Every now and again I have a ‘thinking day’. These are a highlight in my diary – a whole day dedicated to creativity and thought. I rarely have an agenda for these days – it’s normally more fun just to see what happens. However, on one recent thinking day I decided to spend some time pondering a book I had enjoyed reading – Robert Lanza’s Biocentrism – How life and consciousness are the keys to understanding the true nature of the universe. I stumbled across this book thanks to the many podcasts that I consume on a weekly basis and found the whole topic area to be very fertile ground. So it was great thinking day material.
For the uninitiated Biocentrism is a bit like biology’s answer to quantum physics. I know very little about biology and even less about quantum physics, so needless to say, if these are the areas that you are interested in then I recommend you grab a copy of the book for yourself. I’m interested in ‘the human condition’…which is what I will stick to in this post.
Lanza’s starting premise is that conscious awareness remains one of the greatest mysteries of science. It is the basis of everything because we experience everything through our perception and yet, it’s still a complete mystery to us. Lanza makes some bold suggestions using data from experiments in quantum physics to explain the biocentric understanding of human consciousness. I don’t intend to argue the case for or against Lanza’s work here. My aim is to just take his ideas and have a play with them. I’ll walk you through the basic principles of the book and then share some of my thoughts with you.
The principles of biocentrism
1. What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness.
Right. There is a lot to get your head around there. First of all there is the idea that reality is perceived. We have no direct, objective, access to an external reality. We only have our senses. Everything we experience is filtered through these senses and therefore what we have is a perception, not the direct reality. To illustrate this point, our auditory system is only able to perceive sounds of a certain frequency. Sounds that fall either side of our limit may still exist in some external reality…but they will not form part of our experience. What we call ‘reality’ is in fact the experience of our perception.
I find this emphasis on our perception useful. When dealing in human relations people see what they are able to see, they hear what they are able to hear – it’s like we all have our own filter that shapes our perception of events (I call them ‘goggles’ – we all have a different pair and they shape what we are able to see). Not only will this filter change the nature of our experience but I suspect we all have a different ‘range’ to our perceptions too – some people seem to have a rich experience of life whereas others seem to have a much more narrow window on events. Regardless of any external reality it is our perception of events that will drive our behaviour. Perception is king. A fact that advertisers and PR consultants already know too well.
The second point is that our perception of reality is a process – there is no static ‘place’ that is reality, or time that is reality. We are constantly in process, and our perception of events are constantly in process. I think the emphasis on process is useful too. We are all a work in progress – and it is this process that is our natural ‘state’. We’re dynamic, not static. Our perceptions are dynamic too – both ourselves and our perception of our reality are constantly in a process of change. My perception of today will be different tomorrow, and different again the following day – nothing is static – not even the past.
2. Our external and internal perceptions are inextricably intertwined.
Lanza’s point here is that the internal and external cannot be divorced from one another – they are both part of a whole and can only be usefully examined together, rather than apart. This goes against the tendency in science to label, categorise, and dissect. I suspect that writers like Rollo May couldn’t agree more. He has long argued for a psychology of the ‘whole person’ and against dissecting man into genes, cognitions, personality types… May would argue that you can only examine man as a whole person. So far, so good Lanza.
3. The behaviour of particles is linked to an observer.
Here Lanza talks about experiments such as the Double slit experiment whereby subatomic particles appear to be influenced by the presence of an observer, displaying different ‘behaviour’ depending on whether or not an observer is present. Lanza suggests that without an observer all objects only exist in an undetermined state of probability waves. For me, the influence of the observer is really interesting. First of all it emphasises the power of observation – it’s not a neutral activity but can have a massive impact on the thing observed. By measuring, by watching, by labelling… we are in a way creating. This reminds me of an experiment I read about whereby people lost weight simply by weighing and recording their weight and waist measurements on a daily basis.
Probably more interesting however, is the fact that this principle places everything in relation to the other. It’s the ‘I’ to the ‘Thou’ of Martin Buber for those of you who have read his work. Without the observer the ‘observed’ only exists in a state of probability. If there was no ‘thou’, no other thing for me to compare myself against – would I exist? Just like night needs day in order to define itself do ‘I’ need ‘you’ in order to know who I am? The relationship between things are key – we’re not as disconnected as we think. It’s nice to know that this might be the case at a subatomic level too. More about this in the next principles:
4. Any universe that preceded consciousness only existed in a probability state 5. Life creates the universe, not the other way around.
