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Biocentrism vs the Bible

Published: 19 January 2019 (GMT+10)

R.S from the United States writes:

123rf.commusic-tuning-fork
I would love for you to respond to the article below about Biocentrism.1 The article deals with issues like time, distance, and the fine tuning of the universe. I believe the point of Biocentrism is to say that what we perceive with our senses is not necessarily what is there. Our brain creates the reality from the input it gets from our senses. How do you understand what they are saying?

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:


Thanks for writing in. The authors’ basic idea is that life created the cosmos, rather than life arising within the cosmos. For a start, the Bible clearly conflicts with this idea. Animals were the last things to be created in Creation Week. So, submission to Scripture will tell you quite clearly that this philosophy is wrong.

But why is it wrong? Well, again, the Scriptures provide a good starting point. First, God created everything. Clearly, if He made everything, we have good reason to trust that, when our sense faculties are working as they were designed to, they detect real objects outside our minds.

Berkeley, biocentrism, and God

Indeed, this is true even if one embraces their idealism. They invoke George Berkeley, a prominent Irish empiricist philosopher, in support of their views. The problem is that Berkeley was first a Bishop of the Church of Ireland, and a very orthodox Anglican one at that. Central to Berkeley’s idealism was God as the perfect perceiver. Why can we trust that the rock or the tree doesn’t vanish when we stop perceiving it? Berkeley’s answer was that God never stops perceiving it. Indeed, it was God’s perception of it that made it real. (The core tenet of Berkeley’s philosophy is summed up in his phrase ‘to be is to be perceived’.) God was absolutely central to Berkeley’s metaphysic.

What happens when you take God out of Berkeley’s picture? David Hume is what you get (David Hume and divine design). Hume asked a simple question: what can we know of God through our sense perception? The answer is obvious: nothing. But if sense perception is the only way to know the existence of anything, and we can’t know God through sense perception, then God becomes unknowable. Our ideas of God are then mere extensions of qualities we perceive in ourselves, like knowledge, power, and love, with no way to establish any reality in them regarding God.

But Hume’s skepticism didn’t stop with God. Remove God, and you remove the ultimate perceiver of Berkeley’s philosophy. All you have is a bunch of finite perceivers, which is what biocentrism gives us. But do you have a bunch of perceivers? What do we perceive of the perceivers themselves? Nothing but a bunch of perceptions. This applies even when we turn this reasoning on ourselves. Thus, Hume leaves me unsure of whether even I exist, let alone whether God exists.

So, Hume raises an important question for ‘biocentrism’: how do we know there are consciousnesses? Indeed, are we a consciousness, or a mere bundle of sense data? If they want to maintain their idealism, either they should embrace Berkeley’s views more fully and thus embrace his God, or they should retreat into Hume’s skepticism and give up knowledge that consciousness is real.

But there’s another problem, even if we grant the reality of the different consciousnesses: what happens if different perceivers have conflicting perceptions? Perceived reality becomes hopelessly fragmented. And yet we all know what will happen to anyone who jumps off a cliff. The results are far more consistent than what we’d expect from a pack of squabbling minds. Indeed, it’s considerations like that that lead one back to Berkeley’s theism—what better way to ensure the consistency of perceived reality than with a perfectly reliable and unchanging perceiver like God?

The point here is not to advocate Berkeley’s metaphysics. The point is that biocentrism needs to be consistent. It should lead either to theism or skepticism. They seem quite clearly to believe in the reality of consciousness. That should lead away from Hume and toward Berkeley.

God, design, and explanation

But what do they think of God? They have only one comment on God, and it’s in the context of evaluating options for explaining the fine-tuning of the universe for life:

“Another is to say, ‘God did it,’ which explains nothing even if it is true.”

Trite? Sure. But the comment is revealing. Regarding God as a non-explanation follows Hume pretty closely. But why choose Hume when they need Berkeley for their metaphysic to be a knowable metaphysic? They see God as a competitor to their ‘biocentrism’ for explaining the fine-tuning of the cosmos. They mention four options: chance, design, the anthropic principle (which isn’t really an explanation at all, unless paired with chance), and biocentrism. (They didn’t address physical necessity as an option, but it’s implausible even just at face value, so it doesn’t really matter.)

But we’ve already explored why biocentrism is a bad option for explaining fine-tuning—the ‘squabbling minds’ problem. There is reason to think perceived reality would not behave consistently if we’re all creating it together. Plus, when a worldview causes you to doubt the reliability of your senses, it’s time to get a new worldview (see Is the universe a simulation, Design argument: Usefulness of math in science, and Monkey minds for more information).

And the irony is that, in seeing God as a competitor for explaining fine-tuning, they implicitly acknowledge that it’s more than a non-explanation. After all, why disregard theism if it didn’t conflict with biocentrism?

