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Friday, October 02, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: Biocentrism and Reality

In which two or more of our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

The soul: it’s a heavy topic, and one that not everyone agrees about. Dr. Robert Lanza is a biologist who says that consciousness creates the universe rather than the other way around. He’s what is called a “biocentrist”. His is a relatively new theory, having come into play around 2007. The fundamental notion behind it is that the much sought-after “Theory of Everything” scientists are looking for cannot be found until biology is placed at the head of the sciences.

Tom: It’s interesting, Immanuel Can, to see the spiritual dimension of life acquiring some scientific credibility. Do you want to take a shot at explaining Dr. Lanza’s theory?

Putting It In Context

Immanuel Can: Well, perhaps we need to put it in the context of the Materialism / Idealism debate. Because the scientific method works primarily on material entities — things we can touch, smell, taste, measure, quantify and so on — it has often been thought that anything that does not conform to the five senses, or to our conventional scientific instruments, must automatically be “unscientific”. So things like ideas, emotions, concepts and so on can only be “scientifically” described in terms of materials: ideas are a form of brain electronics, emotions of neural chemistry, concepts some manifestation of evolutionary usefulness, and so on, or else they must be illusions.

Tom: With you so far.

IC: The problem with this view is this: that human beings don’t actually encounter the material world … rather, it is mediated to us by our neural networks, so that while what I physically touch may be a table, say, what I experience in my mind is not the table itself, but rather the idea of a table — that is, I experience only the sensations conveyed to me by my own bioelectrics … I do not experience the table itself. Is that too spacey an explanation?

Tom: Is this where the tree falls in the forest, but if I don’t hear it, it didn’t actually fall?

Materials or Ideation?

IC: Don’t get ahead of me. What this controversy has produced is a major debate about what is the primary source of our encounter with reality: is it hard facts and materials, or is it only the idea of materials? Is it materials or ideation that’s primarily “real”?

Now, this debate has a lot of implications: for meaning, the intelligibility of the universe, ethics, knowledge, verification, the brain-mind debate, and so on. Material explanations strike the Idealists as merely reductional, and Idealist explanations strike the Materialists as … well, speculative at best and superstitious at worst. But both views have something lacking in their accounts of the world.

Tom: This is how Lanza puts it:
“The current scientific paradigm doesn’t recognize this spiritual dimension of life. We’re told we’re just the activity of carbon and some proteins; we live awhile and die. And the universe? It too has no meaning. It has all been worked out in the equations no need for a soul.”
And that presents a problem, because outside of the scientific community, there is a general recognition that something is happening beyond the mere activity of carbon and proteins. Imagination, poetry, morality … all of these things and many others suggest the existence of something unique to humanity and not perfectly explicable in purely mathematical terms.

The Stakes Are Huge

IC: Well, quite so. And it’s not just the “frilly” aesthetic aspects of life that Materialism threatens. It entails things like, there actually IS no true meaning to life, that morality is just a social delusion, that death ends all, and that all human aspirations, hopes, beliefs and emotions can be reduced to nothing more than misfiring neurons. As Dr. John Lennox has so sagely noted, it even threatens science itself — because if we believe scientific knowledge is nothing but the reflection of accidental neuron discharge, why should we trust science? So the stakes there are huge.

Thomas Nagel, a devout atheist himself, has recently got himself into huge trouble with the atheist set for pointing such things out in his book, Mind and Cosmos, subtitled Why the Materialist, Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.

Tom: Yes, I can see where that title might be considered problematic by that set.

Break biocentrism down for me and for all the other little lay-people who may not quite grasp what Lanza is trying to say. Let’s say, for instance, there is a rocking chair in my living room. According to my uninformed and traditional view of the universe, that chair exists objectively. It’s made of wood. When I go away for a week, it remains in its spot and when someone else comes in to feed my cat, there is the chair to be sat in. When I die, it will presumably be willed to somebody, because it has an existence independent of me.

Now in the biocentric universe Lanza posits, how are things different? Does the chair exist only in my mind? Does my thinking about it give it independent existence?

IC: I don’t think biocentrists would agree with how you’re even asking the question.
Tom: Good. Reframe it for me then.

Experiencing the “Out There”
IC: Traditionally, it has been thought (by Materialists especially) that reality is a thing “out there”, outside of us and independent of us. Biocentrism does not talk about “independent existence” of that sort, I think. But neither does it have to go the distance of saying that the chair doesn’t actually exist. Rather, I think biocentrists would simply say that we don’t experience the “out there” at all, but we know only of our biological, embodied perspectives.

You can’t discuss something no one knows anything about: so you can’t discuss “the pure, unmediated reality” of the chair. What you can discuss, I think they’d say, is your situated perspective on the chair.

