If You Don’t Know, Just Leave It Blank

I tend to be a fairly hard-nosed naturalist, as readers may have noticed. This arises from an inveterate intellectual conservatism: I think that the most parsimonious approach to understanding the world around us is to try to explain the phenomena we observe — the “phaneron”, to use Charles Sanders Peirce’s lovely word — in terms of the productive theoretical models we already have. We continually test our theories against new observations, holding their feet always to the fire, and when inconvenient results strain them to the breaking point — as, say, the Michelson-Morley experiment did for Victorian physics — we can be confident, before discarding them, that they have had a fair shot.

The key idea, as we all know, is that for a theory about the world to be of value in any useful way, it must make claims that are specific enough so as possibly to be wrong. A theory that explains illness in terms of evil spirits is unhelpful, then, precisely because it can never be refuted. One might find biological pathogens that appear to be the cause of the problem, but they can be accounted for as manifestations of the evil spirits. Even if one were to find that particular drugs appear to kill the bugs, leading to a cure in all cases, the spirit-theorist can always maintain that the drug was acting on the evil spirit itself, and that the bacteria had died off because they had lost the support of their immaterial sponsor.

It should eventually become apparent that the evil-spirit paradigm adds nothing valuable to the simpler model that accounts for the cure solely by the action of the drug on the bacteria. It can never be proven wrong, but as it makes no specific or testable claims, it confers no epistemic benefit, either. This, of course, is why “falsifiability” is the essence of science.

It is also why most modern-day scientists are not theists, or why those who are constrain their theism to those areas where scientific inquiry hasn’t got to yet. It is also why mind-body dualism is almost nonexistent among those researchers who study the human mind and brain.

There are, and perhaps will always be, areas for which no solid theoretical model exists. As matters stand today, such areas include the ontology of consciousness, the reason for the apparent “flow” of time to human observers, the precise values of the natural laws and constants, and the ultimate origin of the Universe. These are indeed deep mysteries, and some of them may be intrinsically beyond human comprehension — although it is hard to imagine how that fact, if is a fact, could ever be demonstrated, and so we will either solve them, or keep at it forever.

Some people abhor such epistemological voids, and need to fill them in with something. Some impressively elaborate notions have been constructed, carefully adjusted over time to eliminate the risk of empirical falsification. And when they provide accounts of phenomena for which no testable, naturalistic model is on offer, they are defensible, reasonably enough, as being as good as whatever else is out there. They are continuously subject, however, to the steady encroachment of patient human inquiry upon the unknown. It is one thing to imagine, when there is no other explanation available, that lightning is hurled by invisible gods, but it is quite another to continue to imagine that it is flung to earth by the gods when we can see quite plainly that it is the result of comprehensible electrostatic forces. It is important to keep in mind, though, that prior to the arrival of the better story, belief in lightning-wielding gods was a perfectly respectable view.

And so it is today with the deeper mysteries. Beliefs in some sort of god as the creator of the Universe, or in dualistic theories of consciousness are, so far, as tenable as any other positions, because these are areas in which the physical sciences have yet to arrive at workable theories of their own. This is, of course, no reason to adopt these positions — neither deistic stories of ultimate origins nor dualistic accounts of consciousness add one shred of explanatory value — but as yet, and in contrast to the Jovian theory of lightning, the physicalist can present no better account.

There is a risk, though: it is that when one’s hunger is satisfied, one stops hunting — and a supernatural answer to a hard question may well be sufficient, for a great many people (as it was, indeed, even for some of the great scientists of the past), to prevent further inquiry. Most scientists nowadays, realizing that it is inherent in their method that all scientific knowledge is provisional, and possibly wrong, are quite comfortable living with uncertainty — with big, unanswered questions. And there are those who simply must have an answer: there are many of them out there, but I am still a bit startled when I encounter them, as we did in a recent discussion.


  1. JK says

    I apologize Malcolm,

    “Some people abhor such epistemological voids, and need to fill them in with something. Some impressively elaborate notions have been constructed…”

    Mine is not too elaborate, it is simply that I admire the “duh” factor. Hawking led the way with his string thing and now there is this extra-dimensional thing as well. I personally expect that things I can only accept on faith will eventually lead to something my descendants can believe in. I do find it interesting that your only capitalization occurs with, “Universe.” An earlier entry well… seemed to express something. I know and regret that I have ignored your title, to leave it blank, however I think, given the parameters, most science folk will leave it blank as well, and leave off the possibility of civil discussion.

