Biocentrism: putting ourselves (back) on a pedestal
March 10, 2007 7:53 AM   Subscribe

We, the observers: an-entirely-nother approach angle to 'intelligent' design? Robert Lanza, a researcher at Advanced Cell Technology and a professor at Wake Forest, thinks scientists need to privilege life in order to understand the universe (and everything :) by placing the observer at the center (or end?) of it all.
posted by kliuless (35 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The Wired interview was such an uncritical handjob that I can't stand the thought of reading the other articles. Read it first and see if you have a stronger stomach.
posted by grobstein at 8:08 AM on March 10, 2007

The timecube guy got tenure.
posted by phrontist at 8:20 AM on March 10, 2007

I've noticed that scientists and philosophers get each other mixed up from time to time.
posted by musicinmybrain at 8:25 AM on March 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed the first linked article, (The American Scholar), it's fun to read, but I kept thinking about something Steven Hawkings once said about stuff like this, in effect he said, we can come up with all kinds of different ideas of space/time and reality, but if we cant test these ideas, poke them and demonstrate any cause and effect, then they are of no value to him and he cant waste his time with them. I agree with Hawkins on that, but I also enjoy these outside-the-envelope ideas. There is a lot of new interest in the ideas of the brain and how it maybe "the" cause of the collapse of the quantum wave. Fun stuff to read.
posted by BillsR100 at 8:32 AM on March 10, 2007

"In cosmology, scientists have discovered that the universe has a long list of traits that make it appear as if everything it contains -- from atoms to stars -- was tailor-made for us,"

It looks as though research funding controlled by conservative true believers caused that sentence to come into existence.
posted by Brian B. at 8:40 AM on March 10, 2007

Wow, he rediscovered the strong anthromorphic principal! Nice!
posted by Justinian at 8:46 AM on March 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

the strong anthromorphic principal
"The Universe must have those properties which allow furries to develop within it at some stage in its history."
posted by Wolfdog at 8:53 AM on March 10, 2007 [7 favorites]

yeah, yeah strong anthropic principal.
posted by Justinian at 9:11 AM on March 10, 2007

Robert Rosen Essays on Life Itself.
posted by psyche7 at 9:21 AM on March 10, 2007

yeah, yeah strong anthropic principal
"Our classrooms and teachers must have those properties which allow children to develop..."
posted by Wolfdog at 9:26 AM on March 10, 2007 [5 favorites]

I guess a strong anthropic principal would be a more desirable employee than a strong simian or, heaven forfend, crocodilian principal, to use one obvious example.
posted by clockzero at 9:28 AM on March 10, 2007 [3 favorites]

"In cosmology, scientists have discovered that the universe has a long list of traits that make it appear as if everything it contains -- from atoms to stars -- was tailor-made for us," he writes. "Indeed, the lack of a scientific explanation has allowed these facts to be hijacked as a defense of intelligent design."

Exactly. Right down to the puddles in the road containing the exact shapes of water to fit the holes. How does science explain that?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:29 AM on March 10, 2007 [12 favorites]

A New Theory of the Universe

I have to admit I only skimmed the first article. Lots of the criticism was interesting, lots tedious, and some even comical. Where is the new theory?
posted by Chuckles at 9:33 AM on March 10, 2007

I hate you all.
posted by Justinian at 9:36 AM on March 10, 2007

I haven't read such a load of pseudo-scientific philosophical claptrap since someone linked to that "Tenth Dimension" Flash site a few months back. And at least that one got to the point fairly quickly.

His central thesis seems to be that time and space are merely functions of consciousness, and that there is no objective way to measure how we perceive time. He dismisses the notions of space and time that physicists have come up with as "tortuous mathematical properties [of] an invisible, intangible entity that cannot be seen or touched."

The only problem with this point of view Einstein's relativity hangs together on a very fundamental level. It tells me that if I toss an object into the air, it'll accelerate towards the ground at 9.8 m/s2. It tells me that if I launch an object upwards at a sufficiently high velocity, it will go into orbit. It tells me that if I put a clock on this object, the clock will run slightly slower because it's farther out of the gravitational well of the Earth. Every single time these "tortuous mathematical properties" of space and time have been tested, they've turned out to be true. I can't see how it's possible to explain these results and simultaneously deny some objective reality to the notions of space and time. Just because something is complicated doesn't give you a right to deny its existence; to take an example from something in Lanza's field, I think that cellular meiosis is extremely complicated, but I indirectly see its effects every day and so I'm not going to doubt that it has some fundamental reality.

