Monday, January 13, 2014

Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe

Book Review: Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe by Robert Lanza M.D. with Bob Berman (BenBella Books 2009 Kindle edition)

This is a very good book. Lanza and Berman offer a compelling way of integrating physics and biology. The necessary inseparability of nature and consciousness is emphasized. The basic view of biocentrism is that the universe arose from life rather than life evolving from the universe. Lanza is a distinguished scientist and makes a good case for this view. The idea reminds me of the philosophical view of panpsychism – the notion that all matter, indeed the entire universe, is imbued with consciousness. Lanza has an impressive scientific record with stem-cell research, genetics, and regenerative medicine. He has worked with the likes of Jonas Salk, neurobiologist Stephen Kuffler, and B.F. Skinner. His stem cell regeneration work has successfully treated many cases of blindness.

He begins by pointing out the dead ends reached in quantum theory and relativity. Physicists have been trying to harmonize these theories into a grand unified theory (GUT) or a theory of everything (TOE) for quite some time with no success. They are yet incompatible under current models. Now they say that 96% of the universe is composed of dark matter and dark energy and no one knows what they are! The observation that the universe is “exquisitely fine-tuned to support life” is a key to the view of biocentrism. Quantum theory, he says, makes no logical sense, even though the mathematics are rather impeccable.  The paradoxes of space and time are yet unexplainable. To say that the universe is a “quantum fluctuation” is not really satisfactory. The view of biocentrism is based on science, not New Age thought or any form of “intelligent design” as some might construe. I can see such an idea being co-opted and it seems that the headlines of certain internet posts have used it to back up their personal opinions along these lines – be forewarned. Lanza even points out that various preposterous claims have used quantum theory as support.

The authors examine the uncanny suitability of the universe to support life. The power of the Big Bang, the strength of the strong nuclear force, and the “just-rightness” of the gravitational force are just three of more than two hundred conditions uniquely suited to life. We are amazing at figuring out how the parts work but the whole wholly eludes us.
This, they say, is because we have ignored the hidden variable – consciousness. The view of biocentrism “revolves around the way a subjective experience, which we call consciousness, relates to a physical process.” Here they quote Emerson: “Perhaps these subject-lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects.” The question is: Did the laws of the world produce the observer or did the observer produce the laws of the world? Biocentrism argues for the latter.

Quantum theory tells us that the subatomic particles that make up matter exist in unmanifest probability-states that only manifest in the presence of an observer. In other words the universe does not exist without an observer. The tree that falls in the forest makes no sound if no one hears it. There is no “independent external universe outside of biological existence.”

For obvious reasons of manipulation and mobility we have divided the universe into self and non-self, the boundary between them being our own skin. This is our sense of self. Descriptions of mystical experiences often describe a state where the boundary between self and non-self disappears. The mechanisms of our sensory apparatus also suggest that the world “out there” is really within. The universe and all objects within it may have come into being with consciousness but consciousness may exist outside of time. Neorological studies suggest that our ability to control may be illusory as well. He gives a quote from Einstein here: “We can will ourselves to act, but we cannot will ourselves to will.” Experiments suggest that our cognitive decisions may be made before we are aware of making them. What we think of as conscious acts may have subconscious precursors. This retrospective perspective may give us a “sense” of free will. Whether there really is free will is debatable.

At the atomic level and below there is non-locality, entanglement, and observer-dependent reality. One might call this quantum uncertainty. Particle entanglement defies Einstein’s speed of light limitation. Regardless of spatial separation entangled particles act in cahoots. They share a wave function. When one does “this” the other does the complementary “that.” According to these entanglement experiments, action at any distance appears to be instantaneous. Such experiments suggest that time and/or space are illusions. Indeed it seems likely that nothing really exists until it is measured. The wave-particle duality (called quantum weirdness) arising from the famed double-slit experiment has led many physicists to conclude that: “Science has essentially conceded that quantum physics is incomprehensible outside of complex mathematics.” The author goes through the conclusions of quantum theory – the Copenhagen interpretation and its main competitor – the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) which relies on so-called parallel universes. Einstein seemed to favor hidden variable(s) as of yet undiscovered but as Lanza points out – if one presumes consciousness as a necessary component then much falls into place.  

