Thinking thresholds: Is science the only source of truth in the world?
Adam Frank, a card-carrying atheist and physics professor, wonders if there might be more to life than pure science.
Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester and a leading expert on the final stages of evolution for stars like the sun. Frank's computational research group at the University of Rochester has developed advanced supercomputer tools for studying how stars form and how they die. A self-described “evangelist of science," he is the author of four books and the co-founder of 13.8, where he explores the beauty and power of science in culture with physicist Marcelo Gleiser.
- With all due respect to Copernicus, writes Adam Frank, humans are at the center of it all.
- Science is just one of many sources of truth in the world. The lived, subjective experience of humans creates reality, and when science excludes subjective experience, we end up with a less useful kind of science.
- Can science and philosophy form a union that gets us to a far richer account of the world and a far richer science?
So, what is this about? Where are we going with it all? What is its point?
Today marks my first post of this most excellent incarnation of 13.8. Since the new home for the blog represents a continuation of a project of thinking Marcelo and I started a decade ago, I wanted to begin with a 10,000-foot view. What was it that Marcelo and I were aiming for when we began with 13.7 Cosmos and Culture on NPR 10 years ago? And where are we pointing towards now?
The answer, I believe, can be embodied in a single word: thresholds.
I am a scientist and all I ever wanted to be was a scientist. For me, science was never a career choice. Instead, it was an all-encompassing way of living. Through science, I found a perspective and a path that offered a larger way of seeing my small life and its complications. Through science, I could also see how exquisitely sculpted the world was. That beauty gave me comfort and made the experience of my life richer. For that, I have been profoundly grateful.
But as I went from a Carl Sagan-reading, science-obsessed teen to a math-physics drunk graduate student and on to card-carrying professor, my approach to science has changed. Always an atheist, when I was younger, I thought no aspect of the world was immune to science's reach. The triumphs of Newton, Lagrange, Boltzmann and Einstein showed me that science offered a way out of the cave of limited human perspectives. Through sciences' principles and practices, I thought we'd found a way to a truly objective view of the world. It was a God's-eye perspective that revealed the totality of the universe—space, time, matter—independent of us. It was the world, in and of itself, revealed to our minds through the power of reason.
Sounds glorious, doesn't it? It certainly did to me at one point. Now, however, I think there is more, much more to the story of us and the world. Now I've come to believe that the whole "Gods-eye view" thing was a mistake. It was a very useful mistake and one that helped positively shape the first three or four hundred years of science's history. But it was a mistake nonetheless and now it has led us to a remarkable range of paradoxes and closed loops in subjects ranging from cosmology to consciousness. The job before us then is to go beyond that mistake and see where it leads us.
That is why I am interested in the science and philosophy of thresholds.
There is a fundamental problem with this "view from nowhere," this perfectly objective God's-eye view of science. That problem is it fails to see our proper place in the universe. With all due respect to Copernicus, that place is at the center of it all.
There can be no experience of the world without the experiencer and that, my dear friends, is us. Before anyone can make theories or get data or have ideas about the world, there must be the raw presence of being-in-the-world. The world doesn't appear in the abstract to a disembodied perspective floating in space... it appears to us, exactly where and when we are. That means to you or to me right now. In other words, you can't ignore the brute, existential, phenomenological fact of being subjects.
Of course, 'subjectivity' is a dirty word in science. We rightfully spend a lot of time trying to excise our research of the effects of subjectivity. That is all well and good if you are trying to understand particles in a box or bacteria in a dish. In fact, the methods we use to purge our research of subjective biases reveal the real meaning of 'objective' in science. It's not a metaphysical position about some perfect, platonic ideal version of reality. Instead, it's about getting the same results if we perform the same experiment. That's when the knowledge gained from an experiment can properly be called objective.
But as we've pushed deeper and deeper into the experience of the world, it no longer makes sense to ignore that we are always at the center of that experience. From the nature of time to the nature of consciousness, taking the act of being a subject seriously offers a new direction for thinking about the biggest issues facing science and philosophy.
We have to invent new languages that can deal with the strange loops where the world creates the self, and the self creates the world. We have to deal with the fact that reality is always our reality.
That's where the idea of thresholds appears. I once read a definition of poetry as being "that which takes us to the boundary between the expressible and the inexpressible." That, to me, is the real frontier. That is what I think we should be interested in once we recognize that science is not the only kind of truth out there. Poetry and all the arts, for example, reveal their kinds of truth. And there is a truth that can come from spiritual endeavor (or whatever you want to call it) as well. These other truths have their own place and their own power and don't simply reduce down to, say, neuroscience or some other scientific discipline.
To understand them, and science's place among them, we have to be willing to explore those thresholds between the expressible and inexpressible. We have to invent new languages that can deal with the strange loops where the world creates the self, and the self creates the world. We have to deal with the fact that reality is always our reality.
The problem with the God's-eye view of science is that it confuses the illusion of being right for actually being in accord with the weirdness of being an experiencing subject. It appears to offer a perfect, hermetically sealed account of the universe that seems so beautiful until you realize it's missing the most important quality: life. Not life as an account of a thermodynamic system, but life as our embodied, lived experience.
I am hopeful there are ways to think about science and philosophy that never forget that fact. I am hopeful that, if we can work our way up to those dynamic thresholds of experience, we may get a far richer account of the world and a far richer science. Most of all, I am hopeful that by facing those thresholds we might develop a new understanding that is both beautifully true and truly helpful.
That, in one form or another, is what 13.8 is going to be all about.
Visit 13.8 weekly for new articles by Adam Frank and Marcelo Gleiser.
That's as fast as a bullet train in Japan.
The way an elephant manipulates its trunk to eat and drink could lead to better robots, researchers say.
Elephants dilate their nostrils to create more space in their trunks, allowing them to store up to 5.5 liters (1.45 gallons) of water, according to their new study.
They can also suck up three liters (0.79 gallons) per second—a speed 30 times faster than a human sneeze (150 meters per second/330 mph), the researchers found.
The researchers wanted to better understand the physics of how elephants use their trunks to move and manipulate air, water, food, and other objects. They also wanted to learn if the mechanics could inspire the creation of more efficient robots that use air motion to hold and move things.
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash
While octopuses use jets of water to propel themselves and archer fish shoot water above the surface to catch insects, elephants are the only animals able to use suction both on land and underwater.
"An elephant eats about 400 pounds of food a day, but very little is known about how they use their trunks to pick up lightweight food and water for 18 hours, every day," says lead author Andrew Schulz, a mechanical engineering PhD student at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "It turns out their trunks act like suitcases, capable of expanding when necessary."
Sucking up tortilla chips without breaking them
Schulz and his colleagues worked with veterinarians at Zoo Atlanta, studying elephants as they ate various foods. For large rutabaga cubes, for example, the animal grabbed and collected them. It sucked up smaller cubes and made a loud vacuuming sound, like the sound of a person slurping noodles, before transferring the vegetables to its mouth.
To learn more about suction, the researchers gave elephants a tortilla chip and measured the applied force. Sometimes the animal pressed down on the chip and breathed in, suspending the chip on the tip of its trunk without breaking it, similar to a person inhaling a piece of paper onto their mouth. Other times the elephant applied suction from a distance, drawing the chip to the edge of its trunk.
Elephants inhale at speeds comparable to Japan's 300 mph bullet trains.
"An elephant uses its trunk like a Swiss Army knife," says David Hu, Schulz's advisor and a professor in Georgia Tech's School of Mechanical Engineering. "It can detect scents and grab things. Other times it blows objects away like a leaf blower or sniffs them in like a vacuum."
By watching elephants inhale liquid from an aquarium, the team was able to time the durations and measure volume. In just 1.5 seconds, the trunk sucked up 3.7 liters (just shy of 1 gallon), the equivalent of 20 toilets flushing simultaneously.
Soft robots and elephant conservation
The researchers used an ultrasonic probe to take trunk wall measurements and see how the trunk's inner muscles work. By contracting those muscles, the animal dilates its nostrils up to 30%. This decreases the thickness of the walls and expands nasal volume by 64%.
"At first it didn't make sense: an elephant's nasal passage is relatively small and it was inhaling more water than it should," Schulz says. "It wasn't until we saw the ultrasonographic images and watched the nostrils expand that we realized how they did it. Air makes the walls open, and the animal can store far more water than we originally estimated."
Based on the pressures applied, Schulz and the team suggest that elephants inhale at speeds comparable to Japan's 300-mph bullet trains.
"By investigating the mechanics and physics behind trunk muscle movements, we can apply the physical mechanisms—combinations of suction and grasping—to find new ways to build robots," Schulz says.
"In the meantime, the African elephant is now listed as endangered because of poaching and loss of habitat. Its trunk makes it a unique species to study. By learning more about them, we can learn how to better conserve elephants in the wild."
The paper appears in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. The US Army Research Laboratory and the US Army Research Oﬃce 294 Mechanical Sciences Division, Complex Dynamics and Systems Program, funded the work. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the sponsoring agency.
Source: Georgia Tech
Original Study DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2021.0215
The experience of life flashing before one's eyes has been reported for well over a century, but where's the science behind it?
At the age of 16, when Tony Kofi was an apprentice builder living in Nottingham, he fell from the third story of a building. Time seemed to slow down massively, and he saw a complex series of images flash before his eyes.
As he described it, “In my mind's eye I saw many, many things: children that I hadn't even had yet, friends that I had never seen but are now my friends. The thing that really stuck in my mind was playing an instrument". Then Tony landed on his head and lost consciousness.
When he came to at the hospital, he felt like a different person and didn't want to return to his previous life. Over the following weeks, the images kept flashing back into his mind. He felt that he was “being shown something" and that the images represented his future.
Later, Tony saw a picture of a saxophone and recognized it as the instrument he'd seen himself playing. He used his compensation money from the accident to buy one. Now, Tony Kofi is one of the UK's most successful jazz musicians, having won the BBC Jazz awards twice, in 2005 and 2008.
Though Tony's belief that he saw into his future is uncommon, it's by no means uncommon for people to report witnessing multiple scenes from their past during split-second emergency situations. After all, this is where the phrase “my life flashed before my eyes" comes from.
But what explains this phenomenon? Psychologists have proposed a number of explanations, but I'd argue the key to understanding Tony's experience lies in a different interpretation of time itself.
When life flashes before our eyes
The experience of life flashing before one's eyes has been reported for well over a century. In 1892, a Swiss geologist named Albert Heim fell from a precipice while mountain climbing. In his account of the fall, he wrote is was “as if on a distant stage, my whole past life [was] playing itself out in numerous scenes".
More recently, in July 2005, a young woman called Gill Hicks was sitting near one of the bombs that exploded on the London Underground. In the minutes after the accident, she hovered on the brink of death where, as she describes it: “my life was flashing before my eyes, flickering through every scene, every happy and sad moment, everything I have ever done, said, experienced".
In some cases, people don't see a review of their whole lives, but a series of past experiences and events that have special significance to them.
Explaining life reviews
Perhaps surprisingly, given how common it is, the “life review experience" has been studied very little. A handful of theories have been put forward, but they're understandably tentative and rather vague.
For example, a group of Israeli researchers suggested in 2017 that our life events may exist as a continuum in our minds, and may come to the forefront in extreme conditions of psychological and physiological stress.
Another theory is that, when we're close to death, our memories suddenly “unload" themselves, like the contents of a skip being dumped. This could be related to “cortical disinhibition" – a breaking down of the normal regulatory processes of the brain – in highly stressful or dangerous situations, causing a “cascade" of mental impressions.
But the life review is usually reported as a serene and ordered experience, completely unlike the kind of chaotic cascade of experiences associated with cortical disinhibition. And none of these theories explain how it's possible for such a vast amount of information – in many cases, all the events of a person's life – to manifest themselves in a period of a few seconds, and often far less.
Thinking in 'spatial' time
An alternative explanation is to think of time in a “spatial" sense. Our commonsense view of time is as an arrow that moves from the past through the present towards the future, in which we only have direct access to the present. But modern physics has cast doubt on this simple linear view of time.
Indeed, since Einstein's theory of relativity, some physicists have adopted a “spatial" view of time. They argue we live in a static “block universe" in which time is spread out in a kind of panorama where the past, the present and the future co-exist simultaneously.
The modern physicist Carlo Rovelli – author of the best-selling The Order of Time – also holds the view that linear time doesn't exist as a universal fact. This idea reflects the view of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that time is not an objectively real phenomenon, but a construct of the human mind.
This could explain why some people are able to review the events of their whole lives in an instant. A good deal of previous research – including my own – has suggested that our normal perception of time is simply a product of our normal state of consciousness.
In many altered states of consciousness, time slows down so dramatically that seconds seem to stretch out into minutes. This is a common feature of emergency situations, as well as states of deep meditation, experiences on psychedelic drugs and when athletes are “in the zone".
The limits of understanding
But what about Tony Kofi's apparent visions of his future? Did he really glimpse scenes from his future life? Did he see himself playing the saxophone because somehow his future as a musician was already established?
There are obviously some mundane interpretations of Tony's experience. Perhaps, for instance, he became a saxophone player simply because he saw himself playing it in his vision. But I don't think it's impossible that Tony did glimpse future events.
