Trials and Errors: Why Science Is Failing Us

And thanks to Simon for this terrific article by Jonah Lehrer.

Regular perusers of this blog may remember that we have discussed causality on a number of occasions. I have advanced the apparently heretical notion that Hume was right: there’s no such thing.

When the Buddha spoke of causality, he spoke in terms, not over underlying mechanisms that mysteriously make things happen, but in terms of observing patterns: this being so, that is; when this arises, that arises. When we have observed these patterns consistently and often enough, we say that one thing is causing the other. But we have never seen the cause itself. It is just a trick of perception. While we are used to the idea that correlation does not imply causation, perhaps it is really much simpler: what we call causation is nothing more than reliable correlation.

Jonah Lehrer’s article discusses these issues in the context of medical science, and the apparently diminishing returns that are being realized by the reliance on reductive analysis. Having sat for a year on the Human Research Ethics Committee at Royal North Shore Hospital, I can confirm that in that facility, almost all of the serious research proposals were essentially reductive in nature. The exceptions were a few behavioral studies, such as examining how nurses actually used their time in the ward. But there was no effort to question the assumptions of reductive science, even when the proposals were specifically responding to the failings of reductive science.

In one proposal, for example, a new cancer drug was to be tested, and the rationale was that the drug currently in use, which had been introduced only a few years earlier, was no longer effective.

None of this is to say, of course, that reductive analysis is wrong. It is just incomplete. And, as I remarked in a comment a couple of days ago, the success of science in ‘soft’ areas like medicine seems far less obvious as compared to physics, engineering, and the like. Lehrer’s article shows how reductive analysis can be not just inadequate, but even harmful, and is often tripped up by the messiness and complexities of human beings.


23 thoughts on “Trials and Errors: Why Science Is Failing Us

  1. “But there was no effort to question the assumptions of reductive science, even when the proposals were specifically responding to the failings of reductive science.”

    Brilliant observation. Reductionism is useful in Developmental Science Methodology, but when used as a panacea inside of Discovery Science, can only prove out confirmation biased results. If one cannot think outside of the box, then they have no business telling everyone what’s out there.

    First time reader, and enjoyed it Sujato!

    • Thanks, a fascinating article.

      For many years I have thought that the one-way causality implicit in the standard neo-Darwinian model of evolution was somehow implausible, and did not fit with the mutual dependence found so commonly in Buddhism. I wondered whether Darwin’s notion of selection, ruling out Lamarck’s theory that the behaviour of organisms affects their progeny, was a subtle hangover from a theistic way of thinking: ‘One cause to make them all’. Lamarckism gives agency back to organisms, and reverses the Dawkinsian notion that the genes are driving the bus.

      Of course, as a non-scientist, this is just speculation. But for several years now there has been a growing interest in epigenetics, and I suspect that the implications of this are only beginning to be understood.

      What we often forget is that life is not determined by genes in any straightforward way. If the genes in DNA are like the books in a library, then the crucial question really is, which books actually get picked up, opened, read, understood, and acted upon? That is a whole complex mechanism happening all the time in cells, and it happens differently all the time in different organisms, even if they are genetically identical.

      We are used to seeing identical twins, and the idea that even in questions like behaviour they are often very similar (although such studies are widely overstated). But what is happening in one twin now – what is their heartrate, their blood pressure, their posture, their mood, their state of tiredness, and so on. When we look at the particulars, not the generalities, twins are different all the time. And those differences are meditated through a range of real-world conditions that they encounter, which their bodies have to physically respond to, but which are in no way accounted for by genetics. That is to say, the actual physical organisms of twins are always different, but they appear similar when fitted into the generalized categories of science.

      The study of epigenetics describes one form of a bridge between behaviour and genes, nature and nurture, or even choice and destiny if you like. Philosophically, it suggests the end of the tyranny of reductionism, and the emergence of mutual-conditioning between all layers of being. This kind of approach, I believe, is far more suited to a truly scientific view of a world that ‘bootstraps’ itself, rather than one ordained by decree from an external force.

