Can Physics Provide a Theory of Consciousness? A Review of Shadows of the Mind by Roger Penrose
Baars (Bernard)
Source: Psyche, 2(8), May 1995
Paper - Abstract

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Introduction (Full Text)

  1. Physics is surely the most beautiful of the sciences, and it is esthetically tempting to suppose that two of the great scientific mysteries we confront today, observer effects in quantum mechanics1 and conscious experience, are in fact the same. Roger Penrose is an admirable contributor to modern physics and mathematics, and his new book, Shadows of the Mind (SOTM) offers us some brilliant intellectual fireworks --- which for me at least, faded rapidly on further examination.
  2. I felt disappointed for several reasons, but one obvious one: Is consciousness really a physics problem? Penrose writes,
      A scientific world-view which does not profoundly come to terms with the problem of conscious minds can have no serious pretensions of completeness. Consciousness is part of our universe, so any physical theory which makes no proper place for it falls fundamentally short of providing a genuine description of the world. I would maintain that there is yet no physical, biological, or computational theory that comes very close to explaining our consciousness ...
  3. Having spent 17 years of my life trying to do precisely what Penrose suggests has not and cannot be done, this point was a bit disconcerting. But even more surprising was the claim that consciousness is a problem in physics. The conscious beings we see around us are the products of billions of years of biological evolution. We interact with them --- with each other --- at a level that is best described as psychological. All of our evidence regarding consciousness depends upon reports of personal experiences, and observation of our own perception, memories, attention, imagery, and the like. The evidence therefore would seem to be exclusively psychobiological. We will come back to this question.
  4. argument in SOTM comes down to two theses and a statement of faith. The first thesis I will call the "Turing Impossibility Proof," and the second, the "Quantum Promissory Note". The statement of faith involves classical Platonism of the mathematical variety, founded in a sense of certainty and wonder at the amazing success of mathematical thought over the last 25 centuries, and the extraordinary ability of mathematical formalisms to yield deep insight into scientific questions (SOTM, p. 413). This view may be captured by Einstein's well-known saying that "the miraculous thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible." While I share Penrose's admiration for mathematics, I do not believe in the absolute nature of mathematical thought, which leads him to postulate a realm of special conscious insight requiring no empirical investigation to be understood.
  5. After considering the argument of SOTM I will briefly sketch the current scientific alternative, the emerging psychobiology of consciousness (see Baars, 1988, 1994; Edelman, 1989; Newman and Baars, 1993; Schacter, 1990; Gazzaniga, 1994). Though the large body of current evidence can be stated in purely objective terms, I will strive to demonstrate the phenomena by appealing to the reader's personal experience, such as your consciousness of the words on this page, the inner speech that often goes with the act of reading carefully, and so on. Such demonstrations help to establish the fact that we are indeed talking about consciousness as such.

Comment:

Review of "Penrose (Roger) - Shadows of the Mind"; Link (Defunct).

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