Biocentrism – How life and consciousness are the keys to the universe?

[Part of a set on Consciousness]

Psychology Today continues to publish junk mixed in with some science. Biocentrism gets its turn. Robert Lanza peddles it in this article: Why Do You Exist? Don’t look to the sky and gods for answers. It lies deeper. (Not sure about deeper; more Deepak).

A few hundred years ago when they were trying to make gold from other elements many people would have wondered at the mystery of God’s creation and said it wouldn’t be possible, or even that we shouldn’t try to understand God’s creation.

But now we know you can make gold from other elements, if you have the right technology for constructing elements of gold from sub-atomic elements, because we now know how gold is composed of them.

It seems with the brain’s workings we are still in the dark.

There are two issues: ontological and epistemological.

Epistemologically it’s true we still don’t know enough about the brain to figure out how consciousness emerges within a brain to be able to say how that happens, or how to build an ‘artificial’ container of consciousness, AI.

But, ontologically, we have found nothing in addition to the basic physics that goes to construct atoms, molecules, proteins, cells, neurons, brains. Mind-body dualists have nothing to show for the mind or the soul as ontological entities. It appears to be physics all the way; but that we don’t yet understand how that works doesn’t count as evidence against that view.

Articles like this are two-a-penny. If you re-read you find that some basic statements of fact take up most of the article, while the final few paragraphs really just re-state the fact that we don’t know enough about the brain to understand consciousness. Of course it helps to wrap it all up in a bit of mystery – I gather some people like that.

“That’s why in real experiments, the properties of matter – and space and time themselves — depend on the observer. Your consciousness isn’t just part of the equation — the equation is you.”

But we are just properties of matter – space and time themselves. Or rather, there’s no evidence to the contrary. Your consciousness is part of the equation, as are you. Observers (you and me) are part of the system. As is any spider. As is a telescope. It’s all matter interacting – just that some matter interacts in a more complex chaotic way than others, depending on its formation. And some of that matter exists in a state of self-examination. And some of that matter imagines all sorts of mysteries to explain itself.

“The answer to life and the universe can’t be found by looking through a telescope or examining the finches of the Galapagos. It lies much deeper. Our consciousness is why they exist.”

I think we’ve found out far more about life by doing just those things than by all the mysticisms we have tried for millennia. On what scientific grounds can it be said that “our consciousness is why they exist”? Is the author descending into philosophical solipsism rather then science? (Well, yes – see later) All our senses and reasoning tell us that stuff exists, and that the tricky bit is that we don’t know how reliable our consciousness is, even with all of science at our disposal, at discerning the bedrock of reality – or even if there is such a thing.

Our biggest problems are epistemological, and that’s the route of our difficulty of establishing the ontological. The signs of the ontology of stuff are strong (a point Samuel Johnson made with “I refute it thus.”) – so strong we are convinced that we, our bodies, are actually here as containers of consciousness. As much as we might feel or want consciousness to be something special, something extra, there’s no evidence that it is.

“The answer to life and the universe…” – What pretentious nonsense. What’s the question? What does it mean, really, to suppose the you can form a specific question about life and the universe? There are many questions we may form about life, and about the universe, and about life in the universe – but the general ‘question’ of ‘life and the universe’ is incoherent. That someone’s consciousness can suppose it is coherent, and then go on to such incoherent drivel as this: “It unifies the thinking and extended worlds into a coherent experience and animates the music that creates our emotions and purposes — the good and the bad, wars and love.”

What unifies the thinking? Consciousness? Well it would wouldn’t it?

It unifies the thinking and *extended worlds*? What does this mean? To unify extended worlds, or to unify consciousness with extended worlds? What extended worlds?

And animates the music that creates our emotions? I thought biological processes animated our emotions.

…and purposes? OK, our consciousness, our self reflection, on our cultural life histories and on our memories and our emotional drives, animates, creates, our purposes in life – we construct purpose for ourselves.

