For the majority of our existence as Homo sapiens we’ve assumed the universe revolves around us. Maybe we should be called Homo narcissus? It wasn’t until Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, through painstaking observation and reasoning, challenged the notion of geocentrism, and began humankind’s journey away from self-centeredness. Today we know that Earth is only one of the planets that have the sun as center of our local system, which is a small part of an arm of a large galaxy, itself part of an unimaginably countless number of galaxies in the universe that began nearly 14 billion years ago. That eventual recognition of how minuscule we are compared to the immensity of space and time should have been humbling.
This Scientific American article says that recently prominent scientists and philosophers have been propagating ideas that restore us—more specifically, our minds, or consciousness–to the center of things. The author of the article calls this perspective neo-geocentrism. According to the article:
As far as we know, consciousness is property of only one weird type of matter that evolved relatively recently here on Earth: brains. Neo-geocentrists nonetheless suggest that consciousness pervades the entire cosmos. It might even have been the spark that ignited the big bang.
Neo-geocentric thinking has always lurked at the fringes of science, but it is becoming more mainstream. That was apparent at “Sages & Scientists,” convened in September by holistic-health mogul Deepak Chopra. The meeting called for “a new science” that “can accept consciousness as fundamental and not just something generated by the brain.”
One expects this outlook from Chopra, who once belonged to the Transcendental Meditation movement and remains sympathetic toward its Hindu metaphysics. But other speakers expressing neo-geocentric sentiments included neuroscientist Rudolph Tanzi of Harvard, who has co-authored two books with Chopra; psychologist Donald Hoffman of the University of California at Irvine; and psychiatrist Daniel Siegel of UCLA.
At a number of consciousness conferences, tenured professors from major institutions proposed that consciousness matters at least as much as matter. Here, from the article, are specific examples of neo-geocentrism:
Information Theories of Consciousness. Claude Shannon invented information theory in the 1940s to quantify and boost the efficiency of communication systems. Ever since, scientists and philosophers have sought to transform it into a theory of everything. Information-based theories are all neo-geocentric, because information—definable as the capacity of a system to surprise an observer–presumes the existence of consciousness.
Integrated Information Theory (IIT). Invented by neuroscientist Guilio Tononi and championed by neuroscientist Christof Koch and physicist Max Tegmark, integrated information theory postulates that any system with interacting parts—a proton, say, which consists of three quarks–is processing information and hence is conscious. IIT revives the mystical doctrine of panpsychism, which asserts that consciousness dwells within all matter.
Quantum Theories of Consciousness. Quantum mechanics has long provoked neo-geocentric musings. Is the cat in the box alive or dead? Is that photon a wave or a particle? Well, it depends on how—or whether—we look at it. Quantum mechanics, physicist John Wheeler proposed decades ago, implies that we live in a “participatory universe,” the existence of which somehow depends on us.
Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch-OR). Some quantum interpreters hold that conscious observation causes probabilistic, “superposed” quantum states to collapse into a single state. Orch-OR, invented by physicist Roger Penrose and anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, flips this notion on its head, claiming that the collapse of superposed states causes consciousness. Because such collapses occur in all matter, not just brains, Penrose and Hameroff conclude that consciousness “could be deeply related to the operation of the laws of the universe.”
Reality Is a Simulation. Descartes fretted over whether the world is an illusion foisted on us by a demon. Philosopher Nick Bostrom has revived this conceit, conjecturing that “we are living in a computer simulation” generated by a high-tech civilization. Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, philosopher David Chalmers and tech-titan Elon Musk have expressed sympathy for the simulation thesis, which is creationism repackaged for nerds.
Anthropic Principle. As physicists lose hope of explaining why our universe is the way it is, they have become increasingly fond of the anthropic principle, which decrees that our universe must be as we observe it to be, because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to observe it. Modern proponents of this neo-geocentric tautology include Stephen Hawking, Sean Carroll and Brian Greene.
Buddhism. Even though it is 2,500 years old, Buddhism deserves to be on this list because of its remarkable popularity among western intellectuals. It is not a religion, they often insist, but only a way to understand and relax the mind. But Buddhism, like Catholicism, the religion of my childhood, espouses a supernatural metaphysics, in which the cosmos serves as the stage for our spiritual journey toward nirvana.
Now this is just wonderful. All my mystic musings have been confirmed as science!! Well, the article’s author says that the cold, hard skeptic in him rejects neo-geocentrism as the kind of fuzzy-headed mysticism that science helps us overcome. Maybe some of you think I’m being fuzzy-headed. But if my fuzzy-headed neo-geocentrism bugs you, then why doesn’t militant materialism and atheism, which, as the author says, belittle our craving for transcendent meaning, bug you as well. After all they seem oblivious to the extraordinary improbability of our existence, or just give a shrug of the shoulders to it. Either way, after all, without minds to ponder it, the universe might as well not exist.
I do agree with the author that that no theory or theology can do justice to the mystery of our existence, and a humble agnosticism is probably the wisest course. Still, ever since my conversion to Christianity, my science has had a teleos, an end point. I’d like to think I’m thinking God’s thoughts after him. When the Scriptures say we are created in his image, that image is mind. And the mind of God fills this universe as the soul of a painter fills his painting or the soul of a musician fills his music.