Aeon: A physicist claims that materialism is dead because it can’t explain consciousness

Quantum mechanics is deeply weird, and I can’t grasp it in the sense of trying to understand how it works using my own experience as a reference. But of course that’s true for physicists as well, and I think it’s what Feynman meant when he said “Nobody understands quantum mechanics” (see the short video below):

That is, quantum mechanics gives us a mathematical representation of how the Universe works (one that is remarkably good at making verified predictions), but understanding concepts like entanglement, the collapse of the wave function and so on—all this is beyond our ability to grasp using our everyday experience. (This has led to truly bizarre theories like the “many worlds” hypothesis, which defies comprehension but might in fact be true.) Trying to “understand” quantum mechanics in that way eludes the ability of physicists, too, as recounted in a new article in Aeon by Adam Frank, a professor of astronomy at the University of Rochester, a computational astrophysicist, an author, and co-founder of the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and CultureWhile physicists agree on the mathematics and its usefulness in understanding the universe, trying to envision the reality described by the equations has divided the field:

At a 2011 quantum theory meeting, three researchers conducted just such a poll, asking participants: ‘What is your favourite interpretation of quantum mechanics?’ (Six different models got votes, along with some preferences for ‘other’ and ‘no preference’.) As useful as this exercise might be for gauging researchers’ inclinations, holding a referendum for which interpretation should become ‘official’ at the next meeting of the American Physical Society (or the American Philosophical Society) won’t get us any closer to the answers we seek. Nor will stomping our feet, making loud proclamations, or name-dropping our favourite Nobel-prizewinning physicists.

The weirdness of quantum mechanics, and its ability to defy intuitive understanding, has of course led to its appropriation by both woo-meisters and postmodernists, who use it to justify all sorts of numinous and spiritual (as well as literary) principles, and to espouse the “observer effect” that falsely implies that the presence of an observer somehow affects the behavior of nature. As far as I know, it doesn’t: it just limits what we can learn about nature. Deepak Chopra, for instance—the apogee of quantum quackery—has said that when we’re not looking at the Moon, it doesn’t exist. Well, we know that’s not true because there’s evidence of the Moon’s existence before any conscious beings existed on Earth.

Yet even Dr. Frank himself seems to have succumbed to a soupçon of woo, and you can see that in the title and subtitle of his Aeon piece, “Minding matter: The closer you look, the more the materialist position in physics appears to rest on shaky metaphysical ground.” (The title on the tab is “Materialism alone cannot explain the riddle of consciousness.”)

It’s a longish piece and I won’t reprise it in detail (some of it’s above my pay grade), but Frank’s premise is stated in the titles: materialism cannot explain consciousness or mind. Something “more” may be involved. What that “more” is Frank never explains, but of course the Aeon site has a Templeton-like penchant for uniting science and faith, and the riddle of consciousness has been a lever to release the teleology of all manner of creationists, as well as anti-scientific philosophers like Tom Nagel. Because we don’t yet understand how consciousness works or how it evolved, say these folks, there has to be something in nature beyond the laws of physics and blind evolution.  I won’t go into the fallacies of this claim except to say that similar claims have been made throughout the last few centuries for epilepsy, contagious disease, lightning, magnetism, and all manner of phenomena that eventually yielded to science. What Frank is making here is simply a sophisticated God of the Gaps argument, except that he uses the word “something more than materialism” rather than “God.”

Now Frank talks about the insufficiency of “materialism”, but I think he means “naturalism”, because materialism is simply the claim that there’s nothing more to the Universe than matter, and we may find some natural phenomena that don’t involve matter as we know it. I’ll use both terms interchangeably, though I prefer “naturalism.”

Beyond the view that consciousness defies materialist understanding, Frank appears to have bought into the view that the “observer effect” is real—real in the sense that, as he surmises, the laws of physics depend on the presence of mind, which must perforce become part of physics itself (my emphasis in all the statements below):

A particularly cogent new version of the psi-epistemological position, called Quantum Bayesianism or QBism, raises this perspective to a higher level of specificity by taking the probabilities in quantum mechanics at face value. According to Fuchs, the leading proponent of QBism, the irreducible probabilities in quantum mechanics tell us that it’s really a theory about making bets on the world’s behaviour (via our measurements) and then updating our knowledge after those measurements are done. In this way, QBism points explicitly to our failure to include the observing subject that lies at the root of quantum weirdness. As Mermin wrote in the journal Nature: ‘QBism attributes the muddle at the foundations of quantum mechanics to our unacknowledged removal of the scientist from the science.’

Putting the perceiving subject back into physics would seem to undermine the whole materialist perspective. A theory of mind that depends on matter that depends on mind could not yield the solid ground so many materialists yearn for.

Now put alongside that notion the idea, espoused by Frank, that consciousness eludes a “materialistic” explanation—with the implication that this will always be so. Here are a few quotes (my emphasis):

Albert Einstein and Max Planck introduced the idea of the quantum at the beginning of the 20th century, sweeping away the old classical view of reality. We have never managed to come up with a definitive new reality to take its place. The interpretation of quantum physics remains as up for grabs as ever. As a mathematical description of solar cells and digital circuits, quantum mechanics works just fine. But if one wants to apply the materialist position to a concept as subtle and profound as consciousness, something more must clearly be asked for. The closer you look, the more it appears that the materialist (or ‘physicalist’) position is not the safe harbor of metaphysical sobriety that many desire.


But those ascribing to psi-ontology – sometimes called wave function realism – must now navigate a labyrinth of challenges in holding their views. The Wave Function (2013), edited by the philosophers Alyssa Ney and David Z Albert, describes many of these options, which can get pretty weird. Reading through the dense analyses quickly dispels any hope that materialism offers a simple, concrete reference point for the problem of consciousness.

And this:

It’s been more than 20 years since the Australian philosopher David Chalmers introduced the idea of a ‘hard problem of consciousness’. Following work by the American philosopher Thomas Nagel, Chalmers pointed to the vividness – the intrinsic presence – of the perceiving subject’s experience as a problem no explanatory account of consciousness seems capable of embracing. Chalmers’s position struck a nerve with many philosophers, articulating the sense that there was fundamentally something more occurring in consciousness than just computing with meat. But what is that ‘more’?

Some consciousness researchers see the hard problem as real but inherently unsolvable; others posit a range of options for its account. Those solutions include possibilities that overly project mind into matter. Consciousness might, for example, be an example of the emergence of a new entity in the Universe not contained in the laws of particles. There is also the more radical possibility that some rudimentary form of consciousness must be added to the list of things, such as mass or electric charge, that the world is built of. Regardless of the direction ‘more’ might take, the unresolved democracy of quantum interpretations means that our current understanding of matter alone is unlikely to explain the nature of mind. It seems just as likely that the opposite will be the case.

You see the conundrum. If mind is a fundamental aspect of physics but cannot be reducible to, or even an emergent property of, physics, then we are stuck in an endless feedback loop. The world cannot then be explained fully in materialistic (or naturalistic terms). We have to somehow add consciousness to the Standard Theory of physics before we can even begin to explain it! This is what Frank means when he says this:

Putting the perceiving subject back into physics would seem to undermine the whole materialist perspective. A theory of mind that depends on matter that depends on mind could not yield the solid ground so many materialists yearn for.

I suspect that most physicists would take issue with Franks’s claim that the laws of physics depend on mind, and that mind and consciousness cannot be reducible to the laws of physics (which of course underlie chemistry, biology, and evolution). No, I believe Frank is calling for something numinous or even supernatural—the “something more” mentioned in the paragraph above.

I’m sure Frank would deny he means God, but if he means “something more than naturalism and materialism,” then he’s surely treading in the realms of the supernatural. In fact, “something more than naturalism” is by definition “supernaturalism.” And of course Aeon would love this view: remember that the site published the dubious theory of “panpsychism” I discussed the other day.

Why did Frank write this piece? I don’t know, but it seems to emanate from two issues: the difficulty of understanding quantum mechanics in terms of everyday experience, and the fact that science hasn’t yet understood the evolution or operation of consciousness. Yet there is every indication that consciousness is a phenomenon that emerges when evolution has shepherded organisms to a certain level of complexity, and that it’s also a physical phenomenon whose existence and operation depend on physical factors. (For one thing, you can remove and bring back consciousness with chemicals like ketamine.) And no, Dr. Goff, rocks and electrons aren’t conscious, and don’t have minds.

As I said, I’m not a physicist, so some of Frank’s musings are beyond my ability to judge. But I’ve heard plenty of respected physicists—most recently Lawrence Krauss in his new book—argue that the so-called “observer effect” isn’t what we think it is, and isn’t itself part of the laws of physics. I am not at all convinced at all that explaining consciousness requires “something more” than naturalism.

