The Value and Limits of Science

A bit of background

On the recent Field and Field four-day course (June 8th – 11th 2019), Iain McGilchrist discussed key ideas from his book The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, talking for an hour on each. For the most part these talks were familiar as I have attended this course before.

  • Introduction to the Hemispheres
  • Brain Disorders of the Hemispheres
  • What is Language For?
  • Are we Becoming Machines?
  • What Does it Mean to Think?
  • The Power of No

I have blogged about these topics after attending previous courses.  See my page on The Divided Brain, on this blog.

But Iain is now writing a new book which will have the title (proposed, but not yet confirmed) – “The Matter With Things”. It was good to get this update, as on the last course I attended we were told that the title of the book would be There are no Things. I think Iain feels that his philosophical position is clearer with the newer title. This new book will argue against reductionism and materialism and for betweenness.

In the second part of this new book, which Iain is still working on, he will discuss what he told us are the four main paths to knowledge: science, reason, intuition and imagination. He stressed that we need all four, but that intuition and imagination have been downgraded in favour of science and reason, a result of left hemisphere dominance. So we were very fortunate to hear five one hour talks about these most recent ideas.

  • The Value and Limits of Science
  • The Value and Limits of Reason
  • The Values and Limits of Intuition
  • The Value and Limits of Imagination
  • Everything Flows

The value and limits of science  (These are the notes from Iain’s talk. Any errors are mine and I do not at all mind being corrected in the comments).

Collingwood wrote: Science and metaphysics are inextricably united, and stand or fall together.

And Heidegger wrote: Science does not think, science does not venture in the realm of philosophy. It is a realm, however, on which without her knowing it, she is dependent. (translated from the original by Iain McGilchrist)

(I cannot find these quotes online to verify them, and I learned on this course that my note-taking has slowed down, so I am not absolutely sure of their accuracy, but, as written, they provide the gist of Iain’s argument. For more on this, see the Update – 17-06-19 – at the end of this post.)

The word science simply means knowledge. We need science, but we rely too much on the left hemisphere. Public science is different to what good science is telling us.

The two hemispheres find two different worlds. Objectivity is not about what is out there. There isn’t a thing out there that we can know. Things only come into being through interaction with our consciousness. The more you dig into a tiny hole, the less you can see the whole. So the question is: What constitutes evidence in life? The ‘howness’ of the ‘what‘ matters a lot. Objectivity is a ‘howness’ – a disposition towards the world. You try to be just and truthful, to bring an understanding. This reminded me of the work of Gayle Letherby et al. on Objectivity and Subjectivity in Social Research .

There are no things that are not unique. How does science cope with this? In science when we say we understand something, we are comparing it to something else. Everything is built on analogy.

Science is not chaste (pure and virtuous). It starts from certain axioms/assumptions, e.g. the world is fully comprehensible physically. This is an unlikely but reasonable assumption. But why do we want to understand the physical?  Iain thinks this is related to ‘the matter with things’, the title of his new book, so I expect we will learn more about this when the new book is published (hopefully by the end of 2020).

Science is reluctant to accept anything that can’t be measured. It is based on a false dichotomy between facts and value. There is always a value involved in seeking any kind of truth. We try to rise to meet this through objectivity. Many things in science can’t be separated from value, but there is value involved in appreciating what is a fact.

Problems with science

There are 3 problems with science

  • Intrinsic problems built on assumptions
  • Problems of the model of the machine
  • Institutional problems – the way science promulgates what it is doing

Intrinsic problems built on assumptions

There is no one truth, only more or less truth, but we must be loyal and faithful to truth. (See Where Can we go for Truth? for more of Iain’s thoughts on truth). So how do we decide which questions are worth asking?

Values, judgement and insights are very important in science. Great scientists allow ideas to incubate for a long time. Science eliminates the idea of purpose. This is a tenet of science; there is no purpose to science. Science cannot address things like love or an understanding of God. We can see these in operation, but they cannot be explained by science. But science is teleological – things happen for a reason, although the value of reason itself can’t be reasoned.

An example of a problem built on assumptions is DNA. DNA is not a building block; there is just not enough information in DNA. DNA is a resource from which the cell can draw. It is not a script. Only 2% of it expresses anything. Quarter of a million new neurones a minute are developed in the brain. We cannot get this from a linear script. The genome is not the answer.

Problems of the model of the machine

We are not machines. A machine can be switched off, but life is constant and cannot be switched off. A machine operates close to equilibrium; you have to put energy in to make it change. Life is the exact opposite. It is always changing, but how does it remain stable enough to keep going better? Through homeostasis. Human beings and living things change. Natural selection is the thing that stops change, it doesn’t cause change.

