domingo, maio 10, 2015

The Nature of Consciousness: "Are the Androids Dreaming Yet? - Amazing Brain. Human Communication, Creativity & Free Will" by James Tagg



Disclaimer: I received a reader's copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. All opinions expressed are my own, and no monetary compensation was received for this review.
(The book was published on Jan, 2015; review written 10/05/2015)

“What is the physics that underlies human understanding?”

“Humans need around 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient at a skill. (“The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle, but referenced by Tagg)


(my own 1991-battered copy of Penrose’s book)

I still remember the feeling I’d when I first read Penrose’s “The Emperor’s New Mind” for the first time in 1991. I’d just finished college. I was full of myself. After reading Penrose I came down to earth in a big way. My education was severely lacking in several “departments”. The impression this book had on me was so great that I still have it at home. I was perusing it after finishing Tagg’s book. 

I hadn’t “touched” Penrose’s book in a long time, but what still remains with me was his take on the nature of consciousness. Chapter 9 (“Real Brains and Model Brains”) to be exact, is full of my annotations. This particular chapter was so mind-boggling that I remember I couldn’t stop thinking about it. After re-reading this chapter in its entirety, and particularly the two main sections of it: “Where is the seat of consciousness?” and “Is there a Role for Quantum Mechanics in Brain Activity?”, and after more than 20 years, some of the assertions made at the time were as bit as polemic then as they are now, but I’m not so flabbergasted by Penrose’s theory of quantum consciousness of the brain as I was at the time. There are some serious flaws in it. 

Quantum theories of consciousness have to deal with the same difficulties as neural or computational theories. Quantum effects have some outstanding properties (e.g., non-determinism and non-locality: “I [ ] argue all human creativity is noncomputational; art, communication, understanding – all are based on non-algorithmic principles.” in Tagg’s words), and it’s only natural to hypothesize that these properties may have something to do with the explanation of cognitive functions, such as random choice, and this hypothesis cannot be ruled out a priori. But when it comes to the explanation of experience, quantum processes are in the same boat as any other. The question of why these processes should give rise to experience is entirely unanswered. No theory I’ve read so far is able to explain this, namely Orch-OR (Orchestrated Objective Reduction by Penrose and Hameroff). 

Even admitting that Quantum Mechanics is somehow at the core of the theme, I still have trouble explaining how does the wave function stays together to go into an afterlife... When dealing with subjects mathematic-oriented, Penrose is always quite solid. Unfortunately when he delves into stuff outside of his field of expertise (like the "quantum nature of consciousness") than one needs to become aware of the less-than-fully-concocted nature of his ideas. Tagg is also a very strong proponent of this view: Excluding exotic quantum effects, the main difference between computer and human brains is their processing architecture. Brains use slow, asynchronous logic to process information rather than the fast, synchronous type used in modern day computers.”

I’m still very fond of some of Penrose’s nutty ideas (and now Tagg’s). And because they’re nutty one can't automatically dismiss what he says just because the word "quantum" shows up. We still need evidence to corroborate his ideas.

Penrose's assertion that we are not bound by Godel's incompleteness theorems also seems very nutty at best. Tagg as Penrose did before him, bought into the so-called "libertarian free will", though I still haven’t seen any kind of evidence supporting its existence. This has led to claims, such as the assertion that photons registering in vision aren't absorbed by the retina, but unbind in the microtubules in the neurons of the brain… Evidence, that’s what we need! In this respect Orch-OR is still in the realm of pseudoscience. Whether the inner workings of neuronal processes in the brain are enhanced by quantum effects or not, I fail to see how this resolves the free will issue, as it still seems to require some external non-deterministic influence to determine each choice. 

I still haven't read a good argument why the neural networks of the brain are not sufficient to handle it without macro-scale quantum effects. By chapter two of Tagg’s book it was clear that he supported this notion as well, which was not a good omen to start with. Still, I persevered. At the end I felt the book had some interesting titbits, namely the chapters dealing with Computer Science (e.g., “Turing’s Machine”, “The Machine”, “Silver Bullets Can’t Be Fired”, “Hyper-Computing”), the chapter on how to bash Powerpoint (“Power corrupts, Powerpoint corrupts absolutely” – Ed Tufte), and Math (“The Game of Mathematics” dealing with Godel's Incompleteness Theorem and Turing’s undecidable Theorem; Tagg makes a very clear explanation on how Turing proved that Hilbert's Entscheidungsproblem was unsolvable shattering Hilbert's dream in consequence). 

Bottom-line: Stating that quantum vibrations in microtubules have anything to do with consciousness is hocus-pocus. It's interesting as an idea, and it's also worth exploring, and frankly I think it would be very cool if it was true. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, not just something casually related. Despite my misgivings I’m glad I persevered. Tagg‘s Computer Science book, albeit biased for the role of Quantum Mechanics in our consciousness, made for a very interesting reading.


On a side note, if it’s later proved that quantum theory has any kind of effect on the brain at a cellular or even on a molecular level, I will print out this review and eat it. Promise.

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