Reality is What We Think It Is?
by Benjamin Wiker

Reference: Index

Originally published by To The Source:


There is growing evidence that the universe is not only fine-tuned so life can exist, but it is fine-tuned for intelligent life that can perceive that it exists. Theists believe God made the universe this way so we can perceive His creation. Those who deny a Creator reject this explanation. But what is their answer to the fantastical improbability that without a Creator, we are perceiving creatures? Robert Lanza, in his new book Biocentrism, offers an answer. He thinks highly evolved life forms such as humans create the universe in the very act of perceiving it. That allows him to accept a universe fine-tuned for perceivers, but reject a Creator. What to make of such an argument, besides showing how far intellectuals are willing to go to avoid God?

August 6, 2009

by Benjamin Wiker


The human mind, by its nature, strives to know everything. But just because we have the desire to know everything, our reach often exceeds a sure grasp of reality, and we fall into fantasy. So it is with Robert Lanza's Biocentrism which offers a new and elaborate form of solipsism. The universe and everything in it, Lanza asserts confidently, exists because we perceive it. In his words, "the observer creates reality, and not the other way around." The moon exists only when we are looking at it. When we walk out of the kitchen, and turn our mind elsewhere, the kitchen is no longer there.

Here is Lanza's argument in a kind of syllogistic nutshell. On the smallest level, the submicroscopic level of quantum mechanics, our attempts to measure the location or momentum of subatomic particles results in a strange paradox. Particles exhibit both the qualities of particles and waves, although not both at once. They seem to be potentially both, but become actually one or the other only when we attempt to measure them. But we can only measure them either as waves or particles, but not both at once. The way we measure them determines the way they act.

Imagine it this way. You are on one side of a wall and a bit of light exists on the other. The wall has two doors, three feet apart, so you can't look through both at once. One door is marked "particle" and the other is marked "wave." You open the "particle" door, and the light acts like a particle. You slam the door shut, and run quickly to open the other door, and lo and behold, it now acts like a wave.

Therefore, concludes Lanza, the act of observing, of attempting to measure the light, actually causes it to move from a fuzzy state of probability (potentially either a particle or wave), to a crisp state of reality (actually either a particle or wave). In more technical, mathematical terms, observation causes the light to move from a wave function probability, to a wave function collapse. And so (brace yourself for a syllogistic leap), since everything is made of particles, then everything no matter how large - the moon, your kitchen, the universe - exists in a state of fuzzy probability until someone observes it.

Lanza buttresses his argument that our perception causes reality by several, more familiar arguments from ancient and modern skeptics that purport to show that "reality" should be kept in quotes. Things aren't really colored; color is merely the way our visual system paints things. There is no sound; what we call sound is only the effect that vibrations have on our ear. Given the vast empty spaces inside atoms, things made of atoms are not solid, but mostly space; we perceive things as solid only because we are too large to see the vast empty subatomic spaces. Furthermore, space and time aren't real entities outside us, but constructions from within us, helping us to divide up and order our experiences.

And so we come to the title of Lanza's book. Since we are biological beings, and our observation causes reality to appear (or at least to crystallize), the universe is therefore biocentric. In fact, Lanza proclaims, the universe appears to be so finely-tuned for life, especially for intelligent life, precisely because we are the ones that order it by our perception. Of course it seems to be made for intelligent perceivers. We are the ones creating it by our perception!

What to make of such an argument? Lanza is fantastically intelligent, but as with so many others similarly blessed, it leads him into fantasy. On the most practical level, Lanza's argument fails the bullet test. If Lanza's argument were true, then a bullet fired at someone would only kill him if he perceived it, and thereby brought the bullet from a fuzzy state of potentiality, to an actual state of penetrating his skull.

On a more theoretical level, Lanza suffers from a confusion of levels of reality. What is true on one level of reality does not necessarily pertain to another. The strangle paradoxes of quantum mechanics do not appear on the macroscopic level. We don't have a problem with measuring both the position and momentum of a bullet, in the same way that we have a problem measuring both the position and momentum of a subatomic particle.

The philosophical error at the bottom of Lanza's confusion of levels of reality is reductionist materialism. According to such reductionism, only atoms are real (or, peeling down further, only subatomic particles). If atoms aren't colored, then nothing has color. If atoms don't smell, odor isn't real. If atoms aren't solid, then all solidity vanishes. If subatomic particles behave in strange ways, then all appearances to the contrary, everything else really acts like subatomic particles.

But it ain't so. The truth is that each layer of reality, from the microscopic to the macroscopic, has its own integrity, building upon the layers below it even while it reveals its own amazing and real properties. Atoms are smaller than a wavelength of light, therefore they can't have color, but atoms in large, ordered aggregations are big enough to reflect light, and so make possible the reality of being colored. Solidity is not found on an atomic level, but the atomic level makes real solidity possible on the macroscopic realm. We calculate the position and momentum of ordinary objects all the time, from a baseball thrown by a pitcher or a missile shot from the deck of a warship, to the orbit of the moon or the schedule of a train. In fact, it is precisely the stability, solidity, and predictability of the macroscopic world that allows us to set up experimental equipment to measure the strange paradoxes of the submicroscopic world. The paradoxes are real, but then again, so are we, the equipment, the moon, the kitchen, and the universe.

