. Oh, and life after death. Or reincarnation, or…something. It gets pretty muddy, pretty quickly. Still, every day, people frequent message boards and poorly-designed webpages and trippy YouTube videos and misguided self-help books like The Secret to buy into these theories. The non-reductionists of the world want a more satisfying answer to the question of how a material brain can produce subjective experiences, like the color red or the sound of ocean waves; and pseudoscience-hawking spiritualists are standing by.
Here’s the problem in the logic: for one, Newton’s theory of the continuous field was debunked some time ago. For another, calling on the randomness allowed by quantum mechanics in order to rage against determinism doesn’t work. Quantum behavior is only relevant at the atomic level. At the level of larger structures like the microtubules in neurons, the environment is not sustainable and the theory falls apart to a more classical explanation. However, quantum activity at the neuronal level is exactly the proposition of the Orch-OR theory, which is probably the most scientifically valid theory on this stuff to date; and that’s not saying a whole lot. Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, the men behind Orch-OR, published a paper that’s more optimistic philosophical musings than facts, and it has yet to be corroborated. Hameroff’s involvement in the cult film “What the [Bleep] Do We Know?” and his bosom-buddy status with Deepak Chopra don’t help his credibility either.
The proliferation of such highly unjustified claims is ever-possible, especially when people who know very little about a scientific concept are speaking to an audience that doesn’t know anything at all, and they have the power of digital dissemination at their disposal. Here in the academy, we’re shielded from this phenomenon. We’re fortunate enough to be able to discuss something like consciousness and know that the information at our hands is accurate and thoughtfully curated; especially at Brown, where disciplines across the science-humanities chasm are coming together under our very noses, eager to fill each other’s gaps. However, this also means a concerted effort to create space between the legitimate and the pseudo, and between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ sometimes at the expense of conversation and growth for the larger population. Thankfully, physics professor and Contemplative Studies advisor Brad Marston was happy to speak with me on the matter (no pun intended):