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.

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The True Wonder of the Mind

I’m struck, more and more, at how strange everything is. We see: and have no idea what seeing really is. We try to ‘explain’ it; eyes, light, nerves, brain, perception, memory, consciousness – and trail off in a sequence of ever more poorly defined and subjective terms. In the end, what have we ‘explained’? Nothing, I am beginning to suspect. And in the end, we still see just the same.

Volition. I want to move my arm and it moves. But what is it, really? When mindfulness gets sharp, you can catch the moment of volition: the shcklmgh of the mind (sorry, I don’t have a better word for it) that just precedes movement. You catch it, and it hovers for a moment, a volition exposed naked in space, almost unbearable, wanting to fulfil the nature of its being, before reluctantly slinking back into its ljbhewerg (sorry again, please suggest a better word if you have one). We think it’s gone. But even with sharp mindfulness you might not notice it; it still lurks, hopeful, and when attention falters it darts out and does the movement, gleeful as a kid with his hand in the lolly jar.

What is the connection between volition and action? The concept is clear enough: a volition precedes (certain) physical actions. (Let’s not get lost in unconscious, automatic, or other even more mysterious processes here…) We will, then we do. But what is the link, really? Look, in experience, there’s nothing there. You can’t see any cause.

‘Cause’ is perhaps the most mysterious thing of all. It seems to be forever hidden, always one step away. We operate, I tend to think, on a hidden assumption of little billiard balls hitting each other. That’s what cause is: one thing ‘hits’ another, and then it ‘causes’ the other thing to change in some way. Of course, this is errant nonsense, even for billiard balls. Zoom in to a close enough resolution, and billiard balls become not solid entities (as imagined in reassuring textbook drawings) but buzzing clouds of semi-organized energies. Like this. So what is actually ‘hitting’ what? Nothing, actually. And if the interactions of mere crude matter are so arcane, so inaccessible, then what of mind, so subtle and elusive?

Perhaps, after all, truth is merely pragmatic. Scientific truth falls apart if you chase it down far enough. At school we learnt Newton’s so-called ‘laws’ – which are routinely broken at both the very small and very large scales. Did you ever stop to think about what these things really mean? What is ‘force’? What is ‘mass’? Even worse are notions like ‘velocity’, which depends on ‘time’ – one of the most indefinable concepts imaginable. Yet we think that somehow these laws ‘explain’ something. What they do, undeniably, is enable us to manipulate things. They give us power, they are pragmatic. But they are more in the nature of accurate rules of thumb than immutable laws inscribed in the universe.

What are we actually seeing when we meditate? Most obviously, the objects of the six senses. We know enough to distinguish, at least in theory, between the bare sense object (e.g. ‘light’) and the conceptual interpretation of what is seen (‘rooster’). So, what is it, then, light? We can answer from the inside, ‘Light is what we see’ (which is tautological), or from the outside, ‘Light is electromagnetic radiation in a range from about 380 or 400 nanometres to about 760 or 780 nm’. Reassuring, with that comforting, lulling precision of science – except when we note that the unit of measurement (the meter) is defined in terms of wavelengths of light, so that’s tautological again. Not to mention the somewhat embarrassing problem that physics doesn’t really know what electromagnetic radiation is, and despite generations of the best minds on the planet devoting their lives to it, they haven’t worked out how it is related to the other supposed ‘fundamental’ forces.

We circle through the incredible journey of discovery that has been humanity’s voyage, and in the end, light is, well, ‘this’. And that, pretty much, is the best we can do without committing to some kind of conceptual loop, some widening gire.

The more I dig down into experience, the less I find. The less I expect to find. And the odder I find any notion that there, at the bottom of it all, is some form of ‘ultimate’ reality; whether that is the ultimate particles that some in physics are still searching for, or the ultimate realities of the Abhidhamma commentaries, which some Buddhists believe they have found many centuries ago. The ‘ultimate realities’ of Buddhist theory are no more solid than those of physics. We know that things like, say ‘taste’ or ‘life’ or ‘faith’ or ‘greed’ are complex and many-faceted, but the (late) abhidhamma theorists treated tham as the ultimate entities of existence. We know that when we do reductionist analysis we find that things on a much smaller level are very different than on higher levels. The parts of a TV are not small TVs. So why should the parts of any of the things we experience be simply smaller occasions of the same experience? I remain mystified as to why so many people find this a vaguely plausible notion.

Reality is not like that. It’s not so readily managed into simple categories. We need to confront it, be with the sheer enormous weirdness of things. Every sense object, sense base, sense consciousness, is just plain weird. Perhaps that should be the fifth mark of conditioned things: impermanence, suffering, not-self, emptiness, and weirdness. (A concept not without its precedents…) And the weirder things get, the more they make sense.

Y’know, in a weird kinda way.