Organisms are not on/off. They involve inconceivably complex reactions to maintain stability between motion and stasis. They are non-linear, action is not one-way as in machines. The parts of organisms themselves are changing. This doesn’t happen in machines. The genome restructures itself all the time. DNA is not the robot master. The same genes can give rise to different effects, e.g. Pax6 gives rise to different eyes in the fly, the frog and humans. Some animals can regenerate parts of their body. If you cut off the head of a nematode worm, it will grow a new head with the same memories. Living organisms are not machines. The instructions for life are within the organism.

See also a previous post – The Human Versus the Machine 

Institutional problems

Science is carried out by normal people with egos etc. Fashions of thinking dominate. Science depends on results, safety, conformity, narrowness. There are many dogmas that can’t be broken.

Scientists are expected to publish or perish. This is destructive to morale. Scientists are rated on the number of papers they can churn out, but they need fallow periods, and they can get caught up in administration, particularly if they get promoted.

Lots of science papers need to be retracted, because they have been made up. And Ceci and Peters’ research raised doubts about the reliability of the peer- review process.

Scientists are also subject to predatory journals to the extent that Jeremy Beale published a list of journals which researchers should avoid.

Truth matters, but these problems with science show that finding out what is true is more difficult. We need more replication work. The amount of replication work is very low.

Why is truth important? We are here to engage with the world. If it is pointless why go with truth?

Update (17-06-19) re the Heidegger quotes (with thanks to Iain McGilchrist for this information)

The first part, » Die Wissenschaft denkt nicht «, is originally from page 4 of Heidegger’s Was heißt denken?, the version of his lectures given in Freiburg in 1951-2 published by Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen (1954), and later translated into English by FD Wick & JG Gray as What is Called Thinking?(Harper & Row, 1968).  Heidegger then repeated it in a conversation with his pupil the German philosopher Richard Wisser on the 17th September 1969, in which he follows it by another phrase in explanation, thus: » Und dieser Satz: die Wissenschaft denkt nicht, der viel Aufsehen erregte, als ich ihn in einer Freiburger Vorlesung aussprach, bedeutet: Die Wissenschaft bewegt sich nicht in der Dimension der Philosophie. Sie ist aber, ohne daß sie es weiß, auf diese Dimension angewiesen «. In H Heidegger (ed), Martin Heidegger: Gesamtausgabe, Part One, Veröffentlichte Schriften 1910-1976, vol 16, Reden und Andere Zeugnisse eines Lebensweges, Vittorio Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main, 2000, 702-710 (705).

Skills for ‘Being’ in a Digital Age

I have been puzzling over George Siemens’ idea that learners need to develop ‘being skills’ if they are to cope with what it means to be human in a digital age.

George discusses this with Neil Selwyn in an interview recorded for Monash University, Australia, Faculty of Education.

George does qualify, right at the beginning of the interview, that his question ‘What does it mean to be human in a Digital Age?’ is posed from a learning in knowledge development angle. During the interview he says that technology can ‘out know’ us, artificial intelligence is taking over human roles, and that in the future technology will become a co-agent rather than an enabler; you, me, colleagues, algorithms and robots will all work together in a techno-socio distributed learning model. George tells us that learners (humans) need to learn how to participate in this and that this will be through ‘Being skills’ which, as yet, machines can’t succeed at. He says we are necessarily entering a ‘being age’ because the technological systems around us are more intelligent than we are.

My immediate thought was that this is not so much a techno-sociological issue, or even an education issue, as a philosophical, ethical issue, which will involve deep inquiry into robot and machine ethics and the nature of ‘being’.

I have recently attended an ethics day course, in which in one session we discussed robot ethics in relation to whether we can teach robots ethics – see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-41504285  and https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b098ht04 . I have also attended introduction to contemporary philosophy and epistemology courses in which we were introduced to how some of the great philosophers in our history have thought about knowledge and being. So philosophy, epistemology and ethics have all been on my mind recently.

George said that he has only just started this work, and that his ideas are still emerging/forming, but  I wondered how philosophy and ethics will fit into his future work.

I then came across this article – ‘Our Technology Is Our Ideology’: George Siemens on the Future of Digital Learning‘ –  in which the author  Marguerite McNeal (Aug 11, 2016) writes of George

Throughout his various projects, of which there are too many to track, he focuses on education’s potential to develop the capabilities that make humans unique. Affect, self-awareness and networking abilities are all traits that separate mankind from machines and will be important for work and life in an increasingly automated world.

