Why good medicine requires materialism

I don’t like to repost, but Steve Novella has some great pieces up right now, and this is directly related. –PalMD

s I’ve clearly demonstrated in earlier posts, I’m no philosopher. But I am a doctor, and, I believe, a good one at that, and I find some of this talk about “non-materialist” perspectives in science to be frankly disturbing, and not a little dangerous.

To catch you up on things, consider reading one of Steve Novella’s best posts ever over at Neurologica. While you are there, you can also follow his debate with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, the latest guru of mind-body dualism.

To sum up (remember, IANAP), most of us science-y types hold to a materialist view of reality, that is, reality is all there is. This reality is susceptible to the investigations of science. Non-materialists and mind-body dualists hold that there is also a “non-material” reality. What exactly this might be, and how one might observe or measure it is never specified. Instead, they usually use a god-of-the-gaps argument, whereby any gaps in scientific understanding are automatically ascribed to the supernatural. The proof of the supernatural is stated is a lack of disproof of the supernatural.

Personally, I have no problem with people believing in God, Satan, fairies, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster (may we all be touched by His Noodley Appendages). What I have a problem with is people applying these beliefs to science and medicine.

Non-scientific medical practices, such as homeopathy, faith-healing, and reiki state various claims of efficacy and of mechanism of action. They can never prove these, but ask us to take their word, and the word of their clients. Once again, if someone takes communion and feels closer to their God, it’s none of my business. But if someone is claiming to affect the health of an individual by invoking supernatural powers, this is immoral and harmful

The point is simple: if reiki manipulates unseen, unmeasurable forces by unseen and unmeasurable means, creating solely subjective individual results, then reiki (and practices like it) is completely irrelevant to health. What matters in medicine is results, and results that cannot be observed and measured do not, for all practical purposes, exist.

We can measure the effect of beta blockers on a population of heart attack survivors. We can compare the number of subsequent heart attacks in those who do and do not receive the drug. We can come up with a scientifically valid explanation for the results, and we can replicate them.

None of the cult medicine practices that are so popular can do this. Their effects are either unmeasurable by definition (show me a qi), or when we try to measure the results of their application, results in aggregate are no better than by chance alone.

In all this discussion about naturopathy over the last week or so, what has been left out is that it doesn’t matter if naturopaths consider what they do to be “medicine-plus”—the plus is irrelevant because it cannot be measured or observed reliably. Unless and until it can, forget the “plus”. It’s only a dream.

Comments

  1. #1 Eric
    June 14, 2008

    You seriously only have a problem when people use this kind of thinking in pseudoscience? This surprises me. Many things are done (especially in the US) under the guise of religion, and without this “special” set of beliefs you cannot get elected to higher office in this country (at least so far). I think this type of thinking is harmful in all of its forms and all of its manifestations, whether with homeopaths or priests.

  2. #2 Dan
    June 15, 2008

    But I am a doctor, and, I believe, a good one at that

    I wish you were mine, good one are sometimes hard to find.

  3. #3 MC
    June 15, 2008

    There’s a lot more to consciousness studies than the latest fMRI craze.

    Here’s a good place to start 18,399 entries/papers on the study of mind and consciousness.

    BTW, dualism is one of many positions people can take as an alternate to the reductionist world you pretend is “the only reality.” Monism works just as well in the survival hypothesis.

  4. #4 Johnny Vector
    June 15, 2008

    I’m afraid I get lost right at the start, with the premise that there is “another reality” that is so completely separate from “normal reality” that no attempt to measure it will ever be successful. And yet it affects our health, feelings, etc.

    Either it affects the “physical world” or it doesn’t. Duh. If it does, it’s part of reality. If not, who cares.

    Sheesh.

  5. #5 Aliman
    June 15, 2008

    PalMD said, “…most of us science-y types hold to a materialist view of reality, that is, reality is all there is.”

    And it couldn’t be any different…that’s about as tautological as they come! Of course reality is all there is. Those who posit “super”naturalism, “para”normal reality, or non-material reality are positing a reality somehow “outside” of reality which is a contradiction. Reality is already all there is. What’s at issue is what, exactly, IS real and not real. Clearly those who posit “super”naturalism and “para”normalism don’t understand that natural phenomena and normal reality exhibit structures, ALREADY, which they want to label as “super”naturalism and “para”normalism while there is really no reason to do so! Non-locality, appearance/disappearance of virtual particles, space-time dialation effects, extra-dimensional “space,” super-positioning, quantum coherence, on and on……….. It all exits, ALREADY, within nature. The universe is WAY TOO WIDE to artificially divide it into natural and supernatural. “Natural” already contains what they want to call “supernatural” — they just mislabel “natural” as “supernatural.” Aloha! http://alimansears.wordpress.com/

  6. #6 Joe
    June 15, 2008

    I find it interesting that monism and dualism do not represent a schism in unrealism. Where does nihilism fit in, and why do you ignore triism?

    All seriousness aside, I keep abreast of the latest devlopments in sCAM by reading the monthly journal Wisdom, which is available (free) at laundromats and convenience stores. A few years ago, they had an article on dualism vs. oneness. It looked like Alan Sokal was at it again, writing serious-sounding yet content-free prose.

  7. #7 Art
    June 15, 2008

    What you not catching on to is that all those “Non-scientific medical practices” work. Having someone who genuinely cares tend to and touch an ailing person in a loving way in a calm and quiet atmosphere actually has demonstrable beneficial mental and physical effects. Particularly when the ailment has a either a large original psychological component or wraps up psychological components as part of a painful, debilitating and/or chronic disease.

    On the positive side reiki and nonstandard healing forms can provide a socially acceptable, and possible insured, way for a person to ask for and receive a little kind human contact. Hookers and bartenders also have been known to fill this role as caring impersonal practitioner touching the untouchable and loving the unlovable. Albeit in their own way.

    There is real therapeutic gold to be mined simply making people feel better by letting them feel more human and more loved. It may not cure a cancer but it often can make a person feel better and stronger about having cancer. Perhaps reinforcing their will to live and and to appreciate that they aren’t just a disease.

    Premature babies have better outcomes when they are touched and caressed and held. The effect is real.

    What these therapies get wrong is that while they can and do often see improvements in patients they jump to conclusion and make assumptions about therapeutic mechanisms that overreach. It is natural to think an ancient reiki practitioner might see a real therapeutic effect and to assume some mechanical connection between what they did and touched and the outcome. In a day before real science they guessed and embellished and systematized entire fantastical systems of energy flow out of whole cloth. Based almost entirely on the simple fact that patients, given sufficient touch and kindness and care, tend to feel better.

    The real problem is that humans think. We automatically make connection and assumptions and tend to see systems and connections where there is none. science, a relatively recent invention, seeks to prune back these assumptions and connections to what can be proven. But lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    We know human touch and kindness and listening are therapeutic. It might be possible to do away with reiki and other forms if people could just go to a stranger and tell them they need to be touched, cared for and loved. Perhaps if doctors would prescribe such therapy… and massage and prostitution were more accepted and covered by insurance. Until then we have to make the best of what we have.

  8. #8 khan
    June 15, 2008

    We know human touch and kindness and listening are therapeutic. It might be possible to do away with reiki and other forms if people could just go to a stranger and tell them they need to be touched, cared for and loved. Perhaps if doctors would prescribe such therapy… and massage and prostitution were more accepted and covered by insurance. Until then we have to make the best of what we have.

    All well and good, but with reiki (and ‘therapeutic touch’) the ‘practitioner’ does not actually touch the client.

  9. #9 MarkH
    June 15, 2008

    Art, we understand these modalities can occasionally provide benefit for certain people using placebo effect or the elements of contact and compassion that you describe.

    If they said “We provide human contact for money” we’d probably be ok with it – as long as they could still demonstrate efficacy of the intervention for specific maladies. But it’s not ok to say you’re talking to fairies or manipulating energy and that will fix your “insert any illness here”. Just say honestly what you are doing, what indications it works for, and the evidence that it’s effective. Otherwise you are telling mistruths (my reiki will cure your “insert malady here”) for money. And you know what that is usually referred to as? Fraud. I have a chiropractor here in Charlottesville that advertises his services for every malady between hepatitis and “syndrome after abortion”. I’ll have to publish the picture of the window sometime. What they do is not OK. Without proof of benefit what they are doing is just fraud. If you say, “my needles might make you more relaxed”, that’s great. If you say, “my needles will redirect your qi to treat your hepatitis/syndrome after abortion”, you’re a quack and working way outside of your league besides.

