on November 12, 2011
Review of "Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer" by Henry P. Stapp. Published by Springer as part of their Frontiers Collection. It is relatively short at 198 pages including a Preface, 13 main chapters making up part I, 4 chapters making up part II, 7 Appendices making up part III, References and Index.
In the Preface, Dr. Stapp summarizes his book thusly:
1. Mind matters/I matter. Mind<--->Body matters.
2. Classical view of reality is fundamentally incorrect.
3. Quantum view of reality encompasses classical physics in the limit where Planck's Constant goes to zero.
4. Actual hard science considers us natural phenomenon. Worst case scenario is we are considered "automaton". Quantum theory rejects this now falsified relic of classical physics.
5. New physics does this by placing consciousness back on the table.
6. Why this is so important? Because classical physical theory still drives decisions of governments, schools, courts and medicine.
7. Aim of book is to explain the new science and its social consequences.
One thing I must say about Henry P. Stapp is that he has been at this from the beginning of his career. His doctoral thesis in particle physics working on proton-proton interactions led to his post-doctoral work under Wolfgang Pauli. During this time (c. 1958) he wrote an article entitled, "Mind, Matter and Quantum Mechanics." Thirty-five years latter his book of the same title was published under the same Foundational Series as the book here being reviewed. I would consider this work a smaller snapshot of his whole thrust toward showing how the mathematical and physical foundations of quantum theory bring the human being to the conscious center of our exploration of the reality we are intimately a part of.
Having paid him some due, I have to let the potential buyer know right away that reading this book without a background study in Quantum Mechanics (QMs) and Quantum Reality (QR) will make the going somewhat difficult. Why? Because the conclusions of Dr. Stapp about the body-mind problem have an intricacy involved that an uninformed reading will not navigate easily. Having said that, this work isn't beyond the first time listener. There are enough interesting suggestions in this work that will appeal to the lay reader enough to peak the interest and make for an enjoyable read such that other works of a more general nature on QR and its implications and this purchase will be rewarding.
One of the main thrusts of Dr. Stapp's philosophical positions is that classical physics fails to provide a foundational basis for meaning in the human being and, given the more comprehensive science of reality being "quantum" in nature at is base, that classical Newtonian (clock-like) physics as a statement of human reality should be rejected. QMs should be invoked in the case of "us" when we ask, "Is our mind explained by brain processes alone?" Henry P. Stapp does another excellent job making plain why.
For instance, the Title alone is very suggestive. This is a book about the Universe, QMs, QR and You! Are you "the Participating Observer"? Well, according to Henry P. Stapp you sure are. What could that possibly mean? Well if you've read up on QMs over the years, you've come to the understanding that a particle, say an electron, exist in a wave-like probability state of pure potential *until it is observed*. This is known as the "collapse of the wave function" of the electron so that it shows up as a particle on a detector screen. The double-slit experiment informs us that this is so and Dr. Stapp touches on why the founders of quantum theory were forced to revise their understanding of the base of reality.
This leads us to the "Mindful" part of the Title. To convince you that you are participating in the collapse of the state vector of your reality, Henry P. Stapp will make the case that the brain has a quantum component (at the ionic level) and with mindful attention, the wave of you (your many thousands of potential acts each second) are being collapsed by that attention into a single, whole conscious percept by you and your brain to create your reality.
In the Appendices and throughout this work, Henry P. Stapp lays out some of the important history supporting the connection of QR and consciousness.
Let me quote the book's aim:
"The aim of this book is to describe the development of this revised conceptualization of the connection between our minds and our brains, and the consequent revision of the role of human consciousness in the unfolding of reality."
Here are a couple of quotes that help us understand "this revised conceptualization":
"...the proper subject matter of science is not what may or may not be `out there,' unobserved and unknown to human beings. It is rather what we human beings can know, and can do to know more. Thus, they formulated their new theory, called quantum mechanics, or quantum theory, around the knowledge-acquiring actions of human beings, and the knowledge we acquire by performing these actions, rather than around a conjectured causally sufficient mechanical world..."
