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
that toadstool was especially
planned for his personal
shelter from sun and rain
thought out and prepared
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.