If time really does exist in a spatial sense – and if it's true that time is a construct of the human mind – then perhaps in some way future events may already be present, just as past events are still present.
Admittedly, this is very difficult to make sense of. But why should everything make sense to us? As I have suggested in a recent book, there must be some aspects of reality that are beyond our comprehension. After all, we're just animals, with a limited awareness of reality. And perhaps more than any other phenomenon, this is especially true of time.
Might as well face it, you're addicted to love.
- Many writers have commented on the addictive qualities of love. Science agrees.
- The reward system of the brain reacts similarly to both love and drugs
- Someday, it might be possible to treat "love addiction."
Since people started writing, they've written about love. The oldest love poem known dates back to the 21st century BCE. For most of that time, writers also apparently have been of two (or more) minds about it, announcing that love can be painful, impossible to quit, or even addictive — while also mentioning how nice it is.
The idea of love as an addiction is one that is both familiar and unsettling. Surely it can't be the case that our mutual love with our partner — a thing that can produce euphoria, consumes a great deal of our time, and which we fear losing — can be compared to a drug habit? But indeed, many scientists have turned their attention to the idea of "love addiction" and how your brain on drugs might resemble your brain in love.
Love and other drugs
In a 2017 article published in the journal Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, a team of neuroethicists considered the idea that love is addicting and held the idea up to science for scrutiny.
They point out that the leading model of addiction rests on the notion of a drug causing the brain to release an unnatural level of reward chemicals, such as dopamine, effectively hijacking the brain's reward system. This phenomenon isn't strictly limited to drugs, though they are more effective at this process than other things. Rats can get a similar rush from sugar as from cocaine, and they can have terrible withdrawal symptoms when the sugar crash kicks in.
On the structural level, there is a fair amount of overlap between the parts of the brain that handle love and pair-bonding and the parts that deal with addiction and reward processing. When inside an MRI machine and asked to think about the person they love romantically, the reward centers of people's brains light up like Broadway.
Love as an addiction
These facts lead the authors to consider two ideas, dubbed the "narrow" and "broad" views of love as an addiction.
The narrow view holds that addiction is the result of abnormal brain processes that simply don't exist in non-addicts. Under this paradigm, "food-seeking or love-seeking behaviors are not truly the result of addiction, no matter how addiction-like they may outwardly appear." It could be that abnormal processes cause the brain's reward system to misfire when exposed to love and to react to it excessively.
If this model is accurate, love addiction would be a rare thing — one study puts it around five to ten percent of the population — but could be considered a disorder similar to others and caused by faulty wiring in the brain. As with other addictions, this malfunction of the reward system could lead to an inability to fully live a typical life, difficulty having healthy relationships, and a number of other negative consequences.
The broad view looks at addiction differently, perhaps even radically.
It begins with the idea that addiction exists on a spectrum of motivations. All of our appetites, including those for food and water, exist on this spectrum and activate similar parts of the brain when satisfied. We can have appetites for anything that taps into our reward system, including food, gambling, sex, drugs, and love. For most people most of the time, our appetites are fairly temperate, if recurring. I might be slightly "addicted" to food — I do need some a few times per day — but that "addiction" doesn't have any negative effects on my health.
An appetite for cocaine, however, is rarely temperate and usually dangerous. Likewise, a person's appetite for love could reach addiction levels, and a person could be considered "hooked" on relationships (or on a particular person). This would put love addiction at the extreme end of the spectrum.
None of this is to say that the authors think that love is bad for you just because it can resemble an addiction. Love addiction is not the same as cocaine addiction at the neurological level: important differences, like how long it takes for the desire for another "hit" to occur, do exist. Rather, the authors see this as an opportunity to reconsider our approach to addiction in general and to think about how we can help the heartsick when they just can't seem to get over their last relationship.
Is "love addiction" a treatable disorder?
Hypothetically, a neurological basis for an addiction to love could point toward interventions that "correct" for it. If the narrow view of addiction is accurate, perhaps some people will be able to seek treatment for love addiction in the same way that others seek help to quit smoking. If the broad view of addiction is correct, the treatment of love addiction would be unlikely as it may be difficult to properly identify where the cutoff of acceptability on a spectrum should be.
Either way, since love is generally held in high regard by all cultures and doesn't quite seem to be in the same category as a bad cocaine habit in terms of social undesirability, the authors doubt we'll be treating anyone for "love addiction" anytime soon.
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