Biocentrism or eccentrism?

Book Review: Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe
by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman
Hardcover: 213 pages
Publisher: Benbella Books (May 5, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1933771690
ISBN-13: 978-1933771694

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A third of the way through this book the authors say: “Quantum theory has unfortunately become a catch-all phrase for trying to prove various kinds of New Age nonsense.” And they refer to film What the Bleep Do We Know?” as an example of the misuse of quantum mechanics. This might suggest the book’s message is similar to Stenger’s “Quantum Gods,” which argues against quantum mysticism and quantum theology? But it turns out to be the complete opposite.

Mind you, the authors do have credentials. The dust jacket describes Bob Berman as “one of the best-known astronomers in the world.” And Robert Lanza as “one of the most respected scientists in the world.” There is the problem of self-promotion in dustcover bios and personal webpages – even though written in the third person.

Lanza has a good publication record – in cell biology and stem cell research. But, this book is in a different field. It bases itself on a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics. An interpretation of the meaning of the “two-slit experiment.” And, strangely for a book written by scientists, it refers to little other experimental evidence. Lanza even appears to denigrate the role of evidence. Pointing out that he isn’t much of a reader he commented: “I think this was absolutely critical to the development of [my theory of] biocentrism. It was important not to have too many preconceptions.” (http://discovermagazine.com/2008/sep/31-robert-lanza)

06-raw-materials-cartoonThe whole idea of Biocentrism rests on an interpretation of the “measurement problem” as seen in the two-slit experiment. The standard presentation of the problem is that it is impossible to define the position and momentum of a subatomic particle precisely and so the quantum world is indeterministic. However, we can describe quantum phenomena using the Schrödinger “wave” equation. This will provide a statistical or probabilistic description.

However, when a particle interacts with objects we can replace the formerly probabilistic description with an actual history of the interaction. In a popularly used jargon the “wave function collapses”.

Because experimenters have described this in terms of measurement and observers a myth has developed that a conscious observer causes the probabilistic quantum world to evolve into a real deterministic world. Hence the idea that consciousness creates reality.

Most physicists reject this interpretation. Murray Gell-Mann describes this as a “clumsy description of quantum mechanics” in his book The Quark and the Jaguar.

Consciousness creates reality

Biocentrism’s basic idea is that consciousness creates reality. Despite lack of evidence, or consideration of any data, the book manages to come up with seven principles. Briefly these are:

1: “What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness;”

2: “Our external and internal perceptions are inextricably intertwined;”

3: “The behavior of .. all particles and objects .. is inextricably linked to the presence of an observer. Without the presence of a conscious observer, they at best exist in an undetermined state of probability waves;”

4: “Without consciousness, ‘matter’ dwells in an undetermined sate of probability. Any universe that could have preceded consciousness only existed in a probability state;”

5: “The universe is fine-tuned for life, which makes perfect sense as life creates the universe, not the other way around;”

6 & 7: Time and space do not have a real existence outside of animal-sense perception. “Thus there is no absolute self-existing matrix in which physical events occur independent of life.”

Despite the lack of evidence or good logic the authors are nevertheless anything but humble in their assessment of their own great idea. They claim biocentrism “offers far-and-away the best explanation for why things are as they are.” They also claim that biocentrism offers the most logical explanation of the strange results of quantum theory. And that biocentrism’s time may be upon us very soon.

They consider everything is so obvious:

“Biocentrism, however, explains why one view and not the other must be correct. The converse is equally true: once one fully understands that there is no independent external universe outside of biological existence, the rest more or less falls into place.”

Childhood memories

The book alternates between justifications of biocentrism as the best possible explanation of all the mysteries in the universe and snapshots of (presumably)  Robert Lanza’s childhood. Mystical speculation and personal reflection. I couldn’t help feeling that Lanza’s childhood experience of deprivation and abuse have contributed to an “I’ll show them” attitude – something I can sympathise with. But, perhaps the third person promotion of his website and book reflect this.

Lanza and Berman are clear they are not promoting religion. They say: “science and religion make odd bedfellows whose off-spring is usually deformed.” However, their mysticism comes close to religion.

