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Metaphors, Assumptions and Dogma in Science (Response to The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake)

March 29, 2013 11 comments

I’ve just finished reading portions of Rupert Sheldrake‘s The Science Delusion. The title is an obvious allusion to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion so you can guess that Sheldrake’s thesis is that scientists have great faith in their craft, elevating it to the level of producing what I call Truth. The problem, Sheldrake points out, is that modern science is based on adhering to a dogmatic assumption that the universe is a machine. He points out that this is a fairly new idea, and worst of all for supposedly empirical science, there is absolutely no evidence for it. It’s a belief. It’s a myth. I’d like to leave aside the readability and scholarship for a proper review (perhaps elsewhere), but here I’ll deal with the real philosophical problem this presents.

Sheldrake points out that the mechanistic worldview, that is seeing the universe and everything in it as a machine, was a fairly radical idea in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries when it was proposed by a minority of scientists and natural philosophers. David Hume dismissed it completely. The universe and its inhabitants were seen as something organic, i.e. something that grows, by most ordinary and learned people. However, the material success of Newton’s Laws and (Sheldrake doesn’t mention!) the Industrial Revolution, and continuing into the computer age, has helped convince most people that they are robots inhabiting a giant clock. This is bad for science, as dogmatism stifles creativity and ideas that could be either helpful for science (like Sheldrake’s own theories of morphic resonance) or helpful to the general population (like “alternative medicine”) are dismissed since they don’t fit in to the mechanistic, materialistic worldview of science.

Rupert Sheldrake is an English biochemist and ...

Rupert Sheldrake is an English biochemist and plant physiologist. He is known for his research into parapsychology. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an example, many scientists dismiss acupuncture as incapable of anything but a placebo effect, since its “mechanism of action” is not known; therefore it’s a money-making tool for charlatans and shouldn’t be used to try to heal people. Sheldrake points out that’s not a valid criticism since the effect on the health of the patient is the same regardless of the mechanism of action, even if it’s just a placebo. Scientists and materialist physicians, on the other hand, will support many drugs whose mechanisms are poorly understood, simply because they are produced by chemistry. As someone who’s seen the inside of pharmaceutical research, Sheldrake is dead on: we don’t know much more about methylphenidate than we know about acupuncture. The mechanism of action of many psychiatric drugs is completely unknown and that doesn’t stop doctors and scientists from having total faith in them.

Although Sheldrake makes his point somewhat clearly, I’m not sure it’s the biggest problem with the mechanistic worldview and dogmatism in science. The problem I see is not within science, but in how the general public is persuaded to see science as Truth. Just witness how scientific graphics are used in TV commercials to sell running shoes: it’s very convincing even when there’s no actual science behind it. This means that scientists do a very good job of convincing people that science is the only route to Truth, or merely that science is the most pragmatic method of achieving their goals. People either see science as infallible, and they swallow the idea that the current mechanistic worldview of science is It. The big problem, as I see it, is that people are encouraged to deny their own experiences in favor of the findings of science, which are inextricably linked to the dogmatic assumptions of the mechanistic worldview.

I’ll give you an example. Let’s pretend, just for the sake of discussion, that I suffer from terrible migraines up to three times a month that keep me from going to work or enjoying and taking care of my family. Totally hypothetical (not). Let’s also pretend that I’ve been to lots of doctors, been prescribed all kinds of drugs, vitamins, diets and exercise based on “evidence.” I’m still getting headaches. None of this stuff has helped to my satisfaction. I’ve had improvements, and I’m slowly learning to live with it, but the best most doctors have to offer me is “try this, there was a study done…” Science is slow. It’s way too slow to help me with this problem. I’ve been having these headaches for thirteen years and the science has not improved much in that time. The best a headache specialist could offer me was to take large doses of vitamins that were identified to help people with mitochondrial disorders, in a study done over forty years ago. The mechanistic worldview, encouraging me to see my body as a set of pumps and electronic circuits mounted on an armature of primitive calcite crystals tells me to see more doctors until I find the one who’s read the right peer-reviewed study. Why should I deny my own experience in favor of peer-review? No thanks. You bet your ass I’m going to try Chinese medicine before I’m going to wait for science to catch up to what I need in my life. I do science, I know how slow it is, even for the fast people.

