Wednesday, June 8, 2011

No Ghosts in the Machine

            Mysteries are fun. Without being regularly presented with the novel, the unknown and the unpredictable, our brains grow bored. And there are many who feel it important that the world retain some permanently insoluble mysteries in order for it, and their lives, to remain interesting and meaningful at all. I don't refer only to problems that are (likely) practically insoluble, such as the Goldbach Conjecture, but real, everyday mysteries that occur before all of our eyes. Mysteries that would require ghosts or souls or magic or gods to explain. 

            It doesn't take a highly educated, super intelligent person to recognize that science has explained a lot over the past few centuries. Many things that once seemed mysterious have been laid bare. The origins of the universe, the origins of life, how both of these things have evolved since their origins, and many other less colossal questions have been answered to a degree that would have been unimaginable even 200 years ago. But still, some people insist, there are things that science, empiricism and humanity simply can't explain. Things like consciousness, they say. Things like why there is something rather than nothing in the first place.

            These are just the most reasonable examples, though you can hear many less reasonable ones from lots of people, depending on the degree to which they need mystery to maintain a sense of "specialness" or "uniqueness" for their own particular existence. Any kind of spiritual or alternative healing, or anything invoking magic, "energies," ghosts, spirits or gods as the only possible explanation for something that happens in the real world would be such an example.

            "Only possible" is very important here. Because, as is often the case with something such as, say, acupuncture, which has been shown to have some beneficial effects, one only starts to go off the deep end when one digs their heels in and insists that only an invisible, unmeasurable, untestable magical energy called "chi" can explain these effects. On the other hand, a more reasonable, and far more likely explanation would be that a long time ago some ancient people stumbled across a beneficial practice that they couldn't explain, so they gave it an explanation which turned out to be off-base. This doesn't change the fact that they had hit on something useful. But is "chi" real? Very probably not.

            As a matter of fact, this is a recurring pattern. People living in the less-knowledgeable past  of our planet were able to establish a causal relationship between an event and a result. Take, for example, the relationship between sexual intercourse and child birth. It has been documented (I have no source at the moment, though I will look for it) that there are people living in hunter-gatherer societies among whom this relationship is not understood. In the example I am recalling, this was most humorously, and tragically, demonstrated in the story of an anthropologist who took a male member of a tribe he was studying back to London for several years. When they returned, the tribesman was thrilled that he was a father, since his wife had just recently given birth in his absence. Whoops!

             But among most peoples this relationship has long been understood. But how "understood?" The Greeks thought that the offspring belonged entirely to the father, and that the mother was merely an empty vessel who carried his progeny until birth. In Renaissance Europe, it was believed that inside each sperm was a "little man," a homunculus, who traveled to the womb fully formed and simply grew there. We now know, of course, that both of these theories are way off, though I am sure they made quite a bit of sense to the people who invented and perpetuated them. Nevertheless, being wrong about the "how" or "why" it worked didn't stop them from putting the right things in the right places. 

             Then along came empiricism and science and our modern understanding of sperm and eggs and DNA. And now there is very little left to explain about how the sexual act produces offspring. This is the part that recurs, over and over and over. Ancient explanations, relying on best-guesses and armchair assumptions, give way to reason, empiricism and evidence. This has occurred thousands, nay, millions of times in the course of human history, with the bulk of it in the last dozen generations or so.

            But do you know what is really interesting? The reverse has never happened. Never ever, zero times, not even once. Never has humanity had a rational, scientific, empirical explanation for something and it turned out that was the wrong one, and we instead needed a god or magic or mystery to explain it. Never.

            Think about it. Think of all the natural phenomena that people used to use magic and spirits and gods to explain. The rain. The sun. The stars. Animals living. Plants growing. Fire. The changing of the seasons. The phases of the moon. Pregnancy and childbirth... the list could go on for days. And for everything on that list, every one of those phenomena that used to require a supernatural explanation now only requires a natural one.

