Science in Trouble!

Science In Trouble!

Epistemological Holes Start to Manifest in the Heart of Scientific Method

(November 2015)

a written piece by Devaraj Nick Sandberg


Recently I’ve been noticing that there seems to have been a bit of an “offensive” going on against alternative medicine and complementary therapies in the world of science. Scientists and sceptics seem almost to have gone to war against Homeopathy, Acupuncture, Cranial-Sacral Therapy and the like, the battleground being the media.

It’s like each month another eager scientist is being quoted in the press or on TV. They tell us that double-blind, objective trials of medications or treatments is the only way to establish that something is real. And that they want to “protect the public” by banishing anything not within this category to the sidelines of society, or even get rid of it altogether.

In some ways it all seems very reasonable. I mean, who wants to be ripped off by some dodgy practitioner with more charisma than knowledge? Not me!

But is it? And is scientific method really all its cracked up to be?

I dare say many other “alternative types” would tackle this subject by quoting people who’ve benefited from complementary medicine, citing studies done in this area, or perhaps pointing out some of the evils of Big Pharma, maybe how cost-effective some of these remedies are. They’d create a case for balance, for allowing both scientifically proven and alternative treatments to be widely available.

But I’m not going to do this.

I’m going to lay straight into Scientific Method itself, using no case studies, no anecdotes and no claims. I’m going to adopt a rigorous, Materialist perspective – that used by scientists themselves. I’m going to lay out a case that scientific method itself proves beyond reasonable doubt that science is actually nowhere near as strong as most scientists are wont to believe.

This isn’t going to be a walk in the park. It’ll take a little while. Among other things, there will be brain science, a bit of mathematics, and a little philosophy. But these will be the least of your problems! The main problem you will have, as I hope to show, is that you have a human brain. A brain that is the product of a billion years of natural selection. A brain that has been finely engineered, through countless aeons of evolutionary history, to be extremely effective at accomplishing certain specific tasks, namely surviving and reproducing. But a brain that may, unfortunately, be of questionable usefulness for many other tasks.

Scientists and philosophers, among others, use human brains to try to establish truth. Essentially, we’re using an “eating and shagging machine” to try to understand our world and our place within it, to find out who we are and how everything interrelates. As I will try to show you, it’s a little like asking a porn movie maker to direct a remake of Citizen Kane.

OK, you ready? Let’s get to it…

Chapter 1 – Materialism

First up… materialism. By this word I mean the philosophical perspective and not the belief that buying stuff will cure your worries. Materialism is the philosophical position most scientists adopt, sometimes slightly distinguished these days as Physicalism. It means that matter is the building block of everything and that all phenomena, including consciousness itself, are the result of material interactions.

If you ask me… materialism is utterly great. I love it. I spend a lot of my time in an alternative community. People are endlessly wittering on about spirituality, and how we are spirits inhabiting a material world, and similar, hard-to-falsify propositions. I think materialism is a great antidote to all this new age foolishness. Adopting rigorous, materialist logic to try and understand consciousness and our world has been a challenging and ultimately rewarding journey for me personally. I thoroughly recommend it. But it’s not for the faint-hearted.

So what about Materialism and Consciousness? Materialism holds that whatever is going on in our inner or outer world must solely be the result of brain activity. Feeling excited? Brain activity. The richness of the colour blue? Brain activity. A sudden feeling of sexual attraction to the person sitting opposite you on the tube? Brain activity.

The mind is what the brain does – that’s the materialist perspective.

OK, but what about me, you may be asking. You know, me, the observer, the experiencer of all this brain activity? What about me?

You want the short answer, according to materialism? You sure?

OK, it’s simple. You don’t exist. End of story. Under materialism there can be no observer, no experiencer, no one that sees the blue, no one that feels excited, and no one that gets turned while sitting on the London Underground. These are all just autonomous brain processes taking place for no one! There’s a theatre, but there’s no audience. There can be experiencing, and observing. But no experiencer and no observer. Not even a point of observation. That’s the materialist perspective.

Hmm, doesn’t sound so great doesn’t it? Not so appealing. Maybe your brain is now scrabbling around, trying to reverse-engineer a personal self to fit in with this perspective. But I’m the body, it’s maybe protesting. Or I’m the brain. Surely, come on! Sorry, no deal. You want an observer, you need to go sit with the Dualists, over there is the 18th century. That’s how it is. You want to be a materialist. You have to accept a selfless reality. Of course, materialism is asserting that there can’t actually be any such thing as a “materialist” but let’s not take that endless loop as a way out. We can do better than that.

Still not feeling it? OK, this may help. Let’s consult Derek Parfit, Professor of Philosophy at All Souls, Oxford. In 1984 Professor Parfit created a great little “thought experiment” that can help people get into this. Imagine for a moment that Star Trek, the TV and movie series, was real, and that we now had the “Teletransporter” here on earth – the device that Kirk and Spock use to teleport down to planets. Say we have this thing set up as a booth where you can travel from one place on earth to another in the blink of an eye. You just need one booth where you start from and one where you end up. Got the idea? OK, now imagine you want to travel from say London to Los Angeles. You get into the booth at London, push a button, open the door, and Hey Ho you’re in LA! Sounds pretty cool, huh? Certainly beats flying. So you do it a few times and you’re really into it, and then one day you read in the paper about how it works. Turns out that a scanner in the first booth reads every particle of your body, then disintegrates your body, sends all this info down to the other booth, where an identical copy of you is assembled and walks out of the booth into LA! You’re shocked. You’ve sat in this booth in London and pushed the red button. Actually your body was destroyed and copy walked out in LA! Suddenly it doesn’t sound so appealing, does it? Probably you freak out that you’ve killed yourself a few times over and are now Copy #4, all without realizing. Suddenly the plane seems like not such a bad option after all, perhaps?

