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.
This storm rained electrons, shifted energy from the sun's rays to the magnetosphere, and went unnoticed for a long time.
- An international team of scientists has confirmed the existence of a "space hurricane" seven years ago.
- The storm formed in the magnetosphere above the North magnetic pole.
- The storm posed to risk to life on Earth, though it might have interfered with some electronics.
What do you call that kind of storm when it forms over the Arctic ocean?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/8GqnzBJkWcw" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Many objects in space, like Earth, the Sun, most of the planets, and even some large moons, have magnetic fields. The area around these objects which is affected by these fields is known as the magnetosphere.</p><p>For us Earthlings, the magnetosphere is what protects us from the most intense cosmic radiation and keeps the solar wind from affecting our atmosphere. When charged particles interact with it, we see the aurora. Its fluctuations lead to changes in what is known as "space weather," which can impact electronics. </p><p>This "space hurricane," as the scientists are calling it, was formed by the interactions between Earth's magnetosphere and the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interplanetary_magnetic_field" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">interplanetary magnetic field,</a> the part of the sun's magnetosphere that goes out into the solar system. It took on the familiar shape of a cyclone as it followed magnetic fields. For example, the study's authors note that the numerous arms traced out the "footprints of the reconnected magnetic field lines." It rotated counter-clockwise with a speed of nearly 7,000 feet per second. The eye, of course, was still and <a href="https://www.sciencealert.com/for-the-first-time-a-plasma-hurricane-has-been-detected-in-space" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">calm</a>.</p><p>The storm, which was invisible to the naked eye, rained electrons and shifted energy from space into the ionosphere. It seems as though such a thing can only form under calm situations when large amounts of energy are moving between the solar wind and the upper <a href="https://www.reading.ac.uk/news-and-events/releases/PR854520.aspx" target="_blank">atmosphere</a>. These conditions were modeled by the scientists using 3-D <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-21459-y#Sec10" target="_blank">imaging</a>.<br><br>Co-author Larry Lyons of UCLA explained the process of putting the data together to form the models to <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/science/space/space-hurricane-rained-electrons-observed-first-time-rcna328" target="_blank">NBC</a>:<br><br>"We had various instruments measuring various things at different times, so it wasn't like we took a big picture and could see it. The really fun thing about this type of work is that we had to piece together bits of information and put together the whole picture."<br><br>He further mentioned that these findings were completely unexpected and that nobody that even theorized a thing like this could exist. <br></p><p>While this storm wasn't a threat to any life on Earth, a storm like this could have noticeable effects on space weather. This study suggests that this could have several effects, including "increased satellite drag, disturbances in High Frequency (HF) radio communications, and increased errors in over-the-horizon radar location, satellite navigation, and communication systems."</p><p>The authors <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-21459-y#Sec8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">speculate</a> that these "space hurricanes" could also exist in the magnetospheres of other planets.</p><p>Lead author Professor Qing-He Zhang of Shandong University discussed how these findings will influence our understanding of the magnetosphere and its changes with <a href="https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-03/uor-sho030221.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">EurekaAlert</a>:</p><p>"This study suggests that there are still existing local intense geomagnetic disturbance and energy depositions which is comparable to that during super storms. This will update our understanding of the solar wind-magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling process under extremely quiet geomagnetic conditions."</p>
The chariot survived ancient eruptions and modern-day looters to become a part of the world heritage site.
- Archeologists recently discovered a first-of-its-kind chariot in Pompeii.
- The ceremonial chariot is decorated with bronze and tin medallions, while the sides sport bronzesheets and red-and-black paintings.
- Given looting activity in the area, it's lucky the 2,000-year-old treasure wasn't lost to the world heritage site.
One dope Pompeian whip<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTcxOTUzNS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MjU3Nzk5MH0.M3HW5tPe17JuKMhLtKgbOlqK4sMbspqYskR_jz6t9sg/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C70%2C0%2C230&height=700" id="497f9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1bda1a9c489b85c8a56c189eb21706d1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Researchers carefully extract the chariot from the sedimentary rock encasing it.
(Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii)<p>In a recent discovery, researchers unearthed a first-of-its-kind chariot at Civita Giuliana, an excavation site north of Pompeii's ancient walls. In Roman times, the site served as a getaway for Rome's elite and wealthy citizens, a serene countryside brimming with villas and Mediterranean farms. So, it's understandable why such an exquisite chariot was found here.</p><p>"I was astounded," Eric Poehler, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who specializes in Pompeii traffic, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2021/02/27/972118983/a-lamborghini-of-chariots-is-discovered-at-pompeii-archaeologists-are-wowed?ft=nprml&f=1001" target="_blank">told <em>NPR</em></a>. "Many of the vehicles I'd written about before ... are your standard station wagon or vehicle for taking the kids to soccer. This is a Lamborghini. This is an outright fancy, fancy car."</p><p>Located in a double-level portico, the chariot is a far cry from anything Ben-Hur would have been seen cruising around in. It sports four iron wheels and a high seat complete with arm- and backrest. The sides are adorned with engraved bronze and wooden panels painted with red-and-black figures. And the rear bumps with a register of bronze and tin medallion depicting Eros-inspired scenes of satyrs, nymphs, and cupids. In short, this chariot is slab.</p><p>"It is an extraordinary discovery for the advancement of our knowledge of the ancient world," Massimo Osanna, the director of the archaeological park, <a href="http://pompeiisites.org/en/comunicati/the-four-wheeled-processional-chariot-the-last-discovery-of-pompeii/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said in a statement</a>. "At Pompeii vehicles used for transport have been found in the past, […] but nothing like the Civita Giuliana chariot."</p><p>But unlike a Lamborghini—which serves only to show the owner has more money than sense—this chariot served a social and cultural role. Likely a <em>pilentum</em>, it would have been rolled out in times of ceremony, potentially during festivals, processions, or weddings.</p><p>While similar chariots have been uncovered in northern Greece, this is the first such chariot to be discovered in Italy. Its presence in Pompeii will further help historians understand the people who called the city home, as well as their relation to the Mediterranean world.</p><p>As Poehler added, "This is precisely the kind of find that one wants to find at Pompeii, the really well-articulated, very well-preserved moments in time. And it happens to be in this case an object that is relatively rare despite its ubiquity in the past."</p>
It belongs in a museum (not the black market)<p>Beyond its gilded appeal, the chariot is also special because it survived so we could learn from it. The area where the vehicle was found has been favored in recent years by looters, and illicit tunnels had been dug precariously close to the chariot's resting place. For this reason, the archeological park has teamed up with the Public Prosecutor's Office of Torre Annunziata to protect Pompeii's history and excavate its treasures before they become lost or stolen.</p><p>"The collaboration between the Public Prosecutor's Office of Torre Annunziata and the Archaeological Park of Pompeii has proved itself to be a formidable instrument, not only for bringing finds of exceptional historical and artistic value to light, but also for halting the criminal actions of individuals who for years have been the protagonists in a systematic looting of the priceless archaeological heritage preserved in the vast area of the Civita Giuliana villa, which is still largely buried and to which the recent exceptional findings bear witness," Nunzio Fragliasso, chief prosecutor of Torre Annunziata, said in his joint statement with Osanna.</p><p>Nor is everything that glitters historic gold. Even Pompeii's everyday ephemera can have an outsized impact on history. Pompeian citizens, for example, viewed street walls as a type of "<a href="https://www.thegreatcoursesdaily.com/how-pompeii-graffiti-preserved-the-ordinary-voices-of-ancient-rome/" target="_blank">public advertisement space</a>" and so painted them thick with graffiti. As historians must often rely on the written works of the literate elite, this graffiti gives the ordinary Pompeians their voice back. <a href="https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/10/ancient-graffiti-shifts-date-pompeii-s-destruction-back-2-months" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">One such charcoal tag</a> even corrected the record of Vesuvius's eruption by two months, from August to October, contradicting the traditionally accepted date set by Pliny the Younger.</p><p>"Today, archaeologists try to understand ancient societies by studying the entire material record -- not just the beautiful or luxurious objects, but also the broken bits of cooking pottery, the animal bones thrown into the trash, the microscopic grains of pollen in the soil, and much more," Caitlín Barrett, associate professor at Cornell University, <a href="https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/pompeii-new-excavations-looting/index.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">told <em>CNN</em></a>.</p><p>This ephemera is also at risk. Looters looking for eye-catching treasure and artwork will often destroy everyday objects in their pursuit. And after centuries encased in protective sedimentary rock, the city has again been exposed to the rains, winds, and human blunders that erode. The goal now isn't just to excavate fantastic treasures, but to preserve the world heritage site and learn from it for as long as time (<a href="http://volcano.oregonstate.edu/what%E2%80%99s-most-recent-eruption-vesuvius-and-will-it-erupt-again" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">and maybe Vesuvius</a>) will allow.</p>
New study suggests the placebo effect can be as powerful as microdosing LSD.
- New research from Imperial College London investigated the psychological effects of microdosing LSD in 191 volunteers.
- While microdosers experienced beneficial mental health effects, the placebo group performed statistically similar to those who took LSD.
- Researchers believe the expectation of a trip could produce some of the same sensations as actually ingesting psychedelics.
Psychedelics: The scientific renaissance of mind-altering drugs<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="92360c805fe66c11de38a75b0967f417"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/5T0LmbWROKY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>For the study published in eLife, the team recruited 191 citizen cosmonauts to microdose either LSD or a placebo over the course of several weeks and note the psychological effects. Volunteers were already microdosing LSD, so there was no true control. Each volunteer was given instructions on creating their own low-dose gel capsules, some containing LSD, others not. Then they mixed the capsules in envelopes so they didn't know if they were taking the real thing or not.</p><p>The trial design was ingenious: each capsule featured a QR code that was scanned after the addition of ingredients but before they were placed in the envelope so that researchers knew what they were ingesting.</p><p>The problem: volunteers sourced their own LSD. Lack of quality control could have had a profound effect on the results. </p><p>The results: LSD microdosers reported feeling more mindful, satisfied with life, and better overall; they also noticed a reduction in feelings of paranoia. </p><p>The catch: the control group felt the same thing, with no statistical difference between the groups. </p><p>Lead author Balázs Szigeti comments on the findings: "This suggests that the improvements may not be due to the pharmacological action of the drug but can instead be explained by the placebo effect." </p>
Credit: Alexander / Adobe Stock<p>Psychedelics are notoriously difficult to control for given the intensity of the experience. Yet there is precedent for the above findings. A <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-020-05464-5" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that 61 percent of volunteers that took a placebo instead of psilocybin felt some psychedelic effects, with a few volunteers experiencing full-on trips.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Several stated that they saw the paintings on the walls 'move' or 'reshape' themselves, others felt 'heavy. . . as if gravity [had] a stronger hold', and one had a 'come down' before another 'wave' hit her."</p><p>The Imperial team believes the expectation of a trip might have been enough to produce similar results. Senior author David Erritzoe is excited for future studies on the topic, believing they tapped into a new wave of citizen science that could push forward our knowledge of psychedelic substances.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Accounting for the placebo effect is important when assessing trends such as the use of cannabidiol oils, fad diets or supplements where social pressure or users' expectations can lead to a strong placebo response. Self-blinding citizen science initiatives could be used as an inexpensive, initial screening tool before launching expensive clinical studies."</p><p>As investments into the psychedelics market explode, with one company <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-03/thiel-backed-magic-mushroom-firm-atai-hits-2-billion-valuation" target="_blank">reaching a $2 billion valuation</a>, a recurring irony appears in the long arc of psychedelics and research: the power of our minds might be enough to feel greater life satisfaction and a deeper sense of mindfulness. If that's possible with a placebo, we have to question why the rush to create more pharmacology is necessary. </p><p>This is, mind you, a separate conversation over the role of psychedelics and rituals for group bonding. The function of group cohesion around consciousness-altering substances will continue to play an important role in many communities. </p><p>Of course, we should continue to explore the efficacy of psychedelics on anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, PTSD, and addiction. <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/antidepressant-effects" target="_self">Pharmacological dependence</a> is a stain on the psychiatry industry. Whether or not psychedelics can be prescribed for daily use remains to be seen, but we know a moneyed interest is expecting a return on investment—the above company, ATAI Life Sciences, raised $157 million in its Series D round. </p><p>When it comes to wellbeing, some things money just can't buy. How we navigate the tricky terrain of mainstreaming psychedelics remains to be seen. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by Freethink Media, Inc. All rights reserved.