David Pearce

Nonmaterialist Physicalism: An Experimentally Testable Conjecture


Ingo Niermann

How the World Makes Itself Up


David Pearce



You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.
Francis Crick



Mankind’s most successful story of the world, natural science, leaves the existence of consciousness wholly unexplained. The phenomenal binding problem deepens the mystery. Neither classical nor quantum physics seem to allow the binding of distributively processed neuronal micro-experiences into unitary experiential objects apprehended by a unitary phenomenal self. This paper argues that if physicalism and the ontological unity of science are to be saved, then we will need to revise our notions of both 1) the intrinsic nature of the physical and 2) the quasi-classicality of neurons. In conjunction, these two hypotheses yield a novel and bizarre but experimentally testable prediction of quantum superpositions (“Schrödinger’s cat states”) of neuronal feature-processors in the central nervous system (CNS) at sub-femtosecond timescales. An experimental protocol using in vitro neuronal networks is described to confirm or empirically falsify this conjecture via molecular matter-wave interferometry.



1. Introduction

2. Preliminary Definitions

3. Criteria for a Scientifically Adequate Theory of Conscious Mind

4. Challenges to Nonmaterialist Physicalism

5. Phenomenal Binding Is the Hallmark of Mind

6. Can Physicalism be Saved?

7. What Is It Like To Be Schrödinger’s Cat?

8. Schrödinger’s Neurons: The Experimental Protocol

9. Femto-Mind Meets Quantum Darwinism

10. A Mendeleev Table for Qualia?

11. Towards a Post-Galilean Science of Mind

12. Summary and Prospects



Natural science promises a complete story of the universe. No “element of reality”1 should be missing from the mathematical formalism of physics, i.e., relativistic quantum field theory2 or its more speculative extensions. On pain of magic, every gross property of the natural world must be theoretically reducible to fundamental physics. The Standard Model in physics is experimentally well tested. Within its conceptual framework, consciousness would seem not only causally impotent but physically impossible. Hence the “explanatory gap”3 and the “Hard Problem”4 of consciousness.

In recent years, a minority of researchers have proposed that the Hard Problem is an artifact of materialist metaphysics. Contra Kant,5 but following Schopenhauer,6 Bertrand Russell,7 Grover Maxwell,8 Michael Lockwood,9 Galen Strawson10 et al., the new idealists conjecture that the phenomenology of one’s mind reveals the intrinsic nature of the physical—the elusive “fire” in the equations about which physics is silent (as Stephen Hawking says).11 Mathematical physics yields an exhaustive description of the relational-structural properties of the world. This description may ultimately be encoded by the universal wavefunction of post-Everett12 quantum mechanics. However, our presupposition that the intrinsic character of the physical lacks phenomenal properties is an additional metaphysical assumption. The assumption is hugely plausible but it is not a scientific discovery. Perhaps most tellingly, the only part of the “fire” in the equations to which one ever enjoys direct access, i.e., one’s own consciousness, discloses phenomenal properties that are inconsistent with a materialist ontology. For reasons unexplained, the natural world contains first-person facts. The world supports at least one non-zombie. And natural science gives no reason to believe that one is special.

Untestability cuts both ways. Any conjecture that superpositions of the world’s fundamental quantum fields—and, presumably, fundamental macroscopic quantum phenomena such as superconductors or superfluid helium—are intrinsically experiential would seem unfalsifiable too: just speculative metaphysics. Rather surprisingly, we shall see this isn’t the case.



Both physics and philosophy are jargon-ridden. So let us first define some key concepts.

Both consciousness and physical are contested terms. Accurately if inelegantly, consciousness may be described following Nagel as the subjective “what-it’s-like-ness” of experience. Academic philosophers term such self-intimating “raw feels” qualia, whether macroqualia or microqualia. The minimum unit of consciousness (or psychon) has been claimed variously to be the entire universe, a person, a subpersonal neural network, an individual neuron, or the most basic entities recognised by quantum physics. In The Principles of Psychology (1890), American philosopher and psychologist William James christened these phenomenal simples “primordial mind-dust”. This paper conjectures first that our minds consist of ultrarapidly decohering neuronal superpositions in strict accordance with unmodified quantum physics without the mythical collapse of the wavefunction; second, that natural selection has harnessed the properties of these neuronal superpositions so our minds run phenomenally bound world-simulations; and it then predicts that with enough ingenuity the nonclassical interference signature of these conscious neuronal superpositions will be independently experimentally detectable (see section 8 below) to the satisfaction of the most incredulous critic.

The physical may be contrasted with the supernatural or the abstract; dualists and epiphenomenalists contrast the physical with the mental. The current absence of any satisfactory positive definition of the physical leads many philosophers of science to adopt instead the via negativa. Thus some materialists have sought stipulatively to define the physical in terms of an absence of phenomenal experience. However, these a priori definitions of the physical beg the question.

Physicalism is sometimes treated as the formalistic claim that the natural world is exhaustively described by the equations of physics and their solutions. Beyond these structural-relational properties of matter and energy, the term is also often used to make an ontological claim about the intrinsic character of whatever the equations describe. This intrinsic character, or metaphysical essence, is typically assumed to be nonphenomenal. Strawsonian physicalists and other nonmaterialist physicalists dispute any such assumption. Traditional reductive physicalism proposes that the properties of larger entities are determined by properties of their physical parts. If the wavefunction monism of post-Everett quantum mechanics assumed here is true, then the world does not contain discrete physical parts as understood by classical physics. If contemporary physicalism is true, reductionism is false.

Materialism is the metaphysical doctrine that the world is made of intrinsically nonphenomenal “stuff”. Materialism and physicalism are often treated as cousins and sometimes as mere stylistic variants, with physicalism used as a nod to how bosonic fields, for example, are not matter. Physicalistic materialism is the claim that physical reality is fundamentally nonexperiential and that the natural world is exhaustively described by the equations of physics and their solutions.

Panpsychism is the doctrine that the world’s fundamental physical stuff also has primitive experiential properties. Unlike the physicalistic idealism explored here, panpsychism doesn’t claim that the world’s fundamental physical stuff is experiential. Panpsychism is best treated as a form of property-dualism.

Epiphenomenalism in philosophy of mind is the view that experience is caused by material states or events in the brain but does not itself cause anything; the causal efficacy of mental agency is an illusion.

For our purposes, idealism is the ontological claim that reality is fundamentally experiential. This use of the term should be distinguished from Berkeleyan idealism, and more generally, from subjective idealism, i.e., the doctrine that only mental contents exist: that reality is mind-dependent. One potential source of confusion of contemporary scientific idealism with traditional philosophical idealism is the use by inferential realists in the theory of perception of the term world-simulation. The mind-dependence of one’s phenomenal world-simulation, i.e., the quasi-classical world of one’s everyday experience, does not entail the idealist claim that the mind-independent physical world is intrinsically experiential in nature—a far bolder conjecture that we nonetheless tentatively defend here.

Physicalistic idealism is the nonmaterialist physicalist claim that reality is fundamentally experiential and that the natural world is exhaustively described by the equations of physics and their solutions. More specifically, the natural world is described by the continuous, linear, unitary evolution of the universal wavefunction of post-Everett quantum mechanics.

The decoherence program in contemporary theoretical physics aims to show in a rigorously quantitative manner how quasi-classicality emerges from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics. Environmentally induced quantum decoherence explains the appearance to observers of wavefunction collapse.

Monism is the conjecture that reality consists of a single kind of “stuff”—be it material, experiential, spiritual, or whatever. Wavefunction monism is the view that the universal wavefunction mathematically represents, exhaustively, all there is in the world. Strictly speaking, wavefunction monism shouldn’t be construed as the claim that reality literally consists of a certain function, i.e., a mapping from some mind-wrenchingly immense configuration space to the complex numbers, but rather as the claim that every mathematical property of the wavefunction, except the overall phase, corresponds to some property of the physical world. Dualism, the conjecture that reality consists of two kinds of “stuff”, comes in many flavours: naturalistic and theological; interactionist and noninteractionist; property and ontological. In the modern era, most scientifically literate monists have been materialists. But to describe oneself as both a physicalist and a monistic idealist is not the schizophrenic word salad it sounds at first blush.

Functionalism in philosophy of mind is the theory that mental states are constituted solely by their functional role, i.e., by their causal relations to other mental states, perceptual inputs and behavioural outputs. Functionalism is often associated with the idea of “substrate-neutrality”, sometimes misnamed “substrate-independence”, according to which minds can be realised in multiple substrates and at multiple levels of abstraction. However, microfunctionalists may dispute substrate-neutrality on the grounds that one or more properties of mind, for example phenomenal binding, functionally implicate the world’s quantum-mechanical bedrock from which the quasi-classical worlds of Everett’s multiverse emerge. Thus this paper will argue that only successive, quantum-coherent, neuronal superpositions at preposterously short timescales can explain phenomenal binding. Without phenomenal binding, no functionally adaptive classical world-simulations could exist in the first instance.

The binding problem,13 also called the combination problem, refers to the mystery of how the micro-experiences mediated by supposedly discrete and distributed neuronal edge-detectors, motion-detectors, shape-detectors, colour-detectors, etc., can be “bound” into unitary experiential objects (“local” binding) apprehended by a unitary experiential self (“global” binding). Neuro-electrode studies using awake, verbally competent human subjects confirm that neuronal micro-experiences exist. Classical neuroscience cannot explain how they could ever be phenomenally bound. As normally posed, the binding problem assumes rather than derives the emergence of classicality.

Mereology is the theory of the relations between parts and the whole and the relations between part to part within a whole. Scientifically literate humans find it natural and convenient to think of particles, macromolecules, or neurons as having their own individual wavefunctions by which they can be formally represented. However, the manifest nonclassicality of phenomenal binding means that in some contexts we must consider describing the entire mind-brain via a single wavefunction. Organic minds are not simply the mereological sum of discrete, decohered classical parts. Sentient organic brains are not simply the mereological sum of discrete, decohered, classical neurons.

Quantum field theory (QFT) is the formal, mathematico-physical description of the natural world. The world is made up of the states of interacting quantum fields, conventionally nonexperiential in character, that take on discrete values. Physicists use mathematical entities known as wavefunctions to represent quantum states. Wavefunctions may be conceived as representing all the possible configurations of a superposed quantum system. Wavefunction(al)s are complex-valued functionals on the space of field configurations. Wavefunctions in quantum mechanics are sinusoidal functions with an amplitude (a “measure”) and also a phase. The Schrödinger equation describes the time-evolution of a wavefunction.

Coherence means that the phases of the wavefunction are kept constant between the coherent particles, macromolecules or (hypothetically) neurons, while decoherence is the effective loss of ordering of the phase angles between the components of a system in a quantum superposition due to interactions with the environment. Such thermally induced “dephasing” rapidly leads to the emergence—on a perceptual, naive, realist story—of classical, i.e., probabilistically additive, behaviour in the CNS, and also the illusory appearance of separate, noninterfering, organic macromolecules. Hence the discrete, decohered, classical neurons of laboratory microscopy and biology textbooks. Unlike classical physics, quantum mechanics deals with superpositions of probability amplitudes rather than of probabilities; hence the interference terms in the probability distribution. Decoherence should be distinguished from dissipation, i.e., the loss of energy from a system—a much slower, classical effect. Phase coherence is a quantum phenomenon with no classical analogue. If quantum theory is universally true, then any physical system such as a molecule, a neuron, a neuronal network or an entire mind-brain exists partly in all its theoretically allowed states, or configuration of its physical properties, simultaneously in a quantum superposition; informally, a “Schrödinger’s cat state”, a weighted combination of all possible measurement outcomes. Each state is formally represented by a complex vector (technically a ray, or one-dimensional subspace) in the infinite-dimensional analogue of Euclidean space known as Hilbert space. Whatever overall state the nervous system is in can be represented as being a superposition of varying amounts of these particular states (“eigenstates”) where the amount that each eigenstate contributes to the overall sum is termed a component.

The Schrödinger equation is a partial differential equation that describes how the state of a physical system changes with time. The Schrödinger equation acts on the entire probability amplitude, not merely its absolute value. The absolute value of the probability amplitude encodes information about probability densities, so to speak, whereas its phase encodes information about the interference between quantum states. On measurement by an experimenter, the value of the physical quantity in a quantum superposition will naively seem to “collapse” in an irreducibly stochastic manner, with a probability equal to the square of the coefficient of the superposition in the linear combination. If the superposition principle really breaks down in the mind-brain, as traditional Copenhagen positivists still believe, then the central conjecture of this paper is false.

Mereological nihilism, also known as compositional nihilism, is the philosophical position that objects with proper parts do not exist, whether extended in space or in time. Only basic building blocks (particles, fields, superstrings, branes, information, micro-experiences, quantum superpositions, entangled states, or whatever) without parts exist. Such ontological reductionism is untenable if the mind-brain supports macroscopic quantum coherence in the guise of bound phenomenal states because coherent neuronal superpositions describe individual physical states. Coherent superpositions of neuronal feature-detectors cannot be interpreted as classical ensembles of states. Radical ontological reductionism is even more problematic if post-Everett14 quantum mechanics is correct in its claim that reality is exhaustively described by the time-evolution of one gigantic, universal wavefunction. If such wavefunction monism is true, then talk of how neuronal superpositions are rapidly “destroyed” is just a linguistic convenience because a looser, heavily disguised coherence persists within a higher-level Schrödinger equation (or its relativistic generalisation) that subsumes the previously tighter entanglement within a hierarchy of wavefunctions, all ultimately subsumed within the universal wavefunction.

