The world is not, on the whole,
the place we have learned about in our school books. This point was hammered
home one recent night as I crossed the causeway of the small island where
I live. The pond was dark and still. Several strange glowing objects caught
my attention on the side of the road, and I squatted down to observe one
of them with my flashlight. The creature turned out to be a glowworm, the
luminous larva of the European beetle Lampyris
noctiluca. Its segmented little oval body was primitive — like
some trilobite that had just crawled out of the Cambrian Sea 500 million
years ago. There we were, the beetle and I, two living objects that had
entered into each others’ world. It ceased emitting its greenish light,
and I, for my part, turned off my flashlight.
I wondered if our interaction was different
from that of any other two objects in the universe. Was this primitive little
grub just another collection of atoms — proteins and molecules spinning
away like the planets round the sun? Had science reduced life to the level
of a mechanist’s
logic, or was this wingless beetle, by virtue of being a living creature,
creating its own physical reality?
The laws of physics and chemistry can explain
the biology of living systems, and I can recite in detail the chemical foundations
and cellular organization of animal cells: oxidation, biophysical metabolism,
all the carbohydrates and amino acid patterns. But there was more to this
luminous little bug than the sum of its biochemical functions. A full understanding
of life cannot be found by looking at cells and molecules through a microscope.
We have yet to learn that physical existence cannot be divorced from the
animal life and structures that coordinate sense perception and experience.
Indeed, it seems likely that this creature was the center of its own sphere
of reality just as I was the center of mine.
Although the beetle did not move, it had sensory
cells that transmitted messages to the cells in its brain. Perhaps the creature
was too primitive to collect data and pinpoint my location in space. Or
maybe my existence in its universe was limited to the perception of some
huge and hairy shadow stabilizing a flashlight in the air. I don’t know.
But as I stood up and left, I am sure that I dispersed into the haze of
probability surrounding the glowworm’s little world.
Our science fails to recognize those special
properties of life that make it fundamental to material reality. This view
of the world — biocentrism — revolves around the way a subjective
experience, which we call consciousness, relates to a physical process.
It is a vast mystery and one that I have pursued my entire life. The conclusions
I have drawn place biology above the other sciences in the attempt to solve
one of nature’s biggest puzzles, the theory of everything that other disciplines
have been pursuing for the last century. Such a theory would unite all known
phenomena under one umbrella, furnishing science with an all-encompassing
explanation of nature or reality.
We need a revolution in our understanding of
science and of the world. Living in an age dominated by science, we have
come more and more to believe in an objective, empirical reality and in
the goal of reaching a complete understanding of that reality. Part of the
thrill that came with the announcement that the human genome had been mapped
or with the idea that we are close to understanding the big bang rests in
our desire for completeness.
But we’re fooling ourselves.
Most of these comprehensive
theories are no more than stories that fail to take into account one crucial
factor: we are creating them. It is the biological creature that makes observations,
names what it observes, and creates stories. Science has not succeeded in
confronting the element of existence that is at once most familiar and most
mysterious — conscious experience. As Emerson wrote
in “Experience,” an essay that confronted the facile positivism of
his age: “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. Perhaps these subject-lenses
have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects.”
Biology is at first glance an unlikely source
for a new theory of the universe. But at a time when biologists believe
they have discovered the “universal cell” in the form of embryonic
stem cells, and when cosmologists like Stephen
Hawking predict that a unifying theory of the universe may be discovered
in the next two decades, shouldn’t biology seek to unify existing theories
of the physical world and the living world? What other discipline can approach
it? Biology should be the first and last study of science. It is our own
nature that is unlocked by means of the humanly created natural sciences
used to understand the universe. Ever since the remotest of times philosophers
have acknowledged the primacy of consciousness — that all truths and
principles of being must begin with the individual mind and self. Thus Descartes’s adage: “Cogito, ergo sum.” (I think, therefore I am.) In addition
to Descartes, who brought philosophy into its modern era, there were many
other philosophers who argued along these lines: Kant, Leibniz, Bishop Berkeley, Schopenhauer,
Bergson, to name a few.
