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Is Heaven at the Planck length?
Posted by on Wednesday, May 30, 2007 at 3:10 am

At LAX yesterday, I picked up several magazines, as I am wont to do when I have a long flight (or train ride, or bus ride) ahead of me. Among my purchases was the June issue of Discover, which featured a variety of articles revolving around the broad theme of “invisible” pheneomena here on Earth: life at the bottom of the oceans, tiny particles in the air, the electromagnetic spectrum, and so forth. The articles were all fascinating, but possibly the most compelling was Jane Bosveld’s “Soul Search: Can science ever decipher the secrets of the human soul?” The article isn’t available on Discover’s website, but somebody posted it here. It’s well worth reading in its entirety (and it’s not that long), but here’s an excerpt:

At the University of Virginia Health System’s Division of Perceptual Studies, or DOPS, scientists are studying an array of anomalous phenomena, including near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, and memories of past lives. Bruce Greyson, a psychiatrist at UVHS and director of DOPS, is a pioneer in the study of near-death experiences. First described in ancient times, near-death experiences, or NDEs, happen when patients are critical or when their hearts have briefly stopped. Typically, they describe seeing visions of a bright light and feeling themselves carried down a tunnel toward it. Along the way deceased relatives or spiritual figures may appear offering comfort. It is by almost all reports a transformative experience.

Greyson, a soft-spoken man who has studied NDEs for 30 years, explains that although he does not necessarily believe in the existence of the soul, that possibility inspires his curiosity. “I believe that our current understanding of humans is woefully inadequate,” he says. “I think the spiritual traditions that we have are good starting points for researchers to look at what might be going on. I accept them as starting points for developing hypotheses that we can test, but I’m not happy with the answers we have now, either from science or from religion.”

Greyson reports that 10 percent of the people who go into cardiac arrest have an NDE and report knowing details of activities that occurred while they were unconscious. Frequently, individuals tell of watching from above the operating table as doctors and nurses work on their bodies. From a scientific standpoint, the most significant aspect of many NDEs is that the individual’s brain should not have been functioning at the time of the event. “We have a lot of well-documented cases where we have EEG and other evidence that the brain is not functioning, and yet people will say, ‘I was thinking clearer than I ever have before,’” Greyson says.

Dutch cardiologist and near-death researcher Pim van Lommel notes that, at the moment of an NDE, “these people are not only conscious, their consciousness is even more expansive than ever. They can think extremely clearly, have memories going back to their earliest childhood, and experience an intense connection with everything and everyone around them. And yet their brain shows no activity at all.”

If consciousness is the product of brain activity, near-death experiences should not happen. At the very least, the contrary evidence suggests that the standard understanding of consciousness is incomplete. Peter Fenwick, a senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College London, wrote in a paper, “The brain-identity theory says that consciousness ends with brain death. But if it can be shown that people can acquire information when they are unconscious and out of their body, it would be indisputable evidence that consciousness is separate from the brain.”

I’ve never thought about near-death experiences in this light before, but I find Fenwick’s logic pretty much unassailable. Perhaps I’m missing something, but it seems to me that there are but two possible conclusions here: either NDEs are a mass delusion, or they are proof of the existence of the soul (or “consciousness separate from the brain,” which sounds to me like a soul by any other name). Given the huge number of people who have reported having NDEs, I find the first explanation relatively implausible, and thus lean toward the second.

If consciousness is (or can be) separate from brain activity, any explanation of its precise nature is necessarily speculative. But I found the following bit of quantum-physics mumbo jumbo (from the same article) utterly fascinating, even though I can’t pretend I entirely understand it:

Perhaps the most surprising scientific evidence for the soul comes from quantum mechanics - specifically, from investigations of the subatomic phenomena that produce consciousness. Stuart Hameroff, an anesthesiologist who has spent many years studying brain functions, has collaborated with renowned Oxford University polymath Roger Penrose on a model that explains consciousness as the result of quantum processes occurring in tiny structures called microtubules in brain cells. “I think consciousness under normal circumstances occurs at the level of space-time geometry in the brain, in the microtubules,” Hameroff says. “But the fluctuations extend down to the Planck scale [far smaller than an atom] because the microtubules are driven bioenergetically to be in a coherent state. When the blood supply and the oxygen stops, things go bad and the coherence stops, but quantum information at the Plank scale isn’t lost. It may dissipate into the universe but remain somehow entangled in some kind of functional unit, maybe indefinitely. If the patient is revived, the information gets picked back up again.”

Although Hameroff does not talk overtly about the soul, he invokes a similar idea - consciousness that exists separate from the body. The Planck scale is the unimaginably small distance at which current theories of gravity and quantum physics break down. Events at the Planck scale, according to some theorists, may fundamentally establish the nature of reality. For Hameroff and Penrose, the idea goes even further, into the mystery of consciousness itself. …

[This theory] raises the question: Where did the Planck-scale processes that cause it come from? Penrose’s answer: They came from the Big Bang. In this view, consciousness - all consciousness - was created at the same moment when the universe was created. If the soul exists, it, too, might be anchored to our moment of cosmic origin. This is what Italian astrophysicist Paola Zizzi terms the “Big Wow,” shorthand for her description of the connection between “the very early quantum computing universe and our mind.”

Penrose’s ideas hint at a physical mechanism for consciousness that persists after death. “If a patient isn’t revived,” Hameroff says, “it enters the universe at large, and maybe it gets picked back up again by someone someday, who knows?”

