What Are We? New Experiments Suggest We're Not Purely Physical

06/29/2010 07:28 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The world was once wondrous. As a boy I remember mounting the stairs that led to the legendary Harvard Medical School. The huge granite slabs were worn by past generations of scientists. Here, I fancied, the greatest minds on the planet busied themselves around electron microscopes and ultra-centrifuges, working in their laboratories on secret experiments. But I'm older now, and my colleagues tell me we're just the activity of carbon and some proteins; we live awhile and die. And the universe? It too has no meaning. They have it all worked out in the equations -- no need for woo.

But a series of new experiments suggest this may be all wrong, and that part of us exists outside of the physical world. The implications of these experiments have been downplayed because, until recently, quantum behavior was limited to the microscopic world. However, this 'two-world' view (that is, one set of physical laws for small objects, and another set of laws for the rest of the universe, including us) has no basis in reason, and more importantly, is being challenged in labs around the world.

We're trapped in an outdated paradigm. A few more equations, we're told, and we'll know it all -- any day now. There's no adventure left, no lost gardens in far away lands. But we all intuitively know there's more to existence than our science books grant. It's the same nostalgic yearning that gives religion its persistent power over humanity.

It was this search that lured me into science. My life has been a journey that began as a young boy when I persuaded myself to make a trip (by bus and trolley) to Harvard. I hoped the men of science would receive me kindly, but when I got there the guard wouldn't let me in. I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, when the palace guard said "go away." I went around the building and stood by some dumpsters trying to look inconspicuous. A short balding guy came walking up with a bunch of keys -- the janitor, I thought. After I slipped in, he asked me if he could help. "No," I said "I'm looking for a Harvard doctor. I'm trying to induce melanin synthesis in albino chickens." My words met with a stare of surprise. Seeing the impact they were having, I went on, although I was certain he didn't know what DNA was. As we got to talking, I told him I worked in the school cafeteria myself, and was good friends with the janitor up the street. He asked if my father was a doctor. "No," I laughed. "He's a professional gambler. He plays poker."

I didn't know he was Stephen Kuffler, the world-famous neurobiologist who had been nominated for the Nobel Prize. At the time, however, I felt like a schoolmaster lecturing a pupil. I told him about the experiment I had performed in my basement--how I altered the genetic makeup of a white chicken to make it black. "Your parents must be proud," he said. "No, they don't care what I do," I replied. "They think I'm out in my treehouse." He insisted on introducing me to a "Harvard doctor." I hesitated -- I didn't want him to get into trouble. "Don't worry about me," he said with a little grin.

He took me into a room crammed with sophisticated equipment. A "doctor" looking through an instrument was about to insert an electrode into the nerve of a caterpillar [the "doctor," Josh Sanes, was a graduate student, now Director of Harvard's Center for Brain Science]. "I'll stop back later," my new friend said. From that moment on everything was a dream come true. The doctor and I talked all afternoon. And then I looked at the clock. "Oh no!" I said, "I have to go!" I hurried home and went straight to my treehouse. That evening, the call of my mother penetrated the woods: "Rob--by! Time for dinner!"

No one had any idea that evening - including me − that I had met one of the greatest scientists in the world. Kuffler is often referred to as the "Father of Modern Neuroscience." As a medical student I used his From Neurons to Brain as a textbook. Yet it wasn't what I learned from his book that was most relevant to understanding the world. It was startling to realize, after studying neurobiology, that objects, indeed our own bodies, are nothing but representations in our mind -− that we can't see anything through the bone surrounding the brain.

We assume there's a universe "out there" separate from what we are, and that we play no role in its appearance. Yet since the 1920s, experiments have shown just the opposite; results do depend on whether anyone is observing. This is most vividly illustrated by the famous two-hole experiment. When you watch a particle go through the holes, it behaves like a bullet, passing through one hole or the other. But if no one observes the particle, it exhibits the behavior of a wave and can pass through both holes at the same time.

This and other experiments tell us that unobserved particles exist only as "waves of probability" as Max Born demonstrated in 1926. They're statistical predictions -- nothing but a likely outcome. Until observed, they have no real existence; only when the mind sets the scaffolding in place can they be thought of as having duration or a position in space. Experiments make it increasingly clear that even mere knowledge in the experimenter's mind is sufficient to convert possibility to reality.

Importantly, this behavior isn't limited to the microscopic world. New experiments carried out with huge molecules called "Buckyballs" show that quantum reality extends into the macroscopic world we live in. In 2005, KHC0₃ crystals exhibited entanglement ridges one-half inch high, quantum behavior nudging into everyday levels of discernment.

Biocentrism tells us that reality is a process that involves our consciousness, and that space and time aren't the hard objects we think. Recent experiments show that separate particles can influence each other instantaneously over great distances, as if they're endowed with ESP. They're intimately linked in a manner suggesting there's no space or time influencing their behavior. In 1997 Nicolas Gisin sent pairs of particles zooming along optical fibers until they were seven miles apart. But whatever action one took, its twin performed the complementary action instantaneously. Since then, other researchers have duplicated Gisin's work.

All of these experiments make perfect sense from a biocentric perspective. Everything we perceive is a whirl of information in our head. Time can be defined as the summation of spatial states occurring inside the mind. But that doesn't mean there's an invisible matrix in which changes occur. We watch our loved ones age and die and assume that an external entity called time is responsible for the crime. There's a peculiar intangibility to space, as well. Like time, it's just a tool of our understanding.

Future studies may confirm this biocentric view of the universe. Just months ago, Gisin announced a new twist on his experiment, and that the results could be visible to the naked eye. Another proposed new experiment, scaled-up superposition, may confirm that quantum effects apply to human-scale objects.

It seems like yesterday that I was standing by the dumpster at Harvard; and that one of the most brilliant scientists in history let me into the world of science. In the late 1970's, the betting was that the next Nobel Prize would go to Kuffler, Wiesel and Hubel. But Nobel Prizes aren't awarded posthumously, and Kuffler died while working at his desk on October 11, 1980. (The next year, Hubel and Wiesel won the Nobel Prize.) Someday we'll realize that the questions with which he concerned himself -- the brain and how we perceive the world -- are a mystery on par with understanding the universe and the origin of life.

But the solution to this mystery lies within our grasp, a solution hinted at by the frequency with which the old paradigm breaks down. This is the underlying problem: we've ignored a critical component of the universe, shunted it out of the way because we didn't know what to do with it. This component is consciousness -- us, the great observer.

Biocentrism (BenBella Books) lays out Lanza's theory of everything.