Does the Universe Revolve around You?

September 21, 2009

How special are we in the universe? Some intellectual historians propose that the "Galilean" principle that we don't occupy any special place in the universe marks a clear demarcation between medieval theology and modern science. Religion tends to make humans quite special to the universe; science has knocked humans off that pedestal. Galilean relativity demands that the laws of nature must be universally the same for all observers (technically, the same for all inertial reference systems). This Galilean principle propelled physics to supreme status among the sciences, since physics probes the universe's laws prevailing everywhere upon everything. Other sciences discover nature's habits prevailing at selected scales and locations; for example, biology studies organic life where it can form and survive.  

Stem-cell pioneer Robert Lanza rebels against the primacy of physics and proposes to establish biology as fundamental science. Lanza's new book is Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe Lanza's Biocentrism holds that "the universe is created by life and not the other way around." Read an excerpt here .

Lanza is very impressed by fine-tuning, holism, and anti-temporalism. But I don't think that Lanza has carefully thought these matters through. On fine-tuning, the existence of life in our universe can't be a matter of chance, Lanza thinks. But the fact that life exists doesn't explain the whole universe. If you win a lottery and demand an explanation for your incredible luck, your fresh pile of money does not explain the existence of the lottery -- quite the opposite! If biology gets anything right about evolution, the kind of life that exists in this universe is adapted to prevailing universal laws of nature, not the other way around. On holism, the intriguing way that subatomic particles stay entangled if isolated and shot off in opposite directions doesn't say anything about the importance of life. We are seeing this fallacy too much lately, which sort of goes like this: A radical revision to science's knowledge of basic laws of nature is required; See how science can be astounded; therefore, Life is metaphysically fundamental (or, God exist; or Psychics really do read minds; etc etc).

As for anti-temporalism, Lanza is deeply impressed by the way that time may not be an independent fundamental feature of all reality (because new science suggests this). Perhaps this is a correct view of Time, and perhaps time is only real for those organic creatures who are trying to manage unstable thermodynamic conditions (and get some lunch in the process). But how could this elevate life to any status as Most Important to the Universe's Very Existence? After all, if life forms must use time to live out timed lives, and if time is only a local illusion generated by such finite limited creatures, neither time nor life could be centrally characteristic of the Whole Universe. If Life really is essential and fundamental to the Whole Universe, you'd expect to observe how these things share common basic features. Lanza can't really put his finger on anything like that.

Physics seeks laws of nature prevailing universally; life must obey physics, even as life rises above mere atomic particles in amazingly complex dynamic forms. Both biology and physics can get at the nature of the universe, since both sciences study nature taken at distinct scales, phases and levels. Life is indeed special within nature, since only dynamic life seeks to modify its environment, so that values only exist where life does. But life could go entirely extinct, everywhere in the universe, and the universe would go on without it.  If Lanza or anyone else could scientifically prove otherwise, let's see the evidence.