Biocentrism and the Anthropic Principle

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Postby sanscardinality » Mon Mar 12, 2007 8:35 am

I bumped into this on Wired yesterday, and thought this group might have some comments. I've not heard of the fellow, nor do I know anything about his work, so while the article is interesting I have no context. Maybe some of you do:

Will Biology Solve the Universe?
http://www.wired.com/news/technology/me ... n_index_18

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Postby caliban » Mon Mar 12, 2007 11:29 am

sanscardinality wrote:I bumped into this on Wired yesterday, and thought this group might have some comments. I've not heard of the fellow, nor do I know anything about his work, so while the article is interesting I have no context. Maybe some of you do:


Dear SC,
There is a link to his "article" in the New Scholar. Have you read it? Not the piece in Wired. If not, please do so. (I do not mean this as criticism of your question--I'm merely suggesting that, if you haven't tried to read his "theory" you ought to.)

The short answer is: a "theory" is not a series of complaints about some other theory. This is why creationism, intelligent design, and so on, are not real "theories," they are litanies of complaints about evolution, the Big Bang, and so on.

Try the link to the New Scholar (which I never heard of before and will never ever read again) and read the article, and apply my criteria above, you will be able to deduce, without my descending into invective, exactly what I think.

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Postby Windwalker » Mon Mar 12, 2007 12:51 pm

Robert Lanza is known for his work with stem cells at a private research firm. Like Stuart Kaufmann, an anesthesiologist who arrived at the concept of quantum microtubules in collaboration with Roger Penrose (and a few others, who then went on to wow audiences), Lanza clearly believes that physicists have unfairly monopolized the grand theory stage. I feel for him: when physicists hold forth on biology and get it wrong, I want to bop them with a mallet.

That said, Lanza's article in American Scholar has so many errors and misconceptions that I don't know where to start (or if I should bother). Worse yet, his errors aren't even new, he just rehashes old arguments. To put it briefly, his "theory" is a mishmash of Cartesian dualism, the Anthropic Principle and a totally erroneous conflation of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle with mid-scale biological phenomena.
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Postby caliban » Mon Mar 12, 2007 1:05 pm

Windwalker wrote:Robert Lanza is known for his work with stem cells at a private research firm. Like Stuart Kaufmann, an anesthesiologist who arrived at the concept of quantum microtubules in collaboration with Roger Penrose

You mean Stuart Hameroff. Kaufmann has his own goofy ideas and spouts off at times, and my wife (a biologist) likes to make fun of him, particularly his "N-k" model of complexity (which she says stands for "No Known content") but Kaufmann isn't nearly as bad as Hameroff's goofiness.


That said, Lanza's article in American Scholar has so many errors and misconceptions that I don't know where to start (or if I should bother).

Don't bother. "It's not even wrong." It's the equivalent of intelligent design: not a theory at all, just a bunch of complaints.
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Postby Windwalker » Mon Mar 12, 2007 1:10 pm

caliban wrote:My wife (a biologist) likes to make fun of him, particularly his "N-k" model of complexity (which she says stands for "No Known content") but Kaufmann isn't nearly as bad as Hameroff's goofiness.

You're right, I conflated the two... probably because their "theories" drove me crazy. Great stand-in for the N-k acronym! (*laughs*)

Incidentally, American Scholar is the publication of Phi Beta Kappa. Goes to show you nobody is exempt.
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Postby sanscardinality » Mon Mar 12, 2007 1:23 pm

caliban wrote:Dear SC,
There is a link to his "article" in the New Scholar. Have you read it? Not the piece in Wired. If not, please do so. (I do not mean this as criticism of your question--I'm merely suggesting that, if you haven't tried to read his "theory" you ought to.)


I didn't see your suggestion as critical at all - I followed the link to the Science citation, but that's all that was there. I found the one in American Scholar - is that what you were referring to?

The short answer is: a "theory" is not a series of complaints about some other theory. This is why creationism, intelligent design, and so on, are not real "theories," they are litanies of complaints about evolution, the Big Bang, and so on.


I think Creationism in many forms predates Big Bang, evolution, etc. and can be considered to be a theory of a sort (not a scientific one in that there is no real evidence for it). That said, I get your point and am picking nits.

Try the link to the New Scholar (which I never heard of before and will never ever read again) and read the article, and apply my criteria above, you will be able to deduce, without my descending into invective, exactly what I think.


