All in the mind? The argument for idealism in Biocentrism

I reviewed the book Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding theBiocentrism Idealism True Nature of the Universe By Robert Lanza and Bob Berman earlier, and I was rather critical about it. I also promised to look more closely at the argument of the book that “external” reality depends on the mind to exist. Here I will do that, focusing mainly the “philosophical” beginning of the argument and much less on the quantum mechanical part.

The argument is began in chapter 3, “The Sound of a Falling Tree”. Readers familiar with such things may already see where this is going.

“If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no-one there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Lanza (he’s the main author and I take the voice of the book to be his) comments that most people will automatically think that of course it does make a sound, but he contends that this is not what science says about the matter. He goes through what he thinks science does say. There’s nothing particularly new here, at least to me. When the tree falls down, it creates disturbances in the air, and these cause our experience of sound if we’re around to hear it. If we’re not, there’s just the disturbances in the air.

So, what we have in hand with the tumbling tree, in actuality, are rapid air-pressure variations, which spread out by traveling through the surrounding medium at around 750 mph. As they do so, they lose their coherency until the background evenness of the air is re-established. This, according to simple science, what occurs even when a brain-ear mechanism is absent–a series of greater and lesser air-pressure passages. Tiny, rapid puffs of wind. There is no sound attached to them.

(Lanza, Robert & Berman, Bob 2009. Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books. Page 20. Emphasis added.)

“Tiny, rapid puffs of wind. There is no sound attached to them.”

Lanza doesn’t stop to think about this, but we really need to. Why “There is no sound”? A more orthodox thinker would likely say that the air-pressure passages are sound. Just as light is really electromagnetic radiation and water is really molecules with two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, we have found that that’s what sound is.

Certainly there is something that is absent when there is no-one around to hear the “sound”. Just as Lanza goes on to explain next, there’s the representation in our brains that’s created in reaction to our ears receiving the air-pressure variations. It isn’t the same thing as them, and the pressure variations existing don’t mean it exists.

But just as certainly there is something that is there when there’s no-one to hear it. He just said it: the tiny rapid puffs of wind are there anyway, at least according to the very science Lanza is relying on to make his case.

This might be a place to ask the question of what’s the relationship between the representation in our brains, the thing in the outer world that causes it, and the terms we use to refer to what we think of as sensations and real things in the world in everyday speech. Lanza doesn’t ask these questions. He just jumps on to saying that air pressure stuff in the air isn’t sound, as if that’s obvious. Maybe it’s “obvious” if you don’t think about what the true nature of sound might be and assume that if it’s explained through something else, it can’t be sound any longer. But the whole point in this book is supposed to be questioning the way we’re used to thinking about things — even this chapter began with talking about how people (foolishly) take it for granted that of course it does make a sound. One of the most elementary requirements in asking such philosophical questions is making it clear both to yourself and others what it is you’re talking about. Lanza fails to do this, and as a consequence, his claim that sound does not exist without someone hearing it is unclear and not very meaningful. Yet he treats it as if it’s an important and powerful step in establishing that the universe itself doesn’t exist outside of being perceived… although how strongly he means even that conclusion to be taken is somewhat unclear.

In chapter 5, “Where Is the Universe?” (after stopping to talk about his life in chapter 4, in case you were wondering), Lanza continues this line of argument. Again, it might be possible to guess where this is going from the chapter title. The point about this chapter that I’m interested here is some very basic and not very good philosophy: Where is the universe? Well, the universe that we experience is inside out heads, since all our experiences are in a physical sense happening there.

Lanza is opposing a distinction between the inner and the outer in order to build up to his idea that the universe cannot exist without life and consciousness. I’d like to discuss how this ties in with what he says in the rest of the book, but I don’t want to make this too long and I don’t have the luxury of time to read it all again anyway, so I’ll just focus on what has been said so far and then briefly mention the quantum stuff.

So as for what has been said: What is the orthodox conception that Lanza is contesting, and what does he say that it doesn’t?

While there isn’t just one orthodox conception, a reasonable one would be the following: When trees fall and whatnot, various things happen in the external world that are independent of any mind. If there is a mind around with senses attached to it that senses what’s happening, then in that creature’s brain there will be built a representation of what’s happening outside. This representation will be in the creature’s head and will (at least often) have consciously felt qualities. These qualities correspond to some selected qualities of the outside world because they are meant to represent them and caused by them, although they are still in the head.

This is a view in which there is a mind-independent reality, and the mind is merely something that can also be there and have its own representations of the outside reality. It should be clear that nothing in what Lanza says disproves this view. He’s basically describing this view but stating that the real sounds (or colours etc.) are what is sensed. Well, define “real sound” (etc.) however you like, but that doesn’t make fairly trivial observations significant. It also doesn’t suffice to override the above sensible, orthodox, sort-of-dualist view.

There are many interesting questions about consciousness, representations, the external world and so on. There are also all kinds of more technical distinctions to be made. Lanza hardly does any of this, he just swoops over the terrain and glibly claims to have made a big discovery. (An example of some actual analysis of the issues would be David Chalmers’s “Perception and the Fall from Eden”, in which he examines the fact that experienced qualities are not straightforwardly embedded in the objects our senses represent them as being in but are complex and relational.)

Whatever Lanza may say, his arguments in these two chapters have basically left the outside world outside and our inner world on the inside though in contact with the outside. How could he establish the mind-dependence of the outside world when he starts off by describing what really happens when the tree falls and there’s no-one to hear it? He’s still saying something does happen.

Soon after this, Lanza continues to prove something vaguely in the same direction (which is about as coherent and specific as it gets in this book) by appealing to quantum mechanics. He appeals to the phenomenon where, allegedly, the presence of an observer determines whether a quantum system goes into a definite state. Based on what he says, experiments have managed to prove that it is specifically someone’s knowledge of the quantum stuff that makes it make up its mind. I didn’t understand that part too well, and I know I don’t really understand quantum mechanics in general. I have, however, read others saying that that’s not how it really works. It would seem to place consciousness in a special place if it were true. Whether it would prove Lanza’s vague idea about consciousness creating the universe is another matter. But that’s about all I can say of that here.

In sum, the argument for idealism — the idea that everything is in the mind — in chapters 3 and 5 of Biocentrism is hasty, ill-defined and vague and doesn’t prove what it’s supposed to. It’s been done before and better by real philosophers and probably wasn’t true back then either. We might take these arguments to show how the world that we have immediate access to is only the representation within our selves. This is a good observation that leads to interesting things, but it’s not enough to support Lanza’s further conclusions, and it’s nothing new either. If anything, this serves as an example that studying philosophy properly would be useful to scientists trying to prove radical new ideas.

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