Lanza reacted to the deaths of a close friend Alan and his own sister Christine with biocentric thoughts similar to contemplation of a Christian afterlife. On Christine’s death he writes: “I thought about . . . .  how every creature consists of multiple spheres of physical reality that pass through space and time like ghosts through doors. I thought about the two-slit experiment, with the electron going through both holes at the same time. I could not doubt the conclusions of these experiments: Christine was both alive and dead, outside of time, yet here in my reality I would have to deal with this outcome and no other.”

And: “I know Christine is going to look fabulous in them (her diamond earrings) the next time I see here . . . .  in whatever form she and I and this amazing play of consciousness assume.”

So the two slit experiment gives us heaven?

Biocentric mysticism

Other reviewers point out that biocentrism comes close to solipsism. The authors also come close to the criticisms of honest science which we have come to expect from creationists and similar people. For example, they promote a the mystical fine-tuning idea. And the sneering contempt for “cosmologists, biologists, and evolutionist (who) do not seem at all flabbergasted when they state that the universe – indeed the laws of nature themselves – just appeared for no reasons one day” has all the earmarks of creationist “logic.”

Some idea of the mysticism of the biocentrism promoted by this book is evidence in the following quotes:

“The animal observer creates reality and not the other way around.”

They set out “to question the standard view that the universe would exist even if it were empty of life, and absent any consciousness or perception of it”. “Certainly, great earlier thinkers have insisted that logic alone is all that’s needed to see the unverse in fresh light, not complex equations or experimental data using $50 billion particle colliders. Indeed, a bit of thought will make it obvious that without perception, there can be no reality.”

“Your brain animates the universe. You can imagine the brain as being like the electronics in your DVD player.”

Then there is the kitchen:

“Take the seemingly undeniable logic that your kitchen is always there, its contents assuming all their familiar forms, shapes and colors, whether or not you are in it. At night, you click of the light, walk through the door, and leave for the bedroom. Of course it’s there, unseen, all through the night. Right?”

“But consider: the refrigerator, stove and everything else are composed of a shimmering swarm of matter/energy. Quantum theory… tells us that not a single one of those subatomic particles actually exist in a definite place. Rather they merely exist as a range of probabilities that are unmanifest. In the presence of an observer, that is, when you go back in to get a drink of water –each one’s wave function collapses and it assumes an actual position, a physical reality. Until then it is merely a swarm of possibilities” ….. “So while you may think that the kitchen as you remember it is “there” in your absence, the reality is that nothing remotely resembling what you can imagine could be present when a consciousness is not interacting.”

In his book Cosmic Code Heinz Pagels comments on claims similar to those made in this book. He said: “That is rubbish; the quantum theory and Bell’s inequality imply nothing of this kind. Individuals who make such claims have substituted a wish-fulfilling fantasy for understanding.”

I think Lanza and Berman are substituting a wish-fulfilling fantasy for true understanding in this book.

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22 responses to “Biocentrism or eccentrism?

  1. Seems like more “but we are so special” emotive style thinking. How do they explain the evidence that the universe pre-dates conscious entities (or are they assuming others than ours)? Who is planting the “fake” evidence of the age of the world/universe?

    This reads as yet another good example of the importance of evidence for holding any position, philosophical, or otherwise.

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  2. (1) I didn’t write this book, haven’t read it, and don’t endorse it.

    (2) I’m still pondering Damian’s input from the last discussion of this topic in “Theistic Mental Gymnastics.” Damian said:

    “Scott, from reading some of your previous comments I took you to mean that you thought that the kind of ‘observation’ that collapses wavefunctions must be that of an intelligence. But you presumably do realise (don’t you?) that the way ‘observation’ is used in relation to quantum mechanics is synonymous with ‘interference’. i.e. that regardless of whether a living thing ’sees’ something, a wavefunction will still collapse if it is interfered with. i.e. leave a light flickering in the double slit experiment without anyone watching and the wavefunctions will still collapse.”

    I don’t see this as a “but we are so special” argument. It seems more like an understandable misunderstanding of the concept of an “observation.” Having just made this mistake myself very recently, I’m just glad I didn’t write a whole book about it!

