“Biocentrism”: is it woo?

Again I violate the rules by answering a title question with the word “yes.”

About two weeks ago I posted about the theory of “biocentrism” proposed by Robert Lanza. At that time, I didn’t know much about the theory, but was decrying a piece Lanza wrote in the Independent arguing that his theory suggested that we would have an afterlife: that the concept of death was an illusion, and therefore “could not exist in any real sense.” If that’s the case, where is my last cat?

I’ve now read a bit more about the theory, since in 2009 Lanza published a precis of it on the NBC website. His precis is called “‘Biocentrism’: how life creates the universe,” and it’s an excerpt from his book with Bob Berman, Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe.   (When reading the piece, be sure to click on the bottom where it says “show more text.”) Even though the book was published in 2010, it’s still at position #4538 on Amazon—a respectable showing after 3.5 years.

Like Deepak Chopra, Lanza has substantial scientific credentials. As I wrote earlier:

Wikipedia describes Robert Lanza as “an American medical doctor, scientist, Chief Scientific Officer of Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) and Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Wake Forest University School of Medicine.” He has substantial accomplishments, including being the first person to clone an endangered species (the gaur), to develop a way to harvest embryonic stem cells without destroying an embryo, and to inject stem cells into humans to treat genetic diseases.

Indeed, the accomplishment of such substantial work is more than Chopra can claim. But Lanza resembles Chopra in a darker way, for, after reading about biocentrism, I conclude that it’s just another form of woo—granted, a more sophisticated form of woo than Chopra’s, but only marginally. And, astoundingly, “biocentrism” uses some of the same tropes as does Chopra: the primacy of consciousness in the universe and the idea that quantum mechanics makes a hash of the notion of “reality.” Lanza’s stuff appears to be idle speculation, but speculation that is presented as fairly well established science; and its publication on the NBC “Science” site is bound to mislead or confuse the layperson—especially because there are no rebuttals. (There appear to be “comments,” but I can’t see them.)

Lanza’s main idea is, in fact, identical to that of Chopra: the universe and everything in it is a construct of consciousness (he doesn’t say whose, but I assume humans). Remember when Deepak said that the Moon doesn’t exist until you see it? Well, Lanza thinks exactly the same thing (all excerpts from the NBC piece):

In the past few decades, major puzzles of mainstream science have forced a re-evaluation of the nature of the universe that goes far beyond anything we could have imagined. A more accurate understanding of the world requires that we consider it biologically centered. It’s a simple but amazing concept that Biocentrism attempts to clarify: Life creates the universe, instead of the other way around. Understanding this more fully yields answers to several long-held puzzles. This new model — combining physics and biology instead of keeping them separate, and putting observers firmly into the equation — is called biocentrism. . .

Could the long-sought Theory of Everything be merely missing a component that was too close for us to have noticed?  Some of the thrill that came with the announcement that the human genome had been mapped or the idea that we are close to understanding the “Big Bang” rests in our innate human desire for completeness and totality.  But most of these comprehensive theories fail to take into account one crucial factor: We are creating them. It is the biological creature that fashions the stories, that makes the observations, and that gives names to things. And therein lies the great expanse of our oversight, that science has not confronted the one thing that is at once most familiar and most mysterious — consciousness.

Lanza then traverses familiar ground:  modern science does not explain consciousness, the “beauty” of a sunset is all a subjective sensation filtered through our brain, and, indeed, none of our perceptions reflect a reality “out there”—merely our brain’s interpretation of something (he doesn’t say what). He implies that because science hasn’t explained consciousness, it can’t:

There are many problems with the current paradigm — some obvious, others rarely mentioned but just as fundamental. But the overarching problem involves life, since its initial arising is still a scientifically unknown process, even if the way it then changed forms can be apprehended using Darwinian mechanisms. The bigger problem is that life contains consciousness, which, to say the least, is poorly understood.

Consciousness is not just an issue for biologists; it’s a problem for physics. There is nothing in modern physics that explains how a group of molecules in a brain creates consciousness. The beauty of a sunset, the taste of a delicious meal, these are all mysteries to science — which can sometimes pin down where in the brain the sensations arise, but not how and why there is any subjective personal experience to begin with. And, what’s worse, nothing in science can explain how consciousness arose from matter. Our understanding of this most basic phenomenon is virtually nil. Interestingly, most models of physics do not even recognize this as a problem.

Well, physicists aren’t concerned much with consciousness, but biologists and philosophers are.  And we don’t understand nothing about it: we know which parts of brain affects parts of consciousness, like recognizing faces, and we know that we can remove consciousness with anesthetics and bring it back. We can alter consciousness in predictable ways with drugs. Everything to date suggest that consciousness is an emergent property of brain organization, though we don’t yet know yet how this subjective sensation arises through neurology or arose through evolution. (We do know that things that taste good were, generally, good for us in the past, so some aspect of subjective sensation is comprehensible.)

Lanza then take a brief detour through Fine Tuning Land, just short enough to suggest that the physical constants are a mystery, and to imply that perhaps his own theory (he doesn’t say how) is involved in the answer:

Then, too, in the last few decades there has been considerable discussion of a basic paradox in the construction of the universe. Why are the laws of physics exactly balanced for animal life to exist?  There are over 200 physical parameters within the solar system and universe so exact that it strains credulity to propose that they are random — even if that is exactly what standard contemporary physics baldly suggests. These fundamental constants of the universe — constants that are not predicted by any theory — all seem to be carefully chosen, often with great precision, to allow for existence of life and consciousness (yes, consciousness raises its annoying head yet another time). We have absolutely no reasonable explanation for this.

But that’s simply not true. First of all, we don’t know which constants are independent of one another, and we certainly know that not all of them have to be “fine tuned” to permit life as we know it.  Further, Sean Carroll, in the video I posted last week, suggested four “reasonable” explanations for the so-called Anthropic Principle, including luck, multiverses, and so on. None of them are unreasonable; we just don’t know which is correct. (Lanza considers several of these briefly but dismisses them, and doesn’t mention the multiverse hypothesis, which was around when his book was published.) But again, the nature of physical constants is a hard problem, like consciousness, and there’s no reason to think that science won’t eventually answer it. Has Lanza not learned the historical problems with “woo of the gaps” arguments?

Then, inevitably, Lanza drags in quantum mechanics, in the form of The Observer Effect. Lanza notes that “the observer” (and consciousness) affect the outcome of quantum-mechanical studies. He doesn’t note, though, “observer” need not be conscious: it can be a non-conscious machine that measures quantum phenomena. That by itself would seem to make hash of his theory.  Lanza then mooshes together the observer effect and the fact that we perceive a version of reality filtered through our neurons to confect his Big Theory:  reality is in fact created by the observer, and isn’t there (or isn’t coherent) when it’s not observed. Here’s the meat of his theory:

The results of quantum physics, such as the two-slit experiment, tell us that not a single one of those subatomic particles actually occupies a definite place. Rather, they exist as a range of possibilities — as waves of probability — as the German physicist Max Born demonstrated back in 1926. They are statistical predictions — nothing but a likely outcome. In fact, outside of that idea, nothing is there!  If they are not being observed, they cannot be thought of as having any real existence — either duration or a position in space.  It is only in the presence of an observer — that is, when you go back in to get a drink of water [he says that our kitchen isn't really there when we leave it]— that the mind sets the scaffolding of these particles in place. Until it actually lays down the threads (somewhere in the haze of probabilities that represent the object’s range of possible values) they cannot be thought of as being either here or there, or having an actual position, a physical reality.

Indeed, it is here that biocentrism suggests a very different view of reality. Most people, in and out of the sciences, imagine the external world to exist on its own, with an appearance that more-or-less resembles what we ourselves see. Human or animal eyes, according to this view, are merely clear windows that accurately let in the world. If our personal window ceases to exist, as in death, or is painted black and opaque, as in blindness, that doesn’t in any way alter the continued existence of the external reality or its supposed “actual” appearance. A tree is still there, the moon still shines, whether or not we are cognizing them. They have an independent existence. True, a dog may see an autumn maple solely in shades of gray, and an eagle may perceive much greater detail among its leaves, but most creatures basically apprehend the same visually real object, which persists even if no eyes were upon it.

This “Is it really there?” issue is ancient, and of course predates biocentrism. Biocentrism, however, explains why one view and not the other may be correct. The converse is equally true: Once one fully understands that there is no independent external universe outside of biological existence, the rest more or less falls into place.

He never explains the “rest more of less falls into place” (i.e. does this explain the physical constants—or are they mere constructs?), but this idea is badly wrong. Yes, of course our perception of reality may be conditioned by our neurons (a bee sees differently from us), but the wavelengths of light that fuel perception are invariant among organisms.  And even if quantum phenomena are puzzling on the micro level (Lanza mentions, of course, quantum entanglement and the two-slit experiment—phenomena also used to empower Chopra’s woo), they almost certainly have no effect on the macro level: on our consciousness and on the behavior of objects bigger than a cell (that is, if molecules aren’t illusions of our consciousness!).

In the end, it’s simply foolish to claim that nothing is there until we observe it—that there is simply a wave function that collapses into a rock or a cat when a human sees it. The observer need not be conscious, not even a machine. I was reading last night, in my mountaineering book, how George Mallory‘s body was found on Everest in 1999. If you’re a mountain fanatic, you’ll know the story, but Mallory and his climbing partner, Andrew Irvine, disappeared while climbing Everest in June of 1924.  Since they were last seen near the summit, it’s possible that they actually made it to the top, though evidence suggests they didn’t.  What’s important here is that when Mallory’s body was found after 75 years, something had happened to it. It had become mummified, much of his clothing was ripped by winds (he was identified by a label in his shirt), and his bones were showing.  That all suggests—as do many other things that happen to inanimate objects—that there are real phenomena that occur even when nobody is there to see them. And that reality—in this case the cold and winds of Everest—have predictable effects.  No observer was there to watch Mallory’s body wither and be buffeted by winds, no observer is there when we leave a sand castle on the beach and return to find it effaced by the tides, no observer is there when you forget to take the cake out of the oven and it burns.

Are these phenomena, then, “created” by consciousness? If so, how; and why are they “created” in a predictable way?  Lanza’s big mistake, it seems to me, is to say that a combination of the “observer” effect (which doesn’t apply on the macro level) and the fact that reality is filtered through evolved neurons, together suggest that reality does not exist. If it doesn’t, it’s curious that the illusory reality we create with our consciousness—and Lanza includes “death” as such an illusion—certainly behave in ways that are predictable and perceived identically by different people, changing in expected directions even when no observer is around.

In the end, Lanza suggests not only that consciousness creates reality, but that it somehow created the universe. When discussing anthropic “fine-tuning,” he says this:

At the moment, there are only four explanations for this mystery. One is to argue for incredible coincidence. Another is to say, “God did that,” which explains nothing even if it is true. The third is to invoke the anthropic principle’s reasoning that we must find these conditions if we are alive, because, what else could we find? The final option is biocentrism pure and simple, which explains how the universe is created by life. Obviously, no universe that doesn’t allow for life could possibly exist; the universe and its parameters simply reflect the spatio-temporal logic of animal existence.

Now how on earth is the universe (much less those fine-tuned constants) created by life? How does our consciousness create the universe if that universe had to preexist for our consciousness to evolve? According to Lanza, it’s not just that we filter a pre-existing reality through our consciousness, thereby distorting it, but that we actually create that reality when we perceive it.  If that’s the case, where did animals, with their attendant consciousness, come from? How did the Big Bang occur without people around to create it? Does he admit of a “wave function” that allowed us to evolve, and in ways that our own consciousness can understand by collapsing the wave functions that correspond to fossils?

Maybe I’m not understanding Lanza, and perhaps he’s saying something very deep. But I doubt it, and certainly others do too, for “biocentrism” hasn’t exactly caught on in the last few years.  It seems to me that what Lanza is proffering is merely a Deepakian form of woo, one empty of substantive content. If that’s the case, then it’s a mystery why someone like Lanza, who has solid scientific credentials and accomplishments, has gone astray in this manner. Unlike Chopra, Lanza doesn’t sell ayurvedic medicines or tea mugs, and it’s clear he really believes what he says.  But, I suspect, what he claims could be demolished in a few minutes by someone who knows quantum mechanics.

We have some of those people here, so if you want to have a go at “biocentrism,” be my guest. It’s time for physicists, biologists, and philosophers to join forces to go after this unnourishing word salad that people like Lanza and Chopra feed to a hungry public. It’s not quite as bad as religion, but they have their similarities, including the use of incoherent language, the use of deepities, and nebulous claims about reality.

The puzzle of consciousness and the counterintuitiveness of quantum mechanics are indeed cause for wonder—and stimuli for research—but they’re not reasons to jettison the notion of reality.

lanza1

Robert Lanza, who has just gone swimming in water created by his consciousness.

191 Comments

  1. Posted December 2, 2013 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    //

  2. gbjames
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Uhhh… Jerry…. Robert Lanza’s consciousness didn’t create the water he’s swimming in. I did!

