On Biocentrism

Double-slit experiment
Image via Wikipedia

My mom sent along this Huffington Post item called Five Reasons You Won’t Die, thinking I would find it interesting. Unsurprisingly, my mom knows me pretty well.

Here’s the most interesting part (warning: large blockquote ahead):

Reason One. You’re not an object, you’re a special being. According to biocentrism, nothing could exist without consciousness. Remember you can’t see through the bone surrounding your brain. Space and time aren’t objects, but rather the tools our mind uses to weave everything together.

“It will remain remarkable,” said Eugene Wigner, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 “in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the conclusion that the content of the consciousness is an ultimate reality.”

Consider the uncertainty principle, one of the most famous and important aspects of quantum mechanics. Experiments confirm it’s built into the fabric of reality, but it only makes sense from a biocentric perspective. If there’s really a world out there with particles just bouncing around, then we should be able to measure all their properties. But we can’t. Why should it matter to a particle what you decide to measure? Consider the double-slit experiment: if one “watches” a subatomic particle or a bit of light pass through slits on a barrier, it behaves like a particle and creates solid-looking hits behind the individual slits on the final barrier that measures the impacts. Like a tiny bullet, it logically passes through one or the other hole. But if the scientists do not observe the trajectory of the particle, then it exhibits the behavior of waves that allow it pass through both holes at the same time. Why does our observation change what happens? Answer: Because reality is a process that requires our consciousness.

The two-slit experiment is an example of quantum effects, but experiments involving Buckyballs and KHCO3 crystals show that observer-dependent behavior extends into the world of ordinary human-scale objects. In fact, researchers recently showed (Nature 2009) that pairs of ions could be coaxed to entangle so their physical properties remained bound together even when separated by large distances, as if there was no space or time between them. Why? Because space and time aren’t hard, cold objects. They’re merely tools of our understanding.

Death doesn’t exist in a timeless, spaceless world. After the death of his old friend, Albert Einstein said “Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us…know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” In truth, your mind transcends space and time.

It’s an intriguing notion, one that is almost compatible with the sort of Wittgensteinian logical solipsism I was talking about yesterday. I won’t question the physics of Doctor Lanza’s argument, since I’m not qualified to do that — but the way he interprets the physics bothers me a bit. In particular, these two phrases: “Because reality is a process that requires our consciousness,” and “In truth, your mind transcends space and time.”

Again we need to distinguish between observable reality and external reality. External reality, to the extent that it disagrees with observable reality, is basically inaccessible to us; we can’t observe something while not observing it, so everything is filtered through our cognition. Even if we’re pretty sure that an external world exists — and for the record, I’m like 99% sure — we need to understand that even the most rigorous scientific experimentation can only definitively tell us things about our own person observable world. We then make the intuitive leap that they must also tell us something about the external world.

So I think there’s good reason to believe Lanza’s claim that, “reality is a process that requires our consciousness” is true, and that we’ve known that (or, rather, “known” it) at least since the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was first published in 1921. But it’s only true about the observable world. The external world, if it exists, is by definition mind-independent. All Lanzer is really doing is acknowledging that the gap between the observable world and the external world is a much bigger philosophical issue than a lot of empirically-minded types have heretofore acknowledged.

Now let’s look at that other sentence: “In truth, your mind transcends space and time.”

Not so sure about that. But then again, I’m a mind skeptic. I think “mind” is really just a clunky metaphor we use to describe something that can’t really be put into words: our ineffable self-ness, the cluster of sensations, thoughts, emotions and perceptions that makes up us. That being the case, the only way one’s mind could transcend space and time is if one had the experience of some kind of extra-spatial-temporal event. Dreams, psychotic episodes and psychotropic experiences aside, the vast majority of us spend the vast majority of our time feeling pretty thoroughly constrained by space and time.

If some theoretical physicist insists to me that space and time are illusions, I might have to take her word for it. But they’re illusions that are pretty firmly woven into the fabric of my observable world. There’s no getting around the fact that they put a definitive expiration date on that world. That’s what Wittgenstein says, anyway: that I will die, but that when I do, I’ll take my entire observable world along with me. Suck it, world!

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