Scientific authority and the prodigal theory

Fabre’s unsparing and curmudgeonly critique of theoreticians leads me to wonder: Are theories necessary? The obvious answer is that without some sort of logical framework (notions about natural organization, animal instinct, etc.) Fabre’s own meticulous winnowing of observations for a few grains of authentic insight would have been impossible. But the grander superstructures of imagination, such as the theory of evolution by natural selection, are what struck him as a diversion from the natural scientist’s true tasks of observation, experimentation and (with luck) some limited amount of inductive reasoning.

Most non-Western bodies of knowledge are built solely on a basis of empiricism. This does not prevent them from achieving results whose accuracy (according to our own preconceptions) seems little short of miraculous. Consider the complex recipe for the South American psychotropic drug ayahuasca, a.k.a. yage. Given the tens of thousands of species of herbs and lianas native to this region, and given that the active ingredients in the recipe have very different or even negligible effects when taken in isolation, how can we imagine an experimental process to arrive at the correct formula?

One ethnobotanist I was reading a while back (I think it might have been Mark Plotkin) made the not unreasonable suggestion that, at least in some cases, humans have been able to learn something about the properties of herbs from close observation of animals. He gave one example, based on fieldwork in Central Africa, in which the people he’d been working with had quite recently adopted a new plant (for purposes that turned out to be biomedically sound) after watching chimpanzees use it. Another example from northern South America suggested that observation of tapirs may have led to the local adoption of a new herb.

The inference to be drawn here, I suppose, is that animals can use their superior sense of smell/taste, in combination with finely honed instincts “unimpeded by the thought process” (as the Car Talk guys would say), to find whatever they need for a particular ailment or condition. This in turn implies that humans might have the same ability, within the limitations imposed by our own, vastly inferior olfactory organs. And it occurs to me (as it has surely occurred to anyone else who has read a certain number of ethnobotanical accounts) that mind-altering plants and fungi themselves may play a role in helping people to see/sniff out useful new drugs or drug ingredients. This may seem uncomfortably close to an appeal to revelation: after all, some champions of psychotropes do refer to them as entheogens. But merely altering the way our senses operate (whether by “cleansing the doors of perception” or in fact blocking them up and opening new ones) does not obviate the need for inductive reasoning and the assimilation of a vast body of empirical data. One can easily imagine the medical specialist learning to distinguish certain tastes/smells corresponding to distinct chemical properties, and probably relating those properties in turn to particularities of habitat and even, in some cases, obvious visual clues.

What interests me in all of this is the role that indigenous theory forms in the valid recognition and organization of data. For South American practitioners of traditional medicine, the world-pictures are so fantastic to us that it is difficult to see them as analogous to theory rather than (say) religious dogma. I would counter that, in very many cases I have read about, the shaman is usually among the most pragmatic and open-minded members of any given tribe, and has very little problem (and often great facility) with the self-conscious manipulation of concepts to achieve a best fit with the evidence. But examples from traditional Chinese and Indian sciences may be more helpful here.

Consider acupuncture: accurate almost to a fault in pinpointing nerve endings – and perfected in the complete absence of any accurate knowledge of the human nervous system. A completely imaginary system of lines of life-force (chi) formed not just a theoretical framework but an essential mnemonic for the location of pressure points. One could say the same about the chakra-system of yoga or any of the myriad other conceptual frameworks developed to organize and guide what Sufi writers call “the science of the mind.” Indeed, I doubt that anyone could ever come up with a system such as feng-shui, which seems to embody a genuine and very profound understanding of human perceptions of space, without the aid of a quasi-mystical theory to “explain” the mutual interpenetration of mind and matter.

In all these cases, it seems to me, it doesn’t really matter whether one regards the guiding theories as literal representations or provisional constructs. What matters is the theory’s utility as mnemonic aid and heuristic. But I begin to list dangerously in the direction of that modern disciple of Diogenes, Paul Feyerabend.

I should mention that I generally try to avoid reading Feyerabend simply because his notions and prejudices are so similar to my own. I am afraid that if I were to go through and carefully digest his theories, I would deprive myself of the hundreds of hours of pleasure and bewilderment that would be involved in developing similar ideas all on my own! But this morning I’ll make a small sacrifice for the sake of my faithful readers (he says pompously) and crack the cover of Against Method (Verso, 1978), Chapter 4. Marginal notes in my own chicken scratch indicate I have been here before. So perhaps all of the foregoing is simply an unconscious re-capitulation of Paul Feyerabend? Well, here’s the argument:

There is no idea, however ancient and absurd, that is not capable of improving our knowledge. The whole history of thought is absorbed into science and is used for improving every single theory. Nor is political interference rejected. It may be needed to overcome the chauvinism of science that resists alternatives to the status quo.

As an example of such positive political interference, he cites the Communist Chinese government’s about-face on its original rejection of traditional medicine as primitive. This re-evaluation was sparked by a purge of “bourgeois elements” in the Ministry of Health in 1954 – an event with doubtless very unfortunate consequences for many such “elements.” In fact, given what we now know or strongly suspect about the horrific death tolls from forced collectivization under the banner of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, it seems positively ghoulish to celebrate any political consequence of that unhappy period. But Feyerabend was never one to shy away from provocative conclusions – in fact, he delighted in them. And his evaluation of the “sizable lacunae in Western medicine” seems sound:

[T]here are effects and means of diagnosis which modern medicine cannot repeat and for which it has no explanation . . . Nor can one expect that the customary scientific approach will find an answer. In the case of herbal medicine the approach consists of two steps. First, the herbal concoction is analysed into its chemical constituents. Then the specific effects of each constituent are determined and the total effect on a particular organ explained on their basis. This neglects the possibility that the herb, taken in its entirety, changes the state of the whole organism and that it is this new state of the whole organism rather than a specific part of the herbal concoction that cures the diseased organ. Here as elsewhere knowledge is obtained from a proliferation of views rather than from the determined application of a particular ideology.

The fact that such proliferation may be in some instances propelled by the outside influence of a repressive ideology, religious dogma or, for modern scientists in the West, the almighty dollar (as Feyerabend teasingly suggests) is irony indeed. But in the very next breath he mounts a spirited defense of the importance of a well-developed, untramelled imagination, “not just a road of escape but as a necessary means for discovering and perhaps even changing the features of the world we live in.”

As for the difference between Fabre’s perspective and Feyerabend’s on the relative importance of theories, I think it is about what one would expect given the disparity between their backgrounds and occupations. In any case, they do seem to meet on a common ground of suspicion toward any theory with universalistic or truth-status pretensions. And they would have agreed wholeheartedly in matters relating to the theory of education. Feyerabend concludes Chapter 4 of Against Method by advising the reader “to consult [John Stuart] Mill’s magnificent essay On Liberty.” Considering the connection between Mill and Fabre that I was just writing about the day before yesterday, I guess I better go follow his advice. The gods clearly will it!

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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