What Is the Material Theory of Consciousness and Free Will?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Are human beings automata, with no free will, no free agency? Is human consciousness a deterministic entity? Can materialism explain free will? Let’s dwell on these questions and try to understand more about the role of human consciousness in a quantum system.

Five white-colored humanoid robots sitting side by side at a table with headsets on and staring into laptops in front of   them.
If reality is composed of just matter and energy and these are governed by well-behaved, mathematically expressed laws of nature, then human beings are just automata, with no ability to do other than we do, no ability to make choices, no ethical responsibility.
(Image: Phonlamai Photo/Shutterstock)

Matter and Energy

Quantum theory has been used in support of materialism, as well, to give us a proposed material theory of consciousness. Sir Roger Penrose, the British mathematician, and theoretical physicist has argued that it is quantum effects that give rise to the sense we have of free will.

Dualism—that there’s more to reality than just matter and energy—has to solve the problem of interaction. How do material objects and ideas work with each other if they are completely different? Materialism has no such problem because there is only one kind of thing, but it has its own challenge—free will.

If the universe is just matter and energy and these behave according to well-behaved, mathematically expressed laws of nature, then we are just automata. We cannot do other than we do. We do not make choices. We have no ethical responsibility. We do not live the lives we think we live.

Learn more about the brain and self.

Are Human Actions Deterministic or Non-Deterministic?

There are two possible approaches for materialists to take. First, they could try to save some sense of non-determinism in human action based on the laws of nature. They can try to argue that a universe is a well-behaved place, but that doesn’t mean that human actions are a deterministic product of history and environment.

The second approach is to give in on the question of free will, to accept that human actions are not the result of conscious deliberation, but to explain why they seem so much like they are. They have to explain away our sense of free will.

Penrose takes the former line. He starts with the simple proposition that our actions are controlled by the brain, which is made up of cells called neurons. All human actions, even the simplest movement, require an incredibly intricate choreography of neuronal activity. Neurons throughout the brain form intricate networks. Neurons work together by the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters that allow for the flow of electrical charge between them.

When one neuron releases a particular chemical into the gap between the cells, it will either facilitate or stop an exchange of electrical signals. And it’s the propagation of these electrical signals through the brain that results in bodily movement.

Sir Roger Penrose standing on a stage with his hands clasped against his stomach, a white screen with a complex diagram is   visible behind him.
Sir Roger Penrose believes that an entangled quantum system exists within the brain in a superposed state, and quantum consciousness causes the superposed state to collapse. (Image: Biswarup Ganguly/CC BY 3.0/Public domain)

One part of the neuron that aids in the delivery of neurotransmitters are what we call microtubules. These are small, thin tubes of a protein called tubulin. Their shape, being long tubes and their presence in all neurons has led Penrose to consider that they may be more than just pipes. It may be that the structure of the inside of the microtubules is such that it creates within the cell, and then between cells, an entangled quantum system.

Being inside of a tube, this structure may be sufficiently isolated from the effects of the environment outside the body on the brain to remain—at least for a while—in a superposed state. This superposed state eventually is acted upon by the chemical environment of the brain, causing the superposed state to collapse, and the firing of a particular constellation of neurons. Because this process involves a necessarily quantum level process, there will be in this fully material system an element which is necessarily non-computable.

In other words, the brain is nothing but a physical system, working according to physical laws, but because the structure of the brain is so fine, there may be a quantum level effect that makes our actions not determinable. We are governed by the laws of physics completely, but that does not mean that our actions or our intentions are uniquely determined by the environment and the absolute laws of the universe.

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Further, since the quantum states of these microtubules are coherent—that is, entwined into a single system—it means that this sort of quantum consciousness involves the structure of the entire brain the way we would expect it to. So, free will does not look like what we think it looks. It’s not that we have a rational agency that has no dependence on the physical universe, but we’re not robots acting at the whim of absolute physical rules either.

Learn more about the rediscovery of the mind.

Mind is More than the Sum of its Parts

There’s controversy over this theory and whether findings in neuroanatomy are supporting or undermining the theory. However, the idea that quantum effects might be responsible for introducing indeterministic elements into the functioning of a material brain is one significant approach to trying to maintain the reductionist claim that what physics says there is, is all there is.

But one can hold that there are only material elements to reality, and also hold that the mind is not completely describable by the laws of physics. Recall that reductionism buys into two different presuppositions—first, that everything, in reality, is made up of atoms, energy, and the stuff of physics; and second, that the laws of physics are all that’s needed to explain the behavior of these physical systems.