My biggest problem with the book is this: scientists play the game of “Who’s right?” I used to believe that being factually correct was the most important thing in life. Most of the scientists I know also believe this and they don’t just apply it to their work. They apply it in all realms of their being, particularly because our language and culture is set up for it. People like to be right. Many see life as a competition. Unfortunately, Sheldrake is also playing this game. He spends most of the book promoting his own scientific theories of morphic resonance and other ideas about psychic phenomena. I see this as more of the problem. We don’t need more science or better science. We need to see science for what it is: a way of learning. When we ask for more science, we are reinforcing the attitudes that lead to the problem in the first place. This is particularly evident in how we teach science.

When we teach science, we play the same game by teaching not methods, but findings. Most often those findings are actually models and metaphors, not experiences. For example, right now I’m helping to teach genetics and molecular biology. Most of the course material is not experimental procedures as it could be, but models of the function of biological molecules. The biggest one is the model of protein synthesis, where DNA is transcribed into RNA, which is translated into polypeptides. This is not anyone’s direct experience. This is a story (you could even call it a myth, due to the dogmatism it attracts) that is supported by clever experiments. Nicholas Maxwell points out that we could come up with a huge number of alternative myths that would also be supported by the same experiments, but that’s not how science works. Science seizes upon the first kinda-plausible idea and runs with it until it runs out of steam. The “findings” or “facts” that are found to support this story are wrapped up in it: we never would have done those experiments and found them to support the story if we didn’t have the story in the first place. When we teach science, we don’t teach method, we teach the mechanistic worldview, which is a myth. I often remind my colleagues that most of science is made up. Surprisingly a lot of them take no issue with that assertion, just as I don’t. The problem comes when we present it as something that’s Right, and don’t present people with the alternative of trusting their own experience. If we were honest about the nature of science, then people would see science as one fun way of learning, rather than The Way of Learning.

Unfortunately we encourage intellectual terrorism (“Who’s right?”) by refusing to be honest with people about the nature of our ideas. Sheldrake points this out, but quickly gets caught up in the same game by proposing alternatives. We don’t need more science, we just need to be honest about what science is. This is Sheldrake’s main point, but he primarily focuses on the danger of it to science, proving that he is, after all, a scientist. I am a lot less skeptical about my overall experience than I used to be. However, I’m still just as skeptical about scientific matters because science is a particular way of doing things and it’s intensely limited. I happen to think the prevailing theories of science are just fine. Swallowing them whole as the key to understanding your own direct experience is not just fine.

My overall point is that I don’t think the abuse of mechanistic metaphors is as big a problem for science as it is for regular people (scientists included). I’m surprised how often I see people who have a problem with science, e.g. adherents to “alternative” medicine, are doggedly scientific. In other words, I often encounter people raising gripes against “science,” and their first response is to propound an alternative scientific theory, i.e. to do more science. I’m also surprised how often I hear people explain their personal experiences (mostly bizarre, inexplicable ones) in terms of science: people usually invoke quantum mechanics because it’s the weirdest scientific thing they’ve heard of. It’s almost like they feel they need to defend their own experiences. That’s sad. Personal experience is not a competition, nor is it subject to peer-review. This just shows how deeply science-as-truth is ingrained in our culture. This probably has to do with the Puritan origins of our country; to understand that I’m reading Paul Feyerabend.

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Why I have avoided becoming a Buddhist (Review: Why I Am A Buddhist by Stephen T. Asma, Ph.D)

March 16, 2011 2 comments

I have just finished reading an astonishing book, Why I Am A Buddhist by Stephen T. Asma, a philosophy professor at Columbia College in Chicago. I read this book over three days, probably the fastest I’ve read any whole book since The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in high school. This book is funny, enlightening (in the broadest sense of the word), and has opened my eyes to the possibilities of learning about something very interesting, but also something very useful for my life.

My impetus for learning about Buddhism is (what else?) the crushing stress I have found myself in during graduate school. I have two classic ways of denying this stress: (1) I deny that it has anything to do with graduate school, it’s just life; and (2) I deny it exists at all. However, having two kids, a wife who’s a physician and being in graduate school does add up to a recipe for incredible stress when one doesn’t have a strategy for dealing with it. I have been crippled by migraines for the past few years, and have sought all kinds of medical help for it; not only that, but without getting too personal, I’ve also spent a lot of time ruminating about things that happened when I was a teenager, and this led to even more stress. Luckily Asma covers all of these bases in his book!