Direct realism, also known as naive realism, is the prescientific view that the mind-brain is directly acquainted with the external world. In contrast, the world-simulation model15 assumed here treats the mind-brain as running a data-driven simulation of gross, fitness-relevant patterns in the mind-independent environment. As an inferential realist, the world-simulationist is not committed per se to any kind of idealist ontology, physicalistic or otherwise. However, s/he will understand phenomenal consciousness as broader in scope compared to the traditional perceptual direct realist. The world-simulationist will also be less confident than the direct realist that we have any kind of pretheoretic conceptual handle on the nature of the physical beyond the formalism of theoretical physics—and our own phenomenally bound, physical consciousness.

Classical worlds are what perceptual direct realists call the world. Quantum theory suggests that the multiverse exists in an inconceivably vast cosmological superposition. Yet within our individual perceptual world-simulations, familiar macroscopic objects 1) occupy definite positions (the “preferred basis” problem); 2) don’t readily display quantum interference effects; and 3) yield well-defined outcomes when experimentally probed. Cats are either dead or alive, not dead-and-alive. Or, as one scientific populariser puts it, “Where Does All the Weirdness Go?”16 This paper argues that the answer lies under our virtual noses, so to speak—though independent physical proof to silence sceptics will depend on next-generation matter-wave interferometry. Phenomenally bound classical world-simulations are the mind-dependent signature of the quantum “weirdness”. Without the superposition principle, no phenomenally bound classical world-simulations could exist and nor could minds. In short, we shouldn’t imagine superpositions of live-and-dead cats but instead think of superpositions of colour-, shape-, edge- and motion-processing neurons. Thanks to natural selection, the content of our waking world-simulations typically appears classical but the vehicle of the simulation that our minds run is inescapably quantum. If the world were classical it wouldn’t look like anything to anyone.

A zombie, sometimes called a philosophical zombie or p-zombie to avoid confusion with its lumbering Hollywood cousins, is a hypothetical organism that is materially and behaviourally identical to humans and other organic sentients but which is not conscious. Philosophers explore the epistemological question of how each of us can know that we aren’t surrounded by p-zombies. Yet we face a mystery deeper than the old sceptical problem of other minds. If our ordinary understanding of the fundamental nature of matter and energy as described by physics is correct, and if our neurons are effectively decohered classical objects as suggested by standard neuroscience, then we all ought to be zombies. Following David Chalmers, this is called the Hard Problem of consciousness.



A scientifically adequate theory of conscious mind must explain:

1) Why consciousness exists at all.

2) How consciousness has the causal power to allow intelligent agents to investigate its own nature.

3) How consciousness can be phenomenally bound in seemingly classically forbidden ways into unitary dynamic objects. In other words, which of the world’s information-processing systems are unitary subjects of experience and which are mere aggregates or “zombies”?

4) Why and how consciousness manifests its diverse textures—ranging from phenomenal colours, sounds, tastes and smells, pains and pleasures, the experience of introspecting a thought-episode, feeling pangs of jealousy, hearing an orchestra play, admiring a sunset, to finding a joke amusing. In our mathematico-physical theory of everything (TOE), where is the information that yields the disparate values of experience?

Finally, 5), any satisfactory scientific theory of consciousness should also offer predictions that are both novel and experimentally falsifiable.



David Chalmers17 identifies two challenges faced by any claim that consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical:

a) the argument from microphysical simplicity.

b) the argument from structural mismatch.

Let us look at these two challenges in turn.


a) The argument that if physicalistic idealism is true, then “we can expect only a handful of microqualities, corresponding to the handful of fundamental microphysical properties” is intuitively appealing. After all, runs this line of argument, every electron in the world is type-identical to every other electron. Electrons are exceedingly simple. After we have specified the mass, charge and spin of an electron, what else is there to say? An electron “has no hair”. Or more technically, after we have given the four quantum numbers that completely describe the electron, namely its principal quantum number (n), azimuthal quantum number (l), magnetic quantum number (m) and spin quantum number (s), what else is there left to add?

However, in quantum field theory rather than basic quantum mechanics, there are no particles, only fields and field quanta. What we call “particles” by cosy analogy with classical physics are emergent entities supervenient on the underlying quantum fields. So if, instead of a particle-based ontology, the monistic idealist assumes a quantum field-theoretic ontology, then the diverse values of the world’s fundamental fields yield the diverse subjective textures of microqualia, a vast palette of different qualia-field values. All physical systems, including macroscopic neural networks, are quantum fields. To be sure, in our present ignorance we don’t know how to “read off” the diverse values of microqualia from superpositions of the diverse values of the different fundamental fields. We lack any kind of cosmic Rosetta stone. But on this physicalistic idealist conjecture, there is no “element of reality” lacking in the quantum field-theoretic formalism that encodes the world’s fundamental micro-experiences. Algorithmically compressed into mathematical equations, the information encoding the exact textures of qualia-field values just awaits extraction. For in contemporary physics, fields (or indeed superstrings or branes18) are defined purely mathematically, even though their experimentally manipulable effects show that the fields are physically real. These fields take a vast range of values (“numbers in space”) with a (conventionally) infinite number of degrees of freedom. Crudely, on this account, “more is different”—micro-experientially different. Critically, these fields are not classical. Overcoming Chalmers’s second challenge to physicalistic idealism, i.e., b), the argument from structural mismatch, turns on recognising that fields in quantum field theory exist in quantum superpositions of states. These quantum superpositions may be microscopic, mesoscopic, or macroscopic; all are subject to the laws of quantum physics.


b) The argument that the “macrophenomenal structure of my visual field is prima facie very different from the macrophysical structure of my brain” seems intuitively obvious too. Yet this intuitive appeal may simply reflect the coarse-grained temporal resolution of our tools for investigating awake/dreaming mind-brains: a resolution of milliseconds not picoseconds, femtoseconds or attoseconds. Appearances of a structural mismatch between neuroscience and phenomenology may be deceptive. There is no experimental evidence for a breakdown of the superposition principle in the mind-brain. What the textbooks describe as synchronous firings of classical neuronal feature-detectors19 may turn out to be successive quantum-coherent superpositions of the relevant neuronal feature-detectors. We won’t know whether superposition is masquerading to experimental neuroscience as synchrony until advanced interferometry experimentally settles the issue independently. If empirically confirmed, the detection of such sub-femtosecond neuronal superpositions would render a stunningly beautiful result; the experimental confirmation of what sounds naively like unbridled metaphysical speculation.

Let us use a nonbiological analogy. If physicalistic idealism is true, then the macrophenomenal structure of superfluid helium presumably consists of a simple, unvarying, long-lived, irreducible macro-experience: a perfect structural match between formal and subjective properties of the world. Of course, humans will never know what, if anything, it is like to instantiate the wavefunction that describes superfluid helium. But when our experimental apparatus allows probing the CNS at the sub-femtosecond timescales below which scientists such as Max Tegmark posit effectively irreversible thermally induced decoherence, then our classical intuitions may be confounded. On this conjecture, we will find not random quantum “noise” but instead the structural quantum-coherent physical shadows of the bound macroscopic phenomenal objects of everyday experience, all computationally optimised by hundreds of millions of years of evolution to track fitness-relevant patterns in the mind-independent world. This would offer a perfect structural match between the phenomenology of consciousness and our canonical representations of the physical. According to the conjecture here explored, training up our neural networks ensures that some neuronal states of the CNS are less prone to thermally induced decoherence than others. It is these comparatively robust experiential-physical states, most notably the perceptual objects of everyday experience, that experimentalists will detect in the CNS when molecular matter-wave interferometry catches up with theory. So when you report “I can see a chair,” and (on the conventional classical story) synchronous activation of your relevant neuronal feature-detectors occurs, the conjecture will be falsified if the subtle nonclassical neuronal interference effects typically detected are irrelevant “noise”, say a sub-attosecond superposition of the neurons synchronously activated when you see a hippopotamus, for example. In other words, the putative mismatch that Chalmers identifies between the phenomenology of our bound phenomenal minds and the architecture of the brain may turn out to be an artifact of the low temporal resolution of our clumsy tools of investigation.

This is, most certainly, an unintuitive hypothesis. Yet the neurological implausibility of such a fine-grained temporal match should be set against the physical incredibility of the alternatives. From the perspective of natural science, the discovery of a true structural mismatch between physics and phenomenology in the CNS would be more astonishing than the previously unsuspected isomorphism between the phenomenal and the physical canvassed here. Such a rupture in the fabric of reality would spell the end of physicalism—an epistemic catastrophe for the unity of science. Unlike his critics, Chalmers is right to recognise the magnitude of the structural mismatch problem for orthodox materialism and classical panpsychism alike. Chalmers just quits the game too soon. He embraces what must surely count as a counsel of despair: dualism. Monistic physicalism can still be saved. Physicalism would be unsalvageable only if the brain were no more than a networked community of discrete, effectively classical neurons—or their idealist counterpart, i.e., discrete, effectively classical neuronal “mind-dust”—rather than a succession of macroscopic, neuronal superpositions that make up one’s everyday phenomenal world. Monistic physicalism isn’t falsified by a structural mismatch between the three-dimensional space of naive, perceptual realism and conscious mind. Monistic physicalism would be falsified only by a structural mismatch between the bound phenomenology of our minds and the fundamental, high-dimensional space required by the dynamics of the wavefunction. No such mismatch has ever been experimentally demonstrated to date.



The only realities are the separate molecules, or at most cells. Their aggregation into a “brain” is a fiction of popular speech.
William James


The existence of bound phenomenal minds rather than cellular mind-dust suggests that separate molecules and nerve cells are a fiction of classical neuromythology. Solving the binding problem has been perhaps the greatest cognitive achievement of post-Cambrian20 central nervous systems. Without phenomenal binding, members of the animal kingdom wouldn’t have minds at all—or classical-seeming world-simulations they could navigate. Over the past half-billion or more years, the mind-brains of unprogrammed organic robots have evolved under the pressure of natural selection to run data-driven, cross-modally matched egocentric world-simulations of their local environment in almost real time. The extraordinary computational power of binding is most vividly illustrated in neurological syndromes where local or global phenomenal binding partially breaks down. Patients with simultanagnosia,21 for example, can see only one phenomenal object at once. Those suffering from cerebral akinetopsia22 are unable to detect motion. People with florid schizophrenia suffer from the disintegration of a unitary self. Even partial loss of phenomenal binding may be intellectually debilitating and behaviourally catastrophic. Neurotypical minds carry off such computational feats with ease. Unfortunately, a neuroscientific explanation is elusive.

By way of context, the phenomenal binding problem is normally posed roughly as follows: How can what neuroscience suggests are distributively neurally processed edges, colours, shapes, motions etc. be “bound” into unitary experiential objects populating a unitary experiential field instantiated by a fleetingly unitary self in the neural networks of the CNS? Such phenomenal binding would seem impossible for discrete, membrane-bound, quasi-classical neurons—or quasi-classical “mind-dust” on a physicalistic idealist ontology—separated by circa 3.5 nanometre electrical gap-junctions and 20-40 nanometre chemical synapses. Mere synchronous activation of discrete, decohered, classical systems cannot bind—any more than discrete, skull-bound minds each undergoing a pinprick causes the emergence of a global mega-mind in agony, or a musical symphony emerges from discrete, skull-bound minds each instantiating a musical note. Whether causally connected or otherwise, synchronously activated classical “pixels” of experience remain unglued. Phenomenal mind is not a classical phenomenon. Neither are the pseudoclassical world-simulations run by our waking minds. Chalmers is right on that score. Does quantum mind-binding fare any better?

On the face of it, no. Decoherence is among the fastest processes known to experimental physics. By contrast, we normally assume that states of consciousness somehow arise via neural transmission over a timescale of milliseconds. Yet unless, implausibly, quantum theory breaks down in the mind–brain—as in so-called “dynamical collapse” or “hidden variables” theories of quantum mechanics—macroscopic, quantum-coherent states implicating such neurologically distributed cellular processes of feature-processing must exist in the CNS. What is in question is only their character: noise or signal? Classical neuroscience assumes that these neuronal superpositions are irrelevant to consciousness.

