Open Minds – How Open is Too Open?

After Mutants & Masterminds on Monday we sat around for over an hour talking about ghosts, UFOs, hypnotism, science and religion. Ken and Caleb believe (to some extent) in…well let’s call it the supernatural (lumping little grey almond eyed aliens in there) just to give it a grossly broad label…while Joe and I do not. Ken’s told the story of his father experiencing a UFO, and why his dad would have no reason to make it up. We countered with “that doesn’t mean there are greys visiting Earth – it could be weather balloons or secret govt experiments etc etc.” That led to discussion on Occam’s razor, how we can’t understand reality we can only observe it with the 5 senses given us, and how science is telling us that we change reality by our very observation. But on the subjects of ghosts and god and whatnot, my question was “what is the value in believing in this that have no proof?” to which Caleb’s reply was “for the experience.” And I can’t deny that for some that would have value. However, it is a very short leap from that kind of thinking to anyone calling himself a doctor and conning sick people out of their money, and to people being burnt at the stake for witchcraft. Which, I will point out, still happens to this very day in many places.

Speaking of science, here’s a very interesting article on the recently discovered ‘bug’ that causes ulcers, and how it can help track the origins of mankind, and both cause and prevent cancer (yes, I’m being deliberately imprecise, read the article)


8 Replies to “Open Minds – How Open is Too Open?”

  1. science is telling us that we change reality by our very observation

    Observations cause superpositions of quantum states to collapse to a single quantum wavefunction. This falls somewhat short of changing reality in any meaningful or useful sense. An observation is somewhat like flipping a coin. We cannot make it either heads or tails, but after the observation, it will be heads or tails (rather than some indeterminate combination of both).

  2. A more interesting conversation to have in person, I think–so that hands can be gesticulated wildly. This is a topic I get excited about. But breifly, Toren, science seems to me just to be another religion, albeit the dominant religion of our time. It seems to me that the western switch to science from God was a minor one in many ways, not the least of which was the continued focus on capitol ‘T’ Truth. We even kept biblical language, used now for describing science. And like any religion, science has its definition of what it allows and does not allow as ‘proof’, and what must be accepted on blind faith. One of science’s necessary blind faiths: that we can use our senses to determine what reality is like beyond our senses. Principally, I fault science for naiveness, for not realizing that it is a way of looking at the world, a point of view that entails a specific consequential relationship with the world that is neither ‘right’ nor ‘true’ nor ‘natural’, but is simply a method of relating to experience.

    as for stake-burning and conning, science has no answer to hatred/bigotry, nor to manipulation/theivery, and at times it is, has been and continues to be used in the commission of both (just like Christianity). I think that the lack of guidance here on the part of science is another one of its shortcomings as a religion, actually.

    The value of any belief lies in its outcome, I think.

  3. Hmm. I’m looking at my above comment in the light of day and realizing that I jacked the thread to a one about science and religion. Sorry, Toren, that doesn’t seem to be what your comment was actually about. It is one of my favorite discussions, obviously. Ok, an on topic response:

    As to: being too open making one vulnerable to being taken advantage of, I agree that that’s true, that’s the danger of believing in the possibility of unexplained phenomena like UFOs and magic. But the danger of being too closed seems to me to be much more heartbreaking: possibilites falling away, rigidness, pessimism, judgementalness. I guess I would rather embrace the potential of being a fool than of being a cynic; the former just seems to have more possibility for lightheartedness. Plus, I like the wonder and curiosity relationship that ‘too open’ has with the world.

  4. Re: gesticulating – true dat.

    I like Indiana Jones delineation between Truth and fact, and I think it applies here.

    I don’t know WHY the universe was created, and I don’t know HOW or what was going on before or what will happen should the universe collapse. THAT is full of wonder and curiosity, and there is more than enough wonder and curiosity in the fiddly bits of science that the vagueries of ghost stories and all that new age crystal therapy stuff really isn’t worth the time of day for me. I understand where you’re coming from, choosing to err on the side of foolishness than cynicism, but for me, as I said, I don’t want to live in a world where everyone thinks anything goes. That seems to me much more dangerous.

  5. Well, most of the world seems to agree with you here, and prefers fewer possibilities and and more stability in place of the unexplained. I tend to be labelled the eccentric in this debate. But you know I was intitially very interested, delighted in science in high school, but quickly hit the brick wall of its stubborn lack of interest in its own method and the results of its method.

    I bounced out of university math, biology, and psychology majors for just this reason. I found scientific curiosity rigidly controlled by what it is willing to look at and how it is willing to look at it. Objectivity is touted as the foundation of scientific knowledge, what suposedly seperates it from religion, but nobody wants to talk about what that is, how it is enacted, and whether it is possible (in a pure sense, it isn’t possible in the slightest, unless one is God, but you try and tell a scientist that).

