Can Science Explain the Soul?

By Stuart Hameroff MD and Deepak Chopra MD

The soul has never lacked for believers, including around 90% of the American public, according to pollsters. But science has remained aloof, basically for two reasons. First, the soul has been assumed to be a matter of personal belief, not objective knowledge. Second, science deals in visible, concrete things using objective data. But since the era of quantum physics began over a century ago, invisible things and fleeting events have entered science, so subtle that the realm from which they emerge is almost a matter of faith.

Now some scientists are willing to venture into the once forbidden territory of the soul, attempting to extract a theory that will allow for its existence. Redefined by the new field of quantum biology, the soul could be the link that connects individuals to the universe, a dynamic connection that could explain how consciousness came about, and why the cosmos itself seems to mirror our own intelligence and creativity. Below are components of an argument for a secular soul based on quantum physics and biology.

Consciousness and the Soul

The concept of life after death, or more specifically conscious awareness after bodily death, is generally referred to in the context of the ‘soul’; it is a staple of many religions and innumerable anecdotes over thousands of years. In addition, countless subjective reports of conscious awareness seemingly separated from the subject’s brain and physical body occur in conjunction with so-called near death experiences (NDEs), whose phenomenology include a white light, being in a tunnel, life review and, in some cases, floating out of the body. Somewhat similar experiences have been reported in various types of meditative and altered states. The drug ketamine, used as a ‘dissociative’ anesthetic, can produce subjective reports of conscious awareness outside the body, as can various other psychoactive drugs.

The same phenomenology has been reported in various cultures including medieval Tibet. And since every Eastern tradition is based upon pure consciousness as the ground of existence, there is nowhere to go when you die. Individual consciousness loses its boundaries and returns to the field of consciousness to be recycled. In Eastern traditions, the soul comes naturally.

There are literally thousands of other types of experiences that depend on the mind or its components existing outside the brain, from telepathy and clairvoyance to premonitions, synchronicity, and the perception of subtle domains of reality.

Unable to fathom a rational explanation for out-of-body and/or after-death consciousness, modern science ignores such reports. Short-sighted skeptics reinforce the assumption that they are either subjective folly, hallucinations, or outside the scope of scientific proof.

The central weakness here is that modern science can’t explain normal, in-the-brain consciousness. Despite detailed understanding of neuronal firings and synaptic transmissions mediating non-conscious, ‘auto-pilot’ perception and behaviors, there is no accounting for conscious awareness, free will or ‘qualia’ – the essence of experienced perceptions, like the redness, texture and fragrance of a rose. Philosopher David Chalmers refers to this as the ‘hard problem’ – explaining qualia and the subjective nature of feelings, awareness, and phenomenal experience, – our ‘inner life’.

Unable to explain consciousness in the brain, it is easy to see why conventional science ignores out-of-body, or after-death consciousness, rejecting even the possibility of their occurrence. However one controversial theory of in-the-brain consciousness can also in principle explain possible out-of-body and after-death consciousness. That is the Penrose-Hameroff ‘Orch OR’ theory of consciousness as sequences of quantum computations inside brain neurons.

Most approaches to brain function consider neuronal firings and synaptic transmissions as fundamental information states (e.g. ‘bits’) in computational networks of neurons. But neurons are complex, not simple on-off switches representing either 1 or 0. For example the lowly single cell paramecium can swim around, avoid obstacles, find food and mates, learn and have sex – all without a single synapse. Paramecium activities are organized by their microtubules, cylindrical polymers of the protein tubulin. In brain neurons, microtubules are the structural scaffolding, organizing movement, transport, neuronal growth and synaptic plasticity. Their lattice structure and seeming intelligent functions have prompted suggestions that microtubules are also the nervous system of each cell, capable of molecular-level computation and information processing. In each and every neuron, millions of tubulins coherently vibrate in the megahertz frequency range, providing potentially quadrillions (10 to the 15th power) of operations per second per neuron. That may be bad news for artificial intelligence prospects for brain equivalence anytime soon, but increased information capacity per se doesn’t explain consciousness.

