Picture of Robert Lanza. Robert Lanza, well-known in the area of cloning and stem cells, has fired off a broadside in another direction. Never mind the physicists, he says, with their long-awaited Theories of Everything and their bizarre multi-dimensional intangible substrates: in fact the fundamental science is biology. Space and time are not even real except inasmuch as we perceive them; and perception is a product of consciousness, a biological mystery the physicists can never hope to penetrate.

It’s easy to sympathise with Lanza’s irritation over the triumphalism indulged in by some physicists – while physics itself seems in some ways to be getting ever more deeply into difficulty. In terms of clear progress and perhaps even methodological purity, biology seems to have a far better story to tell in recent years. But can biology really be more fundamental than physics?

Lanza’s key theme is that reality depends on perception; perception on consciousness; and consciousness on biology. With the first step, we’re back with Bishop Berkeley, whose controversial view that ‘to be is to be perceived’ Lanza almost seems to take for granted. A substantial, centuries-long debate has already taken place over this, which I cannot hope to do justice to here; but to take just one contrary argument: if all reality depends on perception, there’s an unsolved problem about how things get started at all. There I am, for the sake of argument, hanging in the metaphysical void. Nothing exists until I perceive it; but how do I start perceiving something which doesn’t exist? Even my own thoughts must be there before I can become aware of them; yet they can’t exist until I have perceived them. So I can’t even think? Lanza acknowledges that some have seen his philosophy as leading inevitably to solipsism: but it seems it might lead to utter nullity. Lanza says that the illusions suffered by schizophrenic patients are as real to them as the ordinary world is to us: but the possibility of error is not sufficient to demonstrate the impossibility of truth (though Lanza is not the first person to have given up too easily on objective reality). In places Lanza actually seems rather equivocal about his Berkeleyanism: he offers the analogy of a CD player: until it works on the relevant tracks, the music doesn’t exist: and in the same way, there’s no reality until our minds have operated on… what? It ought to be the underlying realities of physics, but they are what Lanza seems to want to deny.

Though no doubt it is true that consciousness is biological, that cannot altogether be taken for granted either. Among others Lanza cites Descartes, Kant, and Leibniz as well as Berkeley in support of the primacy of consciousness: but none of them would have accepted that it was a matter of biology. When Hume daringly had one of his characters declare that the processes of consciousness in the brain were not fundamentally different from the processes of decay in a cauliflower, he took care to distance himself from a view he knew would be regarded as an insult to the human spirit, far beyond the pale of civilised discourse. Moreover, Lanza’s own views, curiously enough, place a barrier between him and the biology he wishes to celebrate. Our knowledge of biology, after all, comes to us in much the same kind of way as our knowledge of physics; through our senses – our perceptions. If time and space, and other concepts of physics, are really illusions, then surely so are cells and organisms and brains. Lanza says experience is something generated ‘inside your head’, but what head? The only knowledge we have of heads comes to us through, guess what, experience. The truth here seems to be that biology simply cannot take the role Lanza wants to assign to it, and in seeking to ‘get below’ physics, he ends up resorting to metaphysics, the only subject (with the possible exception of maths) which really does operate at an even more fundamental level.

Lanza puts forward a couple of other arguments to support his case. He appeals (curiously enough) to physics itself in the shape of quantum theory, which he suggests has eliminated the idea of a reality independent of perception. Like Berkeleyanism, the correct interpretation of quantum physics is a large subject, but my impression is that it would be at the radical end of the spectrum to suppose that it did away with the idea of an objective, independent reality altogether.

He also mentions the argument that many features of the universe seem to have been set up with great precision to allow the eventual possibility of life. If gravity or the strong nuclear force were slightly different from what they are, the world would never have been a habitable place. I’m not exactly certain about how Lanza means this to fit withhis overall view, but it seems he must be suggesting that the world actually began, in some non-chronological sense, with human perception, which then extrapolated backwards the necessary conditions for its arising in a presumed physical world. If so, I’d like more explanation about how that would work and why it would necessarily give rise to these exquisitely precise physical constants: but the underlying anthropic argument seems weak to me.

