Is the Universe an Illusion Generated by the Mind? Or is Biocentrism just Ego-centrism?
Some thoughts on biocentrism and a bonus National Science Foundation 10-item quiz
These are my first impressions of biocentric model of the universe having started The Grand Biocentric Design by Robert Lanza and Matej Pavšič.
A while back, I wrote a parody titled I Admit It, I Was Drunk When I Invented the Laws of Our Universe so greatly exasperated was I by Roger Penrose’s intimations of “proving” an external reality exists outside of conscious mentality by invoking mathematics.
According to Penrose, mathematics is not just a tool we use to describe the universe and impose order upon it. Rather, the accuracy of our equations as gauged by our measurements of anticipated-in-advance cosmic phenomena “proves” there’s some sort of external reality to be extricated from the epiphenomenal impressions generated by our brains.
Who is capable of disentangling conscious mentality from external reality—we, the biased observer? A non-human but equally biased intellect limited by form and function just as we are? There’s no getting around it, regardless of how much we’ve gained through empiricism: an observation cannot be decoupled from its observer.
We cannot separate reality from our collective and limited perceptions of it. In the absence of direct observation, even our inferences rely on measuring a proxy that we helped generate—and it’s possible we have generated everything from time and space to the forces that hold the universe together.
The authors of The Grand Biocentric Design assert that space and time are tools of the mind, something we carry around with us like a turtle shell. This is hardly mind-blowing; the sentiment that space and time are “subjective” and “originate from the mind’s nature” as a framework “for coordinating everything sensed externally” harks back to the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, if not earlier.
According to biocentrism, external reality, if it exists, does so as merely “an undetermined state of probability” until a conscious being comes along to experience it. Living things are not only intertwined with all of nature, but the universe as we know it—rather than as an uncollapsed wave function—is a product of living things.
“There’s no way to remove the observer-us-from our perceptions of the world… the past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities.”
The principles of biocentrism
What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness.
Our external and internal perceptions cannot be divorced from one another; the reality we experience is a construct emerging from “the whirl of neural-electric activity”. [Author’s note: And yet, we make this distinction all the time; most people can tell random endogenous neural firing apart from a percept with a sensory correlate.]
The behaviour of subatomic particles and therefore of macroscopic objects is inextricably linked to the presence of an observer. [Author’s note: Is there any proof that the subatomic “scales up” so to speak?]
Without consciousness, matter dwells in an undetermined state of probability.
The structure of the universe is explainable only through biocentrism because the universe is fine-tuned for life. [Author’s note: Fine-tuned by whom? It merely happens to support life and could in other configurations.]
Time is a tool of the mind; it is the process by which humans and animals perceive change in the universe. [Author’s note: Some cognitive scientists have argued that detecting change in the environment is so crucial for survival that it’s the primary purpose of perception.]
Space, like time, is another form of animal understanding; there is no self-existing matrix in which physical events occur independently of life.
I’m only up to Chapter 2, so I’ll have to wait to read the entire thesis, but I can already see how time is “a tool of the mind”. If you wake up in a sun lounger and note that the ice cubes in your mojito have melted, you can be sure time has passed. That’s entropy for you; heat dissipates and lets us discern past from the present. Or maybe it’s the sun being lower in the sky or your stomach grumbling more insistently than before that tips you off.
In all of these cases, the passage of time is “an emergent property” whose “existence depends on the observer’s ability to preserve information about experienced events”. Without memory, there is no past-present distinction and no anticipation of a future. Again, the idea that “the flow of time is a subjective feature of the Universe” is old hat.
I’m finding the seventh principle of biocentrism hard to grasp: does spooky action at a distance/entanglement where “pairs of entangled particles can effectively exchange information instantaneously” really suggest that space is merely a mental projection? Just because this information transference appears to be travelling faster than the speed of light?
And yet, space and time are inextricably linked, if I can accept that time is merely a means of navigating a grand illusion, why not space? Perhaps it’s because I have always thought that human beings are able to grapple with the abstraction of time by grounding it in the physical, by relating it to how we move through our environment, thus conceptualising the past as something behind us and the future as what lies ahead. Space simply doesn’t feel subjective the way that time—experienced as a gush or a treacly trickle—does. (I think I need some time and space to wrap my head around spacetime!)