So why is that? Why the sudden deep fear? Ask yourself. Because it’s not me, for God’s sake! I don’t want to be killed so that my copy can have a great time in LA!  Fuck that! Does your mind go something like that? Great. You’ve got it pegged. It seems as though there must be someone inside you who is going to die when your body is destroyed and who will not be the same when you are copied. Yes? There seems to be a persisting self, to use the philosophical term, who is looking out from behind your eyes, and who will be forever destroyed by the first booth. This is the Great Illusion, according to materialism. This “me” that is somehow not just your brain processes feels about as real as it gets. Probably feels more real and important than anything around you right now. Probably you’d rather cut off your right arm than travel this way to LA. Am I right?

So, why do most people insist that something must be being lost in this fictional mode of transport? Why do we feel that being replaced by an identical copy is really not OK? And from where does this incredibly powerful belief in a personal, persisting self come from?

In the next chapter I want to answer these questions.

Chapter 2 – The Mind’s “I”

It seems as though someone is reading these words. Just as it seems as though someone is writing them. Yet, the materialist perspective asserts that this absolutely cannot be the case. There can be no limited entity that, in reality, is either reading or writing this. So why does it seem like there is?

Our brains construct a sense of personal selfhood – a me, an “I” – because a billion years of natural selection, over our species’ evolutionary history, have massively favoured this ability. A sense of personal self, an ego, is highly favoured. We function much better in core tasks with an ego, and ideally a strong ego. To illustrate this, we might compare two characters, one with a strong sense of self and one with very little sense of self. Let’s say an Alpha Male and a Buddhist Monk. We might imagine giving them certain tasks to perform and seeing how they get on. All imaginary of course, but hopefully this illustrates the point. In the fields of hunting, fighting off predators, and having sex I think it’s reasonable to say that the Alpha Male will dominate the Buddhist Monk.

Of course, the Buddhist Monk is somewhat hindered by his or her vows of non-violence and sexual abstinence. And it’s also important to note that the brain of both the Alpha Male and the Buddhist Monk will be remarkably similar. It is simply that the latter has adopted a lifestyle choice deliberately formulated to diminish the ego. But, these things considered, hopefully this example still works to illustrate the point – having a personal sense of self is hugely favoured. As a hunter-gatherer who suddenly encounters a sabre-toothed tiger, it’s pretty clear that having a healthy ego is useful.

So how does it happen? How does a brain – a conglomeration of neurons, glial cells, and other gloopy stuff – create for itself the illusion that it has a personal self? That it is not simply processing information, but also experiencing this processing as a limited entity observing? How does it somehow convince itself that it’s an “I”, a me?

Viewed from the outside it doesn’t seem very likely, does it? That this mass of gloopy stuff is actually a highly sophisticated observer and experiencer of life. I mean, if you were an alien species listening to a human brain tell you this you’d quite likely say “Yeah right, mate. Dream on.” Yet we have first-hand knowledge that it is the case.

The brain creates for itself what consciousness researchers call a user illusion, or virtual self. It’s the sense that there is someone there, someone looking out into the world from behind your eyes. Someone that hears your thoughts, and decides which ones to put into words. Someone that feels what it’s like to be you.

It’s pretty convincing this virtual self, huh? Should be. It’s been in development for around a billion years. Because, even way back when our primate ancestors had no higher brain functions, they still had very robust instinctual responses, hard-wired gut reactions to survive and reproduce. And these instinctual responses fashioned the development of our higher mind as we became humans.

Some people are sufficiently aware to be able to actually witness this virtual self being created. Try this. Close your eyes and pay attention to your thoughts. Just think about something. Got something? OK, now how does it feel? Does it feel like there’s someone there hearing the thoughts? Paying attention to thoughts creates the sensation that there is someone doing the thinking. Now, the next bit can be trickier. Close your eyes but this time let the thoughts go. Don’t try to stop them but just let them drift in and through, without paying much attention to them. Now, does it feel more spacious? Has that “me” feeling dissipated at all? Perhaps there’s more just a sense of presence. Maybe it works for you, maybe not. For sure it’s one area where the Buddhist Monk could likely beat the Alpha Male.

This virtual self is a great example of what mathematicians refer to as emergence. Emergent phenomena cannot be understood through simply investigating their component elements. They have a property which the parts that make them up do not. Triangularity is an excellent example of a simple emergent phenomenon. Put three matchsticks together in a certain way and you have a triangle. However, you can examine the individual matchsticks as much as you want, you will not discover the secret of triangularity. The triangle has a property that the three matchsticks, of themselves, do not. A triangle emerges from a certain orientation of three straight lines.

In like manner, this sense of a personal observer, this virtual self, emerges from paying attention to thought narratives being constructed by the brain. Take a look around you. Perhaps you see a laptop in front of you. The laptop is there. Now perhaps there comes along a little string of thoughts which says “I see the laptop.” Paying attention to this narrative creates two effects. Firstly, as we see above, it creates the sensation of a personal “I” that is “seeing the laptop.” Just paying attention to any thoughts does this. And, secondly, the narrative infers the presence of this “I.” It’s saying “I see the laptop.” This second phenomenon was named by philosopher Dan Dennett as the “Centre of Narrative Gravity.” Thought narratives construct our reality as though it is happening to someone. Although we never get to meet this “I”, its presence is constantly referred to in thoughts. And, inevitably, becomes assumed to be true. Our brain, from early infancy, begins to relate to the world as though it has a personal self.

