Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What science is for, part two

The January 30 issue of Science News features a quote from the dependably awesome V.S. Ramachandran, neuroscientist extraordinaire:
All that's separating you from him, from the other person, is your skin. Remove the skin, you experience that person's touch in your mind. You've dissolved the barrier between you and other human beings. And this of course is the basis of much of Eastern philosophy, and that is, there's no real independent self aloof from other human beings, inspecting the world and inspecting other people. You're in fact connected. Not just via Facebook and the Internet. You're actually quite literally connected by your neurons.... There's no real distinctiveness of your consciousness from somebody else's consciousness. And this is not mumbo jumbo philosophy. It emerges from our understanding of basic neuroscience.
It's from this TED talk (which I haven't had a chance to watch yet but very much want to) that he gave about mirror neurons.

Ramachandran's far more confident and excited about mirror neurons than I think a lot of neuroscientists are, but considering his remarkable record of making big intuitive leaps that end up being correct (many of which are detailed in his Phantoms in the Brain, which I really cannot recommend highly enough), it seems to me that his ideas on the subject are at least worth pondering.

And it's things like this that make me sad when I see thinkers I respect talking about scientific progress as a negative in itself. To be sure, a great deal, a large majority even, of scientific efforts as they manifest themselves now are indeed negative. But this is because the large majority of science is done, as I discussed in the previous post, at the behest of corporations and the military. When it is done for other reasons--out of a desire to better humanity and the world, out of the pure love of it (art for art's sake, in other words)--you get people like Ramachandran, and findings like what he's discussing in this quote.

The more we know about science, the more we know that the boundaries between ourselves, our minds, and the rest of the world are fictional. Everything is a result of atoms interacting with one another the way atoms have to interact with one another. Some of these molecules give rise to a system that thinks it's me, some make rocks, some make neutron stars, some don't make anything in particular other than molecules, but they all behave the same way. And, even more fascinatingly, underneath that deterministic level is one where all behavior is random, unpredictable, not even bound by causality. Somehow this random behavior gives rise to the predictable molecular behavior I was talking about, and then from there is everything we can see and, so far as we know, everything we can't.

Knowing this, how can we continue killing and exploiting and hating one another? How can we continue killing and exploiting and hating our environment? How can we feel anything but a sense of awe towards, respect for, and connection with the universe? This is no pseudo-scientific What the Bleep?!? new-age bullshit. I'm not going to ask the universe for a million dollars. This is real, it means something.

It helps that in the space of one month I was introduced to this Ramachandran quote, David Bohm's concepts of the implicate and explicate, and Paula Gunn Allen's book on Pocahontas (incidentally, check out what comes up before the results when you search Amazon for that book), all of which cover much of the same ground, from different perspectives.

The Baronette is taking an introductory-level science class right now, and her textbook includes this bewildering quote, on Copernicus's shifting the center of the universe from the Earth to the Sun: "We do not know how Copernicus, a busy man of affairs in medieval Poland, conceived this question, nor do we know why he devoted his spare time for most of his life to answering it." The authorial "we" clearly has the same limited perspective as Eric D. Isaacs, as discussed in my previous post. Both display a complete lack of understanding of class issues (do the authors of the textbook think that medieval Polish peasants were more likely to spend their time in abstract scientific speculation?), and both seem to discount curiosity and the envisionment of a better world--indeed, anything other than a desire for profit--as a motivating force.

Of course these two failings go hand in hand. And from the perspective of Power, they aren't failings at all, but rather completely desirable attitudes for the masses to have. If we don't understand class structure, if we are incurious, if we cannot imagine anything better, then we are all that much more controllable. And if all scientists want is money, then they are all the more willing to direct their research in directions that harm the majority of humanity, for the benefit of Power.


Jenny said...

would consider the invention of vaccines as being for the good of humanity too?

JRB said...

It's interesting how science has become professionalized into something that people do for a career, not for themselves. When you read old socialist tracts, there's a big emphasis placed on cultivating a scientific sensibility amongst the working class -- see here, for example.

Soj said...

I don't know who the "Baronette" is but she needs a new textbook.

Copernicus wasn't a "busy man of affairs in medieval" Poland, he was essentially a child of idleness due to the fact that his (dead) father and uncle were locally powerful men at a time bordering on the Renaissance more so than some 1300's style "medieval" period.

Long story short, young Master Copernicus studied at not one but TWO of the most influential universities of his day, at a time when that was still an elite privilege and THEN he went to get a cushy post with his uncle back home.

The actual story is that Copernicus put the teachings of his professors to GOOD USE. All of his writings and studies are a direct result of his education.

Making it seem like some wandering peasant decided to take some astronomical calculations in between milking goats is disingenuous at best :P

Anonymous said...

is skin not "real"? i find this post meaningless. if you abstract from existing people some part of their actual existence, you can prove any damn thing you want about their "essence."

thebaronette said...

yeah, sadly the textbook is probably the more accurate of the two sources of information for that class. So far, my professor has claimed that Aristophanes measured the Earth's curvature and that Tycho Brahe invented the quadrant. there are numerous other situations where he has botched the terminology behind scientific concepts, but i don't feel like typing those out right now.

he is probably fairly knowledgeable in his own field of study (oceanography), but shouldn't be teaching a survey course on the various fields of science.

Ethan said...

Jenny--yes, why not? In combination with many other factors they have perhaps contributed to our overpopulation problems, but I'm not the type to say people should suffer and die so that we can avoid a different kind of suffering and death.

JR--that poster blew me away when you posted it. I've got to get serious about looking into the IWW.

Soj--I was going to introduce the Baronette but I see she did it herself. And yeah, I thought about going on at greater length about how silly the phrase "busy man of affairs" is (obviously the moneyed classes are the ones with leisure time!). I'm reading Kim Stanley Robinson's new novel Galileo's Dream right now, and it gets a bit into the class issues involved in pursuing science. It's an interesting book and may get its own post sometime.

Anon--I guess one problem with mixing science and poetry is that sometimes people will mistake figurative language for statement of fact. Anyway, I don't expect to add much to Ramachandran, but does your dislike of his quote really make the whole post meaningless?