Tampering with the Anthropic Principle: A few thoughts on Biocentrism

Tampering with the Anthropic Principle: A few thoughts on Biocentrism

Biocentrism: We create our universe (Photo: Robert Lanza)

With the advancement of science, we have collected facts about the universe and have explained them through formulated mechanisms called theories. We have observed the universal laws and constants, and have been mesmerized by how fine-tuned they are with respect to make life possible. We have concluded that the entirety of these laws, constants, properties is a vital necessity, for there would be no life otherwise and, as such, we, the living, would never learn of their existence. This is known as the anthropic principle. We are mesmerized by this principle to the extent that the pious among us invented creationism to argue for the existence of a capricious designer, as Hitchens used to put it.

Yet, a visible minority, which does not fall in either the category of creationists or in the rest of us, is mesmerized in a different way. Robert Lanza, with his theory called Biocentrism, posits a different viewpoint on the explanation of the universe. I found his theory intriguing and, at times, disdainful of certain scientific principles I hold. Here I summarize some key points from Lanza’s perspective, and ask some questions from my own perspective.

In Metaphysics, Aristotle originated the adage “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Think about the human body, a complex system of complex subsystems of complex sub-subsystems down to the particle systems, which is alive, i.e. gives us life and is nurtured by life. Could a human as a whole be just the sum of its parts? Where does the mind and consciousness come into the equation, if at all? Are space and time real physical quantities, or are they merely perceptions? How is it possible that the universe is precisely fine-tuned to accommodate life? Or, is it the other way around?

Following an unconventional way, Robert Lanza, M.D. attempts to tackle these questions in his Theory of Biocentrism, a philosophy which puts Biology and the living, conscious organism in the forefront of explaining the existence of the universe and life. In a nutshell, the main thesis Lanza propones is that physical, chemical theories cannot explain everything because in the end they fail to explain the existence of one very hard phenomenon and philosophical problem — consciousness. Biocentrism addresses this gap by “putting life (conscious experience, particularly) into the equation,” thus adding more to the simple “mechanistic logic” with which most of us are familiar. Hence, Biocentrism may be construed as a putative Theory of Everything competing with the putative counterpart in Physics that physicists and mathematicians are trying to devise.

According to a biocentric universe, which is the mechanistic universe as we know it plus the conscious experience as per Lanza — it is not the universe that has given rise to life, but it is the living organism’s consciousness which, through perception and information processing, has created the universe or the reality we live in. The premise of this conclusion lies primarily on the space-time duality in the sense of modern physics. That is, both space and time are perceived by our mammal consciousness and they cannot be realities.

Lanza takes on a non-dualistic stance with respect to space-time by illustrating Zeno’s Arrow paradox and the quantum uncertainty principle. The paradox starts with the premise that nothing can be at two different places at the same time, whereas the principle states the opposite. Consider an arrow moving in a projectile. Based on the premise, an arrow can only be at one place at a given time. Yet, if the arrow is in one place, it cannot be possibly moving. Thus, the perceived motion of the arrow in a projectile seems to be a contradictory phenomenon. The key here is to realize that from a biocentric perspective, time is not a physical quantity, but a perception of our mind created as such.

On the other hand, the quantum principle of uncertainty states that one cannot know the position and the velocity of a quantum particle at the same time: you can either know one quantity or the other, depending on which one you choose to observe at any given time. What drives human attention to perceive and process information is consciousness, as Csikszentmihalyi nicely explains in his seminal book Flow. According to Lanza, consciousness of the observer is thus decisive in determining what a particle does. For example, the two-hole experiment states that when a barrier of two holes is bombarded on one side with quantum particles and we observe on of them, then it either gets into one of the holes or in the other. However, when we don\’t observe the system, then the quantum particle behaves as a wave and thus can enter the two holes at the same time. Biocentrically speaking, there is no paradox in here since it is our consciousness that chooses or decides what the quantum particles does. In other words, our consciousness creates the desired reality.

But this raises a question. If I decided to create a reality and you decide to create yours, doesn’t this reduce to solipsism (the philosophy that one’s mind is all there is)? Thus, if one dies, does Biocentrism suggest that reality ceases to exist? What Lanza seems to argue with respect to this point is that each living being (consider humans without loss of generality) perceives a reality around them. Any two humans in mutual proximity should have overlapping spheres of reality perception, assuming their minds are not compromised by some mental disorder and their senses are equally intact. In his article, he gives the subway scenario: If you and I are stuck at a subway car due to some electrical fail, then you and I will have overlapping spheres of reality (or, ranges of perception) since you and I shall be perceiving some, if not all, of reality around us: lights flashing, darkness in either end of the car, someone crying, someone working to get the car going, etc. What I think Lanza is trying to suggest here is some form of “collective solipsism” or “neo-solipsism,” which quite frankly I don’t think qualifies as a philosophy yet. As such, Biocentrism seems to claim that everything outside the conscious observer’s “range of perception ceases to exist,” or at least exists obscurantistically in the form of being mathematically probable (see below).

