Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Introducing The Biocentric Universe

Note: The article below accompanies a short YouTube video introducing the biocentric universe theory. This idea, introduced by the noted biologist Robert Lanza (and incorporating earlier work by the physicist John Archibald Wheeler), suggests that the information-gathering activities of living things are collectively responsible for the observed structure of the Universe, and that we continue to resolve the material world to higher and higher resolutions as we learn what the world is made of and how it works. This first article is a broad overview of the theory; future articles (and videos) will explore its concepts in greater depth.

It’s incredible how our understanding of the Universe has changed over the last 150 years. In 1860, James Clerk Maxwell hadn’t yet figured out how electricity and magnetism are related, so we had no idea what light was or how it worked. We also had no idea what matter was made of; the discovery of electrons was almost 40 years away, and the discovery of the atomic nucleus, nearly 50. And it would be over 60 years before astronomers demonstrated that there were other galaxies in the Universe besides the Milky Way — a watershed moment when humanity realized that the Universe is extremely big, and that we in comparison are very small indeed.

Today, we have probed the Universe to incredible degrees of precision as well as incredible distances. Einstein’s general theory of relativity (1915) accurately describes the Universe over large scales and explains gravity. The math that Einstein worked out has become a part of our everyday lives: The GPS receiver in your car makes calculations that factor in the subtle gravitational flexing of time predicted by relativity, and if it didn’t, GPS simply would not work. Meanwhile, on the other end of the scale of size, the theory of quantum mechanics (QM) is another major triumph in the history of physics. The results of experiment after experiment can be predicted with QM, and everything from transistors to MRI medical instruments probably wouldn’t have been invented if it weren’t for its insights.

Trouble In Quantum Paradise

If our understanding of the Universe were only getting increasingly precise and far-reaching, everything would be fine — great even. But that’s not all that is happening. Experiments have revealed a host of cases where, at least on the very small level, things just don’t work out as intuitively expected. The results of quantum-mechanics experiments are “weird,” and physicists are often said to have an “unease” regarding the topic. The mathematical predictions are incredibly effective; no one questions those. It’s the interpretation of the outcomes that’s the problem. Nobody has come up with a totally convincing way to connect the math to the strange experimental findings — how the equations tell us what’s really, physically going on.

Here’s a run-down of some of the “weirdnesses” that arise from the famous “double slit” experiment and its variations:

1. Light, and matter, are apparently composed of waves and particles. We see either one form or the other, depending on how the experiment is set up and what we choose to look for.

2. The double-slit experiment, performed with individual particles, results in the finding that a single particle can seem to be in two places at once. Fired at two slits, the particle seems to go through both slits, seemingly interfering with itself — or some “bizarro” version of itself — on the other side. To explain this, we say that the light is behaving like a wave in this case, not a particle.

3. In the above experiment, if we put particle detectors on the slits, the particle seems to go through only one of the slits, with a 50/50 probability between them. If we remove the detectors, it seems to go through both slits again.

4. The “delayed choice” experiment: If the particle is fired at both slits, but immediately afterward we observe both paths with a telescope, we see a particle that went through only one of the slits. But if we don’t make the observation, the particle seems to have gone through both slits and/or interferes with itself. Incredibly, it’s as if the experimenter can retroactively change the facts about the particle’s history, based on an after-the-fact choice.

5. The “quantum eraser” experiment: In a double-slit setup where individual photons are “marked” to show which slit they passed through, predictably, they act like particles and don’t create interference. However, if this is done and the photons are then “unmarked” — the which-path information is permanently erased before the experimenter has a chance to receive it — then they act like waves and seem to interfere with themselves. And by combining this experiment with (4), researchers have shown that this can even be done retroactively. Our mere potential for knowledge, the possible passage of information into our brain, seems to change the reality of observed reality — even after the fact.

What in the world is going on here? The various QM interpretations put their individual spins on this question, but collectively, and at the most fundamental levels, science doesn’t have a single, commonly agreed-upon explanation.

The Fine-Tuning Question

As we have discovered more about the Universe, something intriguing has emerged: The laws of nature incorporate certain “constants” (numbers like pi, or c, the speed of light) which must be built into the mathematical expressions of these laws. Further, some of these constants are such that if they had been different by a few percent or less at the birth of the Universe, it would be an extraordinarily different place today, uninhabitable by any form of life — no matter how alien. The controversial idea that these constants are somehow “tuned” to allow life is called the fine-tuning hypothesis.

