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. Continue reading

Review: What Does a Martian Look Like? by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart

what-does-a-martian-look-likeCreatures… that are born pregnant; with twenty different sexes; that eat their own children; that can survive without water for a quarter of a billion years. Absurd? Not at all.

These are creatures alive on planet Earth. And they show us just how different alien life could be from anything we know.

What does a Martian Look Like? The Science of Extraterrestrial Life (also known in other editions as Evolving the Alien) sets out to do something seemingly impossible: to scientifically describe something we have never seen. The question it asks is what we can know about extraterrestrial life. Of course, we have never found any of that. And yet, Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart also argue against imagining it will be just like life on Earth. Continue reading

Three philosophies: Knowledge, wisdom and… money?

money-or-somethingI’ve talked before about Nicholas Maxwell’s criticism of current practice and philosophy of science. I’ve written about it in Finnish here and here; here is the website of the group dedicated to this idea.

To put it shortly, Maxwell’s idea is this: Science commonly takes the idea of objectivity too far and in the wrong direction. Its underlying philosophy is what he calls the philosophy of knowledge. This emphasizes that only empirically testable claims have a place in science, as opposed to metaphysics or values.

This may sound like a good idea, and it would be, given the right interpretation. But it’s being given the wrong interpretation. Values or ideologies must not affect the results obtained from science, but they should guide what resources are spent on. When you are not allowed to consider values even at this point, you often end up spending resources on something useless or harmful. So developing countries may have much more need for new technologies or researched solutions, but there’s more money in solving first-world problems. Similarly, metaphysics must not be more important than empirical results, but every theory has background metaphysics anyway, so acknowledging those would allow scientists to understand better what they’re doing. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Essentialism and operationalism in philosophy

I just finished a remarkable little book called How to Think Straight about Psychology. It was remarkable because it was such a good introduction to what science is; you can read my review of it here. There was one point, however, where I felt like I wanted to write a reply, to explain that what was being said did not apply to philosophy the same way. At the same time, such a reply will illuminate something in science and philosophy. This is that reply.

In chapter three, “Operationalism and Essentialism”, there’s a section entitled “Why Scientists Are not Essentialists”, and it has a subsection called “Essentialists Like to Argue About the Meaning of Words”. I liked this as soon as I saw it, because this is the feeling I get in philosophy. Essentialism is roughly the idea that there are (or that we should find) some ultimate real nature of things that really define what they are. I think it’s generally more meaningful to say what you mean (by a word, say) and then say what is to be said about that meaning and its relationship to the world. Indeed, I’ve written before about “arguing about words” in almost the same sense. Continue reading

Review: How to Think Straight about Psychology by Keith Stanovich

How to Think Straight about Psychology is an introductory textbook for psychology students — but it’s also a great introduction to what I might call practical philosophy of science.

A lot of philosophy of science, when it’s under that label, is about things like “Can science be true if it’s socially constructed?” or “How can we prove induction works when we can’t use induction to do it?” I’ve heard it’s largely uninteresting to actual scientists. But there’s something else, too, something I’ve mainly come across in The Skeptic’s Dictionary — and psychology courses at our university, where this book (tenth international edition) is currently required reading. It’s about how science really works, the things you need to understand as a scientist. It’s also about why you need science instead of something else.

How to Think Straight about Psychology is an excellent introduction to these questions, as well as dispelling misconceptions about psychology specifically. It tells, among other things, how the public misunderstands psychology because they think of Freud and science because they think of Einstein. It goes through the basic methods of science in general and how these apply in psychology, and it keeps things colourful by using examples such as the Amazing Randi, Clever Hans the Wonder Horse who was thought to be mathematically able but was actually more of a mind reader, and of course that one guy who proved that a disease was not spread by feces by eating them. Still, these are just flavour, not arguments; everything here is scientifically based, and this is one of the rare places where it’s also made very clear why this matters. Pseudoscience is also discussed and it is shown just why it is so “pseudo-“. And why it is not harmless, either.

While much of the book is a kind of apology for psychology, there is towards the end a small but candid section about when — quite often — psychology itself is unscientific.

I recommend this book for anyone, even if not interested in psychology specifically, wanting to know the “secret” behind the success of science. It illustrates well the point I wrote recently about, that science is largely based on being really suspicious about every putative belief. If only more people understood these things, there would be a lot less nonsense around.

I’m also writing another post as it were in response to something said in this book, about essentialism in science and philosophy.

Rating: 4.5/5

Why I stopped liking The Da Vinci Code after I’d already read it

da Vinci CodeBack when I read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, I rather enjoyed it. It had nice suspense and action and fascinating fictional extrapolation from more or less real-sounding historical details. I didn’t notice the bad writing people complain about, either.

But later on, I heard something that turned me against the overall. I don’t remember the form I heard it in, but it’s summed up by this quote from Dan Brown:

99 percent of it is true. All of the architecture, the art, the secret rituals, the history, all of that is true… [A]ll that is fiction, of course, is that there’s a Harvard symbologist named Robert Langdon, and all of his action is fictionalized. But the background is all true.

Just… hold on a second. You’re not going to say that all that extravagant conspiracy theory stuff is made up? Because I know about conspiracy theories, and that was some serious tin foil hat stuff. It’s nothing like either a reasonable or a generally accepted hypothesis.

It gets worse. Turns out Dan Brown basically can’t get anything right, in regards to background. Even the title — apparently, calling Leonardo da Vinci “da Vinci” is like saying “What would of Nazareth do?” And how about the fact that there is no such thing as a “symbologist”? The real-life study of symbols is called semiotics, but it’s totally different. (The eminent semiotics guy Umberto Eco has written a book that’s exactly the opposite of Dan Brown’s; whereas The Da Vinci Code is an action-packed story with a naïve conspiracy theory, Foucault’s Pendulum is a long novel in which very little happens until the end that cynically deconstructs conspiracy theories. Also, I expect the numerous historical etc. details Eco includes are correct.) Indeed, the closest equivalent in real life to what Robert Langdon does might be “conspiracy theorist”, since his job is to find secret symbols everywhere that connect everything to everything else.

I like fantasy fiction, but the authors seldom claim that elves or sparkly vampires are real. So Dan Brown’s false claims basically turn his entertaining and imaginative fiction into pseudoscience. Why did he claim it was truth instead of fiction? Who knows, but doing so devalued the whole thing. Also, as it turns out, he should have done his research better even for fiction.