    What puzzles me is since my consciousness created all of this, where did I come from?

    Deep(ity) stuff!

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      No I did when I observed the picture just now. :D

      • gbjames
        Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:39 am | Permalink

        Give me a break, Diana. I’ve never seen you. You don’t exist.

        • Juggler_Dave
          Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

          She does exist – she replied to me once. Wait, that was someone else. Poof – there she goes.

          • Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:49 am | Permalink

            Who?

            b&

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted December 2, 2013 at 10:05 am | Permalink

              Whoa, where did I go?

              • Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

                It’s OK Diana! You will continue to think you exist as long as we see your comments here.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted December 2, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

                Phew! Better keep commenting then. Oops! Poof!

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted December 2, 2013 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

          “None of you exist. The site owner types it all in.” ;)

  3. Gerardo F Zambito Brondo
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Woo is a polite way of calling it.

  4. Posted December 2, 2013 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    I love the irony of him being the first person to clone an endangered animal. If there’s no such thing as death then there’s no such thing as extinction. So why worry about it? :-)

  5. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Biocentrism appears to be nothing more than a rehash of solipsism.

    Solipsism+.

    • Kevin
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Lanza wants humanity to be bigger than it is. I would like humanity to be the most important thing in the universe, but I do not purport to have any evidence that that is the case. He is a biosolipsist.

      • darrelle
        Posted December 2, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        Maybe I am channeling my “glass half empty side,” but, holy crap, I hope humanity is not the most important thing in the universe!

        Well, now that I’ve gotten over my initial fright, it seems to me that the concept of “most important thing in the universe” is pretty much nonsense anyway. What does it mean, and why should it matter to any sentient being?

        To expand on that supreme of feminine badassery, Sarah Connor;

        There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves,
        There’s no meaning but what we make for ourselves,
        There’s no purpose but what we make for ourselves,
        There’s no importance but what we make for ourselves.

        But that is unacceptable to believers, and apparently Biocentrists too. Religion and woo like biocentrism are the result of existential insecurities and a craving for attention not held in check by rational thinking.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted December 2, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, I’ve often thought how disappointing it would be to discover we were the most advanced sentient beings in the universe. What a let down.

          • gbjames
            Posted December 2, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

            Not to worry! According to Lanza you only need to think some more advanced beings into existence!

            • Posted December 2, 2013 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

              Like, say, cats?

              b&

            • Mark Joseph
              Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

              The ontological argument arises from the dead!

    • Dale
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      Yes. Solipsism. It’s an old idea. Chopra and Lanza are just recycling it with a strong dash of spooky action i.e. quantum physics.

      I have to reject the idea that either “consciousness” or the anthropic principle represent “hard” problems.

      I don’t think that the brain simply filters perception but actually provides the vast bulk of it from memory. I think that we spend very little time collecting but a lot of time “re-collecting”. Some of the input is cognition (in close to real time), but the bulk of it is “recognition” of the only external reality that we evolved into and later developed into as a matter of biological growth & development. It’s the only reality that we can know.

      This doesn’t seem “hard” to me. It seems like what would be expected. In computer programming we learn tricks early on that we employ as a matter of economy. Tricks like writing a “sub-routine” once, on then calling it when necessary. Other tricks like data compression.

      The visual image resting on our retinas is very low resolution and crude compared with our “experience”. That could be used as a metaphor for all of our senses I think. The bulk of our subjective experience of external reality is “re-called” from a memory that is evolutionary, (memory built from gene expression) and developmental, (memory built from development). That the brain can assemble this information into what we call our “subjective experience” is amazing but not magic. Given the actual rather crude nature of perception we shouldn’t be so surprised when our brain gets it wrong, as it is wont to do.

      About the anthropic principle….I think that the statistical outlook fails us when we consider that which seems impossibly unlikely and yet which occurs anyway. It seems that the process of selection only requires a set of possibilities, an energy source, and lots of time. If the constants of this universe did not contain the elements necessary for our life we would not be here to think about it. Not so much a matter of “co-incidence” but incidence. Why think past that?

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:56 am | Permalink

        Speaking of brains, here is an interesting bit of new research: (http://uanews.org/story/ua-study-your-brain-sees-things-you-don-t)

        • gbjames
          Posted December 2, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

          That’s an interesting study. More fodder for the free will debate, no? It would also seem to fit well into Dennett’s “many drafts” model of consciousness.

          • Jesper Both Pedersen
            Posted December 2, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

            I don’t know how it fits with compatibilism, but I’m with him on the principle of the matter. That there is no mysterious place in the brain where it all happens, nor an elusive “sum of all the parts” waiting to be discovered.

            Regarding free will I guess this research takes a bit of the free from the will because it indicates that the brain automatically filters inputs and makes a “choice” without us being conscious of it.

            I wonder what a compatibilist would make of it, though.

        • Posted December 2, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, but that’s from the UofA, boo hiss.

          b&

      • Kelton Barnsley
        Posted December 3, 2013 at 6:38 am | Permalink

        The “hard problem” of consciousness is how this subjective experience arises out the electrochemical processes of the brain. Why don’t our brains just go about their business without the need for there to be something that it is like to be a brain?

        I don’t know the answer, and I obviously don’t think that this problem cashes out Lanza’s or anyone else’s woo, much less the specific claims of Christianity, Islam, and the rest. But I notice that whenever someone claims that the “hard problem” is solved, or isn’t really a hard problem, they inevitable sidestep the question of how exactly subjective experience of “being” arises out of an objective system of ions shuttling between brain cells.

        • Posted December 3, 2013 at 7:43 am | Permalink

          First, I strongly suspect that consciousness is simply what it feels like to be “inside” a system with the capabilities of the brain. There’re all sorts of observational, analytical, and feedback mechanisms; put them together and wire them up as they are, and the result is consciousness.

          But, all that aside, we already have a very firm grip on how vision arises out of an objective system of ions shuttling between optic nerve and brain cells. And, though we may lack detailed understanding, we’ve long known that certain substances / trauma / lesions / etc. that have very specific effects on those shuttling ions cause alterations in consciousness and cognition in very predictable ways. Seems strange at this point that we should be expected to explain the minutiae before even accepting the basic outline — an outline that’s been in evidence for millennia, no less.

          Sure, the picture’s fuzzy. But it’s more than clear enough to be able to tell that it’s a picture of a cat, and absolutely no chance whatsoever that it’s a picture of a lobster or a lighthouse or a ladder. We can perhaps argue over whether it’s a tabby or a calico, but suggesting it’s not even a mammal is right out.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Kelton Barnsley
            Posted December 3, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

            “First, I strongly suspect that consciousness is simply what it feels like to be ‘inside’ a system with the capabilities of the brain.”

            But why does it feel like something to be “inside” such a system? That’s the problem I’m getting at. The fact that we can explain how our eyes convert photons into nerve signals and send information to be processed by our brains does not explain why we are aware of the subjective experience of seeing.

            Also, the wording of “inside…the brain” is suggestive of dualism (not your intention, I’m sure). There is no ghost in the machine. There is only the machine (objectively) and the conscious experience of a very small fraction of the machine’s outputs (subjectively).

            The problem isn’t that the picture’s fuzzy. It’s that I don’t understand why there’s a picture in the first place.

            • Posted December 3, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

              Ah, but if my use of English with its decidedly dualistic assumptions is suggestive of dualism, insisting that there must be a “why” answer to the existence of a phenomenon is unapologetically teleological.

              Might as well question why there should be life in the first place, or why there should be humans, or why the electron should have a charge, or so on.

              If you’d like to take a Feynman-style approach, you’d maybe start with the “why” question, but quickly turn it into a matter of examining which bits are connected to what and how tugging on the one changes the other. With that perspective, it should be obvious that vision in and of itself has huge evolutionary advantages, and the evolution of the eye is famously well understood. Once we accept that the eye is there and that we know how it works, it’s hardly a stretch at all to suggest that the processing of the image is a matter of creating a biochemical map of the image recorded by the retina — and, indeed, recent work with brain imaging has shown that that’s exactly what happens, with computers able to analyze brain scans and reconstruct, with surprising fidelity, what the subject was looking at.

              Is it really so much of a stretch to go from there unquestionably being a biochemical map of visual perception in the brain to the brain having an easy-to-work-with interface to said map? And what could be easier to work with and more intuitive than simply seeing it, with the perception that you’re exactly what you are — an actor embedded within the world?

              Rather than consciousness being something extraordinary that demands explanation, it’s instead one of those things that anything else would be what would demand explanation. The miracle is not that complex and sophisticated information-gathering and analytic engines should be self-aware and easily perceive their surroundings; the miracle would be if a clod of dirt should have such capabilities.

              Put it another way: it should be uncontroversial that the brain gathers a great deal of information from its surroundings, and that it does a hell of a lot with that data and it also does a hell of a lot with its own internal state. Is perception and consciousness an unreasonable way for such an object to optimize those tasks?

              Don’t forget that the history of computer science is, itself, a long exercise in building layer upon layer of abstraction, starting with the analog fiddly bits to digital quantization of the states of the fiddly bits to binary machine language to assembler instructions to optimized assemblers to compiled languages to interpreted languages to operating systems to user interfaces to applications to IBM’s Watson. Perception and consciousness are clearly a part of that spectrum, even if based on different underlying hardware and quite a bit farther along it than anything in a computer.

              When we finally build a conscious computer, its modes of perception and consciousness will likely be at least as foreign to us as that of an octopus’s…but they should also be instantly recognizable as similar and equivalent in all the ways that really matter, in exactly the same way that what an iPhone does isn’t fundamentally different from what the Commodore Amiga did (even if there’re significant and radical differences in the implementations and abilities of the two).

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Kelton Barnsley
                Posted December 3, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

                “Ah, but if my use of English with its decidedly dualistic assumptions is suggestive of dualism, insisting that there must be a “why” answer to the existence of a phenomenon is unapologetically teleological.”

                Fair enough; it’s almost as though the English language were developed by folks who were beholden to a belief in a god and souls. In my defense, by “why” I really meant “how”.

                But you have sidestepped the true problem. Consciousness is extraordinary and demands an explanation. If you were to examine a living brain without knowing beforehand that it was conscous, there would be nothing about it which would suggest that there is something that it is like to be that brain. Only a staggeringly complex system of nerve cells exchanging sodium and potassium ions and neurotransmitters.

                The fact is, we don’t know how consciousness arises, and it is a hard problem. I’m not saying it will never be solved; I’m just saying that we don’t currently have any idea how to solve it. People like Chopra and Lanza are wrong to insist that this uncertainty invalidates naturalism and cashes out their woo, but it is also wrong to insist that there is no problem to begin with.

              • Posted December 3, 2013 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

                Once again, it comes down to a question of language. In this case, I don’t think “problem” is at all the right word, for it implies that something is going on that is inconsistent with current understanding. Mercury’s orbit was a problem, as was the temperature of the Sun.

                Your own example of the brain is an almost-perfect indication of why this is better classified not as a problem but as an incomplete picture. Consider, rather than a brain, a server sitting in a rack in a datacenter. It will be every bit as opaque as a brain. Without at least an oscilloscope, you wouldn’t even have a theoretical chance of divining what’s going on — unless, of course, as with the brain, you could observe its complete environment to the point that you could interact with it.

                Once you can interact with it, you can start to get some ideas about what it is and what it does, but your understanding would be necessarily superficial and likely full of misconceptions. However, if you can crack the case and get in there with a modern logic analyzer and an electron microscope and all the other neat toys you’d find at a modern semiconductor design studio, you could eventually figure out everything there is to know about it, hardware and software both. And, even with just an oscilloscope, you could still work out the basic outline of it all.

                With the brain, we’re just now graduating from oscilloscopes to primitive logic analyzers. We’re a long way from reverse engineering the software, but we’re also a long way from a time when words like “mystery” and “problem” were applicable. There’re a lot of details to work out, yes, and there will undoubtedly be surprises along the way.

                But the surprises will be like finding the Grand Canyon in the middle of the Southwest or a duck-billed platypus in Australia. We already not only know we’re not going to stumble across Atlantis and mermaids in the middle of the Great Lakes, we also already have a map of their outlines and know all their tributaries and outlets and islands, even if we know nothing of the topologies of the lake beds or the underwater currents or their ecologies.

                …and, yeah, I could probably come up with a better analogy, but I hope that at least gets the basic idea across.

                Cheers,

                b&

                >

              • Kelton Barnsley
                Posted December 3, 2013 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

                Is a server conscious? If so, we can open the case, analyze its circuits, and attack it with a multimeter all day long, but never find evidence that there is a subjectivity associated with it. We can learn everything there is to know about the operations of the server (or a human brain), and yet remain perfectly ignorant of whether the thing is conscious or not unless it tells us that it is. In the case of another human telling us that they are conscious, parsimony demands that since we know that we are conscious, other humans must be, too. The same is probably true for other animals with nervous systems similar to ours. But if we don’t already know that a server or other piece of electronics is conscious, we won’t find out by cracking it open and taking a look at its innards.