The Quantum Plunge

The Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR theory (‘orchestrated objective reduction’) proposes that microtubules perform not just molecular-scale computation, but also, specifically related to consciousness, quantum computations.

Quantum means the smallest fundamental unit of energy and matter, usually considered at very small scales. But the laws governing the quantum world are bizarre and exotic, quite different from our everyday world of classical physics governed by Newton’s laws and Maxwell’s equations. For example in the quantum world, particles can exist in multiple locations or states simultaneously – quantum superposition. Another quantum feature is nonlocal entanglement – quantum particles separate but still remain mysteriously connected (what Einstein referred to as ‘spooky action at a distance’). And multiple quantum particles can condense to a unified state – quantum coherence.

Quantum entanglement tells us that the universe is somehow nonlocal, that instantaneous hidden connections occur between spatially and temporally separated particles, objects and energies. Despite the complete lack of any explanatory mechanism, entanglement has been repeatedly demonstrated and, along with quantum superposition, used in new technologies including quantum cryptography, quantum teleportation and quantum computing.

In quantum computing, information may be represented not only as bits of either 1 or 0, but also as superpositioned quantum bits (qubits) of both 1 AND 0. Qubits interact with other qubits by nonlocal entanglement, and then collapse/reduce to specific output states as the solution to the quantum computation.

But we don’t see quantum superposition and entanglement in our everyday classical world. It seems there’s an edge, or boundary between two phases of reality – the quantum and classical worlds, and that consciousness may have something to do with that edge, also known as ‘quantum state reduction’, or ‘collapse of the quantum wave function’.

Quantum pioneer Niels Bohr found that measuring a quantum superposition caused it to reduce, or collapse to specific values. Because a conscious observer was required to complete the measurement, Bohr and colleagues proposed that consciousness caused collapse of the quantum wave function. This ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ (after Bohr’s Danish origin) was pragmatic, but put consciousness outside science. Erwin Schrodinger thought it so bizarre he invented his famous thought experiment – a cat is both dead and alive until consciously observed.

Another view – the multiple worlds hypothesis –suggests that each and every superposition is a bifurcation of the fabric of reality, each branching off to form its own new universe, resulting in an infinite number of coexisting universes. There is no collapse, and no implicit consciousness.

Decoherence theory suggests any interaction with a classical environment degrades quantum superpositions. But isolated superpositions remain unexplained, as does the precise nature of quantum isolation.

There are other interpretations, e.g. Bohm, Cramer’s Transactional, Stapp, weak measurement etc. And then there is Penrose ‘objective reduction’ (OR) which puts consciousness emphatically into the picture, precisely on the edge between the quantum and classical worlds.

Enter Sir Roger Penrose. In 1989 the famed British physicist, mathematician and cosmologist wrote ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’, proposing that consciousness involved a specific form of quantum computation in the brain.

He began by considering the nature of superposition – an object in two or more locations simultaneously. Penrose related it to Einstein’s general relativity in which matter is equivalent to curvature in underlying spacetime geometry. Superposition could then be viewed as simultaneous spacetime curvature in opposite directions, a separation, bubble, or blister in the fabric of reality. Penrose considered the separations to occur all the way down at the infinitesimally tiny Planck scale, the basement level of the universe.

What is the universe composed of? If we were to shrink in size, smaller and smaller, we would see that atoms are mostly empty, as is the space between them. If we shrink smaller and smaller, 25 orders of magnitude smaller than atoms, we would eventually come to Planck scale geometry, laden with information and patterns around the Planck length of 10 to the minus 33rd power centimeters. Descriptions of Planck scale geometry include quantum gravity, spin networks, twistor theory and string theory. Which of these is correct remains unknown. But we do know that Planck scale information is down there. And despite the vast difference in scale, it can influence our world, as spacetime is organized like a hologram, or fractal, with information repeating nonlocally and at different scales.