"...it is the revised understanding of the nature of human beings, and of the causal role of human consciousness in the unfolding of reality, that is, I believe, the most exciting thing about the new physics, and probably, in the final analysis, also the most important contribution of science to the well-being of our species."
"The rational foundation for this revised conceptual structure emerged from the intense intellectual struggles that took place during the twenties, principally between Neils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Wolfgang Pauli. Those struggles replaced the then-prevailing Newtonian idea of matter as `solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, movable particles' with a new concept that allowed, and in fact required, an entry into the causal structure of the physical effects of conscious decision made by human subjects. This radical change swept away the meaningless billiard-ball universe, and replaced it with a universe in which we beings, by means of our value-based intentional efforts, can make a difference first in our own behaviors, thence in the social matrix we are embedded, and eventually in the entire physical reality that sustains our streams of conscious experience."
I think that pretty much sets the stage for the rest of the book. I hope I've peaked your interest.
If so, buy a copy today.
on July 19, 2013
This book [Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer] contains some interesting discussions of quantum physics, with comparisons of some of the major contending views, attempts to integrate Whitehead, some personal insights with regard to the views of the key figures, e.g., Bohm. The Copenhagen view is strongly defended, and it is argued throughout that even this orthodox view of quantum mechanics carries the implication that the description of the physical world now inherently includes consciousness or the psychical - there is no longer a simple material description of a "material system" in physics.
Stapp applies this insight to questions of consciousness. He is firstly interested in the question of how mind can act upon matter, or, simply, how we are capable of acting, and even of free action. Secondly, he applies this insight, almost in passing, to the "hard problem" as formulated by Chalmers. Unfortunately, Stapp's understanding of the hard problem is deeply lacking, and this lack is reflected as well in the inadequacy of his first interest regarding action, and frankly, of his entire discussion.
The hard problem, Stapp notes, quoting Pinker, "is explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation." This problem, says Stapp, is only a function of the framework of classical physics which has no place for consciousness (since in the classic framework, all is mindless matter). This problem he argues is simply dissolved in quantum theory, formulated as it is at the outset as an interplay between the physical description of a system and conscious thought.
As an effort by a physicist to integrate quantum theory and consciousness, Stapp's effort is worth attending to, and if one needs only this evaluation/comment, you can skip the rest of this review for I found proper comment to take some length. This is the difficulty: At the base of the hard problem is a "problem of representation," or what even more basically should be termed a "coding problem." A code, say three dots. "...", can stand for a S in Morse code, or the three blind mice, or Da Vinci's nose, and on. The problem comes in this: What domain (Morse/alphabet, mice/animals, noses, etc.) should a given code be mapped to or unfolded onto? Suppose then a coffee cup sitting on a kitchen table with a spoon stirring the coffee. A computer with an attached camera viewing the scene transduces the input/light from the external environment or scene to a internal pattern of bits - a transforming pattern of bits - likely with form computing programs running, themselves a pattern of bits being shoved serially into the computer's registers. To say that the forms of the cup, the spoon, etc., are somehow existing over these patterns and computational programs is, firstly, simply attributing, on the basis of being an external observer, the image of these forms (the cup, the spoon) as defined or existing over the computer's computations. In the computer, there are only these transforming patterns of bits or on/off states of components. This is a code. The external information has been encoded into the computer's architecture. How, now, is this code unpacked, unfolded, or mapped to or as the external world - the coffee cup with its white colors and brown coffee, the table surface and the (silver) stirring spoon - how without already knowing what the world (the domain) looks like? Now whether we are talking in terms of computers, neural networks, or the neural structure (and neural computations) of the brain itself, we have this problem - the external world has been transduced to a code - whether in the on-off states of computer components or in the neurons of the brain.
