Friday 7 October 2011

Why science works like a 'theory of mind delusion'


The question is as follows:

How does science get from:

"Let's see how far we can go using just reason applied to observations, while excluding any reference to God or divine purposes and revelations."


"We have disproved the existence of God, divine purpose and revelations."


And, to take a specific example - how does the biology of natural selection get from:

"Let's assume that all the variations upon which selection operates are un-directed."

(By 'un-directed' I mean that, for example, genetic mutations are not directed towards any function - but that the functionality of a beneficial mutation is a product of selection among rival genetic variants.)


"Un-directed variation is the only possible type of variation."


In other words, how is it that we get from a chosen exclusion, an imposed constraint, to the belief that the exclusion does not exist, and that the constraint is intrinsic to the universe.


I think the answer is psychological - it is something that is not a consequence of the abstract nature of science, or natural selection - but a product of the minds of scientists and biologists.

And I think the psychological mechanism is a fundamental aspect of the way that humans reason, which an astute author (name of Bruce G Charlton) described in some work on what he termed 'theory of mind delusions':


What happens to the psychology of the scientist/ biologist is something along the following lines:

As the scientist becomes adept at reasoning within his subject, the exclusion or constraint is 'marked' with a negative emotional evaluation, so that whenever it comes to mind it will tend to be avoided.

If/ when the scientist finds himself 'tempted' to reach for a divine explanation, if a biologist finds himself tempted to ascribe teleology (purpose) to genetic mutations, then a kind of 'metal alarm' goes off and makes the scientist feel bad in some way (ashamed, afraid, disgusted etc).

I mean it literally makes him feel bad - using the taboo concept in reasoning triggers nerves and hormones and alters the body state to feel bad.

And this is a property of the expert scientist, it is a product of proper training.

Over time the scientist learns (becomes conditioned to avoid) these subjects - and becomes able to reason fluently within the zone of constraint and exclusion.

However, if anybody else mentions the taboo subjects, then the negative emotional alarm goes off, and there is an attempt again to steer clear of the subject - to avoid or suppress it. It is a sign of professional incompetence to raise the taboo, excluded subject - annoying or embarrassing. 


In general terms, assumptions frame investigations, so that investigations can only confirm assumptions (or be irrelevant to them) - and as a rule experience cannot contradict or refute fundamental assumptions.

This applies within science just as much as in other areas of life.


But this is not a specific problem for specific groups of people with specific beliefs - it is the nature of human discourse, and we all operate within analogous psychological mechanisms.

No amount of anomalous experience can ever cause challenge of fundamental assumptions, because it is the fundamental assumptions which make specific discourses possible, and to reject the assumptions is merely to be incompetent at that specific discourse.

No amount of failed predictions, no lack of precision, no amount of incoherence can ever, therefore, lead to the compelling inference that an exclusion was invalid, nor can it force the adjustment of a constraint.

From within a field of discourse (within philosophy, science, within biology) any acknowledged problems in the accuracy and coherence - and there always are such problems - is merely grist to the mill: they are what provides the discourse with an endless number of 'things to do'.

All problems do is imply the need for further development and elaboration of the existing theory - problems can never of themselves imply the need for a new theory.

So, once a discourse has - like science - succeeded in establishing itself as necessary; then the endless problems it encounters serve to justify endless expansion of the activity, in the case of science endless expansion of funding.


So - if not from encountering problems - why might the status of science, of natural selection, ever possibly, potentially change?

Because (for whatever reason) it becomes desired to include the exclusions, relax the constraints.

This entails the scrapping of the whole previous system (based on those constraints and exclusions), and the re-building of a new system (having different exclusions and constraints).


Qua philosopher, philosophy potentially explains everything; qua scientist science explains everything: biologist biology - and it goes further: qua lawyer law; qua journalist journalism etc.

The exclusions and biases which structure the system are invisible to the system which functions within them.

But... nobody is entirely located within their specialist discourse; and therefore nobody is wholly convinced by the hegemony of their expertise. And in society most people are outwith any particular discourse, which impinges upon them in alien ways.

