Roger Penrose On Why Consciousness Does Not Compute
The emperor of physics defends his controversial theory of mind.
BY STEVE PAULSON
EMERGENT BEAUTY: Roger Penrose has always been in search of deep structures of the universe, reflected in the tiling he created, where basic shapes—in this case the rhombus—give rise to extraordinary patterns.
Once you start poking around in the muck of consciousness studies, you will soon encounter the specter of Sir Roger Penrose, the renowned Oxford physicist with an audacious—and quite possibly crackpot—theory about the quantum origins of consciousness. He believes we must go beyond neuroscience and into the mysterious world of quantum mechanics to explain our rich mental life. No one quite knows what to make of this theory, developed with the American anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, but conventional wisdom goes something like this: Their theory is almost certainly wrong, but since Penrose is so brilliant (“One of the very few people I’ve met in my life who, without reservation, I call a genius,” physicist Lee Smolin has said), we’d be foolish to dismiss their theory out of hand.
Penrose, 85, is a mathematical physicist who made his name decades ago with groundbreaking work in general relativity and then, working with Stephen Hawking, helped conceptualize black holes and gravitational singularities, a point of infinite density out of which the universe may have formed. He also invented “twistor theory,” a new way to connect quantum mechanics with the structure of spacetime. His discovery of certain geometric forms known as “Penrose tiles”—an ingenious design of non-repeating patterns—led to new directions of study in mathematics and crystallography.
The breadth of Penrose’s interests is extraordinary, which is evident in his recent book Fashion, Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe—a dense 500-page tome that challenges some of the trendiest but still unproven theories in physics, from the multiple dimensions of string theory to cosmic inflation in the first moment of the Big Bang. He considers these theories to be fanciful and implausible.