Thursday, May 6, 2010

Biocentric Universe, Part 3: WikiWorld

Note: The article below, part 3 in a series on the biocentric universe theory, accompanies a short YouTube video on the same topic. For an introduction to the theory, please read part 1. Part 2 is called “It’s All Relative.”

“The giant telecommunications system of today finds itself inescapably evolving. Will we someday understand time and space and all the other features that distinguish physics — and existence itself — as the similarly self-generated organs of a self-synthesized information system?”
—John Archibald Wheeler (1989)

A core proposition of Robert Lanza’s biocentric universe theory is that objects do not exist in any definite form until they are biologically observed. This is the one aspect of the theory that people have the most difficulty with. In the comments for our video series, the most commonly voiced objection has been, “Things exist without being observed.” But when asked, “What evidence do you have to back up that statement?” the commenters don’t have an answer.

Logicians point out, of course, that this question is inherently unanswerable with any kind of certainty. There is no way to demonstrate something’s existence (or non-existence) except by observing it. Therefore, to claim that unobserved things are nonexistent is an unfalsifiable statement: It is equally impossible to argue logically against the claim as it is to argue for it. This idea, that an object’s existence depends on observation, is especially disagreeable to readers touchy about anything that smacks of spirituality or pseudoscience; after all, we could always explain that “God makes everything happen,” or “An invisible, mysterious form of energy makes everything happen.”* Neither claim is testable or falsifiable. But, is observation-dependent existence any less scientific or reason-based than observation-independent existence? One can just as effectively say that the latter is based on faith without evidence.

In Western philosophy, two separate areas of discourse are ontology, the study of being or existence, and epistemology, the study of knowledge. The realist philosophical position is that the confusion of existence and knowledge, or of objectivity and subjectivity, is a na├»ve mistake: It is an easy thing to ponder the proverbial tree in the forest falling without making a sound, but such a proposition makes wanton disregard of the tree’s (and sound’s) existence independent of our perception of the tree or any sound it might make. But, isn’t it a mistaken confusion only under the assumption that ontology and epistemology truly are separate and completely independent? What if they are actually closely related? How are we certain that they aren’t? These concepts were touched on by the idealist philosophers, such as George Berkeley and Immanuel Kant, who suggested that the world “out there” is really a function of our consciousness, not necessarily a collection of independent objects that exist externally and objectively, ready for us humans to discover.

The Peek-a-boo Principle

It’s interesting how defensive people can get about their conviction that “things exist without being observed.” Even though they can’t back it up with evidence, they just viscerally know that’s how the world is, and anyone who entertains other possibilities is patently wrong, period. Why? Where does this strong gut impulse come from?

Perhaps it has something to do with early childhood development. There’s an important point when a infant first understands what psychologists call object permanence: Playing “peek-a-boo” with Mommy, the child tends to show confusion when Mommy “goes away,” and when she comes back, the child is happily surprised. After experiencing this enough times, however, the child stops being confused or anxious when Mommy is out of view. He or she quickly learns, through experience, that Mommy hasn’t departed this plane of existence just because there are a pair of hands (or a wall) in the way. Mommy is still there, even when we aren’t observing her.

This understanding then becomes generalized beyond Mommy to other objects: When we put Teddy Bear in the toy chest and close the lid, or when Blankie goes into the washing machine, they aren’t disappearing. Their existence persists, despite our being unable to observe them.

All of this is understandable enough; the world would be a terribly confusing place if we couldn’t count on previously observed things continuing to exist, despite being out of view. But somehow, as we mature, this generalization becomes extended to every object in the world, across space and even across time. If things that we’ve observed exist even when we are no longer observing them, then there’s no reason to think they didn’t exist before we observed them — in fact, before anyone observed them. This principle should, of course, apply universally. Even if there’s a dense dust cloud several dozen light years from Earth that blocks the view of everything behind it, there’s every reason to believe that millions of light years farther out, there exist fully formed galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of fully formed stars. Some of them may harbor life, perhaps even intelligent life. All this despite the fact that human beings may never observe these galaxies and stars, ever. What reason do we have to imagine any alternative? After all, things exist without being observed! Don’t they?