It can thus be seen that this emergent sense of a personal self, an experiencer of life, is not persisting or enduring, in the same way that the laptop persists or endures. Rather the sense of it is constantly created in the moment. Whilst the brain is active and paying attention to thoughts, so this virtual self is constantly created and maintained. Whenever the brain ceases paying attention to thoughts, it goes away again. Getting into Parfit’s Teletransporter and starting to push the red button, it seems to the mind that something is about to be destroyed – you. But actually the illusion of you will be merrily recreated in the booth in LA. It seems that something has been lost, but actually it never existed as a permanent entity in the first place. Merely it seemed to do so.

So, is all this a problem? Is it an issue that there is not actually an observer, or an experiencer, of life? That the brain merely creates the illusion of there being one because this function is so favoured? For most things, no. It does not matter in the slightest. The brain creates this sense of a personal experiencer to help it fulfill its evolutionarily-derived needs. Needs like finding friends and sexual partners, acquiring food and shelter, protecting itself, and taking part in society. For all this, and much more, the virtual self is excellent. Maybe we have hang-ups, phobias, or a traumatic childhood. But despite all these the brain, equipped with its illusory sense of a personal self, will do its best to see we get our needs met.

OK, so where’s the issue then? If this is all chugging along just fine, what’s the problem? Well, the issue comes when we start to consider not just what is useful to help us get our needs met, but what is true, what is real. When we stop dwelling on getting food and getting laid and start to ponder the final nature of reality. But before we can get into this it will be good to look a bit deeper at these evolved adaptations the brain has made, particularly those associated with protecting ourselves.

One of the more exciting new areas in modern science is the field of Evolutionary Psychology – how natural selection has influenced not just our biology, but also our thinking and behaviour – our mental life.

Chapter 3 – Instinctual Protectiveness

As mentioned earlier, our human brain is the product of roughly a billion years of natural selection, very strongly biased towards endeavours such as staying alive for as long as possible and creating as many offspring as possible. These days we can do a lot more than just consume, keep ourselves safe, and have sex. But, from deep in our evolutionary history, the instinctual responses to these primary needs have been very firmly established, and continue to operate.

We all know the example of seeing a piece of rope and feeling the gut defensive reaction kick in before we realise it isn’t actually a snake. It’s a primal, visceral response to potential danger. And it overrides whatever else we’re doing at the time. It’s as though the brain has an ancient instinctual command module, and if certain cues trigger this module, then it can hijack some or all of our attention away from what we’re otherwise doing.

For most of our day we can merrily chug along, paying attention to this, to that, getting our daily stuff done. But at any time our attention can be completely hijacked should this instinctual command module be activated. Imagine this… you’re a guy peacefully writing your daily blog on your laptop. You check out the meaning of a phrase you don’t know by putting it into Google. It takes you to a site where the term is defined but also on the page there is a picture of a scantily-clad young woman. Suddenly, you find it hard to concentrate on what you’re meant to be doing. You feel a compulsion to click on the picture to see where it leads you. Yes, your attention is being hijacked by this brain module. One of it’s core programs has been triggered, that relating to sex, and it wants to take over.

Likewise with the piece of rope. For a brief period your attention is hijacked away from enjoying your walk. Your brain instead devotes all its resources to evaluating any threat potential in what is going on in front of you. Once it’s clear that it’s just a piece of rope, so this module stands down and you can go back to enjoying your walk.

Defensive responses have the capacity to hijack our attention, should they be triggered. The old, instinctual part of our brain finally has control over our higher cognitive abilities. Untriggered, we can muse merrily upon our life and what’s happening on our planet, we can engage in elevated, philosophical discussions with our friends. We can indulge in all sorts of whimsical speculation, create art, do all kinds of amazing things. But, when triggered, our defensive responses take over. Out of the window goes anything which does not relate directly to protecting and surviving.

We’re like a ship that is usually steered by a rather whimsical character, going this way and that, at our pleasure. But should a threat manifest in front of us, so a certain tough-guy character comes up from the ships interior, and physically wrests the wheel from this whimsical navigator. “Time for me to take over, buddy,” he says, flexing his tattooed arms. And, only when this tough-guy is satisfied that there’s no more threat will he relinquish control.

It doesn’t matter what the higher mind comes up with. If the instinctual side, the tough-guy, isn’t happy, he stays in control. He’s like a nightclub bouncer. You might engage him in a meaningful discussion as to why you believe you should be allowed into the club, raising points around fairness, your intention to spend money, the unlikeliness of you causing trouble, and that you’re not wearing trainers. All reasonable arguments, no doubt. But if he doesn’t want you in, you aren’t getting in, and there’s nothing you can say to change that. He’s got the muscle and he decides what goes. So it is with the instinctual side of the brain. If it spots trouble then it takes over and there’s very little the rational side can do to get back in control, until the instinctual side is happy the trouble is over, or that it was all just a mistake.

So how does this relate to what we’ve been looking at above? What’s the significance of this instinctual protectiveness in a discussion about materialism, consciousness and the self? Maybe you can already spot where this is heading.

Ask yourself, what is the biggest threat you could face? How about we say, Death? Would that be a reasonable answer? Faced with imminent death it seems actually a good idea that this instinctual side of our brain takes over and does whatever it needs to do to protect us. The threat of death of course requires a massive response. Nothing unreasonable there. But what about “ego death?”

What if not our body but merely our mind’s sense of a personal identity is threatened with death? To the instinctual side of our brain there is actually very little distinction. It will go to Def Con 1, just as if a masked gunman had suddenly walked in the room. How would you feel if someone walked up to you and calmly stated “You know what? You don’t exist!” Would you engage in a reasoned inner search for any truth in this suggestion? Or would you feel threatened and respond accordingly?

The materialist perspective clearly refutes any possibility of there actually existing any observer or experiencer within us. It’s actually not complex. It’s certainly not rocket science. To believe in an actual experiencer, you have to reject materialism and adopt one of various forms of dualism. And this is a very quick way to get yourself ridiculed as a scientist.

