Category Archives: Philosophy

Artificially Intelligent, Genuinely a Person

It’s difficult to overstate our society’s fascination with Artificial Intelligence (AI). From the millions of people who tuned in every week for the new HBO show WestWorld to home assistants like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, Americans fully embrace the notion of “smart machines.” As a peculiar apex of our ability to craft tools, smart…

via Artificially Intelligent, Genuinely a Person — Savage Minds

Medicine, Technology, and the Ever-Changing Human Person

Though we often take for granted that humans are persons, they are not exempt from questions surrounding personhood. Indeed, what it means to be a person is largely an unsettled argument, even though we often speak of “people” and “persons.” Just as it’s important to ask if other beings might ever be persons, it is […]

via Medicine, Technology, and the Ever-Changing Human Person — Savage Minds

Of Primates and Persons — Savage Minds

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Coltan Scrivner for the month of January. Coltan will be writing a series of posts on personhood from different disciplinary perspectives. When I moved to Chicago for graduate school, one of the first things I did was go to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Just like with other zoos I’ve been […]

via Of Primates and Persons — Savage Minds

The Role of Science in Society

Introduction

Carl Sagan once stated, “… the consequences of scientific illiteracy are far more dangerous in our time than in any time that has come before.” This statement becomes truer every day, as scientific and technological innovations are occurring at an ever-increasing rate. Studies suggest that less than 30% of Americans are “scientifically literate,” meaning that over 70% of Americans would have trouble reading – and understanding – the science section of the New York Times. So, why is this important? After all, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.

The problem with this view is that science is a driving force behind our sociocultural evolution. New ideas and new inventions are constantly redefining how we live our lives. As time goes on, science and technology will define most of life as we live it. Already, this is true. 100 years ago, people often lived day by day without electricity. Today, the most frightening thing most people could imagine would be a total loss of electricity. Imagine all of the things that simply wouldn’t work without it: phones, televisions, the Internet, lighting, heat and A/C, automobiles, and many parts of the manufacturing process for everyday items. We have built a society in the United States that is almost entirely dependent upon electricity. Personally, It’s difficult for me to imagine a world without electricity because everything I know is based on upon it. Life has become relentlessly complex and multifaceted. Most people have no idea how the world around them – that is, this semi-artificial world, or anthropogenic matrix – functions.

As time goes on, our day-to-day lives will become less and less “natural” and more and more artificial. This is not inherently bad. However, it does raise the standards for what we must understand about how the world, especially our anthropogenic matrix, works. Failing to keep a basic understanding of science and technology is destined to segregate the population, facilitating the rise of an “elite” few, resembling more of an oligarchy than a representative democracy. I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, and I don’t mean to imply that a “New World Order” is going to secretly control our lives. I do, however, think that if nothing is done about our general ignorance of science, we will slip away from the democracy that we claim to love so dearly. How? How can ignorance of science and technology lead to the failure of democracy? After all, you can vote regardless of your scientific literacy. While it’s true that you can vote while being largely ignorant of how the world works, this is part of the problem. To be clear, I do not think that there should be any kind of scientific literacy test in order to vote. This would only serve as fuel for the ever-broadening gap between those who understand science and those who don’t. In a democracy, everyone should be able to vote. However, given the state of knowledge that we currently have and the increasingly complex world in which we find ourselves, uneducated voting has disastrous consequences.

A Little Politics

Politics is, in its most basic form, the practice of influencing a population. This is done by verbally persuading people to get behind an action that will be set in motion order to guide the population down a particular path of life. The United States is a representative democracy, which means officials are elected by the public to govern the public. The United States is not a simple representative democracy; many modifications are set in order to give the minority a voice. However, in light of these modifications, “majority rules” is still the rule of thumb. On its surface, a “majority rules” system seems ideal. Going with what most people want or believe is the best thing to do seems like a solid idea. I agree that this is typically a good philosophy – that is, as long as those voting are educated on the matter at hand.

