Monday, August 23, 2010

Biocentric Universe, Part 4:
Where Are The Aliens?

Note: The article below, part 4 in a series on the biocentric universe theory, accompanies a short YouTube video on the same topic. For an overview of the theory, please read the FAQ.

“Directly opposite to the concept of universe as machine built on law is the vision of a world self-synthesized. In this view, the notes struck out on a piano by the observer-participants of all places and times constitute the great wide world of space and time and things.”
—John Archibald Wheeler (1989)

One of the most profound questions for modern humans is whether or not we’re alone in the universe. Over the centuries, thinkers such as Copernicus, Galileo, Ernst Mach, and Albert Einstein discovered that we Earthlings hold no special or preferred place in the Cosmos, and that has led to a general realization that we’re an incredibly tiny, insignificant part of the greater whole. This was especially true in the 20th century, when astronomers first realized that the universe doesn’t stop at the edge of the Milky Way: Our galaxy is only one of billions, and there isn’t even anything special or interesting about our galaxy.

As a minor comfort, we’ve posited that since the universe is so vast and the numbers so large, at least there must be other intelligent life forms somewhere, even if they’re extremely far away. This has allowed our imaginations to run wild, as we try to envision what aliens might be like. Would they resemble humans, like on Star Trek? Would they have a head and extremities? Would they even be carbon-based, like us? Some visionaries imagine forms of “life” (here using the term loosely) that might not even consist of individual organisms, or might be made of something other than solid matter.

But all of this is, of course, wild speculation. Contrary to what we’ve seen in sci-fi films, the mainstream scientific opinion is that no Earthling has ever met an alien being. There are fringe theories about alien visits in early human history or prehistory (e.g., they helped build the Egyptian pyramids or interacted with the Mayan civilization), or that they live among us today. (David Icke believes that many persons of prominence, from George W. Bush to Kris Kristofferson, are actually shape-shifting reptilian aliens.) Still others deeply believe they had a personal encounter with aliens at some point, usually while they were sleeping. These stories are remarkably widespread, compelling, and similar, but they are more realistically seen as episodes of sleep paralysis. In the Middle Ages, it was common for people to be visited by demons in the night who would sit on their chests and torment them; these days, small extraterrestrial humanoids seem to be the predominant scary “others” in our collective unconscious, so it’s no surprise they’re the new demons of the night. As skeptics point out, there is little reason to believe that personal alien encounters have been happening only for a few decades and apparently not at any other time in recorded history. Carl Sagan famously said that “extraordinary claims call for extraordinary evidence,” and by Occam’s Razor it is far easier to explain alien abductions and other visits as subjective phenomena due to sleep paralysis, mass hysteria, etc., than to posit the assumptions and conditions necessarily associated with actual, objective alien visits.

Fermi & Drake

The physicist Enrico Fermi was the first prominent scientist to ask why we haven’t found objective, definitive evidence of alien intelligence in deep space. By the time UFO sightings had become stories in the news, many astronomers believed that life, being something that flourishes readily on Earth — by all accounts a fairly ordinary planet — must have arisen on other fairly ordinary planets as well. Fermi took this reasoning further: All signs point to the universe being around some ten billion years before the Earth formed. Heavier elements such as carbon, the necessary building blocks of life, had first been forged inside heavy, short-lived stars since the universe’s first billion years. If life’s building blocks had been around for billions of years before Earth, and if it’s a fairly ordinary thing for living organisms to emerge spontaneously from these building blocks, then the universe must be teeming with life. Not only that, it’s been teeming with life for so long, some of that life must have evolved to achieve consciousness and technology similar to ours. There could be thousands or millions of civilizations many millennia more advanced than ours, the aliens perhaps able to traverse galaxies, build massive infrastructures, and communicate across unimaginable expanses of space.

So, if that’s true, Fermi famously asked, where is everyone?

In 1961, the astronomer Frank Drake decided to try estimating how many of these civilizations might potentially be discovered in the Milky Way, from Earth. First he considered the formation rate of new stars in the galaxy (estimated at roughly 10 per year). Then he considered the proportion of stars with planets orbiting them (estimated at 0.5). Next was an even more speculative factor, the average number of life-friendly planets in solar systems that have planets (Drake chose 2). Of those life-friendly planets, Drake considered the fraction that actually do develop life; he estimated this to be all of them, at least at some point in their history, for a value of 1. Not all life necessarily evolves into intelligent life, though, so Drake added another term reducing the total by a factor of 0.01 (i.e., 1% of planets with life develop intelligent life). Of those planets with intelligent life, on how many would the aliens be able to eventually communicate in a way that might be detectable from Earth? Drake estimated another 1%, or 0.01. Finally, he included yet another speculative factor expressing how long such communicating civilizations would last, choosing the number 10,000 years. This collection of estimates constituted the famous Drake equation, the idea being that if you multiply all of the terms, you will get an extremely ballpark estimate of how many advanced Milky Way civilizations could be detectable from Earth, right now. Drake’s estimate from the above numbers: 10.