Let us turn back to consciousness. Biocentrism states that time is an inner perception of animation, a way to perceive change in the universe. For instance, if you throw a stone in projectile motion, your sensory inputs are guided to collect information its momentum. Yet, if you want to learn the stone’s position, then you have to “pause” the stone’s motion. At that instant, if some other observer comes into the picture, then they’ll just learn about the stone’s position, but they have no information about its momentum. What this observer is seeing is only one frame of the multitude of analog frames that constitute a moving stone as processed (or animated) by our brain. In all, time is a byproduct of our consciousness and not a physical, real quantity. Once humans are gone, time is gone.

But what about the particles that make up the universe, are they gone, too, when we’re gone? Lanza’s explanation for this lays on the wave-particle duality of quantum physics. “In short,” he writes, “if observed, particles behave like objects; if unobserved, they behave like waves and can go through more than one hole at the same time,” just to borrow the two-hole experiment mentioned above. In addition to the space-time duality, the wave-particle duality as counter-intuitive as it may sound to physics, is explain by biocentrism as follows: An object cannot exist unless the mind sets the object’s scaffolding in place. Thus, if the observer chooses to frame the sub-atomic particle, then it behaves like an object and can be seen in motion (with time being perceived by our mind, as illustrated in the stone-throwing experiment above). If unobserved, then the observer is uncertain as to what position(s) the particle will take on, which brings in the concept of probability waves: Without consciousness, particles exist in uncertain states.

Thus, time and space are perceptions. Time is perceived within our minds in order to understand change in the externally perceived (or processed) space. Both these constitute a perceived reality, or universe. Our mind processes information collected through our senses, and translates this information into some reality with colors, sounds, motion, etc. We perceive trees are green, but we may in principle modify the gene to perceive them as blue. The analogy Lanza gives is that of a movie stored in a CD and the computer circuitry that “translates” it into a 3D reality. Do we see the 3D space generated by the computer while looking at the CD? That is, does that space exist before it is processed by the computer? Similarly, does space exist before it is processed by our mind, as conscious observers? It could exist probabilistically (cf. probability wave), if we don’t observe it directly, but not as the absolute reality we are induced to think of: as some physical space-time quantity out there.

Lanza’s arguments were later pressed upon in his 2009 book: Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe.

In all, Biocentrism is posited as a theory of everything by granting that “space and time, and not molecules and proteins, hold the answer to the problem of consciousness.” It is the spatio-temporal relationship we, as conscious observers, assign to our experiences that creates an orderly thought process in our mind. As such, mind cannot exist in space, for space is generated by animal mind, along with the inner perception of time, in order to live the experience. However, what Lanza proclaims with Biocentrism is not really new, “it’s just that quantum physicists refrain from saying it all,” as Prof. Henry writes.

Implications and Criticisms of Biocentrism

At one point near the end of his article, Lanza mentions schizophrenia and its power to create new physical realities. If we consider Biocentrism a powerful explanatory theory, then schizophrenia cannot be classified as a mental illness. The reason is simple: solipsism. According to solipsism, the schizophrenic mind would be the only one to exist. Thus, it would have no benchmark mind to determine sanity or insanity. But, Lanza’s stance on neo-solipsism may at first overcome this, until the moment we realize that the sane mind cannot possibly perceive what the schizophrenic mind has created due to the fact that the latter illusion is perceived inside the schizophrenic mind affected by some broken process of spatio-temporal relationships. What Lanza intends to show here is that the human mind is the one that creates space and time.

But how can the conscious, biological observer exist if the universe does not exist to begin with? Since we create the universe, which comes with the vast space, then how did we end up here before we even existed, in which case the space could not exist? What reality were our phylogenetic ancestors living in at a time when consciousness was probably not conceived?

In addition, I’m afraid that Lanza either misunderstands the anthropic principle, or tweaks it to his own argumentative advantage. With respect to explaining consciousness, Lanza fails, as expected, given how hard the philosophical problem of consciousness is.

I wonder what renowned astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss has to say with respect to Biocentrism. Krauss’s recent book, A Universe from Nothing, is all about how everything came to be from nothing, which does not seem to comply with the biocentric view that the conscious created the reality.

Others argue that Biocentrism cannot be qualified as a theory since it doesn’t seem to be falsifiable in the Popperian sense. Philosopher Daniel Dennett is one of them. In response, Lanza claims that falsifiability can be attained by the quantum experiment of super-imposed entanglement. Looking forward to that.

In the meantime, I’m sticking with the beautiful, yet intriguing, view of quantum mechanics, as well as to the evolutionary psyche we’ve gained through our minute time on earth, rather than in some mystical, quasi-religionist viewpoint of reality.