A New Theory
of the Universe
Biocentrism builds on quantum physics
by putting life into the equation
By Robert Lanza
While I was sitting one night with a poet friend watching a great opera
performed in a tent under arc lights, the poet took my arm and pointed
silently. Far up, blundering out of the night, a huge Cecropia moth swept
past from light to light over the posturings of the actors. “He doesn’t
know,” my friend whispered excitedly. “He’s passing through an alien
universe brightly lit but invisible to him. He’s in another play; he
doesn’t see us. He doesn’t know. Maybe it’s happening right now to us.”
The world is not, on the whole, the place we have learned about in
our school books. This point was hammered home one recent night as I
crossed the causeway of the small island where I live. The pond was dark
and still. Several strange glowing objects caught my attention on the side
of the road, and I squatted down to observe one of them with my flashlight.
The creature turned out to be a glowworm, the luminous larva of the
European beetle Lampyris noctiluca. Its segmented little oval body
was primitive—like some trilobite that had just crawled out of the Cambrian
Sea 500 million years ago. There we were, the beetle and I, two living
objects that had entered into each others’ world. It ceased emitting its
greenish light, and I, for my part, turned off my flashlight.
I wondered if our interaction was different from that of any other two
objects in the universe. Was this primitive little grub just another
collection of atoms—proteins and molecules spinning away like the planets
round the sun? Had science reduced life to the level of a mechanist’s
logic, or was this wingless beetle, by virtue of being a living creature,
creating its own physical reality?
The laws of physics and chemistry can explain the biology of living
systems, and I can recite in detail the chemical foundations and cellular
organization of animal cells: oxidation, biophysical metabolism, all the
carbohydrates and amino acid patterns. But there was more to this luminous
little bug than the sum of its biochemical functions. A full understanding
of life cannot be found by looking at cells and molecules through a
microscope. We have yet to learn that physical existence cannot be divorced
from the animal life and structures that coordinate sense perception and
experience. Indeed, it seems likely that this creature was the center of
its own sphere of reality just as I was the center of mine.
Although the beetle did not move, it had sensory cells that transmitted
messages to the cells in its brain. Perhaps the creature was too primitive
to collect data and pinpoint my location in space. Or maybe my existence in
its universe was limited to the perception of some huge and hairy shadow
stabilizing a flashlight in the air. I don’t know. But as I stood up and
left, I am sure that I dispersed into the haze of probability surrounding
the glowworm’s little world.
Our science fails to recognize those special properties of life that make
it fundamental to material reality. This view of the
world—biocentrism—revolves around the way a subjective experience, which we
call consciousness, relates to a physical process. It is a vast mystery and
one that I have pursued my entire life. The conclusions I have drawn place
biology above the other sciences in the attempt to solve one of nature’s
biggest puzzles, the theory of everything that other disciplines have been
pursuing for the last century. Such a theory would unite all known
phenomena under one umbrella, furnishing science with an all-encompassing
explanation of nature or reality.
We need a revolution in our understanding of science and of the world.
Living in an age dominated by science, we have come more and more to
believe in an objective, empirical reality and in the goal of reaching a
complete understanding of that reality. Part of the thrill that came with
the announcement that the human genome had been mapped or with the idea
that we are close to understanding the big bang rests in our desire for
But we’re fooling ourselves.
Most of these comprehensive theories are no more than stories that fail to
take into account one crucial factor: we are creating them. It is the
biological creature that makes observations, names what it observes, and
creates stories. Science has not succeeded in confronting the element of
existence that is at once most familiar and most mysterious—conscious
experience. As Emerson wrote in “Experience,” an essay that confronted the
facile positivism of his age: “We have learned that we do not see directly,
but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and
distorting lenses which we are or of computing the amount of their errors.
Perhaps these subjectlenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no
Biology is at first glance an unlikely source for a new theory of the
universe. But at a time when biologists believe they have discovered the
“universal cell” in the form of embryonic stem cells, and when cosmologists
like Stephen Hawking predict that a unifying theory of the universe may be
discovered in the next two decades, shouldn’t biology seek to unify
existing theories of the physical world and the living world? What
other discipline can approach it? Biology should be the first and last study of science. It is our
own nature that is unlocked by means of the humanly created natural
sciences used to understand the universe. Ever since the remotest of times
philosophers have acknowledged the primacy of consciousness—that all truths
and principles of being must begin with the individual mind and self. Thus
Descartes’s adage: “Cogito, ergo sum.” (I think, therefore I am.) In
addition to Descartes, who brought philosophy into its modern era, there
were many other philosophers who argued along these lines: Kant, Leibniz,
Bishop Berkeley, Schopenhauer, and Henri Bergson, to name a few.
