The conflict at the heart of science

The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson only eats beef. Literally just beef, he says, and nothing else at all: no vegetables; no fruit; no carbs; no meat that isn’t beef. Peterson has been following the example of his daughter Mikhaila, who suffers from an autoimmune disorder so severe that she needed hip and ankle replacements in her teens. Mikhaila found that a strict beef-only diet eliminated every single one of her symptoms, and Peterson, who suffers from a milder version of the same disorder, has confirmed this. He says that his symptoms have disappeared, he no longer needs anti-depressants,i he sleeps less, he feels stronger, he can swim better, and he is now at his best intellectually.ii

Of course this seems to fly in the face of all our dietary knowledge. Jack Gilbert, faculty director at the University of Chicago’s Microbiome Center, has described a beef-only diet as “an immensely bad idea.” Gilbert says that “Your body would start to have severe dysregulation, within six months, of the majority of the processes that deal with metabolism; you would have no short-chain fatty acids in your cells; most of the by-products of gastrointestinal polysaccharide fermentation would shut down, so you wouldn’t be able to regulate your hormone levels; you’d enter into cardiac issues due to alterations in cell receptors; your microbiota would just be devastated.” Soon enough, he says, you would die from colon cancer or some other cardiometabolic disease.iii

And yet the Petersons power on, looking remarkably healthy considering their cardiac problems, their dysregulated metabolisms, and their devastated microbiota. Of course time will tell, and it may be that things are about to get hellish for the pair of them. Others who have tried the same diet have had less positive results,iv and I’m certainly not about to try it myself any time soon. But the issue raises a wider question concerning the state of scientific knowledge in the modern world. Jordan Peterson’s experience has led him to conclude that “all of the dietary knowledge we have is rubbish,”v and Noam Chomsky provided us with a similarly heretical one-liner several years ago. Chomsky was discussing the scientific community’s historical failure to reduce chemistry to physics. It wasn’t until the quantum revolution demonstrated that physics was in fact “wrong” that this reduction was made possible. We know far less today about mental acts and the brain than we knew back then about physics and chemistry. So what does this mean? According to Chomsky, “it could mean that all of neurology is wrong.”vi 

There is a tendency to assume that we already have most of the important answers to how the world works and how our bodies work. Many people within the scientific community make the assumption, either consciously or unconsciously, that we are now at the end of the road or the top of the mountain when it comes to our scientific knowledge. We already know how everything works in principle, and so all that remains is the filling in of the details. This leads these people to respond with almost religious levels of dogmatic fury whenever the suggestion is made that we might not know as much as we think we do, and that we might need to alter our perspective going forward.

The philosopher Thomas Nagel discovered this a few years ago when he strayed from the sacred path. Nagel suggested that if biological evolution has produced conscious organisms and yet physical processes alone cannot explain consciousness, then evolution must be more than just a physical process. He called for the development of an entirely new non-physical science capable of explaining mental phenomena.vii All very reasonable and logical, it seems to me, but as far as Nagel’s contemporaries were concerned he had committed blasphemy, or at the very least made a complete fool of himself. “The shoddy thinking of a once-great thinker,” said the normally mild-mannered and restrained Steven Pinker.viii “It’s cute and it’s clever and it’s not worth a damn,” said Daniel Dennett.ix

The sight of these men of science turning furiously on their former associate reminded me of a passage I once came across in Carl Jung’s autobiography. The psychologist was relating an odd conversation he had with Sigmund Freud, who considered Jung to be his protégé. “Promise me never to abandon the sexual theory,” said Freud, referring to his own theory of psychoanalysis. “We must make a dogma of it, an unshakable bulwark.” As Jung recalled, Freud was speaking in the tone of a father saying “And promise me this one thing, my dear son: that you will go to church every Sunday.” Jung asked what it was, exactly, that they were setting up a bulwark against, and Freud replied: “The black tide of mud of occultism.” He appears to have had in mind all forms of religion, superstition, magic, and the paranormal.x Of course Jung later went on to fulfil Freud’s worst fears, abandoning his theory and developing a very different worldview – one strongly informed by religion. I suspect that Dennett and Pinker and others are so fearful of Freud’s “black tide” that they prefer to make the modern scientific consensus into something sacred that can never be questioned.

