You are a born narcissist. You know you are conscious, and you don’t worry about whether others are too, because only your experiences matter. The world is a stage for the drama of your life. You are reality’s epicenter.
As you grow up, you realize others matter too. Your narcissism expands to encompass people in your family, tribe, even humanity as a whole. Perhaps you, personally, aren’t reality’s reason for being, but your species surely is.
These assumptions come so naturally to us that for most of our pre-history and history we didn’t question them. Religions reflect our self-centeredness, and science did too, at first. The Sun, Moon, planets, stars and entire cosmos whirl around the Earth, our home. Don’t our eyes tell us as much every day and night?
It took courage as well as imagination, painstaking observations and rational analysis for Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo to challenge geocentrism. Their insights, met initially by incredulity and hostility, helped us escape our primal self-centeredness.
Today we know Earth is only one of nine planets orbiting the Sun (I do not belittle Pluto), which is one of billions of stars in our galaxy, which is one of countless galaxies in the universe, which exploded into existence 14 billion years ago. Our planet formed 4.5 billion years ago, and a billion years later singled-celled organisms emerged. A few hundred thousand years ago, a split second in cosmic time, we appeared and assumed the whole shebang was made for us. Call us Homo narcissus.
Our eventual recognition of how minuscule we are compared to the immensity of space and time has been humbling. But that revelation should be a source of pride, too. We had the intelligence and maturity to escape the delusional self-regard and superstition of the dark ages. We earned the label Homo sapiens.
But recently prominent scientists and philosophers have been propagating ideas that restore us—more specifically, our minds, or consciousness--to the center of things. I call this perspective neo-geocentrism.
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.
Neo-geocentric thinking was also rampant at consciousness powwows I attended in Tucson, Arizona, last spring and at New York University last fall, where tenured professors from major institutions proposed that consciousness matters at least as much as matter. Here 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.
I get the appeal of neo-geocentrism. Although I abandoned Catholicism by my early teens, psychedelics aroused my suspicion that the universe was designed for us. A 1981 trip left me convinced for longer than I care to admit that we were created by a God suffering from multiple-personality disorder.
Although I reluctantly abandoned that mad theology, I glommed onto neo-geocentric ideas like Wheeler’s participatory universe and “it from bit,” a fusion of information theory and quantum mechanics. Wheeler and his fellow neo-geocentrist Freeman Dyson were two of my favorite thinkers.
The cold, hard skeptic in me rejects neo-geocentrism as the kind of fuzzy-headed mysticism that science helps us overcome. Neo-geocentrism represents the projection of our fears and desires, our yearning to matter. Its surging popularity is, perhaps, a symptom of our era’s social-media-enabled self-infatuation.
But if neo-geocentrism bugs me, so do militant materialism and atheism, which belittle our craving for transcendent meaning, and seem oblivious to the extraordinary improbability of our existence. And after all, without minds to ponder it, the universe might as well not exist.
I guess what I’m advocating is a simple acknowledgment that no theory or theology can do justice to the mystery of our existence. That modest agnosticism, it seems to me, is what Homo sapiens would choose.