About Doug Marman

Doug Marman has been writing, lecturing and leading classes on the exploration of consciousness for more than forty years. His work has led him through successful careers in a wide range of professions, including: journalist, inventor (with more than twenty-five patents), editor, engineer, marketing manager, photographer, corporate executive at one of the largest companies in the world, and co-founder of a technology start-up. He lives in the United States Pacific Northwest, with his family.

The Fallacy of Complexity

By Doug Marman

Even the simplest organisms are amazingly complicated. This is why scientists who focus on the origin of life often study complexity. They try to find ways that intricate patterns can emerge from simple algorithms. They hope that this will give us clues on how cellular life evolved. This is a fallacy.

The mistake comes from confusing complexity, in general, with the specific kind of intricacies we find in living things. There is so much vague thinking about this subject that many scientists think that generating any kind of complexity can help solve the mystery of life. Countless hours have been wasted on this pursuit.

Professor Sharon Glotzer talks with some engineering students. Photo from University of Michigan.

A recent article raises this issue again. “A ‘Digital Alchemist’ Unravels the Mysteries of Complexity” describes the fascinating work of Sharon Glotzer and her 33-person team, at the University of Michigan.

Glotzer uses computer simulations to study emergence — the phenomenon whereby simple objects give rise to surprising collective behaviors. “When flocks of starlings make these incredible patterns in the sky that look like they’re not even real, the way they’re changing constantly — people have been seeing those patterns since people were on the planet,” she said. “But only recently have scientists started to ask the question, how do they do that? How are the birds communicating so that it seems like they’re all following a blueprint?”[1]

Glotzer specializes in the way inert shapes can naturally align to create surprisingly complex patterns.

For example, if you have a room full of spheres, all the same size, they will naturally assemble into a simple lattice pattern. You only need to shake them gently and they will fall into this simple repeating pattern. What Glotzer discovered is that if you start with other shapes, such as pyramids, made from triangles on all sides, they produce quasi-crystalline patterns that never repeat. Simple shapes can produce surprisingly complex patterns.

Glotzer sees this as a potential new insight into the origin of life. She said:

Most scientists think that to have order you need chemical bonds — you need interactions. And we’ve shown that you don’t. You can just have objects that, if you just confine them enough, can self-organize… So it’s a completely different way to think about life and increasing complexity… I know because I’ve done this, that I can take a bunch of objects and put them in a little droplet and shrink the droplet a little, and these objects will spontaneously organize. So maybe that phenomenon is important in the origin of life, and I don’t think that’s been considered.

This insight about the patterns created by different shapes is valuable for the work that Glotzer does: creating new materials through molecular engineering. Unfortunately, it isn’t going to helps us solve the mystery of the origin of life because it displays the wrong kind of complexity.

This simple mistake happens far too often. It is time to kill this fallacy.

The reason that even smart scientists fall for this error is that they really don’t understand organic life. They can’t explain how even the simplest cells survive. Physics and chemistry don’t give us the tools needed to illuminate the secret of life.

What happens when we face something unknown, something we don’t understand? We naturally compare it to things that we know. That is why scientists keep trying to see if mechanical reactions can explain life.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t help, for a simple reason: Life is complicated in a special way that machines can’t achieve. Once you see this, you will realize why all of the games with computer algorithms, looking for ways to create complexity, are a waste of time.

To understand this, let’s start with one of the best introductions to this problem and how it relates to the origin of life. In Richard Dawkin’s book, “The Blind Watchmaker,” he asks:

So, what is a complex thing? How should we recognize it? In what sense is it true to say that a watch or an airliner or an earwig or a person is complex, but the moon is simple?[2]

Dawkins takes us down this path to show that we have to throw away many of the simplest ideas about complexity if we want to get at what really matters. For example, the moon is simple because it is one homogeneous thing, like a bowl of milk or the endless sands in the Sahara desert. Dawkins suggests that we need a system with many different elements. That is the kind of complication we are looking for.

However, this isn’t enough. A mountain, like Mont Blanc, is made up of many different types of rocks. And every area of Mont Blanc is truly unique and distinct from every other, making it far from simple. But this doesn’t resemble the patterns we find in organisms.

Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. Photo from Wikipedia.

He then asks if we can get closer to the mystery of life by looking at probabilities. What if we say something is complex only if it has an arrangement of many different elements in a way that is highly improbable?

[I]f you take the parts of an airliner and jumble them up at random, the likelihood that you would happen to assemble a working Boeing is vanishingly small. There are billions of possible ways of putting together the bits of an airliner, and only one, or very few, of them would actually be an airliner. There are even more ways of putting together the scrambled parts of a human.

This approach to a definition of complexity is promising, but something more is still needed. There are billions of ways of throwing together the bits of Mont Blanc, it might be said, and only one of them is Mont Blanc. So what is it that makes the airliner and the human complicated, if Mont Blanc is simple?[3]

In other words, the complexity we are looking for can’t be found by just throwing things together. We need to see something more than just an accumulation of parts.

This shows why Glotzer’s discovery is not going to help. She researches the results of tossing things together. Yes, they can make amazing patterns that never repeat, which are fascinating, but it is still just a pile of parts. By itself, this pile doesn’t do anything special.

