Start Making Sense

Scientific progress is only achieved when humans' innate sense of understanding is validated by objective reality.

By | June 1, 2016

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, MAY 2016A good explanation—such as the microbial theory of disease, or evolutionary theory—can bring a wondrous sense of understanding. Unfortunately, for a time, so can a bad one—like the medieval miasma (or “foul-cloud”) theory of disease, or supernatural accounts of the creation of species. Does our sense of understanding carry any objective signs that we are right? If not, what accounts for the dramatic success of modern science, a success driven by ever-more powerful and accurate explanatory understanding? This is the question I take up in Wondrous Truths: The Improbable Triumph of Modern Science.

A sense of understanding exercises a visceral grip on us: visceral because explanation itself has a biological backstory. The simple sea slug Aplysia cannot explain, but it can learn. It can learn, through classical conditioning, to retract from a noxious stimulus, and through operant conditioning, to bite more frequently. To learn, an organism need only anticipate: it is all a matter of frequent exposure and coherent expectation. In humans, this learned anticipation of reward or punishment tells us what to expect. We like good feelings, and we want more of them. But that doesn’t mean satisfying feelings or actual rewards track consistently with truth.

Objective truth is similarly decoupled from the sensation of insight. Some researchers describe insight as an “aha” moment that can result in new interpretations or solutions. But studies in which subjects are induced to perceive “aha” moments, regardless of whether they are presented with right or wrong answers to puzzles, have shown that people can get a feeling of insight even when they are chronically mistaken. In the real world, scientists seldom know whether the correct solution is contained in their choice set, or even whether their problem has a solution. Tracking the truth is that much harder when you have no clue what it looks like.

For us to achieve genuine insight, truth has to cooperate. Without the subtle perceptual and cognitive arrangements that a good theory supplies, we are like pilots flying without instruments on a dark night. Such pilots can fall prey to a phenomenon called “the false climb.” Acceleration pushes bones in the middle ear toward the back of our head, causing a sensation of upward trajectory. This happens normally when a plane is oriented upward, but it also happens when the plane is accelerating toward the ground. And that is the story of most of the history of science. Steeping oneself in bad theories produces false climbs. Whether apprenticing for years near the furnaces with an adept alchemist or putting in 10,000 hours of study, lab work, and conference preparation as a graduate student and postdoc, you develop a fluency in your thoughts and work that is tightly tied to your cherished theory. There is no certain sign of truth in the sense of understanding.

Evolution has left our perceptual and cognitive powers with informal, even ragged, boundaries. So we arrive at true beliefs and good theories by many means, not all of them experimental. The great biologist J.B.S. Haldane once said that he could not conceive of a physical mechanism of heritability and that “no intelligent person who has thoroughly realized its meaning and implications can continue to hold” such a view. He wasn’t being coy. In 1914, no one had the concept of a physical mechanism that could regulate the development of subtle and complicated biological systems and sustain virtually endless divisions and combinations through successive generations of organisms. But the discovery of DNA was fewer than 40 years away. How did modern biology make this fast transition? Well, the germplasm concept happened to track the actual structure of DNA just closely enough to stimulate accelerating conceptual progress. Once it did, our biological theories firmly oriented our scientific ascent toward the heavens. We have been flying on increasingly accurate instruments ever since. 

J.D. Trout is a professor of philosophy and psychology at Loyola University Chicago. Read an excerpt of  Wondrous Truths.

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Comments

Avatar of: PastToTheFuture

PastToTheFuture

Posts: 101

Replied to a comment from Alexandru made on June 1, 2016

June 16, 2016

I have a sneaky suspicion I get your meaning, but out of respect for what I think you mean, I suggest you make yourself more clear. Fine, leave your poetic form. I would, but I have learned to then clarify. "and bun human embryo genetic modification"  - I think I can guess accurately what that means, but it is still a guess. 

Avatar of: PastToTheFuture

PastToTheFuture

Posts: 101

June 16, 2016

 

 

I have a sneaky suspicion I get your meaning, but out of respect for what I think you mean, I suggest you make yourself more clear. Fine, leave your poetic form. I would, but I have learned to then clarify. "and bun human embryo genetic modification"  - I think I can guess accurately what that means, but it is still a guess. I don't think it is about language. I think it is about that you enjoy writing.

 

Avatar of: Gilbert White

Gilbert White

Posts: 12

June 16, 2016

Is there an underlying axiom in your thought that truth is only the analytic and mechanistic perception of information, evidence,experience and data? Could that be the reason why science too often advances over the carcasses of disproven earlier theories and models? Science uses those words models and theories to acknowledge the uncertaintly of understanding and the process to achieve it but does not seem to act with such humility in respect to empirical knowledge, "old wives tales,"  anecdotes etc. labels to dismiss other knowledge that could be valuable.

Avatar of: Gilbert White

Gilbert White

Posts: 12

June 16, 2016

"Knowledge is power." But sometimes, perhaps in the science and medical establisment, power substitutes for truth and knowledge. Consider for example the disgraceful promotion of low fat diets substituting high glycemic foods leading to a current global health disaster.

Avatar of: factotum666

factotum666

Posts: 25

June 17, 2016

For an article on the nature of science and truth I am really surprised that there was no mention of ability to make predictions, falsifiability, usefuleness and other concepts raised by people such as Stephen Hawking and Karl Popper

I believe that Hawking said that it is not a question of if a theory is true or not, but a question of how useful it is.

Avatar of: Roy Niles

Roy Niles

Posts: 113

June 17, 2016

"In 1914, no one had the concept of a physical mechanism that could regulate the development of subtle and complicated biological systems and sustain virtually endless divisions and combinations through successive generations of organisms."

Yet in 2016, we are now writing articles about how physical mechanisms can do regulative work, without an explanation needed as to how they do it.  One of these days someone will be able to write convncingly that there's an element of intelligence in every working mechanism, but even then may not be allowed to argue that intelligence is not only causing the mechanism to work, but has caused it to exist as well.  And yet a few years after that, someone may be able to convincingly argue that intelligence creates itself.

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