Almost immediately, Drake’s thinking began being debated and revised. One can reformulate the Drake equation any number of ways. If you want to be optimistic about finding intelligent life around other stars, you can pump up the speculative numbers and get a much higher total; if you believe that Earth-type life is rare, you can shrink the numbers as well as add additional restrictive terms. For example, one factor that enhances Earth’s life-friendliness is the presence of a much larger planet, Jupiter, which tends to slingshot large, extinction-capable asteroids away from Earth and out of the solar system. Many also believe that an unusually large and tidally locked moon (one side of our moon always faces toward us), by slowing the planet’s rotation, is necessary for a long-evolving lineage of life. A circulating liquid core, and the tectonic activity that results on the planet’s surface, is also thought necessary for the dynamic evolution of diverse life forms. In other words, so many of the equation’s terms are speculative and controversial — or based on Earthly numbers and therefore subject to anthropic bias (the Earth wasn’t randomly chosen as an average planet, since we actually live here) — no definitive conclusions can be drawn from it. Still, the Drake equation is an interesting exercise and has long been an inspiration for SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

The “Great Silence” & the Fermi Paradox

SETI scientists are certainly listening, and have been for years. But what do they hear? Nothing — something astronomers call the “Great Silence.” It’s absolutely true that the researchers have barely scratched the surface, having pointed their radio telescopes to only a tiny fraction of the Milky Way stars, and always for short durations limited by their funding. It’s also true that even the most advanced civilizations might have no use for the radio bands of the electromagnetic spectrum, which SETI tends to tune into. (Consider that our own civilization’s radio-frequency output peaked in the 1980s; we’ve since switched over much of our communication to purely terrestrial cable and fiber optics.) Regardless, in the manner of Fermi, many physicists believe that we should still hear or see something out there. Forget the Milky Way — there are so many galaxies, each with so many stars, and the universe’s history is so long, there really should be some remnant of an alien civilization leaking its way to Earth. In honor of the physicist who started it all, a name has been given to represent the discord between the Great Silence and the huge numbers involved: the Fermi paradox. Why do we seem to be alone, an idea that many people find absurd or even impossible?

There’s no shortage of suggested answers to this question. While a minority (largely biologists) believe that life is such a rarity that we may in fact be alone, probably the most common position is simply: Alien civilizations exist, but they are just too far away. Others believe that not only do they exist, but they have visited Earth. Still others believe that they exist but hold to a doctrine of non-intervention with younger civilizations, perhaps having constructed Dyson spheres to hide themselves from outside view. This last solution is particularly unsupportable; the invocation of mysterious, highly speculative factors that are in principle unknowable, and which lack even indirect evidence, should be a red flag for any critical thinker. Might there be an answer to this question that can be tested experimentally, and that doesn’t require aliens to conspire against their discovery by looky-loos with Very Large radio telescopes?

The Biocentric Alternative

Biocentricity takes a definitive position on the matter: We are in fact alone, because unrelated alien lineages could not possibly exist in our universe. That is the prediction of the theory. It states that the structure of the universe is contingent upon the observational acts of living organisms — observers that are not born out of a pre-existing universe of defined matter, but which instead actively produce the universe through their observations. Collectively performing this task are all of Earth’s living beings. Together, they form a kind of “common observer,” which observes/produces the visible universe. What is meant by “common observer”? I mean there is a certain operational unity or oneness among all of the life forms on Earth. Despite there being a multitude of individuals, all doing their own thing, some practical commonality ties us all together, such that we collectively constitute a singular observing entity, in some manner of speaking.

How might this work? Well, consider a living organism, made of cells. During its life, new cells are produced, live for a while, and then die. This is what it means to be an organism: Every organism is made of smaller living units of biological activity, which have diverse roles in helping the organism to function, and also which have finite, overlapping lifetimes within the longer lifetime of the organism itself. But the term “organism” can be broadened out to describe living things other than individuals of a species. A perfect example is a colony of bees. The entire colony can be thought of as a single organism, with most or all of the functions of an individual of the species, including reproduction (a growing colony eventually divides in two, producing two similar colonies) and even temperature regulation (some bees are tasked with beating their wings to fan fresh air through the hive). In this case, the individual bees are like “cells” of this “organism”: Though genetically similar, they have different physical structures — a queen is different from a worker — and different roles to play within the hive. A colony may have a lifetime of several years, during which new “cells” are produced, live for a while, and die. Yet the colony, as a kind of meta-organism, lives on.

It doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to extend this definition of “organism” to its limit. All things that have ever lived on Earth can be considered to make up the ultimate organism — a true superorganism of Earthly life. Each species is a bit like an “organ” of this superorganism, and again, individuals of a species are like cells: We are born, live for a while, and then die. As a nonreligious person I personally find this a comforting way to think of my place in the world. Rather than being an isolated individual with a finite life span, after which it is “all over,” I am a part of the bigger living picture. I will die eventually, but the superorganism of which I am a part — the entire biosphere of the Earth — will live on after me. But that’s not just a pleasant way to look at things. According to biocentricity, it is precisely this superorganism — the singular, unified “common observer” — that experiences and builds the universe. In this theory, the superorganism is really the only way to look at the living world as a whole.

E Pluribus Unum

This is one place where biocentricity seems to lose people, but it’s the last piece we need to put the whole puzzle together. One of the theory’s main common-sense objections is that it is “too complicated” — that the simplest explanation for the world “out there” is that there really is one material, physical world “out there.” Of course, this makes intuitive sense: For a thousand years, science has done well assuming that such a description of the world is true. And it very well might be — but as we’ve seen in previous installments, the absolute worldview of an external, pre-existing universe of defined matter is fundamentally inconsistent with an increasing number of experiments. So we consider alternatives, one possibility being a biocentric universe that is subjectively experienced by a single collective entity — the “common observer,” of which you and I are tiny parts.

But this brings up an obvious question: Why is it that we members of the “common observer” all agree upon the universe that we see? Why do we all experience the same course of events? When you throw a ball to your dog, how could the dog possibly see the same ball and catch it, if the ball (like other objects in the world) is not an external thing independent of our subjective experience? Those who know a little basic philosophy may dismiss the biocentric universe theory as an unoriginal rehash of solipsism. After all, there is a universally agreed-upon course of events that exists independently of any one individual. So if this course of events is not a function of an absolute world of independently existing objects, but is instead a subjective experience (more like an extremely lucid dream), how can we possibly all agree on a single course of events?

The answer is disarmingly simple and clear: Because the observed universe is internally consistent. Period — that’s all it takes. Unlike in a dream, all “real” events in the universe, as far as we know, obey the same rules of spatio-temporal logic. You may dream about an apple falling up, but in the real world this never happens. Things in the real world follow the set of physical laws that we’ve discovered; internal consistency rules our universe. No experiment has ever demonstrated otherwise. “Real” objects do not arbitrarily appear and disappear, and do not instantaneously jump across space. If a person witnesses such an event, it is a phenomenon unique to that individual — a hallucination of some kind — which would not hold up to empirical tests.

Now let’s consider the superorganism of all things that have ever lived on Earth, and imagine how it might be a “common observer” of the universe. This ultimate superorganism is no arbitrary lumping together of unrelated objects. All organisms are related — literally. We’re related genetically; if you go back enough generations, you will find that you and your best friend are, in fact, blood relatives. But we’re also related physically. When you were conceived nine months before your birth, your parents physically interacted with each other. (I hope they did, anyway.) And while you were in utero, and during your birth, you had a physical interaction with your mother. The same can be said for your parents: Your father, for example, had a physical interaction with your paternal grandmother, who had a physical interaction with your paternal grandfather. This is something that every living organism has in common; we’ve all had direct physical interactions with at least one parent. And I mean every living organism — even a mushroom grows from a spore that was physically produced and released into the air by a parent mushroom. We can therefore trace a continuous chain of physical interactions between any two organisms that have ever lived on Earth — you and your dog, your dog and a flea, even a modern hummingbird and a prehistoric flower. In this way, the entire history of life on Earth is linked through these direct interactions, all the way back to our earliest common ancestor. If we drew a map of these interactions, of course, it would look like a tree — identical to the genetic “tree of life.” You can think of this tree as a graphical representation of the “common observer” from the first living organism all the way up to today.

