You Don’t Believe this crap, Do You?

#1
http://scienceandspiritmag.com/magazine/issues/premiere-issue/you-dont-believe-this-crap-do-you

You Don’t Believe this crap, Do You?
Getting serious about epistemology, the philosophy of science, and spirituality.
By Richard Sheff, MD


I’m a scientist and a skeptic.

I’ve studied philosophy at Oxford, the sciences at Ivy League universities, and medicine at the oldest medical school in America. I’ve deeply questioned everything we think we know and how we think we know it.

After more than four decades in the ardent pursuit of truth, I’ve come to the surprising conclusion that the world is a far more wondrous and mysterious place than most of today’s scientists are telling us.

But this was not always the case. The words that form the title of this series of articles passed my lips in 1982 when, as a second year resident in the Brown University family medicine residency program, I encountered two fellow residents who believed in complementary and alternative medicine. In fact, they more than believed in it, and had entrusted the life of one of them to it.

Tony and Hillary (their real names and other details of their story have been changed to protect their privacy) were husband and wife. They had rejoined our residency group after having left the training program
several years earlier. Tony had developed lymphoma, a form of cancer in the blood.

Actually, this had been a recurrence following his initial illness ten years earlier. His cancer had been treated, then with conventional chemotherapy, and had gone into remission. But the lymphoma had recurred during their second year of residency, and they had left the program to find the best treatment for his potentially fatal recurrence.

Unfortunately, the state of medicine at that time held little promise of a cure for his particular form of lymphoma, especially a recurrence. Rather than accepting this likely death sentence, they had scoured the world for potential treatments. Finally, they had settled on an unusual set of alternative treatments: diet, herbs and homeopathy. He had kept strictly to this regimen, and, to the surprise of his physicians, the disease had gone into remission.

I looked at this couple skeptically from the moment I met them. One day, I decided to ask the question.

“You seem extremely bright and well educated—Stanford undergrads, Johns Hopkins medical school—you don’t believe this crap, do you?”

“As a matter of fact we do,” came the unhesitant reply.

“But homeopathy, for goodness sake! Homeopaths take a substance and dilute it one part in 10 to the 10th, one part in 10 to the 20th, or even one part in 10 to the 30th.”

Then, borrowing a phrase I’d heard from my pharmacology professor my first year of medical school, I gave what I believed would be the crushing conclusion of my argument. “Why based on Avogadro’s number we all know there’s almost no chance there’s even one molecule of that substance in the diluted solution. So this must be just quackery.”

I folded my arms in defiant satisfaction. They did not know that I had studied intellectual history and the history of science as an undergraduate and epistemology and philosophy at Oxford. I was on very comfortable ground and sure I would prove them wrong.

Tony and Hillary continued to look bemused. “Your argument appears to make sense,” Hillary replied, “but unfortunately you’ve fallen victim to the sophistry of scientism, not real science.”

“What do you mean scientism?” I responded.

“Scientism can be understood as the use of the trappings of science in support of dogma.” My eyebrows rose at her insinuation that I was somehow blindly supporting dogma, so she went on. “Current medical science understands all substances to be made up of matter and that matter is composed of molecules, specifically 6.02 × 1023 of them per mole.”

“So what’s the problem?” I prodded, with not a small amount of argumentative tone.

“You, as well as most scientists, assume matter, the substance all around us, is only made up of molecules.”

“But that’s because it is.”

“How do you know this with such certainty? Could it be possible that matter is also made up of essences, perhaps understood as a different form of energy, in addition to or as part of molecules?”

“The theory of essences has been disproved by modern science over a century ago when the fundamentals of statistical mechanics, the mathematical study of the motion of molecules, were worked out.”

“Has it? How do you know?”

I thought of all the chemistry and physics courses I’d taken, all the textbooks I’d read, the experiments conducted by the giants of science over the past 400 years. I wanted to count on these as rock solid foundations for everything I believed. After all, I considered myself a scientist and a skeptic. At the time, I believed that science held the answers to our most fundamental questions about what exists.

So I responded, defending the absolute truth of what I knew about the nature of matter. It was composed of molecules, which in turn were composed of atoms, with those in turn being composed of fundamental particles. Our theories predicted how these molecules would interact, and these predictions had been proven true. We were even using electron microscopes to see smaller and smaller particles.

