Finally, I would like to assure my many Buddhist, Christian, Hindu,
Jewish, and Muslim friends that I am sincerely happy that the
religion which Chance has given you has contributed to your peace
of mind (and often, as Western medical science now reluctantly
admits, to your physical well-being). Perhaps it is better to be un-sane and happy, than sane and un-happy. But it is the best of all to be
sane and happy. Whether our descendants can achieve that goal will
be the greatest challenge of the future. Indeed, it may well decide
whether we have any future.
- Arthur C. Clarke, 3001: The Final Odyssey
Last month's rant about the world being better than we think it is, because we're paying attention
to the wrong things, reminded me of another pattern that I've noticed. Western philosophers, most
recently and famously Bruno Latour, have made a big deal out of the fact that science is, in part,
socially constructed. They are not wrong about this. We are limited by our incomplete mental
models of reality, by the technologies that we use to extend our senses, by the political processes
we use to decide what to study and how to pay for it--by any number of social factors. Some
scientists have admittedly been reluctant to acknowledge this fact.
Still, as I used to argue with budding scholars of the humanities during any number of grad school
parties, leaning against any number of kitchen counters around Rochester, NY, water boils. Yes,
there are some complications about air pressure (less pressure lower boiling point) and the
concentrations of any dissolved substances (which tend to raise the boiling point), but if we
pulled a pot out of the cabinet and popped it onto a stove burner, I could make a really good
guess about what that temperature would be. I might be off by three degrees, depending on those
factors, but I would not be off by thirty degrees. The limitations of science are not the limitations
of reality--they are our limitations.
One of the other things that always bugged me about the post-modernists was how they
seemed to think the ideas they were hosting were their ideas, originally, when Eastern
philosophers had been talking about the interdependence of the observer (the subject) and the
thing being observed (the object) for a very long time. And not just at a mental level.
"Literally one-half of your breathing apparatus is hanging out there on the trees."
Sadhguru, founder of Project Greenhands
To be fair, those objections are kind of nitpicking. I actually really like Latour's idea that scientists
are collaborating with their subjects to produce knowledge. In some modern clinical trials, patient
advocacy groups are helping to design the studies. Much of citizen science is already based on
this kind of direct democracy; on a site like scistarter.com, people choose which projects to
support with their time, their money, and their data. Currently the Institutional Review Boards (or
IRBs) that decide at the local level whether individual experiments are ethically doable have non-scientist community members, and it's certainly possible that the federal funding agencies could
adopt a similar model (some would say they should). I could imagine the practice extending
beyond the human community, as well, maybe dedicating Artificial Intelligences to represent the
interests of other species.
The separation between science and religion, and between science and politics, started as a way of
protecting science from the whims of European religions and rulers. Scientists still remember how
Galileo spent the last eight years of his life under house arrest. If Alfred Russel Wallace hadn't
unintentionally threatened to scoop Darwin, The Origin of Species might not have been published
until after its cautious author's death, because he was afraid of the controversy. More recently, as
technology and wealth have blossomed under science, the split has been maintained as a way of
protecting religion. The 14th Dalai Lama has written a couple of books calling for a secular
ethics that doesn't depend on any one religion, hoping to preserve aspects of those cherished
cultural traditions while allowing other aspects to change and adapt to the shared, globalized
From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or, A Modern Prometheus, precisely 200 years ago, science
fiction has mostly followed the Western model of conflict between science and religion. Modern
exceptions seem more common on TV than in novels, but there's an argument (which I have not
read) that the pendulum has swung the other way there, too, for the moment.
However, these cultural splits are not inevitable. Eastern traditions don't see the situation the same
way we do. The Dalai Lama has said that if Tibetan Buddhist scriptures are proven wrong on a
point of fact by science, the scriptures will have to change. He and other members of his order are
actively working with researchers, shaping the debate within neuroscience. Until highly trained
meditators started wearing electrode caps and lying around in giant magnets, emotional responses
were not considered to be as subject to neuroplasticity as it now seems they are. We can now use
drugs that disrupt memory consolidation to weaken traumatic memories (something I mentioned
in a previous column). Additionally, we've now seen eye movement therapy applied to the
problem of PTSD in more than one SF property (though Travelers is the only one I can think of
right this second).
There's a pair of moments in the documentary series Civilizations where European painters
shaped the emotional associations of whole societies. Religious emotions around death and
renewal in Spain and conquered Mexico were captured by the image of Christ on the Cross; the
merger of Aztec and Christian icons of blood sacrifice led to the Day of the Dead. In Germany the first western landscape painter, Albrecht Altdorfer, shifted the focus for the uplifting emotions of merger with the divine light from religious iconography to the characteristic features of the Black Forest, supporting the rise of nationalism through linking culture to the land itself. At the same time, he
created the eventual possibility of the environmental movement. That process continued through
the glowing nature paintings of the Hudson River School, the photos of Ansel Adams, and now
to the brilliantly false-colored cosmological "starscapes" of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Art and science and religion are all ways of describing the same thing, the universe. Not
interchangeable ways, of course--you don't ask a geologist about art history, unless you want to
learn about the mineral pigments the painters used and where they came from, in which case it
would be a very good idea. Narrow expertise complements other narrow expertise, to the benefit
of both. What would a fictional society look like if that insight--interdependence--were woven
into its science and all of its institutions, its laws, its economy?
Randall Hayes, your friendly neighborhood neuroscientist, is right now poking around the
western part of India, where basically every free surface is covered with either commercial or
religious symbols, and often both at the same time.
To be even more fair, it's not just humanities students.
Describes the LISTEN conference - Learning about Investigator-Stakeholder Team
Engagement in Neurological Clinical Trials. Seriously.
This is most definitely NOT what I had in mind.
I was thinking more like this.
A paper referencing the source, from Iran. Kind of a neat coincidence.
"Wallace's 1904 book Man's Place in the Universe was the first serious attempt by a
biologist to evaluate the likelihood of life on other planets. He was also one of the first
scientists to write a serious exploration of the subject of whether there was life on Mars."
Hmmmm. . .
"A couple." On that very specific topic.
HH the Dalai Lama, Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
New York, NY, 2012.
I was actually at one of the Mind & Life meetings at MIT. It was so weird to see
Hollywood types like Goldie Hawn at an otherwise nerdily normal scientific meeting.
From July 2016, "Rewinding the Memory Tape"
I do occasional reviews on this site.
I actually watched this on Netflix, but whatever. Support your local station!
Good primer on how those images are produced using filters. And I see what you did with
that Lovecraft headline, Ms. Starr--if that is your real name.
Or an archaeologist. That could work, too.
Kriti Sharma is a microbiologist with an undergrad degree in philosophy. Big on
Transcript of a talk about the book.
Sloman, S., and Fernbach, P., The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. Riverhead
Books. New York, NY, 2017.
Many vivid examples, including the Castle Bravo A-bomb test that inspired the opening
scene of Gojira and how physicist Louis Slotin killed himself by "tickling the dragon's
tail" with a flathead screwdriver. Also lots of more recent cognitive science research.
"Interde-what?!?" And why the Incredible Econ is wearing riding boots is beyond me.
Read more by Randall Hayes