We have failed to protect science against speculative extensions of nature,
continuing to assign physical and mathematical properties to hypothetical
entities beyond what is observable in nature. The ether of the 19th
century, the “spacetime” of Einstein, and the string theory of recent
decades, which posits new dimensions showing up in different realms, and
not only in strings but in bubbles shimmering down the byways of the
universe—all these are examples of this speculation. Indeed, unseen
dimensions (up to a hundred in some theories) are now envisioned
everywhere, some curled up like soda straws at every point in space.
Today’s preoccupation with physical theories of everything takes a wrong
turn from the purpose of science—to question all things relentlessly.
Modern physics has become like Swift’s kingdom of Laputa, flying absurdly
on an island above the earth and indifferent to what is beneath. When
science tries to resolve its conflicts by adding and subtracting dimensions
to the universe like houses on a Monopoly board, we need to look at our
dogmas and recognize that the cracks in the system are just the points that
let the light shine more directly on the mystery of life.
The urgent and primary questions of the universe have been undertaken by
those physicists who are trying to explain the origins of everything with
grand unified theories. But as exciting and glamorous as these theories
are, they are an evasion, if not a reversal, of the central mystery of
knowledge: that the laws of the world were somehow created to produce the
observer. And more important than this, that the observer in a significant
sense creates reality and not the other way around. Recognition of this
insight leads to a single theory that unifies our understanding of the
Modern science cannot explain why the laws of physics are exactly balanced
for animal life to exist. For example, if the big bang had been
one-part-in-a billion more powerful, it would have rushed out too fast for
the galaxies to form and for life to begin. If the strong nuclear force
were decreased by two percent, atomic nuclei wouldn’t hold together.
Hydrogen would be the only atom in the universe. If the gravitational force
were decreased, stars (including the sun) would not ignite. These are just
three of more than 200 physical parameters within the solar system and universe
so exact that they cannot be random. Indeed, the lack of a scientific
explanation has allowed these facts to be hijacked as a defense of
Without perception, there is in effect no reality. Nothing has existence
unless you, I, or some living creature perceives it, and how it is
perceived further influences that reality. Even time itself is not exempted
from biocentrism. Our sense of the forward motion of time is really the
result of an infinite number of decisions that only seem to be a smooth
continuous path. At each moment we are at the edge of a paradox known as
The Arrow, first described 2,500 years ago by the philosopher Zeno of Elea.
Starting logically with the premise that nothing can be in two places at
once, he reasoned that an arrow is only in one place during any given
instance of its flight. But if it is in only one place, it must be at rest.
The arrow must then be at rest at every moment of its flight. Logically,
motion is impossible. But is motion impossible? Or rather, is this analogy
proof that the forward motion of time is not a feature of the external
world but a projection of something within us? Time is not an absolute
reality but an aspect of our consciousness.
This paradox lies at the heart of one of the great revolutions of
20th-century physics, a revolution that has yet to take hold of our
understanding of the world and of the decisive role that consciousness
plays in determining the nature of reality. The uncertainty principle in
quantum physics is more profound than its name suggests. It means that we
make choices at every moment in what we can determine about the world. We
cannot know with complete accuracy a quantum particle’s motion and its
position at the same time—we have to choose one or the other. Thus the
consciousness of the observer is decisive in determining what a particle
does at any given moment.
Einstein was frustrated by the threat of quantum uncertainty to the
hypothesis he called spacetime, and spacetime turns out to be
incompatible with the world discovered by quantum physics. When Einstein
showed that there is no universal now, it followed that observers could
slice up reality into past, present, and, future, in different ways, all
with equal reality. But what, exactly, is being sliced up?