“All of what you say is true,” they responded. “These are the trappings of science—hypotheses, experiments, theories. Yet there is much faith in all you profess to believe.” I bristled at the insinuation that what I knew of science was based on faith.

(continued below)
 
#2
The Web of Belief

A memory from my time studying philosophy at Oxford arose. I’d encountered the work of Willard Van Orman Quine, one of the great twentieth-century philosophers, who’d coined the term “web of belief” to characterize the mutually reinforcing knowledge claims through which each individual encounters and makes sense of his/her world.

Even scientists conduct the activities we call the practice of science in the context of their individual and shared webs of belief, something that could be characterized as a
form of faith, though not in a religious sense.

Realizing when seen in this light that there might be a kernel of truth to their portrayal of science as involving some form of faith, I took the argument in another direction. “What if homeopathy is based on a claim that is not testable? It then could not be proved or disproved, which makes such a claim inherently unscientific,” I retorted with a fundamental tenet of logical positivism, a onetime influential school in the philosophy of science.

And so the argument raged well into the night. In fact, it raged for six months. Together we sparred about science, knowledge, what we think we know, what we believe and have faith in, and what, if anything, we know about the truth of the world as it is in some ultimate sense of reality.

At the end of six months, I realized I had lost the argument, and found myself surprisingly happy to have done so.

For through our debates, I had grown into a deeper understanding of the value and the limits of science as it is carried out. I came to realize that the medicine I’d been taught was only partially based on science. It was still very much an art—and also a matter of spirituality, not just empirical data. I also came to realize that so much of what I thought was true about health and illness, about what makes people sick, and how we try to heal them is founded on limited and deeply flawed science.

This did not take away from the miraculous advances gained from our understanding of germs and their role in disease the great strides that resulted from effective vaccinations and medications, and the extraordinary advances in surgery and diagnostic technology. I valued all of this and more about our current scientific medicine.

But I came to see the medicine in which I was training as possessing only a part of the truth about health and illness and what constitutes effective treatment. Other healing disciplines, such as osteopathy, massage therapy, homeopathy, acupuncture, naturopathy, herbal medicine, nutrition, chiropractic’s, and even perhaps energy healing, also held some truth.

Each of these disciplines had developed its own coherent, mutually reinforcing theories and knowledge claims about health and illness, just as had the medicine I’d been learning. Some of the theories of these complementary and alternative healing disciplines seemed extremely far-fetched, given what I thought I knew about the human body and disease.

Through the clarifications that came from late night arguments with Tony and Hillary, I realized that I did not have to accept the theoretical explanations promulgated by each healing discipline to consider the possibility that its diagnostic and healing modalities might offer some degree of effectiveness. It was also not necessary to shoehorn explanations for the treatment effectiveness of all modalities into the allopathic paradigm.

When I finally let go of the certainty that I had been right, when I became able to admit that there was more to know and understand than I had grasped, my world expanded. I came to see all healing disciplines as engaged in an exercise of the blind men and the elephant.

Each discipline held a piece of the truth about health and illness, about how to keep people healthy and heal them when they are sick. Each discipline made the same mistake of concluding theirs held the entire truth, the whole “elephant.”

Conventional medicine (allopathic medicine as it is sometimes referred to by its critics) holds a very large piece of this truth—but not all of it. I realized then that I owed it to my patients, and to my future career in which I sought to become the most effective physician and healer I could, to explore these other healing disciplines.

As I embarked on this exploration, I was shocked to discover how polarized competing healing disciplines had become and how coarse the discourse between them. Claims were made on all sides based on embarrassingly poor science, including by the allopathic medicine that I held so dear.

Proponents of each healing discipline fought for legitimacy, patients, and ultimately for a share of the healthcare dollar. Allopathic medicine fought vehemently to discredit all other healing modalities. Any that couldn’t be discredited would be absorbed under the hegemony of the medical establishment. I eventually recognized this storm and fury for what it was: a sorry and demeaning battle raging for power and money, not for truth and healing, even if the participants believed otherwise.

