Tuesday, July 07, 2009

"Biocentrism": The universe is in your mind

“Custom has told us that what we see is ‘out there,’ outside ourselves, and such a viewpoint is fine and necessary in terms of language and utility, as in ‘Please pass the butter that’s over there.’ But make no mistake: the visual image of that butter, that is, the butter itself, actually exists only inside your brain. That is its location.” (Robert Lanza in Biocentrism)

“The kingdom of God is within you” (Jesus)

“It’s all in your head” (anonymous)

I've just finished reading Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe and there is still a lot I need to process. (MSNBC has a
good summary piece by the author that introduces the ideas in the book.) The comments I have read on various sites have been, not surprisingly, mostly negative. Personally I do think Lanza is on to something important. Reading the many criticisms of his ideas, however, makes me aware that evaluating biocentrism is going to be difficult because what Lanza is proposing is a paradigm shift. By definition, a new paradigm always appears to be nonsense from within the established paradigm. A proposal to change from one paradigm to another is very different than a proposal to replace one idea with another within a paradigm. Most of biocentrism's critics, it seems to me, are treating it as if it's the latter rather than the former.

It's been a long time since I read Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions but this is, I think, one of its most profound insights. For example, from the Ptolemaic perspective Copernicus and Galileo were crazy. Their establishment critics and persecutors were not unreasonable. What Copernicus and Galileo were proposing, however, was a change in reason. As Kuhn shows, the shift from one paradigm to another is inevitably messy and chaotic. In the end, a new paradigm is finally adopted for very pragmatic reasons: it works, or at least works better than its predecessor.

For this reason, I think there is a lot of misunderstanding of what Lanza is proposing. He is being critiqued from within the assumptions of the paradigm he is seeking to replace, which is understandable and even inevitable, but nonetheless very confusing. For example, traditional Christianity and modern science have debated whether God created the universe or whether it originated spontaneously in an event like the Big Bang. When Lanza says consciousness creates the universe he is not now offering a third alternative. Rather, he is proposing a model in which origins-in-time questions are meaningless.

For Lanza, the universe is created and re-created in our consciousness every time we interact with it and this is its most important moment of creation. To many/most, such an observation will seem obvious and inconsequential. Lanza's assertion is that in practice this is much more significant a truth than we are aware. Ignoring the universe in our heads, he maintains, is leading scientists and others to numerous misunderstandings and on a whole assortment of fruitless quests (e.g. for a GUI or "grand unified theory").

In the long run, biocentrism will be judged on its utility. Lanza is certainly right in identifying the many problems that exist with our current model of reality, which are more profound and consequential than probably most people realize. It will take awhile to see if biocentrism is the replacement model that both addresses these problems and opens up new avenues for exploration and problem solving. In any case, I think Lanza has opened up a path that needs to be explored.

Another area of speculation is biocentrism's spiritual and religious implications. Lanza does, in fact, deal with some of this in the last chapters. It certainly would force a re-examination of the notion of creation. Even more, it shows another way to reflect on God's "location", hence the Jesus quote at the top.

Biocentrism is not overly long or technical and is well written, including several enjoyable and even moving passages from Lanza's own life. It will certainly make you think and see things from a different perspective, which I believe is always a good thing. Strongly recommended.


Adele said...

Thanks so much for your comments on the book. I read it and loved it--but can't find anybody to talk about it with yet! I agree with you that it is a paradigm shift, and agree that the discussions I have read regarding biocentrism fail to treat it as such. Now that (perhaps) you've had time to process some of the information, here are some of the the ideas/issues that I'm grappling with.
--What is happening when consciousnesses (awkward word I know) interact? This seems to be related to the notion of free will. In other words, “free will”—and thus morality—seems to not occur without an observer, even if the “observer” is simply our own awareness of “choice”—which always seems intricately linked to the consciousness of another being. My decision to kill/not kill a fly (and thus end his version of consciousness) has a different “feel” to it, than my decision to smash/not smash a rock.
--How does “consensus” reality occur? My feeling is that there is really no such thing, but that we use various forms of communication (biological, as well as symbolic) to get our realities to “overlap” as much as possible. But what is it exactly that we are doing —collapsing the same wave functions?
--There seems to be some tension between the RWOT notion and “the universe exists only in our minds” notion. I don’t find these two ideas mutually exclusive, but I would like to have a better understanding of how they interact. It seems to me that RWOT is really a “real word almost out there” i.e. a world of waves of possibility that then become collapsed upon observation. Yes?
--There seems to be a binary-icity to existence—matter/energy; particle/wave; consciousness/unconsciousness; existence/non-existence—and yet there seems to also be an infiniteness (which defies binary-ness). The closest image my mind can make to this is a Mobius strip, which has both “in” and “out” and yet has “infiniteness.” I’m not sure what to make of this notion.
I'd love to hear your ideas . . .

