Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Biocentrism: A New Theory of the Universe

In an article by Robert Lanza for The American Scholar -- A New Theory of the Universe -- it is argued that biology, above all the other sciences, should the focus for a unified theory of everything (biocentrism). Looking up biocentrism on Wikipedia will get you nowhere -- it's a stub and doesn't reflect what lanza is writing about.

The thesis seems to be that consciousness or perception are necessary for the existence of the universe as we know it. He contends that this is the only way to tie together all the other sciences and theories that attempt to explain the universe. I think the as we know it part is crucial. I doubt that Lanza would argue that universe would not exist at all without a consciousness to observe it and perceive it.

But, then again, I just went back and reread a crucial section and that is exactly what he is arguing.
You may question whether the brain can really create physical reality. However, remember that dreams and schizophrenia (consider the movie A Beautiful Mind) prove the capacity of the mind to construct a spatial-temporal reality as real as the one you are experiencing now. The visions and sounds schizophrenic patients see and hear are just as real to them as this page or the chair you’re sitting on.

We have all seen pictures of the primitive earth with its volcanoes overflowing with lava, or read about how the solar system itself condensed out of a giant swirling gas cloud. Science has sought to extend the physical world beyond the time of our own emergence. It has found our footsteps wandering backward until on some far shore they were transmuted into a trail of mud. The cosmologists picked up the story of the molten earth and carried its evolution backward in time to the insensate past: from minerals by degrees back through the lower forms of matter—of nuclei and quarks—and beyond them to the big bang. It seems only natural that life and the world of the inorganic must separate at some point.

We consider physics a kind of magic and do not seem at all fazed when we hear that the universe—indeed the laws of nature themselves—just appeared for no reason one day. From the dinosaurs to the big bang is an enormous distance. Perhaps we should remember the experiments of Francesco Redi, Lazzaro Spallanzani, and Louis Pasteur—basic biological experiments that put to rest the theory of spontaneous generation, the belief that life had arisen spontaneously from dead matter (as, for instance, maggots from rotting meat and mice from bundles of old clothes)—and not make the same mistake for the origin of the universe itself. We are wont to imagine time extending all the way back to the big bang, before life’s early beginning in the seas. But before matter can exist, it has to be observed by a consciousness.

Physical reality begins and ends with the animal observer. All other times and places, all other objects and events are products of the imagination, and serve only to unite knowledge into a logical whole. We are pleased with such books as Newton’s Principia, or Darwin’s Origin of Species. But they instill a complacency in the reader. Darwin spoke of the possibility that life emerged from inorganic matter in some “warm little pond.” Trying to trace life down through simpler stages is one thing, but assuming it arose spontaneously from nonliving matter wants for the rigor and attention of the quantum theorist.
Lanza makes a pretty good argument in what is a very interesting article, but I'm not buying it. Perhaps my little mind is too linear to believe that animal consciousness creates physical reality, or perhaps this theory is too close to solipsism (which seems to me to be highly narcissistic) for my taste.

Read the article for yourself
-- and please share your thoughts in the comments.


Unknown said...

eh, i wouldn't call the idea that mind creates matter a "new theory". whether you call it consciousness, god, nous
, or the unmoved mover (Aristotle), it certainly is not anything new. i'm sure there are plenty of other philosophers i could drudge up who shared this belief, but i'll stop there.

wayfarer said...

I think the confusion here about whether the Universe 'exists in perception' revolves around thinking about 'what happens when it is *not* being perceived?'

But to think this, is *also* to perceive it - or rather, to imagine it as not-existing-due-to-not-being-perceived. So it is subtly duplicious.

Bertrand Russell's discussion of Berkeley makes the same error - he imagines that the train's wheels dissappear when you're in the carriage, because you can't see them. But really this is just 'imagining their absence' and then criticizing Berkeley's idealism because it is absurd to think of a train without wheels.

You can say the Universe 'exists in perception' but make no claim about whether it exists otherwise. Because that is purely speculative. The point is, that the Universe, and every particular thing in it, exists according to your mode of perception. But then the Abhidhamma was saying this 2,500 years ago. It is good to see scientists awakening to this perspective.