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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Big Hole in Lanza's Biocentrism

In his recent book Beyond Biocentrism, Robert Lanza MD and his co-author Bob Berman offer another case for the philosophy they advanced in their earlier work Biocentrism. Their philosophy of biocentrism is an example of what philosophers call idealism. Idealism is the philosophical position that matter has no independent existence outside of minds that perceive matter. An idealist is someone who believes that the universe is just a collection of minds. An idealist is someone who thinks that instead of our minds existing inside the solar system, it's the other way around: the solar system is merely something that exists as a perceptual regularity inside of minds such as ours.

To someone who is not used to thinking as an idealist, idealism may initially seem absurd. But the case for idealism was advanced in a surprisingly forceful way in the eighteenth century, by British philosopher George Berkeley. In his classic philosophical work The Principles of Human Knowledge (which can be read here), Berkeley argued for immaterialism, the idea that matter has no existence outside of minds that perceive matter. His classic slogan was: to be is to be perceived.

In order to get a handle on this concept, let's try a thought experiment. Imagine that there exists no Earth at all, and no matter at all. But let's imagine that there exists a particular number of immaterial minds that have a spiritual existence. Suppose that some unknown thing causes these immaterial minds to have a series of thoughts and perceptions and sensations. Suppose also that instead of each of these minds having its own random set of thoughts and perceptions and sensations (like 30 different people having 30 different dreams, all totally different), there is instead a certain degree of similarity, a set of recurring patterns, so that there are various similarities in what goes on inside these immaterial minds. Imagine that all of these minds have somewhat similar thoughts, perceptions and sensations, with these corresponding to earthly experience (such as the experience of seeing it get dark every night, and the experience of seeing a blue sky).

The question then arises: how can you tell that you are not such an immaterial mind living in a universe without matter, in which your sensations of matter are coming from some unknown external source? The answer is: you really can't. There is really no way for you to figure out whether you are a matter person living in a mainly matter world or whether you are a mind person living in a totally mind world. From this standpoint, idealism seems like a rather plausible option, or at least something that is perhaps as likely to be true as not, a kind of 50-50 bet.

But if you are going to be an idealist and not willing to dismiss your fellow human beings as just perceptions in your mind (which would lead you to the morally disastrous position called solipsism), you would need to believe that there is something that causes multiple human beings to have the perceptual regularities and similarities that they have (such as a daily experience of the sky getting dark). Being a theist, George Berkeley simply argued that God was the source of perceptual regularities. If you had asked Berkeley whether the moon will disappear if humans become extinct, Berkeley probably would have said: no, because the moon will continue to persist as an idea in the mind of God. Someone taking a similar approach might argue that we experience sensations of gravitational attraction not because there is really matter undergoing self-attraction but because a divine agent has set up a kind of perceptual rule that all minds will experience perceptions of gravitational attraction.

But what is the philosophy of biocentrism that Lanza has recently been arguing for? It seems like Berkeley-style idealism, but one that is without any core explanation to explain the regularities of human perceptions. It seems like a kind of minimalist, stripped-down, bare-bones form of idealism.

On page 125, the authors say, “The world we see is the visual perception located in our head.” On page 137 the authors say, “There is nothing 'out there' beyond the reality constructed in our minds.” On page 186 the authors say, “We start by seeing that there is no real world 'out there' beyond us.”

This at first may sound like Berkeley-style idealism. But it seems there is a big difference. The biocentrism of Lanza and Berman apparently wishes to reduce the world to what goes on in the human mind, but their philosophy makes no attempt to describe anything that may be the source of human minds or the regularity of human experiences.

This has a certain advantage from the standpoint of simplicity. A typical scientist may want to think the universe is basically matter plus human minds. A Berkeley-style idealist might argue that the correct description of the universe is: human minds plus a divine mind. But biocentrism seems to speak as if the universe is simply: human minds (without any matter). That's simpler than either of the previous two options. But it's not very plausible. Without anything other than human minds, why would there exist human minds that happen to share so many perceptual regularities (such as the experience of seeing the moon in the sky and seeing a blue sky)? If there were just human minds, we would not expect such regularities.

We can imagine how things might be if there was an immaterial universe consisting of only random human minds with random experiences, without some type of cosmic cause of perceptual regularities. Such minds might have conversations like this:

Human #1: Why I had a lovely day today. It was fun watching all those elephants flying about in the green sky above me, and the five moons in the sky made it look even lovelier.
Human #2: My day wasn't so good. There were too many purple fireballs falling from the yellow sky. I much preferred yesterday's chocolate sky, which gave such a tasty rain.

Our experience has hundreds of perceptual regularities, which a non-idealist can account for by assuming matter and natural laws. A theistic idealist can also explain such perceptual regularities by assuming a perception-ordering agent that sets up certain “rules of the game.” But how do we explain the regularities of experience using the “only human minds” kind of thinking of biocentrism? It would seem that this is a big hole in their “bare bones” theory. Lanza and Berman have done nothing to explain the regularities of human perceptions. If we imagine only human minds, and that matter does not exist, we have no explanation of why human experiences are so similar, and why they share so many perceptual regularities. There might be some way for an idealist to explain such a thing in a non-theistic way, but Lanza and Berman have not attempted to do so. By making statements such as “There is nothing 'out there' beyond the reality constructed in our minds, “ Lanza and Berman seem to be advancing a “just human minds” description of the universe, one that is not very plausible because it lacks an explanation for the similarities and regularities of our experiences and perceptions.

We can compare the biocentrism of Lanza and Berman to the idea that our experience is produced by some computer simulation created by an extraterrestrial civilization (an idea that also involves a claim that matter isn't really out there). Such an idea has its own difficulties, but at least it is able to explain the regularities of human perceptions. Just as all players of a video game have certain common perceptual experiences, because the game was programmed with a certain set of rules, under the simulated universe idea we can account for similarities of human perceptions by imagining that it is “part of the programming.” But if we just imagine that the universe consists of nothing but human minds, without attempting to account for why such minds exist, there is no obvious way to account for the similarities of human perceptions. 

idealism