Originally published August 17, 2014
The Future the Mind, by Michio Kaku $21.40
I personally could not wait for this book to be released. First of all, Michio Kaku, as a theoretical physicist, is one of my super heroes. Second, the whole subject of mind and consciousness and whatever it is that is going on up there fascinates me.
The book was all I expected and much more. Kaku walks through the physics and the neurology of what we know about the brain, how it works, what makes things go wrong, and what makes things work better in some than others. The book is a thorough layman’s guide to where we are in the study of the brain and all the things it does, or doesn’t, do. And then there is the Appendix!
What about free will? If our actions can be traced to some function or non-function within our mind, then how do we know we really have free will? Is everything really guided by predisposition? In his appendix, Kaku addresses how the new scientific discoveries explore both sides of the issue. Are people really helpless in their choices and the best we can do is rehabilitate or confine them? Is punishment a non-starter?
According to an experiment performed by Dr. Benjamin Libet in 1985, it’s possible that free will is, at the very least, not what we expect. Using EEG scan, Dr. Libet was able to determine that the brain actually makes the decision to do something prior to the conscious choice to do it. In other words, we do not act on a conscious decision, we follow along with what the brain has already decided.
What does stir the process is what we know of quantum mechanics. When the probability of something being there or not becomes a factor, then our lives are not necessarily predestined, or predetermined. There is an element of change and probability in the picture that makes us individual and less predictable.
One of my favorite cuts from Dr. Kaku was in a Through the Wormhole episode on consciousness. He discusses the same concept in the appendix of this book. It begins with Schrodinger’s Wave Function, which won him the Nobel Prize. The math indicated that an electron could be a particle or a wave. But if it is a wave, what was it waving? Sorting this out is how Werner Heisenberg arrived at his uncertainty principle. However, Schrodinger was having none of it; the universe did not operate on probabilities. Schrodinger, wishing he had never come up with his wave function, created a thought experiment involving a cat.
Place a cat in a sealed box, with a container of poison gas. In the box, there is a lump of uranium. The uranium atom is unstable and emits particles that can be detected by a Geiger counter. The counter triggers a hammer, which falls and breaks the glass, releases the gas, which can kill the cat.
According to quantum mechanics, we do not know whether or not the uranium has decayed and started a sequence that will kill the poor kitty. We don’t know until we open the box and observe (take a measure) the state of the cat. This is why we say that until that moment of observation, the cat is neither dead nor alive because a possibility exists for both—until the moment of measurement. Only then does the probability wave collapse into one wave—the observed state. Food for many years of theoretical debate. There were three schools of thought developed in answer to this paradox.
My preferred path was developed in 1967 by Eugene Wigner. He arrived at the conclusion that only a conscious person can make the observation that collapses that wave. However, if the observer and the cat are in the same universe, then who is to say that the observer is dead or alive? Therefore there must be another conscious observer—ad infinitum. Eventually you arrive at some form of “cosmic consciousness,” better known in some circles as God. Or, maybe a living, conscious universe, creating, measuring, keeping kitties healthy.
Wigner’s conclusion was that it was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum theory in any consistent way without reference to some form of consciousness. Someone, great or small, had to be the observer for the wave to collapse in some form of existence. This does not mean that consciousness controls reality—it only means that the act of observing (measuring) reduces the probability wave into a single wave of reality.
Some people feel that the study of the mind is somehow sacrilege. I beg to differ. Time and time again in ancient sacred works, including the bible of the Christian world, we are told to observe. To look within the wonders of the universe to see the beginnings of our answers. To seek our truths. The more we know, the more we wonder.