Abstract: Philosophers, when studying any subject possibly anchored in the real world, and, in particular, consciousness and free will, cannot ignore physics. Why? Because, with Quantum theory, physics has taken a very deep, very different and, one could say, nearly metaphysical turn. And biology took it too. It’s a Quantum world.
IGNORANCE DOES NOT MAKE WISE:
Philosophers have been known to speak about free will, while ignoring the Quantum. However, to worry about free will without worrying about the Quantum is obsolete. Why? Because free will is supported by neurobiology, a type of nanotechnology.
It was known for a very long time that Quantum effects were central to nanotechnology and that biology was a form of nanotechnology. Schrodinger suggested in his book “What Is Life?” that information should be stored in an “aperiodic crystal”. He also remarked that the Quantum ought to be central in biology. Now we have direct experimental evidence that biology is Quantum.
And not only that, but biology is going to reveal itself to be much more Quantum than anything. Why? Because biology is weird, so is the Quantum, and the weirdness of the latter boosts the former, as I will show. The weirdness of consciousness and the weirdness of Quantum physics have too many aspects in common not to be one and the same. Considering what is now known about vision and chlorophyll, one can feel fairly certain that the Quantum is the enabler of biology.
THE QUANTUM IS EVERYWHERE:
Most serious people knew little about Quantum Physics up to the 1990s, besides the fact it did not have to do with “classical physics”, and it was unfathomable. However, it came to light that quantum computers, should they exist, would be very powerful. Efforts to make them revealed an entire menagerie of powerful unknowns, at the basis of physics, thus shattering the arrogance of high energy physicists (the guys who discovered the theory of everything on a string or membrane somewhere). Serious people also thought that classical physics was plenty enough to explain biology. Many still do.
That was philosophically silly: biology is physics, and physics is Quantum. Biology has to do with molecules and atoms, and so does Quantum physics. Nanotechnology, is, by definition, involved with Quantum effects. That’s drastically simple an argument: I breathe, therefore there is air. I swim, therefore, there is water. I think, therefore there is physics. And physics, we have discovered, is mostly not about cannon balls (as Newtonian physics is), but about the Quantum. Inter-molecular forces are Quantum effects.
Sneering that there is such a thing as classical physics, is irrelevant. In the real world, there is no classical physics. We don’t even know where gravity comes from (Einstein’s theory is basically a tautology on steroids; it is very precise in geostationary orbit, but, overall, explains very little; it should be called the Riemann-Einstein theory, because Riemann had the basic idea in the 1860s; that’s old).
Gravity probably relates to the Quantum. Or so it is thought. Why? Because the Quantum is everywhere else. The obverse theory has even been suggested: that Quantum decoherence would come from gravity.
MOST CLASSICAL PHYSICS IS QUANTUM DEEP:
In a sense the story of the Quantum started in Greco-Roman civilization, when the idea of atoms was suggested.
The idea was that matter was made of indivisible particles. Atomic theory got mostly proven when Brownian motion was shown to be, in combination with heat, to be an indirect effect. The atomic world, as imagined by the Greeks, was a tiny replication of the apparent world: as two horses were separated, two atoms were separated.
But reality turned out to be much more subtle and complicated. Namely, smaller is different. In particular, it turns out that, as things get smaller, they get intrinsically overlapping. And how do we get overlaps? Well, through waves. What’s more overlapping than a wave?
Quantum Physics was discovered progressively. For centuries people had no idea that it was what they were doing. The explanatory power of waves surfaced in the seventeenth century, with the wave theory of light of the Dutch Huygens, and, involuntarily, Newton (although he tried to explain optical rings that he discovered with his particle theory of light, it was a blatant wave effect). Around 1800 CE, an English medical doctor, Young, discovered light interference. The wave theory of light was soon confirmed by Poisson (Poisson predicted that a dot of light would appear behind a lighted ball, just as sea waves gain height at a distance behind a reef). Maxwell found that electro-magnetic waves were going at the same speed as light, so ought to be the same.