The notion of consciousness, a.k.a. the soul, as a Planck-scale structure, a creature of the ultra-small world that supposedly underlies and determines the very structure of the universe, raises all sorts of compelling questions and issues. What would it mean for reincarnation and the afterlife? What would it tell us about the beginning and end of life? The distinction between human and animal life? Life on other planets? Do all intelligent beings in the universe draw from the same pool of available souls? These and a hundred other questions leap quickly to mind. But things get even more interesting when the notion of Planck-souls is combined with the conception of Planck-time (or lack thereof) discussed in a separate article from the same Discover issue, Tim Folger’s “In No Time: Searching For the Essence of Time Leads to a Confounding Question: Does It Even Exist?” I can’t find that article anywhere on the Internet, but here’s the money quote:

There is a temporal realm called the Planck scale, where even attosceonds [100 quintillionths of a second] drag by like eons. It marks the edge of known physics, a region where distances and intervals are so short that the very concepts of time and space start to break down. Planck time - the smallest unit of time that has any physical meaning - is 10-43 second, less than a trillionth of a trillionth of an attosecond. Beyond that? Tempus incognito. At least for now.

Efforts to understand time below the Planck scale have led to an exceedingly strange juncture in physics. The problem, in brief, is that time may not exist at the most fundamental level of physical reality. If so, then what is time? …

[Carlo Rovelli, a physicist at the University of the Mediterranean in Marseille, France, says,] “The question is, Is time a fundamental property of reality or just the macroscoping appearance of things? I would say it’s only a macroscopic effect. It’s something that emerges only for big things.”

By “big things,” Rovelli means anything that exists much above the mysterious Planck scale. As of now there is no physical theory that completely describes what the universe is like below the Planck scale. … [T]he thing we experience as time might emerge from a more fundamental, timeless reality. As Rovelli describes it, “Time may be an approximate concept that emerges at large scales - a bit like the concept of ’surface of the water,’ which makes sense macroscopically but which loses a precise sense at the level of the atoms.”

Again, very interesting (if impenetrably complex) in its own right. But now, think back to the first article. If time doesn’t exist at the Planck scale, and if our souls are creatures of the Planck scale, then wouldn’t that make our souls… eternal? Wouldn’t that mean, in essence, that to describe the nature of reality at the Planck scale might be to describe… Heaven?

I emphasize again that I really don’t understand this stuff, except at a very basic, quantum-physics-for-dummies level. And now I’m venturing into theology-for-dummies, which I know even less about. But still, from the perspective of an interested if ignorant layperson, I find this notion of “Planck-Heaven,” if you will, more and more appealing the more I think about it. The biggest reason I’m enamored is simply this: as I understand it, physicists believe that structures existing at Planck scales cannot be observed — not just because of technological limits, but for fundamental theoretical reasons relating to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and, uh, other suchlike scientific gobbledygook. :) Therefore, if we postulate that the spiritual realm and the Planck realm are one and the same, we can put the spiritual realm into some sort of physical-world context without presuming to “know the mind of God,” in Stephen Hawking’s infamous words.

Of course, just because it’s appealing, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. But theoretical physicists love “elegant” solutions, and frankly, I think this is a pretty elegant idea. It could even lead to a sort of Grand Unification Theory of Theology. Monotheism versus polytheism, anthropomorphic gods versus nature-worship, reincarnation versus a discrete afterlife: these things all seem utterly irreconcilable. But are they really? If our souls, and whatever higher power(s) oversee(s) them, are some kind of Planck-scale structures floating around the universe — in a sort of timeless, eternal cosmic soup that is fundamentally beyond our ability to observe, comprehend or describe — then it would make perfect sense that a wide variety of faith traditions could emerge from that incomprehensible reality, each of them describing a different aspect or interpretation of the reality.

I’ve often puzzled over how to reconcile the vast array of religious beliefs and spiritual experiences that countless people, in countless faith traditions, have had throughout human history. One answer (again) is simply mass delusion, but another, I think better, answer is that different people and cultures are simply describing different aspects of the same thing. Wouldn’t it be awesome if that “thing” is the very same thing that theoretical physicists are also desperately trying to describe? If science and religion are actually two sides of the same coin? And if ultimately, neither is capable of finding the answers they both seek, because those answers are fundamentally beyond the horizon of ascertainable knowledge?

Needless to say, I have no idea whether any of this is correct. But I think it’s high time somebody founded the Church of Planck. :)

UPDATE: Welcome, InstaPundit readers! That’s two consecutive Instalanched posts — that’s gotta be a first since at least Katrina, maybe ever.




65 Comments on “Is Heaven at the Planck length?”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    There were two huge articles in today’s Science Times in the Tuesday’s NYT. No posting with commentary?????

  2. Anonymous Says:

    OOOPS! I left out they were about hurricanes!

  3. Pink & Fluffy Says:

    “If consciousness is the product of brain activity, near-death experiences should not happen.”

    If vision is a product of eye activity, “…watching from above the operating table as doctors and nurses work…” should not happen either.

  4. Briandot Says:

    This is my own speculation, of course, but I could imagine NDEs as merely the consciousness, once it is “restarted” (when the patient is revived), interpreting data it can now collect. That is, now that brain activity has returned, the body can sense all these people standing around and saying things, and the mind constructs a coherent story out of them — much like we do with a day’s random events, even if we were unaware that we perceived them at the time.

    But I guess that’s less fun than the theological interpretation. :-P

    The Folger article on the nature of time sounds fascinating. I think I’ll have to find a book store this evening.

  5. Phil-Z Says:

    It still seems simpler, but less comforting, to explain NDEs as product of changes in the brains neurochemistry that are interpreted as a stream of sensation when we wake up, just like dreams.