To make our point, let’s pose a concrete question. When one apprehends a bound phenomenal object in one’s world-simulation, what does it feel like to instantiate successive, quantum-coherent, macro-superpositions of colour-detector neurons, motion-detector neurons, edge-detector neurons etc. with each macro-superposition in the sequence lasting what theory suggests must be a femtosecond or less? The obvious answer to the question of what it feels like to instantiate such a sequence of neuronal superpositions is “nothing at all”—or perhaps computationally incidental “psychotic noise”—because environment-induced decoherence effectively destroys macroscopic neuronal superpositions in the CNS at sub-femtosecond timescales. Quantum coherence is for all practical purposes irreversibly delocalised into the larger CNS–environment combination though uncontrolled environmental entanglement. On the standard neuroscientific story, our conscious macro-experiences of bound phenomenal objects apprehended by a unitary phenomenal self somehow “arise” instead from patterns of classical, decohered neuronal action potentials synchronously firing over timescales of milliseconds. Yet an answer of “nothing at all” to the question of what it feels like to instantiate a sub-femtosecond neuronal superposition is not a possible response for the nonmaterialist physicalist. For if nonmaterialist physicalism is true, then phenomenal simples are the world’s intrinsic physical properties—the “fire” in the equations of quantum field theory. A fleeting, macroscopic, neuronal superposition is just such a phenomenal simple: it’s not an aggregate or classical ensemble of anything more primitive. Classical glue cannot bind; quantum-coherent glue cannot do anything else; thermally induced decoherence in the CNS explains just how rapidly our fragile minds become unstuck. Thus decoherence can be viewed as a progressive phenomenal unbinding—in other words, effective dephasing is a solution to the phenomenal unbinding problem. The universal wavefunction is not a mind.

The alternative to such a perfect structural match hypothesis is equally stark. Unless we abandon the conceptual framework of physicalism, then mere synchronous23 neuronal firings cannot phenomenally bind purely classical neurons or neuronal “mind-dust” into cross-modally matched phenomenal objects, nor a spatiotemporally unitary perceptual field, nor a transiently unitary phenomenal self. Mere synchronous neuronal firings cannot bind any more than, say, synchronous activation and reciprocal, electromagnetic communications could phenomenally bind a community of skull-bound American minds. It is not that we can disprove Eric Schwitzgebel’s claim that “if materialism is true, the United States is probably conscious.”24 Rather, the emergence of such a unitary pancontinental subject of experience would be unexplained and inexplicable—a miracle in all but name. Such spooky “strong” ontological emergence would violate physicalism in a most spectacular way. By the same token, if our 86 billion-odd neurons always behaved as essentially classical systems, as they do in a dreamless sleep or coma, then the emergence of a unitary pancerebral subject of experience, a “person”, would be inexplicable as well. Such spooky strong emergence would violate physicalism too.

Of course, the difference between the USA and the mind-brain is that—unlike a hypothetical, pancontinental subject of experience—it’s hard to treat the existence of one’s own conscious mind as simply a conjecture. Rather the existence of one’s bound, conscious mind is what needs to be explained—unless you happen to be a philosophical zombie.

That said, eliminative materialists like Daniel Dennett25 are right to recognise that qualia (raw phenomenal experiences) are impossible within a materialist ontology. More particularly, eliminative materialists are right to recognise that the existence of qualia in the brain—as understood by classical materialistic neuroscience—is a physical impossibility, whether the existence of phenomenal symphonies, chairs, tables, mountains or the whole panoply of lived experience. Yet this alleged impossibility derives from a combination of our classical misrepresentations of the mind-brain; our temporally coarse-grained observations of other central nervous systems; and our quasi-hardwired perceptual naive realism with the crude, materialist ontology it spawns. We are not entitled to infer that humans must be insentient zombies on the grounds that our materialist ontology can find no naturalistic place for sentience. The eliminative materialist who forgoes anaesthesia before surgery has yet to be born.

An obvious counterargument to such a (presently hypothetical) perfect fine-grained match between the phenomenology of our minds and the physical structure of the CNS is that we perceive our surroundings with a time lag of scores of milliseconds. Such a time lag is orders of magnitude too long for ultrarapidly thermally “destroyed” (i.e., lost to the environment in a thermodynamically irreversible way) quantum-coherent neuronal superpositions to be computationally relevant to perception.

This objection presupposes an untenable perceptual naive realism in which we directly “see” the mind-independent world—the same misconceived perceptual naive realism according to which a neurosurgeon directly “sees” the cheesy, wet nervous tissue constituting the mind-brain of an anaesthetised patient lying on his operating table prior to surgery.

Such perceptual naive realism may be compared with Bertrand Russell’s apt reminder that no one—not even a neurosurgeon in the operating theatre—ever “sees” anything but the inside of their own head. On our contrasting world-simulation model, the role of the local, mind-independent environment is essentially to select quantum-coherent superpositions of the awake mind/brain via optic (and other) nerve inputs with an evolutionarily minimised time lag.

If Tegmark’s calculations26—as distinct from his conclusions—are approximately correct, then our world-simulations must run at anything from around 1013 quantum-coherent neuronal “frames” per second up to a frame rate of up to 1020+ quantum-coherent neuronal “frames” per second. The fitness-relevant environmental patterns that they track in waking states lag behind their neural counterparts by a hundred or more milliseconds. In that sense, we always “live in the past”, but our waking world-simulations run in near-enough to real time for organic robots to behave flexibly and adaptively in an inhospitable environment.

A suggestive analogy here might be the persistence of vision undergone by organic minds watching a movie at 24 frames per second. Each composite frame of the movie can be rich, diverse and multifaceted despite the lack of perceptible individuality or any “gappiness” to our minds when the frame-sequence is run. The film would seem the same if it were a notional 1015 x 24-frames-per-second movie. However, the inner-theatre metaphor of mind can also mislead. This is because such a metaphor seems to generate an infinite regress of homunculi. How is the inner spectator supposed to view the internal scene if not by means of another inner spectator in turn, and so forth. In reality, our minds partly instantiate the virtual world-simulations they run. All analogies break down somewhere. The Cartesian theatre is no exception. Note that the phenomenal unity of perception at issue here is what philosophers call “synchronic” unity. No claim is being made about “diachronic” unity, the fictitious temporal persistence of an enduring metaphysical ego. Such enduring personal identity is fundamental to our conceptual scheme. Yet persisting selves are impossible to reconcile with a physicalistic world-picture, not least with the rapid, metabolic turnover of one’s constituents—or with the existence of one’s 10100 near-identical namesakes that post-Everett quantum mechanics implies partially decohered (“split”) since the start of this sentence.27 For expository convenience, the narrative fiction of enduring personal identity will here be retained. In principle, however, each ultrathin “slice” or quantum-coherent frame of episodic self could be labelled with its own numerical subscript.


A more robust a priori objection to quantum-mind hypotheses of phenomenal binding might run as follows: No, says the traditional materialist and coarse-grained functionalist, we don’t yet understand how consciousness arises from patterns of neuronal firings in the brain. But as reductive physicalists, we shouldn’t be surprised at the structural mismatch between the phenomenology of bound phenomenal objects and the microstructure of the brain any more than we should be surprised at the structural mismatch between video game characters and the program code running on the classical computer processor that executes them. There is no need to invoke quantum “woo” when well-understood classical physics and learning algorithms work just fine. Indeed, the same point could be made of a massively classical parallel, “sub-symbolic” connectionist28 information-processing system that lacks the transparent and projectable29 representations of a classical, serial computer. Connectionist systems are sometimes called “neural networks” in recognition of their closer gross architectural resemblance to the mind-brain than a programmable serial digital computer.

Unfortunately, this argument doesn’t work either. For sure, when speaking colloquially as though perceptual direct realism were true, we can talk about seeing visually bound video-game characters battling their way across a computer monitor. And yes, these classical computer-created videogame characters are generated via well-understood, classical computations. No need for quantum woo here. However, the manifest phenomenal binding is done entirely by—and is entirely internal to—the sentient organic minds playing the video game: it’s internal to the phenomenal world-simulations of the game’s players. Such binding is not a property of anything internal to the mind-independent computer display unit. Video-game characters lack true ontological integrity; they are not unitary subjects of experience running phenomenally bound world-simulations of their own. All that exists in the mind-independent world are thousands (or millions) of effectively discrete pixels on a monitor screen. Whether our fundamental ontology of the natural world is materialist, panpsychist or idealist in character, these effectively classical pixels do not generate phenomenally unitary subjects of experience that sentient minds engage in combat. Rather, their programmed patterns are part of the distal causal chain that culminates in the minds of organic sentients as video-game characters, i.e., their patterns on a monitor causally covary with the phenomenal game avatars populating the phenomenal gadgets of our phenomenal world-simulations. Effectively, there are no bound phenomena in our personal computers to be matched or mismatched.

In fairness, the insentience of digital zombies has been challenged (cf. “This guy thinks killing video game characters is immoral”30). Quantum mind-binding theory vindicates sceptical common sense here.

So what would an exact structural match between bound experiential objects and the superposition of state vectors of neuronal edge-, motion- and colour-detectors etc. over ultra-Tegmarkian timeframes entail? In “Are Perceptual Fields Quantum Fields?”31 Brian Flanagan aptly cites Paul Dirac’s Principles of Quantum Mechanics (1967):

When a state is formed by the superposition of two other states, it will have properties that are in some vague way intermediate between those of the original states and that approach more or less closely to those of either of them according to the greater or less “weight” attached to this state in the superposition process. The new state is completely defined by the two original states when their relative weights in the superposition process are known, together with a certain phase difference, the exact meaning of weights and phases being provided in the general case by the mathematical theory.


Of course, Dirac wasn’t assuming quantum-coherent superpositions of qualia-fields, but rather quantum-coherent superpositions of fields of nonphenomenal we-know-not-what. Moreover, Dirac was writing about quantum microphysics, not short-lived superpositions of mesoscopic and macroscopic phenomenal objects in warm, wet organic brains. Yet what if our traditional insistence on a nonphenomenal metaphysical essence to our field-theoretic ontology is dropped? Quantum field theory is no more inherently about fields of insentience than Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism is inherently about the properties of luminiferous aether. (Cf. Heinrich Hertz’s terse observation, “Maxwell’s theory is Maxwell’s equations.”) Neither theoretical physics nor the phenomenology of mind give any comfort to the idea that the superposition principle really breaks down in the CNS.



Picoseconds are of an unimaginably, mind-wrenchingly long duration compared to the fundamental Planck scale of around 10-43 seconds—over thirty orders of magnitude more protracted. Femtosecond, attosecond and even pancerebral, zeptosecond rates of environment-induced decoherence are still staggeringly long-drawn-out durations once we leave the everyday intuitions of folk chronology behind. Nonetheless, most neuroscientists would confidently predict that invoking an exact phenomenal-physical structural match at Tegmarkian temporal resolutions to solve the phenomenal binding problem is not just (potentially) falsifiable but false. All we will discover via interferometry in the warm and wet CNS at such timescales is an uninteresting, functionally irrelevant and effectively random thermally induced “noise”—not the structural shadows of bound phenomenal objects. After all, picoseconds are seven or eight orders of magnitude shorter than the widely accepted timeframe over which electrochemical, neuronal firings cause consciousness to “emerge”, inexplicably, in our central neural networks. And pancerebral quantum-coherent neuronal superpositions can credibly subsist only for sub-attosecond timeframes before the well-defined phase relations between the components of the superposition are lost, i.e., extended to the extraneuronal environment in a thermodynamically irreversible fashion.

Again, perhaps orthodoxy is correct. At issue here is a scientifically falsifiable conjecture, not a purely “philosophical” claim. Yet if folk neurochronology is vindicated, then the prospects for physicalism and the ontological unity of science are bleak or even nonexistent. If folk neurochronology is vindicated, something ontologically irreducible is present in the world and missing from the formalism of physics. The spectre of “strong” emergence rears its head—or, worse, dualism, whether avowedly “naturalistic” or otherwise. True, materialists and epiphenomenalists do not face the binding problem in quite the same way as the physicalistic idealist. Instead, bound phenomenal objects can simply “emerge” in the brain, like Athena sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus.

The ontological floodgates are opened.



So let us provisionally suppose, in defiance of orthodox neuroscience but in conformity with the formalism of unmodified quantum physics, that our prediction of a perfect physical-phenomenal, structural match in the CNS turns out to be correct, confounding Chalmers and thereby lending experimental weight to an idealist ontology of monistic physicalism. Rather than embrace epiphenomenalism or Chalmersian dualism, we may on this story transpose the entire mathematical machinery of modern physics to describe an idealist ontology. According to this proposal, sentient beings are wavefunctions in configuration space—fields of phenomenally bound, subjective experience whose exact textures are expressed by the values of two numbers, the amplitude and the phase, specified at every point in the universe’s configuration space: physicalistic idealism. Every mathematical property of the wavefunction (except the overall phase) corresponds to some subjective property of the physical world. Suspending disbelief, what would be the payoff if this conjecture were true? Let us return to the criteria that must be satisfied by a scientifically adequate theory of conscious mind.

1) Why consciousness exists at all.

This question is perhaps best recast as “Why is there something rather nothing?” or, more poetically, Hawking’s “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” Mysteries should not be multiplied beyond necessity. By positing a nonphenomenal “fire” in the equations and then hand-waving on how such nonphenomenal stuff might notionally be transmuted into something phenomenal yet still (somehow) material, avowed materialists build a speculative, dualistic ontology into their conceptual framework right from the outset. Compare the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. The bread and wine used in the sacrament of the Eucharist literally become the body and blood of Christ while all of their features accessible to the senses remain unchanged. In both cases, we confront a mystery “that surpasses all understanding”.

