The Quantum Universe and the Soul

Recent discussion on the existence of the soul and the ramifications of a conclusion in either direction – such as you can find here – have sparked some research into alternate theories of consciousness.  There are many philosophical schools of thought, but this is a discussion of quantifiable scientific theories.

Among those theories, of which there are several, are such ideas as Ervin László’s Akashic Field Theory, or the Zero Point Field Theory, which you can read more about here and here.  László says, to put it in simple terms, that there is a quantum field where consciousness originates and that our thoughts, our consciousness, is not local to our bodies, but that our brains access this field, known as the Akashic field, which holds all the information in the universe.[1]

This is a crude description of László’s theory and hardly does it justice, but it is the essence of the idea.

While the Akashic Field Theory has its supporters, mostly in esoteric, metaphysical circles, it hasn’t really garnered a great deal of interest or attention from mainstream science, save for a few eccentric physicists.

As discussed previously, most theories are examples of Dualism in the Philosophy of Mind.  Dualism states that the body and the mind are separate entities, that there are two parts to the human condition, the body and the soul, as opposed to Physicalism, which states that consciousness is the product of local brain chemistry.  László’s theory is an attempt to provide a non-local explanation under Physicalism, using quantum mechanics and wave function.

If that sounds complex, it’s because it is…very.

László isn’t alone in this line of thought however.  Laid out in his 1994 book, Shadows of the Mind,[2] English theoretical physicist Sir Roger Penrose, in cooperation with American anaesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff has presented a similar theory, also using quantum mechanics.

Penrose’s theory, called Orchestrated Objective Reduction, or Orch-OR makes László’s A-field theory look like child’s play.  It attempts to provide a theory of consciousness based on the quantum state of structures called microtubules in the brain. It says, basically, that there is a quantum scale energy present in the micro-structures of the brain that are the basis for consciousness, and Hameroff suggests that when a person dies, that quantum state or energy is “dissipated into the universe�?.[3]  He says that near-death experiences can be explained by this quantum energy, which he claims might be able to exist in the universe indefinitely, leaving the nervous system upon death, and then returning when the patient is revived.

This literally is a theory, based in Physicalism, that confirms the existence of a soul…or so it would seem.

In its development, Penrose based his research on the mathematical view point of Gödel’s theorem – two theorems of mathematical logic, which ultimately state that the human mind is necessarily computational.  This is a very complicated mathematical philosophy, and Penrose’s interpretation, which disagrees with Gödel’s theorem, is highly controversial and contested.  Known as the Penrose-Lucas argument, his interpretation of the mathematics suggests that the human brain is non-computational, non-algorithmic, and that only wave function collapse explains this process.

Don’t feel bad if you’re a little lost, even the best of us would have trouble following this thought train.

It turns out though, that wave function collapse doesn’t explain the process, at least according to Swedish-American physicist and cosmologist Max Tegmark.  Tegmark argued in his 2000 paper in the journal Physical Review E, that wave function collapse would occur at too fast a rate for it to have any impact on neural processes.[4]  This view point is widely adopted as the biggest barrier to Orch-OR’s success as a theory of consciousness, and it essentially stops it in its tracks.  It says, basically, that this quantum energy that Penrose and Hameroff claim is the basis for consciousness doesn’t stick around long enough in those microstructures to be considered a viable candidate for the basis of a soul.

Those less interested in the science and more focused on the philosophical meaning behind the theory are quick to celebrate the idea that science has proven the existence of the soul, but a closer look at the research says that this lofty goal has yet to be reached.  Orch-OR is attractive because, not only does it seem to provide an answer to the age old question of the soul, but it also appears to provide a structure for the afterlife and the phenomena of ghosts.

To be clear, the theory has not been disproven (or proven for that matter), it’s just that many involved in the research disagree with Penrose and Hameroff and cast doubt on the viability of the theorem.

Do we have a soul?  The question is still very much up for debate, but as all involved continue their research we can only hope that the future holds the answer.  It would be…convenient, if this theory were true.  It would provide a stepping-off point for so much other research and would vindicate a great many people in both the scientific community and in paranormal, religious and metaphysical communities.  But Orchestrated Objective Reduction doesn’t appear to be what we all wish it was.

[1] László, Ervin, PhD. Science and the Akashic Field: An Integral Theory of Everything. Inner Traditions (2004). ISBN-10: 1594770425

[2] Penrose, Roger, PhD. Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness. Oxford University Press (1996). ISBN-10: 0195106466

[3] Gayle, Damien. Near-death experiences occur when the soul leaves the nervous system and enters the universe, claim two quantum physics experts. Daily Mail UK:

[4] Tegmark, Max (April 2000). Importance of quantum decoherence in brain processes. Phys. Rev. E 61 (4): 4194. doi:10.1103/PhysRevE.61.4194.

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