              • Posted December 4, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

                If so, we can open the case, analyze its circuits, and attack it with a multimeter all day long, but never find evidence that there is a subjectivity associated with it.

                That’s a rather bold statement, and not at all one I’d agree with. As a trivial example, and using the criteria you lay out for humans, one can easily imagine a computer that’s more than able to pass the Turing Test that assures us that it’s conscious. Knowing of its consciousness, and, presumably, knowing everything there is to know of its design (because we designed it), it seems preposterous to suggest that we’d be utterly flabbergasted as to how to independently confirm that condition.

                It’s worth noting that “consciousness” is an ill-defined and imprecise term, much like “life” itself. Are bacteria alive? Mitochondria? Viruses? Prions? Without vitalism, there’s no hard-and-fast answer; it’s all just a continuum, and finding something only inconsequentially different from another is trivial. Where on the rainbow do you draw the line dividing red from orange, orange from yellow, yellow from green? It’s the same with consciousness. I think most here would agree that chimps are conscious, and that sets us instantly on the slippery slope that leads us to the other great apes, to the rest of the primates, to all mammals, to all vertebrates, to octopuses…and where are we to draw the line that includes humans and octopuses but excludes goldfish and snails? Having included goldfish and snails, how do we then exclude anything else that’s alive? Having included all of life…well, since we can’t draw the line with life itself, how do we draw the line with consciousness?

                If you’d like to start the same thing all over again, begin with intelligence. There are some animals unquestionably more intelligent than some humans, especially young and dain-brammaged humans. Is it the case that babies aren’t intelligent, or are we once again on a continuum?

                To be sure, I’m not going all Chopra on you and trying to claim that individual atoms are conscious. Not only is that preposterous, it’s not the point of the exercise.

                Rather, the point is that the application of a binary label to a continuous phenomenon trivially and instantly is demonstrably useless except for the must casual of purposes.

                Instead, we must take a step back and analyze what it is that we mean by the words in question, and determine to what degree they are applicable.

                To the extent that intelligence is the ability to solve problems and puzzles, we can identify the particular examples and classes of problems and puzzles an individual is capable of solving. To the extent that consciousness is self-awareness, we can identify the aspects of self an individual is aware of, and the detail and depth of that awareness.

                With that approach, we can see that there are ways in which computers are far more intelligent and self-aware than humans: they are computational whizzes, and many can precisely tell you all sorts of things about their internal state, from resource allocation to the exact temperatures of various internal components. How many more facts are you capable of remembering before you’d have to start forgetting things? What’s your exact pulse, and the blood pressure in the vicinity of your medulla oblongata? How many milliseconds since you woke up last, and how long can you keep going without eating or drinking before your cognitive performance starts to degrade, and in what manner and at what rate will it degrade? Most cellphones are constantly aware of comparable facts about themselves, but you have little or no clue. At the same time, there are, of course, a great many ways in which humans are significantly more intelligent and self-aware than any computer ever made.

                And, of course, it’s not at all challenging to imagine the not-too-terribly-distant future where there’s a computer of some sort that bests many or most or all humans not just at certain subsets of cognition and awareness, but at every example humans can think of.

                At that point, refusing to acknowledge the intelligence and consciousness of such a computer would seem to be quite the fool’s errand.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Kelton Barnsley
                Posted December 4, 2013 at 8:12 am | Permalink

                “It’s worth noting that “consciousness” is an ill-defined and imprecise term, much like “life” itself.”

                This analogy doesn’t work. We can study life as an objective phenomenon. But consciousness is the condition in which all experience (thoughts, perceptions, emotions) arises. What I’m saying we don’t understand, is what consciousness is at the level of the brain. If you could take a conscious computer, or a living brain, and blow it up to the size of a building, you could go in and walk around and see all of the parts working off one another. But nowhere would it be evident that this machine was the bearer of subjective experience; that it was truly aware of anything; that there was something that it is like to be that machine.

                This is the hard problem of consciousness. I simply have no idea where to start on how to identify the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity. I am not claiming, as the creationist often does, that my ignorance on the matter is evidence for the supernatural. Nor am I claiming that I expect to find “mermaids and Atlantis” when all is said and done. But please notice that you are simply sidestepping the issue of subjectivity to talk about complexity and computing power instead.

              • Posted December 4, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

                I guess where I’m getting confused is that you seem to be privileging some special type of self awareness.

                Right now, as I type this note, I can ask the computer I’m typing this note on what it’s doing with its memory. And it tells me that half of its 16 Gbytes is inactive; about a quarter each is active and wired, respectively, and only a tiny sliver is free — and that it’s using 9 Gbytes of swap. I can drill down into that and the computer can tell me, for example, that the Windows virtual machine I’m running is using about a third of one of the CPU cores along with not quite 4 Gbytes of memory. The computer can drill down as much further into that as you might care for, at any level, even to the point of the responsiveness of the various threads or, for that matter, a complete dump or decompilation of all of memory or any given sub-portion of it.

                How is that not a form of self awareness? And how is that not a form of self-awareness far beyond any human’s capacity?

                And what makes you think that a computer sophisticated enough to legitimately pass the Turing Test wouldn’t have a similarly-scaled-up (and, thus, unimaginably superior to a human’s) self awareness?

                If you’re insisting that a computer must have self awareness that’s a perfect analogue for the human form before you’ll acknowledge that it’s self aware, then you’ve not only ruled out all non-human animals (including chimps and hypothetical aliens) from having self awareness, you’ve presumably ruled out every human who’s not Kelton Barnsley from having self awareness, as well. That hardly seems a useful definition, either.

                If, instead, we simply and obviously define self-awareness as at least some degree of knowledge about the inner state of the entity doing the thinking, then computers have been there for ages.

                Does it “feel” the same to a computer? Now you’re into the realm of qualia, and that’s about as meaningless as it gets. First, that sort of thing instantly devolves into tautologies such as, if it’s different, it’s different; second, objective investigation of, for example, color perception reveals largely consistent agreement between humans but with distinct (and generally subtle but significant) differences between people. And it changes with time, too — cataracts cause people to see things as yellower than they otherwise do, for example, with cataract removal causing a sometimes-dramatic shift in visual perception. Qualia theory can’t coherently deal with that sort of thing.

                However…there is, in principle, no reason that a computer couldn’t be built that modeled an human brain (and body and environment) to whatever level of detail you require, thought the economics and technology of such an undertaking is quite beyond our current abilities. And one could even do so with a significantly bigger still computer that was able to do all that as a subroutine that an hypervisor could pick apart and analyze to its heart’s content. That subroutine would, unquestionably, “feel” everything a human would, and there can be no question but that the hypervisor would know far more about human cognition than any human even theoretically could. Would you still insist that the hypervisor somehow lacked self-awareness, simply because you yourself would be incapable of understanding it?

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Kelton Barnsley
                Posted December 4, 2013 at 9:38 am | Permalink

                “Does it “feel” the same to a computer? Now you’re into the realm of qualia, and that’s about as meaningless as it gets.”

                I think I’ve identified our impasse.

                Qualia are not meaningless; they are in fact all we have. Everything humans (and other conscious creatures) have ever learned about the objective world of which we are a part has been learned in the context of subjectivity. There is no way to “experience” an objective world at all, since the very meaning of “experience” demands subjectivity. This does not, of course, mean that our subjectivity creates the objective world, or that there is no objective world at all. But to dismiss qualia and subjectivity as “meaningless” is the height of absurdity. You may as well call rational thought and evidence “meaningless”, since these things can only arise in subjectivity.

                It is here that I feel the need to point out that there are two meanings each of “objective” and “subjective”. The first meaning refers to the degree to which a person has got their biases in plain sight and is willing to have their minds changed by the evidence. To be “objective” in this sense is to be relatively open to new evidence and unswayed by bias, whereas to be “subjective” in the same sense is to be relatively closed to new evidence and ruled by bias.

                The second meaning uses “objective” to mean all that which exists independent of experience; not only the world around us, but our bodies and brains as well. The “subjective” is that which exists as a matter of experience; our thoughts, emotions, and all of our perceptions, including our experience of the objective universe, are “subjective” in this sense.

                I suspect that your assertion that qualia are “meaningless” may be the product of a confusion between these two definitions of “subjective”.

              • Posted December 4, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

                It seems to me that there’s no way to make sense of your subjective / objective divide without resorting to dualism.

                By any rational means, we are a part of the universe; there is no inside or outside. Our language, again, is fundamentally dualistic for historical reasons. However, logically, the fact that your brain and mine are separated by an Internet connection is different only in scale from the fact that the two hemispheres of your brain are separated by a high-bandwidth nerve bundle.

                We certainly have the feeling of a coherent whole sense of self, but experiment after experiment has demonstrated without question that even that’s an illusion or otherwise easily tricked.

                Considering that the “subjective self” you’re trying to claim as the alpha and omega of human experience isn’t itself coherent or complete, I don’t understand how it can be the basis for comparison against anything else, either.

                b&

              • Kelton Barnsley
                Posted December 4, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

                Ben,

                You seem to be attacking positions which I do not hold. I agree completely with the second and third paragraphs in your latest post. The sense of a constant, immutable “self” is an illusion, and we are wholly a part of the universe.

                I disagree with your charge of dualism. Making a distinction between objective and subjective phenomena is no more a concession to dualism than is making a distinction between space and time, or gravity and electromagnetism. We can talk about two different phenomena which may be part of the same whole but which nevertheless have distinct characteristics which make them unique. It is clear to me that objective phenomena and subjective phenomena interact with each other in some way. Our perceptions are constrained by the things which we are perceiving, and our entire experience is probably totally constrained by the structure and operations of our brains. As you said, damaging the brain has a profound affect on the subjective experience of the person.

                Consciousness also seems to have an ability to affect the objective world, since some deliberate actions cannot be made unconsciously, such as deciding to go to the doctor or study a martial art. It also seems to me that consciousness must have some evolutionary advantage, or at least be an emergent side-effect of something else which does, or it would not exist. So objectivity and subjectivity can affect each other are clearly both part of the same universe. I am simply arguing that understanding the origin of consciousness is a hard problem not unlike understanding the origin of the universe itself – in both cases we seem to be butting our heads against a brute fact.

              • Posted December 4, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

                Making a distinction between objective and subjective phenomena is no more a concession to dualism than is making a distinction between space and time, or gravity and electromagnetism.

                That, I believe, would be a category error.

                The proper analogy would the the one I made earlier, of distinguishing between colors in a rainbow. Or, perhaps between ultraviolet and infrared, to pick something with a bit more separation. Light with the various wavelengths behaves differently, yes, but there’s no fundamental principled distinction between the two, just as there’s no fundamental principled distinction between the phenomena you would label as objective and subjective, conscious and unconscious.

                I would contend that “the origin of consciousness” reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what we know already of what consciousness is. Consciousness is not a singular distinctive property which can even in principle have an origin. Rather, it’s an amalgamation of many diverse phenomenon, not unlike Stone Soup. At what point does Stone Soup stop being water with a pebble in it, and start being soup? What is the origin of Stone Soup?

                When does a collection of grains of sand become a pile, when does an hill become a mountain, a puddle a pond? We would not use the word, “origins,” to describe such distinctions, and your worry over the difficulty of explaining the origins of consciousness is equally misguided.

                Is the Stone Soup of human consciousness especially rich and subtle and nuanced? Absolutely. And our task at understanding it is not unlike attempting to divine the ingredients and method for a particularly sophisticated soup served at a fine restaurant. But going from that to worrying about the “problem” of the “origins” of the soup is incoherent. Besides, if the chef substituted Himalayan salt for sea salt, would it still be the “same” soup? What if she used garlic from China instead of from Gilroy? Red onions instead of brown? Chicken stock instead of beef? At what point is it no longer the same soup? How many ingredients can you add, remove, substitute, or change quantities before it’s a different soup, or not even soup at all?

                There’s absolutely a great deal for us to learn about human (and other) consciousness. But the “hard questions” you propose aren’t themselves coherent, let alone ones anybody’s really trying to answer.

                Some with the origins of the Universe itself, by the way. And, in that case, it’s logically provable (use a variation on the popular proof of the Halting Problem) that the answer is unknowable, no matter how allegedly smart or knowledgeable the questioner. So how can it even make sense to ask of the origins?

                Might as well ask how high the sky is.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Kelton Barnsley
                Posted December 5, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

                “Making a distinction between objective and subjective phenomena is no more a concession to dualism than is making a distinction between space and time, or gravity and electromagnetism.”

                “That, I believe, would be a category error.”

                I’d say it’s an imperfect analogy rather than a category error.

                “The proper analogy would the the one I made earlier, of distinguishing between colors in a rainbow…there’s no fundamental principled distinction between the phenomena you would label as objective and subjective, conscious and unconscious.”

