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Nonphysical Causation: A Proposed Mechanism for the Efficacy of Consciousness


Richard J. Lucido





In order for consciousness to be efficacious, to perform any real function, there must be a mechanism of causation by which its nonphysical attributes can effect the physical structures in the brain.  Current theories of nonphysical causation most commonly rely on consciousness’ role in the collapse of the wave function to bridge the gap between mind and matter.  However, these theories fail to translate well to our everyday macro level consciousness, which does not directly observe neural functioning in the same way that a physicist may observe quantum phenomena by looking at an instrument.  This paper will propose a mechanism of nonphysical causation based upon consciousness’ entanglement with the brain across a brief temporal divide.  In doing so it is hoped that a possible mechanism of nonphysical causation will be illuminated that only requires consciousness to will and observe macro events.  



“A man who wills commands something within himself that renders obedience, or that he believes renders obedience”

-- Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil



            The aim of this paper is to present a plausible mechanism of nonphysical causation, meaning the power of consciousness to enact a physical effect in the brain.  The illumination of such a mechanism is a necessary step to remove consciousness from is current state in science of being largely considered an epiphenonem.  Excellent theoretical arguments for the efficacy of consciousness exist, stemming from a variety of disciplines and perspectives (Baars, 1988; Hodgson, 2005; Beck, 1974; Satre, 1943).  These logical arguments are of immense importance in providing evidence for nonphysical causation, yet however insightful, they all fall into the category of only describing how the concept of a conscious efficacy is valuable ontologically, evolutionarily, and psychologically or the flaws in complete unconscious determinism.  They show why it has to exist or why it is impossible for it not to exist but never how it can possibly exist.  To show how it can exist requires a mechanism of nonphysical causation, which will be the narrow focus of this paper.  

            Much theoretical progress has been made in the development of a possible nonphysical causation mechanism utilizing quantum mechanics, which, according to the Von Neumann/Winger augmentation to the Copenhagen interpretation, brings in the observer, consciousness, into physical theory.  Under this orthodoxy, particles remain in a state of superposition, a collection of all possible states, until the act of observation by consciousness, at which time only one state becomes actualized.  The state that eventually occurs in any single instance cannot be predicted; only the probability that it will occur can be known.  Utilizing this most basic physical theory, Stapp (1993) provides a model in which consciousness efficacy arises from the quantum zeno effect; rapidly successive measurements on a quantum system stop it from evolving and effectively restrict the system to the state in which it was initially measured.  He contends that focused attention through mental effort can actualize potential brain states through such rapid continued measurement.  Beck and Eccles (1992) propose a model of nonphysical causation that relies on exocytosis, the process by which neurotransmitters are expelled into the synaptic cleft.  They argue that this process is probabilistic and quantum mechanical.  In their model, conscious intention can momentarily increase the probability for exocytosis in selected cortical areas, thereby causing a physical effect.    Walker (1998) proposes a model whereby a global system of electron tunneling in the brain provides the vehicle for conscious efficacy, through the action of the observer in the collapse of the wave function.  While these models and others like them effectively show how quantum indeterminacy can affect brain behavior and is the likely point of contact between the physical and nonphysical domains of existence, they fail to provide a plausible mechanism for consciousness’ efficacy.  Yes, conscious observation does seem to be necessary to collapse the wave function in physics experiments and may even somehow influence state selection in the brain as these models imply, but it remains to be answered how this direct microscopic neural influence could be a means to an ultimate behavioral end conceived in macro consciousness.  These causal models are   unsatisfying because they require our consciousness to be aware of and select from the functioning of billions of microscopic interactions at time intervals that we cannot consciously conceive.  In reality, our everyday consciousness only seems to be observing macro events that occur in macro time, not neural functioning.  Since it is our daily conscious awareness of which we seek a mechanism of efficacy, theorists must be careful not to fall into a trap of giving it omnipotence.  For this reason, mechanisms of nonphysical causation that rely on consciousness directly influencing state selection at the time of the collapse of the wave function are flawed.  A workable mechanism of nonphysical causation must allow consciousness to retain its macro limitations.  In order to find such a mechanism we must first clarify the process of willing.


