In my last post, I declared myself a materialist and posed the question: What kind of material is mind? Any one who read to the end of the post would realize that my declaration as a materialist was something of a trick and in the end I write that “the materialist argument has buried within it a deep secret. There is really no matter. What we think is material is structure – from the atom to the mind. If consciousness is material then the material would be in some sense conscious. Consciousness is one of the optimal solutions for matter to organize itself in space and time.”
Here I would like to continue my exploration about the material of mind.
Fundamentally I believe mind and matter are simply different ways of describing a unitary phenomenon. From common experience, mind seems very different from matter Matter seems hard and out there in the world. Mind seems intangible. Perception seems to be reaction to matter and to have qualities we cannot be sure we share with others. Is your “red” the same as my “red”? Thoughts, fantasy, and ideas seem even more disconnected from matter. Yet we know from modern physics that matter – even the solid objects of our experience – is mostly empty space occupied by particles that in many cases might be better described as waves. We also know that the role of the observer is critical to the measurement of many quantum phenomenon. Yet the notion of “observer” seems to imply mind. Matter, in fact, seems to be not the hard thing out there but instead layers of structure built over more layers of structure – structure all the way down. Particles are built from quanta, atoms built from particles, molecules built from atoms, the material of life built from molecules, and the brain and nervous system built from life. Mind probably didn’t suddenly appear in the brain and nervous system at the last stage. Whatever material mind consists of it operates at all of the stages. Mind is not something that exists apart from the universe but something that pervades it. It may be more the communication infrastructure of the universe that allows the layers of structure to be built than the illusion or epiphenomenon that conventional materialism regards it to be. In that case, it would be as real and material as what we normally think of as matter.
Many religions and traditions reference “light” in their beliefs and practices. The Jewish and Christian religions begin their scripture with the invocation from God: “Let there be light”. Many Eastern religions and Western esoteric traditions reference a subtle body or body of light. One of the goals of Chinese alchemy was the creation of a body of light. A goal of some Buddhist and Taoist practice is transformation into a diamond body or rainbow body before physical death. The subtle body or astral body in out-of-body experiences is sometimes referred to as a body of light. Aleister Crowley’s system of magick has practices and rituals for developing a body of light. Many near death experience have an experience of light associated with them. Metaphorically we use the word “light” and various words derived from it, such as “enlightenment”, to express the attainment of knowledge.
For much of my life I regarded most of these references as metaphor mixed with fantasy, wishful thinking, tricks of perception, and perhaps in case some abnormal firing of neurons.
In the case of the second body, this may still be a correct understanding. For example, scientists put virtual reality goggles on subjects and projected a visual image of their bodies with a superimposed outline pulsing in sync with the heartbeat and triggered an out-of-body sensations. Scientists have also tricked people into thinking a fake arm was their real arm by placing the fake arm next to the real arm and stroking the real arms. The brain looks for pattern and order and a key part of the pattern it maintains is the sense of the body. We are constantly receiving feedback from our senses and nerves about the state of our body and how it is positioned in space. Just as a magician can trick an audience into thinking a coin leaps from one hand to another when he is just concealing the coin in one hand while revealing a different one in the other, the brain provided the right set of queues can perceive an intangible second body with existence outside the physical body.
In the broader case of light and whether a key component of mind and consciousness might be light or related to light, the situation may be more complicated. In 1923 Alexander Gurwitsch in the former Soviet Union first discovered that biological materials emit light. This light is ultra-weak and not normally visible to the naked eye. It is not the same as bioluminescence, such as the light that might be emitted by a firefly. Gurwitsch called his discovery mitogenetic radiation and he believed it was related to cell division and morphological development of the organism. Today we call it biophotons. The discovery was generally neglected until the 1970’s when Fritz-Albert Popp picked up the study again.
Popp started on this path from observations he made while investigating how various chemicals reacted when exposed to ultraviolet light. Universally carcinogens when exposed to ultraviolet light will re-emit light at a scrambled frequency whereas similar chemicals that are not carcinogens will not scramble the frequency. Popp reasoned that light must have some key role in cell repair or cell communication. Using sensitive photo-multipliers that could enhance the detection of biophotons, Popp went on to discover that biological organisms routinely emit organized, coherent light and that the degree of organization seems to reflect the degree of health of the organism.
We can understand coherence by thinking of the waves in a pond. If we toss a pebble into the pond, the waves ripple out. If we toss another pebble into the pond, its waves will also ripple out and interact with the waves from the first pebble. The waves from the second pebble may add to the waves of the first pebble or they might subtract from the waves or cancel them out. The more organized and in phase the two waves are the more coherence there is. Lasers emit coherent light. At the quantum level, particles can be regarded as waves. When particles act in phase with each other we have a phenomenon called quantum coherence. Part of Penrose-Hameroff theory of consciousness is that some form of quantum coherence takes place in the brain to create consciousness.
The work of both Popp and Hameroff have come under quite a bit of criticism and if you check out the Wikipedia entries surrounding their theories you can see a good bit of it.
Key criticisms of the quantum theory of consciousness are that the proposed forms of quantum coherence cannot take place at the temperatures at which the brain operates and they cannot persist long enough to account for consciousness. Just recently, however, a team from the University of Madrid have announced results for a new quasi-particle, called PEP, that is a hybrid of light and matter particles which might enable the formation of a Bose-Einstein condensate at room temperature. This is the form of quantum coherence proposed by Hameroff. PEPs are composed of photons and when they break down they emit photons. A study earlier this year also found that quantum effects may play a role in photosynthesis. In that study the researchers compared the role of proteins to that of a parent pushing a child on a swing with the protein amplifying and magnifying the quantum coherence by transferring energy in and out of itself in an organized manner. This allows coherence to persist longer than previously believed to be possible in living matter.
Whether Popp’s or Hameroff’s theories are vindicated in all of their details or not, I suspect we will eventually find that underlying life are quantum processes. These processes probably will have peculiarities arising directly from attributes of carbon-based molecules and water. Photons and other weak electromagnetic forces interacting with that substrate form a sort networking infrastructure that coordinates growth, metabolism, division, and repair. Mind and consciousness would be a another layer of structure built upon the signaling mechanisms that were already present in life from the first one-celled organisms. Mind in this case would be material and it would be constructed from organized particle-waves and light. The light body would in a sense be literally true, not metaphor or illusion, but it would not be a second body. It would be our actual body, which is not the mass of flesh we think it to be but is, in fact, an organized, crystalline structure of matter and light.