Conscience - A Way of Remembering
Author: Roman Chirila, PhD
Ref: The Large, the Small and the Human Mind (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997)
Mintea omeneasca intre clasic si cuantic (Editura Tehnica, 1999)

At the beginning of this century, the physicist Max Planck advanced the quantum hypothesis, a new radical concept in the field of science, a surprising theory, which would prove to be extremely needful and fertile during the years to come. We already know how the quantum mechanics, the atom physics, the nucleus physics and the elementary particles physics “burst out” afterwards, quickly followed by new technologies which have radically changed the man’s way of living. The new come into being physical theories, risen from the very idea of quantum, have influenced the human thinking inducing a radical and profound redefinition of our conception on the Universe and on the cognitive relations between man and Cosmos.

Thus, the concept of substance on a subatomic scale is essentially different from the one used in classical physics. Consequently, both the concepts of space and time as well as the relation cause-effect are modified (the spontaneous disintegration, for example, does not have a well-defined cause!). People usually speak about the Planck length and also about the Planck time , dimensions where the causal determinism of Kantian type loses its relevance.

Later, the abundance of experimental results imposed the developing of a unique, coherent and non-contradictory epistemological framework, which was essential for our new representation-image on the microscopic world. Great physicists, mathematicians and philosophers gathered their efforts in order to clarify the implications of logical, moral and cognitive nature of some of the ideas advanced by the new theories.

The conceptual non-contradictory framework has reached a deadlock that seems to be due to the idea of explaining the substance viewed from the perspective of its last constituents: the atom hypothesis has led to the discovery of the nucleus surrounded by electrons, but, in its turn, the nucleus is made of protons and neutrons and so on. At that time hadrons and nuclei had been considered “elementary” particles but later they themselves proved to have a compound structure, therefore the elementary particles’ generation, in its sense of final constituents, does not seem to be definitely established.

Things are getting even more complicated because of the equivalence between mass and energy: the movement energy can be transformed in mass, so it seems that these “elementary” particles would be rather a process than final material constituents. They even speak about a “democracy” at a nuclear level, where the processes of creation and annihilation are produced regularly, thus complicating the implications of the interpretative nature of the norm conditions according to which a quantum particle has to exist wherever, whenever in the whole space. Additionally, the quantum cannot explain the electron mass just like the value of the light in vacuum cannot be explained by the theory of relativity. Why do elementary particles have got mass?… How come that a single particle does not mediate the forces between quarks but this is done by an entire set of eight gluons ?… Why does the mass occupy a place into the space while the forces (the same as the thoughts!) do not? Why do the light and the material object have different structure?… How come a couple or more material objects can not be in the same place at the same time while force and radiation are able to do it? Why do the mass constituent particles generally differ from the particles mediating forces?!… And, as a matter of fact, in what measure can thoughts modify the reality?!… But we, people, aren’t we, in our turn, only quantum systems full of mystery and paradox?!… Yes and no! Because there is, definitely, something that makes us human, something that makes us different. This something, according to Penrose’s metaphysics, seems to be the conscience.

“The Large, the Small and the Human Mind” (Cambridge University Press, 1997) represents a synthesis of his ideas, a retelling of his main contributions concerning the influence of the quantum mechanisms in explaining the human thinking and conscience as well as the amendments made by some men of science such as A. Shimony, N. Cartwright and S.Hawking together with the answers that Penrose gave to them.

Like all his previous books, this one is attractive and fascinating by the provocation that it generates, by the delicious fragrance left around you after having read the text. It almost does not matter anymore whether Penrose is right or not, what fascinates is his extraordinary approach, the vitality of his speech, the inner intellectual alchemy of his ideas. Penrose is full of anxiety and full of ideas; he is one of the most responsible men of science who have pushed the frontiers of the human conscience towards an almost impredictable horizon, which, nevertheless, is charming and full of promises. His tenacity reminds the metaphoric message of the director Andrei Tarkovski in Sacrificatio: they say that, long time ago, in an orthodox monastery up in the mountains, lived an old monk. One day, he brought a dry, lifeless tree and planted it in that damned barren stone. Then, as an ascetic exercise, the old monk asked his novice to water the dead tree. And, the very next day, the novice started his irksome task, climbing the mountain early in the morning and watering the tree humbly and faithful. He kept doing the same thing for three years until, one morning, the young novice found the tree in full blossom! … Likewise, perhaps Penrose himself “waters” every day the same idea, at the same time, hoping that it will flourish eventually!...

His formation as a mathematician and his taste for knowledge, in general, led him to the elaboration of theories on the singularity of space-time, one of the most important predictions of the general relativity. Going through the chapters of this book, the reader can discover and understand Penrose’s ideas of cosmology, of the quantum mysteries and of the human mind.