Space and time are not stuff that can be brought back to the laboratory in
a marmalade jar for analysis. In fact, space and time fall into the
province of biology—of animal sense perception—not of physics. They are
properties of the mind, of the language by which we human beings and
animals represent things to ourselves. Physicists venture beyond the scope
of their science—beyond the limits of material phenomena and law—when they
try to assign physical, mathematical, or other qualities to space and time.
Return to the revelation that we are thinking animals and that the material
world is the elusive substratum of our conscious activity continually
defining and redefining the real. We must become skeptical of the hard
reality of our most cherished conceptions of space and time, and of the
very notion of an external reality, in order to recognize that it is the
activity of consciousness itself, born of our biological selves, which in
some sense creates the world.
Despite such things as the development of superconducting supercolliders
containing enough niobium-titanium wire to circle the earth 16 times, we
understand the universe no better than the first humans with sufficient
consciousness to think. Where did it all come from? Why does the universe
exist? Why are we here? In one age, we believe that the world is a great
ball resting on the back of a turtle; in the next, that a fairy universe
appeared out of nowhere and is expanding into nothingness. In one age,
angels push and pummel the planets about; in another age, everything is a
meaningless accident. We exchange a world-bearing turtle for a big bang.
We are like Loren Eiseley’s moth, blundering from light to light, unable to
discern the great play that blazes under the opera tent. Turn now to the
experimental findings of modern science, which require us to recognize—at
last—our role in the creation of reality from moment to moment.
Consciousness cannot exist without a living, biological creature to
embody its perceptive powers of creation. Therefore we must turn to the
logic of life, to biologic, if we are to understand the world around us.
Space and time are the two concepts we take most for granted in our lives.
We have been taught that they are measurable. They exist. They’re real. And
that reality has been reinforced every day of our lives.
Most of us live without thinking abstractly about time and space. They are
such an integral part of our lives that examination of them is as unnatural
as an examination of walking or breathing. In fact, many people feel silly
talking about time and space in an abstract, analytical way. The question
“Does time exist?” can seem like so much philosophical babble. After all,
the clock ticks, the years pass, we age and die. Isn’t time the only
thing we can be certain of? Equally inconsonant is the question of whether
or not space exists. “Obviously space exists,” we might answer, “because we
live in it. We move through it, drive through it, build in it, measure it.”
Time and space are easy to talk and think about. Find yourself short of
either or both—late for work, standing in a stalled subway car packed with
riders—and issues of time and space are obvious: “It’s crowded and I’m
uncomfortable and my boss is going to kill me for being late.” But time and
space as our source of comprehension and consciousness is an abstraction.
Our day-to-day experiences indicate nothing of this reality to us. Rather,
life has taught us that time and space are external and eternal realities.
They bound all experiences and are more fundamental than life itself. They
are above and beyond human experience.
As animals, we are organized, wired, to think this way. We use dates and
places to define our experiences to ourselves and to others. History
describes the past by placing people and events in time and space.
Scientific theories of the big bang, geology, and evolution are steeped in
the logic of time and space. They are essential to our every movement and
moment. To place ourselves as the creators of time and space, not as
the subjects of it, goes against our common sense, life experience, and
education. It takes a radical shift of perspective for any of us to
entertain the idea that space and time are animal sense perceptions,
because the implications are so startling.
Yet we all know that space and time are not things—objects that you can
see, feel, taste, touch, or smell. They are intangible, like gravity. In
fact they are modes of interpretation and understanding, part of the animal
logic that molds sensations into multidimensional objects.
We live on the edge of time, where tomorrow hasn’t happened yet. Everything
before this moment is part of the history of the universe, gone forever. Or
so we believe.
Think for a minute about time flowing forward into the future and how
extraordinary it is that we are here, alive on the edge of all time.
Imagine all the days and hours that have passed since the beginning of
time. Now stack them like chairs on top of each other, and seat yourself on
the very top. Science has no real explanation for why we’re here, for why
we exist now. According to the current physiocentric worldview, it’s just
an accident, a one-in-a-gazillion chance that I am here and that you are
there. The statistical probability of being on top of time or infinity is
so small as to be meaningless. Yet this is generally how the human mind
In classical science, humans place all things in time and space on a
continuum. The universe is 15 to 20 billion years old; the earth five or
six. Homo erectus appeared four million years ago, but he took
three-and-a-half million years to discover fire, and another 490,000 to
invent agriculture. And so forth. Time in a mechanistic universe (as
described by Newton and Einstein and Darwin) is an arrow upon which events
are notched. But imagine, instead, that reality is like a sound recording.