    In short, I found my creative curiosity about the ultimate nature of things completely stifled–science isn’t the place for those kind of thoughts, I was told–go waste your time in philosophy, we deal in hard facts. My point is that hard facts are potentially completely meaningless without an existential base, like building a house on some unexamined surface that you just hope is solid enough to hold it. Scientific study has resulted in some amazing discoveries, but I would argue that we still don’t really know what we’re doing in a basic sense, like we’re operating alien machinery, delighted that we can use something to do something cool, without understanding anything about context and true nature. like we’re playing with toys.

    I would argue that more dangerous (or at least equally dangerous)to allowing the possibility that ‘anything goes’ is assuming that the world operates on very strict, predictable rules because it’s easier and more comfortable than admitting that we’re not sure if it does or not.

    It is also true that science tends to want the options to be binary: either science is completely right, or there is complete uncertainty and we give up the ability to distinguish between any given claim and another (which I think is a function of the rigid scientific true/not true mindset). I think there is room for much more curiosity and ambiguity than science currently seems to allow, and certainly room for more humbleness, without embracing roiling chaos.

    It does feel more dangerous to allow for the unexplained than to presuppose some order until that theory is disproven, and then quickly presuppose some other order. But allowing the unexplained is more realistic, more honest, I think.

    And, for myself, if I was asked about what was more interesting to study, what will happen in millions of years when the universe may collapse, or what people are experiencing when they talk about ghosts or healing crystals, I’d choose the latter in a second, as more relevent and meaningful to my life.

    anyway, I would hate it if you felt like I was insulting you here. Perhaps it was a bit extreme to say that science is the same as religion. It certainly seems to me to share some characteristics, but that was kind of a hyperbolic statement, especially since I know how much you dislike Christianity. I actually have a lot of respect for scientific investigation, which is why I spend so much time investigating it, and pointing to what I see as its arrogances, blind spots, and weaknesses of methodology.

  6. Well I kind of agree with what you’re saying – science is about hard facts and although scientists are looking into it – they don’t claim to know why the universe was created, they just claim that 1+1=2 when it comes to chemistry, biology, physics and all of that. I like your analogy of building the house on the unknown surface. The point is that scientists study the house’s insulation and tells us that it’s bad to breathe it in, and that’s what’s important. That’s what science does. How did the weak and strong force come about, and why? They don’t have answers. But they don’t make up baseless nonsense either, and nonsense is the word that comes to mind when I’m told about arks and pillars of salt and Hell and all of that.

    I disagree on the science is binary logic. The findings, if not the rules of science, change. How we understand the universe changes the more we study it. I also disagree that that it’s dangerous to rely on what is essentially the demonstrable. Maybe tomorrow all the laws of physics will change and up will be down and black will be white, but I don’t think it’s foolish to assume that a ball will fall towards the earth the 100th time you try if that’s exactly what happens the first 99 times. Now it may well be that on the 100th time the ball falls up (as we discussed sometimes the most rational/simple explanation is NOT the correct one) – I’m not saying it’s impossible, but there are probably dozens of possible reasons for why that is. I love that even though my mind tricks me into believing an optical illusion, there is a scientific explanation as to why it works that way. It’s not really Jesus in the tortilla, it’s the way my brain works.

    I of course would never dispute what is more meaningful for your or anyone else’s life – if you want to study the healing power of crystals over the collapse of the universe, that’s your business. I think the blind spots and arrogances of science may be that you are expecting more out of it than it’s capable of providing, I don’t know. I think there are a lot more arrogances and blind spots in Christianity and new age stuff.

    And no, I’m not insulted at all. I enjoy the discussion with someone who I actually know is arguing for the right reasons!

  7. I agree to a certain extent that my difficulties with scientific method come down to simple preference. Orgies of details for their own sake, small focussed view, judging entire entities mainly by their constituent parts all bore me to tears as approaches. I want to jump right to the big view, the context, what I consider the meat of the matter, the meaning, the wholistic situational truth.

    It is completely true that these qualities make me a person likely to be disinterested in science (and intense historical battle recreations with miniatures). I’m reluctant, however, to leave this with a simple ‘I like peanut butter, you like jam’ resolution, as a fair part of my critique of science has to do with the damage I see a general misunderstanding of scientific limitation causing.

    There are two problems in particular that I think about a lot. The first is the tendency of science to assume that the parts equal the whole. The whole of anything is rarely studied, with protestations of ‘too many potential factors’, leaving no other approach but to study the smallest possible factors involved, then add them up. This results in some unforgivable inaccuracies.

    You talk about the danger of ‘con-artist doctors’ as opposed to ‘real doctors’ partially because you have not had my experiences. Western medicine has failed me so completely, robbing me of so much money, dignity, and health for my entire life, that it’s hard for me to even know where to begin to start. Maybe I won’t. I’ll just say that western medicine is dominated by a tremendously small view, combining the arrogance of ‘scientific truth’ with the inability to step back and ask what health is, choosing instead to attack individual acute symptoms, scratcing their collective heads when this leads to more symptoms (but there’s a drug for that, don’t worry!).