Ask a machine-based intelligence whether an observer could exist under materialism and it would laugh at the idea (assuming it had a laughter circuit installed). It would have no problem seeing that our much-cherished sense of personal self must be illusory. And we’re not talking some ultra-modern super computer here. We’re talking basic. Like an old Sinclair ZX, something out of the early eighties.

The computer would find this question simple to answer for a good reason. It was created in a factory and, unlike the human brain, has not been subjected to a billion years of evolutionary pressure. It therefore doesn’t have multiple layers of defensive programming, fully primed to destroy any threat to it’s illusory sense of self by whatever means to hand. It could examine, with disarming honesty, a question that the human brain would find incredibly confrontational. One can almost hear it saying in a soft, Hal-like voice, “I’m sorry, Dave, but actually you don’t exist.”

It is instinctual protectiveness that makes it so hard for a human brain to accept something a machine intelligence would have no trouble understanding – that there is no me, no ghost-in-the-machine, no persisting self. It makes no difference that the human brain in question belongs to a scientist or philosopher. They have their instinctual, defensive responses the same as the rest of us. In fact, scientists and philosophers are invariably in a worse position than the rest of us to grasp this. That’s because they’re great thinkers. They identify and resolve problems largely by thinking, in addition to carrying out suitable experiments. But, spending a lot of time paying attention to thought constantly reinforces this emergent illusion that there is someone doing the thinking. Thus scientists, arguably more than the general population, are actually in a worse position to see through this illusion of a personal self. If most of your life is wrapped up in thinking then it inevitably isn’t going to be too attractive to consider that, while the thinking certainly exists, the thinker doesn’t, except as a socially-useful construct.

Chapter 4 – Further Down the Rabbit-Hole

Perhaps you may be feeling a little like Alice through the Looking Glass right now, wondering what’s real and what is not. If so… best stop reading, because it’s going to get worse!

Thus far I’ve been looking at the notion of a personal Observer and have shown that, according to materialism, it simply doesn’t exist. One might perhaps try and “reverse-engineer” an Observer by labelling the brain’s functioning as “observation” and then claiming that the brain is thus the “Observer.” But let’s face it, this is just struggling to justify a perspective that one is used to, as opposed to trying to discern what is actually true.

Now I want to move a little deeper and on to the idea of a “point of observation.” Because throughout my life, whenever I’ve had my eyes open, it has certainly seemed that there is a locus of awareness a few inches back from behind my eyes. The same for you? Hopefully so. Even if we say that there isn’t really anyone inside my head it certainly does seem as though there is at least a point of observation where everything is being seen from. No?

But is it real? Is the world actually as it seems? I think you can guess the answer, based on how this piece has been so far.

Let’s take a look at the visual field. Is it an accurate depiction of a reality that’s “out there” – a world in which we move and interact and try to get our needs met? Visual information comes in through the eyes. But then what happens to it? Well, neuroscientists have now demonstrated that it is subjected to layer upon layer of “data massaging,” until it bears virtually no resemblance to how it was at the start.

This is how highly-regarded French neuroscientist, Stanislas Dehaene, recently described the relationship between what comes in through the eyes and what we experience…

“…what we experience as a conscious visual scene is a highly processed image, quite different from the raw input that we perceive from the eyes. We never see the world as our retina sees it. In fact, it would be a pretty horrible sight: a highly distorted set of light and dark pixels, blown up toward the centre of the retina, masked by blood vessels, with a massive hole at the location of the “blind spot” where cables leave for the brain; the image would constantly blur and change as our gaze moved around. What we see, instead, is a three-dimensional scene, corrected for retinal defects, mended at the blind spot, stabilised for our eye and head movements, and massively reinterpreted based on our previous experience of similar visual scenes.” Consciousness & the Brain, S. Dehaene, 2014

Yes, quite apart from removing all the unwanted grimy stuff – blind spot, blood vessels, and all that – the brain also decides what to show us, based around what’s gone before and what’s useful for us to achieve evolutionary goals. It even “assembles” all the data into a 3D visual field, with an apparent locus behind the eyes – a handy interactive interface so that we can accomplish evolutionarily-useful tasks, like eating, fighting and having sex.

Another well known neuroscientist, this time from the States, Donald D. Hoffman, has likened our visual field to the Graphical User Interface (GUI) a Windows or Mac PC creates on our computer screen. He calls his thesis the Interface Theory of Perception, and demonstrates that the brain always renders visual signals in the way most likely to help us survive and procreate – the goals that our evolutionary ancestors most needed to achieve. In fact, in situations where the brain could choose between creating representations that are evolutionarily “fit” or representations that are accurate, it always chooses those which “fit.” When it comes to survival and passing on your genes, evolutionary engineering couldn’t care less about whether what we see is accurate, merely what works to get the job done!

About a decade or so ago, Swiss neuroscientist Olaf Blanke began to research so-called Out-of-Body Experiences (OOBEs). He discovered that if he applied a little electrical stimulation to certain, key parts of the brain (typically the parietal-temporal junction or the angular gyrus), then he could induce an Out-of-Body Experience. They would experience the locus of their attention suddenly shifting out from behind the eyes and up on to the ceiling looking down upon their body! In similar manner, people taking dissociative anaesthetic drugs known to operate at the same brain sites, like for example ketamine, frequently report that their locus of attention shifts away from the body, into the walls, and apparently off around the universe.

This demonstrates that our visual field is not innately centred with a locus behind the eyes. It is rather that the brain assembles it this way because that’s what works the best to help us survive and procreate!

