In an article titled “A conversation: consciousness and the connection to the universe” Deepak Chopra recounts an interview (March 27, 2010)** that he held with Dr. Stuart Hameroff of the Center for Consciousness Studies of the University of Arizona.
The interview is interesting on a number of points, e.g., Hameroff’s attempt to explain perceptual consciousness in terms of quantum physics. This is an ambitious project that cries for scrutiny and critique. But presently I shall focus on another aspect of the interview. The interviews discloses some fundamental misconceptions and fallacies committed by both men. Let us look briefly at a few excerpts from that interview and see where they fell into old traps and confusion.
The interview starts with some statements and a question directed to Hameroff by Chopra:
“You’re an anesthesiologist as well as an expert in consciousness. Here’s my question: Our brain inside our skull has no experience of the external world. The brain only responds to internal states like, pH, electrolytes, hormones, ionic exchanges across cell membranes and electrical impulses. So, how does the brain see an external world?”
Right from the start, the good doctors Chopra and Hameroff fall into some basic misconceptions. To recap the main points:
First, they note (Chopra states and Hameroff agrees) that the brain resides inside the skull (obviously!).
Then we have the inference that the brain has no direct experience of the external world: “The brain only responds to internal states.”
From this Chopra raises the profound question: “[H]ow does the brain see an external world?”
The very notion that the “brain sees anything” is suspect. (More on this later.) But for now let’s look at what Hameroff replies to Chopra’s heartfelt question as to the mystery of how the “brain sees the external world.”
“Well that question goes back at least thousands of years, and the Greeks said that the world outside is nothing but a representation in our head. Then of course Descartes recognized the same thing. That the only thing of which he could be sure was that he is, that he is conscious. I think therefore I am. So, we’re not really sure the outside world is as we perceive it. Some people would say it’s a construction, an illusion, some people would say it’s an accurate representation. It’s kind of a mix of views. And then when you add quantum properties to it, it’s really uncertain if the world we perceive is the actual world out there.”
Chopra then brings up the example of seeing a rose:
“So, Dr. Hameroff lets just take an example. I’m looking at a rose, my retinal cells are not actually looking at the rose they’re responding to photons aren’t they?”
This gives the good Dr. Hameroff the opportunity to expound on the processes that go into our “looking at a rose”:
“Yes. It’s also possible that quantum information is transduced in the retina in the cilia between the inner and outer segments before the photon even gets to the rhodopsin in the very back of the eye. So it’s possible that there’s additional quantum information being extracted from photons as they enter your eye through the retina. They might somehow more directly convey the actual essential quality or properties of the rose and the redness of the rose. . . .”
I don’t know about all this extracting of quantum information, but I doubt that there’s anything approaching consensus among physicists and neurologists on these speculations. However, the points I wish to focus on are conceptual points: the identification of the subject who ‘sees’ or doesn’t ‘see’ the external world with the brain; and the inference that all this leads to the ages old skeptical problems about our knowledge of the external world.
Hameroff seems to think that the Greeks (which ones?) held that the “world outside is nothing but a representation in our head” and that Descartes recognized the same thing. In short, we cannot know for certain that the world is anything like what we perceive.
Of course, none of this follows from the initial premise that the brain is located inside the skull and the brain processes our perceiving of the features in the world external to the brain.
The first gross confusion is to hold that the brain is the subject which sees anything. Let us grant that the appropriate sciences can describe and analyze the processes by which the nervous system (sense faculties, brain) enable the animal to perceive and negotiate its environment. But this is an analysis of how the animal (e.g. human, apes, monkeys, dogs, etc.) perceives the world; the brain is a vital element of this process, as are the sense faculties; but the brain is not the subject who sees X (the object of perception) and then faces the problem of connecting ‘X’ to the external world. Furthermore, the skeptical issue (that we face the problem of connecting ‘X’ to the external world) does not follow.
Furthermore, we are not rationally compelled to affirm that “the world .. is just a representation in the head”. Which the of the ancient Greeks held this view? Likewise, there isn’t any cogent argument for inferring the dualistic Cartesian picture (that the mental subject is distinct and apart from the material world). Furthermore, for Descartes the brain, being a physical organ, is found in the ‘external,’ material world. The isolated brain – encased in the skull and separated from the object perceived – which worried Chopra, has nothing to do with Cartesian skepticism about the external world.
At any rate, the skeptical problems outlined by Hameroff have at best a loose connection with Chopra’s initiating question: How does the brain see the external world? Furthermore, any putative skepticism about the external world is in order only if we fall into the initial trap of taking some entity inside the head (the brain?) as the subject who perceives the world. But of course, the animal acting and reacting in its natural, social environment (e.g., the small ape on the tree) is the subject who perceives features of that environment. Hameroff has simply fallen into some basic misconceptions here, misconceptions set up by an even more confused Chopra.
The words used in the title that Chopra gives this dialogue with Hameroff “….consciousness and the connection to the Universe” suggests another fundamental confusion at work here: this is the confused idea that ‘consciousness’ is a mysterious ‘thing’ of sorts, which may or may not be “connected with the universe.” Chopra’s assumption, like many who talk this way, is that consciousness involves more than a commitment to the facts that certain animals (including human in a social setting or small apes sitting on a tree branch) are capable of taking in or being aware of features in their environment. But there aren’t any good reasons for asserting that we’re committed to something called “consciousness.” (Imagine someone proclaiming that in addition to the small ape on the tree, the ape’s consciousness sits there as well.) As some philosophers (e.g.,Gilbert Ryle, Richard Rorty, D.W. Hamlyn) have argued, one can dispense altogether with the idea of consciousness as an entity (?) or as a mental state and still give adequate accounts of all the mental, perceptual capabilities of complex, evolved animals as humans. Science can account for my seeing the rose or being aware of the cool temperature in my environment without anyone having to posit my state of consciousness or an actor called “consciousness.” That I see things and am aware of things is beyond dispute. But this does not commit us to the reality of some mysterious state or entity called “consciousness.”
When we speak of a person being in a state of consciousness, or perception, or awareness – we simply resort to a way of talking. We don’t make an ontological commitment. The same may be said for a statement like: “There was an awareness that we were in trouble.” None of these require that we posit a mysterious state or entity called “consciousness” or another called “awareness,” which may or may not be connected to the external world. Chopra is just falling victim to an age-old confusion here.
All the ensuing talk by Hameroff concerning the “fine structure of the universe,” and “quantum information extracted from photons” is at best questionable speculation, at worst, a bit of New-Age, post-modernistic “mumbo-jumbo.”
** The full interview can be found at
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