Robert Lanza : A New Theory of the Universe

In his essay A New Theory of the Universe, published in The American Scholar in 2007, Robert Lanza expounds his theory of Biocentrism. It was the most interesting essay I’d read in a long time (I seem to keep on saying that!), and very relevant to my own ideas.

According to Wikipedia the theory of Biocentrism states that ‘life’ or consciousness creates the universe rather than the other way around (as has been traditionally assumed), and that “there is no independent external universe outside of biological existence.” Just like Kant, Lanza maintains that “what we call space and time are forms of animal sense perception, rather than external physical objects”. He says that the behaviour of particles “is inextricably linked to the presence of an observer”, and that what we perceive as reality is “a process that involves our consciousness”. He backs up this view with (among other arguments) the fact that “the laws, forces, and constants of the universe appear to be fine-tuned for life”, or as he puts it elsewhere “the laws of the world were somehow created to produce the observer”, and “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.” I looked up that ‘fine-tuning‘ business and was quite impressed by its implications: if it isn’t evidence for Lanza’s theory that consciousness creates the universe, then it points to something along the lines of ‘intelligent design’; the very least it seems to indicate is that there’s a lot we don’t yet know about the universe. And the idea that the internal and external, subjective and objective worlds seem to be a lot more connected, and in a more complex way, than has generally been thought, is a very plausible explanation for such a set of seemingly unlikely facts (although there are others, such as the anthropic principle).

(details below)

Sometimes Lanza seems to be going further than I do, into a sort of pure subjectivism which denies any objective reality whatsoever (more Bishop Berkeley than Kant!), while sometimes he seems to contradict himself and say things which imply the existence of some sort of objective raw material for consciousness to work on. Sometimes he even seems to want to have it both ways, for instance when he says: “Without perception, there is in effect no reality. Nothing has existence unless you, I, or some living creature perceives it, and how it is perceived further influences that reality.” Surely it’s a contradiction to say, on the one hand, that consciousness creates reality by the act of perceiving it, and then, in the same sentence, that consciousness influences reality? As far as I’m concerned, saying that consciousness influences reality implies very strongly indeed that consciousness and reality are in some way separate and equally ‘real’. If he just means that different kinds of perception create different kinds of reality, then he’s not expressing himself very well. On the other hand he sometimes seems more moderate, saying things like “the observer in a significant sense creates reality and not the other way around” (my italics), which allows for the possibility of some basic level of reality which could exist independently of consciousness. Unless I’m very much mistaken, science (i.e. quantum physics) has proved beyond doubt that consciousness influences reality, whereas any further step towards pure subjectivism is nothing but interesting (and perhaps useful) speculation.

One big ‘problem’ facing the view that consciousness creates the universe is that consciousness seems to be formed of many individual units, whereas the physical universe, to a great extent, seems to be the same for everyone. If all these different consciousnesses each create their own universe, how does the commonly experienced, seemingly objective world come into existence? I can see two possible answers: either there is an ultimate layer of objective reality which is independent of consciousness (at or even beyond the level of quantum waves and particles perhaps), or else all these apparently separate consciousnesses are actually one, joined up under the surface (as in Jung’s collective unconscious) or subdivisions of one ‘big’ consciousness (what the religiously inclined might think of as God) – not that one view necessarily excludes the other. Which one you choose doesn’t make any difference to my ideas, which only depend on the idea that the world as we experience it is to a very great extent the product of consciousness. At one point Lanza goes quite definitely for the second option, that of the non-separateness of individual consciousnesses:

Science has been grappling with the implications of the wave-particle duality ever since its discovery in the first half of the 20th century. But few people accept this principle at face value. The Copenhagen interpretation, put in place by Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and Born in the 1920s, set out to do just that. But it was too unsettling a shift in worldview to accept in full. At present, the implications of these experiments are conveniently ignored by limiting the notion of quantum behavior to the microscopic world. But doing this has no basis in reason, and it is being challenged in laboratories around the world. […]
One of the main reasons most people reject the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory is that it leads to the dreaded doctrine of solipsism. The late Heinz Pagels once commented: “If you deny the objectivity of the world unless you observe it and are conscious of it, then you end up with solipsism—the belief that your consciousness is the only one.” […]
What I would question, with respect to solipsism, is the assumption that our individual separateness is an absolute reality. Bell’s experiment [concerning quantum entanglement] implies the existence of linkages that transcend our ordinary way of thinking. An old Hindu poem says, “Know in thyself and all one self-same soul; banish the dream that sunders part from whole.” If time is only a stubbornly persistent illusion, as we have seen, then the same can be said about space. The distinction between here and there is also not an absolute reality. Without consciousness, we can take any person as our new frame of reference. It is not my consciousness or yours alone, but ours. That’s the new solipsism the experiments mandate.

He doesn’t go much further in this direction, which is understandable. He is a scientist, after all, and if there was any real scientific evidence for the non-separateness of individual consciousnesses we’d probably have heard of it by now. But his ideas certainly fit in very well both with quantum physics and with the ideas behind Buddhism and other eastern religions. I’m sure his theory goes down very well in ‘new age’ circles!