This reminded me of what Iain McGilchrist said about the difference between living organisms and machines, on a course I attended earlier this year (see posts on The Divided Brain):

According to McGilchrist there are eight things that differentiate living things from machines:

  • An organism cannot be switched off. There must be an uninterrupted flow from the origins of life.
  • A machine is at equilibrium. An organism is far from equilibrium. A cell carries out millions of complex reactions every second. Enzymes speed these up to a thousandth of a second.
  • The relationship between steps and an outcome are different in machines and living organisms. In an organism there are no steps – there is a flow of process.
  • In living things there is no one-way step. Interactions are complex and reciprocal.
  • The parts of a machine are static. The parts of an organism are not static, they are constantly changing.
  • An organism is aware of the whole and corrects for it in its parts (see the work of Barbara McClintock)
  • Organisms have no precise boundaries.
  • Machines don’t generate other machines from their own body parts.
  • Machines’ code is externally generated. Organisms manufacture their own instructions.

For McGilchrist, things come into ‘being’ without being forced (p. 230/231 The Master and His Emissary; see reference below)

“The feeling we have of experience happening – that even if we stop doing anything and just sit and stare, time is still passing, our bodies are changing, our senses are picking up sights and sounds, smells and tactile sensations, and so on – is an expression of the fact that life comes to us. Whatever it is out there that exists apart from us comes into contact with us as the water falls on a particular landscape. The water falls and the landscape resists. One can see a river as restlessly searching out its path across the landscape, but in fact no activity is taking place in the sense that there is no will involved. One can see the landscape as blocking the path of the water so that it has to turn another way, but again the water just falls in the way that water has to, and the landscape resists its path, in the way it has to. The result of the amorphous water and the form of the landscape is the river.

The river is not only passing across the landscape, but entering into it and changing it too, as the landscape has ‘changed’ and yet not changed the water. The landscape cannot make the river. It does not try to put a river together. It does not even say ‘yes’ to the river. It merely says ‘no’ to the water – or does not say ‘no’ to the water, wherever it is that it does so, it allows the river to come into being. The river does not exist before the encounter. Only water exists before the encounter, and the river actually comes into being in the process of encountering the landscape, with its power to say no’ or not say ‘no’. Similarly there is ‘whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves’, but ‘whatever it is that exists’ only comes to be what it is as it finds out in the encounter with ourselves what it is, and we only find out and make ourselves what we are in our encounter with ‘whatever it is that exists’.”

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

For McGilchrist the way forward is to recognise the nature of the problem, that we are living in an increasingly left hemisphere dominated world. He thinks we will have to cope with profound change and that will involve our individual practical selves and training ourselves out of habits of mind. We will have to question and invert things to see if we can find truth. We will have to change the way we spend our time, by first stopping a lot of what we do, switching things off, making space, and being quiet. For McGilchrist the answer is to create a different world and change our culture.

McGilchrist didn’t mention ’being skills’, but it seems to me that his concern is that we need to find a new way of ‘being’ in this technological left-brain dominated world. His work is steeped in philosophy, ethics and scientific research.

I wonder if George’s work on ‘being skills’ will cover any of this.

The Divided Brain: Are we actually alive? Iain McGilchrist

Sunday 22nd March am

This is the fifth in a series of posts I am making following a four-day course with Iain McGilchrist.  Details of the course, which will run again next year can be found on the Field & Field website.

Here are links to my previous posts:

Are we actually alive? Iain McGilchrist

Iain will reflect on the way our society is drifting towards mechanism and the destroying of the grounds of mental and spiritual health. (From the course booklet)

Participants on the course commented that somehow this session generated a collective energy. I recognized this too, but at the time felt that the content of this session was easier to follow and maybe related more closely to our personal experiences of life and work. Whatever the reason, it was on this third day that I could see a lot of ‘Ah-Ha’ moments in the group.

Iain’s opening question was one to make us all sit up.

‘You will die, but were you ever alive?’

For Iain, life is spontaneous, super-abundant, diverse and full of possibility. Possessions do not provide the means to understand the joy of life. People can have a genuine delight in living with relatively little.

He explained that in this session he would talk about:

  • the business of life – birth, sex and marriage (procreation), death
  • the hemispheres and machines
  • machines and deanimation
  • are we becoming machines?

Birth, sex and marriage, death

Iain made it clear that in talking about this he was talking about the situation in the West, and more than that, within Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democracies, the group that has now come to be known as WEIRD. (See this article on the problems of using this sample for studies of human behaviour). Despite this, and because those of us on the course were almost all WEIRDos :-), he shared with us that research into this sample has shown that

  • the birth rate is declining and mother/infant relationships are under threat with increasing numbers of women working full time;
  • 70% of internet activity is related to porn and 20-40% of 19-25 year olds have no interest in sex. The attraction of sex is declining;
  • porn robs sex of its power through its explicitness.

Iain illustrated this point through the example of hikikomori – young Japanese who withdraw from society and never leave their rooms (see image below), even to the point of having trays of food left outside their doors.