  6. Guiliano Says:

    “Perhaps I’m missing something, but it seems to me that there are but two possible conclusions here: either NDEs are a mass delusion, or they are proof of the existence of the soul (or “consciousness separate from the brain,” which sounds to me like a soul by any other name)”

    Upon reading that I find the idea of mass delusion plausible. Notice the evidence that is cited for near-death experiences while monitors show no brain activity is self-reporting. People may not be able to rely on their internal impressions near the point of no brain activity. Near-death experiences might be similar because all brains, when they shut down, start losing function in the same way and our impressions of this shutdown are similar.

  7. Jake Says:

    Consciousness is a mystery.

    Planck-scale structures are a mystery.

    Therefore, the secret to consciousness is in Planck-scale structures?

    Color me unconvinced…

  8. Dictyranger Says:

    There’s a third option: the NDE happens at the point brain activity is shutting down. If the person’s consciousness goes into a sort of stasis while brain activity is stopped, the NDE will feel to the patient like it happened “just now”…that is, during the period when the brain was quiet.

    For the record, I don’t think people tend to lie about NDE’s. Certainly the “tunnel of light” description seems to be so common that it might be what the brain’s normal logoff screen looks like. Since some patients under general anaesthesia can and do perceive what’s happening in the operating room, and a feeling of “floating” might also come with dying, the “hovering above the operating table” description might make sense, too.

    Several years ago, James Randi suggested secreting an object on a high shelf in the operating room, where it would be invisible to anyone standing on the floor, but not to a disembodied soul that was actually floating. It would still be an interesting test, especially if none of the staff knew it was there either.

  9. 4-7 Says:

    One minute you’re a disembodied soul floating free in the universe, the next minute you’re being exploded in a volcano in Hawaii by an H-bomb and then forced to watch a supercolossal motion picture for 36 days.

  10. Mark Buehner Says:

    Occam’s Razor suggests it is our understanding of perception that is inadequate, not our understanding of the afterlife. Anyone who has experienced hallucinations in general (particularly chemically induced) can tell you how the way time and space is perceived can be a very odd thing indeed. The combination of the brain releasing a flood of chemicals as the body nears death, and the death of brain cells themselves provides the simplest explanation. As to why experiences seem so similar- perhaps for the same reason Aliens have big bald heads and almond shaped eyes- because we all know they do.

  11. ShelbSpeaks Says:

    I don’t know if I would go as far as to found the church of planck, but it is interesting to see where this may lead. The more I know about quantum mechanics and the like, the more I have been finding to PROVE God rather than DISPROVE Him.

    Check out Christopher Ruddy

  12. Tom Perkins Says:

    So, as I’ve come here from Instapundit, and he and I think you Brendan, had a certain opinion about Terry Schaivo; do you imagine she was glad to finally be released by the action of the state or angry we starved her?

  13. Tom Perkins Says:

    On reading some of these comments, it seems that many commenters are not understanding how common it is for specific details to be reported by people having NDEs, when the event described occurred after “logoff”–the brain had ceased to function, the senses were not being interpreted or laid down as memories.

    At least not by any currently understood biological mechanism.

  14. RebeccaH Says:

    For years I’ve speculated that the “soul” or our “consciousness” could exist on some physical level that’s invisible to our understanding. It’s nice to know there is actually a theory that covers it. Thanks for the tip, I’ll get that edition.

  15. Willy Says:

    Thou shalt not create any graven image before me.

    NDE’s are a normal part of life, before, during and after. It’s only at the conscience’s submission that the mind is capable of accepting the perception. Theology is imbued with failure by it’s attempt to touch the experience but it makes a hell of a lot of money and exercises a control. In it’s attempt to ‘teach’ mankind the way to ‘planckdom’ theology has created a massive array of methods to touch that ‘planck’, seeing/hearing/feeling/smelling/tasting/believing… touching, thus creating an image, see opening line.

    Convert religion to physics. Regard ‘god’ as energy. Understand E is mc(sq).

    It takes practice but first you have to leave it alone.

  16. How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin? Says:

    […] points us to a bit of scientific synthesis over at The Irish Trojan’s Blog, about where religion and quantum mechanics intersect: The notion of consciousness, a.k.a. the […]

  17. Kim Sommer Says:

    Came here via Instapundit:

    It’s fascinating how science fiction always gets there first. Dan Simmons’ novel “Hyperion” has an AI “living” within the Planck distance. Simmons poetically describes the Planck distance as “The Void that Binds”. Ok, it’s not exactly the same as the theory written about in this article but it’s not that far away either. (pun intended)

  18. DanielD Says:

    I agree with the skeptics. How can you tell the difference between short-term memory and conciousness? If brain-death screwed with your short-term memory in such a way that, when you came to again, you “remembered” as an NDE, how could you tell the difference between that and an actual NDE? Furthermore, plank-length heaven is just a variation on “here there be dragons”: go to the spot that science can’t look at, and put “God” there. That’s what humanity has ALWAYS done.

    Not that I dislike the above ideas. I think they’re very neat. Just not something I would bank on. Still, we have alot more to learn about conciousness.

  19. pegleg Says:

    The “Church of Plank” alerady exists. Raise up the Jolly Roger, mateys!

    -Pegleg

  20. Sean Says:

    God of the Gaps.

  21. Chris Says:

    How do we know that an EEG actually measures ALL brain activity? It seems plausible that an NDE while the brain is “dead” is simply an inability to measure deeper brain functions.

    I also agree with DanielD. I’d also point out that it is commonly understood when writing mass consumption scientific literature that every mathematical equation loses readers and every mention of God gains them.

