Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


The Cloud, the Clock & the limits of reductionism

posted by Rod Dreher

Andrew Sullivan, quoting the great science blogger Jonah Lehrer, who argues that “breaking things down into particles blinds scientists to the big picture.” Excerpt:

Time and time again, an experimental gadget gets introduced — it doesn’t matter if it’s a supercollider or a gene chip or an fMRI machine — and we’re told it will allow us to glimpse the underlying logic of everything. But the tool always disappoints, doesn’t it? We soon realize that those pretty pictures are incomplete and that we can’t reduce our complex subject to a few colorful spots. So here’s a pitch: Scientists should learn to expect this cycle — to anticipate that the universe is always more networked and complicated than reductionist approaches can reveal.
…Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, once divided the world into two categories: clocks and clouds. Clocks are neat, orderly systems that can be solved through reduction; clouds are an epistemic mess, “highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable.” The mistake of modern science is to pretend that everything is a clock, which is why we get seduced again and again by the false promises of brain scanners and gene sequencers. We want to believe we will understand nature if we find the exact right tool to cut its joints. But that approach is doomed to failure. We live in a universe not of clocks but of clouds.

What a great and challenging observation. Last summer, when I was reading about Traditional Chinese Medicine, I discovered that TCM sees the body as a grand system, a system of systems, in which no part can be understood in isolation from the others. By contrast, Western medicine operates by logically isolating body parts to treat the illness. It’s not that one is always better than the other; the point to be drawn is simply that each approach does different things, and can provide complementary pictures. In this post about medicine and epistemology, I quoted Dr. Ted Kaptchuk, who is both a Western physician and a TCM practitioner:

To Western medicine, understanding an illness means uncovering a distinct entity that is separate from the patient’s being; to Chinese medicine, understanding means perceiving the relationships among all the patient’s signs and symptoms in the context of his or her life.

Kaptchuk doesn’t argue that one way is better than the other, only that both yield insights that are helpful in the healing of the patient. And both approaches arose out of different ways of knowing. In Chinese culture — which has been shaped by Confucianism and Taoism — things can only really be known in context of their relationship to other things. This is why Chinese thought is so centered on achieving harmony. Anyway, I hope it is not too simplistic to say that Western medicine focuses on treating the clock, Chinese medicine on treating the cloud.
The Lehrer reading about the limits of reductionism and the Cartesian mechanistic approach also tangentially brought to mind Krista Tippett’s interview with the Hindu theoretical physicist V.V. Raman, which is collected in her excellent recent paperback “Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit”. Excerpt:

RAMAN: One often talks about cognitive dissonance, for example. Now, I rather call it an experiential consonance. And what I mean by that is that it is possible to distinguish between what we understand and explain in the logical and analysitcal framework, which is what science provides. And to distinguish that from another level of experience in the world, which comes from what may be called deep involvement. It is not unlike enjoying music on the one hand and then proving a geometrical theorem. You can do both.
These are two kinds of experience, and the human spirit, if I may use the word, and the human dimensions is so complex, that we have all kinds of possibilities. One of the unfortunate consequences of the successes of the sciences is this addiction, as it were, to rationality.
TIPPETT: An addiction to rationality.
RAMAN: By which I mean that every single aspect of human experience must be subjected to rigid rationality. Now, I have the greatest respect for reason and rationality. But I also think of the Ecclesiastics, who may say, “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven,” which has been articulated by thinkers through the ages in all the cultures, I would say. When Pascal wrote his famous statement “Le coeur a ses raisons que le raison ne connait point” — the heart has its reasons which reason doesn’t understand — those are the ways by which the enlightened thinkers and visionaries understood that the world is far too complex for us to really rigidly put everything under the straitjacket of reason.

Shorter V.V. Raman: “We murder to dissect.”



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Frog Leg

posted June 14, 2010 at 8:31 am


Very interesting discussion. However, I found it ironic that the discussion was coming from Jonah Lehrer, who usually has the tendency to describe almost every cloud as a clock.



