Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Science Proves Nothing (Thoughts on Expectations)

Science Proves Nothing. A statement like this can get me some serious hate mail. But it's not my statement, it's from Gregory Bateson, in Mind and Nature (1980), the first of his basic presuppositions about reality (another famous one, quoting Korzybski, is that the map is not the territory).

In order to prove his point, he offers the following thought experiment, which I think has profound implications for how we make sense of the world.

Suppose I give you the following sequence of numbers, with the presupposition that the sequence is ordered.


I then ask you to tell me which number comes next in the sequence. Most likely, you will say, "14."

But if you do, I will say, "Sorry, you are incorrect. The next number is 27." The answer you gave (that the series was the series of even numbers) was generalized from the available data, but was proved to be wrong (or only approximate) by the next (then unknown) event.

So, allow me to provide more data, creating a series as follows:

2,4,6,8,10,12,27,2,4,6,8,10,12,27,2,4,6,8,10,12,27 . . .

Now if I ask you to give me the next number, you will likely say, "2." Given the available data, the series has gone through three repetitions, if you applied Occam's razor (as any good scientist would), you would have come to the conclusion that "2" was the next number in the sequence.

Quoting Bateson:
You assume that you can predict, and indeed I suggested this presupposition to you. But the only basis you have is your (trained) preference for the simpler answer and your trust that my challenge indeed meant that the sequence was incomplete and ordered.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), it is so that the next fact is never available. All you have is the hope of simplicity, and the next fact may always drive you to the next level of complexity (p. 30-1).
[Emphasis added.] This is the key point here. Our minds seek the "logical" next data point, which is never given, when trying to solve a puzzle, whether that puzzle is a sequence of numbers or the nature of God.

We trust in an ordered universe. But we never know for certain if the order we have come to expect might just stop in the next moment, or the next, or the next. We really have no way of knowing, other than our expectations based on prior experience.

Once a series or an outcome has repeated three or four times -- in whatever form, whether it is verbal, visual, kinesthetic, or even painful -- we form a belief, and it becomes familiar and understandable.
But the pattern may be changed or broken by addition, by repetition, by anything that will force you to a new perception of it, and these changes can never be predicted with absolute certainty because they have not yet happened.

We do not know enough about how the present will lead into the future. We shall never be able to say, "Ha! My perception, my accounting for that series, will indeed cover its next and future components," or "Next time I meet with these phenomena, I shall be able to predict their total course."

Prediction can never be absolutely valid and therefore science can never prove some generalization or even test a single descriptive statement and in that way arrive at final truth (p. 31).
His premise is that science is a way of making "sense" of our precepts.
As a method of perception -- and that is all science can claim to be -- science, like all other methods of perception, is limited in its ability to collect the outward and visible signs of whatever may be truth.

Science probes; it does not prove.
I'm sure a good many scientists would disagree with these statements, but I find them useful in a way Bateson might later reveal in the book, but hasn't so far.

Psychology has proven time and again that our perceptions of the world shape our experience of the world. We see what we expect to see. If we expect people to be mean and hurtful, that is what we focus on in our interactions with others. If we expect people to be kind and generous, then that is what our attention will be drawn to when meeting others.

Attention (our means of gathering information about the world) follows our presuppositions, our beliefs.

What if we could cease to have expectations about certain things? Obviously, I am expecting gravity to keep me seated in this chair, and that this post will end up on my blog where you can read it. But what about our expectations of others, or of ourselves?

Perhaps these are hard expectations to change. Anyone who has tried to change a behavior, which is little more than a programmed response to a certain set of expectations, knows how hard it is. But the behaviors might be much easier to change if we instead focused on the expectations and beliefs that support the behavior.

If we have no expectations, then any outcome will be good, or it can be reframed in a positive light. For example, if I do not have any expectations about becoming ill, not becoming ill (most of the time) is a positive outcome. If I do become ill, it isn't that I somehow failed to think positive enough thoughts (or some other BS), it's that my immune system needed to upgrade to protect me from becoming sick in the future by creating new antibodies in response to a pathogen.

When we have no expectations of ourselves or others, we are free to create interpretations based on our experience rather than on our presuppositions. Moreover, and this is the crucial point, we free to create our own reality within the bounds of natural laws and such.

In change theory, only an open system is capable of change because it is constantly interacting with the environment and is open to new information (meaning that its beliefs are not set in stone). A closed system, however, does not allow in new information -- and many of us are closed systems as far as our beliefs and expectations are concerned.

But we can change that by first of all becoming aware of our expectations and beliefs -- the premises upon which we base our interactions with the world. We cannot change that of which we are not conscious. One way to do this is through journaling. Another way is meditation.

When we look at our behaviors, we can begin to ask why we do these things, what beliefs or presuppositions generate a given behavior. We can ask ourselves what we believe about the world, about ourselves, about those we love. These beliefs shape our actions.

If you have read this far, thank you. I would like to hear what others think about this topic. Have you ever looked at what your beliefs are? Have you ever tried to become an open system, with limited beliefs or expectations?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That "2,4,6, 8,..." example is a nice one. And it highlights the problem of induction or inductive logic. In a general setting, the inductive method basically deals with the following question:

Given a finite set of data, can we infer the general law from it?

In other words, an argument is inductive if it allows us to pass from "singular" (or particular) statements to "universal" statements. Logical positivists in the early 20th century thought the the scientific method was nothing but the inductive method.

After reading your post, I got the impression (though I could be wrong here) that Bateson seems to be advocating that the scientific method is the inductive method. That is not true. Karl Popper deals with such issues in detail in his classic and influential book, "The Logic of Scientific Discovery".