The current (May 2009) issue of Discover magazine features an excerpt from a new book by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman, Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe.
It's an interesting read. The authors start by crediting philosopher George Berkeley with
a particularly prescient observation: The only thing we can perceive are our perceptions. In other words, consciousness is the matrix upon which the cosmos is apprehended. Color, sound, temperature, and the like exist only as perceptions in our head, not as absolute essences. In the broadest sense, we cannot be sure of an outside universe at all.
From here, they discuss the role of the observer in quantum physics, where
results do depend on whether anyone is observing. This is perhaps most vividly illustrated by the famous two-slit experiment. When someone watches a subatomic particle or a bit of light pass through the slits, the particle behaves like a bullet, passing through one hole or the other. But if no one observes the particle, it exhibits the behavior of a wave that can inhabit all possibilities -- including somehow passing through both holes at the same time.... Quantum theory tells us that an unobserved small object (for instance, an electron or a photon -- a particle of light) exists only in a blurry, unpredictable state, with no well-defined location or motion until the moment it is observed.... Experiments suggest that mere knowledge in the experimenter's mind is sufficient to collapse a wave function and convert possibility to reality.
To explain such anomalies, the authors "propose a biocentric picture of reality. From this point of view, life -- particularly consciousness -- creates the universe, and the universe could not exist without us." They go on to suggest that "the fine-tuning of the cosmos" can best be explained by "biocentrism, which holds that the universe is created by life and not the other way around. This is an explanation for and extension of the participatory anthropic principal described by the physicist John Wheeler...."
Although the authors cite Berkeley, their view reminds me more strikingly of Immanuel Kant. Space and time, they say, are not real, but are instead mental constructs.
According to biocentrism, time does not exist independently of the life that notices it.... Everything we perceive is actively and repeatedly being reconstructed inside our heads in an organized whirl of information. Time in this sense can be defined as the summation of spatial states occurring inside the mind....
Like time, space is neither physical nor fundamentally real in our view. Rather, is a mode of interpretation and understanding. It is part of an animal's mental software that molds sensations into multidimensional objects....
Biocentrism offers a more promising way to bring together all of physics... Until we recognize the essential role of biology, our attempts to truly unify the universe will remain a train to nowhere.
This is all very interesting, and I'm glad to see a major popular science magazine feature such an article (it was the cover story), but in my mind it raises more questions than answers. The main thing I don't understand about this theory is how life is supposed to arise in the absence of the universe.
It's a chicken-and-egg problem. Which came first, the universe or the living organism that perceives it?
Apparently, according to biocentrism, the living organism came first, and its perception brings the universe into existence. But then how did the living organism come to exist in the first place? It is, after all, part of the universe -- a physical, material thing made of physical, material constituents. It seems to me that a living thing could not exist unless the physical universe exists, too. But then the living thing does not bring the universe into existence, because the universe is already there.
Now, the authors presumably have thought of this rather obvious objection and have a way around it. One way, I suppose, would be to postulate what is called a tangled hierarchy, an idea presented in the book The Self-Aware Universe by Amit Goswami. (Wiki discusses tangled hierarchies and strange loops here.) Another approach might be to say that since time is nonexistent, there is no "before" or "after," and therefore no question of whether the chicken or the egg came first. Everything happens at the same time or, more precisely, happens in no time or outside of time.
From my perspective, the theory might be more persuasive if the emphasis were placed not so much on living organisms -- biological entities -- but instead on consciousness as such. The authors, evidently, do not wish to posit the existence of consciousness apart from a biological system; and since they want to say that consciousness creates the universe, they have to say that biological entities create the universe.
But if they were to drop the materialist assumption that consciousness must be grounded in physical or material systems (e.g., the nervous system), they might have a more elegant theory. Consciousness, not being a material thing, could conceivably exist prior to or apart from the material universe in a way that an amoeba or an antelope cannot.
Anyway, the theory is interesting and should open some new, provocative pathways in cosmology. I expect that I'll be buying their book.
P.S. The title of this post is the Latin version of Berkeley's dictum, "To be is to be perceived." You know a blog is sophisticated when it uses Latin.
The third volume in Greg Taylor's Darklore series is now out. Like the first two volumes, this one is an anthology of nonfiction essays on a variety of paranormal and outré subjects.
Sample chapters from Volume III can be read here. Greg's essay on on near-death experiences that were reported prior to the publication of Raymond Moody's Life After Life looks especially interesting. Skeptics sometimes claim that NDEs are nothing but a "meme" inspired by Moody's book, but a careful examination of the literature shows that such experiences were known long before Moody's seminal work was in print.
Just in time for the birthday of William Shakespeare of Stratford (on April 23) comes an enjoyable Wall Street Journal article on the Shakespeare authorship controversy.
The Journal article focuses on the Shakespeare debate as it affects the Supreme Court. Apparently our most powerful jurists have been squabbling over this issue for some time.
I'm in the Oxford camp, as I discussed here - though some of the arguments in Clare Asquith's Shadowplay did get me to briefly reconsider good old Will as the true author. In the end, though, I just don't think these plays and poems were written from the perspective of a commoner. They carry too strong an odor of the aristocracy, I think.
And the events of Oxford's life match up uncannily with key plot points in the Shakespearean plays. To take one small example, Oxford was captured by pirates when he was abroad, but the pirates released him, sans possessions, after learning that he was a nobleman. The very same thing happens to Hamlet (offstage). A trivial thing in itself, but when you discover that there are literally dozens of such parallels, it's hard to believe they're all purely coincidental.
The Journal reports:
"In two of the plays Shakespeare has an incident using the bed trick, in which the man is not aware of the identity of the woman he's sleeping with," Justice Stevens says, referring to "All's Well That Ends Well" and "Measure for Measure." "And there's an incident in the Old Testament where the same event allegedly occurred."
Justice Stevens says he reasoned that if de Vere had borrowed the escapade from his Bible, "he would have underlined those portions of it. So I went over once [to the Folger Library] to ask them to dig out the Bible [once owned by de Vere]."
Unfortunately, the passage involving the substitution of Leah for Rachel in Jacob's bed, Genesis 29:23, was not marked. "I really thought I might have stumbled onto something that would be a very strong coincidence," Justice Stevens says. "But it did not develop at all."
But there's a good reason why Oxford didn't need to underline that passage. He didn't get the idea of the bed trick from the Bible. He got it from his own life. Oxford was pressured into marriage with a woman he didn't love, and after the marriage he set off for the Continent (very much like Bertram in All's Well that Ends Well). While he was away, his wife gave birth to a daughter. It is possible that Oxford had never consummated the marriage, perhaps because he was hoping for an annulment; in any case, for some reason he seemed certain that the child was illegitimate. Later, however, he allowed himself to be be convinced that the child was his. His wife claimed to have cunningly played a "bed trick" on him, visiting him in the dark in the guise of an anonymous lover.
Whether or not Oxford actually believed this story, it allowed him to save face and accept the child (and reconcile with his wife). And yes, the bed-trick motif does play a prominent role in not one but two "Shakespeare" plays - as does the theme of a jealous husband who suspects his wife of being unfaithful (Othello, A Winter's Tale) - not to mention the theme of a father's reconciliation with an abandoned daughter (Pericles, A Winter's Tale, King Lear).
I also liked this part of the article:
"My wife, who is a much better expert in literature than I am, has berated me," says Justice Scalia. "She thinks we Oxfordians are motivated by the fact that we can't believe that a commoner could have done something like this, you know, it's an aristocratic tendency."
Justice Scalia prefers to turn the tables.
"It is probably more likely that the pro-Shakespearean people are affected by a democratic bias than the Oxfordians are affected by an aristocratic bias," he says....
[Similarly, Justice Stevens observes,] "A lot of people like to think it's Shakespeare because ... they like to think that a commoner can be such a brilliant writer. Even though there is no Santa Claus, it's still a wonderful myth."
I think that's about right. Ever since Milton versified about the Stratford man "warbling [his] native wood-notes wild," it's been popular to think of Shakespeare as a poorly educated rustic who somehow, by sheer dint of genius, elevated himself to the heights of literary accomplishment. It's a beguiling story, a celebration of the genius of democracy, but a tale I find highly unlikely. And by the way, the author of the Shakespearean works was no democrat, nor was he a fan of the common folk, whom he depicts alternately as clownish buffoons and unruly mobs.