We have failed to protect science against speculative
extensions of nature, continuing to assign physical and mathematical properties
to hypothetical entities beyond what is observable in nature. The ether
of the 19th century, the “spacetime” of Einstein,
and the string theory of recent decades, which posits new dimensions showing
up in different realms, and not only in strings but in bubbles shimmering
down the byways of the universe — all these are examples of this speculation.
Indeed, unseen dimensions (up to a hundred in some theories) are now envisioned
everywhere, some curled up like soda straws at every point in space.
Today’s preoccupation with physical theories
of everything takes a wrong turn from the purpose of science — to
question all things relentlessly. Modern physics has become like Swift’s kingdom of Laputa, flying absurdly on an island above the earth and indifferent
to what is beneath. When science tries to resolve its conflicts by adding
and subtracting dimensions to the universe like houses on a Monopoly board,
we need to look at our dogmas and recognize that the cracks in the system
are just the points that let the light shine more directly on the mystery
The urgent and primary questions of the universe
have been undertaken by those physicists who are trying to explain the origins
of everything with grand unified theories. But as exciting and glamorous
as these theories are, they are an evasion, if not a reversal, of the central
mystery of knowledge: that the laws of the world were somehow created to
produce the observer. And more important than this, that the observer in
a significant sense creates reality and not the other way around. Recognition
of this insight leads to a single theory that unifies our understanding
of the world.
Modern science cannot explain why the laws of
physics are exactly balanced for animal life to exist. For example, if the
big bang had been one-part-in-a billion more powerful, it would have rushed
out too fast for the galaxies to form and for life to begin. If the strong
nuclear force were decreased by two percent, atomic nuclei wouldn’t hold
together. Hydrogen would be the only atom in the universe. If the gravitational
force were decreased, 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 they cannot be random. Indeed, the lack of a
scientific explanation has allowed these facts to be hijacked as a defense
of intelligent design.
Without perception, there is in effect no reality.
Nothing has existence unless you, I, or some living creature perceives it,
and how it is perceived further influences that reality. Even time itself
is not exempted from biocentrism. Our sense of the forward motion of time
is really the result of an infinite number of decisions that only seem to
be a smooth continuous path. At each moment we are at the edge of a paradox
known as The Arrow, first described 2,500 years ago by the philosopher Zeno
of Elea. Starting logically with the premise that nothing can be in
two places at once, he reasoned that an arrow is only in one place during
any given instance of its flight. But if it is in only one place, it must
be at rest. The arrow must then be at rest at every moment of its flight.
Logically, motion is impossible. But is motion impossible? Or rather, is
this analogy proof that the forward motion of time is not a feature of the
external world but a projection of something within us? Time is not an absolute
reality but an aspect of our consciousness.
This paradox lies at the heart of one of the
great revolutions of 20th-century physics, a revolution that has yet to
take hold of our understanding of the world and of the decisive role that
consciousness plays in determining the nature of reality. The uncertainty
principle in quantum physics is more profound than its name suggests. It
means that we make choices at every moment in what we can determine about
the world. We cannot know with complete accuracy a quantum particle’s motion
and its position at the same time — we have to choose one or the other.
Thus the consciousness of the observer is decisive in determining what a
particle does at any given moment.
Einstein was frustrated by the threat of quantum
uncertainty to the hypothesis he called spacetime, and spacetime turns out
to be incompatible with the world discovered by quantum physics. When Einstein
showed that there is no universal now, it followed that observers could
slice up reality into past, present, and, future, in different ways, all
with equal reality. But what, exactly, is being sliced up?
Space and time are not stuff that can be brought
back to the laboratory in a marmalade jar for analysis. In fact, space and
time fall into the province of biology — of animal sense perception — not
of physics. They are properties of the mind, of the language by which we
human beings and animals represent things to ourselves. Physicists venture
beyond the scope of their science — beyond the limits of material phenomena
and law — when they try to assign physical, mathematical, or other
qualities to space and time.
Return to the revelation that we are thinking
animals and that the material world is the elusive substratum of our conscious
activity continually defining and redefining the real. We must become skeptical
of the hard reality of our most cherished conceptions of space and time,
and of the very notion of an external reality, in order to recognize that
it is the activity of consciousness itself, born of our biological selves,
which in some sense creates the world.