So we can see that, as light pours in through the visual tract, the information it contains is massaged and massaged by different layers of neural processing, until it’s rendered into simple, user-friendly representations. Everything is done to gain adaptive advantage. Let’s round this section off by listing all the stuff that happens…

  1. Incoming information is stripped of “gunk” such as the blind spot, blood vessel traces, and the fish-eye effect at the retina.
  2. Elements of the information deemed by higher-order brain processes to be useful are selectively amplified, whilst less useful stuff is dropped. The criteria for determining usefulness is the same as it has been for the millennia our brain evolved through – does it help us survive and have sex?
  3. The visual field is assembled into a 3D icon-based interface, with an apparent locus just behind the eyes.
  4. The visual field is given ownership by the brain – there’s an adaptive advantage in believing that this is my visual field.
  5. The visual field is split into “me” and “not me.” The body is understood as “me” and the rest of the stuff as “not me.”
  6. Using the visual field as one element, the brain now splits its “experience” into “inside” and “outside.” Thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations are understood as “mine” and believed to be taking place “inside.” Everything else is rendered as “outside.”

All of this is done by the brain, because of the adaptive advantage conferred. None of it is a priori true or real. The world we experience, that of being an individual, limited entity surrounded by things which are not us, is the world that our brain creates because of the adaptive advantage that this perspective confers.

This highly favoured mindset I’m going to call objective awareness. It’s essentially the dominant mindset of modern day humanity. It’s likely wildly inaccurate, but it is effective for certain core tasks, the usual – eating, killing, shagging.

But what is really out there? What is reality really like, we might ask? We actually have currently little clear knowledge. It could be that even space, our sense of separation, for example, doesn’t really exist but is merely an artefact of neural behaviour. Whatever, that is, neurons actually look like! Maybe time also is an illusion. Maybe evolution really is just an algorithm running in a mathematical reality. We don’t know.

The deeper we investigate the brain and try to fathom if it’s the source of conscious experience, so things seem to get weirder and weirder. We find ourselves pulled into a world that is as bizarre as we can take, and likely a great deal more. People looking to the brain for a nice, common sense view of how reality is are not going to stick around for long!

Now let’s start to take a look at what all this means for Scientific Method.

Chapter 5 – The Implications for Science and Scientific Method

As science digs deeper and deeper into researching the brain so our traditional perspective on how the world functions increasingly becomes like one of those mystical snakes that starts to eat it’s own tail. It chews and chews till the point comes when it will surely reach its own head! That point has been reached.

As we saw in the last chapter perception is not an accurate representation of reality. It is not veridical, to use the more scientific term. As we saw in a chapter before, there is no persisting self.

But surely, you are hopefully saying, these things could affect science. I mean, if what we see is just a highly massaged representation created to help early primates have sex and kill each other, how can we do good science using such a thing? And if there is actually no one seeing this highly massaged representation, I mean, that’s pretty significant, isn’t it? Don’t we need to take this into account?

Broadly speaking, the answer from modern day scientists is… “Er, no. I’m just going to ignore these things completely and continue my researches as before. If necessary I will put my fingers in my ears and hum, because I need to do my researches, and I don’t want any philosophers or specialized neuroscientists pointing out to me that the entire worldview I’m relying on is almost certainly invalid. That’s too much for me to take in right now… so I’m just going to ignore it and carry on regardless.”

Can you believe that this could be true? That a whole generation of scientists could actually do something like this? How much do you know about human nature?

Because this is precisely what is happening right across the whole world of science. Of course, not everyone is up-to-date with modern perspectives on the visual tract, or the implications of materialist philosophy on the notion of a personal self. For sure these are acutely specialized areas. But they affect everything else in science because they undermine core assumptions that the scientific mindset is utilizing in order to investigate phenomena.

Epistemology is the study of how we derive knowledge. And in all epistemological methods there are certain core assumptions, known often as axioms, that are needed in order to proceed. We have to give validity to certain concepts in order to formulate principles and laws.

So let’s take a look through at some of these core assumptions, or axioms, of Science and Scientific Method and see how they stand up in the face of these two modern developments…

Objectivity is one such core assumption. Scientific method assumes that there is a limited observer observing an external reality. Essentially that there is a closed, or at least clearly defined system (me), that is capable of measuring a distinct, separated system (the world). There isn’t. Not in reality. What’s being perceived is a representation that facilitates certain types of evolutionarily-favoured behaviours – surviving and reproducing. And these representations are not being seen by any limited entity, such a thing cannot exist under materialism. So, objectivity is out of the window. It’s deader than the deadest dodo. Objectivity is handy for having sex, finding food, creating friendships, and killing enemies. But it is finally just a useful illusion. It isn’t real enough for us to be able to determine what is true, or formulate meaningful proposals as to how phenomena interact.

Empiricism is another core assumption. It’s the notion that all knowledge is derived from sensory experience. It’s another cornerstone of Scientific Method. There was even a whole school of scientists, famous in history, the English Empiricists, guys like George Berkeley and David Hume. But if sensory experience is actually the result of an evolutionary algorithm, completely skewed towards facilitating survival and sexual reproduction, how can we know that it’s of any use for formulating principles about how the world functions, beyond those rather narrow fields? We can’t, at least not without a great deal more deep investigation.