The Penrose notion of superpositions as Planck scale separations is very much like the multiple worlds hypothesis. Except rather than branching off new universes, Penrose concluded such separations are unstable, and will undergo quantum state reduction due to an objective threshold inherent in Planck scale geometry (hence objective reduction, ‘OR’). Moreover he proposed that the choices of such OR self-collapses are not random, but influenced by what he termed Platonic information embedded in Planck scale geometry. Such information includes mathematical truth, as well as aesthetic and ethical values. Further, each such event, he concluded, is a moment of conscious awareness. Thus Penrose connected consciousness to the most basic level of the universe

But he lacked a good candidate for biological qubits in the brain, only suggesting the possibility of superpositions of neurons both firing and not firing. In the early 1990s Stuart Hameroff, medical doctor, anesthesiologist and microtubule researcher, suggested to Penrose that tubulin components might be his qubits, and microtubules his quantum computer. The two teamed up, with Hameroff showing how synaptic inputs could ‘orchestrate’ Penrose objective reductions in neuronal microtubules, hence ‘orchestrated objective reduction’ (Orch OR). They calculated the number of superpositioned tubulins required to reach OR threshold coinciding with physiological brain events such as gamma synchrony EEG, concluding that microtubules in hundreds of thousands of neurons would be required for 40 or more conscious moments, or frames per second. Gamma synchrony (30 to 90 cycles per second, hertz, or Hz) is the best measure of conscious awareness. Interestingly, ancient Buddhist texts also reported 40 or more conscious moments, or frames per second.

To account for the ‘hard problem’, the nature of experience, Penrose and Hameroff asserted that ‘qualia’, the components of conscious experience, are fundamental and irreducible components of reality, like electron spin, charge and mass – all derived from the omnipresent matrix of fundamental spacetime geometry at the Planck scale.

In Orch OR the essential quantum spacetime qualia of an observed object are reproduced in the brain, specifically in/around microtubules. Thus Orch OR contends that consciousness in the brain is a sequence of conscious frames at roughly 40 Hz, but also as sequences of self-annealing ripples in the fine structure of the universe.

Penrose and Hameroff published several papers on Orch OR in the mid 1990s, prompting near-immediate skeptical rebuke from many directions, having offended computer/artificial intelligence proponents, neuroscientists, philosophers and physicists alike. One seemingly crucial issue was decoherence, the assertion by critics that the brain was far too ‘warm, wet and noisy’ for delicate quantum superpositions. Laboratory efforts to build technological quantum computers are plagued by thermal disruptions, and accordingly carried out at near absolute zero temperature. Orch OR suggested microtubule quantum coherence could be energetically pumped (e.g. like a laser) in a manner proposed in the 1970s by Herbert Frohlich, thus avoiding decoherence.

In 1998 twenty testable predictions of Orch OR were published, a number of which by 2007 had been validated, and none refuted. (Theories of consciousness based on emergence from complex neuron-based computation have yet to produce any testable predictions, much less validations.) In the past 6 years, Frohlich coherence has been discovered in microtubules at 8 megahertz (8 x 10 to the 6th power), and warm temperature quantum coherence has been repeatedly observed in proteins supporting photosynthesis. Recent experiments also hint strongly at  quantum coherence, entanglement and computation in DNA and microtubules. Life, at its core, may be a quantum process.

Running on Empty – The Soul At Large in the Universe

The notion that consciousness involves something more than electrochemical processes in brain neurons, that quantum processes connect us to a deeper reality, may have profound implications. For example, quantum entanglement between individuals could account for a range of so-called paranormal effects such as telepathy, and (because quantum physics allows what appears to be backward time effects) premonitions, or precognition – information from the future. What about the soul?

Clinical studies of patients who survive cardiac arrest have revealed consistent reports of so-called near death experiences (NDEs), white light, being in a tunnel, serene calm, life review and in some cases out-of-body experiences (OOBs). Many people report similar phenomena unrelated to cardiac arrest, e.g. associated with meditation, psychological trauma, drugs, or straightforward life events. A Gallup poll estimated 10 million Americans have reported subjective phenomena consistent in some way with NDEs and/or OOBs.

