Sunday, December 29, 2013

Warring Worldviews - Or Not

So Christmas this year resulted in a pretty significant stack of new books to read, and I'm ready to report on the first of these: the joint venture between Deepak Chopra and Leonard Mlodinow, War of the Worldviews.
Suffice it to say, the only war is the one we artificially construct.
Much of the issue, as is typically the case with such things, is one of ignorance - neither party has sufficient knowledge of the subjects to discuss them in a meaningful way. Thus Scientist Mlodinow ignores philosophy because he basically doesn't get it (trying to apply the rules of mathematics to philosophy is like trying to use one cake recipe to derive the importance of food), and Spiritualist Chopra makes the dangerous mistake of trying to fit a metaphysics into the currently existing physics. They both discuss the difference between mind and brain without once mentioning the phrase "emergent behavior." Mlodinow compares a spiritual worldview to Victorian seances, cites optical illusions as proof that an immaterial realm cannot exist (surely if one was looking for a connection between the immaterial realm of "mind" and the material realm of "brain," the very brain scans he cites as proof that no such connection exists are exactly that connection), and uses Richard Dawkins' "Methinks it is like a weasel" computer code as though it makes his point (a note to the uninformed: the idea is that randomness plus a process like natural selection can make evolution proceed faster than randomness alone; while this is generally true, Dawkins' example is fundamentally flawed in that he directs the process, making the end result, the sentence "methinks it is like a weasel," the goal of the process - completely unlike natural selection, which has no "goal"). Not to mention his consistent complaining about Chopra's imprecise use of terminology, which he subsequently ignores when using his own imprecise terminology. There's even an eerily close approach to Godwin's Law on page 62 (who brings up Nazis in a discussion on whether the universe is evolving?).
Similarly misdirected, Chopra tries to imbue positive meaning into the quantum world, instead of just indeterminacy. However, he doesn't ignore science or discount it, but embraces it - a supremely important step - and asks us to not change the materialistic worldview so much as expand it; he wants science to be directed by spirituality, if you will, partially in how it approaches the world (not a great idea) but also partially in how it is applied to the world (a great idea). Oddly enough, Mlodinow doesn't straight-off discount spirituality, either, but he uses fuzzy terms to talk about how people should be spiritual without being spiritual. The material world is all that exists, but you should still be nice to people. It's no wonder it took me four days to get through this nonsense.
One of the really irritating things about this book, actually, is Scientist Mlodinow's misrepresentation of science. I suppose I should have known already that I wouldn't be very sympathetic after the last debacle, but I wanted to give it a shot. He somehow misses the point entirely when he discusses, toward the end of the book, the fact that our perception of the universe is necessarily - by being filtered through our senses and our brains - subjective, yet clings unapologetically to the claim that science is truly objective and the only real way to understand the universe. In the same breath, he will denounce people's blind acceptance of a spiritual or religious teaching, then bid us trust everything he says about scientific results. (It makes you wonder if he ever actually listens to himself talk.) Similarly, he'll cite correlations as proof of causation, without so much as a single footnote on how this is actually outside of the scientific process (science is all there is, indeed!). He claims that science does not answer to authority, as these foolish religious traditions do, and yet he continually references Einstein's opinions on religion (on a related note, can I just complain that this is a weak and useless argument for science and against spirituality... claiming that science is better than the ancient wisdom traditions because it is continually updated is not only blind worship of progress, but it also ignores that the ancient wisdom traditions have had no need to change. A person is as driven by conflicting desires now as he was 6000 years ago. Basic human nature remains constant, and thus our knowledge of it needs no update). And at one point, he makes the horrific mistake (please let it be a mistake!) of saying that in science, we seek to both prove and disprove things. We never, ever, ever can prove something in science. That's fundamental to science's nature. Science wouldn't continue to progress and improve, as Mlodinow so insistently reminds us, if we were able to prove something to be absolutely scientifically true.
Now, I appreciate the difficulty in explaining science, broadly, to a non-scientific audience. This is why I argue that people need to be science-literate just as much as they need to be English-literate, regardless of whether they want a career in STEM. There are things we say to one another as scientists, words that have slightly varied meanings from the usual lexicon, phrases that indicate something to us but which mean nothing, or worse are misinterpreted as meaning something else, to those outside of our field. I get that. When we say "prove," what we really mean is "show to be within 97% certainty" or the like. And when I joke with my fellow physicists that "science is subjective," I mean something slightly different than what this statement appears on the surface; of course science gains some level of objectivity through its focus on repetition and reproduction of results. So when I complain about Mlodinow's misrepresentation of science, it is in this context: he is making science sound like more than it actually is to an audience outside of science. As a scientist, I understand why he makes a point of explaining that the term "evolution" can't be applied equally to biological systems and to physical systems like the universe, but at the same time, I don't understand why he then turns around and uses the term "prove" to describe a sweeping conclusion drawn from a few, barely statistically significant measurements of brain activity in patients suffering from damage to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex.
