Friday, July 10, 2009

It's all in your head (Sunday Reflections for July 12, 2009)

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one was there to hear it, did it make any sound?” We’ve all heard this teaser question—how would you answer it? According to a new book, Biocentrism,the answer is clear and unambiguous: there was no sound. Why not? Because sound only happens in our heads. And that’s because, says author and medical doctor Robert Lanza (assisted by astronomer and popular science writer Bob Berman), all of our experience of the universe is only in our heads.

I was a philosophy major in college and have always appreciated people who made me look at the world around me, and at myself, in a different way. Biocentrism certain does that. The book’s subtitle gives a clue to what it’s about: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe.

Robert Lanza is not some kind of New Age quack. He is, in fact, a very accomplished scientist. A Fulbright Scholar, Lanza was on the team that cloned the first human embryo, among a long list of achievements, awards, papers, and books.

What is consciousness? It’s our awareness of our self and of the world. But how does it happen? Where is it? Those have been much more difficult questions to answer, though humans have been trying to figure them out since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. We know consciousness is in the brain (isn’t it?) and we know quite a bit now about how the brain works. Just where exactly in the brain consciousness happens, and how the brain does it, are still mysteries, however.

For Lanza, this isn’t just a medical or physiological curiosity. Rather, it’s where it’s all at—literally. And affirmation of that judgment has come from—of all places—the realms of physics and astronomy. Einstein’s theory of relativity was the first to demonstrate that human perception affects our experience of the universe. Time, for example, moves at different rates for objects moving at different speeds.

Then came quantum mechanics, which has shown that human perception actually determines at least some aspects of the universe. Moreover, perception is even required to make some parts of the universe “happen.” This is one aspect of the famous Heisenberg “uncertainty principle” which says that the location or momentum of a subatomic particle is not determined until it is observed.

For biocentrism, the strangeness of these discoveries is the result of the fact that our experience of the universe happens only in our head. The universe happens in our consciousness. Sound, for example, is purely a biochemical process in our brains. That’s why that unobserved tree fell in silence. Sound isn’t “out there” for our ears to grab. Rather our ears collect vibrations which are transmitted to our brains and where they are then interpreted as sound. No ears, no brains, no sound.

Consider this question: What color is that daisy in your garden? White with a yellow center? What about at dusk? What about at midnight? What about at night under the garish light of the amber street light in my alley? All of these experiences of that daisy are just as real as when we see it in broad daylight. It’s only by convention that we agree that only under that condition do we see its “true” colors. In fact, the colors of that daisy are only happening in our brains and will vary with conditions and with the observer (as when someone is color blind). No experience is any less real than another.

Or how about a rainbow? We’ve all seen them. Have you ever found one? Where is a rainbow? You know the answer by now: it’s (only) in your head. Yet it’s not a “figment of your imagination.” Someone standing next to you would also see it. But find someone outdoors at the same time even just a few blocks away and they may not have seen it. That’s because seeing a rainbow is a function of an observer’s angle to the rain drops and the light passing through them. In fact, everyone looking at a rainbow actually sees it slightly differently because their angle is different. The rainbow in your head is not the same as the rainbow in mine.

What value is biocentrism? For one thing, Lanza says, it helps steer us away from false questions and fruitless pursuits. He thinks much of physics’ search for a “grand unified theory” (GUT for short) falls into this category. But consider this simpler example. With astronomers able to tell us with some precision the size of the universe we inevitably wonder, “What’s beyond the universe? What’s the universe inside of?”

From the perspective of biocentrism this is a meaningless question. “The Universe” is a model we use to make sense of our conscious experience, which we then make the mistake of imagining as a “thing out there.” The universe’s “out-thereness” is only a convention which enables us to interact with it and with one another. Our sensation of the universe, however, is only in our head.

Is your “head” spinning yet? This is what it means to experience a genuinely new idea, especially one that runs counter to what everyone “knows” to be true. I think we are in a time when we are getting bombarded with a lot of new ideas. They can make us giddy and give us a headache. It’s understandable that our immediate reaction is to say “Nonsense!” and go on with our lives. It’s why times of transition like we are in now often feel so unsettled and even threatening. While they may not be particularly fun times to live in they often result in dramatic advancements over time in the quality of life. The Reformation and Renaissance are well known examples. So, for that matter was the rise of Christianity.

Is biocentrism “the next big thing” to alter human life and the way we see the world? Perhaps, but it’s way too early to tell. I actually think Lanza may be onto something important here. He also has some interesting spiritual speculations at the end of his book. To me biocentrism seems to be a strong affirmation of the incredible value of human beings, both individually and as a species. And it gives a whole new dimension to Jesus’ statement that “the kingdom of God is within you.” In any case, biocentrism will be something to pay attention to, even as we continue on with our everyday lives in the world (we think is) “out there.”


Anonymous said...

Say Doug, I saw the most beautiful rainbow yesterday evening, and so did my camera. A tape recorder could "hear and remember" that tree falling. Is that a someone? To get my head to spin, I just have to consider being aware of myself at all. My camera and recorder can’t do that, I think.

David Mc

Doug said...

Ha ha, well no, David, not really. Your camera didn't "see" anything nor can a tape recorder "hear" anything. The seeing would occur when you looked at the pictures and the hearing would occur when you listened to the tape. Even with recording devices, the perception still occurs only in your head.

Anonymous said...

Ok, but the neurons of nearby bugs and birds were disturbed I bet.

This line of thinking is disturbing in a way. The universe would go on without us observing, I’m sure. Assuming no God I guess. Maybe God’d want to use the "(stinky) empty aquarium/ cage” for something else. Odd stuff. I enjoy your blog. Please keep it up.

David Mc

Doug said...

"Ok, but the neurons of nearby bugs and birds were disturbed I bet."
"The universe would go on without us observing, I’m sure."

I won't pretend to be speaking for Lanza in any of this but here's what I think is the issue. When we make these kinds of judgments (as we all do, every day) we are taking a kind of above-it-all, God's-eye observer position. Such a viewpoint, however, is completely hypothetical--it doesn't exist.

Whatever the bugs and birds experienced, it wasn't a tree falling. That's a uniquely human interpretation. Their experience would be pretty diffucult for us to imagine, I suspect.

As for the universe--again, no observer, no observations, no universe. Without us to observe what we call the universe, it is simply...what? "X"--a blank filled in differently by every species. And if there is no perceiving life, it's not filled in at all.

Now, have I thought through the implications of all this--not on your life. lol

Anonymous said...

As for the universe--again, no observer, no observations, no universe. Without us to observe what we call the universe

How about "the fossil record"?

We're just talking about Earth?

David Mc

Doug said...

Oh David, this could go on, couldn't it? Um, let's see if I can be more precise. The whole issue is consiousness. As Protagoras said, "Man is the measure of all things," or "it's (literally) all in your head." The universe and everything in it is an event of consciousness. Those fossils only come into reality when we find and observe them.

Now, is biocentrism the only way to look at things? No, "realism" is another option and often works quite well. In the same way Newtonian physics works most of the time without giving any consideration to relativity. But it has its limits and so does realism. Those problems are a large part of what Lanza's book is about.

I think the bottom line concept to grasp is simply that all our sensory experiences, every last one, are bio-chemical events in our brain. That is where our world really happens and that's where we decide what this world is (where we "measure" it) that we live in.

Hope that helps and doesn't just add to the muddle.

Anonymous said...

Protagoras said, "Man is the measure of all things," or "it's (literally) all in your head."

Thanks, I never really knew that was the meaning. I get you.

Oh, I don't mind if this (consiousness) goes on forever, somehow, as far as I know.

David Mc