The fine-tuning hypothesis is a go-to argument for those with religious leanings: These numbers appear to be intelligently chosen to allow life, so they must have been chosen by an intelligent being. But ever since physicists began working out what would have happened if, say, the forces holding together the atomic nucleus had been a little stronger, fine-tuning has become a legitimate area of scientific debate as well.

There are two main approaches to fine-tuning as a natural phenomenon. Perhaps the simplest is the anthropic principle: The Universe appears to be fine-tuned for life because if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be here to notice. Intelligent life could exist only in a universe with matter, atoms, and higher elements; we exist, therefore those things must exist; and for those things to exist, the physical constants must appear to be fine-tuned. Those invoking the anthropic principle may accuse a fine-tuning enthusiast of puddle thinking: the argument that a puddle of water should “expect” to find itself in a pothole of exactly the right size and shape.

While the anthropic principle is undoubtedly true in the broadest sense, using it in isolation to explain fine-tuning isn’t entirely satisfying, because it means we must be “lucky” in some sense to exist at all. (After all, in the puddle analogy, if there were no potholes the water would just run off the road.) Theists may derisively say that under the purely anthropic explanation, our existence would have to be an “accident.” Either way, it may be better to say we simply “won the cosmic lottery.”

The other main naturalistic approach posits the existence of a multiverse: that there are many universes — perhaps billions, with all manner of physical laws — one of which is ours with our laws. In this way, all kinds of universes get to exist, and of course we living things anthropically find ourselves in one that allows our kind of existence. But the multiverse hypothesis does not appear to be testable, at least not any time in the near future. It would have to be a theory that’s accepted simply because it answers the question in a way that is more convincing than any other proposal.

On a more personal level, I feel it’s wrong to assume that dozens, hundreds, maybe billions of universes have to exist just for ours to exist. The multiverse seems to violate the principle of Occam’s razor, especially considering that we’re invoking a large number of additional entities that are presently undetectable by science. If there are other explanations that do not call for the multiplication (of all things) of entire universes — it strikes me that William of Occam would say, let’s take a look.

The Biocentric Alternative

In 2007, a new theory appeared. The biologist Robert Lanza, who had already made a name for himself as a stem-cell pioneer, published his theory of the “biocentric universe” — first in The American Scholar, and then in his book Biocentrism (co-authored with astronomer Bob Berman) and an accompanying article in Discover magazine. Lanza argues that quantum mechanics and fine-tuning cannot be fully understood unless we recognize the role that life itself plays in the creation of perceived reality. In other words, the Universe takes the form that it does because we are here, and if we weren’t, it would take some other form — or possibly no form at all. We produce the Universe.

Understandably, this rubs a lot of people the wrong way. For our entire lives, we — people, animals, everything — all experience one reality, one singular course of events. We see and touch objects, and others can see and touch the same objects, confirming what we sensed. In ordinary everyday experience, there’s no reason to think that the natural world is anything but a concrete physical reality that would exist whether we were here or not — indeed, whether we were ever here. But even the most die-hard realist has to concede some truths that eat away at realism: We never sense objects in the world directly. Everything that we see is a result of our eyes detecting photons and our brains assembling an image of what those photons represent. When we touch something solid, the solidity of the object results from the repulsive effects of electron orbitals in the object and in our hands — and we forget that even the most solid objects are well over 99.9% empty space. The fact that they are the least bit “solid” is an illusion, clearly a construction of our mind. Even the light that directly enters our eyeballs consists only of perturbations of the electromagnetic field; photons are massless things, nothing like bullets or grains of sand.

For hundreds of years, philosophers from the idealism school, such as Kant and Schopenhauer, have debated the distinctions between our subjective perceptions and the “actual” world, if indeed there is such a thing. (The age-old question about a tree falling in the forest touches on this.) And for millennia, Eastern philosophies have taken very seriously the idea that consciousness is what makes the experienced world real. More recently, the late physicist John Archibald Wheeler, one of the 20th century’s greatest minds (he invented the delayed-choice experiment discussed above and coined the terms “black hole” and “wormhole”), suggested a participatory anthropic principle: Not only is it necessary that we find ourselves in a universe tuned for life, but in some yet-to-be-discovered respect, we make it that way. Intriguingly, Wheeler gave information a central role in this participation, in a concept he called “it from bit.” Information, as we’ll see, is the critical ingredient in biocentricity* as well.

