Thursday, July 14, 2011

Are You Determined?

Continuing from my last posting, I want to talk about science and where it is heading, ideologically. In many ways, this post builds on the last one, to set a foundation for the next one which will be about romantic behavior.

Before I go further, realize that I am a huge believer in the value of science as well as a scientist. I believe that science has made all our lives immensely better. Way better.

Here’s a basic fact about science. Science cannot address things that cannot be measured. Sound measurement is about knowing what to look for and when to try to capture it. Science is dependent in many areas on technology, and technology limits what can be observed. For example, if you have followed physics in the past decades (you know you love it!), smaller and smaller particles have been found. Just when scientists think they may be at rock bottom in terms of fundamental particles, someone smart comes along and proposes or demonstrates more, even smaller things, at another level lower.

Ironically, to measure the smaller particles (known or hypothesized), the machines have to be larger and larger. The largest machine on earth right now to measure the smallest particles we’ve “seen” yet is in Europe, and it’s call The Large Hadron Collider. That’s not where BMW, and Volvo, and Mercedes test the safety of their cars. But, it is an oval. Go read about it sometime. We in the US were building a HUGE collider in Texas but that got abandoned (after spending a couple billion dollars or so) because of how much more it was going to cost.

Where was I going with that? Actually, not in a circle. Science is limited by what it can measure and analyze (some things can be measured well but we have very poor abilities to analyze the mass of data thoroughly: weather patterns, brain functions, entire genomes, and how Justin Bieber got so popular).

Here’s a crucial idea that was embedded in the ideas in my last post. Suppose you are both a scientist and a believer that there is nothing else in reality or the universe except things that are material. By this I mean you are a devout materialist. Typically, this would mean to most people that you don’t believe in God or spirits or stuff like that. But it means something more than that if the belief is totally, philosophically, grounded in the idea that all there is is what is material. In other words, all there is in existence is stuff that can potentially be measured because all there is, really, is material and energy (another type of material for sake of argument here). Really important point: Not all scientists are total materialists in this sense, but many and maybe most are. And, whether particular scientists are or not, science functions as if all there is is the material universe.

I think that means that the Big Belief at the end of the Scientific Rainbow is this: If you could measure everything well (or enough of everything), and you had a super computer powerful enough to make sense of how everything that was measured related to everything else that was measured, you could theoretically explain everything that exists and everything that happens. Science rests on the assumption that meaningful things can be measured and studied. The most far out extension of that basic idea is that there is really nothing else but what could potentially, eventually, be measured and studied. If you really believe that, then you can easily believe that a butterfly flapping it’s wings in the heart of the Amazon jungle is somehow connected to everything else that has happen and will happen in the universe. You just have to have the data and the understanding of how the flapping connects to the things around it, and the things around those things, and the things around those things and . . .

The quandary in all of that is that the strongest view of this idea leads one to push personal choice further and further to the side. At least to me, it reduces ultimately to a strictly deterministic view of the universe. I do not really see how it can go anywhere else. Potentially, if I knew every variable possible and could understand how they relate, I could predict exactly who would read this blog entry and who, when starting to read it, would read this far. And if I understand all the variables well enough, I could predict that before I wrote it. (And could have predicted that I’d write it.) Okay, I’m nearing the strange edge of how material and time intersect here, so let’s move away from that chasm. I’m not Einstein.

The prediction that follows from all of this is pretty simple. While science has, and continues to be, immensely valuable to everyday life, it will also keep pushing the edge on the fundamental notion that people choose what they do, and that presents some serious challenges for thinking about personal responsibility.

Next time, I will focus on how these ideas affect scientists’ views of the romantic behavior of individuals.


Saturday, July 2, 2011

Did You Decide To Read This?

