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93 of 102 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Emperor's New Mind.
Roger Penrose, "one of the world's most knowledgeable and creative mathematical physicists," presents in his 1989 Emperor's New Mind one of the most intriguing and substantive popularizations of mathematical logic and physical theory that has ever been published. As a reader of many books written by scientists, I will say that few compare with this one. Penrose wrestles...
Published on December 18, 2003 by Wesley L. Janssen

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38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Exhausting
If you could only use one word to describe this book, "Exhausting" would certainly be it. While the basic premise is that consciousness cannot be the product of complex algorithms, Penrose spends the vast majority of the text thoroughly exploring every irrelevant aspect of physics and every nuanced, extraneous detail of our current understanding of the nature of the...
Published on May 10, 2011 by limelight


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93 of 102 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Emperor's New Mind., December 18, 2003
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Roger Penrose, "one of the world's most knowledgeable and creative mathematical physicists," presents in his 1989 Emperor's New Mind one of the most intriguing and substantive popularizations of mathematical logic and physical theory that has ever been published. As a reader of many books written by scientists, I will say that few compare with this one. Penrose wrestles with what he sees as some of science's most inadequate or poorly developed (although popularly accepted) ideas. As certain physical theories are found wanting, his grapplings extend to some of the deepest questions of metaphysics. Of the deepest questions, Penrose says, "To ask for definitive answers to such grandiose questions would, of course, be a tall order. Such answers I cannot provide; nor can anyone else, though some may try to impress us with their guesses." While he speaks respectfully of individuals with whom he has certain differences of opinion, the "some" in that statement might be taken to be Hawking, Dawkins, Dennett, to suggest a few. The author here tends toward a more humble and questioning approach. Penrose's puzzlings are complex, creative, and speculative, and even his admirers might easily misrepresent certain of his opinions and conjectures. A case in point may be the fact that he finds cosmic inflation theories to have less explanatory power than others claim for them -- this doesn't mean he necessarily rejects inflation, rather he doubts claims that inflation significantly helps explain the specialness of the early universe. Positivists may be disposed to discount the problem but there appears to be good reason for Penrose's skepticism. However this is not treated in this volume.

Rigorously building a case against the fundamental arguments for strong AI, Penrose begins with what for him is to ultimately be 'le coup de grâce', considerations and arguments from mathematical logic. If the human mind works non-algorithmically, then we know of no way to digitize/program its processes. The mind does in fact function non-algorithmically, a fact demonstrated without much difficulty. It learns in intuitive, non-linear, and mysteriously creative ways. The idea that some non-algorithmic approach might achieve a program equivalent to the human mind is not supported by any "useful" (or better, see below) physical theory and is not mathematically tenable. Strong AI is thus relegated to a mere ideological preference (and obviously to sci-fi). In his mathematical considerations, Penrose is most interested in the work of Turing and Gödel and in the Platonic essence of mathematics itself. Concluding that the human mind cannot be reduced to an algorithm (or any set of algorithms), Penrose next questions whether the mind might be reducible physically. Here he finds the questions and answers less well defined than he has in mathematics. His tour of classical and quantum physics features interpretations and ideas that many readers may have not encountered (which makes the text fun). The problem of "correct quantum gravity" (that is, the incompleteness [or incorrectness?] of relativity and quantum theories) is one that Penrose and other theoreticians have struggled with for decades. Penrose wonders if this mysterious and conspicuously missing physical theory might be related to the also conspicuously missing science of mind. This speculation on his part is the theme also of his more recent books. As Erwin Schrödinger (like Einstein and Gödel, Platonists all) seems to be one whose ideas are of particular interest to Penrose, I will cite Schrödinger's view: "Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else." But Penrose doesn't quite argue this view, although it would seem an obvious conclusion from his best arguments. Here is a classic example of how we may know 'something' without knowing everything: we can know that the human mind cannot be reduced to an algorithm -- or algorithm of algorithms -- and yet it is not known whether we can even know precisely what mind is. Particularly so if, as Schrödinger says, mind is irreducible.