One chapter goes into detail on the double-slit experiment, its permutations, and its implications. The actual and the probable become indistinguishable during these experiments. What go through the slit are probability waves. The Complementarity Principle explains that one can measure just one of a pair of characteristics but never both at the same time. Knowing one aspect of the pair necessarily means unknowing the other aspect. These experiments show that the observed is inseparable from the observer. A metaphor might be the aphorism – a watched pot doesn’t boil – or “an atom cannot change its energy state as long as it is being continuously observed.” Basically these quantum experiments show that subject-object duality is illusory, that subject and object are necessarily inseparable. In other words – consciousness is inseparable from reality.

The so-called Goldilocks Principle – the notion that the universe is “just right” for life has been used by advocates of Intelligent Design theories – usually to support biblical nonsense but there is no need to assume such. Darwin’s notion of Natural Selection in support of a randomly evolving biologically inbued universe is advocated by the majority of scientists but is also rather unsatisfactory in the holistic sense.  Lanza gives the three possible explanations for this Goldilocks Principle: 1) God did it – which even if true explains nothing; 2) the Anthropic Principle in its several forms (which he says support Biocentrism); and 3) Biocentrism pure and simple. The mathematical constants in physics are quite coincidentally life-friendly. Any tweaking = no life. He goes into detail about the “carbon resonance” – an odd quirk – or a great unlikelihood of three Helium atoms colliding at the same instant during nuclear fusion. The resonant state property of carbon allows it to be produced by other elements. The strong nuclear force and the gravitational force are tweaked perfectly for its creation. Such exact tweaking led to the idea of the Anthropic Principle. Brandon Carter explained it like this: What we can expect to observe “must be restricted by the conditions necessary for our presence as observers.” Lanza says it this way:

“Because we’re here, the universe has to be the way it is and therefore isn’t unlikely at all. Case closed.”

Such is dubbed the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP). The strong version – that the universe was “designed” to generate observers - was best exemplified by physicist John Wheeler and most supports biocentrism. It is called the Participatory Anthropic Principle (PAP): “observers are required to bring the universe into existence.” Without life the universe exists only in an indeterminate state, an undetermined probability state. This means that a pre-life universe only exists retroactively, after consciousness became aware of it. Lanza says that since time is an illusion – this retroactive existence technically isn’t correct either. Biocentrism is in accord with Wheeler’s participatory universe.

In considering the illusory nature of time supported by quantum theory he begins with Zeno’s arrow paradox. Zeno noted that an arrow on a trajectory could only be at one location at any instant so what is perceived as motion is really a series of separate events. We tie these separate events together and see it as motion so that time is really a feature of our minds. Physicists and philosophers throughout time have argued that time is a mental construct, particularly the future and past. Some say we live in an eternal now.

“Scientifically, time appears to be indispensible in just one area – thermodynamics, whose second law has no meaning at all without the passage of time. Thermodynamics’ second law describes entropy (the process of going from greater to lesser structure). Without time, entropy cannot happen or even make sense.”

He says that this is the conventional view of entropy. It is said to be non-reversible. But he says that other physicists see entropy merely as motion – that does not require a direction in time. Motion and position cannot be measured together with accuracy. “Sharpness in one parameter induces blurriness in the other.” From the biocentric perspective:

“…time is the inner form of the animal sense that animates events – the still frames - of the spatial world.”

He notes that the idea of movement through space is an oxymoron since space can be defined as position. Position belongs to the outer world and momentum (the animal sense that adds the still frames) belongs to the inner world. This, he says, is the basis of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Both Heisenberg and Zeno were right according to biocentrism.

Time is what is measured by a clock. Space is measured by a measuring rod. Man measures. Space and time are dependent on being measured by man, by the measurer, by consciousness. We only appear to live on the edge of time. He goes through the principles of relativity and time dilation to point out that time can vary when an object approaches the speed of light. We tend and try to view time from a physiocentric perspective, but it is a biocentric process.

