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Is Reality Just What We Think It Is?

Biocentrism

The human mind, by its nature, strives to know everything. But just because we have the desire to know everything, our reach often exceeds a sure grasp of reality, and we fall into fantasy. So it is with Robert Lanza's Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe which offers a new and elaborate form of solipsism. The universe and everything in it, Lanza asserts confidently, exists because we perceive it. In his words, "the observer creates reality, and not the other way around." The moon exists only when we are looking at it. When we walk out of the kitchen, and turn our mind elsewhere, the kitchen is no longer there.

Here is Lanza's argument in a kind of syllogistic nutshell. On the smallest level, the submicroscopic level of quantum mechanics, our attempts to measure the location or momentum of subatomic particles results in a strange paradox. Particles exhibit both the qualities of particles and waves, although not both at once. They seem to be potentially both, but become actually one or the other only when we attempt to measure them. But we can only measure them either as waves or particles, but not both at once. The way we measure them determines the way they act.

Imagine it this way. You are on one side of a wall and a bit of light exists on the other. The wall has two doors, three feet apart, so you can't look through both at once. One door is marked "particle" and the other is marked "wave." You open the "particle" door, and the light acts like a particle. You slam the door shut, and run quickly to open the other door, and lo and behold, it now acts like a wave.

Therefore, concludes Lanza, the act of observing, of attempting to measure the light, actually causes it to move from a fuzzy state of probability (potentially either a particle or wave), to a crisp state of reality (actually either a particle or wave). In more technical, mathematical terms, observation causes the light to move from a wave function probability, to a wave function collapse. And so (brace yourself for a syllogistic leap), since everything is made of particles, then everything no matter how large—the moon, your kitchen, the universe—exists in a state of fuzzy probability until someone observes it.

Lanza buttresses his argument that our perception causes reality by several, more familiar arguments from ancient and modern skeptics that purport to show that "reality" should be kept in quotes. Things aren't really colored; color is merely the way our visual system paints things. There is no sound; what we call sound is only the effect that vibrations have on our ear. Given the vast empty spaces inside atoms, things made of atoms are not solid, but mostly space; we perceive things as solid only because we are too large to see the vast empty subatomic spaces. Furthermore, space and time aren't real entities outside us, but constructions from within us, helping us to divide up and order our experiences.

And so we come to the title of Lanza's book. Since we are biological beings, and our observation causes reality to appear (or at least to crystallize), the universe is therefore biocentric. In fact, Lanza proclaims, the universe appears to be so finely-tuned for life, especially for intelligent life, precisely because we are the ones that order it by our perception. Of course it seems to be made for intelligent perceivers. We are the ones creating it by our perception!

What to make of such an argument? Lanza is fantastically intelligent, but as with so many others similarly blessed, it leads him into fantasy. On the most practical level, Lanza's argument fails the bullet test. If Lanza's argument were true, then a bullet fired at someone would only kill him if he perceived it, and thereby brought the bullet from a fuzzy state of potentiality, to an actual state of penetrating his skull.

On a more theoretical level, Lanza suffers from a confusion of levels of reality. What is true on one level of reality does not necessarily pertain to another. The strangle paradoxes of quantum mechanics do not appear on the macroscopic level. We don't have a problem with measuring both the position and momentum of a bullet, in the same way that we have a problem measuring both the position and momentum of a subatomic particle.

The philosophical error at the bottom of Lanza's confusion of levels of reality is reductionist materialism. According to such reductionism, only atoms are real (or, peeling down further, only subatomic particles). If atoms aren't colored, then nothing has color. If atoms don't smell, odor isn't real. If atoms aren't solid, then all solidity vanishes. If subatomic particles behave in strange ways, then all appearances to the contrary, everything else really acts like subatomic particles.

But it ain't so. The truth is that each layer of reality, from the microscopic to the macroscopic, has its own integrity, building upon the layers below it even while it reveals its own amazing and real properties. Atoms are smaller than a wavelength of light, therefore they can't have color, but atoms in large, ordered aggregations are big enough to reflect light, and so make possible the reality of being colored. Solidity is not found on an atomic level, but the atomic level makes real solidity possible on the macroscopic realm. We calculate the position and momentum of ordinary objects all the time, from a baseball thrown by a pitcher or a missile shot from the deck of a warship, to the orbit of the moon or the schedule of a train. In fact, it is precisely the stability, solidity, and predictability of the macroscopic world that allows us to set up experimental equipment to measure the strange paradoxes of the submicroscopic world. The paradoxes are real, but then again, so are we, the equipment, the moon, the kitchen, and the universe.
 
