When I first saw this article by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden, my skeptical reflex kicked and I was, well, skeptical. Often when quantum mechanics gets mentioned with biology, it’s questionable material. But I’ve seen enough of Al-Khalili’s other work, and as President of the British Humanist Association, I’m not inclined to think he’s subject to being taken in by woo:
For years biologists have been wary of applying the strange world of quantum mechanics, where particles can be in two places at once or connected over huge distances, to their own field. But it can help to explain some amazing natural phenomena we take for granted.
Al-Khalili and McFadden describe three biological processes where quantum effects are crucial: enzymes, photosynthesis, and animal navigation via Earth’s magnetic field. They finish up with this:
All these quantum effects have come as a big surprise to most scientists who believed that the quantum laws only applied in the microscopic world. All delicate quantum behaviour was thought to be washed away very quickly in bigger objects, such as living cells, containing the turbulent motion of trillions of randomly moving particles. So how does life manage its quantum trickery? Recent research suggests that rather than avoiding molecular storms, life embraces them, rather like the captain of a ship who harnesses turbulent gusts and squalls to maintain his ship upright and on course.
The more I learn about how much quantum physics encroaches on processes in the macroscopic world, the less confident I feel about our knowledge of how the universe works. If quantum effects are so critical to biological processes, that seems to imply that quantum uncertainty plays a much larger role in macroscopic reality than is commonly acknowledged. It seems like a serious strike against determinism, at least determinism within observable reality.
Given our recent discussions, I have to admit that it also makes me a little more nervous about the feasibility of mind uploading. The fact that fundamental and evolutionarily ancient biological processes, like photosynthesis, utilize quantum effects seems to raise the probability that the brain also makes use of those effects. It wouldn’t necessarily mean that we might not someday be able to copy a brain, but it might make the idea of running that copy anywhere but in another biological type substrate infeasible.
Unless of course I’m just overinterpreting this?