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polistra

posted June 14, 2010 at 9:16 am


Problem isn’t too much rationality, it’s too little rationality.
“Scientists” have become addicted to raw numbers processed by computer models, and they’ve completely lost touch with the original point of rational science. Their models and theories are either untestable (the Big Bang) or wildly and transparently false (Global Warming) or overcomplex and full of epicycles (Quantumism).
Rationality means you begin by OBSERVING NATURE as accurately as possible, then try to develop theories that explain Nature as simply as possible. If a theory does not predict Nature when you check it, you DISCARD the theory. You don’t fudge the facts, you don’t add exemptions and twiddles to the theory.
Big Science no longer operates this way.



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GrantL

posted June 14, 2010 at 9:59 am


“Big Science” polistra? Ooh the Ben Stein view of things? There is no such thing as “big science’ (as in “big tobacco” or “big oil”) The moment you claim that big bang theory is untestable, suggests you don’t know much about the science. You’re just wrong dude.
To Rod’s blog – Rod I have to ask: you are certainly aware that a massive amount of Chinese traditional medicine is just junk right? I mean, CTM has no answer to the vicious and serious illness western medicine has either cured or can treat. CTM has no answer for polio, or cancer or AIDS or correcting vision through laser eye surgery or a hundred other things.
This is not to say that Chinese medicine had nothing to contribute. As Dara O’briain says (albeit tongue in cheek) we tested it all and the stuff that worked became medicine. The rest is a nice bowl of soup and some popery. That said, a great swath of it has all the medical efficacy of homeopathy, which is to say none. This is the same “system” that thinks that ground up rhino horns and other exotic tid bids are medically active. They aren’t. For all the focus on the concept of chi, there is nothing there that can be shown to be real.
While I understand the attractiveness of a “system” (Chinese traditional medicine is not so systemized as you suggest) that is “holistic” and is perhaps more friendly (even patient friendly) than clinical western medicine, I think it is not particularly responsible of anyone to suggest that Chinese medicine stands on equal footing with western medical science, or that it complementary. It isn’t. That line of thought strikes me as the medical equivalent of the old “nobel savage” idea that was once (and still is I suppose) idea in the west.
Finding the “entity” like a bacteria or virus is something Chinese medicine could not do. Why? because the “cloud treating” mentality did not allow for that kind of deep examination of our biology.
So yes indeed, western medicine might well “treat the clock” and not the “cloud” but the fact is by treating the clock millions have been cured or treated from diseases that Chinese traditional “medicine” simply cannot touch.



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TTT

posted June 14, 2010 at 10:11 am


One of the unfortunate consequences of the successes of the sciences is this addiction, as it were, to rationality.
What a spoiled brat! It isn’t enough for some people that you have your polio vaccines–oh no, you have to have it with some respectful pablum about how even though your centuries of wishing for invisible faeries from the rainbow kingdom to cure your polio failed, now that someone else’s methods worked you need only believe in a smaller faerie from the cloudburst kingdom just down the street.
You can be no more addicted to rationality than you can be addicted to breathing. Because it actually works, unlike any alternative. Much like “reality-based community,” this is one of those times where an intended insult beautifully backfires.



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Turmarion

posted June 14, 2010 at 10:33 am


Agghh! Turn of the italics! Having said that….
Really good article–truly fascinating.
I’m not sure I quite get polistra’s point. While “raw numbers processed by computer models” can be over-used or misused, in many cases that’s the only way one can proceed. On simple things, it’s easy to “observe nature as accurately as possible”, e.g. by dropping an object and measuring its acceleration and velocity. On the other hand, one can’t set up an experiment in which one watches continents drift for billions of years, or causes the Big Bang, or produces global climate patterns.
When I teach beginning high school science (or college physics) I try to get across that “observation” doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as “looking right at”. No one has ever dug to the center of the Earth, but we can show with 99.9999%+ accuracy (science never claims 100%) that the Earth is not hollow (There goes Pellucidar! Sorry, Burroughs fans!). This is because Newton’s Law of Gravitation allows us to measure Earth’s mass with high accuracy; and simple geometry and trigonometry allows us to measure its volume; and then its density is easily calculated. That density is completely incompatible with a hollow earth, so that theory goes out the window. No journeys to the center of the Earth needed!
Moreover, we can demonstrate that vibrations going through liquids behave differently than those going through solids or gases (that’s why things sound so odd when we swim underwater). Seismographs can measure the vibrations traveling through the Earth, and from their quality (and other observations, too) it’s not too hard to demnonstrate that the Earth’s core is molten, not solid or hollow.
My point is that polistra seems to be making an error common among non-scientists, i.e., that everything in science should come down to direct observations with minimal “theory” (which is an incorrect use of that word, but I’ll let it slide), and that models and computations corrupt the process.
Now I’d be the first to admit that mathematical models can be over-used or abused; and that in many cases the situation is so complex that it’s hard to tell what the actual reality is; and that in many cases predictions are difficult to make with accuracy, especially when they require high-energy or exotic conditions difficult or impossible to reproduce in the lab. If that’s the point polistra is making, I’d agree. However, he seems to be going beyond that in dismissing modeling and such altogether.
String theory is a good example. It has both passionate advocates and adversaries in the physics community. At the present time, with the current state of the theory and with existing technology, there is no way to test predictions to determine if it is indeed correct. However, despite this, it either is correct or not (or partially correct, perhaps). That we can’t determine this now doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be working towards the day that we can do so. It doesn’t mean physicists shouldn’t be looking at alternate theories, either. Or does polistra think that would be a waste of time?
Now it’s possible that we’ll never be able to answer that question, and I’d agree that many scientists lack the humility to admit this. On the other hand, that doesn’t deligitimate the question, either.
Also, polistra, are you implying that the Big Bang and quantum theory are incorrect? I’d agree that anything we come up with about the beginnings of the universe is provisional, since by definition it is ultimately beyond the scope of direct observation; but quantum theory does make predictions (e.g. Bell’s theorem) that have been observationally established. Complex? Yes. Untested? Definitely not



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Rick

posted June 14, 2010 at 11:41 am


This is the same “system” that thinks that ground up rhino horns and other exotic tid bids are medically active. They aren’t.
Hmmm. Even Western medicine relies on the placebo effect as a treatment for many conditions, though, correct?
Just because something isn’t medically active doesn’t mean it can’t be helpful. Else Western docs would throw away all their sugar pills.



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GrantL

posted June 14, 2010 at 12:24 pm


Rick – the placebo effect, while useful in some cases (particularly in double blind drug studies), cannot cure cancer or make a vaccine. CTM claims things are medically active when they are not. And in any case, we don’t use ground up animal bones and claim it to be a cure. (and no endangered animals are killed to make a sugar pill.)
We must be very clear on this. CTM is not claiming the placebo effect (something discovered by science, not by woo-woo.), it is claiming it’s treatments are cures when they are not. This is not about a ‘different way of knowing”. Either something like ground up bones is a medical cure or it isn’t.
To claim CTM has a worth because of the placebo effect – something we already know about and already use – is to say, in effect, nothing.



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MH

posted June 14, 2010 at 12:26 pm


When western medicine use the placebo effect, at least they know that’s what they’re doing and their goal is to exceed it. Studies of TCM have generally failed to show that it exceeds the placebo effect.



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MH

posted June 14, 2010 at 12:44 pm


While the fancy tools fail to answer all questions, they usually answer some questions which is why people invest money in them. Those answers often have unexpected dividends down the road too.
When I read the phrase “ways of knowing” the hair on the back of my neck stands up. Knowing what and how? It leaves me with the impression that if science was the study of someone else’s universe, then they would be more welcoming of the clockwork-like aspects of reality. But the fact that it involves them personally causes fear that it will try to reduce them to a clock too.



