The Hills are Alive
By Ajay Singh
Published Oct 1, 2006 8:00 AM
Copyright ©Scott Laumann
The idea that the earth itself is alive is familiar to most of us. We all know not to mess with Mother Nature. And there is "intelligent design" — not, of course, quite the same thing, but which nevertheless also claims a conscious hand is behind the workings of the physical world.
Now one UCLA thinker is jumping into the controversy that swirls around that idea of an intelligent universe. And he claims that science backs him up.
Jeffrey M. Schwartz, a psychiatrist at UCLA's Semel Institute of Neuroscience and Human Behavior, is renowned for treating people who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder. But Schwartz created something of a stir in May when he told a gathering of "intelligent design" leaders that quantum physics and a growing body of data in neuroscience and neuropsychology support the idea that nature is inherently intelligent.
Although many neurobiologists disagree with Schwartz, he's among a growing minority of scientists who are convinced that consciousness isn't merely brain tissue in action, but a phenomenon that pervades nature.
Schwartz spoke at a conference, "Research and Progress on Intelligent Design," held at Biola University, a self-described "global center for Christian thought and spiritual renewal" in the Los Angeles suburb of La Mirada. The event was private and secret because, says Schwartz, some participants risked losing their jobs if their names were made public.
Schwartz presented a paper, "Intelligence is an Irreducible Aspect of Nature," which began with a proposition well documented in neuroscience circles: Focused attention can actually change the structure and function of the brain. Schwartz, for example, has effectively treated obsessive compulsive disorder by teaching patients to direct their "wise attention" away from their urges. It's a form of therapy where the mind, through observation, is taught to exercise control over brain activity.
Wading into cultural, theological and scientific waters as deep as this isn't for the timid, and Schwartz isn't shy about defending his point of view. "Materialists would say, 'what mind — have you ever observed that mind?'" he argues. "They don't realize that the notion of an observer is part of the core notion of what nature is. Human intelligence is part of a greater intelligence."