    Listening to a patients concerns, giving them an opportunity to discuss their health and feelings, and contacting them in a therapeutic way that makes them feel better is well and good. Mainstream medicine is aware of, has studied, and contains these elements. Much of what good doctors do is what you describe and mainstream medicine contains these elements in talk therapy, massage therapy, physical therapy, and the typical office visit. Good doctors work reassurance, compassion, and touch into every patient interaction. And we know which situations to apply it to, and which solutions require different, more doctorey interventions. Almost every visit I have with a patient they bring up something that is worrying them, and I am able to reassure them, and I can do it without lying. For instance last week I got a concern, “I run a temperature every night, I’m 98.8 in the morning but 99.8 every night.” Answer, “that’s ok, those are called diurnal variations in temperature and perfectly normal.” Patient reassured, no lies told, reassurance accomplished, no qi need be adjusted.

    CAM/Alties, however, apply their methods haphazardly to anyone who walks through the door without any appreciation for the material realities of physiology, pathology, and organic illness while making up fairy-tale explanations for what is wrong with a patient. That’s not cool. That’s dangerous, dishonest, and fraudulent. Naturopaths might have at least a better grasp of the underlying diseases but that makes it worse! When they then say it’s the qi out of line, they’re not just ignorant, they’re being actively dishonest.

  10. #10 Kapitano
    June 15, 2008

    Interesting that you oppose Materialism with Dualism, and not Immaterialism – the notion that only the “spiritual” is real and the material world is an illusion.

    George Berkley may not be in fashion, but a lot of alties and religious types seem to veer towards a kind of Immaterialism.

  11. #11 Art
    June 15, 2008

    “Listening to a patients concerns, giving them an opportunity to discuss their health and feelings, and contacting them in a therapeutic way that makes them feel better is well and good. Mainstream medicine is aware of, has studied, and contains these elements. Much of what good doctors do is what you describe and mainstream medicine contains these elements in talk therapy, massage therapy, physical therapy, and the typical office visit. Good doctors work reassurance, compassion, and touch into every patient interaction.”

    ………….

    And yet so many doctors really, really suck at this. By that standard there aren’t many ‘good’ doctors in the US.

    One observer pointed out that many people cross the border to Mexico for medical treatment. Some come for the lower prices. But many who can afford the best treatment in the US go to Mexico because Mexican medicine is, ‘high-touch’ whereas US medicine is ‘high-tech’. The doctors, when there is little else to do, think nothing of spending an hour literally holding a patient’s hand. In the US your a number and a disease and your lucky to see the doctor for five minutes. Usually billed at $30 a minute.

    If any real touch at all gets done at all in the US system it is a scheduled and billed procedure that is farmed out as a referral to a designated therapist twenty miles and a week away.

    Instead of incorporating little bits of “talk therapy, massage therapy, physical therapy” in every visit the average doctor is a hands-off specialist technician that farms this stuff out. Where the patients often travel fifty miles for another five minute, $150, visit that had to be scheduled for a month after it was really needed. Like the guy I know who was feeling down, downright suicidal, who was referred to a psychiatrist and shot himself a week before the visit scheduled three months in advance. Welcome to VA medicine.

    For all their faults alternative medicine doesn’t cost much and it doesn’t make you wait. And while I agree that any of them claiming to cure a serious illness is criminally wrong most are very careful to state they simply try to make the patient feel better. For people with little or no insurance, little money and short on time that are hurting now that is often as good as it gets. Taking aspirin won’t cure a brain tumor but there is something to be said for a little pain relief now.

    One of the things that gets me is that science have long known that the human animal is an intensely sexual and social animal. Isolated an ape will get sick and die. So the zoo keepers know to arrange for company and stimulation.

    But doctors seem completely oblivious to this. Seemingly content to try to pull people out of the river but not keep them from falling in.

    Many people in this society are isolated. Lacking human contact they turn to food or drugs or alcohol. They lose confidence and a reason to live. They stop exercising and start shutting down. But when they show up to the doctor he treats their high blood pressure and cholesterol and diabetes. Not that they shouldn’t be treated to keep the patient alive. But these are just symptoms. Consequences of social isolation and neglect.

    I realize a doctor can’t befriend each patient. Your not social services. But when the original problem is one of social isolation and a doctor fails to treat this in the small ways they can they are neglecting their duty. On the financial side at least one study I read about claimed that high-touch doctors tended to get sued less often. Sometimes doing it right helps both sides.

    Seems healers are too often given a choice. They can either learn how to make people feel better at the cost of having to watch them die. Or he can make them feel terrible but they will live virtually forever. Seems to me US medicine has made its choice. The medical system in the US is pretty good at keeping people alive but miserable.

    Perhaps you could consider that the alternative practitioners, outside those abusing patients by offering cures they can’t deliver, make their patients feel better but not much more physically healthy.

    I would like to see medicine reconsider and split the difference. Doctors getting more high-touch. The alternative community getting more evidence based but with the patient’s feeling being rolled into the analysis.

  12. #12 rmp
    June 15, 2008

    I’m still one of the folks that believe there is some benefit to acupuncture. Not because any magical energy balance thing. I simply ‘suspect’ that a needle hitting a nerve bundle does something similar to a deep muscle massage. Nothing more.

  13. #13 David Marjanovi?
    June 15, 2008

    Sticking needles into random places gives even slightly better results than sticking them into acupuncture points. The study that found this was discussed at length over in Aetiology (see blogroll).

    What makes you think there are “nerve bundle”s under acupuncture points?

  14. #14 mrae
    June 15, 2008

    Science is a tool, an elegantly simple and precise methodology for making observations and communicating findings. It is a logical fallacy to believe that something does not exist simply because we are unable to perceive it, and it takes an equally huge leap of faith to assert that something does not exist because the human mind has not yet devised a way to measure it. ironically it is the cognitive sciences that are demonstrating over and over again that human perception is a tricky thing, that our brains do not so much perceive the world as interpret it.

  15. #15 Tulse
    June 15, 2008

    It is a logical fallacy to believe that something does not exist simply because we are unable to perceive it

    …and an act of profound irrationality to believe that something does exist even though we are unable to perceive it.

  16. #16 Cooper
    June 15, 2008

    mrae,

    It’s true that one should be hasty about saying things we can’t measure don’t exist. But the solution is to get better at measuring the things we *can* measure. For example, we found Pluto by measuring more precisely the orbit of Neptune. More science, not less, gets us there. Certainly woo gets us no closer.

  17. #17 Anonymous
    June 15, 2008

    I simply ‘suspect’ that a needle hitting a nerve bundle does something similar to a deep muscle massage.

    It’s a placebo response, easily verifiable (and verified), nothing mysterious. Well, I guess the placebo response itself is a bit mysterious, but it’s certainly not muscle fibres or whatever.

  18. #18 mrae
    June 15, 2008

    Cooper, i couldn’t agree with you more, i think the point that i want to emphasize is best reflected in the fact that 20 years ago, Pluto was still a planet :)

  19. #19 beebeeoo
    June 15, 2008

    Mrae: It is a logical fallacy to believe that something does not exist simply because we are unable to perceive it

    Tulse: …and an act of profound irrationality to believe that something does exist even though we are unable to perceive it.

    That will be my favourite quote from now on !!!

  20. #20 L. Roy
    June 15, 2008

    “The solution is to get better at measuring the things we ‘can’ measure,” says Cooper. Only when we can “measure” the nature of consciousness, or the causation of the process which results in the replication of a double-helix DNA strand, will there be an end to dualism. What replaces it, however, may be something other than pure materialism.

  21. #21 James Pannozzi
    June 15, 2008

    Pardon me but must you PERSIST in displaying your ignorance of Homeopathy with statements such as:
    “Non-scientific medical practices, such as homeopathy…”

    Here is a link to a presentation about Homeopathy research by a REAL scientist, Dr. Iris Bell MD, PhD
    giving an overview of current scientific research regarding Homeopathy and the numerous double blinded randomized placebo studies which have given positive results way beyond placebo.

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=wYO6nNQGe1M

    A list of PEER REVIEWED papers supporting her research
    can be found at:

    http://nationalcenterforhomeopathy.org/articles/view,173

    That’s just a sampling of Homeopathic research.