Despite such things as the development of superconducting
supercolliders containing enough niobium-titanium wire to circle the earth
16 times, we understand the universe no better than the first humans with
sufficient consciousness to think. Where did it all come from? Why does
the universe exist? Why are we here? In one age, we believe that the world
is a great ball resting on the back of a turtle; in the next, that a fairy
universe appeared out of nowhere and is expanding into nothingness. In one
age, angels push and pummel the planets about; in another age, everything
is a meaningless accident. We exchange a world-bearing turtle for a big
We are like Loren Eiseley’s moth, blundering
from light to light, unable to discern the great play that blazes under
the opera tent. Turn now to the experimental findings of modern science,
which require us to recognize — at last — our role in the creation
of reality from moment to moment. Consciousness cannot exist without a living,
biological creature to embody its perceptive powers of creation. Therefore
we must turn to the logic of life, to biologic, if we are to understand
the world around us.
Space and time are the two concepts we take
most for granted in our lives. We have been taught that they are measurable.
They exist. They’re real. And that reality has been reinforced every day
of our lives.
Most of us live without thinking abstractly
about time and space. They are such an integral part of our lives that examination
of them is as unnatural as an examination of walking or breathing. In fact,
many people feel silly talking about time and space in an abstract, analytical
way. The question “Does time exist?” can seem like so much philosophical
babble. After all, the clock ticks, the years pass, we age and die. Isn’t
time the only thing we can be certain of? Equally inconsonant is the question
of whether or not space exists. “Obviously space exists,” we
might answer, “because we live in it. We move through it, drive through
it, build in it, measure it.”
Time and space are easy to talk and think about.
Find yourself short of either or both — late for work, standing in
a stalled subway car packed with riders — and issues of time and space
are obvious: “It’s crowded and I’m uncomfortable and my boss is going
to kill me for being late.” But time and space as our source of comprehension
and consciousness is an abstraction. Our day-to-day experiences indicate
nothing of this reality to us. Rather, life has taught us that time and
space are external and eternal realities. They bound all experiences and
are more fundamental than life itself. They are above and beyond human experience.
As animals, we are organized, wired, to think
this way. We use dates and places to define our experiences to ourselves
and to others. History describes the past by placing people and events in
time and space. Scientific theories of the big bang, geology, and evolution
are steeped in the logic of time and space. They are essential to our every
movement and moment. To place ourselves as the creators of time and space,
not as the subjects of it, goes against our common sense, life experience,
and education. It takes a radical shift of perspective for any of us to
entertain the idea that space and time are animal sense perceptions, because
the implications are so startling.
Yet we all know that space and time are not
things — objects that you can see, feel, taste, touch, or smell. They
are intangible, like gravity. In fact they are modes of interpretation and
understanding, part of the animal logic that molds sensations into multidimensional
We live on the edge of time, where tomorrow
hasn’t happened yet. Everything before this moment is part of the history
of the universe, gone forever. Or so we believe.
Think for a minute about time flowing forward
into the future and how extraordinary it is that we are here, alive on the
edge of all time. Imagine all the days and hours that have passed since
the beginning of time. Now stack them like chairs on top of each other,
and seat yourself on the very top. Science has no real explanation for why
we’re here, for why we exist now. According to the current physiocentric
worldview, it’s just an accident, a one-in-a-gazillion chance that I am
here and that you are there. The statistical probability of being on top
of time or infinity is so small as to be meaningless. Yet this is generally
how the human mind conceives time.
In classical science, humans place all things
in time and space on a continuum. The universe is 15 to 20 billion years
old; the earth five or six. Homo erectus appeared four million years ago,
but he took three-and-a-half million years to discover fire, and another
490,000 to invent agriculture. And so forth. Time in a mechanistic universe
(as described by Newton and Einstein and Darwin)
is an arrow upon which events are notched. But imagine, instead, that reality
is like a sound recording. Listening to an old phonograph doesn’t alter
the record itself, and depending on where the needle is placed, you hear
a certain piece of music. This is what we call the present. The music before
and after the song you are hearing is what we call the past and the future.
Imagine, in like manner, that every moment and day endures in nature always.
The record does not go away. All nows (all the songs on the record) exist
simultaneously, although we can only experience the world (or the record)
piece by piece. If we could access all life — the whole record — we
could experience it non-sequentially. We could know our children as toddlers,
as teenagers, as senior citizens — all now. In the end, even Einstein
admitted, “Now [Besso – one of his oldest friends] has departed
from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People
like us … know that the distinction between past, present, and future
is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” That there is an irreversible,
on-flowing continuum of events linked to galaxies and suns and the earth
is a fantasy.
It’s important here to address a fundamental
question. We have clocks that can measure time. If we can measure time,
doesn’t that prove it exists? Einstein sidestepped the question by simply
defining time as “what we measure with a clock.” The emphasis
for physicists is on the measuring. However, the emphasis should be on the
we, the observers. Measuring time doesn’t prove its physical existence.
Clocks are rhythmic things. Humans use the rhythms of some events (like
the ticking of clocks) to time other events (like the rotation of the earth).
This is not time, but rather, a comparison of events. Specifically, over
the ages, humans have observed rhythmic events in nature: the periodicities
of the moon, the sun, the flooding of the Nile. We then created other rhythmic
things to measure nature’s rhythms: a pendulum, a mechanical spring, an
electronic device. We called these manmade rhythmic devices “clocks.” We
use the rhythms of specific events to time other specific events. But these
are just events, not to be confused with time.
Quantum mechanics describes the tiny world of
the atom and its constituents with stunning accuracy. It is used to design
and build much of the technology that drives modern society — transistors,
lasers, and even wireless communication. But quantum mechanics in many ways
threatens not only our essential and absolute notions of space and time,
but indeed, all Newtonian-Darwinian conceptions of order and secure prediction.
“I think it is safe to say that no one
understands quantum mechanics,” said Nobel physicist Richard
Feynman. “Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly
avoid it, ‘But how can it be like that?’ because you will go ‘down
the drain’ into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped.” The
reason scientists go down the drain is that they refuse to accept the immediate
and obvious implications of the experimental findings of quantum theory.
Biocentrism is the only humanly comprehensible explanation for how the world
can be the way it is. But, as the Nobel laureate physicist Steven
Weinberg admits, “It’s an unpleasant thing to bring people into
the basic laws of physics.”
In order to account for why space and time were
relative to the observer, Einstein assigned tortuous mathematical properties
to an invisible, intangible entity that cannot be seen or touched. This
folly continues with the advent of quantum mechanics. Despite the central
role of the observer in this theory — extending it from space and
time to the very properties of matter itself — scientists still dismiss
the observer as an inconvenience to their theories. It has been proven experimentally
that when studying subatomic particles, the observer actually alters and
determines what is perceived. The work of the observer is hopelessly entangled
in that which he is attempting to observe. An electron turns out to be both
a particle and a wave. But how and where such a particle will be located
remains entirely dependent upon the very act of observation.
Pre-quantum physicists thought that they could
determine the trajectory of individual particles with complete certainty.
They assumed that the behavior of particles would be predictable if everything
were known at the outset — that there was no limit to the accuracy
with which they could measure the physical properties of a particle. But Werner
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle showed that this is not the case.
You can know either the velocity of a particle or its location but not both.
If you know one, you cannot know the other. Heisenberg compared this to
the little man and woman in a weather house, an old folk art device that
functions as a hygrometer, indicating the air’s humidity. The two figures
ride opposite each other on a balance bar. “If one comes out,” Heisenberg
said, “the other goes in.”
Consider for a moment that you are watching
a film of an archery tournament, with the Zeno’s arrow paradox in mind.
An archer shoots, and the arrow flies. The camera follows the arrow’s trajectory
from the archer’s bow toward the target. Suddenly the projector stops on
a single frame of a stilled arrow. You stare at the image of an arrow in
midflight. The pause in the film enables you to know the position of the
arrow — it’s just beyond the grandstand, about 20 feet above the ground.
But you have lost all information about its momentum. It is going nowhere;
its velocity is zero. Its path is no longer known. It is uncertain.
To measure the position precisely at any given
instant is to lock in on one static frame, to put the movie on pause, so
to speak. Conversely, as soon as you observe momentum you can’t isolate
a frame, because momentum is the summation of many frames. You can’t know
one and the other with complete accuracy. There is uncertainty as you hone
in, whether on motion or position.