            But never has it occurred that something we understand with a natural explanation like, say, the ways stars form, turned out to be wrong and we instead we needed an explanation such as, "they are actually put together by hordes of really industrious, really sweaty, demons with shovels."

            What does this mean? Does this prove anything in the definitive, absolute certitude, once-and-for-all sense? No, because nothing can be proven with that degree of rigor, not even your own existence. But what it does allow us to talk about is probabilities. The sun has risen in the east every morning for the last 4.6 billion years. Will it rise in the east tomorrow? Well, I can't say with absolute, irrefutable certainty that it will, but it is a pretty safe bet. So can I say with absolute certainty that no observable phenomena will ever require a supernatural explanation? No, but, again, it is looking like a pretty safe bet at this point.

             So when someone says, "Well, I think there are some things that science just can't explain," they are really just placing a very bad bet, like Dr. Z assuming that just because the Bills lost three Super Bowls in a row, they were certain to win number four. Actually, it is way worse a bet than that. It is a lot more like betting everything you have on the moon being made of cheese. 

              Sure, there are plenty of things science currently has no explanation for, and there likely always will be. But this is for the very simple fact that the more layers of existence you peel back, the more you find. We have questions that are very likely unanswerable in principle, questions about what occurs in other universes, or what existence would feel like in higher dimensional space. But this does not mean we get to pull angels and demons out of our backsides and start dancing nude around the fire again.

             All it means is that we are running into the natural limitations of a very highly overrated mammal. Of course there are things we have trouble explaining. We're monkeys. Have you ever seen a monkey? They get a kick out of throwing their own feces at each other. But that doesn't automatically mean that just because we can't explain it, or can't explain it currently, that we can just make up any damn explanation we want. 

            It just means we need to keep looking.

            (I owe some of the reasoning for this particular post to Greta Christina, who put this idea forth in a more clear and concise way than I had heard it before. Her blog is linked at the top of the page here.)



  1. ...but if you think about it from the perspective that the way we scientifically define the answers to the creation/occurrence of things is through science. It is a man made system, so what does that really prove. It proves we can make up a game, define the rules and make something fit into that box of rules ~ or not.

    It's all arbitrary. Humans have this need to find meaning for stuff. Life is truly meaningless and empty, until we make it mean something and fill it is one way of doing just that.

  2. Except the difference is science can actually predict and explain things in the real world to a degree that no other system can even come close to doing, not by any measure. iPods, moon landings, cloning, heart replacement surgery... these things don't just happen by accident. They happen because people took the time to look, really look, through trial and error, at what works and what doesn't.

    The notion that science is somehow equivalent to any other system of guesswork conveniently ignores the majority of reality.

  3. Yes but it is a reality we created. A system man created. Obviously it works, for some stuff, really well. Other things, not so well...but if we didn't have the current set of tests and measures and way of doing things as we know it than more than likely we would have another way of figuring stuff out. I always wonder what we would have if we didn't have what we the new math or how 2 different kinds of photography were invented at nearly the same time in different parts of the world...different means to the same end.

  4. I think you have an inflated idea of what "we" are. We don't create reality. It's there and we can just do our best to try to understand it.

    It wouldn't matter what "other way" we managed to figure stuff out. If we determined that something worked, really worked, no matter what it was, that would be scientific. If it turned out that we were wrong about the quantum mechanical laws that make lasers so your DVD player works, and it was instead the eye-beams of really angry elves, well then, science would adapt to this new knowledge. We would have "elf studies" at MIT. We just have never, ever seen this happen. Which was the point of this article.

    But that is the difference between science and any other way of investigating the world at large. Science starts with humility, starts with the (correct) assumption that you can't assume anything, and goes from there. It doesn't sit around guessing, which is pretty much what every other way of knowing amounts to.

    Most people have a very simplistic, very narrow of view of what science is and how it works. To them, it is guys in white coats poking mice with needles and telling us what we have to believe in Hollywood movies before the "really smart person" hero, the one who "knows" that ghosts are real, comes along and proves their arrogance wrong. That sells tickets, but it doesn't happen in real life.