Of course, many members of the middle class have distinguished themselves as writers, and some did so even in Shakespeare's day; but they had the benefit of a decent education and a constant exposure to books. Will Shakespeare, growing up in an illiterate household in a farming town with a one-room schoolhouse and virtually no books in English available to him other than the Bible, is not likely to have mastered the sophisticated language on display in even the earliest "Shakespearean" plays. (Imagine a barely literate new arrival from the provinces writing Love's Labours Lost, a play steeped in topical allusions, courtly in-jokes and complex wordplay.)
There probably are a few allusions to Will Shakespeare in the plays, but they are not very complimentary and they don't help the Stratfordian cause. In The Taming of the Shrew, the drunken tinker Christopher Sly of Warwickshire is often seen as a stand-in for the Stratford man (Stratford is in Warwickshire), but what is the upshot of the Sly story? He is brought into a noble's house and dressed up like the owner, to play-act at being a great man when, in reality, he is a mere nobody. Another likely reference to Will is the character of William in As You Like It, but poor William, while goodhearted enough, is an ignorant yokel who becomes the comic butt of the sophisticated aristocrats who encounter him. Why would the author depict "himself" as a drunken phony or a bumptious stooge? Self-deprecatory humor? Or was he taking a few shots at the upstart actor whom he was obliged to use as a literary front man?
I think the latter explanation is more plausible. And it appears I'm in good company.
Hey, maybe I should be on the Supreme Court! (I already spend a good part of the day in my robe.)
Here's a semi-interesting video report from ABC News about the increasing popularity of psychics in this time of economic turmoil. What interested me was not the stories of individuals who seek out psychics for advice, but rather the fact that some large corporations are apparently following suit. The remarks by "intuitive" Laura Day, who makes big money advising corporate types, struck me as cogent and intelligent.
Both the reporter and the show's host (Diane Sawyer) are pretty snarky and dismissive, but you've got to expect that. Besides, there are a lot of fake psychics out there, so a certain amount of snark is justified.
In some earlier posts I looked at James E. Beichler's single (operational) field theory, or SOFT, as presented in his book To Die For. The theory is interesting and provocative, but I've come to agree with some of this blog's commenters that as a Theory of Everything it falls short.
As was pointed out to me by dmduncan and Zetetic Chick (and perhaps others - I haven't gone back to check), SOFT really does not account for the basic fact of awareness, i.e., of subjectivity itself. Even if Beichler is right in saying that consciousness is a fifth-dimensional offshoot of our four-dimensional nervous system, this still doesn't explain how it is that consciousness is, well, conscious. The existence of a physical structure, whether in a 4D world or in a 5D world, does not lead obviously and ineluctably to a state of awareness. The "hard problem" of neuroscience remains unsolved.
Another reason for thinking that SOFT falls short as a TOE is that, as far as I can determine, it does not account for the astounding chain of "cosmic coincidences" that appear to have been necessary to produce a stable, orderly, complex, and habitable universe. According to SOFT, mind appears on the scene only after the universe is set up and life has evolved. But I think the apparent fine-tuning of the cosmos strongly suggests that mind was present from the beginning.
Although Beichler briefly discusses the origin of life, I don't think SOFT really accounts for this phenomenon either. In fact, it seems to me that Beichler's views on this particular issue are somewhat out of date. He seems to think that the origin of life is a fairly straightforward development that can be easily explained by random chemical interactions, and that life will emerge spontaneously whenever some basic conditions are met. This view was pretty standard for a few decades after the much-publicized Miller-Urey experiment, but has lately come under attack as the phenomenal complexity of even the "simplest" one-celled organism has become apparent. Miller-Urey showed that certain amino acids can form by chance (although even then, it is debatable whether the experiment accurately reproduced the atmospheric conditions of the primordial Earth), but it is a long way from a few amino acids to a living cell. Unless mind is involved in this process from the beginning, I'm skeptical that life can even come about. A million monkeys batting away at a million typewriters for a million years are not going to type out the code for even the simplest DNA molecule. Chance doesn't get the job done, even when given a lot of time to work wiith. Some kind of conscious intention - a mind - is required. Yet SOFT insists that mind is out of the picture until after fairly advanced life forms have emerged. (Robert Shapiro's Origins provides a good overview of the problems encountered by all the attempts to explain the origin of life, as does the concluding chapter of Franklin M. Harold's The Way of the Cell.)