All of this makes sense from a biocentric perspective:
time is the inner form of animal sense that animates events — the
still frames — of the spatial world. The mind animates the world like
the motor and gears of a projector. Each weaves a series of still pictures
into an order, into the “current” of life. Motion is created
in our minds by running “film cells” together. Remember that
everything you perceive, even this page, is being reconstructed inside your
head. It’s happening to you right now. All of experience is an organized
whirl of information in your brain.
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle has its root
here: position (location in space) belongs to the outer world, and momentum
(which involves the temporal) belongs to the inner world. By penetrating
to the bottom of matter, scientists have reduced the universe to its most
basic logic. Time is not a feature of the external spatial world. “Contemporary
science,” said Heisenberg, “today more than at any previous
time, has been forced by nature herself to pose again the old question of
the possibility of comprehending reality by mental processes, and to answer
it in a slightly different way.”
Twenty-five hundred years later, the Zeno arrow
paradox finally makes sense. The Eleatic
school of philosophy, which Zeno brilliantly defended, was right. So
was Heisenberg when he said, “A path comes into existence only when
you observe it.” There is neither time nor motion without life. Reality
is not “there” with definite properties waiting to be discovered
but actually comes into being depending upon the actions of the observer.
Another aspect of modern physics, in addition
to quantum uncertainty, also strikes at the core of Einstein’s concept of
discrete entities and spacetime. Einstein held that the speed of light is
constant and that events in one place cannot influence events in another
place simultaneously. In the relativity theory, the speed of light has to
be taken into account for information to travel from one particle to another.
However, experiment after experiment has shown that this is not the case.
In 1965, Irish physicist John
Bell created an experiment that showed that separate particles can influence
each other instantaneously over great distances. The experiment has been
performed numerous times and confirms that the properties of polarized light
are correlated, or linked, no matter how far apart the particles are. There
is some kind of instantaneous — faster than light — communication
between them. All of this implies that Einstein’s concept of spacetime,
neatly divided into separate regions by light velocity, is untenable. Instead,
the entities we observe are floating in a field of mind that is not limited
by an external spacetime.
The experiments of Heisenberg and Bell call
us back to experience itself, the immediacy of the infinite here and now,
and shake our unexamined trust in objective reality. But another support
for biocentrism is the famous two hole experiment, which demands that we
go one step further: Zeno’s arrow doesn’t exist, much less fly, without
an observer. The two-hole experiment goes straight to the core of quantum
physics. Scientists have discovered that if they “watch” a subatomic
particle pass through holes on a barrier, it behaves like a particle: like
a tiny bullet, it passes through one or the other holes. But if the scientists
do not observe the particle, then it exhibits the behavior of a wave. The
two-hole experiment has many versions, but in short: If observed, particles
behave like objects; if unobserved, they behave like waves and can go through
more than one hole at the same time.
Dubbed quantum weirdness, this wave-particle
duality has befuddled scientists for decades. Some of the greatest physicists
have described it as impossible to intuit and impossible to formulate into
words, and as invalidating common sense and ordinary perception. Science
has essentially conceded that quantum physics is incomprehensible outside
of complex mathematics. How can quantum physics be so impervious to metaphor,
visualization, and language?
If we accept a life-created reality at face
value, it becomes simple to understand. The key question is waves of what?
Back in 1926, the Nobel laureate physicist Max Born demonstrated that quantum waves are waves of probability, not waves
of material as the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger had theorized. They are statistical predictions. Thus
a wave of probability is nothing but a likely outcome. In fact, outside
of that idea, the wave is not there. It’s nothing. As John Wheeler, the eminent theoretical physicist, once said, “No phenomenon
is a real phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon.”
A particle cannot be thought of as having any
definite existence — either duration or a position in space — until
we observe it. Until the mind sets the scaffolding of an object in place,
an object cannot be thought of as being either here or there. Thus, quantum
waves merely define the potential location a particle can occupy. A wave
of probability isn’t an event or a phenomenon, it is a description of the
likelihood of an event or phenomenon occurring. Nothing happens until the
event is actually observed. If you watch it go through the barrier, then
the wave function collapses and the particle goes through one hole or the
other. If you don’t watch it, then the particle detectors will show that
it can go through more than one hole at the same time.