To some degree this is understandable. When taken as a whole, the scientific project has changed our lives radically and almost entirely for the better. Science has helped us to drastically reduce diseasexi and also child mortalityxii over the past few centuries. Smallpox has been totally eradicated, and malaria and polio have been largely eradicated. The Industrial Revolution, predicated on the Scientific Revolution, has enriched our lives immeasurably, and now most of us live lives of luxury that the kings and emperors of antiquity could never have imagined. The last thing we want is to roll it all back and retreat into the ignorance and squalor of the Dark Ages. We should never forget the progress that has been made. And this is a very real danger – outbreaks of measles have soared in Western countries in recent years as a result of conspiracy theories regarding vaccination.xiii But I don’t think that the quest for a new non-physical science necessarily needs to involve a rejection of any of the existing sciences. Perhaps we can envisage it instead as an expanding of the scope of the scientific project.

Those within the scientific community who imagine us to be at the top of the mountain may be mistaken, but this doesn’t mean we need to agree with Peterson that “all of the dietary knowledge we have is rubbish,” or with Chomsky that “all of neurology is wrong.” The truth is more nuanced: we’ve already begun the journey up the mountain and we’ve made some progress, but we’re still in the very early stages. The Scientific Revolution itself only took place about 400 years ago. Our knowledge of diet and neurology and a thousand other fields is simply incomplete, and this is why we don’t understand how a person can live on beef alone, and we have no idea how consciousness works. Our knowledge is still essentially primitive. This means that we should be prepared for radical future developments, including the emergence of whole new branches of science. But if we start attacking the first prophets of these new sciences, accusing them of “shoddy thinking” and dismissing their ideas as “not worth a damn,” then this is going to create problems. Progress will be slow indeed.

The biologist and parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake has suggested that “there is a conflict within the heart of science between science as a method of enquiry (based on reason, evidence, hypothesis, and collective investigation), and science as a belief system or a worldview.” As he sees it, “the worldview aspect of science has come to inhibit and constrict the free enquiry which is the very lifeblood of the scientific endeavour.”xiv The distinction he makes is key to understanding the problem, but it can be a difficult distinction to grasp at first. I think that we can clear away some of the cobwebs of confusion by more precisely defining our terms. We might refer to the method of enquiry as “science” – true science – while referring to the prevailing belief system or worldview of today’s scientific community as “materialism,” which is the belief that everything in existence results from material interactions. True science has no problem, in principle, with aliens or angels or ghosts or telepathy. It’s materialism that struggles with these concepts. True science views all such phenomena simply as hypotheses to be tested.

Sheldrake himself has spent the past few decades carrying out controlled studies on phenomena such as telepathy, and his results have consistently shown statistical significance higher than chance – sometimes spectacularly higher. But he is routinely rejected when he attempts to publish his findings in mainstream science journals. It doesn’t matter how scientifically rigorous he has been: editors are simply not interested. The editor of Animal Behaviour explained to Sheldrake that no referee would ever consider a paper that mentions the word “telepathy.”xv To disregard findings based solely on the subject matter is of course a highly unscientific approach. It is the very definition of dogma, and as Sheldrake says, it constricts real scientific enquiry. This is not to say that telepathy is necessarily real, whether in the sense that believers traditionally understand or in any other sense. Perhaps it isn’t real at all. The point is that we don’t know, because we’ve never properly examined the evidence. A serious search for knowledge – a genuinely scientific search – would closely examine the claims of a man like Rupert Sheldrake, making no assumptions and refusing to take sides until the results were in.

Once we’ve introduced a truly scientific approach then it’s likely that certain old folk beliefs will turn out to have merit after all. Materialist science does occasionally rehabilitate folk ideas when we gain an understanding of the mechanism by which they work, but it has no patience with beliefs for which there is no materialist explanation. This is likely to change when we arm ourselves with new sciences. We might find, for instance, that more alternative medicines begin to distinguish themselves from the black tide of superstition. Users have consistently reported the remarkable benefits of drinking ayahuasca, a tea made from the so-called ‘spirit vine’ of the Amazon rainforest, and prepared in ceremonies by shamans for thousands of years. A single dose of the brew has been compared to years’ or decades’ worth of psychotherapy,xvi but we still really have no idea how it works.