The chapter on cosmology is excellent, as one might expect of a Roger Penrose. The consideration of the "specialness" of the initial [cosmological] conditions and of the relationship of this specialness to the second law of thermodynamics is also fascinating as it is precisely the second law that lends the "arrow of time" its apparent non-symmetrical aspect -- in other words, defines physical reality as we experience it. In this sense, the second law connects the human mind to the cosmos (which is interesting but does nothing to help us "reduce" mind).

Penrose suggests, and I cannot find any reason to disagree, that all scientific theories can be assigned to one of three broad categories, which he calls: (1.) SUPERB, (2.) USEFUL, (3.) TENTATIVE. All SUPERB theories (there are roughly a dozen) stand within the purvey of physics, and: "It is remarkable that all the SUPERB theories of Nature have proved to be extraordinarily fertile as sources of mathematical ideas. There is a deep and beautiful mystery in this fact: that these superbly accurate theories are also extraordinarily fruitful simply as mathematics. No doubt this is telling us something profound about the connections between the real world of our physical experiences and the Platonic world of mathematics." Over time, theories (particularly those that do not feature such mathematical beauty or fertility) may tend to move between the categories. Theories held to be SUPERB for centuries have dropped completely from the current categories; theories have faded and re-emerged. . . "we should not be too complacent that the pictures that we have formed at any one time are not to be overturned by some later and deeper view."

Some readers will not like the fact that, after extensive rumination on very difficult and deep questions (like "what is mind?"), the author doesn't conclude with a pretense that he, or anyone else, has definitive answers. This reader appreciated the integrity of Penrose's questionings and of his conclusions (or lack of conclusions). I will misappropriate one of Penrose's terms -- as a text examining mathematics, physics, and the human mind, this volume is SUPERB.
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38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Exhausting, May 10, 2011
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This review is from: The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (Popular Science) (Paperback)
If you could only use one word to describe this book, "Exhausting" would certainly be it. While the basic premise is that consciousness cannot be the product of complex algorithms, Penrose spends the vast majority of the text thoroughly exploring every irrelevant aspect of physics and every nuanced, extraneous detail of our current understanding of the nature of the universe, while attempting to accomplish the task of presenting the material in a way that the average Joe can understand (Hint: if your text contains the phrase, "Here, theta is the angle which the pair of points z and w subtend at the origin in the Argand plane" then you have failed).

After extensively winding his way through everything from Turing machines, the big bang, general relativity, special relativity, complex numbers, natural numbers, irrational numbers, Fractals and the Mandelbrot set, Euclidean geometry, Fermat's last theorem, Gödel's theorem, recursively enumerable sets, non-recursive mathematics, Hamiltonian space, periodic tiling, quantum mechanics, P and NP completeness, the two-slit experiment, quantum spin, Riemann spheres, Lobachevskian space, the EPR paradox, Newton's laws of motion, Schrodinger's equations, quantum field theory, Galilean space-time, entropy, black holes, vector mathematics and vector fields, cosmology, time symmetry/asymmetry, Maxwell's electromagnetic theory, quantum gravity, Lorentz equations of motion, Minkowskian space time, Poincare motion, the tidal effect and many, many, many other subjects, the author finally spends a mere two chapters on the main topic.

When Penrose does get back to discussing consciousness, most of his arguments are philosophical and many of his conclusions are drawn from observations of his own perception, which is then used to reason out larger principles. Penrose attempts to apply the same methodology to his inquiries regarding psychology and consciousness that he is used to from his more usual areas of work, such as mathematics and theoretical physics, areas where progress is made by simply thinking about problems and conjuring solutions in your head. Even when he does make an appeal to actual experiment, he often comes to bizarre conclusions. For example, an experiment wherein an electrode is placed into a person's brain which causes them to not be aware that their skin was touched when the electrode is activated within a quarter of a second after someone touched them leads Penrose to conclude that the effect of the electrode is traveling backwards in time.