“In sum, from a biocentric point of view, time does not exist in the universe independent of life, and really doesn’t truly exist within the context of life either.”

Lanza points out that space and time are not things – they are “modes of interpretation and understanding.” Space is what we see between objects, objects to which we give boundaries by naming them. Distance (space) has no reality for entangled particles. Einstein’s relativity showed that space is tentative, that it changes based on conditions such as gravity and speed. He gives a list of ways that a false view of space is presented: 1) empty space is not empty, 2) distances between objects change according to conditions, 3) quantum theory suggests that objects any distance apart are not really separated, 4) we see separations between objects because we were trained to do so through language and convention. Object and background, the contrast between them, has baffled philosophers for millennia. Scientists have failed to find any properties of space but we now know that matter contracts along its axis of motion at high speeds. This notion later became the basis for the Lorentz transformation, or contraction, which was used by Einstein in his relativity theory. Even so, Lanza says Lorentz’s Compensatory Theory better accords with biocentrism than Einstein’s Relativity because Einstein made the assumption that space and time were real qualities of a physical world, rather than qualities of consciousness. Lanza notes that science and quantum theory are more and more seeing the boundary between objects and space as being fuzzier and fuzzier. Quantum entanglement suggests that space is an illusion. Even the Big Bang suggests all parts of the universe were once unified into a point, a singularity. Perhaps it still is that way – the universe is a point with no dimensions. The phenomenon of aberration at speeds approaching the speed of light suggests that while light, or energy, is fundamental to reality, space is not – because it changes according to the conditions of the observer.

Paradox and the limitation of language adorn the logical dead ends, the mysteries of life. Biocentrism, Lanza notes, has its logical limitations as well. He sees it as a starting point rather than an ending point.

I should note that Lanza adorns this book with stories about his childhood, his mentally ill sister, his abusive professional gambler father, his meetings and work with great scientists, and other important as well as traumatic events of his life. Contemplating a friend’s tragic death – he only suggests that biocentrism offers some comfort in the likelihood that consciousness (in some form) can continue after death since it was consciousness that created our illusory universe in the first place.

Lanza gives seven principles of biocentrism. I will list them here:

1) What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness. An “external” reality, if it existed, would – by definition – have to exist in space. But this is meaningless, because space and time are not absolute realities but rather tools of the animal mind.

2) Our external and internal perceptions are inextricably intertwined. They are different sides of the same coin and cannot be divorced from one another.

3) The behavior of subatomic particles – indeed all particles and objects – are 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 state of probability. Any universe that could have preceded consciousness only existed in a probability state.

5) The structure of the universe is explainable only through biocentrism. The universe is fine-tuned for life, which makes perfect sense as life creates the universe, not the other way around. The “universe” is simply the complete spatio-temporal logic of the self.

6) Time does not have a real existence outside of animal-sense perception. It is the process by which we perceive changes in the universe.

7) Space, like time, is not an object or a thing. Space is another form of our animal understanding and does not have an independent reality. We carry space and time around with us like turtles with shells. Thus, there is no absolute self-existing matrix in which physical events occur independent of life.

Interestingly, Lanza notes that his work with stem cell regeneration of retinal cells has led him to suspect that nerve cells, rather than atoms, are the fundamental units of reality. He calls neurons the neural correlate of the mind. They form the basis of the observer – us. Lanza also notes one of his own brief mystical experiences along the lines of those described by the American transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau, whom are quoted throughout the book.

One chapter compares classical science, various religions, and biocentrism in terms of the answers they give to the mysteries of the universe. “… science seeks to discover the properties and processes within the cosmos.” According to biocentrism, neither nature  nor mind is unreal – in fact they may be one and the same. My own way of expressing this is: “the nature of mind is the mind of nature.” He notes that no position is taken regarding God in the theory of biocentrism. The authors compare biocentrism to solipsism – the notion that a single consciousness pervades everything. They do not take a position on this either. Certainly there are hints of oneness of mind and of diversity of mind as well. Biocentrism shares some features with science and some with Eastern religions. I am kind of surprised that the authors make no mention of other scientific or quasi-scientific theories of the nature of the universe such as that of David Bohm’s Holographic Universe idea. That seems to accord fairly well with biocentrism – Bohm’s implicate and explicate orders being equated with the undetermined probability state and the conventional/relative (illusory) universe respectively. This accords with the Eastern idea of the two truths – ultimate reality and conventional/relative reality.