Two Scenarios: BritannicaWorld vs. WikiWorld

What would the world be like if knowledge and existence were the same? Provided there was full internal consistency (with, for example, exactly zero violations of causality and continuity), such a world would be indistinguishable from one in which existence is independent from knowledge. Even the most realist skeptic would have to admit that; there’s simply no way to know for sure which of the two worlds we live in. But, let’s imagine both scenarios and try to envision how they would appear to work. To do this, let’s think of each world as being like an encyclopedia. An encyclopedia is a collection of facts, a repository of information, kind of like the world. When we observe an object in the world, whether it’s an electron or a distant galaxy, it’s a bit like looking at a page of the encyclopedia: We have questions, and the “encyclopedia” has answers that it provides to us. But in this analogy, the encyclopedias corresponding to the two scenarios are very different.

In the conventional view, the one that holds that things exist without being observed, the Universe is like a regular paper encyclopedia. Let’s call it BritannicaWorld. Even though we humans have observed only a tiny fraction of our own galaxy, to say nothing of the billions of other galaxies that must be out there, we conventionally assume that the Universe is, in fact, a complete thing. Those other galaxies, and their stars — indeed, every particle contained therein — exist in defined forms, whether we know about them or not. Similarly, the Encyclopedia Britannica is a complete, defined thing. We bring it home and put it on the bookshelf, and if we need to know something, we consult it — knowing that all of its information is there, waiting to be read. The availability of the encyclopedia’s information has nothing to do with whether we’ve ever looked at a particular page; when we bought it, we were told that all of its pages had been printed, so we can be sure that even pages we haven’t looked at have facts on them.

This would not be the case in an “encyclopedia” where existence is knowledge, however. In that scenario, the Universe would not be complete, meaning it wouldn’t largely consist of predefined, as-yet-unseen objects awaiting our discovery. Rather, the Universe would be an ongoing “project” in which observers — beings capable of gaining knowledge from their observations (however crude) — participate in its growth. This kind of world is more like Wikipedia than the Encyclopedia Britannica, so let’s call it WikiWorld. Like Wikipedia, WikiWorld is a constantly growing body of information that anyone can participate in. Where BritannicaWorld is complete, in WikiWorld new “pages” are constantly being generated, as objects are observed and things become collectively known about them.

So, how can we gauge whether the real world is more like WikiWorld or BritannicaWorld? By doing what science does best: looking at the experimental data and seeing which world scenario better fits. Let’s examine two familiar types of quantum experiments: basic variations on the double-slit experiment, which deal with wave/particle duality (discussed in part 1), and the more challenging Bell test experiments, which deal with the behavior of entangled particles.

Waves vs. Particles

For centuries, there was a controversy in science: whether light consisted of waves or particles. In 1801, the British scientist Thomas Young passed light rays through two narrow slits and noticed that they formed a pattern of interference fringes on a screen; the pattern disappeared when he covered one of the slits. This would only happen if each individual light ray consisted of a wave that moved through both slits; if light consisted exclusively of particles, each ray should pass through one or the other slit like a bullet, producing two spots on the screen, one for each slit.

A century later, Albert Einstein published his Nobel Prize-winning paper on the photoelectric effect, demonstrating the contrary: that light consists of particles. And sure enough, if you send an individual bit of light (one photon) toward the double-slit apparatus, and observe what happens on a phosphorescent screen or photographic plate on the other side, the photon will show up in just one place. It appears to have passed through the apparatus as a particle.

The interesting thing is, if you continue running this single-photon experiment so as to let the particles build up on the screen, you eventually get an interference pattern composed of the individual particles. This happens with bits of matter, such as electrons, as well. And to make matters even more puzzling, if you observe (either directly or indirectly) the individual slits for a photon or an electron coming through — in other words, you monitor which path each individual particle took — you don’t get the interference pattern. The particles act strictly like particles.

This is the nature of wave/particle duality: Both light and matter seem to exist in both forms, though never at the same time. Which form do you see when? Amazingly, it depends on what you look for. If you set up an experiment to find particles, your experiment confirms that light and matter consist of particles. But when you set up the experiment to find waves, your experiment confirms waves.

If we live in a “BritannicaWorld,” this confounds common sense: How can the answers we find depend on the way we are looking them up? It would be like finding different facts in a paper encyclopedia, depending on which magnifying lens we look through. Through the “looking for particles” lens, we see particles, but through the “waves” lens we see waves. Such experimental findings seem incompatible with a world that is complete and predefined, like a paper encyclopedia.