If you have a lot of time on your hands and you would like a thorough survey of the state of physics as it stood in the late-80s then this book is for you. If you are looking for a decent discussion of consciousness, the relevant contents of this book could be easily condensed to a rather uninteresting pamphlet.
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37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great, great book., September 11, 2007
This review is from: The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (Popular Science) (Paperback)
I was compelled to write as I came by on the way to buying Dr. Penrose's more recent book ("Road to Reality") and was appalled that Amazon features 2 out of 3 negative views on the first page, including one which dismisses the "Emperor's new mind" as "rubbish". Surely the book is controversial in certain quarters, but the vehemence of much of the criticism can only make me wonder why some people are so defensive about it.

I have to admit I have not reread this book since my original reading around 1990, so take my remarks at some discount on that basis. But I will tell you that this book remains influential in my choice of what I read and how I evaluate things even to this day. It has indeed changed my life.

Dr. Penrose's premise is that a computer simulation of a brain will not achieve the equivalent of human consciousness. I don't wish to enter the fray of arguing points. Dr. Penrose is a mathematical and scientific genius, a deep thinker on the nature of reality, and he can do his own counterpoint. Read this book with an open mind, and even if you disagree with some of his arguments, you will take much away with you.

Here's my take. "Consciousness" is pretty central to the whole enterprise of scientific endeavor, as well as how each of us understands our place in the world. Consciousness, as modeled by psychological and AI researchers, has a lot to say about the biological/physical systems that underpin what is happening in our heads, but one has to wonder about claims that consciousness is now completely understood. To this end, Dr. Penrose takes us on a fascinating journey to the frontiers of scientific knowledge, at scales both large and small. This is entirely relevant to the central theme. Science can only talk about what we can measure, and there are limits to what we can now measure. Our current picture of reality is not as complete as some people would have us believe.