                But there is a fundamental difference between consciousness and unconsciousness. However consciousness works in terms of the brain, to be conscious is to be aware of something (anything!). There is a gradation in the complexity of the contents of consciousness the animal world. For example, if organisms with simple eyespots are conscious, then visually they are conscious of light and dark, but not of color or depth. But they would still be conscious; it would just be that an eagle is conscious of much more visual information than our hypothetical organism would be.

                To summarize: the thoughts, perceptions, and emotions may exist on a continuum of complexity, but consciousness is binary; either the lights are on, or they aren’t.

                “Some with the origins of the Universe itself, by the way. And, in that case, it’s logically provable (use a variation on the popular proof of the Halting Problem) that the answer is unknowable, no matter how allegedly smart or knowledgeable the questioner. So how can it even make sense to ask of the origins?”

                That’s sort of my point. I suspect that the answer to how consciousness arises in the brain (if indeed it does) may be unknowable, for reasons similar to why the answer to how something arose from nothing (if indeed it did) may be unknowable.

              • Posted December 5, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

                For example, if organisms with simple eyespots are conscious, then visually they are conscious of light and dark, but not of color or depth. But they would still be conscious; it would just be that an eagle is conscious of much more visual information than our hypothetical organism would be.

                If such an organism satisfies your definition of consciousness, then there can be no question but that computers have been conscious — and for quite some time. And more conscious than your simple organisms with eyespots, too.

                As such, it is perfectly reasonable to state that we thoroughly understand your binary version of consciousness (even though that’s not a definition I’d agree upon).

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Kelton Barnsley
                Posted December 5, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

                “If such an organism satisfies your definition of consciousness…”

                That wasn’t my point. I was just using it as an example to illustrate that what we are conscious of may lie on a continuum of complexity, but that consciousness itself does not. In reality, I think that a brain is necessary for consciousness (but I don’t know – and that’s my point).

                “As such, it is perfectly reasonable to state that we thoroughly understand your binary version of consciousness (even though that’s not a definition I’d agree upon)”

                You seem to be completely ignoring the fact that consciousness refers not to the mere processing of information, but to the state of being aware of something (anything!). What I’m saying is that I’m somewhat agnostic about whether we can even in principle explain how it can be like something to be a brain in a human body, even though empirically, it clearly is like something to be a brain in a human body. Again, my doubt on this subject should not be construed as supporting Chopra’s or Lanza’s “universal consciousness” or any other New Age or traditionally religious mumbo-jumbo.

              • Posted December 5, 2013 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

                As somebody who’s experienced various levels of unconsciousness and semiconsciousness, including the “fall down go boom” variety as well as the kind that comes from surgical drugs…well, I gotta say, even in humans, consciousness is most emphatically continuous. And that, common perception to the contrary, humans are not a singular entity…it’s entirely possible for different parts of the “you” that is you to be independently aware and unaware of what’s going on.

                I’m also wondering what it is by a “brain” that you think is necessary for consciousness. Do you mean a bundle of nerves, or just any physical computational device? If a bundle of nerves, what privileges biochemical signal processors over the semiconductor variety? Short of, again, some form of vitalism, I can’t even begin to imagine what, even in principle, could account for such a distinction.

                b&

              • Kelton Barnsley
                Posted December 5, 2013 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

                “I’m also wondering what it is by a “brain” that you think is necessary for consciousness. Do you mean a bundle of nerves, or just any physical computational device? If a bundle of nerves, what privileges biochemical signal processors over the semiconductor variety?”

                I don’t know – again, that’s my point. Is there something special about biological brains which an equivalent silicon-based architecture would lack? I don’t know. I’m not an expert on computers or information theory, but even if I were, I don’t know what it is about our brains that makes us conscious.

                “Short of, again, some form of vitalism, I can’t even begin to imagine what, even in principle, could account for such a distinction.”

                You seem to enjoy suggesting that I hold to outmoded philosophies like dualism and vitalism. For the umpteenth time, my willingness to admit that I simply do not know what consciousness is at the level of the brain does not in any way imply that I think a soul or some other supernatural entity would do any explanatory work whatsoever. It’s as if I am watching you sink your arrows into a wall many yards away from the target, only to then declare a bulls-eye.

              • Posted December 5, 2013 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

                Im not an expert on computers or information theory, but even if I were, I dont know what it is about our brains that makes us conscious.

                Fortunately, you don’t need expert knowledge on these particular questions to know the answers.

                Specifically, all you need is some introductory knowledge about Turing Machines. In particular, the Church-Turing Theses (not yet proven but on astonishingly solid ground) states that anything that can be computed can be computed by a Turing Machine. Further, there are foundational proofs that demonstrate both that any Turing-equivalent computer with sufficient resources can simulate any other Turing-equivalent computer; that any Turing machine can be represented by an infinite number of other equivalent Turing machines; and that all Turing machines are themselves also equivalent to certain mathematical functions.

                It’s worth noting that none of that addresses the question of efficiency, or even practicality. An iPhone has less memory than a typical laptop and its processor is slower; therefore, though it is capable of doing much of what the laptop is capable of, it won’t be able to do everything and it’ll take longer to do it. The laptop, on the other hand, is quite capable of doing everything the iPhone can and more — and, indeed, there are programs to do exactly that, to emulate an iPhone on your laptop.

                So, unless you wish to challenge Church-Turing — a proposition very likely equivalent to challenging the laws of conservation, I might add — what we’re left with is that, once we’ve built adequate hardware (which we haven’t yet), the “only” challenge to creating a conscious model of an human brain will be a matter of reverse engineering the software.

                If necessary, a true brute force approach can be taken. The physical laws by which the brain operates are not only completely understood but completely computable — which is part of why we know Church-Turing is on such solid ground. “All” you would have to do is program a physics emulator of sufficient detail. At that point, whatever you’re simulating, in any conceivable way, is exactly as real as your simulation is faithful even if its internal clock is a wee bit slower than that in the real world.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Kelton Barnsley
                Posted December 6, 2013 at 8:23 am | Permalink

                It is apparent to me now that we are having two entirely different conversations.

                Consciousness can only be looked for in others by way of its outward signs, i.e. reportability. That’s what I meant earlier when I said that we wouldn’t know whether a machine is conscious unless it tells us. But even in that case, what is the outward difference between an unconscious machine programmed to eloquently argue that it is conscious, and a truly conscious machine disposed to do the same? Although reportability and computational complexity may give us clues that a system may be conscious, they do not define consciousness. Consciousness is the state of being aware of something (anything!). If there is something that it is like to be a sparrow, then sparrows are conscious. If there isn’t, then they aren’t.

                What part of this are you having trouble understanding?

              • Posted December 6, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

                I think the trouble with understanding lies at your end with the identity principle.

                You describe two systems that are the same in every conceivable way known to science, and yet you insist that they must be somehow fundamentally and irreconcilably different, with one “really” being conscious and the other not. You then insist that this position, which is indistinguishable not merely from dualism but even from the Christian conception of the soul, is somehow neither dualistic nor spiritual.

                Not sure how more simply I can put it.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Kelton Barnsley
                Posted December 7, 2013 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

                I insist on no such thing. I believe that in reality, two identical physical systems probably cannot differ in whether they are conscious. Once again you mistook a hypothetical example for a truth-claim. My point was that we can’t define consciousness in terms of its outward signs.

                Your assertion that my argument constitutes a (specifically Christian) dualism is absurd; I think my previous posts in this exchange make it clear to any thinking person that I am advocating no such thing. My point is only that the details of the emergence of consciousness are not yet known, and that there are good reasons to doubt that they will ever be fully understood, even in principle.

              • gbjames
                Posted December 5, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

                “but consciousness is binary; either the lights are on, or they aren’t”

                Really? No such thing as a state of semi-consciousness? I think I’ve experienced such a state myself… half-awake, at times of sickness, while getting an anesthetic before completely blacking out. It seems that, like lights in many buildings, the lights can be of various brightness, depending on the state of the dimming switch.

              • Kelton Barnsley
                Posted December 5, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

                “Really? No such thing as a state of semi-consciousness? I think I’ve experienced such a state myself… half-awake, at times of sickness, while getting an anesthetic before completely blacking out. It seems that, like lights in many buildings, the lights can be of various brightness, depending on the state of the dimming switch.”

                What you’re describing is the sensation of being drowsy, or partly asleep, etc. The contents of your consciousness may change, and your perceptions may get confused with dreams manufactured by your brain, but your consciousness itself has not been changed. Are you conscious during dreams that you don’t remember having?

              • Posted December 5, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

                Are you conscious during dreams that you dont remember having?

                It depends on your definition of the term. If consciousness requires long-term memory (as your question seems to imply), then, obviously, no.

                But consider many common “twilight” drugs used for surgical anesthesia, or people with conditions that prevent them from forming long-term memories. They’re clearly conscious, and yet an hour later (or less) will have no memory of the events.

                b&

              • gbjames
                Posted December 5, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

                “consciousness itself has not been changed”

                Have you never heard of someone, say a victim of an automobile accident, being knocked unconscious? Are you seriously telling me that a guy in a coma is conscious?

                I think you’re redefining words.

              • Kelton Barnsley
                Posted December 5, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

                People often report having strange dreams while in a coma. There is no way to tell the difference between not having been conscious, and having been conscious but not remembering anything.

                But this is beside the point. I did not say that people are never unconscious (we may be while in non-REM sleep, and we almost certainly are not conscious after death), just that either you are conscious (of anything!) or you aren’t. The feeling of drowsiness is something you are conscious of, not a state of “semi-consciousness” (whatever that means).

            • gbjames
              Posted December 5, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

              “semi-consciousness” (whatever that means)

              What it means is that people slide in and out of consciousness. There are times when you are more conscious and times when you are less so. Your insistence on binary state changes doesn’t map to reality. Human brains don’t have a simple on/off switch controlling awareness.

              • Kelton Barnsley
                Posted December 5, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

                “Human brains don’t have a simple on/off switch controlling awareness.”

                I didn’t say they do, or that people never lose consciousness. I’m just saying that either you’re conscious of something (anything!) – even if you don’t remember it later – or you’re not.

              • Posted December 5, 2013 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

                Again, that’s not how human brains actually work. There are some very famous experiments with patients with a severed corpus callosum that demonstrate that, quite literally, it is entirely possible for the left half of the brain to be aware of something that the right half is completely unaware of, and vice-versa. And it can get much weirder than that, with for example, a person verbally reassuring you that he doesn’t see any ball at all while, at the same time, writing down exactly what color the ball is.

                That’s a bit part of where I think you’re going off the rails with consciousness, assuming it to be a single, simple phenomenon, almost a Platonic ideal of awareness. It’s not; it’s very nuanced, diverse, and often disjointed if not outright incoherent. Even in perfectly normal people — you can simultaneously be engrossed in a movie, aroused by the cute girl you’re watching it with, trying to figure out how you’ll deal with the mess at work, wondering what you’re having for dinner, and wanting to get up and go use the restroom. So which “you” is it that’s doing each of those things? And is the “you” that’s entranced by the girl’s hair against your cheek at all aware of the need for micturation? If not, how can you describe either as fully conscious?

                Cheers,

                b&

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted December 7, 2013 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

          (Bumping this out a few levels to make room for further replies.)

          Your assertion that my argument constitutes a (specifically Christian) dualism is absurd; I think my previous posts in this exchange make it clear to any thinking person that I am advocating no such thing.

          Pardon me for jumping in here, Kelton, but as a thinking person who has been following this exchange I have to say that it has not been clear to me. At several points you seemed to be flirting with the idea of P-zombies (though not by that name), i.e. hypothetical thinking entities with brains indistinguishable from human brains that are nevertheless not conscious.

          Now that you’ve rejected that possibility, I remain puzzled by your repeated claims that we cannot detect consciousness by examining a brain from the outside. We may not (ever) know exactly how the brain generates consciousness, but we know for a fact that it does generate consciousness, and we know with fairly high confidence which specific brain structures are necessary for consciousness, and will surely know more about that in the future.

          So surely then it’s sufficient to observe (via high-res neuroimaging or what have you) that a living brain has those structures intact and functioning, in order to conclude with high confidence that said brain is indeed conscious.

          Similarly, one could in principle study the software architecture of an AI system and conclude with reasonable confidence that it possesses functioning analogs of all the cognitive subsystems necessary to render it conscious. And this conclusion would be corroborated by its own self-reports.

          So your insistence that we can’t know whether such brains or AIs are conscious — i.e. that they could have all the machinery of consciousness as well as all the outward signs of it, without actually being conscious — does seem to be tantamount to some form of dualism or P-zombiehood. I think Ben can be forgiven for being confused on that score. I know I am.

