Dr. Robert Lanza and “biocentrism”: Time to get out the paper bag again

I don’t know if I need to get out the infamous paper bag or–even worse–the Doctor Doom mask out yet. As you may recall (if you are a long time reader, anyway) is that the mind-numbing stupidity of certain MDs has driven me to want to hide my face in utter shame at the embarrassment caused by my fellow physicians. Most frequently, it has been everyone’s not-so-favorite creationist neurosurgeon with dualist tendencies, Dr. Michael Egnor. So bad was he that I compared him one time to Deepak Chopra.

Damned if P.Z. hasn’t led me to another highly embarrassing physician woo-meister. Worse, it’s not just a physician woo-meister, but apparently a reasonably well-respected physician-scientist; that is, when he isn’t laying down swaths of napalm-grade burning stupid woo that easily rivals that of Deepak Chopra. So break out the Doctor Doom mask yet again, it’s time to take a look at just how much nonsense a physician can lay down.

Guess where he is. That’s right, his name is Dr. Robert Lanza, and he’s got a blogging gig at–where else?–The Huffington Post. The first post of his that got my attention is entitled What Happens When You Die? Evidence Suggests Time Simply Reboots.

I take that back. Dr. Lanza might be able to out-woo the master himself. At least it’s a diversion. I’ve been a bit too serious lately.

Still, on paper at least Dr. Lanza has an incredibly impressive-sounding CV:

Robert Lanza is considered one of the leading scientists in the world. He is currently Chief Scientific Officer at Advanced Cell Technology, and a professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. He has several hundred publications and inventions, and over two dozen scientific books: among them, Principles of Tissue Engineering, which is recognized as the definitive reference in the field. Others include One World: The Health & Survival of the Human Species in the 21st Century (Foreword by President Jimmy Carter), and the Handbook of Stem Cells and Essentials of Stem Cell Biology, which are considered the definitive references in stem cell research. Dr. Lanza received his BA and MD degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, where he was both a University Scholar and Benjamin Franklin Scholar. He was also a Fulbright Scholar, and was part of the team that cloned the world’s first human embryo, as well as the first to clone an endangered species, to demonstrate that nuclear transfer could reverse the aging process, and to generate stem cells using a method that does not require the destruction of human embryos.

Wow! All he lacks is the requisite multiple nominations for the Nobel Prize.

Still, a brief trip to PubMed to peruse Dr. Lanza’s publication record is nothing to sneeze at, with a respectable number of publications in the peer-reviewed scientific literature (not all of the ones in the link are his; “R. Lanza” is a not uncommon name). It did rather irritate me to se him calling himself a “professor” at Wake Forest on HuffPo, given that his own website describes him as an adjunct professor. A relatively minor point, but the title of “professor” implies a full academic affiliation with Wake Forest University with tenure, while, in medical schools at least, the title of adjunct professor is usually only given to part-time faculty who do not hold a permanent position. Still, it’s just the sort of thing that HuffPo readers with a penchant for the kind of “science” that Dr. Lanza lays down would be likely not to know.

Here’s what I mean. Get a load of the introduction to Lanza’s post:

What happens when we die? Do we rot into the ground, or do we go to heaven (or hell, if we’ve been bad)? Experiments suggest the answer is simpler than anyone thought. Without the glue of consciousness, time essentially reboots.

Oh, no! I think I know what’s coming. It’s going to be a bunch “universal consciousness” nonesense similar to the sort that Deepak Chopra loves so much. Time “reboots”? How on earth would he know? What “experiments” have shown that this is likely to be true? Inquiring minds want to know! So I donned my Doctor Doom mask, complete with a new feature (a clothespin to hold my nose), and I dove into this mass of woo-ey-ness to find out what this fantastic evidence is. Let’s read a long:

The mystery of life and death can’t be examined by visiting the Galapagos or looking through a microscope. It lies deeper. It involves our very selves. We awake in the present. There are stairs below us that we appear to have climbed; there are stairs above us that go upward into the unknown future. But the mind stands at the door by which we entered and gives us the memories by which we go about our day. Everything is ordered and predictable. We’re like cuckoo birds who appear through a door each morning. We fancy there’s a clockwork set in motion at the beginning of time.

But if you remove everything from space, what’s left? Nothing. The same applies for time — you can’t put it in a jar. You can’t see through the bone surrounding your brain (everything you experience is information in your mind). Biocentrism tells us space and time aren’t objects — they’re the mind’s tools for putting everything together.