The Modern Intersection of Science and Government

The base of everything in our lives is built from science; it holds together our infrastructure. When a politician makes a motion to change or regulate something, he or she is making a change that affects our anthropogenic matrix, and, consequently, the natural world in which our matrix operates through such acts as deforestation, ozone depletion, species extinction, etc. If a constituent does not have a basic understanding of how the world works, then how can that individual make a good decision with regards to electing a public official who will pass laws that affect the world? Moreover, ignorance of science and technology (not to mention poor reasoning and logical evaluation skills that tend to accompany science education) leads to a vote based largely on emotion and superficial similarity. If you know very little about a subject, you cannot make an educated decision regarding that subject. If not based on an educated understanding, something else must be the base upon which you make decisions. The next best choice would be decisions based on reason and logic. Unfortunately, a fostering of critical thinking is also aloof in many educational settings. Science acts as a major source of training by which people learn to reason and form logical conclusions. In turn, many – though not all – who base their decisions on logical reasoning are in the same group of people who base their decisions on knowledge of science.

If you don’t use a knowledge of science to aid in political decision-making, it’s likely that you are more swayed by charisma and emotional triggers. Those candidates who are more like you, or at least are ostensibly like you, are more likely to sway your opinion. After all, that’s what politics is all about – persuading people. If most of your constituents are not scientifically literate, then you as a politician will be less likely to use science as a persuasion tactic and more likely to use charisma and emotionally charged wording that resonates with many of your constituents. Though not a valiant method of persuasion, it is a smart one. Unfortunately, this only perpetuates the current epidemic of scientific illiteracy.

Why Public Knowledge of Science Matters

One major problem with scientific illiteracy is that politicians can make a poor decision, intentionally or unintentionally, with no one to call them out. Regulations or the lack thereof concerning issues such as climate change, medical research, and irresponsible use of resources must be made based on the science that is used to study and understand these matters. If a politician uses a non-scientific basis for creating laws (a basis fueled by a constituency who is scientifically illiterate and, perhaps, an ulterior motive such as monetary stock in the decision), then consequences are sure to ensue. The effects can be immediate, such as lack of funding for education or medical research, or delayed, as with the consequences surrounding anthropogenic climate change.

Politics aside, understanding science and technology is imperative to functioning in our ever increasingly technological world. 100,000 years ago, one had to be a skillful hunter or gatherer; 10,000 years ago, one needed to be adept in agriculture; today, we must stay informed on, at the very least, the basics of science. Expertise is not required for social and political progress, but awareness is essential.

Biocentrism – An Alternative “Theory of Everything.”

For a long time, physicists have dreamt of a unifying “Theory of Everything” that would amalgamate every physical aspect of the universe into one packaged theorem. As of now, physics hangs in the balance between Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity (GR), which does a pretty great job of explaining relationships between macrocosmic entities, and Quantum Field Theory (QFT), which does an excellent job of showing that GR is wrong on the microcosmic scale, but we aren’t sure why. Both have tremendous explanatory power (though nobody really knows what QFT is actually saying), but, unfortunately, are incompatible cosmologies. Subatomic particles, explained by QFT, simply don’t fit the laws of GR. God may not “play with dice,” as Einstein put it, but apparently he does roll subatomic dice. Truly, QFT embodies Aristotle’s maxim, “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” More recently, physics has also devised String Theory, of which various versions can be incorporated into a multi-dimensioned theory known as “M-Theory.” M-Theory also has incredible explanatory power, accounting for all of the fundamental forces and types of matter. It’s a great hypothetical framework, but lacks a practical aspect that is necessary in any strong scientific theory, making it about as believable as any other cosmological mythology. While these “Big 3” theories are all contained within the realm of physics, Robert Lanza claims there is a 4th, more appropriate explanation. And it lies within the realm of biology.