Science done well, I finally concluded, should instead embrace the entire “elephant” of available healing modalities. All healing disciplines should be treated with the same simultaneous appreciation and skepticism. Good science and effective healing demand nothing less.

"When I finally let go of the certainty that I had been right, when I became able to admit that there was more to know and understand than I had grasped, my world expanded."
 
#3
Could it be possible that matter is also made up of essences, perhaps understood as a different form of energy, in addition to or as part of molecules?”
Well yes, it's possible... as much as any theory that could be pulled out of one's butt.

It's a shame he didn't share with us the arguments that convinced him of such a theory.
 
#5
Well yes, it's possible... as much as any theory that could be pulled out of one's butt.

It's a shame he didn't share with us the arguments that convinced him of such a theory.
I don't think it was his theory, but rather that of his friend. This read to me more like he was simply accepting that some of the approaches mentioned may yield results, even though the mechanism isn't know and doesn't fit with the current scientific consensus.
 
#6
I don't think it was his theory, but rather that of his friend. This read to me more like he was simply accepting that some of the approaches mentioned may yield results, even though the mechanism isn't know and doesn't fit with the current scientific consensus.
Yes but the argument his friends put forward seems to have nothing going for it but persistence. Six months of 'what if there is an "essence/energy" thingummy'? Really?

Yet he accepts that he lost the argument, and is convinced by their argument/their theory. How did this happen? What convinced him? It seems an odd denouement to this (almost certainly fictional) story.

I note that this MD launched a company, CommonWell, with the goal of helping the healthcare system integrate the best of complementary and alternative medicine with the best of conventional medicine.
 
#7
His friends could have made the argument much simpler and asked him if he understood all aspects of information transfer. Since information is a product of consciousness, and therefore can be traced back to The Hard Problem, the answer has to be no. Cuts through a lot of the sophistry.
 
#8
Yes but the argument his friends put forward seems to have nothing going for it but persistence. Six months of 'what if there is an "essence/energy" thingummy'? Really?

Yet he accepts that he lost the argument, and is convinced by their argument/their theory. How did this happen? What convinced him? It seems an odd denouement to this (almost certainly fictional) story.

I note that this MD launched a company, CommonWell, with the goal of helping the healthcare system integrate the best of complementary and alternative medicine with the best of conventional medicine.
As far as see, the argument his friends put forward was prompted by their own experience of alternative medicine. In the face of,what for them, are the facts of their experience, they re-examined what they had previously taken as certainties.

As for his commercial interests, that could either indicate some self-interest or a genuine conviction that there is something in alternative medicine. Without knowing more about him I wouldn't like to speculate.
 
#9
His friends could have made the argument much simpler and asked him if he understood all aspects of information transfer. Since information is a product of consciousness, and therefore can be traced back to The Hard Problem, the answer has to be no. Cuts through a lot of the sophistry.
I appreciate that the friends could have invoked an off-the-shelf "gaps" argument. However, I'm not sure how that would have convinced him of the efficacy of homeopathy.
 
#10
I appreciate that the friends could have invoked an off-the-shelf "gaps" argument. However, I'm not sure how that would have convinced him of the efficacy of homeopathy.
It's much easier to properly evaluate novel ideas if you're not already convinced that they can't possibly be true. Once you realize that the gaps are terribly important, you can move forward. Look at how much trouble skeptics go to in order to dismiss homeopathy. The sneering and arrogant posturing are all because they have convinced themselves that they know how reality really is. But no one does. If you don't understand consciousness you don't understand information. And if we don't understand information then we have no basis for theoretically dismissing homeopathy.

Those gaps will get you every. single. time.
 
#11
It's much easier to properly evaluate novel ideas if you're not already convinced that they can't possibly be true. Once you realize that the gaps are terribly important, you can move forward. Look at how much trouble skeptics go to in order to dismiss homeopathy. The sneering and arrogant posturing are all because they have convinced themselves that they know how reality really is. But no one does. If you don't understand consciousness you don't understand information. And if we don't understand information then we have no basis for theoretically dismissing homeopathy.
But equally no basis for theoretically endorsing it either?
 
#12
But equally no basis for theoretically endorsing it either?
You can either be open to a world of possibility or look for reasons to not believe anything, or something in between. What you choose is up to you.

