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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.