          • Kelton Barnsley
            Posted December 8, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

            The notion of p-Zombies, as I understand it, is a hypothetical philosophical construct. Such constructs are usually meant to illuminate problems and encourage critical thinking about difficult problems, such as why there is something that it is like to be living organism with a complex brain (i.e., the hard problem of consciousness). Entertaining such notions is not equivalent to proclaiming them as fact, and it is in now way comparable to espousing medieval superstitions like dualism (the belief that humans have a soul which survives death and is the seat of their true personalities) and vitalism (the belief that living things carry special type of energy or “life-force” which nonliving things do not).

            “Now that you’ve rejected that possibility, I remain puzzled by your repeated claims that we cannot detect consciousness by examining a brain from the outside.”

            I didn’t say that we cannot detect consciousness on the basis of its outward signs – only that to define conscious merely as reportability is a mistake.

            “So surely then it’s sufficient to observe (via high-res neuroimaging or what have you) that a living brain has those structures intact and functioning, in order to conclude with high confidence that said brain is indeed conscious.

            Similarly, one could in principle study the software architecture of an AI system and conclude with reasonable confidence that it possesses functioning analogs of all the cognitive subsystems necessary to render it conscious. And this conclusion would be corroborated by its own self-reports.”

            The trouble here is, we already know that brains are conscious. We have no idea whether computers are conscious, or can in principle be conscious, and what it would take to make them so. If we don’t understand the details of the emergence of consciousness, how could we tell whether an advanced A.I. is actually conscious, or merely one of your p-zombies?

            “We may not (ever) know exactly how the brain generates consciousness, but we know for a fact that it does generate consciousness…”

            Actually, we don’t know that. I may have just made you even more certain of my supposed dualism, but the fact is that we don’t yet understand how subjectivity can arise from the unconscious machinations of the brain. Once again, uncertainty on this issue DOES NOT IN ANY WAY lend credence to dualism or New Age “universal consciousness” ideas hawked by hucksters like Chopra and Lanza.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted December 8, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

              You’re right; that doesn’t really clarify anything.

              Is there anything it’s like to be an AI? As soon as we build one we can ask it, and it will tell us what it’s like. To suggest that such an AI might actually be an unconscious P-zombie is to say that consciousness requires some additional “secret sauce” beyond the physical implementation and self-reported experience of it.

              Either consciousness is supernatural (which you deny), or it’s generated by the physical workings of the brain (which you also have doubts about). If there’s a coherent third alternative you’re willing to endorse, you have yet to articulate it.

              The fact that we don’t know exactly how it works does not give us license to reject the logical implications of what we do know.

              • Kelton Barnsley
                Posted December 8, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

                “Either consciousness is supernatural (which you deny), or it’s generated by the physical workings of the brain (which you also have doubts about). If there’s a coherent third alternative you’re willing to endorse, you have yet to articulate it.”

                I don’t have to endorse a third alternative to recognize that I’m being presented with a possible false dichotomy. You’re saying I must either pretend to understand the relationship between consciousness and brains (I don’t – that’s been my point this entire debate) or else admit that I secretly believe in the supernatural (I don’t, I can assure you). That’s like saying that if I must either choose between pretending I understand where the singularity at the beginning of the Universe came from and declaring myself a theist (or deist).

                Some things in this Universe are still very much shrouded in mystery. The fact that some irrational folks make a habit of inserting their gods or morphic resonances or universal consciousnesses into this mystery does not mean that we have to pretend there’s no mystery in order to argue against such unfounded assertions. Doing so makes one appear very much like a straw-man atheist, which makes the apologists’ job that much easier.

              • Posted December 8, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

                I dont have to endorse a third alternative to recognize that Im being presented with a possible false dichotomy.

                Not all dichotomies are false. In this case, the dichotomy is between the naturalistic explanation and the supernaturalistic one.

                As we’ve been trying to explain, we have a naturalistic explanation that, though incomplete, is on ground as solid as anything in science and which leaves no room for anything vaguely resembling the types of alternatives you keep tossing out.

                If you reject that naturalistic option, by definition, whatever else you entertain as possible or probable or whatever must be supernaturalistic.

                It would be reasonable for you to protest that you don’t understand the naturalistic explanation. Indeed, that’s the assumption Gregory and I have been working under, as we’ve repeatedly tried to explain it.

                But for you to not accept it goes beyond that, especially when the objections you offer are, in substance if not in name, indistinguishable from the supernaturalistic alternatives most commonly held to.

                There’s a great parallel here with other sciences. Do you understand abiogenesis, quantum theory, or cosmogenesis? Clearly not. But do you accept that the broad outlines of the first, nearly all details of the second, and all of the third from a small fraction of a second after the Big Bang are most thoroughly and almost certainly correctly explained by modern science?

                If so, you should have a similar acceptance for the theory of consciousness as a property of physical brains, and your lack of understanding should prompt you not to challenge said theory but rather as a challenge to learn more.

                (You are, of course, free to believe whatever nonsense you choose. Unfortunately, you’re not free from the consequences of such beliefs — but that’s for you to discover and deal with. Having people think you’re a muddled wooist for objecting to naturalistic consciousness by paraphrasing wooist arguments is one of those consequences.)

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Kelton Barnsley
                Posted December 8, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

                You still don’t get it, Ben. It’s you that doesn’t understand the distinction I’m making between consciousness at the level of experience and consciousness at the level of the brain. I think that naturalism on sure enough footing by now that the I can say with almost 100% certainty that there is nothing supernatural going on with regards to consciousness. But this does not give you the right to assert that if I don’t accept your bizarre idea that all there is to consciousness is crunching a lot of data and being able to say “I’m conscious”, that I must therefore be peddling some kind of woo. Your earlier dismissal of qualia as “meaningless” makes it clear that you’re not interested at all in talking about the qualitative character of being conscious – and yet this is the most important fact about consciousness, that it feels like something to be conscious.

                All I’m peddling is (rational) uncertainty, which is after all the very soul of science (forgive the phrasing – does that make me a dualist, too?). You are the one peddling a false certainty which serves only to reinforce the religionist’s caricature of an atheist who is incapable of recognizing the significance (or, it sometimes seems, the mere existence!) of subjective experience.

              • Posted December 8, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

                But this does not give you the right to assert that if I dont accept your bizarre idea that all there is to consciousness is crunching a lot of data and being able to say Im conscious, that I must therefore be peddling some kind of woo.

                One last attempt from me, for we’re now going in circles.

                We know from science, with as much certainty as we know that there are no Atlantean mermaids, that consciousness is wholly a property of the central nervous system. We know from information theory with every bit as much certainty that whatever is going on in there is Turing-equivalent. The conclusion that consciousness is ultimately a matter of “crunching a lot of data,” as you put it, is as inevitable as the conclusion that life itself is ultimately a matter of biochemistry. And the distinction you are trying to draw has no more bearing on reality than vitalism does on biology or a Flat Earth hypothesis does on astronomy; intentionally or ignorantly, your objections to this model are indistinguishable those based in vitalism and Flat Eartherism, and every bit as woo-laden.

                Just as biology (which we understand rather well but far from completely) is a matter of figuring out how all the biochemistry works, we know that understanding consciousness is a matter of figuring out all the data flows and manipulation in the brain. And we don’t need all the details in either case to know that this is true.

                Don’t forget: both Quantum and Relativistic Mechanics reduce to Newtonian equivalents at human scales, and anything that (hopefully) replaces either or both Quantum and Relativistic Mechanics will reduce to each at suitable scales. The same applies for consciousness; any new revelations we may have will still have to fit within the framework we already have, and that framework includes physical Turing-equivalent computation as an absolute requirement.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Kelton Barnsley
                Posted December 8, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

                “…we’re now going in circles.”

                Agreed.

                From my first post:

                “But I notice that whenever someone claims that the “hard problem” is solved, or isn’t really a hard problem, they inevitable sidestep the question of how exactly subjective experience of “being” arises out of an objective system of ions shuttling between brain cells.”

                I’m sorry I couldn’t make you understand what I was talking about, but I thank you for providing such a marvelous example of the kind of sidestepping I was talking about.

              • Posted December 8, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

                It’s not sidestepping; it’s pointing out that the “problem” is no more of a “problem” than abiogenesis. Accusing us of sidestepping that as a problem is no different from a Creationist accusing a biologist of sidestepping the abiogenesis problem. In both cases, there’s lots of work to be done, yes. But it’s not a “problem” that’s being “sidestepped.”

                Or, to take the hyperbole to plaid are you now going to ask me when I stopped beating my underaged prostitutes…?

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted December 8, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

                This will be my last attempt as well.

                …all there is to consciousness is crunching a lot of data and being able to say “I’m conscious”…

                Here’s the point I think you’re missing: in order to be able to say “I’m conscious”, and to carry on meaningful conversations about the subjective experience of being conscious, at whatever level of detail the questioner cares to probe, the system being probed must have within it a complete, internally consistent model of consciousness that’s functionally equivalent to the real thing. It must have subjective states, qualia, etc. (or the functional equivalents of those things) that it can report on.

                So what’s the difference between “real” qualia of the kind you and I experience, and functionally equivalent “simulated” qualia of the sort that machines might experience? I can’t see that there is any. It’s a distinction without a difference — but one you’re apparently willing to defend to the death, even though by your own admission you haven’t the faintest idea what qualia are or where they come from.

              • Kelton Barnsley
                Posted December 8, 2013 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

                “…in order to be able to say “I’m conscious”, and to carry on meaningful conversations about the subjective experience of being conscious, at whatever level of detail the questioner cares to probe, the system being probed must have within it a complete, internally consistent model of consciousness that’s functionally equivalent to the real thing. It must have subjective states, qualia, etc. (or the functional equivalents of those things) that it can report on.”

                That actually makes a lot of sense.

                “So what’s the difference between “real” qualia of the kind you and I experience, and functionally equivalent “simulated” qualia of the sort that machines might experience? I can’t see that there is any. It’s a distinction without a difference — but one you’re apparently willing to defend to the death, even though by your own admission you haven’t the faintest idea what qualia are or where they come from.”

                I certainly wouldn’t defend that distinction to the death. And in any case, that’s not the distinction that I was making. I was making a distinction between a machine that is conscious and one that only seems to be. Of course I think that a subjective experience or “qualia” is real whether it is experienced by a human brain or a computer – I just don’t know how we’d tell whether a computer, however advanced, actually experiences anything, without actually being that computer.

    • stuartcoyle
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      Solipsism 2.0, perhaps?

  6. Posted December 2, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Wikipedia describes Robert Lanza as “an American medical doctor, scientist…

    I don’t think the Wiki has entirely settled down on Lanza’s entry. Someone with an IP address out of North Carolina keeps trying to change “medieval” to “medical”.

  7. Graham
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    “Deepak said that the Moon doesn’t exist until you see it”

    Well any two-year old can tell you that. My grand-daughter’s convinced that if she can’t see you then you can’t see her. Obvious when you [fail to] think about it.

    • Tulse
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      Practically no one sees the bullet that kills them. So I guess they don’t actually die.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      Hmmm maybe these biocentrism types are just lacking object permanence.

      • Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

        You know…this just may be — or, at least point to — the second-most judicious explanation of what’s going on here.

        …the first, of course, being the obvious one of it all being an effective method of parting fools from their money….

        b&

      • Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

        I wonder what it would like to suffer an injury where one lost that ability. Disasterous, of course, but …

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted December 2, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

          People can lose the ability to understand that things are separate from them. They bump into a lot of stuff

    • Sastra
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      Yes, biocentrism is for those folks who never quite got the hang of peek-a-boo.

      • Posted December 2, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        I do believe we have a threadwinner….

        b&

      • Posted December 2, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        heh heh, that includes Buddha I guess

        “There is no creator other than mind”

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

      Doug Adams was there already: The Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal which was ‘so mind-bogglingly stupid that it assumes that if you can’t see it, then it can’t see you.’

  8. Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on All Science.

  9. Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    The sheer hubris of it all — to claim responsibility for all of reality, merely because you had the grace to think of it!

    And what of competing consciousnesses? Do we all live in our own worlds, independently but spontaneously re-creating almost the exact same universe? Or is there some sort of grand battle royale of the consciousness for supremacy? And, when one gets drunk, do the pink elephants really manifest themselves out of our fevered imaginations? So then why do only the drunkards see them, and only when drunk?

    It takes some truly special level of educated intellectualism to come up with something so utterly and preposterously out of touch with reality.

    On the one hand, it seems to me that the labeling of the detector in quantum interactions as the “observer” must surely have been an even more colossally misfortunate choice of words than the Goddamn particle for the Higgs. On the other hand, the pessimist in me realizes that, if not this, then the snake oil salesmen would have latched on to — or, if necessary, manufactured — something else.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Sastra
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      From what I can tell we’re supposed to think of Consciousness as being like a large lake or pool — and our individual minds are like drops of water. Our sense of separation is an illusion, and a harmful one at that. No, we are not isolated but connected — the pool of ultimate Consciousness apparently bathes us in LOVE. And that’s where we came from and where we will return to.

      Isn’t that GREAT!!!!!??!!!