Confronting Absurdity

Before laying out the case for the biocentric universe, perhaps it would be useful to get some historical perspective. The biggest challenge for a biocentric writer is that many readers, on first blush, consider the idea absurd. How could we have any part in creating the Universe? Isn’t this idea incredibly arrogant? Isn’t there something creationist about attributing the existence of nonliving matter to the presence of living things?

Even the most successful theories, when new, were thought by many to be absurd. The philosopher/astronomer Giordano Bruno was the first person to suggest that the stars were much like our Sun, only very far away. His idea was an affront to the astronomical assumptions of the day. (“But that would mean the Universe is very large, and it isn’t!”) He was burned at the stake as a heretic. When Copernicus wrote that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the Universe, that was an insult to everyone who “knew” that the Earth had a privileged position in the Cosmos. When Galileo and Newton suggested that uniform motion was identical and indistinguishable from rest (the concept of inertia), it seemed absurd — after all, you can clearly tell you are in motion when riding through the wind on a horse, versus being at rest in your parlor. Even the idea that the Earth was anything other than flat seemed crazy to those who saw that, well, clearly the Earth is flat — just look at it! And then there are more subtle but equally counterintuitive discoveries, such as Einstein’s insight that two events cannot be absolutely simultaneous, but rather, that simultaneity depends on the motion of the observer relative to the events.

In all of these cases, the skeptics were misled by their assumptions, which in turn were based (in whole or in part) on their everyday experience. The acceptance of revolutionary ideas is always made more difficult by entrenched, prevailing theory, such as the assumption of a “luminiferous aether,” a physical medium through which light waves were thought to travel. (Einstein’s special relativity showed that light propagated independently of any such medium.)

Given a galaxy 100 million light years away, yes, it does seem absurd to think we could have any part in its creation — if we assume that it existed 100 million years ago in the form currently seen from Earth. Yes, it does seem arrogant to use the word “creation” that way. And if one imagines that matter wasn’t “real” before we came on the scene, but now it is somehow “real,” seemingly for our benefit, then yes, that does seem like an almost creationist viewpoint. But those are all incomplete views of biocentricity’s new paradigm — the product of trying to understand new “outside-the-box” concepts within the context of the existing worldview (the so-called "Einstellung effect"). It doesn’t help matters to use words like “create” and “real,” which carry meanings that don’t necessarily apply. Before dismissing the theory outright, we should at least try to understand what it’s really saying.

How Different Would A Biocentric World Be?

Biocentricity can seem to be just a semantic notion — a different but essentially arbitrary way of looking at the world. After all, you can also theorize that the world is really arranged in a reverse of what we see, and our consciousness flips all of our sensations to make everything appear “right.” Is the biocentric universe like that — an exercise in trippy contemplation, offering no new, useful insight on the true nature of things?

As long as the theory can eventually be tested in a laboratory, then no. In that case, either it’s a verifiable, accurate description of our relationship with the world, or it isn’t. We believe that given experiments of sufficient sophistication, biocentricity could be tested.

What is a semantic notion, though, is what we mean when we speak of the “realness” of things. It throws a lot of people off. With biocentricity we’re essentially asking: Is the structure that we see independent from the presence of living organisms? Would there be stars, planets, molecules, and atoms whether we were here or not? We already accept that subjective descriptions like smell and color (known as qualia) are sensory constructions, not absolute properties of the material world. But what about physical parameters such as position and momentum? Would matter be the same in a world where life never got started — did it exist unchanged before the appearance of life?

Of course, we don’t have a lifeless version of the world to help answer these questions. We have to find the answers with other tests. More on that toward the end of this article.

It’s a standard assumption that the first life form appeared out of matter that had already existed, in the same form, for billions of years. If the structure and behavior of matter is indeed independent from the presence of life, then that assumption must be correct: The Universe produces life. But if experiments can demonstrate that its structure and behavior depend specifically upon the presence of life, or other life-like things, then the assumption may be incorrect. We must consider the possibility that life produces the Universe, rather than the other way around.