Robert Lanza is a leading stem cell researcher and Chief Scientific Officer at Advanced Cell Technology. He is one of the world’s most respected biologists, having been mentored by giants in a variety of scientific disciplines, including Jonas Salk (developed the first Polio vaccine), B.F. Skinner (famous psychologist and behaviorist), and Christiaan Barnard (performed the 1st heart transplant). In other words, Lanza has a lot to lose, and likely wouldn’t tarnish his reputation on something he didn’t deem worthwhile.

In his book, “Biocentrism,” Lanza offers a cosmology situated within the field of biology, specifically within consciousness. Regarding Biocentrism, Lanza notes 7 principles. I will list them all and then take a closer look at each one:

  • What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness. An “external” reality, if it existed, would – by definition – have to exist in space. But this is meaningless because space and time are also not absolute realities but rather tools of the human and animal mind.
  • Our external and internal perceptions are inextricably intertwined. They are different sides of the same coin and cannot be divorced from one another.
  • The behavior of subatomic particles – indeed all particles and objects – is inextricably linked to the presence of an observer. Without the presence of a conscious observer, they at best exist in an undetermined state of probability waves.
  • Without consciousness, “matter” dwells in an undetermined state of probability. Any universe that could have preceded consciousness only existed in a probability state.
  • The structure of the universe is explainable only through biocentrism. The universe is fine-tuned for life, which makes perfect sense as life creates the universe, not the other way around. The “universe” is simply the complete spatio-temporal logic of the self.
  • Time does not have any real existence outside of the animal-sense perception. It is the process by which we perceive changes in the universe.
  • Space, like time, is not an object or a thing, Space is another form of our animal understanding and does not have an independent reality. We carry space and time around with us like turtles with shells. Thus, there is no absolute self-existing matrix in which physical events occur independent of life.

That’s a lot to sort out. Let’s start with the first principle:

  • What we perceive as reality is a process that involves our consciousness. An “external” reality, if it existed, would – by definition – have to exist in space. But this is meaningless because space and time are also not absolute realities but rather tools of the human and animal mind.

The second half of this tenet is incorporated into the 6th and 7th, so I will just take a look at the first half. Yes, what we perceive as reality is a process that involves out consciousness, regardless of the sense that is used to perceive. And, yes, an external reality would need to exist in some sort of space, as it is external from our own perceptive machine, i.e., the brain. Our senses indeed mean nothing without consciousness. Similarly, you can perceive things that are not there, or misperceive a sound for, say, a color. For more information on this, look up synesthesia.

Now for the second:

  • Our external and internal perceptions are inextricably intertwined. They are different sides of the same coin and cannot be divorced from one another.

Again, I don’t see a problem with this statement. What you “see,” “touch,” “smell,” “taste,” or “hear” are all meaningless without interpretation from the brain, or consciousness. If I think about the number 4, the conscious process is not so different from when I see the number 4 and my brain interprets the meaning of the symbol.

So far so good, what about 3?

  • The behavior of subatomic particles – indeed all particles and objects – is inextricably linked to the presence of an observer. Without the presence of a conscious observer, they at best exist in an undetermined state of probability waves.

This one assumes that the physical instantiation of the whole is a sum of its parts. On a basic level, this makes as much sense as anything else. If the subatomic particles exist as waves when unobserved (see the “double slit experiment” for details), then so should the things that they compose. There can be some points of contention for this generality. For example, sodium (Na) and Chlorine (Cl) are both pretty dangerous to humans in elemental form. However, when they come together, they create sodium chloride, or table salt, the main ingredient in those delicious french fries. Perhaps subatomic particles have some yet undetermined attribute that causes their fundamental composition to change when combined together. This, however, seems unlikely. Then again, it’s quantum mechanics. Everything in quantum mechanics seems unlikely. Ultimately, this principle passes on the grounds of simple logic, but could be troublesome due to misunderstood properties of subatomic particles.