 
Originally posted at To the Source. Used with author's permission.

Dr. Benjamin Wiker

Written by

Dr. Benjamin Wiker is, first of all, a husband and a father of seven children. He graduated from Furman University with a B.A. in Political Philosophy. He has an M.A. in Religion and a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics, both from Vanderbilt University. Dr. Wiker taught full time for thirteen years, first at Marquette University, then St. Mary's University (MN), Thomas Aquinas College (CA), and finally Franciscan University (OH). During these many years, he offered a wide variety of courses in philosophy, theology, history, the history and philosophy of science, the history of ethics, the Great Books, Latin, and even mathematics. He is now a full-time writer and speaker, with eleven books published including 10 Books That Screwed Up the World: And 5 Others That Didn't Help (Regnery, 2008); The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin (Regnery, 2009); and Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins' Case Against God (Emmaus Road, 2008). Some of Benjamin's books are also integrated into the Logos software. Follow Dr. Wiker at BenjaminWiker.com.

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  • Great article! I'd probably have to read the book to clarify this, but I'm confused about Dr. Wiker's assessment of Lanza's philosophical error as being one of "reductive materialism." To me, this whole argument reeks of the opposite tendency from Plato to Berkeley: epistemological idealism - "the real is rational, and the rational is real." How could Lanza base his argument on consciousness if he's reduced the world to exclude it? Or am I missing something?

    Whatever the case, to my mind the "middle way" out of the quagmire of realism-vs.-idealism is phenomenology (Husserl, Heidegger, Edith Stein, i.e. St. Benedicta of the Cross), which treats phenomena as consisting of both an "I-pole" (noesis) and "object-pole" (noema). As David Bentley Hart put it recently:

    We're confronted by two mysterious at once, or you might say two poles of a single mystery. No less wonderful than the being of things is our consciousness of them...being is transparent to mind, mind is transparent to being, each is open to the other, fitted to the other, contained in and contained by the other, each is the mysterious mirror in which the other shines, revealed not in itself but in reflecting and being reflected by the other...it's impossible to create a causal model that reduces one to the other."

    • hillclimber

      Awesome quote. This illuminates for me some mistakes (tending toward idealism) that I know I make in the way that I talk about this stuff.

      I am mostly unread in philosophy (at least since college 20 years ago), but I want in on this phenomenology stuff. You mention a few authors … what is a good place to start?

      • Hey hillclimber -

        If you can stand the awful 70s colors, start by checking out this 5-section video of Hubert Dreyfus talking about Husserl and Heidegger: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aaGk6S1qhz0

        Phenomenology begins with Husserl's call to return to "the things themselves," but he later takes a turn toward idealism and a Cartesian "bracketing" of the real world "out there." His followers rejected this move, especially Heidegger who focused on "being in the world." Other thinkers to look into include Merleau-Ponty, Roman Ingarden, Edith Stein ("On the Problem of Empathy" was her dissertation under Husserl), and Jean-Luc Marion. Happy reading!

        • hillclimber

          Thanks very much Matt, I will check that out tonight.

          To me the idealist perspective is poetically expressed in the statement that "God the Father created the Universe [including mere humans like Mary the mother of Jesus]", and the realist perspective is poetically expressed in the claim that a mere human named Mary was "The Mother of God" (a finite real thing giving birth to the infinite). Jesus seems to express both perspectives at once. Have others presented these readings of the Christian story in the phenom literature?

    • David Nickol

      In a review (Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research 1 (4): 468–470) which can be downloaded here, Stephen P. Smith, Ph.D., Visiting Scientist, Physics Department, University Of California at Davis, says:

      Without saying it, Lanza is found endorsing a type of idealism (the belief that mind is fundamental), seemingly as extreme as George Berkeley`s idealism. It is this idealism that Lanza calls "biocentrism," and it is the wellspring of life.

