Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Dr. Alexander and the Afterlife No. 4

How can thought influence physical objects?

Quantum physics does not explain it per se

TOPICS:  Eben Alexander - heaven - afterlife - near death experience - cortex - quantum - Heisenberg uncertainty principle - electrons as waves and particles - Stuart Hameroff - Roger Penrose - Glenn F. Chesnut, God and Spirituality

Dr. Eben Alexander, in his book Proof of Heaven, attempted to show that human thought could directly shape physical reality by means of certain quantum effects which have been discovered by modern physicists. But invoking quantum physics is not necessary: see my blog on "The Ghost in the Machine: can thoughts control physical objects?" Quantum effects also do not genuinely produce that kind of result.

One quantum effect: the Heisenberg uncertainty principle

People who argue that way generally begin by citing the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. This equation states that the position and the momentum of a single tiny nuclear particle cannot both be simultaneously known is complete exactitude. Past a certain point, the more exactly the position of the particle is known, that more uncertainty there will be in our measurement of its momentum or energy. But first of all, the uncertainty is so tiny that it applies only to little subatomic particles. It does not affect (at any level we can measure) the gross events of our everyday world.

Secondly, although it is true that some scientists, when the uncertainty principle was first discovered, tried to explain it as an "observer effect." The moment a human observer tried to measure something as small as a nuclear particle, it was argued, the act of observing altered either the velocity or position of the tiny little particle. But it was shown fairly quickly that this was not so. The uncertainty arises from within the very nature of the mathematical equations describing this kind of wave, and the uncertainty will affect all the other relationships into which that particle enters, whether any human scientist is observing them or not.

The uncertainty principle shows us that physical reality is somewhat fuzzy and unfocused if we dive down to a deep enough level. But making something blurred and imprecise does not convey control to the thinker. In fact, it produces the reverse.

Another quantum effect: electrons as both waves and particles

An important situation in which human thought does have an effect on observed physical reality appears when we do certain kinds of experiments with electrons. Are electrons waves or particles? If we set up an experiment in which a beam of electrons is shot like little particles across a vacuum, they will behave like particles. An example would be the electron beam which produced the image on the viewing screen in the old-fashioned cathode ray tube used in twentieth-century television sets and computer monitors. An electromagnetic field was used to make the electron beam move back and forth across the screen and produce the image dot by dot.

If we take our stream of electrons, however, and fire them through a grid, like the precisely ordered ranks of atoms in a crystal, the electrons will act like waves which will set up wave patterns upon whatever we are using as a receiver. This is the way an electron microscope works. Fundamentally, it is no different from the way the kind of microscopes work that use visible light. But since the wavelength of electrons (when they act like waves) is much smaller than the wavelength of visible light, we can see physical objects that are much smaller.

Now here is the paradoxical thing about the wave-particle phenomenon. Scientists can fire electrons which will be diverted, early in their flight, into a path that treats them like particles, or into another path that treats them like waves, then sends them on to some kind of receiver. We can wait until they have already gone through the path which determined whether they would appear as particles or as waves, before deciding which kind of receiver we are going to use. If we choose a particle receiver, the electrons will appear as particles, and vice versa, a wave receiver will record electrons striking it as waves. A human decision further down the path seems to alter, not just what is going to happen in the future, but also seems to alter the past.

Now this is a strange and quite surprising experimental finding, but it does not provide any kind of explanation for how human thoughts and ideas (which are immaterial) could push electrons around in specific directions in the circuits of the human brain. If one brain cell is excited, the process by which it passes along an electrical charge to another specific brain cell (and no other), cannot be affected by the question of whether the human being is thinking of the electrons as waves or particles.

Another attempt to use quantum theory:
Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose

In 1996, another physician, Dr. Stuart Hameroff M.D., joined with Roger Penrose (Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford) in an attempt to use quantum physics as a device for allowing the human consciousness to remain in existence during near death experiences when the brain cells were no longer functioning. In  his theory, consciousness is derived from microtubules within brain cells (neurons) which are sites of quantum processing.

They proposed that human consciousness involved quantum wave functions which occurred in "in cytoskeletal microtubules and other structures within each of the brain's neurons. The particular characteristics of microtubules suitable for quantum effects include their crystal-like lattice structure, hollow inner core, organization of cell function and capacity for information processing."

But when we looked at Dr. Alexander's attempt to cite quantum effects to account for near death experiences, we saw that neither the Heisenberg uncertainty principle nor the way in which electrons can function as both waves and particles, can explain how immaterial human thoughts could alter the physical processes of the brain, or how human consciousness could continue to exist after the brain has become nonfunctional.

So Hameroff and Penrose's ideas are not helpful, with one exception.

They do force us to realize that the interaction between human thought systems and the electrochemical processes of the human brain take place at such a microscopic level that quantum effects will in fact be involved. How much difference is there between the electrochemical state of the brain when I think the bare thought that "near death experiences are real" as opposed to when I think the bare thought that "near death experiences are not real"? What size change does the presence or absence of the word "not" -- all by itself -- represent in the electrochemical state of the brain, and how big is that part of the brain?

So when I observe that I cannot, just by thinking, make the coffee cup on my desk rise up into the air, there is a whole world of difference between that kind of effect, and the one that we are proposing when we posit that human thoughts can at certain points produce subtle changes in the electrochemical state of one or two tiny brain cells. It is at the level of quantum physics that the effects are being felt. And that means that some of what we call "ordinary common sense" may no longer apply. A baseball cannot turn into an ocean wave, but with things as tiny as electrons, different kinds of laws apply.


Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife (New York: Simon and Schuster, October 2012).

On Hameroff and Penrose, see Jahnabi Barooah, "Scientist Shows What Happens To 'Soul' After Death," Huffington Post, updated: 10/28/2012 at 10:37 pm. http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/10/07/proof-of-heaven-a-doctor-s-experience-with-the-afterlife.html

Their major article is Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose, "Orchestrated Objective Reduction of Quantum Coherence in Brain Microtubules: The 'Orch OR' Model for Consciousness," Mathematics and Computers in Simulation 40 (1996) 453-480. May be read online at http://www.quantumconsciousness.org/penrose-hameroff/orchor.html

Glenn F. Chesnut, God and Spirituality: Philosophical Essays, Hindsfoot Foundation Series on Spirituality and Theology (Bloomington, Indiana: iUniverse, 2010), parts of which may be read online at http://hindsfoot.org/kgs1.html , see espec. Chapter 20. "Why the Future Cannot Be Totally Predicted," which may be read online at http://hindsfoot.org/g20future.pdf

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