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  3. So… having googled these guys, I see that they are making one point that played a large part in my earlier thinking about this. They’ve noted the relationship between the mind and the “arrow of time.” Here’s a quote from an article in “Discover”:

    “According to biocentrism, time does not exist independently of the life that notices it. The reality of time has long been questioned by an odd alliance of philosophers and physicists. The former argue that the past exists only as ideas in the mind, which themselves are neuroelectrical events occurring strictly in the present moment. Physicists, for their part, note that all of their working models, from Isaac Newton’s laws through quantum mechanics, do not actually describe the nature of time. The real point is that no actual entity of time is needed, nor does it play a role in any of their equations. When they speak of time, they inevitably describe it in terms of change. But change is not the same thing as time.”

    My own PURELY SPECULATIVE thoughts on this subject included the following:

    “Why is the time that I perceive only half a dimension? All the other dimensions go forward and back. Why does time only go one way? Perhaps it is because ‘time out of mind’ is different from ‘time as I perceive it.’ Maybe time can go back as easily as forth in the absence of a complex entity like a brain. If so, what happened at the Big Bang? Could the universe oscillate like a pendulum in time, swinging back and forth in a ‘random walk’ until (after an uncountable number of swings) it got ‘caught’ on something?”

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  4. The “arrow of time” is being actively discussed by cosmologists these days. Sean Carroll has a book coming out on it (in January, I think) called “From Eternity to Here.” It should be interesting as I find his articles very clear on quite difficult subjects.

    I suspect the answer to some of your questions are tied up with the concept of entropy – and the special, low entropy, state of the universe at the beginning. And that also raises interesting aspects of quantum mechanics which are, I am afraid, beyond me.

    I also half suspect that Lanza and Berman have a point in criticising the concept of space-time as an entity. But I don’t think they are alone in making that point – and it is certainly a lot more complex than they suggest.

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  5. My thoughts on the 5 points:

    1. OK, but it’s limited to what we perceive directly without external measurement.

    2. Too vague a concept and open to abuse. (Doesn’t seem connected to the others, either.)

    3. The first sentence is an assertion, not an observation, and is clearly trying to “raise” QM to where it applies to “set up” the second sentence. Nice try, but no dice.

    4. No dice again. An assertion based idly on on wishful thinking trying to draw a line from point 3.

    5. Perfectly silly.

    6 & 7: Both demonstrably wrong I would have thought… (that is, already demonstrated to be wrong)

    I don’t see this as a “but we are so special” argument. It seems more like an understandable misunderstanding of the concept of an “observation.”

    It is very obviously an excuse for a “we are special” argument. All religions try place “man” at the “centre”, a homo-centric view of the world: a “we are special” thinking. Now answer for yourself, what does this “belief set” place that centre?

    (Answer: human consciousness.)

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  6. Ken, I hope “Open Parachute” lives up to its name in this thread. I have no interest in defending “biocentrism” as such, but it would be nice to find SOME forum where reasonable people might explore the possibility that time, mind, entropy, and life might be connected by something other than “mysticism” or “quantum flapdoodle.”

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  7. Heraclides: I don’t think “we are special” constitutes valid evidence FOR any scientific theory. But, by the same logic, I don’t think it constitutes valid evidence AGAINST any scientific theory.

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  8. Heraclides: I don’t think “we are special” constitutes valid evidence FOR any scientific theory. But, by the same logic, I don’t think it constitutes valid evidence AGAINST any scientific theory.

    I didn’t say anything even remotely like that. How on earth do you get that idea? (Perhaps the same place you get other bizarre ideas, I guess…)

    I replied to YOU saying that you couldn’t see how it could be a “we are special” argument, even though it seemed plain.

    I would take it you stand corrected, but instead of accepting that, you choose to (intentionally?) mangle my words. PPfffftth. No much point in talking with you.

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  9. The “we are special” style thinking I was referring to speaks to motivations. It seems that a lot of people, when confronted with strange areas in science, automatically start asking those areas to provide evidence for the special role/nature of human beings.

    Sure, human consciousness etc… are interesting, but fundamental to the existence of the universe? C’mon, thats a pretty big claim, that you would at least like to see some trails of evidence for

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  10. Heraclides, I am not intentionally trying to “mangle” your points, but, so far, I do seem to have missed what you were trying to communicate on almost every occasion. While I wouldn’t say there was “no point in trying to talk to you,” I do think we might need an interpreter or facilitator to get any further than we have so far. So I’m going to resist the urge to respond to what you say unless you specifically ask me to comment. No hard feelings, OK?

