Biocentrism and Other Quantum Mechanical Artifacts

Given the massive scientific, technological and philosophical significance of the great discoveries in the field of quantum mechanics since Max Planck saved us from the Ultraviolet Catastrophe, it’s odd how little of that knowledge has percolated down through even the more educated and well-informed strata of society. Occasionally you might run across someone who’s heard about the quantized energies, quantum states, and quantum numbers that Planck postulated more than a century ago. However, the stunning theories about the wave nature of matter developed by the likes of de Broglie, Schrödinger, Pauli, Heisenberg, and many of the other giants of 20th century physics are usually terra incognita for anyone other than physical scientists. It’s a shame, because the implications of what they revealed to us are profound. Among other things, the purely deterministic universe of classical physics is no more. It is no longer quite so “obvious” that, as so eloquently put by Edward Fitzgerald in his translation of the Rubaiyat,

With earth’s first clay, they did the last man’s knead,
And then of the last harvest sowed the seed,
Yea the first morning of creation wrote,
What the last dawn of reckoning shall read

We have discovered that the reality of the universe does not exactly correspond to the picture our senses present to us, and we are still far from knowing what all this stuff around us really is, and why it exists to begin with. It is a strange reality of fields, wave functions and space and time whose measurements depend on who is doing the measuring. It’s too bad most of us are so unaware of all these developments. There are many good books out there, including some that should be easily comprehensible to an intelligent undergraduate and even high school student, that could clear up a lot of the mystery.  It would be well if our schools devoted more time to teaching some of this material. 

Meanwhile, all sorts of fanciful notions are floating about to charm the unwary and impose on the gullible.  Among these is the idea of biocentrism, according to which the universe has no independent existence, but is created by life, or, more specifically, consciousness, and could not exist without it.  The modern incarnation of this Berkelian universe was recently set forth by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman in a book entitled, “Biocentrism:  How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe.”

A review of the book appears on the website of Discover Magazine with the byline, “Stem-cell guru Robert Lanza presents a radical new view of the universe and everything in it.”  Terms like “radical” and “new” are a bit of a stretch.  Berkelian ideas supposedly informed by quantum discoveries have been around since at least the days when Schrödinger came up with his famous parable of the cat.  We can forgive the authors for a bit of hype though, as it is unlikely that something more realistic, like “hackneyed old view,”  would have encouraged sales of their book.  In any case, according to Lanza,

For centuries, scientists regarded Berkeley’s argument as a philosophical sideshow and continued to build physical models based on the assumption of a separate universe “out there” into which we have each individually arrived. These models presume the existence of one essential reality that prevails with us or without us. Yet since the 1920s, quantum physics experiments have routinely shown the opposite: Results do depend on whether anyone is observing. This is perhaps most vividly illustrated by the famous two-slit experiment. When someone watches a subatomic particle or a bit of light pass through the slits, the particle behaves like a bullet, passing through one hole or the other. But if no one observes the particle, it exhibits the behavior of a wave that can inhabit all possibilities—including somehow passing through both holes at the same time.

Some of the greatest physicists have described these results as so confounding they are impossible to comprehend fully, beyond the reach of metaphor, visualization, and language itself. But there is another interpretation that makes them sensible. Instead of assuming a reality that predates life and even creates it, we propose a biocentric picture of reality. From this point of view, life—particularly consciousness—creates the universe, and the universe could not exist without us.

Here it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Lanza is deliberately imposing on the reader’s credulity.  The only other conclusion is that he simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  The results of the “famous two slit experiment” have been well understood since at least the time that Heisenberg proposed his famous Uncertainty Principle.  It is well known that a measuring device capable of detecting a particle at either of the two slits could not measure its passage without interacting with it, and that if it had sufficient spatial resolution to determine which slit it passed through, it would necessary disturb the particle’s momentum so much that the double-slit interference pattern would be destroyed.  If any “great physicists” are still “confounded” by these results, I would like to know who they are.  How a biocentric view of the universe somehow explains this imaginary paradox is beyond me.  Continuing with Lanza:

In 1997 University of Geneva physicist Nicolas Gisin sent two entangled photons zooming along optical fibers until they were seven miles apart. One photon then hit a two-way mirror where it had a choice: either bounce off or go through. Detectors recorded what it randomly did. But whatever action it took, its entangled twin always performed the complementary action. The communication between the two happened at least 10,000 times faster than the speed of light. It seems that quantum news travels instantaneously, limited by no external constraints—not even the speed of light. Since then, other researchers have duplicated and refined Gisin’s work. Today no one questions the immediate nature of this connectedness between bits of light or matter, or even entire clusters of atoms.