So read Penrose. Read Stephen Jay Gould. Read Raymond Smullyan. Read about the Banach-Tarski theorem. Read about Fermat's last theorem. Read great literature. Keep an open mind. Peace!
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51 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't be fooled by kitsch materialists, March 23, 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: The Emperor's New Mind (Paperback)
First, what this book is not: It is not "creation science"...it doesn't address evolution...or the existence of God...or existence of the human soul. In other words, it is NOT special pleading against modern science by someone with a religious agenda. What it IS rather, is a solid study of cognition, theories of artificial intelligence, and the enduring problem of the nature of human consciousness by one of the world's top physicists (a professed materialist by the way, not a religious believer), who together with Stephen Hawking developed the astrophysics of "black holes" in the '60's. What Penrose suggests here (a theory he expands on in his subsequent "Shadows of the Mind"), is that science, and specifically physics, is inadequate now, and more importantly will always be inadequate, to describe the nature of human intelligence, cognition, and consciousness--a thesis similar to the showing of Godel's 1931 Theorem that certain fundamental axioms of mathematics were incapable of proof within any mathematical system. In other words, Penrose suggests that there are elemental restrictions within science itself limiting our understanding of our own mental processes, which concomitantly limit the possibilities for development of artificial intelligence. And that obviously doesn't sit well with those for whom naturalistic science is itself a kind of "religion," as some of the dismissive reviews on this page show. My advice: just ignore them and read this book, and well as its successor, "Shadows of the Mind." It's a challenging read and not for intellectual lightweights, but it will richly reward those with the patience to make it through.
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Highly Recommended, August 26, 2002
As opposed to what the title suggests, the bulk of this book is devoted to describing the foundations of the modern physics and computing. I was immensely fascinated by the accounts on the important subjects like classical mechanics, special relativity, general relativity, Turing machines, introductory quantum mechanics, artificial intelligence, etc. A fundamental difference between 'A brief History of Time' (Hawkins) and this book is that while the former skims over the theories needed to build the case of the book, this does a very thorough job of describing them. Of course this approach has its price, namely the mathematical complexity. Even though the author suggests skipping the mathematics and reading on if the reader is unfamiliar with the subject, I feel such reading will hardly do the justice to this fine book.
The recommendation: If you know basic mathematics like interpreting a simple equation (involving exponents, logarithms, etc.), a bit of probability, etc. and the willingness to learn more, this is an excellent book for you. However, if you simply cannot withstand equations among text and are determined to avoid them at all costs, perhaps this is not the book for you.
The ultimate message of the book, namely the proposition that the process of human thinking is related to quantum mechanical effects of matter did not sound very convincing to me. Perhaps this is not an accident, for the author state facts in the parts dealing with various scientific principals and is speculating at the stage of this proposition. My advice: Don't worry about this part. If you understand and are convinced -- good! If not: Still you've got your money's and time's worth by understanding the basics of modern science, in a comprehensive manner.
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50 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Magnificent - Changed my life, October 13, 2005
This review is from: The Emperor's New Mind (Paperback)
About 10 years ago I was a physicist with no interest in philosophy when I idly picked up a copy of this book on special offer. As I read I was drawn into the fascinating world of Penrose, where he explains with beautiful clarity some of the physics/maths I knew well already and some that was new to me like Godel. The latter he explained very well graphically, with the diagonal cut. This graphical approach is his strength - it is also used to good effect in his most recent book, "The Road to Reality". But where he really scored in TENM was in opening my eyes to the world of philosophy on the mind/body debate. His references to Searle and others were pointers I followed up to good effect until I was thoroughly engrossed in that debate. Thus the book was very effective. His insights on mathematical inspiration were also good, as was the way Deep Blue failed miserably on an obvious chess problem because its brute force method lacks the ' qualia ' or feeling of meaning and true understanding.Thus with Godel he had a good math reason for doubting that Computers could solve all the problems we grasp intuitively and with examples of this intuition he gives good ' intuitive' reasons. I suspect that for many other physicists this book was also an eye-opener. So the 5 stars are richly deserved. Having said that, and with the hindsight of later reading on the philosophy of consciousness, what was not emphasised enough in the book was a discusion of the ineffable nature of subjective consciousness. E.g. the idea of 'qualia' or subjective experience of red or music etc. is a theme that is the basis for the 'hard problem' of consciousness in philosophy, a term coined by David Chalmers. This 'hard problem' or ' explanatory gap ' is another powerful argument against AI and a reason to doubt that purely objective processes can explain how the ' wine of subjective experience arises from the water of objective processes '. Thus the book would have been more complete with such a discussion, as it takes a bit of lateral thinking to grasp this, and most scientists are blissfully ignorant of this funda-mental feature of reality. However, his discussion of mathematical insight is indirectly concerned with one of the 'non-sensory qualia' and thus touches on the problem of the subjective/objective dichotomy.