First of all, the reasoning smacks of Warty Bliggens, the toad:

he explained that when the cosmos
was created
that toadstool was especially
planned for his personal
shelter from sun and rain
thought out and prepared
for him

It’s not surprising that the set-up of the Universe favours the existence of human beings because if it didn’t, we shouldn’t be here to worry about it (but perhaps something else would).

It may be, in fact I suspect it must be, that there are, as yet unknown to us, deep metaphysical reasons why the cosmos is the way it is and could not have been otherwise: in which case there’s no real scope for surprise about the way it turned out. But if the basic laws and constants are in some way arbitrary, as Lanza’s argument supposes, we can’t really claim to know what the range of possible universes, or the range of possible conscious entities, really is. It may be that tinkering slightly with a few of the current constants produces a world in which human beings cannot occur; but why stop there? If we vary the basic rules more fundamentally, it might well be that there are countless possible universes utterly unlike ours, containing innumerable multitudes of unimaginable thinking beings. In that case, it is again unsurprising that we should chance to occur in a possible world which happens to suit us.

So although it’s interesting to entertain the idea, I don’t think biology, for all its merits, can be enthroned as the most fundamental of sciences.

Thanks to Karen for telling me about Lanza’s theory and providing the link.

8 Comments

  1. 1. Karen says:

    Peter, I’m so glad you did this. I was very eager to read your thoughts on this. I’ll be printing this up, reading it an coming back for a more complete entry soon…Just off the top of my head though, I don’t think Lanza is actually making exactly the argument you are attributing to him. I’ll say more in a day or two when I have more time. Thanks!

  2. 2. peter.hankins says:

    It’s entirely possible I’ve misconstrued at least part of the argument – I look forward to hearing your view.

  3. 3. Mike Wiest says:

    Hi,

    I haven’t read the Lanza article (there’s nothing at the other end of the link), but I thought I’d mention that Nancy Cartwright made a similar case in her critical chapter in Roger Penrose’s “The Large, the Small, and the Human Mind.” If I remember correctly, she argued that consciousness was a problem for biology and physicists should mind their own business. It seemed she was thinking of the issue in terms of “turf” or territorial rights, and trying mark consciousness with urine to scare away the other theorists. It just seems almost self-evident that biology and physics are part of one attempt to describe one self-consistent world. It’s possible I am miscronstruing her, as Karen thought Peter might be doing with Lanza, so I would be interested to hear if there is a reasonable interpretation of these ideas.

    But if the idea is that biology is independent of physics that seems crazy. I guess Lanza’s claim (as filtered through Peter) was actually not that they are independent, but that physics is derived from biology. That’s a radical suggestion, which might be interesting if there were some kind of substantive argument and a replacement theory; but in practice the biological sciences try to find mechanisms for the phenomena they observe, and that means chemical and physical explanations. When biologists try to understand consciousness they do it by looking at brain mechanisms of information processing and so on. That means they look to “lower levels” for explanations. I haven’t seen much discussion of this implicit assumption that physics is the fundamental level, so one might consider it unjustified, but it has worked unbelievably well so far. Even where ontological reductionism fails, methodological reductionism was able to discover that fact (I’m referring to non-locality in quantum mechanics).

    It seems crazy to me to think of biology and physics as if they apply to two different universes with no overlap. All the sciences are part of the same effort to understand the whole world with the smallest set of fundamental principles. Physics holds our best guess at those fundamental principles. Even if there are new laws of “emergence” in biological systems, that will represent “new physics.” It’s fundamentally unscientific to just postulate that in some arbitrary area (which happens to correspond to academic departments at universities) there are a different and unrelated set of natural laws. That’s a conclusion that needs to be demonstrated.

    I do agree that in some sense our own consciousness is what we are most certain of, but that is not enough to build a theory of the external world out of. Physics is our best attempt to build a self-consistent theory of the external world that supports and shapes our consciousness. It doesn’t really sound like Lanza has an alternative to propose.

  4. 4. Peter says:

    Sorry about the link, Mike – it seems to have been messed up when the article was archived, but it should be OK now if you want to give it a go.

