Is the centre of the universe in your head?

Underlying some of the consciousness discussion here recently is the fundamental question “Where Is Reality?” — or, in its more provocative version, “Is Reality Real?”

The ongoing debate about the nature of consciousness is in one sense a narrow-focus version of this broader question.

This can be seen in discussions like the short conversation between David Eagleman and Raymond Tallis in The Guardian of April 29th.

And the issue of the origins of reality is central to the mind-twisting “Biocentric Universe Theory” of Robert Lanza. One short version of Lanza’s “it’s all in your mind” neuro-physics was published online by The Huffington Post on November 12th, 2010.

(There are many other versions available online. Lanza is nothing if not eager to communicate his ideas.)

These two articles don’t have any direct connection, but one of the more enjoyable parts of internet life is the chance to yoke together — in an interesting way, one always hopes — several seemingly disparate sources that resonate on reflection. So I propose to let these two articles hook up, and we’ll see where we end up.

In the Guardian article, Eagleman and Tallis briefly highlight their differences. In essence, the conversation summarizes Tallis’s objections to what he calls the “radical thesis” of Eagleman’s book Incognito (reviewed here last July). Tallis accuses Eagleman of limiting the human experience to a mechanical, “zombie” set of brain processes. Rather, Tallis argues, while our mental processes certainly require a brain, they are essentially social experiences, so that studying brain activity is ultimately uninformative. Eagleman agrees that much of our experience is external and social, but he concentrates on how those external interactions change the way the brain works.

In one sense, Eagleman seats consciousness in the brain, while Tallis seats the brain in consciousness. It’s more than a semantic difference — especially if the truly radical ideas of Robert Lanza are correct.

Lanza uses physics to assert the primacy of biology, arguing that the insights of quantum mechanics demonstrate that there is no true external reality — that not only does the universe exist inside our heads, but that our brains create it from moment to moment. His catchphrase is always a version of the notion that “The universe doesn’t create life; life creates the universe.”

Lanza likes to cite The Grand Design, in which Hawking and Mlodinow advocate a “model-dependent realism.” (A number of posts on The Grand Design have appeared here. The January 2011 article “The many worlds of M-theory” concludes with a complete list.)

But Lanza goes further than to suggest that there are different versions of reality. He argues that there are as many realities as there are observers, and that without observers there is no reality at all. In the cited article, he approvingly quotes Nils Bohr: “When we measure something we are forcing an undetermined, undefined world to assume an experimental value. We are not ‘measuring’ the world, we are creating it.”

This is the core idea of biocentrism. Quantum theory tells us that there are no “things,” only probabilities called “wave functions,” until there is an observer. In his version of quantum physics, the act of observation creates the thing it observes, fixing its position or its momentum, neither of which exists as a separate, physical entity until the moment of observation.

From this, he concludes that the Big Bang was not the beginning of the physical universe, but  “the end of the chain of physical causality, not the beginning.”

It’s at best counter-intuitive, and at worst mere gobbledygook, but Lanza tries hard to make sense of its nonsensical character:

Consider everything you see around you right now. Language and custom say it all lies outside us in the external world. Yet you can’t see anything through the vault of bone that surrounds your brain. Your eyes aren’t just portals to the world. In fact, everything you experience, including your body, is part of an active process occurring in your mind. Space and time are simply the mind’s tools for putting it all together.

In his view, the so-called “Goldilocks Effect” is not a conceptual or scientific problem. It’s just the necessary outcome of a universe that depends on us to observe it. If the universe weren’t what we can observe,  it wouldn’t exist, because it couldn’t be observed. Yes, most of Lanza’s writing is as tongue-twisting as this.

It’s tempting to dismiss Lanza as just another word-wrangler, using an above-average language competence to spin mystical self-contradictions into profound insights. Especially since one of his biggest supporters is Deepak Chopra, whose own ideas are just as murky and indistinct.

Still, when the physicist and mysticist speak the same language, something interesting is going on. Maybe nothing profound, but certainly something interesting.

Here’s another of Lanza’s impenetrable statements: “The observer is the first cause, the vital force that collapses not only the present but the cascade of past spatio-temporal events we call evolution.”

In other words, if I understand him at all, Lanza is saying that there is an endless series of moments of observation. These moments are independent and featureless, until our minds process them into what we conceptualize as things and events. The way our minds do this is to create an inner matrix of observations, stitched together in our minds by the purely mental categories we call “space” and “time.” There are no things, there are no events, there is no space, there is no time. There are observations. Our minds create all of the other things when they process those observations.

I think that’s pretty close, but without reading all of Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe — which I don’t propose to do — I can’t be entirely sure.

In a different article, Lanza sums up his theory with this question:

Is the web possible without the spider? Are space and time physical objects that would continue to exist even if living creatures were removed from the scene?

While the Eagleman-Tallis debate and Lanza’s theory may not seem to have much in common, in a way they both address the central question of consciousness: Do we live in here, or in a world out there?

Answer that one, and I suspect that many of the presently intractable problems of science and philosophy will simply dissolve away.

Mind you, I’m not holding my breath.

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One thought on “Is the centre of the universe in your head?

  1. George Sanayana referred to this in his book, Skepticism and Animal faith. I think he reduces the tree falling in the forest idea to a matter of faith that it makes a sound. And extending this premise to it’s ultimate conclusion, physical material reality is indeed real as a consequence of both positions of faith! For even the naysayers don’t neglect eating food!

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