This is the second of four posts on “The Science of Consciousness” in Tucson, Arizona, which lasted from April 26 to April 30. (See Further Reading for links to other posts.) Once again, I’m trying to answer the question: What is it like to be a skeptical journalist at a consciousness conference? -- John Horgan


Breakfast on the patio with Stuart Kauffman, who has training in… almost everything. Philosophy, medicine, science. We’ve bumped heads in the past, but we’re friendly now. In his mid-70s, Stu is still obsessed with--and hacking away at--the biggest mysteries.

We talk about… almost everything. Quantum mechanics, the origin of life, materialism, free will, God, the birth and death of his daughter, the death of his wife, his re-marriage, predictability versus possibility.

As Stu speaks, his magnificent, weathered face looks happy/sad, arrogant/anxious. Superposition of emotions. He tells me about his brand-new book, Humanity in a Creative Universe, in which he outlines a perspective that can help lift us out of our spiritual crisis. Who saves the savior?

I scoot to a morning session, “Consciousness and Free Will.” I hope it will supply me with ammo for my defenses of free will. I can do without God, but not free will. No choices = no meaning.

Here in Tucson in 1994, I heard psychologist Benjamin Libet present results that, at first, rocked my faith. Libet observed a burst of neural activity—called a readiness potential--in subjects’ brains a chunk of a second before they consciously decided to push a button.

Freedom-haters claim that Libet’s results, which have been widely replicated, reveal free will to be an illusion. Our brains make decisions for us, like corrupt politicians in a smoky back room, and our conscious decisions are literally afterthoughts. Libet himself resisted this interpretation of his results, and with good reason. His experiment isn’t really a test of decision-making. Subjects must press the button; they only control the timing.

Mulling over all this, I plunge into the gloom of Kiva Ballroom, a high-tech version of Plato’s Cave. Neuroscientist Aaron Schurger is wrapping up his talk, which seems to have been about Libet’s research. Damn! What did I miss? Flipping through my conference program, I find Shurger’s abstract. He writes:

“In the 1980s the readiness potential was used to argue that we do not have conscious free will, because the readiness potential appears to begin even before we are aware of our own conscious decision to act. Now we and others have challenged that long-standing interpretation by showing that the early part of the readiness potential might reflect sub-threshold random fluctuations in brain activity that have an influence on the precise moment that the movement begins. These fluctuations thus appear as part of the ‘signal’ when we analyze the data time-locked to the time of movement onset.”

Yes! I’m not sure what this means, but I like it. Any friend of free will is a friend of mine.

I start doubting this principle as I listen to subsequent speakers, who defend free will with exotic quantum hypotheses such as “temporal nonlocality.” A physician explains that our conscious decisions reach backward in time and change our prior brain states so as to enable the decisions. A physicist links free will to precognition, intuition of the future.

What the…?!

Stuart Hameroff, who is managing the free-will session, welcomes these ideas. He says orchestrated object reduction, ORCH OR, the quantum-consciousness theory he co-invented with physicist Roger Penrose, can explain free will in terms of “backward time effects.” With friends like this, free will doesn’t need enemies.

My belief in free will stems from simple introspection. Example: I have consciously decided, after much conscious research and rumination, that I prefer Hillary to Bernie. She’s far too hawkish for my taste, but Bernie isn’t exactly a pacifist either. Hillary clearly has the best shot at beating Drumpf next fall. Plus, my girlfriend is a hard-core Hillary fan. Enough said.

All the free-will defenders join Hameroff on stage for the Q&A. Someone asks if the speakers think we’re in The Matrix. Hameroff, who is a brutally efficient stage manager, retorts, “I’ve entertained that idea,” and takes the next question.

Next comes a session on “Artificial Intelligence/Machine Consciousness” featuring two Google Guys. Harmut Neven heads Google’s quantum artificial-intelligence program. He says a technique called “quantum annealing” can help computers discover solutions to problems more rapidly than conventional computers. The technique involves…

Hell, I don’t know, go ask Scott Aaronson what it involves. I’m more interested in Neven’s philosophical remarks. He’s a panpsychist, who thinks machines might be conscious. We can’t know computers are conscious, he concedes, because consciousness is not accessible through the methods of experimental science. We can learn more about consciousness, he suggests, by exploring altered states, such as those induced by ayahuasca. Google is so hip!

Next up is Christian Szegedy, who tells us about Google’s research on neural networks, which are capable not only of learning but of “deep learning.” Google is churning out loads of clever neural-net apps. One guesses the mood of people in photos, another makes your photos look like Picassos or Renoirs, another answers your emails.

