The ‘biocentric universe’, also known as ‘biocentrism’, was a concept proposed in 2007 by Dr Robert Lanza, who works in the fields of regenerative medicine and biology. The biocentric hypothesis states that life and consciousness are fundamental to the nature of the universe – life creates the universe and not the other way around. From this perspective, biology would be considered above and superior to physics because, according to Lanza, these disciplines cannot be understood without an in-depth understanding of the nature of life and consciousness. Lanza insists that a ‘Theory of Everything’ can only be achieved if the basic constituents of nature – matter, space and time – are viewed through a biocentric lens.
Lanza originally published these ideas in an article in The American Scholar in 2007. Then in 2009, Lanza and astronomer Bob Berman published their book, Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe, in which they fully expanded on this hypothesis. For an abridgement of this book, in which the key points are summarised, check out this article in Discover magazine.
Lanza asserts that time and space do not exist. In an interview with Wired magazine, he says:
There is something very unusual about them [space and time]. 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.
This is a very challenging concept for the physicists out there because it would contradict Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which states that time is embedded in the fabric of the cosmos. Space and time are firmly believed by the scientific community to be entwined in something objective called space time. Therefore the idea that space and time are subjective is very unsettling. Even for the layperson, it is mind-boggling to think that space and time would just be mental constructs which have no independent existence.
However, Lanza points to philosophers such as Descartes, Kant, Berkeley and Schopenhauer who stressed the primacy of consciousness. Kant, for example, similarly thought that time was a mental construct – he described it as “the form of inner sense” and argued that it was a priori (it is instinctive and a part of how our mind works). For Kant, time is inside the head, not outside of it. It does not exist in the physical world because it has no physical attributes (i.e. shape, size, position, velocity etc.). There is nothing about it that we can measure. Kant says that:
the mind will trick itself into thinking that objects around it are in time. We think that because we have a word for time, that it exists around us. Time does not exist around us, we merely see things around us in the form of time. Time is a thought.
Likewise, for Lanza, space and time are tools that the mind uses to make sense of the world.
In a sense, then, biocentrism is more like a philosophical concept than a scientific hypothesis. On the other hand, our subjective experience of the passage time can vary, which suggests that time is, in some sense, subjective and dependent on consciousness. Time distortion is a common experience felt under the influence of psychedelic drugs; moments can feel like they last for a very long time, with minutes feeling like months. A feeling of ‘eternity’, the stopping of time, or even the meaninglessness of time can also characterise the more intense psychedelic experiences. Time can also appear to be slowed down during life-threatening situations and let’s not forget the saying: ‘Time flies when you’re having fun’.
Rather than necessarily bolster Kant’s theory on time, and Lanza’s subsequent re-evaluation of it, it is perfectly consistent for there to both an objective and a subjective interpretation of ‘time’. Even though Einstein established that space and time are relative and not absolute (which is what Newton proposed), this does not mean that they have no independent existence. Lanza conflates relativity with subjectivity.
Lanza is convinced that biocentrism can offer valuable insights into many mysterious aspects of physics, such as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which states that the more accurately we can measure the velocity of a particle, the less certain we can be about its position, and vice versa. Lanza also claims that biocentrism can offer answers to the strange ‘observer’ effect seen in the famous double-slit experiment, where the act of observing the passage of electrons through a double slit can affect their final position. The third puzzle that Lanza believes the biocentric viewpoint could shed some light on is the so-called ‘fine-tuning problem’, in which we find that the forces, constants and laws of the universe seem to be perfectly fine-tuned for the existence of biological life.
Lanza and Bermann’s 2009 book contains seven principles that make up the core of biocentrism. Some of them are fairly uncontroversial, such as the premises that external and internal perceptions are intertwined and that perceiving reality is “a process that involves our consciousness.” But some of the more controversial principles include: (1) the premise that consciousness must exist and that without it “matter dwells in an undetermined state of probability”, and (2) secondly, the idea that the universe is ‘fine-tuned’ for life.
With respect to the first premise, one problem is that it assumes that consciousness is a fundamental constituent of reality. There is no basis to make this assumption – what evidence do we have which points to the necessity of consciousness? If anything, it is an extremely anthropocentric assumption. The universe would still exist even if no conscious creatures evolved on one of its planets. Another problem with this principle is that it assumes that matter will be stuck in an undetermined state, in the realm of probability, unless consciousness exists. There is no evidence to back this up. If it were true, it would mean that before biological life and consciousness evolved in the universe, all of the matter would interact in a probabilistic manner. This seems highly unlikely.
Anthropocentrism is at work here once again – Lanza thinks that it simply not possible for nature to run its course without the existence of consciousness. Lanza’s view here is similar to Berkeley’s metaphysical doctrine called subjective idealism, which says that a mind-independent reality does not exist – reality depends on the existence of perceivers. As Lanza said in an interview, “If you divorce consciousness from the universe, there is no reality.”
Lanza has argued that if no-one is there to look at a tree, then the tree will have no definite properties; in his own words, “nothing remotely resembling that tree could exist.” This, I think, is an extreme conclusion to draw. First of all, it rests on a confused understanding of quantum mechanics. It is true that particles behave in a probabilistic manner, but when we look at things on a large scale (such as the size of a tree), matter obeys very deterministic laws. Lanza fails to see how the sum is greater than its parts. Furthermore, Lanza conflates the ‘observer’ with consciousness. In quantum interactions, the observer could equally be the apparatus that records or measures the particles, eventually leading to the collapse of the probabilistic state into a determined state. Consciousness is not required in quantum mechanics – the environment itself can act as the ‘observer’ so that the interaction of matter with matter is sufficient to create objects with definite qualities.