    Since the AMA attacked and gradually forced the closure of all Homeopathy medical colleges in the states years ago, colleges that had ESSENTIALLY THE SAME courses as the standard med schools but included the “forbidden” Homeopathy courses, it should be a source of surprise to your condescension that Homeopathy has undergone such a resurgence and is growing. Countries such as India have embraced Homeopathy, have numerous medical colleges and Homeopathic hospitals and it is operating successfully as an essential and valued alternative.
    Do YOU have temerity to tell us that tens of millions of Indians have been deluded or are walking out of the hospitals with placebo cures. Please learn some Homeopathy facts, its successes in major epidemics, its ability to succeed in many cases were standard medical treatments have failed and the research which is gradually zeroing in on a theoretical explanation of how it works. DON’T be a media stooge by repeating at every opportunity such statements as that Homeopathy is unscientific. Thousands of people have gone through an elaborate process of “provings” to verify the efficacy and symptom complex of those remedies and EVERY MD could learn much by opening a standard Homeopathic repertory and learning how to read and use it.

    YOU are a Doctor? Good, then you are a scientifically minded person and just as you do not jump to conclusions in making your diagnoses based on first impressions and appearance so should you not judge Homeopathy and repeat media and industry fabricated innuendo and half truths about it without learning what it has done and can do. If you allow the simpleton arguments of violations of Avogadro’s law or the seeming impossibility of its mechanisms to dominate and short circuit your thinking and you fail to evaluate the innumerable clinical successes, even against dangerous illnesses, then you should not be calling yourself a Doctor and you will have lowered yourself to the level of an media shill like, in my opinion, goldacre.

  22. #22 melior
    June 15, 2008

    It occurs to me that naturopathic reasoning would dictate that successively diluting the educational requirements and standards for doctors of medicine could actually make them even more effective…

  23. #23 di
    June 16, 2008

    Nice post, interesting topic.

    You misrepresent the “Neurologica” post though in the following statements

    “To sum up (remember, IANAP), most of us science-y types hold to a materialist view of reality, that is, reality is all there is. This reality is susceptible to the investigations of science”

    Here is a better way to make that argument, so you won’t have to answer tricky questions like “do you believe in love/compassion/justice”

    From the linked Neurologica article:-

    “Also, science does not say that supernatural explanations are not true – only that they are outside the realm of science. This is related to the fact that science as a method is not discovering the Truth with a capital T; it is not describing reality as it actual is, rather it is describing that slice of reality that is amendable to scientific methods of investigation. Because science has worked so well (at least so far) it is reasonable to conclude that the slice of reality open to science is fairly large, but from a philosophical point of view it is not the same as all of reality.

    Di

  24. #24 Anonymous
    June 16, 2008

    It is a logical fallacy to believe that something does not exist simply because we are unable to perceive it, and it takes an equally huge leap of faith to assert that something does not exist because the human mind has not yet devised a way to measure it.

    There’s no need to be able to measure the mechanism – but if a method works, the results must surely be measurable even if no one can really explain why it works. If the results are alos immeasurable, ten by definition, it doesn’t work.

    If you don’t agree with this, I have some quantum-enhanced bio-crystals I can sell you which will increase your brain power, enhance your sexual prowess, cure any ills you may be suffering and prevent any and all future ills. If you’re interested, I’ll send you price and postage details. If you’re not interested then I can only assume you are unwilling to believe something you cannot disprove.

  25. #25 Daniel
    June 16, 2008

    most of us science-y types hold to a materialist view of reality, that is, reality is all there is.

    This is absolutely necessary. Imagine if there were supernatural beings that could influence things in ways we couldn’t verify. Now what becomes of experiments? Do people in the experimental group really get better faster, or is God running around healing people? Is the experiment working, or are angels fiddling with our numbers?

    If there’s even a possibility that supernatural beings exist, then we can’t do medical (or indeed any scientific) research at all. But we can do those things, so… draw the appropriate inference.

  26. #26 Davis
    June 16, 2008

    Because science has worked so well (at least so far) it is reasonable to conclude that the slice of reality open to science is fairly large, but from a philosophical point of view it is not the same as all of reality.

    Something I think is occasionally missed in these discussions is that it’s not only a matter of being correct; it’s a matter of being justified. If someone had claimed the existence of Neptune of Pluto in the 1500s based on a “gut feeling”, that belief would still be irrational, even though it is correct.

    These supposed parts of reality not open to science all sit on that same ground. If they’re not open to science, then there is no rational basis for believing them, as there is no source of justification (i.e., if you can justify a belief in a thing’s existence, there must be a way to do science with that thing).

  27. #28 Jeremy
    June 16, 2008

    Human touch is very important, and something that should not be neglected.

    I had to look up reiki in Wikipedia, and I’ve seen it firsthand. I and a friend was sitting in the park near my house (here in Japan) having beers, and some lady came up to us and asked us if we had any pains. I’d just sprained my ankle the day before, so she started waving her hands around my ankle and snapping her fingers. She did this for a while and then asked me if I felt better. I said I did (because you shouldn’t tell crazy people no unless you can outrun them), and she started trying to get us to go to some cult meeting. About the time she tried to turn my friend’s beer into a different brand, we decided it was time to leave.

    I actually did get a bit of a tingle in my brain when she was doing her woo, but it was the same as when someone draws a picture of me or helps me do something. Conclusion: social contact is nice, but shouldn’t be represented as anything more than what it is. My friend’s beer still tasted the same.

  28. #29 will
    June 16, 2008

    There is very little room for philosophy in science, if any at all. The question of what is real and what is not, and if reality is actually real or simply mental interpretation of electrical impulses from our senses, doesn’t even fall in the domain of science. We may be self-pressed to find answers to these questions, but we do not currently have the knowledge or intelligence to come up with reasonable, scientifically-verifiable explanations for such questions. Since science – or the practitioners thereof – are currently unable to provide answers to these questions, this does not mean that no potential exists for these answers to be found. This is where “god-of-the-gaps” reasoning enters the ring, which is nothing more than a feeble attempt by the weak-minded to have an explanation for a question they need to have answered. “God-of-the-gaps” should not, however, be mistaken for speculation, since this is the cornerstone of scientific thought; but when inquisition stops before investigation starts, that is where the problem lies.

    Homeopathic medicine is nothing more than the useless, placebic “prescription” of pilates, yoga, and blends of herbs with proposed uses that have not been evaluated by the FDA. Although current bearish economic trends may be implicated in a turn to pseudoscientific homeopathic healing (id est, rising health care costs and unemployment), there still is no replacement for true medical care.

    Homeopathic medicine does have some beneficial use, such as allowing the body’s natural immune and healing systems to resolve very mild medical issues. But when more serious conditions present themselves that require more remediation than mom’s chicken noodle soup (exempli gratia, cancer, appendicitis, scoliosis, heart disease, TB, or any number of other ailments that would make short work of the immune system), there is simply no replacement for medicine practiced by real doctors that can be found in real hospitals.

    PalMD is absolutely 100% correct when he says that the homeopathic trend in medicine is only causing a declining public trust in medical science. People are being misled into thinking that there is some line being drawn between “us,” the scientific community, and “them,” the masses, and that we are out to “get them” and their money via HMOs and PPOs (which is definitely not the case, since health maintenance organizations negotiate contracts with hospital administrations as to the cost of most procedures and routine visits).

    To medical practitioners, the first priority is proper treatment of patients. If people must turn to “natural healing” due to financial constraints, which I believe to be the case in many instances, then they should take issue with their health care insurance provider, not the medical community itself.

    It’s funny how people will readily accept some hyped word-of-mouth remedy for a given illness, yet find decades of meticulous medical research hard to believe.

  29. #30 David Harmon
    June 16, 2008

    Non-materialists and mind-body dualists hold that there is also a “non-material” reality. What exactly this might be, and how one might observe or measure it is never specified.

    And yet, they claim that they, themselves, have direct and intimate knowledge of this hidden reality! So they’re also claiming a personal exceptionalism, where they know things hidden from everyone else. Naturally, no two woomeisters can agree on the details….

  30. #31 Cooper
    June 16, 2008

    L. Roy

    We can measure plenty about consciousness, and those measurements rule out a lot of possible explanations. We can measure memory, we can measure vision, we can measure language, etc. Even optical illusions and attention games have something measurable to tell us about how our minds work.