I get your general impression, but I'd like to pursue a couple of the claims made in the article as I've often wondered about them. I have no desired outcome or pre-formed opinion on these really, just a desire to kick them around to try to understand current theory better.

Lanza says:

Eugene Wigner, one of the 20th century’s greatest physicists, called it impossible “to formulate the laws of [physics] in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness [of the observer].”


and...

"We are wont to imagine time extending all the way back to the big bang, before life’s early beginning in the seas. But before matter can exist, it has to be observed by a consciousness."


I'm aware of the famous question by Einstein about whether looking away from the moon causes it to cease, and that the answer was affirmative (by whom I cannot recall - I don't think it was Bors). Risking a diversion into recent politics, I suppose determining what "is" is, is central to the question. It seems to me that this proposal of Lanza's requires consciousness to be outside space and time. While I don't see this as a reason to discount the idea necessarily, given that consciousness is very difficult to pin down, it does seem to bring about another round of first-mover philosophical argument. Just seems like an iteration of more common ideas without a real solution. Anyway - enough of my ignorant rambling - is Lazlo correct in this statement? Could you discuss why or why not?

Thanks in advance,
SC

PS> Relating back to an earlier discussion, perhaps a test of AI could be to set it up to look at a two-hole experiment and examine the end results after the fact. ;-)
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Postby caliban » Mon Mar 12, 2007 2:15 pm

sanscardinality wrote: I found the one in American Scholar - is that what you were referring to?

Yes. Sorry, I guess I called it New Scholar.

I think Creationism in many forms predates Big Bang, evolution, etc. and can be considered to be a theory of a sort (not a scientific one in that there is no real evidence for it).

I myself always consider "theory" to refer to ideas that can be experimentally verified. Otherwise it is philosophy, theology, whatever. I have nothing against philosophy and theology, and in fact I devour large amounts of it. But you cannot do an experiment to test them.



Lanza says:

Eugene Wigner, one of the 20th century’s greatest physicists, called it impossible “to formulate the laws of [physics] in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness [of the observer].”


and...

"We are wont to imagine time extending all the way back to the big bang, before life’s early beginning in the seas. But before matter can exist, it has to be observed by a consciousness."



These are philosophical statements. If you want, we can discuss them as philosophy. But they do not lead to "theory" you can test or observe in the laboratory, in the field, or in a telescope. So in that sense they have nothing to do with scientific theory, current or otherwise.

In a sense it does not answer your question. But before we can discuss them, it is important to distinguish between what scientists do (which is to develop testable theories, and to test them) and activities outside of science. This is the heart of the problem with Lanza. He has issues that really are outside the scope of science--and there are lots of issues outside the scope of science, important issues, and it is imperative to recognize the boundary, which many people blur--which he is trying to conflate with science. Why? Because science is seen as powerful, magic, something that gives a stamp of approval. It is why there are so many bad science metaphors out there, because today people believe a topic has to be "scientific" for it to be valid. That's nonsense of course. But Lanza is making that same mistake.

At heart, Lanza is interested in philosophy, not science; but he wouldn't get articles in Wired if he called it philosophy, so he calls it science. He probably doesn't even recognize this unconscious strategy. Frankly, Penrose and his microtubules arise out of the same thing: Penrose's philosophical (not scientific) objections to the possibility of AI.
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Postby sanscardinality » Mon Mar 12, 2007 2:48 pm

BTW - I was checking on the American Scholar thing because I was confusing "New Scholar" with "New Scientist" that I sometimes read online. I've not seen anything manifesto-like in New Scientist and so was confused about your reaction. Not trying to be a pain.

caliban wrote:
sanscardinality wrote:
I think Creationism in many forms predates Big Bang, evolution, etc. and can be considered to be a theory of a sort (not a scientific one in that there is no real evidence for it).

I myself always consider "theory" to refer to ideas that can be experimentally verified. Otherwise it is philosophy, theology, whatever. I have nothing against philosophy and theology, and in fact I devour large amounts of it. But you cannot do an experiment to test them.


Agreed. Just wanted to point out that Creationism as a philosophical position is a proposal and not just criticism. Perhaps another way to say it is that as science, Creationism, ID, etc. are nothing more than criticism, because they have no evidence to back up their philosophical proposals.