Therefore, it isn’t the improbability of a non-repeating pattern that we are looking for. We need something more. As Dawkins says:

If we see a plane in the air we can be sure that it was not assembled by randomly throwing scrap metal together…[4]

Intentional flight requires a different type of complexity. A plane allows people to travel around the world. That is what jumps out at us. Jets can’t be created by just throwing things together and hoping that something special is going to emerge.

But this is where I part ways with Richard Dawkins, because even this isn’t the kind of complexity we are looking for in living creatures. Why? Because planes are designed and constructed by human beings from a plan, from a blueprint. On the other hand, multicellular creatures, such as animals, fish, even trees and plants, develop from single cells, into complex bodies, made up of many organs that work intricately with each other. We don’t see the same thing in even the most sophisticated machines.

Can we explain the difference between the complexity of machines and organisms? Let’s look.

Planes don’t grow from seeds. That’s one difference. Here is another, plants and animals are not assembled by outsiders.

Airliners don’t seek for food or fuel on their own, while creatures are able to overcome incredible obstacles to find nutrition. Jets don’t develop unique ways of defending themselves from predators. And planes don’t reproduce by mating with other aircraft, or by dividing into two.

Organisms clearly show us a different kind of complexity than machines. Scientists keep trying to treat creatures as if they are sophisticated machines, but the metaphor fails in important ways. For example, biologists have been forced to abandon the old idea that DNA contains a blueprint for constructing the body of animals. It simply doesn’t work.

When DNA was first discovered, biologists expected to find one gene for every protein and enzyme needed in the human body. Once they mapped the whole genome, however, they found that there aren’t even close to enough genes to pull this off.

Every gene is involved in multiple roles. They also need to work with countless other genes. Many times, parts of one gene are used with parts from another, to get what is needed. And genes are turned on and off from outside the DNA.

Look at trees. They don’t follow a blueprint or a plan. That’s why the branches, leaves, and seeds emerge spontaneously at different places, making each tree unique. The blueprint idea simply doesn’t work as an explanation. This is one of the many failed attempts to compare living things to machines.

So we need to find a different kind of complexity than we see in machines. How do we describe this difference? Here is one way: You can’t take a creature apart to study how all of its organs and cells work together. If you try to do this, you will kill it.

That leads us to an even bigger difference: If a bird dies, it can no longer fly or search for food. Its body is just as complex as it was the moment before it died, but now it no longer hops on its feet, flaps its wings, or sings.

Robert Rosen’s description of complexity brings us closer to the mystery of life that we are searching for: A living organism is a system that cannot be fully explained by reducing it to its parts because it can only live when its parts work in a relationship with each other as a whole.

Rosen puts it this way:

It has turned out that, in order to be in a position to say what life is, we must spend a great deal of time in understanding what life is not. Thus, I will be spending a great deal of time with mechanisms and machines, ultimately to reject them, and replace them with something else. This is in fact the most radical step I shall take, because for the past three centuries, ideas of mechanism and machine have constituted the very essence of the adjective ‘scientific’; a rejection of them thus seems like a rejection of science itself.

But this turns out to be only a prejudice, and like all prejudices, it has disastrous consequences. In the present case, it makes the question ‘What is life?’ unanswerable; the initial presupposition that we are dealing with mechanism already excludes most of what we need to arrive at an answer. No amount of refinement or subtlety within the world of mechanism can avail; once we are in that world, what we need is already gone.[5]

This helps us see the enigma of life more clearly. This is the puzzle we need to solve. Now that we understand the mystery we are up against, it is easy to see why most discussions about complexity and the origin of life completely miss the point. Complex mechanisms and chemical reactions are not enough. Even random events won’t help because the puzzle we need to solve is to explain what makes living things alive.

No one has found a mixture of chemicals that alters its course, avoids threats, or replenishes itself. Chemical reactions simply stop when the energy driving them runs out. Then where does the remarkable desire for life come from?

A crystal, a candle flame, a hurricane, or a Bénard cell does not seek resources when the material conditions for continued catalysis runs out; they cease. Living things do so until all options are exhausted. Some of the simplest organisms engage in surprisingly elaborate behaviors to forestall cessation.[6]

How did a self-organizing, autocatalytic chemical system come to persist in such a way that it could be described as self-preserving…? We do not know. Moreover, we do not appear to be overly concerned that we do not know. The answer cannot be, it just did.[7]

One way to make this point even clearer is by distinguishing between “self-ordering” systems and the kind of organization that we see in living organisms, where cells and organs form responsive relationships, as they work with each other toward a common goal.

Self-ordering should not be confused with self-organization.[8]

A flame on a candle, the vortex that forms in tornados and hurricanes, and crystalline shapes are all examples of self-ordering. They are all the result of physical dynamics that can be explained with physics and chemistry.

No truly sophisticated function has ever arisen from self-ordered states.[9]

Living organizations are different. They require relationships between responsive life forms. For example, human beings work together for a common purpose. Cells and organs work together as a whole. And flocks of starlings fly together as a group. These types of living organizations can’t be explained by simple cause and effect mechanisms or principles of chemistry.

Swarm of starlings. Photo from Wikipedia.

What Glotzer is talking about is clearly self-ordering, not self-organizing. Glotzer’s work is fascinating, but there is no great mystery in the way objects self-order and arrange themselves. This isn’t going to help us solve the enigma of life. Even a well-planned blueprint isn’t enough.

