The devil in the details

In one of the classic Peanuts cartoons, Linus says that when he grows up he wants to become a great doctor and rid the world of illness. His sister Lucy tells him he can’t because he doesn’t care enough about humanity. An indignant Linus responds, “I love humanity! It’s people I can’t stand!”

I remembered that cartoon as I was writing the recent series of posts about the difficulties with believing that the mind/soul is a non-material entity that can exist independently of the material body and brain. I wrote about how Descartes struggled with how to understand the actual working of the model.

The thought struck me that it is often easy for us to accept the big picture as long as we ignore the details. For example, if you ask people whether they believe in a god who is all-powerful and can and will respond to people’s prayers, most people will unhesitatingly answer yes. If you ask them whether there is a heaven, they will say yes. If you ask them whether they believe in the existence of an immortal soul, they will say yes. If you ask them if they have free will, they will say yes.

None of these things are really that hard to believe in, as long as you stay solely with the big picture. The problem comes when you try and work out the details. It is when you ask questions like: If God exists, where is he located? How does he act in the world? Why is it that his actions seem to be indistinguishable from random chance or the workings of natural law? Where is heaven? What happens there? What is the relationship of the soul to the brain? How does the soul influence the brain?

Such questions are very difficult to answer and despite the fact that religions have been around for thousands of years, no convincing answers have yet been provided. The religious believer is invariably reduced to saying that such things are impossible for mere mortals to comprehend and that they have to take it on faith that there are answers that will be revealed to people only after they are dead. So believers in religion are essentially told: Believe in the big picture and don’t ask questions or expect answers about the details.

As a methodological attitude, this is what makes it hard for religion to be compatible with a scientific approach. Science, like religion, also deals with big questions: How did the universe get created? What is it made of? How did it become the way it is now? Science seeks answers to those questions and in the process creates universal laws and theories such as the conservation of energy or the theory of evolution.

As with religion, it is easy to believe in big picture ideas, even bizarre ones. Multiple and parallel universes? Going backwards and forwards in time? Access to unlimited energy from the quantum fluctuations in the vacuum? All these ideas have their appeal and are believed in by people.

But there the similarity with religion ends. Such broad beliefs do not become part of science if they remain purely at that level of generality. Scientific answers to the big questions and the universal laws themselves are found by looking at the details, at how these things manifest themselves in specific concrete situations which can be studied under controlled conditions. There is no question that is in principle seen to be beyond the scope of investigation or beyond human understanding. Any scientist who proposed a grand scheme and failed to articulate how it would play out in specific concrete isolated situations would not be taken seriously.

If one looks at the history of science, it is the accumulation of answers to questions of detail that have determined which theories of science should be retained and which should be overthrown. The transition from the Ptolemaic geocentric model of the solar system to the Copernican heliocentric system did not occur because the latter model was seen as being clearly better. Conceptually, it is just as easy to believe in a geocentric model as it is in a heliocentric model. The change happened because over time, the detailed working out of the consequences of each model in specific instances (such as the motions of specific planets) seemed to be more compatible with the Copernican model than the Ptolemaic one.

This attention to detail characterizes academic discourse in general. I recall one historian saying that this is why they try to locate original documents, however boring and mundane they might seem. For a historian, a book of receipts and invoices from a store that was in existence three hundred years ago may allow her to piece together and corroborate a more reliable account of life in those times than (say) a book written during that time that seeks to describe life then. This is because books are written with a broad purpose in mind and this can distort its contents. But people doing their daily book-keeping in a store are simply recording actual events for their own use, not with an eye to history. Hence there is less chance of unconscious bias.

This is also why anthropologists and archaeologists focus so much on collecting raw data that to the rest of us seems like it has little value. The work of the people who painstakingly analyzed the layers of pollen and vegetation and bones deep in the soil of Easter Island enabled them to arrive at a more reliable and comprehensive accounting of how that community collapsed than the accounts of travelers to that island. (I will write about the fascinating story of Easter Island in a future posting.)

So while seeking the answers to big questions is the ultimate goal, in science and in most other areas of knowledge we arrive at those answers as a secondary consequence of finding answers to small, detailed questions. In religion, however, we are simply told by authorities the answers to the big questions and told not to expect answers to the detailed ones.

POST SCRIPT: The Mind and the Brain

I wrote recently (here and here) about the relationship of the mind to the brain and how the neuroscience community views this question. In a recent article, Paul Bloom, professor of Psychology at Yale talks about brain studies using fMRI and confirms my belief that the brain is all there is. He says:

But we know, scientifically, that the physical activity of the brain is the source of our mental processes. It’s one of the first things the professor says in any intro psych course: The mind is what the brain does, and so every mental event, from falling in love to worrying about your taxes, is going to show up as a brain event. In fact, if anyone were to find an aspect of thought that did not correspond to a brain event, it would be the discovery of the century, as it would be the first ever proof of hardcore Cartesian dualism.

(Thanks to

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