THE BLIND SPOT

In general terms, here’s how the scientific method works. First, we set aside aspects of human experience on which we can’t always agree, such as how things look or taste or feel. Second, using mathematics and logic, we construct abstract, formal models that we treat as stable objects of public consensus. Third, we intervene in the course of events by isolating and controlling things that we can perceive and manipulate. Fourth, we use these abstract models and concrete interventions to calculate future events. Fifth, we check these predicted events against our perceptions. An essential ingredient of this whole process is technology: machines – our equipment – that standardise these procedures, amplify our powers of perception, and allow us to control phenomena to our own ends.

The Blind Spot arises when we start to believe that this method gives us access to unvarnished reality. But experience is present at every step. Scientific models must be pulled out from observations, often mediated by our complex scientific equipment. They are idealisations, not actual things in the world. Galileo’s model of a frictionless plane, for example; the Bohr model of the atom with a small, dense nucleus with electrons circling around it in quantised orbits like planets around a sun; evolutionary models of isolated populations – all of these exist in the scientist’s mind, not in nature. They are abstract mental representations, not mind-independent entities. Their power comes from the fact that they’re useful for helping to make testable predictions. But these, too, never take us outside experience, for they require specific kinds of perceptions performed by highly trained observers. 

For these reasons, scientific ‘objectivity’ can’t stand outside experience; in this context, ‘objective’ simply means something that’s true to the observations agreed upon by a community of investigators using certain tools. Science is essentially a highly refined form of human experience, based on our capacities to observe, act and communicate. 

So the belief that scientific models correspond to how things truly are doesn’t follow from the scientific method. Instead, it comes from an ancient impulse – one often found in monotheistic religions – to know the world as it is in itself, as God does. The contention that science reveals a perfectly objective ‘reality’ is more theological than scientific.

Recent philosophers of science who target such ‘naive realism’ argue that science doesn’t culminate in a single picture of a theory-independent world. Rather, various aspects of the world – from chemical interactions to the growth and development of organisms, brain dynamics and social interactions – can be more or less successfully described by partial models. These models are always bound to our observations and actions, and circumscribed in their application.

The fields of complex systems theory and network science add mathematical precision to these claims by focusing on wholes rather than the reduction to parts. Complex systems theory is the study of systems, such as the brain, living organisms or the Earth’s global climate, whose behaviour is difficult to model: how the system responds depends on its state and context. Such systems exhibit self-organisation, spontaneous pattern-formation and sensitive dependence on initial conditions (very small changes to the initial conditions can lead to widely different outcomes).

Network science analyses complex systems by modelling their elements as nodes, and the connections between them as links. It explains behaviour in terms of network topologies – the arrangements of nodes and connections – and global dynamics, rather than in terms of local interactions at the micro level.

Inspired by these perspectives, we propose an alternative vision that seeks to move beyond the Blind Spot. Our experience and what we call ‘reality’ are inextricable. Scientific knowledge is a self-correcting narrative made from the world and our experience of it evolving together. Science and its most challenging problems can be reframed once we appreciate this entanglement.

Let’s return to the problem we started with, the question of time and the existence of a First Cause. Many religions have addressed the notion of a First Cause in their mythic creation narratives. To explain where everything comes from and how it originates, they assume the existence of an absolute power or deity that transcends the confines of space and time. With few exceptions, God or gods create from without to give rise to what is within.

Unlike myth, however, science is constrained by its conceptual framework to function along a causal chain of events. The First Cause is a clear rupture of such causation – as Buddhist philosophers pointed out long ago in their arguments against the Hindu theistic position that there must be a first divine cause. How could there be a cause that was not itself an effect of some other cause? The idea of a First Cause, like the idea of a perfectly objective reality, is fundamentally theological.

These examples suggest that ‘time’ will always have a human dimension. The best we can aim for is to construct a scientific cosmological account that is consistent with what we can measure and know of the Universe from inside. The account can’t ever be a final or complete description of cosmic history. Rather, it must be an ongoing, self-correcting narrative. ‘Time’ is the backbone of this narrative; our lived experience of time is necessary to make the narrative meaningful. With this insight, it seems it’s the physicist’s time that is secondary; it’s merely a tool to describe the changes we’re able to observe and measure in the natural world. The time of the physicist, then, depends for its meaning on our lived experience of time.

We can now appreciate the deeper significance of our three scientific conundrums – the nature of matter, consciousness and time. They all point back to the Blind Spot and the need to reframe how we think about science. When we try to understand reality by focusing only on physical things outside of us, we lose sight of the experiences they point back to. The deepest puzzles can’t be solved in purely physical terms, because they all involve the unavoidable presence of experience in the equation. There’s no way to render ‘reality’ apart from experience, because the two are always intertwined.