Living organizations and living organisms have a special form of complexity that can never be fully understood by taking them apart.


[1] Natalie Wolchover quotes Sharon Glotzer, “A ‘Digital Alchemist’ Unravels the Mysteries of Complexity,” Quanta Magazine, March 8, 2017.

[2] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986), p. 6.

[3] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986), p. 7.

[4] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986), p. 8.

[5] Robert Rosen, Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry into the Nature, Origin, and Fabrication of Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. xv-xvi.

[6] Lyon, “To Be or Not To Be: Where Is Self-Preservation in Evolutionary Theory?” Major Transitions, p. 106.

[7] Ibid., p. 122.

[8] Abel DL, Trevors JT. Self-Organization vs. Self-Ordering events in life-origin models. Physics of Life Reviews. 2006;3, page 211. Also available from http://lifeorigin.academia.edu/DrDavidLAbel.

[9] Abel, DL. Life Origin, A Scientific Approach, edited for the non-scientist. Available from http://lifeorigin.info/whats-the-difference-between-self-ordering-and-self-organizing.html – _ENREF_21

The Reproducibility Crisis of Psychology and What It Is Trying to Tell Us

By Doug Marman

Over the last few years, a raging crisis has hit the field of psychology: Most published studies can’t be replicated by others. For example, 100 experiments published by highly respected psychology journals were recently tested and only 36% produced results in agreement with the original reports.[1] This is called the “reproducibility crisis.”

It’s a complicated problem. It isn’t caused by fraud, except in rare cases. Many factors are involved, as explained by this article. For example, designing psychology experiments is more difficult than it sounds, and drawing conclusions often involves complex statistical analysis. Even the experiments aimed at reproducing experiments have been found wanting.[2]

This has created a rift among psychologists, with half saying that the problem is more about the way reproducibility tests are run, with the other half feeling “the academic ground give up beneath their feet.” This led one reporter to ask:

“Crisis or not, if we end up with a more rigorous approach to science, and more confidence in what it tells us, surely that is a good thing?”[3]

No, I don’t think that is the answer. In fact, I believe it will make the reproducibility problem worse. The rigorous approach of traditional science is part of the problem. It is time to put a spotlight on how objectivity can interfere with psychology experiments. Otherwise, we are going to continue casting doubt on valid scientific experiments.

Take, for example, an experiment that is literally a textbook case:[4] In the 1980s, Fritz Strack and his co-workers showed that when a person smiles, it improves their mood. Many well-known psychologists, such as William James, and scientists, such as Charles Darwin, have said that expressions create emotions. It makes sense. The challenge was how to design an experiment that scientifically verifies this.

You can’t just ask people to smile, because that automatically makes them conscious of what they’re doing. That will invalidate the results. Strack and his co-workers needed to find a way to get people to move their mouths into a smile, or a pout, without them knowing what they were doing. They found an ingenious solution.

When they asked people to hold a pen in their mouths, with their mouths closed, they automatically moved their faces into a sort of pout. When they asked another group to hold a pen between their teeth without closing their lips, they naturally formed a smile. The subjects had no idea what the test was really about. They were told that the experiment was studying people trying to do two things at the same time. They needed to hold the pen in their mouths while evaluating a series of Far Side cartoons.

Images from an experiment that tested the influence of smiling versus pouting.

The results showed that the group with smiles found the cartoons funnier than the group who was pouting. In other words, just putting your face into a smile naturally brightens your day.

The experiment has been verified countless times over the last twenty-five years, by many researchers. Some have expanded and tested the idea in new ways, besides smiles and pouts, and found similar results. For example, if you take a confident stance, in front of a group, you feel more confident.

So, Strack volunteered to have his classic study be tested by a team of researchers who wanted to reproduce psychology experiments. He wasn’t concerned. It had already been validated before.

Unfortunately, results from the replication experiment contradict Strack’s conclusion. The new test was run by seventeen scientists, across eight countries, using 2,000 subjects. They found no evidence that an unintentional smile or pout made any difference in the funniness of cartoons.[5]

How can this be?

Strack questions the conclusions and the set-up of the experiments. He voiced his concerns even before the testing began, after looking over their approach. At first, as I read Strack’s complaints, it felt like he was trying to defend his original work. But a number of things made me question my first impression.

First, Strack himself offered his experiment to be tested for replication and willingly supplied his original notes and evidence. Second, it had been confirmed successfully many times by other researchers. Third, he questioned the impact of the replication experimenters excluding the results of 600 subjects because they felt those subjects were holding the pens incorrectly or their answers were too wildly divergent. Did their selection to exclude certain results introduce a bias? Fourth, Strack pointed out that many of the subjects were psychology students. Since this was a textbook case, they could have recognized the experiment and its true purpose. That would have prevented them from acting naturally. They should never have been involved.

But it was the fifth point he made that jolted my attention. Strack said that he didn’t like the addition of cameras in the room watching the subjects because it could make the participants self-conscious. That jogged my memory. I had seen this scenario before.

