Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
Elliot Benjamin is a philosopher, mathematician, musician, counselor, writer, with Ph.Ds in mathematics and psychology and the author of over 150 published articles in the fields of humanistic and transpersonal psychology, pure mathematics, mathematics education, spirituality & the awareness of cult dangers, art & mental disturbance, and progressive politics. He has also written a number of self-published books, such as: The Creative Artist, Mental Disturbance, and Mental Health. See also: www.benjamin-philosopher.com.
Biocentrism, Idealism, Materialism, and the Enigma of Consciousness
The essence of what I got from Lanza's description of biocentrism is that all we are able to know is our own perceptions.
A few years ago, there was a fair amount of debate on the Integral World site in the form of essays and dialogue spurred on by Don Salmon's 2011 essay Shaving Science with Ockham's Razor . I was somewhat involved as a participant in these back and forth essays and dialogue [2), while the crux of the disagreement with Salmon over his views was championed by Frank Visser and David Lane . Unfortunately these essays and dialogue ended with a rather abrasive public exchange between Lane and Salmon in April of 2015 . I have no doubt that everyone involved in this back and forth exchange of ideas was relieved to have it finished, myself included, but I recently read a book that brought this all back to me, and it gave me what I thought was a much better understanding of what Don Salmon had been trying so adamantly to convey on Integral World .
The book I am referring to is Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe, by Robert Lanza . Lanza has an impressive science background with numerous professional publications, books, and inventions, and has an expertise in advanced cell technology. I found his Biocentrism book to be an unusual mixture of science and philosophy, with a focus upon current theories of physics inclusive of quantum theory, relativity, string theory, superposition, collapse of the wave function, quarks, dark matter, dark energy, etc., much of which is consistent with our current mainstream scientific views of the origin and development of the universe, which has been referred to as Big History . But Lanza goes further, as he asks the same questions that I like to ask; in particular: What was there before the Big Bang? .
Now I am no more convinced at this time than I was a few years ago that a Big Bang ever occurred . But this is not the thrust of what I want to be addressing in this essay. Rather, what I want to focus on here is Lanza's assertion that some form of consciousness was a necessary ingredient to form the universe to begin with. Here is a thumbnail description of Lanza's seven principles of biocentrism (cf. , p. 27):
First Principle: What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness. An “external” reality, if it existed, wouldby definitionhave to exist in space. But this is meaningless, because space and time are not absolute realities but rather tools of the human and animal mind.
Now obviously parts of these principles are more science-based than other parts, but as I was reading Lanza, it appeared to me that the essence of biocentrism was reminiscent of what Don Salmon was trying to get across to Integral World readers in his Shaving Science essays , in particular the aspects pertaining to the idea that all we know about the universe is what we are able to perceive. This led to my getting back into contact with Don, who set me straight that he had “profound differences” with Lanza, and had very little respect for how Lanza misconstrued modern science in his arguments, mixing materialism, idealism, science, and philosophy in a convoluted way. Furthermore, in our recent renewed personal correspondence, Don conveyed to me in no uncertain terms that I have very little understanding of what his views actually are (cf. ). As Don and I continued to correspond, he recommended various readings to me, and I have taken him up on his dominant reading suggestion that he said expresses his perspective very clearly and simply. The book he recommended is entitled Why Materialism is Baloney, and the author is Bernardo Kastrup . But before I say anything more about what I now understand Don's views to be, or those of Kastrup, let me describe my take on biocentrism.
I had initially been planning on investigating critiques of Lanza and his biocentrism, and Don's response made me especially cautious about Lanza. Consequently I came across a “debunking” of Lanza and his biocentrism in 2009 , based upon a response to a joint article written by Lanza and Deepak Chopra (who wrote the forward to Lanza's Biocentrism book) (cf. ). Lanza began his book with the age-old question of whether there is any “sound” in a forest if a tree falls and nobody is there to hear it fall. In spite of the fact that most people believe there is a “sound” whether or not anyone is there to hear it, Lanza easily brings in science to show that the answer is “No.” According to Lanza (cf. , p. 20):
The falling tree simply engages rapid air-pressure variations, which spread out by traveling through the surrounding medium at around 750 mph….If someone is nearby, the air puffs physically cause the ear's tympanic membrane (eardrum) to vibrate, which then stimulates nerves only if the air is pulsing between 20 and 20,000 times a second….The pulses of air by themselves do not constitute any sort of sound, which is obvious because 15-pulse air puffs remain silent no matter how many ears are present….In short, an observer, an ear, and a brain are every bit as necessary for the experiences of sound as are the air pulses….a tree that falls in an empty forest creates only silent air pulsestiny puffs of wind.
