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.”

The Experience of Consciousness vs Knowing Our Own Mind

By Doug Marman

The New York Times just ran an opinion piece that is a good example about how articles on neuroscience often get the big issues wrong.

Photo by Miranda Knox.

Picture by Miranda Knox.

The author, Alex Rosenberg, isn’t ignorant of the topic. He’s a co-director of the Center for the Social and Philosophical Implications of Neuroscience. In other words, he is fully informed of the science of the brain. So, he clearly has every right to state his opinions. Unfortunately, he misses the point badly.

Right from the opening paragraph, Rosenberg misdirects and misrepresents the issue. I don’t mean to say that he is doing this intentionally. I believe he is stating the problem honestly as he sees it. He’s just using the wrong lens.

Here is how he begins: Ever since Plato, philosophers have made it sound like a truism that we know the reality of our own thoughts:

“They have argued that we can secure certainty about at least some very important conclusions, not through empirical inquiry, but by introspection: the existence, immateriality (and maybe immortality) of the soul, the awareness of our own free will, meaning and moral value.”[1]

Rosenberg then goes on to berate two recent authors for continuing with this tradition, as if something that seems so fundamentally true can “trump science.” Not so, he tells us. We might think that we know what’s going on in our own minds, but numerous studies show that this simply isn’t true. We don’t know.

Here’s the first problem with this article: Plato wasn’t talking about knowing our mind. He was talking about knowing our self. He never said that we can ever truly know our own mind our even the true nature of our thoughts. The fundamental truth that Plato and many other philosophers have pointed to is the experience of being conscious.

Using “introspection” to study our thoughts isn’t even in the same ballpark as the experience of consciousness. Experiences are far more fundamental than thoughts.

A lot of neuroscientists mix these up. They do so for a good reason: They are using third-person lenses. In other words, they are taking the traditional scientific approach of viewing the matter as if they are outside observers—as if they are completely outside of the mind or the experience of consciousness and looking in. This is the objective approach, and it has long been used in science for a good reason, because it is excellent at understanding cause-and-effect relationships like we see in mechanisms and chemical reactions.

However, this is the wrong lens to use for understanding the experience of consciousness. If we insist on using a third-person approach, then we have assured our failure to see it at all. The only way to understand the nature of experience is through experience, not by mental analysis.

Trying to understand the mind by thinking about it with the mind is like trying to find reality in a hall of mirrors. Photo by Bjoern Lotz.

Trying to understand the mind by thinking about it with the mind is like trying to find reality in a hall of mirrors. Photo by Bjoern Lotz.

We might as well use a telescope to look for microbes in a drop of water. We will see nothing. Even worse, we can fool ourselves into thinking that microbes don’t even exist, because we can’t see them.

We need to use the right lens, the right tool. In this case, the only perspective that works is a “first-person” lens. This is how we experience everything, whether it be a new car, eating lunch with a friend, or our own consciousness. Every experience is a first-person perception.

What does an experience mean? That’s a different story. That’s a question we ask with our minds, as if we could interpret an experience or reduce it down to a thought. As soon as we start thinking about our experiences we’ve left the first-person world behind.

Therefore, the point that Rosenberg is making does not prove that science trumps experience. Quite the opposite. It shows us that science doesn’t understand consciousness. This is exactly why philosopher David Chalmers calls consciousness the hard problem. He writes:

“Consciousness poses the most baffling problems in the science of the mind. There is nothing that we know more intimately than conscious experience, but there is nothing that is harder to explain.”[2]

Third-person lenses don’t work because they move us outside the world of experience. Outsiders can’t see consciousness. This is why we need to use a first-person lens. Chalmers says the same thing:

“If one takes the third-person perspective on oneself—viewing oneself from the outside, so to speak—these reactions and abilities are no doubt the main focus of what one sees. But the hard problem is about explaining the view from the first-person perspective.”[3]

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only problem with Rosenberg’s article. In his zeal to show how much scientific evidence there is that we don’t know our mind, he makes some rather serious blunders. He writes:

“In fact, controlled experiments in cognitive science, neuroimaging and social psychology have repeatedly shown how wrong we can be about our real motivations, the justification of firmly held beliefs and the accuracy of our sensory equipment. This trend began even before the work of psychologists such as Benjamin Libet, who showed that the conscious feeling of willing an act actually occurs after the brain process that brings about the act—a result replicated and refined hundreds of times since his original discovery in the 1980s.”