I knew that I needed something, or rather some thing that was going to form a whole philosophy for dealing with the stress of my life, making me more efficient at work, and overcoming and living up to challenges. I started practicing meditation a few months ago after reading Daniel Siegel’s book Mindsight. I was impressed by how rapidly I’ve been able to use concentration and mindfulness to handle my daily life better: even having really difficult, uncomfortable conversations has become almost effortless since I have the calmness of mind to focus on the task at hand. I’ve started actually dealing with my kids the way I’ve always wanted to: modeling good behavior, encouraging them, and stopping punishing them. Unfortunately in the past couple weeks I’ve gotten frustrated with meditation, and I started to wonder what my goals are. At this point I decided to do some reading.

But why was I avoiding Buddhism? I’m not a religious person, and therefore have no religious prohibitions about learning about new (old) religions. Why the denial on that level? There are two major reasons: (1) I’m not much for institutions and (2) I grew up in Boulder, Colorado. Again, Asma’s book deftly deals with both these problems.

One thing that has held me back is that Buddhism seemed, from what I knew of Asian culture, to be a huge part of the established religion of Asia. I’m not one for temples and gongs and socializing over spirituality. For me if I have any spirituality it is very very private (I’m surprised I’m even writing this) and not only is it nobody’s business what I believe but I don’t really care what anybody else believes. Buddhism, in all the contact I’ve had with it, seemed a very social, very institutional enterprise. I’ve always had an interest in Taoism, but I’ve recoiled in disgust whenever I’ve heard someone say “Taoist temple” or “Taoist priest,” because I didn’t want it to be an institution. I love universities, but governments, religions, arts academies, the press, and even professional societies I belong to, seem far too wrapped up in ensuring their own existence to be helpful at all for anything in my world.

The other problem was where I grew up, or more specifically the white-bread Buddhist converts I had contact with trying to be an intellectual in a city full of (some other) intellectuals and countless sycophants. Again, I knew plenty of Asian “cultural Buddhists” as Asma calls them, as well as Hindus, Muslims, Mormons (wait, they’re not Asian, are they?) and Christians. However, the (white) Buddhists were mostly trust fund babies and arrogant jerks. There are a few major exceptions: some of the people I knew that were associated with Naropa were some of the nicest people I’ve known in my life, and I still count them as friends, but they were the exceptions. A lot of these people were serious pains-in-the-ass who would believe anything as long as it came from further east than Jerusalem. I knew a lot of their children (who were all on drugs) and they were the most stuck-up, prejudiced kids in school. An art class from Naropa trampled a Lark Sparrow nest during my honors thesis research project. Naropa also angered the wildlife community in Boulder by scheduling a fund-raising birdwatching event called “Birdathon” whose funds went to Naropa, not a wildlife-related cause, while the Boulder County Audubon Society had been holding their own Birdathon for over twenty years.

I’m full of stories about Naropa and its tendrils, and its unintended consequences, but I won’t go into them here. The point is I obviously wasn’t going to take up Buddhism surrounded by that. However, the other night while browsing the book stacks in the Durham Public Library (of all places!) I read the first chapter of the book subtitled “No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey.” I have already given up red meat, but I got the idea. Even more encouraging was the excerpt on the book’s back cover:

In my experience, raising a child has been like having a miniature war under our roof. Quiet contemplative meditation seems like a very remote luxury to me. I fantasize about joining a monastery and letting wolves raise my son instead. But then, what good is my Buddhism if it can’t handle the chaos of everyday life?

That sounded about right to me. Actually it sounded ironically useful. Through the first few autobiographical chapters, Asma teaches the reader about the basic characteristics of Hinduism and how Buddhism responded to it. This was highly revelatory: much of what I thought (or had been told) was Buddhism back in Boulder was actually Hinduism. It didn’t make sense to me then, and Asma points out how Buddhism offers a totally different perspective. More interestingly, he says that one of his goals of the book is to “take the California out of Buddhism,” and create what he calls “Chicago Buddhism.”

Many Westerners who have adopted Buddhism are remarkably humorless brown-rice eaters, who look like they wake up every morning and say “no” to life. In short, they are masochistic personalities. But this should not be taken, by the rest of us, as a strike against Buddhism. These characters would practice any religion in the same cheerless manner.