To finally ‘see’ the Blind Spot is to wake up from a delusion of absolute knowledge. It’s also to embrace the hope that we can create a new scientific culture, in which we see ourselves both as an expression of nature and as a source of nature’s self-understanding. We need nothing less than a science nourished by this sensibility for humanity to flourish in the new millennium.

https://aeon.co/essays/the-blind-spot-of-science-is-the-neglect-of-lived-experience
Adam Frank, Marcelo Gleiser and Evan Thompson

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CREATIVE EVOLUTION

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When a shell bursts, the particular way it breaks is explained both by the explosive force of the powder it contains and by the resistance of the metal. So of the way life breaks into individuals and species. It depends, we think, on two series of causes: the resistance life meets from inert matter, and the explosive force—due to an unstable balance of tendencies—which life bears within itself.

That adaptation to environment is the necessary condition of evolution we do not question for a moment. It is quite evident that a species would disappear, should it fail to bend to the conditions of existence which are imposed on it. But it is one thing to recognize that outer circumstances are forces evolution must reckon with, another to claim that they are the directing causes of evolution. This latter theory is that of mechanism. It excludes absolutely the hypothesis of an original impetus, I mean an internal push that has carried life, by more and more complex forms, to higher and higher destinies.

The road that leads to the town is obliged to follow the ups and downs of the hills; it adapts itself to the accidents of the ground; but the accidents of the ground are not the cause of the road, nor have they given it its direction. At every moment they furnish it with what is indispensable, namely, the soil on which it lies; but if we consider the whole of the road, instead of each of its parts, the accidents of the ground appear only as impediments or causes of delay, for the road aims simply at the town and would fain be a straight line. Just so as regards the evolution of life and the circumstances through which it passes—with this difference, that evolution does not mark out a solitary route, that it takes directions without aiming at ends, and that it remains inventive even in its adaptations.

Evolution is a creation unceasingly renewed, it creates, as it goes on, not only the forms of life, but the ideas that will enable the intellect to understand it, the terms which will serve to express it. That is to say that its future overflows its present, and can not be sketched out therein in an idea.

If life realizes a plan, it ought to manifest a greater harmony the further it advances, just as the house shows better and better the idea of the architect as stone is set upon stone. If, on the contrary, the unity of life is to be found solely in the impetus that pushes it along the road of time, the harmony is not in front, but behind. Nature is more and better than a plan in course of realization. A plan is a term assigned to a labor: it closes the future whose form it indicates. Before the evolution of life, on the contrary, the portals of the future remain wide open. It is a creation that goes on for ever in virtue of an initial movement. This movement constitutes the unity of the organized world—a prolific unity, of an infinite richness, superior to any that the intellect could dream of, for the intellect is only one of its aspects or products. Continue reading “CREATIVE EVOLUTION”

THE THREE R’s

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The error of radical finalism, as also that of radical mechanism, is to extend too far the application of certain concepts that are natural to our intellect. Originally, we think only in order to act. Our intellect has been cast in the mold of action. Speculation is a luxury, while action is a necessity. Now, in order to act, we begin by proposing an end; we make a plan, then we go on to the detail of the mechanism which will bring it to pass. This latter operation is possible only if we know what we can reckon on. We must therefore have managed to extract resemblances from nature, which enable us to anticipate the future. Thus we must, consciously or unconsciously, have made use of the law of causality. Moreover, the more sharply the idea of efficient causality is defined in our mind, the more it takes the form of a mechanical causality. And this scheme, in its turn, is the more mathematical according as it expresses a more rigorous necessity. That is why we have only to follow the bent of our mind to become mathematicians. But, on the other hand, this natural mathematics is only the rigid unconscious skeleton beneath our conscious supple habit of linking the same causes to the same effects; and the usual object of this habit is to guide actions inspired by intentions, or, what comes to the same, to direct movements combined with a view to reproducing a pattern. We are born artisans as we are born geometricians, and indeed we are geometricians only because we are artisans. Thus the human intellect, inasmuch as it is fashioned for the needs of human action, is an intellect which proceeds at the same time by intention and by calculation, by adapting means to ends and by thinking out mechanisms of more and more geometrical form. Whether nature be conceived as an immense machine regulated by mathematical laws, or as the realization of a plan, these two ways of regarding it are only the consummation of two tendencies of mind which are complementary to each other, and which have their origin in the same vital necessities. Continue reading “THE THREE R’s”