The Act of Willing


            By self-examination, consider what happens in consciousness when you decide to move your finger.  After doing so ask yourself this question.  In your mind, is there a conscious willing of the particular sequence of synaptic transmissions necessary to send an electrical signal down to the muscles in your hand?  No, of course not, we are not conceiving any of that in our consciousness as we will an action.  All we are conceiving is the final macro outcome, the movement of the finger.  We conceive of the outcome, we will it, and observe it that way.  It feels as though our consciousness is giving an order to our body, which faithfully complies, although in our consciousness we are unaware of the steps of physical causation that the brain and body must do to execute the order.  This point is very important because a mechanism of nonphysical causation must work in a way that is consistent with our everyday notion of willed actions and the limits of our conscious awareness.  Consciously, we do not will the first neuron to fire; what we will is the final movement of the finger.  We will the end result, not the first step.  It is important for us to consider what it means to will an action if one is in essence only willing the outcome of the action not the actual initial steps needed to produce it?  It is as if our will operates not as a “first cause,” which through some yet unknown physical force knocks down the initial synaptic domino that leads to the desired behavior, but as an executive sending an order to his employees which states that all work for the week is to be completed by Friday.  The cause for the work’s completion is the executive order.  The executive’s order, or his will, has power because the employees are bound to obey it, not because he has harnessed the power of one of the physical forces to make the employees legs move.  The causal power flows from the nature of the relationship between the executive and the workers.  The workers have to obey.  Such is consciousness’ relationship to the brain, which will now consider with a focus on temporality.


Temporality of Consciousness


            There is a self-evident difference between the temporality of consciousness and that of the physical.  In consciousness, the willing of an action and the observation of that willed fulfilled occur simultaneously.  You will you finger to move and you watch it move; there is no time lapse.  If you are currently watching your still finger, it is because you have not yet willed it to move; in the same conscious instant you eventually do, you will observe it moving.  The criteria for the truth of this postulate, that the moment of will and the moment of the observation of that will fulfilled occur simultaneously in consciousness, is simple and self evident.  Try yourself to notice a time lag between the moment of will and that of observation.  If you cannot notice it, then by definition, they occur simultaneously in consciousness.  In the physical domain, these events obviously do not co-occur.  A sequence of neurons fire in the brain, eventually sending out signals to the muscles that contract to move the finger.  After that, signals from the nerves in your finger and from your eyes enter travel back to the brain where they are interpreted as the observation of the action of finger movement.  This takes time.  In the physical domain there is time between the moment of will and the moment of the observation of that will fulfilled, but in the domain of consciousness there is not.  This assertion has empirical support.  Neuroscience experiments provide evidence that our perception seems to move in indivisible chunks where ordered sensory stimuli are perceived as occurring simultaneously if presented very close in time.  The length of these perceptual chunks seems to depend heavily on the stimulus and the sensory modality, but an approximation of about 100 milliseconds has been suggested for its general duration (VanRullen & Koch, 2003).  Therefore, the idea of conscious time moving in indivisible chunks relative to the infinitely divisible physical time that occurs in the brain is definitely not new, but the implications of this temporally extended nature of consciousness have never been fully explored as a means to its efficacy.  Everything else that exists appears to move through space-time that is infinitely divisible.  However, during a moment of willed consciousness, time cannot be divided into segments smaller than the difference between the will and the observation of the will fulfilled. 