      I think Benjamin Wiker's criticisms of the book are misguided and his statements about what it contains probably are not to be relied on. I am not sure what his underlying objections to the book are, but for the theist vs. atheist debate, I think Biocentrism is extremely compatible with theism. For the atheism (or most atheists) mind is an accident and the result of evolution. For Biocentrism, mind is the fundamental principle of existence without which there would be no reality.

      • Geena Safire

        These are some other books Wiker doesn't like, from his book, 10 Books that Screwed Up the World, and Five Others that Didn't Help

        * Machiavelli's The Prince

        * Descartes' Discourse on Method

        * Hobbes' Leviathan

        * Marx and Engels's Communist Manifesto

        * Darwin's The Descent of Man

        * Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil

        * Hitler's Mein Kampf

        * Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa

        * Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior

        * Hobbes' Leviathan (not sure about this one, web source unclear.)

        • David Nickol

          Regnery, the publisher of 10 Books That Screwed Up the World and The

          Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin has a conservative agenda. They also published The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design by "Jonathan Wells, a microbiologist with two Ph.D.s (from Berkeley and Yale)," which "unmasks the truth about Darwinism–why it is wrong and what the real evidence is." They also published Wells' book Icons of Evolution ("Everything you were taught about evolution is wrong. Icons of Evolution will light the fires of controversy and provide a brutally honest report of who what we’ve truly discovered about evolution in recent years.") Regnery also published in 1998 Inventing the AIDS Virus by Peter Duesberg, which "challenges the widely accepted belief that HIV is the cause of AIDS."

          • Interesting, but I don't see how this is relevant. Let's focus on Dr. Wiker's article and his points instead of the apparent agenda of his book publisher.

      • Man of the Hour

        Biocentricism, in my opinion, works best with atheism. If there is just a wavefunction evolving endlessly and unintelligently, the second it produces consciousness, the entire past collapses from there. Biocentricism then is not remotely idealism, but as it were, solipsistic materialism, of the same sort as the proponents of the weak anthropogenic principle, only much worse.

  • A humorous short video response to Lanza's kind of thinking: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8aWBcPVPMo

    Wiker says:

    Lanza is fantastically intelligent, but as with so many others similarly blessed, it leads him into fantasy.

    Coming from an Intelligent Design advocate, this seems to be a good example of the pot calling the kettle black.

    • David Nickol

      I'm not sure Feynman (whom I respect tremendously) does justice to the question. For example, it takes a little over 8 minutes for light from the sun to reach the earth. That means that if the sun were to wink out of existence (very unlikely!), and we looked up in the sky a minute later, there would be about 7 minutes in which we would perceive the sun, but it would not exist.

      The question is perhaps phrased badly, because "seeing the steak" really means (in many respects) "seeing the light from the steak." We understand that seeing is perceiving the light reflected off of something, and having that light processed by the eye, the optic nerve, and the brain. So there is a false distinction between seeing something and seeing the light from something. (That is, if you don't want to go deeply into the philosophy and physiology of perception.)

      It sounds to me like what Lanza does is take a perfectly respectable and defensible position to an indefensible extreme. A lot of what we perceive depends on us, not on the things perceived.

      • But it wouldn't be perceived if the thing wasn't there. We can waste a lot of time worrying about why we perceive what's there, or we can actually work on what's there. I prefer to spend my time on the latter issue.

        • David Nickol

          But it wouldn't be perceived if the thing wasn't there.

          People do see things that aren't there, or aren't what they seem to be, all the time, for many different reasons. In fact, I gave a hypothetical example in my message above. Given that it takes a small but finite amount of time for light reflected from a steak to reach the hungry philosopher's eyes, and a considerably longer time to be processed by the brain as an image, and some additional time for the brain to identify it as steak, the philosopher isn't perceiving what is there. He's perceiving what was there. Getting nitpicky about such things has real practical importance in some cases. For example, if human beings didn't "see" things that weren't there, we would see a series of still pictures alternating with a blank screen following each picture when we went to the movies.

          I certainly agree that to a person eating a steak, whether he or she is a philosopher, or a neurobiologist, or a physicist, it's a pointless question when it comes to dining. I agree that the philosophy of science is of no help to a "practicing" scientist. But I don't think it is foolish for philosophy to deal with such questions, or for philosophers to ponder questions about the philosophy of science.