The journalist Peter Gorman has written a harrowing and revelatory account of his experience with ‘frog medicine’ in the Peruvian jungle. Shamans applied material taken from a frog to a wound in his arm, and as he describes it, “My blood began to race. My head pounded. I became acutely aware of every vein and artery in my body and I could feel them opening to allow for the fantastic pulse of my blood… I fell to the ground. Then, unexpectedly, I found myself growling and moving around on all fours. I felt as though animals were passing through me, trying to express themselves through my body.” When he woke the next day he heard voices, but he was alone. He realised he was overhearing a conversation between two women standing off in the distance. “It wasn’t just my hearing that had been improved. My vision, my sense of smell, everything about me felt larger than life. My body felt immensely strong. The feeling lasted days. I could go whole days without being hungry or thirsty, move through the jungle for hours without tiring. Every sense I possessed was heightened and in tune with the environment. I could see animals before they saw me.”xvii

Elements of this account echo reports by the British foreign correspondent Richard Lloyd Parry in the aftermath of Japan’s 2011 tsunami. Parry found a man who had suffered what appeared to be a psychotic episode after visiting one of the devastated beaches. This man’s wife and mother recounted how he started interrupting family dinners by “jump(ing) down onto all fours… licking the tatami mats and futon… squirm(ing) on them like a beast.” At night he would sleep for ten minutes “then wake up as lively and refreshed as if eight hours had passed.” The family decided that he must be possessed by the spirits of the deceased, so they sent him to a Buddhist temple for a priest to perform an exorcism. After a brief ceremony the man abruptly regained his senses. In his own words, “my head was light… the thing that had been there had gone. I felt fine physically, but my nose was blocked as if I’d come down with a heavy cold.” The cause of the blockage was revealed as he was driving home: his nose began streaming with a thick pink jelly unlike anything he’d ever seen. The standard response to all of this would be along the lines of “oh, that’s a psychotic episode,” but this just begs the question. We need to be more rigorous; more scientific. What we need is an explanation that can connect the appearance of animal possession, a fantastically increased capacity for recuperation, and the mechanism by which a priest’s words trigger the release of odd pink substances inside the head.xviii

The anthropologist Jeremy Narby has described how he suffered from chronic back pain for years until a shaman offered him a traditional sanango tea. “He warned me that I would feel cold, that my body would seem rubbery for two days, and that I would see some images,” recalls Narby. “I was skeptical, thinking that if it were really possible to cure chronic back pain with half a cup of vegetal tea, Western medicine would surely know about it.” But he drank the tea anyway. “After twenty minutes, a wave of cold submerged me. I felt chilled to the bone. I broke out into a profuse cold sweat and had to ring out my sweatshirt several times. After six rather difficult hours, the cold feeling went away, but I no longer controlled the coordination of my body. I could not walk without falling down. For five minutes I saw an enormous column of multicoloured lights across the sky – my only hallucinations. The lack of coordination lasted forty-eight hours. On the morning of the third day, my back pain had disappeared. To this day it has not returned.”xix

If we adopt a materialist worldview then these kinds of ‘spirit medicine’ shouldn’t work, because there is no materialist explanation for the mechanism by which they could plausibly work. Therefore we feel quite justified in dismissing them completely. Of course it may be that the various traditional explanations for how a particular phenomenon works are nonsense, but that doesn’t mean that the phenomenon itself is nonsense. We don’t need to start romanticising indigenous cultures and imagining them to have profound wisdom, as many have done. We just need to be open to the possibility that ignorance and insight may sometimes come hand in hand. Like scientists, the shamans will be ignorant about some things while having insights in other areas. And perhaps one of their insights is the understanding that we require tools other than materialism to explain the operation of these strange medicines. If we could combine this insight with the scientific method to create a new non-physical science than I think we might have the key to a whole universe of hidden knowledge.

In theory there are no limits to the great scientific project, at least once it expands its scope beyond the physical. No areas are out of bounds. Demons, dreams, curses, astral projection – the scientific method can be applied to all of these, because science never exceeds its remit. However, it may be that this entire project itself will be replaced at some point in the distant future. Science was not the first paradigm of knowledge that humans came up with, and it may not be the last.