Secondly, even if there were no observers, a tree could still resemble a tree. Although qualities such as colour may not remain (since they depend on sense perception), the tree’s more basic qualities (what John Locke called the primary qualities) would persist. These would be size, position, etc. The New Age ‘guru’, Deepak Chopra, also misuses ‘quantum’ language to support his spiritual view of the universe – but he’s actually talking pseudo-scientific nonsense. He uses terms such as ‘nonlocality’ and ‘entanglement’, which are meaningful on a quantum level, but which do not apply in the realm of big objects (i.e. brains) or complex processes (i.e. consciousness). These concepts do not mean that everyone or everything is interconnected. Chopra sprinkles irrelevant scientific terms over New Age mysticism and his popularity is based on the mistaken belief that he has successfully united the material world with the ‘spiritual’ world.
With respect to the second premise, the ‘fine-tuning’ argument, it is true that the forces, constants and laws of nature enable the existence of life. They would appear to be very fine-tuned because if you changed the value of one of these constants, i.e. the strength of gravity, ever so slightly, biological life would apparently be impossible. This idea of ‘fine-tuning’, however, has been heavily criticised. Computer simulations carried out by the physicist Victor Stenger actually show that stars could form (which are necessary for life, since we are made of star-dust) and could exist over a wide-parameter range. Fred Adams in his paper, Stars in Other Universes: Stellar Structure With Different Fundamental Constants published in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics, achieved a similar result. According to inflationary cosmology, constants, such as the force of gravity, can change in their value in the course of cosmic evolution.
Others reject the fine-tuning argument by referring to the more robust anthropic principle, which says that the reason we observe the universe to be fine-tuned is that it would have to be fine-tuned for us to observe it in the first place. We should therefore not be surprised or puzzled by the fact that the constants are as they are. This seems almost like common sense, but it is a sufficient explanation – life is fine-tuned to the universe and not the other way around. Life could simply be a happy accident based on the random values of the fundamental constants. In any case, the universe seems like a pretty hostile place – as far as we know, life could actually be an extremely rare occurrence. So if the odds are monumentally stacked against life arising, it could still happen by chance alone. This is a point which Lanza seems unwilling to concede.
Even if we accept that the universe is ‘fine-tuned’, this puzzle could still be solved by using far better explanations than those offered by biocentrism. One of the most promising explanations is the Multiverse Theory, in which there could potentially be an infinite number of universes, each with a different set of parameters. In a variation of this theory, the physicist Lee Smolin has proposed that our universe might be fine-tuned for life due to ‘cosmic natural selection’. In this scheme of things, natural selection would favour a universe which is the best at reproducing. If a brand new universe was contained inside each black hole, then a universe which had the most black holes would reproduce more than those with less black holes. The reason the constants have the values they have is that it is those values which are conducive to black holes, not because life is fundamental to reality. The fine-tuning problem can also disappear if we consider the possibility that our universe was designed, not by a divine author, but by a super-advanced alien civilisation – our universe could be a carefully designed computer simulation that they are running.
The philosopher Daniel Dennett has questioned whether biocentrism can be considered a theory at all. As he puts it:
It looks like an opposite of a theory, because he doesn’t explain how consciousness happens at all. He’s stopping where the fun begins.
Biocentrism lacks explanatory power – it does not explain how consciousness creates the universe – so it is not a very useful doctrine. In that sense, it can hardly be considered a theory. Lanza never properly defines consciousness either – he seems to use it in a different sense when it suits him best. What kind of consciousness created the universe? It certainly can’t have been animal or human consciousness if the universe didn’t exist, so where exactly was this consciousness located? Where did it come from? And how could disembodied consciousness create the universe? Lanza gets into very quasi-religious territory on this issue. Lanza’s view is also similar to the philosophical doctrine known as monistic idealism, which says that consciousness is everything.
The famous physicist and sceptic, Lawrence Krauss, has said:
It [biocentrism] may represent interesting philosophy, but it doesn’t look, at first glance, as if it will change anything about science.
The theoretical physicist David Lindley has also criticised Lanza’s essay in The American Scholar, commenting that Lanza’s concept was a “vague, inarticulate metaphor” and he couldn’t see how it would lead to any valuable scientific or philosophical insights. Lindley’s full response to the essay can be read here.
Lanza and people like Deepak Chopra are using science in a very superficial way in order to promote their own brand of mysticism. They are wrapping spiritual notions up in the language of science, but the scientists are not being fooled by it. It is also worth pointing out that Lanza has not had any work published in a reputable, peer-reviewed scientific journal. So as it stands, biocentrism has still not survived the scrutiny of the scientific community. There are also doubts as to whether biocentrism is falsifiable and testable – a true indication of any valid scientific hypothesis.
The Daily Mail has recently published a highly sensationalised article about Lanza’s views, with the headline: Quantum physics proves that there IS an afterlife, claims scientist. The author of this article clearly does not understand what constitutes ‘proof’, but there you go, that’s The Daily Mail for you. Lanza’s biocentric view of the universe does not confirm or even point to the existence of an afterlife. He uses the multiverse idea to argue that even when we die, we could exist elsewhere in another universe. However, this is not the same as saying that our consciousness will travel to a supernatural realm after we die.
Robert Lanza expressed his views on biocentrism and death in an article in Psychology Today. For him, death is an illusion. Based on the multiverse idea and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (i.e. anything that can happen, does happen), he believes that death will not be the end of a particular person’s life. Yet once again, Lanza has misused scientific concepts to support his own spiritual views. He describes life as “like a perennial flower that returns to bloom in the universe”. A very poetic statement. However, just because an infinite number of universes may exist, this does not mean that upon death, I will somehow ‘wake up’ in another universe. Death is the end, whether Lanza likes it or not. As far as we can tell, if there are other universes, they are separate and disconnected from each other.