What happens if you don't understand math? Just replace it with solipsism, and you can get published!

Jun 21 2011 Published by under Bad Physics

About four years ago, I wrote a post about a crackpot theory by a biologist named Robert Lanza. Lanza is a biologist - a genuine, serious scientist. And his theory got published in a major journal, "The American Scholar". Nevertheless, it's total rubbish.

Anyway, the folks over at the Encyclopedia of American Loons just posted an entry about him, so I thought it was worth bringing back this oldie-but-goodie. The original post was inspired by a comment from one of my most astute commenters, Mr. Blake Stacey, where he gave me a link to Lanza'sarticle.

The article is called "A New Theory of the Universe", by Robert Lanza, and as I said, it was published in the American Scholar. Lanza's article is a rotten piece of new-age gibberish, with all of the usual hallmarks: lots of woo, all sorts of babble about how important consciousness is, random nonsensical babblings about quantum physics, and of course, bad math.

Lanza's "theory" (if one wants to be generous enough to call it that) is that life is a fundamental - in fact the fundamental - guiding force of the entire universe. His argument for that is purest, utter nonsense. Here's a typical sample:

Our science fails to recognize those special properties of life that make it fundamental to material reality. This view of the world--biocentrism--revolves around the way a subjective experience, which we call consciousness, relates to a physical process. It is a vast mystery and one that I have pursued my entire life. The conclusions I have drawn place biology above the other sciences in the attempt to solve one of nature's biggest puzzles, the theory of everything that other disciplines have been pursuing for the last century. Such a theory would unite all known phenomena under one umbrella, furnishing science with an all-encompassing explanation of nature or reality.

We need a revolution in our understanding of science and of the world. Living in an age dominated by science, we have come more and more to believe in an objective, empirical reality and in the goal of reaching a complete understanding of that reality. Part of the thrill that came with the announcement that the human genome had been mapped or with the idea that we are close to understanding the big bang rests in our desire for completeness.

But we're fooling ourselves.

Most of these comprehensive theories are no more than stories that fail to take into account one crucial factor: we are creating them. It is the biological creature that makes observations, names what it observes, and creates stories. Science has not succeeded in confronting the element of existence that is at once most familiar and most mysterious--conscious experience. As Emerson wrote in "Experience," an essay that confronted the facile positivism of his age: "We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are or of computing the amount of their errors. Perhaps these subject lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects."

That gives you some sense of where he's coming from. His argument is, ultimately, an eloborate argument for solipsism - the universe only exists because we believe it does. Our minds are the only thing that is real.

As we get in to what passes for the meat of the argument, we'll see that
Mr. Lanza really doesn't like math very much. A very large part of his argument is really just an elaborate argument for why it is that biology (which he allegedly understands) and goofy metaphysics (which he can make up as he goes along) are really more important than math. See, math is hard. If you look at it without actually understanding it, it doesn't seem to make sense. And if it doesn't seem to make sense to Lanza, well, then, that means that it must be wrong. For example:

We have failed to protect science against speculative extensions of nature, continuing to assign physical and mathematical properties to hypothetical entities beyond what is observable in nature. The ether of the 19th century, the "spacetime" of Einstein, and the string theory of recent decades, which posits new dimensions showing up in different realms, and not only in strings but in bubbles shimmering down the byways of the universe--all these are examples of this speculation. Indeed, unseen dimensions (up to a hundred in some theories) are now envisioned everywhere, some curled up like soda straws at every point in space.

This is nothing but a rather tacky argument from incredulity: "Gosh, doesn't all of this mathematical stuff just sound totally ridiculous? Isn't is just obvious that anything that dumb is total nonsense?". No, all of this complicated math stuff, this spacetime crap, the math of relativity: I don't understand it, and so it must be wrong.

Since all of the physics uses math, and math is obviously wrong because Lanza doesn't understand it, it needs to be replaced. And what does a twit with delusions of grandeur come up with as a replacement for science? What else but solipsism, mixed with some seriously bad math? After all, if your basic argument against real science comes down to "if I don't understand it, it must be wrong", then what could possibly be a better replacement than something where your understanding actually does define reality?