Another chapter is devoted to the influence of Sci-fi and the psychedelic revolution on ideas of the universe and vice versa. They suggest that the sci-fi scenarios prevalent in the media support our suspicions of a universe that is not what it seems – one based on consciousness itself, ie. biocentrism.

Even if biocentrism is correct there is still the greater mystery of consciousness itself. What is subjective experience? While experience may arise from a physical basis – the brain and sensory apparatus – there is certainly much we do not know. Lanza worked with famed behaviorist B.F. Skinner on experiments involving animal cognition. He acknowledges that neuroscience has yet to solve the problem of consciousness and perhaps never will. Even Skinner, he notes, toward the end of his life, was coming to a similar conclusion. He says that even though very much continues to be learned about the structure and functional aspects in neuroscience – the parts, little to nothing is known about the whole, consciousness itself. Just like in physics, there are interesting theories, but also like physics, there is also much disagreement among neurobiologists. The nature of subjective experience hints at a dichotomy between the physical world and our biological awareness – one that may be irreconcilable – or reconcilable only in some sort of mystical state. Thus objective-based knowledge may have to give way to subjective-based knowledge, ie. gnosis or wisdom – experiential rather than conceptual. This accords with the Eastern ideas of non-dualism and non-conceptuality. It also suggests the limits of science in approaching holistic knowledge. We are learning much about the parts of the brain and nervous system and how they relate to conscious experience but we are no closer to solving the mystery of consciousness in any holistic way. The authors suggest the words of Emerson: “ the mind is One and that nature is its correlative.”

Oddly, as Schrodinger’s cat scenario exemplifies, quantum theory suggests that the past is created in the present. The history of the universe from the Big Bang to now that cosmologists have concocted, can only “be” if we are conscious of it. This is born out by entanglement experiments which show that a present observation actually determines a situation an entangled twin took in the past. An article about the views of physicist John Wheeler was titled “Does the Universe Exist if We’re Not Looking?” He noted that he was sure the universe was filled with “huge clouds of uncertainty” and that it is “a vast arena containing realms where the past is not yet the past.”

The chapter on death and eternity is stated to be speculative. The biocentric view suggests and allows for consciousness beyond death but does not prove it, as certain recent internet posts seem to suggest. Philosophers, physicists, and sci-fi writers have also suggested the same from the Epicurean Lucretius to Einstein and Ray Bradbury. Thermodynamics says that energy is never lost. If consciousness is the universe how could it end? What is non-consciousness? How could we know it? The notion of being “outside of time” suggests a conscious state of timelessness. Certain Buddhist texts speak of “timeless awareness.” Such ideas may allay the fear of death at least conceptually but if we still identify with our bodies – probably not. At least they provide a conceptual basis for disengaging from identifying with our bodies.

The authors suggest that in the future, as quantum experiments become more sophisticated their implications will become apparent in the macroscopic world in some ways as they are in the microscopic world. Physics cannot ignore consciousness, they say, and will have to incorporate it more and more in order to go deeper into understanding the nature of the universe. Experiments examining artificial intelligence and those examining free will, they say, may also yield future insights supportive of biocentrism. One problem the authors note is that physicists and biologists of the different branches of each are often not knowledgeable of the other disciplines and that the future usefulness of such science favors a more multidisciplinary approach.

Two very good appendices are added. One is an explanation of the Lorentz Transformation and the second is a comparison of Einstein’s Relativity in light of biocentrism.

This is a great book and I think it will have an impact on philosophy, physics, and biology. It may be the closest we can get to a unified theory of sorts. I think it is a rather intuitively sensible way of looking at things without relying on the dogma of religion nor the unsatisfying randomness of dry physical science.

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