Excerpt from Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe, by Robert Lanza, MD, with Robert Berman (BenBella Books, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the authors.
Chapter 5: Where Is The Universe?
Many of the later chapters will use discussions of space and time, and especially quantum theory, to help make the case for biocentrism. First, however, simple logic must be used to answer a most basic question: where is the universe located? It is here that we will need to deviate from conventional thinking and shared assumptions, some of which are inherent in language itself.
All of us are taught since earliest childhood that the universe can be fundamentally divided into two entities—ourselves, and that which is outside of us. This seems logical and apparent. What is “me” is commonly defined by what I can control. I can move my fingers but I cannot wiggle your toes. The dichotomy, then, is based largely on manipulation. The dividing line between self and nonself is generally taken to be the skin, strongly implying that I am this body and nothing else.
Of course, when a chunk of the body has vanished, as some unfortunate double amputees have experienced, one still feels oneself to be just as “present” and “here” as before, and not subjectively diminished in the least. This logic could be carried forth easily enough until one arrives at solely the brain itself perceiving itself as “me”—because if a human head could be maintained with an artificial heart and the rest, it too would reply “Here!” if its name were shouted at roll call.
The central concept of René Descartes, who brought philosophy forward into its modern era, was the primacy of consciousness; that all knowledge, all truths and principles of being must begin with the individual sensation of mind and self. Thus, we come to the old adage Cogito, ergo sum; I think, therefore I am. In addition to Descartes and Kant, there were of course a great many other philosophers who argued along these lines—Leibniz, Berkeley, Schopenhauer, and Bergson to name a few. But that former pair, surely among the very greatest of all time, mark the epochs of modern philosophical history. All start with “self.”
Much has been written about this sense of self, and entire religions (three of the four branches of Buddhism, Zen, and the mainstream Advaita Vedanta sect of Hinduism, for example) are dedicated to proving that a separate independent self, isolated from the vast bulk of the cosmos, is a fundamentally illusory sensation. It suffices to say that introspection would in all cases conclude that thinking itself—as Descartes put it so simply—is normally synonymous with the “I” feeling.
The obverse side of this coin is experienced when thinking stops. Many people have had moments, when watching a baby or a pet or something in nature, when they feel a rush of ineffable joy, of being taken “out of oneself” and essentially becoming the object observed. On January 26, 1976, the New York Times Magazine published an entire article on this phenomenon, along with a survey showing that at least 25 percent of the population have had at least one experience that they described as “a sense of the unity of everything,” and “a sense that all the universe is alive.” Fully 40 percent of the 600 respondents additionally reported it as “a conviction that love is at the center of everything” and said it entailed “a feeling of deep and profound peace.”
Well, very lovely, but those who have never “been there,” which appear to be the majority of the populace, who stand on the outside of that nightclub looking in, might well shrug it off and attribute it to wishful thinking or hallucination. A survey may be scientifically sound, but the conclusions mean little by themselves. We need much more than this in attempting to understand the sense of self.
But perhaps we can grant that something happens when the thinking mind takes a vacation. Absence of verbal thought or day-dreaming clearly doesn’t mean torpor and vacuity. Rather, it’s as if the seat of consciousness escapes from its jumpy, nervous, verbal isolation cell and takes residence in some other section of the theater, where the lights shine more brightly and where things feel more direct, more real.
On what street is this theater found? Where are the sensations of life?
We can start with everything visual that is currently being perceived all around us—this book you are holding, for example. Language and custom say that it all lies outside us in the external world. Yet we’ve already seen that nothing can be perceived that is not already interacting with our consciousness, which is why biocentric axiom number one is that nature or the so-called external world must be correlative with consciousness. One doesn’t exist without the other. What this means is that when we do not look at the Moon the Moon effectively vanishes—which, subjectively, is obvious enough. If we still think of the Moon and believe that it’s out there orbiting the Earth, or accept that other people are probably watching it, all such thoughts are still mental constructs. The bottom-line issue here is if no consciousness existed at all, in what sense would the Moon persist, and in what form?
