The Woo, the How and the Why

I’ve long been interested in “Occam’s Razor” — the scientific maxim that maintains that all things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the correct one. But who gets the honor of defining “simple”?
It’s a lot like Carl Sagan’s “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” What, exactly, is “extraordinary”? “Extraordinary” to who? Are the criteria subject to change?

Mac Tonnes, ‘Intelligence and the Cosmos’

There are few things more stimulating that reading an intelligent and well-written book whose author you disagree with.

The book in question for me right now is Christopher Brookmyre‘s novel, ‘Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks’. It’s a fine tale, which proceeds from the basic principle that paranormal phenomena are not real and the Rationalist paradigm is the only truth – the book is dedicated to James Randi and Richard Dawkins, which gives you an idea. (‘The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks’ is a Randi term for us poor souls who will never be convinced in the non-existance of the paranormal, no matter how hard our betters try to change our minds…) In the book, Brookmyre does a very good job of showing the arguments of both sides of the debate – though it’s clear that he shares the Rationalist view in the end, he is not too scornful of the Believers of Woo (i.e. not all of us are actual frauds just in it for the money, some are just deluded or too emotionally invested in belief).

The book made me think a lot more about that point of view, and especially why many of those who espouse Rationalism as the One True Truth (not Mr. Brookmyre, I hasten to add) are so very harsh to those in disagreement. And whichever way I look at it, the answer is the same.

They’re Fundamentalists.

Oh I can almost hear their cries right now… “We are not Fundamentalists because that word doesn’t apply to us, because we’re not religious and preaching from a single text and declaring it as perfect and unalterable!”
Well, tough shit.
As Andrew Vachss said so well, ‘behaviour is the truth’. If you act like Fundamentalists, expect to be treated like them.

Here’s what I mean – Do Fundamentalist Rationalists;

Believe in a single inviolable truth?Yes.

(That the modern scientific paradigm is correct in all essential detail and merely requires minor adjustment until it is a perfect description of Reality.)

Insist that those who disagree with their Truth are less important or relevant or capable than them?Oh yes.

(Take, for example, Randi’s finger-poking at the evil proponents of Woo and Dawkins’ declaration that those who agree with him are ‘Brights’ – meaning the rest of us are dim…)

Desire to completely rid the world of opposing beliefs?Yep.

(Rationalist writings of recent years – those penned by Dawkins and Hitchins and such – have explicitly stated that anyone who disagrees with their version of Rationalism is a threat to modern society and strongly express the wish that they cease to do so… admittedly their ‘or else’ is not as unpleasantly explicit as that of Fundamentalist Xtianity or Islam, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say they’d be happy bunnies if all us weirdoes vanished overnight.)

Have double standards around what constitutes ‘truth’?Fuck aye.

Consider for example these two looks at the ‘skeptical’ approach and that hallowed tool of scientific ‘objectivity’ the Peer Review. Also consider the amusing results of when the tools of field anthropology are pointed at the environment of a working laboratory, or when an actual skeptical mind looks at the paranormal and tries to share their results with the Rationalist set.

Refuse to acknowledge the possibility of being wrong or having any flaws in their own paradigm? Let’s see, shall we?

Drop in on Randi’s website forum, or the comments on the Bad Astronomy or Pharyngula blogs. There’s a lot of straw-man arguments, insults and ad hominem attacks (not the same thing), plus more than a little scorn, rejection of dissent and emotional manipulation of their followers – but neutral considerations of reported phenomena? Pointing their ‘skepticism’ at their own models? Not so much.

So… if that’s not a fundamentalist attitude, it’s real hard to distinguish it from one.

Here’s an illustration of Rationalist Fundamentalism in action…
A few years ago, neurologist and Rationalist spokesman Stephen Pinker wrote a book called ‘How The Mind Works”.
What colossal arrogance. And what a clever title – two false statements in a mere four words.
1. The book is a pop-science work on modern brain theory and research. It’s not about Mind at all… it merely assumes that Mind is a by-product, an epiphenomenon, of Brain. This is something other researchers would query, and even in some cases say is completely refuted (there is evidence for competing models about consciousness as a whole-body, or even a non-local, phenomenon.)
2. We’re an awful long way from knowing how the brain works – let alone the mind.
For instance, I can offer evidence that pretty much every single model of thought and consciousness which regards the brain as central and essential is incorrect – and I can do it with one word.
Anencephaly.

This is a birth defect where much of the cerebellum or other major brain structures are missing or severely deformed. Normally it’s fatal. But…
There are some people who grow to adulthood with this condition. Sometimes, it’s not even diagnosed until adulthood, due to a MRI for an unrelated condition. In short, there are men and women walking around the planet today who have effectively no brain – just a small bunch or strand of neural tissue and an awful lot of cerebro-spinal fluid in their heads.
(I’ve talked about this before, but the paper I linked to has changed location. Here’s another paper on the subject.)

These people, though rare, are conscious by any reasonable test of same – not imbeciles, they’re capable of thought and speech and movement (and are not, to quote Steve Martin’s classic movie ‘The Man With Two Brains’, “sitting in the corner and going tttthhhppp…”). Yet despite the existence of these people, the standard model of neurology has not, as would be the correct action in a true spirit of scientific enquiry, been binned.