      • Interesting relativistic complication: it's not just that light has a certain speed, it's that the speed of light is the speed at which causation propogates through space. If the sun winked out of existence, both the sun's light and that moment that it winked out of existence would take 8 minutes to get to us. There's fundamentally an eight-minute gap between the instantaneous "now" at the sun and the instantaneous "now" at the earth. For any timespan shorter than 8 minutes, the sun and the earth are virtually in different universes. It's only timespans longer than 8 minutes that encompass both the earth and the sun.

    • Paul - Wasn't Feynman involved with the Manhattan Project? Can we really conclude with him, looking back on history, that "philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds"?

      I don't mind scientists calling out pseudo-science where it rears its ugly head - in fact, I depend on it, because I'm not a scientist - and for all I know Lanza qualifies. (I also love a good joke and don't mean to get all serious on you in reply.) But disparaging the philosophy of science (or all of philosophy for that matter) under the pretense that it's similarly "dopey" strikes me as a imperious and ultimately dangerous attitude.

      • David Nickol

        I think it would be off topic to debate this, but I don't think having worked for the Manhattan Project "taints" anything Feynman (or anyone else who worked for it) says, particularly if you don't know what their feelings were about the project and about it's aftermath. Here is a video of Feynman on the topic.

        You seem to imply that the philosophy of science would have had some bearing on whether or not to create (or drop) the atomic bomb, and I don't think that is correct. I think Feynman is essentially correct in his remark about the philosophy of science. For example, an important topic in the philosophy of science is whether you can rely absolutely on the future resembling the past—that is, the problem of induction.

        The original problem of induction can be simply put. It concerns the support or justification of inductive methods; methods that predict or infer, in Hume's words, that “instances of which we have had no experience resemble those of which we have had experience” (THN, 89). Such methods are clearly essential in scientific reasoning as well as in the conduct of our everyday affairs. The problem is how to support or justify them and it leads to a dilemma: the principle cannot be proved deductively, for it is contingent, and only necessary truths can be proved deductively. Nor can it be supported inductively—by arguing that it has always or usually been reliable in the past—for that would beg the question by assuming just what is to be proved.

        It is a fascinating question for philosophers of science and for philosophy in general, but it is a waste of time for working scientists. I don't think ethical questions, per se, fall within the realm of the philosophy of science. Of course scientists should consider the moral implications and ramifications of their work, and I don't think Feynman would disagree at all. But that would be ethics, not philosophy of science.

      • There are dopey philosophical questions and non-dopey philosophical questions. The question of whether the universe exists when not perceived is dopey. It is a stupid question to ask.

  • Sqrat

    On the most practical level, Lanza's argument fails the bullet test. If
    Lanza's argument were true, then a bullet fired at someone would only
    kill him if he perceived it, and thereby brought the bullet from a fuzzy
    state of potentiality, to an actual state of penetrating his skull.

    Does the Catholic notion of the soul pass the bullet test?

    • Can you give an example? The Catholic notion of the soul is, I think, "the form of the body", which would seem to exist even when the body is unconscious.

      • Sqrat

        All I know is what it says in the Catechism (363): " In Sacred Scripture the term 'soul' often refers to human life or the entire human person. But 'soul' also refers to the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God’s image: 'soul' signifies the spiritual principle in man.

        But also, of course, 366: The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God—it is not 'produced' by the parents—and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection."

        • I have trouble imagining what the bullet argument would look like for souls, so defined. Can you help me out with a version of the bullet argument for souls? Sorry if I'm being dense.

          • Sqrat

            What effect, if any, does a bullet to the head have on a person's soul?

          • The soul I suppose involves self-awareness. If someone is shot in the head, presumably, they are at some point aware of it. That would be an effect. Even to end self-awareness is an effect.

          • Sqrat

            What do you mean when you say that the soul "involves" self-awareness? That it possesses awareness of itself?

            Whether "the innermost aspect of man, that which of greatest value to him" (one of the definitions of "soul" offered in the Catechism) is something that could in any way "involve" self-awareness is far from clear. If "soul" means "human life or the entire human person" (the other definition offered in the Catechism, based on "Sacred Scripture"), then perhaps. However my atheistic understanding of "human life" is that a bullet to the head that kills me terminates my "human life" and thus also terminates whatever self-awareness I might possess. If the bullet does not kill me, but instead leaves me in a temporary coma, I have likewise lost my self-awareness, even if only temporarily.