Am I responsible for writing this? Surely, you think the answer to both questions is “yes.” But don’t be hasty in your, um, decision about it. There is a strong movement in our country that challenges the general viewpoint that people choose what they do and are therefore responsible for what they do. The movement is led by a community that you may not guess to be at the heart of these ideas. It’s a non-secret society. (There is no secret handshake or hidden meetings. Actually, there ARE some hidden meetings, but there are lots of public ones, too, and their sacred texts, called journal articles, are public for all to read.) They call themselves Scientists. I am one of them.

Let me give you an example in this post and then more in future ones. Then we’ll see where that takes us over the course of some thoughts on the nature of us. (I say we’ll see where that takes us, which sounds rather passive than active, because, remember, you are not really choosing to read this and I did not really choose to write this, either.) Are you confused yet? That’s okay, it’s nothing you did. At least not consciously.

This example I’ll share in this post just happens to come from a field close to my field of psychology, and it’s recent, so it serves my purpose well. (There I go again, talking like I have a choice in what I’m writing. Dang, it’s going to be hard to adjust to the notion that I’m not a decider. And, if I’m not a decider, does that mean I’m always a slider?)

A recent column in the Wall Street Journal reviewed the core thesis of a book called “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Unconscious Brain.” Incognito was written by a cognitive neuroscientist named David Eagleman, and the column I wrote was written by Christopher Chabris. You can read the column here, if you like (well, I mean HERE). I’ve not read the book, only the column, so I cannot vouch for the book and am trusting Chabris for getting the basic points right. That’s not too hard to do since I know the main idea quite well from various things I’ve read over the years in my field of psychology. I’ll quote Chabris. He writes:

“In "Incognito," the neuroscientist and polymath David Eagleman argues that the actions of the unconscious are so powerful and pervasive that they "dethrone" the conscious mind and, when combined with the inescapable influences of genes, undermine our traditional ideas of self-control and free will. Most of "Incognito" is an attempt to replace the intuitive notion of the mind as a unitary, conscious actor with a description of how the brain really works, drawing on recent research.”

By the way, I want to be a polymath, too. That sounds so cool. I’m pretty sure I’d like this book Incognito, a lot. However, my current reading backlog is pretty huge, and my writing backlog, huger, so it may be awhile before I get to it. I’m going to cut to the chase now (I write with irony in this 6th paragraph). What Eagleman and many other researchers have concluded is that there is a vast amount of processing and, yes, decision making that happens outside of our conscious awareness I’ll go out on a steady, short limb here: Most of us think it’s our conscious mind that decides what we do. However, I can vouch for the fact that there is a lot of compelling evidence for the idea that quite a lot of processing does seem to happen in our minds outside the realm of our deciders. If that’s true, it raises interesting and thorny questions about what we’re really in control of or choose.

Eagleman gets the implication of this. Totally.  I’ll quote Chabris because his column is so readily available.

“Mr. Eagleman wants us to revamp our criminal-justice system in light of neuroscience. He begins with a good point: We tend to excuse behavior when we can identify an "organic" cause for it, such as a brain tumor, and we tend to blame perpetrators when no such excuse can be found. But, he observes, this is just an artifact of our current state of knowledge. As we become able to measure more and more abnormalities, the scope of blameworthy actions will shrink and shrink.”

Chablis writes a nifty ending to his column after those words, but you’ll have to go to his column to read it.

That last comment in the quote above about the scope of blameworthy actions shrinking ever more is an important point--one that most scientists will readily recognize as having an analogue in their own field. The common theme is this: as we are able to measure more and more—provided this measurement coincides with substantial growth in the capability of organizing and analyzing the mass of what is measured—the realm of mystery, serendipity, and free will shrinks. As more is explained, the part we now attribute to chance and/or choice will evaporate into explanation. What that means to me is an increasing sense of determinism in the minds of scientists and other scholars. There are many implications of this, but the most profound ones are related to our notions of decisions, accountability, and responsibility.

I’m going to choose to return to these themes in my next blog posting or two. I want to discuss this philosophically, but then focus on how this issue shows up in the notion of selection effects in my field of social science.

[Light edits on 7-24-2017]