Saturday, April 18, 2009

biocentrism

The Scientist | Our current scientific model claims that the universe was, until rather recently, a lifeless collection of particles bouncing against each other and obeying predetermined and mysterious rules. This view holds that life harbors consciousness -- a concept poorly understood by science -- but it is of little relevance in describing the universe.

There's a problem with this supposition. Consciousness is not just a pesky byproduct or irrelevant item, the way a buzzing mosquito might interfere with a biologist's concentration as she skims algae off a lake. No, consciousness is the very matrix upon which the cosmos is comprehended. It is the movie screen upon which our worldview is projected. If it is bent or distorted or contains some unsuspected color, then all our perceptions of the cosmos seem fundamentally erroneous.

Since May, 1926, when Nobel physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr began to realize that the presence of an observer determined the results of experiments, it's become even clearer that attempts to explain the nature of the universe and its origins absolutely requires a worldview in which our presence plays a key role. After all, it is the biological creature that fashions the stories, that makes the observations, and that gives names to things. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in Experience: "We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are, or of computing the amount of their errors." George Berkeley, the Irish philosopher for whom the university and city were named, came to a similar conclusion: "The only things we perceive," he famously said, "are our perceptions."

And this is one of the central themes of biocentrism: That the animal observer creates reality and not the other way around. This view of the world, in which life and consciousness are central to understanding the universe, hinges on how subjective experiences interact with physical realities.

Without perception, there can be no reality. Before applying this on a universal scale, consider your own kitchen. Its contents assume all of their familiar forms, shapes and colors, whether or not you are in it. Or do they? At night you click off the light and leave for the bedroom. Your kitchen stays the same all through the night. Right?

Wrong. The refrigerator, stove and everything else are composed of a shimmering swarm of matter/energy. Quantum theory tells us that not a single one of those subatomic particles actually exists in a definite place. Rather, they merely exist as a range of probabilities. In the presence of an observer--that is, when you go back in to get a drink of water -- each particle's wave function collapses and it assumes a position, a physical reality. Moreover, the shapes and colors known as your kitchen are seen as they are only because photons of light, which possess no inherent visual properties, bounce off objects and interact with your sensory system.

Biocentrism is no minor perceptual tweak. Our entire education system assumes that we perceive external pre-existing realities and play little or no role in their appearance. Scientists and non-scientists alike typically imagine an external world existing on its own; with an appearance that more or less resembles what we see. By this reasoning, the human eye and brain allow us to cognize the actual visual appearance of things, and to alter nothing. Not so, says biocentrism.