June 16, 2009 at 9:30 PM ET
Bruce Rolff / FeaturePics.com
Our consciousness plays a key role in how we perceive space and
time, biomedical researcher Robert Lanza says in "Biocentrism."
Biomedical researcher Robert Lanza has been on the frontier of cloning and stem cell studies for more than a decade, so he's well-acclimated to controversy. But his book "Biocentrism" is generating controversy on a different plane by arguing that our consciousness plays a central role in creating the cosmos.
"By treating space and time as physical things, science picks a completely wrong starting point for understanding the world," Lanza declares.
Any claim that space and time aren't cold, hard, physical things has to raise an eyebrow. Some of the reactions to Lanza's ideas, first set forth two years ago in an essay for The American Scholar, brand them as "pseudo-scientific philosophical claptrap" or "no better than any religion."
Lanza admits that the reviews haven't all been glowing, particularly among some physicists. "Their response has been much how you'd expect priests to respond to stem cell research," he told me Monday.
Other physicists, however, point out that Lanza's view is fully in line with the perspective from quantum mechanics that the observer plays a huge role in how reality is observed.
"So what Lanza says in this book is not new," Richard Conn Henry, a physics and astronomy professor at Johns Hopkins University, said in a book review. "Then why does Robert have to say it at all? It is because we, the physicists, do not say it - or if we do say it, we only whisper it, and in private - furiously blushing as we mouth the words. True, yes; politically correct, hell no!"
The weird twists in our view of the cosmos are hinted at in the scientific speculation over quantum teleportation, experiments in reverse-time causation, the idea that time has no independent existence, and physicist Stephen Hawkings' suggestion that the universe as we know it is generated through quantum interference involving all possible universes.
Lanza and his co-author, astronomer/columnist Bob Berman, try to assemble all those weird little twists into a larger theory. Rather than laying out the big picture here, I'll let them do it in an exclusive online abridgment:
The authors contend that their view of the cosmos can help resolve all the head-scratching over unifying the fundamental forces, or coming up with a "theory of everything" that covers the submicroscopic world of quantum effects as well as the grand workings of gravity.
There are potential pitfalls, of course. If you merely accept that reality works the way it does because that's how our senses and neurons are structured to perceive it, you could run the risk of shrugging off the search for deeper, truer descriptions of that reality.
One route would be to write off the still-mysterious aspects of our universe (e.g., what dark energy is, or how consciousness arises) as an expression of the anthropic principle. In effect, you're saying, "It's that way just because if it weren't, we wouldn't be here to observe it." Another route would be embracing intelligent design ("God did it").
Neither of those routes can be navigated very well using the scientific method, and Lanza and Berman point that out in their book. However, they don't lay out a detailed road map showing how a "biocentric" view of the universe might affect the course of science - other than to say that neuroscience needs more attention and string theory needs less.
Theoretically, one avenue might be to study how our brain organizes the incoming electrical impulses to create the matrix beyond - and tweak that circuitry in different ways. "With a little genetic engineering, you could probably make anything that's red move, or make a noise instead, or even make you feel hungry or want to have sex," Lanza said.
Lanza acknowledges that the step-by-step, objective approach to solving scientific puzzlers is still the way to go when you're focusing on a specific research project, such as turning the medical promise of embryonic stem cells into reality. He knows he's not making all this up.
"Day to day, yes, I can put x number of ml [milliliters] in a Petri dish, and I can predict exactly what the behavior is going to be," he told me.
But Lanza said quantum effects as basic as the two-slit experiment tell us that there's more to life, the universe and everything than milliliters of solution in a dish. "We have this way that we think of space and time on the street. It's day to day, paying your bills," Lanza said. "But when you look at these experiments, that's not what they're telling us. In fact, they're telling us quite the reverse."
Does all this make a difference in daily life, or how you see the world? Take a look at the free sample of "Biocentrism," and feel free to weigh in with your comments below. And if you're looking for more mind-blowing speculation, check out these archived Cosmic Log items: