The Science of Superstitions

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin


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Religion and Science

There are many kinds of narratives and organizing principles. Science is driven by evidence gathered in experiments, and by the falsification of extant theories and their replacement with newer, asymptotically truer, ones. Other systems - religion, nationalism, paranoid ideation, or art - are based on personal experiences (faith, inspiration, paranoia, etc.).

Experiential narratives can and do interact with evidential narratives and vice versa.

For instance: belief in God inspires some scientists who regard science as a method to "peek at God's cards" and to get closer to Him. Another example: the pursuit of scientific endeavors enhances one's national pride and is motivated by it. Science is often corrupted in order to support nationalistic and racist claims.

The basic units of all narratives are known by their effects on the environment. God, in this sense, is no different from electrons, quarks, and black holes. All four constructs cannot be directly observed, but the fact of their existence is derived from their effects.

Granted, God's effects are discernible only in the social and psychological (or psychopathological) realms. But this observed constraint doesn't render Him less "real". The hypothesized existence of God parsimoniously explains a myriad ostensibly unrelated phenomena and, therefore, conforms to the rules governing the formulation of scientific theories.

The locus of God's hypothesized existence is, clearly and exclusively, in the minds of believers. But this again does not make Him less real. The contents of our minds are as real as anything "out there". Actually, the very distinction between epistemology and ontology is blurred.

But is God's existence "true" - or is He just a figment of our neediness and imagination?

Truth is the measure of the ability of our models to describe phenomena and predict them. God's existence (in people's minds) succeeds to do both. For instance, assuming that God exists allows us to predict many of the behaviors of people who profess to believe in Him. The existence of God is, therefore, undoubtedly true (in this formal and strict sense).

But does God exist outside people's minds? Is He an objective entity, independent of what people may or may not think about Him? After all, if all sentient beings were to perish in a horrible calamity, the Sun would still be there, revolving as it has done from time immemorial.

If all sentient beings were to perish in a horrible calamity, would God still exist? If all sentient beings, including all humans, stop believing that there is God - would He survive this renunciation? Does God "out there" inspire the belief in God in religious folks' minds?

Known things are independent of the existence of observers (although the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics disputes this). Believed things are dependent on the existence of believers.

We know that the Sun exists. We don't know that God exists. We believe that God exists - but we don't and cannot know it, in the scientific sense of the word.

We can design experiments to falsify (prove wrong) the existence of electrons, quarks, and black holes (and, thus, if all these experiments fail, prove that electrons, quarks, and black holes exist). We can also design experiments to prove that electrons, quarks, and black holes exist.

But we cannot design even one experiment to falsify the existence of a God who is outside the minds of believers (and, thus, if the experiment fails, prove that God exists "out there"). Additionally, we cannot design even one experiment to prove that God exists outside the minds of believers.

What about the "argument from design"? The universe is so complex and diverse that surely it entails the existence of a supreme intelligence, the world's designer and creator, known by some as "God". On the other hand, the world's richness and variety can be fully accounted for using modern scientific theories such as evolution and the big bang. There is no need to introduce God into the equations.

Still, it is possible that God is responsible for it all. The problem is that we cannot design even one experiment to falsify this theory, that God created the Universe (and, thus, if the experiment fails, prove that God is, indeed, the world's originator). Additionally, we cannot design even one experiment to prove that God created the world.

We can, however, design numerous experiments to falsify the scientific theories that explain the creation of the Universe (and, thus, if these experiments fail, lend these theories substantial support). We can also design experiments to prove the scientific theories that explain the creation of the Universe.

It does not mean that these theories are absolutely true and immutable. They are not. Our current scientific theories are partly true and are bound to change with new knowledge gained by experimentation. Our current scientific theories will be replaced by newer, truer theories. But any and all future scientific theories will be falsifiable and testable.

Knowledge and belief are like oil and water. They don't mix. Knowledge doesn't lead to belief and belief does not yield knowledge. Belief can yield conviction or strongly-felt opinions. But belief cannot result in knowledge.

Still, both known things and believed things exist. The former exist "out there" and the latter "in our minds" and only there. But they are no less real for that.

The Life Cycle of Science

"There was a time when the newspapers said that only twelve men understood the theory of relativity. I do not believe that there ever was such a time... On the other hand, I think it is safe to say that no one understands quantum mechanics... Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, 'But how can it be like that?', because you will get 'down the drain' into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that."
R. P. Feynman (1967)

"The first processes, therefore, in the effectual studies of the sciences, must be ones of simplification and reduction of the results of previous investigations to a form in which the mind can grasp them."
J. C. Maxwell, On Faraday's lines of force

" ...conventional formulations of quantum theory, and of quantum field theory in particular, are unprofessionally vague and ambiguous. Professional theoretical physicists ought to be able to do better. Bohm has shown us a way."
John S. Bell, Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics

"It would seem that the theory [quantum mechanics] is exclusively concerned about 'results of measurement', and has nothing to say about anything else. What exactly qualifies some physical systems to play the role of 'measurer'? Was the wavefunction of the world waiting to jump for thousands of millions of years until a single-celled living creature appeared? Or did it have to wait a little longer, for some better qualified system ... with a Ph.D.? If the theory is to apply to anything but highly idealized laboratory operations, are we not obliged to admit that more or less 'measurement-like' processes are going on more or less all the time, more or less everywhere. Do we not have jumping then all the time?

The first charge against 'measurement', in the fundamental axioms of quantum mechanics, is that it anchors the shifty split of the world into 'system' and 'apparatus'. A second charge is that the word comes loaded with meaning from everyday life, meaning which is entirely inappropriate in the quantum context. When it is said that something is 'measured' it is difficult not to think of the result as referring to some pre-existing property of the object in question. This is to disregard Bohr's insistence that in quantum phenomena the apparatus as well as the system is essentially involved. If it were not so, how could we understand, for example, that 'measurement' of a component of 'angular momentum' ... in an arbitrarily chosen direction ... yields one of a discrete set of values? When one forgets the role of the apparatus, as the word 'measurement' makes all too likely, one despairs of ordinary logic ... hence 'quantum logic'. When one remembers the role of the apparatus, ordinary logic is just fine.

In other contexts, physicists have been able to take words from ordinary language and use them as technical terms with no great harm done. Take for example the 'strangeness', 'charm', and 'beauty' of elementary particle physics. No one is taken in by this 'baby talk'... Would that it were so with 'measurement'. But in fact the word has had such a damaging effect on the discussion, that I think it should now be banned altogether in quantum mechanics."
J. S. Bell, Against "Measurement"

"Is it not clear from the smallness of the scintillation on the screen that we have to do with a particle? And is it not clear, from the diffraction and interference patterns, that the motion of the particle is directed by a wave? De Broglie showed in detail how the motion of a particle, passing through just one of two holes in screen, could be influenced by waves propagating through both holes. And so influenced that the particle does not go where the waves cancel out, but is attracted to where they co-operate. This idea seems to me so natural and simple, to resolve the wave-particle dilemma in such a clear and ordinary way, that it is a great mystery to me that it was so generally ignored."
J. S. Bell, Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics

"...in physics the only observations we must consider are position observations, if only the positions of instrument pointers. It is a great merit of the de Broglie-Bohm picture to force us to consider this fact. If you make axioms, rather than definitions and theorems, about the "measurement" of anything else, then you commit redundancy and risk inconsistency."
J. S. Bell, Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics

"To outward appearance, the modern world was born of an anti religious movement: man becoming self-sufficient and reason supplanting belief. Our generation and the two that preceded it have heard little of but talk of the conflict between science and faith; indeed it seemed at one moment a foregone conclusion that the former was destined to take the place of the latter... After close on two centuries of passionate struggles, neither science nor faith has succeeded in discrediting its adversary.
On the contrary, it becomes obvious that neither can develop normally without the other. And the reason is simple: the same life animates both. Neither in its impetus nor its achievements can science go to its limits without becoming tinged with mysticism and charged with faith."
Pierre Thierry de Chardin, "The Phenomenon of Man"

I opened this appendix with lengthy quotations by John S. Bell, the main proponent of the Bohemian Mechanics interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (really, an alternative rather than an interpretation). The renowned physicist, David Bohm (in the 50s), basing himself on work done much earlier by de Broglie (the unwilling father of the wave-particle dualism), embedded the Schrödinger Equation (SE throughout this article) in a deterministic physical theory which postulated a non-Newtonian motion of particles.

This is a fine example of the life cycle of scientific theories, comprised of three phases: Growth, Transitional Pathology, and Ossification.

Witchcraft, Religion, Alchemy and Science succeeded one another and each such transition was characterized by transitional pathologies reminiscent of psychotic disorders. The exceptions are (arguably) medicine and biology. A phenomenology of ossified bodies of knowledge would make a fascinating read.

Science is currently in its Ossification Phase. It is soon to be succeeded by another discipline or magisterium. Other explanations to the current state of science should be rejected: that human knowledge is limited by its very nature, that the world is inherently incomprehensible, that methods of thought and understanding tend to self-organize to form closed mythic systems and that there is a problem with the language which we employ to make our inquiries of the world describable and communicable.

Kuhn's approach to Scientific Revolutions is but one of many to issues of theory and paradigm shifts in scientific thought and its resulting evolution. Scientific theories seem to be subject to a process of natural selection very much as organisms are in nature.

Animals could be thought of as theorems (with a positive truth value) in the logical system "Nature". But species become extinct because nature itself changes (not nature as a set of potentials - but the relevant natural phenomena to which the species are exposed). Could we say the same about scientific theories? Are they being selected and deselected partly due to a changing, shifting backdrop?

Indeed, the whole debate between "realists" and "anti-realists" in the philosophy of Science can be settled by adopting this single premise: that the Universe itself is not immutable. By contrasting the fixed subject of study ("The World") with the transient nature of Science - anti-realists gained the upper hand.

Arguments such as the under-determination of theories by data and the pessimistic meta-inductions from past falsity (of scientific "knowledge") emphasize the transience and asymptotic nature of the fruits of the scientific endeavor. But such arguments rest on the implicit assumption that there is some universal, invariant, truth out there (which science strives to asymptotically approximate). This apparent problematic evaporates if we allow that both the observer and the observed, the theory and its subject, are alterable.

Science develops through reduction of miracles. Laws of nature are formulated. They are assumed to encompass all the (relevant) natural phenomena (that is, phenomena governed by natural forces and within nature). Ex definitio, nothing can exist outside nature - it is all-inclusive and all-pervasive, or omnipresent (formerly the attributes of the divine).

Supernatural forces, supernatural intervention, are contradictions in terms, oxymorons. If some thing or force exists - it is natural. That which is supernatural - does not exist. Miracles do not only contravene (or violate) the laws of nature - they are impossible, not only physically, but also logically. That which is logically possible and can be experienced (observed), is physically possible.

But, again, we are faced with the assumption of a "fixed background". What if nature itself changes in ways that are bound to confound ever-truer knowledge? Then, the very shifts of nature as a whole, as a system, could be called "supernatural" or "miraculous".

In a way, this is how science evolves. A law of nature is proposed or accepted. An event occurs or an observation made which are not described or predicted by it. It is, by definition, a violation of the suggested or accepted law which is, thus, falsified. Subsequently and consequently, the laws of nature are modified, or re-written entirely, in order to reflect and encompass this extraordinary event. Result: Hume's comforting distinction between "extraordinary" and "miraculous" events is upheld (the latter being ruled out).

Extraordinary events can be compared to previous experience - miraculous events entail some supernatural interference with the normal course of things (a "wonder" in Biblical terms). It is by confronting the extraordinary and eliminating its "abnormal" or "supernatural" attributes that science progresses as a miraculous activity. This, of course, is not the view of the likes of David Deutsch (see his book, "The Fabric of Reality").

Back to the last phase of this Life Cycle, to Ossification. The discipline degenerates and, following the "psychotic" transitional phase, it sinks into a paralytic state which is characterized by the following:

All the practical and technological aspects of the dying discipline are preserved and continue to be utilized. Gradually the conceptual and theoretical underpinnings vanish or are replaced by the tenets and postulates of a new discipline - but the inventions, processes and practical know-how do not evaporate. They are incorporated into the new discipline and, in time, are erroneously attributed to it, marking it as the legitimate successor of the now defunct, preceding discipline.

The practitioners of the old discipline confine themselves to copying and replicating the various aspects of the old discipline, mainly its intellectual property (writings, inventions, other theoretical material). This replication does not lead to the creation of new knowledge or even to the dissemination of old one. It is a hermetic process, limited to the ever decreasing circle of the initiated. Special institutions govern the rehashing of the materials related to the old discipline, their processing and copying. Institutions related to the dead discipline are often financed and supported by the state which is always an agent of conservation, preservation and conformity.

Thus, the creative-evolutionary dimension of the now-dead discipline is gone. No new paradigms or revolutions happen. The exegesis and replication of canonical writings become the predominant activities. Formalisms are not subjected to scrutiny and laws assume eternal, immutable, quality.

All the activities of the adherents of the old discipline become ritualized. The old discipline itself becomes a pillar of the extant power structures and, as such, is condoned and supported by them. The old discipline's practitioners synergistically collaborate with the powers that be: with the industrial base, the military complex, the political elite, the intellectual cliques in vogue. Institutionalization inevitably leads to the formation of a (mostly bureaucratic) hierarchy.

Emerging rituals serve the purpose of diverting attention from subversive, "forbidden" thinking. These rigid ceremonies are reminiscent of obsessive-compulsive disorders in individuals who engage in ritualistic behavior patterns to deflect "wrong" or "corrupt" thoughts. 

Practitioners of the old discipline seek to cement the power of its "clergy". Rituals are a specialized form of knowledge which can be obtained only by initiation ("rites of passage"). One's status in the hierarchy of the dead discipline is not the result of objectively quantifiable variables or even of judgment of merit. It is the outcome of politics and other power-related interactions.

The need to ensure conformity leads to doctrinarian dogmatism and to the establishment of enforcement mechanisms. Dissidents are subjected to both social and economic sanctions. They find themselves ex-communicated, harassed, imprisoned, tortured, their works banished or not published, ridiculed and so on.

This is really the triumph of text over the human spirit. At this late stage in the Life Cycle, the members of the old discipline's community are oblivious to the original reasons and causes for their pursuits. Why was the discipline developed in the first place? What were the original riddles, questions, queries it faced and tackled? Long gone are the moving forces behind the old discipline. Its cold ashes are the texts and their preservation is an expression of longing and desire for things past.

The vacuum left by the absence of positive emotions is filled by negative ones. The discipline and its disciples become phobic, paranoid, defensive, and with a faulty reality test. Devoid of the ability to generate new, attractive content, the old discipline resorts to motivation by manipulation of negative emotions. People are frightened, threatened, herded, cajoled. The world is painted in an apocalyptic palette as ruled by irrationality, disorderly, chaotic, dangerous, or even lethal. Only the old discipline stands between its adherents and apocalypse.

New, emerging disciplines, are presented as heretic, fringe lunacies, inconsistent, reactionary and bound to regress humanity to some dark ages. This is the inter-disciplinary or inter-paradigm clash. It follows the Psychotic Phase. The old discipline resorts to some transcendental entity (God, Satan, or the conscious intelligent observer in the Copenhagen interpretation of the formalism of Quantum Mechanics). In this sense, the dying discipline is already psychotic and afoul of the test of reality. It develops messianic aspirations and is inspired by a missionary zeal and zest. The fight against new ideas and theories is bloody and ruthless and every possible device is employed.

But the very characteristics of the older nomenclature is in the old discipline's disfavor. It is closed, based on ritualistic initiation, and patronizing. It relies on intimidation. The numbers of the faithful dwindle the more the "church" needs them and the more it resorts to oppressive recruitment tactics. The emerging discipline wins by default. Even the initiated, who stand most to lose, finally abandon the old discipline. Their belief unravels when confronted with the truth value, explanatory and predictive powers, and the comprehensiveness of the emerging discipline.

This, indeed, is the main presenting symptom, the distinguishing hallmark, of paralytic old disciplines. They deny reality. They are rendered mere belief-systems, myths. They require  the suspension of judgment and disbelief, the voluntary limitation of one's quest for truth and beauty, the agreement to leave swathes of the map in a state of "terra incognita". This reductionism, this schizoid avoidance, the resort to hermeticism and transcendental authority mark the beginning of the end.


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