  22. Mark Buehner Says:

    “On reading some of these comments, it seems that many commenters are not understanding how common it is for specific details to be reported by people having NDEs, when the event described occurred after “logoff”–the brain had ceased to function, the senses were not being interpreted or laid down as memories.”

    Like what? Ventalators? Shock paddles? If i nodded off at my desk and had a vision of my assistant doing her nails and chatting on the phone i wouldnt consider it astral projection- just the mind making pretty obvious connections to what it expects to be happening. Anachdotes like these always end up breaking down when each cases actual details emerge- but tossed together without scrutiny and it seems amazing.

  23. bdog57 Says:

    “Certainly the ‘tunnel of light’ description seems to be so common that it might be what the brain’s normal logoff screen looks like.”

    Yes. Exactly. I find it extremely interesting that regardless of years and years of accumulated unique experiences by so many different individuals that have had NDEs, they all seem to experience the same phenomenon. Scintillating, really.

    The gentleman mentioning the chemically induced effect has a point, but when everyone experiences the same chemical reaction -and thereby tells a similar tale of the afterlife as they perceived it- it really makes makes you wonder. That said, we all experience similar yet different reactions to the flood of chemicals produced every day by birth, sex, exercise, etc.

    Nothing is proven or disproven by these findings, yet I totally agree with the author’s thesis that science and religion are really two sides of the same coin. Couldn’t have said it better myself. When you read about “miracles” of one sort or another, isn’t it really just a phenomenon that is beyond our current ability to comprehend? Certainly if there is a God, he has to abide by the laws of nature/science/whatever…which would go along with the whole “my ways are not thy ways, and my thoughts are not thy thoughts” scripture found in the Bible. A higher plane of consciousness and greater learning would be required to perform/understand these phenomena.

    This would, of course, imply that we just don’t understand how it is done, and probably won’t any time soon. Frustrating, but for me it makes sense. When pursuing a college degree, for instance, some of the later knowledge can be easy to grasp, the concepts simple. Yet, those later concepts would be totally incomprehensible without the foundation of knowledge upon which it was built.

  24. David Says:

    Worth a look with respect to the nature of reality.

    www.urantia.org

  25. Greifer Says:

    –If consciousness is the product of brain activity, near-death experiences should not happen.

    Oh, hogwash. Ever had your voltage regulator die on your car, and your battery burn off all the acid? All sorts of funny things happen–not just power shutdown. First your headlights pop up and down or turn on and off. Your windshield washers and spedometer spasm. They are getting voltage spikes and losses, and respond strangely in response. Why can’t the same happen here?

    Imagine you’re about to die. Your body starts flipping every on-off switch it can, I’d suspect. The human body doesn’t simply power down in no time. I can imagine lots of reasons why the voltage regulation in your neurons is spiky. I imagine you could see a whole bunch of things. Here’s a simple test: if you stare at one point for a VERY long time without moving your eyes, your neurons stop reporting things in your peripheral vision. You get tunnel vision, and you can be vaguely aware of this. So even during consciousness, context matters for your neurons. If you’re dying, some neurons might stop reporting information that isn’t changing, while others are changing radically.

    And then suddenlky you’re not dying, so you’ve got some pretty interesting data to start experiencing and repoting, right?

  26. Casey Says:

    Super fun post.

  27. czed Says:

    “If our souls, and whatever higher power(s) oversee(s) them, are some kind of Planck-scale structures floating around the universe — in a sort of timeless, eternal cosmic soup that is fundamentally beyond our ability to observe, comprehend or describe — then it would make perfect sense that a wide variety of faith traditions could emerge from that incomprehensible reality, each of them describing a different aspect or interpretation of the reality.”

    Each of them describing a different part of the unknowable and indescribable? Now then, show a little sense.
    -czed

  28. Brendan Loy Says:

    The commentary here is interesting, and I thank everyone for their thoughts. That said, I think maybe we’re focusing a little too much on the NDE angle. Perhaps I should have left that out and jumped straight into the quantum stuff, which I think is more interesting anyway. Even if NDEs don’t prove the existence of souls, I still think we have souls, and I suspect the average BrendanLoy.com or InstaPundit reader agrees with me on that point (though agreement is obviously not universal). The question then becomes whether the soul can be explained through this quantum mumbo-jumbo. Maybe, maybe not, but that’s the question that really captivated me about this topic, especially once I considered it alongside the notion of time itself breaking down at the Planck level, thus creating, in essence, eternity.

    Of course, the quantum stuff is much harder to talk about, because it’s so impenetrable. Who the hell knows what it all means, except the experts, and possibly not even them? :)

  29. Brainfarts - May 30th, 2007 | Sean Carrell . com Says:

    […] Is Heaven at the Planck length? - Alright, I really get frustrated whenever people start making vague claims based on “scientific evidence” that is really nothing more than an attempt to confuse the reader by bombarding them with technical information. Look, suppose that near death experiences occur and are not just the brain trying to cope with an unknown environment. This doesn’t prove that consciousness is not a product of brain activity. It simply means that we don’t understand the relationship, not that there isn’t one. Not only that, but I’m damn sick and tired of people using theoretical and mathematical physics to “prove” things of a spiritual nature. Listen up people, the way the physics is done is by constructing a mathematical model of some phenomenon and then testing to see if it describes what we experience. At no point do mathematicians or physists claim that their model complete describes the universe, only that it is the most accurate representation that we can find. […]

  30. Mark Buehner Says:

    Well said. If you want to tick off a partical physicist, talk to him about the quantum relationship to God. The frustrating thing is that the more interesting and differing from our mundane experience physics gets- the more people want to attribute it to spiritualism, no matter what it is. Quantum mechanics core contribution to physics is the introduction of probability at the smallest scales. In theory that should be entirely at odds with the traditional view of God (’God does not play dice’, Einstein’s famous rejection of QM). Yet this ends up being folded right into the spiritual quasi-new age mix without missing a beat. Religion is religion for the simple reason that no matter what it finds, it incorporates into itself via faith. That is precisely the opposite of science. My view has always been that god obviously went to great lengths to conceal his existence from direct observation. If we somehow outwit him with a superpowerful microscope or theoretical proof, the entire concept of a omniscent, omnipotent god goes out the window. Proving god would disprove him, so why do we try so hard? Quantum physics will ultimately provide us no more insight into the spiritual than small gas engine design does.