As a result, in order to make them compatible, one needs to find complex supervening explanations — such as the idea of a separate “classical world” of large-scale objects and a “quantum world” for the smallest microscopic objects, with different observed behaviors in each. (This is a bit like explaining that while entire letters on a paper encyclopedia’s pages appear to be fixed and unchanging, when you look at the speckles of ink closely enough, their shapes appear to change depending on what magnifying lens you’re using.) Or, you can simply throw up your hands and say, “Quantum mechanics is just counterintuitive — deal with it!”

These were the dominant approaches to QM in the 20th century. In order to square the experimental findings with the notion of an independently existing world, physicists looked toward decoherence theory, which says that a wave appears to become a particle when it interacts with massive, larger-scale objects, such as those found in the environment or in an experimental apparatus. Today, decoherence is the go-to topic for arguing that the properties of objects are independent of human observation. In this explanation, inanimate objects (such as the detector mechanism of a Geiger counter) can function equally well as “observers,” which may explain the observation-dependency seen in experiments. So, while decoherence may very well explain why tiny particles act unlike anything else in the world, recent, ongoing experiments in so-called scaled-up superposition are providing more and more evidence that even massive objects can take the form of a wave that comprises many definite, individual states at once. This empirically challenges the belief that only extremely tiny things like electrons can behave this way.

Could wave/particle duality be explained in a simpler, more elegant manner if we lived in a “WikiWorld”?

Recall that WikiWorld is a dynamic, constantly growing database. If we ask WikiWorld whether an electron is a wave or a particle, WikiWorld could provide us with a choice: It could ask us whether we’re looking for the electron’s wave nature, or its particle nature. When we choose the “particle” option, by setting up the experiment to find a particle, WikiWorld then generates a new “page,” right there on the fly, with the answer: The electron is indeed a particle. This generation of new information is something that a paper encyclopedia just can’t do. Sure, it could give us a couple of cross-references to two other pages, each with a different answer to our question — but in that case, the encyclopedia would have to pre-contain both answers. This is basically Hugh Everett’s famous many-worlds interpretation, familiar in popular parlance as the “parallel universes theory”: When an experimenter makes a choice, such as whether to find waves or particles, he then follows one of two “branches” in the history of the Universe. However, even though the explanation is plausible and many-worlds is now a thoroughly mainstream idea, some physicists and philosophers dislike the idea of the Universe endlessly “branching” in true ontological existence in this way.

In the end, if one insists that the Universe is complete and independent like BritannicaWorld, either it must consist of near-infinite branches of information (for example, one branch where a particular electron is described as a particle, and another where it’s a wave). Or, when we ask about tiny things like electrons and photons, answers must arrive in a bizarre manner unlike any other scientific inquiry process that we know. But in a Universe that’s ongoing and participatory, like WikiWorld, there are none of these difficulties: When we ask a question that nobody has ever asked before, WikiWorld simply generates a new “page,” with the answer on it. That answer then becomes a part of the “database” of the known world. The question could be about the properties of an electron, or of a galaxy — it doesn’t matter.

Entangled Particles

One of the two or three weirdest phenomena of quantum mechanics is the idea of entanglement: When a nuclear event occurs that generates two subatomic particles at once, those particles are forever intimately correlated, a bit like identical twins. This correlation appears to continue with disregard to time and space. In doing so, entanglement challenges our notions of causality and locality — the idea that physical causes and effects only happen through direct physical contact or via mediation by other particles. In other words, even though in our Universe a cause does not arbitrarily jump across empty space and create an effect somewhere else, this is precisely what would happen with entangled particles — at least according to the predictions of quantum mechanics. In the 1930s, Einstein and two other scientists employed this argument to demonstrate that quantum mechanics (which was then very new) couldn’t be a complete theory. Something else had to be going on.

Einstein and his associates argued that for the principle of locality to be violated — for the particles to appear to “communicate” across empty space at a speed much faster than the speed of light — would amount to a paradox, now known as the EPR paradox. (Einstein famously called the proposed phenomenon “spooky action at a distance.”) He belonged to a camp believing that particles must carry some kind of extra information, or “hidden variables,” with them that determined what would happen when they were measured. The physicist John Bell suggested that tests could be performed to deduce whether or not this is the case, and since then, a series of experiments, including one in which the measured particles were spatially separated by over seven miles, have determined each time that the quantum mechanics predictions are correct. “Spooky action at a distance” is real, and hidden-variable theory, at least as it has been proposed, is likely wrong.

