Monday, April 9, 2012

Paul Davies Gets It Right

Ever since I began developing the biocentricity program in 2009 (based on a hypothesis by biologist Robert Lanza), I’ve been on the lookout for biocentricity-friendly ideas from the scientific establishment. So imagine my delight when one of my favorite physicists, Paul Davies, floated a surprisingly similar proposal on the excellent PBS show Closer to Truth.

A few years ago, in an audacious New York Times Op-Ed piece, Davies famously rankled his fellow physicists. He wrote that science is becoming increasingly faith-based, as physics has been forced to invoke multiple universes and other devices which — though they provide workable explanations — may end up being no more falsifiable than saying God did it. I appreciate that rather than appealing to external agents and “theories of the gaps,” Davies challenges his colleagues to look for answers from within the universe, however difficult it may be. That’s exactly what biocentricity attempts to do. So, even though I’m no Paul Davies, perhaps it’s not terribly surprising that our ideas might converge.

The topic on Closer to Truth was, Does consciousness point to God? Host Robert Lawrence Kuhn was looking for alternatives to an intelligent designer to explain the emergence of consciousness. Here is a transcript from Davies’ segment (the bolds are mine):

Paul Davies: “This is a radical idea, although it’s not so radical if you’re steeped in quantum physics, where the observer plays a very significant role. In the popular mind, there’s this notion that there’s a unique history that connects the Big Bang, the origin of the universe, with the present state of the universe. Quantum physics says that’s just a load of baloney — that there’s an infinite number of histories. They’re all folded in together, and if you know nothing at all about the past of the universe, you must take all of these histories. And when we make observations, what we’re doing is ‘chipping away’ at these histories and removing some of them. We’re culling them. And in principle, if we could fill the entire universe with observations, we would then home in on something like a unique history. So, the act of observation, in part, resolves something about the histories of the universe.

“The laws start out unfocused and fuzzy, [but] eventually there’s life and observers, that link back, just like in quantum mechanics, back in time, through making their observations, and help ‘sharpen’ those laws in a way that’s self-consistent with their own existence. So here we have a universe that has an explanation within itself: The observers that arise, play a part in selecting the very laws that lead to the emergence of observers in the first place.

“You have to have this. If we’re trying to explain why does the universe exist in its present form, and in particular why does it contain life and observers, obviously those life and observers have to be relevant to the laws that give rise to them. Because there’s no other way you can have an explanation for the universe from entirely within it. The only alternative is to appeal to something outside it, like an unexplained god, or an unexplained set of physical laws.

“When we’re tangling with these ultimate questions of existence, we’re bound to go beyond intuition — we’re bound to go beyond common-sense everyday notions. So anything we come up with is going to strike you at first sight as just bizarre, ridiculous, even absurd. But I think what I’m saying is no more ridiculous or absurd than taking, on faith, the existence of an unexplained god or designer, or an unexplained set of physical laws that just happen to be right and give rise to observers like ourselves.”

Wow! Davies’ proposal has obvious ties to Stephen Hawking’s top-down cosmology. But whereas Hawking’s alternative histories of the universe wither away on their own, this is the first time I’ve heard anyone suggest that biological observations were responsible for this culling. (“Chipping away” is the perfect metaphor, too: It suggests that the universe starts out amorphous and formless, and then gets “shaped” through a process of removal, the way a block of stone gets shaped by a sculptor.)

Biocentricity extends Davies’ idea with a few simple principles:
1. All organisms that descended from our earliest common ancestor can be thought of as a single “super-observer,” within which Davies’ self-consistency principle must hold, given that they are all causally connected.
2. Technology is included with this “super-observer,” because all technology is designed by biological organisms. (And, many technological devices have been given the capacity, by their biological designers, to make observations and collect information, just like a living organism does.)
3. Independent forms of life that have had no contact with Earthly life and technology could not exist in the same universe. If what Davies said above is true, then there’s no reason why alien life forms would be “chipping away” at the same universe, and revealing not only the same physical laws but also the exact same history. How could the same laws and global history be selected independently in two far-apart regions of the universe? The existence of independent aliens thus wholly contradicts Davies’ premise; we are back to requiring an explanation for the laws and history that are common to disconnected regions of the Cosmos. (In 2010, Davies released a book called The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence. Could it be that this contradiction hasn’t occurred to him?)
4. Davies’ proposal of a “feedback loop” that reaches back in time is difficult to imagine, but not so much if we adopt the relational approach to physics. This says that the early universe isn’t some absolute thing that we’re “chipping away” billions of years later. Rather, the state of the early universe is defined strictly in relation to the modern super-observer, i.e., us. Only within this self-consistent universe–observer relation are the alternative histories culled. It’s not like we’re going back and changing things that objectively happened.

If you combine Stephen Hawking’s top-down cosmology, Paul Davies’ “chipped away universe,” and the fact that all of biology and technology is uniquely and locally connected, you get biocentricity. And with biocentricity comes the prediction that the universe is exclusive to us and is otherwise completely sterile. That’s certainly a bizarre, ridiculous, even absurd idea—but it would explain the “eerie silence” Davies wrote a book about. Best of all, this prediction can and will be tested, within your lifetime!


  1. the pantheistic approach may be attractive : factor X
    ( ? divine force ? ) imbues the cosmos, facilitating
    interconnectedness & self-avereness of the universe . . .
    meaning & purpose are superfluous notions, the
    meaning & purpose of existence is : existence . . .

  2. I used to be a follower of Paul Davies, and have read most of his books. I agree with him on a lot of things, but not on this. The correct answer to the question "what does quantum physics tell us?" is "we don't know yet, it's an unsolved mystery". Paul Davies says "Quantum physics says [...] that there’s an infinite number of histories." No it doesn't, that just one possible interpretation out of many, for which we have no evidence that sets it above any other interpretation.

  3. In what you write there's something that to me is ironic. It's wild conjecture, and not based on anything solid at all, but there's also this. You talk about trying to find answers from within our universe, rather than going outside it. Shouldn't that imply trying to find answers from within what we actually know about our universe? And using as few assumptions as possible - your view is full of wild assumptions, and it's based on things that we don't know.

    And Paul Davies' view is one that takes all the possibilities contained in the wave function to actually exist somehow. There are also a range of views that takes them to be possibilities, rather than histories. The idea that they're histories is guesswork, we simply don't know what they are.