The first sentence in the above paragraph is right. Subconscious influences affect our choices and decisions all the time. We often try to “explain” our behavior as if it is rational, when, in fact, our subconscious colors everything we do. So, the point Rosenberg is making—that we don’t fully know our own minds—is right.

It’s the second sentence that is the problem. Benjamin Libet did not show “that the conscious feeling of willing an act actually occurs after the brain process that brings about the act…” And no other experiment has proven this either. It is easy to show why Rosenberg is just plain wrong about this. Here is how I explained it in my book,

“None of the experiments show the brain making a decision before the person did. Scientists can’t prove such a claim, since they have no way of determining when a choice is made. Decision-making is a subjective process. They can’t observe it scientifically. No instrument can measure the act of choosing. They can only detect outer activity in the brain, not the inner content of consciousness.”[4]

In fact, not only is Rosenberg wrong about what Libet’s experiment shows us, there are quite a few experiments that contradict his conclusion and one shows clearly that he is wrong. In that case, the “readiness potential” brain signals that Libet detected show up whether a person decides to do something or not, so they can’t be an indicator of a decision being made:

“Judy Trevena and Jeff Miller, psychologists from New Zealand, asked a group of subjects to press a key every time they heard a tone. A second group was told to do the same thing—press a key on a computer after a tone sounds—but only half of the time. It was their choice when to push the button and when not to.

“It didn’t matter whether the subjects in the second group pressed the key or not, the same readiness potential signals were detected. This is proof that this brain activity is not the same as a conscious decision. In fact, it suggests that the term ‘readiness potential’ was right all along. The brain is simply getting ready to act.”[5]

Rosenberg makes the matter worse. He goes on to say: “there is compelling evidence” that our own self-awareness is simply our brain trying to guess at what we ourselves might be thinking. This is a misrepresentation. I’m giving Rosenberg the benefit of the doubt when I say this.

If you interpret “self-awareness” the way I do, as the experience of our own consciousness, then Rosenberg is flat out wrong. But I think what Rosenberg is getting at here is that we often guess about our own behavior and our intentions, the same way we guess at the intentions of others. He is absolutely right about that, but this is not the basis of our self-awareness.

If Rosenberg limited his conclusion to the ideas that we form about ourselves and the picture we might have of who we are, then I would agree with him. But that isn’t self-awareness. That’s our ego he is talking about—the image we have about who we are and how we fit in the world.

Self-awareness is something we gain through the direct experience of our consciousness. No thought involved. No guesswork. It is purely an experience—not an interpretation. That’s what makes this an issue that “trumps science.” Science can’t crack that nut, but we can prove to ourselves the reality of it through our own awareness.

Then Rosenberg really does it. He makes an absolutely ridiculous statement that has no scientific foundation at all, while acting as if it is shored up by empirical evidence. He writes:

“The upshot of all these discoveries is deeply significant, not just for philosophy, but for us as human beings: There is no first-person point of view.”

Photo by Gabor Kalman

Photo by Gabor Kalman

Here is the logic that Rosenberg just used to arrive at this conclusion: If you first decide to use a third-person lens, and only a third-person lens, to study the problem, then you will discover that first-person perception doesn’t exit.

Well of course it doesn’t exist if you use a lens that requires you to be an outsider looking in. How could you ever experience consciousness that way? How could you ever experience anything?

What’s the real upshot of all this? Science can’t see, detect, measure, or photograph the experience of consciousness. So, what do some scientists do? Well, they make up a story as if they understood the mind well enough to know that it is just making up the experience of consciousness. In other words, they are doing exactly what Rosenberg was telling us the mind does: guessing at the things it doesn’t understand.

If Rosenberg is right that we can’t know our mind through introspection, and I agree with him on this, then how could anyone ever come to the conclusion that the mind is fabricating the experience of consciousness? That makes no sense.

If a person is smart enough to make such a statement, why wouldn’t they be smart enough to realize that the only way it could be true is if they really did understand their mind?

It baffles me. I don’t have the answer to this question, but if you do, please explain it to me. I really would like to know.


[1] Alex Rosenberg, “Why You Don’t Know Your Own Mind,” The New York Times, July, 18, 2016.

[2] David J. Chalmers, “Facing up to the Problem of Consciousness,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 2, no. 3 (1995), p. 200. Also posted on http://consc.net/papers/facing.pdf.

[3] David J. Chalmers, “Moving Forward on the Problem of Consciousness,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 4, no. 1 (1997), p. 3–46, Section 2.2. Also posted on http://consc.net/papers/ moving.html.

[4] 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. 277.

[5] Ibid., p. 278-281.