Deep. So deep that I immediately regretted not donning my hip boots as I waded into the intellectual equivalent of the muck and worse. Dr. Lanza takes a trivial fact, namely that we humans can only experience the universe and time through our senses, and boards the crazy train with it. You think I’m being too harsh? Think again. Lanza piles woo upon woo, stealing liberally from Deepak Chopra and other masters of “quantum consciousness” to argue not just that the senses are the only way that human beings can experience the universe but that human beings create the universe through their consciousness. In Lanza’s view, when we die, our universe dies with us and then reboots. Seriously. You can’t make stuff like this up. He also regurgitates arguments that would make Deepak Chopra blush in the service of this concept:

In fact, it was Einstein’s theory of relativity that showed that space and time are indeed relative to the observer. Quantum theory ended the classical view that particles exist if we don’t perceive them. But if the world is observer-created, we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s destroyed with each of us. Nor should we be surprised that space and time vanish, and with them all Newtonian conceptions of order and prediction.

Yes, Einstein showed that time is relative to the observer, but he’s probably doing backflips in his grave at this abuse of his theory. Just because the passage of time changes depending on your frame of references, slowing down as you approach the speed of light, does not mean that time is meaningless or that it “reboots” when you die. Quantum theory did not end the view that particles exist if we don’t perceive them. At least, I never learned that when I took quantum mechanics, both in my physics classes and my physical chemistry classes.

I have to wonder if Lanza is confusing the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which states that position and momentum, cannot simultaneously be known to arbitrary precision by an observer. In other wors, the more precisely one property of an object or particle is measured, the less precisely the other can be known. Or perhaps he’s riffing on the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, which illustrates the principle of superposition in quantum theory. Basically this is a thought experiment in which we place a living cat in a steel chamber with device containing a vial of hydrocyanic acid. In the chamber, there’s also a very small amount of a radioactive substance. If even a single atom of the substance decays during the test period, a mechanism will trip a hammer, which will then break the vial and kill the cat. Because the observer cannot know whether an atom has decayed, the observer can’t know whether the vial has been broken and thus can’t know whether the cat is alive or dead. Since we can’t know, the cat is both alive and dead, which is analogous to a quantum superposition of states. It’s only when the box is opened and observe the cat that the superposition is lost and the cat becomes either alive or dead. This is sometimes called the observer’s paradox, where the observation affects an outcome and the outcome does’t exist until the measurement is made. More specifically, there is no single outcome until it is observed.

None of which means that the cat doesn’t exist if we’re not observing it, which is what Lanza seems to be “arguing.” I really did think I was reading Deepak Chopra! Oh, wait! I could have been! Chopra and Lanza teamed up back in December. Like a fusion reaction, putting them together resulted in a nuclear fusion explosion of woo. In any case, his sole “evidence” for his amazing concepts? An anecdote about using a steel trap to capture a woodchuck and a man who told him to capture dragonflies and then later made him a metal dragonfly.

I kid you not.

Still, Dr. Lanza goes far beyond this. Apparently he has come up with a whole new theory of woo. I know, I know. I shouldn’t use that word for this. You’re right. So I’ll call it a hypothesis of woo, namely “biocentrism.” In brief, this idea claims that life has primacy in the structure of the universe and that therefore biology is the most important science. Basically, in biocentrism, life creates the universe rather than the other way around, and, according to biocentrism, current theories of how the physical world works don’t work and can’t work until they account for consciousness and that which manifests it, namely life. Of course, Lanza’s written a book about his ideas, but the shorter version (albeit still Orac-length wordy) explanation of biocentrism was posted last year on MSNBC.com in the form of an article entitled Ã¥. It’s completely a “theory of everything.” With woo. As I read it, there were parts where I once again had a hard time identifying whether I was reading Deepak Chopra or Robert Lanza:

Consciousness is not just an issue for biologists; it’s a problem for physics. There is nothing in modern physics that explains how a group of molecules in a brain creates consciousness. The beauty of a sunset, the taste of a delicious meal, these are all mysteries to science — which can sometimes pin down where in the brain the sensations arise, but not how and why there is any subjective personal experience to begin with. And, what’s worse, nothing in science can explain how consciousness arose from matter. Our understanding of this most basic phenomenon is virtually nil. Interestingly, most models of physics do not even recognize this as a problem.