Of course, this raises the question: What about distant galaxies that are shown to be billions of years older than Earth? From our perspective, looking back in time as we look through the telescope, we see light coming from galaxies that appear to be just that old. But in the biocentric universe, all facts that we can collect about objects reflect not the objects directly, but rather our observations of those objects, explicitly. This is the concept behind relational physics, an emerging science and a foundation of biocentricity (it will be covered in the second installment of this series). In short, our observation of light from a distant galaxy includes facts about the galaxy’s age, but as is always the case in the relational view, the galaxy itself cannot be ascribed an absolute age, i.e. an age independent of any reference frame or observer. And from the perspective of a modern astronomer, the galaxy appears to be older than life. But under the premise of biocentricity, it’s impossible to describe matter or physical laws from the perspective of anything that may have existed before that first life form, because from that perspective, nothing of the kind existed.

So What’s Special About Life?

Anytime you put “centric” at the end of a word, there had better be a reason that the first part — “bio” in this case — deserves to be in the same word. If life is composed of matter, how can matter be dependent in any way upon life? The answer is that life isn’t composed of matter. Life is a property, a quality, a characteristic that a collection of matter may or may not be seen to have. The word “life” is a bit like the word “incandescence”: If a filament heats up, it may or may not display the quality of incandescence. If it does, it bursts into a glow. A similar kind of quality is found in living things. Therefore, to ask whether life can exist without matter is to ask whether incandescence (as a “thing”) can exist without matter, or similarly, whether mass or electric charge can exist without matter.

What’s unique about life is that at the most basic level, a living thing’s function is to collect information. Any primordial life form, no matter how basic, would need to collect information from its environment, whether it’s only to capture (what we call) sunlight to actively synthesize (again, what we call) more complex molecules. Of course, modern one-celled animals can orient themselves to nutrients, heat, and light, as can plants, to say nothing of the positively information-gluttonous species called mankind. There is no other known process in nature in which an object actively collects, processes, and stores information. Only things that display the property of life do it. Our understanding of the Universe constitutes an awful lot of information that we’ve collected over the millennia, so perhaps we should consider that living things collecting information about our world is actually the process of constructing it, too.

A great many scientists believe that all phenomena can, at least in principle, be understood by reducing them to the most fundamental physical laws and behaviors. And while we’ve been very successful on that front in the nonliving material world (witness technologies like the Josephson junction, which exploits quantum effects), we’re nowhere near understanding what makes living systems tick at the fundamental level. No matter what any reductionist may tell you, life is a mystery — and biocentricity says that it will always remain so unless we accept its fundamental, governing role in the Universe, and study it within this context.

One Universe For All

If the properties of the world are tied explicitly to the perceptions of living beings, how can it be that we all perceive the same world? When you throw a ball to a dog, the dog catches the ball. It doesn’t catch a different ball two seconds later, or earlier. A dog isn’t even the same species! Doesn’t the dog’s act of catching the same ball falsify the idea that living things somehow bring about the structure of the Universe?

Well, nobody said anything about humans having a monopoly on this process. Our sense of the world may be different from an animal’s, but even the simplest animal is a collector of information, even if that means moving toward heat so that it can metabolize more efficiently. What’s more, all living things on Earth are connected by an unbroken reproductive lineage; that is an undisputed fact. You can be linked to any organism that ever lived, by tracing a continuous (if long and circuitous) line. The history of life on Earth is a finite and continuous web of direct physical interactions between parents and offspring, whether through giving birth or just releasing spores into the air. As far as we know, the lineage of life has never stopped and started again. There’s only one lineage, and it has continued for billions of years.

Consider two postulates: (1) All living things in Earth’s history, being connected by a finite number of direct generational interactions, make up a single continuous superorganism, and (2) our universe displays total logical consistency — it operates on a dead-rigid set of principles and laws, from which deviation is never observed (outside of remote situations like black holes). Given (1) and (2), it shouldn’t be surprising why all members of all species observe the same world. We have to. By way of this consistency, all observable features of the world are constrained by previous observations that had been made by other living things. Even though we are constantly building the world through these observations, it nevertheless seems perfectly real to us because it is perfectly consistent — there’s no immediate reason to believe that “stuff” wouldn’t be “there” even if we never existed at all. It’s no wonder people get testy when you challenge this!

