Wondrous Truths: The Improbable Triumph of Modern Science
J.D. Trout. 2016. Oxford University Press, New York. 264 pages.
How Did We Get Into This Mess? Politics, Equality, Nature
George Monbiot. 2016. Verso, New Left Books, New York. 352 pages.
We like answers. It’s something we all share: we are explanation-based beings. These answers become the foundation of what we believe about the world. They form our identity and give us context, and from them we make meaning. They guide us as we decide on the right way to go and the wrong way to avoid.
But what if the things we believe are ultimately false?
What gives us confidence in the answers we hold close? Where do the answers come from? And taking one more step back, where do even the ideas for answers come from?
Paired with the human desire to know is the curiosity to question. Both, it seems, have been part of our nature from the beginning. In Genesis we see Adam and Eve persuaded to test what they were told. Why can’t we eat from that tree too, they wondered. Succumbing to doubt and ignoring the warnings, they ate the fruit. Some might argue that their willingness to put their Creator’s word to the test was the original scientific experiment. But being a scientist was not the offense God forbade. That’s probably a good thing, because almost everything we believe today comes to us through the lens of scientific observation and explanation.
Francis Bacon, whose ideas are often cited as launching the age of science, in fact believed that exploring and investigating the world was a means of knowing and honoring God. His unfinished 1620 volume, The Great Instauration (Instauratio Magna), opened with a motto drawn from a Bible passage prophesying that “many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase” (Daniel 12:4). Bacon saw this as a portent of good things to come.
There is no doubt that scientific knowledge has given us great benefits. But it clearly has not revealed everything we need to know.
Two recent books examine the process of scientific discovery and how we apply our understanding. From the rise of the scientific enterprise in the 17th century to its malleable application to societal problems today, authors J.D. Trout and George Monbiot bring valuable perspective to how we search for and implement the answers we believe.
More Than Deduction
What makes science work, and why did it come on so suddenly and grow so exponentially in such a brief stretch of human history? Did we reach a tipping point of data—a critical mass of accumulated ideas or a key amount of “increase”? Big enough “shoulders to stand on,” as Newton might have said?
And with all our science, is there any room for revelation, ideas that come out of the blue? Indeed, it may be that the latter is most important of all. Trout argues that the success of science is more about inspiration and contingency than right data and deduction. It’s the right hunch, the right inductive idea, that matters.
“Given that there are things we know we don’t know . . . and that there are things we know we will never know . . . , it is clear that humans can’t be the pinnacle of possible intelligence, understanding, or computational power.”
Trout is a professor of philosophy and psychology at Loyola University in Chicago. His short book, subtitled The Improbable Triumph of Modern Science, provides a fresh look at the process of science and the psychology of explanation. Although the psychology Trout presents can be quite dense, his overall theme is unusually captivating. This is not your secondary-school textbook’s cursory look at the so-called scientific method. Rather, Wondrous Truths leads us to a deeper understanding of Bacon’s concern about our capacity for getting things wrong.
Trout describes the view that in science “nothing is left to chance: project a hypothesis, manipulate a variable, record the outcome, and then repeat a slight variation.” The problem with this simplistic recipe, he suggests, is that if the hypothesis being tested is not drawn from a correct theory of nature, then the experimental results simply support a false explanation. Clearly the deductive process that Bacon championed assumes a right starting point, a correctly reasoned interpretation of the world.
“The Bacon myth was a convenient story to launch the grander narrative of scientific growth during the European Enlightenment,” Trout writes. However, “the experimental method had been used for at least 600 years by then, and its effect depended entirely on the initial quality of the theories being tested.”
With the right starting point in mind, experiments are useful. But discovering that starting point is tricky. It’s the result of many factors, not simply the application of deductive reasoning: “The truth is, progress was driven by contingencies of creative talent, geographic location, social affiliation with the right people, the purposes of patronage, access to raw materials, and the needs of industry or the military.”
