Monday, January 01, 2007

We Will Soon Devise a Scientific Theory for the Perennial Mind-Body Problem

Tat's what Donald Hoffman (Cognitive Scientist, UC, Irvine) is optimistic, bout. He concludes his relatively long explanation of the reasons for his optimism as follows.
Here are some obvious truths that guide current attempts to solve the mind-body problem: Physical objects have causal powers. Neural activity can cause conscious experiences. The brain exists whether or not it is observed. So too does the moon, and all other physical objects. Consciousness is a relative latecomer in the evolution of the universe. Conscious sensory experiences resemble, or approximate, true properties of an independently existing physical world.

Will we soon be forced to relinquish some of these truths? Probably. If so, the current ontological predilections of science will require dramatic revision. Could science survive? Of course. The fundamental commitments of science are methodological, not ontological. What is essential is the process of constructing rigorous explanatory theories, testing them with careful experiments, and revising them in light of new data. Ontologies can come and go. One might endure sufficiently long that it is taken for a sine qua non of science. But it is not. An ontology breathed into life by the method of science can later be slain by that same method. Therein lies the novel power of science. And therein lies my optimism that science will soon succeed in fashioning its first theory of the mind-body problem. But at the feet of that theory will probably lie the slain carcass of an effete ontology.
I like this quotation because it illustrates how science is at least a partial antidote to idea anthropocentrism as discussed earlier. As humans we can't create a theory of how nature works that isn't our theory. But at least we can switch ontologies. That's one of the strengths of science — and one of the weaknesses of non-scientific ways of viewing the world. Buddhism warns against clinging. Science takes that warning seriously and by its very methodology enables and in some cases forces us to give up ideas we once cherished as obviously true. As Feynman has said, "Science is what we have learned about how not to fool ourselves about the way the world is."

Piet Hut (Professor of Astrophysics, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton) says that it's also misleading to hold up "the scientific method" as the one true path.
Purified from goals, the scientific method is held up as the beacon to follow. But I think this story is still misleading. The greatest breakthroughs have come from a doubly pure science, purified from goals and methods alike. In small and large ways, each major breakthrough was exactly a breakthrough because it literally broke the rules, the rules of the scientific method as it had been understood so far. The most spectacular example has been quantum mechanics, which changed dramatically even the notion of experimental verification.

I am optimistic that all areas of human activities can be inspired by the example of science, which has continued to thrive for more than four centuries, without relying on goals, and without even relying on methods. The key ingredients are hyper-critical but non-dogmatic conservatism, combined with wildly unconventional but well-motivated progressiveness. Insofar as there is any meta-method, it is to allow those ingredients to be played off against each other in the enactments of scientific controversies, until consensus is reached.

No comments: