Thursday, December 27, 2012

Peer Pressure from Scientific Fundamentalists?

I was impressed to read this morning that Peter Higgs, the theoretical physicist who predicted the existence of the Higgs boson, had publicly criticized Richard Dawkins for his anti-religious "fundamentalism" ( ).

One of his points is that fundamentalism -- belief in anything that cannot be changed by data -- is an anti-scientific position, even if the belief held so strongly is belief in the superiority of science and the inferiority of faith.

Dr. Higgs is on the "short list" at Stockholm, given the recent discovery that his predicted particle exists, so right now he has a lot of power in the world of science. I am impressed that he chose to spend some of that power defending scientists who have spiritual beliefs, even though he himself is not among them.

At least in the U.S., there is astounding peer pressure among scientists to keep secret any spiritual beliefs or experiences we have. The underlying concern, I think, is that we fear that our colleagues (and maybe we ourselves) believe that rational/rigorous scientific thought cannot exist in the same brain as irrational/unfiltered spiritual belief. Either you're a rational scientist or an irrational spiritualist, but you can't be both. Choose one, and that position invalidates the other.

I have a suspicion that this false dichotomy is related to a similar one that is prevalent throughout professions beyond science -- the care-taking/productivity dichotomy. One can either be a care-taker who kindly and compassionately helps people with their problems regardless of whether the solution is productive (aka, mom), or one can be a problem solver who incisively and resolutely solves problems productively regardless of whether the solution is kind (aka, dad). However, it's apparent to anyone who knows someone simultaneously incisive, productive, and compassionate that this is a false dichotomy as well. The soft can co-exist in the same mind with the hard, and the outcome is best when it does.

Our minds have so many modes, and while sometimes a single mode is clearly the one that is controlling the show at the present moment, at other times it is apparent that multiple modes are sharing the load. Our fears about multiple mind-sets co-existing are based on a false assumption that a single mode must win each day or else chaos will ensue. Of course, such an arrangement would be exhausting for whatever mode wins the day. Not only would it be exhausting, it wouldn't match with the empirical evidence that multiple neural modules co-exist and co-lead our sense of self and our behaviors (see, for instance, Richard Thaler's economics theories, or Paul Bloom's review in The Atlantic, ).

It's one of my greatest daily pleasures to wake up, consciously connect myself to God/the Universe/Spirit/Whatever you want to call it, and then try to figure out the most rigorous way to analyze my data and the most accurate way to interpret it. Sometimes I even ask the Universe for help in this process. So I guess I just want to say I'm grateful to Peter Higgs for bringing the idea of a spiritualist scientist into the mainstream.

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