There is one fundamental mystery. Why does anything exist at all?
When investigating why the enigmatic “fire” of physical consciousness exists, perhaps the fundamental qualia-fields of a quantum vacuum, perhaps we might explore some kind of zero ontology as the ultimate, logico-physical principle underlying reality with the field values of the world’s hypothetical fundamental microqualia “cancelling out” to zero in a multiverse of net zero information. Within this research program, Tegmark’s “Does the universe in fact contain almost no information?”32 might have considered whether the quantum Library of Babel—our Everettian multiverse?—contains any information. For in the absence of a preferred basis, the state vector of Everett’s multiverse doesn’t per se contain any information.33 If so, “a theory that explains everything explains nothing” isn’t the witty but shallow quip one might assume. No canonically preferred bases of Hilbert space could exist without violating a zero ontology. The mathematical structure of quantum theory allows indefinitely many ways (conventionally, infinitely many ways) to decompose the quantum state of the multiverse into a superposition of orthogonal states. This leads to another question. Is Eugene Wigner’s observation of the “Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences”34 explained by the need to conserve an informationless zero ontology—the conservation law that forbids substantive existence? Are the superposition principle and a zero ontology one and the same?
Such difficult questions are beyond the scope of this paper. Proposing that the superposition principle of QM explains both the properties of our minds and why anything exists at all sounds preposterous. But the idea that we may understand either mind or quantum theory without understanding why anything at all exists may be naive.


2) How consciousness has the causal power to allow intelligent agents to investigate its nature.

According to idealistic physicalism, a sentient agent really does remove its hand from the flame because the burning sensation feels agonisingly hot. Unusually, common sense is actually correct. For sure, in many contexts, for example all programs executed on a classical digital computer, the particular microtextures of experience constitutive of its phenomenally unbound physical circuitry are logically and computationally irrelevant to the execution of a program. The particular microtextures of experience are mere implementation details. But if physicalistic idealism is true, then strictly speaking all consciousness, and only consciousness, exerts causal power, effectively mediated by what we normally recognise as the four forces of nature, or perhaps, ultimately, the vibration modes of higher-dimensional branes of M-theory. Only the physical has causal efficacy; and consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical.

Without such causal power, not merely would intelligent agents be unable to investigate consciousness: we wouldn’t have grounds for alluding to the existence of consciousness in the first instance. By way of distinction, epiphenomenalists want to claim, presumably, that they have rational grounds for believing epiphenomenalism is true—that epiphenomena really are causally impotent. Yet it is unfathomable, to say the least, how such grounds can be stated without implicitly acknowledging a causal role for the epiphenomena that the claim repudiates.

Likewise, on pain of inconsistency, the materialist can’t simultaneously assert—as Hawking does most famously in A Brief History of Time—that we have no idea of the character of the “fire” in the equations and yet also dispute that its essence could be phenomenal experience. No doubt “fire” consisting of a nonphenomenal je ne sais quoi is a plausible speculation. Yet the claim itself borders on the metaphysical. How does the materialist propose to test his conjecture?

We are also now in a position to answer a commonly posed thought-experiment. Materialists wrestling with their Hard Problem of consciousness sometimes wonder why we don’t live in a world physically type-identical to our world but populated instead by insentient zombies. Yet if consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical, and if quantum-coherent phenomenal binding is the hallmark of mind, then a nonsentient world physically type-identical to our world is logically impossible. A possible world can’t simultaneously be physically identical and physically nonidentical to our world.

To spike some guns, physicalistic idealism isn’t a license for free will, human dignity, animism, New Age mysticism, quantum healing, a reconnection with the timeless wisdom of the ancients, or anything warm and fuzzy. Nor does it invoke quantum mechanical “hidden variables”. Nor does it claim that “consciousness collapses the wavefunction.” Nor is it a variant of Berkeleyan idealism or the philosophical speculations of the German idealists, though Kant’s “transcendental unity of apperception” foreshadowed the global-binding problem. Nor is it a sceptical hypothesis. Thus the physicalistic idealist believes that the mind-independent world existed long before the evolution of bound phenomenal minds in biological organisms. Across the cosmos, the mathematical straitjacket of relativistic quantum field theory is as tight as ever. Physics—or, rather, tomorrow’s ideal physics beyond the energy range of the Standard Model—is causally closed and complete. But within this naturalistic categorical framework, physics is not assumed to be about some essentially nonphenomenal metaphysical “stuff” or unknowable “fire” beyond the reach of scientific investigation. In more Kantian terminology, consciousness is here conjectured to be the noumenal physical essence of the world, the Ding an sich (“thing-in-itself”) that Kant assumed would forever be unknown and unknowable. Physicalistic idealism turns Kant on his head. The noumenal world is all one can ever know, or at least a tiny part of it, other than by inference and conjecture. And the phenomenology of even this sliver of direct knowledge is theoretically contaminated; Wilfrid Sellars called the realm of pure, non-inferential experience the “myth of the given”.35


3) How consciousness can be phenomenally bound in seemingly classical forbidden ways.

Physicalistic idealism is not animism or vitalism. Its advocates no more believe that a rock is a unified subject of experience than does, say, an eliminative materialist like Dennett. In common with every other naturalistic theory, the physicalistic idealist still has a lot of work to do in order to show how a bunch of ostensibly discrete quasi-classical nerve cells (or “mind-dust”) can generate bound phenomenal objects or a unitary, phenomenal self.

Two key questions arise in tackling the classically insoluble binding problem/combination problem:

a) Is macroscopic quantum coherence in the CNS a physically real phenomenon?
b) If so, is the phenomenon long-lived enough to do any computationally and/or experientially useful work, as distinct from being functionally incidental neuronal “noise”?

If quantum mechanics is complete, then the answer to the first question is “yes”, albeit over what are, intuitively, vanishingly short durations. However, the existence of macroscopic quantum coherence in the CNS does not, of itself, make the mind-brain a quantum computer any more than the quantum-mechanical properties of silicon semiconductors make one’s desktop PC a quantum computer. One’s phenomenal mind and its world-simulation functions as a quantum computer only if what we—naively and classically—describe as the synchronous firings of classically parallel neuronal cellular feature-detectors (edges, colours, shapes, motions, vertices, etc.) briefly support a unitary experiential object: the wavefunction of an intelligent, information-processing experiential agent.

This absence of individual neuronal identity in what would otherwise be—as in a dreamless sleep—effectively classical neurons/mind-dust presumably occurs with an ultrafast “refresh rate”—where “ultrafast” alludes to our everyday chronological intuitions rather than Planck-scale physics. Within any given sequence of mental life, dropped and mangled frames aren’t noticed as such because they aren’t explicitly represented in other individual frames. On this story, the molecular structures of our explicit “memories” consolidate only on a much coarser-grained timescale—ranging from hundreds of milliseconds to minutes, hours, days and in extreme cases, a hundred years or more. Quantum mind-binding isn’t a replacement for connectionist neuroscience or its temporally coarse-grained learning algorithms; rather, it’s the bedrock.

So what is conscious? Conversely, what’s a micro-experiential zombie?

On this touchstone of sentience—i.e., quantum coherence as the physical signature of phenomenal binding—macroscopic quantum fluids; SQUIDs (Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices); organic mind-brains while not dephased in a coma or dreamless sleep; and perhaps futuristic nonbiological quantum computers are unitary experiential subjects.

Conversely, if effective classicality is the hallmark of the zombie, then serial digital computers, classically parallel connectionist systems, classical dynamical systems, rocks and mountains, the population of the USA and cellulose-cell-wall-bound plants etc. are not subjects of experience. Rather they are just decohered aggregates, in effect composed of phenomenal simples.

Perhaps contrast neuroscientist Giulio Tononi’s integrated information theory,36 in which consciousness is a function of informational complexity.

If the quantum mind-binding hypothesis sketched here is true, the largest quantum supercomputer in the world currently belongs to the sperm whale: a mind around five times heavier than its human counterpart. The human cerebral cortex is 2–4 mm thick; but actually we have to take a four-dimensional approach, or more ambitiously, a finite37 dimensional Hilbert-space approach, and imagine our minds as approximately 10100 quasi-classical Everett branches “jostling” each other before becoming irreversibly “split”, i.e., effectively decohering and losing their well-defined phase coherence to the extracerebral environment. Intuitive plausibility is not the hallmark of a scientifically adequate theory of consciousness. Experiment, not philosophy or armchair physics, is the key.


4) Why and how consciousness manifests its diverse textures—ranging from phenomenal colours, sounds, tastes and smells, pains and pleasures, the experience of introspecting a thought-episode, feeling pangs of jealousy, hearing an orchestra play, admiring a sunset, to finding a joke amusing.

If idealistic physicalism is true, then the solutions to the field-theoretic equations of physics mathematically encode the textures and interdependencies of micro-experiences. The amplitude and phase of one’s wavefunction yield the exact values of all one’s experiences. On this conjecture, there are no hidden parameters or missing variables that the existing quantum-mechanical formalism omits. Quantum mechanics is indeed closed and complete—or more strictly, it will be closed and complete when it subsumes gravity. Hence the spectre of causal overdetermination, epiphenomenalism or even dualism in theory of mind is lifted. Another kind of dualism, the spurious divide between the classical macroworld and the quantum microworld, evaporates too. The appearance of phenomenally bound classical objects in a classical world is a derived quantum effect, not a brute unexplained fact that a classical materialist ontology can’t accommodate.


Finally, 5), any satisfactory scientific theory of consciousness should also offer predictions that are both novel and experimentally falsifiable.

Untestable claims may be scientific if they are entailed by a conjecture that generates novel, precise and nontrivial predictions that can be empirically tested. Physicalistic idealism is radically conservative insofar as it does not propose any modification or supplementation of the existing, realistically interpreted, quantum-field-theoretic formalism. Contra Penrose and Hameroff’s “orchestrated objective reduction” (Orch-OR38) model, for example, there is no evidence that the unitary dynamics of standard quantum mechanics breaks down in the central nervous system or anywhere else. Yet—without proposing any new physical law(s)—physicalistic idealism also predicts the existence of an empirically investigable phenomenon that few researchers now credit. Namely, our everyday classical world-simulations are underpinned at sub-femtosecond timescales by macroscopic quantum-coherent physical states of the CNS. One’s phenomenally bound, quasi-classical virtual world is what a natural quantum computer feels like from the inside, so to speak. Familiar classical worlds of phenomenally bound objects obeying Newtonian laws of motion and gravity within one’s perceptual field are an entirely quantum-mechanical phenomenon. Classical phenomenal macroworlds would be impossible without successive neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors to underpin their existence.

What Tegmark treats as a reductio ad absurdum of quantum mind is treated instead as a falsifiable, empirical prediction. Nature got there first and natural selection got to work.

Of course, if a classically minded critic is convinced a priori that macroscopic quantum-coherent neuronal superpositions of sub-femtosecond duration are of no more computational or phenomenal relevance to explaining consciousness than, say, the detection of evanescent quantum superpositions of the pawns and the queen during a game of chess, or random thermal noise in a classical CPU executing a program on one’s PC (etc.), then such a critic will not waste time independently setting up the exceedingly delicate experiments necessary to detect the missing physical signature of phenomenal binding. They might simply say, noise is noise. Collisional decoherence, dephasing due to inertial forces and vibrations and, above all, thermal decoherence are all formidable obstacles to detecting the indirect signature of neuronal superpositions even with the tools of next-generation interferometry.

Such a cavalier dismissal of the only way to save physicalism and the ontological unity of science may prove premature. We will now set out the protocol for an experiment to test the naively absurd conjecture that binding-by-synchrony is really binding-by-superposition.



In vivo experiments using live human subjects or cats are impossible for the foreseeable future. However, cultured in vitro neuronal networks should suffice. First, “train up” a multilayer neuronal network with a suitable input-output device to recognise a variety of externally presented inputs. Then, identify in turn the distributed neuronal feature-processors implicated in diverse object recognition on a standard, classically parallel connectionist account, i.e., “local” phenomenal binding. Routine neural scanning can pick out what we would naively describe as the synchronously activated distributed neuronal feature-processors elicited by any given stimulus, i.e., textbook connectionist neuroscience but using real neurons rather than tendentiously named “artificial neural networks” and their statistical learning algorithms.

Next comes the fiendishly hard part—feasible in principle, but an experimental challenge still beyond the reach of molecular matter-wave interferometry. Instead of detecting the fleeting nonclassical interference patterns of “nonsense” neuronal superpositions, the conjecture predicts that we’ll discover the interference signature of sub-femtosecond macro-superpositions that robustly implicate exactly the same neuronal feature-processors of the synchronously activated neurons that the classical neuroscience story reports are activated in the trained-up neuronal network when object-recognition occurs. On any classical account of mind, such an experimental outcome, i.e., a perfect structural match, is either physically impossible or vanishingly improbable.