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 15.42.23 Source of image

  •  Neither has the relationship between the sexes improved over the years –  what used to be a dance is now a legal code.
  • Touch has become an issue in many spheres of life and professions. Nurses are not permitted to touch patients and teachers are not permitted to touch their pupils. Life is less embodied. There is less activity in the natural world- things are more virtual and disembodied. Risk avoidance has become an obsession, but we will die.

Death confirms life, but the ability of death to tell us about life and the value of life, is on the decline. We attempt to preserve life and defy death by hooking up to machines. This reminded me of a recent radio programme that suggested that many of the elderly would welcome death and that we don’t do them any favours by prohibiting this through interventions such as flu jabs. In the past, flu would have been a cause of death for many of the elderly, at a time when death would have been welcomed. I know that this is a generalization, but I found it interesting.

The hemispheres and machines

The left hemisphere world works the way machines work. It is a world of certainty, fixity, parts, division, abstraction, reification, quantification, inanimation, representation, utility, depersonalisation ……. and more. The question of ‘What would the left hemisphere’s world look like?’ is fully explained in the final chapter of Iain’s book – The Master and his Emissary (see p. 428).

Machines and deanimation

Machines devitalise us. They remodel the boundaries of a person such that we lose sense of proper boundaries. The internet erodes privacy, photos create emotional distance and technology can give inappropriate power.

We have become over-reliant on machines. Here in the UK we are the most observed society on earth and we can’t rely on machines being in the hands of people who are benign. It is now possible to send a drone through the open window of your home to observe you. Are we going to have to live in a world where we can’t open our windows? This reminded me of this video I saw recently – not on Iain’s course – but relevant to the topic and showing a scary level of surveillance.

Machines (Iain was principally talking about the effects of the internet here) affect our emotional movement and attention. We think we can multitask but in fact this is impossible (I agreed with this!). We need to pay attention. Our involvement with machines stops depth of reflection and robs us of the time to live.

Machines also bring unrealistic expectations. We now think we can outsource our memories through machines, through the use of calculators, sat navs etc. Of course these machines are useful, a lot about technology is good, but not if we over rely on it. Why? – because we are the sum of our memories. For example, memorizing a poem becomes part of us, and influences how we feel about things (and Iain was able to quote poetry liberally from memory). If we stop remembering then we are not a full person. For anyone who has a relation with Alzheimer’s disease or Dementia, this resonates.

For a story which explores dependence on machines, read E. M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops – . Here is an online link to the whole story – http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html

Are we becoming machines?

There is some evidence to suggest that we are in danger of losing aspects of our humanity. A Toronto teacher contacted Iain to tell him that after a career in teaching for many years, she now has to teach children how to read the human face. The children are less empathic than they used to be and less able to maintain sustained attention. This is an indication of left hemisphere dominance over the right hemisphere.

People with right hemisphere failure, such as schizophrenics, believe that they and others are machines.

These days we want explicitness, precision and speed, i.e. we want things to be machine-like, but all these replace trust and human things are better if they are not explicit, precise and fast. Most realities of life don’t allow us to be precise. Life is not like Sudoku. There is not one solution. In life there are no clear and constant objectives, no limited possibilities, no precision. Life is always open to interpretation, objectives are conflicting, consistency is a dubious virtue, and certainty is not necessarily a good thing, although this is not to be in praise of vagueness. The complexity of systems we handle means that they are recursive – we change them by intervention.

There is a lot that can’t be measured or can’t be measured in any way that helps us, e.g. love. We can’t make love explicit or change it’s nature. Measurement leaves things out. Theory deals poorly with the unique. Following rules results in a loss of spirituality and flow, leading to premature ossification of working processes. By focusing we lose the whole picture. Uncertainty and impression are necessary for life.

Hegel has written that the more certain our knowledge, the less we know. (As an aside Hegel, Heidegger and Heraclitus are Iain’s favourite philosophers).

Happiness comes from connection and community. Mental well-being depends on social connectedness. Meaning comes from living and connection. It is a matter of belief. We have to trust and start the process. We have to go and meet life. Mindfulness engages the right hemisphere.

All this might sound as though technology and machines were being demonized, but that was not the case. Everyone on the course recognized the advantages of technology and machines, but perhaps we don’t think enough about the disadvantages. We cannot go backwards, but a machine cannot replace life and it is not the ideal model for life. The world of the left hemisphere is a bit bleak, being more disembodied, lacking in empathy, believing more in representations than presence, and being frighteningly confident and optimistic in its certainty.

Should we say no to the machine model?

Authors referred to during this session

John Elster (1985). Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality. Cambridge University Press. http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber/gender/Elster.pdf

Forster, E. M. (1909). The Machine Stops. Oxford and Cambridge Review

Jonathan Haidt (2007). The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting ancient wisdom to the test of modern science. Arrow

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Robert Putnam (2001). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon & Schuster Ltd.

Martin Seligman (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being – and how to achieve them. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.