It Feels Good to “Know”
What are we actually looking for? According to Trout we may be curious, but we don’t want answers that are hard to understand. Reality is not the first priority; in fact, it may not be a priority at all. Instead we gravitate to something simple, obvious and easy to remember. This, he says, gives us a sense of fluency. As he explains, we don’t like to take up too much brain space for our theories. We have other things to spend mental energy on. We want to feel like we know, even if we really don’t. “Put starkly, when it comes to mental processing, easier is better liked, and as a result, the sense of understanding is stronger… . Our brain efficiently favors information we can process easily over information that draws more heavily on shrinking resources.”
That is a startling but rather cogent thought not often mentioned in the psychology of human reasoning. Simple ideas that explain a lot with a little—the world is made of earth, wind, air and fire; the sun orbits the earth; emotions arise from the heart; the brain is wrinkly because it is a radiator for releasing excessive heat—are “deemed more attractive, and more accurate, whether or not they actually are.”
“As a psychological matter of fact, we are led to accept explanations, scientific and otherwise, by the sense of understanding they convey.”
Now we know that those old ideas were wrong. But they did indeed feel right—they were fluent—and they were believed for centuries. To believe we know is ample for us, at least for a time: “The sense of satisfaction can be described simply as a heightened confidence that one enjoys an accurate description of the underlying causal factors—that one has hit upon the truth.” But, Trout notes, “confidence is, notoriously, not an indicator of truth.”
These interesting patterns of human thinking are typically not addressed in a history of science. We pretend to objectivity, but when push comes to shove we simply believe what we believe and stick to it. Whether knowingly or not, we may even jigger the evidence to fit our convictions, because the bias of preconception runs strong.
This sort of self-deception is not an invention of the modern age. In fact, Bacon recognized the tendency as a reason to promote a more deductive mindset in the first place. In The Great Instauration he remarked, “To the immediate and proper perception of the sense therefore I do not give much weight; but I contrive that the office [or function] of the sense shall be only to judge of the experiment, and that the experiment itself shall judge of the thing.”
He added in The New Organon (Novum Organum): “Let every student of nature take this as a general rule for helping him to keep his intellect balanced and clear: when your mind seizes on and lingers on something with special satisfaction, treat it with suspicion!”
Centuries later our nature has not changed: it’s difficult to budge us off the spot when we think we have the answer. Bacon did not clearly foresee that results of the experimental method could be misleading; at times, Trout suggests, we even want to be misled. And with all the echo-chamber information sources available today, hearing what we want to hear only gets easier. The result is that we become anchored to our own sensibilities and nurture our biases. In our world of niche ideology, we easily give in to the dangerous tendency of disregarding contrary views. The growing phenomenon of fake news plays directly to the truth we want to believe rather than the reality that is.
And so we can appreciate Trout’s argument on much deeper levels than simply the story of science. His caution rings true: “Explanations, bad and good, are routinely accepted for non-truth-related reasons. This is all the more reason to be cautious about our gut reliance on our sense of understanding.”
So “how did modern science, probably the greatest of intellectual achievements, emerge from a psychology that can experience wonder without understanding, explanations without accuracy, and intellectual adventure without reliability?”
Trout’s answer and his analysis of the key Western discoveries that drew back the curtains on nature’s hidden mysteries is an intriguing narrative. We won’t give it away here; it is worth the read. But his basic hypothesis is that someone eventually gets it right or at least puts forward an idea that is “good enough.”
“When you luck into a true theory, your science can be off and running,” Trout argues. Perhaps it’s that one idea that allows everything to fall into place. “What makes something a good explanation is a relatively simple affair: an accurate description of the underlying causes that bring about an effect.”
It’s refreshing to read a book that sees progress for what it is: not a smooth advance of truth and right theory but a fumbling from one idea to another. “Science advanced despite its dependence on overwhelmingly false scientific theories of yore, the misleading feeling of fluency and understanding conveyed by bad explanations, the inefficiencies of human exploration, political and religious campaigns against science, and the world’s complexity.”