If we accept the idea that the universe is 100% internally consistent, and we accept that every living thing on Earth is connected by a chain of real physical interactions, then the universe must demonstrate 100% consistency between any two of those organisms. There can be no disagreements about the course of events, or the physical laws, observed. You can throw a ball to your dog because you and your dog agree upon this course of events. And if your dog buries a bone, that bone will still be there ten years later — even though every atom in the dog’s body has been replaced several times over in the meantime — because the universal course of events is perfectly consistent. Even if a tyrannosaurus placed a bone inside a cave 70 million years ago, that bone must necessarily still be there when a paleontologist discovers the cave today (assuming in both cases that the bone remained undisturbed).

To sum up: We have (1) a universe with a perfectly consistent course of events, and we have (2) one inter-related superorganism that witnesses these events as being perfectly consistent. This is how all of the living (and formerly living) organisms on Earth, together, constitute the “common observer” of the course of events in the universe.

Beyond the “Common Observer”

Let’s return to our discussion of aliens. Some theorists question the assumption that life originated on Earth and may have also started independently at other locations. According to the panspermia hypothesis, our familiar form of life may be extremely common in the universe, Earth having been “seeded” with life early in its history. A related idea is exogenesis, the proposition that life originated elsewhere (Mars, for example), and was brought here, perhaps by an asteroid. There is no direct evidence for panspermia or exogenesis, but the first living organisms do show up remarkably early in Earth’s geologic fossil record, and meteorites have been found on Earth that appear to have ultimately come from Mars, at least one of which has features that are believed to be microbial fossils. So there is at least some reason to believe life did not originate on Earth.

But when we speak of aliens living in other solar systems or even galaxies, we have to be a bit more sober. Barring a true panspermic situation where the lineage dates back somehow to the early universe and has been distributed across billions of light years (which would be an extraordinary situation indeed), it is highly unlikely that our lineage of life has extended to other stars and especially galaxies due to chance alone. So, let us consider completely unrelated alien lineages — beings whose origins share not so much as a single causal link with ourselves — whether they are here in our solar system, or well beyond.

If the universe is indeed biocentric and built by a “common observer,” such unrelated alien lineages, with no prior causal contact with our lineage, simply could not exist in our observer-built universe. In other words, if the theory is correct, we are most definitely alone — not because the emergence of life is rare, but because things simply could not be any other way. Biocentric means the universe is observed/produced by living organisms, and so an independent lineage of life would constitute a different common observer, and therefore would necessarily observe, produce, and dwell in a universe entirely separate from ours. We would never cross paths; they would neither be able to intercept information emanating from us via any medium (such as radio transmissions), nor would we be able to intercept theirs. Keep in mind that these statements apply only in the case that the universe is biocentric. If biocentricity describes the ontological nature of universes such as ours, then when we look out into space, it should appear to be completely devoid of other forms of life. And in fact, that is exactly what we see — the “Great Silence.”

Please don’t misunderstand; I am not saying that the absence of evidence (e.g., artificial signals from deep space) is evidence of absence. Of course, we can prove absolutely nothing from a lack of evidence for anything. However, the principle of the exclusive “common observer” does open the door to falsifying the biocentric universe theory — and falsifiability is a requirement of any scientific theory. If, at any time in the future, an entirely independent lineage of life is discovered anywhere in the universe — even right here on Earth — then the theory that you are reading about right now is dead in the water. A universe that is biocentric cannot have two causally unrelated lineages of life living in it, period. So, while SETI research can only supply a definitive yes-or-no on this theory in the case of contact with alien life, the Fermi paradox of the “Great Silence” nonetheless suggests that something interesting may be going on. And therefore biocentricity becomes increasingly compelling as we search larger and larger portions of the Cosmos, without finding anything.

Testing the “Common Observer” Principle

There are, however, ways that we can positively test the biocentric universe theory, and one of those would exploit the nature of the “common observer.” Since the theory proposes that every living organism is constrained to observe the same course of events in the universe, consistent with other organisms’ prior observations, let’s put that to the test. But the experiment has to be more sophisticated than merely throwing a ball to a dog. (That test has been done quite often, with results of limited usefulness, specifically that Doggie is such a good boy.) It needs to be done in the quantum world, where deviations from traditionally understood classical behavior emerge.

A field of research that’s very hot right now involves the study of “retrocausal” phenomena. The simplest of these experiments, a favorite topic of biocentric universe theorist Robert Lanza, is the delayed-choice experiment. This is a variation of the double-slit experiment in which particles are fired toward both slits, and then after the particles are known to have passed the slits, the particle paths are either inspected or left alone, by choice. As the great physicist and forefather of biocentricity John Wheeler correctly predicted when he conceived the experiment, when the paths are inspected, the electrons should be seen to have gone through only one slit or the other, as particles. However, when such an inspection is not made, the electrons should form interference patterns, signifying that they went through both slits, as waves. In fact, this is what happens when the experiment is performed. So the choice, by an observing person,* of whether or not to inspect the particle paths seems to have an effect on what those particles did earlier in time.