The Case For Biocentricity

Earlier I mentioned three top explanations for the Universe’s fine-tuning: (1) the anthropic principle — that we must find ourselves in a habitable universe, even if it’s the only one there is; (2) the multiverse — that there are many universes, one of which is ours, and (3) intelligent origins — that the world is set up for life by an external agent (God, aliens, etc.). Biocentricity offers a fourth alternative: Life is the agent determining what the Universe is like, and the fine-tuning of its constants is trivial, because the mere presence of life (unwittingly) makes those constants a necessary part of the world. This explanation invokes neither an intelligent agency, nor multiple universes, nor good fortune. In our “puddle” analogy, it would be like a chunk of ice finding itself in wet cement, and later wondering why there’s a pothole that fits its chunky shape so well.

Consider the photographs above, taken in a veterans cemetery. In (a), we see an interesting pattern in the tombstones: They appear to line up and converge toward the camera in various ways. This is a result of the way we’re observing the cemetery; in (b), taken at the same spot but from another angle, we see a different pattern. Even though the pattern in (a) seems to be pointing toward us, it wasn’t “designed.” The tombstones are merely arranged in evenly spaced rows; nobody had (a) in mind when the cemetery was built. Also, it’s not the only pattern that can be seen in this cemetery; there are hundreds of viewing angles at which patterns seem to converge on the observer, and many more where they don’t. Finally, the existence of the pattern isn’t a consequence of there being thousands of separate cemeteries, each with its own unique arrangement of stones. It is merely a consequence of viewing one cemetery, from a particular angle. Now imagine, hypothetically, that having the pattern (a) in front of us were required in order for our eyes to open and for us to be conscious. What kind of pattern would we see? That’s right, a pattern that appears to point in our direction. And we might wonder why it seems so perfectly arranged for us.

In a similar way, biocentricity suggests that the Universe’s physical structure is a consequence of a particular kind of observation, unique to living things. In the biocentric scenario, the first (minimally) defined event in the Universe was the co-appearance of the property of life, and in some respect, matter displaying that property. (Compare this with standard origin theories, which propose the co-appearance of matter and physical properties such as mass, as well as the co-appearance of energy and spacetime, etc.) In doing so, this living matter began to resolve its physical self as well as environmental features such as light and heat, both of which were necessary for there to be a mechanism for its eventual reproduction. That’s not to say that life had a “purpose” “in mind”; here we can invoke the anthropic principle and suppose that many types of primordial beasties are able to pop in and out of existence (from their respective points of view), perhaps each observing a different universe — but only one with a framework that supports reproduction and evolution could lead to human beings capable of contemplating all of this, billions of years later.

At this point I’ll try to answer a few frequently asked questions briefly (they will all be discussed in depth in future articles/videos):

1. Did the first life form appear out of nothing? It depends on how you define “nothing.” Perhaps the first life form appeared, uncaused, merely because it was a possibility among all the possibilities for all possible universes. This isn’t dissimilar to mainstream theories suggesting that a random quantum fluctuation gave birth to the Universe. But instead of the Big Bang, this was the “Bio Bang.”
2. What did the first organism observe, when there was nothing to observe? This may seem like a classic “chicken and egg” situation. The first event in the history of the Universe may have been some kind of self-observation. It’s interesting that internal self-monitoring (homeostasis) is a defining feature of even the simplest forms of life, while self-observation at the highest levels is what defines human consciousness. Non-living matter does not display these complex self-reflexive-responsive qualities.
3. Did everything from atoms to galaxies appear at the moment the first life form appeared? More likely, the Universe’s features resolve gradually, as organisms evolve and gain the ability to collect increasing amounts of information at higher and higher resolutions. After all, the Universe looks quite different to a bacterium than it does to us — even though it’s the same world. Another way to think of it is: Bacteria do just fine interacting with a fuzzy, low-resolution world; subatomic particles, as far as bacteria are concerned, do not exist. But when humans closely examine the results of a supercollider experiment, these things do appear to exist — they have to be seen, in order for the world to be physically and mathematically consistent with the laws that have been in place and unchanged since the dawn of life.
4. What about the Big Bang? There’s physical evidence that it happened. There’s physical evidence, no question. Regardless, biocentricity questions “that it happened.” Since the Universe demonstrates physical consistency, when we look out into space, we should find all the products of our natural physical laws. Our universe, when examined, apparently requires that it be seen expanding — the way a hot cup of water must feel warm when handled. And if it’s expanding, then extrapolating backward in time, we imagine a Big Bang at some point. But for the Universe to appear to have this history, it’s necessary for background radiation from the “beginning” to be findable. It has to be there; an apparently expanding universe without it wouldn’t make sense.
5. How do you explain the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs? Did the dinosaurs commit suicide by “creating” it? No — living things can’t control the unfolding of uncertain events. (Sorry, fans of The Secret.) But things like asteroids and comets are a necessary consequence of the laws of gravity and matter. So there is a low but constant probability that the Earth will be struck by a body from space. Such a thing happened 65 million years ago — even if the dinosaurs literally didn’t know what hit them.