Penrose’s main idea is that an artificial computer cannot create the mental processes, an idea diametrically opposed to what F. Tipler advanced in his book “Physics of Immortality”. Tipler sustained that a correct calculation does not mean automatically the understanding of the arithmetical operation itself, the same as reading correctly does not really mean to understand, or to pronounce correctly a word in a foreign language does not mean speaking that language. To understand means to be conscient, Penrose said, that is to achieve a certain quantum state of the brain, of the mental space regarded as a quantum system, which is a shelter for conscience. Penrose, as a declared Platonicist, thinks the men of science do not invent the truth of things, their physis, their substance, but they just discover it. In the same way, talking about conscience, he is its ontological a priori partisan, the supporter of a pre-existent cosmic conscience, of a protomental, and that achievement of the quantum state of the brain would correspond to a certain resonance between men and Cosmos, between quantum and classic, a sort of “discovery” of the human mind and, by no means, an ontological alteration.

On the other hand, the physio-biological materiality of the brain and the physical process of the conscience make two distinctive causal-determinate chains which, nevertheless, can also have a common element of convergence. In this case, what is their relation of correspondence?… We are not able to associate the conscience and the suffering to any somatic system that we know. When we say we are feeling bad, what particular thing hurts us?… The electrons and protons of the water in our body are in pain? … Do they have conscience? … The similarity with the energetic meridians of the traditional Asian medicine seems almost striking: the map containing thousands of energetic meridians transporting the energy chi (the universal spirit, the eternal soul) covers the entire human body, but it does not have any somatic correspondent. Still, within the limits of the current scientific rationalism, we cannot talk about conscience beyond the human body or about mental properties associated with the inorganic. Even if we examine in detail the physio-chemical processes, we still cannot find out the particular thing that leads our conscience to take a decision on or against a certain situation.

Provocative problems, tempting subjects!… It is really difficult to catch Penrose’s reasoning in an ordinary cliché or to find a categorical answer to satisfy the exigency of the questions coming from different ontological registers. Penrose’s ideas are not easily accepted into the experts’ agora. In spite of having been granted with the Sir title for his ideas, they are still the object of ardent debates. And we cannot believe that a possible future confirmation or invalidation of his ideas would resume the post mortem events the theologian Thomas d’ Aquino had to go through. One year after his burial he was exhumed for being decapitated then, after another thirteen years, he was exhumed once again and they cut his right hand, while only three years after his death, 219 of his statements were censured, first in Paris, then in Oxford…

But let us see what else Penrose proposes from the quantum perspective. We already know that the quantum essence consists in the fact that a system condition is created not only by the whole of its effective qualities but also by its potentiality and virtual texture. This thing is implicitly contained in the superposition principle. Therefore, a quantum system condition is essentially a sum of possibilities having different weights and the real quality that the system could get is an objective chance, a sort of essential event!… But what really makes the difference between quantum and classical mechanics is the way quantum treats the composition, which has no classical analogue. As Penrose says, it is all about correlation or coherence. Therefore, if there are two quantum systems, each one having a definite quantum condition, then the compound system gets unusual characteristics and reaches a “correlational” condition; the changing condition of a system will entail the changing of the other system condition, that is the two systems potentialities are correlated in tandem. For this reason, the potentiality makes possible the correlation between the cosmic “protomental” and the human conscience, a kind of coherent communication bridge between the human and the cosmic-archetypal mental, something that, from the classical mechanics perspective, was unimaginable. Now, the passing from the “conscious” to the “unconscious” is just a modification of the condition, not of the ontological statute. Extrapolating to the case of a system composed of several quantum sub-systems, we can imagine that the “compound” system has a bigger number of properties than the component elementary systems, including the state of conscience. Thus, the quantum coherence of a great number of neurons could generate a resonant unity of the mind, called conscience. Penrose’s suggestion is plausible, as the calculation made by Frölich shows a possible correlation on a large scale in the biological systems at human body temperature. In addition, Penrose comes with the arguments of a future quantum, the premise of a human mind theory, which is meant to answer the question why the mental activity cannot be reduced to an ordinary calculation process.

Now, let us see what is the part that the black holes play in explaining the conscience. The subject is huge and difficult to be expressed in a few sentences. Though, Penrose suggests that the conscience is the only phenomenon that makes necessary the “passing” of the time. But in physics the time does not “pass”, it stays still, the same as the space does, within the space-time, the place housing all the descriptive events in our universe. In our trial to understand the time, its unidirectional passing, we need to understand the black holes (see “The Emperor’s New Mind. Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics”- R. Penrose, Editura TEHNICĂ, 1996 [Romanian version] and “Prisons of Light – Black Holes”- K. Ferguson, Editura TEHNICĂ 1999 [Romanian version]) these huge densities of cosmic mass, entities connected with the time limits, the place where even the notion of space loses itself. Time makes the remembering possible, in other words the knowledge (in Platon’ s acceptance). Thus the conscience could be also regarded as a way of remembering…

In St. Paul’s metaphysical terms, the black holes could be considered the nuclear continents of the First Day of Creation!…

Or, if you want, those cosmic entities do not have the nostalgia of Paradise simply because they precede it!… It is maybe the reason why the black holes make possible the fall (even the light falls prisoner in those “prisons”!) but not the fall into decay, attribute associated with the human being condition. Look at them now, they are reminding us of the soul in the First Morning of the Beginning: white, white, white…

June 12, 2000