  31. Not So Fast » Whoa, man Says:

    […] physics of souls and heaven. It’s all very Buddhist and Planck is mentioned […]

  32. David Says:

    Using Science to find God is like……..

  33. 3L No. 108 Says:

    “If you want to tick off a partical physicist, talk to him about the quantum relationship to God.”

    Or misspell “particle.”

  34. Brent Michael Krupp Says:

    The guy is full of crap. No brain activity? No *measurable* activity maybe, but I doubt there have ever been many NDEs with the patient fully wired to an EEG in any case. And EEGs don’t show *everything* anyway — just the big activity on the surface of the brain.

    The “tunnel with light at the end” that people report is a simple by-product of how the optic nerve works and how it gets its oxygen supply. “Looking down on the doctors” is called dreaming — the imagination is a great thing, even when dying of oxygen deprivation.

    This guy is a crackpot, plain and simple.

  35. Joe Loy Says:

    Excellent piece, Brendan.

    Notwithstanding the commentposting critics’ claim that Mumbo Jumbo do Hoo-doo you (apologies to Vachel Lindsay :), I’d walk the planck with you in No time, arrr :).

  36. Mike Says:

    Well, despite your thought there’s too much attention on the NDE angle, I feel I should take this opportunity to plug Passage by Connie Willis, an excellent sci fi novel dealing with near death experiences in which the main character actually does things like conceal an object from the patient’s view (unless they were floating above the proceedings). Very well written novel.

    Perhaps it’s a semantic issue–you and I argue semantics all the time, Brendan–but I’m not sure I agree with you that something is either a mass delusion or proof of the reality that many would read it to be. As has been alluded to by others, there could be some purely biophysical basis to many of the NDE reported sensations (tunnel of light, surrounded by people, awakening of memories) caused by the brain seeking to establish any connection it can while things are failing, and sorting out sensory perception once it starts to work again. People who routinely remember dreams can report them having taken wildly different lengths of time, but fMRI studies show that the actual length of dream episode is nearly constant, and far shorter than regularly interpreted. Memories and sensations of an NDE are inherently subjective, most likely shaped by culture, and therefore shouldn’t be treated as rigorous facts. But, at the same time, it’s not really a mass delusion either, as it’s a subjective reality demonstrating a true physical reality, but not one that really has anything to say about the afterlife. That would make it a third option.

    The same sort of semantic point relates to your concept of eternity at the plank scale. If the concept of time does indeed break down at such scales–not universal in quantum mechanical thinking, by any means, but a position
    held by at least some–that doesn’t imply the same sort of eternity that most envision when hearing the word. Rather, it implies stasis, and an eternity which is eternal only because time does not pass. That’s a sort of eternity envisioned by some Eastern traditions, to be sure, but Western thoughts on eternity tend to be rather different.

    As an aside, there’s an odd dream state referred to as a hypnagogic state. This state is characterized primarily by muscle paralysis across the body except for the eyes, a sensation that something very important is happening, and consciousness. Fear is also very common, as the person is aware but unable to move. It also comes most often just before waking up. It is theorized to explain many people’s reports of alien abductions these days, and reports of angels/demons as dream visitors in ages past, as people draw upon their cultural references to make sense of the event. I had one of these once in college. My reaction? “I’m in a hypnagogic state. THat’s why I can’t sit up. If I just wait a minute or two and don’t panic, I’ll be able to move and everything will be fine.” And I still had to deal with a largely irrational fear related to my inability to move, even though I knew what was happening and that it would be over shortly. The point of relaying this here is largely that even the hyperrational can be subject to odd sensations caused by altered levels of consciousness completely beyond their control, and that cultural references can help shape the interpretation of the event.

  37. TheSmokingGnu Says:

    If all consciousness was created at the moment of the Big Bang (sounds okay to me, based upon my understanding of cosmology), then it goes a long way to explain why we are seeing a decline in human society — as somebody once noted, the supply of intelligence in the universe is a constant and the population continues to increase.

  38. David K. Says:

    This guy is a crackpot, plain and simple.

    Hmm, what is it exactly your afraid of that you aren’t even willing to discuss the ideas, ask questions, have a nice back and forth (like everyone else is having) that instead because the idea doesn’t fit with what you allready believe you dismiss him as a crackpot. I suppose we should relegate all things we don’t understand yet or don’t make perfect sense as crackpot ideas. Of course then quantum physics wouldn’t have ever been studied either, its adherents were described as crackpots too.

  39. Josh Says:

    One of two explanations will likely suffice for near death experiences: 1. the brain is not “dead” when the experiences occur, there is still sufficient activity for consciousness, though difficult to detect by the crude methods used in human brain science, or 2. The “experience” is actually created when the brian comes back on line, creating an instant memory that seems like it was just recently experienced in real time, as is proposed for deja vu. Let’s exhaust reasonable hypotheses before creating outlandish ones.