    And no, I don’t think that there will ever be anything other than a materialist science, because once we understand something, we group it with material things. Gravity and lightning used to be thought of as ‘immaterial’, before we understood them.

  31. #32 BAllanJ
    June 16, 2008

    I’m all for evidence based medicine… but there IS evidence for the placebo effect, so I don’t have a huge problem with reiki and the like. As someone said above, just having someone focus on you for the time it takes to “treat” you in a reiki way may have a benefit.
    I DO have a problem if these practitioners go around saying “don’t go to your md, see me instead”. If they advertise as a complementary service, I’d have less of a problem. I’m still not going near it…placebo effect would require me to believe…not likely.

  32. #33 guthrie
    June 16, 2008

    James Pannozzi calls Goldacre a media shill. I assume he means Ben goldacre, who writes for the Guardian newspaper. If so, that means Mr Pannozzi is an intellectually bankrupt scam artist. Goldacres columns are well reasoned and full of references to actual evidence, not stuff published in journals set up specifically to push the wooooooo.

  33. #34 Randy
    June 16, 2008

    @James Pannozzi….

    I had a look at the research of the so-called REAL scientists. Are thy published in Science? No. Nature? Uh-uh. Perhaps NEJM? Lancet? No. Publications such as the Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine and J Altern Complement Med are bottom-feeder journals which publish little (if any) more than junk science. That a paper has gone through peer review is not the only criterion which should be considered. Where a paper is published is very important. If homeopathy were such a huge success, we would have long since seen a multitude of publications in the journals I listed at the top. Woo is not science, and homeopathy is woo.

  34. #35 tguy
    June 16, 2008

    I wonder if there could be some validity to Eastern medicine’s ideas of energy flow that might ultimately be based on patterns in the transmission of nerve impulses.

    Are neural signals discrete and additive in their effects or do they behave like a body-wide neural net? If the latter, could acupuncture and similar therapies be feeding new information into the network that gets caught up in the various information loops and initiates feedback that ultimately has a therapeutic effect? A network can be tough to manage (in practice) and sometimes the ways one gets it to work seems to have more in common with voodoo than theory. It all breaks down to real physical causes and effects, but some of them are difficult to isolate. I wonder if when these “energy” therapies seem to achieve something, if what we’re seeing is something real and difficult to isolate at our current state of knowledge.

    Disclaimer: the above is for speculative purposes and I in no way endorse or adopt non-scientific medical practices, so please deconstruct the reasoning at will but leave out personal attacks, all righty?

  35. #36 Tulse
    June 16, 2008

    I wonder if there could be some validity to Eastern medicine’s ideas of energy flow that might ultimately be based on patterns in the transmission of nerve impulses.

    No.

  36. #37 Corey
    June 16, 2008

    I’m not about to endorse dualism, but this:

    “Non-materialists and mind-body dualists hold that there is also a “non-material” reality. What exactly this might be, and how one might observe or measure it is never specified.”

    is a bit unfair. A big problem with materialism is to specify what, exactly, material is supposed to be. Is it what physicists talk about? Or things that are supposed to be reducible to such things? How do you do such a reduction? What about mathematics, which doesn’t seem to be material at all? It seems that what ends up counting as “materialism” is never specified either, but just counts as whatever scientists are working with. Granted, there are lots of operationalizations with respect to measurement procedures, but it’s not like “materialism” is on some solid foundation that “non-materialism” lacks.

  37. #38 PalMD
    June 16, 2008

    I am deeply unqualified to get into a technical dicussion of materialism as such.

    However, in the sense of the “operational” world, that is, what we work with every day and affect, all that we have is materialism. When we push a wheelbarrow, measure it’s momentum, coefficient of friction, etc, the “immaterial”, if there is such a thing, is irrelevant, and not irrelvant in the same way that, say, the wavelength of the wheelbarrow is (that is, too insignificant to matter), but deeply irrelevant to any actions or decisions about the wheelbarrow.

    Also, immerterial things, such that might “exist”, are irrelevant to prediction, even at the simplest level. Sure, our inductive reasoning has pitfalls, but I’m still sure enough that I will fall if I jump out the window.

    If I cannot predict events, if I cannot measure them in some direct or indirect way, then they should not influence my decisions or actions.

    I think.

    As to math, well, I think that’s a bit of a straw man, but..

  38. #39 bob koepp
    June 16, 2008

    I’d like to see some substance (preferably in the form of matter…) attach to the idea that “math is a bit of a straw man.” Funny that so many top flight mathematicians are Platonists! I’m neither a mathematician nor a Platonist; but I appreciate that my own ignorance doesn’t constitute a solution to problems of metaphysics. Just to get a taste of what’s at issue consider: There is a rigorous proof that 2+2=4. That proof is real; not illusory, not imaginary. Is that proof some arrangement of matter? Maybe, but then, maybe not.

  39. #40 Corey
    June 16, 2008

    @PalMD

    There’s a big difference between accepting the practices of science as the best way to measure and manipulate the world, and accepting the metaphysical doctrine of materialism, whatever that’s supposed to be. Because coefficients of friction are quite useful, should I believe in coefficients, and thus should I believe in numbers, as physical things? How are coefficients or numbers material? That’s what I had in mind regarding mathematics. And why believe in wheelbarrows?

    When pressed, it seems that the best expression of materialism should be something like the doctrine that the only things that exist are physical things; and of course, physicists are the experts on physical things. To make it not circular, “physical things” had better have some technical criteria, which I would think should be things like quarks, leptons, etc. But until someone can really show how a theory in a higher-level science, like neuroscience, can really reduce or map to a physical (in this technical sense) theory, it’s just a matter of faith that it can be done. In the history of science, there aren’t many cases where reductions like this have actually occurred. Even reducing the abstract concept of the Mendelian gene to DNA is not straightforward at all.

    All of this is not to say that one should embrace any crazy thing at all: I don’t think some “aura” of the wheelbarrow is going to be useful. But I also don’t see any good argument that goes from the utility of the things that scientists talk about and measure to the doctrine that all is material. We just simply have no good idea of what material is, even if we do have an idea of what’s not material. In any case, who cares? As long as we can get stuff done, why does it matter that we insist that the reason we can get stuff done is because it’s all material?

  40. #41 Corey
    June 16, 2008

    @will

    Sorry for the long post, but this is good stuff!

    I hope that this statement is not true:

    “There is very little room for philosophy in science, if any at all.”

    My guess is that this comes from an impoverished understanding of what philosophy actually is. Unfortunately, many so-called philosophers who want to talk about science don’t know the science or really any very good philosophy, so they give the rest of us a bad name. On the other hand, I think it’s pretty hard to do anything scientific at all without doing at least a bit of philosophy, even if its implicit. This very discussion is evidence of that: I would guess that many scientists would tend to believe in materialism (or some version of it), even if they virtually never explicitly think about it, much less investigate what such a position fully entails, or engage with a serious critique of the view (and not just a silly, superficial one). So why not discuss these issues explicitly?

    Also, I think there are an increasing number of issues that are quite philosophical, and not because philosophers are smarter or the issues are not scientific, but because it’s very hard to think about implications of scientific research while you’re in the business of actually doing science yourself. I know several philosophers who know more about neuroscience and psychology generally than many actual neuroscientists and psychologists, simply because the philosophers have the time to read and think about all of the literature. They don’t have to write grants, run labs, do experiments, etc. Of course they’re not going to be experts in very particular areas for the same reason (you can really only be an expert by doing it yourself).

    One example that I like to trot out is the relationship between emotions and neurotransmitters. You can come across explanations for, say, depression as related to norepinephrine. Sometimes neuroscientists talk as if there is exactly one thing: depression ‘just is’ a decreased (or increased, as the case may be) level of norepinephrine. Sometimes there are two things: depression is ’caused by’ a decreased (or increased, as the case may be) level of norepinephrine. This is a subtle issue, and a philosophical one: if depression = norepinephrine level imbalance, then it certainly can’t be caused by itself. Just like heat: if heat just is mean molecular kinetic energy, then mean molecular kinetic energy doesn’t cause heat… it is heat!

    There are lots of issues like this, and I don’t think one needs to suppose an antagonism between science and philosophy in order to deal with them. At least, that’s my hope.

  41. #42 Daniel R
    June 17, 2008

    mrae:

    It is a logical fallacy to believe that something does not exist simply because we are unable to perceive it.

    There is no difference in practice between something not provable and something non existent.