Some see NDEs/OOBs as spiritual events, manifestations of consciousness, or the soul, leaving the body. In this context, when the patient is resuscitated, the soul/consciousness returns to the body/brain. If the patient does not survive, many believe the soul/consciousness persists in some way, and may enter another body in reincarnation.

Conventional science rejects the possibility of an afterlife. NDEs/OOBs are regarded as hallucinations or illusions, manifestations of an ischemic/hypoxic brain. But ischemic/hypoxic patients, if conscious, are confused, agitated and amnestic, not calm and serene.

Recently two clinical studies used processed EEG brain monitors at the time of death in terminally ill or severely brain-damaged patients from whom support was withdrawn, allowing the patients to die peacefully. In both sets of patients, measurable EEG brain activity dwindled as blood pressure dropped and, eventually the heart stopped beating. But then, in each patient, there was an abrupt burst of brain activity lasting about a minute or more which correlated with gamma synchrony EEG, the most reliable marker of conscious awareness. Then, just as abruptly, the activity ceased.

Because these patients died, we can’t know if they had NDE or OOB experiences, or if the activity actually marked the soul leaving the body – ‘giving up the ghost’. But regardless, the mystery is how the energy-depleted brain could muster synchronous neuronal EEG activity – whatever it was. One possible answer is that consciousness and gamma synchrony involve very low energy quantum entanglements which persist while other brain functions have run out of fuel.

Could consciousness exist outside the body after death? We believe it can. We should point out that Sir Roger Penrose may not agree with our assertions about the soul, and we do not claim to speak for him. Nonetheless his work is essential to our proposal.

According to Orch OR, under normal conditions in an intact, healthy brain, consciousness occurs as frames or snapshots extending through multiple spatiotemporal levels from networks to neurons to microtubules to quantum forces, down to and including Planck scale geometry. When the blood stops flowing and metabolic energy can no longer drive microtubule quantum coherence, quantum information relating to the subject’s conscious experience and memory isn’t necessarily lost or destroyed, but may dissipate to the universe at large, remaining entangled as a unified soul-like entity grounded in Planck scale geometry. If the body is resuscitated, the quantum information can return, and the subject may report an NDE or OOB experience. If the body is not resuscitated and the patient dies, the entangled quantum information constituting the subject’s consciousness and memory may persist in spacetime geometry, perhaps entering an embryo in the context of reincarnation.

Could the universe – empty spacetime geometry – conceivably host consciousness on the loose? There is ample energy in the form of zero point fluctuations, so the question is whether information can be registered in the nothingness of spacetime, and transcend from Planck scale to biological scale.

Scientists measuring gravitational waves emanating from the Planck scale detect signals – initially thought to be noise – repeating at different scales (e.g. like octaves) separated by several orders of magnitude (described as holographic, fractal, or scale-free dynamics). The repeating signals range from very fast at very small scales (near the Planck length), upward to as slow as 300 Hz within range of microtubules and other neuronal structures.

There is also scale-free dynamics in the brain.  Self-similar information repeats from a time domain of roughly 10 seconds (0.1 Hz, e.g. a ‘train of thought’) down to tens of milliseconds (gamma synchrony ‘frames’ around 40 Hz). Microtubules have vibrational resonances in the kilohertz (10 to the third power Hz) for tubulin C-termini, megahertz (10 to the 6th power Hz) for tubulin, and gigahertz (10 to the ninth power Hz) for ordered water in hollow microtubule cores. So holographic/fractal/scale-free information representation may extend from the Planck scale to the brain, with information repeating every few orders of magnitude.

These levels could conceivably correspond with lokas, or astral planes, described in Eastern traditions as locations or destinations for consciousness. NDEs/OOBs, as well as certain rishi meditative and altered states may involve consciousness shifting to a series of smaller/closer -to-the Planck scale, higher frequency and intensity lokas, or astral planes. As the Beatles said (the White Album): ‘The deeper you go, the higher you fly. The higher you fly, the deeper you go.’