    Nick, you wrote:

    “Seems like more “but we are so special” emotive style thinking. How do they explain the evidence that the universe pre-dates conscious entities (or are they assuming others than ours)? Who is planting the “fake” evidence of the age of the world/universe?”

    Here on “Open Parachute,” I hope you will be OPEN to the possibility that there’s some science in this book, not JUST “emotive style thinking.” You might be right, of course. I know that I haven’t read the book, so I’m not qualified to say what they’re saying. But I do think I can address your question about how the universe could “pre-date[] conscious entities.” It’s counterintuitive, but it’s well-established science.

    Time, to quote Dr. Who, “is complicated.” See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vY_Ry8J_jdw&NR=1

    Despite our intuitions and experience, there is good evidence that, to some degree, an event in the future can “cause” an event in the past. Here’s wiki on the “delayed choice experiments”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheeler%27s_delayed_choice_experiment

    To the best of my knowledge, modern physics does not claim that events in the future cannot “cause” events in the past. Quite the contrary–there is no PHYSICAL reason to prefer one direction of time over another. Our human experience of time doesn’t match up to the math, but that’s why we use math–it takes us places we could not otherwise follow.

    So, as I understand it, a real Big Bang could be followed by billions of years of real physical events that would all leave detectable traces behind–yet all that real physical evidence might still be “caused” by something later. It would be a vastly larger application of “delayed choice,” but no different in principle.

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  11. Back when I was advocating something like this on the “Theistic Mental Gymnastics” thread, somebody insisted that quantum effects are limited to the microscopic scale. I didn’t have any good answer to that. Here, for what it’s worth, is Lanza’s answer to that argument:

    “At present, the implications of these [wave-particle duality] experiments are conveniently ignored by limiting the notion of quantum behavior to the microscopic world. But doing this has no basis in reason, and it is being challenged in laboratories around the world. New experiments carried out with huge molecules called buckyballs show that quantum reality extends into the macroscopic world as well. Experiments make it clear that another weird quantum phenomenon known as entanglement, which is usually associated with the micro world, is also relevant on macro scales.”

    (From The American Scholar at http://www.theamericanscholar.org/a-new-theory-of-the-universe/. )

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  12. ‘Buckyballs’ is the common name for buckminsterfullerene, which is made up of 60 carbon atoms in a sort of geodesic dome structure. While relatively large on the molecular scale they are most definitely not ‘macroscopic’. (Like much much larger molecules such as DNA, they are not visible to the eye, & while properly stained DNA is visible using a light microscope, you can’t say the same for buckminsterfullerene.)

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  13. Scott – you should wander over to Cosmic Variance. Sean Carroll has a post on the arrow of time (a specialty of his) which is attracted lots of comments. Put your questions to him.
    (link The Arrow of Time: Still a Puzzle)

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  14. Ken, I’ve been trying to get a good post up at Sean Carroll’s blog for days now, but it’s hard to put it up as a comment on an older thread.

    I’ve posted the question over at Physics Forums here:

    http://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?p=2324965#post2324965

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  16. I’m getting a little feedback on the “pendulum of time” question over at Physics Forums. Here’s a write-up of “Time Symmetry” that claims that a “future causes the past” model produces some verifiable predictions.

    http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/0706/0706.1232v1.pdf

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  17. A quick skim through the 58-page Time Symmetry article reveals a LOT of overlap with with my intuitions about the arrow of time, teleology, “intelligent design” and other hot topics. Plus a LOT of math I can’t follow.

    I need to read this a lot more slowly–but for those who wrote off “Biocentrism” as “quantum flapdoodle,” please take the time to read this article. If you can understand the math of it, then you can tell me where the flapdoodle is. If you can’t understand the math, then please don’t label it “quantum woo.” They’re say they’re making testable predictions based on time symmetry and getting the results a “future causes past” theory would predict.

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  18. I’m guessing you still haven’t made any effort to try read standard basic textbooks first. In any subject that you refer to for that matter (physics, genetics, bionformatics, etc). So I guess your claims you wanted recommendations were really just for show…

    And, please, it’s really not for others to do your homework. It’s one thing to ask a general question and quite another to try to make out that “those who wrote off “Biocentrism” as “quantum flapdoodle,” “must” do your bidding and homework for you.

    A small reminder: no-one has to falsify things in way you want to, they can use their own means. You can even just point out that the argument presented contains logical leaps and stop there. (Which it does, by the way.)