    Penrose has been floating his ideas about crystals and quantum properties and consciousness for a long, long time now. His is a solution in search of a problem. Again, everything we _know_ about the brain does not require, or uphold, the mechanism he suggests. He used to provide testable hypotheses for his theory, which all have failed to hold. Now he just goes straight to the press to publish his ideas.

  40. Pixy Misa Says:

    Tom Perkins:

    On reading some of these comments, it seems that many commenters are not understanding how common it is for specific details to be reported by people having NDEs, when the event described occurred after “logoff”–the brain had ceased to function, the senses were not being interpreted or laid down as memories.

    And I’m sure that you, unlike anyone else, ever, will be able to cite specific verified examples of NDE subjects possessing knowledge they could not be expected to have acquired through normal material body functions?

  41. Pixy Misa Says:

    The notion of consciousness, a.k.a. the soul, as a Planck-scale structure, a creature of the ultra-small world that supposedly underlies and determines the very structure of the universe, raises all sorts of compelling questions and issues.

    The most fundamental being, what were they smoking?

  42. Joe Loy Says:

    Leanna says:

    >to tick off a particular physicist

    And not just the physicists. I crossed paths with an Evangelical Christian over the weekend, and when he learned I was not only a Jew but a former Christian Jew, I barely survived the Inquisition that followed.

    Fortunately, this blog is probably not referenced in any of his Christian pamphlets.

    Leanna

  43. peter jackson Says:

    If there is an entity—let’s call it “god”—that *did* create the universe, then that entity exists outside of time-space. It may very well exist within time-space as well, but that’s beside the point; it certainly exists outside of time space having created it.

    Now think about our language. And our language is totally bound up in the concept of time-space, with the meaning of each term and string of terms being nothing but markers which gain their meanings from their relationship in terms of time and space to other markers. So when we also observe that we think in language, (i.e, in thinking we are essentially talking to ourselves), it becomes clear that we are very poorly cognitively equipped to conceptualize, much less discuss, that which is outside of time-space, whether by being really big or really small.

    So giving Brandon, or science, or theology, or anyone a ration of shit for not being able to express themselves in perfectly balanced readily graspable equations (or any other lanuage) isn’t useful or interesting.

    yours/
    peter.

  44. Pixy Misa Says:

    So giving Brandon, or science, or theology, or anyone a ration of shit for not being able to express themselves in perfectly balanced readily graspable equations (or any other lanuage) isn’t useful or interesting.

    No, it is the discussion of what lies beyond space-time that isn’t useful or interesting. Bound as we are by space-time, we can neither adequately express such concepts nor provide any evidence to support our claims.

  45. Pixy Misa Says:

    The question then becomes whether the soul can be explained through this quantum mumbo-jumbo. Maybe, maybe not, but that’s the question that really captivated me about this topic, especially once I considered it alongside the notion of time itself breaking down at the Planck level, thus creating, in essence, eternity.

    Brendan, the problem with this is that from a quantum mechanics perspective, it makes no sense at all. Even if Penrose’s hypothesis regarding quantum gravity in microtubules being the driving force of consciousness were correct - a hypothesis I consider rather less plausible than phlogiston - Hameroff’s proposal of the persistence of said consciousness would be impossible, by the very same laws of quantum mechanics.

    If consciousness is the product of a coherent quantum state, and that coherence is lost (as Hameroff states) when brain function ceases, the consciousness is lost forever. To support his claims you’d have to pick one part of QM theory and ignore the rest, and you can’t do that, because it’s the same set of equations. Penrose may know physics, but he doesn’t appear to know neuroscience; Hameroff may know neuroscience, but he clearly knows nothing of QM.

  46. James Farley Says:

    What’s described isn’t “Heaven” in the Christian sense, but “Hell” in the Eastern/Greek sense. The description of the “Golden Rule” isn’t the Christian Golden Rule at all, but the Hindu anti-golden rule, Karma. All consciousness returns to the greater consciousnes,… yup, that’s Hinduism/Buddhism in its essence. No wonder the article started off with the death of a lama (and a reference to a Benedictine monk with a confused understanding of the Resurrection). I can only assume the article’s physics are as coherent as the theology.

  47. Thief Says:

    Thanks to processes which we set at work in [humans] centuries ago, they find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes. Keep pressing home on him the ordinariness of things. Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. [Or any other religion-ed.] They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don’t let him get away from that invaluable ‘real life’. But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is ‘the results of modern investigation’. Do remember you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach! - The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis

    If Screwtape is around, he must be having a fit right now.

  48. David K. Says:

    No, it is the discussion of what lies beyond space-time that isn’t useful or interesting. Bound as we are by space-time, we can neither adequately express such concepts nor provide any evidence to support our claims.

    So what you are saying is we should only discuss things which we understand fully? Sorry but that seems rather pointless. Some of the greatest discussions in the history of the world have come from people who didn’t (and couldn’t) support their claims with evidence. Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, etc.

    If we limit ourselves to what we can adequately express at that time we will never go anywhere. The entirety of human learning has been driven by people who pushed the limits of expression, who coined new words, new phrases, entirely new fields of science and philosophy to try and describe what our limited human minds couldn’t yet do. Heck it happens in math and physics all the time!

  49. Jeff Grove Says:

    “If consciousness is the product of brain activity, near-death experiences should not happen.” -original article

    “…either NDEs are a mass delusion, or they are proof of the existence of the soul” -Brendan Loy

    -These statements are too strong; near death experiences with memory of events occurring during TRULY zero brain activity should not occur. I don’t know how conclusive a flat EEG is of this, especially in the relevant clinical context. It is known that various brain functions switch on and off at different times, e.g. hearing is one of the most persistent. Sensations of floating nearby, with accompanying visual impressions, may be distorted interpretations of limited and distorted inputs. The brain is known to fill in the unknown with rearrangements of what is known. For my money, there is enough evidence to accept NDEs, but not enough to confirm their origin or significance.