The best-known physically demonstrable manifestation of quantum-coherent superpositions is the interference peaks from an electron wave in a double-slit experiment.39 Currently, matter-wave interferometry can detect “mesoscopic” superpositions of fullerenes40 in the guise of observable de Broglie wave interference of C60 and C70 molecules following passage through a diffraction grating. Experimental superpositions of viruses41 and tardigrades (“water bears”) are planned. Detecting the interference patterns of neuronal superpositions with their hugely more numerous excited internal degrees of freedom will be much more challenging because—unlike fullerenes or viruses—functioning neuronal networks can’t be steeply cooled down to mitigate the effects of thermally induced decoherence. In neuronal networks, ion-ion scattering, ion-water collisions and long-range Coulomb interactions from nearby ions all contribute to rapid decoherence times; but thermally induced decoherence is even harder experimentally to control than collisional decoherence.42


However, we may assume tomorrow’s experimentalists will rise to the challenge. Let’s review the possible outcomes. What will experiments detect when molecular matter-wave interferometry can probe the sub-femtosecond timescales over which theory predicts neuronal superpositions should exist?

1) a) no interference effects, or at least some collapse-like deviation from the unitary Schrödinger dynamics, i.e., the superposition principle breaks down in artificial neuronal networks and thus presumably in the CNS. This negative outcome is what Penrose and Hameroff;43 Ghirardi, Rimini and Weber (GRW);44 and other dynamical collapse theorists would predict.


b) the telltale nonclassical interference signature that the unitary dynamics predicts.


If b) is the case, then will the sub-femtosecond neuronal superpositions detected be:

2) a) functionally irrelevant psychotic noise, of no more relevance to the orderly phenomenology of our bound phenomenal minds than, say, fleeting sub-femtosecond superpositions of miscellaneous pawns to the gameplay in a chess match? The Chalmersian “structural mismatch” claim would thus be vindicated.

Or, b), a perfect structural match that implicates all and only the synchronously firing feature-mediating neurons that orthodox neuroscience reveals are activated when individual phenomenally bound objects are perceived?

Our femto-mind binding conjecture predicts (b) in both cases.


Some comments are in order here. First, a good experiment should be “clean” and conceptually simple—its outcome decisive to sceptics and hostile critics, not just to the satisfaction of the conjecture’s proponents. No scope should exist for fudging, ad hoc escape clauses or adding epicycles. By this criterion, the experiment outlined here is decisive. A critic of quantum mind will be unfazed by such professions of epistemic virtue: by analogy, building a perpetual-motion machine would be a clean, elegant and definitive refutation of the second law of thermodynamics, too; it’s not going to happen. Less fancifully, an example of an “unclean” experiment is the discovery of quantum vibrations in microtubules inside brain neurons as a test of the Hameroff-Penrose Orch-OR theory of mind. Their discovery, though intriguing, will not persuade critics that modified quantum theory makes Gödel-unprovable results provable by human mathematicians.

Second, strictly speaking, it’s not necessary to assume that the superposition principle of QM is universal. Maybe spontaneous localisation kicks in at scales larger than the mesoscopic and modestly macroscopic dimensions of organic mind-brains. Such a breakdown would be physically unmotivated. No departure from the Schrödinger dynamics has ever been detected. But the experimental demonstration of neuronal superpositions won’t rule it out.

Third, we have avoided fascinating but incidental speculation about, e.g., the properties of liquid water as a unique quantum fluid, dipoles forming superposed resonance rings in helical pathways in microtubule lattices,45 and so forth. The existence of neuronal superpositions implicating previously naively identified phenomenal feature-mediating nerve cells is a generic prediction of any conjecture that invokes coherent superpositions of neuronal feature-processors as the explanation of phenomenal binding. The conjecture—and its confirmation or falsification via matter-wave interferometry—is insensitive to the details of its molecular implementation. Darwin needed Mendel. The ubiquitous selection pressure of Zurek’s “quantum Darwinism” applied to the CNS awaits Mendel’s counterpart.

Fourth, demonstration of this exceedingly subtle physical interference effect—if experimentally confirmed—is not remotely the only reason for believing that organic minds are quantum computers, or that experience discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. The most striking reason lies in front of our virtual eyes and under our virtual noses, so to speak. But the existence of phenomenal binding is a retrodiction, “old evidence”, not a novel prediction. Any claim that armchair philosophising can establish that the mind is a quantum computer will be given short shrift by critics—even if the claim happens to be true. This in vitro interferometry experiment is pitched at quantum mind’s most implacable foes.



I still recall vividly the shock I experienced on first encountering this multiworld concept. The idea of 10100 slightly imperfect copies of oneself all constantly splitting into further copies, which ultimately become unrecognizable, is not easy to reconcile with common sense. Here is schizophrenia with a vengeance.

Bryce DeWitt


If DeWitt’s notorious misreading of Everett46 were true, then we would be (at most) micro-experiential zombies in all life-supporting branches of the universal wavefunction. Unified subjects of experience would be impossible. We’d know nothing of one branch, let alone the googols of others. However, DeWitt was mistaken. There is only one world—the multiverse—and its decohering branches never completely separate. DeWitt’s remark nonetheless offers a clue to meeting what might seem a decisive objection to a quantum-mind account of phenomenal binding. How could selection pressure operate over a timescale of femtoseconds, attoseconds or less? The answer is that whereas selection pressure can’t act on proliferating worlds, it can act on proliferating, decohering world-simulations. In order to understand our minds and the world-simulations they run, Zurek’s “quantum Darwinism”47 must be applied to the CNS. Here we have a Darwinian selection-mechanism of unimaginable power: ubiquitous, unremitting and temporally fine-grained. Who will play Mendel to Zurek’s Darwin is unknown. These cryptic remarks will now be amplified.

How could non-psychotic phenomenal binding of distributed neuronal feature-processors have evolved? The generation by vertebrate minds of cross-modally matched virtual worlds in almost real time is prodigiously computationally powerful and genetically adaptive. Mere patterns of Jamesian “mind-dust” couldn’t act. Connectionist neuroscience describes at a coarse-grained level how individual perceptions are represented by shifting coalitions of resting/firing patterns of membrane-bound neuronal feature-processors using different learning algorithms. Yet if the phenomenology of virtual world-making ultimately depends on sub-femtosecond quantum coherence, then the evolution of nonpsychotic phenomenal binding would naively seem evolutionarily impossible. Decoherence, i.e., the rapid effective loss of ordering of the relative phases of complex amplitudes of neuronal superpositions to the environment, is a powerful, omnipresent and seemingly uncontrollable effect in the warm, wet CNS.

But we needn’t turn to drink or dualism yet. If a femto-mind-binding conjecture is correct, and if the unitary dynamics of QM doesn’t break down in the human mind-brain, then a qualitative answer to the evolutionary enigma of phenomenal binding can be given within the conceptual framework of the “quantum Darwinism” articulated by one of the pioneers of the decoherence program in post-Everett quantum mechanics, Wojciech Zurek. The decoherence program outlines the Darwinian48 process responsible for the emergence of quasi-classical reality from its quantum substrate within Everett’s multiverse. If a femto-mind–binding conjecture is correct, then an analogous Darwinian process of replication, variations amongst the copies and differential survival of the copies is responsible for the emergence of the quasi-classical phenomenal worlds forming our minds from their quantum substrate in the CNS. Some superpositions are fitter than others. In order for an ecologically credible quantum mind-binding conjecture to be viable, all that is needed for selection pressure to get to work is the slightest heritable predisposition to the tiniest of transmissible resistance to collisional and thermally induced decoherence of non–psychotically bound phenomenal neuronal superpositions in even the humblest of cephalic ganglia. All organisms capable of neuronal world-modelling evolve and adapt to their environment by an iterative process. This iterative process may be treated as an evolutionary algorithm that searches the fitness landscape for the locally and globally bound phenomenal states of mind—quantum-coherent neuronal superpositions—that are best adapted to their local surroundings. Thus a Darwinian process of variation and differential selection of informational superpositions plays out as the fittest phenomenally bound variants are retained and passed on to their offspring.

It’s worth stressing again: contra DeWitt’s colourful quote above, there is only one multiverse; interference effects between Everett branches that have effectively decohered (“split”) never wholly disappear. Within the universal wavefunction, such a Darwinian process hypothetically plays out both between proliferating, sexually reproducing biological organisms and fast-proliferating states of the mind-brain of individual organisms across Everett branches. Thanks to hundreds of millions of years of natural selection, the most dynamically stable, phenomenally bound system–environment correlations are the non–psychotically bound phenomenal objects populating our waking world-simulations. Psychotic binding in maladapted organisms does still occur, comparatively infrequently, but statistically, one’s waking consciousness (as now) is overwhelmingly likely to consist in non–psychotically bound states of an adapted organism, not the Earthly counterpart of a Boltzmann brain. What we’re calling “informational” and “psychotic” binding should be conceived dimensionally rather than categorically. Thus a fleeting quantum-coherent superposition of distributed neuronal feature-processors experienced as, say, a flying purple dragon is psychotic in the context of the ancestral environment of adaptation, whereas fleeting quantum-coherent neuronal superpositions of distributed feature-processors experienced as an approaching lion were potentially hugely fitness-enhancing in the extraneural presence of a hungry predator. But flying purple dragon superpositions are not intrinsically psychotic, any more than the phenomenally bound features of predatory lion superpositions are inherently referential—on pain of a magical theory of reference. Indeed, in some future fantastical techno-utopia—or immersive VR with different laws from basement reality—flying purple robodragon superpositions could be functionally nonpsychotic. They might track patterns in the local mind-independent environment. What counts as sanity is contextual.

For illustrative purposes, an example with somewhat greater ecological validity than neuronal flying purple dragon superpositions might be in order. Imagine a savannah-dwelling herbivore with two disorders of phenomenal binding: both simultanagnosia and cerebral akinetopsia. Not merely can the herbivore’s doubly unbound mind apprehend only a single perceptual object at a time; the object’s progressive motion can’t be perceived. So not merely is just a single member of an approaching pride of hungry lions apprehended within the herbivore’s CNS world-simulation; the hungry carnivore in question just appears successively nearer without perceptibly advancing. Such a neurologically devastating condition might seem a sure-fire recipe for the hapless herbivore becoming lunch. Today, such a grisly fate would be almost inevitable. Yet to survive and genetically propagate, the doubly unbound ancestral herbivore doesn’t need to outrun the approaching lions—merely to run faster than other members of the herd. If his or her conspecifics are capable only of psychotic binding—or if their neurons are merely effectively classical or phase-scrambled neuronal “mind-dust”—then our doubly mentally unbound herbivore actually has an immense selective advantage over every other member of the herd. For even weak and partial nonpsychotic phenomenal binding confers a huge selective advantage over organisms that lack nonpsychotic binding (at anything above chance levels) altogether. Or to use another, evolutionarily more ancient example, imagine a simple organism with a heritable predisposition to apprehend phenomenal patches of darkness and light—as distinct from the heritable predisposition of its conspecifics to instantiate merely discrete, decohered, effectively classical dark or light neuronal “pixels”. This primordial protobinder can functionally distinguish night from day, and safely graze (or filter-feed) rather than burrow to safety as needed in the shadow of a looming predator. Such an adaptation would be powerfully fitness-enhancing. Over evolutionary history, nonpsychotic binders would outcompete psychotic binders, and superbinders would outcompete binders, culminating in the currently supreme superbinder of them all, Homo sapiens.

Note that on this account, Darwinian selection pressure plays out both between proliferating, sexually reproducing organisms across the generations and also between ultrafast-proliferating neuronal superpositions of the CNS. For although (we conjecture) next-generation matter-wave interferometry will robustly detect a perfect structural match between the reported bound phenomenology of our minds and nonpsychotic neuronal superpositions, nonetheless post-Everett QM suggests that fleeting, erratic, nonsensical superpositions really do exist; they are merely of vanishingly rare measure compared to the information-bearing superpositions favoured by natural selection. Thankfully, experimental interferometry rather than speculative philosophising will decide the issue.



If sentient agents are to understand the intrinsic, subjective properties of matter and energy, or to map out what we naively call the “neural correlates of consciousness”, or, most ambitiously, to devise a comprehensive Mendeleev table for qualia, then the diverse subjective textures of consciousness will play an inescapable role in the investigation by the very nature of the task. Intelligent agents will need to re-engineer themselves—genetically, pharmacologically, neurologically—in order to instantiate the subjective physical states in question. We’ll need to become a full-spectrum “super-Mary”,49 so to speak—investigating state-spaces of consciousness disclosed by configurations of matter and energy that have never before been recruited for any information-processing purpose. Such state-spaces of consciousness are currently beyond the scope of scientific investigation.

By contrast, classical digital zombies cannot explore the nature of sentience; their circuitry wouldn’t understand what they were investigating, let alone be cognisant of its mechanisms. This far-reaching task falls to bound phenomenal minds. A combinatorial explosion of possibilities means that the investigation of the alien state-spaces of consciousness may take millions of years, perhaps billions or more. By contrast, constructing the mathematical formalism of a unified TOE over the next few decades may prove surprisingly easy.