Listening to an old phonograph doesn’t alter the record itself, and
depending on where the needle is placed, you hear a certain piece of music.
This is what we call the present. The music before and after the song you
are hearing is what we call the past and the future. Imagine, in like
manner, that every moment and day endures in nature always. The record does
not go away. All nows (all the songs on the record) exist simultaneously,
although we can only experience the world (or the record) piece by piece.
If we could access all life—the whole record—we could experience it
non-sequentially. We could know our children as toddlers, as teenagers, as
senior citizens—all now. In the end, even Einstein admitted, “Now
[Besso—one of his oldest friends] has departed from this strange world a
little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us . . . know that the
distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly
persistent illusion.” That there is an irreversible, on-flowing continuum
of events linked to galaxies and suns and the earth is a fantasy.
It’s important here to address a fundamental question. We have clocks that
can measure time. If we can measure time, doesn’t that prove it exists?
Einstein sidestepped the question by simply defining time as “what we
measure with a clock.” The emphasis for physicists is on the measuring.
However, the emphasis should be on the we, the observers. Measuring time
doesn’t prove its physical existence. Clocks are rhythmic things. Humans
use the rhythms of some events (like the ticking of clocks) to time other
events (like the rotation of the earth). This is not time, but
rather, a comparison of events. Specifically, over the ages, humans have
observed rhythmic events in nature: the periodicities of the moon, the sun,
the flooding of the Nile. We then created other rhythmic things to measure
nature’s rhythms: a pendulum, a mechanical spring, an electronic device. We
called these manmade rhythmic devices “clocks.” We use the rhythms of
specific events to time other specific events. But these are just events,
not to be confused with time.
Quantum mechanics describes the tiny world of the atom and its constituents
with stunning accuracy. It is used to design and build much of the
technology that drives modern society—transistors, lasers, and even
wireless communication. But quantum mechanics in many ways threatens not
only our essential and absolute notions of space and time, but indeed, all
Newtonian-Darwinian conceptions of order and secure prediction.
“I think it is safe to say that no one understands quantum mechanics,” said
Nobel physicist Richard Feynman. “Do not keep saying to yourself, if you
can possibly avoid it, ‘But how can it be like that?’ because you will go
‘down the drain’ into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped.” The
reason scientists go down the drain is that they refuse to accept the
immediate and obvious implications of the experimental findings of quantum
theory. Biocentrism is the only humanly comprehensible explanation for how
the world can be the way it is. But, as the Nobel laureate physicist Steven
Weinberg admits, “It’s an unpleasant thing to bring people into the basic
laws of physics.”
In order to account for why space and time were relative to the observer,
Einstein assigned tortuous mathematical properties to an invisible,
intangible entity that cannot be seen or touched. This folly continues with
the advent of quantum mechanics. Despite the central role of the observer
in this theory—extending it from space and time to the very properties of
matter itself—scientists still dismiss the observer as an inconvenience to
their theories. It has been proven experimentally that when studying
subatomic particles, the observer actually alters and determines what is
perceived. The work of the observer is hopelessly entangled in that which
he is attempting to observe. An electron turns out to be both a particle
and a wave. But how and where such a particle will be located remains entirely
dependent upon the very act of observation.
Pre-quantum physicists thought that they could determine the trajectory of
individual particles with complete certainty. They assumed that the
behavior of particles would be predictable if everything were known at the
outset—that there was no limit to the accuracy with which they could
measure the physical properties of a particle. But Werner Heisenberg’s
uncertainty principle showed that this is not the case. You can know either
the velocity of a particle or its location but not both. If you know one,
you cannot know the other. Heisenberg compared this to the little man and
woman in a weather house, an old folk art device that functions as a
hygrometer, indicating the air’s humidity. The two figures ride opposite
each other on a balance bar. “If one comes out,” Heisenberg said, “the
other goes in.”
Consider for a moment that you are watching a film of an archery
tournament, with the Zeno’s arrow paradox in mind. An archer shoots, and
the arrow flies. The camera follows the arrow’s trajectory from the
archer’s bow toward the target. Suddenly the projector stops on a single
frame of a stilled arrow. You stare at the image of an arrow in midflight.