    I see this type of thinking straight accross the board in the life sciences, leading to things like electroshock therapy and lobotomies. This is the result of small view, of orgies of details about clusters of ganglia in the brain but nothing else, with no desire/understanding to step back and look at what the body is as a whole, what human health is as a whole, what we want as a whole, what the house of many small scientific studies are being built on (who cares? look what happens when I electrically stimulate this nerve in an unconscious, half dead cat?). Perspective. Big view. You might call this bad science, but this has been going on for hundreds of years. This IS science.

    It’s like we became stupider as soon as science became the dominant mode of conceptualization. Thousands of years of cultural knowledges were tossed out (albeit along with some prejudices), because they were not provable by the scientific method. Somehow working medical practices became ‘witch doctor’ cures, because science couldn’t understand their explanations. Somehow animals became non-sentient, available for torture (I’m not talking about medical testing here, I’m talking about dogs being beaten for medical classes, their whines being explained as autonomic reactions like photosynthesis) because they had different physiognamy. Etc, etc. Sure, eventually science (sometimes) comes around after many years of ‘testing’, but what the fuck? why do we need to be like autistic children when it comes to understanding the world? You may say to avoid being ‘led astray by prejudice’, and I will respond that this method IS ‘being led astray by prejudice’, prejudice in a method of understanding ‘truth’ which cripples comprehension of wholistic knowledge.

    The other thing I think about when I think about science is the whole neutrality / objectivity thing. I’ll put aside that this is a blatant theft from christianity, that this is just God by other words. My point here is that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS OBJECTIVITY. Or neutrality, for that matter. We are all born into specific circumstances, part of those being a raced, classed, gendered body (which I would claim are concepts, but that’s another issue), with a particular circumstance–war torn algeria, middle class vancouver with mixed race parents, etc. Knowledge is created through our relation with the world, which is shaped by our circumstances.

    Now, what is objectivity? the ability to get outside the constraints of our circumstance. The problem is that that is not possible. We can’t get outside our senses. We only relate to the world through our senses–there is no other way. Our senses are shaped through concept–we can’t experience what we don’t have a concept for, by definition. We get to knowledge through other knowledge. Everything comes from somewhere, even our understanding. So, we are not seperate from our world, nor can we even imagine what that would be like to be–it would be like being God.

    So, given that objectivity is completely unachievable, what do we mean by it in a scientific context? We mean both that we think we can fully seperate ourselves from phenomena in order to observe it, and that this is preferrable–necessary, in fact, for ‘TRUTH’. Given that we cannot seperate ourselves from our experience, what actually happens is that we priveledge the dominant view as ‘objective’, and ‘neutral’, and call any differences from this ‘subjective’.–this is how we are able to be blind to racism, sexism, and the degradation of the planet for so long (yes, that’s right, I’m blaming science for the perpetuation of all 3 through the concept of objectivity). This is how I made the leap from a degree in philosophy of science to a degree in feminist philosphy / women’s studies. When we’re unable to see that we have a point of view, when we call the dominant point of view ‘truth’, we allow for the institutionalization of bigotry, whatever bigotries we happen to societally hold become ‘truth’. I won’t even get into the scientific idea that truth is singular and monolithic as opposed to multiple and contradictory (and that’s ok!). That’s a third critique, and this comment is long enough already.

    Now, I’m not saying that tendencies toward neutrality are a bad thing–that’s great, questioning bigotry–it’s the belief that we can have complete objectivity, complete seperation from human experience which cripples us, keeps us from understanding how our point of view, how our way of understanding, affects and changes the world.

    Attached to this is my idea that objectivity, possible or not, is not actually valuable. What is valuable is the undersanding of the situation as a whole, including our presence. As the context of any of this is us, right? What is with this driving desire to be God and have objective ultimate knowledge? why would we believe we want knowledge without perspective? Have you ever met anyone completely without perspective? yeah, that’s my idea of ulimate knowledge, too (what!?!?).

    There is a group of Japanese primate researchers that are taking the opposite tack, freely mixing with the gorillas they are observing (as opposed to hiding and trying to study them ‘naturally’), who are coming up with very interesting (and I think valuable) studies. I’ll email the link if I can find it.

    Basically, I think science can be very useful, but we have to get ahold of it. We have to understand that we control it, it doesn’t control us, leaving us as helpless actors in its world of ‘truth’. This is the modern malaise of helplesness. It’s a hammer, for christ’s sake. We’re being ruled by whatever ‘the hammer wants to hammer’ (which just means whichever way our societal bigoties drag us in term of what to study, how to study it, how to relate to the data) as opposed to using science to build a nice house on solid ground.

    Let’s give ethicists the money and prestige afforded scientists, and let’s spend our time planning how we could actually be happier. Is there anything else worthwhile? Then we could build it with science. That sounds a lot better to me than the quest for a nebulous, unexamined concept of ‘truth’ about the universe that actually ends up seperating us from our experience, our feelings, our bodies, and our world.

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