Early in the twenty-first century, we commonly assume that physical scientists research the objective properties of matter and energy. This is true up to a point. If physicalistic idealism is correct, then this commonplace is no more than a half-truth. For the intrinsic, subjective, first-person properties of matter and energy are real, objective and amenable to formal description via the evolution of the universal wavefunction, just as are the third-person relational properties—the properties captured by the formalism of relativistic quantum field theory or its successor. In short: we’ve mastered the right formalism, just assumed the wrong materialistic ontology. Subjective experience and phenomenal binding are a Hard Problem for the classical scientific materialist in the same way that fossils are a Hard Problem for the creationist. In both cases, the anomaly in question demands a major revision of the believer’s conceptual scheme. In both cases, believers are prone to spending their lives in denial.

On the face of it, to pronounce on the nature of what physical science is actually investigating might seem presumptuous for anyone but a professional physicist. Yet we don’t allow the fact that, say, Newton believed he was investigating divine mechanical clockwork, or that he fancied his interpretation of the Book of Daniel his foremost achievement, to impugn his status as the greatest scientist who ever lived. Likewise, it’s no disrespect to the greats of contemporary mathematical or experimental physics to say that we still don’t understand the intrinsic nature of physical reality. Likewise, it’s no disrespect to hardworking neuroscientists to say that we simply don’t understand the mind-brain when its defining feature, consciousness, is physically impossible within the reigning materialist paradigm of science.

In a similar vein, to assert that mathematics investigates patterns of quantity, structure, space and change would seem a commonplace. The claim that maths is really about qualia patterns sounds bizarre. More telling is Bertrand Russell’s jaundiced observation: “Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.” If idealistic physicalism is correct, then mathematics is ultimately about computable patterns of qualia: their quantity, structure and change. Once again, perhaps we’ve mastered the formalism rather than adequately grasped the underlying ontology whose relations it captures.



If a potato or rutabaga can utilize quantum coherence, it’s likely our brains could have figured it out as well.
Jack Tuszynski


A comprehensive account of reality entails an understanding of the first-person and third-person properties of the natural world—and the mathematically formalised interrelationships between them. If the distinction between the first-person and third-person properties of matter and energy were completely clean, as assumed by traditional AI, then the causal capacity of cognitive agents to allude to both the subjective and formal properties of mind would be physically impossible in the first instance. Thus an insentient p-zombie would be physically unable, for example, to refer indexically to this particular self-intimating thought, or to investigate the nature of phenomenal binding, or to explore the nature of the “fire” in the equations that is responsible for the existence of sentient minds for non-zombies to describe. For a notional materialist p-zombie, it isn’t even “all dark inside”.

The necessity of the experimental method in scientific investigation of the third-person properties of matter and energy has been recognised since Galileo. The intellectual achievements of physical science, as traditionally conceived, are widely celebrated. By contrast, experimental investigation of the great majority of intrinsic, first-person properties of matter and energy is stigmatised and even criminalised. States of sentience as different as waking from dreaming consciousness are outlawed. Instead of Nobel laureates, research grants and lavish institutional funding, an empirically driven exploration of the first-person properties of matter and energy plays out mainly within the scientific counterculture. An entire realm of drug-catalysed knowledge is proscribed as somehow cognitively illegitimate.

Human ignorance is unlikely to last indefinitely. If intelligent agents are to understand the natural world, then the methodology pioneered by Alexander and Ann Shulgin in PiHKAL50 must be integrated with mainstream academic science: an authentically post-Galilean science of physical consciousness.

Does the claim that biological agents—and perhaps mature, nonbiological, quantum computers centuries hence—can solve problems too difficult for a classical system to pose or answer violate the Church-Turing thesis,51 i.e., that any effective computation can be carried out by a Turing machine? By itself, technically, no. After all, a notional classical digital computer could be programmed to code the chemical base-pairs for the genotypes of biological super-Shulgins whose phenomenally bound minds could then explore the manifold varieties of sentience and map out the psychophysical relationships between them. Yet such a whimsical proposal doesn’t mean that a classical digital computer could itself ever support a unitary full-spectrum (super)intelligence. Nonclassical phenomenal binding is a necessary precondition for full-spectrum general intelligence. For without phenomenal binding, there is no unitary agent who is (un)intelligent in the first instance, let alone a general problem-solver who can systematically investigate the first-person and third-person properties of the physical world.

What is sorely lacking here is a rigorous account of computation that can handle the investigation of myriad state-spaces of qualia as well as the traditional staples of third-person computing. This challenge doesn’t count as a well-defined or even meaningful question within the reigning paradigm of computer science. Sentient organic minds are biological devices that can answer questions beyond those a classical Turing machine can answer, or even pose—not because we are oracles but because, if the conjecture outlined here is experimentally vindicated, we are sentient, phenomenally bound quantum computers. Full-spectrum superintelligence will entail a seamless mastery of both the formal and the subjective properties of mind: the creation of a mature civilisation of super-Shulgins-cum-super-Turings. Recursively self-improving organic robots are poised to modify their own source code52 and bootstrap our way to full-spectrum superintelligence. How closely posthuman conceptions of the physical resemble anything humans would recognise53 is an open question.



The Hard Problem of Consciousness Solved; the Explanatory Gap Closed; the Binding Problem Tamed; Zombies Banished; and Physicalism Saved.


Let’s recap. Here are our key assumptions and the weird but experimentally falsifiable prediction that follows. If the prediction fails, then our defence of idealistic physicalism is refuted.

1) Strong emergence is false. Physicalism is true. No “element of reality” is missing from the equations of tomorrow’s physics and their solutions.

2) Consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical. Therefore, rudimentary consciousness occurs, not just at ultrasmall distance scales, but also at ultrashort timescales. A future Planck-scale unification of quantum gravity will presumably capture the ultimate psychon of Planck-regime consciousness.

3) The unmodified, unsupplemented formalism of post-Everett quantum mechanics is correct. “Hidden variables”, Bohmian mechanics and dynamical collapse theories of wavefunction collapse are false. Thus macroscopic quantum-coherent neuronal superpositions occur in the mind-brain. At sufficiently fine-grained temporal resolutions, the entire mind-brain exists in a single, conscious, quantum-coherent superposition. A succession of ultra-rapidly decohering, virtual world superpositions constitutes biological minds. Internally, world-simulations typically seem classical. Their vehicles, i.e., phenomenally bound organic minds, are irreducibly nonclassical.

4) Direct realism about perception—and the notion that neurosurgeons or experimenters ever directly “observe” anyone else’s decohered classical brain or decohered classical neurons—is false. When notionally “observing” our surroundings, both awake and dreaming organic minds instantiate individual bound perceptual objects (“local” neuronal binding) that populate dynamic world-simulations undergone by a fleetingly unitary phenomenal self (“global” binding). Phenomenal binding is not a classical phenomenon. Instead, phenomenally bound quantum-coherent neuronal superpositions have been recruited by natural selection to generate seemingly mind-independent, ostensibly classical, virtual worlds. When awake, quantum biocomputers generate such pseudoclassical worlds to track fitness-relevant patterns in our local environment. Except in a dreamless sleep or coma, organic mind-brains are not decohered “pixels” of discrete neuronal micro-experiences.

5) a) The retrodiction: we are not zombies. Nor are we quasi-zombies, i.e., patterns of decohered neuronal “mind-dust”. So there is no Hard Problem of consciousness and, in principle, no binding problem either: we’re not micro-experiential zombies. Instead, we are fleetingly unitary phenomenal minds. Empirical evidence that our minds are quantum computers lies in front of our (virtual) eyes.

5) b) The novel, experimentally falsifiable prediction: next-generation interferometry will detect the sub-femtosecond signature of quantum-coherent neuronal superpositions in the mind-brain in the guise of quantum interference effects AND these indirectly detected quantum-coherent neuronal superpositions will robustly implicate all and only the synchronously firing feature-mediating neurons that orthodox neuroscience suggests are activated when individual phenomenally bound objects are perceived by the experimental subject.

Both of these predictions must be experimentally borne out in order to vindicate the quantum mind-binding conjecture outlined here. So if either no neuronal superpositions are detected, i.e., if the unitary evolution of the state vector breaks down in the mind-brain, or if their interference signature is indeed deciphered but also implicates neurons irrelevant to the neuronal feature-mediators of the particular phenomenally bound object(s) that the experimental subject verbally reports seeing, i.e., if the interference effects detected are functionally just molecular “noise”, then our quantum mind conjecture will be falsified. Falsified too would be our attempt to save physicalism.

Experimentally detecting—or definitively failing to detect—the nonclassical interference effects diagnostic of local phenomenal binding in the CNS will be technically less challenging than detecting the predicted transcerebral quantum interference effects diagnostic of global phenomenal binding and hence the unitary phenomenal self of everyday experience. Yet the quantum mind-binding conjecture will—provisionally—be vindicated if the signature of even local neuronal superpositions in their predicted guise are found. By analogy, if a bizarre but nonetheless falsifiable conjecture predicts—as orthodox neuroscience might claim—the equivalent of little green pixies living at the bottom of the garden, and, amazingly, a single little green pixie is unequivocally detected, then we wouldn’t withhold assent to the bizarre conjecture on the grounds that experiment hadn’t yet detected the theorised pixie breeding colony.

Further challenges lie ahead. The mechanisms supporting the succession of differentially robust sub-femtosecond neuronal superpositions that—hypothetically—underpin phenomenal binding must be elucidated at the molecular level. Only at the molecular level can philosophical hand-waving be turned into real, measurable, quantitatively exact, physical science. At much longer timescales of milliseconds and above, the standard coarse-grained story from connectionist neuroscience and dynamical systems theory takes over from the femto-mind regime. Thus, whether we are in a dreamless sleep, dreaming or wide awake, our memories are coarsely encoded in the connectivity, connection weights and the internal architecture of our neurons after our neural networks have been progressively “trained up”. Besides its idealist ontology, the quantum mind-binding conjecture explored here to save physicalism from the spectre of Chalmersian dualism is radically unorthodox only insofar as what mainstream neuroscience reckons is the mere synchronous firing of classical neuronal distributed feature-processors is conjectured instead to be a succession of quantum-coherent neuronal superpositions. Only experiment can corroborate or falsify this hypothesis. If the prediction fails, then our defence of idealistic physicalism is refuted too.

Also, even if non-materialist physicalism is true, the lack of some sort of Rosetta Stone to “read off” the values of qualia—both bound and unbound—from the solutions to the field-theoretic equations of QFT is a huge challenge. Compare a much more straightforward identification. Nowhere in Maxwell’s field equations is light explicitly identified with electromagnetic radiation. But once the value of the constant c was calculated—around 300,000 kilometres per second—then the identity of its value with the known velocity of light made the identification inevitable. In other words, no “element of reality” was missing from Maxwell’s formalism, or, more strictly, from its subsequent quantum electrodynamic generalisation. Likewise, if idealistic physicalism is true, no “element of reality” is missing from the formalism of relativistic quantum field theory or its currently speculative successor. However, in contrast to the ease of identification of light with visible frequencies of electromagnetic radiation, the conjecture that the solutions to the equations of QFT yield the precise values of all and only physically possible experiences amounts to both a mathematical straitjacket and a veritable Pandora’s Box. For the only way cognitively to grasp the values of the diverse subjective properties of the physical fields of experience that the solutions to the formalism encode is personally to instantiate bound neuronal superpositions of these subjective properties. Even after extensive psychotropic and eventually neurogenetic experimentation, myriad forms of consciousness will presumably be forever inaccessible to rational mind—though equally, many physical systems that today we might naively imagine could in future be unitary subjects of experience, notably ultrapowerful classical digital computers or nonbiological classical connectionist systems, will always be effectively insentient.

