About four years ago, I wrote a post about a crackpot theory by a biologist named Robert Lanza. Lanza is a biologist – a genuine, serious scientist. And his theory got published in a major journal, “The American Scholar”. Nevertheless, it’s total rubbish.
Anyway, the folks over at the Encyclopedia of American Loons just posted an entry about him, so I thought it was worth bringing back this oldie-but-goodie. The original post was inspired by a comment from one of my most astute commenters, Mr. Blake Stacey, where he gave me a link to Lanza’sarticle.
The article is called “A New Theory of the Universe”, by Robert Lanza, and as I said, it was published in the American Scholar. Lanza’s article is a rotten piece of new-age gibberish, with all of the usual hallmarks: lots of woo, all sorts of babble about how important consciousness is, random nonsensical babblings about quantum physics, and of course, bad math.
Lanza’s “theory” (if one wants to be generous enough to call it that) is that life is a fundamental – in fact the fundamental – guiding force of the entire universe. His argument for that is purest, utter nonsense. Here’s a typical sample:
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.”
That gives you some sense of where he’s coming from. His argument is, ultimately, an eloborate argument for solipsism – the universe only exists because we believe it does. Our minds are the only thing that is real.
As we get in to what passes for the meat of the argument, we’ll see that
Mr. Lanza really doesn’t like math very much. A very large part of his argument is really just an elaborate argument for why it is that biology (which he allegedly understands) and goofy metaphysics (which he can make up as he goes along) are really more important than math. See, math is hard. If you look at it without actually understanding it, it doesn’t seem to make sense. And if it doesn’t seem to make sense to Lanza, well, then, that means that it must be wrong. For example:
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.
This is nothing but a rather tacky argument from incredulity: “Gosh, doesn’t all of this mathematical stuff just sound totally ridiculous? Isn’t is just obvious that anything that dumb is total nonsense?”. No, all of this complicated math stuff, this spacetime crap, the math of relativity: I don’t understand it, and so it must be wrong.
Since all of the physics uses math, and math is obviously wrong because Lanza doesn’t understand it, it needs to be replaced. And what does a twit with delusions of grandeur come up with as a replacement for science? What else but solipsism, mixed with some seriously bad math? After all, if your basic argument against real science comes down to “if I don’t understand it, it must be wrong”, then what could possibly be a better replacement than something where your understanding actually does define reality?
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, kids, is what happens when you don’t learn bother to learn calculus.
Zeno’s arrow isn’t a paradox. It’s just part of another of those problems that the Greek mathematicians screwed up because they had all sorts of problems understanding infinities and infinitessimals. Zeno’s arrow is the beginning of an attempt to understand how continuous processes can be broken into an infinite number of infinitely small instantaneous parts, and how those parts can be recombined back into a finite whole. A moving arrow has a position at a given moment of time – but it’s only in that precise precision for an infinitely small instant. It’s moving, but it’s speed is varying, due to forces like gravity and drag – at any moment, it’s moving at a particular speed – but the period of time during which it’s moving at precisely that speed is infinitely small. But we can add those up, into real motion. Just because time is made up of an infinitely large stream of infinitely small moments doesn’t mean that time doesn’t exist; just because an arrow is moving doesn’t mean that it’s position is meaningless.
Alas, Lanza builds his argument on gibberish like this. He doesn’t know math, so he replaces it with bad egocentric metaphysics:
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.
Shame for Lanza that we do, essentially, bring “space and time” into the lab in a marmalade jar for analysis. We can observe relativistic effects. We can observe the warp of space-time by gravity. For example, here’s a really cool picture:
We look into the sky with a telescope, and we see things like that. There’s only one galaxy there, but we see four different images of the same thing. Why? Because space-time is warped by the mass of a galaxy, and the warped spacetime essentially acts as a lens – exactly as predicted by the math of relativity.
And from there, it just gets worse. He goes into a very long-winded babble about, essentially, how time doesn’t really exist. Time is just an illusion created by our senses. And so on – typical new-agey babble that explains nothing – but that puts us squarely back and the center of the universe, where he wants us to be:
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.
See what I mean? Every time math comes up, Lanza goes off into a rant about how, because he doesn’t understand it, the math must not make sense. And then he compounds it by throwing in yet more ignorant babble about quantum physics and uncertainty. Hey, Bob! “Observation” in quantum theory isn’t talking about you! The collapse of a quantum waveform due to observation does not require an intelligent observer. Consciousness has nothing to do with it – an observer is something that’s pretty well-defined mathematically. Consciousness doesn’t define the observer: math does. Just because you’re incapable of comprehending the math doesn’t mean that you get to arbitrary replace it with something you like better.
This is typical of a certain kind of crank. There are an awful lot of people who, for some strange reason, believe that the limits of their imagination defines the limits of the universe. That’s just bullshit. The universe in all of its detail is much grander, much more complex, and much more intricate than anything we can imagine. We’re just a bunch of intelligent monkeys, and it’s ridiculous to pretend that somehow, there can’t possibly be anything in the universe that we can’t understand.
People like Lanza take their own intellectual limitations, and demand that the universe not only respect but obey those limitations. It’s a sad, small-minded attitude.