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What are the problems with the Orch-Or Consciousness Theory?

  1. Nov 21, 2014 #1
    Hello. I am a complete layman in regards to having any in depth knowledge of Physics whatsoever, I am interested on research into the areas of consciousness and I wanted to ask questions about Penrose and Hameroff's Orchestrated Objective Reduction Theory that claims that Consciousness derives from deeper level, finer scale quantum activities inside the cells, most prevalent in the brain's neurones.

    To my understanding the basis of Orch-Or has been harshly criticized by fellow researchers in the field since it's conception and remains in such a position today. Hameroff proposed that microtubules were suitable candidates
    for Quantum Processing and apparently this has recently been confirmed by experiments conducted by Anirban Bandyopadhyay: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140116085105.htm

    Which according to Penrose and Hameroff add credibility to the Orch-Or Theory and in Penrose's words ''confirms six of twenty testable predictions'' - So my questions are in light of this evidence that apparently adds credibility to the Orch-Or Theory why is there still criticism directed towards the Orch-Or Theory?

    Why is it held more under scrutiny than say, Kip Thorne's proposals for the possible mechanisms of backwards time travel? What are the objective and logical issues with the Orch-Or Theory? If an explanation for all this could be given to me in layman's terms I would be very grateful, looking forward to hearing from all!
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 22, 2014 #2
    I've run into Hameroff several times at the two main consciousness conferences, the ASSC and the Tucson, and he is a well-liked, intelligent and personable guy. However, I strongly disagree with the quantum/microtubule approach to the explanation of conscious perception he has been advancing for some time now. Consciousness and cognition in humans are inextricably interrelated, and from all our research, these manifest properties and even the "qualia" that embodies them is found at the mesoscopic level of cortical dynamics, not at the sub-microscopic level of quantum coherence in microtubules.

    I actually gave an invited talk at Walter Freeman's workshop at the 2008 Tucson conference where Hammeroff also gave an invited talk, and the attending audience basically tore his argument to shreds (in my opinion). It was patently evident to me and the team I was working with at the time that, while Hameroff was well educated in the chemistry of microtubules and quantum physics, he was sorely lacking in knowledge of even rudimentary connectional anatomy of the human brain and mesoscopic neurodynamic physiology.
    Last edited: Nov 22, 2014
  4. Nov 22, 2014 #3


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    You might want to take a look at the wikipedia article at http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orchestrated_objective_reduction which describes some of the background. If you're serious about understanding what Penrose is getting at, you will want to read his "The Emperor's New Mind" (Cliff's notes summary: fascinating but deeply unconvincing).

    The biggest issue with the Orch-Or conjecture (it's not even close to being a theory yet - a theory has solid experimental evidence behind it, like Einstein's theory of general relativity) is that it makes no testable predictions. This, there's no way of applying the scientific method to it, no way of moving it from the category of "fun to talk about" to "tells us something true and new". As long as that's the case, it's not science, it's idle speculation.

    It's worth noting that the Svience Daily piece you've quoted greatly overstates the extent to which the new discoveries validate Orch-Or. They've just shown that it's not yet disproven, which is pretty much where we were before. This is typical of bad science writing; dispassionate understatement doesn't do much for growing your audience.

    Thorne's highly speculative writing about backwards time travel is different in several ways. First, it's clearly identified as speculative - even famous scientists are allowed to speculate. Second, it follows directly from very solidly established and well-proven science, and the points where additional assumptions about things that aren't yet understood are clearly pointed out. Orch-Or doesn't yet have a foundation to build on.
  5. Nov 22, 2014 #4
    I don't believe that such knowledge would have helped them much. I don't think anybody has even the slightest idea/hint of how conscious perception/qualia emerges from our current understanding of neurodynamic physiology either.
  6. Nov 22, 2014 #5


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    I am commenting on the following write up:
    http://www.quantumconsciousness.org/penrose-hameroff/fundamentality.html [Broken]

    The trouble is his statements about QM are wrong:
    'Experimental evidence in the early part of this century led great theorists Bohr, Heisenberg and Wigner to conclude (the "Copenhagen interpretation") that objects remain in wave-like quantum superposition until observed by a conscious human being-consciousness causes collapse of the wave function! To illustrate the apparent absurdity of this conclusion, in the 1930's Schrodinger devised his famous thought experiment Schrodinger's cat. A living cat is placed in a box into which poison can be released by a quantum event, e.g., sending a photon through a half-silvered mirror. So after the photon has been sent there are equal possibilities that the cat is either dead or alive. But according to the Copenhagen interpretation until a conscious being opens the box to observe, the cat is both dead and alive. Schrodinger's point was that the conscious observer interpretation was incorrect.'

    Heisenberg and Bohr did not believe that conciousness causes collapse, nor does the Copenhagen interpretation say that - it posits no cause for collapse - conciousness or otherwise. In Copenhagen QM is simply a theory about observations that occur here in a common-sense classical world - without great exactitude on what an observation is - although it very obvious in practice what it is. The big issue with Copenhagen is how can a theory that assumes the existence of a classical world explain it - or indeed exactly where is the divide between classical and quantum. Demonstrating that issue was the purpose of Schroedinger's cat - the observation happened at the particle detector - everything is classical from that point on. Schroedinger wanted to show while its natural to place the observation at the particle detector, you didn't have to and that's when problems can arise.

    Wigner did believe in conciousness causes collapse based on some work of Von-Neumann detailed in his classic Mathematical Foundations Of QM. But later did a 180% turn when he heard of some early work on decoherence by Zurek that showed the reason for doing it no longer was required.

    This is strange - because he works with Penrose who would know better.

    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
  7. Nov 22, 2014 #6


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    That's probably not a big problem, since it's only a mistake about the history of QM, not about QM itself. Also, Hameroff and Penrose are not proposing that consciousness causes collapse. They are proposing that that QM is violated at some level, and there is real collapse. That part is scientific and testable in principle, and there are discussions about how to test models of real collapse.

    The next part I don't understand. Apparently, Hameroff and Penrose propose that collapse causes consciousness, where consciousness is a fundamental quantity in the theory, like the electromagnetic field in Maxwell's equations. So in this view, if experiments in fact observe real collapse, they will be observing real consciousness. Somehow, the human brain has managed to evolve so that in it, instead of little bits of consciousness happening at random uncoordinated times, collapse is coordinated so that one has huge bursts of consciousness. At this stage, I don't know understand how to test this theory. For example, if consciousness is a fundamental quantity, how is it measured? Is there any way for me to tell whether I am conscious?

    At any rate, the first part of the theory is falsifiable (since the first part is not at all related to "consciousness"). Credit for that part goes to Diosi, and Diosi and Penrose. Some discussions of how Diosi, Penrose and other real collapse models can be tested are:
    Last edited: Nov 22, 2014
  8. Nov 22, 2014 #7


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    Its a mistake about history (which is no big deal) and about what Copenhagen actually says, which is a bigger issue - but still doesn't invalidate his ideas.

    Its just troublesome he gets it wrong.

  9. Nov 22, 2014 #8


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    Much more troublesome is that I have now actually read one the Hameroff-Penrose papers in some detail. Can I blame it on Nugatory, who said that hypothesis was deeply unconvincing? I had unfairly assumed it was shallowly unconvincing, so "deeply unconvincing" seemed like a recommendation. :D
  10. Nov 22, 2014 #9
    How convincing did you find it?
  11. Nov 22, 2014 #10


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    Convincing enough not to reject it out of hand. My subjective Bayesian prior on it is nonzero, maybe 10-80.
  12. Nov 23, 2014 #11
    Isn't it that self-evident?
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