In a sense it does not answer your question. But before we can discuss them, it is important to distinguish between what scientists do (which is to develop testable theories, and to test them) and activities outside of science. This is the heart of the problem with Lanza. He has issues that really are outside the scope of science--and there are lots of issues outside the scope of science, important issues, and it is imperative to recognize the boundary, which many people blur--which he is trying to conflate with science. Why? Because science is seen as powerful, magic, something that gives a stamp of approval. It is why there are so many bad science metaphors out there, because today people believe a topic has to be "scientific" for it to be valid. That's nonsense of course. But Lanza is making that same mistake.

At heart, Lanza is interested in philosophy, not science; but he wouldn't get articles in Wired if he called it philosophy, so he calls it science. He probably doesn't even recognize this unconscious strategy. Frankly, Penrose and his microtubules arise out of the same thing: Penrose's philosophical (not scientific) objections to the possibility of AI.


I do see your point, and recognized a liberal intermingling of science and philosophy in that article. However, I think many/most of the greatest scientists acted out of conscious or unconscious philosophical motives - some acknowledged and some not. I think Einstein spent several decades trying to come up with a GUT that got rid of quantum messiness because he didn't like probabilities on a philosophical/aesthetic level. In some ways, string theory appears to be an extension of this effort. I don't blame scientists for having a philosophy, but I do agree that co-mingling philosophical statements with scientific results is a Bad Thing. I'm not defending Lanza or his ideas - I've no opinion on them really.

These are philosophical statements. If you want, we can discuss them as philosophy. But they do not lead to "theory" you can test or observe in the laboratory, in the field, or in a telescope. So in that sense they have nothing to do with scientific theory, current or otherwise.


I was being too vague. My confusion comes from a lack of understanding what precisely is meant by an observer in the uncertainty principle and the related experimental evidence (such as the two-hole experiment mentioned in the article). Lanza claims that an observer must be a consciousness, but has that been shown to be the case? Have experiments been conducted that only focus on secondary/indirect effects and if so, do they show similar results to direct observation (direct being a relative thing here since we cannot personally look at individual photons or electrons).

Thanks,
SC
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Postby caliban » Mon Mar 12, 2007 3:05 pm

sanscardinality wrote:I do see your point, and recognized a liberal intermingling of science and philosophy in that article. However, I think many/most of the greatest scientists acted out of conscious or unconscious philosophical motives - some acknowledged and some not.

That's quite true. But in the end, you still have to come up with a testable theory. Einstein started relativity from "philosophical" considerations and made concrete predictions. Lanza is just talking gobbledy-gook. He has nothing concrete whatsoever.

I was being too vague. My confusion comes from a lack of understanding what precisely is meant by an observer in the uncertainty principle and the related experimental evidence (such as the two-hole experiment mentioned in the article). Lanza claims that an observer must be a consciousness, but has that been shown to be the case? Have experiments been conducted that only focus on secondary/indirect effects and if so, do they show similar results to direct observation (direct being a relative thing here since we cannot personally look at individual photons or electrons).

No. There is no experimental evidence whatsoever. All of this talk of the observer influencing QM arises from the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. An "interpretation" is really a series of mental models that help you visualize the system as you do your calculation. Copenhagen has long been considered the most efficient. And I don't have time to go into the details here. But, once again, this mental model has lead to philosophical debates which make no testable predictions.

So Lanza is distorting the scientific evidence (as do creationists, etc, but that's another story).
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Postby sanscardinality » Mon Mar 12, 2007 3:39 pm

caliban wrote:That's quite true. But in the end, you still have to come up with a testable theory. Einstein started relativity from "philosophical" considerations and made concrete predictions. Lanza is just talking gobbledy-gook. He has nothing concrete whatsoever.


Agreed about the predictions part. As to Einstein, I was more referring to his latter years, and I do recall hearing some pretty definitive statements he made opposing quantum theory without evidence and the face of it's ability to predict, such as "God does not play dice." I'm not equating Lanza to Einstein, just pointing out that he did make philosophical statements that he couldn't back up with predictions. That said, he didn't call them theories.

I was being too vague. My confusion comes from a lack of understanding what precisely is meant by an observer in the uncertainty principle and the related experimental evidence (such as the two-hole experiment mentioned in the article). Lanza claims that an observer must be a consciousness, but has that been shown to be the case? Have experiments been conducted that only focus on secondary/indirect effects and if so, do they show similar results to direct observation (direct being a relative thing here since we cannot personally look at individual photons or electrons).