      Very vague on how this works. Are all the little drops still making contributions sort of like the Borg? Or will we all think/feel/intuit as One? Not to worry. It will be wonderful, whatever it is. Curiosity and clarity are not friends of biocentrism it seems.

      • Posted December 2, 2013 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

        Great analogy.

        The problem, of course, is that Chopra has been peeing in the Pool of Consciousness, and now wants everybody else not just to keep swimming, but to drink from it….

        b&

    • Posted December 2, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      “Or is there some sort of grand battle royale of the consciousness for supremacy?”

      As I remember, ChimpCo made similar claims

  10. Alex Shuffell
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    His explanation of the existence of the universe is exactly the same as ‘god did it’ just ‘consciousness did it.’ He’s correct that he has not explained anything. Gaps in our understanding should give us freedom to wildly speculate. But honesty and scientific integrity should hold you back from publishing until you have any evidence or just a starting point to form a hypothesis. It is nothing but a confidence trick (the norm for pseudoscientists) to ignore scientific journals (or try to publish and then cry conspiracy when criticised) and go direct to touring and selling books or related products.

    How does he explain that we can see galaxies and other stuff that are billions of light years away, even before our solar system, existed these objects were emitting light that only know we can see? Or have we existed all along? Objects not existing when we are not observing does not make sense. Those objects will always be interacting with other objects, photons bouncing off of them that then reflect around or at least being interfered with. Microbes and flies for example, that will have an effect on other organisms that will eventually effect an observer indirectly, or the act of supporting another object like the moon and tides. In a physical way everything is connected, nothing can not not be observed, most of the time it takes a bloody long time for a connection to be made (e.g distant galaxies with their light, gravity, etc.). I would love to know a mechanism for how stuff can stop existing and how our mind “sets the scaffolding of these particles in place.” Are we all just unconsciously Dr. Manhattan (The Watchmen)? Lanza’s hypothesis type story sounds like circular reasoning wrapped around a megalomaniacal fantasy. He appears to be quite a competent doctor, I don’t know why he would jump in woo like this and give himself such a bad name.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      Yep, it’s the same nonexplanatory explanation which religion (and its preening twin Spirituality) always gives.

      We get love from a love force. We get mind from a Mind source. Life comes from Life. Morals come from Morals, which exist as a sort of essense of which the essential nature is moral. Consciousness is derived from the forceful actions of the Conscious Intentionality, the essential power of the conscious source of the consciousness nature. Love is the result of original, ultimate Love. Creativity is a reflection of the Creative Spirit. Force, power, essense — and let me add it now: “energy.”

      Or, rather, “Energy.”

      What we’re looking at are questions rearranged to look like answers.

      How does Biocentrism explain consciousness? By invoking the powerful image of its essentially pure nature from which it comes. So now you know.

      • Posted December 2, 2013 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

        Silly me, thinking here that biocentrism explains consciousness by “Buy my book! On sale now for only $19.95!”

        b&

  11. Liam
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I tried to use my consciousness to create the flop I wanted in a Texas Holdem Tournament the other night. It didn’t work and i lost.

    I’ll have to try praying the next time. ;-)

    • lkr
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

      It should be noted that several of the Auburn University footsport players say that their dramatic win on Saturday was choreographed by god in answer to their prayers. No word on this from the heathen footsporters at University of Alabama.

      • Tony61
        Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:01 am | Permalink

        Mysterious ways.

  12. Steven Obrebski
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Suppose I set up a camera to photograph an object on the table in 1 minute. One minute later the camera photographs the object while I am not looking at it. If I understand Lanza-Chopra thought correctly the object does not exist until I see it. But when I
    check the photos in my camera, there is the photo of the object! So even though the object did not exist until I saw it, the camera did not have this problem, even though it must lack consciousness. Or the camera read my mind and figured out what I wanted to see in the photograph?!?! But someone else who independently looks at the photograph at a time when I am not aware they are looking at it, later describes to me the same object I saw. So is my consciousness scintillating in the firmament creating reality?
    This is a bit more weirdness than I am used to in the morning.

    • Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      I am sure The Lanza will have a pat answer for all of that. You constructed the photograph in your mind, or constructed the friend who describes the photograph to you. This happens in your consciousness a tiny moment before you are conscious of your consciousness. Meanwhile, there are different versions of you that bifurcate along alternative particle paths. Once split away these become undetectable to this version of you. Did you see the man in the gorilla suit walk by when you took the photograph? Well, an alternative version of you probably did!
      Say, what was in those brownies?

      • Steven Obrebski
        Posted December 2, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

        Thank you. My imagined minds are boggling
        from the utter boggliness of it all. To debbogle I am having a nice rye bread with bone marrow and a shot of vodka for lunch.

  13. Michael Fisher
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    You can partially blame the formerly sane, cosmologist & mathematical physicist [& some kind of Paul Davies-style Deist?] Frank J. Tipler for this nonsense. Quote from above link:-

    The Omega Point is a term Tipler uses to describe a cosmological state in the distant proper-time future of the universe that he maintains is required by the known physical laws. According to this cosmology, it is required for the known laws of physics to be mutually consistent that intelligent life take over all matter in the universe and eventually force its collapse. During that collapse, the computational capacity of the universe diverges to infinity and environments emulated with that computational capacity last for an infinite duration as the universe attains a solitary-point cosmological singularity. This singularity is Tipler’s Omega Point. With computational resources diverging to infinity, Tipler states that a society far in the future would be able to resurrect the dead by emulating all alternative universes of our universe from its start at the Big Bang. Tipler identifies the Omega Point with a god, since, in his view, the Omega Point has all the properties claimed for gods by most of the traditional religions.

    I’m fairly sure [it's years since I read him] that he considers that the Omega Point mind at the end of time can loop back & bring the universe into being ~ closing the causation loop. Opus Dei, the ID people & other branches of wingnuttery consider the man a Godsend :)

    Oh yeah ~ almost forgot his wacky book The Physics Of Christianity

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

      He got the term ‘Omega Point’ from Teilhard de Chardin (who apparently got his understanding of evolution from the forerunners of Hitler rather than the heirs of Darwin).
      I have read The Physics of Immortality and note that in addition to “the known physical laws” which may impose conditions on the details, Tipler’s argument for existence of an OP is fundamentally circular wish-thinking. It’s a work of theology dressed up with physics.
      My copy now sits on a shelf alongside Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind and Stephen Rose’s Lifelines. I don’t group books by size or colour. If the house is on fire, let’s just say that’s not the shelf I’ll run to first.

  14. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Neither I nor anyone else has seen my liver. I am not consciously aware of it’s actions, nor have I suffered pains in the place where medical diagrams suggest it resides. Therefore it doesn’t exist?

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

      It’s not just about seeing. You must have a liver if you’re alive, because it’s what you live with. Etymology, QED.

  15. Tulse
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    And where did our consciousness come from? If “life creates the universe”, how did life get here in the first place? At least with theistic accounts of universe creation you get theophilosophical bafflegab “logic” arguments like “Unmoved Mover” and “First Cause”, but that’s not an option for plain old “life”.

    Really, does Lanza even hear what he’s saying?

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

      This was my first thought, too. Since consciousness first appears in our galaxy (I set aside here any questions about the possibility of conscious activity in other galaxies) approximately 4.5 billion years after the formation of the galaxy, um, just exactly what was (or was not) going on during that time?

  16. Tulse
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    And of course, as always, Philip K. Dick’s is apropos:

    “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

      Is that where it came from? That’s always been a favourite tagline of mine. In fact I was going to quote it till Tulse beat me to it. If I stop thinking about Tulse, will his post disappear and I can quote mine?

      (Thinks hard about something completely different). Nope, drat, still there. Curses…

  17. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Since I’m so tired of having that Hamlet line thrown out to me (There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”, as if I’m somehow lacking in imagination, I feel compelled to respond to this

    It is the biological creature that fashions the stories, that makes the observations, and that gives names to things.

    with Hamlet:

    You jig and amble, and you lisp, you nickname God’s creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance.

    Moreover, this:

    A more accurate understanding of the world requires that we consider it biologically centered.

    makes no sense – if the universe is biologically centered, it sure has a funny way of showing it since the stuff that makes us is what, ~5% of the universe & the rest is dark matter & dark energy.

    Finally, if I can’t see the entire RF spectrum but a machine can that means it’s there but the machine is not conscious so…..huh?

  18. Scote
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink


    “Biocentrism”: is it woo?

    Again I violate the rules by answering a title question with the word “yes.””

    Then you could just make the headline: “Biocentrism”: it is woo.”

    Thanks for these articles debunking “Sophisticated Theology” and “Quantum Woo”. It is great to have a well thought out review of Lanza that I can point people to. It isn’t quite as good as being able to pull Marshall McLuhan out from behind a sign to settle an argument, but it’s close :-)

  19. Posted December 2, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    So much for the center of narrative gravity as an evolved GPS to synthesize competing neuronal data streams. It’s paint by consciousness in the magical world of Aslan the creative bio-lion centered at a lamp- post brought by accidental observers.

  20. Siegfried Gust
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Lanza is on his way to discovering the Matrix is real.

    • RGBowman
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      +1
      Dang, you beat me to it.

  21. Christine Janis
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    “Robert Lanza, who has just gone swimming in water created by his consciousness.”

    that must explain why he doesn’t appear to be wet

  22. Curt Cameron
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Are Lanza’s ideas any different from the philosophy called Idealism? Seems like he’s just gussied it up with a new name.

  23. moarscienceplz
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    I’ve never understood all this goggling over the Anthropic Principle and so-called fine-tuning by supposedly intelligent people. It’s like saying, “Gosh, isn’t it so amazing that water lilies always manage to find ponds to grow in, instead of growing on sand dunes in the Sahara Desert?” I suppose Deepak would say this is proof of water lily consciousness.

    In fact, the only way I can see to make fine-tuning any kind of worthwhile argument is if you presuppose that humans are the raison d’etre of the Universe. But if you do that, then it’s pointless to try to use characteristics of the Universe as proof that it was designed for the benefit of humans because that’s already your null hypothesis.

    • Tulse
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      It’s like saying, “Gosh, isn’t it so amazing that water lilies always manage to find ponds to grow in, instead of growing on sand dunes in the Sahara Desert?”

      It would be far more miraculous if water lilies did grow in the desert. That would be much better evidence for some sort of conscious intervention in the universe.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      consider the lilies” ahhhhhh!

    • Sastra
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      Try to get the Fine Tuning Argument started without presupposing that there is something special about life which calls out for an explanation. In other words, life is not significant enough from an objective perspective so we remove it as the target.

      Now go.

      Suddenly, the parameters aren’t finely tuned after all.

    • Posted December 3, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      Yep.

      I like to state it even more generally: it’s not remarkable that the universe is the way it is. If it weren’t like this, it’d be like something else.

      If you’re standing on the beach and pick up a single grain of sand, the probability of picking up that particular grain was vanishingly small. But the probability of picking up a grain was 1.

      • Posted December 3, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

        Or, more commonly phrased: fairly shuffle a deck of cards, and deal them out. The odds of getting that exact set of cards in that exact order are incomprehensibly small, yet there it is.

        Same thing with the lottery. The odds of any set of winning numbers is famously an incredible number of millions to one…yet, nearly every month at the least, somebody goes ahead and wins the lottery anyway.

        Indeed, the “impossible odds” argument in favor of IDiot design is an awful lot like the lottery itself: a tax on those who’re bad at math.

        That reminds me…the Arizona Lottery, according to a billboard I saw on Sunday, is up to a quarter billion. It’s probably been a decade since I last bought a ticket, but I may well blow an entire dollar on one when I go out in a bit to run some errands….

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Posted December 3, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

          Somebody has to be that grain of sand.

          • Posted December 3, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

            Then again, Somebody’s such a busybody that he has to go and mess it up for Everybody, which, perversely, Nobody really appreciates….

            b&

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted December 3, 2013 at 11:38 am | Permalink

            No, that doesn’t follow. There’s no reason to think any random universe will contain any “somebodies”. As far as we can tell, the vast majority of possible universes turn out to be some variation on either a massive black hole, or a rapidly dispersing cloud of photons, or something equally featureless and inhospitable. The problem is to explain why, if there’s only one universe, it’s not one of those.

            Or in Ben’s card-game analogy, although all cribbage hands are equally improbable, the vast majority of them are low-scoring hands, and only a few are blockbusters. So how did it happen that we got dealt one of the blockbusters?

            I think there are plausible answers to this problem (and the string-theory multiverse is a good candidate). But I don’t think the claim that life-bearing universes are the norm rather than the exception holds water.

            • gbjames
              Posted December 3, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

              “The problem is to explain why, if there’s only one universe, it’s not one of those.”

              Why is this “the problem”? Why are we assuming there is just one? Did I miss something?

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted December 3, 2013 at 11:54 am | Permalink

                I’m not assuming there’s just one; I explicitly said I thought the multiverse is a good solution to this problem.