As far as quantum mechanics goes, Lanza seems to be enamored with the idea that consciousness is somehow required to make sense of quantum mechanics. As I read the article, I kept waiting for him to invoke Wigner, and sure enough, he did, about two-thirds of the way through the article. However, he never mentions the current point of view of most physicists, namely quantum decoherence. Under Lanza's interpretation, the vial of poison is either smashed or intact because of the consciousness of the cat within the box; but what decoherence tells us is that a ten-pound bag of flour would have the exact same effect on the quantum state of the box. This kind of quantum "leakage" into the larger world also explains the "spooky action at a distance" ideas that Bell's inequalities predicted, without any need for some mystical invocation of instantaneous communication.

For all we know, consciousness could have something to do with the problems currently faces by modern physics. But science has been ticking along quite nicely without a need for a privileged position in the Universe, a privileged state of motion, or a privileged observer; indeed, some of the greatest advances in science of the past four hundred years have been made when a scientist adopted the "principle of mediocrity" and decided to put everything, including us, on an equal footing. Just because we have a few problems remaining to solve doesn't mean that we need to reject this guiding principle.

On preview: wow, this is long. I probably shouldn't have spent so much time on it, but it does get my goat when non-physicists pull out some distorted version of the coolest stuff in my field, and either metaphorically clap it in stocks and throw rotten vegetables at it or (what's worse) take it as proof for a wacky idea that clashes with dozens of other fundamental ideas in physics. I suppose it comes with the territory...
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:47 AM on March 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

forgot the batshitinsane tag.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:49 AM on March 10, 2007


(At this point, everything goes into OMNIDIMENSIONS.)
posted by adamgreenfield at 10:06 AM on March 10, 2007

First thought: "metaphysical, and metaphorical wankery".

Second thought: There are two "natures", one outside the mind the real world which we cannot perceive, and another "inside" the mind which is the sum of perceptions. This is a prescription for building a new model of the internal "nature" Science, though history has not been an attempt to understand the external nature, but to understand and refine the internal nature, which can be changed by new ideas. The ideal sought was to have an internal representation that matched external nature as closely as possible. What this guy is doing is proposing a new framework for understanding that actually takes us away from that view.

In any event I'm quite happy with my internal representation (a more commonly used term might be "worldview") and so I don't really think I need to read though all this. Seems silly and pointless.
posted by delmoi at 10:32 AM on March 10, 2007

Wow, he rediscovered the strong anthromorphic principal! Nice!

You're thinking of the Anthropic principle. Intrestingly, I tried to look up "anthropomorphic principal" on wikipedia long ago and got some crazy religious stuff instead. Maybe the article was just incorrect at the time (a couple years ago)
posted by delmoi at 10:37 AM on March 10, 2007

Terry Pratchett uses the concept of the anthropomorphic principle a lot. Typically as an explanation of the existence of Death and the Tooth Fairy.

But yeah, anthropic principle. I'm betting that is what Justinian meant.
posted by quin at 10:56 AM on March 10, 2007

I agree with all above posters who characterized the article as metaphysical gobbledygook based on skimming some articles on quantum mechanics.

I don't believe consciousness has any role to play in the formation of reality, but if you want to read a theory that claims it does, read Penrose's "The Emperor's New Mind," not this article.
posted by justkevin at 11:35 AM on March 10, 2007

"The Emperor's New Mind" is just as goofy as this biocentrism crap.
posted by bhnyc at 12:35 PM on March 10, 2007

Savor the void!
posted by Anything at 12:37 PM on March 10, 2007

It's like a What the Bleep Do We Know for people who do a little casual reading now and then. I couldn't bare to wade my way through the whole thing.

Everything "argument" put forward seems to be a variation on this theme:

Modern science cannot explain why the laws of physics are exactly balanced for animal life to exist.


the laws of the world were somehow created to produce the observer.

Come to think of it, it's just a crazy coincidence that my parents met and gave birth to me. And that coincidence was based on so many other coincidences -- the whole unfolding of history, in fact. So I really AM the center of everything! Explain THAT, science!