  42. #43 Cooper
    June 17, 2008

    Corey

    I think your point about what counts as ‘material’ really is the heart of the matter.

    Consider matter and energy. In most instances, they seem to be totally distinct classes of stuff. Nuclear physics says they’re basically same, but ignore that for a moment; energy counted as ‘material’ long before we knew that.

    Suppose we found something else, say, an elan vital. It would be a different sort of stuff, and would require a scientific theory. Once we get started on the scientific theory part, we’ve claimed the elan vital as ‘material’. We’d have three sorts of stuff instead of just two.

    If psychic energy exists, and we want to use it, we need a scientific approach; once that approach is started, again, psychic energy–even if fundamentally different from matter and energy–comes under the umbrella of ‘material’.

  43. #44 Chris Noble
    June 17, 2008

    If psychic energy exists, and we want to use it, we need a scientific approach; once that approach is started, again, psychic energy–even if fundamentally different from matter and energy–comes under the umbrella of ‘material’.

    The problem is that psi proponents want to have their woo and eat it too.

    They want psi to have a veneer of science over a core of mystical supernatural wishful thinking.

    If psychic energy were discovered and could be measured and manipulated it would be incorporated into science. The woo-meisters would then rebel against the new reductionistic, mechanistic materialistic orthodoxy (with added psi).

    They are interested in the woo – not the science.

    You can’t have your woo and eat it too.

  44. #45 Coriolis
    June 17, 2008

    Another way of saying more simply what Cooper said is that to a scientist what’s important is a working theory, not definitions of “material” or “energy” or what have you. And indeed if psychic or any other forces existed we wouldn’t be interested in their definitions, but in how they work. Hell, in pretty much all of high-energy physics people measure all masses in terms of energy. And of course any indepth understanding of quantum mechanics or god forbid QCD would make questions as to what “material” means really pointless, in comparison to all the other questions that come about as far as what exactly say reality and locality entail.

  45. #46 llewelly
    June 17, 2008

    For example, we found Pluto by measuring more precisely the orbit of Neptune.

    But over time, better and better estimates of Pluto’s mass got smaller and smaller. Soon it was too small to explain the perturbations in Neptune’s orbit. Later, better measurements of Neptune’s orbit showed those ‘perturbations’ to be mis-measurements. Now with the discovery of numerous cometary objects, we know that Pluto’s discovery was in part due to the law of large numbers.

    Finding Neptune via the perturbations in Uranus’ orbit would have been a better example.

  46. #47 Anonymous
    June 17, 2008

    “Another way of saying more simply what Cooper said is that to a scientist what’s important is a working theory, not definitions of “material” or “energy” or what have you.”

    If that’s the case, then why do working scientists make muddled claims about materialism without even attempting to articulate any sort of working hypothesis?

  47. #48 bob koepp
    June 17, 2008

    “Another way of saying more simply what Cooper said is that to a scientist what’s important is a working theory, not definitions of “material” or “energy” or what have you.”

    If that’s the case, then why do working scientists make muddled claims about materialism without even attempting to articulate any sort of working hypothesis?

  48. #49 Coriolis
    June 17, 2008

    What muddled claims would that be? That materialism is the only thing that works?

    I think the answer to your question then is pretty trivial – no one has demonstrated a working scientific theory for anything based on anything other then what people call “materialism”. The moment that you can explain to me how to heal/fly/fling fireballs spiritually/psychically/using my inner power/by praying, I’d be all ears.

    Infact I’d be satisfied if someone could predict where a ball from a cannon would fall based on voodoo magic instead of Newtonian mechanics.

  49. #50 Cooper
    June 17, 2008

    llewelly

    I was wrong on that detail. My bad, I guess. The point remains that Pluto was discovered using measurement scientifically known entities. And it was something that no wooster predicted beforehand anyway.

    bob koepp

    Because woosters run around trying to inject bullshit explanations into science, that’s why.

    Methodological materialism is philosophical materialism, and vice versa. The difference between the two involves speculating about things, which, by definition, can’t be detected or known. What purpose do such speculations serve?

    Indeed, how could we think rigorously about them? Our notions of rigor and existence are tightly adapted to our material world; when we depart them (e.g. quantum physics), it’s only in the presence of precise measurements to help us think.

  50. #51 bob koepp
    June 17, 2008

    OK… If there is a working scientific theory that’s “based on” materialism, you’ll need to define ‘material’ so we can figure out what this business of “basing” amounts to. But you’ve already told us that definitions are not what’s important. Muddled enough?

  51. #52 Cooper
    June 17, 2008

    bob koepp

    Individual scientific theories regard particular material objects in the universe, and explain them solely in terms of other material objects. That said theories are adequate explanations of the world we see is pretty neat; that they are technologically useful is fantastic; and that no other method of discourse has produced either of those two results, even in highly limited domains, means that it’s the best game in town, so to speak.

    That’s not muddled at all. No particular scientific theory requires one to subscribe to materialism; it’s just that they themselves are only about material things.

  52. #53 bob koepp
    June 17, 2008

    Cooper -
    I’ve got nothing against science, so you waste your breath trying to persuade me that, so far as knowledge is concerned, science is the best game in town. I do have something against blather when it pretends to be informed discourse, and that seems to me to capture much of what is said about materialism.

    Is universal grammar a material thing?

  53. #54 Coriolis
    June 17, 2008

    Is a field in field theory a “material thing”? Is a Feynman diagram a representation of the interactions of “material” particles? What “materially” is a superposition of states anyways? How about general relativity?

    Really, if you have a decent understanding of modern physics you would know how silly obsessing over definitions of “material” is. Within science there are theories that work within some specifications, and those that don’t. As it happens, “materialistic”, is the word commonly used for those that do work, and magical (at least by me), for those that don’t.

    If you want to define “material” as “stuff I can see”, and non-material as abstract human notions, that’s fine but by that definition practically all of physics is non-material. Good luck pushing that as the common usage of those terms.

  54. #55 bob koepp
    June 17, 2008

    Coriolis – I haven’t pushed any definition of ‘material’ or ‘materialism’ — but it would help immensely if those who insist that science is based on (presupposes?) materialism would offer a coherent “working definition”. Am I to understand that (at least for you) insofar as Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar “works” it is materialistic, but where it fails it lapses into magic? Did you say something about common usage?

  55. #56 Coriolis
    June 17, 2008

    I was talking about the common definition as it relates to uh, natural science, which is what this blog is talking about.

    As far as I know, there is no great debate in the field of linguistics over whether grammar is materialistic or not. In fact I’d be amazed if linguists spend any time at all worrying over whether any of their theories on language are “materialistic” or not. The argument here, and the argument that commonly arises over materialism has to do with physical science.

    As such I find an argument over how a classification of being “materialistic” would apply to linguistic theories rather pointless.

  56. #57 Coriolis
    June 17, 2008

    Incidentally of course in physics we don’t say “materialistic” when we mean “working theory”. That is just the way it has practically worked since all the so-called non-materialistic theories have been discredited.

    For a recent interesting example of what physicists actually do worry about from a more philosophical point of view and where infact knowledgeable and intelligent philosophers can (maybe) make a contribution, check out

    http://www.seedmagazine.com/news/2008/06/the_reality_tests_1.php?utm_source=SB-bottom&utm_medium=linklist&utm_content=magazine&utm_campaign=internal%2Blinkshare

  57. #58 bob koepp
    June 17, 2008

    It seems to me that materialism, as commonly understood, is a metaphysical thesis, not a thesis that is generated by or validated by empirical methods of the sort that have come to define science in the modern era. It also seems to me that even asuming that our metaphysical theories should be compatible with our best scientific theories (a view I endorse), scientific theories don’t provide much in the way of constraints on metaphysical speculations.

    In my opinion, science has been able to progress largely because it set aside metaphysical questions. It learned to make do with partial, local solutions that don’t depend on contentious metaphysical presuppositons. Has science now progressed to the point where it can use empirical methods to address those questions that were set aside a few centuries ago? I don’t see it. What I do see is incoherent claims about connections between empirical knowledge and metaphysical theories — in other words, blather.

  58. #59 Cooper
    June 17, 2008

    bob koepp

    The whole idea of a metaphysical thesis is kind of repugnant to materialism, isn’t it? ‘Setting aside metaphysical questions’ is, at least for me, the reason to adopt materialism–I don’t care to answer any questions that can’t be put in terms of physical reality.