Quibbles and concerns
The references to a “finely-tuned” universe capable of supporting carbon, sulphur, and perhaps even silicone-based lifeforms are frustrating. This specificity is not only greatly exaggerated but doesn’t at all prove that “the laws and conditions of the universe allow for the observer because the observer generates them”. The authors admit a universe capable of supporting life could also be attributed to “an astounding coincidence” but do so in a way that insinuates such a view is naive.
“Astounding” and “coincidence” are subjective appraisals of reality; if an observer’s biases can account for an entire universe, then surely these can account for the egocentrism of biocentrism. If you play the numbers “6 17 19 42 7 11” because the first four numbers correspond to your granny’s birthday and you win a modest prize—only in your eyes is it a coincidence. (And it’s only “astounding” if your understanding of probability is poor.)
Speaking of lotteries, biocentrism’s fifth principle of a finely-tuned universe is what’s known as the lottery fallacy. The lottery fallacy is the idea that the string of events (the nature of fundamental forces, Earth’s orbit etc.) preceding an outcome is proof of its improbability vis-à-vis other outcomes (which are all, when you think about it, as equally likely if not equally appreciable by highly-intelligent sentient life). Thus, the gambler thinks they are “guaranteed” a win purely on the basis that it would follow an unbroken string of losses at the slot machine.
The fact that we exist in a universe that supports life is not miraculous by any means—it’s sine qua non. The only universe where you could marvel at the fact of your being is necessarily a universe where such a thing is a) possible and b) has eventuated.
You, Dear Reader, are not here by design just because the probability of it was 1 in 10 to the power of 2,685,000 (just as it is for everyone who graces this mortal coil). And your existence is certainly not more improbable than sentient life in general, given how many permutations of it exist on Earth alone. (Oceanic planets are abundant—at least one of them is teeming with life.)
Unlike creationists, the authors do not claim that organic life is here by design, but nevertheless, they still invoke the lottery fallacy—the supposed improbability of what incontrovertibly “is”—to imbue the existence of animals and humans with undue significance in support of their biocentric model.
Consciousness, too, is put on a pedestal; romanticised as an “enigma” and a “mystery” and branded “exceedingly peculiar, both in fact and origin”. What is so very inexplicable about consciousness arising from matter if matter can be configured in the form of neural networks in animals and even in a forest of trees? I’m about as impressed with consciousness as I am with a calculator built with virtual Minecraft blocks.
Consider the sea squirt which absorbs its rudimentary “brain” as soon as it finds an attractive spot on the seafloor and transitions to a sessile stage of life. It’s a testament to the fact that without movement a brain is not necessary. The brain did not evolve for thought per se, much for less meta-cognition; the brain evolved to guide action, to help us navigate a physical space. From there, higher-order processes and consciousness emerged by repurposing that same neural circuitry to create ever more sophisticated simulations for interacting with our environment (and other animals wending their way through it) to ensure our survival.
And, psychosis excepted, the external world doesn’t feel internal—we use the efference copy of our motor commands to anticipate sensory consequences to be able to distinguish self-generated sensations (and mute them to guard our limited cognitive resources) from those with an external cause. Why would have we evolved to be able to travel through space and be cognisant of our self-agency and self-possession if the distinction between internal and external is just a quirk of the mind?
Granted, I haven’t heard all of the arguments yet so cannot have a considered opinion—the only sort of opinion worth having. Still, I’m excited to share my thoughts such as they are so early into the book, including my reservations.
In particular, I dislike that the authors often employ tactics better suited to a fairground psychic. They eulogise the open-minded by disparaging those who do not “believe the evidence in front of them” which supposedly supports biocentrism and liken them to flat-earthers* (and the classist bigots of Lanza’s childhood) in the hopes that you’ll “prove” yourself a better sort of person by being agreeable.
Such tawdry tricks don’t belong in even a pop-science book. Show us how your theory fits the observations it sets out to explain; discuss the perceived moral and intellectual deficiencies of your detractors later (if at all).
My other concern is that is the critics are right and that biocentrism amounts to nothing more than “philosophical interpretations of the experimental and observational results” and I won’t be able to tell because I, like Robert Lanza, am not a physicist.
If you tell me “the observer’s presence is intimately intertwined with the results [of the double-slit experiment]” who knows if I’ve understood that correctly; it’s just a soundbite, a headline, a pebble skimming the surface. I might be as easily mislead as the ignoramuses who hear “survival of the fittest” and assume it extols superiority by dint of physical strength.