In the end, neither of them succeed fully in making their point. If there is really a "war of the worldviews," it isn't between science and spirituality, no matter how much the book's reviewers (their war cries printed all over the cover and inside the flaps) froth at the mouth. The real conflict is between subjectivity and objectivity, and in truth, only one of these can win. Science relies on objectivity, which works reasonably well enough when the view is turned outward, toward objects (it's painfully obvious, I know). But that objectivity will completely break down when turned inward, toward the source of the subjectivity from which the objectivity is trying to break free (it also breaks down at the quantum level). One simply cannot "know thyself" when "thyself" has been purposefully removed. (As Schroedinger wrote in Mind and Matter, "No personal god can form part of a world model that has only become accessible at the cost of removing everything personal from it... I do not find God anywhere in space and time - that is what the honest naturalist tells you. For this he incurs blame from him in whose catechism is written: God is spirit.") Science (just as religion) is the product of minds which are, and always will be, subjective; hence its objectivity will always be tinged with subjectivity. We are part of that which we are observing. We cannot divorce ourselves entirely from the universe, and if we try to operate under the assumption that we can, we will find ourselves running up time and again against tremendous inconsistencies (both scientifically and spiritually). Subjectivity rules.
But the truth is, the ancient wisdom traditions have known this all along. Tat tvam asi - that art thou - we are connected to everything, or, more accurately, we are everything, and everything is us. We are not disconnected, nor can we ever be. Thus science can only be one way of seeing the world, but it is not the way. We don't have to be mystics to understand that. We can tell simply by the fact that science insists that "we" don't factor into science (a scientific worldview implies, but purposely ignores, a viewer).
The really telling portion for me, though, came only a third of the way into the book. Scientist Mlodinow, in his essay on "what is life?," begins his final paragraph with the following:
I spoke to my father while writing this book. For as long as I can remember I have feared for his health. When I spoke to him the other night he reassured me that he is alive and well, in the same way he has reassured me each time I've seen him over the last twenty years - in my dreams. My father died two decades ago but I'd obviously rather not accept it. I'd rather believe that he has rejoined the universe, or gone on living in some other form. Unfortunately, for me the desire is not strong enough to outweigh the skepticism....
I'm sorry, what?!? I'd say your subconscious brain has a $%*^&$%@$#*% lot to tell you about how strong your desire for closure is!
Expletives aside, the candid admission is meant to show that it takes more strength to believe that "we again become one with the dust" than to accept a "reassuring" metaphysical answer. That might be true. But does that make you a better human being? And isn't the betterment of human beings the entire point of discussing which type of worldview to adopt? In the Foreward, it even says that "No one can ignore the question of how to perceive the world.... What else could be more important?" It seems to me like this anecdote, meant to show strength, actually demonstrates a vast - but thankfully curable - weakness. If to adopt the purely scientific worldview means that I cannot properly grieve and come to terms with death, if to adopt the purely scientific worldview means that I become incapable of being a well-rounded and well-adjusted human being, then I reject it. If, on the other hand, the spiritual worldview gives me those things, allows me to accept death and adjust to life, then this is my obvious choice. It is also presumably the choice of every other sensible person who reads this book. You, Scientist Mlodinow, have conceded the argument without even fully presenting your side of the debate, thanks to one overwhelming fact: I would rather not be like you.
Please understand that I do not mean to be harsh. The loss of a loved one is a tremendous psychological (spiritual) burden, and one that not every person bears the same way. But if this scientific worldview, at least as presented here, offers me no solace, then what reason do I have to choose it? Scientist Mlodinow, as if anticipating his debate defeat, leaves us with one more anecdote, this one about a friend who believed in God and the soul.
I expected her to disagree about the absence of evidence, but she didn't.... Can you enjoy a film even if you'd be at a loss to describe its merits [she asked]? Can it speak truth to you even if it is not a cinematic masterpiece? Why is it wrong to believe in a higher power even if you don't have proof? Then she told me of a book published in German, a collection of notes and letters written by people about to be executed for helping Jews survive during World War II. All were written either by people deeply involved in their faith or by children. There was only one exception, she said - a nineteen-year-old secular man who got involved in the resistance movement as a sort of adventure. His letters were different from all the others, she said. He was the only one who feared death.