    And yes, I would say that universal grammar is exactly as material a construct as centre of gravity. If you want to say that we’re engaged in something other than material discussions when doing Newtonian mechanics, be my guest, but I don’t think you’ll get many people to go along with you on that one.

  59. #60 Coriolis
    June 17, 2008

    Well, do you know any physics over the basics of Newtonian mechanics? If you aren’t even broadly aware of the current state of understanding of the physical world according to physics, then how can you judge the materialism or lack thereof of it (or whether “materialism” as you defined it, is a relevant concept at all, which it isn’t). I’m a grad student in physics and I can guarantee you that my knowledge is rather inadequate when trying to address the deep issues of what we mean by say measurements and superpositions of states in quantum mechanics. But at least I know enough to have an idea as to what the problems actually are. And materialism, in this simplistic “stuff you can see and touch” vs ephemeral ideas, is defintely not it.

    And also, the fact is that some things that people would claim to be “outside the area of science”, have become part of science over time. Would you have guessed that one could make an empirical law that essentially quantifies in a way the concept of “order” (which is rather strikingly similiar to entropy), and determine that it never increases in a closed system? And yet we do have the second law of thermodynamics.

    If you had bothered to read the article I linked, it deals with trying to make an experiment that would distinguish between whether objects all across the universe interact with each other (i.e. there are interactions which are non-local), or whether particles are truly in a mixed state and the act of measurement determines what was there in of itself. To put it more simplistically and rather less correctly, whether all things are connected, or whether the act of measuring them determines what they are. Would you have ever guessed that this is infact a clearly materialistic physics problem, where we can experimentally check which is the case, rather than a philosophical question?

  60. #61 bob koepp
    June 17, 2008

    Cooper -
    You ask, “The whole idea of a metaphysical thesis is kind of repugnant to materialism, isn’t it?” Materialism _is_ a metaphysical thesis.

    Coriolis -
    My training, such as it is, is in the History and Philosophy of Science. Although I didn’t focus on physics, I’m not entirely ignorant of the problems posed by relativity theory and quantum theory. I certainly haven’t equated materialism with anything so simplistic as “stuff you can see and touch”. I don’t know where you got that, but it won’t stick to me. I did read the article to which you linked, several days ago, and I don’t recall that it covered any ground that I wasn’t already familiar with, nor that it said anything relevant to the question of whether materialism is the correct metaphysical theory.

    Look, if I was making scientific claims without knowing anything about the science in question, it would only be proper to call what I said blather. Likewise, when people make metaphysical claims without knowing anything about methaphysics.

  61. #62 Coriolis
    June 17, 2008

    Well, the only concrete example of non-materialism you’ve shown up to now is universal grammar, which is basically a human idea. Hence I make the connection to material = real world physical things you see, and non-material=ideas, which alot of people do make. Under that criterion, everything from electrons on in physics is ideas, and it’s all non-material.

    If you want to explain what you think the metaphysics of material and non-material (or anything else you happen to like) actually are, be my guest.

  62. #63 Davis
    June 17, 2008

    Funny that so many top flight mathematicians are Platonists!

    On what basis do you make this assertion? I’ve been around many top-flight mathematicians, and none of them showed evidence of being Platonists. Based on my graduate education, the underlying assumed philosophy seems to most commonly be formalism, though we often talk about mathematics as though we’re Platonists.

  63. #64 pec
    June 17, 2008

    “Non-locality, appearance/disappearance of virtual particles, space-time dialation effects, extra-dimensional “space,” super-positioning, quantum coherence, on and on……….. It all exits, ALREADY, within nature. The universe is WAY TOO WIDE to artificially divide it into natural and supernatural.”

    Yes.

  64. #65 bob koepp
    June 17, 2008

    Coriolis – I did not offer _any_ examples of non-materialism, though I did respond to Cooper’s assertion that scientific theories “are only about material things” with the _question_ “Is universal grammar a material thing?”; and I did respond to your assertion that “As it happens, “materialistic”, is the word commonly used for those that do work, and magical (at least by me), for those that don’t,” with the _question_ “Am I to understand that (at least for you) insofar as Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar “works” it is materialistic, but where it fails it lapses into magic?” I note that neither you nor Cooper answered my straightforward questions. I didn’t say one way or another whether universal grammar is materialistic. Just like I didn’t say one way or another whether a mathematical proof is “some arrangement of matter.” My point in both cases, was simply that there are things in this world which, if they are material, are not obviously so.

    Materialsim is commonly understood to be the metaphysical thesis that “matter is all there is”. I know of very many scientific theories that are _compatible_ with that metaphysical claim, since they posit no immaterial entities or processes. But I don’t know of a single scientific theory that entails such a claim. Big difference! If you know of a theory of the second sort, please enlighten the rest of the world.

    Davis – My comment about Platonist mathematicians needs to be interpreted historically. With the development of formalism, things get a bit murky — still, Godel the Platonist certainly poses a challenge to Hilbert’s Formalist program. But then, I suspect that many who consider themselves formalists do not really address questions about the ontological status of mathematical truths. It’s probably just as well for them to stick to mathematics and not get embroiled in metaphysics.

    Again, I haven’t claimed that materialism is wrong. What I have claimed is that science as we presently know it does not require a commitment to materialism. As I recall, that was the issue raised by PalMD.

  65. #66 Chris Noble
    June 17, 2008

    Non-locality, appearance/disappearance of virtual particles, space-time dialation effects, extra-dimensional “space,” super-positioning, quantum coherence, on and on……….. It all exits, ALREADY, within nature. The universe is WAY TOO WIDE to artificially divide it into natural and supernatural.

    If something can be detected and manipulated by its interaction with other material things then it is a material thing.

    Over time what we include as material will change. That is scientific progress.

    On the other hand people will still be talking about exactly the same imaginary supernatural entities centuries from now exacatly because they are not amenable to scientific investigation. ID proponents don’t really want to investigate the nature of God. They just want an excuse to prop up their supernatural beliefs

  66. #67 Coriolis
    June 17, 2008

    Well of course, if all you wanted to say is that science is compatible but does not need materialism you’d be correct. The same goes for Santa Claus, with the caveat that there is some currently unknown way to travel all over the world in one night, which is also of course compatible with current science in the sense that I can’t disprove that that is possible. Or Gods, or UFOs or anything else that I might dream up. Which, if anything, points out the uselessness of those notions.

    Saying materialism is “matter is all there is” solves nothing since you haven’t said what matter is. Is an electron a material particle? A wave? A field? What’s the difference anyways? What about a photon? Does a material thing need to be quantized or can it be continuous? Better yet, is a hole a particle? A hole within physics for those who didn’t know is basically the absence of an electron where there should be an electron – yet within physics it’s treated entirely like it’s own particle, it even has it’s own effective mass most of the time.

    Or what about a quark which according to our current understanding of QCD can never exist independantly and is always shielded by other quarks?

    How do you decide what is a material thing and a non-material thing?

    Again, if you really dig deep into concepts like “material” you realize that all of them from electrons to quarks are simply models constructed so that we can better interpret the world with our limited intuition.

    As such the definition of material things as used within science (as chris noted above me) is basically, everything that can be measured, quantified, modeled and understood. Whatever that happens to be.

  67. #68 bob koepp
    June 17, 2008

    Coriolis -
    You begin and end you comment with statements that leave me puzzled as to your intended meaning. I trust that my truncation of your statements accurately preserves what they assert. If I’ve erred, please clarify.

    “… science is compatible (with) but does not need materialism”

    “the definition of material things … is basically, everything that can be measured, quantified, modeled and understood.”

    Are you saying that science is compatible with but does not need things to be such that they can be measured, quantified, etc., etc.?

  68. #69 Davis
    June 18, 2008

    With the development of formalism, things get a bit murky — still, Godel the Platonist certainly poses a challenge to Hilbert’s Formalist program.

    Godel hardly comprises “many top-flight mathematicians”, though. It’s currently the case that the Platonic view is a fringe one, and I’d wager that it’s been an extreme minority view going back even to Godel’s time.

  69. #70 Corey
    June 18, 2008

    @Coriolis

    As bob koepp pointed out, materialism is completely uninteresting if it is just the thesis that material things are those which can be measured, quantified, etc… whatever they happen to be. Let me point out that I’m a big fan of science, and not a fan of “woo”, but there’s an issue here.