Of course, consciousness is a fascinating scientific question. However, its existence does not mean that the mind somehow creates the universe. It does not mean that space and time are products of consciousness and do not exist outside of the observer, which is what Lanza argues. Because our understanding of consciousness is not comprehensive does not give Lanza a legitimate opening to hang whatever pseudoscience he wants to drop on it. Not that it stops Lanza from bringing up one of the hoariest canards favored by creationists everywhere, the Anthropic Principle:

The world appears to be designed for life, not just at the microscope scale of the atom, but at the level of the universe itself. Scientists have discovered that the universe has a long list of traits that make it appear as if everything it contains — from atoms to stars — was tailor-made just for us. If the Big Bang had been one part in a million more powerful, it would have rushed out too fast for the galaxies and life to develop. Result: no us. If the strong nuclear force were decreased two percent, atomic nuclei wouldn’t hold together, and plain-vanilla hydrogen would be the only kind of atom in the universe. If the gravitational force were decreased by a hair, stars — including the sun — would not ignite. In fact, all of the universe’s forces and constants are just perfectly set up for atomic interactions, the existence of atoms and elements, planets, liquid water and life. Tweak any of them and you never existed. Many are calling this revelation the “Goldilocks Principle,” because the cosmos is not “too this” or “too that,” but rather “just right” for life.

Of course, creationists invoke the anthropic principle in order to argue that “God did it,” that the reason life exists couldn’t have been due to random events billions of years ago but rather must be because a “creator” or, of course, “intelligent designer” must have “designed” the conditions that would allow life to arise. Lanza takes a different view, heaping scorn on the “God did it” use of the anthropic principle favored by creationists but putting in its place–well, let Dr. Lanza tell the tale:

At the moment, there are only four explanations for this mystery. One is to argue for incredible coincidence. Another is to say, “God did that,” which explains nothing even if it is true. The third is to invoke the anthropic principle’s reasoning that we must find these conditions if we are alive, because, what else could we find? The final option is biocentrism pure and simple, which explains how the universe is created by life. Obviously, no universe that doesn’t allow for life could possibly exist; the universe and its parameters simply reflect the spatio-temporal logic of animal existence.

Note the very same argument from incredulity favored by creationists. Life couldn’t have possibly arisen by chance! But Dr. Lanza can’t settle for the “God did it” option, and he doesn’t like a more careful consideration of the anthropic principle. The weak, or planetary, anthropic principle is simply a statement of the obvious, namely that the particular universe in which we find ourselves possesses the characteristics necessary for our planet to exist and for life, including human life, to flourish here. This is pretty obvious and requires no great insight. The “strong,” or cosmological, anthropic principle goes beyond that and posits that every aspect of the universe, its physics, its physical constants like the gravitational constant, are custom-designed to lead to human beings. It’s sometimes stated something like this: Because the universe is compatible with the existence of human beings, the dynamics of the initial conditions of the universe and the elementary particles that existed then must have been such that they influenced the fundamental physical laws of the universe in such a way as to result in human beings.

So if God didn’t do it as far as leading to the evolution of human beings, then what did? Well, the usual explanation is that we wouldn’t be here if the laws of the universe weren’t such that they allowed us to exist. Not to Lanza. Lanza explains this not through God or gods or “designers” but rather by making each and every one of us a god who creates our own universe in our consciousness. Sure it’s a fun (and, most of all, ego-gratifying idea), but it has no basis in science.

Basically, in order to put each and every person (and in particular himself) at the center of his own personal universe that exists because his consciousness exists, that dies when he dies, and that “reboots” again after death, Lanza abuses the cosmological anthropic principle to claim not that we wouldn’t exist if some creator or “designer” hadn’t designed the universe so that we would come to exist but rather to claim that we created the universe. It’s like the Strangers creating and modifying the city of Dark City at will, only Lanza doesn’t think this is science fiction. In the end, this is simply a variation of Deepak Chopra’s quantum consciousness woo, but with a twist. Chopra argues that the universe creates consciousness and that we are the manifestation of that “cosmic consciousness,” our own consciousness sharing in that of the universe. In contrast, Lanza reverses things. Our consciousnesses are prime.

What a massive ego Lanza must have!

Time for me to get out the Doctor Doom mask again. It reall is difficult to go out in public when I know such fellow physicians are flooding that wretched hive of scum and quackery (HuffPo) with more wretched nonsense.