The Observer. That there exists an inner observer is taken for granted by a good 99.99999% of the population, or so I’d be very happy to wager. In many ways, it’s the absolute cornerstone belief of the human psyche. Of course someone is looking out through my eyes! But, according to materialist science, this absolutely cannot be the case. There is no one there. What there is is a brain program running that creates the sensation of there existing a continuous observing entity. This program runs because it is evolutionarily highly favoured. But that something is massively favoured does not make it real. Our belief in an observer, a watcher of what’s going on, is culturally very, very old. It’s principle function seems to be to provide comfort to the psyche.  In recent times, various writers have proposed that the popular and widespread belief in a “God” serves key psychological functions in the human psyche. Principally it reassures us that we’re OK. But, look deeper, and you will see that it is not just this “God” that comforts us, but also this notion of an inner Observer. We saw in the last chapter how the brain subjects incoming sensory information to layer upon layer of data-massaging, creating a 3D representation useful for hunting and sex. One stage of this processing consists of splitting the data stream into two categories – “stuff that’s happening inside – thoughts and feelings” and “stuff that’s happening outside – vision, most sounds, etc.” Thus it can be proposed that our notions of a “God” and of an inner “Observer” are actually one and the same. “God” is the watcher of the “outside.” The “Observer” is the watcher of the “inside.” Many skeptic types love to lambast religious people for their belief in a God. But they actually are no better with their own personal insistence on the existence of an Observer! Though, arguably having only one erroneous belief is better than two!

OK, OK, no Observer. But how about Observation then? Sorry, no deal! Yes, we might argue that, although there is no actual Observer, Observation is taking place. It’s a process. Surely this is OK? Nope! Yes, brain function creates the illusion of Observation, but an illusion is an illusion. You can’t give epistemological weight, you can’t give meaning, to something that is actually just being created because it’s useful for certain other tasks. To do so would be akin to claim that animals can manifest out of thin air because you’ve seen a guy in a black suit and top hat produce a rabbit out of a hat. Sorry, no Observation.

What about Distance, Measurement, or Perspective? Come on you’ve got to give me something here! Sorry, no, no and no! Distance, as far as we know, is just an artefact of neural processing. Assembling the visual field into a 3D representation is highly favoured, but, again, this doesn’t make it real. And if distance isn’t actual then where does that leave measurement? Up a certain creek without a certain means of going forward! But, but, if I measure stuff repeatedly the measurements stay the same. Surely this must have some level of meaning? Sorry, no! That a data-massaging process gives the same results repeatedly means only that its functioning is relatively stable, again a property that’s evolutionarily favoured. OK, so if distance and measurement aren’t real, you go jump in front of that bus! See how real it feels then! Look, of course the representation is fit for protection. That’s what one billion years of evolution has engineered it to be. That doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to trying to establish what is actually true beyond the furthering of evolutionarily imperatives. As for perspective… same applies!

Then, space and time. Come on, something us scientists believe in must be dependable. Space? Read the above and don’t make me laugh, and please don’t start wittering on again about jumping under buses as a means of proving anything. When I hear scientists doing that I know they must be desperate. Time? Have to admit I’m not sure about this one. I think we’ll need to go deeper down the rabbit hole to unravel that. But I doubt it’s more than another artefact of the great evolutionary algorithm personally.

Well, what do you believe in then? I guess Mathematics seems kind of robust, just incredibly dull and I can’t be doing with learning it. And in the general field of Consciousness Research I’m drawn to Tononi & Koch’s Integrated Information Theory. I mean there’s something about it that just feels like it’s on the right track – the contents of consciousness emerging from a highly complex processor at the point at which maximum irreducibility of the system occurs, currently the level of the human brain. I mean, whatever that really looks like!

Chapter 6 – The End Bit. Wrapping Things Up Meaningfully!

So, this is the perspective as of November 2016. The core assumptions about how we acquire the knowledge that Science needs in order to proceed, can now be seen as utterly weak, literally collapsing as we speak. Science is a vast edifice that has at times propelled itself forwards forcefully, at other times tottered along, and that is now coming right to the edge of a precipice, beneath which lies complete unknowing. A precipice that it has itself realized, through the alacrity with which it has been furthered. The only thing that can stop science collapsing entirely is denial. If all the scientists can put their fingers in their ears and collectively hum, then science can continue.

We face, as a species, a vast unknowing. The promise of science to uncover truth and meaning has been pursued so unrelentingly that it has driven itself to the edge of a cliff. The only way back is through collective denial. The only way forward is to jump. The future belongs to those brave enough to make the leap.

Footnote: I began this piece some time in November 2015, inspired by the activities of the Good Thinking Society to try and get homeopathic remedies banned from the NHS. I was well into it for a month or so, and then lost interest for most of 2016. I’m very happy to have finally got it done.

© Devaraj Nick Sandberg, 2015

The moral right of the author has been asserted etc, etc. Please ask me if you want to quote me!

15 Replies to “Science in Trouble!”

  1. One of my favorite examples of skeptics trying to hoodwink the scientific community is the strange case of the “sense of being stared at” experiment. In that one (forgive my lack of reference here) experimenters went to a university library, and stared at students who were studying in a quiet room (the kind with a ‘no talking’ rule). They found that the students did not look up to see who was looking at them. By choosing a group who were actively trying to avoid distractions, and trying to remain focused on their studies, they selected a group who were very unlikely to respond to a subtle stimulus. They then announced that the ‘sense of being stared at’ did not exist.

    It would be like trying to study whether or not a color blind person can see the color red by flashing a red dot on a movie screen while the film is in a suspenseful moment. At that moment, the viewers (even the color-blind ones) would actively want to avoid any distractions, and would be motivated to dis-advert (keep their attention away from) anything unrelated to the unfolding plot. When the film is over, you ask them if they noticed a red dot. Of course, they will answer no. The skeptical researcher will announce that the person cannot see that color at all. The supposition that some color-blind people can indeed see red things will be dismissed as a ‘woo-woo’ claim.

    Permit me to offer a speculation. Why do skeptics insist that the only things with veridical (“true”) existence are those that have been empirically validated? I think its because they operate with the unspoken assumption that they have the ‘best’ kind of minds. They resent the idea that there is any validity to the mind-set that finds mythic, poetic, intuitive, imaginative, psychic or spiritual cognitions. Why? because they themselves lack these cognitive strategies. To avoid the “cognitive dissonance” of realizing that they are bereft of these valuable ways of thinking, they reject the lot as either childish or delusional. To be fair, I have to acknowledge that many spiritual people see themselves as also having the most desirable ways of thinking.

