Nov 26 2013
Yesterday I discussed the proposal by Robert Lanza he calls biocentrism – that consciousness creates the universe. While he is trying to portray himself as “one of the leading scientists in the world,” and right up there with Darwin and Einstein, his “theory” is nothing new or unique to him. It is the same quantum woo tripe that has been debunked for decades. In fact, he is “not even wrong” – his ideas present no testable hypotheses.
I have already discussed his “god-of-the-gaps” style argument regarding the Big Bang and why there is something instead of nothing. I started to discuss his abuse of quantum mechanics; specifically his confusion of particles interacting with the environment with the effects of a conscious observer. The very experiments he refers to, the double-slit experiments, demonstrate that the presence or absence of a conscious observer is irrelevant. All that matters is if the photons interact with anything, such as a detector, while they are passing through the two slits.
More Quantum Woo
His quantum woo does not end there, however. He also refers to quantum entanglement, which I grant is one of the more counterintuitive aspects of quantum mechanics. Once particles are entangled, let’s say because they were created as a virtual pair, their properties are linked and complementary – if one particle is spin up, the other will be spin down. Here comes the weird part: even if the particles have been separate for millions of years traveling along their own paths, as soon as you measure the spin of one particle and force its probability to collapse to a definite property, the other particle will also collapse and will have the opposite property.
This all seems like spooky action at a distance, with one particle communicating even across the light-years to the other particle, instantly. We know this is not the case, however. You cannot use quantum entanglement to communicate information, and no experiment involving quantum entanglement has ever violated relativity’s speed-of-light speed limit. The only reasonable conclusion is that the two particles are not communicating instantly across distance. Something else is going on.
Also there is the phenomenon of decoherence – the more either particle interacts with its environment, the more likely it is that the two particles will become disentangled. In fact it’s difficult to create a careful experimental condition to tease out the weird phenomenon of quantum entanglement. It is not something that is happening in the messy macroscopic world.
Lanza also refers to the many-worlds-hypothesis – this is the notion that every quantum collapse of the wave-form of every elementary particle actually splits off a separate universe. Therefore, somewhere out there are countless universes in which every possible quantum outcome has occurred. Lanza argues that physicists “believe” in the many worlds hypothesis, but I tend to see it as wild speculation. There is certainly no evidence for this notion, and as far as I know, no way to even test it.
Further, even if the many-worlds-hypothesis is true, the same line of thought that leads to this idea also leads to the conclusion that all of those other universes are forever separate and inaccessible to us, trapped as we are in or own universe. So, while it is an interesting idea, it has no practical implication.
By now you can probably tell where Lanza is going – quantum mechanics is really weird and counterintuitive, therefore my particular brand of supernaturalism is true.
The Anthropic Principle
Lanza then goes on to his next mystery, the anthropic principle. I will let him explain it:
Why are the laws of physics exactly balanced for animal life to exist? There are over 200 physical parameters within the solar system and universe so exact that it strains credulity to propose that they are random — even if that is exactly what standard contemporary physics baldly suggests. These fundamental constants of the universe — constants that are not predicted by any theory — all seem to be carefully chosen, often with great precision, to allow for existence of life and consciousness (yes, consciousness raises its annoying head yet another time). We have absolutely no reasonable explanation for this.
This is essentially correct, the universe has all the physical laws necessary, and sometimes within a very narrow band of tolerance, to allow for stable complex forms such as life. Further, we have no idea why this is the case. Lanza is trying to make the gaps argument that our current understanding of the universe does not work, therefore we should listen to his biocentrism nonsense. As I stated in part I, he is confusing the fact that our current scientific understanding is incomplete with the idea that it is fundamentally flawed and needs to be chucked out. This is the same line of argument used by science-deniers, like creationists.
I will admit that the anthropic principle does present a perplexing puzzle. This does not mean that the universe had to be created, by either a god or by our own consciousness. It simply means we have more science to do.
There are proposed answers to the anthropic puzzle. One possibility is that the laws of the universe are not random. There is some deeper law that constrains what the physical constants of the universe must be.
Another possibility is that there are many arrangements of the physical constants that would allow for a conscious being to evolve and question the origin of those physical constants. We are only seeing one. And of course whatever being evolves, the laws of their universe will be compatible with them, by definition. This is the “weak” form of the anthropic principle.
Yet another possibility is that there are many universes, perhaps even infinite, and in each one the physical laws are shuffled. Only in those universes compatible with the evolution of consciousness will there be beings capable of asking questions about the laws of their universe.
There may be other possible answers as well. The fact that we currently do not know is neither surprising (given the current state of our knowledge) nor indicative of any fundamental problem with our understanding of reality. We simply need to keep digging deeper.
Finally, Lanza gets directly to the issue of consciousness. Here he makes the same mystery-mongering arguments as the dualists:
This, consciousness, is not a small item. It is not like anything else. Indeed, it is nothing like anything else. Consciousness is awareness, or perception, which in an utter mystery has somehow arisen from molecules and goo. How did inert, random bits of carbon ever morph into that Japanese guy who always wins the hot dog eating contest?
He is confusing our knowledge of how brain function manifests as consciousness and subjectivity with the evidence that it does. I have written extensively about this already – every relevant experiment shows that mental function is brain function. We do have some knowledge about how the brain works and how it creates mental phenomena, but certainly our knowledge is incomplete. However, there is absolutely no reason to reject the neuroscientific model of consciousness, which remains a very successful research paradigm.
Lanza also makes a category mistake – he argues that because we cannot explain consciousness as a physical property of matter, that there is therefore something mysterious about it. This is a hyper-reductionist argument, however. I cannot explain the workings of a car engine by studying the properties of steel either. That function occurs at a higher level of interaction.
You cannot understand consciousness by studying molecules or goo – ever. Consciousness occurs at a higher level of interaction. It is a manifestation of the particular arrangement and physiological function of cells in the vertebrate brain.
Robert Lanza’s arguments are shockingly fallacious and are not only easy to refute, they have already been refuted many times. Yet Lanza, in his other life, appears to be a successful researcher. Speculating about this apparent paradox is interesting and may contain some useful lessons.
This may be a cautionary tale about stepping outside of one’s area of expertise. Lanza is a biologist, not a quantum physicist. But this alone does not explain the deep morass into which he has sunk. It does seem that a massive ego is also involved – he does not appear to appreciate the depth of his ignorance of physics.
This too does not seem sufficient, for it is not just his facts but his logic that is severely off. A commenter to yesterday’s post pointed out an interview in which Lanza discusses the death of his sister, and how this helped him realize that death is not permanent because consciousness exists outside of space and time. Here we have a significant motivation to embrace something like biocentrism. It is likely that biocentrism is ultimately the sophisticated rationalization of a smart guy dealing with the pain of mortality.
Such rationalizations can create significant blinders, causing a scientist to embrace pseudoscience.
I have to also include the possibility that Lanza simply lacks a deep understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of science. A successful researcher can be technically skilled and able to think well within the confines of their expertise, but still lack a deep appreciation for the critical thinking and skeptical basis of science in general. There are certainly many examples of this.
Being a world-class researcher does not necessarily protect someone from going down the rabbit hole of pseudoscience. This is yet another example of why teaching critical thinking and the philosophy of science is so important to science education – even at the highest levels of education.
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