For a scientist, Lanza sometimes has a surprisingly dismissive attitude toward science and its achievements:

Einstein was frustrated by the threat of quantum uncertainty to the hypothesis he called spacetime, and spacetime turns out to be incompatible with the world discovered by quantum physics. When Einstein showed that there is no universal now, it followed that observers could slice up reality into past, present, and, future, in different ways, all with equal reality. But what, exactly, is being sliced up?
Space and time are not stuff that can be brought back to the laboratory in a marmalade jar for analysis. In fact, space and time fall into the province of biology—of animal sense perception—not of physics. They are properties of the mind, of the language by which we human beings and animals represent things to ourselves. Physicists venture beyond the scope of their science—beyond the limits of material phenomena and law—when they try to assign physical, mathematical, or other qualities to space and time.

But applying physical and mathematical qualities to space and time does seem to work, and to produce consistent and useful results. I’m not at all sure that Lanza takes this sufficiently into account.

Despite such things as the development of superconducting supercolliders containing enough niobium-titanium wire to circle the earth 16 times, we understand the universe no better than the first humans with sufficient consciousness to think. Where did it all come from? Why does the universe exist? Why are we here? In one age, we believe that the world is a great ball resting on the back of a turtle; in the next, that a fairy universe appeared out of nowhere and is expanding into nothingness. In one age, angels push and pummel the planets about; in another age, everything is a meaningless accident. We exchange a world-bearing turtle for a big bang.

Yet again, I think he’s exaggerating a bit here. After all, it was the development and patient use of the ‘normal’ scientific method which brought human knowledge of the universe to the point where he was able to construct his theory (and, he hopes, to prove it). Ever since human consciousness came into existence (forgetting for the moment how absurd Lanza’s theory makes that statement!), people have been attempting to answer the ‘big’ metaphysical questions such as “Where did it all come from? Why does the universe exist? Why are we here?”, and trying to use their reason to step outside the bounds of their actual experience. Their big mistake, until the development of the scientific method, was to disregard the imperfections of human reasoning and its tendency to fall prey all kinds of fallacies, thereby jumping to false conclusions, often with disastrous results. If there’s any difference at all between Lanza’s metaphysical speculations and those of Plato, Thomas Aquinas or Immanuel Kant, then it’s the fact that Lanza is able to back up his ideas with scientific data, so perhaps a little more respect is called for!

It’s sometimes said that the scientific method, with its assumption of objectivity and a total separation of the observer from the subject of his observations, is invalidated by the discoveries of quantum physics, but I disagree. The fact that (at the quantum level, at least) the act of observing is shown to affect the outcome of an experiment is certainly a big challenge, and where this problem arises experiments will have to be devised which take it into consideration. The essence of the scientific method, however, is at a higher, more philosophical level, and consists, for instance, of keeping an open mind, not jumping to conclusions, and systematically doubting the results of your experiments until other people have repeated them. The more complex the relationship between subjective and objective becomes, the greater will be the need for scientific detachment at this higher level, but people who don’t like science or scientists (perhaps because they refuse to accept the objective validity of their favourite alternative therapy, or because scientific findings disagree with their religious convictions) are often very quick to want to dump science altogether and give up any attempt at objectivity. I occasionally get the impression that Lanza wants to jump on this bandwagon – which would be very dangerous indeed.

One of the things which most impressed me in this essay is the brilliant way in which Lanza explains Zeno’s paradox of The Arrow using Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. I don’t suppose his explanation is original, and I don’t even know enough about quantum mechanics to say whether it’s valid, but I’d never heard it before and sounded pretty convincing to me! On the other hand, Bertrand Russell, writing in 1912 when Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle had yet to be invented, seems to have no problem at all with this paradox and finds a normal mathematical approach quite sufficient to solve it:

Zeno argues that, since the arrow at each moment simply is where it is, therefore the arrow in its flight is always at rest. At first sight, this argument may not appear a very powerful one. Of course, it will be said, the arrow is where it is at one moment, but at another moment it is somewhere else, and this is just what constitutes motion. Certain difficulties, it is true, arise out of the continuity of motion, if we insist upon assuming that motion is also discontinuous. These difficulties, thus obtained, have long been part of the stock-in-trade of philosophers. But if, with the mathematicians, we avoid the assumption that motion is also discontinuous, we shall not fall into the philosopher’s difficulties. A cinematograph in which there are an infinite number of pictures, and in which there is never a next picture because an infinite number come between any two, will perfectly represent a continuous motion. Wherein, then, lies the force of Zeno’s argument? (Bertrand Russell: A History of Western Philosophy, chapter XXVIII: Bergson)

And anyway, this may all end up being pretty irrelevant, as recent experiments seem to have thrown doubt on the degree of uncertainty implied by Heisenberg’s principle as an inevitable feature of reality (which is obviously how Lanza is using it here), rather than as a problem with currently available methods of measurement.