“It doesn’t load the dice for you to play the game of life.” – What?

“But as Will Durant pointed out…” – Very good. Basically, we need to get on with life while we’re trying to figure it out. Bear in mind that many people, if not most, just get on with life without too much of this reflection of where we come from, what we are made of, how we tick.

“In whatever form it takes, life sings because it has a song. The meaning is in the lyrics.” – I suppose it helps to maintain the mysticism if you end on a bit of poetic prose. But really, what has this contributed to our greater understanding other than to cloud it in more mystery?

But, back to the top of the page:

“Biocentrism – How life and consciousness are the keys to the universe.”

OK, I could see how solipsism could be used to suppose everything we think is real is instead constructed by a mind. But then we wouldn’t be able to tell if there was one mind, or many. Is it my mind, my consciousness that’s constructing you, or are you constructing me? Is there just me, or just you? Or, are we really multiple consciousnesses? How does all that work?

But, how *life* and consciousness… this seems to presuppose life in order to create a universe that then creates life? What’s this all about.

Not surprisingly not everyone is impressed by biocentrism.

“Lanza believes experiments already in progress or recently completed could validate his idea”

Specifics would be helpful.

Don’t get me wrong, Robert Lanza may be a great cell biologist – that’s for his peers to evaluate. But he joins a bunch of other scientists who have gone off on flights of fancy supposing that they have the answer to life the universe and everything (which we all know is 42 – job done, he’s wasting his time).

Be warned, his book, Biocentrism, has this from Deepak Chopra on the cover: “Original and exciting”.

I will read the book. But I’ll wait for a cheap second hand copy. It’s always a problem trying to weigh up the pros and cons of buying these books. If you’re going to criticise the ideas it’s at least fair to give them a full read. On the other hand finding that it’s junk after you’ve increased the royalties and contributed to the promotion of pretentious tosh is a bit irksome.

3 thoughts on “Biocentrism – How life and consciousness are the keys to the universe?

  1. It’s easy to denigrate the special nature of consciousness by describing it as just another physical arrangement of atoms, molecules, proteins, etc. But if this was the entire story, shouldn’t consciousness then be manifest throughout the universe? As far as I know, all consciousness identified to date resides within living creatures resident on Planet Earth, which make up an infintesimal portion of the cosmos. Maybe Lanza’s explanation has it all wrong but at least he’s challenging us to come up with a valid rationale for our seemingly unique relationship with the universe.

  2. Hi Dover Beach,

    Thanks for your response.

    Why the presumption that it’s a denigrating view of consciousness? Consciousness is amazing – all the more amazing if it is the case that it emerges from inanimate matter in action. The common response to the materialist/physicalist view seems to be along these lines, as if by acknowledging that we are complex matter in action somehow dehumanises us. I don’t see it like that at all. (If I’m denigrating anything it’s the determination to retain the mystery by resorting to mysticism).

    “But if this was the entire story, shouldn’t consciousness then be manifest throughout the universe?” – Why? Apple sauce is made from matter, and yet apple sauce isn’t manifest throughout the universe. In fact the universe seems to be mostly less complex stuff than even apple sauce, let alone brains.

    “As far as I know, all consciousness identified to date resides within living creatures resident on Planet Earth, which make up an infintesimal portion of the cosmos.” – I agree. Which is why I see no evidence of it on a grander scale; and so I wonder where Robert Lanza, Deepak Chopra and others get their ideas from – other than imaginative speculation akin to theology. My particular perspective is here:

    “but at least he’s challenging us to come up with a valid rationale for our seemingly unique relationship with the universe”

    It does *seem* unique to us. But then it would. If there are other instances of intelligent life out there that also have yet to discover intelligent life other than their own then I guess they feel pretty unique too.

    It’s this presumption that we are special that religions have latched on to. Now, maybe complex systems like brains that have consciousness is rare in the universe. But it could still be a natural process that causes it. I don’t yet see any evidence to the contrary.

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