The yogi’s state of complete immersion in the ground state of consciousness is called Samadhi, an immersion from which all ancient spiritual knowledge was obtained. Perhaps this corresponds with consciousness moving deeply, near to the source of Vedic and Platonic values, with highest frequency, intensity and resolution.

The notion of wisdom, truth and consciousness embedded in the universe has roots in both East and West. The seers or rishis of ancient India detected these values through actual experience. Socrates, speaking for Plato, uses his teacher, Diotima, as his authority for experience of subtler domains of consciousness. If Penrose is correct, these ancients discovered quantum information embedded in Planck scale geometry.

Science attempts to verify conscious knowledge – minus the label of spiritual – by first principles using its own methods. But this may turn out to be topsy turvy – the wrong way around. The Vedic seers regarded reality as a manifestation of one ocean of universal consciousness, and so they were like fish exploring the ocean by swimming through it. Science attempts to explore the ocean of consciousness from the outside.  That is, the universe is taken to be ‘out there’, divorced from subjective experience and therefore measurable without personal bias. But if the brain is connected to the universe at the quantum level, the distinction between subjective and objective experience, between ‘in here’ and ‘out there’ no longer holds. The spacetime geometry configuration of the observed world is reproduced in the brain. Again, the Beatles said it well: ‘Your inside is out, and your outside is in. Your outside is in, and your inside is out.’

We two authors (SH and DC) differ slightly with regard to the ocean of consciousness, and the subject/object split.

In accordance with Vedic traditions, DC sees pure consciousness as a vast ocean pervading the universe, creating matter and everything else. It is Brahman, the quantum field, or spacetime geometry which includes ‘qualia’, the sights, sounds, and textures of the world. Atman, or self-consciousness is part and parcel of Brahman.

SH sees the universe as an ocean at the level of Planck scale geometry, containing precursors of consciousness, proto-conscious qualia, as well as precursors of mass, spin, electrical charge and other fundamental components, ranging up to biomolecular scales. Within the quantum ocean, superpositions reaching OR threshold result in conscious moments, like whitecaps, or ocean waves crashing on a beach. A sequence of such OR self-collapses gives rise to consciousness, Atman from Brahman.

DC maintains the subjective/objective split is nonexistent – a smooth continuum, the surface of a calm sea. SH sees the subjective/objective split as OR self-collapse, an edge or boundary between quantum and classical worlds. But these differences are trivial compared to the vast gap between our mutual views and conventional science, in which consciousness emerges exclusively as an epiphenomenon of complex neuronal-level computation.

We agree that observer, observed, and the process of observation, already linked in physics since the time of Bohr and Einstein, will surrender their differences. In the end, to say that the ocean of consciousness (or proto-consciousness) permeates everything is to say that there is only one consciousness (or proto-consciousness).

It is artificial to believe, as science has done since Bohr’s conscious observer, that the individual has a privileged position outside the ocean in which everything is embedded. Perhaps the only people who will shrug and say this was obvious all along are the poets. As Rumi wrote almost 800 years ago, “I have lived on the lip of insanity, wanting to know reasons, knocking on a door. It opens. I’ve been knocking from the inside!”

Conclusion – A Science of the Quantum Soul

We don’t claim proof or final evidence of consciousness after death, but do propose a plausible scientific basis for it. Soul and spirituality imply the following, with quantum explanations:

·            Interconnectedness among living beings and the universe Conscious minds and unconscious processes may be quantum entangled.

·            Divine guidance/ ‘Way of the Tao’ Choices in each conscious event influenced by Vedic/Platonic values embedded in fundamental spacetime geometry.

·            Consciousness/Soul after death – Consciousness occurs at the level of Planck scale geometry, and may remain unified after bodily death by quantum entanglement, moving through different scalar ‘astral’ planes.

These proposals are testable, and falsifiable. We welcome critical analysis.

Stuart Hameroff MD
Professor, Departments of Anesthesiology and Psychology

Director, Center for Consciousness Studies

The University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona

Deepak Chopra MD

Speaker and Author of over 55 books

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle