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 SystemÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I believe that our current understanding of humans is woefully inadequate,Ã¢â‚¬Â he says. Ã¢â‚¬Å“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 IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not happy with the answers we have now, either from science or from religion.Ã¢â‚¬Â
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 individualÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s brain should not have been functioning at the time of the event. Ã¢â‚¬Å“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, Ã¢â‚¬ËœI was thinking clearer than I ever have before,Ã¢â‚¬â„¢Ã¢â‚¬Â Greyson says.
Dutch cardiologist and near-death researcher Pim van Lommel notes that, at the moment of an NDE, Ã¢â‚¬Å“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.Ã¢â‚¬Â
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, Ã¢â‚¬Å“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.Ã¢â‚¬Â
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. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I think consciousness under normal circumstances occurs at the level of space-time geometry in the brain, in the microtubules,Ã¢â‚¬Â Hameroff says. Ã¢â‚¬Å“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 isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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.Ã¢â‚¬Â
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? PenroseÃ¢â‚¬â„¢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 Ã¢â‚¬Å“Big Wow,Ã¢â‚¬Â shorthand for her description of the connection between Ã¢â‚¬Å“the very early quantum computing universe and our mind.Ã¢â‚¬Â
PenroseÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ideas hint at a physical mechanism for consciousness that persists after death. Ã¢â‚¬Å“If a patient isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t revived,Ã¢â‚¬Â Hameroff says, Ã¢â‚¬Å“it enters the universe at large, and maybe it gets picked back up again by someone someday, who knows?Ã¢â‚¬Â
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.