God can indeed explain why the universe is fine-tuned for life. He does so in much the same way as ‘she wanted a cup of tea’ explains why there is boiling water in the kettle. Rather than a mechanistic explanation, which relies on natural law, chance, and initial conditions, it’s a personal explanation—one based in the intentions and volitions of a personal being. God provides an intuitively satisfying personal explanation of certain features of the universe’s structure. (God obviously does much more than that, but we’re only looking here at whether God is intelligible as an ‘explanation’ for fine-tuning.)

People design things. We know what that looks like from our own experience. Theists say that something analogous applies to fine-tuning. Of course, God doesn’t need time to deliberate to come up with the design of the universe. He can have the design in mind changelessly, and He can execute the design in an instant simply by willing it to be. But positing a personal agent behind fine-tuning makes clear why it has such a structure: someone intended it to. Since ‘explanation’ means ‘to make clear the reason why something is the way it is’, and God does that regarding the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life, God is indeed an ‘explanation’ in the ordinary sense of the term. We don’t have to know why an agent did it to know that they did it, any more than we need to know why a painter planned a painting the way she did to know that she painted it.

Biocentrism: a bad explanation

On the other hand, the idea the universe is the by-product of our collective mental lives confuses more than it clarifies. It makes space, time, matter, and death all illusions. It means we can’t trust our sense experience. It doesn’t correspond to anything outside our minds. How does that clarify anything, as an explanation should?

And while it’s true that we can’t get out of our minds to see the world objectively, as it were, why should we regard all our sense experience as illusory? Healthy people usually know the difference between dreams and reality, hallucinations and sight, and so forth. In fact, we treat people who don’t as mentally ill. Any argument they could run for the unreliability of our senses would rest on premises that are less plausible than our sense experience is.

Nor can quantum mechanics evade that. They rely on one particular interpretation of QM—the Copenhagen interpretation. But there are several different physical interpretations of quantum mechanics that are all (at present) empirically equivalent. In other words, they’re all consistent with current scientific knowledge. There is no straight line from the experiments of QM to the idea that the consciousness of living beings creates the world around us. See Should creationists accept quantum mechanics?

Conclusions

Biocentrism is a muddled idea. It confuses more than it clarifies about the fine-tuning of the universe for life. It ignores God, despite God being central to the metaphysic of their main philosophical inspiration, Berkeley. It leads to an illusory and hopelessly fragmented view of the physical world. However, when we start from Scripture, we have ample reason to believe the world is the product of a transcendent consciousness, who can hold it all together perfectly.

References and notes

  1. Berman, B. and Lanza, R., The biocentric universe theory: life creates time, space, and the cosmos itself, discovermagizine.com, 1 May 2009. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Frank S.
Thank you Shaun, for this clear explanation.
Gian Carlo B.
I happen to think Objective Dual-Aspect Idealism is a better explanation for the fine-tuning, you said it yourself when you elucidated on Berkely's Idealism, though I would add that the idealism I speak does not deny an external world, it simply says said external world is ultimately mind-like in nature. The fundamental nature of reality is ultimately immaterial, and this is not hard to see, since in Genesis, God spoke creation out of existence, there was never any matter, matter came from immaterial, from God and His speaking into existence the phenomenal world. So an objective idealist would say the reason we can experience and perceive the 'material' world is because reality is fundamentally mind like, and it is matter that depends ultimately on mind. All we see, feel and touch are properties of qualia, like color and touch, these aren't properties of matter in themselves when no minds are around to apprehend them.
As for quantum mechanics, I think you need to be careful with that argument, because among the interpretations of QM, is the many worlds interpretation, and many physicists find it has problems explaining the data and is very ad hoc, so is Bohmian Mechanics, since the latter hasn't been successful in positing beyond Quantum Mechanics, whereas the Copehagen and von-Neuman interpretation have a systematic Quantum Theory. I've delved into the philosophical implications of quantum physics and I found there's no imperative to adopt a sort of mystic worldview nor is there an excuse to since physicists like Lee Smolin and Quantum Gravity researchers suggest that the best analogy for the universe's fundamental nature is an information system, which necessarily is a designed system by a Designer, it's not a pantheistic framework as many New Agers believe.
Shaun Doyle
As I said: "The point here is not to advocate Berkeley’s metaphysics. The point is that biocentrism needs to be consistent. It should lead either to theism or skepticism." Similarly, whether your metaphysic or Berkeley's (or another) are better is I think rather immaterial (pun intended) in this context. God, not idealism, is the explanation for fine-tuning, and is a better explanation than a pack of finite minds (which is essentially what biocentrism posits). I’ll leave off the debate over which theistic metaphysic is best for now.

