Letters - Summer 2007

Response to Our Spring Issue

By Our readers | June 1, 2007

A New Theory of the Universe

In his otherwise engagingly written essay, “A New Theory of the Universe” (Spring 2007), Robert Lanza’s proposal that “biocentrism” in general and “conscious­ness” in particular are the crucial missing ingredients required for any deep understanding of the mysteries of existence or “reality” exposes a major fallacy harbored by many self-described conscious beings: that a living (biological) and preferably brain-supported “mind” is an essential requirement for observership.

This is an ancient conceit. The idea that only living entities may be “observers” has been annoyingly tenacious throughout human history and has become even more fashionable since humans have been puzzling over relativity and “quantum weirdness.” An inconceivably rich inanimate world of things can perform interactions with as much alacrity as we suppose we do. An electron that was struck by a photon 13 billion years ago most assuredly “observed” (reacted to) the event, with no help or validation from a “consciousness” that would not even exist for most of those 13 billion years.

Are we to infer from this that the inanimate world is actually imbued with some invisible or muted consciousness? John Wheeler’s dictum, “No phenomenon is a real phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon,” in no way requires a living agency to do the observing. In the context of the essential participatory nature of reality that Wheeler propounded, it is interpretable as a shining expression of liberation from the tyranny of the concept of consciousness. Either that, or we must face the daunting conclusion that the inanimate world of things is not as unconscious as most of us like to suppose it is . . . or that we are not as “conscious” as we like to suppose we are, and that there may be a kind of gradient of complexity in consciousness associated with all of material reality, from subatomic particle to human brain.

On the surface, Lanza’s proclamation that “a particle cannot be thought of as having any definite existence—either duration or a position in space—until we observe it” sounds perfectly consistent with what we have learned from quantum mechanics. That is, until we inquire more closely into just what we mean exactly by this “we” thing.

Lanza’s preoccupation with the “biocentric” perspective of reality actually conceals an egocentric one. Ironically, this confused “theory” is far more effective than what he is pleased to identify as the shortcomings of physics at undermining our understanding of the mysteries of nature: by specifically segregating the individual self from the rest of its vast universal environment that created us, supports us, and functions and has functioned very well with and without us.

Adolf Schaller
Gays Mills, Wisconsin

Robert Lanza has illuminated problems that have been kicking around in my head for decades. Thank you for being a journal where such issues can be discussed freely and without censure. I have always been disturbed, as an atheist, by the chances for life in a universe where the slightest change in physical factors would make it impossible. Now I’m convinced that the fact of life isn’t improbable; rather it is inevitable. For, as Lanza states, “There is neither time nor motion without life.”

David Jonas
Dighton, Massachusetts

I agree that the nature of biological consciousness is an extremely important field of scientific inquiry, but I take exception to Robert Lanza’s basing his claims on quantum physics. He ignores the scale of quantum effects, obscures the technical meaning of observer, and misapplies the Uncertainty Principle. To illustrate just one example, consider Lanza’s arrow. The Uncertainty Principle puts limits on the knowledge of an object’s position and velocity, but these limits are so weak as to be biologically meaningless. Even if we knew the position of the arrow to within the width of one atom, we would still know the speed to within one part in 100 trillion miles per hour. Since these scales are too fine for scientific arrow measurement, let alone biological observation, there is no practical uncertainty regarding the arrow’s position and velocity.

Lanza makes the mistake of confusing uncertainty in everyday life with fundamental physical uncertainty. To argue that uncertainties of a biologically undetectable magnitude imply that space and time are subjective concepts created by consciousness makes for a clever essay, but has nothing to do with physical reality.

Jeffrey Borowitz
Boston, Massachusetts

Robert Lanza claims that the universe, with its uniform laws, exists only as an extension of my mind, because quantum mechanics demonstrates that observation changes the nature of primary wave particles. But altering a subatomic event in this way, however mysterious, is a far cry from a universe in which biological entity creates its own reality. Microcosmic perception appears to be simply a different perspective than the macrocosmic; reality remains apart from perception, enormously vaster than human will and idea.

The allied theory that because gravity causes a minute warp in space-time, making time slow down relatively, therefore all past and future time is eternally present, is a very large leap of logic. The connection between the natural laws of the very large and the very small may be much more convoluted than we can understand. Experience suggests that reason trumps imagination, because reason already has the foothold that imagination is trying to gain.

So we must look at reason and imagina­tion in the spirit of wisdom, which is always of the ages. I’ve walked in woods and parks, seeing trees that have fallen without my observation. I know that they made a noise when they fell. I know that if I walk from the kitchen into the living room, the kitchen is still there. I know that these perceptions are true because they are humble, not biologically omniscient. I will not be deceived by disingenuous argument. The charge of solopsism against Lanza is consistent with sanity and has not been refuted.

Classification and rationalization can hone perception and reflection into worldview. There is no universal solvent that will transform philosophy and religion into science, or science into philosophy and religion.

Arthur H. King Jr.
Audubon, New Jersey

It is simply not the case, as Robert Lanza says, that “space and time are relative to the observer.” Lanza falls into the same trap that has snared many interpreters of the theory of relativity: not understanding what the term relative refers to here.

The theory can be stated without any reference to an “observer.” This term is more problematic for quantum mechanics, but Lanza takes an extreme position in assuming that here “observer” must refer to a biological entity. Certainly many of the physicists quoted by Lanza would not take this position.