Let’s now turn to the quantum mechanics experiments from the beginning of this article. This is where biocentricity pays the most satisfying dividends. Most of the “weirdnesses” seen in the double-slit variations derive from bringing assumptions to the experiments, for example assuming that objects in the world physically behave one particular way, whether or not they are interacting with anything. Most or all physicists agree that the act of observation, or more broadly, interactions with other objects, have some effect on the results of these experiments, but they don’t all agree why or how this happens. Seen through biocentric glasses, though, the results become expected:

• The default (or observer-independent) situation is that bits of light and matter behave like waves, whose behavior can be described through mathematical probability functions. Properties of waves are undefined or uncertain, until someone or something tries to observe the wave.

• Waves and particles are manifestations of the same thing; the difference depends on how much information the system “gives up.” If we set up an experiment to provide information on position, we remove the wave’s uncertainty about position, and it appears to “collapse” into a definite particle. If we don’t take the information, the particle’s position remains uncertain, and it acts like a wave.

• In the case of the delayed-choice experiment, the wave goes through both slits; but when “which path” information is subsequently taken, it seems to “collapse” into a particle with a definite path, depending on the wave’s original probability function. No “going back in time” is necessary.

• If information is gathered but is then made permanently unavailable, no apparent “collapse” occurs. It isn’t the act of extracting the information that changes the wave’s behavior; it is the potential for receiving it. In the quantum-eraser experiment, no “collapse”-like change happens to the wave merely by being “marked.” The “collapse” phenomenon happens later, when the information is received by the observer. If the reception of this information is made impossible, the observer sees a wave.

All of this (particularly the quantum-eraser experiment) is consistent with the idea that wave-or-particle behavior is a function of the information available for a living observer to receive. And if it requires a living observer receiving information for a wave to “collapse” into a particle, it follows that no particles could exist in a universe without life — and that they don’t particularly exist in our universe when nobody is looking for them.

A Unifying Principle

I don’t believe that the biocentric universe is the mythical, long-sought-after “theory of everything.” But it does offer insight into several ongoing controversies and mysteries in physics and biology. And it does so in a unifying manner. We’ve covered quantum mechanics and fine-tuning; here are a few more examples. Again, they’ll be covered in detail in future installments.

Abiogenesis: the origin of life from non-life. This has been a puzzle for decades. If life originated spontaneously on Earth, surely we can we create simple life forms in the laboratory out of nonliving materials, right? Except that nobody has been able to come up with anything more interesting than complex molecules. Biocentric perspective: The spontaneous appearance of the first organism, from our modern perspective of molecules and primordial soup, may have been an incredibly unlikely event — as unlikely as anything that has been observed in the Universe since. But it merely has to be possible in retrospect, i.e., its probability of reoccurring can be anything higher than exactly zero, even if that value is astonishingly, astonishingly low.

Fermi paradox: the idea that if life appeared on Earth, it should have also appeared elsewhere independently; a small percentage of that life would include civilizations far more advanced than we are; so why is there no evidence of them? Why does the Universe seem empty? Biocentric perspective: Our universe is specific to our lineage of life. Any other life forms that arose independently would necessarily dwell in their own universes, unreachable from ours.

Measurement problem: the disagreement among physicists about why the act of observing a very small object like an electron seems to directly affect it, converting it from an indefinite collection of states into one definite state. Biocentric perspective: The measurement problem is solved through relational quantum mechanics (touched on earlier); biocentricity is a special case of RQM, in which all living things constitute a superorganism that is a common observer.

Gaia hypothesis: the idea that the Earth and life constitute a kind of self-regulating super-system. This is based on how many features of the Earth seem “tailor made” to support the flourishing and continued survival of life, above and beyond anthropic considerations. Biocentric perspective: Life produces the Universe to (generally) suit its needs, and the Earth is an important part of the Universe to life. To an extent allowed by nature’s physical laws, the Earth should necessarily be highly friendly to life. An extension of the fine-tuning argument.

