An introduction to biocentrism — the idea that the universe can only really be explained through our consciousness
The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.John Haldane, Possible Worlds (1927)
The world is not, on the whole, the place described in our schoolbooks.
For several centuries, starting roughly with the Renaissance, a single mindset about the construct of the cosmos has dominated scientific thought. This model has brought us untold insights into the nature of the universe — and countless applications that have transformed every aspect of our lives. But this model is reaching the end of its useful life and needs to be replaced with a radically different paradigm that reflects a deeper reality, one totally ignored until now.
This new model has not arrived suddenly, like the meteor impact that changed the biosphere 65 million years ago. Rather, it is a deep, gradual, tectonic-plate-type alteration with bases that lie so deep, they will never again return from whence they came. Its genesis lurks in the underlying rational disquiet that every educated person palpably feels today. It lies not in one discredited theory, nor in any single contradiction in the current laudable obsession with devising a Grand Unified Theory that can explain the universe. Rather, its problem is so deep that virtually everyone knows that something is screwy with the way we visualize the cosmos.
The old model proposes that the universe was, until rather recently, a lifeless collection of particles bouncing against each other, obeying predetermined rules that were mysterious in their origin. The universe is like a watch that somehow wound itself, and that, allowing for a degree of quantum randomness, will unwind in a semi-predictable way. Life initially arose by an unknown process, and then proceeded to change form under Darwinian mechanisms that operate under these same physical rules. Life contains consciousness, but the latter is poorly understood and is, in any case, solely a matter for biologists.
But there’s a problem.
Consciousness is not just an issue for biologists; it’s a problem for physics. Nothing in modern physics explains how a group of molecules in your brain create consciousness.
The beauty of a sunset, the miracle of falling in love, the taste of a delicious meal — these are all mysteries to modern science. 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 nonexistent. Interestingly, our present model of physics does not even recognize this as a problem.
Not coincidentally, consciousness comes up again in a completely different realm of physics. It is well known that quantum theory, while working incredibly well mathematically, makes no logical sense. As we will explore in detail in future chapters, particles seem to behave as if they are responding to a conscious observer. Because that can’t be right, quantum physicists have deemed quantum theory inexplicable or have come up with elaborate theories (such as an infinite number of alternate universes) to try to explain it. The simplest explanation — that subatomic particles actually do interact with consciousness at some level — is too far outside the model to be seriously considered. Yet it’s interesting that two of the biggest mysteries of physics involve consciousness.
But even putting aside the issues of consciousness, the current model leaves much to be desired when it comes to explaining the fundamentals of our universe.
The cosmos (according to recent refinements) sprang out of nothingness 13.7 billion years ago in a titanic event humorously labeled the Big Bang. We don’t really understand where the Big Bang came from and we continually tinker with the details, including adding an inflationary period with physics we don’t yet understand, but the existence of which is needed in order to be consistent with our observations.
When a sixth grader asks a basic question about the universe, such as, “What happened before the Big Bang?” the teacher, if knowledgeable enough, has an answer at the ready: “There was no time before the Big Bang, because time can only arise alongside matter and energy, so the question has no meaning. It’s like asking what is north of the North Pole.” The student sits down, shuts up, and everyone pretends that some actual knowledge has just been imparted.
Someone might ask, “What is the expanding universe expanding into?” Again, the professor is ready: “You cannot have space without objects defining it, so we must picture the universe bringing its own space with it into an ever-larger size. Also, it is wrong to visualize the universe as if looking at it ‘from the outside’ because nothing exists outside the universe, so the question makes no sense.”
“Well, can you at least say what the Big Bang was? Is there some explanation for it?” For years, when my co-author was feeling lazy, he would recite the standard reply to his college students as if it were an after-business-hours recording: “We observe particles materializing in empty space and then vanishing; these are quantum mechanical fluctuations. Well, given enough time, one would expect such a fluctuation to involve so many particles that an entire universe would appear. If the universe was indeed a quantum fluctuation, it would display just the properties we observe!”
The student takes his chair. So that’s it! The universe is a quantum fluctuation! Clarity at last.
But even the professor, in his quiet moments alone, would wonder at least briefly what things might have been like the Tuesday before the Big Bang.
Even he realizes deep down that you can never get something from nothing, and that the Big Bang is no explanation at all for the origins of everything but merely, at best, the partial description of a single event in a continuum that is probably timeless. In short, one of the most widely known and popularized “explanations” about the origin and nature of the cosmos abruptly brakes at a blank wall at the very moment when it seems to be arriving at its central point.
During this entire parade, of course, a few people in the crowd will happen to notice that the emperor seems to have skimped in his wardrobe budget. It’s one thing to respect authority and acknowledge that theoretical physicists are brilliant people, even if they do tend to drip food on themselves at buffets. But at some point, virtually everyone has thought or at least felt: “This really doesn’t work. This doesn’t explain anything fundamental, not really. This whole business, from start to finish, is unsatisfactory. It doesn’t ring true. It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t answer my questions. Something’s rotten behind those ivy-covered walls, and it goes deeper than the hydrogen sulfide released by the fraternity rushers.”