    I’ve always taken materialism (or physicalism) to be a way of explaining the explanatory power of science. Something like this:

    Science is undeniably, extraordinarily useful (successful at explaining, predicting, etc). Why? What distinguishes science from other practices? Here’s one reason: materialism. Science studies material things, and material things are the only things that have the power to actually affect the world. So science studies the only things that actually affect the world.

    Great! That seems like a *reason* why science is successful. It could also be that science is just really lucky, that scientists just happen to pick out the right things to study as a sheer matter of chance. But materialism provides a rational basis (or at least the starting point for such a basis) for science’s success.

    So then why not interrogate what we mean by material? Around Newton’s time, many people thought the idea of gravity was too occult (too “woo”); it didn’t fit into the mechanical worldview, even if the predictions came out right. Thinking carefully about that mechanical worldview, and how gravity did or didn’t fit in, or how the view should or shouldn’t be altered to include gravity, was a worthwhile project. Same for “material” as far as I’m concerned.

    To deny that discussions like this are useful is, to me at least, giving up too easily, and just saying something like, “Well, science works, and whatever methods scientists use are obviously the right ones.” Sure, fine, but I don’t think it’s crazy to ask for an explanation of this fact. And maybe there’s not a single explanation for all of science: maybe “material” is totally fine for understanding computer hardware, but not linguistics. Whatever. But the question is certainly interesting!

  70. #71 Chris Noble
    June 18, 2008

    So then why not interrogate what we mean by material? Around Newton’s time, many people thought the idea of gravity was too occult (too “woo”); it didn’t fit into the mechanical worldview, even if the predictions came out right. Thinking carefully about that mechanical worldview, and how gravity did or didn’t fit in, or how the view should or shouldn’t be altered to include gravity, was a worthwhile project. Same for “material” as far as I’m concerned.

    None of this means that there are not things which are inherently supernatural. God is by definition beyond all possible natural laws and despite their rhetorical games no ID proponent is ever going to be satisfied by a super galactic alien designer.

    Gravity might have been regared as spooky action at a distance but the effects of gravity on matter can be easily tested. The same can not be said for “psi” or “morphogenetic fields” or “chi” etc.

    The whole attraction of these supposed supernatural entities is that they break the rules science.

  71. #72 Monique Sellier
    June 18, 2008

    I love this blog, and I love the discussion that is going on about materialism and medicine.

    I believe that there are two separate issues here. One is the status of physics, and in particular contemporary physics, as a study of material objects, and another one is the need for medicine to use science-based methods.

    Being an applied mathematician, I think of mathematics as an engineer could think of machinery : we make up things, which move this way and that way and react to signals this way or that way. At least, this is what we think. But we discover that, usually, our machinery, be it made out of metal and plastic, or of ideas written in our brains, transmitted by our voices or written in print, do not behave exactly as we expected, and there the fun begins.

    I have been interested at some point by models of superconductivity and I went to physics conference. I have been baffled by the non material aspect of contemporary physics. In particular, physicists have mathematical ideas, which mathematicians do not understand. I think in particular of the so-called method of replicas, which is such a strange thing that I cannot explain it to myself, and hence to anybody else. At least, in the superconductivity business, there are experimentalists who tie the domain to materiality. But in the domain of superstrings, there are no experiments around, so that there is no way to test whether the predictions of superstring theory make sense or not.

    Physicists have created new “mathematics”, which sometimes can be transformed into unquoted mathematics. But, at imes, they have such an uninhibited view of mathematical methods that mathematicians shake their head in desperation.

    Regarding medicine and science, since I have been the happy owner of a big bad cancer for a few years, I am quite able to appreciate that not everything can be submitted to a strictly scientific decision process. For instance, my oncologist may have at a certain time a choice between chemotherapy drug 1 and chemotherapy drug 2. He knows the effect of these drugs in general and their possible side effects. He does not know whether drug 1 or drug 2 will work in my case, since the deadly little cells mutate happily inside my body, and he has no means to test the effect in vitro. So, say he chooses drug 1. Probably on his experience of having treated people with the same disease for 25 years. And after 3 or 5 months, the drug stops working, and I undergo some severe medical incident. Did this oncologist act in a non scientific way? Certainly not. He just acted in a very complex environment and with limited knowledge.

    What does one do, with limited knowledge in a complex environment, possibly modeled as random? There is no uniform answer.

    While I think that indeed, thoughts, including mathematical thoughts, are encoded into neurons of living humans and therefore are definitely material objects, there are many things that we still do not understand between living brains and thought. And there are indeed lots and lots of stages between these two ends, as modern cognitive science shows. It is very obvious to me that the sheer complexity of the brain makes it terribly difficult to relate these two ends, and there are lots of room for non reductionist science.

  72. #73 Monique Sellier
    June 18, 2008

    Oh, I forgot : friction coefficients. This is really a reduction of a very, very, very complicated phenomenon. Friction is far from being understood, everybody in the field knows it, and very complicated models have been produced in order to describe better what is going on. I have even coauthored one or two papers whose aim was to kill some models of friction because they lacked predictive power.

    This is an obvious example of complexity. What is really happening is that contact between two moving objects creates a “third body”, made out of debris and lubricant. The creation of debris, the r�le of this third body during friction, its granulometry, the behavior of lubrican between the grains, all these questions are terribly difficult and complicated. This is a big field of research activity, and lots of people would love, really love to know more. It is obviously very difficult to observe experimentally the dynamics of the third body: it is thin, heterogeneous, stuck between two moving objects… In the meantime, Coulomb’s law of friction remains one of the best models of friction, though it is old and coarse.

    Therefore, I do not believe in friction coefficient. I just use them, for lack of a better alternative.

  73. #74 bob koepp
    June 18, 2008

    Davis – As I said, my comment needs to be interpreted historically. You apparently interpreted this to mean “going back to Godel’s time,” while I think of Godel as a recent figure in the history of mathematics. Similarly, for me, Formalism is a recent development in that history.

  74. #75 D. C. Sessions
    June 18, 2008

    Here is a link to a presentation about Homeopathy research by a REAL scientist, Dr. Iris Bell MD, PhD
    giving an overview of current scientific research regarding Homeopathy and the numerous double blinded randomized placebo studies which have given positive results way beyond placebo.

    Citizen Jimserac, is this you?

    I swear I’d recognize your style of blog-corner homeopathy evangelism anywhere.

  75. #76 Coriolis
    June 18, 2008

    Heh Monique, the exasperation that all mathematicians feel when they see physicists doing math is well known to us. We enjoy butchering math, starting from the dirac delta function and getting alot worse later on :).

    I’m not quite sure what you are referring to with regards to superconductivity (replicas?), although it’s not my area I don’t know that anything in there is particularly horrible. In my mind once you can accept the reality of what QM tells us about the world, most other crazy things just don’t seem that crazy anymore.

    I can certainly believe you about friction coefficients, indeed much simpler things then that are far less understood then one would’ve thought. As for string theory, while it was a big deal for a long time, I think right now alot of physicists are turning against it. Precisely because of the complete lack of experimental evidence and more than that the perception that there is unlikely to ever be any.

    [i]Corey[/i], as for whether the argument over materialism should be stopped – certainly not I’ve had fun having some arguments over it with friends over lunch. But the notion that it’s a particularly serious question relating to how we should think about the world at this point is just not true. The question of what exactly constitutes a measurement and whether it is ever possible to observe a system without collapsing the wavefunction and in effect destroying quantum effects is rather more interesting.

    I don’t think physicists worry much about this issue precisely because trying to actually define “material” is so obviously arbitrary and subjective when you’re dealing with modern physics. That’s not to say that we don’t try define things and try to make connections from microscopic to macroscopic (and therefore familiar) phenomena. But this is done purely to try to develop an intuition about the subject, and thinking that those connections are *real* in some more fundamental sense only limits your ability to construct new ways of thinking about it.

    For example people make a big fuss in undergrad physics over wave-particle duality, i.e. does matter consist of waves or particles? Intuitively, we all initially think of particles as little balls, not waves, and so we go with this wave particle duality. In practice however particles really behave almost entirely like waves, which are quantized. But we still draw balls (at least for atoms) so that we can think about them more easily (and in alot of cases atoms do act mostly like balls).

