Sunday, May 3, 2009

Biocentrism: The Nature of The "Real" World? Life Creates The Universe...

The farther we peer into space, the more we realize that the nature of the universe cannot be understood fully by inspecting spiral galaxies or watching distant supernovas. It lies deeper. It involves our very selves.

This insight snapped into focus one day while one of us (Lanza) was walking through the woods. Looking up, he saw a huge golden orb web spider tethered to the overhead boughs. There the creature sat on a single thread, reaching out across its web to detect the vibrations of a trapped insect struggling to escape. The spider surveyed its universe, but everything beyond that gossamer pinwheel was incomprehensible. The human observer seemed as far-off to the spider as telescopic objects seem to us. Yet there was something kindred: We humans, too, lie at the heart of a great web of space and time whose threads are connected according to laws that dwell in our minds.

Is the web possible without the spider?

Are space and time physical objects that would continue to exist even if living creatures were removed from the scene?

Figuring out the nature of the real world has obsessed scientists and philosophers for millennia. Three hundred years ago, the Irish empiricist George Berkeley contributed a particularly prescient observation: The only thing we can perceive are our perceptions. In other words, consciousness is the matrix upon which the cosmos is apprehended. Color, sound, temperature, and the like exist only as perceptions in our head, not as absolute essences. In the broadest sense, we cannot be sure of an outside universe at all.

For centuries, scientists regarded Berkeley’s argument as a philosophical sideshow and continued to build physical models based on the assumption of a separate universe “out there” into which we have each individually arrived. These models presume the existence of one essential reality that prevails with us or without us. Yet since the 1920s, quantum physics experiments have routinely shown the opposite: Results do depend on whether anyone is observing. This is perhaps most vividly illustrated by the famous two-slit experiment. When someone watches a subatomic particle or a bit of light pass through the slits, the particle behaves like a bullet, passing through one hole or the other. But if no one observes the particle, it exhibits the behavior of a wave that can inhabit all possibilities—including somehow passing through both holes at the same time.

Some of the greatest physicists have described these results as so confounding they are impossible to comprehend fully, beyond the reach of metaphor, visualization, and language itself. But there is another interpretation that makes them sensible. Instead of assuming a reality that predates life and even creates it, we propose a biocentric picture of reality. From this point of view, life—particularly consciousness—creates the universe, and the universe could not exist without us.

Even the most fundamental elements of physical reality, space and time, strongly support a biocentric basis for the cosmos.

According to biocentrism, time does not exist independently of the life that notices it. The reality of time has long been questioned by an odd alliance of philosophers and physicists. The former argue that the past exists only as ideas in the mind, which themselves are neuro-electrical events occurring strictly in the present moment. Physicists, for their part, note that all of their working models, from Isaac Newton’s laws through quantum mechanics, do not actually describe the nature of time. The real point is that no actual entity of time is needed, nor does it play a role in any of their equations. When they speak of time, they inevitably describe it in terms of change. But change is not the same thing as time.

To measure anything’s position precisely, at any given instant, is to lock in on one static frame of its motion, as in the frame of a film. Conversely, as soon as you observe a movement, you cannot isolate a frame, because motion is the summation of many frames. Sharpness in one parameter induces blurriness in the other. Imagine that you are watching a film of an archery tournament. An archer shoots and the arrow flies. The camera follows the arrow’s trajectory from the archer’s bow toward the target. Suddenly the projector stops on a single frame of a stilled arrow. You stare at the image of an arrow in midflight. The pause in the film enables you to know the position of the arrow with great accuracy, but you have lost all information about its momentum. In that frame it is going nowhere; its path and velocity are no longer known. Such fuzziness brings us back to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which describes how measuring the location of a subatomic particle inherently blurs its momentum and vice versa.

All of this makes perfect sense from a biocentric perspective. Everything we perceive is actively and repeatedly being reconstructed inside our heads in an organized whirl of information. Time in this sense can be defined as the summation of spatial states occurring inside the mind. So what is real? If the next mental image is different from the last, then it is different, period. We can award that change with the word time, but that does not mean there is an actual invisible matrix in which changes occur. That is just our own way of making sense of things. We watch our loved ones age and die and assume that an external entity called time is responsible for the crime.