    The problem may be that we are a species with a wide range of thinking types, and each sub-type sees itself as the best. The patriot disdains the one who is more loyal to their work than to their country. The professor is mystified by people who aren’t interested in education. The 17-year old boy cannot understand why the lust that consumes him at times doesn’t make him attractive to the girls his age. And the person who cannot see beyond what they see is threatened and irritated by the minds of those who feel they ‘see beyond’ what their eyes tell them.

    Today’s radical skeptical atheism is, in many ways, a hate group. The dialog looks like a long and drawn-out debate in which believers imply that something is wrong with skeptics, who don’t know what they’re missing, and skeptics reply that something is wrong people who believe in spirituality, psychic perceptions and hold that there is more to life than metabolism, respiration, reproduction, and the capacity to respond to the environment.
    Skeptics speak as though they were more loyal to the truth, assuming that they know what it is – or how its to be found. Challenges to this view invite “cognitive dissonance” and are resisted.

    We are not a species that evolved to know the truth. We evolved to believe things that help (or helped) us to survive. Some of our adaptive beliefs are nonsensical, and others reflect actual processes, using the whole range of cognition and perception our evolution provided us with. We believe in dragons because that belief enriches our culture’s folklore and repertoire of stories, which in turn, buttresses our culture – and “culture” is our primary evolutionary strategy.

    We believe in psychic abilities (to give just one example) because some of actually do have that skill, and a gradually growing body of scientific evidence supports that belief.

    A skeptic will see dragons and psychic perceptions as being the same. They are not. If they did not see it this way, then they might have to face the unpleasant possibility that their minds are not the most desirable kind. They’d have to face the possibility that a large range of human experiences is closed to them. To a person who prides themselves on their knowledge, that would invite shame. Cognitive dissonance. The recognition that they don’t “know how to know”. Ouch.

    There is no ‘best’ mind, or ‘best’ mind-set. Evolution has provided our species with a broad range of personality types, cognitive strategies, and emotional styles. Some are ditzily non-linear in their outlook and some are so linear in their thinking that they might seem a touch autistic. Our species benefits from both kinds, and all the ones in the middle, too. The more ‘types’ of minds in the human population, the better the chances that someone would have thought of a good response to every threat or opportunity that appeared in our early evolutionary history.

    For better or worse, we who believe in the value of spirituality may have to accept the value of our skeptical antagonists long before they come to see the value of spirituality.

    1. I guess for myself I look at ways in which this rather “mindless” skepticism can be undone.

      The Observer Delusion is one useful example here. Skeptics frequently enjoy berating people who believe in God for their irrationality. I’ve been on skeptic science and philosophy forums pointing out that actually skeptics are just as guilty with their belief that an observer exists. Under monist materialism there cannot be an observer and there cannot be a point of observation. These phenomena are just illusions that offer huge adaptive advantage.

      Skeptics don’t like having this pointed out to them! They really don’t! But of course they can’t produce on iota of empiric evidence to substantiate the belief in an observer.

  2. Sorry, my post was cut off at the beginning. The library study as in response to Rupert Sheldrake’s “sense of being stared at”.

  3. Devaraj, I was in the skepticforums you quoted, and actually is the contrary, all the skeptics utterly debunked you and you is the delusional moron who couldn’t produce on iota of empiric evidence to substantiate your belief in an no-observer. (which is a delusional belief, because you are the observer itself).

    1. Hi Dealwithit,

      Materialist theories of consciousness are running into trouble these days, and this is why so many neuroscientists are starting to move away, off into panpsychism or re-evaluating idealism.

      There are still diehard skeptics around who seem to be struggling to understand the reasons for this. One of the reasons is that we are realizing just how counter-intuitive materialist theories of consciousness actually are. They completely rule out any notion of an observer or even a point of observation and this is very difficult to accept. Thus the skeptics have to occupy some kind of middle ground – asserting that consciousness must be arising from material interactions in the brain, but not looking too deeply into what this really means. They need to stay “semi-aware” or they cannot continue to exist. What you will see with skeptics is that they actually don’t read modern neuroscience and actually don’t understand the issues being brought up. They tend to just dump insults when faced with a position they themselves can’t actually grasp because they don’t want to look too deeply. Genuine scientists can’t do this, they have to really investigate.

      Currently, materialists only have 3 options facing them as of scientific progress in this field in 2016…
      1) assert that the laws of physics need to be expanded to include consciousness as a separate phenomenon, as Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi are trying to do.
      2) assert that eliminative materialism is correct, and that consciousness itself simply does not really exist, as Dan Dennett and Mike Graziano are trying to do.
      3) await some miracle revelation from neuroscience which ties together material interaction and conscious experience in a way that no one has managed to come up with yet.
      Or of course (4) – drop materialism.
      I know where my money would be!

      PS – if you’re interested to debate the actual issues then why not do some reading? I’ve been reading the latest from Graziano, Tononi and Dehaene over the last few months and have found them really interesting.

  4. None of your arguments take out the obvious fact that you are the observer, can you be more delusional than yourself? DUDE, wake up, you are arguing for nothing here. Just a belief that you really want to be true, but It isn’t. You are the observer itself, No it is not a fucking illusion, all the skeptics, neuroscientists from the forum literally debunked you, I mean LITERALLY, Utterly, but as a moron that you are you simply ignored it. Every single argument debunked your woo woo absurd.

    “They completely rule out any notion of an observer or even a point of observation and this is very difficult to accept. ”
    No, they absolutely don’t, you are the only one saying this nonsense, 100% of all neuroscientists of the world disagree with you, you just saying this because it is something that you really want to believe. but you do not realize how stupid and wrong you are.