Whether our conscious minds are essentially classically parallel connectionist systems, or quantum supercomputers as conjectured here, another enigma remains. The late-evolutionary neurological mechanism by which a massively parallel, biological neurocomputer generates a virtual classical machine—the slow serial stream of one’s logico-linguistic thinking though which this paper is written and read—is unknown. We do know of crude methods to disrupt our stream of logico-linguistic thought-processing. For example, taking LSD induces the “flooding” phenomenon that disrupts serial thought, whereas low-dose psychostimulants tend modestly to enhance logico-linguistic thought. Yet that is as far as it goes. Whatever the nature of this virtual seriality-generating mechanism in the CNS, we can sketch out an evolutionary chronology of information-processing systems. An irreducibly quantum multiverse first generated information-bearing self-replicators—biological life—which manufactured quantum supercomputers in the form of central nervous systems, one species of which spawned the serial, logico-linguistic virtual machines currently unique to human minds. These serial virtual machines conceived and created classical digital computers, then classically parallel artificial connectionist systems, and finally—though here we run a little ahead of our story—artificial, nonbiological quantum computers. The long-term interplay of these multiple architectures is hard to foresee with any confidence, but the destiny of sentient life in the cosmos most probably lies in full-spectrum superintelligence.54


1Einstein, A., Podolsky, B., Rosen, N. (15 May 1935). Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete? Physical Review, 47:10 , 777–780.Back

2Weinberg, S. (1995). The Quantum Theory of Fields (Vols. 1–3). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Back

3Levine, J. (1983). Materialism and qualia: the explanatory gap. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 64, 354–361.Back

4Chalmers, D. (1995). Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies 2:3, 200–219.Back

5Kant, I. (1965). Critique of Pure Reason (N. K. Smith, Trans.). New York: St. Martin’s Press. (Original work published 1781)Back

6Schopenhauer, A. (1995). The World as Will and Idea (M. Berman, Trans.). London: J. J. Dent. (Original work published 1819.)Back

7Russell, B. (1921). The analysis of mind. London: G. Allen & Unwin.Back

8Maxwell, G., 1976, Scientific Results and the Mind-Brain Issue: Some Afterthoughts. In Consciousness and the Brain (G. Globus et al., Eds.). New York, Plenum Press, 329–358.Back

9Lockwood, M. (1989). Mind, brain, and the quantum: The compound “I”. Oxford: Blackwell.Back

10Strawson, G. (2006). Consciousness and its place in nature: Does physicalism entail panpsychism? (A. Freeman, Ed.). Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic.Back

11Hawking, S. (1988). A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. Toronto: Bantam Books.Back

12Everettian QM is simply quantum mechanics minus the collapse postulate: there is no dynamical principle in nature beyond the continuous, linear, unitary and deterministic evolution of the universal wavefunction. Or in John Baez’s memorable acronym, "Get CLUED up." However, physicists only began to understand the emergence of quasi-classical macroscopic “branches” describable by an approximation of classical Newtonian physics with the growth of the decoherence program pioneered by H. Dieter Zeh and Wojciech Zurek. Today probably most physicists would accept that decoherence solves the measurement problem for all practical purposes. Yet on the face of it, decoherence cannot by itself why single experimental observations have definite outcomes: the notorious “collapse of the wavefunction”. Only individual particles, not waves, are ever detected on a screen, with the probability of detection being the square of the amplitude of the wave, i.e., the Born Rule. The nonclassical interference pattern revealed by a double-slit experiment becomes apparent only via the varying density of these individual particle hits on the screen. So what explains the apparent nonunitary transformation of the state vector at the time of measurement into a single definite state? Why does the superposition principle apparently break down? The answer of this paper is that seeing a definite live cat or dead cat, or seeing a definite pointer reading, or seeing a particle hit on a screen exemplifies (sic) the superposition principle. There are no definite outcomes. Instead, there are superpositions of distributed neuronal feature-processors co-opted via selection pressure to play the functional role of phenomenally representing definite outcomes. Only the superposition principle allows what would otherwise be the pixels of experience of discrete neuronal feature-processors (“mind dust”) to be experienced as a definite classical pointer reading, or a definite classical cat, or a definite classical screen (etc.) in one’s world-simulation. By contrast, tough-minded positivist talk of “observers”, “observations” and “measurements” presupposes the theoretical baggage of an untenable perceptual naive realism. On the alternative “Schrödinger’s neurons” conjecture canvassed here, one’s entire classical macroscopic world-simulation consists of individual quantum coherent states, despite the insanely short sub-femtosecond duration of individual neuronal superpositions. Note that what is being conjectured here isn’t some exotic new principle of physics, but rather the significance to consciousness of what most physicists (and neuroscientists) would dismiss as a merely theoretical short-lived quantum effect of no conceivable relevance to phenomenal mind and the binding problem.Back

13Revonsuo, A. (1999) Binding and the phenomenal unity of consciousness. Conscious Cogn, 8:2, 173–185.Back

14Everett, H. (1957): Relative State Formulation of Quantum Mechanics, Reviews of Modern Physics, 29, 454–462.Back

15Antti, R. (2006). Inner Presence: Consciousness as a biological phenomenon. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Back

16Lindley, D. (1996) Where Does The Weirdness Go? Why Quantum Mechanics Is Strange, But Not As Strange As You Think. New York: Basic Books.Back

17Chalmers, D. (2014). The Combination Problem for Panpsychism. Advance online publication,

18Moore, G. (2005). What is... a Brane? Notices of the AMS 52:2, 214.Back

19Singer, W. (2004) Synchrony, oscillations, and relational codes. In Chalupa, L. M. and Werner, J. S. (Eds.) The Visual Neurosciences. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1665–1681. Back

20Pearce, D, (2010). Quantum Computing: The First 540 Million Years. Paper presented at the Science of Consciousness Conference, Tucson, Arizona.Back

21Riddoch, M. J., & Humphreys, G. (2004). Object identification in simultanagnosia: When wholes are not the sum of their parts. PCGN Cognitive Neuropsychology, 21:2, 423–441. doi:10.1080/02643290342000564.Back

22Zeki, S. (1991). Cerebral akinetopsia (visual motion blindness): A review. Brain 114, 811–824. doi: 10.1093/brain/114.2.811.Back

23Crick, F., & Koch, C. (2003). Framework for consciousness. Nature Neuroscience 6:2.Back

24Schwitzgebel, E. (2014). If materialism is true, the United States is probably conscious. Philosophical Studies, 172:7, 1697–1721. doi:10.1007/s11098-014-0387-8.Back

25Dennett, D. (2005) Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Back

26Tegmark, M. (2000). Why the brain is probably not a quantum computer. Information Sciences, 128:3–4, 155–179. doi:10.1016/s0020-0255(00)00051-7.Back

27Wallace, D. (2012). The Emergent Multiverse: Quantum Theory according to the Everett Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Back

28Rumelhart, D. E., & McClelland, J. L. (1986). Parallel distributed processing: Explorations in the microstructure of cognition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Back

29Clark, A. (1989). Microcognition: Philosophy, Cognitive Science and Parallel Distributed Processing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Back

30Tomasik, B. (April 23, 2014) This guy thinks killing video game characters is immoral. (D. Matthews, Interviewer). Vox Magazine.

31Flanagan, B. (2003) Are perceptual fields quantum fields? Neuroquantology 3. Cf. Dirac, P.A.M. (1930/1958) The Principles of Quantum Mechanics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Back

32Tegmark, M. (1996). Does the universe in fact contain almost no information? Foundations of Physics Letters, 9:1, 25–41. doi:10.1007/bf02186207.Back

33Schwindt, J. (2012) Nothing happens in the Universe of the Everett Interpretation arXiv:1210.8447v1.Back

34Wigner, E. (1960) The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics, 13, 1. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.Back

35Sellars, W. (1956). The Myth of the Given: Three Lectures on Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind. In Minnesota Studies in H. Feigl and M. Scriven (Eds.), The Philosophy of Science, Volume I: The Foundations of Science and the Concepts of Psychology and Psychoanalysis (253-329) Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.Back

36Tononi, G. (2008). Consciousness as integrated information: A provisional manifesto. The Biological Bulletin 215, 216–242.Back

37Landauer, R. (1996) The physical nature of information. Phys. Lett. A 217, 188.Back

38Hameroff, S., Penrose, R. (March 2014). Reply to criticism of the “Orch OR qubit” – “Orchestrated objective reduction” is scientifically justified. Physics of Life Reviews 11:1, 94–100. doi:10.1016/j.plrev.2013.11.013.Back

39Bach, R., Pope, D., Liou, S., & Batelaan, H. (2013). Controlled double-slit electron diffraction. New Journal of Physics, 15:3, 033018. doi:10.1088/1367-2630/15/3/033018Back

40Arndt, M., Nairz, O., Vos-Andreae, J., Keller, C., Zouw, G. V., & Zeilinger, A. (1999). Wave–particle duality of C60 molecules. Nature, 401:6754, 680–682. doi:10.1038/44348.Back

41Romero-Isart, O., Juan, M. L., Quidant, R. & Cirac, J. I. (2010). Toward quantum superposition of living organisms. New J. Phys. 12, 033015.Back

42Schlosshauer, M. (2007). “Decoherence and the Quantum-to-Classical Transition” (1st ed.). Berlin/Heidelberg: Springer.Back

43Hameroff, S., Penrose, R. (2014). Consciousness in the universe: A review of the “Orch OR” theory. Physics of Life Reviews 11:1, 39–78. doi:10.1016/j.plrev.2013.08.002. PMID 24070914.Back

44Ghirardi, G.C., Rimini, A., Weber, T. (1985). A Model for a Unified Quantum Description of Macroscopic and Microscopic Systems. Quantum Probability and Applications, (L. Accardi et al. Eds.), Berlin/Heidelberg: Springer.Back

45Hameroff, S., Penrose, R. (2014). Reply to criticism of the “Orch OR qubit” – “Orchestrated objective reduction” is scientifically justified. Physics of Life Reviews 11: 1, 94–100. doi:10.1016/j.plrev.2013.11.013.Back

46Dewitt, B. S. (1970). Quantum mechanics and reality. Physics Today. 23:9, 30. doi:10.1063/1.3022331.Back

47Zurek, W. (2009) Quantum Darwinism, Nature Physics 5, 181–188 doi:10.1038/nphys1202.Back

48Campbell, J. (2010) Quantum Darwinism as a Darwinian process. arXiv:1001.0745.Back

49Jackson, F. (1986). What Mary Didn’t Know, Journal of Philosophy 83, 291–295Back

50Shulgin, A. and A. (1995). PiHKAL: A Chemical Love Story. Berkeley: Transform Press.Back

51Copeland, B. J. (2008) The Church-Turing Thesis, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, E.N. Zalta, (Ed.).Back

52Sander J.D., Joung J.K. (2014). CRISPR-Cas systems for editing, regulating and targeting genomes. Nature Biotechnology. doi:10.1038/nbt.2842. PMID 24584096.Back

53Shulgin, A. (2011). The Shulgin Index Vol 1: Psychedelic Phenethylamines and Related Compounds. Berkeley: Transform Press.Back

54Pearce, D. (2012). The Biointelligence Explosion, in Eden, AH; Moor, JH; Soraker, JH; Steinhart, E. (Eds.), Singularity Hypotheses A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment. Berlin/Heidelberg: Springer.Back


Ingo Niermann


When my foot hits a rock, I feel the foot and the rock. I am conscious of both. But only the foot feels like it is mine. My senses extend into it (even if I might only be assuming that this foot is an appendage that belongs to me). I can also feel one with my thinking about my foot and even my unitary sense of myself. I am conscious of my own consciousness. A thought represents something. I think about something. It can be anything—if I short-circuit the process it is the thought itself. On the opposite extreme, the thing I’m thinking about can itself be merely a further reference to something else, a sign.

Signs are tools that make it possible to represent conscious and unconscious thought. We can never be sure whether someone else who is talking about their sense perceptions or reflecting on their own thoughts is at all conscious of them. As concerns our understanding of everything that isn’t the domain of our own personal consciousness, we don’t have to bother about phenomena of consciousness in the first place, all the more so since while we are in a position to ascertain enduring laws and principles in the world as we perceive it, we experience perception itself, via the detour of the perceived world, as something incomplete and distorting. Subjective thus becomes a synonym for untrustworthy, objective for trustworthy. As everyone only has access to their own consciousness, it is, strictly speaking, not a valid subject of scientific study.

Still more strictly speaking, we don’t have anything like a trustworthy objectivity either, because it always has to become conscious to us first. But that kind of fundamental skepticism—which reaches from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave through Descartes’s dream argument and Kant’s unknowable thing-in-itself to the functional concept of truth in radical constructivism—remains a philosophical luxury. The march of scientific progress over the past centuries seems too far-reaching and too continual for that.

In fact, I can be as little sure as I am of other consciousnesses—the plural is itself linguistically awkward—that something outside my own consciousness exists at all, but this would also make impossible any shared body of scientific knowledge. This is why solipsism, which only acknowledges the truth of one’s own consciousness, may be irrefutable but is philosophically relevant at most as a final counterargument. And likewise, the question of what consciousness actually is, aside from a linguistic and protolinguistic process of logical thought, has practically no significance when I begin studying philosophy in 1988 at Freie Universität Berlin. According to standard psychological assumptions, consciousness is generally considered to be an emergent phenomenon of certain neuronal synchronization processes whose workings are not yet well understood. But how is it possible for conscious sensations to exist at all (Leibniz’s gap)? How is it possible for a loose neuronal network to create a multiplicity of homogeneous sensations (the palette problem and the grain problem, respectively)? And how is it possible not only that these sensations are perceived as connected (the binding or combination problem) but also that the sense of their unity can be consciously reflected on (the problem that self-consciousness is not only epiphenomenal but can be articulated and thus have material effects)? Anyone who questions the emergence thesis and continues to ask such questions is considered an incurable metaphysician who still believes in the soul, if not in a pantheistic world soul.

Physics is not in a position to give us any answers, either. Since the big upheavals that came with the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, physics has managed to persist in a stage of “normal science,” one of consolidation after a paradigm shift, as described by the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn. The theoretical assumptions behind the paradigm shift are confirmed with ever more complicated experiments, and are at best expanded on through unverifiable speculations, such as string theory or the many-worlds interpretation. Physics as such declares the question of the nature of consciousness to be outside its purview, and thus, without looking further into the matter, aligns itself with those theories that deny the elementary nature of consciousness.

I dodge the question, turn to literature, and become fascinated by the conditions under which visions of entrepreneurship either succeed or fail. In the ’00s, I start developing new visions for nation-states, too, which become the Solution book series. I call what I do “speculative nonfiction” and discover a principle that will become very useful for me: to find the answer to a problem in another problem. I soon begin to ask myself: Could the mysterious thing that is consciousness offer an answer to Goethe’s Faust when he wonders, “What holds the world together in its innermost self?”

