Evolution/Science: Inverting the Relationship Between Randomness and Meaning
The past Sunday's NY Times Book Review has a review of a book by Anne Harrington called The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine. Its interesting in its own right, directly relevant to a course I'm currently teaching, but connects in interesting ways to some other things bubbling around as well. The book is reviewed by Jerome Groopman, a cancer specialist, who writes ....
"Doctors like myself are schooled in the cause and effect of changes in DNA, cells, and tissues. We apply this biology to identify what is wrong with a patient, then recommend a medication, procedure, or behavioral change that will ameliorate the physical problem ...
Sometimes, of course, standard treatments don't work, or simply don't exist. And sometimes tests fail to uncover any physical cause for a patient's suffering at all. But such failures, Harrington argues, explain only part of the widespread dissatisfaction with mainstream medicine. Of equal or greater import, she writes, is medicine's failure to address the 'existential' aspect of illness, to answer the questions 'Why me? Why now? What next?' Doctors usually frame their answers to such questions in language that forgoes any meaning for the individual. Whether cancer will return is a matter of statistical likelihoods ... or in lay terms, "bad luck". There is no meaning in randomness, and for the patient no sense of control
As patients, we may be modern in many ways, but we find such uncertainty hard to accept. Throughout history, Harrington rightly argues, people have strained to make 'personal sense' of illness and suffering. Western cultures, like all cultures, have traditionally provided people 'a stockpile of religious, moral, and social stories to help them answer the great 'why' questions of of their suffering, and to connect their experiences to some larger understanding of their identities and destinies.' But today, she writes, the story offered by mainstream medicine 'is as impersonal as they come'.
Harrington concludes with the questions that students at Harvard regularly ask: 'Which mind-body narratives are 'true'? Are all the stories we tell ourselves about illness equally valuable? ... Harrington shows us that, whatever science reveals about the cause and course of disease, we will continue to tell ourselves stories, and try to use our own metaphors in find meaning in randomness".
In a New York Times op-ed piece written in 2005, before he became Pope, Christopher Schönborn wrote
"Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense -- an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection -- is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science."
And Albert Einstein famously said
"God does not play dice with the universe"
Perhaps following Spinoza's
"there is nothing accidental in nature"
But maybe Schönborn and Einstein and Spinoza were wrong? Perhaps there is actually something "accidental" in nature and in ourselves as well? Not only quantum physics but thermodynamics make sense in these terms
"All the physical and chemical laws that are known to play an important part in the life of organisms are of this statistical kind; any other kind of lawfulness and orderliness that one might think of is being perpetually disturbed and made inoperative by the unceasing heat motion of the atoms" ....... Erwin Schrodinger, What Is Life?, 1944
So too does biology in general, and evolution in particular
"Pure chance, only chance, absolute but blind liberty is at the root of the prodigious edifice that is evolution" .... Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity, 1970
"We walk, so to speak, in the realm of science, and we pursue what happens to present itself accidentally to our eyes ... Claude Bernard, 1813-1878
" ... chance must be elevated to the status of primary cause. Logic, genius, and the zeitgeist still have significant roles to play but mainly operate insofar as they enhance, or constrain, the operation of a chance combinatorial process" ... Dean Simonton, Creativity in Science, 2004
"Chance, in the forum of more or less free associations, began to play a role in our conversations ..." ... Hans Richer, Dada: Art and Anti-Art, 1965
" ... you don't reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings ... serendipitously." ... John Barth, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, 1991 (see also Voyage to Serendip)
Perhaps then it is not only the ill who have to face the questions "Why me? Why now? What next?" but all of us, all of the time, who should be facing them more frequently and directly than we do. Maybe we all need a new kind of story, one that helps us to accept that randomness, and the "impersonal" are a constant undercurrent in all our lives, and so quite "personal".
That may seem a hard pill to swallow (cf Erich Fromm's Escape From Freedom), and perhaps that's part of the reason why not only evolution but science in general have serious detractors. No, we are apparently not specially situated at the center of the solar system (much less the universe). Not, we seem not to have been placed at the center of the living world either. Yes, its looking more and more like we are an accidental product of an accident prone universe lacking any plan or intention either for us or for anything else. There is, of course, some order in it but the developing scientific story is that such order is not enough so that either religion OR science can eliminate the "accidental".
There is though an important flip side to this story, a much more appealing one (to me at least) as described in From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond: Towards Empirical Non-Foundationalism as a Guide to Inquiry. If by "accidental" one means unintended, without purpose, then the same conditions that leave us vulnerable to the unpredictable and uncontrollable also give us the freedom to influence our own lives and the universe in which we find ourselves. In a "meaningful" universe, either one designed by someone else, or one fully governed by impersonal laws, our role is, at best, to discover the purpose of the designer or to decipher the laws. In a "meaningless" universe, we have the room to conceive and reconceive meaning ourselves. As Stephen Jay Gould said in a lecture in 1998
"When we fail to accurately predict, that is not our limitation, that is just nature's reality ... The massive and unpredictable contingency in nature gives us control, freedom and consequential responsibility. I find this view of life exhilarating; we are the offspring of history, of contingency. We must establish our own path in a universe quite indifferent to our suffering, but offering us maximal freedom to thrive, or fail, in our chosen way"
Or, in my own terms,
"a world in which everything follows from a set of first principles wouldn't, in any case, be a very appealing one in which to live, for me at least. I would prefer a universe in which there is enough uncertainty to assure that the future has new things in it"
and, I would add, one in which I myself can contribute to creating those new things.