Boltzmann brain problem: the bizarre, subtle proposition that it is more likely for a single self-aware brain to spontaneously appear than for an entire universe to appear. Given how less likely the entire-universe option is, for every entire universe, there should be a far greater number of these “Boltzmann brains” — so, who’s to say we aren’t one of them, perceiving the Universe rather than being born from it? Biocentric perspective: The Universe didn’t appear. Instead, something much simpler than a self-aware brain appeared: a primordial organism, which created the first primordial observations of its environment. Of all three events, occurring spontaneously, this is the most likely.

Putting Biocentricity To The Test

Critics of the biocentric universe have argued that it’s a mystical idea better suited to philosophy than science. Worse, it’s a pseudoscience on a par with “intelligent design.” I disagree. A scientific theory should inspire ideas for new experiments, and it should predict outcomes that disagree with the predictions of current theory. Biocentricity does that, or at least has the potential to do that.

For some historical perspective, consider spontaneous generation, the defunct theory that living organisms routinely appear out of nonliving matter. In the 1600s, biologists began questioning this millennia-old assumption. Reading Sir Thomas Browne’s opinion that spontaneous generation is one of many “vulgar errors” in contemporary science, a critic wrote, “To question [spontaneous generation] is to question reason, sense, and experience. If he doubts of this, let him go to Egypt, and there he will find the fields swarming with mice, begot of the mud of Nylus, to the great calamity of the inhabitants.” In 1859 Louis Pasteur ended the debate with a brilliant experiment proving that spontaneous generation doesn’t occur, and biology has never looked back.

If there weren’t a reason to do so, it’s unlikely anyone would have tried putting meat or broth in a variety of specially prepared flasks and waiting. But Pasteur had a reason: to test the prevailing theory. And in doing so, he uncovered one “vulgar error” indeed.

Likewise, experiments can be run that can test the prevailing idea that the world exists independently from living things. These tests haven’t been done, because there’s been no reason to do them. In most cases, “reason, sense, and experience” are consistent with an absolute physical world, so it’s no wonder the assumption hasn’t been directly challenged in the lab. Here are a few areas where such experiments can be developed:

1. Scaled-up superposition. It’s well known that individual particles such as photons and electrons exhibit superposition, the wave-like behavior that makes them appear to be in “two places at once” due to having multiple quantum states. Larger structures — objects with considerable mass or complexity — appear to settle into one definite (or classical) state as they interact with the environment, through the demonstrated mechanism of decoherence. However, experiments with molecules of fullerene, each consisting of 60 atoms of carbon, have been shown to maintain wave-particle duality under certain conditions. The superposition and decoherence of larger molecules needs to be probed further. It has been proposed that quantum effects may play a crucial role in the functioning of neurons in the brain; if so, perhaps we will discover more profound links between quantum effects and living tissue.

2. Quantum experiments involving simple organisms. Rather than documenting wave interference on a photographic plate, or determining “which path” information with an electro-optical detector, let’s incorporate one-celled animals, such as photosynthetic Euglena, into quantum experiments. With the understanding that humans would still need to observe these organisms to glean meaningful results, would simple forms of life — capable of absorbing and responding to information on their own — find different wave/particle behavior in these situations than an inanimate film or detector? In such an experiment, would the behavior of light or matter suddenly be documented differently upon the death of these organisms?

3. Computer simulation of biological observation. It’s uncertain whether a living organism’s functions can be simulated by a man-made machine. Computers operate in deterministic ways: When you give it a certain input, the computer runs an algorithm (a defined series of calculations) and produces a result. If the initial conditions are identical, then the result will be identical. This doesn’t happen in living systems; they operate in unpredictable ways. We need to probe this distinction. (Computer pioneer Seymour Cray agreed.) Might it be possible to incorporate life-like self-observation into a computer program, in order to create an entity with truly noncomputable functions? And if so, can we get it to observe our universe — or even a new universe! — in ways that no existing technology can do? (Careful, though: Any science-fiction fan knows that creating a self-aware entity is a slippery slope to technological armageddon.)

Why We Should Bother

Anytime there is a major advance in scientific theory, there are immediate benefits to humanity (and, yes, risks). When James Clerk Maxwell discovered that two mysterious effects — electricity and magnetism — were intimately related, the electromagnet, and then the electric motor, became possible. Shortly afterward, the invention of radio transformed mass culture. It never would have happened without Maxwell’s discovery.