So what is it that we see when we observe nature? The answer in terms of image-location and neural mechanics is actually more straightforward than almost any other aspect of biocentrism. Because the images of the trees, grass, the book you’re holding, and everything else that’s perceived is real and not imaginary, it must be physically happening in some location. Human physiology texts answer this without ambiguity. Although the eye and retina gather photons that deliver their payloads of bits of the electromagnetic force, these are channeled through heavy-duty cables straight back until the actual perception of images themselves physically occurs in the back of the brain, augmented by other nearby locations, in special sections that are as vast and labyrinthine as the hallways of the Milky Way, and contain as many neurons as there are stars in the galaxy. This, according to human physiology texts, is where the actual colors, shapes, and movement “happen.” This is where they are perceived or cognized.
If you consciously try to access that luminous, energy-filled, visual part of the brain, you might at first be frustrated; you might tap the back of your skull and feel a particularly vacuous sense of
nothingness. But that’s because it was an unnecessary exercise: you’re already accessing the visual portion of the brain with every glance you take. Look now, at anything. Custom has told us that what we see is “out there,” outside ourselves, and such a viewpoint is fine and necessary in terms of language and utility, as in “Please pass the butter that’s over there.” But make no mistake: the visual image of that butter, that is, the butter itself, actually exists only inside your brain. That is its location. It is the only place visual images are perceived and cognized.
Some may imagine that there are two worlds, one “out there” and a separate one being cognized inside the skull. But the “two worlds” model is a myth. Nothing is perceived except the perceptions themselves, and nothing exists outside of consciousness. Only one visual reality is extant, and there it is. Right there.
The “outside world” is, therefore, located within the brain or mind. Of course, this is so astounding for many people, even if it is obvious to those who study the brain, that it becomes possible to
over-think the issue and come up with attempted refutations. “Yeah, but what about someone born blind?” “And what about touch; if things aren’t out there, how can we feel them?”
None of that changes the reality: touch, too, occurs only within consciousness or the mind. Every aspect of that butter, its existence on every level, is not outside of one’s being. The real mind-twister to all this, and the reason some are loath to accept what should be patently obvious, is that its implications destroy the entire house-of-cards worldview that we have embraced all our lives. If that is consciousness, or mind, right in front of us, then consciousness extends indefinitely to all that is cognized—calling into question the nature and reality of something we will devote an entire chapter to—space. If that before us is consciousness, it can change the area of scientific focus from the nature of a cold, inert, external universe to issues such as how your consciousness relates to mine and to that of the animals. But we’ll put aside, for the moment, questions of the unity of consciousness. Let it suffice to say that any overarching unity of consciousness is not just difficult or impossible to prove but is fundamentally incompatible with dualistic languages—which adds an additional burden of making it difficult to grasp with logic alone.
Why? Language was created to work exclusively through symbolism and to divide nature into parts and actions. The word water is not actual water, and the word it corresponds to nothing at all in the phrase “It is raining.” Even if well acquainted with the limitations and vagaries of language, we must be especially on guard against dismissing biocentrism (or any way of cognizing the universe as a whole) too quickly if it doesn’t at first glance seem compatible with customary verbal constructions; we will discuss this at much greater length in a later chapter. The challenge here, alas, is to peer not just behind habitual ways of thinking, but to go beyond some of the tools of the thinking process itself, to grasp the universe in a way that is at the same time simpler and more demanding than that to which we are accustomed. Absolutely everything in the symbolic realm, for example, has come into existence at one point in time, and will eventually die—even mountains. Yet consciousness, like aspects of quantum theory involving entangled particles, may exist outside of time altogether.
Finally, some revert to the “control” aspect to assert the fundamental separation of ourselves and an external, objective reality. But control is a widely misunderstood concept. Although we commonly believe that clouds form, planets spin, and our own livers manufacture their hundreds of enzymes “all by themselves,” we nonetheless have been accustomed to hold that our minds possess a peculiarly unique self-controlling feature that creates a bottom-line distinction between self and external world. In reality, recent experiments show conclusively that the brain’s electrochemical connections, its neural impulses traveling at 240 miles per hour, cause decisions to be made faster than we are even aware of them. In other words, the brain and mind, too, operate all by itself, without any need for external meddling by our thoughts, which also incidentally occur by themselves. So control, too, is largely an illusion. As Einstein put it, “We can will ourselves to act, but we cannot will ourselves to will.”