We all have a tendency to think that the random, the accidental, is that which disrupts order and so is a challenge or threat to "meaning." The new story would have it that it is actually from the random, the accidental that the ability to appreciate meaning itself originally came into being, and that they continue to be an essential source of our own ability to both conceive and reconceive meaning. What we need to do is not actually to "find meaning in randomness" but rather to more fully appreciate and develop our abilities to make meaning from randomness.
Yes, of course, the accidental/random/impersonal can get in the way of possibilities we thought we had, and cause us to doubt meanings we thought were there. But they can, at the very same time, create opportunities that weren't there before and provide the grist for meaning that had yet to occur to us. The trailer for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly uses the tag line "let your imagination make you free". Perhaps that's a good operating principle not only for cancer patients and sufferers from cerebral hemorrhages but for the rest of us as well?
Relevant additional materials
Lisa Belkin, The Odds of That: Coincidence in an Age of Conspiracty, NY Times Magazine, 11 August 2002
Added 4 April 2008:
Losick, R. and Desplan, C. (2008) Stochasticity and cell fate. Science 320: 65-68.
Faisal, A. A., Selen, L.P.J., and Wolpert, D.M. (2008) Noise in the nervous system. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 9: 292-303.
Grobstein, Paul (1994) Variability in behavior and the nervous system. IN: Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, Vol. 4 (V.S. Ramachandran, ed). NY: Academic Press. pp 447-458.
Added 23 April 2008:
Expressing our individuality: the way E. Coli do, NYTimes Science Times, 22 April 2008
Added 6 May 2008:
Aronov, D., Andalman, A.S., and Fee, Michale, M.S. (2008) A specialized forebrain circuit for vocal babbling in the juvenile song bird. Science 320: 630-635.
Added 23 June 2008:
The Accidental Scientist. Review of Merton, R.K. and Barber. E. The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science. Princeton University Press, 2004.
Added 28 September 2008:
Added 14 December 2008
Uncertain Science ... Uncertain World by Henry N. Pollack, Cambridge University Press, 2003
Added 18 September 2009
"Maybe we shouldn’t be so worried about an ultimate truth or final meaning to our lives. We just may be creating and making up meaning as we go along." ... Tima Vlasto
Added 23 September 2009
Highly variable spread rates in repeated biological invasions: fundamental limits to predictability, Science, 18 September 2009
Added 27 November 2009
"It is important to understand the criteria for a correct decision: the best choice is typically the one that provides the highest expectation of achieving one’s goal. ... “Expectation” should not be confused with “guarantee.” This is because in science, as in life, there is no such thing as a 100 percent certainty.
Ask any physicist and he will tell you that all scientific facts are provisional. All reasonable people reject the notion that the earth is flat, but in theory there is not a 100 percent certainty. As the evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould once said, fact can only mean confirmed so thoroughly that “it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.” When choosing between two alternatives, we can only ask which is more likely to be correct, and which supporting argument is more plausible.
In the simple example, the coach had to play out only a single iteration in his head. Most humans would have a difficult time assessing more than three iterations in an attempt to calculate the parlay of probabilities and determine relative statistical expectations.
This is where computing becomes so important. Zeus is not a black box with a mysterious opinion. It simply can process more data, more quickly than a human. Its criteria is no different than the coach’s criteria for choosing the kick on the last play of the game. That decision tree had only two branches. When the tree has thousands of branches, humans become incapable and machines become reliable. Top chess and backgammon experts no longer have an edge against computers for this very reason. We as humans may accumulate a great wealth of knowledge and experience in our chosen field of expertise, but we cannot process information as quickly or as accurately as a machine.
In this particular situation, the required adjustment to overturn the decision was so far beyond the reasonable characteristics of the Patriots and the Colts you might say it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent. Is it safe to say it is far more plausible the pass was more correct than a punt would have been? Absolutely. Are we 100 percent certain it was correct to go for it?
Ask the physicist."
Added 29 Jan 2010
Stein, R.B., Gossen, E.R., and Jones, K.S. (2005) Neuronal variability: noise or part of the signal Nature Reviews Neuroscience 6: 389-397.
Added 8 June 2010
Whatever happened to Serendipity? Lynell George, LA Times, 9 January 2005
Addded 25 October 2010
Stories vs statistics, John Allen Paulos, NYTimes Opinionator