At this point you may be wondering why I’m writing about these subjects. You’re probably thinking ‘Jeff, why do I need to know about epistemology and cognitive bias? What do these things have to do with science and acupuncture?’
Well, I’ll tell you. I’m getting ready to call in to question a couple of the foundation stones of modern science. Before I do that, I need to make sure we have a couple things out in the open.
I want people to understand the thinking that fuels our current approach to science and knowledge acquisition. This is coupled with an understanding of the potential pitfalls in these ways of thinking and how they can limit what we investigate as well as how we investigate.
There is a very real bias effect, to which we are all subject, due primarily to the way our subconscious processes information. If we are not aware of these biases, we run the risk of rejecting evidence and information.
As we’ve seen, one of the foundations of modern science is empiricism: knowledge gained by observation and experimentation. The other piece to the puzzle is the methodology by which modern science operates: material-reductionism. Let’s take this apart and investigate what it is.
Materialism holds that everything in the universe consists of matter and energy or is reducible to matter and energy. There are two different meanings in play (1):
Ontological materialism which is the belief or assumption that only matter and energy exist. Under this definition, anything ‘immaterial’ must be a product of the material.
Methodological materialism which is not a belief or assumption, rather it’s a methodological restriction and holds that a non-material assumption is not to be made. This is where science enters the picture as it is methodologically materialist.
At this point you’re probably rolling your eyes and thinking I’m about to go off on a religion or spirituality tangent. Rest easy, I’m not headed in any such direction. This is part of the problem with methodological materialism, the foil often held up to justify this approach is the supernatural. As the argument goes: if we start to consider non-material phenomenon as valid in the context of a scientific investigation, we’re essentially legitimizing the supernatural and science is crossing some imaginary line.
Strict methodological materialism can restrict the type of investigations in which scientists can engage. There are lots of phenomenon that have no material basis, at least none that we can detect currently. Consciousness research is probably paramount in this space. What is a thought? What is consciousness made of? Where does it reside? Is it an emergent property of the brain and brain organization or is the brain merely a transceiver of consciousness? These are important questions and current science struggles with them due to the materialist limitation.
Reductionism holds that complex phenomenon are best understood by breaking the problem in to smaller parts and understanding those first. It’s basically the idea that the whole is the sum of its parts. By understanding each part, we can then ‘add’ those parts together to arrive at a picture of the larger thing.
It’s an idea initially popularized by Rene Descartes and is based largely on a 17th century view of the universe as ‘clockwork’. Descartes’ work informed Newton and so on down to at least the late 19th/early 20th century. The idea of a clockwork universe largely went out the window with the advent of quantum mechanics. We’re still, in many cases, holding on to the reductionism that came with it.
Fortunately, on both the materialist and reductionist fronts, there are scientists and researchers who are attempting to overturn these methodological constraints. You can go here to see a series of articles between Rupert Sheldrake (non-materialist proponent) and Michael Shermer (materialist proponent). We also have the Manifesto for Post Materialist Science.
Systems theory and emergence have started to put reductionism in to its proper place. Both these views hold that, particularly in complex biological systems, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, when complex systems start interacting there are often properties created which are not predictable by examining each process in isolation; something essential is lost when the systems are separated. Which is, incidentally, a view espoused by Aristotle in his Metaphysic. In other words, not a new idea.
It’s not that materialism and reductionism aren’t useful. Clearly they are, otherwise modern technology would not be where it is. They are not, however, the only way to approach and understand phenomenon. Holism often offers better explanations than reductionism, especially in living systems. Non-materialist approaches allow us to gain deeper understanding of things like consciousness.
And then there’s quantum mechanics. Yes, you read that correctly. The rules of the quantum world are very different. Quantum phenomenon are often paradoxical and counter-intuitive. One of the things the early quantum scientists noted, besides the fact that the language of classical physics was wholly unsuited to quantum phenomenon, was there seemed to be some relationship between the experiment, the measurement and the observer in a quantum system. Put another way, quantum systems seem to ‘know’ what the measurement is going to be which means on some level they also ‘know’ what’s going on in the mind of the observer. The observer, then, becomes a key part of the experiment. It’s not possible, so far as we can tell, to objectively observe a quantum system.
It’s not something that’s often talked about in scientific circles outside physics. In some ways, these notions are more congruent with metaphysics and spiritual traditions than science. The macro world, which we all inhabit and with which we all interact, is, in some ways, the aggregation of the various statistically likely outcomes dictated by quantum mechanics. These quantum outcomes may also be dependent, in some way, on us or more accurately, on our consciousness. Which brings us almost back to the beginning of this screed: what is consciousness?
Materialism and reductionism are tools in a tool box. Right now, they’re the only tools we’re allowing ourselves to use if we want to consider the endeavor ‘scientific’. If all we have is a hammer, then everything becomes a nail. It’s time to expand the tool box and allow ourselves the luxury of using the right tool for the job at hand, or at least experiment and see if we can determine if a hammer really is the answer.
Materialism. (26 December 2022). Retrieved from https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Materialism