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  19. I thoroughly believe every hypothesis needs to be put out there for criticism. To Dr. Lanza’s credit he has done just that and his Biocentrism Hypothesis certainly has been criticised but curioulsy no death blow or serious science has completely disqualified it. While it is easy to point out some flaws or loose interpretations of hard to interpret truths the crtics always gloss over the real undisputable science Dr. Lanza cites in support of his Hypothesis. Chief among such support in my opinion is Stephen Hawkings String Theory. Tell me why in any wild imagination would the processes of Evolution create the mulitiverse? If Humans are not the center of the universe why are we, in string theory, infinitely created over and over again presumably conscious in every version of earth and presumably going on forever. I ask even if Dr. Lanza is over estimating human importance are his critics underestimating it? I mean String Theory, multiverse, multidimensions all sounds science ficiton like to me! What about the hologram theory where some serious science questions weather we actually live in a real version of the Matrix again another science fiction movie. I’m talking serious Physicist, Philosophers and other scientist. No other animal on earth or in the universe for that matter that we know of possesses our level of awareness and consciousness why is that? It seems like evolution certainly spent alot of time on us for us to be so insignificant as some in the scientific community claims. In fact no known mechanism in evolution can explain human consciousness at all. Sure there hypothesis but none will ever be proven but even so seems like a lot of wasted energy evolutionary speaking to come to where we are. Now apply evolution to the multiverse where the same evolutionary results happen and again the pinnacle of evolutions creation is man. Over and over again, in a multiverse theory, man is the pinnacle of evolutionary success. Why would that be if we are so insignificant? What about extraterrestrial life? Never have we even found such a thing? What if ultimately life beyond earth does not exist? What if intelligent or consciouss life does not exist beyond earth? So perhaps Dr. Lanza is wrong but still I think short sighted scientist who are so averse to any suggestion that humans might be more than a passing evolutionary phase can in there arrogance ignore evidence that might put humans in a more important evolutionary nich. I’ll admit I’m a bit selfish. I hope like many that I continue after this life. I could be wrong but then again if I truly exist in the multiverse physically why not consciously. Perhas Dr. Lanza is right? I might be dead and alive at the same time. Perhaps when I die I do wake up in the present no the wiser and having this conversation over and over eternally and never fidning my answer. Good Day.

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  20. In the multiverse time is irrlevant. Time is its self a dimension. So tell me if string theory is correct when did the universe really begin? How do you know the universe truly pre-dates consciousness in a multiverse view of the universe? What if the universe is consciouss? Like it or not science and Physics is at a point or near a point where they have reached the limit of what they can explain. Truly how can string theory and the multiverse theory ever truly be proven. But if were so open to excepting such things how on earth would you not except the possiblity that you and I might not continue in the multiverse. Is it really mysticism? I mean some folks laugh at Stephen Hawkings multiverse theory. It sounds silly and science fiction. I mean really infinite universis with infinite versions of earth and by the way infinite versions of you and me forever. Some folks laugh at that. Yet if anyone suggest that consciousness its self might be equally infinite folks brush it off as mysticism. For the record no proof in the Physics world will ever be enough for some. They will embrace a multiverse theory that sounds, on its surface, to be totally out of some science fiction movie yet ridicule other things that are equally impossible to prove but still possible. For the record I think Biocentrism is just as much plausible as String Theory and neither one will ever be proven true or false because we simply can’t know. Good Day.

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  21. Grahame Rhodes

    I find it disheartening that so many reviewers simply bash the idea of biocentrism because it contains no proof. Dismissing a concept because it does not fit with current thinking is a huge mistake. Please have the balls to consider a new approach because to do otherwise may help you sleep at night, but only by considering new ideas will science advance, or are you lot still of the opinion that the earth is flat?

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  22. Grahame, to claim that your kitchen disappears when you leave it and reappears when you come back to it is not a “new idea” – it is a crazy idea. It has nothing to do with science or sleeping at night (although I suppose when you are asleep you must cease to exist!).

    The progress of science thrives on criticism. You lament the absence of proof. Well, scientists respond to critiques by providing the evidence and proof. Talking about a flat earth is not evidence or proof – especially as the arguments against a flat earth were based on evidecne. It is a desperate attempt at diversion.

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