Without perception, there is in effect no reality. Nothing has existence unless you, I, or some living creature perceives it, and how it is perceived further influences that reality. Even time itself is not exempted from biocentrism. Our sense of the forward motion of time is really the result of an infinite number of decisions that only seem to be a smooth continuous path. At each moment we are at the edge of a paradox known as The Arrow, first described 2,500 years ago by the philosopher Zeno of Elea. Starting logically with the premise that nothing can be in two places at once, he reasoned that an arrow is only in one place during any given instance of its flight. But if it is in only one place, it must be at rest. The arrow must then be at rest at every moment of its flight. Logically, motion is impossible. But is motion impossible? Or rather, is this analogy proof that the forward motion of time is not a feature of the external world but a projection of something within us? Time is not an absolute reality but an aspect of our consciousness.

This, kids, is what happens when you don't learn bother to learn calculus.

Zeno's arrow isn't a paradox. It's just part of another of those problems that the Greek mathematicians screwed up because they had all sorts of problems understanding infinities and infinitessimals. Zeno's arrow is the beginning of an attempt to understand how continuous processes can be broken into an infinite number of infinitely small instantaneous parts, and how those parts can be recombined back into a finite whole. A moving arrow has a position at a given moment of time - but it's only in that precise precision for an infinitely small instant. It's moving, but it's speed is varying, due to forces like gravity and drag - at any moment, it's moving at a particular speed - but the period of time during which it's moving at precisely that speed is infinitely small. But we can add those up, into real motion. Just because time is made up of an infinitely large stream of infinitely small moments doesn't mean that time doesn't exist; just because an arrow is moving doesn't mean that it's position is meaningless.

Alas, Lanza builds his argument on gibberish like this. He doesn't know math, so he replaces it with bad egocentric metaphysics:

Space and time are not stuff that can be brought back to the laboratory in a marmalade jar for analysis. In fact, space and time fall into the province of biology--of animal sense perception--not of physics. They are properties of the mind, of the language by which we human beings and animals represent things to ourselves. Physicists venture beyond the scope of their science--beyond the limits of material phenomena and law--when they try to assign physical, mathematical, or other qualities to space and time.

Shame for Lanza that we do, essentially, bring "space and time" into the lab in a marmalade jar for analysis. We can observe relativistic effects. We can observe the warp of space-time by gravity. For example, here's a really cool picture:

We look into the sky with a telescope, and we see things like that. There's only one galaxy there, but we see four different images of the same thing. Why? Because space-time is warped by the mass of a galaxy, and the warped spacetime essentially acts as a lens - exactly as predicted by the math of relativity.

And from there, it just gets worse. He goes into a very long-winded babble about, essentially, how time doesn't really exist. Time is just an illusion created by our senses. And so on - typical new-agey babble that explains nothing - but that puts us squarely back and the center of the universe, where he wants us to be:

In order to account for why space and time were relative to the observer, Einstein assigned tortuous mathematical properties to an invisible, intangible entity that cannot be seen or touched. This folly continues with the advent of quantum mechanics. Despite the central role of the observer in this theory--extending it from space and time to the very properties of matter itself--scientists still dismiss the observer as an inconvenience to their theories. It has been proven experimentally that when studying subatomic particles, the observer actually alters and determines what is perceived. The work of the observer is hopelessly entangled in that which he is attempting to observe. An electron turns out to be both a particle and a wave. But how and where such a particle will be located remains entirely dependent upon the very act of observation.

See what I mean? Every time math comes up, Lanza goes off into a rant about how, because he doesn't understand it, the math must not make sense. And then he compounds it by throwing in yet more ignorant babble about quantum physics and uncertainty. Hey, Bob! "Observation" in quantum theory isn't talking about you! The collapse of a quantum waveform due to observation does not require an intelligent observer. Consciousness has nothing to do with it - an observer is something that's pretty well-defined mathematically. Consciousness doesn't define the observer: math does. Just because you're incapable of comprehending the math doesn't mean that you get to arbitrary replace it with something you like better.

This is typical of a certain kind of crank. There are an awful lot of people who, for some strange reason, believe that the limits of their imagination defines the limits of the universe. That's just bullshit. The universe in all of its detail is much grander, much more complex, and much more intricate than anything we can imagine. We're just a bunch of intelligent monkeys, and it's ridiculous to pretend that somehow, there can't possibly be anything in the universe that we can't understand.

People like Lanza take their own intellectual limitations, and demand that the universe not only respect but obey those limitations. It's a sad, small-minded attitude.

22 responses so far

  • AnyEdge says:

    People like Lanza take their own intellectual limitations, and demand that the universe not only respect but obey those limitations. It's a sad, small-minded attitude.