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GrantL

posted June 14, 2010 at 12:45 pm


Exactly MH. This “is another way of knowing” when it comes to medicine doesn’t hold much water, I think. Either these “cures” work or they don’t. If they do, we can find out how and use what works and discard what doesn’t. CTM is not just deep breathing and stress relief. It comes with a huge bag o’ stuff that is useless to mildly dangerous to very dangerous to just plain bizarre. The basis for selecting what herbal substances are used on a patient is as rigorous as homeopathy, which is to say it isn’t.
Even the poster child stuff, like acupuncture, is only showing a limited positive effect in a very narrow group of problems. Most of the stuff it is supposed to fix it has no effect on at all.
The problem, I think, is that this is a related (although not the same, thankfully) kind of mindset that underlies the vaccine deniers. CTM is supposed to be healthier because it treats the whole person and doesn’t use chemicals (never mind the most powerful poisons on earth are all “natural.”) etc etc. Sound familiar? It should. Because its the same line peddled by homeopaths and those who think that vitamins, salt water etc will do more than a vaccine (which of course is made by “big science” to create a generation of mentally disabled children because, well, that is just what evil big science does right? ).
The bottom line is that where there is something in CTM that works, we can understand why. That which doesn’t work can be safely put aside. The claim that it is a “alternative” to western medicine, however, is just false.



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GrantL

posted June 14, 2010 at 1:03 pm


it’s worth pointing out that when “traditional” medicines of all kinds have been studied, some useful things have been found. Artemisinin, for example, widely used in CTM is actually useful in treating malaria. (though not as useful, or as cheap to produce, as other malaria treatments) However, it was also used in dozens of other illnesses for which it has no effect all. Indeed, the vast majority of Chinese claims to have traditional treatments for malaria proved totally false when tested in the lab. So while among the junk and stupid ideas (like ground up dried sea horse to treat asthma) a few gems can be found is not a testament to an “alternate” way of knowing. It’s lucky and the true uselessness of the substance is found using the scientific method.
Jimson weed is another example. It is widely used in the Caribbean for asthma relief. It’s an unspeakably powerful neurological toxin, and when smoked in low doses can help relieve asthma problems. However, use it in correctly even a little bit, and you are boned. It will kill you, painfully and quickly. This is why its a banned substance in the west. We found this out by studying the claims of folk medicine.
There are a few bits here and there from traditional and folk medicines, but its only through science that we can determine this.



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Rick

posted June 14, 2010 at 1:46 pm


when “traditional” medicines of all kinds have been studied, some useful things have been found.
Another is red yeast rice…which I believe is a naturally-occuring statin…and much cheaper than Lipitor.



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Franklin Evans

posted June 14, 2010 at 1:52 pm


Grant, with respect, your criticism of Chinese medicine is a belaboring of the obvious, not a valid comparison: Chinese medical technology does not and cannot address those things that western medicine has seen such success with.
Showing the bogus nature of the claims of snake-oil salesmen does not invalidate the fact that some oils from sources other than snakes are actually effective for some ailments. We sometimes lose sight of the fact that some advances in modern medicine — fully tested and validated by the scientific method — come straight out of the experiential proofs of “folk medicine”. One example is digitalin. Foxglove was used for a very long time before the technology came along to analyse and describe its biochemical components and their effects on human systems.



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Franklin Evans

posted June 14, 2010 at 1:54 pm


Grant, I do apologize. When I started composing my last post, your last post was not in evidence on my display of this thread.



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GrantL

posted June 14, 2010 at 1:55 pm


none of which validates Chinese folk medicine as a “alternative” to western, evidence based, science based medicine, Franklin.
It’s one thing to say, accurately, that there are from time to time worthwhile treatments found in folk remedies. It’s an entirely other thing to say that a ‘system’ like chinese folk medicine is an “alternative” way of knowing that is as effective as western medical science.



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Franklin Evans

posted June 14, 2010 at 2:10 pm


I do take your point, Grant, if not very well (for which I take blame/responsibility), but I remain wondering if you are projecting some of the expectations of western medicine onto a “system” like Traditional Chinese Medicine.
I don’t know your background, nor do I wish to pry, but as a confirmed layman myself I observe concurrent “rebuttals”: Some practices in TCM are not only effective, but overall better than some western approaches to the same ailments; western medicine has clearly outclassed and in some areas invalidated TCM. I don’t know what to think about either one, only that I don’t see one “winning” over the other.



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GrantL

posted June 14, 2010 at 2:11 pm


Franklin – no worries and your point is well taken. I mean penicillin is derived from mold! and it might be the greatest medical discovery of all times.



