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Science and Christian Faith 4: The power of the mind and the paranormal
The two slit experiment
You may remember from week 1 the quantum nature of small particles. When light *from the left of the
diagram, arrives at two holes it is diffracted by the slits and the two waves interact with each other, sometimes
adding up to give a bright area on the screen, and sometimes cancelling each other out to give a dark area on
the screen. This seemed to confirm the wave nature of light.
However Einstein demonstrated about 100 years ago that light is made up of individual particles, named
photons. Diffractions bends them around a corner and they seem to operate like waves even though they are
not waves. More recently when individual photons are shot through two slits at a screen they ‘interfere with
themselves’ and avoid landing on the screen where they cancel out. In itself that is not classic physics. A ball
either goes through one slit or another, and has no knowledge of whether there is another slit or not, yet
these balls arrange themselves on a screen so that they must have ‘known’ that there was a second slit.
The balls of light, (it works with electrons, atoms and molecules as well… bigger and bigger), seem to go
through BOTH slots at the same time. The name for this is superposition. They don’t just have one position
(like everything else we know) they have two positions at the same time. That is difficult to grasp. They are
not split in two with half going through one and half through the other, because they are individual particles.
They are, actually, in two places at the same time.
If we do anything at all which tries to see where the particle actually is, the superpositions collapse into just
one position. So, for example, as a particle goes through the slits it has two superpositions (one through each
slit) but when it hits the screen it has only one position. One of the other positions has disappeared.
Remarkably, the collapse is not necessarily due to the presence or absence of something impinging on the
particles as they go through the slit. When we did the experiment in the Chaplaincy House the laser and two
slits were in the kitchen and the screen in the lounge. Between them were no end of molecules of Oxygen,
Nitrogen, etc., and photons galore. Any of them could have been set up by us to look at which slit the photon
was going through. It seems as if KNOWLEDGE of the location of the photon is the thing that collapses the
superpositions into one.
This is unpalatable to those who do not wish to connect conscious knowledge with some physical activity.
Roger Penrose in 1989 wrote a book, The Emperor’s new mind. This was a remarkable book in which, in the
first half, he explores what is understood by consciousness and suggests that consciousness is not algorithmic.
Algorithmic means that, he suggests, it is not programmable on a computer. He suggests that you can prove
that consciousness is more than a very large computer program on a very large computer.
Humans have 100 billion neurons in their brain. The neuron is basically a single cell that receives charges from
adjacent neurons connected to the neuron along its dendrites and eventually, when it has enough charge,
‘fires’. The firing is passing charges onto another set of neurons along its axon. It has a learning system which
changes connections and point at which it fires. We have billions of these firing every second.
The brain has a known physical structure, but actually the structure we recognise is the conscious/sub
conscious mind. The subconscious takes over what might be called algorithmic running. It maintains our body
with all the bio-chemical systems to ensure we stay alive and react appropriately. It ‘wakes’ the conscious
system when there is a problem, otherwise it gets on with its job. You can drive subconsciously. That is fine
providing nothing goes wrong, when the driving has to suddenly become conscious.
The operation of a neuron is described by a model developed by a couple of scientists – Hodgkin and Hukley
who won a Nobel prize for the work. Recently Guckenheimer and Oliva have shown that there is chaos in the
system at or near the firing. That does mean small changes produce big results over time. Whether that is
enough for quantum effects to work on a full neuron is yet to be sufficiently researched.
Penrose and Hammeroff, on the other hand, have proposed a major re-think of the quantum mechanical
effects in parts of the neuron, parts called microfibrils. There are many of these for each neuron and their size
is very small, approaching the size of molecules and atoms, which means they are more prone to quantum
Penrose proposed the equivalence of the collapse of the superpositions into one position is equivalent to
knowledge, or an element of consciousness. It sounded ridiculous, initially, but it has not died a death as a
theory, though physicists don’t like the connection with consciousness. Every collapse is an element of
knowledge and consciousness. There are collapses everywhere all the time, but they are not connected at all.
In the microtubules they are connected and connected knowledge, realisation, consciousness is something
that is, in their words, orchestrated in the neuron. It is as if consciousness is in the microfibrils and
subconscious-ness is in the neurons.
This has major God implications. We tend to split body mind and soul, but actually we are all body. But within
that is mind which has normal control procedures in the subconscious, plus consciousness which, if Penrose
etc., are right, is connected to the randomness of quantum mechanics and therefore, I suggest, to the mind of
God. It also means that quantum entanglement, at a distance, instantly, is part of the conscious system, and
that provides lines of communication with God, with one another and with our world around us and the
universe. We become the branches of a vine.
Our consciousness is something which IS made of quantum events, and quantum events happen everywhere.
We talk of God as everywhere and Jesus talks of us as being in him and he in us. There is a resonance with the
words of Jesus in John where we are in him and he in us. Some remarkable universal spiritual consciousness is,
perhaps, what God is about. A beautiful possiblitiy.