Nov 16 2010

Robert Lanza’s Quantum Woo

Here we go again – in an article that would make Deepak Chopra proud, Robert Lanza over at the HuffPo has written a mystery-mongering piece about biocentrism. Lanza asks the question – Why are you here? This is one of those cosmological questions that borders on metaphysics, like why is there something rather than nothing? These are interesting questions, but one needs to tread carefully along a tightrope of logic amid a chasm of philosophy and ideology. Lanza dives right off the cliff into the chasm. He sets up the question:

Even setting aside the issue of being here and now, the probability of random physical laws and events leading to this point is less than 1 out of 100,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, equivalent to winning every lottery there ever was.

The lottery reference is appropriate, because Lanza is committing the lottery fallacy. In fact, his entire article is one giant lottery fallacy. This fallacy comes from reasoning backwards about probability and asking the wrong question. If John Smith wins the superball lottery with odds of 100 million to one against, this should not be considered a cosmically unlikely event that requires a special explanation. The wrong question to ask is – what were the odds of John Smith winning? The correct question is – what were the odds of anyone winning (pretty good, it turns out).

Likewise, Lanza is asking the wrong question – what are the odds that we would end up existing here and now with the universe in the state in which we find it? This is as important to us as the odds of winning the lottery are to John Smith, but this is a highly egocentric view of probability. The universe, it turns out, does not care about John Smith’s financial situation, nor our existence. The appropriate question is – what are the odds that anything would exist? It turns out that the odds are 100%, since we exist.

Yet Lanza is trying to spin this logical fallacy into a theory of everything which he calls biocentrism. This is really just a repackaging of the anthropic principle (so it’s not even original BS). So-called weak anthropic principles states that the universe must have the properties necessary for intelligent life because we exist – in any universe where there is an entity capable of asking the question, the physical laws must be compatible with such an entity. This is ultimately an unremarkable circular argument – and that’s kind of the point. The fact that the laws of the universe allow for our existence is necessary and unremarkable.

The strong anthropic principle takes this reasoning one step further, making an argument from final consequences – because we are here the laws of the universe are what they are specifically to allow for our (and not just anyone’s) existence. In other words, the laws are designed to allow for humans. This logic is not valid, however, as it represents a reversal of cause and effect and a massive example of the lottery fallacy.

Lanza takes this fallacy and then tries to crank it up to 11, writing:

Biocentrism, a new theory of everything, provides the missing piece. Although classical evolution does an excellent job of helping us understand the past, it fails to capture the driving force. Evolution needs to add the observer to the equation. Indeed, Niels Bohr, the great Nobel physicist, said, “When we measure something we are forcing an undetermined, undefined world to assume an experimental value. We are not ‘measuring’ the world, we are creating it.”

Lanza combines the lottery fallacy of the strong anthropic principle with the quantum woo of Chopra – grossly misinterpreting quantum physics in the typical way that we have encountered numerous times before. Evolution does not need an observer – there is nothing in the process of evolution, and no observation of nature that requires it. Bohr it talking about a quantum phenomenon of the collapse of the probability wave. But this does not require a literal observer, just interaction with the surrounding environment. Other particles, in other words, can serve as the “observer” – the universe can observe itself just fine without us, and we are back to the laws of nature unfolding on their own without the need of intelligent observation of guidance.

After a long description of the great improbability of the particular current state of the universe, Lanza then goes for the trifecta of woo:

It’s a fascinating story to tell children, but claiming that it’s all a “dumb” accident is no more helpful than saying “God did it.” Loren Eiseley, the great naturalist, once said that scientists “have not always been able to see that an old theory, given a hairsbreadth twist, might open an entirely new vista to the human reason.” The theory of evolution turns out to be the perfect case in hand. Amazingly, it all makes sense if you assume that the Big Bang is the end of the chain of physical causality, not the beginning.

The “‘dumb’ accident” comment can be applied to any system that unfolds according to its own internal laws and rules. It’s like spinning a roulette wheel, and watching the ball bounce around and finally come to rest on red 23. Was that number just a “dumb accident” or the laws of motion in action? Do we need to hypothesize some human-centric reason for the action of the ball, some meaning to red 23? No – it’s just physics. Evolution may be much more complex, but it is also just an expression of the laws of nature and probability working themselves out over millions of years.

What about that comment that the “Big Bang is the end of the chain of physical causality?” Hold onto your seats – this is where Lanza breaks the quantum woo meter.

Theoretical physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow recently stated:

There is no way to remove the observer — us — from our perceptions of the world … In classical physics, the past is assumed to exist as a definite series of events, but according to quantum physics, the past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities.”

Apparently all you need for a theory of everything is to take quotes from science popularizers, especially astrophysicists, completely out of context. Hawking himself said that Lanza’s style of BS is unecessary, writing in he latest book “The Grand Design”:

“…the universe can and will create itself from nothing,” “Spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.” “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper [fuse] and set the universe going.”

Nor is it necessary to invoke biocentrism, which is Lanza’s “Goddidit.”

What Hawking is referring to in the quote above is that the laws of physics are reversible – everything works in both directions, including time. There is no reason in physics, that we currently know of, why the arrow of time goes in only one direction. We have yet to fully explain this asymmetry. That is not the same thing as saying that time does not go in one direction, or that we can assume a reversal of cause and effect – that humans create time and therefore we created our own past, all the way back to the Big Bang. Lanza takes a misinterpretation of physics and then rides his pony of wild speculation right off the cliff of reason.

In the end Lanza’s biocentrism is a laughable mess of confusion, poor logic, misinterpretation of quantum mechanics and cosmology, and rampant egocentrism. It is egocentric in two ways – in the very concept that we humans create reality around us, and in his presumption that he has come up with a theory of everything. The TOE is, in fact, a classic sign of a cosmological crank. Walk up to a physicist and try to tell them about your theory of everything, and see how desperate they will become to get away from you.  But now such cranks get space in the HuffPo to spew their TOE to everyone.

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