Then there is the issue of the meaning and purpose of life. Beichler has a chapter titled "A Universe of Purpose," in which he tries to make the case that SOFT provides the basis for an ethical system. Essentially, he argues that the purpose of the universe is to become aware of itself, and therefore anything that furthers this aim is morally good, while anything that frustrates this aim is morally bad. But there are many possible objections to this view. For one thing, the SOFT universe came into being without the benefit of mind or consciousness; mind is a rather late arrival on the scene. How, then, can we say that the universe had a purpose from the start, when there was no plan or intention for the first ten billion years (or more)? Beichler seems to hold that the purpose of the universe should be understood mechanically, rather than in terms of conscious intent. But then SOFT's "universe of purpose" becomes a basically mechanical construct in which the purpose consists of carrying out a chain of events initiated by accident - rather like a row of dominos falling, if the dominos had been arranged by chance and if the first domino had been blown over by the wind. This seems like a rather sorry "purpose" to me.
I also have my doubts that SOFT can support any particular moral code. For instance, Beichler says that murder is a crime against the universe because, by murdering someone, you eliminate his unique perspective, which is part of the universe's ongoing attempt to know itself. Couldn't one just as readily argue that murder is sometimes required by the universe, in order to eliminate those individuals whose perspective is faulty and is liable to lead others astray? Or couldn't one argue that murder is value-neutral, since the act of murder allows the universe to experience what it feels like to take a life, which is part of the cosmic quest for self-knowledge? Actually I think Beichler falls victim to the is-ought problem; in trying to determine what ought to be true, he inadvertently smuggles in his own moral preconceptions ("murder is bad") and then rationalizes them. That's not to say that his moral values aren't appropriate - only that SOFT does not provide a real rationale for them.
Despite these objections, I think SOFT may still have considerable value, not as a Theory of Everything, but as a framework in which to look at psi and afterlife phenomena from a physicalist perspective. The idea of a fifth-dimensional consciousness may be quite helpful in explaining phenomena like remote viewing and out-of-body experiences. To say that consciousness has a physical aspect or component is not necessarily wrong or problematic; what is problematic is claiming that this physicalist explanation solves the mystery of consciousness (subjective awareness) as such. In other words, consciousness may be partly physical without being wholly physical; and the physical aspect of consciousness may very well involve a higher-dimensional domain.
The universe may indeed have five (or more) dimensions, and an understanding of this five-dimensionality may guide us to a better understanding of psi and postmortem survival. But this model in no way precludes a Cosmic Mind that predates the universe itself, and that set up the universe in precisely this way so that mind could have adventures and experiences in the physical world.
Now this is cool.
Pacific Gas & Electric is hoping to partner with a new company, Solaren, to provide solar energy ... from space.
The idea is to put giant solar panels in orbit and beam the energy to Earth (in microwave form, I would guess).
When I was a college freshman, way back in 1977-78, I read a book advocating this idea. It was by physicist Gerard K. O'Neill and it was called The High Frontier. The main focus of the book was a plan to put huge space stations in orbit to house human colonists, but the solar energy concept was included as part of the rationale.
As I recall, the microwave beams that send the energy to Earth would not be intense enough to harm any living things that strayed into their path. Migrating birds and off-course pilots would not be affected.
The great advantage of this idea is that solar energy is far more intense when you get outside the Earth's atmosphere. No cloud cover, and all that.
O'Neill, who died of leukemia in 1992 at the age of 65, did not live to see his vision become reality. But by 2016, if PG&E and Solaren have their way, we could have a new, safe, clean, and renewable source of power -- solar power satellites in geosynchronous orbit.
This kind of future can't come a moment too soon.
Hat tip: Ace of Spades.
I've been rereading James E. Beichler's To Die For and giving more thought to his single (operational) field theory, a.k.a. SOFT. (Previously I discussed his ideas in three posts starting here.)
