A story of Galapagos birds and silicon chips
Physics has changed human life a million times over. It regularly produces breakthroughs that seem science fiction: controlled star explosions, putting a lab on a comet, gravitational waves and things too complicated to understand. It’s amazing how scientists can unravel the mysteries of the universe.
One would expect the human body and mind, which we all are familiar with, would pose little challenge. Yet psychology is going through a replication crisis: less than 40% of tested research findings prove true. Then in medicine there is a marked lack of progress: the war on cancer is being lost despite incredibly large investments, medical error might be third leading cause of death. If you look at nutrition, it just a mess, with leading scientific research contradicting the official paradigm.
We intuitively understand more about our minds and bodies than about quarks and bosons. Why can’t we develop this into a reliable science? And what does it have to do with Galapagos?
There are 5 unavoidable causes for our incompetence is understanding ourselves:
Galileo studied gravitational acceleration by dropping stones from the Tower of Pisa. In the 1940s the U.S. studied syphilis by infecting prisoners and individuals with mental illnesses with syphilis. Both are experiments, one in physics, the other in medicine.
The gold standard of science is the experiment: a procedure undertaken to validate or refute a hypothesis. What Galileo did is admirable, while what the U.S. did is despicable. The inherent limitation of medicine and psychology: experiments can harm human beings. Because of this it is too costly to run most experiments for medicine and psychology. No potential finding is valuable enough to cost human lives.
So medicine and psychology turned to observational studies. Scientists look at groups of people considered to differ in one specific variable (the independent variable). Then they measure various outcomes for these groups. The differences in outcomes between groups are attributed to the independent variable. Observational studies produce uncertain findings. They constitute the reason for much of the uncertainty in human understanding.
But there are more basic limitations than the research design. They have a lot to do with the Galapagos and Darwin’s insights there.
“All our knowledge begins with the senses” Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
Despite the complex and abstract nature of modern physics, it is rooted in sensory perceptions. Our sensory organs evolved to be great at perceiving the outside world. It was a basic requirement for survival. Physics is creating a model of the world out of what our senses tell us.
When we turn our senses inward, the results are murky. You don’t know how fast your heart is beating. You cannot feel the health of your organs. You cannot even sense if you have foreign bodies inside (like parasites). Likewise we don’t perceive the processes in our minds, we can’t look at synapses or smell which areas of our brain are active. We can only feel the effects of our internal processes.
Why are we in the dark about our own inside? Nothing about us is random. Ever forget to do anything? Maybe an email, or a chore? What if you forgot to breathe? Or did not send the right antibodies to fight an infection?
We think of our conscious mind as our ultimate tool. But it cannot be trusted with the critical workings of our body. So they are automated. They are handled by an unconscious nervous system that does everything without our input.
If we don’t consciously control these inner workings, then we do not need to know what is going on. Our senses do not tell us much about our own body. Except for low-res signals to prompt us to take specific actions (e.g. pain to not walk into walls or touch barbed wire).
Without sensory input, we have to rely on indirect evidence of our own body’s processes. The first physics discovery might have been the intuitive understanding of gravity: objects fall. This is a repeatable, generalizable fact, e.g. all things fall, all the time, in any place on Earth. The first psychological discovery might have been that people get scared if you shout at them. But some people get more scared, some less, and others attack you. And all of them behave differently at different times. This does not fulfill any of the requirements for scientific fact.
Plus, even without the sensory handicap, the human body is harder to study because of:
“The first thing one learns about complex systems is that they are not a sum of body parts: a system is a collection of interactions, not an addition of individual responses.” Nassim Taleb
In the physical world, if a stone falls besides you, you are mostly unaffected. As is most of the rest of the Earth. All events are correlated, but often the interaction effects are small. Scientist can study specific effects in isolation to the rest of the universe.
In the human body, things are different. If you eat a bad egg, everything in your body is affected. Even your mood and thinking. The interaction effects are large and widespread.
And it’s not just temporary events: bacteria in your gut influence your emotions and behaviour, health correlates with happiness and your mind can cause illness. This means it’s impossible to study any one event or one variable in complete isolation. Anything and everything interacts and affects the whole system.
We don’t have the sensory organs to see these interaction effects. So we try to use math to model them. But our mathematical methods are quite bad at understanding interaction effects in general.
In physics scientists use math to describe the world. Math is precise, clear, objective. It’s really hard to misunderstand math without showing you are an idiot. But because math is hard, and math for interconnected systems is especially hard, psychologists and physicians use words instead. Words are much less useful than math. It’s really, really easy to misunderstand words. Often it even makes you look smart.
Physics = testable — easily observable — math (clear)
Human body= not testable — hard to observe — words (unclear)
Already looks hard. But it gets worse, the unclear words compound our:
“Yet weren’t all human beings simply human beings no matter what name you applied to them[?]” Mind-reading robot Giskard, Robots and Empire, Isaac Asimov
When the rock falls, I see it fall. And you see it fall. We agree that the rock fell. Even when we use imprecise words.
When I eat a watermelon, I feel things (feelings, sensations, thoughts). When you eat the same watermelon, you feel different things. We also feel different things when someone shouts at us.
Each of us has a big complex baggage of experiences that shapes our perceptions, emotions and thoughts. When studying the human body and mind, we bring all this baggage with us. When I research depression, I cannot help but think of my own experiences of being depressed.
These biases cloud our judgements. I use poorly designed words to express my biased judgement. Your own biases then make you decode those words into something different than what I intended to express. Yet we might throw words at each other that make us believe we are in agreement.
Maybe we need to design an A.I. that is free of all these biases so it can understand us for us.
Did you see the connection with silicon chips yet? Hint: do our brains resemble computers?
An A.I. would also benefit from not going through our biggest obstacle: evolution
“Man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits.” Charles Darwin
Evolution is the root cause. We did not evolve to develop perfect medicine to live forever. We did not evolve to make ourselves happy and fulfilled. We evolved to survive and pass our DNA to offspring. That is it.
We did not need an understanding of ourselves for this purpose. It might actually be detrimental. It’s hard to deal with the fact that there is no meaning to life beyond living.
But it’s even more insidious. We tend to think of ourselves as brilliant minds trapped in flawed bodies. A popular metaphor is to think of the brain (and body) as hardware, and the mind as software running on top of this hardware. This is a bad metaphor. It confuses and obfuscates.
A better metaphor is to think of the brain+mind as our Operating System and accompanying hardware. The brain and mind are interconnected. They have a continuous two-way relationship. They have evolved along a very long period of time to fulfill the survival function.
On top of this O.S., we have the applications and files. The software. These are all the ideas, thoughts, models, emotions, concepts that we acquire and integrate in our own lifetime. They make up our individuality, our growth and our self.
Files and applications can be added or erased. But we cannot change the O.S. (we don’t have admin). We cannot see the code behind it or go beyond it, to the BIOS. We have to work with what we have. Trying to create complex abstract theories without taking into account the specifics of the O.S. is akin to playing the latest videogame at high-res on Windows 3.1. It will crash and freeze.
What I’m saying with my metaphor poorly constructed out of imprecise words is that the only clear fact about the human body and mind is it evolved for survival. If we can build a new model of ourselves, starting from that, then we might learn to improve our lives. We cannot have the science of physics, but we can have clarity.