Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"The brain is a machine assembled not to understand itself, but to survive"

The title is a quote taken from Paul Churchland, a famous philosopher focusing on philosophy of the mind. I found the quote in a book I got to read from my father, during my holiday there. It's called "How to think straight about Psychology", written by Keith E. Stanovich, and aims to straighten out some common misconceptions about psychology, and science overall.

It's a really well-written book, and mainly targets the psychology student/teacher, to give them arguments to help the common people understand what psychology is all about (not Freud, first of all). But there is something in it for anyone interested in science, since it talks about what science is generally too (to explain that psychology too is a real science).

Themes the book discusses includes; What is a theory? What is an experiment? What problems does human thinking put in the way of scientific thinking? And most other things people have ever thought about science. It really opens up thoughts about what the difference between science and non-science (mainly religion) really is. (My conclusion being, there's essentially none, since most aim to understand the world, but in different ways). This is not an article about "why science is better than [insert random non-scientific belief]". It's just some notes on what science is all about, without putting any values into it.

I've picked out some of the more interesting parts of the book and will present them here shortly, but I strongly recommend reading it as well.

- Science only aims to answer questions that are measurable and/or examinable.
People tend to draw the conclusion that any question must have an answer. And they might think anything that can't answer any questions, even questions like "what is the meaning of life?" is incomplete and/or faulty. But there are question that simply don't have an answer, because the question is asked in the wrong way. Answer these questions for instance - "How far is a distance?" or "How big is a rock?". The answer would at best be - "it depends", and that would be my answer to "what is the meaning of life?". It depends. The question is not specific enough to be specifically answered, and science only answers unspecific questions with unspecific answers.

-Theories are meant to be refuted
Although of course any scientist hope they've found the ultimate theory to explain everything, having found such a theory would mean the end of knowledge. It would mean there is nothing more to learn about the world. I'm not saying that would be a bad thing, but the aim of any scientist working with a theory is to find what it doesn't explain. That is the only way to actually learn something new from it. And make a new theory, and try to find what that in turn doesn't explain. So when someone say they have a theory about something it never means "and this time it really explains everything we'll ever know about anything". It means "it explains everything we know so far, until we learn more". Refuting a theory is not defeat, it is progress.

- Truth is in the eye of the beholder
Not to science it isn't. Although some people say they've seen [insert random mythological being here] with great enthusiasm, and I don't doubt that they think they have, it wouldn't be scientifically true until anyone can see it. To science, truth is what anyone can accomplish using the same methods. If someone fails to accomplish it, science says "clearly this works in another way than we thought". Non-science would say "well you're not doing it the right way". Yet again, to science refuting is as much progress as confirming.

- Mind over body
What the human body can accomplish simply by believing in it is really astonishing. Well, saying "simply by believing it" isn't really fair, since the human mind is the base for anything and everything we've ever done. Everything we understand, do, say and think is based on the workings of the human mind. It is also from this things like "placebo" and "nocebo" (the opposite of placebo) comes from. And like the title says, things happen that we don't understand or can't explain, because the brain isn't mean to understand everything. It is meant to understand just enough to survive. Something it does really well if I may say so. The way we understand the world is meant to help us survive, not explain it. And this sets limitations to what we can understand, and it might no be something to just sit back and accept, but at least something to keep in mind (no pun intended :P) when experiencing and trying to explain the world.

- I am unique
Yes you are, and I am. And any other person in the world. And because of this and because of the fact that we can't experience the world from any other viewpoint than our own, we sometimes think we're more unique than we are. There are 6 billion other unique beings out there (and that's just counting humans!), who all live the same lives as you, more or less. Some people think that just because they are unique, what happens to them have to be unique as well. You guessed the right top card on a deck? What are the odds of that? You've got to be psychic. You're on vacation somewhere far away and stumble upon moms third cousin? What are the odds of that? It has to be fate.
People fail to think about the million times this exact event happens without a strange coincidence occuring. How many people are on vacation right now without meeting someone they know? How many people are guessing top cards without getting it right? Even in your own life you constantly do something, but it's only the unique moments that stand out, and feel special. But they're not special, they're just random chance. Or rather, they're all special, because they're all the same type of events. If you throw a hundred dies enough times, chances are they'll all turn up sixes. But that doesn't make the event any different from any other result. We just attribute some events more significane, but that don't make them any more or less significant than any other event. Not to anyone but ourselves that is.
Some long chains of events feel so full of odd coincidences one thinks "this can't just be a fluke". But it isn't until something special happens at the end of that chain that you recognize the chain at all. These chains of events have happened since forever (literaly), but it isn't until someone intelligent enough to attribute value to certain events comes along, that some events are thought of as special. And yet 99,999999% of them are never recognized as special, simply because no one knows about them (snow melting, dropping water into a puddle, making sounds that sound just like the intro to Imperial March! Yet no one was there to hear it...).

This is just some of the really interesting things Stanovich approaches in this book, and I have tried to make them understandable. They're even better explained in the book of course, and more thoroughly.

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciated this summary. Gives me some punchy arguments against the bible mob. And without having to read that whole book ...:D