Review: Biocentrism by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman

Biocentrism

Wait, quoting Deepak Chopra? Who exactly is this being marketed to?

Biocentrism purports to outline a new scientific hypothesis strongly suggested by both the results and the blind alleys of current science. According to this theory, life and consciousness must be understood as not being merely emergent phenomena in a universe built of physics, but something fundamental that the physical universe depends on. The main arguments combine metaphysical idealism from philosophy and an interpretation of the “observer effect” in quantum mechanics to conclude that physical things do not exist (or do not exist in a definite state) other than when they’re observed. There are also other conclusions like the unreality of time and space at the fundamental level.

Apparently Robert Lanza is supposed to be some kind of a new superstar in science — someone such that if anyone was going to revolutionise things, it would be someone like him — and Berman also a notable scientist. Nevertheless, their presentation here gives little reason to be convinced.

For cutting-edge science, especially with the authors’ insistence that they’re not doing mere philosophy, this book often reads rather too much like “philosophy for dummies, by dummies.” It concerns interesting ideas, for sure, but it seems like none of them are treated with enough care or expertise. Honestly, I don’t know what they’re trying to do tackling something so complex and multifaceted in such a short book — just a little over two hundred pages. (On the plus side, the short length means it can be read easily even if you’re just curious.) The book does avoid some of the worst excesses of silliness that come up when people talk about such issues, calling those ones out as unscientific.

I can’t speak for the physics much. One central idea used in the book is that quantum phenomena that are indeterminate until “observed” depend on a conscious mind to observe them. I have heard of that before, but mostly in the context of people saying this is nonsense and the “observation” that makes the quantum thingies make up their mind is just an interaction with something else. The treatment in the book does make it sound like it has been shown somehow that it’s dependent on a conscious observer, but the explanation was (unsurprisingly) difficult to follow. It got me more interested in the idea, but my scepticism didn’t go down by much, and I’m pretty sure those ideas are not accepted by most experts in the field. Similarly, I can’t evaluate whether the universe seems so fine-tuned for life, but I’ve read counterarguments even to some of the specifics mentioned here for how it would be.

Now, as for the philosophy, which plays an equally important part here, I can say that some of the central arguments don’t work. Perhaps the most central argument is that the world as we know it doesn’t exist without our perceiving it — not just because of the quantum stuff, but just when you think about it, philosophically. But even while describing this, the book has to resort to describing what does happen when things are not being perceived. So all that is shown is that without perception, events-plus-perception does not exist — duh. Of course, not clear enough distinctions are made to recognise this in the book itself. There would be an interesting question as to what it means for something to exist unperceived, but that’s not addressed properly. I will discuss this at a little more length in another short article which you can quickly click to and come back if you like. Once I get it done, that is.

Something similar goes for the argument about the nonexistence of time, which is making all the admittedly apparently very common mistakes of philosophers arguing about the A-theory vs. B-theory of time. Basically, the confusion is that if the present moment is not privileged in an incoherent way, time “doesn’t exist.”

Incidentally… The authors repeatedly say that what they say seems surprising because we’re used to thinking differently, but when you really start questioning and thinking about things, you’ll see it as they say. As someone for whom it’s practically their job to really think about things and question the normal assumptions (a Ph.D student in philosophy, for one thing), I’m just unimpressed at their specific arguments and conclusions. It’s not that I don’t like them because they’re too weird. It’s more like they’re in the space between realising that things aren’t exactly like you thought they were and realising that they didn’t have to just like that in the first place, in fact it would have been silly, and it’s no big deal. (Hey, that makes for a good topic of another post.)

Some of the arguments aren’t even arguments. Sometimes the authors just go on vaguely about how mysterious some aspect of physics is or whatever and then pretend they’ve thereby established something, usually that “X is dependent on life and consciousness.” Even so, I was surprised by the chapter that used the “there must be something after death because ‘energy’ doesn’t disappear” argument, because that is such complete nonsense. What “energy”? There’s an example there of how it doesn’t disappear in physics, but which physical kind of energy is consciousness (or life) supposed to be? See my “No, Reincarnation Isn’t Physics”.

It’s notable that even though the authors think something like biology should be fundamental — at one point, they point out that Einstein couldn’t handle this stuff because he wasn’t a biologist or a medical doctor, while the cover makes sure to point out that Lanza is the latter — the book hardly has any biology in it, mostly just physics and philosophy.

I’m tempted to just speak of Lanza all the time instead of “authors”; he’s indicated as the main author and keeps speaking in the first person singular. The tone is often disdainful towards a lot of people, except all the famous scientists Lanza makes sure to mention he has associated with. The book contains a lot of anecdotes from his life that don’t always smoothly integrate into the whole and sometimes just seem pointless. Of course, I’d be more sympathetic towards them if I bought the whole thing. The book is written a lot like something I could love, personal anecdotes and all, but its level of scientific/philosophical argumentation just doesn’t cut it. Even the principles supposedly proven are themselves vague, and I don’t wonder they’ve been called untestable. Lanza claims otherwise, and I would be genuinely interested in how he’s going to test them.

Overall, however, it must be said that the book makes so many philosophical mistakes and unjustified leaps — and remember it mainly relies on philosophical arguments no matter what the authors say, even when it’s building them on modern physics — that its argumentation does not amount to something that would prove the hypothesis it espouses as something to take seriously. (It seems rather as if physicists are saying something similar about the physics, but I’m looking at this in terms of philosophy, argumentation, proof, and how science in general works.) On the positive side, the book is interesting, and its arguments don’t always start badly even if they end up jumping to somewhere implausible. I would recommend against believing it, but not necessarily against reading it.

Rating: 2.5/5

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