The essence of what I got from Lanza's description of biocentrism is that all we are able to know is our own perceptions. Consequently we do not have any real knowledge of the universe per se, other than through our own perceptions. Current physics tells us that what we perceive as solid objects is essentially empty space with subatomic particles, and it is only our complicated brain machinery that somehow “transforms” this empty space/subatomic particles into our everyday perceptions. Lanza utilized relativity theory to drill holes into any kind of durability of “time,” and then clinched his attack on an independent “external” universe by bringing in dark matter and dark energy, which we know virtually nothing about and together constitute about 96% of what the universe is, according to current mainstream physics theory.
Lanza then entered the crux of the whole enigma of consciousness in relation to the universe and to the doctrine of materialism, as somehow he concluded that life must have created the universe, as can be seen above from his fifth principle of biocentrism. And this is where I see him utilizing philosophy, and according to many critics of Lanza, “misusing” philosophy,” as opposed to science. I have no doubt that Lanza's contention would invite the same kind of criticism that Integral World critics of Wilber have strongly conveyed (and which I am essentially in agreement with) . It makes sense to me that we can only know the universe through our own perceptions, and yes this is consistent with the inter-connections of the observer with what is being observed, as famously demonstrated by quantum physics, superposition, and the collapsing of the wave function . But to take the situation into what appears to me to be the absurd dimensions that Lanza does in his fifth principle, it is specifically the Copenhagen version of quantum physics that he utilizes , and this is a hotly debated item in the world of quantum physics.
David Lane advocates for taking a materialistic perspective on consciousness arising from a physicalistic/neurological basis, which he described as engaging in good open-minded science, being willing to be proven wrong but first wanting to explore all “scientific” explanations (cf. ). And from what I can see, Lanza in his fifth principle of biocentrism is prematurely jumping the gun tofor lack of a better worda “spiritual” perspective on consciousness. I think Lanza is at his best when he demonstrates through current physics theory the consistency with our mainstream science beliefs that the external world is inextricably tied up with our own subjective perceptions. But to say that this implies there was some kind of consciousness “before” the Big Bang that allowed the universe to be formed, is not something that logically follows from this subjectivity, at least not to me. In this context I am agreement with Ajita Kamal, one of the authors of the Lanza/Chopra debunking article, as he described the Hawking/Mlodinow model dependent realism (cf. ,) and how we choose the model that we think is most likely to accurately describe our universe. Yes I believe that physical reality exists whether or not there is a conscious observer, though I understand that the observer may have an effect on physical reality just by observing it, and that the way physical reality exists in its subatomic particles and electromagnetic energy is vastly different than how we perceive it through our senses.
Kastrup's basic viewpoint is that materialism and the physical universe does not exist in actuality, but only in our minds.
At this point I believe it is relevant for me to describe briefly the main premise of Bernardo Kastrup's views about consciousness, which I am now quite confident is an accurate description of Don Salmon's views as well, at least in regard to Kastrup's main premise. Kastrup's basic viewpoint is that materialism and the physical universe does not exist in actuality, but only in our minds. This is the doctrine of idealism , and from my perspective it shares with Lanza and biocentrism the focus upon own perceptions and experience as all that we can truly know about the universe. But it goes a step further and concludes that there is no actual physical universe apart from what is in our minds. Kastrup further describes various models to explain our perception of the physical universe, including the universe of vibrations as described in current physics string theory, and concludes there is an individualized afterlife, based upon his premise that there is only “Mind” so the death of the body should have no effect on the continuation of our consciousness after death (cf. ). The crux of Kastrup's argument involves the “filter argument” which psychologist William James formulated in the late 1800s as the Transmissive Hypothesis . This argument is best described as the example of the pictures and voices coming from your television set not originating in the actual television set but from somewhere else (cf. 11]). Although I do think this is a bona fide legitimate theory that offers an alternative explanation to the materialist conception that consciousness exists only in the form of physical entities such as electromagnetic waves, there are critical rejections by scientists of both the filter theory as well as Kastrup's brand of idealism .
Kastrup further claims that he has solved the “hard problem of consciousness,” which is described as our current inability to explain how electromagnetic interactions of nerve impulses translates into our rich tapestry of perceptions such as vision and hearing, and our feelings and experiences. Kastrup's solution is indeed quite simple, for he postulates that there is no actual physical universe to begin with, as everything is just our own experiences/feelings/perceptions, so there is no hard problem of consciousness to even solve.
Now I do not agree with Kastrup here and I do think there is a hard problem of consciousness to solve since I think there is an actual universe. And I choose to remain agnostic in what this solution truly is, as I am open to the filter hypothesis as well as the materialist hypothesis. And I will unabashedly admit that my wish is that the filter hypothesis is correct. Would I like either the model that Lanza or Kastrup present in their respective theories to be correct? Absolutely I would! I would love to be able to believe that our subjectivity is inextricably linked to the universe, or even that our subjectivity is all that truly exists, meaning there was some kind of “Big Mind” that formulated the universe some 14 billion years ago by initiating the Big Bang (lets for the moment once again assume there actually was a Big Bang some 14 billion years ago (cf. )) either in actuality or in our consciousness. But now we are getting into land that is indistinguishable from Intelligent Design in the case of Lanza's biocentrism, or mystical spirituality in the case of Kastrup's idealism. Although I would like to believe either of these explanations, the model that I think is most likely to accurately describe our universe is neither biocentrism nor idealism.