As reckless as this idea appears to me, I am not alone in having it. In the meantime, David Chalmers has managed to attune a new generation of philosophers to the Hard Problem of figuring out a physical explanation of consciousness, and I learn about approaches (which go back to William Kingdon Clifford, William James, and Bertrand Russell) to understanding what is actually described by physics equations—what Stephen Hawking calls the “fire in the equations”—as basic sensory phenomena. (Clifford speaks of a world composed of “mind-stuff” or “faint beginnings of sentience”; James invokes “primordial mind-dust.”) The binary opposition between matter and spirit is resolved in favor of the latter.

To assume that everything that exists is conscious does not by any means necessitate a return to animism, which, although it also grants consciousness to all things, nonetheless does so, in keeping with an anthropocentric approach, only in conjunction with intelligence and life. Thanks to cybernetics we have already decoupled life and information processing; now we can also decouple consciousness and higher intelligence in order to understand the former as an elementary physical phenomenon.

The usual term for the idea that consciousness is an elementary phenomenon, panpsychism, can easily be misunderstood, since it customarily encompasses pantheistic or panvitalist beliefs that are close to animism. Terms such as panexperimentalism, panprotoexperimentalism, and panprotopsychism have been introduced in order to signal distance from such positions. Those who want to emphasize that a world made up of nothing but consciousness still follows the laws of physics—such as Grover Maxwell, Galen Strawson, and David Pearce—speak of physicalistic idealism.

The big questions surrounding such approaches are, with the exception of that of Leibniz’s gap, the same as those surrounding the idea that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. How can continuity arise if there is so much space between the elementary particles? Where does the variety of sensory perceptions and thoughts come from, given that there is such a small number of different elementary particles? How do we understand an object of perception, or our own selves, as unitary?

It is tempting to turn to quantum physics for a solution, since it maintains that the world is not made up of discrete elementary particles but of wave functions of probability amplitudes that can be interconnected across unlimited distances. Yet quantum phenomena do not appear to make themselves noticeable in our everyday lives, since chaotic interactions between wave fields almost immediately disrupt any coherent interference patterns (in what is called decoherence). A neuronal network functions on a level where all quantum phenomena appear to cancel one another out, with the effect that it practically follows the laws of classical particle physics.

At the end of the ’00s, I am reading about quantum coherences that last as long as hundreds of femtoseconds in photosynthesis—even at room temperature—which make it possible to ascertain the most efficient means of energy transmission, and I begin to seriously ask myself if this can also happen in the brain. But I still can’t grasp how coherences that last femto- or picoseconds before they dissipate would be sufficient to create a sense of temporal unity for processes that need to last at least milliseconds for us even to notice them. What we process as the present moment—a sequence of words, a bodily gesture, a melody—can last several seconds. Of course, it’s also possible to process a moment like that in a much shorter time; why not in femtoseconds? But while a spatial representation can be scaled down at will without necessarily resulting in glitches in the sensory feedback required (for example, in the coordination of bodily movements), consciousness, which is faster, would have to repeatedly synchronize anew with real time. It would either have to skip the gaps or repeat the sense impressions again and again (in this case, millions or billions of times). And even if the new sequence doesn’t need to be conscious of the previous gaps and repetitions, coherences that dissipate over and over again would raise the question: Why doesn’t our consciousness flicker?

I could now speculate wildly about whether longer quantum coherences of minutes or even hours might be hidden in other dimensions, or in dark matter, for instance. Instead, I try first to get to the bottom of the challenges posed to our physics-based understanding of the universe by a world that is made up of nothing but consciousness. If everything is consciousness, it is not enough to find a place for consciousness as well. On the contrary, the question is rather how our previous physics-based understanding of the universe accords with everything that is phenomenologically provided by consciousness. And voilà: in 2015, the American physicist Matthew Fisher publishes a study claiming the possibility that entanglements of the spins of phosphorus ions in a Posner molecule can last for a whole day in a living cell.

Philosophers who believe that consciousness is something physically elemental usually support their ideas only with arguments ex negativo. In order to steer clear of the charge of esotericism, they merely attack the emergence thesis by giving examples of strikingly incompatible phenomena of consciousness, which they themselves are unable to explain. But as a writer I stand outside these debates and don’t have an academic reputation to lose. I use this freedom to start out from consciousness to try to understand the world in a new way.

David Pearce puts it succinctly: physicalistic idealism turns “Kant on his head” because what reveals itself to us directly through introspection is exactly the thing-in-itself that Kant maintained was unknowable. We only have to put aside the question of the concrete meaning of thoughts, following Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological reduction (also known as bracketing, or epoché), for the “whatness”—the qualia—of our feelings and thoughts to intuitively reveal the physical world. In keeping with such an approach, I try to further reduce the phenomenological reduction until I can avoid the anthropocentrism of conventional panpsychism and only take into account the elemental properties of consciousness. All other phenomena need to be derived from that basis, also in a physical sense. The idea is not that modern physics runs counter to our intuition but that our intuition corroborates and complements it.

Of course, when we observe our consciousness as such we are shaped by linguistic and cognitive patterns just as much as when we focus on the meaning of the contents of consciousness. But at least phenomenological reduction means we are continually conscious of such distortions, while even radical constructivists cannot help but lapse into a naive direct realism in their perception of everyday phenomena. Phenomenological reduction is only insufficient according to scientific criteria, since it cannot be recorded in a standardized way and is not reproducible. Its results may be but need not be true. In other words, they are part of the world of fiction. So the following speculations concerning a “theory of everything” should be situated in the domain of literature. That these speculations should then have an effect on academic research is science fiction in the literal sense.




What of my consciousness can I bracket off as extraneous to it? First of all, my own self. I think myself when I become conscious of experience as such, which is to say, when I experience myself experiencing. But I also remember a simple, unreflected experience of whatness that I only associate explicitly with myself through the act of remembering.

Space and time can be bracketed off in the same way. Many perceptions such as sounds, shapes, pleasure, and pain imply space or time, but moods don’t give any indication of their spatiotemporal dimensions, nor does experience as such. I locate my consciousness somewhere in my head because I know it’s where my brain is, and that its exterior is where the sense organs are that dominate my consciousness when my body is at rest—those for seeing, hearing, smell, and taste. Sensory data comes in from three sides, and in the middle is my brain.

I need only shut my eyes, as in meditation, and concentrate fully on some abstract principle in order to conjure up a state of consciousness that brackets off space, time, and myself. In religious thought, this is what gives rise to the idea of partaking in an infinite and timeless world spirit. Instead of consciousness being premised on the existence of space and time, it could be the other way around. Accordingly, the ancient philosopher Plotinus understands space, time, and matter as the lower manifestations of an emanating world consciousness (nous). But why should this emanation have begun? Here I struggle for an answer as much as with the question of why consciousness exists at all.

Let’s first stick with the question of what consciousness can be on the most basic level: when I experience something without sensing the presence of my self, space, or time, then perceiving (wahrnehmen) means taking the qualia as true (für wahr nehmen). I (no longer bracketed off) can only claim that what I have perceived is false—i.e., incongruent—in relation to an assumption that is beyond the scope of my concrete perception. Negation (like nontautological affirmation) implies a spatiotemporal dimension.

Although qualia are characterized by continuously variable degrees of more-or-less and as-well-as, we understand true and false as discrete conditions. This logic comes out of our visual and tactile experience of a world that is—for evolutionary reasons—dominated by clearly delineated objects. At the same time, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle—the cause of endless headaches for physicists and philosophers, and generally considered highly counterintuitive—is, in terms of our mental experience, the most common thing in the world: I waver between attraction and repulsion, pleasure and pain, and in the next moment it becomes totally clear that only one of them holds and not the other, while I have already stopped properly perceiving whatever it is that this emotion relates to. The more I concentrate on a specific detail, the less clearly I apprehend the rest. When I’m reading, I see only a few words in focus at any one time. When I look at a whole page at once, I can see all the words in focus but I cannot read them. And when I understand a longer sentence as a whole, it doesn’t appear as a whole in my mind’s eye.

The intensity of my experience might depend on how sensitive I am or the strength of the stimulus—I can’t distinguish between the two. If I understand attraction and repulsion literally, which is to say physically, they refer to things that draw me closer or push me away. Pleasure and pain are the words for the corresponding feelings if I cannot move in relation to whatever it is that attracts or repels me.

Still, I don’t think that music is louder or pictures are brighter if my love for them increases. Conversely, their volume or luminosity need not affect my enthusiasm for them. Many of our perceptions are intense but not accompanied by feelings of either attraction or repulsion. I assume the explanation is that various attractions and repulsions largely cancel one another out. As we get older, our feelings become, on average, steadier and more subdued. But if I’m under hypnosis or the effects of psychedelic drugs, I can happily immerse myself in a spot of red as effortlessly as a child, and the more intense its color becomes, the more it lifts my spirits.

I have the impression that I can feel only a few feelings at the same time. It might even be the case that I actually only have one feeling after another, yet condense the sequence into a single moment in the act of self-reflection, in the same way that I assume my field of vision is far bigger than the things I can really see at any one time.

The point is not only that consciousness can be understood without space and time: it is also in a position to overcome space and time to some degree, in that it perceives spatiotemporal dimensions as unitary. Multiple spatiotemporal units can be perceived as belonging together as a single unit, or a single spatiotemporal unit can be taken to be made up of several distinct units. That is the basis for thoughts structured in sentences and logical operations. The phenomenological unit that encompasses more than any other is my own consciousness as such.

Even if I manage to bracket off the meanings of my perceptions, and on encountering a tree no longer think of my ideas (Husserl’s noema) of trees, roots, trunks, branches, leaves, the changing seasons, etc., but only see various browns and greens; if I manage to see two fields of vision instead of one, and instead of a three-dimensional space I see just one or more unconnected levels, then I still identify them as patches that are more or less similar to each other, and I relate them to one another as more or less similar.

As for the intensity of my perceptions and feelings, the shift in their belonging can be gradual. In a color gradient I can’t say for sure where one color ends and the next begins. I take my field of vision as unitary without knowing exactly where it ends. Without registering it visually, I can sense that somebody is standing next to me.

Because my perception has an infinite resolution, everything I perceive is subject to an endless compare-and-contrast. This enormous feat of mathematical calculation—which quantum computers are now starting to become capable of—must be the reason why I experience a simulation of my surroundings at all. Presenting this simulation in precisely such a way as to make it perceptible in a coherent way is complicated, and so I become conscious only of a small fragment of the sense impressions that my body receives.

I try to think of everything I perceive as part of a spatiotemporal continuum. My feet are hidden behind my bent knees. I can sense a couple of pressure points, and I connect them in my imagination as two feet, or I incorporate the pressure points into how I imagine the feet. Without being able to visualize what things look like from the back, I can nonetheless think it, just as I can locate feelings in certain parts of my body or know where everything is in the dark when I am in a familiar environment. Husserl speaks of things being copresent in what he calls appresentation. It exists in time, too, such as when I summon to mind the preceding and subsequent sounds when I am listening to music. Husserl here speaks of retention and protention, respectively.

My imagination not only completes gaps in my sensory perception but goes beyond it as well. It is, under the aspect of time, the basis for reconstructions and prophecies, while, under the aspect of space, it is the basis for an inner cartography of the world as well as for self-consciousness. By accompanying my perceptions with the thought of myself as the one perceiving, I can bring into doubt all the things I perceive. I can assume the things I imagine are truer than those I perceive with my senses, or I can dismiss what I imagine as mere fantasy.

If you look into the reflection of a mirror, an infinite regression appears. Wouldn’t my consciousness likewise have to replicate itself in ever smaller forms in my imagination? But it seems to me fundamentally impossible to imagine something mirrored in space if every point on the object that is to be reflected doesn’t come with information about how far away it is from the mirror. And I believe this impossibility is what has driven us to shy away from thinking about what our consciousness is capable of, just as cats shy away from their own reflections.

To be continued.


First published by

Fiktion, Berlin 2019

ISBN 978 3 95988 057 2


Project Directors

Mathias Gatza, Ingo Niermann (Publishing Program)

Henriette Gallus (Communications)

Julia Stoff (Management)


Translation from German

Alexander Scrimgeour (Ingo Niermann)



Amanda Holmes (David Pearce)

Matthew Evans (Ingo Niermann)



Alexander Scrimgeour (David Pearce)

Sam Frank (Ingo Niermann)


German-language Editor

Mathias Gatza (Ingo Niermann)


Design Identity

Vela Arbutina


Web Development

Maxwell Simmer (Version House)


The copyright for the texts remains with the authors.


Fiktion is backed by the nonprofit association Fiktion e.V. It is organized in cooperation with Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, and financed by a grant from the German Federal Cultural Foundation.


Fiktion e.V., c / o Mathias Gatza, Sredzkistraße 57,

10405 Berlin



Mathias Gatza, Ingo Niermann


Registered association VR 32615 B

(Amtsgericht Charlottenburg, Berlin)



KSB logo HKW logo