Nov 25 2013
Robert Lanza appears to be a legitimate and accomplished physician and stem cell researcher. Unfortunately he has decided to follow in the footsteps of Linus Pauling in venturing outside his area of expertise into the world of pseudoscience.
Lanza is promoting the idea of biocentrism, the notion that consciousness creates the universe, rather than simply being a physical phenomenon within the universe. His ideas are remarkably similar to those of Deepak Chopra, which I have recently discussed, but are stated in more coherent and less flowery prose. His views, however, are just as nonsensical.
Here is the abridged version of his arguments, which he lays out in his 2009 book. I found nothing new in Lanza’s ideas – he simply brings together now tired and long discredited distortions of physics and mystery mongering on the edge of scientific knowledge.
Before I delve into some of his specific arguments (which will take a part II) I must point out that nowhere in his description of biocentrism is an actual scientific theory. He does not posit anything that results in testable predictions. Rather, he seeks only to “explain” life, the universe, and everything, as if explaining is science.
Similar to Chopra he builds his case on a number of arguments, all of which are either wrong or simply do not add up to his preferred explanation of biocentrism. They are:
- Scientists do not understand where the universe came from, and the Big Bang does not cover it.
- Quantum mechanics demonstrates that the universe only exists when being observed by a consciousness
- Scientists do not understand consciousness
- The laws of the universe are fine-tuned to allow life to exist, and scientists don’t understand why.
- Space and time are mysterious
Lanza seeks to explain all these mysteries by making a huge and unwarranted leap – that consciousness creates reality. He seems to think that because he can explain all these mysterious phenomena, that in any way lends weight to his ideas. However, he is simply substituting a deeper mystery – where did consciousness come from, what is consciousness, and how, exactly, does it create reality if reality is not out there?
Lanza is essentially making a “biocentrism of the gaps” argument. He might as well conclude that “goddidit” – that also would “explain” everything without actually presenting a testable hypothesis. One can invent an infinite number of such “explanations.” I think a giant pink turtle created everything. The GPT, as I like to call it, always existed and has whatever qualities are necessary to explain life, the universe, and everything. There, done.
Where did the universe come from?
I don’t know. This is without a doubt a scientific mystery. The Big Bang is not even an attempt to explain where the universe came from – it simply describes an event at the beginning of this universe. Whether or not the Big Bang emerged from “nothing” and exactly what “nothing” is, is an interesting question. If you are interested, I suggest A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss.
It is remarkable, however, that the “god-of-the-gaps” gurus who are trying to promote their own theory of everything by pointing to what is currently unexplained by science have to go all the way to the origin of the universe. I think that says something about where we are scientifically. And give us time – science will likely illuminate such cosmological questions over time.
Lanza here is making a classic logical fallacy of the pseudoscientist – confusing currently unexplained with unexplainable. Just because we have not yet fully explained the origins of the universe, that does not mean that our current paradigms of physics and cosmology will not eventually provide at least a partial explanation.
It’s not even a paradox – a conflict that cannot be resolved by current theories. Even paradoxes do not necessarily invalidate current theories, it could simply mean that they are incomplete. (I don’t want to get into the semantic argument about whether or not “incomplete” = “wrong.” Suffice it to say, that incomplete is a more accurate description.)
His space and time arguments are essentially the same, although physicists are much further along in developing theories of space and time than about what happened “before” the Big Bang and where everything came from.
The core of Lanza’s argument rests on a misunderstanding of quantum mechanics. This is the most disappointing aspect of a generally disappointing argument, because it has so long been demolished by physicists. Lanza argues that nothing exists without an observer, and actually cites the double-slit experiments for support.
He is making two key mistakes here. The first is the confusion of “observer” with “consciousness” (actually his entire premise rests upon this fallacy). He states that when the physicist is looking light will go through the two slits as particles, making two clumps of light on the other side. If the physicist is not looking, however, the light will pass through as a wave and make an interference pattern.
This is wrong. The results of the experiment depend not at all on the presence or absence of an observer or a consciousness. What matters is whether or not there is a detector in each slit, detecting the presence of the photon as it passes through the slit. In other words, if the photon has to interact with any particle of matter, then the probability wave must collapse and it behaves like a particle. If the photon is not detected, however, then it continues to travel as a wave until it hits the film or photon detector on the other side of the slit, at which point the wave function collapses.
The only thing that matters is whether or not the photons are detected or interacted with in any way prior to or after passing through the slits. This has absolutely nothing to do with consciousness or an observer. This is the common misunderstanding of the quantum gurus.
Lanza’s second mistake is to extrapolate from quantum experiments, in which conditions are very carefully controlled, to macroscopic conditions. He actually makes the analogy to your kitchen, as if your kitchen is not really there unless you are there to observe your kitchen. Nothing in quantum mechanism justifies such a macroscopic extrapolation. Particles interacting with each other collapse all the wave forms and once you get up to something like a kitchen all the quantum weirdness disappears and essentially classical physics predominates (there may be some really subtle effects around the edges, but the kitchen certainly does not disappear).
Lanza has a fundamental misunderstanding of quantum mechanics and the details and implications of experiments like the double-slit experiment. This alone obliterates his entire notion of biocentrism.
It is sad to see a mainstream scientist like Lanza give in to such rank pseudoscience, and then use his credentials to sell that pseudoscience to the public. Take a look again at his website – I don’t like to speculate too much about a person’s psychology or motivations, but I do think we see the telltale signs of an ego a bit out of control.
This is consistent with the act of stepping outside one’s area of genuine expertise and expounding on grandiose theories that explain everything and seek to topple our understanding of reality, even over the heads of the actual experts in the relevant field.
Notice how he places his picture alongside Darwin and Einstein. Meanwhile, biocentrism is not even science.
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