            What does it mean to have a chunk of willed consciousness, an indivisible durationless instant relative to itself, extended over a period of physical time?  Where in that chunk of conscious time is the present?  Where is the past, the future?  In our temporally extended consciousness these notions of time have no existence; all points within the chunk of conscious time, i.e. the will and the observation of that will fulfilled, are experienced as occurring simultaneously, as we have previously shown.  Therefore, the immediate future, past, and present in physical time all exist during the life span of each indivisible chunk of willed consciousness.  (footnote 1)


The Force of Consistency


            In terms of physical time, this conscious unit begins with a will moment, which can be defined as the start of neural activity related to enacting the willed behavior, and ends with the observation moment, the interpretation of the afferent signals related to the willed behavior.  Since in the domain of consciousness these two moments occur simultaneously and thus are essentially the same, at the first physical instant of a unit of conscious time the conscious observation of the will fulfilled gains a metaphysical existence across this brief temporal divide.  At this time, from the perspective of the physical, the observation of the will fulfilled becomes an imminent certainty with which it must contend.  Everything in neuroscience suggests that the neural state at the end of a unit of consciousness would need to be consistent with the conscious observation of the will fulfilled, and it is.  People do not usually experience themselves moving their arms when in fact they are still.  Thousands of times each day our consciousness puts forth executive orders in to the immediate future, and the brain evolves into a state that shows consistency with that observation by the end of the extended conscious moment of will. 

            Nature can achieve this consistency by either influencing the quantum indeterminacy in exocytosis, as per the model of by Beck and Eccels, by the electron tunneling mechanism suggested by Walker, or by some other neural process affected by quantum indeterminacy that of which, through chaos, may lead to macro changes in brain states.  However, it can now be proposed that the mechanism of influencing this indeterminacy as a means to a behavioral end relies on the brains entanglement with the phenomenological future, not on consciousness’ initiation of state vector collapse as often argued.  The effects of quantum indeterminacy in the brain are pulled from the phenomenological future in such a way to create a neural state that will be consistent with the conscious observation of the will fulfilled by the end of the unit of conscious time.  This mechanism of conscious efficacy is advantageous in that all it requires of consciousness is to make global observations of its macro state, which is all it can actually do.  In doing so, it provides the necessary behavioral end, the executive order that demands compliance.  Everything else falls into place automatically as per the force of nature’s need for consistency.  Consciousness is entangled with the brain, the divergent nature of temporality in their relationship allows for consciousness to observe its will first, thereby forcing the brain to catch up and show consistency as per the extensive experimental results of quantum mechanics regarding entangled systems.

            Although in physics the concept of entanglement is technically reserved for two or more physical particles, consciousness and the physical state of the brain can be considered entangled in a broader sense yet still consistent with physical theory.  In its usual use, entanglement refers to the relationship between two separated particles evolving in related superpositions.  A measurement on one of the particles collapses its potentialities into only one state, and thereby instantaneously restricts the state of its counterpart to a complimentary state.  The reason we do not normally conceptualize consciousness and the brain as being entangled is that we do not see them as being separated by space or time, furthermore consciousness, a nonphysical entity, is not described by the wave function and therefore is never in superposition.  However, once it is recognized that willed consciousness and the brain are separated by the nature of their temporality, and at the start of this temporal divide the complementary state of consciousness became actualized, as was hopefully shown earlier in this paper, then the question of entanglement changes from one of how would they be entangled to whether or not they are entangled across this separation.  Is there a connection across the temporal divide or not; are their states complimentary?  Now that the question can be formulated in this way, the answer becomes a self-evident yes.  If there were no entanglement everyday human existence would be a psychotic delusion, consciousness and the brain would have virtually no relation.  There would be no neural correlates of consciousness.  Therefore, since neuroscience and common sense suggest otherwise, we may safely accept that consciousness and the brain are entangled in this broader sense. 