Yes, maybe there are hordes of scientists or others swamped by the default world-view of reductionism but who feel uneasy at the idea that we are just computers made of meat. For them this could be the opening to the counter-arguments that will enable them to escape the blanket coverage given in the media to dismal, depressive wofflers like Daniel Dennett and Dawkins. When I see the number of reviews here who start with adulation of Dennett then I realise that we need more high profile standard bearers for the anti-AI position. It seems most people have read no further than the nihilist drivel of Dennett and his ilk. When I recall his 'Darwin's dangerous idea' and its revolting comparison of darwinism to an acid eating through anything which he contemptuously dismissed as 'sky-hooks' etc. then I long for my Penrose or Colin McGinn or David Chalmers or even John Searle - though the latter's insistence on emergence of consciousness from brain as digestion from stomach is a bit hard to stomach. I noticed also in one or two of the reviews below this muddled confusion of Darwinism and consciousness - again one sees the mark of the Dawkins/Dennett brigade there. Darwinian theories of natural selection have little to do with conscious processes. Maybe Dennett's multple drafts theory has an element of that, but the fact that he uses this as a weapon toward eliminativism is unjustified. Most of the popular science readers who lap up Dennett fail to realise that he's one of a dying breed of behaviourists who effectively censored any mention of consciousness for almost a century. Thus we are only now picking up where William James left off - his writings are again extraordinarily relevant and modern. Thus the title Emperor's New Mind can also refer to this tragic lost century of ultra-materialism and negative positivism. The scales have fallen from many people's eyes now, as they join the cognitive revoluion in consciosness studies - Dennett and other neo-behaviourists are indeed dinosaurs in the age of the Tucson conferences with their exciting discussions on C - but since those are pluralist gatherings the whole spectrum of thought is represented, from Dennet to Penrose to Chalmers...
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very thought provoking but logically flawed, October 2, 1997
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I found the book to actually be more interesting in its discussion of physics and quantum mechanics than when I got to his thesis on mind and the computational impossibility of reproducing it in a computer. Although most of this is lucidly written and meticulous in its attention to detail, Penrose's final conclusion that the mind must have a quantum-mechanical aspect is unsupported by any evidence and seems to come from nowhere but his own deep desire to be more than chemicals. For me, the weakest part of the argument (in fact the only "evidence" he gives for his conclusion, really!) is the discussion of how long it takes a computer algorithm to solve a particular type of problem vs. how long it takes a person. It seems plausible, but ignores the fact that in this world, thousands of people work in parallel and cooperatively over many years to solve difficult problems and build on previous successes and failures. It ignores the roles of specialized education, folk knowledge, anecdotal evidence and how all of these result in common-sense elimination of fruitless pathways and recognition of fruitful pathways in human problem-solving.
Nevertheless, I found his physics primer (the first several chapters) to be better than many I have read, and the whole book gave me many nights of weird dreams. At the end, though, I wound up disappointed and feeling like I had been hoodwinked into someone's attempt to logically deduce his own personal faith.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Strange new world, April 17, 2001
This review is from: The Emperor's New Mind (Paperback)
My guess is that the ideas in this book are what happens to an internationally acclaimed mathematician/physicist as he tries to deal with quantum non-locality. Quantum non-locality is getting some physicists to think about the position of the mind in physical reality. The interesting thing about this book is seeing how a great mind attacks problems in computability, new physics, old physics, mathematics, philosophy, and especially AI. This book tries to kill AI.
The discussion methods used to explore these ideas are sophisticated and semi-technical and very appropriate and interesting. The conclusions however are off the wall and verge on the metaphysical. I wouldn't recommend this book for light reading or light thinkers. It is worth the price just to see how someone like Penrose thinks and does problem solving.
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17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Penrose's Fascinating Summary of Modern Science, February 15, 1999
Roger Penrose, one of the world's top physicists, summarizes modern science, examining topics including Turing machines, relativity, quantum physics, black holes, etc. At the end, he argues that the human mind can not be simulated by computers or anything algorithmic. The Emperor's New Mind is my favorite book, although I didn't feel that way the first time I read it. It is quite technical, compared to, for instance, A Brief History of Time, which covers some of the same topics. The second time I read the book, I really dedicated a lot of time to understand the material as well as I could, often working out problems with paper and pencil. This was necessary for me to see that his conclusion was related to the rest of the book. While Penrose obviously can not "prove" his belief, he gives a strong, fascinating arguement, and the book has definitely affected my philosophical views concerning consciousness.
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212 of 293 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars As if by magic!, October 8, 2004
This review is from: The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics (Popular Science) (Paperback)
Daniel Dennett's excellent book Consciousness Explained extracts a very funny cartoon from Scientific American, in which two professors stare at a blackboard showing a formula full of complex algebra. In the middle of the formula appears the sentence, "THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS". One professor points to the statement and says to the other, "I think you should be more explicit here in step two."

Roger Penrose isn't just any old boffin: he is the Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and has been knighted for his services to Science. The Emperor's New Mind is his attempt to crack that perennial philosophical chestnut, the Consciousness/Artificial Intelligence problem. Penrose's view is that Strong AI is simply wrong and that a computer could never replicate (functionally or actually) what we know as "consciousness".

Right. Take a deep breath here. For it's a scary thing for a mere mortal (with a decidedly ordinary bachelor's degree in the humanities) to say something like this about the one of the cleverest men on the planet, but I can't see any way around it: In this book Roger Penrose completely, totally, misses the point. Insofar as it's considered an entry on the Consciousness/AI debate, The Emperor's New Mind - all 583 pages of it - is all but worthless.