    Even if we know everything physically knowable about the brain, it may not be sufficient to resolve the origin and nature of consciousness. Even so, jumping to conclusions about QM, space-time, Planck-scale, or pre-life hypotheses seems unfounded. They are fun to think about, but there are just too many possibilities that seem less contrived that should be investigated first. Books by Antonio Damasio are a good place to see an approach from that side.

  50. 3L No. 56 Says:

    Sigh. Why am I not surprised that David completely missed the point?

    To borrow another of Dr. Hawking’s lines:

    David, what lies north of the north pole?

    Think about that in the context of Pixy Misa’s comments and see if you can grasp his/her point.

  51. Sean Says:

    The entire thing is an argument-from-ignorance fallacy. Why are we pretending it’s an intelligent argument that requires intelligent counterarguments? It’s nonsense.

  52. Jon Says:

    Be careful. I think the Discover article pushes rather farther than our knowledge lies. The media strikes again! Bwahaha!

    And yet their brain shows no activity at all.”

    SHOWS. I don’t think we can be sure of that. Certainly, the zeroing of an EEG just attached to the outside of your brain, tuned to look for normal brain activity levels, means little. Until an MRI study appears, the evidence isn’t in.

    The afore-mentioned Passage, by Connie Willis, which includes discussion of such a study, points out, though, that could be hard.

    Microtubule theories so far are weak in a rather important underpinning: persuasive experimental evidence. At this point, they’ve had a while, and, as Josh points out in #39, there are persuasive, simpler explanations of thought with more experimental backing evidence. So the microtubule theory seems very unlikely to me.

  53. Tom Perkins Says:

    Mark Buehner wrote:

    “Like what? Ventalators? Shock paddles? If i nodded off at my desk and had a vision of my assistant doing her nails and chatting on the phone i wouldnt consider it astral projection- just the mind making pretty obvious connections to what it expects to be happening.”

    Things like flatlining the EEG are what er described as the conditiond during which time very specific details are recalled, not by any currently understood mechanism.

  54. Aaron Says:

    I echo the thoughts of all the commenters who find these theories unimpressive. On the other hand, I was interested to learn (via wiki) that Roger Penrose is the Penrose of the Moore-Penrose generalized matrix inverse… a handy mathematical tool if ever there was one.

  55. Tom Perkins Says:

    # Pixy Misa wrote:

    “And I’m sure that you, unlike anyone else, ever, will be able to cite specific verified examples of NDE subjects possessing knowledge they could not be expected to have acquired through normal material body functions?”

    Nope. I’m Taking Brendan’s post as his word and bond.

    Take that issue with him.

    Though I do recall reading a Reader’s Digest that had about three of them in one article. I particularly remember the coding brain surgery patient who recalled specifics of his anethesiologist’s action when a drape was between his eyes and the doctor. That was spooky.

    Yours, Tom Perkins

  56. David K. Says:

    The entire thing is an argument-from-ignorance fallacy. Why are we pretending it’s an intelligent argument that requires intelligent counterarguments? It’s nonsense.

    It must be very nice to live in a world where you understand everything and never have to explore ideas outside what is currently ‘known’ to be true. Heaven forbid (pun FULLY intended) that we consider possibilities beyond what we can touch taste or hear. Just because you are willing to accept that humanity and our limited understanding are the end all be all of reality and that anyone who even CONSIDERS the possibility of something more, something that requires stretching our selves and even accepting that there is something greater is a ‘crackpot’ or its all just ‘nonesense’. This from the same people who bitch and moan when evengelicals declare that they know The Truth. You are just as bad! You have declared that there is a fixed little box that we all should live in and damn anyone who questions the orthodoxy.

    Brendan posted what are some very thought provoking ideas which thankfully some here have taken up the challange of discussing not with closed minds but with interest and intelligence. An intellectual back and forth has gone on that you would rather simply dismiss with a wave of the hand as poppycock. The same that intellectual elitists have done throughout history. There have been people, pioneers throughout history who have suggested explanations and ideas based on limited understanding of greater phenomenon and new ideas. Often the capabilities of verifying these thought experiments far exceeded them at the time, many were dismissed out of hand as being ‘wrong’ or ‘crazy’ or ‘nonesense’ only to be backed up later, sometimes decades later in ways that no one at the time could have ever thought possible.

    Does that mean that all such theories end up being proven? Far from it, there are of course plenty of crackpot theories touted throughout history too. But its not enough to say “boo i don’t like this idea, it doesn’t jive with my world view, so its nonesense” at the very least if its complete nonesense it should be easy to A) ignore it or B) dispute it.

    How, then, if its all nonesense would one account for NDE in which the person has memories, accurate ones, of events that happen AFTER they are measurably brain dead? On explanation has been suggested above, that in fact there is non-measureable activity occuring at that point, enough to generate the visions that people see. Fine, thats possible. Its also possible that something else, something completely new and unexpected is going on. Perhaps someday we’ll be able to definitively show that there is infact brain activity occuring that we were previously unaware of, at which point you have your answer and we move on to the next unsolved mystery. But perhaps, just perhaps there is that something unique, something beyond our understanding atleast now going on, something that bridges the supposed gap between science and spirituality of some sort. Is your worldview so fragile that it can’t incorporate something unexpected and new? Are you so afraid of the idea that you could be wrong that rather than encourage a healthy and interesting debate on the idea, you’d rather try and ignore it completely? For someone who vehemently advocates against traditional orthodox learning methods you sure seem comfortable with the orthodoxy when it supports what you want it to.