An important part of Lanza’s theory involves the ‘unreality’ of time, and although I’m not an expert on the subject, the general impression I get is that neither is he:

It’s important here to address a fundamental question. We have clocks that can measure time. If we can measure time, doesn’t that prove it exists? Einstein sidestepped the question by simply defining time as “what we measure with a clock.” The emphasis for physicists is on the measuring. However, the emphasis should be on the we, the observers. Measuring time doesn’t prove its physical existence. Clocks are rhythmic things. Humans use the rhythms of some events (like the ticking of clocks) to time other events (like the rotation of the earth). This is not time, but rather, a comparison of events. Specifically, over the ages, humans have observed rhythmic events in nature: the periodicities of the moon, the sun, the flooding of the Nile. We then created other rhythmic things to measure nature’s rhythms: a pendulum, a mechanical spring, an electronic device. We called these manmade rhythmic devices “clocks.” We use the rhythms of specific events to time other specific events. But these are just events, not to be confused with time.

But the question which immediately springs to my mind, uneducated layman than I am, is that time is surely an integral component of rhythm? No time, no rhythm! Either I’m totally missing the point or Lanza has got it wrong. Or maybe he’s just not expressing himself very well…

And having supposedly demonstrated that time doesn’t exist, at one point Lanza mentions the possibility of stepping outside of it:

In classical science, humans place all things in time and space on a continuum. The universe is 15 to 20 billion years old; the earth five or six. Homo erectus appeared four million years ago, but he took three-and-a-half million years to discover fire, and another 490,000 to invent agriculture. And so forth. […] But imagine, instead, that reality is like a sound recording. Listening to an old phonograph doesn’t alter the record itself, and depending on where the needle is placed, you hear a certain piece of music. This is what we call the present. The music before and after the song you are hearing is what we call the past and the future. Imagine, in like manner, that every moment and day endures in nature always. The record does not go away. All nows (all the songs on the record) exist simultaneously, although we can only experience the world (or the record) piece by piece. If we could access all life—the whole record—we could experience it non-sequentially.

Well, I can’t disagree with any of that – and Kurt Vonnegut says the same thing a lot better in Slaughterhouse-Five ! There’s a lot more to be said on this subject, not least regarding its implications in the area of free will and determinism (an age-old philosophical controversy which is easily solved as soon as you include the concepts of relativity and perspective). But what is Lanza going on about here? What he says is true, but it’s equally true that, for the moment at least, we can’t step outside of time, and we can’t “access all life—the whole record— [and] experience it non-sequentially”. In other words, being ‘trapped inside of time’, being able to see the present and to a certain extent the past, but not the future, is part of the metaphysical situation in which we find ourselves. It is impossible by definition, at any given stage of human development, to transcend the limitations of our metaphysical situation at that particular moment, but I wouldn’t be so rash or so pessimistic as to claim that those limitations are pre-defined and unchanging. Now, and for the foreseeable future, science cannot tell us what happens to consciousness after death, for instance, never mind answer questions like “Why are we here?”. But much of what we know now – thanks to science – would have seemed impossible by definition only a few centuries ago, so who knows what is yet to come? If it’s true that the boundaries of what I referred to as ‘the metaphysical situation in which we find ourselves’ are being constantly pushed back by human knowledge, then the place where this is happening at the moment is physics.

So how useful is Lanza’s theory? As far as I can see it definitely falls under the heading of philosophy rather than science, although if what he says about the scaled-up superposition experiment is true then I may be wrong there. Looking at the history of philosophy, it’s really been science, rather than philosophical speculation, which has advanced human knowledge. But, as Bertrand Russell so clearly shows, there has always been a two-way interaction between pure philosophy and every other aspect of life: religion, politics, economics and indeed science. The whole question of whether consciousness produces the world or the other way around has been the subject of philosophical speculation for thousands of years, and Lanza is just the latest of a long line of thinkers who’ve gone for the former option. What’s new in his case is that now, for the first time in history, there is actual scientific data coming into the argument, and indicating that ‘consciousness produces the world’ may well be a more useful way of seeing things than the traditional ‘common sense’ alternative. It’s certainly true that the implications of quantum physics have yet to be taken sufficiently seriously by much of the scientific establishment, never mind the general public, so Lanza may well have a very useful role to play in waking people up to a new reality, even if he tends to cut the occasional corner and jump to the occasional conclusion to achieve this.

What’s also clear is that much of the scientific establishment is very conservative, and that a whole generation of traditionally-minded scientists is going to have to retire and die before his ideas can be taken seriously. To the extent that they are, they may well suggest new hypotheses and inspire new experiments which wouldn’t otherwise have been thought of, and looking back in decades to come we may well see a paradigm shift taking place right now. So yes, in spite of all my criticisms and precautions, Lanza may well turn out to be very influential, and this essay a turning-point in the history of science. I’ll be interested to read his book if and when it comes out.

[I found out later that his book did come out, in 2009, i.e. two years after this essay was published, and that it goes by the name of Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the Universe.]



author Robert Lanza
title A New Theory of the Universe
first published 2007
language English
publisher / version read The American Scholar
read 14/09/2014
download / read online


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