Lanza flips traditional science on its head here. He suggests that rather than explaining our existence on this planet as some freak combination of coincidences it in fact works the other way around. The universe is here because we are here to observe it (hence the Bio-centric nature of Biocentrism). According to Lanza the universe is simply the complete spatio-temporal logic of the self – we need to exist somewhere, somewhen, so we have created this universe to experience. This is taking the ‘I and Thou’ relationship to its zenith – we have a mutually dependent relationship with the universe – without the universe there would be no ‘us’, but without ‘us’ there would be no universe.
For me this makes sense in terms of psychology. People create their own worlds, their view of their worlds is their reality. Their version of a town, event, a person will be different to mine because we have our own unique perspective. In that sense we really are creating our own realities – universe and all. Some people’s worlds are very small – others are massive. Some live in exciting worlds – others in threatening worlds.
6. Time does not have a real existence outside of animal-sense perception. 7. Space, like time, is another form of our animal understanding and does not have an independent reality.
Having flipped our relationship with the universe on its head Lanza also re-frames our relationship with both space and time, again using data from quantum physics. Lanza says that space and time are both narrative tools that we use to make sense of our otherwise incoherent existence. If space and time are narrative tools that means that we actually exist everywhere and nowhere, everywhen and nowhen, and that we are ourselves everything and nothing. We use our concepts of space and time to construct some coherence to this experience. Without this coherence we would not be able to have any sense of our selves.
In terms of time we are trapped in our experience of ‘now’ (hence no time travel sadly – I guess Lanza would say that we are constantly time travelling and that our miraculous trick is actually to generate a sense of ‘now’). Time also has this relational aspect that threads through the whole theory, there cannot be a past or a future without a present moment – all are dependent on their relationship with one another. The same with space, there needs to be a ‘there’ in order for there to be a ‘here’.
Apart from just being interesting ideas how does this help us understand what it is to be a person? According to Biocentrism I am just my experience of myself. My sense of self is an illusion – a story I tell myself. I use narrative tools like space and time to create some coherence to this experience. I need to experience ‘others’ in order to experience ‘me’. When I ‘observe’ either objects or people I do this through my own unique perspective. There is an element of creativity when I experience things – in many ways what I see will meet my own expectations and these expectations will blind me to other possibilities. Finally my life is less of a search for meaning, and more of a construction of meaning. Let’s break all of these down into a little bit more detail:
The emphasis on narrative is really useful. I am the story I tell myself. As the author of that story this emphasises how much creative choice I have – I can choose what kind of ‘self’ I want to be. This emphasis on choice links in with existentialism. I also have my own unique perspective and often ‘colour in the gaps’ so that my reality meets my expectations. I guess you could say that it’s easy for reality to meet your expectations if you are constantly creating your own reality. This resonates a lot with me. Your expectations will be lived out in your reality. If you expect to find warmth in other people you’ll find it, if you expect to find coldness you’ll find it – it’s just our ‘goggles’ doing their work. We are the authors of our own experience to a much greater degree than we realise. To me this links with the work of Tariq Ramadan (who talks about picture frames rather than goggles but it’s the same idea). It also feeds into my own approach to my research – when I conduct research interviews I am often trying to take my ‘goggles’ off (based on the idea of phenomenology – experiencing without expectations as much as possible) precisely because of the ability of my own expectations to colour my experience.
And then there is the theme of ‘relation’ running through the whole theory. In terms of my work with people I see this as absolutely key – we are definitely dependent on other people to help construct our sense of our ‘selves’ – I need you to be weak so that I can feel strong, I need you to be powerless so I can feel powerful, I need you to be a victim so that I can be a rescuer. We place other people in ‘roles’ to suit our own self concept a lot more that we probably realise.
Finally, perhaps the most powerful idea is that if I am constructing my own experience of ‘me’ then I am a meaning-making being, not a meaning-searching being. As a human I like the ‘why’ questions because my very existence depends on them – I am my own answer to the ‘why?’ and my ability to continually generate an answer to this question is my continued experience of myself.
Heavy stuff. But I also think it’s useful stuff. I actually find it quite comforting to think that I am only a story I tell myself. It makes me wonder what kind of story I want to tell…