Like rats swarming onto the deck of a sinking ship, more problems keep surfacing with the current model. It now turns out that our beloved familiar baryonic matter — that is, everything we see, and everything that has form, plus all known energies — is abruptly reduced to just 4 percent of the universe, with dark matter constituting about 24 percent. The true bulk of the cosmos suddenly becomes dark energy, a term for something utterly mysterious. And, by the way, the expansion is increasing, not decreasing. In just a few years, the basic nature of the cosmos goes inside out, even if nobody at the office water cooler seems to notice.
In the last few decades, there has been considerable discussion of a basic paradox in the construction of the universe as we know it. Why are the laws of physics exactly balanced for animal life to exist? For example, if the Big Bang had been one-part-in-a-million more powerful, it would have happened too fast for the galaxies and life to develop. If the strong nuclear force were decreased by 2 percent, atomic nuclei wouldn’t hold together, and plain-vanilla hydrogen would be the only kind of atom in the universe. If the gravitational force were decreased by a hair, stars (including the Sun) would not ignite. These are just three of more than 200 physical parameters within the solar system and universe so exact that it strains credulity to propose that they are random — even if that is exactly what standard contemporary physics baldly suggests. These fundamental constants of the universe — constants that are not predicted by any theory — all seem to be carefully chosen, often with great precision, to allow for the existence of life and consciousness (yes, consciousness raises its annoying, paradoxical head yet again).
The old model has absolutely no reasonable explanation for this. But biocentrism supplies answers, as we shall see.
There’s more. Brilliant equations that accurately explain the vagaries of motion contradict observations about how things behave on the small scale. (Or, to affix the correct labels, Einstein’s relativity is incompatible with quantum mechanics.) Theories of the origins of the cosmos screech to a halt when they reach the very event of interest, the Big Bang. Attempts to combine all forces in order to produce an underlying oneness — currently in vogue is string theory — require invoking at least eight extra dimensions, none of which have the slightest basis in human experience, nor can be experimentally verified in any way.
When it comes right down to it, today’s science is amazingly good at figuring out how the parts work. The clock has been taken apart, and we can accurately count the number of teeth in each wheel and gear, and ascertain the rate at which the flywheel spins. We know that Mars rotates in 24 hours, 37 minutes, and 23 seconds, and this information is as solid as it comes. What eludes us is the big picture. We provide interim answers, we create exquisite new technologies from our ever-expanding knowledge of physical processes, we dazzle ourselves with our applications of our newfound discoveries. We do badly in just one area, which unfortunately encompasses all the bottom-line issues: what is the nature of this thing we call reality, the universe as a whole?
Any honest metaphorical summary of the current state of explaining the cosmos as a whole is essentially a swamp. And this particular Everglade is one where the alligators of common sense must be evaded at every turn.
The avoidance or postponement of answering such deep and basic questions was traditionally the province of religion, which excelled at it. Every thinking person always knew that an insuperable mystery lay at the final square of the game board, and that there was no possible way of avoiding it. So, when we ran out of explanations and processes and causes that preceded the previous cause, we said, “God did it.” Now, this book is not going to discuss spiritual beliefs nor take sides on whether this line of thinking is wrong or right. It will only observe that invoking a deity provided something that was crucial: it permitted the inquiry to reach some sort of agreed-upon endpoint. As recently as a century ago, science texts routinely cited God and “God’s glory” whenever they reached the truly deep and unanswerable portions of the issue at hand.
Today, such humility is in short supply. God, of course, has been discarded, which is appropriate in a strictly scientific process, but no other entity or device has arisen to stand in for the ultimate “I don’t have a clue.” To the contrary, some scientists (Stephen Hawking and the late Carl Sagan come to mind) insist that a “theory of everything” is just around the corner, and then we’ll essentially know it all — any day now.
It hasn’t happened, and it won’t happen. The reason is not for any lack of effort or intelligence. It’s that the very underlying worldview is flawed. So now, superimposed on the previous theoretical contradictions, stands a new layer of unknowns that pop into our awareness with frustrating regularity.
But a solution lies within our grasp, a solution hinted at by the frequency with which, as the old model breaks down, we see an answer peeking out from under a corner.
This is the underlying problem: we have ignored a critical component of the cosmos, shunting it out of the way because we didn’t know what to do with it. This component is consciousness.
[Editor’s Notenote: This excerpt is the first chapter of the book Biocentrism, by Dr. Robert Lanza, with Bob Berman. The radical premise of biocentrism asserts that the universe cannot be satisfactorily explained by science, but rather by consciousness. Our understanding of the universe is inextricably linked to, and actually created by, our ability to perceive it. If you find this idea compelling, Biocentrism provides a fascinating and challenging thesis.]
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