I can only speak for myself in that I very much prefer the former. I like the idea of considering things that may be outside the norm. That's where all the excitement is.
 
#13
You can either be open to a world of possibility or look for reasons to not believe anything, or something in between. What you choose is up to you.

I can only speak for myself in that I very much prefer the former. I like the idea of considering things that may be outside the norm. That's where all the excitement is.
Fair enough. I can't abide excitement, or fun of any kind ;)
 
#15
I appreciate that the friends could have invoked an off-the-shelf "gaps" argument. However, I'm not sure how that would have convinced him of the efficacy of homeopathy.
We understand information transfer quite well. It is a natural part of us, and evidenced by our technology all around us. To which gap are you referring to?

There is a gap in physical connection of course. Not in our understanding though. A gap develops when you wish to explain it from physical sources. Big time. Because there is absolutely no way known or conceivable way that the gap between a repesentation and representum can be closed by physical law. We know for a fact it is connected through the act of consciousness and in fact only consciousness.

The gap is a problem for dogma where consciousness arise from matter. Yes it is a gap alright, a gap in physical law replaced with immaterial formalism an essential one for the process of information transfer. It only comes from a mind.

Why does it matter? The origin of life and the hard problem of consciousness.

Unless you have a some materialist fairy dust undiscovered by science?

I am deep in studying material science atm actually, I love chemistry! But the belief that everything can be accounted for from atoms bumping together... and using a magical creation event to explain the existence of said atoms in the first place...

Is NOTHING, NOTHING but a faith based opinion..
 
#16
The power of belief is a real effect. I don't know much at all about homeopathy so I am skeptical of it. But placebo is real. I certainly would not rely on it for treating cancer. That also would be a matter of faith. We know for certain a positive frame of mind is key.

The point of the OP is or should be pretty clear though.
 
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#17
We understand information transfer quite well. It is a natural part of us, and evidenced by our technology all around us. To which gap are you referring to?

There is a gap in physical connection of course. Not in our understanding though. A gap develops when you wish to explain it from physical sources. Big time. Because there is absolutely no way known or conceivable way that the gap between a repesentation and representum can be closed by physical law. We know for a fact it is connected through the act of consciousness and in fact only consciousness.

The gap is a problem for dogma where consciousness arise from matter. Yes it is a gap alright, a gap in physical law replaced with immaterial formalism an essential one for the process of information transfer. It only comes from a mind.

Why does it matter? The origin of life and the hard problem of consciousness.

Unless you have a some materialist fairy dust undiscovered by science?

I am deep in studying material science atm actually, I love chemistry! But the belief that everything can be accounted for from atoms bumping together... and using a magical creation event to explain the existence of said atoms in the first place...

Is NOTHING, NOTHING but a faith based opinion..
Craig Weiler approves of this post.
 
S

Sciborg_S_Patel

#18
We understand information transfer quite well. It is a natural part of us, and evidenced by our technology all around us. To which gap are you referring to?

There is a gap in physical connection of course. Not in our understanding though. A gap develops when you wish to explain it from physical sources. Big time. Because there is absolutely no way known or conceivable way that the gap between a repesentation and representum can be closed by physical law. We know for a fact it is connected through the act of consciousness and in fact only consciousness.
What's weird to me is some nihilist materialists accept this, but instead of at least considering a rejection of materialism they insist we don't actually have thoughts about anything.

Is that even nihilism, because to me it's too starkly incoherent to be depressing....
 
#19
What's weird to me is some nihilist materialists accept this, but instead of at least considering a rejection of materialism they insist we don't actually have thoughts about anything.

Is that even nihilism, because to me it's too starkly incoherent to be depressing....
Yes. And I think the emphasis should be made that it is not a scientific conclusion but an ideological position. Scientism confuses the two. I love science, science has no opinion, only scientists.
 
#20
I have used "this crap", believing it was the crap that it is purported to be.

It worked very well for some problems, not so much for others... just like good old aspirine, antibiotics et al...
How does it work?... There are hypotheses, but ultimately I don't care if it gets the job done, which it did.

Of course there's no use in arguing with people stuck in our most dearly held philosophical paradigm. Just like I wouldn't argue with a fervent Christian about the efficacy of the Buddhist way...
 
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