Chalmers stated this "hard problem" in terms of qualia - how, after you have described your computer architecture or neural architecture, have you accounted for the origin of the qualia of the perceived (external) world? In this he would have been focused on the "qualia" of our coffee cup scene - the whiteness of the cup, the brown of the coffee, the silver of the spoon. But this statement of the problem is inadequate. Even form, it can be shown, is qualia, therefore the objects/forms in the image of the external world - the cup, the spoon, the table - are qualia. The motions over time - a gently stirring spoon, a vigorously stirring spoon - are also qualia. And form itself is defined over motion. All form is dynamic. In general, then, the hard problem actually is this: how to account for the image of the external world. The image itself is entirely qualia. It is the image of the external world that somehow must be unfolded from the neural code or the computer code.
Innumerable solutions have been presented for the hard problem as stated, even in its limited (qualia) form by Chalmers. All miss the coding problem that must be solved. McFadden (Journal of Consciousness Studies) for example would take the neurally encoded information and apply "an integrating magnetic field." Yet he cannot begin to explain or describe how such a magnetic field unpacks or has anything to do with unfolding the neural-coded information such that it becomes the image of the external world - the white coffee cup with stirring spoon. But Stapp is no different and no better. He sees the brain as a time-evolving quantum system of possible states, the system description of which has consciousness integrally involved. This abstract "consciousness" is somehow collapsing this system of possible states at each successive point in time to a particular state. But this is the end of the story. It is a "so what?" How has this abstract consciousness done any better than McFadden's "integrating field?" How does an abstract consciousness unpack the neurally encoded information, or the information when viewed as coded at the quantum level of the material world for that matter, such that it now becomes the image of the coffee cup with stirring spoon as in our perception? It does not. Not unless you are somehow assuming beneath the scenes that this abstract consciousness is already somehow perception - the perception/consciousness/image of the cup and spoon. But this is just assuming everything one is supposed to be explaining. And this, imo, is exactly what Stapp is unconsciously doing.
I said that this lack is reflected in Stapp's theory of voluntary action. His insight that consciousness is intrinsically involved in the description of the physical (or psychophysical) universe and that this is critical in the theory of consciousness and its effect upon matter and in action, I cannot but agree with. The emphasis on its significance throughout the book is laudable. Beyond this, his understanding of the problem is too shallow to be of help. I cannot go into much detail here, but we can start with the fact that mental images are integrally involved in action. Jeannerod (Behavior and Brain Sciences, 1994) defended this thesis heavily and in detail. Previously it had been defended by Bergson (Intellectual Effort, 1902), William James in his "ideomotor theory" of action (whom Stapp uses and admires), and others. There have even been studies in hypnosis and self-induced altered time states relating to imagery and actions in altered time (See Cooper and Erickson, 1952). But if one has no theory of the origin of the perceptual image of the world in the first place, then a theory of these images, in memory, acting upon the body to effect action, cannot even be addressed - and Stapp does not address it. Secondly, the dynamics of the brain is imposing a scale of time on the external world. At normal scale, we see a "buzzing" fly - a being whose wing beats, oscillating at 200 cycles per second, are perceived as a blur. The brain dynamics can be altered - the underlying chemical velocities increased for example - and the fly now look like a heron, slowly flapping his wings. Action is adjusted to the (perceptual) scale of time, in fact, perception, for Bergson (Matter and Memory, 1896), is virtual action - we are seeing how we can act. In the latter case, the heron-fly is now a specification that the body can reach out leisurely and grasp the fly by the wing tip. This is to say, in accordance with much other evidence, that the feedback from the motor areas to the visual areas is integral in determining the specification of the perceived world.