The mystery thickened when it was found that said waves materialized as energy packets whose energy depended upon their frequency (Hertz, Planck, Einstein). De Broglie then postulated that any body was associated with a matter wave, whose wavelength depended upon the momentum of said body. That gave the entirety of Quantum Physics: uncertainty momentum-position, uncertainty energy-time, “Schrodinger” equation, etc. Dirac a bit later assumed the electron was a relativistic wave, id est satisfied the simplest wave equation whose square was the relativistic: E^2-p^2 c^2 = m^2 c^2, and got spinors and antimatter out of this hypothesis.
The nature of the waves is unexplained in the plenitude we are tempted to attribute to them. All we know is that they are complex valued and the norm of their square is the probability the particle will be found. Continuity considerations force waves to penetrate materials, thus we get the TUNNEL EFFECT: the ability of particles to materialize across energy barriers, which was viewed as impossible, prior.
Also, after an interaction, particles, in their wave form, are in an entangled state, and so they stay until one element of the entanglement is made to interact again. Meanwhile the system can explore all at once, all the domain that the entangled wave can reach. This is exactly he effect that biology exploits in the case of chlorophyll.
THE QUANTUM IS ALL OVER BIOLOGY:
Chlorophyll molecules do use macroscopic entanglement. Groups of them get together into an excited state, and wave, touching all the opportunities at once, until they find the best solution, and transmit the energy, namely electrons, far away.
Biology uses electrons all over. So it’s just a matter of time before Quantum is found all over electronic conduction, all over biology. It is now understood that room temperature Quantum effects organize the world (Something similar one uses in spintronics, giving the ability, at room temperature to enter macroscopic states that send energy without any losses, far away. Another way human engineers hope to use Quantum entanglement to do many classically impossible things).
This turns many pieces of received wisdom (which all too many of the naïve admitted without proof), on their heads. So here is what we know now: Quantum Physics can be overwhelming, a dominant effect, even in its weirdest manifestations, even at room temperature. Biology evolved to harness Quantum Physics’ full power. Biology could not do without Quantum (photosynthesis is the bedrock of the pyramid of life).
MINDS AS QUANTUM ENTANGLEMENTS:
Quantum entanglement is what happens during Quantum processes. This is not what physicists would usually say, so let me explain. There are basically two types of Quantum processes.
1) those happening particle to particle. (That is what high energy physics and its Feynman diagrams worry about in the simpler case where delocalization matters less.)
2) Quantum processes where the particle interact directly with the background geometry: diffraction, the two slit experiment, and the tunnel effect are examples. These effects historically came first.
In both sorts of processes, a delocalized Quantum wave is the fundament. Quantum delocalization has a lot of the characteristic traditionally assigned to consciousness. It tries to get everywhere, it acts as one, it’s in its own space, it acts on matter, but it’s not matter, etc. What’s not to like, for the spiritually inclined?
The least one can do when trying to explain something maximally complicated (in this case consciousness) is to use the maximally complex conceptual instruments one has. One does not want to do like the Greeks, after Archimedes, who tried to elaborate only what they understood best, ignoring the rest (the would-be successors of Archimedes ignored non-Euclidean geometry, the irrationals, the heliocentric theory, the zero and infinitesimal calculus, all of which had been suggested before Archimedes’ death).
Ignoring what is too complicated for comfort has long been the history of modern physics, as aspects of high energy physics were pushed, while the fundamentals of Quantum physics were ignored (they are ignored less now that the Quantum computer resists understanding, while biology exhibits so far irreproducible aspects of quantum computing insolently).
So macroscopic entanglements have to become part of the explanatory scheme for consciousness: if chlorophyll does it, so should the mind (one may view this theme as evoked in the movie “Avatar”). One may readily wonder if such excited entanglements do not occur in the simplest animals.