          • Raphael

            Only sin can harm your soul.

    • Man of the Hour

      In that conception, the bullet would kill the person, but the soul would still exist to find out about it, allowing for collapse, and ultimately escaping the ridiculous solipsistic notion that your body is necessary for reality to exist.

  • David Nickol

    This is a challenging post to react to in that we have someone who is outside the mainstream (Benjamin Wiker) reviewing the work of someone who is also outside the mainstream (Robert Lanza). If Wiker is reporting accurately that Lanza really believes "the universe and everything in it . . . exists because we perceive it,' then of course that is nonsense, since we know the universe to be about 13.8 billion years old, and "we" have been around (depending on whom you regard as "we") for the last 100,000 years. The Andromeda Galaxy is about 2.5 million light years from earth, so the light we are seeing from it now originated 2.5 million years ago. Does that mean it didn't exist before we saw the light? And where did the light come from if the Andromeda Galaxy didn't exist to shine 2.5 million years ago so that we could see it today?

    Indeed, human beings as observers have been around for an infinitesimal fraction of the lifetime of the universe, so most of what has happened in the universe (unless there are other intelligent life forms to observe) happened unobserved. Does that mean it didn't happen?

    So Wiker has good reason, it seems to me, to scoff at Lanza. However, there are a number of things Wiker says that strike me as serious misunderstandings.

    If Lanza's argument were true, then a bullet fired at someone would only
    kill him if he perceived it, and thereby brought the bullet from a
    fuzzy state of potentiality, to an actual state of penetrating his
    skull.

    To be hit in the head with a bullet is to perceive it. Perception is more than vision.

    We don't have a problem with measuring both the position and momentum of
    a bullet, in the same way that we have a problem measuring both the
    position and momentum of a subatomic particle.

    Oh yes, we do! The Uncertainty Principle holds for a bullet the same as for an electron. It is just that a bullet is enormous compared to a subatomic particle. I found this, for example (in which I have changed the notation):

    Also notice that the uncertainty principle is unimportant to macroscopic objects since Planck's constant, h, is so small 10^-34. For example, the uncertainty in position of a thrown baseball is 10^-30 millimeters.

    Wiker says, "What is true on one level of reality does not necessarily pertain to another." He is quite wrong in his example, just as he would be wrong to say that Einstein's theory of relativity does not apply to a bullet. It definitely does. It's just that the effects are so small that Newtonian physics is more than sufficient in calculating the motion and mass of a bullet. What does he mean by "levels of reality," one wonders? Where is the cutoff point between baseballs and subatomic particles?

    Atoms are smaller than a wavelength of light, therefore they can't have
    color, but atoms in large, ordered aggregations are big enough to
    reflect light, and so make possible the reality of being colored.

    This strikes me as a rather unsophisticated view of color. It seems to me that color is truly dependent on perception. Before there was any life in the universe with visual capabilities, there was no such thing as color. If there were no intelligent beings in the universe that perceived electromagnetic waves in the narrow band we call visible light, there would be no color. Mars would reflect electromagnetic waves that are perceived by human eyes as reddish, but without human eyes, there is no such thing as "reddish." There are just wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. Much the same thing is true of sound. That is why we have the famous question, "If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" A very defensible answer is "no." It would produce the waves in the air that human beings perceive as sound, but if there are no ears to hear a sound, a very good argument can be made that there is no sound.

    Of course, I have not read Lanza's book, but I can only conclude from this post that Lanza is wrong, but Wiker is criticizing Lanza for the wrong reasons.

    • Argon

      "Atoms are smaller than a wavelength of light, therefore they can't have color, but atoms in large, ordered aggregations are big enough to reflect light, and so make possible the reality of being colored."

      I didn't get that either. Individual atoms can have absorption and emission bands in the visible wavelengths. They may not absorb well but viewing through enough atoms you might actually see some color. It's not the size of the atom or molecule per se that strongly determines its interactions with light. For example, chlorine gas (Cl2) appears yellow-green but the molecule is about 400 picometers across (vs. ~200 pm in the free Cl atom). Yet the visible spectrum for humans covers the 390 - 700 nanometer range, wavelengths three orders of magnitude greater than the individual chlorine atom or molecule. For additional comparison, hemoglobin is about 6 nm in diameter and a virus typically runs in the 75 nm range.