More sophisticated, recent experiments such as this one show more dramatic retrocausal quantum phenomena. Researchers set up a three-step experiment: In step one, a laser beam with particular known properties is prepared. In step two, it is reflected by a mirror that is able to move by a tiny amount, deflecting the beam’s path slightly. (It is this deflection that the experiment seeks to measure.) In step three, the beam undergoes a “post-selection” routine that involves choices made by the experimenter. It turns out that depending on these choices made in step three, the measurement of the beam deflection can be greatly amplified, to the point that the choices actually affect the values of the measurements previously performed.

These experiments — where a human choice seems to change the result of an event earlier in time — provide a way to test the “common observer” principle, and biocentricity by extension. All we need to do is divide the experiment so that the choices made by human experimenters can also be made (in some respect) by animals, even single-celled organisms. The “common observer” principle predicts that other living organisms will be capable of constraining the resulting retrocausal phenomena, as seen by humans. In cases where the free-will actions of a living organism intercede in an experiment, subsequent choices by a human experimenter should not result in any retrocausal phenomena whatsoever. This is because in an observation-dependent, WikiWorld-style universe, any individual member of the “common observer” can seek information about an unknown property, resulting in a real, measured value of that property that did not exist ontologically before — and since the universe is 100% consistent, future observations of the same property by other observers can only reveal the same previously measured value. But if the universe is such that observers are merely passive discoverers, free-will actions by lower animals may have no effect in retrocausal experiments, or their actions may have results that don’t necessarily constrain the retrocausal effects of the human choices. (It can be argued that retrocausal phenomena are incompatible with this absolute “BritannicaWorld” model in the first place, however.)

The Fractal Nature of Life

I enjoy watching plants grow. Each plant seems to be a microcosm of the history of life on Earth: It begins from utter simplicity, perhaps as a poppy seed smaller than the head of a pin; it then sprouts, and its first set of leaves appear, then another, then another. Over time, the plant takes up increasing amounts of space and gathers light, seeking and accumulating more and more information about its surroundings. A leaf may be eaten by an unexpected insect overnight, the way that an asteroid might cause a mass extinction on Earth. But the plant bounces back, even stronger than before. Eventually, the plant looks surprisingly similar to a chart of the “tree of life” on paper — and it isn’t done growing yet.

Is it a coincidence that a single lowly plant grows and develops in mirror fashion to the entirety of all life on Earth? And that in a parallel manner, life’s organism/cell hierarchy repeats itself, like a fractal pattern, from the largest organizational levels down to the smallest — even within cells, with their variously coordinated mitochondria, ribosomes, and Golgi apparati? An enthusiast of the biocentric universe theory would suspect that this is no coincidence.

* These results are very often misunderstood as being more mystical or “consciousness-based” than they really are. The fact that the particles’ behavior changes is not due to the fact that they are being consciously watched, or that the particles somehow “know” that they are being observed by a human. The behavior is merely a result of the physical setup of the experiment at that moment: Depending on the choice that the human experimenter makes, the particles either will or will not have certain physical interactions with the experimental apparatus. This is a subtle but important point. The fact that an effect can seem to precede a cause in time, however — that is what’s most interesting from a scientific standpoint, and from the standpoint of this theory.


  1. But you are taking the metaphor that "life creates the universe" too far. Life created a more definite form of the universe from a fuzzier form. Actually, it's the universe re-creating itself. I say this, because it's important: life's re-creation of a "sharper" universe doesn't affect distant stars more than in setting cosmic variables. This means, no lack of consistency is implied for, at least, the existence of simpler life forms in other planets. In short. life creates the universe, yes, but it does more so in setting it's own complexity than that of planets far away, of which it says little of "specific", which means leaves open a big window of uncertainty regarding those distant worlds. Of course, this adds to, and somehow corrects, your argument more than denying it. Furthermore, restraints imposed on the universe by life on earth, intended as requisites of "fixedness" to more "uncertain" stages of the universe, increase as the supposed complexity of the alien life (which we are talking about) increases, as the likelyhood of it interpreting the world in a different way (which would be impossible) increases as it "requires" less and less fuzzyness from our common reality.

    1. On the last sentence "life on earth" should be replaced by "alien life". It should read "Furthermore, restraints imposed on the universe by alien life...".