We Don’t Die? We Can’t Die? If the Wave Function in Quantum Physics Doesn’t Collapse, Does that Mean Consciousness Can’t Collapse Either?

In thinking about near death experiences (NDEs), I had a thought that might support the idea that the human mind really is immortal. I must say, however, that I’ve never seen this argument made anywhere else, and so it’s probably dead wrong. But nevertheless, here it is:

One interpretation of quantum physics is that the wave function, on being observed by you, does not “collapse” into a singular and definite particular (or particle) state, but instead splits into an array of parallel universes beyond your awareness. You perceive only your local state, but are oblivious to all the others. Nevertheless, they exist too. They’re not just potential. They are real. As real as your local state. In other words, if material particles are like a wave of spilled marbles on the floor, then, at any given moment, your consciousness is like a reaching hand that takes hold of one of those “marble particle states” even as all the other possible “marble particle states” continue to exist, and spread out beyond your local grasp.

Now apply this way of interpreting quantum reality to near death experiences. Here’s my theory: At the cusp of death, the mind enters a superposition of quantum states in which its awareness dies in some directions but continues to live in others, and that’s it!

Think about it. If consciousness does not collapse the wave function, it must follow (logically) that the mind, at the brink of death, must enter into a superposition of states, some of them living and experiencing thoughts and visions, and others of them dead and unconscious. In other words, we may be condemned, once our consciousness comes into existence, to never really have the power to turn it off! We may have to whirl through the maze of quantum splitting universes forever and ever, like it or not. This may account for why NDEers describe death as a crossing over from one state of existence to another. They say this because that may be exactly what it is. You would expect your consciousness to just black out at death, but instead you pass effortlessly into another condition of being—the one that, well, you must necessarily have stayed conscious in! The blacked out quantum “possible worlds” are, for you, not there! You literally don’t know  of them because in them you really died. But in the one you do know (for you must know it), you are still alive! This seems to me the universal experience of NDEers. To their delight or occasional dismay, they found that death was not death. Their consciousness went right on. And it was coherent and lucid.

I feel a science fiction novel in this idea. A suicidal person keeps thinking of elaborate ways of killing herself, and finds, at each attempt, her consciousness just keeps going. She can never turn herself off because at least one quantum state always has her, well, still conscious! Maybe death is something like that. Maybe we don’t die. Maybe we can’t die.

What do you think? Has some science fiction writer (that I’m not aware of) already played this idea out? Or does anyone know of a physicist who has speculated about this? I know Simone de Beauvoir’s novel, All Men are Mortal, in which a man does not die. But I don’t think that there are any novels that put this particular quantum spin on death and consciousness, making it physically and logically impossible to die in a splitting quantum universe where the wave function does not really ever collapse.

I’d like to offer an analogy. When you drift off to sleep at night, you have fallen into a very definite state. You’re not maybe  asleep. You are asleep. Your lover even looks in on you and sees that you have fallen asleep. And in the morning you will have recovered consciousness, looked at your surroundings, observed that you have been sleeping, and even had a dream. But wait. If the quantum wave function does not collapse when looked in upon, then in some quantum states unseen by your lover and by your “morning you,” you have insomnia, and when your lover looks in on you, he or she finds you wide awake. You get it on and have a kid. You name her Amy. She goes to Berkeley. She marries the great grandson of Sam Walton. In a universe where the wave function doesn’t collapse, that’s you too, and not just the guy or gal who slept through the night.

Now here’s my question again, put another way: How do you ever fully sleep, and how can you ever fully die, in a universe where the wave function does not collapse?

This question feels like a Zen koan to me. What is the sound of one hand clapping, and what is the sound of one man dying? How can anyone, without a second witness peering directly into the mind, ever die? Who collapses the wave function without somebody else in your head to look in and see that you really aren’t there anymore? It’s true that others can see a dead body and brain that’s stopped. But who sees the mind? At the 2:25 mark in the below video, a near death experiencer describes how abrupt the transition was (for him) from life to “death.” He describes it as a transition faster than “rolling over in bed.” That quick.

Now, obviously, my argument only works if the mind is not the brain (or not just the brain). And my argument only works if the mind is something like radio waves and the brain is something like a radio receiver. But if the brain (the radio) can break and the mind (the waves) can still be out there in some way, then there can be no collapsing of the quantum wave function of the conscious mind, for you are the sole direct witness to your own conscious states! You are the sound of one hand clapping.

What’s interesting to me is that NDEers universally tell us that the mind is not the brain. They claim that, at their moments of trauma, they had greater lucidity in their experiences than anything their brains appeared to be capable of channeling for them. Where you would expect static, incoherence, and shut down, you seem to get a “pure wave” of mind and the most powerful and lucid experiences of your existence. You go stereo. It’s as if the brain is an inadequate AM radio to the mind, and when the mind cuts from its local reception box, it suddenly experiences itself more clearly, not less. It experiences (if NDEers are to be believed) a revelation.

We really may not die. Love may be important. Yikes.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to We Don’t Die? We Can’t Die? If the Wave Function in Quantum Physics Doesn’t Collapse, Does that Mean Consciousness Can’t Collapse Either?

  1. Grad Student says:

    Santi,

    I’m so buying that book.

    As I’ve said before, you’re on really shaky ground with the whole quantum mechanics consciousness thing. But, speculating is always fun, and I have no problem with that (as long as we all remember that it’s pure speculation).

    I see a problem with your many worlds idea. What catapults your conciousness in this universe onto another universe? The whole point of parallel universes is that they’re, well, parallel, non intersecting (after they’ve split in the first place). Thus, in some universes you die, and in other’s you don’t. In some universes you’re decaying matter, and that’s it.

    To say that your conciousness is somehow different than your body violates the idea of the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. But if mind doesn’t adhere to the laws of physics I suppose anything’s possible! But then, why worry about quantum mechanics in the first place?

    -Grad Student

  2. santitafarella says:

    Grad Student:

    I may very well be befuddled on this subject, and I appreciate your caution. As for the book you plan on getting, perhaps you are referring to “The Spiritual Brain.” It’s very good. If, however, you are referring to DeBeauvoir’s great novel that I referred to above, I’ll tell you just a bit about it via the book’s title. The title (“All Men are Mortal”) is ironic, for DeBeauvoir believed, as an existentialist, that to be a “man” you had to stake something, to risk one’s life for love, and to risk death and real loss in your choices. But her lead character cannot die, and so he finds his love and values melting away, for nothing is ever at stake in his choices. He is immortal, like the gods, and so not really a man. All men are mortal.

    —Santi

  3. John says:

    You might be interested in Quantum mechanics and New Empiricism which would limit persistence to universes similar to our own and permit reliving of the past.

  4. santitafarella says:

    Author X:

    Wow. That was a great link. Thanks for that. It’s interesting that physicists have, indeed, played with the “we don’t die” idea, and that science fiction has played with the idea too. I’d never heard of “quantum suicide.”

    —Santi

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