Why Adding Two Half Truths Doesn't Equal the Whole Truth in Robert Lanza's Biocentrism

In his justly famous Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis tells the story of the "famous Irishman who found that a certain kind of stove reduced his fuel bill by half and thence concluded that two stoves of the same kind would enable him to warm his house with no fuel at all." Such is the kind of reasoning one finds throughout Lanza's Biocentricism. Again and again, we come across idea added to idea as if they were abstract numbers on a blackboard, and then told confidently by Lanza that we must accept the sum, no matter how bizarre.

Let's examine one of his attempts to add half truths. Half-truth number one. Lanza rightly criticizes reductionism in physics that tries to explain the universe, including ourselves, as dead, merely mechanical, material things. Against this trend that wants to reduce the living to the non-living, and thereby collapse all biology into physics and chemistry, Lanza reasserts the primacy of living things, of biology over physics and chemistry. In particular, Lanza argues rightly that "nothing in modern physics explains how a group of molecules in your brain create consciousness... Nothing in science can explain how consciousness arose from matter. Our current model simply does not allow for consciousness, and our understanding of this most basic phenomenon of our existence is virtually nil." A view of science that cannot explain consciousness is, Lanza correctly argues, woefully incomplete. A view of science that simply and systematically denies that consciousness exists is corrupt.

But does it follow, as Lanza then claims, that if modern science has left out the essential element "consciousness," that consciousness is the only element in the universe, that conscious perception actually creates the universe? Can this half-truth (that consciousness is real) become the whole truth (that consciousness is the only reality)?

How could Lanza come to such a conclusion? As we have seen, by adding another half-truth, that on the subatomic level, setting up observational apparatus to measure the tiniest blasts of light determines whether they will act like a wave or a particle. Therefore, since conscious observation seems to determine these submicroscopic entities, Lanza reasons, then all macroscopic phenomena are determined by conscious observation as well!

The logical problem at the heart of this second half-truth of Lanza's argument is called the Fallacy of Composition. It assumes, without argument, that whatever is said of the part, can simply be said of the whole. "Individual atoms of gold are too small to see; therefore, gold wedding rings are invisible." Does that really follow? "Individual subatomic particles are determined by conscious measurement; therefore, all individual macroscopic things are determined by consciousness." Does that really follow?

The irony, of course, is that the Fallacy of Composition is the fallacy par excellence of the very reductionistic scientists whom Lanza so roundly and rightly condemns. Such reductionism assumes that a human being can only exhibit the qualities found in individual atoms; therefore, since atoms do not exhibit consciousness, then human beings cannot exhibit consciousness. But it is an error cut from the same cloth to assume that because observational apparatus determines the momentum or position of a subatomic particle, and the moon is made of subatomic particles, that the moon is only there when we look at it.

Time Out of Mind (and Space Too!)

Many of Lanza's problems stem from a combination of admirable brilliance and culpable philosophical, historical, and theological ignorance. Two related cases in point: the notion that Time and Space are things existing outside of us. Lanza denies that they are. As he assures the reader, "space and time are neither physically nor fundamentally real. They are conceptual, which means that space and time are of a uniquely subjective nature. They are modes of interpretation and understanding. They are part of the mental logic of the animal organism, the software that molds sensations into multidimensional objects."

Lanza's ultimate point? Once again, we create space and time; but all of physical reality is in space and time; therefore we create physical reality.

Lanza's argument? Once again, on the subatomic level, we cannot simultaneously measure the position and the momentum of a subatomic particle. Our attempt to measure its location seems to determine the particle as having a position in space. But if we decide to measure its momentum instead - the change in position over time - its location gets fuzzy. Therefore space and time aren't real, but are in fact caused by our attempt to measure them.

But that ain't all. We know from the Big Bang, Lanza muses, that when we run the show backwards to the beginning, we find ourselves at a "point" at which there is no space and time; therefore, space and time are not some kind of absolute entities. They must, then, have their source in us. Furthermore, at speeds approaching the speed of light, space and time get very strange: space shrinks and time slows down to nearer and nearer a halt. Therefore, if wacky things happen to space and time near the speed of light, then they must not be real things out there; therefore, their only reality must be from within ourselves, and we create reality.

Lanza is confusing three things in all this: (1) something not having eternal existence, (2) something not having existence independently of us, and (3) something that is only our creation. A good dose of theology, the history of science, and philosophy can help us sort this all out.

No Christian is greatly shocked to find out that space and time do not have independent, eternal existence; in fact, every Christian should be greatly pleased. It is a matter of theological doctrine. God is both eternal and immaterial. Prior to the creation of physical objects, there was no space and time. Space and time, therefore, are not eternal. As a matter of historical fact, the notion that space and time were some kind of independent eternal things was invented by Isaac Newton. In showing that they were not, Einstein returned us to a modified form of the previous theological view, that space and time are part of the fabric of contingent physical reality, not eternal reality. Wacky things happening to space and time at the far edges of physical reality only tell us that physical reality has edges.

So, we may happily agree with Lanza in rejecting space and time as things existing independently of physical reality. Being in a position (space) and changing by growth, decay, or position (time) are things that exist only for material creatures. But because they only exist for creatures, does not mean that time and space are our creation, the creation of perceiving creatures. If that were true, then every material thing would depend on the act of being perceived to be material at all (i.e., to take up space) and to grow, move, and die (experience time). To point out the absurdity, it would mean that all the millions of cells in Robert Lanza's body - which exist far below the level of his perception and are far too numerous to perceive simultaneously anyway - do not exist.

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Copyright © 2009 Benjamin Wiker was last updated 13 August 2014
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