The pause in the film enables you to know the position of the arrow—it’s
just beyond the grandstand, about 20 feet above the ground. But you have
lost all information about its momentum. It is going nowhere; its velocity
is zero. Its path is no longer known. It is uncertain.
To measure the position precisely at any given instant is to lock in on one
static frame, to put the movie on pause, so to speak. Conversely, as soon
as you observe momentum you can’t isolate a frame, because momentum is the summation
of many frames. You can’t know one and the other with complete accuracy.
There is uncertainty as you hone in, whether on motion or position.
All of this makes sense from a biocentric perspective: time is the inner
form of animal sense that animates events—the still frames—of the
spatial world. The mind animates the world like the motor and gears of a
projector. Each weaves a series of still pictures into an order, into the
“current” of life. Motion is created in our minds by running “film cells”
together. Remember that everything you perceive, even this page, is being
reconstructed inside your head. It’s happening to you right now. All of
experience is an organized whirl of information in your brain.
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle has its root here: position (location in
space) belongs to the outer world, and momentum (which involves the
temporal) belongs to the inner world. By penetrating to the bottom of
matter, scientists have reduced the universe to its most basic logic. Time
is not a feature of the external spatial world. “Contemporary science,”
said Heisenberg, “today more than at any previous time, has been forced by
nature herself to pose again the old question of the possibility of
comprehending reality by mental processes, and to answer it in a slightly
Twenty-five hundred years later, the Zeno arrow paradox finally makes
sense. The Eleatic school of philosophy, which Zeno brilliantly defended,
was right. So was Heisenberg when he said, “A path comes into existence
only when you observe it.” There is neither time nor motion without life. Reality
is not “there” with definite properties waiting to be discovered but
actually comes into being depending upon the actions of the observer.
Another aspect of modern physics, in addition to quantum uncertainty, also
strikes at the core of Einstein’s concept of discrete entities and
spacetime. Einstein held that the speed of light is constant and that
events in one place cannot influence events in another place
simultaneously. In the relativity theory, the speed of light has to be
taken into account for information to travel from one particle to another.
However, experiment after experiment has shown that this is not the case.
In 1965, Irish physicist John Bell created an experiment that showed that
separate particles can influence each other instantaneously over great
distances. The experiment has been performed numerous times and confirms
that the properties of polarized light are correlated, or linked, no matter
how far apart the particles are. There is some kind of instantaneous—faster
than light—communication between them. All of this implies that Einstein’s
concept of spacetime, neatly divided into separate regions by light
velocity, is untenable. Instead, the entities we observe are floating in a
field of mind that is not limited by an external spacetime.
The experiments of Heisenberg and Bell call us back to experience itself,
the immediacy of the infinite here and now, and shake our unexamined trust
in objective reality. But another support for biocentrism is the famous two
hole experiment, which demands that we go one step further: Zeno’s arrow
doesn’t exist, much less fly, without an observer. The two-hole experiment
goes straight to the core of quantum physics. Scientists have discovered
that if they “watch” a subatomic particle pass through holes on a barrier,
it behaves like a particle: like a tiny bullet, it passes through one or
the other holes. But if the scientists do not observe the particle,
then it exhibits the behavior of a wave. The two-hole experiment has many
versions, but in short: If observed, particles behave like objects; if
unobserved, they behave like waves and can go through more than one hole at
the same time.
Dubbed quantum weirdness, this wave-particle duality has befuddled
scientists for decades. Some of the greatest physicists have described it
as impossible to intuit and impossible to formulate into words, and as
invalidating common sense and ordinary perception. Science has essentially
conceded that quantum physics is incomprehensible outside of complex
mathematics. How can quantum physics be so impervious to metaphor,
visualization, and language?
If we accept a life-created reality at face value, it becomes simple to
understand. The key question is waves of what? Back in 1926, the
Nobel laureate physicist Max Born demonstrated that quantum waves are waves
of probability, not waves of material as the Austrian physicist Erwin
Schrödinger had theorized. They are statistical predictions. Thus a wave of
probability is nothing but a likely outcome. In fact, outside of
that idea, the wave is not there. It’s nothing. As John Wheeler, the
eminent theoretical physicist, once said, “No phenomenon is a real
phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon.”
