Is Biocentrism worth taking seriously?

Biocentrism is a theory of cosmology proposed by Robert Lanza, a doctor who is chief science officer at ATC (a company that does biomedical research) and an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University's Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which states that the rather than consciousness arising from the universe, the universe arises from consciousness.

All of physics has always assumed, as best we can discern from the available evidence, that the universe exists independently of us. Lanza's theory flips the script, suggesting that consciousness is what produces the universe. He derives the theory from, among other things, the observer effect in quantum mechanics – we can't measure a quantum system without altering it. He takes it a step further and claims that delayed-choice experiments, which I talked about a few posts back, support his theory that the observer affects events that have already happened. Cosmology is full of riddles, and we have a long way to go before we really understand how the universe works. Lanza claims that Biocentrism is essentially a theory of everything that, by placing biology above physics, will reconcile the problems with modern physics.

Like any alternative narrative, it's compelling largely just because of how "out there" it seems. He's claiming that physicists have been getting it all wrong, and that his theory will, in one fell swoop, overturn the life's work of many esteemed physicists and cosmologists.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to be highly skeptical of biocentrism, to the point that I really don't think it's worth taking seriously. The first would be Lanza's qualifications. He's a doctor, not a cosmologist. Quantum mechanics, especially stuff like delayed-choice experiments, is extraordinarily esoteric and complex, and it's all too easy to hastily extrapolate quantum weirdness into the macro world. While Lanza's lack of qualifications don't prove the theory wrong, it's worth raising an eyebrow that a theory purporting to resolve all of the major problems in physics and overturn a century of progress in cosmology is being proposed by someone with no formal training in mathematical physics or cosmology.

But in an interview with Wired, Lanza makes a number of comments that suggest to me he has some fundamental misunderstandings about cosmology.

WN: In your article, you make the assertion that time and space do not exist. What do you mean by that?
Lanza: There is something very unusual about them. We can't put them in a marmalade jar and take them back to the lab for analysis. Space and time are forms of animal sense perception. Space and time are not objects or things -- they are forms of animal sense perception.
Thousands of articles and books have danced around the desire to toss off the current mechanical world view that has dominated Western culture for hundreds of years. While some imply that time and space may not in fact exist, this article diagrams, for the first time, such a universe -- a universe in which time and space do not exist as physical realities independent of humans and animals.
There's a very important and obvious distinction to be made between suggesting that the observer cannot be removed from the universe and suggesting that the universe is an outcome of the observer's consciousness. The observer effect in quantum mechanics posits just that – we can't observe a quantum system without changing it, because "observing" it requires shooting particles at each other. But that is a long way from saying that the system is a product of consciousness. This also raises the obvious question of how consciousness arises in the first place to create the reality around it (the theory must posit some sort of mind-body dualism, which is highly dubious to say the least), and the theory must also answer why all conscious beings observe the same reality.
WN: You seem to disagree with how the world was created.
Lanza: There are serious problems with the current world view. We pride ourselves in our current beliefs and then we (scientists) say, and by the way, we have no idea why the big bang happened.
That's not true. We have lots of ideas about why the big bang happened. We're not sure which one is correct, but we seem to be making a lot of progress. But this isn't really an argument on Lanza's part, aside from an argument from ignorance. There's much we don't understand, and I've yet to read anything by a cosmologist that doesn't fully acknowledge the mountains that lie ahead. That's no justification for suggesting that everything we've learned up to this point is wrong.

I've seen it suggested that biocentrism is more parsimonious than the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is currently the most predominant view. The many-worlds interpretation is essentially what Stephen Hawking talked about in The Grand Design – the idea that the universe has no single past or future, but all possible pasts and futures which are realized in a multiverse. I can see why there might be some temptation to suggest that the idea that the universe arises from consciousness is simpler than suggesting there are, as in string theory, 10500 other universes. But parsimony but be what offers the fewest assumptions consistent with observation. Based on what we know, there's nothing inherently unparsimonious about a multiverse. The necessity of substance dualism in biocentrism is in itself a huge leap from parsimony, as the notion that consciousness can produce reality requires us to rewrite everything we know about both reality and consciousness.

It's an interesting idea, and I think it's great that it's at least being put out there. But since Lanza's publications on the theory, there's been a collective ho-hum from the scientific community. For a theory that purports to turn science on its head, it's a bad sign when the most interested person seems to be Deepak Chopra.

Further reading:

Biocentrism Demystified: A Response to Deepak Chopra and Robert Lanza's Notion of a Conscious Universe 

Dr. Robert Lanza and "biocentrism": Time to get out the paper bag again


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