    You've summed up precisely how I feel about PZ Myers. Not all atheists, mind you (I flirt with atheism myself quite a bit.). Just him.

  • ppnl says:

    You've summed up precisely how I feel about PZ Myers. Not all atheists, mind you (I flirt with atheism myself quite a bit.). Just him.


    There could be many reasons to dislike PZ. I really can't see this as being one.

  • AnyEdge says:

    I don't want to threadjack this. There's too much worth discussing about the actual post. But in general, I find people who say, "my way of seeing the world is the only reasonable way" to be small minded and pitiable. And PZM fits squarly into that.

  • Nobody says:

    Sounds like he should have published it in Social Text.

  • Tybo says:

    The primary question I would have to such a theory, at a very superficial level, is this: if life is the primary purpose of the universe, then why is everything just so damned hostile to living organisms?

    Now, we can get into a lot bigger problems as we go deeper, like "Why should the observable reality be expected to conform to our cognitive schemes?" and "What ever happened to good, old-fashioned realism instead of this namby-pamby idealist empiricism?" Oh, by the way, I have a hand. Here's another. Therefore, an external reality exists in which I can bitchslap you and refute you thus.

  • Tybo, your objection would be a good one if the theory did in fact claim that "life is the primary purpose of the universe". By my reading of the samples given, it seems his theory is that "consciousness is the lens through which we formulate theories about the universe", and that therefore our theories say more about our consciousness than they do about the universe. This seems fairly reasonable to me. For example, we often hear that humans are about halfway between the infinitesimal and the infinite, or halfway between an atom and a star (the first citation I'm aware of is Eddington's /Stars and Atoms/, 1927), or that our earth is middle-sized, or that our Sun is middle-sized, or that we are living slap bang in the middle of the Sun or Earth's existence. And so it does indeed all seem to me, but I expect that's because I happen to be a human.

    Some other parts of Lanza's theory seem to draw rather a long bow. However to simply dismiss the centrality of experience and subjectivity in response is a tedious overreaction.

  • Tybo says:

    Oh, I don't dismiss simply the idea that we're limited by our experiences in what we can say about the external world. However, Lanza goes far beyond that point (and you do address that, in that 'long bow') - Lanza has other writings, which Orac and PZ have noted, which go beyond even Berkeley in their over-emphasis of consciousness as central to reality itself.

  • Alright, I've actually gone and *read* Lanza's articles on that crappy Huffington website thingy now, just for this. I honestly can't see what the fuss is about. He is *not* arguing for solipsism.

    He doesn't say, as claimed above that "the universe only exists because we believe it does. Our minds are the only thing that is real." He is not complaining about the actual universe. He's complaining about the word "universe". He's pointing out that the map is not the territory.

    Look. There is something happening outside our skulls. We perceive that something. We call it a "thing" and we divide the thing up into objects and we name it the universe and so on. He argues that *those ideas* are invented by us. By way of analogy, he points out that colour is actually just bits of the spectrum that we happen to perceive and name because of the physiology of our visual systems. We now understand through instrumentation and comparing our visual systems with the visual systems of other creatures that the distinction between blue and red is arbitrary.

    So then he takes the analogy up a level. We looked with our eyes and we thought light was made of colours. Then we looked with instrumentation and decided it was all part of the electromagnetic spectrum. We're gaining useful knowledge about the world, we're doing experiments with which we can make predictions, yay! Go science. His point is merely that this is all happening through the lens of our intellect, situated within our bodies, from our perspective as living creatures. Our names for things are what we decide to call them, based on what we find useful. They're not the things themselves, and maybe even the idea of "things" is simply a useful fiction.

    So for example there's a Huffpost article going around in which Lanza challenges our definition of life and consciousness. He thinks we could have another definition, in which the fact that your brain has died is merely an important state shift. Note that he DOES NOT claim that your consciousness continues to float around unchanged and unshackled from your body, as many religious people do. This is not a brand new idea; that through our causal connections we continue to influence reality, and our selves reside not only in our own skulls but in the models of us that the people we met carry around in their heads, and so on. And of course he likes to point out that our idea of linear time is just one way of looking at things, and we're not all that important in the scheme of things, so to be concerned that we're alive at A on a timeline and dead at B is just not that big a deal.