But read the article yourself and see if I’m distorting what Frank says. I aver again that Frank doesn’t mention God, and may well be an atheist, but what is “something more than naturalism” if it be not supernaturalism?


  1. reasonshark
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    “Of course the introduction of the observer must not be misunderstood to imply that some kind of subjective features are to be brought into the description of nature. The observer has, rather, only the function of registering decisions, i.e., processes in space and time, and it does not matter whether the observer is an apparatus or a human being; but the registration, i.e., the transition from the “possible” to the “actual,” is absolutely necessary here and cannot be omitted from the interpretation of quantum theory”

    According to Wikipedia’s “Observer effect (physics)” page and Wikiwand’s article on the “Copenhagen Interpretation”, the first source shows that Heisenberg debunked this common misunderstanding in “Criticism and Counterproposals to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory”.

    When this trope’s been debunked by arguably the one scientist whose findings set it off… and has been debunked since the early-mid 20th century… you have to marvel at the combination of tenacity and laziness exhibited by believers in this woo.


    • darrelle
      Posted March 14, 2017 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      Exactly. And while Frank is apparently not an expert in QM or QFT he is an astrophysicist. He should be able to avoid this misunderstanding.

    • Posted March 15, 2017 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      It is somewhat more complicated than that. Bunge and Popper and others pointed out repeatedly that *Bohr* meant it subjectivistically. This is of course not in the equations: you can show this view to be provably wrong. But it did affect many popularizations and many physicists who ignored the subjectivism and somehow thought that the interaction was necessary to explain the “uncertainty relations”, which is apparently also not the case. (See Bunge, ed. Quantum Theory and Reality, 1967.)

  2. Kevin
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    I may be with Carroll and Weinberg when it comes to compatibilism, but Frank is grossly misunderstanding what consciousness is. It is fully deterministic and no part of physics is unavailable to opening up explanations as to why consciousness exists.

    There is nothing dead here except what the brain becomes when it dies.

  3. reasonshark
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    As for this point:

    “I don’t know, but it seems to emanate from two issues: the difficulty of understanding quantum mechanics in terms of everyday experience, and the fact that science hasn’t yet understood the evolution or operation of consciousness.”

    I think this is exactly it: a desire to mesh two mysteries together and marvel at how apt they seem, side-by-side, on the flimsiest of connections. After all, they both involve “observers”. It’s the delight in working out a complex puzzle from another angle combined with pareidolia.

    These days, I think a lot of the confusion over “consciousness”, or what I prefer to specify as “sentience”, is little more than personal incredulity mixed with an obvious (yet sometimes insidious and unconscious) self-glorifying supremacism. We just can’t accept that our “soul”, our “selves”, what makes me “me”, is in principle the same material that makes rocks, gas, and anything earthy or worldly. We MUST be spiritual beings, or abstract rather than concrete, or somehow “other” or “more”. We even panic that morality, art, beauty, awe, the finer emotions and experiences, will somehow be degraded or destroyed or obliterated without this specialness.

    There are a lot of fallacious and bizarre arguments that result, including the exposure of the rickety frameworks underpinning a lot of moral systems (that fear is at least well-founded, though cowardly and dishonest). But the root of all this, I think, is a very powerful fear of the consequences of the idea of materialism/naturalism/physicalism/what-have-you, including the one where we admit we’re not so special.

    • Zach
      Posted March 14, 2017 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

      But the root of all this, I think, is a very powerful fear of the consequences of the idea of materialism/naturalism/physicalism/what-have-you, including the one where we admit we’re not so special.

      Yes, heaven forbid we all accept our own mortality and primate fallibility and focus, as one species, on using our allotted time to improve and enjoy the only world we have.

  4. Aelfric
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    This is well above my pay grade in any number of ways, but isn’t this just the free will question under a different guise? I think our host has said he doesn’t believe in the common conception of free will, and neither do I. If that’s the case, is anything left to the idea of “consciousness?” I don’t think so, but I certainly could be wrong.

  5. Jonathan Livengood
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    I did a text search for “naturalism” (and some variants) in Frank’s Aeon article and got no hits. Lots of hits for “materialist” and variants on it. So, it looks like Frank never actually says that something more than naturalism is required.

    I don’t know whether this ends up being a distortion or not. There are several ways of spelling out what naturalism amounts to. They don’t all have the same implications. For example, you might take naturalism to be a thesis in ontology — telling us that only the natural things (whatever those are) exist. Then if you define the natural things in the right way, you might get physicalism to fall out. I think it’s worth emphasizing, though, that physicalism doesn’t appear to be forced by a commitment to ontological naturalism.

    Alternatively, one might adopt some form of methodological or epistemological naturalism. Here’s a plausible-looking view: what exists is what scientific inquiry would postulate in the long run. Of course, we need to say what counts as “scientific inquiry” here, but plausibly, the account we give of scientific inquiry will be neutral with respect to what ontological claims are true. If so, then methodological naturalism won’t imply physicalism, though one might think that the evidence favors physicalism over its competitors.

    • Posted March 14, 2017 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      I believe most physicists would use the term naturalist to describe themselves while most critics of naturalism use the term materialism when they criticize the viewpoint of naturalists. I’m not sure how this developed.

      I think the overlapping area of materialism and naturalism usually contains what they are arguing about so the terminology difference doesn’t usually interfere.

      • Posted March 14, 2017 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        Maybe because “materialism” carries with it the negative connotations of “filthy lucre” materialism… ?


        • Jamie
          Posted March 14, 2017 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

          Much more likely because materialism evokes Marx and communism. Philosophical materialism is variously defined according to one’s purposes. It may be all that exists, as Jerry describes it, or it may be only the ‘fundamental’ or ‘primary’ stuff of existence, depending on the person doing the defining (i.e. it is ill-defined). Either way, to understand it historically, one has to understand it as in opposition to philosophical idealism. The dominant culture of Western Civilization is Philosophical Idealism. The dominant ideology of free market capitalism is idealistic. Materialism is what the dreaded godless commies espouse. Well, and science, too, of course, if only methodologically. Which goes a long way to explaining the anti-science stance of our current crop of leaders. Science may be profitable, but only when it is subservient to commerce. And economics may seem to be material at base, but is riddled with idealistic dogmatic assumptions devoid of empirical demonstration. It is not enough to read The Philosophy of Poverty. One must also read The Poverty of Philosophy.

          • Ronald L Jackson
            Posted March 14, 2017 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

            Kudos! — and from a religious perspective, what is more optimistic than an eternal soul, freed from a rotting material corpse. Fundamentalist evangelicals use “materialist” as a pejorative.

          • Posted March 15, 2017 at 11:40 am | Permalink

            Note that even Marx was not a consistent materialist, though how much so is debatable. One gets notions like “class consciousness” which he seems to sometimes reify. (Certainly Marxists later would sometimes do this.)

  6. Sastra
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    . I aver again that Frank doesn’t mention God, and may well be an atheist, but what is “something more than naturalism” if it be not supernaturalism?

    Since Frank is suggesting that consciousness may be a fundamental, irreducible aspect of reality then, according to my definition of “supernatural,” this is supernaturalism regardless of whether he calls it “something more than naturalism” or just an exciting new understanding of naturalism.

    I’ve encountered some proponents of what’s called nondualism who claim that the physical and the mental are indivisible, like two sides of the same coin. They support this with both mysticism and quantum, which they insist has falsified naturalism (which they confusingly term “dualism”) but it’s completely unfalsifiable itself. The moon is not conscious, it’s there even if nobody looks at it, it was there even before life evolved — BUT it could not exist without consciousness because mind and matter are entangled.

    • Posted March 14, 2017 at 11:14 am | Permalink


    • Stephen Krogh
      Posted March 14, 2017 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      I don’t think he’s committed to the claim that immaterial phenomena are supernatural. They’re just immaterial. There is at least logical space to be carved out between physicalism and naturalism where someone could deny the former while maintaining the latter, such as someone who is committed to mathematical Platonism. Regardless of whether the position itself is tenable, it is at least a logical possibility, and one that could preserve someone from having to be resigned (or resigning herself) as a supernaturalist.

      • Sastra
        Posted March 14, 2017 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        But Frank is specifically invoking consciousness as a basic property of reality, not immaterialism, which, as you point out, could mean many things.

    • Posted March 14, 2017 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      The moon is not conscious, it’s there even if nobody looks at it, it was there even before life evolved — BUT it could not exist without consciousness because mind and matter are entangled.

      A lot of it depends on what you’re referring to with, “the moon.”