It was one of the most famous early studies in psychology. In 1897, George Stratton strapped on a pair of lenses over his eyes that inverted and reversed his field of view.[6] He knew that our eyes have built-in lenses that produce the same effect: All of the images hitting our retinas are flipped upside-down and reversed. Stratton wanted to see if his mind would naturally find a way to invert and correct his vision.

Sure enough, after five days of looking through inverting lenses, he saw everything as right-side-up. After a week, his new vision felt completely normal.

The results were so startling that hundreds of follow-on experiments were run to reproduce the results. Many did, but some could not. For example, David Linden, a hundred years later, called Stratton’s theory of achieving upright vision a myth.[7] This has created an ongoing controversy.

I studied dozens of experiments with inverting lenses to find an explanation for what was going on. Why were the results so different? I finally found an answer in the longest study ever performed (40 days).[8] Ivan Kohler discovered, unexpectedly, that when he tried to examine the subjects every day with a battery of clinical tests, it interfered with their ability to adapt. They actually regressed.[9]

At first, Kohler thought lab tests would help show the progress his subjects were displaying. Just as Linden did, Kohler brought them in for examination on a daily basis. However, the tests made things worse. The subjects reverted back, losing the gains they had made. What’s going on, he wondered? Kohler had to alter his tests before figuring out the problem. As soon as the experiments were designed to resemble the everyday world, the problem disappeared:

“When the subject was asked to ‘aim’ at something, or to put up his hands in protection when danger threatened…he made correct responses. But when he was asked, ‘Please point this marker in the direction the light is coming from,’ errors occurred.”[10]

That’s when Kohler realized that the subjects were adapting instinctively to the real world. The moment they tried to think critically and objectively about what they were seeing, it broke their “perceptual set.” They reverted back to pre-experimental ways of seeing the world. Asking them to analyze what they were doing prevented them from adapting.

This was hard to understand, Kohler wrote. It took weeks to solve the mystery. For example, after fourteen days of fencing practice, subjects with inverting lenses were able to respond to their opponent’s blade without errors. When it came to fencing, the correct reaction was all that mattered. But if he asked them the question, “Where do you see the rapier point?” it forced them to think critically about what they were experiencing, breaking their lens of perception. They immediately reverted back to old ways of seeing. His question interfered with their instinctive responses.

Getting the subjects to think objectively about what they were doing prevented them from adapting to upright vision. This was the mistake Linden had made. Even though Linden ran his experiment thirty years after Kohler, he didn’t realize the negative impact of objectivity. No wonder all his subjects failed to achieve upright vision.

This is the same affect that cameras can have on subjects. Strack was right: It would make them conscious of being recorded and seeing what they were doing objectively. It makes the experience less natural. On top of this chilling effect of cameras, all of the instructions telling the subjects what to do were presented by a recorded video, in a closed room with no other people, making the experience even more sterile and impersonal.

Can this explain why the subjects showed no positive effects from their unintentional smiles? I think it does. Remember, Strack was trying to study an unconscious effect. He designed his experiments specifically to avoid any interference of conscious thought on the part of the subjects. If moving their mouths into the shape of a smile influences their mood, it is going to happen unconsciously. This means they need to feel at ease and natural, or it isn’t going to work. Thinking critically and objectively about what they were doing is going to interfere.

Think of the irony: Subjecting the subjects of psychology experiments to rigorous, clinical objectivity prevented the very thing they were trying to study—natural responses. They intentionally used cameras and pre-recorded instructions to eliminate outside biases, and without knowing it they introduced a new bias that was just as powerful—objectivity.

Imagine what would happen to a loving relationship if you started analyzing your life partner or lover objectively. Do you think your relationship is going to get better or worse? Is it going to warm up or cool down your natural and playful back-and-forth exchanges?

Psychology research projects have noted the detrimental impact of objectivity on natural relationships. For example, in the last few decades, psychologists have looked closer at the way people learn new skills. John Flach, Professor of Psychology at Wright State University, offers an interesting illustration for how skill-based learning works: Look at the process a child goes through when first learning how to walk, then how to skate on ice, next how to do a handstand, and finally how to walk on stilts.

Each skill needs a “different type of coordination pattern,” a different way of acting to achieve control.[11] In other words, they each require a different lens of perception, a different way of seeing, to master these skills. They learn this unconsciously through trial and error.

Skill-based learning starts with actions. Trying something gives the child feedback, such as falling on their faces or flipping onto their backs. Then they try a new approach. With each loop of trial and error they gradually figure out how to balance and how to move. Learning at this stage is non-verbal and not mediated by thought: The child can’t explain how to balance on stilts. They don’t know how they learned to walk on their hands or skate on ice. They just did it.

This natural learning process is the best way to acquire new skills. No one teaches babies how to talk. They learn it themselves by making sounds and hearing the sounds they make. They learn how to use their bodies the same way: They form working relationships with their muscles and cells. They figure it out without thinking about it.

This is different from academic study, where we consciously think to understand new ideas and what they mean. Our natural process for learning new skills, on the other hand, is largely unconscious and critical thinking can interfere with this natural process.

Psychology experiments are not easy to design. The more rigorous and objective you make them, the more artificial they become, preventing the natural responses you are looking for. You end up learning less about how people act in the real world and more how they behave in a clinical lab.