  57. Pixy Misa Says:

    Nope. I’m Taking Brendan’s post as his word and bond.

    Take that issue with him.

    Okay then. There remains the problem that there is zero reliable evidence that NDEs represent anything other than abnormal brain function. Stories in Readers Digest only get you so far when you try to publish in Nature.

  58. Pixy Misa Says:

    It must be very nice to live in a world where you understand everything and never have to explore ideas outside what is currently ‘known’ to be true.

    That’s not what Sean was saying. The term “argument from ignorance” refers to a specific form of logical fallacy, where a claim is held to be true only because it has not been proven false.

    Brendan posted what are some very thought provoking ideas which thankfully some here have taken up the challange of discussing not with closed minds but with interest and intelligence.

    The ideas are pop-philosophy pseudoscientific nonsense. If you step from these ideas to learning something about real neuroscience or real quantum mechanics, then you will have learned something valuable. Otherwise… not.

    How, then, if its all nonesense would one account for NDE in which the person has memories, accurate ones, of events that happen AFTER they are measurably brain dead?

    Easy: this doesn’t happen.

  59. Joe Loy Says:

    “That’s not what Sean was saying. The term ‘argument from ignorance’ refers to a specific form of logical fallacy, where a claim is held to be true only because it has not been proven false.”

    That’s not what Brendan was saying :), Pixy Misa. He didn’t Hold the Planckscale Heaven to be True, for that reason or any other. He held it forth (and Held Forth on it :) as something Interesting ~ indeed, as he readily admitted, something personally Captivating ~ that just conceivably Might hold some Truth within it (which, we can reasonably infer, he Hopes it Does). (btw is Hope permissible, PM? Or is it all just new-age junkscience crap, too? :)

    “No, it is the discussion of what lies beyond space-time that isn’t useful or interesting. Bound as we are by space-time, we can neither adequately express such concepts nor provide any evidence to support our claims.” ~ the abovecited PM

    “…they find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes. Keep pressing home on him the ordinariness of things…If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don’t let him get away from that invaluable ‘real life’…”
    ~ The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis

    If Screwtape is around, he must be having a fit right now.

    Ohhh, he Is, and Indeed he is, Thief. A real grand mal, I fear. :>

  60. PatGLex Says:

    Thanks for blogging about the mag. I went to the store and bought a copy. Heck, I’m a science geek, it’s all fascinating to me.

  61. Is Heaven at the Planck length? : NewsWax Says:

    […] Efforts to understand time below the Planck scale have led to an exceedingly strange juncture in phy… […]

  62. LaSalle the Layman Says:

    Brandon: in my opinion, even a layman with nothing but a general education in this topic is still entitled to critique the established scientific clergy.

    This is especially true as it appears the entire scientific profession is rife with bias.

    #36 Mike Said:
    May 30th, 2007 at 1:09:57 pm If the concept of time does indeed break down at such scales–not universal in quantum mechanical thinking, by any means, but a position held by at least some–that doesn’t imply the same sort of eternity that most envision when hearing the word. Rather, it implies stasis, and an eternity which is eternal only because time does not pass. That’s a sort of eternity envisioned by some Eastern traditions, to be sure, but Western thoughts on eternity tend to be rather different.

    Actually, that made me think of this bit from Revelations 15:2 - A Scene of Heaven:

    “And I saw something like a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, holding harps of God.”

    I would argue that the “sea of glass” - an ocean without waves - represents eternity in that the passage of time requires an analog (or wave-dependent) observer.

    BTW - back to the original topic - I think it’s safe to say that the Planck’s length represents a physical barrierin SpaceTime akin to a Black Hole. In this sense, The Uncertainty Principle applies for both the Black Hole and the Planck’s length.

    As I have written elsewhere, the Uncertainty Principle gives me the odds in suggesting that the contents of a Plank’s Length are identical to the contents of a Black Hole. Put another way, in my opinion the contents of a Plank’s Length are imploding relative to any external observer - exactly like an infinitesimally small Black Hole.

    The Uncertainty Principle trumps all comers, so the outcome of any bet you wish to make with me about what lies within a Planck’s length will be no greater than 50-50. And since I have a virtually unlimited number of Planck’s Length sized objects in my immediate environment (to say nothing of the predicted), I win the bet by odds.

    That’s it: Black Holes all around. An ash heap of blackholes… that’s what universes are made of.

    Here’s the skinny, as I see it:

    More here: http://bicameraluniverse.com/ and here.

  63. Matthew C Says:

    Great and thoughtful post, Brendan.

    If anyone is interested in why some people are so hostile to the idea that NDEs may represent real phenomena, I wrote a post about it here.

    I also talk about related phenomena and experiences on my blog.

  64. Brother James Says:

    Print an article about “EATHER”…and you will see tht everything you people are talking about….matches…

    Brother James

  65. Richard Says:

    I am usually interested in attempts to bridge the gap between science and religion, even if I find the particular atttempt unsatisfying and/or unconvincing. This is so because I find the idea of operating only on the basis of science or only on the basis of religion to each rest on a highly questionnable idea. To operate on religion alone rests on the idea that we have learned nothing really important since the time of Christ, or whenever one’s own particular religious leader lived. To operate on science alone rests on the idea that everyone who lived before modern times (whenever those are held to have begun) was really, really stupid. I find each idea questionnable in the extreme


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