There. I said it.

Then again, nearly 500 of those pages don't even purport to be about consciousness, so perhaps all is not lost. Instead, they contain an extremely dense, at times fascinating, but uniformly (and I use the word deliberately) dazzling overview of the more esoteric parts of modern mathematics, physics and cosmology. While Penrose thinks it is necessary background, it isn't - it amounts to an extremely long winded appeal to authority:

One is left with the firm impression that the Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University is a very, very smart chap, and that one really ought to see that what ever he says goes. This is no small irony, given the title of his book. For if anyone is holding himself out as being a tailor purveying a cloth that only the cleverest people can see, it's Roger Penrose.

Here's where I think he goes wrong. Firstly, his attempt to undermine the AI position is founded on purely mathematical reasoning. Pure mathematics is a closed logical system. Its truths aren't falsifiable, so by themselves have no explanatory force. Mathematical statements (such as "1+1=2") are necessarily true for all time and all universes so, ipso facto, they can't - by themselves - tell us anything about any particular universe. Yet that is just what Penrose asks them to do. He invokes Gödel's theorem of undecidability, perhaps to counter the argument I have just made, but it isn't convincing - being logically unable to prove all truths in a particular set (even though you know they are true) is very different from being able to falsify them. Without that power, you have no explanatory traction in the outside world. Penrose's entire attack on Strong AI is based on an unfalsifiable, and therefore non-content carrying, argument.

Another error is to assume an algorithm must have been designed for the purpose for which it is used, and must work perfectly to be of any use. Natural selection illustrates that this is simply not the case. An algorithm may have a number of useful unintended by-products, and an algorithm can be extremely useful even when we know it to be completely misconceived at every level: take Newtonian mechanics as a good example. We've known for a century it isn't correct but in most practical circumstances it works fine.

Which brings me to my next point: for all the learning Penrose includes on Mandelbrot sets, phase space, entropy and Hawking Radiation, The Emperor's New Mind is conspicuous for what it leaves out: The bibliography contains no reference to Karl Popper nor the general philosophy of science - which might have helped him on the issue of falsifiability - nor crucially to a number of writers who have been very influential on the modern mind/AI question: Daniel Dennett is barely mentioned (Dennett's writing probably represents the "forefront" of the consciousness debate), nor is Richard Dawkins well-referenced, despite having written compellingly (and, being a zoologist, with a great deal more expertise) on the question of algorithms in natural selection. Indeed, Penrose doesn't clearly present the arguments of any particular supporter of strong AI, but rather chooses to generalise loosely as if he is convinced his mathematical deductions can carry the day, and that AI doesn't present a significant challenge. Douglas Hofstadter is given a little space, and John Searle and his largely discredited Chinese Room Experiment a fair space, but other than that the only philosopher Penrose seems to be aware of is Plato.

Another thinker Penrose doesn't seem familiar with is William of Occam. Instead of doing some background reading (and applying a little common sense), Penrose has launched a theory which (as he proudly proclaims) takes us to the ends of time and the universe and back to the smallest subatomic particles to explain (in ways he freely admits he doesn't understand) an everyday, prosaic (but still extremely hard to grasp) phenomenon. In its interstellar journey Penrose's theory drifts very close to dualism, and close (but not quite so close, perhaps) to positing (or needing) some sort of God to work. That will give succour in some quarters, but not the ones Penrose has in mind, I suspect.

Occam's Razor would require that such untestable and speculative suppositions be rejected unless no other explanation is available. Penrose would protest there are none; Dennett, Dawkins, Hofstadter and their colleagues and adherents (including me) would beg to differ, and point to a lot of literature that Penrose hasn't read. In any case one would think that Penrose's own intuition (which he claims helps him to see truth despite Gödel undecidability!) ought to help him see his theory is, as Jeremy Bentham would say, "nonsense on stilts".

Ultimately, when Penrose says "quantum theory explains consciousness" he is really saying no more than "something magic happens!" or even "THEN A MIRACLE OCCURS".

Mr Penrose, I think you should be more explicit here in step two.

Olly Buxton
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