    Later on people developed field theory which is the current most fundamental theory that applies to atoms/electrons/photons (i.e. everything but quarks). In field theory the concept of particles is pretty much gone and everything is a field. And if you asked me to make an intuitive connection between fields and “something real” like it was between electrons and atoms and little balls I have no idea what that would be. And yet you can derive awesome things like understanding that momentum being conserved can be derived from the notion that all points in space are the same (there are no special points in space, i.e. it’s isotropic).

    So yes, talking about how we can connect modern physics to our understanding of the world at the macroscopic scale which we can actually see is certainly fun and useful. Unfortunately, for a long time no one has been capable of doing that for the new advances, at least not at the level of electrons=little balls.

    Bob koepp – yes I guess I was saying that among other things. However as Monique pointed out this conversation has diverged into an argument as to the definitions of materialism as it applies to being a doctor and a physicist. I think the meaning of materialism as PalMD is using it is very clear – it’s evidence based medicine, rather than magic. The definition of materialism as it is used within physics is that it’s either not really used since it’s so obviously arbitrary and subjective (not to mention not useful in any way), or it has the same meaning as the one used in medicine – to distinguish between evidence-based and magic-based “science”.

  76. #77 PalMD
    June 18, 2008

    This is really friggn’ cool.

  77. #78 Corey
    June 19, 2008

    @PalMD

    Agreed: this is really cool. It’s certainly brought up a lot of issues. One that I find particularly interesting is what Coriolis above touches upon: in some sense, the real issue is just the distinction between evidence use or non-use. However, that can’t quite be the whole story; even if weird, alternative medicines do give the right, statistically-valid therapeutic results, it still seems that we would want to reject them without an understanding of the mechanism involved. So if it were to turn out that accupuncture really works (and for all I know, it does), we might accept the fact that sticking needles in such-and-such places produces such-and-such results, but reject the explanation that these results are produced because of the redirection of in-principle unmeasurable vital forces or whatever. Would we then accept accupuncture as a therapy or treatment? I suspect that this requirement–that valid results require mechanisms–is the basis of the particular view being called materialism in this discussion. So it’s not quite about evidence; it’s evidence plus mechanistic explanation.

    So one question I have, directed toward the medical doctors here: how true is this characterization? I mean, in some respects, it does seem like a really bad idea to accept “medical” practices that posit stuff that we have absolutely no reason to believe. On the other, if it works, it works, and who cares why? Medicine is medicine, right? Scientifically we might care, but as medical practitioners, how much does it matter? I could be totally wrong about this, but aren’t there well-established medical practices that obviously work, but without a well-developed understanding of precisely why? E.g. certain anesthetics, pain relievers, etc.?

    Oh, and regarding low-level physics (@Coriolis): yeah, that stuff is weird, and I feel totally unqualified to comment. I understand (via much more educated colleagues) that it’s not clear whether to think of quantum field theory as dealing with particles or waves; I guess there’s good reason to deny both. But to be honest, I have enough trouble figuring out how to think clearly about what there is in the day-to-day world of medium-sized dry goods (which is really where all the cool stuff happens anyway, at least in my opinion!).

  78. #79 Monique Sellier
    June 19, 2008

    @Coriolis – yes, I forgot to say that I stand in awe of the way some physicists are able to draw out of their “mathematics” physical conclusions with 8 significant digits. But others, who are less talented, try the same tricks, and they get nothing or almost nothing. Therefore I claim that in physics, the only valuable criterion is the predicting power in relation to experiments. We, poor mathematicians, have to rely on good old logic and consistency of argument. Happy physicists who can fly above our muddy playing field and score without ever shoveling the earth of theorems, lemmas and accounting of all kind!

    Replicas : the inventor is Giorgio Parisi, you have all the links from his (modest) CV at

    http://chimera.roma1.infn.it/GIORGIO/curriculum.html

    This is a trick in statistical physics, not QM.

    The wave-particle duality is not a particularly terrible thing to understand, even from a non physicist. Being basically a PDE person turned more and more impure, I have no problem with interaction of waves, which meet more or less as if they were particles. It is more a question of getting used to it by shovelling enough earth and producing enough fancy estimates. This is the way I work and people in my area work. I suspect that one can get used to working with the strange tools of contemporary theoretical physics, it is just not on my agenda ;-)

  79. #80 bob koepp
    June 19, 2008

    There’s been a lot of back-and-forth in this thread, prompting me to wonder where we’ve arrived in this discussion of whether medicine (or science more generally) requires materialism. If, as has been intimated, the very idea of “matter” is without scientific interest or import, then criticism of woo on the grounds that it fails to be properly materialistic would seem to be empty criticism. Not that it couldn’t be criticized on other grounds, but …

  80. #81 Anonymous
    October 28, 2008

    What you describe isn’t so much “materialism” as “pragmatism.” It doesn’t matter what exists, only what makes a difference.

    Therefore:

    It is a logical fallacy to believe that something does not exist simply because we are unable to perceive it

    Yes, it is. It’s also a moot point, since if we are unable to perceive any difference in the world with it or without it, it’s quite safe to ignore the matter entirely.

  81. #82 Anonymous
    October 28, 2008

    “”The solution is to get better at measuring the things we ‘can’ measure,” says Cooper. Only when we can “measure” the nature of consciousness, or the causation of the process which results in the replication of a double-helix DNA strand, will there be an end to dualism. What replaces it, however, may be something other than pure materialism.”

    Umm. Lets measure the nature of the formation in every ice crystal in the lake, as it freezes, while are at it, its just as idiotic. We are **really** sure, at this point, that the mind and consciousness is form based, i.e., while some of it has been “pre-wired” over billions of years, how, in what way, and even “if” we do something that looks like human thought is a derivative of the body form we have, and how that “limits” and “guides” our perception and interaction of the world. An intelligence in a similar form would likely develop a similar perception, while a radically different one would not, and the whole “would you be human, if your brain was taken out at birth and crammed in to a robot, with a completely different shape/capabilities?”, type question is answered with, “Not really, since while some of the limits of how you handle that change ‘would’ still be hardwired, your interpretation, and subsequent nature of your consciousness, would be informed by the ‘robotic’ interfaces, and forms, not a human one.”

    The DNA thing is even fracking dumber, imho. Sure, there are some questions as to how the general mechanisms function, without mucking up their own processes, but its a matter of determining process, not guessing at some wacky magic that makes it work. And the “original” genome formation isn’t hard to imagine either, even if its not yet clear what all the steps, or conditions, needed to be to make them happen, but the original clay experiment, which “at the time” was found to produce 66 amino acids, was found, and re-examined, with far better detection techniques, and actually produced like 155 of all the amino acids we know exist in life. Not sure how many more that leaves out, but it makes the, “magic made it happen”, argument even more absurd than it was after the original experiment.

    Point being, arguments like this, where, “some extra-material explanation is likely, because I feel so!”, are based on, a) lack of imagination, b) lack of complete knowledge of the field being described (which is understandable, but should produce skepticism of the woo-woo ideas, not the material ones), and c) a desire for some other answer to be “possible”, without any valid reason for why it should be. In other words, is a much weaker, but basically identical, form of, “I want to believe, therefor I choose to.”, used by the real loonies.

  82. #83 Kagehi
    October 28, 2008

    Bah. Guess the site “lost” my name there.. 7:12 was me.

  83. #84 Lance
    October 29, 2008

    Coriolis,

    As I entered graduate level physics courses I also clung to the “little balls” mental image of matter. When I desperately reached out to my professors for a better “picture” they typically rebuffed attempts to “visualize” the subjects of these highly mathematical abstractions.

    I became distressed. I was fine with abandoning simplistic images and models if they could be replaced with more useful and accurate ones, but if all of physics was to become an appeal to completely mathematical abstractions what was the point? After all the root word of physics is physical and if the basis for modern physics was to be an ensemble of probabilistic axioms it was no more satisfying than mysticism, even if experiments confirmed its predictions.

    It is not that I have any problem with QM as a tool just that it is very unsatisfying as a descriptor for what is actually “physically happening”. I am comfortable with a non-deterministic universe but I am ill at ease with many of the implications of the prevailing “schools” of thought i.e. Copenhagen (relax it doesn’t have to make sense), the “multi-verse” model (don’t worry what you expected happened “somewhere”) and the even creepier “implicate order” non-locality super-spooky action at all distances interpretation, I don’t even know what that one might mean to what we call “reality”.

    Of course nothing says that the universe (or universes) has to make sense to me but that was kind’a why I got into physics in the first place. Well at least it hasn’t been a dull inquiry to this point.