      If it’s the actual hunk of rock some light-seconds away, then Newtonian physics is all you need to understand and describe it, with a couple footnotes for almost-imperceptible rounding errors. The educated reader will note that there are no minds in Newtonian physics.

      But the hunk of rock doesn’t exist in our minds.

      Rather, a mental model of the hunk of rock is what exists in our minds — and that mental model is the entirety of what our minds have access to.

      Further, similar mental models are the entirety of our existence. In a very real sense, physics is beyond the mental horizon.

      Within the mental landscape, pretty much all the supernatural woo holds. The moon doesn’t exist until you think of it. There’s even an all-powerful godlike entity that can conjure up (imagine) anything on command.

      …but the mental landscape is ultimately founded upon physics, and physics has an unavoidable way of intruding even into those hallowed halls….



      • Sastra
        Posted March 14, 2017 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

        I agree, but if someone starts out with the nondualistic belief that hunks of rocks are ultimately composed of a mental-matter alloy and physics only describes the physical manifestation, then evidence from physics won’t put a dent in the prior assumption. And this, despite their claim that evidence from physics (i.e. QM) puts a dent in the non nondualistic belief.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted March 14, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        That’s like the old saw “if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?”

        All depends on whether by “sound” one means acoustic vibration or auditory experience.

        • Posted March 14, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

          If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a pressure wave even if there is no detector to detect it?

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted March 14, 2017 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

            Yes that’s my interpretation of ‘sound’. Obviously it makes exactly the same sound, so that gets around hairsplitting about whether a human needs to hear it or whether a rat would be sufficient.

            (And of course there are many ‘sounds’ we can’t hear because they’re outside our range of frequencies).

            I always thought that was a daft question, although maybe it’s just a very badly-worded way of making a point.


    • peepuk
      Posted March 14, 2017 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      Irreducible phenomena aren’t necessarily super-natural. However the claim that consciousness is irreducible (complex) is not supported by evidence.

  7. Luke Vogel
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Excellent piece. Thank you.

  8. Posted March 14, 2017 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    CERN and the LHC has most emphatically ruled out even hypothetical remaining possibilities that consciousness is anything other than an emergent property of neurophysiology. We know all the ways that you can interact with quarks, electrons, and photons, with no room for anything additional. There’s lots of mysteries remaining in physics, yes — but not about the physics of macro-scale phenomena on Earth. Claims to the contrary are as absurd and unfounded as claims that the near-Earth gravitational field isn’t ~10 m/s/s.

    Plot a series of coin tosses a certain way, and a Bell curve emerges. Do the same with lots of other phenomena — random-number generators, digitized black-body radiation, digitized lava lamp albedo, much more — and you get a superficially-indistinguishable Bell curve.

    The curve does not exist, even hypothetically, in the individual toss. But, just as important, the individual toss is inaccessible from the perspective of the curve.

    In the same way, minds don’t exist in individual neurons (let alone quarks), and individual neurons are inaccessible to minds.

    And, yet, is is the coin tosses / neurons that reign supreme. The Bell curve cannot reach back into the coin tosses to change the curve…and the mind cannot reach back into the neurons to change itself. The curve and mind merely reflect (and characterize) the underlying reality.

    Understand this, and most of those “hard problems” aren’t anywhere near so hard.



    • ealloc
      Posted March 14, 2017 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      The difference between the bell curve and consciousness is that we can predict and calculate the bell curve, and it is an objectively observable and testable phenomemnon.

      Conscousness, in the sense of subjective experience and sense of self, rather than in the sense of a thinking machine, cannot be observed by anyone but ourselves.

      (In the sense of “thinking machine” I agree consciousness is perfectly observable, testable, deterministic, and is an emergent from fundamental physcal processes. But that’s not the sense the physicists here are talking about.)

      Consciousness, in the sense of subjective experience, is a vaguely defined concept which is difficult to describe. It’s not even clear whether it exists, but many people have the impression it does. That makes it difficult to argue both for and against it. My impression is something like “subjective experience” could exist, and is not described by current physics (either fundamental or emergent), but which we might get a better grasp of once we understand the brain better. For that reason I’m not against physicists and philosophers toying with the idea in their free time.

      • reasonshark
        Posted March 14, 2017 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

        “Conscousness, in the sense of subjective experience and sense of self, rather than in the sense of a thinking machine, cannot be observed by anyone but ourselves.”

        To not be observed, it would have to have no causal power, in which case we can’t accept the “observer” as an exception. Thus, we all end up by sheer improbable coincidence discussing a phenomenon we have no evidence of whatsoever and which raises the question of how it could possibly arise as a topic of conversation in the first place. Like a god.

        If it causes the observer to observe it, then it has causal power, and at least in theory is accessible to anyone who subsequently interacts with said observer. This violates the non-objective rule, since it can be tested at least indirectly.

        Honestly, the most parsimonious and least absurd way of escaping the trap is to stop treating subjective experience, consciousness, etc. as though it were magic. Even if we don’t set out to treat it as magic, we only end up sounding like theologians.

      • Posted March 14, 2017 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

        That’s a far-too-common misunderstanding.

        There’s nowhere near as much mystery to consciousness as everybody makes it out to be.

        We can all come to a common agreement of, for example, the mass of a particular rock, correct? And we therefore agree that the rock’s mass is an objective, independent fact, right? And this is in spite of the fact that there is a (well-defined) margin of error in our measurements — scales aren’t perfectly calibrated, and so on.

        Your conscious, subjective perception of color can be at least as thoroughly measured and predicted and agreed upon. I can present to you three radically different electromagnetic spectra that you and I will both agree have the exact same subjective quality — and I can communicate to you in advance exactly what that perception will be (“greenish yellow,” for example).

        Further, that experience can be very closely and independently modeled purely based on the chemical properties of the pigments in the eye.

        You may continue to insist that there’s some magic about your color perception, but the fact is that you’re holding that one phenomenon to a standard that would be considered insane in any other context. How can you be sure that, if both your scale and mine read 328.74 grams, that that’s the actual weight of the rock? Maybe your scale’s grams are different from mine, and it’s only a coincidence we came up with the same number?



        • wendell read
          Posted March 25, 2017 at 12:12 am | Permalink

          You state that “Your conscious, subjective perception of color can be at least as thoroughly measured and predicted and agreed upon.” This is of course true. It is also the case that a computer can be programmed to do this as well or better than any human. However, no one has ever programmed a computer to in any sense be “conscious” Why do you think that this is the case? Perhaps there is more to consciousness than what you are considering.

  9. Stephen Krogh
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    I think some of the confusion could be resolved by maintaining the distinction between physicalism and naturalism. The former is, as Jerry notes in the OP, the claim that only material or physical things exist, where the latter is the claim that there are no supernatural phenomena. Physicalism is the stronger claim, because it rules out possibilities naturalism does not, e.g., non physical yet still natural phenomena.

    This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but historically there have been thinkers, and still are today, who would accept a position like this. Aristotle, for instance, was almost surely an atheist, and rejected anything like supernaturalism, and yet argued for things like the existence of the soul, the prime mover, etc. Indeed, even dyed-in-the-wool theists, like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, would have claimed that the soul was a natural phenomenon, not a supernatural one (I’m not sure when considerations for the soul started to be considered more supernatural, though my guess is that it was somewhere around Descartes, whose mathematical and scientific research presupposed nature as material. That is, though, only my speculation.).

    This sort of position is precisely the one Chalmers advocates, as well as John McDowell, among others. Indeed, anyone who is a mathematical Platonist is more or less committed to non-materialism, though could consistently remain a naturalist.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 14, 2017 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      A natural universe which contains God, souls, an afterlife, and/or other purely mental, immaterial phenomena is, in my opinion, poorly defined.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted March 14, 2017 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      I’m inclined to regard materialism and naturalism as slightly different positions, the latter of which I embrace.

      Once you posit a la Thomas Aquinas two “orders” or reality, a natural and supernatural order, which work differently, you inevitably get into all kinds of philosophical conundrums and paradoxes which cannot be resolved well.

      However, there may be primal forms of energy or even rudimentary forms of consciousness which are basic building blocks of the cosmos alongside of matter.

      • Posted March 14, 2017 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

        « there may be primal forms of energy or even rudimentary forms of consciousness which are basic building blocks of the cosmos alongside of matter. »

        Well, there “may” be. But at this point, quantum field theory and the LHC results are telling us, with very high confidence levels, that there aren’t — at least nothing that will interact noticeably with us (our material selves, if you need to make a distinction). As Sean Carroll is wont to say, the laws underlying the physics of everyday life are completely understood. If there were “snarks” or “boojums” outside the Standard Model that could interact with the protons, neutrons and electrons in our brains, we would have seen them at the LHC.


