The Emperor’s New Mind

I just finished reading this beast of a book by Roger Penrose:


It began by asking if the weird world of quantum theory might underpin the mysteries of the human mind. It asked questions such as, do we live in a deterministic universe? The laws of physics are symmetrical in time.. But then what would ‘free will’ mean?

Not only did Penrose unite physics and the brain but he showed how art was part of the picture, with artists such as Escher (below) and noted Dirac’s keen sense of beauty in deriving mathematical equations.


Escher’s depiction of Lobachevskian space

He asked what actually constitutes a measurement in Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment, where a cat is both alive and dead until a measurement is made. To be counted as a measurement, does it have to be made by a conscious being? And what about those two states of the cat, alive or dead, maybe our thoughts are a similar sort of superposition of states, with our ‘measurement’ being the thoughts that turn into actions.. Like the Many Worlds theory is happening inside our minds..

He brought to light strange quantum facts, like how particles of the same species appear to be identical – if you exchanged the particle of a person’s body with a similar particle in a brick of his house then nothing would have happened at all. What about teleportation? If we make an exact copy of the position of someone’s particles, would we make an exact copy of that person? Or does awareness have some quantum dependency that we are ‘unaware’ of?

He noted how energy in our bodies comes from the food we eat, which made me think about the benefits of a plant-based diet, which survives on sunlight.

Penrose then began applying his physics-trained brain to the actual brain, starting with the somatosensory homunculus (below) that shows how distorted our bodies would look if they were directly connected to our brains!


Somatosensory homunculus

He then moved on to consciousness and started by wondering if there might be some selective advantage of consciousness that we aren’t aware of yet, maybe telepathy? He spoke about the inspiration that the great Masters experienced, such as Mozart’s music coming to him ‘in its entirety’ and how maybe great mathematicians were able to access Plato’s world, one without time where the all the hidden laws of reality lie.

What we need is a definition of consciousness. I’m attending a talk of his tonight ( that might provide some more information on exactly what that would involve..


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