So the larger and more dominating any discourse, the greater pressure is built against it. The discipline itself cannot internally perceive the force of objections to its own constraints and exclusions, but everyone outside that system, and other systems, have a growing interest in attacking those exclusions and constraints.

If and when the system ceases to provide what people want from it, or provide it at too high a cost, or if those outside the system cease to value what the system provides - and if the system is unable coercively to confiscate the resources it needs against the will of those of who provide the resources - then the system will collapse.



dearieme said...

Lavoisier, or someone of his era, was asked by the King of France why there was no reference to God in one of his books. "I have no need of that hypothesis". Which is wrong, of course: "God" isn't one hypothesis, it's as many as you like - Thor, Zeus, Jaweh, Allah, the turtles.......,

Bruce Charlton said...

I didn't know much about Lav. and on googling found this site which describes him as a Great Catholic Scientist:

Of course, science does not need God/s in its inner workings - but it does need God/s (transcendental Truth) outside science (especially in the upbringing of the scientist/s and the culture) to keep it honest.

Gabe Ruth said...

To my mind, this is not completely fair. As you mentioned, when Crick felt the time line wasn't long enough to justify UNS, he made up some off the wall hypothesis with less support than any God. But this is the role of science, to explain as much of the world as possible without resorting to "God did it." So while I agree that most do it out of prideful disdain for what they consider superstition, from the example of the first scientists you can see that is not the only possible motivation. Modern science does go very wrong in asserting that it has proven its fundamental assumptions.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GR - obviously, each shortish blog post makes only a piece of an argument - tomorrow's should add another piece to this one.

dearieme said...

"of his era" was right - it was Laplace, not Lavoisier.

James Kalb said...

If we are not just inhabitants of this discourse or that, and we can be dissatisfied with all of them, can we somehow discuss how much truth there is in each of them? It seems we should be able to do so, and so engage with reality at a more basic level, but the way you present the problem seems to deny the possibility. You treat philosophy as simply another self-limiting specialist discourse for example. The result seems to be a sort of absolute relativism.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JK - This is just a segment of my analysis - obviously I am not a relativist.

You could either look at this

of wait until (I think) tomorrow) the posting of which will cover this point.

Bonald said...

I've wondered myself about our minds' tendency to specialize, and whether it's necessary to allow such a process to happen to one's own mind, meaning that one person can really only be perceptive about one thing. Like how a runner can't train himself as both a sprinter and a distance runner. By philosophizing in my spare time, am I making myself a worse scientist during work time? Perhaps, although I'd like to think I'm making myself a fuller human being. At the very least, it means I say fewer silly things about what my investigations mean, and what they have and haven't disproved.

Anonymous said...

Laplace went in state to Napoleon to accept a copy of his work, and the following account of the interview is well authenticated, and so characteristic of all the parties concerned that I quote it in full. Someone had told Napoleon that the book contained no mention of the name of God; Napoleon, who was fond of putting embarrassing questions, received it with the remark, 'M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.' Laplace, who, though the most supple of politicians, was as stiff as a martyr on every point of his philosophy, drew himself up and answered bluntly, Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là. ("I had no need of that hypothesis.") Napoleon, greatly amused, told this reply to Lagrange, who exclaimed, Ah! c'est une belle hypothèse; ça explique beaucoup de choses. ("Ah, it is a fine hypothesis; it explains many things.")

For my part, I think the real situation with science is a little more cheerful than one might think.

The USA is a wretched mess, because its most influential scientists (at the National Academy of Science) are still beating the dead horse of logical positivism.

Most scientists have moved on. Perhaps the USA will decline before this becomes apparent.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bonald - my thesis is that specialization (beyond a certain modest point) actually renders science both useless and/ because untestable.

Modern micro-specializations are often wholly false/ bogus - but restrict the evidence base and permitted reasoning modes so sharply that their wrongness can never be estabished to the satisfaction of the micro-specialists (while being obvious to the scientific generalist, or even to informed commmon sense).

Just so long as the oney keeps flowing, they are happy.