        • Tom
          Posted March 15, 2017 at 1:38 am | Permalink

          Agreed. As an ordinary layman I am saddened to see and hear that the quantum world described as “deeply weird” by far better educated people when it is no more weird than any newly accessed branch of science.
          People sometimes seem to forget it is little more than a century since its fundamental properties were first understood.
          Should we now also regard the lack of complete understanding of ALL our sciences as deeply weird?

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted March 15, 2017 at 1:56 am | Permalink

            I think you’ll find that quantum physics is indeed ‘deeply weird’.

            There was nothing weird about, say, DNA, either before or after it was discovered. Very difficult to discover, yes. Required very tricky mathematics to interpret the X-ray crystallography images, yes. (That’s as I understand it, I’m not a biologist). But nothing that wasn’t fully in accord with all the laws of chemistry and physics.

            But the electron two-slit experiment – that is weird.


            • Tom
              Posted March 15, 2017 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

              I would say intriguing.
              One should not forget the contemporary deepak weird effect which manifests whenever “weird” is applied to the quantum world and appears to find substance in vacuity.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted March 16, 2017 at 12:50 am | Permalink

                Ignore Deepak for the moment (I’d call his effect ‘idiocy’, not weirdness).

                The double-slit experiment is most certainly weird because it appears to violate the currently-known laws of physics, as I understand it. Relativity doesn’t. DNA (to refer to my other example) doesn’t. But the deceptively simple two-slit experiment does. So I would say it is indeed deeply weird.


              • wendell read
                Posted March 16, 2017 at 1:01 am | Permalink

                The results of the double slit experiment are indeed weird, but it would be more accurate to say they violate the laws of classical physics. They however follows precisely the ‘new’ laws of quantum physics.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted March 16, 2017 at 2:11 am | Permalink

                What law do you think is being violated? Two-slit interference is well understood in terms of quantum mechanics, which is the currently-known law governing such phenomena.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted March 16, 2017 at 2:57 am | Permalink


                Quantum Mechanics is weird. Counter-intuitive. As numerous physicists from Feynman on have emphasised. Just Google ‘quantum weird’ (and ignore any references to Deepak et al) for a host of examples.

                The fact that equations can be derived to describe the behaviour doesn’t mean it ceases to be weird. Strange. Counter-intuitive. Which my other examples – DNA and relativity – are not. This is the point on which I disagree with Tom.

                (When I said ‘currently-known’ laws I meant, current at the time of the experiment. Are quantum-mechanical laws even compatible with ordinary physical laws, except in a statistical sense? I genuinely don’t know).

              • Posted March 16, 2017 at 3:07 am | Permalink

                ii, how is relativity /not/ weird? It seems pretty strange and counter-intuitive to me!

                /@ (Ph.D. physics)

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted March 16, 2017 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

                To say that a theory is weird because it violates previously known laws isn’t saying much. We wouldn’t need new theories if the old theories hadn’t failed in one way or another. That’s a problem with the old theory, not with the new one.

              • wendell read
                Posted March 16, 2017 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

                Classical laws fail when applied to subatomic particles. For example electrons ‘orbiting’ the nucleus of an atom would radiate energy and collapse into the nucleus according to classical laws. Quantum mechanical laws describe subatomic particle behavior with great accuracy. A comparison: Classical laws describe the motion of a particle once its initial position and velocity are known. The laws are completely deterministic. Quantum mechanical laws require knowledge of the initial value of the ‘state vector’. The future behavior of the particle is completely described by the ‘evolution’ of the ‘state vector’. This ‘evolution’ is completely deterministic (governed by Schrodinger’s equation). However, when a ‘measurement’ is performed, the current ‘state vector’ gives a probability distribution as to what value the measurement will actually come up with.

                In theory, the quantum mechanical laws could be applied to macroscopic objects also, thus replacing all classical laws. However the complexity of doing this makes it impossible for all practical purposes.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted March 16, 2017 at 3:36 am | Permalink


                We talking special or general relativity?

                I think special relativity isn’t too bad. General relativity – yes, ok, weird. (Presumably Tom would disagree).
                It was a bad off-the-cuff illustration on my part.

                But I think, in terms of weirdness, quantum is leagues ahead of anything else.


              • Posted March 16, 2017 at 5:03 am | Permalink

                ii, special relativity is not to bad? The Twin Paradox?

                I would say that MWI makes much of quantum theory less weird.


              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted March 16, 2017 at 5:07 am | Permalink


                Yes. Basically I was just disagreeing with Tom, who claims quantum is only seen as weird because it is new. I think it’s weird, period.


              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted March 16, 2017 at 5:12 am | Permalink


                The Many Worlds Interpretation makes quantum less weird? I would have thought that MWI was the epitome of weirdness.

                But I’d better stop now before PCC(E) zaps me for monopolising the thread.


              • Posted March 16, 2017 at 5:17 am | Permalink

                ii, I think it’s a good trade-off. As I noted above, getting a good explanation of MWI (Deutsch) made quantum theory “click” for me.


              • Posted March 16, 2017 at 5:18 am | Permalink

                PS. But while PCC(E)’s away, the ceiling mice can play!

      • Ronald L Jackson
        Posted March 14, 2017 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

        My position is that there is a natural explanation for all that exists and the manner it behaves, the immaterial – emotions, math, color – being emergent products of such behavior. The immaterial, not the material, is dependent on a conjuring device.

  10. Posted March 14, 2017 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    understanding concepts like entanglement, the collapse of the wave function and so on—all this is beyond our ability to grasp using our everyday experience. (This has led to truly bizarre theories like the “many worlds” hypothesis, which defies comprehension but might in fact be true.)

    The Everettian many-worlds interpretation (MWI) is far more comprehensible than (at least) the “collapse of the wave function” (CWF). From when I was doing graduate research in physics, CWF was always a hand-waving exercise, with no formal description, the quantum equivalent of “then a miracle occurs” in a well-known cartoon.

    David Deutsch provides a careful explanation of MWI in The Fabric of Reality, which, as I’ve said here and there several times before, enabled me to feel that I understood the physics of quantum theory for the first time. Sean Carroll and others have only reinforced this notion.


    • phoffman56
      Posted March 14, 2017 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      Deutsch himself refers to the ‘Bohm interpretation’ as really “the many-worlds interpretation in a state of denial” (of the other worlds it really seems to imply). And I think it was Deutsch also who has termed the Copenhagen interpretation as ‘a philosophical fig leaf’.

      For perhaps the 3rd time, let me suggest also (besides Ant’s reference to Deutsch) the Oxford book (2012) ‘The Emergent Multiverse’ by David Wallace.

      From it, with maybe a lot more than just hours of reading and thinking, I think one can dissolve the sense of “…defies comprehension…”, as Jerry puts it and which we all feel on first encounter of Everett’s thesis.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 14, 2017 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      As I understand it, there are so-called “objective collapse” theories that attempt to define collapse with some rigor. For instance when a branch of the wave function decoheres to the point of undetectability, then we can say it has collapsed in some objective sense.

      But as far as I can see, this makes such theories isomorphic to MWI, the only difference being that we arbitrarily label one branch “real” and the others “collapsed”. So collapse becomes nothing more than an agreement to pretend they no longer exist once they pass out of our sight.

      • Posted March 15, 2017 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        I’m not a physicist, but from what I can tell the decoherence program has promise.

        (The neo-Bohmian stuff in Smolin I am also sympathetic with, but I am not sure that will work.)

  11. darrelle
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    “No, I believe Frank is calling for something numinous or even supernatural—the “something more” mentioned in the paragraph above.”

    I agree. Frank is exhibiting the same tell that is very common in people hoping to upset the apple cart of naturalism by trying to squeeze open a crack to insert the possibility that magic could still be real. Instead of consciousness being merely a difficult thing to explain that will likely entail some new discoveries along the way just like the entire past history of amazing scientific discoveries, no, it must be something not only new but that is also somehow not compatible with, or beyond the purview of the materialist / naturalist conception of reality that modern science has revealed.

    NdGT likes to explain how religious beliefs start where our understanding reaches its limits. One of his examples is Isaac Newton. He explains what an incredible genius he was, all of the discoveries that he made, but that beyond the limit of what he could explain even Newton invoked the hand of god. Newton had an excuse. He lived in an era before modern science and he was at the extreme cutting edge of knowledge. Reading this article by Frank is so disappointing because he doesn’t have either of those excuses. Progress has already been made in understanding consciousness, though we have just scratched the surface. Frank simply ignores it. He ignores the fact that his conception of QM / QFT is incorrect even though experts have been explaining for decades that it is. He ignores the history of intractable problems that, during their day, were thought to be beyond explanation yet were eventually explained by modern science.