Regarding QM and biocentrism, I’m not sure where you think the argument was less than careful. My claim was quite weak—the mere existence of empirically viable alternatives to the Copenhagen interpretation shows that QM doesn’t uniquely support biocentrism. But an empirically viable interpretation isn’t necessarily true. Still, if the Copenhagen interpretation were correct, then I’d argue that other ideologies, including biblical theism, are compatible with it, just as Dr Sarfati did in Should creationists accept quantum mechanics?
Graham P.
Excellent discussion. We might also ask why they are even considering the fine-tuning of the universe: hasn't everything important already been discovered and settled by science? Isn't Darwinism a satisfying answer for atheists, we could ask?
If their answer is 'No' then all the modern and post-modern explanations might be wrong. If the answer is 'yes' then why both bother with arguments about possible alternative universes.
Joel L.
I have a question regarding a point in this article: I have seen articles on this site argue that if consciousness is the result of evolutionary processes. we would be able to trust neither our senses nor our reason, as we would have no way of knowing that they are reflective of the 'real' world around us. How does this article's assertion of the extreme improbability of any argument against the reliability of our senses as modes of accurately perceiving the 'reality' around us not undercut that stance? The two assertions would seem to be in opposition to each other.
Shaun Doyle
You need to complete the former argument. It's not simply a statement of what evolutionary naturalism implies, but it's an argument against evolutionary naturalism. Yes, the unreliability of our senses would be an implication of evolutionary naturalism, but such an implication is absurd (which the latter argument supports), therefore evolutionary naturalism is absurd to affirm. The two arguments go together very well.
Donald M.
Thank you for a great article! But I still have a huge gap in my grasp of the somewhat-related following.
I always grieve when I see compromise with our Darwinist friends. Until God brought this to my attention, I too used R.S.'s terminology. Specifically, equating Brain with Mind, material with spirit.
One of the things needed is to reevaluate our use of terms. The Brain is simply a very complex physical organ. It does what it's designed to do, 99% of which we have yet to learn. It is incapable of thought, which is spiritual.
The Mind is a spiritual entity, not physical. It creates, originates, develops, reasons, considers, and much more. It thinks.

When Moses appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration, he entered into intelligent conversation with our Lord Jesus. His brain had become dust centuries earlier, where God had buried him, yet this fact had no affect on his ability to think. Jesus testified of a situation in Hades where Abraham and an unnamed rich man likewise had an ongoing brainless conversation. Jesus Himself, when His body lay dead in the sepulchre, yet went brainless and preached to the brainless spirits in prison from Noah's day.
Bottom line, Minds think, Brains cannot. God of course has no brain, but in Scripture He speaks concerning "the mind of the spirit" because Mind is spiritual, with us as well, created in His image and likeness. However, we see that brains often impede the mind's ability to communicate, especially diseased or injured brains. So, what are those synapses etc all about? I don't know, but when we correct our understanding of how God designed us, we're on our way more accurately.
Have you ever done an article on this subject? I don't recall seeing one, but would love more understanding.
Shaun Doyle
See Exploring the God Question 3. Mind and Consciousness, Part 1 (The Brain) for some more discussion and links on the relation between the mind and the brain.
Larry P.
Well, I learn a lot from your articles. They bring me closer to God. I cannot Thank You enough for them.
However, I notice something that is disturbing in them, and wonder Why. As in this article, as well as others, you Always attach a Female pronoun. In this one, you attach the female pronoun to painters. I sit here thinking, who is the most recent Female painter I have read about, who has come down to us, thru the ages? Sorry, can’t think of one. Or, any notable ones.
My conclusion is you are being Politically Correct. Isn’t that what you are fighting? Just wondering ........
Larry P.
Shaun Doyle
I'm glad you appreciate the content. But no, I'm not being politically correct. If I gave it much thought at all when I wrote it (which I probably didn't), the making the painter in my analogy female would've been just for a change of pace. And no, we don't always use women in our analogies. Consider e.g. my use of Fred Hollows as an analogy in How do miracles happen?, and the all-male parable The horse and the tractor.
Noah D.
"What happens when you take God out of Berkeley’s picture? David Hume is what you get (David Hume and divine design). Hume asked a simple question: what can we know of God through our sense perception? The answer is obvious: nothing. But if sense perception is the only way to know the existence of anything, and we can’t know God through sense perception, then God becomes unknowable."

This is not actually true. When God's spirit is close to me I have "sense perception" of him with my senses. My body can literally feel his spirit and love and blessing come upon me. They are real sensations. And also people who are involved in healing know about hands being warm/hot when God is about to heal someone with their hands, etc. There are many physical sense perceptions that come with seeking after God, praying and crying out to him.
Shaun Doyle
When is the Spirit not near to you? He's everywhere. Of course, you're not speaking simply of physical proximity when you say that He is 'near' you. But that illustrates the problem I'm getting at. God has no physical properties that make Him subject to sensory detection. We can only sense Him if He lets us. The same is not true of e.g. a tree, or the wind, or your neighbour.

I'm not arguing against the idea that God can give us physical sensations that we might associate with God (even intuitively or automatically). Even Hume would grant that. He would argue, though, that we can't reasonably associate such sensations with God. I disagree, but the fact remains that there is a bridge of association between our (physical) senses and God, and it's one that we can't replicate and isn't common to us all like our sensory perceptions of ordinary physical objects are.

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