      What really matters (for visible wavelengths) are the spacing of the electronic transition bands and (I may remember hazily) the dipole strength.

      All that said, I'm not sure where I see reductionism bringing the book down. After all, he's got Deepak Chopra as a fan. From reading his other essays, I think the problem is undue reliance on very speculative interpretations of quantum mechanics. Lanza may be a well published biological researcher but perhaps this area of obsession isn't his field of expertise. Grand unified theories of everything rarely work out, especially "quantum consciousness" explanations. And these things are probably best decided in physics journals & physics meetings rather than The Huffington Post..

  • Linda

    I feel like this says: The Universe exists because I perceive it, which kind of then makes me the Center of the Universe.

    And then it seems to prove the point that the Universe really was designed just for us lowly humans.

  • Andrew G.

    Classic fallacy of division on Wiker's part (why is it always the fallacies of composition and division that are so popular with theist philosophers?)

    Only quantum fields (subatomic particles and their forces) are real, as far as we know. These are too small to have colour (in the sense of reflected spectrum of light - obviously photons can have colour of their own). Consider the following possible argument from those premises:

    A1. Since colour obviously exists, that means the premises are false, and something must exist-in-reality that is not reducible to quantum fields.

    This argument commits the fallacy of division by failing to consider the fact that a collection of particles can have colour even though none of its constituents does, AND that the interactions that produce the property of colour in the collection are fully explained by the quantum behaviour (requiring no appeal to additional entities).

    Most "reductionism is wrong" arguments have either this problem, or a related one caused by treating emergence as magical woo rather than simply the result of the normal operation of the lower-level laws.

    (Lanza of course is also spouting nonsense, but his nonsense is not especially relevant to the topic of this site.)

    • David Nickol

      I am rather amazed there has been so little response to this post. There is so much to criticize! For example, Wiker mocks the idea that "things aren't really colored; color is merely the way our visual system paints things." It seems quite a defensible defensible statement to me, especially in light of the (probably unanswerable) philosophical question of whether two people, when they both identify an object as red, are actually experiencing the same thing. Perhaps one's subjective, conscious experience (i.e., quale, singular of qualia) of redness is what the other would call greenness, except he always had that subjective, conscious experience when he looks at red. So he calls it red.

      I wouldn't say that color is an innate property of material things. Certainly different objects absorb some parts of what we call the visible spectrum and reflect others. And they would do so if there were no human beings to look at them. But if there were no human beings, there would be no color red. Spiders and bees can see ultraviolet light, but humans cannot. Is ultraviolet a color? Is infrared a color? It can be detected "visually" by infrared film and infrared goggles and translated into something humans can see, but if we consider infrared and ultraviolet colors, then it would seem we have to consider the whole electromagnetic spectrum a kind of rainbow of billions and billions of colors that we can't see.

      Perhaps the lack of comments is due to the fact that the OP contains no theist vs. atheist content to speak of.

      • Andrew G.

        When the one says "yes" and the other says "no" to the question of the sound of a tree falling in an uninhabited forest, they are not disagreeing over anything that exists in the real world, they are only disagreeing over what the word "sound" means.

        Likewise, colour is a related set of concepts which normally correspond closely enough to each other that we don't have to sweat the fine differences in most contexts. But there is no point in trying to play definitional games with it; if you want to draw finer distinctions, then use more specific terminology rather than trying to artificially limit the usage of existing words.

        • David Nickol

          When the one says "yes" and the other says "no" to the question of the sound of a tree falling in an uninhabited forest, they are not disagreeing over anything that exists in the real world . . . .

          But in the real world, there is a difference between a tree falling in the forest with no one there, and a tree falling in the forest with someone there anatomically and physiologically capable of hearing.

          . . . . they are only disagreeing over what the word "sound" means

          So? Are you saying there is no room for disagreement about what is meant by sound? And isn't it very much the job of philosophy to raise questions about what is really meant by words like sound and whether or not they are fuzzy or ambiguous?

          • Andrew G.