A particle cannot be thought of as having any definite existence—either
duration or a position in space—until we observe it. Until the mind sets
the scaffolding of an object in place, an object cannot be thought of as
being either here or there. Thus, quantum waves merely define the potential
location a particle can occupy. A wave of probability isn’t an event
or a phenomenon, it is a description of the likelihood of an event
or phenomenon occurring. Nothing happens until the event is actually
observed. If you watch it go through the barrier, then the wave function
collapses and the particle goes through one hole or the other. If you don’t
watch it, then the particle detectors will show that it can go through more
than one hole at the same time.
Science has been grappling with the implications of the wave-particle
duality ever since its discovery in the first half of the 20th century. But
few people accept this principle at face value. The Copenhagen
interpretation, put in place by Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and Born in the
1920s, set out to do just that. But it was too unsettling a shift in
worldview to accept in full. At present, the implications of these
experiments are conveniently ignored by limiting the notion of quantum
behavior to the microscopic world. But doing this has no basis in reason,
and it is being challenged in laboratories around the world. New
experiments carried out with huge molecules called buckyballs show that
quantum reality extends into the macroscopic world as well. Experiments
make it clear that another weird quantum phenomenon known as entanglement,
which is usually associated with the micro world, is also relevant on macro
scales. An exciting experiment, recently proposed (so-called scaled-up
superposition), would furnish the most powerful evidence to date that the
biocentric view of the world is correct at the level of living organisms.
One of the main reasons most people reject the Copenhagen interpretation of
quantum theory is that it leads to the dreaded doctrine of solipsism. The
late Heinz Pagels once commented: “If you deny the objectivity of the world
unless you observe it and are conscious of it, then you end up with
solipsism—the belief that your consciousness is the only one.” Indeed, I
once had one of my articles challenged by a reader who took this exact
position. “I would like to ask Robert Lanza,” he wrote, “whether he feels
the world will continue to exist after the death of his consciousness. If
not, it’ll be hard luck for all of us should we outlive him” (New
What I would question, with respect to solipsism, is the assumption that
our individual separateness is an absolute reality. Bell’s experiment
implies the existence of linkages that transcend our ordinary way of
thinking. An old Hindu poem says, “Know in thyself and all one self-same
soul; banish the dream that sunders part from whole.” If time is only a
stubbornly persistent illusion, as we have seen, then the same can be said
about space. The distinction between here and there is also not an absolute
reality. Without consciousness, we can take any person as our new frame of
reference. It is not my consciousness or yours alone, but ours.
That’s the new solipsism the experiments mandate. The theorist Bernard
d’Espagnat, a collaborator of Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi, has said that
“non-separability is now one of the most certain general concepts in
physics.” This is not to say that our minds, like the particles in Bell’s
experiment, are linked in any way that can violate the laws of causality.
In this same sense, there is a part of us connected to the glowworm by the
pond near my house. It is the part that experiences consciousness, not in
our external embodiments but in our inner being. We can only imagine and
recollect things while in the body; this is for sure, because sensations
and memories are molded into thought and knowledge in the brain. And
although we identify ourselves with our thoughts and affections, it is an
essential feature of reality that we experience the world piece by piece.
The sphere of physical reality for a glowworm and a human are decidedly
different. However, the genome itself is carbon-based. Carbon is formed at
the heart of stars and supernova explosions, formative processes of the
universe. Life as we know it is limited by our spatio-temporal logic—that
is, the genome traps us in the universe with which we are familiar. Animals
(including those that evolved in the past) span part of the spectrum of
that possibility. There are surely other information systems that
correspond to other physical realities, universes based on logic completely
different from ours and not based on space and time. The universe of space
and time belong uniquely to us genome-based animals.
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].” Indeed, quantum
theory implies that consciousness must exist and that the content of the
mind is the ultimate reality. If we do not look at it, the moon does not
exist in a definite state. In this world, only an act of observation can
confer shape and form to reality—to a dandelion in a meadow or a seed pod.
As we have seen, the world appears to be designed for life not just at the
microscopic scale of the atom, but at the level of the universe itself. In
cosmology, 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 for us. Many are calling this revelation the
Goldilocks principle, because the cosmos is not too this or too that, but
just right for life. Others are calling it the anthropic principle, because
the universe appears to be human centered. And still others are calling it
intelligent design, because they believe it’s no accident that the heavens
are so ideally suited for us. By any name, the discovery is causing a huge
commotion within the astrophysics community and beyond.