            How the brain “knows” exactly what state to be in to show consistency or even a path to get there remains a mystery.  Entangled particles evolving in superposition and separated by miles also seem to instantaneously “know” the state of their twin.  The idea of entangled systems being able to wield influence nonlocally is deeply troubling to common sense logic.  It would have no place in science if it were not shown to exist in experiment after experiment.  Speculation into how and why the nonlocal effects of entanglement are able to exist is far beyond the scope of this paper, and in a sense irrelevant to the specific problem at hand, conscious efficacy.  Whether we ever fully understand quantum mechanics or not, the experimental evidence regarding entanglement will still exist and will still support this proposed mechanism of conscious efficacy.  Therefore basing a mechanism of nonphysical causation on the phenomenon of entanglement is theoretically sound.   We can now move to consider the implications of the proposed mechanism in regards to how the relationship between consciousness and the neural state would evolve over time.    

            Willed  behaviors do not come out of nowhere.  They are the result conscious processing evolving over time eventually leading up to the moment of will.  The neural state follows consciousness closely on this path, as consistency must be shown after each conscious unit of time.  Therefore, the neural state at the start of the conscious unit that will initiate a willed behavior should be very close to enacting that behavior by itself, through the means of physically determined processes.  Consciousness has driven the state of the brain to that point and then proceeds to give it a final push in the direction projected by the observation of the will fulfilled.  Therefore, as we can see, consciousness would never shock the brain with demands for consistency that the brain is not prepared for, because they are never more than one conscious unit of time away from total consistency.  However, even though the neural state is always prepared for the next unit of consciousness, there are times when the behavior cannot be enacted for other reasons.  For example, a musician playing a new piece of music attempts to will a novel and difficult pattern of finger movements.  She fails to execute as she had envisioned.  The conscious order has gone through and the attempt had been made, but the attempt was experienced as a failure.  There was not enough quantum variability available to produce the willed behavior as she had envisioned, because the brain had not yet set up the behavior through well-worn neural pathways.  Too much quantum adjustment was required to get to the desired result.  In this way, the current mechanism fits well with the everyday notions of the limits of our will, namely that it is easier to perform well-practiced behaviors than novel ones.

            This mechanism of nonphysical causation does not threaten the concept of physical completeness.  Marcus (2005) effectively showed how physical completeness and physical closure could be conceived as two separate themes.  The world can be completely described in terms of physical causation and still not be closed off to nonphysical causation.  The proposed theory of nonphysical causation is very much compatible with completeness, meaning that under this model we are not proposing any gaps in physical causation that would necessitate nonphysical causation.  Furthermore, under this model, there does not appear to be any way, physically at least, that one can measure whether or not a behavior was the result of nonphysical or physical causation.  From the perspective of physical law, synaptic transmissions still retain their indeterminate features going forward in time,  Looking backward, however,  we see that they were determine by the phenomenological future,  which has not yet happened in physical time.  Therefore, direct physical measures of neural process would look the same whether they were the result of our pulled indeterminacy or pure indeterminacy, thereby preserving physical completeness.  However, we can infer in any particular instance with considerable certainty whether a behavior was the result of nonphycial causation by psychological inquiry, i.e. asking the subject if they were conscious of willing the behavior.  Such an inquiry can be considered a nonphysical measurement anyway, an indirect measurement of consciousness, which again is not a threat to physical completeness. 

              In conclusion, it has been presented that our consciousness obtains efficacy not by pushing the randomness in synaptic firing in the present moment of collapse, but by pulling it from the immediate locked in phenomenological future.  It is believed that the explicated mechanism of nonphysical causation would support a robust conscious efficacy, does not violate physical completeness, and is consistent with the macro limitations of consciousness.  






1.    These conscious time chunks should not be confused with William James’ “spacious present” (1890).  He argued that the concept of “now” is not a knife like psychologically durationless instant, but that there exist a specious present, an interval of time in which holds aspects of both the past and future, which is very similar in ways to the concepts presented here.  However for James the spacious present lasted for seconds or even minutes, a span of time much longer than the consciously indivisible fraction of a second span that we are concerned with here.







·        Baars, B. J. (1988).  A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness. New York: Cambridge University Press.