Science has been grappling with the implications
of the wave-particle duality ever since its discovery in the first half
of the 20th century. But few people accept this principle at face value.
interpretation, put in place by Heisenberg, Niels
Bohr, and Born in
the 1920s, set out to do just that. But it was too unsettling a shift in
worldview to accept in full. At present, the implications of these experiments
are conveniently ignored by limiting the notion of quantum behavior to the
microscopic world. But doing this has no basis in reason, and it is being
challenged in laboratories around the world. New experiments carried out
with huge molecules called buckyballs show that quantum reality extends
into the macroscopic world as well. Experiments make it clear that another
weird quantum phenomenon known as entanglement, which is usually associated
with the micro world, is also relevant on macro scales. An exciting experiment,
recently proposed (so-called scaled-up superposition), would furnish the
most powerful evidence to date that the biocentric view of the world is
correct at the level of living organisms.
One of the main reasons most people reject the
Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory is that it leads to the dreaded
doctrine of solipsism. The late Heinz
Pagels once commented: “If you deny the objectivity of the world
unless you observe it and are conscious of it, then you end up with solipsism — the
belief that your consciousness is the only one.” Indeed, I once had
one of my articles challenged by a reader who took this exact position. “I
would like to ask Robert Lanza,” he wrote, “whether he feels
the world will continue to exist after the death of his consciousness. If
not, it’ll be hard luck for all of us should we outlive him” (New
What I would question, with respect to solipsism,
is the assumption that our individual separateness is an absolute reality.
Bell’s experiment implies the existence of linkages that transcend our ordinary
way of thinking. An old Hindu poem says, “Know in thyself and all
one self-same soul; banish the dream that sunders part from whole.” If
time is only a stubbornly persistent illusion, as we have seen, then the
same can be said about space. The distinction between here and there is
also not an absolute reality. Without consciousness, we can take any person
as our new frame of reference. It is not my consciousness or yours alone,
but ours. That’s the new solipsism the experiments mandate. The theorist Bernard d’Espagnat, a collaborator of Niels Bohr and Enrico
Fermi, has said that “non-separability is now one of the most
certain general concepts in physics.” This is not to say that our
minds, like the particles in Bell’s experiment, are linked in any way that
can violate the laws of causality. In this same sense, there is a part of
us connected to the glowworm by the pond near my house. It is the part that
experiences consciousness, not in our external embodiments but in our inner
being. We can only imagine and recollect things while in the body; this
is for sure, because sensations and memories are molded into thought and
knowledge in the brain. And although we identify ourselves with our thoughts
and affections, it is an essential feature of reality that we experience
the world piece by piece.
The sphere of physical reality for a glowworm
and a human are decidedly different. However, the genome itself is carbon-based.
Carbon is formed at the heart of stars and supernova explosions, formative
processes of the universe. Life as we know it is limited by our spatio-temporal
logic — that is, the genome traps us in the universe with which we
are familiar. Animals (including those that evolved in the past) span part
of the spectrum of that possibility. There are surely other information
systems that correspond to other physical realities, universes based on
logic completely different from ours and not based on space and time. The
universe of space and time belong uniquely to us genome-based animals.
Wigner, one of the 20th century’s greatest physicists, called it impossible “to
formulate the laws of [physics] in a fully consistent way without reference
to the consciousness [of the observer].” Indeed, quantum theory implies
that consciousness must exist and that the content of the mind is the ultimate
reality. If we do not look at it, the moon does not exist in a definite
state. In this world, only an act of observation can confer shape and form
to reality — to a dandelion in a meadow or a seed pod.
As we have seen, the world appears to be designed
for life not just at the microscopic scale of the atom, but at the level
of the universe itself. In cosmology, scientists have discovered that the
universe has a long list of traits that make it appear as if everything
it contains — from atoms to stars — was tailor-made for us.
Many are calling this revelation the Goldilocks principle, because the cosmos
is not too this or too that, but just right for life. Others are calling
it the anthropic principle, because the universe appears to be human centered.
And still others are calling it intelligent design, because they believe
it’s no accident that the heavens are so ideally suited for us. By any name,
the discovery is causing a huge commotion within the astrophysics community
At the moment, the only attempt at an explanation
holds that God made the universe. But there is another explanation based
on science. To understand the mystery, we need to reexamine the everyday
world we live in. As unimaginable as it may seem to us, the logic of quantum
physics is inescapable. Every morning we open our front door to bring in
the paper or to go to work. We open the door to rain, snow, or trees swaying
in the breeze. We think the world churns along whether we happen to open
the door or not. Quantum mechanics tells us it doesn’t.
The trees and snow evaporate when we’re sleeping.
The kitchen disappears when we’re in the bathroom. When you turn from one
room to the next, when your animal senses no longer perceive the sounds
of the dishwasher, the ticking clock, the smell of a chicken roasting — the
kitchen and all its seemingly discrete bits dissolve into nothingness — or
into waves of probability. The universe bursts into existence from life,
not the other way around as we have been taught. For each life there is
a universe, its own universe. We generate spheres of reality, individual
bubbles of existence. Our planet is comprised of billions of spheres of
reality, generated by each individual human and perhaps even by each animal.
Imagine again you’re on the stalled subway car
worried about being late for work. The engineers get the thing running again
and most of the other commuters soon disembark. What is your universe at
the moment? The screeching sound of metal wheels against metal tracks. Your
fellow passengers. The ads for Rogaine and tech schools. What is not your
universe? Everything outside your range of perception does not exist. Now
suppose that I’m with you on the train. My individual sphere of reality
intersects with yours. We two human beings with nearly identical perception
tools are experiencing the same harsh lighting and uncomfortable sounds.
You get the idea. But how can this really be?
You wake up every morning and your dresser is still across the room from
your comfortable spot in the bed. You put on the same pair of jeans and
favorite shirt and shuffle to the kitchen in slippers to make coffee. How
can anyone in his right mind possibly suggest that the great world out there
is constructed in our heads?
To more fully grasp a universe of still arrows
and disappearing moons, let’s turn to modern electronics. You know from
experience that something in the black box of a DVD player turns an inanimate
disc into a movie. The electronics in the DVD converts and animates the
information on the disc into a 3-D show. Likewise your brain animates the
universe. Imagine the brain as the electronics in your DVD player. Explained
another way, the brain turns electrochemical information from our five senses
into an order, a sequence — into a face, into this page — into
a unified three-dimensional whole. It transforms sensory input into something
so real that few people ever ask how it happens. Stop and think about this
for a minute. Our minds are so good at it that we rarely ever question whether
the world is anything other than what we imagine it to be. Yet the brain — not
the eyes — is the organ sealed inside a vault of bone, locked inside
the cranium, that “sees” the universe.
What we interpret as the world is brought into
existence inside our head. Sensory information does not impress upon the
brain, as particles of light impress upon the film in a camera. The images
you see are a construction by the brain. Everything you are experiencing
right now (pretend you’re back on the subway) is being actively generated
in your mind — the hard plastic seats, the graffiti, the dark remnants
of chewing gum stuck to the floor. All physical things — subway turnstiles,
train platforms, newspaper racks, their shapes, sounds, and odors — all
these sensations are experienced inside your head. Everything we observe
is based on the direct interaction of energy on our senses, whether it is
matter (like your shoe sticking to the floor of a subway car) or particles
of light (emitted from sparks as a subway train rounds a corner). Anything
that we do not observe directly, exists only as potential — or mathematically
speaking — as a haze of probability.
You may question whether the brain can really
create physical reality. However, remember that dreams and schizophrenia
(consider the movie A
Beautiful Mind) prove the capacity of the mind to construct a spatial-temporal
reality as real as the one you are experiencing now. The visions and sounds
schizophrenic patients see and hear are just as real to them as this page
or the chair you’re sitting on.
We have all seen pictures of the primitive earth
with its volcanoes overflowing with lava, or read about how the solar system
itself condensed out of a giant swirling gas cloud. Science has sought to
extend the physical world beyond the time of our own emergence. It has found
our footsteps wandering backward until on some far shore they were transmuted
into a trail of mud. The cosmologists picked up the story of the molten
earth and carried its evolution backward in time to the insensate past:
from minerals by degrees back through the lower forms of matter — of
nuclei and quarks — and beyond them to the big bang. It seems only
natural that life and the world of the inorganic must separate at some point.
We consider physics a kind of magic and do not
seem at all fazed when we hear that the universe — indeed the laws
of nature themselves — just appeared for no reason one day. From the
dinosaurs to the big bang is an enormous distance. Perhaps we should remember
the experiments of Francesco
Spallanzani, and Louis
Pasteur — basic biological experiments that put to rest the theory
of spontaneous generation, the belief that life had arisen spontaneously
from dead matter (as, for instance, maggots from rotting meat and mice from
bundles of old clothes) — and not make the same mistake for the origin
of the universe itself. We are wont to imagine time extending all the way
back to the big bang, before life’s early beginning in the seas. But before
matter can exist, it has to be observed by a consciousness.
Physical reality begins and ends with the animal
observer. All other times and places, all other objects and events are products
of the imagination, and serve only to unite knowledge into a logical whole.
We are pleased with such books as Newton’s
Principia, or Darwin’s
Origin of Species. But they instill a complacency in the reader. Darwin
spoke of the possibility that life emerged from inorganic matter in some “warm
little pond.” Trying to trace life down through simpler stages is
one thing, but assuming it arose spontaneously from nonliving matter wants
for the rigor and attention of the quantum theorist.
Neuroscientists believe that the problem of
consciousness can someday be solved once we understand all the synaptic
connections in the brain. “The tools of neuroscience,” wrote
philosopher and author David
American, December 1995) “cannot provide a full account of conscious
experience, although they have much to offer.
… Consciousness might be explained by a new kind of theory.” Indeed,
in a 1983 National
Academy Report, the Research Briefing Panel on Cognitive Science and
Artificial Intelligence stated that the questions to which it concerned
itself “reflect a single underlying great scientific mystery, on par
with understanding the evolution of the universe, the origin of life, or
the nature of elementary particles.”
The mystery is plain. Neuroscientists have developed
theories that might help to explain how separate pieces of information are
integrated in the brain and thus succeed in elucidating how different attributes
of a single perceived object — such as the shape, color, and smell
of a flower — are merged into a coherent whole. These theories reflect
some of the important work that is occurring in the fields of neuroscience
and psychology, but they are theories of structure and function. They tell
us nothing about how the performance of these functions is accompanied by
a conscious experience; and yet the difficulty in understanding consciousness
lies precisely here, in this gap in our understanding of how a subjective
experience emerges from a physical process. Even Steven Weinberg concedes
that although consciousness may have a neural correlate, its existence does
not seem to be derivable from physical laws.
Physicists believe that the theory of everything
is hovering right around the corner, and yet consciousness is still largely
a mystery, and physicists have no idea how to explain its existence from
physical laws. The questions physicists long to ask about nature are bound
up with the problem of consciousness. Physics can furnish no answers for
them. “Let man,” declared Emerson, “then learn the revelation
of all nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely; that the Highest
dwells with him; that the sources of nature are in his own mind.”
Space and time, not proteins and neurons, hold
the answer to the problem of consciousness. When we consider the nerve impulses
entering the brain, we realize that they are not woven together automatically,
any more than the information is inside a computer. Our thoughts have an
order, not of themselves, but because the mind generates the spatio-temporal
relationships involved in every experience. We can never have any experience
that does not conform to these relationships, for they are the modes of
animal logic that mold sensations into objects. It would be erroneous, therefore,
to conceive of the mind as existing in space and time before this process,
as existing in the circuitry of the brain before the understanding posits
in it a spatio-temporal order. The situation, as we have seen, is like playing
a CD — the information leaps into three-dimensional sound, and in
that way, and in that way only, does the music indeed exist.
We are living through a profound shift in worldview,
from the belief that time and space are entities in the universe to one
in which time and space belong to the living. Think of all the recent book
titles — The End of Science, The End of History, The End of Eternity,
The End of Certainty, The End of Nature, and The End of Time. Only for a
moment, while we sort out the reality that time and space do not exist,
will it feel like madness.
American Scholar, Volume 76, No. 2, Spring 2007.
Copyright 2007 by Robert Lanza.