a thinker on this planet.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?
Or take a rainbow. Does a rainbow still exist if no one is around to observe it? No, if we consider that a rainbow requires three components: sun, raindrops, and a conscious eye at the correct geometric location. If two people are observing a rainbow, each person’s position will complete a different geometry. They might see a different set of rain droplets (larger droplets make the colors in a rainbow more vivid and rob it of the color blue). Put another way, whenever we see a rainbow, it is truly ours and ours alone.
Even if we accept that it takes an observer for a rainbow to exist or a falling tree to make a sound in the forest, things get trickier when we are asked to consider that the moon and the stars, the plate on the table, or anything seemingly outside ourselves exist only in our brains—the only location in which visual images are perceived and processed. What about someone born blind? What about touch? If something isn’t out there, how can we feel it? Touch, Berman argues, also occurs within consciousness. For thinkers like Berman, notions of space and time are not absolute realities but rather ordering processes of the mind, tools of human and animal perception.
As I was leaving Berman’s seminar, one woman next to me said, “I don’t know. I’m skeptical about all this stuff.” But if some of these concepts seem too bizarre to believe, it’s partly because biocentrism contradicts a worldview that has been around basically since Biblical times: that is, that there is an objective, independent reality separate from ourselves. Biocentrism proponents aren’t saying, however, that there is no external world. In the book Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe, Dr. Robert Lanza and Berman maintain that “nature or the so-called external world must be correlative with consciousness. One doesn’t exist without the other.”
The greatest unsolved mystery in science is the conscious experience, specifically the first-person or subjective experience. Nothing in science has explained how consciousness arose from matter, or, as Berman put it, how random bits of matter develop a taste for hot dogs. The issue of consciousness poses problems for the field of physics. In Biocentrism, Lanza and Berman assert that attempts to explain the nature of the universe, including string theory, are lacking. Not even the Big Bang theory can explain why the universe is so perfectly fine-tuned to support life. Lanza and Berman also point out, “It is well known that quantum theory, while working incredibly well mathematically, makes no logical sense . . . particles seem to behave as if they respond to a conscious observer.”
Biocentrism is a worldview suggesting that life and consciousness are central to understanding the universe and that life creates the universe rather than the other way around. Though some of its concepts contain shades of Eastern religious thought, biocentrism, according to Lanza and Berman, is based on established science and is not just a matter for biologists. In fact, they insist, until the different sciences begin to collaborate and factor in consciousness, there can be no grand unified theory about the universe.
My intent here isn’t to outline all the principles of biocentrism or to attempt to explain the quantum mechanics that seem to support it (the double-slit experiment being one of the most compelling) or to even defend it, but to simply say that in a universe comprised of ninety-six percent dark energy and dark matter (stuff we virtually have no clue about), I feel I have no choice but to keep an open mind.
In Biocentrism, Lanza and Berman write that the deep, unanswerable questions about the universe have typically fallen under the domain of religion. However, “[e]very thinking person always [knows] that an insuperable mystery lay at the final square of the game board, and that there [is] no possible way of avoiding it.” This is precisely why my faith has evolved over the years, and why I hope it continues to evolve. I never want to be so settled on a fixed doctrine or philosophy or creed or belief system that I stop asking those deep, unanswerable questions. The one thing I’ve always appreciated about the Catholic faith in which I was raised is its reverence for that insuperable mystery about which Lanza and Berman write. No words ring truer to me in the Mass than these: “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith.”
I once listened to an interview on NPR’s “Speaking of Faith” featuring Mary Doria Russell, a paleoanthropologist turned novelist. She converted to Judaism as an adult, yet still considers herself an agnostic. She was drawn to Judaism because of its emphasis on reasoning and its rejection that there is only one way to interpret things. (In fact, the Torah is supposed to be studied with a partner, so an alternative perspective may be considered.) For Russell, “God is the largest, most complex, most inclusive, most explanatory idea that human beings are capable of imagining” for how the universe really is. But she also concedes, “. . . that’s the best we can do and it’s kind of good. It has a lot of truly satisfying elements to it. But whether it bears any resemblance to what’s really out there, I don’t know.”
The following passage from Russell’s science-fiction novel, The Sparrow, seems to encapsulate much of what I’ve tried to articulate above:
It is the human condition to ask questions . . . and to receive no plain answers. Perhaps this is because we can't understand the answers, because we are incapable of knowing God's ways and God's thoughts. We are, after all, only very clever tailless primates, doing the best we can, but limited. Perhaps we must all own up to being agnostic, unable to know the unknowable. . . . The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when his children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions . . . are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of animal behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps someday we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God.