Sunday, July 03, 2011

Can there be Consciousness after Death?

I often ruminate on matters of the conscious mind. I find the topic fascinating. Another topic I find fascinating is the belief in a god and existence after death. As anyone knows who has read my blog, I'm not a believer in God, especially the personal god of the bible or any other holy book. But I can't rule out with 100-percent assuredness the existence of some kind of entity that could be called God.

If there is any kind of meaningful existence beyond death, it has to be tied to what we call consciousness. Without consciousness, any existence after death would be pointless, even meaningless. So what is consciousness anyway? We can describe it, but can we really define it? Consciousness has a certain ineffable quality that prevents an easy definition. We know what it is, but we don't know how to define it in any satisfying manner.

At its base consciousness is the ability to perceive with the senses and then to act upon those perceptions. It is the ability to think and understand and to control those thoughts, as opposed to the unconscious or subconscious dream state. While that is at least partially a description of what the conscious mind is, it certainly isn't a very satisfactory one. There are lots of questions that need to be answered. In what part of the brain does consciousness reside? What is the brain doing that results in consciousness? Will it ever be possible to create consciousness in a computer or robot? Even if it is one day possible to replicate a human brain can someone's consciousness be downloaded into it? And if so, can it be done in a way that will transfer consciousness, thus allowing for the body to be discarded, or will it merely be a copy of the conscious mind with the original still intact? These are questions I would really like the answers to.

Science does not have a completely cogent theory on consciousness yet. It has been the subject of philosophical debates for centuries. Is there a dual nature to the mind allowing for one part to be composed of matter and the other part to be spiritual, or non-matter? And is it possible for the non-matter part of the mind, the consciousness, to live on after the brain is dead? Medical science seems to answer that in the negative. The brain is made of cells and if deprived of oxygen long enough, the cells die and all activities associated with the cells die with them.

But what if consciousness has a component that is not dependent upon living matter? It might not actually be spiritual or supernatural. It might be something that is perfectly natural and explainable, but something that just hasn't been explained yet.

There is a world of science in which physics and neurology overlap. Granted, it's not a major course of study in most medical schools. Nevertheless, there are some scientists who have posited a hypothesis that might help to explain consciousness without evoking the spiritual. It involves the strange world of quantum mechanics.

Ever since Isaac Newton developed his laws of motion, philosophers and some scientists have been pondering the notion of free will. If Newton's equations can solve the path of a cannonball in flight could it also, in theory at least, solve equations that would predict thought processes within the brain? After all, the brain is just chemistry and physics - moving atoms that have a projectile of their own. If we had enough data about the speed and location of every atom in our brain, wouldn't we be able to predict where they would be in a year, or 10 years? And if thought process are controlled by these particles, then might we not have free will, since each atom, once set into motion, would have no choice but to follow its prescribed path as predicted by the math?

But then, in the 20th century, quantum mechanics came along and rescued free will, sort of. It all started with Werner Heisenberg and his Uncertainty Principle. It states that you can never know the precise location and momentum of any subatomic particle with precision. If you know the location precisely you can say nothing about its momentum, and vice versa. Or you can know a little about both quantities. This is a limitation in principle, not in the equipment. No matter how good the equipment will ever get, the limitation will persist. Think of it this way, if you want to measure the temperature of a cup of hot coffee, you could stick in a thermometer. But in the act of measuring the temperature, the cooler thermometer will affect the temperature of the coffee, so what you end up getting is an average. Since the thermometer is much less massive than the coffee and has a much lower specific heat, the effect will not be great. But what if the cup of coffee was a tiny one, say only a few drops? Then the temperature of the thermometer would make a huge difference and it would not be possible to measure the temperature of the coffee itself. So the act of observation will always affect the quantity being measured.

What does all that have to do with brain cells and conscious thought? Well, in the brain, it has been known for some time that the synapses, the small gaps that connect neurons, are the locations where thought processes occur and memories are stored. But neurons are made of atoms, like everything else, and atoms are made of subatomic particles which follow the laws of quantum mechanics. Because of the Uncertainty Principle, the exact locations of these particles can never be known for sure. For that reason, their paths cannot be predicted with Newtonian physics and, thus, free will is intact. What is known, however, is that they follow the rules of probability. They behave randomly within certain constraints, and those constraints involve the length of the quantum wave function. According to quantum theory, a particle is not really a particle at all until such time as it is observed. Once it is observed in some way, the wave function collapses and the particle materializes. But it can materialize anywhere within the scope of its wave function.

For macroscopic objects, such as a football, the wave function is much tinier than the ball, so a thrown football always appears to follow Newtonian mechanics, and passes are caught. But if the football (and the receiver) were to shrink down to the size of an electron, all bets are off. When the receiver looks back over his shoulder to catch it, it will materialize into a ball, but it could be anywhere within the stadium, or even outside the stadium. The probability of it materializing far away is small, but finite.

Researchers have performed experiments using imaging technology on people's brains that indicate a reaction can occur to a certain stimulus that is on the opposite hemisphere of where the stimulus occurred. And it's an instant reaction. The neurons are not directly connected. So what causes the stimulation? They suspect it might be something called quantum entanglement. In quantum theory, it is possible for two paired particles to send information to each other, even if they are very far apart. And the information sent is not bound by the speed of light. Einstein called the phenomenon "spooky action at a distance." Some scientists speculate that this could be the root of consciousness.

If quantum entanglement can act at distances within the brain, there is nothing in quantum theory that would prevent this sort of action at greater distances, outside the brain. This neurological quantum entanglement might be responsible for the out-of-body experiences some people claim to have had, especially during a near-death event. Taking it to the extreme, some could also speculate that this quantum entanglement could exist well beyond death, and at cosmic distances, since subatomic particles do not rely on a beating heart for their existence. The consciousness that was trapped within the brain while someone is alive might be free to float freely through the universe, as sort of a unified cosmic consciousness after death.

Keep in mind this is all highly speculative, but it is within the realm of science to explore. It also means that it might one day prove plausible as an explanation for some kind of conscious existence after the death of the brain. And it also does not rely on a supernatural god.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

very interesting. I've come up with a theory that kind of fits in with this, in that the brain only hold consciousness while the body is alive, as a sort of reciever to the material world, but once the brain dies then the consciousness is free to float on in another realm that does not require a brain or come into being in another brain. just my thoughts.