      It is also, happily enough, more suited to the notion of evolution suggested in texts such as the Agganna Sutta, where creatures live in interdependence with their environment, and their choices respond to and help create the world around them. Natural selection, of course, still happens, as it logically must, but it is qualified and nuanced by epigenetic inheritance.

    • And of course, if there is any possible “epi-genetics” mechanisms which provides an increase in fitness for offspring – it will be selected for ;).

    • The basic idea is that causality is an essentially pragmatic notion. In science an idea is pragmatic if it helps us understand and manipulate the material world. In Buddhism, it is pragmatic if it helps us let go of suffering. Observing the patterns you can let go. Whether a metaphysical ’cause’ is involved or not doesn’t make any difference.

      As I see it the main advantage of looking at things in this way is that you don’t get caught up in the abhidhammic quest for ‘ultimate realities’ underlying the surface of things…

    • Thanks, Sean. I’ve had a quick look at your blog, and there’s some interesting ideas. The phrase ‘algorithmic compression’ is a new one for me, and it neatly captures an important aspect of science.

      I’m struck by how much of what you present as ‘Buddhist philosophy’, although obviously coming from a Madhyamika perspective, agrees with the understanding I have reached through studying early Buddhism. In several areas this contrasts strongly with the standard view of Theravadin Abhidhamma. I keep coming back to this point that on a deep level Nagarjuna got it right, and that the Theravadin tradition would have been a whole lot better off if they only listened to him…

      I was a little taken aback by your suggestion that Islam ‘completely rejected the laws of science’. This is not so. In fact, the history of science and Islam is rich and, like all religious traditions, highly diverse. When having interfaith dialogues with Muslims in Sydney, I have been struck at how strongly they insist that their beliefs can and should be subject to scientific scrutiny. Local organizations like Affinity, al-Ghazzali, and others, promote a humanitarian and informed Islam.

      Are the claimed ‘scientific’ credentials of Islam, at least in part, a rhetorical strategy? Of course. The same strategy that we see in all forms of modernist Buddhism. Islam in practice has many forms of irrationalism. So does Buddhism. We might think that those irrational practices and beliefs are not ‘real Buddhism’, just as the modernist Muslims will argue that the hate-filled and irrational acts of the extremists are not ‘real Islam’. What’s important, I believe, is to recognize that the problem is not ‘Islam’ or ‘Buddhism’, but hatred, violence, and irrationalism.

      NB: just to clarify, when I’m referring to ‘irrationalism’, I am not deprecating emotion, intuition, and the like. I am talking about the primitive, tribal superstitions and magical thinking that, in religions generally, don’t just subsist as a fading heritage, but take center stage and insist that all else be subservient.

  2. Very provocative article.

    Interestingly the same sort of thing is happening in even the “hard” sciences with luminaries such as Stephen Hawking now saying he does not now believe that science will find the “theory of everything” (which of course is actually limited to the material world) and that all theories will remain approximations that will be eventually superseded. However even approximations are very useful.

    The red and yellow circle experiment reminded of an experiment described in the book “Incognito” by David Eagleman. In this experiment a person was asked to push a button and a light came on. In fact the timing between the button pushing and the light coming on were independent of each other and manipulated by the experimenter. The timing between the button pushing and the light were slowly increased by fractions of a second up to a certain point. Eventually the person pushing the button perceived the two events as simultaneous even though they were separated in time by half a second or so. The really amazing part was that then the light and button pushing were made actually simultaneous – and the person pushing the button perceived the light as coming on before they pushed the button! So much for causality.

  3. Bhante,

    Thanks for the excellent article on the current state of medical research.

    It’s also good to see that you agree with the open-minded, sceptical approach of the author.

    Of course, as usual it’s interesting that you don’t feel the need to apply this approach to Buddhist doctrine but anyway…

    Thanks again


    • Good point, has Sujato elaborated on your statement yet…I would really be interested in hearing his answer to this and alot of your other questions that have not been answered as yet?

  4. One question that I have is – does ordaining really work, or is it relevant in this day and age.

    Buddhist Monks are obsessed by youth!

    There is no question about that! They can’t deal with most women, and I suppose in Monestries being around men must get boring, the elderly seem to be of no consequence to them, and I suppose they see hope in the youth if they can get them at a young age they can make them into what they want.