There is a peculiar intangibility to space, as well. We cannot pick it up and bring it to the laboratory. Like time, space is neither physical nor fundamentally real in our view. Rather, it is a mode of interpretation and understanding. It is part of an animal’s mental software that molds sensations into multidimensional objects.

Most of us still think like Newton, regarding space as sort of a vast container that has no walls. But our notion of space is false. Shall we count the ways?

1. Distances between objects mutate depending on conditions like gravity and velocity, as described by Einstein’s relativity, so that there is no absolute distance between anything and anything else.

2. Empty space, as described by quantum mechanics, is in fact not empty but full of potential particles and fields.

3. Quantum theory even casts doubt on the notion that distant objects are truly separated, since entangled particles can act in unison even if separated by the width of a galaxy.

Biocentrism should unlock the cages in which Western science has unwittingly confined itself. Allowing the observer into the equation should open new approaches to understanding cognition, from unraveling the nature of consciousness to developing thinking machines that experience the world the same way we do.

Biocentrism should also provide stronger bases for solving problems associated with quantum physics and the Big Bang. Accepting space and time as forms of animal sense perception (that is, as biological), rather than as external physical objects, offers a new way of understanding everything from the microworld (for instance, the reason for strange results in the two-slit experiment) to the forces, constants, and laws that shape the universe. At a minimum, it should help halt such dead-end efforts as string theory.

Above all, biocentrism offers a more promising way to bring together all of physics, as scientists have been trying to do since Einstein’s unsuccessful unified field theories of eight decades ago. Until we recognize the essential role of biology, our attempts to truly unify the universe will remain a train to nowhere.

-Robert Lanza and Bob Berman (Excerpt: "The Biocentric Universe Theory: Life Creates Time, Space, and the Cosmos Itself," Discover Magazine, 5.01.2009. Image: -Albert Bierstadt, "Figure Study for the Last Buffalo," 1888).


ctm said...

This seems like a self-defeating argument to me: if life creates the universe then life could not have evolved in the first place. The cosmos have existed for much, much longer than life has. So much had to happen, so many billions of years had to pass, in order for our solar system to form -- let alone for our planet to become to conducive for life. And after all that something had to happen to kick off the whole chain of replication, mutation and selection that has led to humans and so many other lifeforms.

It is an interesting question, I agree, to consider what meaning time has if there are no observers. But it is important to remember that all physical processes -- from orbits to consciousness -- can only be described in temporal terms. Just because no one's there to observe or think about an event doesn't mean the event is non-existent.

Does a tree falling in a forest make a sound if no one's there to hear it? Of course it does.

Matt Osborne said...

It's turtles all the way down.

Articles like this remind me of the Scientific American cover a few years ago proposing that the universe may actually be a hologram. I've done my best to keep up with arguments like this, using my limited capacities; but when I read that our cognition creates our universe, I have to wonder whether the universe is responsible for our cognition? It's a disturbing thought, and one that some humans prefer not to have.

It's no wonder so many go with the turtles.

Anonymous said...

To ctm: It IS a self defeating argument if you remain thinking about it from a perspective that time and space have an independent existence. That may sound kind of obvious, but you have to actually consider it, you have to suspend your beliefs for a moment and actually see life from a biocentric perspective. It is true, the cosmos have existed for longer than us, but that IS the mind. Not the individual human mind, it would be more accurate to say that it is consciousness. Consciousness did not grow out of form, how could it?
If you confuse consciousness with perception then you wont get this. Consciousness is what knows you are perceiving. Like right now, you know you are reading these words. If you had no senses at all, then only consciousness would remain, not perceiving anything but itself. It is what you are in deep sleep, but most people don't remember because our minds are so fixated on physical things it doesn't usually register. Although there are ways you can teach it to. I don't know if this helps trying to understand this, it is a hard thing to put into words.