The fact that one of the authors, Matej Pavšič, is a theoretical physicist does little to assuage my worries; physicists have long been noted to waddle into areas they know nothing about fuelled by hubris and the folly of assuming their expertise in one domain translates into expertise in every domain—including consciousness which they imagine is some sort of mystical phenomenon eluding study.
I’ve often thought that the dual blessing and burden of being the only (known) lifeform capable of contemplating life itself is a bit like being hooked up to the Total Perspective Vortex machine—only it seems to make people lose perspective and objectivity rather than gain it. There’s nothing special about consciousness even if it enables you to loom over yourself like Narcissus entranced by his reflection.
“It is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation—every Galaxy, every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition, and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.”
Ladies and gentlemen, the fifth principle of the fairy cake (could’ve sworn it was bread) model of the universe: the universe is fine-tuned for this baked good, proving the entire universe can be understood through its fluffy sweetness.
A few other niggles:
At times it’s unclear whether the authors are entertaining the possibility that no reality exists outside of conscious mentality at all. Then what are we, with all our perceptual biases and mental tools, interpreting exactly?
“Genetic engineering […] now feeds a global population once thought to be unsustainable.” Really? Outside of the fertiliser problem solved with the Haber-Bosch process, without GMOs to eat, the global population cannot be sustained? What a bold claim. Firstly, it’s abundantly clear that world hunger is a poverty issue, not a food scarcity one. Secondly, “yield gains are not dependent on GM biotechnologies” and “similar if not more impressive reductions [in pesticide use] have been achieved in countries not adopting GM crops”. Let’s not even mention potentially ecologically destructive transgene escape or the patent for “suicide seeds”.
The authors speak of the biocentrism paradigm shift as akin to a Copernican-scale revolution (punny!) yet fail to appreciate that the barrier faced then wasn’t “inertia” but religious doctrine—unstoppable force, meet immovable object. There’s nothing amiss with the initial resistance a theory experiences before it’s accepted by the scientific community—anyone keen to bypass this highly reasonable process sets alarm bells ringing.
Regarding the phenomenon of entanglement and the instant conveyance of information it permits: “Obviously, traversing a million light-years’ worth of space in zero time would not be possible if space had any sort of physical reality.” Zero time, ay? Can one really use the limitations of something moments ago dubbed “a tool of the mind” to make this point? (Much like “gender” can mean either sex or gender identity until the trans “rights” activist is explicitly questioned about their semantic shenanigans—this is the authors equivocating.)
The equations of life
All this aside, it will be interesting to mull over biocentrism and the observations and experiments that supposedly undergird it.
I’m also reading about the “Quantum Brain Hypothesis” and “the possibility that quantum events contribute to an extremely high complexity, variability and computational power of neuronal dynamics”.
Something else that serendipitously ties in with all of this is a book—though sort of antipodean to biocentrism—I’ve recently purchased titled The Equations of Life. If we are capable of comprehending the universe perhaps it’s simply because the natural laws have shaped our evolution as biological beings constrained by them?
National Science Foundation Quiz
This quiz is mentioned in The Grand Biocentric Design and piqued my interest. Test yourself then scroll to the answers at the end.
You can also read the accompanying report to see how you/your countrymen stack up. I was most amused, though not at all surprised, to read that “science knowledge is only weakly related to science attitudes”. That explains the evangelising “pro-science” lot who refuse to engage with science in favour of mass-media propaganda.
The centre of the Earth is very hot.
The continents have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move.
Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?
All radioactivity is man-made.
Electrons are smaller than atoms.
Lasers work by focusing sound waves.
The universe began with a huge explosion.
It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.***
Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.
Thanks for reading. Please consider buyingmeacoffee or becoming a paid subscriber to support my writing. Collapse that wave function in my favour. You might also like “A Quantum Physics Textbook Glossary Written By Someone Making Wild Guesses” and “5 Essential Books for Lovers of Nature and Philosophy”.
*If you ever encounter bona fide flat-earthers—it’s hard to believe they’re not pranksters or an internet myth—you could annoy them by denying their existence.
** 1) true; 2) true; 3) Earth around the Sun; 4) false; 5) true; 6) false; 7) true; 8) true; 9) false (placebo effect aside); 10) true.
***Maybe the next iteration can ask whether people believe in boys and girls.