            • Posted December 3, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

              The fundamental problem with such concerns is the same as that faced by the lottery winner who can’t explain why it should be that he was the one who won the lottery after the fact, and why some other bloke didn’t win it instead.

              We’re in the position where we’ve already won the lottery, we’ve already been dealt the royal flush, we’ve already rolled the boxcars. And we’re also the ones trying to figure out why we were so lucky, and why the Moon or Mars or any of the planets around any of the stars within 50 light years weren’t lucky enough to have technological radio-broadcasting civilizations — with lots of reasons to suspect that we’re even much more alone than that.

              If we didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be in a position to speculate upon our specialness. Since we exist, we have no choice but to speculate upon our specialness. No matter the odds of winning this particular lottery, it’s clear that said lottery actually was won — by us — and it’s equally clear that the winners — who, again, happen to be us — are always going to wonder what makes them (us) so special but can never, even in principle, have an answer any more satisfactory than the most recent PowerBall winners can have.

              If anything, you should simply consider yourself lucky to be faced with such a dilemma in the first place. As Richard put it, “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.”

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted December 3, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

                So what you’re saying is that if we look at, say, the strength of the vacuum energy, or the entropy of the early universe, and find it to be hundreds of orders of magnitude less than we’d expect it to be, we should just be happy that it is what it is, and we shouldn’t bother to look for an explanation?

                I think Sean Carroll would disagree with you on that.

              • Posted December 3, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

                Oh, no — not at all.

                There’s a huge difference between looking for theories that consistently and coherently model observed phenomenon, and for trying to answer why an instance of something that fits that model took the particular path it did.

                Modern atomic theory is more than adequate to explain nuclear decay. But would you then insist that we must look for an explanation why a particular atom decayed at the particular instant it did?

                It is clear that the universe we are in supports life. It also seems extremely likely, knowing what we do of organic chemistry, that any planetary body with a composition similar to Earth’s in its stars habitable range will harbor at least simple life, and likely complex life if it’s had at least a few billion years to develop; that’s just what happens when you mix stuff together like that, the same way that water vapor just happens to precipitate into snow crystals in certain environmental conditions. The question of intelligent and technological life arising from complex life might be another interesting one, but there’s obviously nothing special about human evolution that can’t be explained with the same evolutionary biology we use for all other species. Maybe it’s a fluke; maybe it’s nearly inevitable. Either way, the fact that it actually did happen requires no more explanation than the fact that a particular atom decays at a particular moment.

                …which is not to say that there’s no reason to therefore refrain from tracing our evolutionary history!

                There isn’t any answer to the “Why is it this way as opposed to this other way?” question than, “Shit happens!” But there are all sorts of answers to not-dissimilar questions, such as, “What’s the detailed history of the events that led up to the phenomenon in question?” and, “What sort of explanatory frameworks accurately model the phenomena we observe?” and, “What can we reasonably predict using those frameworks?” and, “What can we reasonably extrapolate about that which is beyond our horizons based on what we know?” and, “How can we use what we know to enrich our lives in the here-and-now?”

                In the particular case of the strength of the vacuum energy, the fact that it’s so different from our expectations is a powerfully strong indication that we’re missing some key bit of information, that there’s something we haven’t yet discovered or figured out or that we’re overlooking. It could, of course, be a case of, “Shit happens!” On the other hand, every other time we’ve discovered other phenomenon that didn’t fit our expectations, it’s led to new and deeper understandings of the universe — and that’s trebly so in the case of astronomy and astrophysics. First was the wandering paths of a handful of particularly bright stars against the background of fixed stars, then the overwhelming complexity of epicycles, then Mercury’s not-quite-right orbit, then Hubble’s Constant. Personally, I expect the strength of the vacuum to be explained when we figure out quantum gravity, and for it to be obvious in retrospect, and for our current confusion over its value to be nothing different from the prior inability to properly predict Mercury’s orbit.

                But, even if it really is just a case of, “Shit happens!” (as, ultimately, at whatever level, it truly must be)…well, again, it’s still a case of Doug Adams’s puddle being astonished at how well its pothole fits it.

                Cheers,

                b&

            • Posted December 3, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

              I’m well aware that one of the possibilities is a lifeless universe. That’s not a problem for the analogy. One of the possible grains of sand represents a lifeless universe. Whatever your conception of a possible universe, or multiverse, or none of the above, there’s a grain of sand for that.

              The point is that something was going to be, even if that something was nothing. It’s only remarkable that the something which actually is contains human life if you start with the idea that human life was a goal.

              • Posted December 3, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

                And you don’t even have to go so far as to start with the idea that humans were the goal. Simply assuming that human life is a remarkable and unexpected outcome is enough to get you in that type of trouble.

                Again, that civilization should take the exact form it has on Earth is unlikely, in the same sense that any particular hand dealt from a deck is unlikely. But I have a hard time seeing the fact that some civilization arose in this particular universe as being unlikely, and our civilization doesn’t at all seem unexpected from what one might reasonably expect the pool of possible civilizations.

                Also, there’s the fact that the overwhelming majority of the Universe is hostile to our type of life, what with all the dark energy, dark matter, hard vacuum, black holes, stars, supermassive planets, inhospitable rocky planets, and all but a small portion of just the the surface of hospitable rocky planets being instantly lethal to life-as-we-know-it…well, the fact that life seems inevitable in an universe so profoundly hostile to it, it would seem to be similarly inevitable in any universe that includes even small corners of suitable complexity with a comparable entropic gradient.

                And if the overwhelming number of possible universes are truly inhospitable, and the overwhelming proportion of universes in which life is possible are as overwhelmingly inhospitable as our universe…again, remind me why it’s so surprising that we do happen to find ourselves living in one of the not-so-nasty parts of one of the universes that isn’t fundamentally opposed to life? What, we should expect to have found ourselves instead in intergalactic vacuum in a universe without fusion, or some such?

                b&

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted December 3, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

                You don’t need to assume anything about human life. Consider a closed vessel containing a volume of gas. Take a snapshot of that vessel at some moment in time. It’s conceivable that you will find all the gas crammed into one small corner of the vessel, with vacuum everywhere else. That’s a possible thermodynamic configuration of the gas.

                Nevertheless, we should be enormously surprised if we do find that, because it’s a fantastically unlikely configuration. It’s far more likely that we would find the gas spread uniformly throughout the vessel. So why do we find it in an unlikely configuration?

                One possible explanation is blind luck. Shit happens. But the Bayesian probability of that being the right explanation is vanishingly small. Rationally, we should look for a better explanation that tells us how it got that way.

                The vacuum energy is like that. It’s far smaller than we would reasonably expect it to be, ridiculously, improbably small. It could just be a fluke, but the chances of that being the right explanation are remote. As Ben admits, there’s something we’re missing, and we should try to figure out what it is, rather than pretending it’s not a problem.

              • Posted December 3, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

                I’d agree with all of that, with but one objection — and that’s of bringing the anthropic principle or any variation on that theme into the discussion.

                Much better to simply state that current theory predicts a much different value for the vacuum than what is observed, with a footnote that theory doesn’t rule out the observed value. Combine that with the vacuum’s relatedness with other failings of current theory (especially quantum gravity), and an anthropic explanation is vanishingly unlikely, with the answer reasonably expected with something as-yet-unknown that solves the entire set of conundrums.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Posted December 3, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

                @Gregory

                I’m not suggesting anything about explanations, least of all being content with not looking for one.

                Two things for consideration: is the universe as we actually find it really analogous to the container and the gas? IE, do you know that the universe as we actually find it is perverse and we should expect it to look like something else?

                Second, my point actually is that human life doesn’t need any special consideration in this matter. At least no more than any other phenomenon.

                But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t search for explanations.

            • Posted December 3, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

              Also, that was a quasi-joke specifically in response to Ben’s “plan” to buy a lottery ticket.

  24. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    And even if quantum phenomena are puzzling on the micro level (…), they almost certainly have no effect on the macro level…

    I assume what you mean here is that most macro-level phenomena do not depend on quantum effects. But it’s clearly false to say that quantum phenomena have no macro-level effects; if that were true, we’d have no way to discover them. But in fact just last year a series of quantum-level events — the creation of Higgs bosons at CERN — caused a worldwide media sensation.

    How does our consciousness create the universe if that universe had to preexist for our consciousness to evolve?

    There’s an old variation on the anthropic principle (I forget who first proposed it) that posits that the universal wave function evolved without collapsing for billions of years until there appeared, amongst all the superposed possibilities, the possibility of conscious life capable of noticing its own existence. At that point the wave function collapsed for the first time, eliminating all the lifeless alternatives. So in that weak sense (the argument goes), consciousness “created” (or selected) a universe capable of sustaining it. This seems to be what Lanza is promoting.

    But this idea rests on two flawed assumptions: first, as you point out, that wave-function collapse requires a conscious observer. It doesn’t. Second, that “reality” doesn’t exist unless the wave function collapses. But that’s called into question by modern decoherence and many-worlds interpretations of quantum mechanics, in which wave-function collapse isn’t necessary to explain the universe we observe, since our brains are part of the entangled wave function.

    Bottom line: reality is made of wave functions. It doesn’t get any realer than that. Solid objects in definite locations is just what it looks like to conscious brains (which are themselves made of wave functions). But the underlying reality exists whether or not any brains are observing it.

  25. Brad
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I do not understand the glaring absence of scientific curiosity in Jerry’s post. Lanza’s working territory that is at minimum juicy and interesting, no?

    Or, respectfully, is this another case of what I will term The Fallacy of the Incurious Scientific Mind. This is a
    mind that is magically able to displace it’s own curiosity when its ideals feel challenged or threatenend.

    • gbjames
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      ….

      (waiting for the paw of Ceiling Cat to fall)

    • Alex Shuffell
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      Juicy and interesting enough to write about twice in the last two weeks, interesting enough to want to know how Lanza’s idea is supposed to work. The last two posts are full of questions, this one is more of a rebuttal. But Lanza has not given much to be curious about, no evidence and no mechanism for this poorly defined hypothesis. There is simply nothing to be threatened about and what curiosity we can show is limited by the shallowness of Lanza’s idea.

    • darrelle
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      I am nearly certain you are not really asking any questions, that you merely wanted to make a clever statement. But, just in case.

      Your premise is inaccurate. You don’t understand what has happened.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      As others have suggested, don’t you think that the fact that Jerry spent time learning about this theory and posting on it shows interest. Just because it is a foolish theory doesn’t mean scientific minds didn’t think about it. It is just, as others said, there was a lot of conjecture and little evidence.

      As a meme I came across says, “that’s a nice hypothesis you have there. Be a shame if someone were to test it”.

    • Posted December 2, 2013 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

      Lanzas working territory that is at minimum juicy and interesting, no?

      No.

      Lanza’s soundly in crackpot territory here. Jerry need have no more excitement about his “innovations” than a physicist in the latest perpetual motion machine / zero point energy scam.

      Of course, if Lanza could back up his woo with hard evidence, that’d be another matter. But that’ll be as long in coming as free power….

      b&

  26. Myron
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Even if quantum-physical measurements influence the measured aspect of physical reality, it simply doesn’t follow that there is no measurement- and measurer-independent physical reality with determinate transexperimental properties.

    “Was the world wave function waiting for millions of years until a single-celled creature appeared? Or did it have to wait a little longer for some more highly qualified measurer—with a Ph.D.?”

    (Bell, J. S. “Quantum Mechanics for Cosmologists.” In Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics, 2nd ed., 117-138. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. p. 117)

  27. Curt Cameron
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    By the way, Dean Radin et al. have published a paper in Physics Essays in 2012: “Consciousness and the double-slit interference pattern: Six experiments” (Warning: PDF).

    The hypothesis was that having a person focus his consciousness on the famous double-slit experiment, he could cause a change in the interference/non-interference pattern on the back wall.

    I have glanced through it, but I’m not an academic and it’s pretty dense stuff. However I did notice this in the Discussion:

    “A factor that was possibly responsible for some of the performance variance observed across test sessions was nanotesla-scale fluctuations in the Earth’s geomagnetic field (GMF). This variable has been shown to be a significant factor in many areas of human performance, including stock-market behavior, airplane crashes, suicides, cardiac health, and — of special relevance to the present studies — a greater frequency of reported spontaneous psychic experiences as well as enhanced performance in controlled extrasensory-perception tasks.”

    Snort. I’m wondering whether they used this strange factor because their data showed a lower p-factor if they sliced the data that particular way.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

      “This variable has been shown to be a significant factor in many areas of human performance, including stock-market behavior, airplane crashes, suicides, cardiac health…”

      Yeah, right.

  28. Newish Gnu
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    RE: the answer to a title question is supposed to be “no”.

    I admit that I didn’t know that was customary usage. Now that I know, it seems to make sense. The question is likely provocative in some way as an attention-getting device. Then the author shows why the provocation isn’t justified.

    There seems, however, to be almost no limit to ridiculousness of beliefs. Provocation, I guess, isn’t what it used to be. So no matter the title question, I’m prepared to believe that there are folks who think “yes” is the obvious answer.

