Proving It – The Soul of Science

A major personal challenge I’ve encountered in the past decade is the pressure to support the idea that positive thinking, or the “right” thinking, will create a person’s reality.  Any skepticism or even gentle questioning of true believers usually leads to vehement assertions that I just don’t want to be happy, or a winner (that’s a whole different post unto itself), or that I’m afraid to be successful (as if there is one way). 

The thing is, these assertions are often followed with opportunities to pay money to a cult figure via DVDs or books or speaking fees to become a happy, successful, wealthy winner.

The whole dynamic frustrates me to no end, but I usually don’t actually care enough to argue about it.  I also don’t argue because I don’t really know what to say beyond, “I disagree.”  But last week’s NYT essay Fight ‘The Power’ has freed me from my hesitancy. The essay breaks down the actual science behind why the human mind is so susceptible to believing that our thoughts control our reality. At last, even if I have to just read it to myself, I have in black and white why I can’t support books like The Secret and The Power.  I’m simply too much of a scientist in my soul.

Christopher Chabris is a psychology professor at Union College. Daniel Simons is a psychology professor at the University of Illinois.  Chabris and Simons, authors of the Fight ‘The Power’ essay, warn, “Whenever you hear someone appeal to impenetrable physics to explain the workings of the mind, run away — we already have disciplines called ‘psychology’ and ‘neuroscience’ to deal with those questions.”  They go on to explain what they see as the fundamental hook of the pseudoscience behind some of the most popular publications that use this line of thinking:

The message of “The Power” and “The Secret” might best be understood as an advanced meme — a sort of intellectual virus — whose structure has evolved throughout history to optimally exploit a suite of weaknesses in the design of the human mind.

It does seem that we are not too hard to fool, we humans; and a fool and his money are soon parted.  We tend to do things like assume sequential events are cause-and-effect; to think that the more people who say something the more likely it is to be true; and to assume we understand things that when pressed we can’t explain in even the simplest terms.   There is also a human susceptibility to voices of “authority” and what is called the “illusion of potential.”  Who doesn’t want to believe we could all do and have anything at any time, that we are just holding ourselves back?

All of this said, it is fine line for me to explain that ultimately I do think it is important to manage what one runs through his or her mind.  It’s not that I think we are creating “particles” of energy that are shaping the universe — poppycock.  I do think, however, that how things seem on a day-to-day basis has value that is real beyond what may actually be scientifically demonstrable.  I remember specifically talking with a physician once about symptoms that were bothering me from a chronic health condition.  I asked about a medicine and he said, “That won’t fix the underlying problem.  It will just make you feel better.”  Right, Dr. Genius. That is why I’m here, to feel better.  If I can’t get better, feeling better is an excellent second choice.  Feeling better is its own kind of reality.

It is important to keep what one thinks and believes about managing life as something that ultimately belongs to the individual.  In the movie Contact (based on Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name), Ellie (Jodie Foster) and Palmer (Matthew McConaughey) represent the ongoing debates of science and religion.  Ellie simply cannot comprehend Palmer’s way of thinking, with its relative nonchalance toward the hard proofs of science.  He is dialed in to a spiritual approach to life that is sometimes compatible with science but entirely independent of it.  Ellie likes Palmer, and does her best to not disrespect him in their conversations, but she finally conveys to him that she thinks he’s just not using his mind.

Palmer asks her one question.  “Did you love your father?”

“Wh….What?” Ellie responds, stunned and knocked off guard.

“Did you love your father?  Yes or no?”

“Yes,” she says softly.  “Very much.”

Palmer has one request.  “Prove it.”

Probably there will always be things that science can’t explain, and I would venture to say most of those things involve bursts of human greatness more than our frailties.  The sins, the crimes, the failures – these seem graph-able and biologically understandable.  But what of the redemptions, the victories, the forgiveness and yes the love that make no sense around the dinner table, much less the laboratory?

I’m just a scientist in my soul.  I can’t prove any of this.  But because I truly believe it, I will wake up tomorrow and be someone who does things that make the world a better place, and that is reality.

Photo credit: Warping History: Analytical Methods in Historical Cartography