Dec 15 2009

Biocentrism Pseudoscience

Writing for the Huffington Post, Deepak Chopra and Robert Lanza promote the notion of “biocentrism” – “that an accurate understanding of the world requires putting observers firmly into the equation, and that life may not be the accident of physics and chemistry that evolution suggests.”

This idea is really nothing new – it is a transparent abuse and misunderstanding of modern physics and quantum mechanics in order to insert mysticism into science.

They begin with what is known as the anthropic principle:

Why, for instance, are the laws of nature exactly balanced for 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 contemporary physics baldly suggests. These fundamental constants (like the strength of gravity) are not predicted by any theory — all seem to be carefully chosen, often with great precision, to allow for existence of life. Tweak any of them and you never existed.

We currently have no idea why the laws of the universe are the way they are. We also don’t know if they have to be the way they are, or if there are many, perhaps infinite, variations and the universe we know is just one. Is the mass of an electron always the same? Is the gravitational constant different in every universe? Are there even other universes?

What is undeniably true is that the laws of nature are such that long term stable and complex structures are possible. But the claim that the laws of the universe are what they are so that we can exist is to commit several logical fallacies all at once. First, it is an argument from final consequences – assuming that the final result is the cause. Rather, it is more valid to say that we are here because the laws of nature allow it – rather than that the laws of nature were designed so that we may be here.

It is also the lottery fallacy. If we hold   a world-wide lottery and only one human in the 6.5 billion wins, the odds of that person winning is very small. But someone had to win. Chopra and Lanza are arguing that the winner could not have one by chance alone, because the odds were against it.

In other words – if some other universe existed then some other type of conscious beings might be contemplating how perfectly the laws of their universe fit their existence. It is also possible (and this is one cosmological theory) that there are many universes and perhaps only in a small percentage can complex organisms evolve. In the other universes there is no one around to contemplate the fact that the laws of nature do not allow for life.

Also, this gets to the fact that life is fine-tuned to the universe, not the other way around. The kind of life that can exist in this universe is the kind that arose. This is similar to marveling at how coincidental it is that the earth’s climate is so well suited to human life. The earth provides us water, sunlight, and food, and in many places on the earth (the temperate zone) during much of the year we can walk around quite comfortably with minimal clothing.

But of course we evolved to adapt to the environment, the environment was not made for us. The sun does not provide light that just happens to be in the spectrum our eyes can detect – our eyes evolved to detect the spectrum of light that happened to be put out by our sun. So Chopra and Lanza get it backwards.

And finally, the entire argument is an argument from ignorance – we do not know what determines the laws of the universe, therefore they were designed just for us.

Chopra and Lanza then take the anthropic principle to its most ridiculous extreme:

Beyond these laws and constants, consider everything that had to happen to bring about humans. There are literally trillions of events that had to be just right — ‘this way’ and not ‘that way’ — for us to be here. Consider the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs — if its trajectory had been slightly different, or the asteroid had been slightly larger, we might not be here.

This is pure lottery fallacy. If the meteor did not wipe out the dinosaurs, perhaps a reptilian intelligent species would rule the earth, making gods in their image, and marveling at how unlikely their existence was, and therefore it must have been preordained.

Next some Chopra’s signature quantum woo:

No physicist challenges the fact that particles do not exist with definite physical properties until they are observed. If the present determines the past as Stephen Hawking, John Wheeler (who coined the word ‘black hole’), and others have suggested, then it couldn’t be any other way.

Well, here is a physicist who does challenge this “fact” – Vinod K. Wadhawan (along with Ajita Kamal), a physicist, goes into great detail as to why quantum mechanics does not say that physical properties require an “observer.” They nicely deconstruct Chopra and Lanza’s nonsense – essentially pointing out that consciousness is not required in quantum mechanics. The environment itself can act as the “observer”. When matter interacts with itself it results in decoherence, the translation of the micro quantum world to the macro classical world we experience.

They finish with a swipe at Darwin, just to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin:

Darwin’s theory of evolution is an enormous over-simplification. It’s helpful if you want to connect the dots and understand the interrelatedness of life on the planet — and it’s simple enough to teach to children between recess and lunch. But it fails to capture the driving force and what’s really going on.

An enormous over-simplification? Has he read On The Origin of Species? Prior to Darwin it was already recognized that life changed over geological time – life evolved. Darwin’s primary contribution was in proposing a “driving force”, that of variation and natural selection. His genius was in seeing how blind forces, acting over vast amounts of time, could add up to cumulative significant change, enough to forge an elephant out of a single-celled creature.

What Chopra and Lanza are trying to do is replace an awesome view of nature – one with explanatory power, elegance, and subtlety – with simple-minded mysticism. In doing so they are trying to wipe away or ignore some of the greatest intellectual contributions to our understanding of reality. And while denying science and replacing it with their mysticism, they are simultaneously trying to wrap their spiritual notions in the language of science.

What they are doing is the very essence of pseudoscience – using the superficial form of science to promote mystical ideas, but abandoning the true process of science.

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