The Biocentric Universe

A recent article by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman suggests that rather than being the most complex results of essentially physical processes, life, and particularly conscious life, is itself the source of the physical universe. “The universe could not exist without us” is their bold claim. Appealing to the example of the 18th century philosopher George Berkeley but relying primarily on the admittedly odd findings of quantum physics and the so called “fine-tuning of the cosmos” to be compatible with life, Lanza and Berman argue that the usual commonsense view of “an objective, independent universe” is no longer tenable.

The argument from quantum physics is essentially this: if quantum entangled particles can apparently interact nearly instantaneously across vast distances, and if–as Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle dictates–observation itself alters the particle observed, then the idea of an objective reality that is given to our perceptual awareness breaks down. The actual state of objects in the world is in this sense subjectively dependent. That is, the physical world as we think we know it is the product of our consciousness.

As for the apparent “fine-tuning” observable in the universe that allows for the possibility of life as we know it, Lanza and Berman suggest four possible explanations. First, it is all a coincidence. Second, one can attribute the phenomenon to divine agency. The third explanation involves the anthropic principle–the idea that of course we find just the right conditions for life in our universe, because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to ask the question. The fourth explanation is biocentrism, the position of Lanza and Berman. The first two options offer little in terms of a scientific approach to knowledge, while the third option rests on contemporary permutations of the idea – thus far unsupported by direct evidence – of multiple universes, in most of which the right conditions didn’t arise for life.

The potential problems with the biocentric theory are, of course, numerous. For starters, it is not at all clear how on this model the universe could get started without there always being some form of consciousness already operative. This sounds like fertile ground for a natural theology, but Lanza and Berman restrict their attention to the physical and the life sciences – actually attempting to explain the former by means of the latter.

In addition, while it is reasonably clear that space and time do function as key parts of the machinery of our perceptions of the world, and while this does influence what we can possibly observe, this does not necessarily suggest that the external world “out there” is merely a product of our perceptions or cognitions. On the contrary, this state of affairs seems to suggest that we simply cannot know the “external” directly but only always as mediated by our perceptual and conceptual apparatus. If so, on what grounds can we possibly argue that we have figured out the way things “really are?” Shouldn’t the conclusion actually be the more modest, and basically meaningless, claim that conscious life creates consciousness of the universe? It may be that there would be no universe for us without us but that does not necessarily demonstrate that there would be nothing if conscious beings were suddenly to disappear. These, and similar considerations, are all well-worn territory in philosophical circles, and that material is well worth considering alongside Lanza and Berman’s theory. In fact, despite claims to the contrary, there is little truly “new” in the biocentric theory at all. Although they tend not to mention it, much of what Lanza and Berman have to say has already been said by other philosophers, theologians, and scientists.

In addition to the potential philosophical issues with the biocentric theory, the scientific data may not be as suggestive as Lanza and Berman make it seem. While most physicists accept the laboratory results Lanza and Berman cite, the interpretation of these results – especially when the act of human perception or cognition is said to influence physical states – is far from a settled question.

Still, despite these and countless other potential problems, the biocentric theory enjoys increasing attention and it is, somehow, strangely fascinating. Possibly, it is the promise of uniting all scientific understanding under a single theory of reality that makes the idea attractive. Whatever the appeal, the idea deserves – and is sure to receive – further consideration. In particular, the relationship between Lanza and Berman’s biocentrism and religious thought is an area where debate is likely to rage. Religious believers might be imagined to embrace the theory as an avenue for natural theology, or they may shun it as blasphemously promoting human consciousness to the status of divinity. Likewise, since such a theory is heavy on supposed explanation but light on experimental prediction, scientists are likely to see it as a philosophical or even religious theory and not science at all.

For more information on George Berkeley, see here.

For the original Discover Magazine article, see here.

For more information about Lanza and Berman’s Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe (BenBella Books, 2009), see here.

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