However, let's now take the materialistic perspective. We can follow Eric Chaisson's impressive thesis of Big History, as illustratively described by Frank Visser , to have a “possible” scientific picture of everything that happened in the formation of the universe from virtually the instant after the occurrence of the Big Bang (that we are presently assuming for argument's sake). But once again I ask the question: What was there “before” the Big Bang? I am not satisfied with “scientific” answers that “time did not exist” before the formation of the universe so “before” has no meaning (cf. ). For I still have a stubborn need to know “how” the Big Bang happened to begin with. And if there was no Big Bang and the universe somehow “always” existed, then what form did the universe exist in “before” the emergence of matter?
Both Lanza and Kastrup repeatedly try to demonstrate that there is “meaning” in the formation of the universe and that consciousness in some form was “always” there (or in the case of Kastrup that there is nothing but consciousness). And this is where I believe they are both leaving science behind and are philosophizing, and apparently “mis-philosophizing.” Now I may very well agree with both of them in my intuitive sense that there is “meaning” in the formation of the universe and that some form of consciousness or “intelligence” with life in mind guided the process, though I will say that I do believe there is an actual bona fide universe apart from any kind of local or global consciousness. But I know that my intuitive sense is not science, and I would openly acknowledge thatat bestI am philosophizing, and perhaps I am actually being “spiritual”not that I think there is anything wrong with being “spiritual.”
Don Salmon repeatedly conveys to me in our personal correspondences that it is all very simple and I would understand it all if I would just simply “be” and stop my mind from thinking and just experience. But I must agree with David Lane here that one can experience and stop one's mind, but this does not necessarily mean that what one is experiencing is anything apart from physical “stuff” . Perhaps it is possible to “experience” a non-physical realm of pure consciousness, but I do not see how one can truly “know” that this is the bona fide explanation for what one is experiencing.
Wellthis is as far as I can come to today about biocentrism, idealism, materialism, and consciousnessthis whole subject is still very much an enigma to me.
Notes and References
1) See Don Salmon (2011), Shaving Science with Ockham's Razor. Retrieved from www.integralworld.net
2) See Elliot Benjamin (2013), Shaving the Barber. Retrieved from www.integralworld.net
3) See Frank Visser (2014), Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On; and David Lane (2014), The Gravity of Science: Understanding Grounded Transparencies. Retrieved from www.integralworld.net
4) See the last reader comments to David Lane's above (2014) essay.
5) As I describe below, what I “thought” was a much better understanding turned out to not be the case, as I learned from my more recent personal communications with Don Salmon.
6) See Robert Lanza (with Bob Berman) (2009), Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe. Dallas, Texas: Benbella.
7) For a good overview of Big History, see Frank Visser's 2013 essay Integral Theory and the Big History Approach: A Comparative Introduction. Retrieved from www.integralworld.net
8) See Elliot Benjamin (2011). Evolution, Consciousness, and Purpose. Retrieved from www.integralworld.net
9) For some alternative conceptions to the formation of the universe see http://phys.org/news/2015-02-big-quantum-equation-universe.html.
10) Once again, see my above comment in .
11) See Bernardo Kastrup (2014). Why Materialism is Baloney: How True Skeptics Know There is No Death and Fathom Answers to Life, the Universe, and Everything. iff Books. Winchester, UK.
12) See Vinod Wadhawan and Ajita Kamal (2009), Biocentrism Demystified: A Response to Deepak Chopra and Robert Lanza's Notion of a Conscious Universe, and especially the 150 pages of comments to the article. Retrieved from http://nirmukta.com
13) See various essays by Frank Visser, David Lane, Geoffrey Falk, and others on the Integral World site at www.integralworld.net
14) See for example A. Zee (2010), Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell (2nd Ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press and Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (2010). The Grand Design: New Answers to the Ultimate Questions of Life. London: Bantam Books.
15) For a specific description of the Copenhagen version of quantum physics see https://en.wikipedia/wiki/Copenhagen_interpretation
16) See https://en.wikipedia.org/Model-dependent_realism
17) See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/idealism
18) See https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/William James
19) See for example: "Why Bernardo Kastrup has it wrong..again", http://www.skepticforum.com/viewtopic.php?t=23636
20) See David Lane (2014). The Rise of the Mysterians: Reverse Engineering the Brain with the Prakiti of Consciousness. Retreived from www.integralworld.net