No. There is no experimental evidence whatsoever. All of this talk of the observer influencing QM arises from the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. An "interpretation" is really a series of mental models that help you visualize the system as you do your calculation. Copenhagen has long been considered the most efficient. And I don't have time to go into the details here. But, once again, this mental model has lead to philosophical debates which make no testable predictions. [/quote]

Thanks much. I'm very curious about the specifics on this, but don't want to take up time on the boards, so aside from Wikipedia, what do you suggest someone with a moderate physics background and rusty math start in exploring the alternatives to the Copenhagen interpretation?

Thanks,
SC
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Postby caliban » Mon Mar 12, 2007 3:57 pm

sanscardinality wrote:Thanks much. I'm very curious about the specifics on this, but don't want to take up time on the boards, so aside from Wikipedia, what do you suggest someone with a moderate physics background and rusty math start in exploring the alternatives to the Copenhagen interpretation?


Some day I might write about it...but I am pretty swamped. So: it's been a few years since I read it, but I remember feeling David Lindley's Where does the Weirdness Go? as being reasonable. He in particular looks at John Cramer's transactional interpretation of QM. (John is a physics prof at UW--and I know him pretty well--and also a SF author.)

Keep in mind that all interpretations of QM give exactly the same experimental predictions. Copenhagen is preferred because it seems to be most efficient in guiding calculations. The only reason for preferring other interpretations, despite their clumsiness, is ideology. Oh well.
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Postby intrigued_scribe » Tue Mar 13, 2007 1:50 pm

Just stepping into the conversation for a moment to briefly comment on the article; Lanza's supposed theory came across as vague, even to me--especially taking into consideration all of the well-founded comments that have come before--and was not as concrete as it might have been, even considering that a good deal of it is composed of complaints about other theories. That aside, that brings to the fore (at least, in my mind) the question of exactly when science--especially advanced science--shifts into philosophy and vice versa.

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Postby caliban » Tue Mar 13, 2007 2:48 pm

intrigued_scribe wrote: That aside, that brings to the fore (at least, in my mind) the question of exactly when science--especially advanced science--shifts into philosophy and vice versa.

Don't forget, science was originally called "natural philosophy." But the difference is, philosophy is primarily based upon rhetoric--argumentation. Science split off from philosophy based upon the very good realization that we can fool ourselves and each other by rhetoric. Thus science emphasizes empirical evidence of some sort.

When a discussion leaves behind empirical evidence, or does not make predictions that can, at least in principle, be tested or observed empirically, it is no longer science and is then philosophy.

And keep in mind the question: why are people (not necessarily YOU) so so so interested in bringing science "into" philosophy? Very simply: science is seen as a source of power and validation. And so people drag science and scientific-sounding words and phrases because, like the cargo cults of the South Pacific, they want to embue their ideas, their philosophy, with the magical power of Science.

I believe strongly that philosophy and science be kept distinct. Again, the reason is because philosophy is based upon rhetoric, and science is really anti-rhetoric and based upon outside information.

You can use philosophy to inspire science, as Einstein did. But it must lead to empirical tests. You can use science to inspire philosophy--but if you don't have an empirical observation to test in the end, it is just philosophy and not science and just because it is "inspired" by science does not bequeath any validation to those philosophical ideas.

Yes, I'm pretty hard-nosed about it. But I think this is the right way, and I can make an empirical, testable prediction: Athena will agree with me. :)
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Postby intrigued_scribe » Tue Mar 13, 2007 3:00 pm

Excellent summation; thanks for sharing your take on this. :)

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Postby Windwalker » Tue Mar 13, 2007 3:47 pm

caliban wrote: I believe strongly that philosophy and science be kept distinct. Again, the reason is because philosophy is based upon rhetoric, and science is really anti-rhetoric and based upon outside information.
//
Yes, I'm pretty hard-nosed about it. But I think this is the right way, and I can make an empirical, testable prediction: Athena will agree with me. :)

Another theory exprimentally verified... (*laughs*).

To add to Calvin's comment, philosophy traditionally consists of ethics, logic, metaphysics (essential nature of things) and epistemology (definition of what constitutes genuine knowledge). So it overlaps with science in its questions. Boundaries shift whenever technology makes it possible to test something that before could only be considered in so-called gedanken (thought) experiments.
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