Quantum computers manipulate fundamental bits of Quantum information called qubits, which are entangled states. the whole difficulty of Quantum engineering is that if qubits get manipulated too much, they lose their coherence, their entangled nature. In this sense: the QUANTUM IS PRETTY META-PHYSICAL.
Some of the all too philosophically inclined will reply that Free Will is first a metaphysical problem, not something physics can answer. But, of course, and therein the difficulty of Quantum physics, Quantum processes tend to be, in practice, metaphysical, because when physics intrude, they elude.
FASCIST METAPHYSICS VERSUS RATIONAL METAPHYSICS:
What is metaphysics? In general it comes in two types. 1) superstitious metaphysics, which rests on the hypothesis that part of the world is the domain of god, and not that of minds we can understand. This is the position explicitly stated by Allah in the Qur’an to fend off vulgar people asking too many questions about his relationship with his apparent collaborator Satan (!). We may as well believe in little green men stoking the fires in the heart of the sun, and chubby little men bearing gifts in their reindeer pulled flying chariots.
In truth that appreciation for this sort of metaphysics is an instrument of domination. It impresses on the commons that there are questions without answer, too hard to inquire. Like why is it that some have everything, and others, nothing. In all fairness… Obama will tell you that, “in all fairness”, Larry Summers made a “heck of a job”, and the fact you don’t get it proves you are beyond help.
2) rationally grounded metaphysics:
It is simply what is beyond physis, nature, physis was the word for the natural world in Greek (in contradistinction to the world of the Gods). Why do we need such a notion, how do we know it’s necessary?
Hilbert suggested a number of problems in 1900 about proving the consistency of mathematics. A generation later, Gödel showed that any non trivial logic cannot prove its own consistency. In other words (and this is my own formulation) there are sentences in mathematics which can proven only in the context of metamathematics.
Since any language can be encoded in mathematics (that was discovered 20 years before Gödel), this means that any language will contain statements which can only be proven in a metalanguage. Substitute “physis” (that is, what we know about the real world) for the language, and one gets the necessity for metaphysics. In a way, there is nothing metaphysical about metaphysics, it’s very logical, very natural.
Thus whenever we hold a discourse, however precise and restricted, it is within a metalanguage (commonly English, or any other human language, since they are all equivalent).
In other words, there is what we are sure of, or are pretty sure that we could be sure of, and that is physis. Then there is the rest, and that is meta-physis. Metaphysics is very important: this how babies learn; from the weaving of the context, a lot of it so diffuse as to be metaphysical, to the particulars of languages and significations (body, sign, and verbal languages).
So what could be metaphysical free will? Well any will, which look free from the law of the natural world. For proving its existence, we would need to know all of physics first. Which we do not. Neither the physical law, nor, a fortiori, the initial conditions are known.
Conclusion; QUANTUM FREEDOM:
Consciousness certainly involves Quantum entanglements: if it did not, a new law would have to be pulled out of a hat, namely that consciousness is outside of physics. Quantum Mechanics has elements of intrinsic uncertainty, and those can feed some appearances of human freedom. An example is coming from computer chips, which are presently enormously gross structures relative to the atomic detailling of life. Thorium atoms can decay, and the energetic alpha particles they emit can play havoc with one of the tiny transistors in a chip, making the computer crash. There is little doubt that the finest structures in a neuron are much more sensitive. So the occasional neuron will fire because of a cosmic or quantum event.
Thus the very notion of freedom of the will comes into question. In the present state of Quantum theory, Quantum processes are somewhat predictable in the following sense. The probability waves are constrained by the background geometry. But, given the geometry, the precise occurrence of events is not predictable, and that means that the Quantum behaves as if, once taken the constraints in consideration, it were completely free, free even of examination.
Another reason for philosophy to integrate Quantum Physics is that Quantum theory is stuffed with new models that society in general, and philosophy in particular, could profitably use.
The most astounding thing is not that the universe is understandable, but that some of us find the will to understand it.