The final argument for Lanza seems to be that since quantum mechanics is stated in terms of “complex mathematics” and is “impervious to metaphor,” then reality is “life-created.” This is an amazing leap and may be new, but it is certainly not a theory in any scientific sense.

Arthur Guetter
Saint Paul, Minnesota

I cannot begin to tell you how exciting it is that you have published “A New Theory of the Universe.”

Jonathan Shearman
Terrey Hills NSW Australia

I thoroughly enjoyed “A New Theory of the Universe” by Robert Lanza. However it contains a serious error of fact regarding Charles Darwin and his views on the emergence of life on our planet. Darwin never “spoke of the possibility that life emerged from inorganic matter in some ‘warm little pond.’” What Darwin did say in that context in a letter to his friend J. D. Hooker, dated March 29, 1863, was: “It is mere rubbish, thinking at present of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter.”

Bernard F. Erlanger
New York City

May I add to Robert Lanza’s illustration of the simultaneity of past, present, and future? His analogy is the songs on a phonograph record, the one currently being played in the present, the one played earlier in the past, and the one yet to be played in the future, but all three existing at the same time. Time travel is the theme of John Balderston’s 1929 play, Berkeley Square (based on Henry James’s unfinished novel The Sense of the Past). In his introduction, Balderston describes a boater on a curving river. The boater exists in the present, the area of the curve behind is in the past, and the future lies in the bend ahead, but it is all in the present to a pilot flying a plane above.

It may be brash to think that Werner Heisenberg and Robert Lanza could have chosen a better example than the characters in a little weather house to illustrate the uncertainty of location and velocity at the same time: “If one comes out, the other goes in.” However, it seems to me, a 94-year-old history major, that this is simply a horizontal seesaw and explained in elementary physics.

Milton Woll
Larchmont, New York

Robert Lanza says, “What we interpret as the world is brought into existence inside our heads.” But that can’t be true. What exists in our head is a brain, with all that makes up a brain. A man once showed Picasso a photograph of his wife, saying that that’s my wife. Picasso observed that she was awfully small.

Jack Fleming
Missoula, Montana


When 2 + 2 = 5

You were kind to publish Robert Orsi’s “When 2 + 2 = 5.” There are other church bodies that believe in The Real Presence, including the Anglicans and the various Orthodox, and just as firmly as Orsi does, with a good deal less superstition and without ignoring the truth, which making five out of four blatantly does. Can anything be godly that is not true? I don’t think so.

Anglicans not only believe that Christ is really present on the altar, in the bread and wine, and the Eucharistic action, but that He is also present in the congregation, the Body of Christ. My understanding of the Sacrament is that it is a lot like sex between married people: a thing and an action by which two people, called together by God (i.e., by good and for good), either celebrate or restore the relationship, and usually both. The whole business of some presence in a statue, or a statue of Mary shedding tears, is superstition—really paganism. Such a “faith” can only be sustained by a strong outside authority, which has every hope of continuing the people in ignorance, and does not dare let the laity be the “people of God” or “The Body of Christ.” The Pope recently hoped a reasonable Christianity might again become central in Europe; so perhaps he knows that there is such a thing. But Orsi doesn’t seem to, or has some need I cannot understand or be sympathetic to.

Thomas Pickering
Newtown Square, Pennsylvania


One Day in the Life

I am deeply offended that you titled Melvin Jules Bukiet’s article about his stupidity, “One Day in the Life of Melvin Jules Bukiet.” By echoing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s seminal account of one person’s suffering in the Gulag and attaching it to such an article you denigrate all the victims of the Gulag.

Thomas McGonigle
New York City


The Apologist

As the translator of Peter Handke’s Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia, and as author of half-a-dozen articles about Handke’s work, I don’t recognize the writer Michael McDonald vilifies in “The Apologist.” He has given readers of this journal a conveniently evil creation of his own heated imagination.

Consider a couple of entries from the catalogue of accepted ideas that make up McDonald’s “argument”:

• Slobodan Milosevic, “a man most disinterested observers believe to have been responsible for a series of wars that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people during his 13 years in power.”

• Milosevic, “the ‘Butcher of the Balkans’”

Justice for Serbia, “part political harangue and part travelogue.”

McDonald is unable to think that the civil war that destroyed Yugoslavia had multiple perpetrators, including Milosevic, Izetbegovic (Bosnia), and Tudjman (Croatia). He implies that Milosevic was alone guilty by reminding us that people called him the “Butcher of the Balkans.” He denigrates the beautifully provocative Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia with words that better describe his own blunt thinking: “political harangue.”

When Günter Grass, McDonald’s moral counterweight to Handke, supported Germany’s actions against Serbia, some Serbs decided to burn their copies of Grass’s books. Handke suggested that they keep the books, that they wrestle with the ideas, that they respect the work of a fine novelist.

Grass’s ideas are important. As are Handke’s. McDonald’s are a disgrace.

Scott Abbott
Woodland Hills, Utah


On Gilgamesh

I appreciated Sudip Bose’s review of David Damrosch’s new translation of the epic Gilgamesh. I once taught that old story in my comparative literature course at the University of Texas (El Paso).

Babylon, Uruk, Kish, Ur, and Susa: those ancient cities or places are once again somewhat familiar to us. I have a son now in Iraq. It’s strange to imagine him in his armored Humvee journeying through the same sands Gilgamesh and Enkidu did. It’s reassuring to see that such ancient works as Gilgamesh are still with us—and available in modern-day versions.

Robert Burlingame
White City, New Mexico


Correction

In a review of Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Ralph Ellison (Spring), the first name of psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan was incorrect.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

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