Before these experiments most physicists believed in an objective, independent universe. They still clung to the assumption that physical states exist in some absolute sense before they are measured.

All of this is now gone for keeps.

In the first place, the belief in an objective, independent universe is not the same thing as the assumption that physical states exist in some absolute sense before they are measured.  In the second, “All this” is not gone for keeps in either case.  Such comments have nothing in common with scientific hypotheses.  Rather, they are ideological statements of faith.  Lanza continues with a discussion of the so-called Goldilocks principle:

The strangeness of quantum reality is far from the only argument against the old model of reality. There is also the matter of the fine-tuning of the cosmos. Many fundamental traits, forces, and physical constants—like the charge of the electron or the strength of gravity—make it appear as if everything about the physical state of the universe were tailor-made for life. Some researchers call this revelation the Goldilocks principle, because the cosmos is not “too this” or “too that” but rather “just right for life.”

At the moment there are only four explanations for this mystery. The first two give us little to work with from a scientific perspective. One is simply to argue for incredible coincidence. Another is to say, “God did it,” which explains nothing even if it is true.

The third explanation invokes a concept called the anthropic principle, first articulated by Cambridge astrophysicist Brandon Carter in 1973. This principle holds that we must find the right conditions for life in our universe, because if such life did not exist, we would not be here to find those conditions. Some cosmologists have tried to wed the anthropic principle with the recent theories that suggest our universe is just one of a vast multitude of universes, each with its own physical laws. Through sheer numbers, then, it would not be surprising that one of these universes would have the right qualities for life. But so far there is no direct evidence whatsoever for other universes.

The final option is biocentrism, which holds that the universe is created by life and not the other way around.

Why biocentrism, which explains none of the observed phenomena mentioned in the article, must be considered the “final option” is beyond me.  Allow me to suggest a fifth option:  Our knowledge of the physical universe is imperfect, and, as yet, we lack the physical insight to explain everything we observe or to grasp the physical essence of a universe of which our senses give us but a clouded perception.  While I am not quite as convinced as Einstein that “God does not play dice with the universe,” it seems to me that the words of de Broglie, a great physicist who first proposed the theory of matter waves, are well worth heeding:

We can reasonably accept that the attitude adopted for nearly 30 years by theoretical quantum physicists is, at least in appearance, the exact counterpart of information which experiment has given us of the atomic world. At the level now reached by research in microphysics, it is certain that methods of measurement do not allow us to determine simultaneously all the magnitudes which would be necessary to obtain a picture of the classical type of corpuscles (this can be deduced from Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle), and that the perturbations introduced by the measurement, which are impossible to eliminate, prevent us in general from predicting precisely the result which it will produce and allow only statistical predictions. The construction of purely probabilistic formulae that all theoreticians use today was thus completely justified. However, the majority of them, often under the influence of preconceived ideas derived from positivist doctrine, have thought that they could go further and assert that the uncertain and incomplete character of the knowledge that experiment at its present stage gives us about what really happens in microphysics is the result of a real indeterminacy of the physical states and of their evolution. Such an extrapolation does not appear in any way to be justified. It is possible that looking into the future to a deeper level of physical reality we will be able to interpret the laws of probability and quantum physics as being the statistical results of the development of completely determined values of variables which are at present hidden from us. It may be that the powerful means we are beginning to use to break up the structure of the nucleus and to make new particles appear will give us one day a direct knowledge which we do not now have at this deeper level. To try to stop all attempts to pass beyond the present viewpoint of quantum physics could be very dangerous for the progress of science and would furthermore be contrary to the lessons we may learn from the history of science. This teaches us, in effect, that the actual state of our knowledge is always provisional and that there must be, beyond what is actually known, immense new regions to discover.

Well said by a great physicist and a great thinker, who, in spite of his fame, still had the humility to present his ideas as hypotheses instead of dogmas set forth imperiously as “the final option.”

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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