James Frazer, the father of modern anthropology, concluded his famous nineteenth-century work The Golden Bough by suggesting that “the history of thought should warn us against concluding that because the scientific theory of the world is the best that has yet been formulated, it is necessarily complete and final. We must remember that at bottom the generalisations of science or, in common parlance, the laws of nature are merely hypotheses designed to explain that ever-shifting phantasmagoria of thought which we dignify with the high-sounding names of the world and the universe. In the last analysis magic, religion, and science are nothing but theories of thought; and as science has supplanted its predecessors, so it may hereafter be itself superseded by some more perfect hypothesis; perhaps by some totally different way of looking at the phenomena – of registering the shadows on the screen – of which we in this generation can form no idea.”xx

Notes

i Jordan Peterson, British GQ interview, 30 October 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZYQpge1W5s 

ii James Hamblin – “The Jordan Peterson all-meat diet,” The Atlantic, 28 August 2018 https://www.theatlantic.com/amp/article/567613/

iii Ibid.

iv Adam Gabbatt – “My carnivore diet: what I learned from eating only beef, salt, and water,” The Guardian, 11 September 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/food/2018/sep/10/my-carnivore-diet-jordan-peterson-beef?CMP=fb_gu&fbclid=IwAR2XfXlqIo6rL0rbyNjLfxtnDAzcarELWNqW-OHriQN6LcyuTjc5vF_YY5U

v Peterson, op. cit.

vi https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RDB-S22_rA&feature=youtu.be&t=4m12s&fbclid=IwAR2JPG56jrYfDHLffsV2Jb6_5ABda_Hrz5t3_Vjqlq3ClsJx9poK2l3KsaI

vii Thomas Nagel – “The core of ‘Mind and Cosmos’,” The New York Times, 18 August 2013 https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/18/the-core-of-mind-and-cosmos/

viii https://twitter.com/sapinker/status/258350644979695616?lang=en

ix Andrew Ferguson – “The Heretic,” The Weekly Standard, 25 March 2013 https://www.weeklystandard.com/andrew-ferguson/the-heretic

x Carl Jung and Aniela Jaffé – Memories, Dreams, Reflections (translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Fontana Press, London, 1995 edition, orig. 1963), p173

xi Steven Pinker, from an interview with Phil Torres, VICE Motherboard, 6 December 2016 http://motherboard.vice.com/read/steven-pinker-talks-about-donald-trumps-victory-long-term-progress-and-wheth. Pinker cites ourworldindata.org; humanprogress.org; gapminder.org

xii Jaiden Mispy & Max Roser – “Global child mortality: it is hard to overestimate both the immensity of the tragedy, and the progress the world has made,” Our World in Data, February 14, 2017 https://ourworldindata.org/child-mortality-globally. Mispy & Roser cite Gapminder and the World Bank; UN World Population Prospects 2015

xiii Sarah Boseley – “How disgraced anti-vaxxer Andrew Wakefield was embraced by Trump’s America,” The Guardian, 18 July 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jul/18/how-disgraced-anti-vaxxer-andrew-wakefield-was-embraced-by-trumps-america

xiv Rupert Sheldrake, “The Science Delusion,” TED, 15 March 2013 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKHUaNAxsTg

xv The Telepathy Debate: Prof. Lewis Wolpert vs. Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, Royal Society of Arts, London, 15 January 2004 https://www.sheldrake.org/reactions/the-telepathy-debate-prof-lewis-wolpert-vs-dr-rupert-sheldrake?fbclid=IwAR1rQsCuEMV-IZL_BStbIXPPyXpPfbVqD1y8qnqmRRDEnnntSZXhgBte8qc

xvi http://www.kirasalak.com/Peru.html

xvii Peter Gorman – Ayahuasca in My Blood: 25 Years of Medicine Dreaming (Gorman Bench Press, 2010), pp. 58-9

xviii Richard Lloyd Parry – Ghosts of The Tsunami (Jonathan Cape, London, 2017), pp. 94-8

xix Jeremy Narby – The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge (Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam, New York, 1999 edition, orig. 1998), pp. 42-3

xx James Frazer – The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993 edition, orig. 1890), p712

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