This is why, as I said above, I believe more objectivity will make the reproducibility crisis worse, not better. What is needed is a better understanding of our lenses of perception, and where to use them. For example, objectivity, as a way of seeing, shouldn’t be the goal of science, but as a tool for double-checking and verifying our experiments. If we want our relationships with others and with our bodies to be natural and spontaneous, we need a relational lens instead, not objectivity.

Over the last century, psychologists have tried to become more rigorous and objective—to become more like physicists. At the same time physicists have come to realize that objectivity can’t explain the behavior of subatomic particles. This is the lesson they learned from quantum mechanics: How you set up an experiment alters the results, and there is nothing you can do to avoid this. In other words, there is no such thing as a fully objective perspective because all measurements influence the outcome.

This same principle applies to the study of natural human responses. It can’t be avoided. Objectivity and critical analysis can and will interfere. If we understand this better, I believe psychology experiments will become easier to reproduce.

I think Katie Palmer got it right when she said that the reproducibility crisis comes down to this:

“The field [of psychology] may have to think differently about how it thinks about itself.”


[1] Open Science Collaboration (over 260 co-authors), “Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychological Science,” Science, August 28, 2015: Vol. 349, Issue 6251.

[2] Daniel T. Gilbert, Gary King, Stephen Pettigrew, Timothy D. Wilson, Comment on ‘Estimating the Reproducibility of Psychological Science,’” Science, March 4, 2016: Vol. 351, Issue 6277.

[3] Ed Young, “Psychology’s Replication Crisis Can’t Be Wished Away,” The Atlantic, March 4, 2016.

[4] Fritz Strack, Leonard L. Martin, Sabine Stepper, “Inhibiting and Facilitating Conditions of the Human Smile: A Nonobtrusive Test of the Facial Feedback Hypothesis,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 54(5), May 1988, 768-777.

[5] Daniel Engber, “Sad Face,” Slate magazine,  August 28, 2016.

[6] George M. Stratton, “Vision without Inversion of the Retinal Image,” Psychological Review 4, no. 4 (1897), p. 341-360.

[7] David E. J. Linden, Ulrich Kallenbach, Armin Heinecke, Wolf Singer, Rainer Goebel, “The Myth of Upright Vision,” Perception 28, no. 4 (1999), p. 469-481. Also posted at http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.294.9093&rep=rep1&type=pdf.

[8] Ivo Kohler, The Formation and Transformation of the Perceptual World, tr. Harry Fiss (New York: International Universities Press, 1964).

[9] Doug Marman, “Lenses of Perception: A Surprising New Look at the Origin of Life, the Laws of Nature, and Our Universe,” (Ridgefield, Washington, Lenses of Perception Press, 2016.), p. 88-90.

[10] Ivo Kohler, The Formation and Transformation of the Perceptual World, p. 153-155.

[11] John M. Flach and Fred Voorhorst, “What Matters?: Putting Common Sense to Work,” (Dayton, Ohio, Wright State University Libraries, 2016), p. 104-105.

Understanding Our Holographic Universe

By Doug Marman

A sketch of the timeline of the holographic Universe. Time runs from left to right. The far left is blurry because space and time are not yet well defined. Patterns from those early formative times shaped the development of stars and galaxies in the Universe today (far right). Credit: Paul McFadden.

Scientists from the UK, Canada, and Italy, recently announced the first empirical evidence that our universe is “holographic.” Unfortunately, the meaning of this is often confused. Even the scientists who published the report seem to be getting it wrong.

For example, one of the authors of the study, Kostas Skenderis, explained it this way:

“Imagine that everything you see, feel, and hear in three dimensions (and your perception of time) in fact emanates from a flat two-dimensional field. The idea is similar to that of ordinary holograms, where a three-dimensional image is encoded in a two-dimensional surface, such as in the hologram on a credit card. However, this time, the entire Universe is encoded.”

This explanation is backwards. Our perceptions and experiences don’t emanate from two dimensions. It is the objective space-time world that is a projection, a 2-D projection that leaves out the countless invisible exchanges that make it real.

This needs explaining, but the right picture is simple: Everything visible and tangible is only the surface appearance of invisible relationships at the quantum level. Objective reality is a projection on a two-dimensional surface.

This makes a whole lot more sense because we experience the same thing in our daily lives. All the important events of our lives are the results of relationships with others. Our attractions, desires, hopes and dreams all spring from these relationships and shape the outcome of the choices we make.

We aren’t surprised when two friends get married because we know their relationship is the cause. Marriage is the end result. The same is true for companies, institutions, and societies. Everything objectively visible is the outcome of invisible relationships. This is the lesson of quantum physics. (More on this in a moment.)

This raises a question: Why would scientists working directly with quantum equations get this backwards? There are two main reasons for this. First, because physicists have no agreed-on way to interpret quantum equations. Physicists don’t have a good explanation for what quantum relationships, such as entanglement, mean or why they exist. The result of this is that most scientists revert to an objective picture of reality, even though quantum physics suggests that there is much more going on beneath the surface.

The second reason is that mathematics has a peculiar limitation: It can’t distinguish cause from effect. It only shows us correlations. This makes it easy to get the story backwards. For example, look at Isaac Newton’s second law of motion, which says:

F (force) = m (mass) X a (acceleration).