TIME IT’S TIME

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The finished portrait is explained by the features of the model, by the nature of the artist, by the colors spread out on the palette; but, even with the knowledge of what explains it, no one, not even the artist, could have foreseen exactly what the portrait would be, for to predict it would have been to produce it before it was produced — an absurd hypothesis which is its own refutation. Even so with regard to the moments of our life, of which we are the artisans. Each of them is a kind of creation. And just as the talent of the painter is formed or deformed—in any case, is modified—under the very influence of the works he produces, so each of our states, at the moment of its issue, modifies our personality, being indeed the new form that we are just assuming. It is then right to say that what we do depends on what we are; but it is necessary to add also that we are, to a certain extent, what we do, and that we are creating ourselves continually. This creation of self by self is the more complete, the more one reasons on what one does. For reason does not proceed in such matters as in geometry, where impersonal premisses are given once for all, and an impersonal conclusion must perforce be drawn. Here, on the contrary, the same reasons may dictate to different persons, or to the same person at different moments, acts profoundly different, although equally reasonable. The truth is that they are not quite the same reasons, since they are not those of the same person, nor of the same moment. That is why we cannot deal with them in the abstract, from outside, as in geometry, nor solve for another the problems by which he is faced in life. Each must solve them from within, on his own account. Continue reading “TIME IT’S TIME”

COMPLICATED & COMPLEX SYSTEMS

Modern reductionist methods are well adapted to dealing with complicated (as opposed to complex) systems.  In a complicated system like an automobile or a computer, though there may be many variables, the variables are more of less independent.  If the system isn’t working, you can troubleshoot it by isolating and testing the variables one by one.  You can also generate predictable macroscopic effects through controlling one or a limited number of variables.  Complicated systems are therefore amenable to a piecemeal approach to problem-solving.  The whole is equal to the sum of the parts and causal relationships are generally linear.  To understand and manage a large, complicated system, you divide it up into lots of pieces and assign a team to work on each piece.  The entire structure of academia reflects this approach, with its divisions into relatively autonomous disciplines and sub-disciplines.

The top-down control-based approach that works for complicated systems fails miserably to manage complex systems.  In a complex system, variables are dependent, causal relationships are non-linear, and a small change to one element of the system can dramatically alter the whole.  No part can be understood in isolation, but only with reference to an extended web of relationships to other parts.  In complex systems, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; therefore any reductionist analysis of the system will fail to understand it, and attempts to isolate and alter variables will generate unintended and unpredictable consequences.

Bodies, ecosystems, genomes, societies, and the planet are complex systems.  It is tempting to view them otherwise – as extremely complicated machines – because then we can apply our familiar methods of top-down problem-solving and feel like we are in control of the situation.  The epitome of this illusion is war thinking, and it extends to every technology of control, from border walls to antibiotic drugs to concrete waterways.  Each ends up generating awful unintended consequences, usually including the very opposite of what it was attempting to control (immigration, disease, flooding).

Any narrative, like the Standard Narrative of climate change, is a lens that illuminates some things and obscures others.  it obscures, unfortunately, some of the very things we need to pay attention to most if planet Earth is going to heal.  In the geochemical view, such things as topsoil erosion, pesticides, aquifer depletion, biodiversity loss, conservation of whales or elephants, toxic and radioactive waste, and so on were once seen (and in many cases still are seen) as relatively inconsequential to climate change.  Such oversights are understandable if we see Earth as a fantastically complicated machine.  If we see Earth as alive, then we know that of course destroying its living tissue will render it unable to deal with fluctuations of atmospheric components.

Charles Eisenstein, Climate: A New Story
https://charleseisenstein.org/books/climate-a-new-story/

THE INSTITUTION OF SCIENCE & THE CLIMATE CHANGE NARRATIVE

If the sceptical “right” and doomsaying “left” are both trapped in reality-tunnelling confirmation bias, perhaps we should flee to the centre: the standard climate change narrative.  This is comfortable territory, staked out by our society’s primary epistemic authority, science.

The problem is, the dynamics that afflict the two extremes afflict the middle as well.  Over the last few years, a growing chorus of insider critics have been exposing serious flaws in scientific funding, publishing, and research, leading some to go as far as to say, “Science is broken.”

The dysfunctions they describe include:

  • Various kinds of fraud: some deliberate, but mostly unconscious and systemic
  • Irreproducibility of results and lack of incentive to attempt replication
  • Misuse of statistics, such as “P-hacking” – the mining of research data to extract a post hoc “hypothesis” for publication
  • Severe flaws in the system of peer review; for example, its propensity to enforce existing paradigms, to be hostile to anything that challenges the views of the reviewers whose careers are invested in those views
  • Difficulty in obtaining funding for unorthodox research hypotheses
  • Publication bias that favours positive results over negative results, and suppresses research that won’t benefit a researcher’s career

The system encourages the endless elaboration of existing theories about which there is consensus, but if one of these is wrong, there are nearly insuperable barriers to its ever being overturned.  These go far beyond classic Kuhnian resistance to paradigm shift – critics call it “paradigm protection.”  Former NIH director and Nobel laureate Harold Varmus describes it this way:

The system now favours those who can guarantee results rather than those with potentially path-breaking ideas that, by definition, cannot promise success.  Young investigators are discouraged from departing too far from their postdoctoral work, when they should instead be posing new questions and inventing new approaches.  Seasoned investigators are inclined to stick to their tried-and-true formulas for success rather than explore new fields.