With no attention to this backdrop on action, Stapp envisions the brain as a quantum mechanical system represented by a decomposition of N basis states, "each corresponding in principle to a possible perception," with each such state (perception) represented in a larger NxN density matrix. Now we know already that this - each state corresponding to possible perception - cannot be true, for Stapp has no theory of perception (and therefore of the "possible perception") insofar as he cannot explain the origin of the image of the external world, i.e., whatever this state is, it is not a "perception." He has here, again, simply a code - a quantum code. But from this (a "perception") he alters slightly to envisioning an NxN density matrix in which there are two possible "responses," fight or flight, or let me use "dance or walk." Now he envisions a Von Neumann "process 1" action taking place, and if repeated sufficiently rapidly, the state of the brain can be restrained (other states now being canceled out) to, say, the dance sub-portion of this matrix. This is equivalent to a longer activation of the "dance" template this portion of the matrix represents, enabling the response to occur. Stapp notes elsewhere (p. 113), this template is a neural correlate of an intent, such as "raise the arm." But firstly and again, this neural "template" is not, and cannot be, an image of an action, e.g., a dance movement, and as such, the model is already lacking as a theory of action. Stapp has no theory of the memory which stores images of such events - he cannot because he has no theory of the origin of the image in the first place. If he were to say that the intent is simply an "idea" of the action, say a dance movement, he simply falls into the disembodied abstraction fallacy of AI, for in reality, such an idea is an invariance over multiple concrete experiences of dancing, such experiences being also images, and the idea (as an abstraction) does not exist save as invariance over these stored (remembered) experiences of dancing (for which Stapp has no theory).
Secondly, there is nothing here that can relate to the scale of time in which the action takes place. There is an infinity of possible scales - buzzing fly, heron like fly, immobile fly, and on. At what scale of time is Stapp's model taking place, and why, and what if the scale is altered? What does his model have to do with any of this? Admittedly these are considerations few if any in this theoretical field bother to make, but this is simply an indication of the general lack on this subject in which Stapp participates.
In this model of action, noting our usual feeling of effort when performing an act, Stapp notes, "it is reasonable to suppose that increasing effort increases the rate at which conscious events are occurring" (p.111). With sufficient rate, then, he argues, by the quantum Zeno effect, the action template will be held, and the action tend to occur. But what is this "effort?" I am not saying that Stapp is entirely barking up the wrong tree, but he could benefit far more from Bergson's discussion of effort and force (Time and Free Will, also Intellectual Effort), then he realizes. But Bergson has an actual theory of the origin of the external image with its qualia, and Stapp does not realize this is essential.
In the midst of Stapp's mental landscape, the landscape that exalts the quantum description of a material system which apparently includes consciousness which he strenuously opposes to the classical description (which does not include consciousness), there looms in fact a massive, megalithic, classical edifice. It is what can be termed the classic metaphysic with its classic view of space, time and motion - a view in which relativity is nothing more than a further refinement. This surfaces in his view that consciousness actually consists of discrete instants or episodes. This is currently a supposedly sophisticated, somewhat popular stance. The fact that we experience a process or event (the stirring spoon) as involving duration (a perceived extent over time), he argues, "is adequately explained by James' `marching band' metaphor. Each instantaneous `snap shot' corresponding to a single experience would catch components of brain activity correlated with various stages from just beginning to be experienced, to full blown vivid consciousness, to fading out. This structure creates the impression that the experience has duration, though it is really instantaneous - or confined to a space-like surface, when mapped to real spacetime (p.110)." What is actually going here in this statement?
The classic metaphysic begins, as Bergson argued (Matter and Memory), in the needs of our perception itself, from the necessity of our body to partition, from its surrounding field, objects upon which it can act - to lift a "spoon," to grab a piece of "toast." This fundamental partition of "objects" and their "motions" is increasingly rarified in our thought, and in the thought framework that is the classic metaphysic, the entire field of matter becomes treated as a continuum of points or positions. The motion of an object in this continuum, say, from point A to point B, is seen as traversing a line or trajectory consisting of a set of these points. Each point on this trajectory, momentarily occupied as the object passes, corresponds to an "instant" of time. "Time" becomes simply another dimension in this abstract space or continuum of positions, i.e., time is just another dimension of this space - a series of "instants"(points) on a line or trajectory. But the line traversed, as a space, is infinitely divisible. Between any two points successively occupied by the object, we can insert another line - with points - ad infinitum. This treatment of motion is obviously an infinite regress. It is the source of Zeno's paradoxes: Achilles, with his distance from the Tortoise infinitely halved or divided, never catches the Tortoise; the arrow, always occupying a point in the abstract continuum, "never moves." For Bergson this space was indeed but "a principle of infinite divisibility."