The fourth is linked to the 3rd:

  • Without consciousness, “matter” dwells in an undetermined state of probability. Any universe that could have preceded consciousness only existed in a probability state.

This principle follows logically from the third. Namely, matter, composed of subatomic particles, seems to exist as a wave until observed (i.e., perceived consciously). Thus, a pre-conscious universe would exist as a wave, suggesting it exists only as a probability.

The 5th is perhaps the shakiest principle:

  • The structure of the universe is explainable only through biocentrism. The universe is fine-tuned for life, which makes perfect sense as life creates the universe, not the other way around. The “universe” is simply the complete spatio-temporal logic of the self.

Lanza is jumping the gun a little here. Yes, it is possible that life (or consciousness) “creates” the universe, as the the subatomic particles that compose it might exist only as a wave in the absence of consciousness (or a conscious observer). As such, how we make sense of the things we perceive using space and time – the spatio-temporal logic of the self – is essentially the “universe.” The claim is bold, but not completely out in left field.

The 6th explains part of the 5th:

  • Time does not have any real existence outside of the animal-sense perception. It is the process by which we perceive changes in the universe.

For those unacquainted with physics or neuroscience, this seems radical. In fact, it even seems a little radical for those that are in the fields. However, it seems to be true. Time is a tool. Our brains are wired for connecting the dots. In order to connect the dots, we need a connector. This connector is time. Think of time as not so different from measuring length, weight, or any other attribute. If you can’t imagine how time might not exist, try imagining a world in which we cannot measure length. Yes, length exists, but need a ruler to compare them. As for events, they exist, and we use time to compare them. If this still does not make sense, do some independent research on the topic. It’s difficult to explain, and I’m certainly not the most qualified individual to do the explaining. However, it doesn’t defy anything really, so this one can be accepted as well.

And now to wrap things up with the 7th principle:

  • Space, like time, is not an object or a thing, Space is another form of our animal understanding and does not have an independent reality. We carry space and time around with us like turtles with shells. Thus, there is no absolute self-existing matrix in which physical events occur independent of life.

Again, space is how we compare our perceptions. It’s another “measuring stick” for what we perceive, much like time. In fact, quantumly entangled particles seem to defy space and time. They react instantaneously – faster than the speed of light. The faster you move, the smaller space becomes and the less time affects you. So space and time can both be changed depending upon the circumstance. This, taken with the fact that our consciousness is what interprets, and thus “creates” the universe, are Lanza’s main points for a non-existent physical universe. Again, this is difficult to comprehend, and I’m sure I muddy the picture more so than others. But, look into it and you might understand it more clearly.

So, those are the 7 principles of Biocentrism. On the surface, they seem to make sense. At least, as much sense as a physically oriented view of the universe. They’re just incredibly strange and require a complete paradigmatic shift in order to comprehend. The biggest thing that stuck out to me while reading Lanza’s book and claims of Biocentrism was the inception of the universe. According to Lanza, and perhaps other proponents of the Participatory Anthropic Principle (PAP), the universe existed in an indeterminate state before consciousness. Once consciousness arrived, the universe could be observed and thus materialize. However, wouldn’t the consciousness, embodied by a conscious being, only be a probability unless observed? It seems paradoxical.

Now, I don’t necessarily ascribe to biocentrism. I do think it explains a lot in a very interesting fashion, but it lacks the same practical testability and thus falsifiability that M-Theory lacks. Perhaps, as we begin to further understand QFT (or understand it at all) we will be able to better manipulate and experiment upon subatomic particles, thus providing evidence either for or against M-Theory and Biocentrism. Until then, these two cosmologies are too theoretical to act as a standing “Theory of Everything.” At any rate, I would definitely recommend the book. It’s an excellent, thought-provoking read that will challenge the way you see the world. You have to approach it with an open mind. A background in science wouldn’t hurt, but Lanza does a pretty good job of explaining concepts. I’ll end with a quote, again from Aristotle:

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Keep that in mind if you read the book.