Some thinkers accept the first but deny the second. That is, they hold that the ultimate constituents of the world are only things in the vocabulary of particle physicists, but that when you put them together in intricate ways something new emerges from the structure. And that it’s greater than the sum of its parts in such a fashion that physics is insufficient to account for it.

Mind, consciousness, and life are emergent properties, that is, they involve nothing more than bits of physics, but become more than that when put together properly.

Learn more about defining reality.

Otto Neurath and the Picture Language Isotype

This view was championed in the first half of the 20th century by the Austrian sociologist, economist, and philosopher Otto Neurath. Neurath was quite the character—a huge, hulking man with flaming red hair, he had a loud voice, a booming laugh, and a presence that announced him in any room he entered.

Neurath was not only a powerful figure in early 20th-century social science but a deep thinker about the place and power of science. He believed that science education was essential to social advancement and good governance, but worried that the language of science—mathematics—would be difficult for those who had to work and couldn’t receive higher education.

An iron information board hanging from a metal rod supported by metal chains, and the board has the universal symbols depicting male and female public restrooms.
Austrian sociologist, economist, and philosopher Otto Neurath wanted to communicate science to the masses using a new language that was visually evocative instead of using equations, and so he created a picture language called isotype, and we encounter isotype sysmbols everyday such as public restroom signs. (Image: Anna Potiavina/Shutterstock)

He thought that science could be communicated to the masses, but it would require a new way of expressing mathematical relationships, a new language that was visually evocative instead of using equations. The result was isotype—a picture language.

We all encounter isotype symbols every day. Walk to a public restroom and figure out which is the men’s room and which is the women’s room by looking at the symbol, that was Neurath. Go to an intersection and know when to cross and when to wait, those are isotype symbols flashing at the crosswalk.

In theorizing about science, Neurath disagreed with his fellow thinkers in Vienna, who were arguing the strict reductionist line. He was a sociologist and they were largely physicists. Of course, they thought they held the key to all human knowledge; but physics, he thought, would never completely account for complex social interactions.

Not that it was irrelevant, but that there needed to be more at higher levels. Scientific fields, he thought, were like balloons placed next to each other. Squeeze one and it expands, pressing into the ones next to them and reshaping them, and causing them to push against those next to them.

Physics and chemistry share a boundary, and it’s a squishy one that’s influenced by pressures from both fields. But while one may help reshape the other, they are, in the end, separate balloons with their subject matters, their vocabularies, and methods to study phenomena that happen at different levels.

Chemical reactions are, underneath, nothing but the interplay of atoms with their various subatomic parts, but the complexity is in part due to the chemical structures that require a fundamentally chemical explanation with chemical concepts and chemical methods. And so it is for biology, psychology, sociology, and economics.

According to this view, the physicists may have given us all the furniture of the universe, but we can’t have a complete understanding of reality if we don’t pay close attention to how the interior decorator functions. It’s not just the pieces we need to understand, but we’ll redefine reality further if we understand what emerges from those pieces. And of all the aspects of the universe that emerge, perhaps none is more intricate, more fascinating, and more complicated than life.

Common Questions about the Material Theory of Consciousness and Free Will

Q: What is Roger Penrose famous for?

English mathematician and theoretical physicist Sir Roger Penrose has argued that it is quantum effects that give rise to the sense we have of free will. In other words, he argues that quantum consciousness is a reality and it’s this quantum nature of human consciousness that enables us to experience a life led by free will.

Q: Is consciousness a quantum phenomenon?

The brain is nothing but a physical system, working according to physical laws, but because the structure of the brain is so fine, there may be a quantum level effect that makes human actions not determinable. If this were true, it means that this sort of quantum consciousness involves the structure of the entire brain the way we would expect it to. So, free will does not look like what we think it looks.

Q: Does consciousness collapse the wave function?

According to Sir Roger Penrose, an entangled quantum system exists within the brain, and it’s sufficiently isolated from the effects of the environment outside the body on the brain to remain in a superposed state. This superposed state eventually is acted upon by the chemical environment of the brain, causing the superposed state to collapse, and the firing of a particular constellation of neurons. In other words, quantum consciousness caused the wave function to collapse.

Q: What does isotype stand for?

Isotype is a picture language that Austrian sociologist, economist, and philosopher Otto Neurath came up with. He thought that science could be communicated to the masses, but it would require a new way of expressing mathematical relationships, a new language that was visually evocative instead of using equations.

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