The refusal of scientists as a rule to acknowledge such ‘black swans’ easily (if at all) is understandable to a degree. Their models work pretty well, most of the time. Modern neurology is a damn fine thing, has saved many lives and brought about remarkable understanding. But it’s also incomplete and in many parts contradictory. And its attempts to deal with the so-called Hard Problem of Consciousness, with some noble exceptions, mostly consist of sticking their fingers in their ears and going “la-la-la-la”. (Best example is Susan Blackmore – who merrily insists that consciousness is basically a delusion, but never quite manages to answer the question, “what’s doing the deluding, then?”, or wonder if her own Buddhist beliefs could possibly colour her views.)

Probably a good time (yet again) to state my views on Science…
I think modern science has made the world, on the whole, a better place. I certainly much prefer to live in this time and place rather than under any fundamentalist religious regime.

But… I don’t think science is complete or wholly accurate. I’m fairly sure it can’t be, by definition.

All science can do is make and test models, theories of how reality functions. (To nick from McLuhan – “The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal.” And no amount of insisting will make a menu edible.)  Useful, but not necessarily completely true.
Plus, that which does the modelling is far from infallible.
I know (from working in labs myself, and knowing various professional scientists in fields ranging from neurology to astrophysics to psychology to particle physics) the actual process of scientific research is fraught with nepotism, political manoeuvring, hide-bound attitudes, bad intellectual habits and on occasion outright bribery and fraud… and if you think you’re going to get a Pure Truth that way, you’re more deluded than Randi’s minions would think I am!

There is a method within the scientific world for dealing with contradictions and oddities – it’s called the multi-model approach, was pioneered by Niels Bohr and has a lot going for it.
Trouble is, it pretty much denies the One True Truth idea… and thus is avoided by Fundamentalist Rationalists like the plague. It’s not a favourite of Fundamentalist Religious types either.
And if that’s not a recommendation…

The point I’m trying to make isn’t that science is completely wrong and mystical belief is always right. Or that all models of the world have equal validity. Far from it.

I’m just pointing out that absolute belief in any kind of One True Truth is a trap. As the old Discordian saying goes, ‘convictions cause convicts’. The same habit of thought which leads the likes of Dawkins to insist that modern science proves God doesn’t exist is pretty much the same one that has ‘Intelligent Design’ proponents both ignore all the evidence that contradicts their model and simultaneously miss the point that even if there is evidence for the universe having some kind of Designer, that doesn’t prove that said Designer was their God.

It all comes down, I suspect, to a very human decision. Choosing who to believe, whose word to trust. Who you choose as an authority shapes everything you think.

And we do not always choose wisely.

“Religion is not an exact science. Sometimes, of course, neither is science.”
Sir Terry Pratchett, Nation

(Special thanks to ‘Dr. Jon‘ for several of the links, and of course to the late Robert Anton Wilson for inspiration.)

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8 Responses to The Woo, the How and the Why

  1. Gyrus says:

    Cool post. And finally! The book I’ve been looking for! Laboratory Life. Must be pure happenstance that it never came up in conversation before. I remember being psyched about seeing Steven Fuller in Bristol. He closest I’d seen thus far to the “anthropology of science and academia” I’ve been curious about. But Lab Life is surely the mother lode.

  2. vogelbeere says:

    Excellent!

    I think it’s worth drawing a distinction between empiricism and rationalism, as in the 18th c, these were two different things, and adherents of the two ideas loathed each other. Rationalism = belief in a priori reason as a fundamental property of the human mind. Empiricism = belief that we begin with a tabula rasa, and can only acquire knowledge by experience. These two ideas wereand are mutually incompatible. Adherents of rationalism try to gloss over this and pretend that they’re empiricists too, but they are not, and by definition cannot be.

    See also my posts on Dawkins’ rant book:

    A Pagan response to Dawkins, part 1
    A Pagan response to Dawkins, part 2
    a stark choice

    (all posted in my Pagans and science category)

  3. K says:

    What a load of self serving tripe. Anencephaly is not just about issues of the brain it is an issue of the lack of cranium. during the pregnancy, the neural tube fails to close at the top of the head, the bones do not form and the brain is exposed to the amniotic fluid. This damages the brain within the womb and curtails the life expectancy of the child. The cases you described in your link, state that the cranium was intact. Get your facts straight before publishment.

  4. vogelbeere says:

    @ K: This is a blog. Lighten up.

    The anencephaly thing is incidental to the main body of the argument. Whether or not Cat has his facts right about anencephaly, it IS true that neuroscience tells us a lot about the brain and not much about the mind. I have a degree in Psychology, and can confirm that neuropsychology is mainly about brain functions.

  5. catvincent says:

    K,

    No, actually I did check the facts first. As I actually said (and you either missed or didn’t comprehend), the majority of anencephaly cases do indeed have the sequelae you describe. I was mostly talking about the ones that do not.

    You are, of course, perfectly entitled to your opinion of my writing being ‘self-serving tripe’!

  6. […] The Woo, the How and the Why « Cat Vincent’s Oddities and Mutterings […]

  7. Nicole says:

    There are no adults walking around with anencephaly. Maybe hydracephaly or something else ending in “cephaly” but not anencephaly. If there are any adults living with anencephaly they are not “walking around”. They are in a bed hooked up to life support. I had a child with anencephaly who lived for 33 hours. I have done more research on it then most docs. Anencepahlics are missing most of their brain & most of their skull. there is not even anything covering their brains! The longest I have seen one live is a few years because the parents aggressively treated them with life support after birth.

  8. […] nicer fundamentalism” I’ve mentioned here before that I find reading opinions that differ from mine to be […]

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