    I don't agree, because I think that our current definition of life is straightforward and useful. But I value the challenge. You may also not agree. Fine. But get it through your head that you're arguing about definitions of terms. Lanza is not making scientific claims, he's going back over some pretty well-travelled ontological ground to argue that the universe is unimaginably bigger than we are.

    "There are an awful lot of people who, for some strange reason, believe that the limits of their imagination defines the limits of the universe"

    Yes there are such people. But that's exactly the opposite of what Lanza describes. He's saying that the limits of our imaginations define the limits of our idea of "the universe". That the actual universe is so much more amazing than that, that perhaps even calling it "the universe" is absurdly limiting.

    Lanza's assertion is that consciousness is central to our *idea* of reality. To which, duh. I would have thought that was obvious. Clearly not, though, as the many complaints about this self-evident point on this blog and others attest.

    The more interesting point that I glean from his writings is that it's worth looking hard into how consciousness works in order to try to crack some of the biases that a consciousness-lensed view of the universe gives us. And that it's important to always acknowledge that as subjective living conscious creatures objectivity can only ever be a goal, not a destination.

    Finally: this school of thought is called phenomenology, and there are many better writers on the topic than Lanza. Go and look some up, and don't be afraid if they use weird words like "intersubjectivity", it'll do you good.

  • Andy M says:

    The example of colour perception seems to me to run *counter* to the rest of Lanza's argument. Something that was once considered fundamental in our perception of the universe was given a more objective explanation and explained as a secondary phenomenon. Compare that to his babblings about time where he's trying to drag everything back in the opposite direction: that there is nothing "out there" that either is time or that maps to our perception of time.

  • serialhex says:

    so i haven't read the original article, but it seems like he's saying 'nothing exists unless a biological being observes it' (kind of taken from quantum physics & collapsing wave-function thingys [i know, i'm sooo technical today]) and - later on - stating that quantum physics itself is wrong, which would essentially refute the basis for his previous statement.

    [puts on flame-proof suit]
    now, while i think the idea of a *conscious* being observing something and thus changing how reality works kind of interesting. mark alludes to (and this article makes much clearer: http://www.ploscompbiol.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pcbi.1000091 ) that a *conscious* being might be something as simple as a hydrogen atom. i'm not stating that a hydrogen atom is conscious and that we should try to have intelligent discourse with a water molecule, just that the atoms or electrons or protons can be observers of photons and quarks and higgs bosons (if they really do exist).

    oh, and learning calculus has taught me a lot about how awesome reality is. i mean, zeno's paradox is soooo easy to disprove with some basic calc 1 math! (and no one has to be impaled by an arrow either 😀 )

  • Katharine says:

    I lament the fact that many biology programs no longer require calculus.

    Also, AnyEdge, are you talking about limitations such as scientific rigor? Because in that sense, limitation ain't bad. In fact, I think your viewpoint is ridiculous for precisely this reason.

    There is a limit to the number of ways one can see the world without being utterly delusional, you know.

  • Tybo says:

    You're watering Lanza down quite a bit, honestly. His insistence on a conscious observer for certain effects observed in physics does put him past the realm of current scientific theories and into quack-land - he simply fails to grasp physical theories at their most basic, by placing the emphasis on a conscious observer. This is a pretty central piece of his argument for Biocentrism, and it's based on a misunderstanding of physics.

    " When science tries to resolve its conflicts by adding and subtracting dimensions to the universe like houses on a Monopoly board..."

    Lines like this (from his writing cited here) suggest a fundamental dismissal of physical theories as well. Sure, there are important questions to consider, such as "Why does mathematics happen to work so well to formally describe the observable universe?" but outright dismissal of the program which has worked thus far isn't justified by anything except intuition for Lanza.

    I can ALMOST get behind him when he doesn't extend beyond something like this (from his 2009 piece in The Scientist):

    "Scientists and non-scientists alike typically imagine an external world existing on its own; with an appearance that more or less resembles what we see. By this reasoning, the human eye and brain allow us to cognize the actual visual appearance of things, and to alter nothing. Not so, says biocentrism."

    Pretty much anyone who studies sensory perception and/or cognition can tell you he's right on the point that what we consciously observe and what is 'out there' (in a scientific realist sense) just doesn't line up very well. Lanza, however, goes far beyond that. When he talks of the Goldilocks/Anthropic principle, and his misunderstanding of wavefunction collapse, he's asserting the centrality of consciousness as a necessary component to reality itself, not as simply as a lens which tempers how we interact with the world.