Although coming in fits and starts, greater understanding grows hunch by hunch. “Scientific progress is a one-way ratchet because our best theories are approximately true,” Trout concludes. “The story of science, of course, is not complete. But there is also no going back. We now know that a single good theory can deliver millions of people from reasoning in darkness.”
Still Dark and Messy
In How Did We Get Into This Mess? George Monbiot documents just how dystopian the world remains. As a columnist for The Guardian since 1996, he writes clearly and precisely about the world’s troubles. The book, a documentation of our confusion of good and evil, comprises 51 of his essays from 2007 to 2015. It shows the stark contrast between what is possible in the age of increased knowledge that Daniel envisioned and Bacon seconded, and the all-too-human failure to put that knowledge to productive use. As he notes, we have ample understanding to really improve the human condition, yet we don’t. “Ideas, not armies or even banks, run the world. Ideas determine whether human creativity works for society or against it.”
There are still a lot of bad ideas out there. Monbiot exposes and explores the disconnect between the present and the possible, and he is very good at it. “Here are some of the things I try to fight,” he says on his website: “environmental destruction, undemocratic power, corruption, deception of the public, injustice, inequality and the misallocation of resources, waste, denial, the libertarianism which grants freedom to the powerful at the expense of the powerless, undisclosed interests, complacency.”
“The best anyone can do is constantly to review the evidence and to keep improving and updating their knowledge. Journalism which attempts this is worth reading. Journalism which does not is a waste of time.”
Don’t expect to feel good after reading this book. It’s a chronicle of dysfunction. We have indeed buried ourselves in a deepening mess, and 51 essays may not be enough to cover them all, some might cynically say.
But the task is not to examine a list of grievances. These are not arms-length observatory essays cataloging someone else’s problems. The conflicts Monbiot brings home for us to examine are not “out there” so much as they are within us; the problems of the world are, of course, actually our individual ways grown large. Like leaven causing the rise of bread dough, how we think and live has global consequences. He notes, “We have all become skilled in the art of not seeing.”
A Matter of Heart
Monbiot is happy to point out our blind spots. Concerning consumerism, for example, he writes, “When every conceivable want and need has been met (among those who have disposable money), growth depends on selling the utterly useless. The solemnity of the state, its might and majesty, are harnessed to the task of delivering Terry the Swearing Turtle to our doors.”
On the environment and our underlying connection to it, he notes, “We carry with us a ghost psyche, adapted to a world we no longer inhabit, which contains—though it remains locked down for much of the time—a boundless capacity for fear and wonder, curiosity and enchantment. We are pre-tuned to the natural world, wired to respond to nature.” Civilization, he says, “has many virtues, but it leaves large parts of our minds unstimulated.”
At some points he seems perplexed by the intransigence of our poor decisions: “The acceptance of policies which counteract our interests is the pervasive mystery of the twenty-first century.”
But he also knows that “we mould our thinking around our social identity, protecting it from serious challenge. Confronting people with inconvenient facts is likely only to harden their resistance to change.”
Just as the scientific enterprise was stalled by wrong beliefs, Monbiot recognizes that we are mired in our own brand of geocentrism and bodily humors. The greatest confrontation with denial occurs when the facts defy our closely held view of the world. But there is power and value in “confrontation with denial—our own and other people’s—and with the falsehoods of those who possess power,” he says.
A 2012 piece concerning our natural concern for children illustrates the stark reality of denial. Acknowledging the tragedy of little children and teachers murdered in their Connecticut school by a lone gunman, Monbiot challenges our empathy by laying our response to that story alongside our hardness over the collateral death of civilians in Pakistan from US drone strikes: “Most of the world’s media, which has rightly commemorated the children of Newtown, either ignores Obama’s murders or accepts the official version that all those killed are ‘militants’. The children of north-west Pakistan, it seems, are not like our children. They have no names, no pictures, no memorials of candles and flowers and teddy bears. They belong to the other: to the non-human world of bugs and grass and tissue.”
This is bleak and evokes great sorrow, not least for the heart of man. This is far more than pulling at heartstrings. Still, while powerful in their boldness, Monbiot’s words have not changed the world.
