The Quantum Self


In 'The Quantum Self' book Danah Zohar deploys the Alice in Wonderland principles of quantum physics to give a scientific explanation of human consciousness. It's a brave attempt to spell out the implications of the New Physics for our ideas of the Self and society. But the proposed quantum model of consciousness fails to bridge the subject-object divide. Behind the novelty in this book is a firm allegiance to orthodox science, and this conservatism cascades through the text.

'The Quantum Self' does propose an interesting picture of the mind-brain system. A Bose-Einstein condensate is a giant coherent state of many bosons (particles) acting as a single quantum system (which underpins phenomena like superconductivity). Zohar draws on Fröhlich's findings that biological systems exhibit similar states - a fascinating notion. But the case for consciousness as a Fröhlich Bose-Einstein condensate founders on the same objection that Zohar uses to trash a different model; namely, that of qualia. Qualia is the the experience of consciousness from the inside - the single unified sense of what it is to be you at this instant of time. Although a Bose-Einstein condensate is a unified state this doesn't explain our unified experience; why being us should feel like it does. The model is hoist on it's own contradictions as we are urged to will ourselves in to more positive quantum states. Yet even our thoughts have by then been explained as random collapses of the consciousness wavefunction. Whence, then, any 'will'? We are never 'inside' this model - it is an orthodox scientific description of consciousness. Zohar's world is still a clockwork universe, even if the workings are wavefunctions and the logic is laced with LSD.

The book's great strength is its clear discussion of quantum physics. Zohar leads us through the maze of wave-particle duality and the conundrums of wavefunction collapse. In quantum physics it's the act of observation which pulls a particular reality out of a cloud of probability (collapses the wavefunction). But there must be something 'outside' the physical to do the observing, since the whole physical system of experiment, observer's eye and observer's brain can be written in to the wavefunction. Thus the problems of dualism are flash-frozen in the strobe light of state vector measurement.

The attempt to extrapolate quantum quirks to consciousness is hampered by a blindness to the metaphysical basis of science. The book's call for a 'physics of consciousness' only shows the absence of a 'consciousness of physics', of science as a set of operational recipes built on a particular worldview. It's really 'quantum materialism', which sits the author at the same table as hardcore reductionists like Richard 'The Pope' Dawkins and 'popular' neuroscientist Susan Greenfield.

Having cooked up a wavey consciousness the book's main thrust is to knock down our notions of the separate Self. Quantum mechanics overthrows the cosmos of sovereign objects separated in space - the Aspect experiment confirmed that outlandish quantum prediction that 'everything is connected' in a real and measurable sense. So if we are quantum entities, what of our separateness? Zohar makes the case for an overlapping, connected, mutually engaged world of I-and-we rather than seeing individuals as isolated islands of being. Surely a positive counter to a world where we are only united in our roles as producers & consumers.

It's a shame that the text descends in to a series of dodgy assertions rooted in a therapy mind-set. Zohar seeks to justify the psychotherapeutic method of reliving past experiences as predicated on her version of 'quantum memory'. And when the book backs St. Paul's warning that 'the sin is in the thought', saying it rests firmly on the physics of virtual transitions, the reader has the right to say 'what the f**k?'

So what can be salvaged? There's a lot of thought provoking material in the book (the emphasis shifts between 'thought' and 'provoking') and even treads on a few scientific toes by suggesting that quantum theory is 'incomplete physics', and that there may be more direction in evolution than delivered by random DNA mutation. But all objections are subsumed within scientistic positivism; if we don't fully understand now, we just need to carry on with our solid scientific method and eventually all the questions will be answered. Yeah, right.

I prefer to think that science has run in to some of it's own self-imposed limits when it seeks to tackle consciousness. It can only benefit the science gang to listen to meditative traditions that have spent thousands of years exploring consciousness from the inside, and to other cultures that have always had a universe based primarily on being-as-relationship (such as Native American).There is a launch point from this book, though only half articulated, which is the notion that the universe is an act of mutual creativity, that we evoke the universe by our being within it.

And to evoke a more utopian universe means going beyond the double-helix of science-capitalism. Zohar means well, but a quantum stretch of ethics to the transpersonal is never going to stick while cold enumeration is the arbiter of Truth. Let's get down with Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem - abysmal irrationality lurks at the heart of maths. The terrible uniqueness of each moment of consciousness breaks through the poverty of probability-functions. No rule or measure can be the metric of a rebel mana.