The most cited experiment in this field was conducted a quarter-century ago. Researcher Benjamin Libet asked subjects to choose a random moment to perform a hand motion while hooked up to an electroencephalograph (EEG) monitor in which the so-called “readiness potential” of the brain was being monitored. Naturally, electrical signals always precede actual physical actions, but Libet wanted to know whether they also preceded a subject’s subjective feeling of intention to act. In short, is there some subjective “self” who consciously decides things, thereby setting in motion the brain’s electrical activities that ultimately lead to the action? Or is it the other way ’round? Subjects were therefore asked to note the position of a clock’s second hand when they first felt the initial intention to move their hand.
Libet’s findings were consistent, and perhaps not surprising: unconscious, unfelt, brain electrical activity occurred a full half second before there was any conscious sense of decision-making by the subject. More recent experiments by Libet, announced in 2008, analyzing separate, higher-order brain functions, have allowed his research team to predict up to ten seconds in advance which hand a subject is about to decide to raise. Ten seconds is nearly an eternity when it comes to cognitive decisions, and yet a person’s eventual decision could be seen on brain scans that long before the subject was even remotely aware of having made any decision. This and other experiments prove that the brain makes its own decisions on a subconscious level, and people only later feel that “they” have performed a conscious decision. It means that we go through life thinking that, unlike the blessedly autonomous operations of the heart and kidneys, a lever-pulling “me” is in charge of the brain’s workings. Libet concluded that the sense of personal free will arises solely from a habitual retrospective perspective of the ongoing flow of brain events.
What, then, do we make of all this? First, that we are truly free to enjoy the unfolding of life, including our own lives, unencumbered by the acquired, often guilt-ridden sense of control, and the obsessive need to avoid messing up. We can relax, because we’ll automatically perform anyway.
Second, and more to the point of this book and chapter, modern knowledge of the brain shows that what appears “out there” is actually occurring within our own minds, with visual and tactile experiences located not in some external disconnected location that we have grown accustomed to regarding as being distant from ourselves. Looking around, we see only our own mind or, perhaps, it’s better put that there is no true disconnect between external and internal. Instead, we can label all cognition as an amalgam of our experiential selves and whatever energy field may pervade the cosmos. To avoid such awkward phrasing, we’ll allude to it by simply calling it awareness or consciousness. With this in mind (no pun intended), we’ll see how any “theory of everything” must incorporate this biocentrism—or else be a train on a track to nowhere.
To sum up:
First Principle of Biocentrism: What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness.
Second Principle of Biocentrism: Our external and internal perceptions are inextricably intertwined. They are different sides of the same coin and cannot be separated.
Excerpted from Biocentrism by Robert Lanza, MD, with Robert Berman. Copyright © Robert Lanza and Robert Berman, 2009. All rights reserved.
Robert Lanza has been exploring the frontiers of science for more than four decades, and is considered one of the leading scientists in the world. He is currently Chief Scientific Officer at Advanced Cell Technology, and Adjunct Professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. He has several hundred publications and inventions, and twenty scientific books, among them, Principles of Tissue Engineering, which is recognized as the definitive reference in the field. He received his BA and MD degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, where he was both a University Scholar and Benjamin Franklin Scholar. He was part of the team that cloned the world’s first human embryo as well as the first to clone an endangered species, and to generate stem cells using a method that does not require destruction of human embryos. He was awarded the 2005 Rave Award for Medicine by Wired magazine, and received the 2006 “All Star” Award for Biotechnology by Mass High Tech.
Bob Berman is the most widely read astronomer in the world. Author of more than one thousand published articles, in publications such as Discover and Astronomy magazine, where he is a monthly columnist, he is also astronomy editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac and the author of four books. He is adjunct professor of astronomy at Marymount College, and writes and produces a weekly show on Northeast Public Radio, aired during NPR’s Weekend Edition.
Robert Lanza on theory of Biocentrism
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