    When you talk “maybe the space is a neural construct” my facepalm/bullshit detector goes crazy.

    Space is there with or without your ass dude, With or without your “brain neurons”, get the fuck over it.

    1. Another skeptic keen to debate the actual issues! Actually, it seems to be only skeptics who these days believe that the intuitive notion of selfhood we typically develop is neurologically accurate.
      Yes, for sure, space may just be a neural construct. This would certainly account for a lot of disparities that quantum mechanics drags up.
      The place where you’re reading this from may actually be the same place where I am! Deal with it, dealwithit!

      (or, ideally, actually read something written in the last decade before debating, instead of just lurking around on skeptic forums trying to convince yourself that materialism holds all the answers).

  5. It seems to me that, where scientific truth and observation are concerned, it might be better to say that no *single* observer exists. In order for an observed phenomenon to be thought valid, the scientific *community* must observe it. However, there is no “center” for science the way the sense of self seems to be at the center of an individual person. My notion, (found in my book) is that the “self does not exist, and is actually a functional hallucination that acts (so to speak) to network all sensory and cognitive modalities (senses, thoughts, emotions etc.). There is a thing that perceives itself as real, but it’s made of something that’s not.

    In the sciences there is the illusion that there is an observer, but the scientific community is much more like a cloud. The edges are fuzzy, and there is no ‘core’ to it, it changes shape easily, but at it’s own pace.

    Science is widely distributed. Some of it is in the journals, some is in the laboratory, some in classrooms, and in the workrooms of those who write the textbooks.

    Where then, is the “observer” that cognizes new scientific information? There is none to be found. And yet, seen from a distance, it does act like it has a director at it’s core.

    This isn’t an argument for or against the existence of an observer; its a metaphor. Consciousness (defined as the capacity for subjective awareness) is an observer, but the closer one looks, the less integral it seems to be. Matter is mostly space, and s consciousness seems to be a combination of non-conscious mechanisms. Whether or not there is an observer depends on how closely you’re looking.

    My own idea on the subject is that consciousness is an intrinsic property of magnetic fields, with complex consciousness (having input from more sensory and cognitive sources) having complex magnetic fields (as our brains do with their 5 million magnetite crystals per gram).

    But I digress a bit …

    The question of whether or not there is an observer may be a distraction from seeing the relationships between the sense of self, consciousness, and states of consciousness. Asking about the observer may be putting the cart before the horse.

    There are some related concepts from the world’s spiritual traditions. “No self” in Buddhism. “The watcher” in the Advaita tradition. The notion that, because we “are made in the image of God”, consciousness is a fragment of “His” mind (and thus unknowable). These are cool ideas, but probably not germane to solving the “hard problem” – and that’s what I see you doing when you speak of the non-existance of the observer.

    Observation seems to be a process, not a behavior. If so, then you and “Dealwithit” may not disagree as much as he might suppose.

    Allow me to suggest that you never respond to people who use profanity and denigrating remarks in debate. There is a saying: “debate the issue, not the person”. If someone can’t keep the two separate, they won’t be able to exchange ideas, see things from other perspectives, learn anything ~or~ …
    … teach anything. They will neither take or give any of the benefits that a thoughtful debate can bring.

    I hope i haven’t meandered too much here. (Buddham Sharanam Gacchami …)

    1. Hey Todd,

      Nice to hear from you. Does accepting the non-existence of the observer resolve the “Hard Problem?” That’s an interesting question. Personally, I don’t think so. If anything, I think it makes it worse! I can picture a guy standing in a pipe, like one of those big oil pipes. He’s facing one way and he doesn’t look around. He assumes that the end is closed behind him, that’s to say, he assumes there most definitely is an observer. He feels secure to thus pontificate on how consciousness arises from material interactions in the brain. One day he looks around and finds that the end behind him is open also. He looks back but can no longer find himself anymore! The Hard Problem recedes in significance in his current plight!

  6. I don’t see how the “hard problem” can be avoided when addressing the existence or non-existence of an observer, if only because consciousness never exists on its own. Assuming its a biological process, it would appear only in the context of living things, so an observer would imply consciousness, and vice-versa. The only alternative I can see is in some kind of Kantian “pure reason”; a tangled web of reasoning that seems quite divorced from the biological basis for things like self, consciousness, states of consciousness and the sense of self. Your metaphor of the pipe seems to imply that the open pipe behind the observer is antithetical to the fellows existence. It looks like an interesting addition to Plato’s allegory of the cave. “One day he looks around and finds that the end behind him is open also”. In other words, he “observes” that he is not there to be observed, a cyclical conundrum – or at least, that’s my observation.

    It may be that our difference of opinion in this reflects differing perspectives. For me, consciousness, and the sense of self (presupposed by any observer) has a physical and a biological basis, and philosophical approaches just don’t feel germane to me. The self is the result of Darwinian evolution; an adaptation that might recruit, but not create consciousness. The “Hard problem” won’t be solved through looking at the observer (or it’s non-existence), but the nature of the self and any observer it might engender do seem related.

    The non-existence of the observer won’t help salamanders survive, but salamanders can survive by being an observer – and observing food. The same goes for humans.

    I’ll keep thinking about this, and I may come back to share more thoughts with you.

    Wishing you well.

  7. This is an important piece of writing, dealing with key issues relevant to our society at this time. I agree with the need to address the dominance of science and the way the media generally favours its views to the point of oppression. Surely we must exist though in a literal sense in order to feel motivated to take on the status quo.

  8. Thanks for your reply Dev. Great to see you sharing online. I took a sabbatical from internet sharing so what delighted to return to find your contributions here and elsewhere. Love Saha

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