It is easy to see how these dynamics might impact climate science, a politically charged field that receives billions of dollars of government funding.  Sceptics’ websites contain laments by climate researchers who are afraid to attempt publication of results that contradict climate orthodoxy because they do not want to be ostracised as a “denier”; professors telling of discouraging graduate students  from investigating inconsistencies in the data; and anecdotes about reputable scientists who lost funding and professional appointments after they issued mild criticism of official positions.

The dissident climatologist Judith Curry raises questions about the genesis of the scientific consensus around climate change:

The skewed scientific “consensus” does indeed act to reinforce itself, through a range of professional incentives: ease of publishing results, particularly in high impact journals; success in funding; recognition from peers in terms of awards, promotions, etc; media attention and publicity for research; appeal of the simplistic narrative that climate science can “save the world”; and a seat at the big policy tables.

All of this adds up to a kind of collective confirmation bias within science, the same cognitive handicap that so obviously afflicts many climate sceptics.  In other words, confirmation bias is not limited to those outside the establishment.  it is institutionalised within it as well, despite the system of peer review that is supposed to eliminate it.

In most controversies that pit a powerful orthodoxy against a marginalised heterodoxy, the establishment makes liberal use of scare quotes and derisive epithets like “denier,” “conspiracy theorist,” or “pseudo-scientist” to exercise psychological pressure on the undecided layperson, who does not want to be thought a fool.  These tactics invoke in-group/out-group social dynamics, leading one to suspect that the same dynamics might prevail within the scientific establishment to enforce group-think and discourage dissent.

Charles Eisenstein, Climate: A New Story
https://charleseisenstein.org/books/climate-a-new-story/

FUNDAMENTALISM AND COMPLEXITY

Today, a neutered mainstream version of [liberalism] settles for an anodyne ideal of equality, shifting the occupants of our power structures around but leaving the structures themselves intact.  They seem not to realise that these structures necessitate inequality, whether delineated by race, gender , or some other distinction.  An exploitative system requires people to be exploited.  Racial prejudice, male chauvinism, nationalism, etc, enable and justify such a system, but eliminating these forms of bigotry won’t change the underlying dynamics.  Someone else will be exploited instead.

I visit this issue for two reasons.  First, I want to make clear that social justice must be more than the usual grab bag of identity politics issues.  The kind of social healing we need requires the massive overhaul, probably the total reformation, of our systems of medicine, education, birth, death, law, money, and government.  Second, the same pattern of reaching for superficial changes that don’t disturb the underlying system afflicts environmentalism just as much as it does social justice.  So, just as a company can hire black, female, and LGBTQ executives at headquarters to administer a supply chain that exploits dark-skinned people in overseas factories and believe itself to be progressive, so also can it offset its carbon emissions by paying into a reforestation fund, all the while sourcing environmentally toxic products, and still call itself green.

The point is not to condemn the green rationalisations of corporations (or you or me); it is to illuminate the mindset of fundamentalism that enables those rationalisations.  Fundamentalism of all kinds is a disengagement from the complexity of the real world, and I am afraid it is ascendant in many realms, not only religion.  I even see it in various theories of alternative medicine, in the form of the Great Revelation of the One True Cause of all disease.  Fundamentalism offers certainty, a lockdown of thought into a few prescribed pathways.  The rush to The Cause, the retreat to unquestioned axioms taken on faith, does not serve us in a time of the disintegration of so much of what we thought we knew.

The quality of complex systems collides with our culture’s general approach to problem-solving, which is first to identify the cause, the culprit, the germ, the pest, the bad guy, the disease, the wrong idea, or the bad personal quality, and second to dominate, defeat, or destroy that culprit.  Reductionist thinking pervades the entire political spectrum, or certainly mainstream liberalism and conservatism.  When no proximate cause is obvious, we tend to feel uncomfortable, often to the extent of finding some reasonable candidate for “the cause” and going to war against that.

Perhaps what we are facing in the multiple crises converging upon us is a breakdown in our basic problem-solving strategy, which itself rests on the deeper narratives of the Story of Separation.

Charles Eisenstein, Climate: A New Story
https://charleseisenstein.org/books/climate-a-new-story/