Google has even invented a neural net that criticizes the ideas of other neural nets. Uh oh. Sounds like the template for a science writer.

How long have we got? someone asks during the Q&A. Szegedy looks at him blankly, so the questioner clarifies: How long have we got before machines become smarter than us? What’s wrong with machines becoming smarter than us? Szegedy says, grinning. He assures us that machines aren’t going to take over the planet.

Of course he would say that. But I’d vote for a Google app for President before I’d vote for Trump.

A questioner with a Texas twang declares that he has created a “conscious robot.” His research is way ahead of Google’s, but he’s willing to collaborate with the Google Guys. Next question, Hameroff says.

I’m revising my Law of the Scientific Q&A. The law holds that in the Q&A following a scientific talk, at least one questioner will be a crank. Here in Tucson, cranks are the norm and sensible questioners the exception.

I eat lunch with a philosopher who is trying to create a theory of the fundamental components of thought. Like the atoms of thought? I ask. More like the quarks or strings of thought, the philosopher says. Would this be like Chomsky’s innate, universal grammar? I ask. Kind of, the philosopher says, but thought and language aren’t equivalent.

I wish him luck in his grand endeavor. After we part, I vaguely recall that in his famous “stream of consciousness” essay, William James doubted whether there are atoms of thought, because thoughts are fluid, ever-changing. James also compared thoughts to snowflakes, because when you try to examine thoughts, they melt, like snowflakes in your hands. James sure could turn a phrase.

After lunch I sit in a communal hot tub, where I get in an argument with an evangelical believer in Orchestrated Object Reduction, ORCH OR. All the ORCH OR believers in the world, I suspect, are clustered here in Tucson.

I bring up the old complaint that brains are too warm to sustain the quantum effects posited by ORCH OR. That’s bullshit, ORCH OR Guy says, light is a quantum phenomenon, and it happens at room temperature. To my annoyance, I can’t think of a retort to his argument. The hot tub must be interfering with my brain’s quantum coherence.

I jump into an adjacent pool of cold water and assure ORCH OR Guy, falsely, that it feels great. ORCH OR Guy dips a foot in the pool but decides against full immersion. I mock him for his cowardice, which makes me feel better about being too dumb to rebut his point about light.

At a pre-dinner reception, I chat briefly with Chalmers and an anesthesiologist, who says he has done experiments that seem to contradict a tenet of ORCH OR. Chalmers darts away and drags Hameroff back with him so the anesthesiologists can hash out their differences. I drift into another conversation, so I don’t witness the outcome, but I know one thing: Hameroff will not concede defeat.

Waiting in the food line, I meet a therapist testing the therapeutic potential of ketamine, an anesthetic with hallucinogenic properties. I tell him that after ingesting psilocybin in Basel, Switzerland, in 1999, I dined with a Russian psychiatrist who was giving ketamine to alcoholics in Saint Petersburg. During the same trip, I saw the legendary psychedelic chemist Albert Hofmann.

By the time I’m done with my story, we’ve gotten our food, and Ketamine Guy hasn’t told me about his research. We agree to talk later.

Over dinner, I sit next to two young Norwegian scientists. They tell me about a Norwegian tradition that exhorts young men to be humble and never hold themselves above others. They say they do not adhere to this tradition, but they seem quite polite.

I hold myself above others for a living! I say. They politely half-smile, not sure if I’m kidding.

To my astonishment, they have not read the autobiographical fiction of Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose talent for conveying the strangeness and drama of utterly banal experiences rivals that of James Joyce. I rhapsodize about Knausgaard’s epic description of cleaning the filthy home of his dead alcoholic father. The Norwegians politely half-smile.

Self-Googling back in my room, I discover that someone has left a comment on a blog post in which I say I’m headed to “The Science of Consciousness.” The commenter says “Mr. Horgan was indeed sighted in a hot tub at TSC, hard at work!”

I’m being watched. No wonder my brain feels so slow. Observation is collapsing my wave functions. Quantum incoherence strikes again.

[In my next post, I ponder the significance of lucid dreams and meet two spoon-benders.]

Further Reading:

Dispatch from the Desert of Consciousness Research, Part 1

Dispatch from the Desert of Consciousness Research, Part 3

Dispatch from the Desert of Consciousness Research, Part 4

Flashback: My Report on First Consciousness Powwow in Tucson. How Far Has Science Come Since Then?

Meta-post: Horgan Posts on Brain and Mind Science

The Singularity and the Neural Code

Scott Aaronson Answers Every Ridiculously Big Question I Throw at Him