In one of the earlier comment threads, a reader complained that Beichler's model of consciousness was lifted from the work of Penrose and Hameroff. I replied that Beichler acknowledges their work in his bibliography. But in rereading the book, I realized that my reply missed the point. Although Beichler, like Penrose and Hameroff, sees microtubules as key elements in consciousness, the details of his theory are quite different. Penrose and Hameroff are proposing a quantum theory of consciousness, while Beichler is proposing an electromagnetic theory. Essentially, he sees the microtubules as miniature electromagnetic inductors, with the surface of the axon acting as a capacitor, and the axon as a whole functioning as a transceiver.
In fact, I largely missed Beichler's emphasis on magnetism the first time around. He writes,
Both electricity and magnetism depend on the ability of a substance to allow or permit the fields to pass through it. This ability is represented by constants or fixed quantities that are called the permittivity (for electricity) and permeability (for magnetism). Even empty space is characterized by its permittivity and permeability, which together control how electromagnetic fields and waves move through empty space or a vacuum. In the SOFT model of the single field, we can further characterize electrical permittivity as a point-to-point connectivity constant in the normal three dimensions of space, while the magnetic permeability can be considered a point-to-point connectivity constant in the direction of the fifth dimension. We could alternatively say that the the fifth direction constitutes a magnetic space component while our normal three directions constitute the electric space components.
Working together, the link between the electric and magnetic components in five-dimensional space-time thus constitutes the electromagnetic field ... Since the fifth direction of the space-time continuum is magnetically induced, it is closely associated with magnetic fields established in our four-dimensional reality by moving electrical charges.
Not being a physicist, I don't claim to completely follow this, but the gist of it seems to be that magnetism is closely associated with the fifth dimension. Consciousness itself, says Beichler, is "magnetically induced" and resides in the fifth dimension.
This got me thinking about EVP - electronic voice phenomena. Someone leaves a tape recorder running in an empty room, and later plays it back and hears voices imprinted on the tape. Many EVP recordings are probably nothing more than random noise which the mind interprets as fragments of speech, and some EVP recordings may well be hoaxes. But in certain cases the phenomenon appears to be genuine. Similar phenomena have been reported with images imprinted on videotape or messages on computer screens.
What's interesting is that audiotapes, videotapes, and computer hard drives all rely on magnetic data storage. If consciousness inhabits a "magnetic" fifth dimension, could it perhaps directly influence magnetic storage devices? As far as I know, EVP and related phenomena do not occur in optical, as opposed to magnetic, storage media, such as recordable CDs or DVDs.
There's also an interesting, though anecdotal, phenomenon in which a person, by his very presence, is supposedly liable to disrupt the workings of delicate equipment. It is said that some scientists, simply by walking into a lab, cause the equipment to go haywire. If there is any truth to this, is it possible that the consciousness of these particular people interacts destructively with the electromagnetic fields generated by this equipment?
I also wonder about Rupert Sheldrake's morphic fields. Could such fields be fifth dimensional constructs? Since space as we know it is not a property of the fifth dimension, an alteration in the field extending from one living organism could directly influence the fields of other organisms, even if they are widely separated in physical distance. Beichler's theory might serve as a useful adjunct to Sheldrake's work.
Another thing that occurred to me was the well-known fact that people tend to get "attached" to a certain environment and feel homesick when separated from it. Ordinarily these feelings are understood as purely psychological, but could there be a fifth dimensional physical component? If every material thing has a fifth dimensional extension (or signature, or image, or counterpart), and if consciousness inhabits the fifth dimension as a physical structure, then consciousness presumably has direct physical connections to the things in its environment. We might liken consciousness to a plant that sends out roots that are deeply embedded in the surrounding soil. These physical, fifth dimensional "roots" could account for the strong feeling of attachment we often feel toward our surroundings. When we move, we are "uprooted." Our physical connections to the environment are severed. This is disorienting and distressing to consciousness, and produces the feeling we call homesickness.
Here's one more bit of speculation. Many mediums and psychics have reported that the astral body is attached to the material body by a silver cord, or by a network of fine threads. Could this cord (or these threads) be the mind's way of visualizing the extension of the material body into the fifth dimension, where consciousness resides? In other words, could the silver cord be a symbolic way of seeing the connection between a four-dimensional material body and a fifth-dimensional consciousness? (Beichler says that the mind is an extension not only of the nervous system but of the entire material body. Those who report seeing a network of fine threads say that the threads are attached to all parts of the body.)
Just some stuff to think about.