    (And yes, I did actually read Lanza's articles in The Scientist (2009) and The American Scholar (2007).)

  • B-Con says:

    Hm. On level, many of the quoted comments are correct. We can't do anything but *model* reality based on observation. We form theories, but those theories are basically just formal models. "Space-time" and how gravity works are good examples. Observation validates models, but it doesn't dictate much more than that. We have no way of knowing if some "absolutely objective" being would agree with our model.

    Zeno's Arrow is really a good question. We don't know if matter or time are discrete or continuous, or even if it makes sense to talk about them on those levels. We really don't know how an arrow moves from point X to an infinitesimal point farther away from X. We understand how infinitesimals work in Calculus by using limits to describe what's happening, and those methods are well understood, but that says nothing about how physics actually works. We have infinitesimals in math, and that concept is good, well, properly motivated, and useful, but just because it also models the real world doesn't mean that's how the real world works.

    I don't think he's saying "I don't understand it so it's not important." I think he's saying, "human observation is subjective, let's not forget that." And for a field of objectively-oriented people, that's a good reminder.

    His comments about observers and consciousness I find odd, but others are arguing those points. Aside from that, his other comments sound like some valid, age-old points about the restrictions in our human mind-centered ideas and models.

  • Anonymous says:

    I wouldn't call The American Scholar a "major journal". It's the Phi Beta Kappa magazine, and not in any sense a research journal. So the fact that this paper was published there means nothing except that an editor thought it would appeal to PBK members.

  • Feynmaniac says:

    There are an awful lot of people who, for some strange reason, believe that the limits of their imagination defines the limits of the universe. That's just bullshit.


    Seriously, that's great. It's going in my quote folder.

  • AKposthuman says:

    Notwithstanding solipsism bullshit of Lanza's article, there are good (and in full compliance with calculus :)) reasons to argue that life and particularly intelligent life (and I do not refer to humans per se) are a fundamental feature of quantum multiverse. For more elaborated argument, check books by David Deutsch "The fabric of reality" and "The beginning of infinity".

  • Alex Besogonov says:

    "Consciousness has nothing to do with it - an observer is something that's pretty well-defined mathematically. Consciousness doesn't define the observer: math does. Just because you're incapable of comprehending the math doesn't mean that you get to arbitrary replace it with something you like better."

    Are you SURE? It's not possible to prove that. There are quantum mechanics interpretations that treat conscious observers as special entities. They are self-consistent, even if they are silly.

  • philipp says:

    I agree that the theory that Lanza presents sounds dubious, at least from what you quote. However, as someone who knows math (and physics) I can safely say that as beautiful as mathematics seems, it is still a rather arbitrary product of our very biased thinking. Breaking it down it turns out that everything depends on arbitrary axioms -- which can't even be shown to be consistent. Indeed, every physicist must know that all physical theories are a very crude and banal approximation of the tiny little part of the universe we can observe. At the time being they may seem very elaborate but in, say, 200 years people will probably laugh at our primitive theories...I think that we actually cannot understand what is going on...even the notion of understanding turns out to be an invention of the human mind if one thinks about it a bit. So we should enjoy science but not overestimate it. Some people have the tendency to develop religious views about math and imho this accounts for a poor understanding of the subject.

    Just my 2 cents,

  • altomic says:

    -If i can't see you then you can't see me.

    -If i close my eyes then you don't exist.

    I think these 2 laws should be foundation of modern science.

  • Krazor says:

    I think that the whole insulting tone of some of the comments directed towards the guy are a tad bit off point of what the original author of those 'theories' meant to get across.

    When he talked about 'Math' and theories such as the 'String Theory' and so on and so fourth about multiple universes and ect, he was not saying that Math was at fault. It was more or less a observation that for example "A=1" is wrong if we don't even know what "A" is.

    It was basically him saying that because we 'Don't' and 'Cannot' know or prove the existence or even the physical design of objects such as alternate universes or certain particles (examples), that it is wrong/pointless to assign numerical values or calculations to them. He also points out that because Humans CANNOT possibly know 'Everything' about the universe, that we can't give a definate answer on the universe from a subjective viewpoint.

  • Arthur Dent says:

    "There are an awful lot of people who, for some strange reason, believe that the limits of their imagination defines the limits of the universe. That's just bullshit."

    Another entry to my list of great quotes. Nicely said.

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