Now, you might think that all of this conjecture is silly — that perhaps two entangled particles are simply produced with opposite, fixed properties (charge, momentum, etc.). In that case, there’s no mystery that measuring one particle determines the value of the other. It would be like knowing that a box contains a salt shaker and a pepper shaker: If you press a button and the box spits out a salt shaker, that would determine, with 100% certainty, that the remaining item is a pepper shaker. But there’s more to entanglement than that. A particle’s intrinsic spin, for example, can be measured along any axis in the three dimensions of space — the x-axis, y-axis, or z-axis. Measuring any of these reveals exactly one of two definite values, such as “up” or “down,” as if the particle had been actually spinning about three different axes at once. Even stranger, if we rotate our three-dimensional reference frame by 45 degrees in any direction, we still measure definite spin values of “up” or “down,” with a 50/50 probability, on every axis measured. And no matter what axis or axis orientation we measure against, its entangled twin will have a spin opposite the value of the particle that was measured. This situation would be like a box containing only two items, which somehow are: a pepper shaker and a salt shaker, and a mustard bottle and a ketchup bottle, and a bottle of red wine and a bottle of white. In this analogy, if there were three buttons on the box — “shakers,” “condiments,” and “wine” — and you pushed “condiments,” a bottle of mustard (or ketchup) would come out. And of course if you then looked in the box, you’d invariably find a bottle of ketchup (or mustard). Yet try the experiment with a similar box, this time pressing the “wine” button, and you’d get opposite bottles of wine. Quantum entanglement is that bizarre.

If you still doubt that entanglement weirdness is relevant to any counterintuitive notions of reality (as the biocentric universe theory proposes), consider this Bell test experiment that suggests “the uneasy consequence that reality does not exist when we are not observing it.” When one reads about new QM experiments and theories, such “non-Britannica” concepts pop up again and again. As another example, consider this radical theory that human observation of the Cosmos may be causing our Universe to careen toward its end. While such a view isn’t exactly mainstream, it’s ammunition against skeptics who refuse to consider that our Universe could be, in any way, a participatory Universe, and that observer-centered science isn’t science at all.

As in the case of particle-wave duality, entanglement is difficult or impossible to square with the BritannicaWorld model of a predefined, pre-existing Universe that awaits our discovery. But that’s not to say physicists haven’t tried: The hidden-variable theories are attempts at doing just that. These ideas declare that the correlation of entangled particles is a result of the particles somehow containing loads of predefined (if temporarily unavailable) information — much more than two subatomic particles should be expected to have. But every Bell test experiment performed so far has landed a blow against that BritannicaWorld view.

If we let go of the powerful desire for an observer-independent, “hard-wired” Universe, the difficulties of entanglement melt away. Recall that in WikiWorld, specific properties of individual objects do not exist in any definite state until they are measured or observed. If this is the case, then particles most certainly do not need to carry hidden variables. In WikiWorld there is no default “page” describing every observable property of every particle. Instead, WikiWorld waits until such a page is needed — at the time of measurement. Then, if we measure the spin of one particle about the x-axis, for example, a result is obtained by way of a “new page” being generated, automatically. Entangled particles are special, however: Being identical twins with always-opposite properties, two entangled particles in WikiWorld are described on one “page.” So, the newly generated page might tell us, “The x-axis spin of the measured particle is ‘up,’ and the x-axis spin of its non-measured twin is ‘down.’” From that moment onward, WikiWorld contains a description of this property of both particles. So, if another experimenter makes a simultaneous measurement on the twin particle, the results will be revealed to both experimenters at once.

By now you may be asking: All right, fine — but what and where are these metaphorical WikiWorld pages you speak of? Even though the idea of a “page” is of course an analogy, this remains something of a mystery. In a “hard-wired,” Britannica-type world, the concept of information is easy to understand: It is located in the objects themselves, each simply containing the information that describes it. This view is so appealing to intuition, it’s understandable why physicists have jumped through hoops for the better part of a century to make it work. But in theorizing under the assumption that ours must certainly be a BritannicaWorld, in some respects the entire world then becomes mysterious, with nagging difficulties such as the measurement problem causing controversy and rancor among scientists to this day. (One is inevitably reminded of the epicycles of Ptolemy’s planetary model: Nobody had any idea what these circles were or why planets moved along them. But they were necessary to explain the planetary motions, which seemed bizarre under the “obvious” assumption that the planets revolved around the Earth.)