At the moment, the only attempt at an explanation holds that God made the
universe. But there is another explanation based on science. To understand
the mystery, we need to reexamine the everyday world we live in. As
unimaginable as it may seem to us, the logic of quantum physics is
inescapable. Every morning we open our front door to bring in the paper or
to go to work. We open the door to rain, snow, or trees swaying in the
breeze. We think the world churns along whether we happen to open the door
or not. Quantum mechanics tells us it doesn’t.
The trees and snow evaporate when we’re sleeping. The kitchen disappears
when we’re in the bathroom. When you turn from one room to the next, when
your animal senses no longer perceive the sounds of the dishwasher, the
ticking clock, the smell of a chicken roasting—the kitchen and all its
seemingly discrete bits dissolve into nothingness—or into waves of
probability. The universe bursts into existence from life, not the other
way around as we have been taught. For each life there is a universe, its
own universe. We generate spheres of reality, individual bubbles of
existence. Our planet is comprised of billions of spheres of reality,
generated by each individual human and perhaps even by each animal.
Imagine again you’re on the stalled subway car worried about being late for
work. The engineers get the thing running again and most of the other
commuters soon disembark. What is your universe at the moment? The
screeching sound of metal wheels against metal tracks. Your fellow
passengers. The ads for Rogaine and tech schools. What is not your
universe? Everything outside your range of perception does not exist. Now
suppose that I’m with you on the train. My individual sphere of reality
intersects with yours. We two human beings with nearly identical perception
tools are experiencing the same harsh lighting and uncomfortable sounds.
You get the idea. But how can this really be? You wake up every morning and
your dresser is still across the room from your comfortable spot in the
bed. You put on the same pair of jeans and favorite shirt and shuffle to
the kitchen in slippers to make coffee. How can anyone in his right mind
possibly suggest that the great world out there is constructed in our
To more fully grasp a universe of still arrows and disappearing moons,
let’s turn to modern electronics. You know from experience that something
in the black box of a DVD player turns an inanimate disc into a movie. The
electronics in the DVD converts and animates the information on the disc
into a 3-D show. Likewise your brain animates the universe. Imagine the
brain as the electronics in your DVD player. Explained another way, the
brain turns electrochemical information from our five senses into an order,
a sequence—into a face, into this page—into a unified three-dimensional
whole. It transforms sensory input into something so real that few people
ever ask how it happens. Stop and think about this for a minute. Our minds
are so good at it that we rarely ever question whether the world is
anything other than what we imagine it to be. Yet the brain—not the eyes—is
the organ sealed inside a vault of bone, locked inside the cranium, that
“sees” the universe.
What we interpret as the world is brought into existence inside our head.
Sensory information does not impress upon the brain, as particles of light
impress upon the film in a camera. The images you see are a construction by
the brain. Everything you are experiencing right now (pretend you’re back
on the subway) is being actively generated in your mind—the hard plastic
seats, the graffiti, the dark remnants of chewing gum stuck to the floor.
All physical things—subway turnstiles, train platforms, newspaper racks,
their shapes, sounds, and odors—all these sensations are experienced inside
your head. Everything we observe is based on the direct interaction of
energy on our senses, whether it is matter (like your shoe sticking to the
floor of a subway car) or particles of light (emitted from sparks as a
subway train rounds a corner). Anything that we do not observe directly,
exists only as potential—or mathematically speaking—as a haze of probability.
You may question whether the brain can really create physical reality.
However, remember that dreams and schizophrenia (consider the movie A
Beautiful Mind) prove the capacity of the mind to construct a
spatial-temporal reality as real as the one you are experiencing now. The
visions and sounds schizophrenic patients see and hear are just as real to
them as this page or the chair you’re sitting on.
We have all seen pictures of the primitive earth with its volcanoes
overflowing with lava, or read about how the solar system itself condensed
out of a giant swirling gas cloud. Science has sought to extend the
physical world beyond the time of our own emergence. It has found our
footsteps wandering backward until on some far shore they were transmuted into
a trail of mud. The cosmologists picked up the story of the molten earth
and carried its evolution backward in time to the insensate past: from
minerals by degrees back through the lower forms of matter—of nuclei and
quarks—and beyond them to the big bang. It seems only natural that life and
the world of the inorganic must separate at some point.