    I think your conclusions are correct. Lanza seems to me to be putting forward a kind of Berkeleyan view, but he takes for granted our biological nature, which his metaphysics doesn’t authorise him to do. The claim to priority on behalf of biology therefore lacks foundations.

  5. 5. Mike Wiest says:

    Thanks for fixing the link. I read the Lanza article. Aside from the content, the tone is a bad sign. I mean how he talks smugly about Einstein’s “folly” and how the establishment scientists are missing a simple solution to all their problems, which Lanza has discovered.

    The content is all over the map. But his basic proposal is that physical reality is created by the conscious observation of biological creatures. He bases this on the quantum two-slit example where “watching” the system changes how it behaves. Although Lanza did put the quote marks on “watch” in that context, he doesn’t appear to have appreciated why the book he read put those quote marks around the word. The reason the textbooks put quotes on “watch” in the two-slit experiment is that an automatic mechanical detector can do the “watching,” and is perfectly effective in disrupting the quantum interference pattern–so it doesn’t appear that a human or other animal is necessary.

    Still, it is logically possible that it takes a human to collapse the detector’s wave function. But on reflection it doesn’t seem to be a viable possibility because it’s hard to see how the human brain could have evolved if no wavefunctions ever got collapsed–ie if nothing ever actually happened. Lanza quoted one critic who tried to ask him about the absurd consequences of his theory. A variant of that criticism is to imagine the humans of a few thousand years ago. They created their reality, according to Lanza’s theory, and it would seem that in that reality their mind was not dependent on their brains, if they even knew what a brain was. The reality of that historical period would seem to violate Lanza’s apparent belief that consciousness depends on the brain.

    Actually some of his “arguments” might make some sense as motivation for panpsychism, which is what he seems to espouse when he tries to answer the anti-solipsistic criticism by declaring “the entities we observe are floating in a field of mind that is not limited by external spacetime.” Which would be fine by me, but Lanza repeatedly insists that “physical reality begins and ends with the animal observer.” “The field of mind” seems to be in direct contradiction with the “animal observer” hypothesis, which is the central axiom of his “biocentrism.”

    I don’t think I’m particularly uptight about considering wild ideas–in fact I tend to believe that some kind of quantum panpsychism could give us a scientific theory of consciousness. But Lanza seems kooky even to me. He has thrown together a bunch of vaguely related kernels of truth and covered them with a sauce of grandiloquent nonsense. By the end he seems to be admitting that he hasn’t solved anything even as he’s making more and more authoritative but unintelligible pronouncements (eg. “space and time, not proteins and neurons, hold the answer to the problem of consciousness,” but we still have to “sort out…the mystery” of “the reality that space and time do not exist.”). I submit that the reason it “feels like madness” (from the lovely final sentence), is that it’s actually self-contradictory.

    So Karen I think it’s on you to see if you can pull out something significant from this article…

  6. 6. montag46 says:

    Having just come off of reading Benjamin Libet’s “Mind Time: the Temporal Factor in Consciousness” I wonder if the old adage of Berkeley might better be phrased:

    “To be is to be perceived…and to be present in consciousness 500 milliseconds after perception.”

  7. 7. Bottomfeeeders says:

    I Love Dr. Lanza. I have had a man crush on the guy for sometime now.

    He and I are going to Martha’s Vineyard this weekend for a long weekend!

    Advanced Cell Technology Rules.

    feeed

  8. 8. john davey says:

    There is definitely a huge hole in physics. Physics is no more than an exercise in geometric-style methodology. Start off with mathematical axioms, the rest falls in place. As consciousness is not a mathematical entity it follows that consciousness cannot be predicted by physics.

    Then again, there is always something that is unexplained by physics, almost by definition, following from its axiomatic construction. There is always the question ‘why this axiom’ (e.g Schrodinger’s equation) as opposed to any other ? There is also legitimate enquiry into what makes up the axioms, the dimensions. What does space consist of ? What does time consist of ? Matter for instance is always ‘explained’ to consist of ever less sophisticated particles : however we never quite know what these particles are.

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