But while his goal is to create a more educated electorate, knowledge alone will not be enough. There is a deeper cause of human troubles than not enough scientific or social know-how.
The False Climb
“When we discover that we have got something wrong, we must be prepared to say so,” Monbiot concludes. “Being able to abandon pride and admit that we are wrong is the only hope we have of acquiring wisdom. That is another way of saying that it’s the only hope we have of creating a better world.”
“To succeed is to destroy ourselves. To fail is to destroy ourselves. That is the bind we have created.”
Bacon was optimistic and argued for a better system of discovering the Creator’s laws of nature, a system that would help humankind understand the world to our benefit. “For God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world,” he wrote. We need to see reality and avoid putting inordinate weight on historical or personal perspectives. “Rather,” he proposed, “may he graciously grant to us to write an apocalypse or true vision of the footsteps of the Creator imprinted on his creatures.”
We have not found that “true vision.” Instead, we have drifted into a situation Trout refers to as “the false climb”—disorientation due to what we think we know. Our senses are built around gravity. We can perceive the position of our head even with our eyes closed because our sense organs tell us which way is up. But then things get a little trickier. When a car or an aircraft is accelerating and our heads are pushed back, we have the sensation of rising, of leaning back and going upward, especially if our eyes are closed. This is the false climb. Imagine a pilot in this situation. In the dark without cues from the around, or too inexperienced or unable to read his instruments, he feels the false pitch and pushes forward into a dive. The sensation is ever more upward as he accelerates into the ground.
Apart from God, we are in a similar situation. Using only human reasoning and science as our instruments, we have misread the cues and are in a crash dive. How did we get into this mess? We abandoned the source of true knowledge.
As Trout notes of the centuries of false understanding, we are in an “explanatory gap.” Like Monbiot, we recognize the confusion of the world but do not see the underlying cause. This is the dimension that Daniel also noted in the passage that Bacon found attractive. In the passage’s entirety, it foretold that a few would understand the causes that drove the world, but that the many would not. And it would be a mess, “a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that time… . For the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end. Many shall be purified, made white, and refined, but the wicked shall do wickedly; and none of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand” (Daniel 12:1, 9–10).
Wondrous Truths and How Did We Get Into This Mess? actually document the futility of human effort without God. Our knowledge is no good to us without a primer on how to apply it. Although our ancestors turned from God’s instruction, that information remains crucial to correct our path.
“I cling to your commands and follow them as closely as I can. Lord, don’t let me make a mess of things.”
The Tree of Life
“Will you really die?” Apparently the death Adam and Eve were warned about was not physical. To emphasize that point, scripture notes that Adam lived more than 900 years (Genesis 5:5). Rather, the warning was about a spiritual death that included a lost relationship with their Creator; yes, they did die. Francis Bacon came to this conclusion as well: “It was the ambitious and proud desire of moral knowledge to judge of good and evil, to the end that man may revolt from God and give laws to himself, which was the form and manner of the temptation.”
Adam and Eve chose to puzzle out their own way of life independent from the tree of life. To “become like God,” they were fooled into believing that they could understand good and evil without a teacher. And they fell into spiritual darkness. Unfortunately the enlightenment of science, which opens the physical workings of the world to our manipulation, does not bring spiritual light. Physics does not inform metaphysics. That lesson continues.
How did we get into our current unsolvable mess? It began with that initial separation from our Creator in the Garden. But why was eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil restricted? Was it because God had something to hide? Or was it off limits to man for a reason? Certainly God knew that humans, beings created in His image, would need to know the difference between good and evil. But how would we know it? The problem was that this understanding could not come by experiment; it had to come by revelation. It could only come through insights produced from engaging with the tree of life, not the other way around (Genesis 3:22–24).
Without God opening our minds to reestablish a spiritual interface between humanity and Himself, we remain “naked.” Just as humankind sought its own security in building a tower to avoid the next flood, we remain embedded and snarled in our own thinking. As their offspring, imbued with the same desire to decide for ourselves—to take from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—we remain exiled from God’s influence as we descend rapidly in a false climb.