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GrantL

posted June 14, 2010 at 2:17 pm


Franklin – by way of back ground, I was a zen buddhist for many years and deep into the traditional chinese medicine through learning wushu.
Some of the stuff was really good. Particularly the massage (acupressure). I am an asthmatic and when my asthma would flare up my sifu would do this acupressure stuff that was nearly identical to the chest/back massages I would get as a little kid in the hospital. Now he has no western medical training. He knows only what he was taught by his teacher back in China. I was rather struck how the treatment of physical injuries and strains from wushu training was treated in a method similar to modern physio therapy.
On the other hand, the cures that get peddled under CTM were just awful. most did nothing. My teacher did not really dive into that, as his training was largely physical.
I suppose I would say western medicine “wins” – though as you suggest there is no real competition – just by the overall, global impact it has had on improving human health.



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Scott Lahti

posted June 14, 2010 at 2:34 pm


I quoted Dr. Ted Kaptchuk, who is both a Western physician and a TCM practitioner
8pm (TCM) Dr. Kaptchuk, Medicine Man(CC). Dr. Kaptchuk makes an old cowhand type two random words to make sure he is human, before referring him to Robert Osborne for cinematherapy.
Kaptch-, er, Captcha: Pulitzer richly; I agree – let’s just hope my editors remember to submit my work on time…



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Susan

posted June 14, 2010 at 4:32 pm


Western medicine advised me that I had almost no chance of conceiving naturally, and that if I did conceive, the preganancy was very unlikely to be healthy. I was 40 with an FSH of 33.
Since that diagnosis, I have had two healthy children, conceived naturally, with the assistance of TCM.
Most reproductive endocrinologists would have given me less than 1% chance of having one healthy pregnancy. Since I had two, am I a 1 in 10,000 event? Possibly. A 1 in 10,000 event happens many times every day. But there may be a different explanation. FSH is an indicator, but maybe not a particularly rigorous one. Maybe my reproductive system is a finely tuned mechanism that with age got out of tune. Maybe TCM helped put it back into harmony. I don’t know. All I can say is that I had a healthy baby at 41 and 43, and Western medicine said that that was virtually impossible.



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David J. White

posted June 14, 2010 at 5:29 pm


The rest is a nice bowl of soup and some popery.
GrantL:
Just out of curiosity, what does traditional Chinese medicine have to do with Catholicism? Or did you mean “potpourri”?



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Scott Lahti

posted June 14, 2010 at 6:05 pm


Funniest comment of the month, that last.



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Jon

posted June 14, 2010 at 8:12 pm


Polistra:
The Big Bang theory is certainly not untestable. Where did you get that idea? Of course we can’t do the Big Bang over (but neither can we produce earthquakes or supernovae in the laboratory) but the theory makes predictions about the world we can observe today– e.g., the background radiation prediction– and these predictions have been correct.
Global Warming is a fact. Deal with it. To be sure there are large uncertainties as to what the long-term consequences will be, and certainly the apocalyptic predictions need to be traeted with due skepticism, but the world has warmed over the last century or so, and there is simply no honest dispute about that.
I am not sure what you mean by quantumism- you have invented a word there– but if you mean quantum physics, it is not complex at all (assuming you are educated in higher mathematics). Nor are there any “epicycles” involved. Where are you getting this stuff? Now quantum theory when extended to metaphysics has some startling consequences, but what of it? Once upon a time the roundness of the Earth was shocking.



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GrantL

posted June 15, 2010 at 9:28 am


David J. White – that’s a typo on my part. It should have read “Potpourri.”lol



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Hector

posted June 15, 2010 at 9:55 pm


Susan,
It’s also possible you were lucky, and Chinese medicine had nothing to do with it.
Of course, I’m glad things worked out for you with your kids! As you note, a one in 10,000 event can happen quite often given a large enough population.
Grant L,
I’d say rather more then a ‘few’ traditional herbal and plant-based cures are effective. The botanical world is teeming with pharmacologically active compounds, and through trial and error, premodern cultures discovered valid medical uses for many of them. That being said, you’re certainly right on the broader point. Scientific medicine is by far the best way to detremine which of the traditional cures are effective, and which ones are ineffective or toxic. We shouldn’t undervalue the work that the Chinese healers did for us, though- their centuries of trial and error are part of the reason we know which plants _might_ be effective and which ones we ought to test.



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