This is Your Brain on Religion — This is Your Brain on Science

By Doug Marman

The main premise of the Lenses of Perception theory is that there are fundamental lenses—ways of seeing—and we can only perceive through one lens at a time. A recent series of experiments validates this idea.

Researchers from Case Western University and Babson College published a study three weeks ago titled, Why Do You Believe in God? Relationships between Religious Belief, Analytic Thinking, Mentalizing and Moral Concern.

Their test results show that when people think of religious matters, their brains suppress critical thinking. And when they focus on scientific topics, their brain suppresses religious thoughts.

“It suggests religious beliefs and scientific thinking clash because different brain areas are involved in both cognitive processes.”[1]

Thinking about science and thinking about religion requires two different brain networks, and both networks suppress the other. ("Say your prayer" photo by Joachim Bär. Eucaryote cell illustration from Wikipedia.)

Thinking about science and thinking about religion require two different brain networks, and both networks suppress the other. (“Say your prayer” photo by Joachim Bär. Eucaryote cell illustration from Wikipedia.)

In other words, the experiments showed clearly that working with science involves one brain network, while religion works with a completely different network. And the two networks interfere with the other, making it hard to use both at the same time.

The fact that these brain networks clash with each other is one reason we see conflicts between religious belief and science. However, lenses of perception theory suggests that this isn’t the underlying cause.

Our brains evolved these two networks for a reason: The world is governed by different ways of seeing. This isn’t just about the lenses that human beings use. It reaches all the way down to the level of subatomic particles.

Everything works this way because the world isn’t created by outer forces. It comes into existence through conscious experiences, at every level. That’s why perception plays such an important role.

For example, the scientific perspective uses a third-person lens. That’s the lens we use when looking at the world as if we’re outside observers. This turns out to be the best approach for studying mechanical reactions because particles go along with the outsider perspective. This is why, when trying to analyze a cause-and-effect process, third-person lenses give us the clearest picture of what’s happening.

But the world isn’t just mechanical. Relationships also hold groups together and connect beings to each other. These ties emerge from second-person experiences, created by common interests shared with others.

Second-person perceptions are the basis of all relationships. However, they come in two distinct forms.

First, there is a sense of empathy that allows us to relate one-on-one with another person or animal. We experience this with friends and our pets when we connect with them.

When someone we care about is in pain, we actually feel it. At the subatomic level this is known as entanglement. If two particles become entangled, they literally form an invisible alignment that reaches across time and space. This is one of the many mind-boggling features of quantum physics that make sense when we see them as relationships.

The second type of second-person perception gives us our moralistic sense of the right thing to do. Moral concerns emerge from connections to groups such as communities we belong to, companies we work for, or even our feeling for the human race or the whole of life. Working together with others shows us that we can create something greater as part of a group.

This is where our sense of responsibility comes from. We want to contribute. We want our lives to mean something. I call this the “all-for-one bond,” because it’s a special relationship that team members have with each other when working toward a singular goal.

At the level of fundamental particles, the same force holds atoms together. And in biology, cells bind to the organisms they belong to for the same reason.

So, our brain evolved ways of seeing these patterns of behavior because the world is shaped by these relationships.

The research paper, above, ran tests to see the difference between empathy and moral concern. They wanted to determine how each of these two types of relationship relate to religious belief. Surprisingly, they found that only the moralistic sense showed a strong connection. Empathy played hardly any role at all in the religious experience.

This is exactly what the lenses of perception theory predicts. Religion comes from our sense that there is a higher purpose to life and that a life with meaning comes from working with others for something beyond ourselves. This doesn’t belong to religion alone. Scientists also feel the sense of purpose that comes from working with others for the advancement of science.

This raises another interesting point reported by the above paper: There is no reason why we can’t move back and forth between religion and science, between our moral sense and an analytic perspective. We simply need to learn that they engage two different ways of seeing. Two different brain networks are involved. This means that we need to change lenses when shifting from one to the other.

“The study also points out that some of the great scientists of our times were also very spiritual men. ‘Far from always conflicting with science, under the right circumstances religious belief may positively promote scientific creativity and insight,’ says Tony Jack, lead author of the study. ‘Many of history’s most famous scientists were spiritual or religious. Those noted individuals were intellectually sophisticated enough to see that there is no need for religion and science to come into conflict.’”[2]

[1] http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/critical-thinking-suppressed-brains-people-who-believe-supernatural-1551233

[2] http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/critical-thinking-suppressed-brains-people-who-believe-supernatural-1551233