            When an argument devolves to debating the meaning of a word, treating that as though it makes any difference to anything, then it has lost all relation to reality. In such a case the only solution is to reframe the argument in more specific terminology.

            As for the "real" meaning of words, see 37 Ways That Words Can Be Wrong

  • There are lots of writers like Lanza who bundle life and consciousness and quantum mysticism in a New Age pseudoscience, sadly.

    I recently read a book with much more interesting things to say on a similar topic, Russell Standish's Theory of Nothing. I wouldn't claim to believe the ideas in the book. I'd classify the ideas as scientifically plausible and science fictionally way cool. Some of them make testable predictions, too -- that's always the best way to avoid falling into pseudoscientific thinking.

  • Howard

    "The strangle paradoxes of quantum mechanics do not appear on the macroscopic level." Yes, they do; there are a number of macroscopic quantum effects.

    There are other problems with the idea presented here, though. Even if an intelligent observer is necessary to resolve reality out of a condition of vague potentiality, so what? Why should it be necessary for reality NOT to be in a condition of vague potentiality?

    Secondly, quantum mechanics is not self-evidently true. It must be justified on the basis of the scientific method -- a method which presumes that there is an OBJECTIVE reality which exists for all observers. (Yes, as we have learned more, we find that some things we would have thought were parts of that objective reality are not, while other things we never had guessed existed appear to be parts of it. At some basic level, though, there is still assumed to be an objective reality.) There is a serious problem with trying to use quantum mechanics as the means by which an observer creates the reality that contains quantum mechanics (to say nothing of himself!).

    Thirdly, it appears that most of the universe is AT BEST indirectly observable by intelligent corporeal life. This is true whether we are talking about "per unit volume" or "per unit mass-energy". It is probably also true regarding time: we know of no corporeal life more than a few billion years old, and for the first billion years or so the universe would have been incapable of supporting life as we know it.

  • Man of the Hour

    I think Lanza is missing what you're missing. The macro world is emergent from the quantum world, and does suffer from things still being probabilistic and varying slightly with respect to how we look at it, only the effects are masked because the density matrices describing the state of macroscopic systems diagonalize quickly. Going from probabilities to actuality still requires an observer :P. His argument makes the mistake of assuming that all probabilities are sampled (as in a many worlds situation) instead of self collapsing (as in Penrose's objective reduction, or Von Neuman-wigner terminating collapse). It also make the painfully nerve wracking mistake of assuming consciousness started with humans or biological life (which is a dualist/materialist fallacy), instead of being here from the beginning, embedded into nature itself. If we take a step into the Wigner's friend thought experiment, we realize that it doesn't matter if one reads the result of a measuring device or gets the information from a conscious person to affect a quantum system by the increment in information. Moreover, we see that the observer plays no preferred role, since the human's brain is entangled with the system as much as the measuring device. If taken in a truly monist manner, one would learn that measurement (and the relative collapse associated with it) is a physically identical process to observation. That, however, would mean that elementary particles have always been able to "observe" in some sense- since the Big Bang. Additionally, one would note that large scale entangled systems, such as the human brain, constitute minds as well (even if the brain works classically and post decoherence, this would remain true). What this would mean is that life would be something the universe could naturalistically tend to. Systems of particles would tend toward larger complexity in order to gain some form of sentient autonomy. Taken one step further, we would find a monistic God exists as well. Since quantum gravity implies that the whole universe is an entangled state, the universe itself would be the ultimate physical observer. Add in the quantum Zeno effect, by which a measurer can control a quantum system's evolution by successively making new measurements, and we can see that this observer can control all the particles of the universe by merely focusing. Lastly, since quantum gravity implies that spacetime and matter are both emergent from quantum information, we see that this mind, which is made of said information, can generate the universe from this information, with no time, space, matter, or energy, from pure platonic thought. Moreover, this mind is eternal due to the Wheeler DeWitt equation, and can think thoughts that aren't directly matter, in the same way we do. So we see that the mind is more fundamental than the universe itself, affirming Palamite panentheism, and that it has a certain logic built into it - a Logos, as it were. Since it is running computations, they scale up in complexity by virtue of having lots of quantum bits and conscious agents contained within them. We see then that we have a naturalistic designer, who is necessarily undesigned, yet infinitely intelligent- as well as a design process that itself generates the intellect necessary to fine tune existence.