We consider physics a kind of magic and do not seem at all fazed when we
hear that the universe—indeed the laws of nature themselves—just appeared
for no reason one day. From the dinosaurs to the big bang is an enormous
distance. Perhaps we should remember the experiments of Francesco Redi,
Lazzaro Spallanzani, and Louis Pasteur—basic biological experiments that
put to rest the theory of spontaneous generation, the belief that life had
arisen spontaneously from dead matter (as, for instance, maggots from
rotting meat and mice from bundles of old clothes)—and not make the same
mistake for the origin of the universe itself. 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
Physical reality begins and ends with the animal observer. All other times
and places, all other objects and events are products of the imagination,
and serve only to unite knowledge into a logical whole. We are pleased with
such books as Newton’s Principia, or Darwin’s Origin of Species.
But they instill a complacency in the reader. Darwin spoke of the possibility
that life emerged from inorganic matter in some “warm little pond.” Trying
to trace life down through simpler stages is one thing, but assuming it
arose spontaneously from nonliving matter wants for the rigor and attention
of the quantum theorist.
Neuroscientists believe that the problem of consciousness can someday be
solved once we understand all the synaptic connections in the brain. “The
tools of neuroscience,” wrote philosopher and author David Chalmers (Scientific
American, December 1995) “cannot provide a full account of conscious
experience, although they have much to offer. . . . Consciousness might be
explained by a new kind of theory.” Indeed, in a 1983 National Academy
Report, the Research Briefing Panel on Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence
stated that the questions to which it concerned itself “reflect a single
underlying great scientific mystery, on par with understanding the
evolution of the universe, the origin of life, or the nature of elementary
The mystery is plain. Neuroscientists have developed theories that might
help to explain how separate pieces of information are integrated in the
brain and thus succeed in elucidating how different attributes of a single
perceived object—such as the shape, color, and smell of a flower—are merged
into a coherent whole. These theories reflect some of the important work
that is occurring in the fields of neuroscience and psychology, but they
are theories of structure and function. They tell us nothing about how the
performance of these functions is accompanied by a conscious experience;
and yet the difficulty in understanding consciousness lies precisely here,
in this gap in our understanding of how a subjective experience emerges
from a physical process. Even Steven Weinberg concedes that although
consciousness may have a neural correlate, its existence does not seem to
be derivable from physical laws.
Physicists believe that the theory of everything is hovering right around
the corner, and yet consciousness is still largely a mystery, and
physicists have no idea how to explain its existence from physical laws.
The questions physicists long to ask about nature are bound up with the
problem of consciousness. Physics can furnish no answers for them. “Let
man,” declared Emerson, “then learn the revelation of all nature and all
thought to his heart; this, namely; that the Highest dwells with him; that
the sources of nature are in his own mind.”
Space and time, not proteins and neurons, hold the answer to the problem of
consciousness. When we consider the nerve impulses entering the brain, we
realize that they are not woven together automatically, any more than the
information is inside a computer. Our thoughts have an order, not of
themselves, but because the mind generates the spatio-temporal
relationships involved in every experience. We can never have any
experience that does not conform to these relationships, for they are the
modes of animal logic that mold sensations into objects. It would be
erroneous, therefore, to conceive of the mind as existing in space and time
before this process, as existing in the circuitry of the brain before the
understanding posits in it a spatio-temporal order. The situation, as we
have seen, is like playing a CD—the information leaps into three-dimensional
sound, and in that way, and in that way only, does the music indeed exist.
We are living through a profound shift in worldview, from the belief that
time and space are entities in the universe to one in which time and space
belong to the living. Think of all the recent book titles—The End of
Science, The End of History, The End of Eternity, The End of Certainty, The
End of Nature, and The End of Time. Only for a moment, while we
sort out the reality that time and space do not exist, will it feel like
Robert Lanza is
vice president of research and scientific development at Advanced Cell
Technology and a professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. He
has written 20 scientific books and won a Rave award for medicine from Wired magazine and an “all star” award for biotechnology from Mass High Tech: The Journal of New
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