    It is not clear if Frank has reached the limit of his ability to understand how consciousness could be a material / natural phenomenon (humanity in general has certainly not) or if he perhaps simply has a strong desire to justify spiritualism / mysticism / religion.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 14, 2017 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      What particularly annoys me about these tempestuous calls for the introduction of “something new” in our explanations of consciousness is that there’s not a damn thing new about their exciting, daring, cutting edge idea. It’s the same old “let’s explain something by calling it fundamental and in need of no explanation ” dodge people have been doing since they started asking questions.

      • darrelle
        Posted March 14, 2017 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        Yes, agree completely. Another annoying thing that seems rather typical of calls for the introduction of “something new” like this is the “deep,” beating-around-the-bush verbiage. As if they are a bit leery of clearly stating their thoughts.

      • josh
        Posted March 14, 2017 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

        Well said.

  12. Posted March 14, 2017 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Looks like Frank is working with that old equation: consciousness is mysterious and quantum theory is mysterious, therefore consciousness = quantum theory.

    • Posted March 14, 2017 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      Sorry, I retract that. It seems Frank believes quantum theory isn’t mysterious enough and, like Professor Goff, introduces a new property of matter. I think Sean Carroll says such new properties are precluded by our current understanding of physics.

      • Posted March 15, 2017 at 11:43 am | Permalink

        They violate conservation laws in most versions, as far as I can tell.

  13. Posted March 14, 2017 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Great post. I was glad to see that you substituted the correct term (“naturalist”) for “materialist”.

    The term “materialist” is an insult. A common definition (often the top definition in many dictionaries), is “materialist: a person preoccupied with material possessions (consumerism) instead of cultural, intellectual, emotional, or family values.” That’s not me, that’s not any of the Humanists, Naturalists, nor Atheists that I know – in fact, it’s the polar opposite of myself and Humanism, etc. “Materialism” in the sense of consumerism is a common punching bag in our culture, and for good reason.

    The fact that this same word can be used to mean something like “naturalism” is a fact that has been, and is still regularly, exploited by those who wish to attack naturalists and Atheists. Listen to Christian radio, fundamentalists sermons, or read their blogs, and you’ll routinely hear naturalists and Atheists equated with materialists, and attacked as shallow worshipers of consumerism who can’t be moral or be concerned for others. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that. I’m not sure you need or want any examples, but if you do, here are a couple. …. ….

    More can be found across the radio dial, web, and pew. Many of us have been at the receiving end of those attacks for much of our lives.

    Even when the secondary or tertiary definition is used, it still doesn’t fit. We naturalists accept the reality of a lot more than just “material”, which excludes a lot of wonderful, real things like energy, the physical laws themselves, time, space, consciousness, and other emergent things like joy, caring, and love. “Materialism” even in a tertiary definition, is a strawman at best, and more often is a tired old insult. At least it’s useful as a warning flag that what follows is likely an attack from a fundamentalist Christian, New Age quantum healer, or other woo-peddler. Jon Cleland Host

    • Sastra
      Posted March 14, 2017 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      Oh, you’re a Naturalist, are you — eating raw organic vegetables while sunbathing in the nude?

      • Posted March 14, 2017 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

        While “naturalism” also has other definitions, I see at least 3 reasons to use it.

        1. In philosophy, it’s still the name used for the idea of philosophical naturalism. If you are concerned a lot about the vegetables, you can use “philosophical naturalism” to be more clear, but that seems like unneeded syllables to me.

        2. Those definitions are usually secondary, tertiary or lower, while “materialist: = shallow consumerist is often the top definition in many dictionaries.

        3. Not sure about you, of course, but for me, I’d rather be mistaken for a different definition of naturalist (which usually is “one who studies nature, such as a biologist”), than mistaken for a different definition of materialist, which practically always is “a shallow consumerist”.

        4. and of course – I don’t see a better term for naturalism than the one used in philosophy.

        Make sense? – Jon Cleland Host

        • Sastra
          Posted March 14, 2017 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

          Oh, of course, I agree it’s the best term. I was teasing.

          • HaggisForBrains
            Posted March 15, 2017 at 6:54 am | Permalink

            I was surprised it had taken so long in this thread for someone to compare naturalism with naturism. 🙂

        • Zach
          Posted March 14, 2017 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

          …I’d rather be mistaken for a different definition of naturalist (which usually is “one who studies nature, such as a biologist”), than mistaken for a different definition of materialist, which practically always is “a shallow consumerist”.

          Likewise, although it is problematic that “naturalist,” in most people’s minds, refers to a profession, like “scientist,” rather than a metaphysical worldview.

          I would much rather call myself a naturalist instead of an atheist since 1) “atheist” doesn’t actually mean anything and 2) naturalism is older than Christianity (although it was called “atomism” back then). Alas, “atheist” gets to the point much more quickly in modern parlance.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted March 15, 2017 at 7:27 am | Permalink

            But if you do (call yourself a naturalist) you’ll be mistaken for a birdwatcher. 🙂


            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted March 15, 2017 at 7:35 am | Permalink

              In fact, to further muddy the waters, Googling ‘naturalist’ brings up, first, ‘a student of natural history’ and, second, ‘a person who practises naturalism in art or literature’ – which is a whole new field for confusion.


              • Posted March 15, 2017 at 8:03 am | Permalink

                In everyday interactions, even adding a qualifying label might only provide further confusion. A “philosophical naturalist” or a “poetic naturalist” (Sean Carroll) might be though to be a bird-watcher who is a profound or sensitive thinker.


              • Posted March 17, 2017 at 11:46 am | Permalink

                Oh, how about “naturalismist”?


              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted March 17, 2017 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

                I’d find ‘naturismist’ more interesting. Certainly more titillating. 😉


  14. Desnes Diev
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    “Now Frank talks about the insufficiency of “materialism”, but I think he means “naturalism”, because materialism is simply the claim that there’s nothing more to the Universe than matter, and we may find some natural phenomena that don’t involve matter as we know it.”

    One source which may have influenced Frank’s views is the (ridiculous, imho) “Manifesto for a Post-Materialist Science” by Beauregard et al. (2014; Explore, 10(5): 272–274).

    The evidences upon which they put their thesis is the reality of psi-phenomena, medium-talking-to-deceased, “souls” wandering off the body during NDEs, etc.

    These authors defend some points similar to Frank’s ones. For example :
    “15. According to the post-materialist paradigm:
    a. Mind represents an aspect of reality as primordial as the physical world. Mind is fundamental in the universe, i.e., it cannot be derived from matter and reduced to anything more basic.”

    They use “Mind” but don’t really define what it could be: a fundamental physical “force” like electromagnetism? A sentient universe (panpsychism)? Any way you read the text, it oozes with spiritual/religious biases.

    Arguably, an a- or anti-scientific “conclusion” of this manifesto is:
    “15. c. Mind (will/intention) can influence the state of the physical world and operate in a nonlocal (or extended) fashion, i.e., it is not confined to specific points in space, such as brains and bodies, or to specific points in time, such as the present. Since the mind may nonlocally influence the physical world, the intentions, emotions, and desires of an experimenter may not be completely isolated from experimental outcomes, even in controlled and blinded experimental designs.”

    If you accept that, subjectivity becomes the rule as negative results from well conceived studies would always be explained away by referring to “emotions and desires” felt a long time ago by someone (or -thing), in another place, even in an unknown galaxy or an after-death dimension.

    Since 2014, they found about 200 scientists (being generous) to sign there manifesto. Perhaps, “materialist” scientists should also have their manifesto but signed only by “Steves” (or “Francises”, for Francis Crick)? 🙂

  15. peepuk
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Consciousness can be 100% illusion, kindly demonstrated by Ronny O’Sullivan (a well known British snooker player (snooker is a bit like pool)):


    So far only empirical science has told us something about the nature of reality and materialism/physicalism is 100% compatible with the scientific image of reality.

    Consciousness seems to me one of the most overrated and hyped things on this planet.

    • ppnl
      Posted March 14, 2017 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      No, the information content of consciousness can be (And more often than you think, is.) an illusion. But the fact of experience, regardless of the truth of the content, cannot be an illusion. That’s like calling the ability to have an illusion an illusion. That is a self referential contradiction.

      You can feed false data to a computer program and it will produce false results. But it will not experience an illusion because it does not experience anything.

      • Posted March 14, 2017 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

        Quite. If consciousness is an illusion, who or what is experiencing that illusion?

        • peepuk
          Posted March 14, 2017 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

          Of course the self is also an illusion 🙂

          At least part of it.

      • peepuk
        Posted March 14, 2017 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

        To be more precise all the non physical aspects of consciousness experiences are an illusion. If I didn’t believe this to be true, that would make me a dualist.