I was so glad to learn that I am not alone in thinking this! The following chapters cover all very interesting topics that highlight the teachings of Buddha and the important aspects of Buddhism: how do we deal with our strongest cravings, namely sexual and romantic cravings? Another topic that should obviously appeal to me is Asma’s alignment between Buddhism and science: he believes that Buddhism is science in a way, because Buddha doesn’t say “Take my word for it,” but invites the practitioner to see for himself. Asma repeatedly points out that Buddhism is about suffering in this life, rather than in the next one, something that is totally different from what I previously thought about Buddhism. Another especially interesting and practical chapter about work and wealth was especially helpful in finding that Buddhism is incredibly practical. A closing chapter deals with misconceptions about the politics and cultural significance of Buddhism and its place in the global society of today. A fairly misplaced chapter mostly about Jack Kerouac explores the appeals of Buddhism to artists; I saw this as mostly history (much of which I already knew from growing up in Boulder, again). This chapter is interesting, and certainly doesn’t detract from the book, but I may have to read it again to really get the point.

This book is not only educational but is downright funny: especially when the author is talking about raising his son, I laughed out loud. I’ll add that since taking an interest in Buddhism seriously, I have laughed out loud more in the past few days than I have in the past few years. I take this as a good sign. I especially enjoyed a passage about the value of work, versus fame, where the author asks his students to name a single scientist: “Well, um, isn’t there that one dude who’s in a wheelchair…?”

That brings me to another reason I found the book so instructional: I can not only relate to the author as a father, but as a like-minded thinker. He talks about how he loved Carl Sagan, and the Cosmos series: I did too (and I’m making sure my kids see it). He was also a Deadhead; I never toured with the Dead, but I love their music. Asma is also a musician and his repeated musical metaphors really appealed to me.

Another very appealing aspect of the book is that it doesn’t deal with “mechanics.” Asma does not relate any meditation methods or discuss specifics of how to live an ethical life. Instead he focuses on the psychological and philosophical aspects of Buddhism. It’s almost like he knows you’ll get better advice somewhere else, but I suspect it’s more than that. He’s simply sticking to the topic of “Why I am a Buddhist” and meditation techniques, or meditation itself should not be enough to convince someone to lead an ethical life of moderation. He does an excellent job of repeatedly stressing how Buddhism fits into the real world, in a philosophical sense, and a practical sense. He focuses on Buddha’s teachings, and not on saints, shrines, offerings or any of that stuff that has turned me off.

And he does an excellent job of dispelling myths. As I said, according to Asma, much of what I thought was Buddhism is actually Hinduism. Not only that, but much of the other woolly thinking that gets associated with Buddhism in places like Boulder, is transcendental, New Age nonsense. I knew plenty of people who would believe anything as long as it involved some sort of unknowable, transcendent reality; these people always struck me as Christians who had just changed their dramatis personae. Even when my girlfriend in high school was practicing Wicca, it didn’t seem that different cosmologically from the same-old Abrahamic worldview. Asma points out that Buddhism is radically different, and consequently highly practical.

He even takes a stab at Fritjof Capra, who I once thought really had it together, but then seemed to just be selling books. Asma points out, through his first-hand knowledge of Asian culture, that there is no “Eastern philosophy,” no matter what Capra says, to align with modern physics. One fatal chink in Capra’s Tao of Physics that Asma doesn’t point out is that the parallels that do exist between Taoism, Hinduism and quantum physics are intentional, since physicists are generally smart people, enjoy learning, and some of them learned about Taoism (Nils Bohr) and Hinduism (J. Robert Oppenheimer and others). Asma does a great job of pointing out how anybody like Capra (e.g. Deepak Chopra) who sells this sort of “quantum healing” is just selling more transcendentalism, i.e. not dealing with the real world.

But why am I telling you this, faithful readers of “Sex, Math and Programming?” I’m telling you because Asma’s book has taught me that Buddhism embodies a lot of things that I already believe anyway. If it’s true for me then it might be true for you. This was eerily similar to the first time I read about the software freedom movement. I already hated Microsoft, knew their software was crap, and that there was something unethical about agreeing to proprietary software licenses. What Richard Stallman did was to codify things and give it a name — without turning it into a boring institution, of course. Instead he gave a practical voice to the ideas that any smart person will come upon in the course of examining the world. According to Stephen Asma’s book, that’s what Buddha did, too.

Another reason I’m telling you, O faithful readers, is that Buddhism has a certain amount of Unix-appeal. Particularly the chapter on work, and how work can be meditative, and satisfying, there’s one way to do things (well), all really appeals to my Unix-guy sensibilities. Asma even uses coding as an example of work that can be done well. This only surprises me because most people I know who aren’t programmers (even the other scientists) don’t think about coding. Again, these are things that any smart person will come to on his own conclusions, but it’s good to have names for these concepts and to be able to discuss them.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a stressful life, or who is interested in pursuing a well-done life.

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