At the end point of this infinite division of a motion, if there could ever be such an end point, we end with a mathematical point. At such a point, there can be no motion, and no time. Now visualize this mathematical point as a point on a surface of a bread slice. The slice represents a block of 3-D Space, a space with the infinitesmal time-extent of our mathematical point. This is Stapp's "space-like surface." Logically, in this model, with its infinitely divisible space, this slice or block of Space is also Stapp's "instant" of consciousness. If we start stacking the slices, as we add slice after slice, we build up a "loaf," i.e., an extended structure of space over time. Each slice has this infinitesimal extent, yes, timeless extent, in time. But in reality, there can be no such thing as a space-time "loaf" or time-extended structure, for this would require a force to hold all the slices in the loaf together - as an extended structure. Some sort of memory is needed. But there is no such "force" in the classic metaphysic. Logically, we have a slice, a slice which disappears into the non-existence of the past as the next slice appears, then the next slice, then the next... Never is there more than one slice. But this slice - of infinitesimal extent in time - a mathematical point over which there could be no motion, is the logical extent of any state of the brain in the classic metaphysic. There can be no "continuity of neural processes." There can be no "activity in time" as Stapp says, no "fading out" of neural processes as Stapp aludes to. There is no basis in this metaphysic for time-extended perception or for the experience of duration - for the perception of marching bands, rotating cubes, buzzing flies. Stapp's notions on experienced duration are self-contradictory within the framework of the classic metaphysic in which he works, which includes, for that matter, his desire to reconcile quantum physics with relativity.
Ironically, Lynds (Foundations of Physics Letters, 2003) in exploring the nature of motion and the deep implications of the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics, implications which Stapp refuses apparently, notes that such a model (our instantaneous slices of the space-time solid or loaf) would imply that the universe would be frozen in place at that instant/point, never again to change. Change would be impossible. Thus there can be no static instant, he argued, no interval, no matter how small, in which a dynamic process is not constantly changing. There is no static instant in which a velocity can be fixed. This is the intrinsic tradeoff - uncertainty for change. All the equations of physics are subject to this uncertainty. In this, Lynds simply echoes Bergson, in fact, all this is part of Bergson's entirely different metaphysic and view on time - a temporal metaphysic as opposed to the classic, spatial metaphysic in which Stapp works. There is much more that could be said here, for his classic stance on the nature of motion is the essence of Stapp's inadequacies and for many other theorists in the realm of the hard problem of consciousness, but I can only offer this reference for additional discussions of these issues ].
This book is yet another theory of consciousness from a physicist. As is usual, there is a lack of understanding of the problem of perception and theories of perception or the theory of memory for that matter - an area of mind in which the hard problem of consciousness is in fact embedded. This aspect of the book is disappointing. The other major aspect of the book is that of a physicist attempting to make sense of the orthodox Copenhagen interpretation with its indecipherable role for consciousness, where according to Heisenberg, "...the transition from the `possible' to the `actual' takes place during the act of observation." Stapp notes how many physicists wonder how this "act of observation," whatever it actually is, can apply to the formation of a track in a cloud chamber? Having not a clue, they disregard this aspect of the theory, i.e., they assume that the collapse events are initiated by purely physical causes. In Stapp's attempt to elucidate this dilemma, this is the essence of his argument: "It is rather that every quantum event is associated with an element that cannot be adequately conceptualized in terms of the precepts of classical physics, but that resides [in] a realm of realities that are not describable in terms of classical physics, but that include our conscious thoughts, ideas and feelings." With respect to the track in the chamber, he then argues that we must assume some sort of intervention is needed, and a natural possibility is that any actual intervention [observation] "is formally like an actual human observation (p.98)." This, imo, would seem to imply some abstract Consciousness "observing" all particles (or whatever explanatory unit one seizes upon) in the universe, at every micro-instant of time. Except - when a human is observing? One can certainly pursue Stapp to see if there is something there for physics, but, for me, I would submit that, particularly given that Stapp has no theory of what a human observation (perception) is in the first place, this is merely an illusion of a clarification, effecting little, no more for physics as is ultimately accomplished here for the problem of consciousness.