    For example: “Supply Side Economics: Can a Vanishingly Low Tax Rate Yield High Revenue?”

    • Tulse
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      I admit that I didn’t know that was customary usage. Now that I know, it seems to make sense.

      This is actually called Betteridge’s Law of Headlines.

      • Newish Gnu
        Posted December 2, 2013 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

        Yet another thing I didn’t know!

        Thank you for educating me.

  29. Andrikzen
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Once one fully understands that there is no independent external universe outside of biological existence, the rest more or less falls into place…

    This is the same cosmic debris prevalent in the sixties, fueled by western interpretations of eastern philosophies and religions, copious amounts of marijuana, and perhaps a sprinkling of LSD – same BS, same universal cosmic consciousness underlying the existence of reality, same motive to bamboozle in the hopes of getting laid or for other personal gain –back then we only had crystals, now we have quantum mechanics; proof positive.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      And the cosmic drivel from the sixties was left over from similar drek from the 1800′s — which was derived from the usual mystical gibberish handed down through the ages. The frustrating thing is that it still gets presented, over and over, as cutting edge. Look — science is merging with Spirituality! Finally! And yet again!

      The folks who present this stuff just can’t seem to get over how pleased they are that they’re not in a traditional church. Clearly, they suffer from none of the same flaws.

    • Posted December 2, 2013 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

      Ah, that explains why biocentrism and Chopra’s nonsense reminds me of when I was a sophomore in college in the 1960s. Deep philosophical discussions late at night along the lines of “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a noise”? Many of us outgrew that in a year or so.

    • Posted December 2, 2013 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

      Who you jivin’ with that cosmik debris?

  30. Andrikzen
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    What a heavy burden to bear, knowing when I die you will all cease to exist.

  31. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    I see the thread has been over this, but it is striking how it is Tipler’s Omega point all over again.

    The problem with such ideas are that they are a) made to be internally untestable, so Not Even Wrong and b) doesn’t consider that Shrödinger’s wavefunction/Feynman’s paths/Hawking’s histories can be observed at any time (because we are part of the entangled wavefunction as Gregory notes).

    Also notable is that the sum over histories (paths, wavefunctions) for a system is as real as the system is, real as physical laws. Because probabilities sums to 1, and in terms of probability 1 is certainty, in other words an expression of “existence”.

    So when Lanza claims “nothing is there”, he is claiming probability theory is incorrect! Nobody except wooers gets away with claiming 1 # 1 (one not equal to one) …

    The rest is woo-of-the-gaps:

    There are many problems with the current paradigm — some obvious, others rarely mentioned but just as fundamental. But the overarching problem involves life, since its initial arising is still a scientifically unknown process, even if the way it then changed forms can be apprehended using Darwinian mechanisms.

    Similar to consciousness, abiogenesis isn’t a completely unknown process. Astrobiologists have discovered a homology between geochemistry and early cell metabolism, and that the key to that is out-of-equilibrium electron bifurcation “engines” of naturally deposited metal clusters.

    Darwinian mechanisms should kick in as soon as such metals are organically bounded, say by abiotic porphyrines or metabolites. Such molecules could “infect” more elaborated metabolic chains elsewhere, establishing a fitness as it were.

    As everything else this is tentative results, but so far it is fruitful and early on too. And even if this theory would fail, it has components that I’m sure will go into the next.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      Actually, if inheritance is considered a Darwinian mechanism by fiat, then such starts with the homology.

  32. Sastra
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Definition of “woo”: a supernatural and/or paranormal belief which is not clearly and obviously connected to a specific traditional religion.

    Religions contain them, of course. They just use different terms usually.

    • Posted December 2, 2013 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

      Hmm…I’d not exclude religion and the paranormal from a definition of “woo,” but rather explicitly include them. “Here, eat this cracker” is practically the very essence of woo.

      b&

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted December 2, 2013 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

        Mmmmm, wafers! I can’t believe that’s not Jesus!

        • Posted December 2, 2013 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

          What i want to know is how they can serve their Jesus without cheeses.

          Of course, knowing the Christians, they’d probably put American “cheese” on those bits of cardboard, rather than, say, a triple cream brie on crostini….

          Makes me wonder. Is there any record of a priest, even if only in an emergency, doing the abracadabra bit with Cheez-Its? Not that I care for such things, but at least it’s a poetic step in the right direction….

          b&

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted December 2, 2013 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

            Even better – cheez whiz spray cheese!

            • Posted December 2, 2013 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

              Whatever that shit is, it sure as hell ain’t cheese!

              …which, come to think of it, makes it the perfect topping for your Jesus.

              But not in my kitchen! If I put any cheeses on my Jesus, the cheeses damned well won’t be indistinguishable from zombie pus, symbolism be damned.

              b&

          • darrelle
            Posted December 2, 2013 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

            This past weekend I had an amazing cheese I’d never heard of before. Very similar to brie with walnuts in it. And not just chunks, though there was chunks, but, by some process I can’t divine, essence of walnut was diffused throughout the cheese.

            Really good stuff. I’m going to have to go get some more before it is sold out and I never see it again. And this time make note of what kind of cheese it is.

            • Posted December 3, 2013 at 7:31 am | Permalink

              You will, of course, report back with your findings?

              I suspect walnut oil is likely a key ingredient….

              b&

              • darrelle
                Posted December 3, 2013 at 8:35 am | Permalink

                Good call, I bet you are right.

  33. Charles Sullivan
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Biocentrism is also a particular ethical position that comes out of environmental ethics, wherein all living things are considered to be deserving of moral consideration by humans.

    It’s frustrating when people usurp an already existing term for other purposes.

  34. George Hand
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    As others have commented, biocentrism is just recycled solipsism.

  35. Vicki
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    I think there’s a scale error in Lanza’s thinking. It might be improbabe for life to evolve on any given planet, but the interesting question isn’t the probability of life on the third planet from this specific G2 star. It’s the probability of life anywhere within this galaxy, or of life within the observable universe. If you roll a 20-sided die three times, you’re unlikely to get three successive sevens. Roll it a trillion times, and you’d be very unlikely not to.

    A bacterium or alga might not qualify as an observer, but it doesn’t take a college-educated human: it’s pretty obvious that cats, wasps, and squid observe and react to their environments.

  36. Posted December 2, 2013 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

    I would not take my car to a pediatrician nor my kids to a mechanic. I will also not assume a medical doctor has any special knowledge of quantum mechanics.

    • George Hand
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

      If this discusion is limited to those with “special knowledge” then very few commentators would be permitted.

      I have no “special knowledge”; what is yours, clubschadefreude?

      • Posted December 2, 2013 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

        so, you’d take your child to someone who didn’t know how to treat them?

        Declaring that things work in a certain way is rather silly when one doesn’t even have the basic background to understand it.

        I am a geologist. I would not expect a surgeon to know more than I about such a topic. They may indeed, but one could tell by what they claim.

        And I am sorry you have no specialized knowledge. I rather enjoy having it in some subjects.

        • George Hand
          Posted December 2, 2013 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

          I am happy for you, clubschadenfreude; but if you have no special knowledge about quantum mechanics, then you have no standing to criticize someone else’s lack of special knowledge in QM. Criticize their mistakes, but that’s about it. Few if any of us have “special knowledge in QM”.

          This thread is really about the basics of the scientific process; something Lanza and Chopra misrepresent; clearly they have an agenda without an appreciation for the limits of their knowledge; a fairly common fault. They are subjects of comment here only because they have some fame, and because both should know better.

          They are wrong about science and their solipsist ideas; anyone who has general knowledge of how science is done can see that. It ain’t rocket science.

          • Posted December 2, 2013 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

            oh, so I don’t know what is wrong if I’m not an expert. That’s great, George, just great.

            I know enough about QM to know that this medical doctor doesn’t know what he is talking about. I may not know every thing about QM but I do know when someone is spouting nonsense. it is the same if a medical doctor would tell me that taking hydrogen cyanide would be healthy for me.

            I have plenty of standing to criticize someone who is making up nonsense, George. They are lying about what QM says and does. I have no problem in pointing that out. They have failed at their claims.

            There is no reason that “both should known better”. They are ignorant in what they claim, because they have none of this specialized knowledge. And I know this.

            It’s amusing to watch you claim that they are ignorant in science and their “solipsist ideas”. It seems that you are having no problem in criticizing their lack of special knowledge.

            Just like me.

            • George Hand
              Posted December 3, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

              “so I don’t know what is wrong if I’m not an expert.” Sure you can, but YOU’RE the one who asked about expertise and criticize some for not having it, not I. I have been clear: expertise is irrelevant in this discussion.

              “It seems that you are having no problem in criticizing their lack of special knowledge.” I have never criticized their lack of special knowledge; that’s your thing. I have been clear: special knowledge is irrelevant in this discussion.

              This sub-thread is a waste of time. Carry on without me.

              • Posted December 3, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

                Oh my. I have no problem in criticizing those who make pronouncements about things they know little about. If they do not know about the subject they claim to, when they make ridiculous claims about such a field and are shown wrong, they are making claims of special knowledge that are false.

                I don’t care what you’ve decided is reality, until you can show it, your pronoucements are meaningless.

                Don’t let the screen door hit you on the butt as you leave.

          • Posted December 2, 2013 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

            aka though I might not be a great chef, I know a shit sandwich when I see one.

  37. Hempenstein
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Lanza may have taken Samuel Butler & Erewhon to heart: “Even a potato in a dark cellar has a certain low cunning about him which serves him in excellent stead…”

  38. David Duncan
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    ‘Further, Sean Carroll, in the video I posted last week, suggested four “reasonable” explanations for the so-called Anthropic Principle, including luck, multiverses, and so on. None of them are unreasonable; we just don’t know which is correct.’

    If multiverses do in fact exist can we know about them? How can they explain anything?

    • darrelle
      Posted December 2, 2013 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

      Some relevant experts think it may be possible to know about them. But, at the moment we can’t say with any significant confidence either way.

      If it turns out we can know something about them, i.e. observe phenomena predicted by a model that is highly accurate at explaining nearly everything else, and there is no good evidence of any contradictions of the model, to be caused by another universe interacting with ours in some way, then yes. They can explain things by contributing to verification of our models of reality.

    • George Hand
      Posted December 3, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      David, at this point we are not sure how we could know about multiverses, or how much we could know. That does not invalidate the idea yet. All new theories begin this way. Multiverses are also not the only materialistic or “natural” theories to explain the origin of Our Universe. That question remains actively researched.

      • David Duncan
        Posted December 3, 2013 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

        Sure, George and Darrelle, multiverses could be a gold mine of information, but that doesn’t mean that we will get much, or any, useful information from inside them of the type Jerry wants. We may never know that they’re there, and if we do may not get any useful information. That’s why I made the original skeptical comment.

        • George Hand
          Posted December 4, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

          David, You correctly reply in tentative terms, we don’t know if multiverses exist, or whether we’ll ever know much about them even if they do. But they remain one of several possible explanations for the origin of our universe, and looking into these explanations is as valid as it is worthwhile. That is how science often is done: wild speculation followed by careful investigation. Sometimes it pans out, sometime it doesn’t. Won’t know until we try.

          The difference between science and religion often comes down to this: religious thought often begins with wild speculation followed by acceptance and addition to doctrine.

  39. Posted December 4, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on the Personal Journalist.

  40. walkingmap
    Posted December 5, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    This Lanza article gets a physicist, Professor Phil Moriarty, University of Nottingham, riled up on Woo. I bet if this video were not part of the Sixty Symbols series he would have been more colorful, er colourful.

  41. George Hand
    Posted December 5, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    If there’s one thing this thread settles, it’s that the number of theories about consciousness far outnumber the data points!

    • Kelton Barnsley
      Posted December 5, 2013 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      Indeed!

  42. Posted December 10, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    A bit late to be commenting on this I know, but today I saw a tweet from Sean Carroll referencing a paper at http://arxiv.org/abs/1312.2007
    with the following abstract:

    “Perturbative scattering amplitudes in gauge theories have remarkable simplicity and hidden infinite dimensional symmetries that are completely obscured in the conventional formulation of field theory using Feynman diagrams. This suggests the existence of a new understanding for scattering amplitudes where locality and unitarity do not play a central role but are derived consequences from a different starting point. In this note we provide such an understanding for N=4 SYM scattering amplitudes in the planar limit, which we identify as “the volume” of a new mathematical object–the Amplituhedron–generalizing the positive Grassmannian. Locality and unitarity emerge hand-in-hand from positive geometry.”

    What an incomprehensible word salad this is to anyone but a physicist working in the relevant field. Perhaps it sounds indistinguishable from Chopra’s woo to most people, so they assume that anything goes in modern science. It seems to boil down to who you regard as an authority. In the case of Sean Carroll I know his credentials so I grant provisional credibility to papers like this though I don’t pretend to understand them (and never will). And I suppose there are people who regard Chopra as an authority…


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