        With illusion I mean simply a distortion of the senses; we experience something that isn’t there.

        When I feel pain in my amputated leg, I can be 100% sure that I’m experiencing an illusion; only the machinery that creates this illusion is real. The pain in our leg is not real; there is no leg that could feel pain.

        I don’t deny that we have subjective experiences, and believe that we can experience real things.

        “But the fact of experience, regardless of the truth of the content, cannot be an illusion”

        Why not? Our brains are easily fooled.

        • ppnl
          Posted March 14, 2017 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

          ” To be more precise all the non physical aspects of consciousness experiences are an illusion. ”

          I have no idea what a non physical aspect of consciousness would be. I do not know all that “physical” can encompass and so I don’t even have a test for the nonphysical.

          ” With illusion I mean simply a distortion of the senses; we experience something that isn’t there. ”

          Distortions of the senses are irrelevant to the question at hand. Assume that your brain is in a jar hooked to a computer that furnishes all your sensory input. Everything that you experience is a lie.

          But the fact of experience still exists.

          ” I don’t deny that we have subjective experiences, and believe that we can experience real things. ”

          If I insisted that we do not have subjective experiences how would you prove me wrong? And how can you know that you experience real things?

          ” “But the fact of experience, regardless of the truth of the content, cannot be an illusion”

          Why not? Our brains are easily fooled. ”

          Do you not get the self-referential aspect of the claim?

          If the ability to have illusions is an illusion then you cannot have actual illusions. But if you cannot have illusions then you cannot have the illusion that you have illusions.

          It turns back on itself like “This sentence is a lie.”

          You have constructed a self-referential paradox.

          • peepuk
            Posted March 15, 2017 at 3:15 am | Permalink

            “If I insisted that we do not have subjective experiences how would you prove me wrong? And how can you know that you experience real things? ”

            You can’t prove a negative, so this is a bit unfair to ask. And I wrote “I don’t deny that we have subjective experiences”.

            “you have constructed a self-referential paradox.”

            No, this isn’t the problem, you can have a dream in a dream, you can do a simulation in a simulation; in fiction and computer games we (humans) do it all the time.

            Elon Musk puts millions in a research project that tries to prove that we are part of a simulation. I don’t find this very likely but it could be possible.

            • ppnl
              Posted March 16, 2017 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

              You really don’t get self reference do you? You must have the capacity to dream in order to have a dream within a dream.

              And you can prove a negative. There are no even prime numbers larger than two.

    • Posted March 14, 2017 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      Consciousness seems to me one of the most overrated and hyped things on this planet.

      I’ve tried the alternatives, and you are welcome to them.

      • peepuk
        Posted March 15, 2017 at 3:30 am | Permalink

        It’s overrated because many believe that only humans have consciousness and that it is ok to kill f.i. animals that we think don’t have consciousness and that you need conscious humans to do typical human tasks like driving a car, playing chess, playing jeopardy, doing math…..

        Or creating art, feeling love ….

  16. ppnl
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Well actually if nobody is looking at the moon then it really wouldn’t exist in any particular state. But you have to take a more expansive view of what it means to “look”. Here it just means being thermodynamically connected. The moonlight hits us even when we are not looking. And the tides exist even when we are not on the beach.

    And you can in some sense control reality by controlling what you look at. That’s how a quantum computer works. By controlling what you look at you can control how the wave function collapses and use that to do calculations that are not possible with classical computers. Your power to control is very limited but still make no sense from a classical point of view.

    Also quantum mechanics has a clear subjective aspect to it. QM describes what an observer will see. Two observers that are not thermodynamically connected can have different and fundamentally irreconcilable views of the world. Schrödinger’s cat for example. From outside the box the cat may be in a superposition of states. But inside the box the cat knows very well if it is alive or dead. It seems that these two views cannot be elements of the same reality. Yet…

    As for consciousness I am unimpressed by claims that explaining consciousness requires something more than naturalism. Naturalism is an open definition that is constantly being modified. A hundred years ago it would not have included the quantum wave function at all for example.

    Yet I am also unimpressed with:

    “Yet there is every indication that consciousness is a phenomenon that emerges when evolution has shepherded organisms to a certain level of complexity, and that it’s also a physical phenomenon whose existence and operation depend on physical factors.”

    This simply ignores the problem with strong AI. Yes consciousness depends on gross physical factors. Otherwise you could put a bullet in your head and not affect your consciousness. And yes it must have evolved since all we are is a product of evolution. But this answers nothing and does no justice to the problem.

    You can analyze the brain in terms of chemical reaction and computer algorithms. But no such analysis will predict that it will feel like something to be a brain nor will knowing that it does feel like something to be a brain help in understanding the chemistry.

    So consciousness does not seem predictable from analysis and seems to have no explanatory power. So the universe would be the same if consciousness had no objectively observable effect.

    Except why would evolution create creatures capable of discussing something that does not have any physical effect? And how?

    • Posted March 14, 2017 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      “Two observers that are not thermodynamically connected can have different and fundamentally irreconcilable views of the world.”

      Quantum mechanics definitely does not say different observers can have irreconcilable views.

      Unless you are talking Many Worlds Interpretation and the second observer is in an inaccessible alternate history, but even then I don’t think it makes sense to call an alternate history “not thermodynamically connected”.

      • ppnl
        Posted March 14, 2017 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        No, many worlds was invented exactly to handle irreconcilable views.

        Again think of Schrödinger’s cat. It is in a box that does not allow any information to enter or leave. That makes it therodynamically disconnected. That means we on the outside must see the cat as a superposition of states that cannot be said to be either alive or dead. That’s not what the cat sees. Irreconcilable.

        Many worlds lets us create a different branch where the cat is alive and one where the cat is dead. Thus there is no conflict between our view and a cat’s view because there are multiple cat’s and multiple us’s in different branches.

        Many worlds is a fine way to visualize the multiple paths through possibility space but you don’t need to make ontological commitments to the different branches. I mean you can’t actually go to the different branches. What can it mean to claim that they exist?

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted March 14, 2017 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

          You can’t actually travel to galaxies beyond our Hubble horizon. What can it mean to claim they exist?

          What it means is that the existence of such galaxies is predicted by our best theories of cosmology, and we have no reason to think those theories are wrong.

          • ppnl
            Posted March 14, 2017 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

            Well yes but there was a time when we could have seen those galaxies before they fell off the Hubble horizon. And as the universe expands more galaxies will fall off. If accelerated expansion is true then they will fall off much faster.

            Also I would hardly call many worlds a “best theory”. You could do quantum mechanics for a life time even if you had never heard of many worlds. It isn’t really a different theory at all as it gives all the same observable predictions as any other interpretation of QM. The math remains the same no matter how you visualize it.

            Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying many worlds is wrong. I’m saying that it is currently unnecessary and not particularly useful for anything beyond visualizing the possibility space. It could be a good pedagogical tool but don’t stop there.

            • Posted March 14, 2017 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

              Deutsch would say MWI has more explanatory power, iirc.


              • ppnl
                Posted March 14, 2017 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

                Yes but many physicists will disagree with him. I like decoherence because it describes wave collapse as a process rather than a magic poof or endless splitting. But it is just a useful stance. I don’t believe or disbelieve in any of them. They can all have their uses even if they are all wrong.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted March 14, 2017 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

              “not particularly useful for anything”

              I think you’re mistaken there. Read the Wallace book recommended by phoffman56 upthread. Wallace shows (convincingly, in my opinion) how MWI makes better sense of the measurement problem, probability, EPR paradoxes, and the emergence of classical physics from QM than competing interpretations do.

              • ppnl
                Posted March 14, 2017 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

                Mmm well with MWI you don’t have a measurement problem. But you have just traded it for the weird universe splitting thing. I think decoherence handles the measurement problem in a way that is important even if MWI is true. Ultimately they must be equivalent.

                Yes MWI allows you to visualize how state projection works in EPR. But you don’t have to commit to the ontology in order to use the tool. But I like the quantum information approach better.

                I think the emergence of classical physics from QM is handled especially well by decoherence.

                But I think they are all tools and you should avoid the Platonist instinct.

        • Posted March 14, 2017 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

          I have a physics degree and your arguments are not convincing that you know more quantum mechanics than I do.

          I think someone who knew the physics better would speak a little more carefully and less idiosyncratically.

          Saying that we on the outside see the cat as a superposition of states is irreconcilable with what the cat sees sounds pretty sloppy to me. A superposition is not an observation/measurement and is not irreconcilable. Irreconcilable would mean two measurements that contradict each other (like the cat observed itself to be alive while we observed it to be dead). If we make a measurement that agrees with the cats measurement then all is reconciled.