It is easy to think this formula is telling us that forces make objects accelerate, but this is wrong. It only says that there is a relationship between force, mass, and acceleration.

This illustration shows how space-time warps around planet Earth. Image by NASA.

Quantum experiments, on the other hand, have shown that forces are not true causes; they are the results of invisible quantum exchanges between charged particles.[1] Attraction and repulsion emerge from a quantum relationship that is not objectively visible.[2] This is where forces come from.

Or, to put this another way, forces are projections from a dimension that is not objective.

Space-time includes everything that is objectively visible, tangible, and measurable. In other words, this is the empirical world, the reality we see, hear, and feel with our senses. It turns out that this reality is a 2-D fabric woven from discrete events where energy is exchanged.[3]

This doesn’t mean the objective world is an illusion, but that it is only the surface appearance. It doesn’t capture the depths of our experiences any more than a person’s words, alone, capture the full meaning of what is hidden between their words, tones of voice, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues. The full meaning of what someone is saying is three-dimensional compared to their words alone.

However, even though many physicists picture the holographic principle backwards, they are right about the importance of this principle: It offers a bridge between the quantum world and the space-time universe. Over 10,000 papers have been written on the idea, because everything we have learned about quantum physics suggests that space-time emerges somehow from quantum entanglement. Now, we have the first empirical evidence that this principle is true.

The Lenses of Perception (LoP) Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics shows how space-time emerges from entangled relationships between particles, similar to the quantum theory of “decoherence.”[4] It also shows that space-time is two-dimensional because every particle is tied to space through other particles that it is directly in contact with, as other physicists have conjectured.[5] And it shows how invisible quantum exchanges cross over to become visible and objective, as other physicists have explained.[6]

This recent discovery adds further validation to the LoP Interpretation.


[1] Bruce A. Schumm, Deep Down Things: The Breathtaking Beauty of Particle Physics (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2004), p. 222-251.

[2] Ruth E. Kastner, Understanding Our Unseen Reality: Solving Quantum Riddles, (London: Imperial College Press, 2015), ch. 4, “Forces and the Relativistic Realm,” subsection: “Forces as Possibility.”

[3] Ruth E. Kastner, The Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: The Reality of Possibility, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 171-178.

[4] Erich Joos, Elements of Environmental Decoherence, http://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/9908008v1.pdf (August 2, 1999

[5] T. Padmanabhan, “Emergent Perspective of Gravity and Dark Energy,” Research in Astronomy and Astrophysics  12, no. 8 (2012), p. 897. Also posted at http://arxiv.org/pdf/1207.0505v1.pdf, p. 6.

[6] Kastner, Understanding Our Unseen Reality, ch. 5, “From Virtual to Possible to Real,” subsection: “Distinguishing between the Microscopic and Macroscopic Worlds.”

How Can Anything Be Half-Alive?

By Doug Marman and Alan Rayner

(This article has also been published on BestThinking.com: https://www.bestthinking.com/articles/science/biology_and_nature/genetics_and_molecular_biology/how-can-anything-be-half-alive-)

A new understanding of biology shows that life originates in a community and that individuality evolves when beings work together.

Cells that spawned all of life on our planet appear to have lived in hydrothermal vents. Image courtesy of NOAA.

Cells that spawned all of life on our planet appear to have lived in hydrothermal vents. Image courtesy of NOAA.

Recently, we published a paper showing a new way of looking at the foundation of life: as a relationship between a lifeform and its habitat. If we use this lens, the origin of life suddenly makes a lot more sense.

Now here comes a new study that’s been reported in The NY Times,  Smithsonian.com, The Christian Science Monitor, Independent and others, that identifies the genetic makeup of the cells from which all life on this planet descended. These mother cells are called the “Last Universal Common Ancestor” (LUCA). But the microbiologists who reported this news went on to say that it appears as if LUCA was only “half-alive.” How can anything be half-alive?

The scientists made this claim for a reason, because they see DNA as a building block of life. You see, a cell’s structure and function is dependent on proteins, and the genes in DNA guide the manufacturing of proteins. This allows a cell to build its own body. But LUCA was missing the genes needed to create crucial proteins. In other words, its genome was incomplete. So it appears that LUCA was dependent on its surroundings to supply the necessary materials.

Does this mean it was half-alive? No. All living things depend on their neighborhood, as we showed in our previous article. No lifeform is an island because life doesn’t belong to it alone. Living is a relationship—a continual give-and-take—between organisms and other living creatures in the world around them. This is why their bodies are porous and fluid. The expressions of other life forms nourish us, and the wastes and breaths we expel are food for others. Being alive is a shared experience.

The problem is that we don’t have a scientific explanation for what living is. And since we don’t understand how it works, we revert to old lenses. This is why many who study the origin of life look for cause-and-effect reactions learned from physics and chemistry, even though it’s clear that this approach falls short. Using the wrong lens, unfortunately, can also distort the picture.

Saying that LUCA was half-alive makes no sense. It’s like saying a woman with an unfertilized egg cell is half-pregnant and she becomes fully pregnant only when she gets the necessary ingredients from a sperm cell. That’s ridiculous. There is no such thing as being half-pregnant. There is no such thing as being half-alive. And there is no such thing as independent living because all creatures depend on others to thrive.

Complete independence would only be possible if a creature, by itself, created everything it needed to be alive. That’s impossible. Why? Because living means gathering and using energy, and nothing can create all of the energy it needs, by itself.

Where does energy come from? For life on Earth, our sun is the main source, but long ago the heat within our planet was also an important element. The molten core created deep sea ‘hydrothermal vents,’ and this is where LUCA appears to have survived.

However, this doesn’t tell us fundamentally where energy originates. To understand this, we can’t use the traditional physics that we learned from Isaac Newton, where external forces move lifeless matter. Instead, we must turn to quantum mechanics, which shows us that what physicists call ‘forces’ emerge from invisible, shared exchanges between ‘particles’.

Different types of relationships between particles lead to different types of energy.[1] For example, electricity and magnetism are the result of particles forming mutual one-on-one relationships with each other. Organisms display the same trait. Even we, as human beings, feel the power of attraction and repulsion when meeting people. We call it ‘chemistry’.

A second type of relationship leads to an attraction that pulls groups of particles to work together. The bodies of protons and neutrons are formed this way, when three quarks begin spinning as a unified group. And the bodies of atoms are held together by the attraction that emerges from the protons and neutrons that form the nucleus. Physicists call this the strong force. The same unification occurs with living things. We experience the added energy when people work together as a community. And the camaraderie we feel with co-workers is the same feeling of inclusiveness that pulls cells together to work as a body. This is why we see a relationship between living things and their habitats at the heart of every ecosystem.

Therefore, life is expressed through relationships.

All lifeforms live as members of a community. Painting by Alan Rayner.

All lifeforms live as members of a community. Painting by Alan Rayner.

This insight paints an inspiring new picture of how the first cells came into existence. There was never a time when ‘lone wolf’ bacteria lived in an empty, inert world because the world we live in is just as much alive with energy as we are. Our desire to live emerges from our relationships with a living environment. This means that the process of evolution is not something that happens to individuals—it is the community and their relationships that evolve.

Imagine being the only person in the world. You have no friends, family, or anyone to talk to. Would you ever want to develop a new business? Would you feel the need to learn how to read or write? Does it matter how much money you have?

Now think about what you look forward to when waking up in the morning. Isn’t your involvement with other living beings most important? Relationships are the medium of life.

Once we see that this is the essence of living, we have a new lens that reveals deeper truths behind the story of life.

For example, it helps us understand how life developed before genes existed. As we showed in our previous article, if you remove DNA from a cell, the cell will continue living for a while. It can’t reproduce, and it can’t replace or repair proteins, but it’s still alive. This proves that genes aren’t necessary for life to exist.

On the other hand, if you take DNA out of a cell—its habitat and home—it becomes a mere chemical compound. It doesn’t do anything special. In other words, DNA comes into life when it’s in the right ecosystem. If this is true, then this applies to all of the enzymes and proteins in a cell. That is why they respond to each other and the cell itself. They’re dynamic inhabitants of each other’s neighborhood and the shared space of the cell.

Where does the magic come from that pulls these molecules and atoms together to form a living organism? More than chemical actions and reactions are needed. A mutually inclusive relationship is required. This ‘quantum state’ is why cells work so closely together that they form our human bodies. It’s a natural phenomenon that emerges from group relationships when beings work for a common good.

According to quantum theory, these relationships can’t be explained by their individual components because they’re shared. When quantum particles become ‘entangled,’ an added dynamic exists between them that keeps them allied. This is why dissecting organisms will never show us how life works, because the shared exchanges in relationships are hidden from outsider eyes. Only those involved can feel the fluid cohesion aligning them.

We aren’t the source of our own life. We need oxygen, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, all supplied primarily by photosynthetic bacteria and plants, in meat, fruit, and vegetables. Other life forms die for us to live, just as the death of our bodies is food for other organisms. How could human beings ever evolve if these other life forms didn’t evolve first?

Even today, life thrives near hydrothermal vents. Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program.

Even today, life thrives near hydrothermal vents. Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program.

Biologists are right to say that the first proto-cells—the cells that were not yet able to fashion all the proteins they needed to make their bodies—were dependent on the world around them. If a hydrothermal vent was the source, they were tethered to that vent. They weren’t free to roam elsewhere. Therefore, life was restricted before the necessary genes developed. But this doesn’t mean these proto-cells were half-alive. We have more mobility as human beings today, but we’re just as reliant on our ecosystem. We’ve simply replaced our dependence on a static source of power and materials for dependence on a dynamic neighborhood of cellular life.

This leads us to a question that has stumped biologists: What gave rise to life before cells began to reproduce? In other words, why did living things start creating progeny in the first place? If being alive is the only objective, then why would proto-cells give birth to children? It didn’t help them persist as individuals. In fact, reproduction is an energy-demanding process that requires life forms to expose themselves to risk rather than seal themselves off from the outside world.

Biologists often turn to Darwinism to explain the mysteries of biological life, but this can’t explain what happened before reproduction began and genes existed. Darwin’s theories offer no help in understanding the meaning of life.

But if we accept that life is a relationship between living things and their habitat, then we can see what’s missing from the puzzle: Reproduction develops stronger communities. Remember, proto-cells couldn’t survive on their own. They weren’t foolish enough to believe that they lived independently. They belonged within their neighborhood, like a tree is rooted within the earth.