Doug said...

Wow Adele, great questions! Don’t make this easy or anything . . . LOL Seriously you have certainly focused on some of the most important issues to be explored. FWIW, here’s my thinking on some of this.

On the question of consciousnesses interacting, I’ll first note that this is, of course, an ancient philosophical question. As you ask, “What’s happening” when I interact with another human being, or with my dog, or with that fly (before you squashed it)? I assume Lanza would say that whatever happens, it is inside each of the individual consciousnesses. This points to the frustration of such interactions and our wonder about whether we are really connecting or not. Spouses/lovers ponder whether they really know the other or whether the other knows him or her. Presumably the depth of a relationship is a statement about that connection. This happens also with pet owners but I’m guessing fly consciousness is just too different from ours. Many would claim that a deep connection with another person (or a pet) has a mystical quality. This may relate to Lanza’s speculation about the ultimate unity of all reality. Now we’re heading into spiritual/religious territory but it doesn’t seem Lanza is necessarily uncomfortable with that.

As to free will, morality, and squashing that fly vs. smashing a rock, I’m not really sure how consciousness enters into it, though it surely does. When we talk about conscience we are talking about being our own observer. The content of our conscience often consists, however, of “tapes” of people who have influenced us: parents, teachers, etc.—thus a memory of past observers, you might say. Does it have some basic inherent content, however? Again, a huge and ancient question. Does everyone feel at least some twinge of conscience when they kick their dog? Or is it all learned?

As you indicate, I think consensus is strongly a function of language. In fact, I think language is the primary tool we use in constructing our mental world. This is a huge topic and one that correlates very well with biocentrism, it seems to me. I think it is literally true that people who speak different languages live, to varying degrees, in different worlds. And I’m not sure that is about collapsing the same wave function as it is collapsing it in the same vs. a different way. Thus, people from different cultures can look at the same object yet see different things.

And so it would seem RWOT is a misnomer. The real world isn’t out there but in here, in our minds. RWOT is the language of convention, which allows us to interact with it individually and collectively. Does “real” then actually mean “consensus”? And doesn’t the collapsing of those possibility waves happen only in our heads? Nothing happens out there does it?

(continued below)

Doug said...

(continued from comment above)

Finally, I wonder if binariness isn’t (again) mostly a linguistic issue—a way to make distinctions. Some say dualism is an especially strong trait of Western rationality not found to the same degree in other cultures. Binary pairs also seem to be of different types: negations (unconsciousness, non-existence), opposites (up/down, in/out), states (hot/cold), etc. It’s not clear how they are really related other than being dualities. Non-existence is almost an oxymoron. Up and down is always relative to some plane and is an arbitrary distinction as an object could go in any of an infinite number of directions. I’m afraid my physics isn’t very good but I think matter/energy isn’t really either/or since matter can be converted into energy but not vice versa (do I have that right?) And wave/particle works with light but what about other types of energy (are there heat particles)? In any case, aren’t waves and particles simply our subjective perceptions? Finally, even in nature we observe relations that are other than binary, e.g. water as gas, liquid or solid. Here I’m really rambling but this is what’s occurring to me. In any case, however, the “infiniteness” would seem to be that unity Lanza was pointing to. What is that distance, for example, between those entangled particles? Does it really exist?

Well, I don’t know about yours but my head is spinning. Thanks for prompting me to think deeper, however. There’s still a lot to ponder here, that’s for sure.