          • ppnl
            Posted March 14, 2017 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

            It is true that a cat in superposition is not an observable state. You cannot look at a cat and say “Look! That cat is neither alive nor dead!”. When you look you apply the Born rule and the cat is seen as either dead or alive.

            But that superposition is nevertheless a valid quantum state. Usually with a cat in a box we assume that it is either alive or dead even if we don’t know which. The probabilities are just a measure of our ignorance. But a cat in superposition is a different thing completely. It cannot be in any particular observable state. In that sense it is neither alive nor dead. This strange state has physical consequences. For example a quantum computer depends on creating a complex network of superposed and entangled states that allow computations that classically cannot be done.

            So it is a real state with real physical consequences that are alien to classical physics.

            But ask the cat. The live cat would claim that it was always alive and was never in any superposition of states. The cat may claim that it was you that was in superposition.

            Again many worlds is one way of resolving this conflict. With many branches all possible points of view are true somewhere.

            • Posted March 14, 2017 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

              Can you point me to a Wikipedia article that discusses how the Many Worlds Interpretation is related to being thermodynamically disconnected?

              Otherwise it probably past time for me to let this thread go. Our differences are probably irreconcilable.

              • ppnl
                Posted March 14, 2017 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

                MWI is not directly connected to thermodynamic connection. Thermodynamics associated with the decoherence model.

                Look, when they first developed QM they noticed that wave collapse was caused by measurement. That gives us the quantum measurement problem.

                What counts as a measurement? One possibility was that it required a conscious observer. Eugene Wigner held this view for a short period. It is kind of hard to swallow given that they didn’t even have an explanation for consciousness.

                The next thing was decoherence.

                As I said above you can’t directly observe a superposition state. To see it you need a large number of particles in the same superposition of states. Then by making measurements on a large number of particles you can see interference patterns or violations of Bell’s inequality that reveal superpositions and entangled states. This is how you see quantum weirdness.

                But the thing is these entanglements and superposition states are very fragile. Any interaction with the general environment causes the particles to go out of phase with each other. Without that definite phase relationship the quantum effects disappear. The probabilities become indistinguishable from classical probabilities. It looks just like wave collapse. Your cat dies.

                And that tells us what a measurement is. It is any interaction that connects the quantum particle with the thermodynamic background. A measuring device will do that. But then so will a rock. It is the flow of quantum information through the thermodynamic connection that matters.

                The whole point of putting the cat in the box is to separate it from the environment. By definition thermodynamically disconnected.

                MWI does not dispute this and has greatly profited from an understanding of decoherence. But it is not what motivated MWI.

                You should read up on decoherence. For several explinations try here:


  17. Jim batterson
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Nice treatment of qbism for general reader in new book by hans c von baeyer, an emeritus physics prof who i believe jac knew at william and mary in the 60s. Prof von baeyer, who did his lifes research in quantum mechanics confessed in a colloquium last month that he always had issues with it…particularly the collapse of the wave function. But he always followed the dictum to “shut uo and keep calculating!” Qbism, a bayesian appproach to probability reminds us that qm is a model in the same sense that, as prof von baeyer pointed out several times in his talk: “the map is not the territory”. I highly recommend the book…particularly for high school physics teachers who may want to collaborate with their colleagues in the math dept and emphasize bayesian statistics a bit more.

    • Posted March 14, 2017 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      I remember Hans; nice guy. Good to hear he’s still kicking–and writing books!

    • ppnl
      Posted March 14, 2017 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      The problem with “the map is not the territory”. is that we never deal with the territory ever. The only thing we will or can ever have is maps. The immediacy of our sensory experiences obscure that fact.

      I think decoherence makes the collapse of the wave function understandable. It makes collapse a physical process rather than just a magic poof.

  18. grasshopper
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    That the moon does not exist without somebody to see it must have been developed by the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast Of Traal

    The Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal is a vicious wild animal from the planet of Traal, known for its never-ending hunger and its mind-boggling stupidity. The Guide calls the bugblatter the stupidest creature in the entire universe – so profoundly unintelligent that, if you can’t see it, it assumes it can’t see you.

    Can we call this the Bugblatter Fallacy?

  19. Paul Dymnicki
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    I really don’t get what is the big problem with consciousness.
    Was not Neanderthal man a little less conscious than Homo Sapiens., was not Homo Erectus a little bit less conscious than Neanderthal man, was not the Australopithecines a little less conscious than Homo Erectus, and what about Primates, Dolphins.
    If we substitute awareness for consciousness does not the evolution of consciousness become easier to understand.

    • grasshopper
      Posted March 14, 2017 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      I think that the ‘problem’ of consciousness is not how much of it an entity might have, but wtf is it, and how did it arise. It is a marvellous thing, and it is equally a marvellous thing to be able to ask questions about it.

      • ppnl
        Posted March 14, 2017 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        The truly bizarre thing about consciousness is the totally inability to imagine what an explanation would even look like. That’s why people keep turning to non-material explanations.

    • ppnl
      Posted March 14, 2017 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      If I insist that an insect was more conscious than a human what experiment would you do to prove me wrong? There isn’t one. And that is the problem with consciousness.

      You may well argue that an insect is aware of less since it has less sensory input. But that does not address how powerfully it experiences its reality. Maybe what it experiences it experiences with a mind blowing power that we cannot imagine.

      Awareness is a synonym for consciousness. I can’t see how substituting synonyms adds anything.

      • Paul Dymnicki
        Posted March 14, 2017 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

        It adds awareness.

    • Beth Clarkson
      Posted March 15, 2017 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      Is a chimpanzee or gorilla less conscious than a human? How would you be able to tell?

    • wendell read
      Posted March 15, 2017 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      Another way to illustrate the problem of consciousness is to ask “how can you make a computer conscious?”. So far, no one even has a clue. Win at chess? Win at GO? Yes, and many more. But not a hint of any computer being conscious.

      If our brains are ‘meat computers’ then we must ask, “what do they have that current computers do not have? What makes these ‘meat computers’ conscious?”

  20. Posted March 14, 2017 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    I would suggest that one should listen to Sam Harris’ podcast with David Chalmers. Although Sam is a materialist (I prefer methodological naturalism, which would mean a science-based non-metaphysical epistemological stance that would not include any kind of supernatural beliefs into our ontologies)—-but Sam seems to agree with Chalmers that consciousness is a hard problem based on our first person internal subjective feelings and thoughts that may not be reducible to a material ontology in the same way that other phenomena are.

  21. Hugh Haskell
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    I’m afraid that too many of us (including too many physicists) think that what scientists do is ‘describe the world/universe’. Wrong! What they do is model it. The difference between these two concepts is huge (in the Trumpian sense). By whatever hook or crook available they build a model, and then they compare what happens to their model to what is going on outside their lab. If they get agreement between the two, they are happy. But inevitably, every model fails at some point to provide results that correspond to what is actually happening, so its ‘back to the drawing board.’ (For a more complete description of this idea I refer the reader to Martin Krieger’s book “Doing Physics: How physicists take hold of the world”—University of Indiana Press, 1992).

    To bend the old creationist analogy of finding a watch during a walk in the meadow, assume that, instead of arguing that since nature couldn’t make such a device o its own, God must have done it, we ask “can we build a device that looks like this and does the same thing it does without opening it up to see what is going on inside?”

    The universe is that watch, and since our only means of observing the universe is to note the signals we receive from our senses (that is, the usual five)and compare that with what our model predicts. If we do a pretty good job of model-building (i.e., Newton/Galileo)our results pretty much agree with what we see. So we pat ourselves on the back and claim to the world that we now know how it works. But as our means of observing ‘out there’ get better with time, pretty soon our observations start not looking so good (i.e., Michelson/Morely, Wien, and so we devise new models to try and do a better job of making our models correspond to what we see. At first we do pretty well (Einstein, Planck, Bohr,, but sooner or later even these new models show feet of clay, and so we are back to square one again, looking for a new way to model the world so it agrees with our observations of it.

    This is potentially an infinite regress, and we can never know if we ever happen to get to the end (if it exists). We don’t need to abandon the idea of reality. We only need relay that the closer we look the more discrepancies we’ll find between our models and what we observe.

    No need to abandon the idea that there is a reality ‘out there.’ We only need recognize that we cannot know if our model agrees with whatever is out there in every detail. This, to me, is much more comforting than giving up the concept of reality in despair and falling back on the woefully inadequate gods that we have been given by the various spiritualists and their ilk.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted March 14, 2017 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think it’s true that “inevitably, every model fails” or that “This is potentially an infinite regress”. To make such a claim is to say that there’s something fundamentally ineffable or capricious about the behavior of the universe, something that no model (not even probabilistic models) can capture even in principle.