In other words, they didn’t struggle to preserve their individual lives. They were participating in a shared adventure with others. That is the story of the origin of biological life on Earth.

No wonder they risked their lives and spent their hard-won energy and resources to produce offspring, because this was the only way they could sustain and build the community they were living in. Helping their community helped them blossom as well, strengthening the mutual relationship

Think of human experiences. Do you feel better when you lie, steal, and think only of your own desires? Or do you feel more empowered and healthier when contributing to a purpose larger than yourself? Psychologists have shown that working for families, friends, communities, and companies leads to psychological growth and maturity. Selfish individuals actually de-evolve. They regress psychologically.[2]

Biologists see the same thing. Parasites devolve. They lose genes over time, making them more and more dependent on their hosts.[3] Their lives get smaller. That’s the outcome of selfish living.

This all makes sense if living is a relationship between an organism and its habitat. The source of a creature’s life is the community it lives in, even for humans that are free to move around the planet. The more we work to make a healthier ecosystem—to enrich the world—the more we feel life-energy flowing through us. The reason is because energy flows through mutually inclusive relationships.

Therefore, the origin of cellular life needed more than a source of energy. It also required a place where communities of mutually dependent proto-cells could survive for long periods of time. Yes, they needed the right chemical elements, but they also needed other partial life forms, and they needed millions of years. Only then, as they co-evolved their community, could they start making the genes that would one day allow them to roam freely and spread across the globe. Stronger communities, working together, produced genes that would eventually give cells the freedom and ability to roam.

This reveals a fascinating insight: Individuality evolves when beings work together.

Hydrothermal vents create millions of tiny spaces just right for proto-cells. Reproduced with permission from Deborah S. Kelley and the Oceanography Society (Oceanography, Dec. 2007).

Hydrothermal vents create millions of tiny spaces just right for proto-cells. Reproduced with permission from Deborah S. Kelley and the Oceanography Society (Oceanography, Dec. 2007).

It turns out that deep sea hydrothermal vents were perfect environments for the origin of biological life, because they create millions of small cavities, just right for proto-cells to inhabit. Each cavity was a room with a built-in energy supply, as the warm chemistry flowed through it from the molten core. More importantly, the environment could protect a growing community of genetically incomplete cells. And these vents existed for millions of years.

So the process of life began long before LUCA. Communities grew and evolved gradually over millions of years before giving birth to organisms with mobility. Cellular life then eventually found a way of making their homes in virtually every nook and cranny, from the driest to wettest and coldest to hottest places on the planet.

The simplest expressions of living are in communities. This is and always has been the heart of life. This is why we grow as individuals when we work for the world we live in. We need our habitat and our habitat needs us. It’s a shared relationship—a quantum condition that is invisible to outside observers. We must be involved in this mutual exchange of life or we can’t live in this world. That’s why there is no such thing as being half-alive.


[1] Doug Marman, Lenses of Perception: A Surprising New Look at the Origin of Life, the Laws of Nature, and Our Universe (Washington: Lenses of Perception Press, 2016), p. 242-258.

[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2743415/pdf/nihms115884.pdf

[3] Marman, Lenses of Perception, p. 376-378.

From The Nature of Business

What is life?? Let’s take a closer look shall we…
Once upon a time, not too long ago, I had the great pleasure of spending time with Dr Alan Rayner, a first rate scientist and former President of the British Mycological Society.  Alan kindly contributed many insights to my book The Illusion of Separation, about how nature really works once we see beyond our acculturation.

This blog post is a guest post jointly written by Alan Rayner (author of NaturesScope) and Doug Marman (author of Lenses of Perception).


In March 2016, a group of biologists led by Craig Venter announced the creation of ‘independently’ living cells with the smallest genome. Their announcement was hailed as a milestone. The big lesson learned by the biologists is that no one can explain why almost one-third of the genes are needed for survival. However, hidden in the subtext of this study, we believe, is an even more important lesson: The most essential ingredient of life may not actually be genes or a substance of any kind, but rather a relationship.

Image of the new freely-living cells with the smallest genome. Image by: Tom Deerinck and Mark Ellisman of the National Center for Imaging and Microscopy Research at the University of California at San Diego.

Image of the new freely-living cells with the smallest genome. Image by: Tom Deerinck and Mark Ellisman of the National Center for Imaging and Microscopy Research at the University of California at San Diego.

In the experiment, the biologists started with bacteria that had the smallest genomes they could find. They then began deactivating genes one at a time, to see which ones were needed for survival. If the bacteria lived and kept reproducing, those genes weren’t necessary and were removed. After years of work, the genome was reduced to half its original size. Every remaining gene has been tested. None can be eliminated. Their goal is now to identify the role of the mystery genes. They hope this will give them a blueprint of what is needed for living cells to survive as independent entities.

But there’s more to the story. It turns out that many of the “unnecessary” genes could only be deleted after supplying the petri dish with key nutrients and eliminating potential dangers. As a result, the new cells can no longer survive in the wild because they’ve lost the ability to hunt for food and avoid threats.

Is it fair to say that these are independently living cells? Don’t they need the biologists to feed them and remove their wastes? This is where the story gets interesting.

[To read the rest of this post on The Nature of Business, go HERE.]