And, oh, I really hate it when pop "philosophy" tries to give an air of legitimacy to it's untenable conclusions by saying things like "Descartes, Kant, etc., were all hip what I'm saying! Cogito ergo sum! Get it?" (I suppose I should just be thankful that he didn't try to rally Wittgenstein to his cause).
posted by treepour at 1:41 PM on March 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Right down to the puddles in the road containing the exact shapes of water to fit the holes. How does science explain that?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium

posted by lyam at 2:09 PM on March 10, 2007

MY umwelt is better than yours.
posted by exlotuseater at 2:44 PM on March 10, 2007

In cosmology, scientists have discovered that the universe has a long list of traits that make it appear as if everything it contains -- from atoms to stars -- was tailor-made for us,"

In space, no one can hear you scream.
posted by disgruntled at 3:47 PM on March 10, 2007

was tailor-made for us

Talk about putting the cart before the horse. We are tailor-made for it.

We are a long line of evolutionary adaptations created in response to the universe. Were the universe somewhat different, our adaptations would have been different... but the view would look the same: it would look like the universe "had been made for us."
posted by five fresh fish at 5:16 PM on March 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

8230;imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 8216;This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn8217;t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!8217;

This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it8217;s still frantically hanging onto the notion that everything8217;s going to be all right, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.

    8212; Douglas Adams (as quoted by Richard Dawkins in his eulogy for Adams)
posted by BaxterG4 at 6:26 PM on March 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

posted by BaxterG4 at 6:27 PM on March 10, 2007

His central thesis seems to be that time and space are merely functions of consciousness, and that there is no objective way to measure how we perceive time.

Even in my admittedly shallow and untrained understanding of philosophy, I've encountered this concept a few times. And it always leads me to thinking along the lines of "if that is so, why do we spend so much of our time creating complications, conflicting rules, and arbitrary structures that seem to exist only to torture ourselves? A sane mind wouldn't create a DMV, or a Tax Department, or War - let alone "time" and "space" to contain them - would it? Maybe the sociopaths are on to something ..."
posted by Pinback at 6:52 PM on March 10, 2007

Everyone knows that nothing exists until it's linked to from Mefi.

As for this particular expedition into the dark continent of semi-scientific mysticism, it doesn't have a single new idea in its purdy liddle heid. How to get around the problem that consciousness is necessary for matter, yet matter is necessary for consciousness? Why, then: time and space must be unknowable illusions, causality doubly so. Gee, thanks for that.

This is all harmless, possibly even beneficial. Science is very bad at recognising that the universe _is_ biocentric, at least to every observer on the planet. There is nothing in my world closer to me than me, and everything else is out there at varying distances. Science has done an incredible job in putting another perspective on things, one that is arguably more useful, valuable and with infinitely more potential. Possibly even more 'true' (well, I think so).

But it doesn't nullify the worldview everyone has hard-wired in, and the apparent discrepancies can't be wished away. That's more an issue for the philosophers and anthropologists of science than the quantum bods, but science is a human endeavour. Pieces like that in the OP may be fluffy bunkum, but they illustrate that.

And they may encourage the curious with both mystic and rational tendencies to test them one against the other and see which wins (certainly the case during the Devonian childhood, when von Daniken and Sagan battled it out in the brainpan. It was never going to be a fair fight...).
posted by Devonian at 5:36 AM on March 11, 2007

Interesting quotation BaxterG4. My comment was original--I had not read that before. Convergence, rather than coincidence, however. Toxic sludge will fill the hole and worship the god who made the world so perfectly sludgeworthy.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:13 AM on March 11, 2007

yeah, i was thinking it was confused claptrap, a mishmash of other peoples' (better formulated) ideas too :P and i was ready to be dismissive... but i kept thinking at its core in essence, and why it was apparently allowed to be published, was a critique of a failure to interpret basic, observed, fundamental physical phenomena; kinda like dark energy! altho i'd like to learn more about "leakage"* which i find intriguing :D

failure is probably too strong a word, but i'm reminded of chaitin's "random truths"**

posted by kliuless at 4:27 AM on March 13, 2007

kliuless just wanted an eponysterical mention.
posted by squarehead at 9:25 PM on March 13, 2007

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