Originally posted May 4, 2017
Here is an excerpt:
As we probed the deeper implications of Penrose’s theory about consciousness, it wasn’t always clear where to draw the line between the scientific and philosophical dimensions of his thinking. Consider, for example, superposition in quantum theory. How could Schrödinger’s cat be both dead and alive before we open the box? “An element of proto-consciousness takes place whenever a decision is made in the universe,” he said. “I’m not talking about the brain. I’m talking about an object which is put into a superposition of two places. Say it’s a speck of dust that you put into two locations at once. Now, in a small fraction of a second, it will become one or the other. Which does it become? Well, that’s a choice. Is it a choice made by the universe? Does the speck of dust make this choice? Maybe it’s a free choice. I have no idea.”
I wondered if Penrose’s theory has any bearing on the long-running philosophical argument between free will and determinism. Many neuroscientists believe decisions are caused by neural processes that aren’t ruled by conscious thought, rendering the whole idea of free will obsolete. But the indeterminacy that’s intrinsic to quantum theory would suggest that causal connections break down in the conscious brain. Is Penrose making the case for free will?
“Not quite, though at this stage, it looks like it,” he said. “It does look like these choices would be random. But free will, is that random?” Like much of his thinking, there’s a “yes, but” here. His claims are provocative, but they’re often provisional. And so it is with his ideas about free will. “I’ve certainly grown up thinking the universe is deterministic. Then I evolved into saying, ‘Well, maybe it’s deterministic but it’s not computable.’ But is it something more subtle than that? Is it several layers deeper? If it’s something we use for our conscious understanding, it’s going to be a lot deeper than even straightforward, non-computable deterministic physics. It’s a kind of delicate borderline between completely deterministic behavior and something which is completely free.”