If biocentricity is found to be true, similar advances could follow. It would create a paradigm shift where every idea about our relationship with the Universe could be re-examined and sharpened. Specific technologies such as artificial intelligence would be subject to revolution. Imagine a world where “nanobots,” armed with life-simulating observational capabilities, could roam inside the human body and perform functions that no conventional nanobot could. And of course, there are also the potential technologies that no one today can envision, like radio in Maxwell’s case.

At research universities, biology experiments and physics experiments are typically carried out in different buildings. It’s time to bring them together, so that the whole of science can move forward.



* On this site, we avoid Robert Lanza’s term “biocentrism,” instead opting to use the adjective “biocentric” or the variant “biocentricity.” Why? The “-ism” at the end implies an ideology, a personal opinion, an arguable perspective — like conservatism, creationism, or Marxism. Biocentricity, in contrast, is a principle that is either true or false; it will be either verified or falsified by experiment. Either it governs the way the Universe appears to us, or it doesn’t. Think of other governing principles in science: causality, locality, relativity, uncertainty. There’s a reason we don’t say causalism and uncertainism. Even speculative governing principles, such as Carl Jung’s idea of synchronicity, take this word form. Also, “biocentrism” has an older meaning used in ethical or political contexts: that life should be a central factor in decision-making or policy considerations. In that usage, biocentrism is indeed a perspective or opinion. But as a potentially governing principle of the Universe, subject to falsification, “biocentricity” seems to be a more appropriate word.

11 comments:

  1. Interesting work there by Robert Lanza. Although, theoretical physicist Amit Goswami came up with this hypothesis in the early 90s with his seminal book "The Self-Aware Universe".

    Goswami acknowledges that great minds like Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Von Neumann, Eugene Wigner, John Wheeler were already suspecting "something" of this radical world view. But I think that it is Goswami who synthesized everything into a coherent whole with his hypothesis of 'monistic idealism' to resolve the various quantum paradoxes, including the quantum measurement problem.

    Just thought you might want to check out Amit Goswami's work because I think he is one of the original pioneers of this hypothesis.

    Cheers!

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  2. Look, you've got the right idea--trying to integrate life with the Cosmos. However, when biocentrism completely discounts external reality simply because only biological organisms are able to give it qualia, well, you're discounting your own evidence that there is something out there that the brain is able to read. Nice try, but no, creation occurs in many steps--called evolution. A few generations of super novas in our own little corner provided the material for the planets that now circle our sun. Not only that, they provided the materials out of which life was able to construct itself; i.e., the carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulfur, etc. Another problem is your androcentric view of time. Check out Steven Kaufman's Unified Reality Theory--a more persuasive description of time, gravity, matter, inertia and the rest is not to be found.

    I think a more fruitful approach would be to ask why the Universe is constructed such that biological senses can, and do, arise; indeed, what is chemistry that it takes on a life of its own? I take a step back and see the Universe as produced from a seed; it's following a DNA type blueprint that was present in its nascent beginnings. Kaufman's theory that consciousness-existence becomes reality by forming relationships with itself, still applies. He describes it as "analogous in a very limited way to what happens to a rubber band that's twisted repeatedly upon itself--i.e., it remains whole while differentiating into other forms." What's added however is the idea of a particular direction that these relationships take which is towards increased negentropy and information. This presents to me two poles around which the Universe evolves.

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  3. I have a difficult time to figure out all this stuff but the mental exercice is very enjoyable. I think new point of view, right or wrong, are simply healty.

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  4. From a biocentric perspective, time and space are mental constructs - the spatio-temporal logic of the self. We try to use our intellect to describe a fundamental reality, but our langage fails to grasp such a concept. Science methodology has to adapt by including consciousness in the equation. Biocentricity is a first step in this shift. However, I predict that this is (like mentionned in the previous comment) only a mental exercise that will eventually reprogram the intellect and the common sense modules of the software we define as our brain. From there, our experience of reality will evolve. One day, biocentricity will be seen as a very primitve step (human realizing that there is no absolute physical reality). It is a fantastic adventure !

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  5. A good way to experiment biocentricity is to speak or write without referring to time and space (no particules, no waves, no collapsing, no matter, no brain, no speed, no accelaration, ...). You will soon find yourself in deep meditation, beeing one with everything.

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  9. What does this do to the theory if we find evidence of life on Mars? Or our we affecting what we find by our observations?

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