      I don’t see what justification we could have for thinking that. The fact that our models have been wrong in the past is not sufficient justification; that would be a fallacy of induction.

      So if you believe there is an ultimate reality out there, that to me implies that there is no infinite regress, our models are not doomed to failure, and we can know when we’ve reached the end, with as much confidence as we ever know anything.

      • Hugh Haskell
        Posted March 14, 2017 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

        Thee is a reason why we can postulate that ‘every model fails’ eventually—because we consciously omit certain factors from our models in order to be able to handle them. As our modeling ability become better, we exclude fewer factors. I will agree that model building is not necessarily an infinite regress, but it it isn’t we will never know that because we don’t know if there are factors we ignored without realizing they were factors, or because they were in fact insignificant. But just because a model hasn’t failed in the past, doesn’t mean it won’t fail in the future as we get better at testing the model.

        So, yes, I agree that I have committed a couple of philosophical errors here, but I also contend that they are insignificant.

        Even if it isn’t an infinite regress, we cannot ever know that. So whether I assume it or not is irrelevant.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted March 14, 2017 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

          If that’s your standard of knowledge, then we cannot ever know anything, since there’s always the (infinitesimal) possibility that some exceptional case will turn up.

          But if you grant that provisional, less-than-100%-certain knowledge of any sort is possible and worth having, then I see no reason to exclude “knowledge that we have successfully modeled the universe” from that category.

          • Posted March 15, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink

            Also, there is the distinction between the “big picture” and what Einstein (somewhat perjoratively) called “this or that detail”, which are the emergent features.

            A theory of everything is a theory that applies *to* everything, but is not necessarily an everything-theory. (I have no sympathy for the idea that a theory of everything somehow can be stated without boundary conditions, but that’s complicated.)

    • Posted March 14, 2017 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      I take your point, Hugh, but I don’t see how a model is not a way of describing the world/universe.


      • Hugh Haskell
        Posted March 14, 2017 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        Of course it is. That is why we construct them. But we do that because there is no alternative. We cannot directly experience the universe, only interpret our sensations of it. And we interpret those sensations with our models.

        Right now, our models are appearing a bit shaky in several rather esoteric areas. At some point some clever grad student will invent a new model that solves the current problems. We then will have to wait for future developments to show the flaws in this new model. If those flaws are buried so deeply that we don’t find them it will be extremely frustrating to the professional model builders. They may all give up (or die), in which case when the discrepancies do show up (if they do)we will have to create a whole new generation of model builders.

        And on and on. It may end, but it probably won’t.

        • Posted March 14, 2017 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

          OK. But then your first para. doesn’t really make sense.


          • Hugh Haskell
            Posted March 15, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

            Why not? It’s just the first step in what is probably an infinite regress. (I note that this is an unverifiable statement. But even if there has been no discrepancy noted for any period of time doesn’t mean that there isn’t a discrepancy waiting for us to discover. It keeps happening.)

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted March 15, 2017 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

              Hugh, you’re still trying to have it both ways. Your second-to-last sentence warns against the fallacy of induction (the fact that a model hasn’t failed yet doesn’t mean it won’t fail). And then your last sentence commits that very fallacy (the fact that models have always failed so far means they probably will always fail).

            • Posted March 15, 2017 at 4:25 pm | Permalink


              many … think that what scientists do is ‘describe the world/universe’. Wrong! What they do is model it.


              “I don’t see how a model is not a way of describing the world/universe.”


              “Of course it is!”

              So, your “Wrong!” is wrong.


  22. Hugh Haskell
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Oops! I just noticed that in the penultimate paragraph of my recent posting the word ‘relay’ in the last sentence thereof should have been ‘realize.’

    Sorry about that.

  23. Posted March 14, 2017 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    “God of the gaps” hits the nail on the head. This guy is just hand waving with some big words thrown in to keep up appearances. Boiled down to essentials his argument is, “We don’t understand consciousness and quantum mechanics. Therefore the universe must be haunted.”

    It would be great if they taught a little quantum mechanics in high school. A lot more people need to have a clue about the incredible insights of guys like Planck, Schrodinger, and Dirac. You don’t need a Ph.D. in math to grasp some of the most amazing and fundamental insights. Good math students in decent high schools should have the essential tools. With a little basic understanding, people wouldn’t fall for this flim flam.

    • wendell read
      Posted March 14, 2017 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

      If you really believe that his argument boils down to:
      , “We don’t understand consciousness and quantum mechanics. Therefore the universe must be haunted.”

      Then perhaps the problem is that you don’t understand it.

      • Posted March 14, 2017 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

        This reply is uncivil and says nothing except denigrates the commenter. If you have a substantive point to make, make it.

        • wendell read
          Posted March 14, 2017 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

          I accept your criticism. Thank you.

    • Posted March 15, 2017 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      I remember HS physics well. I was in the top class from a top HS in Minnesota. I seriously doubt whether teaching QM would fly well in HS class (student interest and ability to understand/focus on it).

      However, it would be worth a try, if for nothing else, to help disperse this nonsense of applying “quantum” as an adjective of “mystery” to all sorts of things where it doesn’t belong (as in Deepak Chopra).

      I think a good way to try would be to use the Feynman Lectures on Physics as one’s base for presenting it. He gets to QM pretty quickly in Book 1 and his presentation is excellent (of course) — on how the world works.

      (QM still looks to me like just a table values that fit the data. It has zero intuitive feel for me. Perhaps that just means I have a typically limited intellect in these matters.)

  24. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Philosophizing gods-of-the-gapper accommodationist Adam Frank is the reason I stopped reading the NPR site.

    He still can’t saying anything interesting or even reasonable.

  25. Lane Tracy
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    I am wondering what we will learn when we build robots that are intended to behave like humans. Will they have something that seems to equate to our consciousness? If so, we will learn quite a bit about the origin of consciousness, and so will the robots.

  26. Dale Franzwa
    Posted March 15, 2017 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I think I’ve run across the origin of Frank’s and Goff’s ideas on consciousness being at the heart (or whatever) of reality. These ideas appear to me to have originated with the philosopher/mathematician Alfred North Whitehead. I found an article in my files: The Philosophy of Organism by Peter Sjostedt-H in Philosophy Now, June/July, 2016. In which, Whitehead’s ideas seem to be the source that Goff draws upon.

    I’m not going to try to summarize Whitehead’s ideas here but, if you would like, my new printer allows me to copy the two-page article to a file in Word which I can send to you in an email whenever convenient. I think Whitehead makes a much clearer presentation than either of the above

    Have fun in Gnu Zeeland.

  27. OK
    Posted March 15, 2017 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    This is just annoying. My qualifications out front: a father and a brother who are physicists, and someone who works in clinical neuroscience myself.

    Consciousness cannot be explained by language, because it is experience, and language presupposes experience and is based in experience. We have no way to get out of that experiential box and into a way of communicating what experience is in a different language. Our inability to understand consciousness to date is a problem with language and explanation: the tools we have to understand the system are inadequate for the job. Perhaps one could represent experience qua experience if we could find the way in common in which everyone’s brain acted when it saw the color “red” and represent that in terms of differing patterns of neural activity and interaction, we could communicate the experience of the color red, instead of simply communicating “red”, but we are actually a fair way from being able to do that on a whole organ level. Until then, the experience of “red” is not understandable or explicable by words alone: it remains a naked representation of a (we think) common experience.

    In theory, however, we could replicate consciousness once we understood the workings of the brain and can simulate it: there’s no basic barrier there except (and it is no small except) the staggering complexity of the organ and our ignorance thereof. So we can generate an explanation of sorts, but t won’t be one of which anyone has a good comprehensive understanding (in the conventional sense of understanding: making intuitive, readily communicable sense).

    The whole quantum physics and consciousness thing seems a massive confusion: we don’t understand quantum mechanics, we don’t understand he brain, so let’s conflate the two issues and maybe that’s our explanation. But the reason we don’t understand quantum mechanics is because its rules seem arbitrary and counterintuitive. They are, however, to date pretty rigorous.

    The best thing we can do with “quantum explanations of consciousness” and the like are ignore them. They shed no light either on physics or consciousness.

    Pardon the prose: written in haste.

  28. Posted March 15, 2017 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    I recently finished an excellent biography of Feynman by James Gleick, Genius. I highly recommend it.

  29. Posted March 15, 2017 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    One correction, Jerry, if I may: there’s a pretty decent case to say that the “uncertainty relations” apply to the world itself – you can apply them where there is no interaction, etc. Assuming one has an “objective” view of probability, then they are just spreads (standard deviations, etc.) of the values. (See the book by Bunge etc. above.)

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