    It is understandable, this need for them to feel safe around children, plus there is the added benefit of young people being subserviant and “doing what they are told.”

    Is this though really just a need to have children and would they be (and the children) be better off if the Monks just got married and had their own children. Or is their hatred of women such that they see ordaining as a way to bypass women and just to have children, it is understandable

    Would Buddhist monks then be better off being women? Are they jealous of women because they can’t have children, this too is understandable, I mean women these days don’t need men to have children, why should men need women to have children.

    So is ordaining for some monks really just a way to have children without commitment and relationship – are they really just jealous of women because women don’t need men to have children?

  5. Also in this country it is illegal for young girls to engage in sexual intercourse under the age of 15 (or is it 16) and that goes for young boys also.

    In line with the Buddhist Monks and their increasing obsession with youth do you think it might be worthwhile setting up reporting mechanisms whereby young kids who may be feel indanger of abuse can speak to people about it.

    Most men are obsessed by youth.. this is very ordinary, they can’t face getting old and young people make them feel young and it seem Monks are no different, but are asian people aware of our policies in the west regarding under age sex and also is there a problem in monestries with this type of abuse in the East?

    I acutally once saw a monk (supposedly in a joking way) just take a womens pram with a kid in it – like oh thanks for all the hard work love well take him/her now… I mean are women to monks just bodies to give them children or potential students?

    i met some nuns once who were really good teachers but again they were forced by monks to just babysit, knit sew cook and promote the controlling narcissitic kids that they got suck with … even though they were good teachers…

    is there no end to the mysogynistic influence in Buddhism?

  6. I met one women a very nice person who after considering throwing herself under a train due to the way her sons treated her finally got help; but for some women and mothers it is often too late and they may take the former option, another that basically moved out of her own house to get away from her kids, another that was treatened with a knife, another whos kid think lesbian and gay sex is just fun.. even though they are not gay..etc

    Are there support groups for the older people abused by the young and rather ambitious youth ….young people these days can be very very aggressive and ruthless, I am lucky most of the young people I know are very decent and nice and even respectful to older people on occasion – these are not Buddhist youths ; so are their support groups for older people suffering trauma from abuse of the young.

  7. mcd: Can you ever make an argument without addressing gender? Samsara, samsara, nothing really works, everything suffers. Give up, give up, let go, let go, peace!

  8. hello mcd,

    I apologize if my comment sounded smug it was certainly not intended to be. Maybe my comment was inapropiate in relation to your post.

    Anyway, if you are interested in buddhism related to gender, i think you might like Eihei Dogen (if you don’t already know him). I think he might be the only buddhist master that actually attacked mysoginism in a big way. For him men and women were COMPLETELY equal in the buddha way.

    some examples:

    Some people, foolish to the extreme, think of a woman as nothing but the object of sensual pleasures, and see her in this way without ever correcting their view. A Buddhist should not do so. If a man detests a woman as a sexual object, she must detest him for the same reason. Both man and woman become object and thus equally become involved in defilement.

    What charge is there against woman? What virtue is there in man? There are wicked men in the world; there are virtuous women in the world.

    In acquiring the dharma, all acquire the dharma equally. All should pay homage to and hold in esteem one who has acquired the dharma. Do not make an issue of whether it is a man or a woman. This is the most wondrous law of the buddha dharma.”

    If a nun appears who has attained the Way and received the Dharma, a monk who is seeking the Truth should become her disciple, request the Teachings and prostrate before her. This is what a person who excels in practising the Way of Awakening would do just as one would act to quench a desperate thirst.

    If you are serious about the Buddha Way , you cannot make such distinctions about “male” or “female”. This is fundamental to the Way of Awake Awareness.

    If you are an elder monk a hundred years old but still do not see the truth of the Buddha Way , you are not the equal of any man or woman who has attained the Way. Such old monks should not be
    offered three Great Bows of homage, although they should be shown the courtesy due to a host or an elder. But they should not be especially honoured.


    with metta and best wishes!


  9. By the way Dogen did not use the vinaya in his monastic community, just the 16 bodhisattva precepts (zen version) wich have no relation to gender.

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