Perhaps we should just consider the WikiWorld view: that the experiments actually do make intuitive sense. Even though we may not know where the world’s information is really stored, the idea that it’s “somewhere else” is not as far-out as it may seem. It’s been variously suggested that our world may be a digital simulation running on some super-intelligent alien’s supercomputer, or that all of the Universe’s information is contained as a kind of hologram which is unavailable to us, but which “unfolds” through our consciousness into the real world that we observe. The next installment of this series will offer a few ideas on this question.

The “Need-To-Know” Universe

Even though most people firmly believe that “things exist without being observed,” the alternative view is more in line with the experimental findings. I personally find it more satisfying, simpler, and — once I learned to let go of some deeply ingrained assumptions — even more intuitive. Still, it’s a difficult thing for most people to accept that if you point a powerful telescope at a spot of sky that’s never been looked at with such magnification, that you can “create” a galaxy that will forever afterward be seen in the same spot. How absurd is it to suggest that the galaxy’s photons have not been careening though space for billions of years, only to land on your retina at that precise moment! Human beings do not have that kind of power! The biocentric theory is incredibly arrogant!

To think that we can look at the sky and create something that physically exists billions of light years away, fully defined down to the subatomic particle, where nothing existed just seconds earlier ... well, yes, that’s a little arrogant. But I don’t see anything arrogant about the following proposition: While countless lineages of living and observing beings may arise, each lineage observes its own unique universe. We are one such lineage, and our Universe is one such universe. Never-before-observed objects are in superposition, similar to the “electron cloud” of probability surrounding an atom — the sum of all mathematically feasible configurations. However, living things seem to be incompatible with superposition; they can apparently perceive only a singular course of events, with definite observable values and outcomes. So, whenever we observe something that’s in a superposed state, we find an object that’s in a definite, “collapsed” state. In this way, the information about an object’s definite properties comes about strictly on a “need-to-know” basis. When we ask a question, the Universe supplies an answer that wasn’t there before, and that answer then becomes a part of the world for others to find.

As for that galaxy we so arrogantly “created”: Consider how much we learn about a galaxy when we look at it through a telescope for the first time. At worst, it’s a smudge; at best, a lovely spiraling picture. All of the details about its individual stars, planets, molecules, and atoms remain as unresolved through our telescope as the molecules were that made up the Earth’s first living organisms. Those organisms cannot be considered to have been made up of atoms and molecules at the time, because we atom-knowing humans were not around then (see part 2, “It’s All Relative”). Similarly, the galaxy is a barely resolved smudge, because it’s too far away and our observation tools are not powerful enough. In either case — indeed, in all cases — the details exist in defined form only when they are sought out, and subsequently known. Or so would be the case in WikiWorld.

Yes, it would be silly to think that in discovering a galaxy, we can instantaneously create 100 billion stars, each with planets with oceans consisting of countless vibrating water or methane molecules. But a smudge of light, ready to be further resolved next week by someone with an even stronger telescope? I can live with that.

* Curiously, few of these skeptics seem to be bothered by the mainstream-physics proposition of “dark energy,” which is, quite literally, an invisible, mysterious form of energy that makes the expansion of the Universe accelerate, or by the idea of extra dimensions, which by their very nature are not findable by creatures who dwell in three large dimensions of space and one of time.


  1. I find this all fascinating. I've been exploring the site and arrived here for more details.

    I have a question: if the act of observing a distant galaxy for the first time results in that galaxy resolving to a level of detail matching the observation, does this happen at the moment the data is received, even without human involvement, such as a digital photo or x-ray signal? Or does the new detail (the galaxy) only resolve when a human sees the new data?

  2. 3dbloke, sorry for the delay. Your question is a good one and I wrestled with it for a while about a year ago. I think the most likely answer is that taking a digital photo, or recording an x-ray survey, is for all purposes similar to making an optical observation through a telescope. The technology is built by humans and is included in our causal history, so our observation-aiding technology is essentially part of the same biological superorganism that has been observing the universe for eons.

    A difficulty with Robert Lanza's own version of his theory is that he limits observation to humans and human consciousness only. That doesn't work for me, at all. It ignores 99.99% of life on Earth -- life forms that are very good at making observations (better than humans in many cases) -- and ignores technological observations altogether. If consciousness is the true agent here, one needs to explain or define the state of a digital photo that has been taken, but not observed by a human. Presumably it would be in superposition, but physically speaking I don't see how that could be possible.