That’s at the epistemological level (i.e. the question of what people actually know). What’s more interesting is the ontological level (i.e. the question of what actually exists). Biocentrists think whatever we call “reality” exists for biological entities, and proceeds out of biology. And that’s really different.

Tom: Okay, fair enough. I agree that I have a perspective on the chair, rather than experiencing its “pure, unmediated reality”. But by strange coincidence, other living beings share much of that perspective. My colour-blind friend does not have my full experience of the chair, and my legally blind friend and my cat have even less of it. But we all find the chair in the same place (however we may locate it), and we all find it wooden (to the extent that our senses enable us to understand “wood”), and we all sit on it. So there is a shared perspective on the chair that suggests to me an underlying “chair-ness” that is there to be understood, whether or not there is anyone to understand it.

Or am I missing the concept entirely?

Who Was Reality Made For?
IC: Maybe we can say this: Lanza thinks that reality was made for biological beings, not biological beings made for some set “reality” out there. 

Tom: That’s interesting.

IC: So far as I can see, he doesn’t think that God made reality to serve our needs, but rather that we, as biological beings, generate reality ... that is, we are the instruments that register the sensory impressions of reality itself, so that apart from us there IS no such thing as a reality.

He says this based on some rather weird science, involving things like trying to identify the nature of a beam of light. Light sometimes behaves like a wave, and sometimes like a particle, depending on what instrument is being used to observe it. Or there’s quantum physics, which seems to generate patterns out of apparently chaotic particles.

His conclusion is that reality, which appears so solid and material, is really just a collection of such odd phenomena; and in our instrumental role as observers, we ourselves determine what “reality” actually appears to be.

That, I think, is about as concisely and simply as I can explain without doing some grand disservice to his view.

An Alternative to Material-Centrism

Tom: Okay. Now apparently biocentrism would solve some theoretical problems in quantum physics that I didn’t even know existed, but Lanza’s hypothesis is not yet generally accepted, largely because nobody seems to have figured out a way to test it — though a lack of testability never seems to have stopped the theory of evolution achieving general acceptance.

But supposing we grant Dr. Lanza there may be some truth in his theory, is there anything in the biocentric hypothesis that affects faith significantly? He is, in effect, attempting to peek behind the curtain to suggest that the world is a stage on which human beings have a sort of unconscious ‘agency’.

IC: It’s long bothered Materialist scientists that their view of the world has nothing but dismissive, shallow things to say about certain things — things widely held by most human beings to be important, such as ethics, meaning, relationship, faith, the soul, and human identity. The problem has been that Materialism only acknowledges the existence of material entities, and none of those things I’ve listed are material. I think Lanza et al. are trying to open up some possibility of accounting for these very important aspects of life; but they don’t want to abandon science, so science must be placed in a new paradigm, a whole new way of framing what “science” means. Biocentrism is that: it’s an alternative to Material-centrism in science.

The Laws the Shape the Universe

Tom: This is what he says about it:
“We think life is just the activity of atoms and particles, which spin around for a while and then dissipate into nothingness. But if we add life to the equation, we can explain some of the major puzzles of modern science, including the uncertainty principle, entanglement, and the fine-tuning of the laws that shape the universe.”
There’s something to be said for this, and for science acknowledging the notion of the soul as more than mere activity in the brain, which is something Lanza explicitly confirms. He takes the position that, as Wikipedia puts it
“There are over 200 physical parameters within the universe so exact that it is seen as more probable that they are that way in order to allow for existence of life and consciousness, rather than coming about at random.”
That sounds rather like intelligent design to me.

IC: Right. It’s the “fine tuning” argument: namely, that the chances of our universe obtaining the necessary conditions for life are so astronomically against us that our existence requires explanation. In fact, it’s even worse than is usually recognized.

Life as the Centre of Everything

Lanza is not trying to argue for theism. But his paradigm — thinking of life as the centre of everything — certainly shouts the obvious question: How is it that we came to live in such a universe? How did such a place come to exist at all? We would never expect it to happen if we were calculating on conventional materialist probabilities, so what’s the most obvious alternate explanation?

Tom: Unless you are absolutely determined to rule it out of court, it’s difficult to ignore the evidence that the universe is designed for man, not man for the universe. The very first chapter of the Bible recounts the six days of creation, and finally we read:
“So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.”

This is not an afterthought, is it. It’s not, “Oh yeah, I forgot somebody will need to tend these sheep I’ve created”. This is the culmination of creation. Nothing more is added afterward and everything leads up to this point, including not just the planet itself but sun, moon and stars. If we believe the Bible, the universe is the stage on which God establishes his relationship with mankind.

Hardly surprising, then, if our understanding of the universe is incomplete without taking into account the human soul.

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