    It has nothing to do with the constraints of Pascal’s Wager that occasionally Malcolm, you will encounter the occasional “nutcase” (depending of course on one’s view), but it is rather the elaborate Inquirey-yes it’s misspelled, and here I’ve capitalilized-it has more to to do with the unknowable, for now.

    Actually I have as much faith in a Loki and in Coyote (knowing full well that Casteneda has been discredited) but what I have faith in and what I believe in are necessarily distinct. I wish to discourse in a civil manner and to Learn.

    Copernicus and Kepler prodded the previous from faith to belief. I suspect, though it may not be in my lifetime, that others might well do the same. Unless of course this extra-dimensional thing comes to fruition, in which case-everything is up for grabs.


    Posted March 29, 2008 at 11:20 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi JK,

    I did capitalize Universe: I was using it as a proper noun, with a single referent, as opposed to the preceding noun to which you refer — which was simply a placeholder for a diverse set of notions. That preceding word is often used uncapitalized, in fact almost “universally” so whenever the user is referring to a member of said set that is not the one in which he himself happens to believe. (Another distinction is that the Universe, at least, we know to exist.)

    Amen to civil discourse, and to wishing to learn.

    Posted March 29, 2008 at 11:41 pm | Permalink
  3. JK says


    I just washed my dishes and came to briefly check in as I know I should’ve done earlier in the week.

    Your explanation has Universally confused the (well it begins with “S”- capitalized especially in this case). It’s Saturday night in my time zone too.

    It is possible to civilly discourse isn’t it? So long as we agree didactepistomological brainiac-ial variances don’t erupt? I so dislike being not, “paid well for the stuff that you do.” (This a teenager thing but “mutilated membranes” exist don’t they? By the way, thanks for tolerating me on your site.


    Posted March 30, 2008 at 12:24 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Perhaps a tad clearer now after a few small edits.

    And you are most welcome.

    Posted March 30, 2008 at 1:55 am | Permalink
  5. bob koepp says

    Instead of being my usual contrarian self, I’ll play a game of digression.

    If you go back a few millenia, religion and medicine hadn’t yet differentiated, so there are historical connections between ideas of evil spirits and attempts to come to grips with medical maladies. But sometimes people are mislead by questionable translations, and might overestimate the strength of such connections. I think this might be at work here. In the fragments of early Greed medical writing, for example, what is often translated as ‘bad spirits’ might just as well be translated as ‘bad airs.’ Since bad spirits/airs are often associated with swampy areas, and swampy areas are “incubators” for lots of insect borne diseases, I suspect there was no “spiritual” connotation intended by the Greek physicians.

    … Forgive us our digressions, as we forgive those who digress …

    Posted March 30, 2008 at 4:05 pm | Permalink
  6. JK says

    Actually bob,

    I don’t see that you’ve digressed but this is Malcolm’s blog and perhaps I shouldn’t be replying. Having a dad who was an MD who incidentally once pointed out to his young son that there was validity to the “bad air” notion reinforces your point. And if one looks closely at the works and writings of Galen, I don’t believe he recognized a “spiritual” connotation either.

    Forgiveness in this case-not required.

    Malcolm, now this is very strange. The letter and subsequent numbers (to foil spammers) I see coincide with our mutual birth-year.


    Posted March 30, 2008 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  7. JO says

    “study the human mind and brain.”
    What is the “mind”?
    I’m very interested in this blog and do not ask this in a factitious manner.

    Posted March 30, 2008 at 6:10 pm | Permalink
  8. JK says

    JO, JK here,

    This is Malcolm’s blog of course and I should not be so well deignful as to attempt an answer. I’ll simply refer to something I saw yesterday concerning sea cucumbers. Apparently some scientists having observed them for some time discovered that the animals’ plasticity resembled brain tissue and developed a substance that they deemed worthy of trials whereby they would inject this plastic stuff as a substitute, or stratum for brain material.

    I have heard that our brains consist mostly of water but also that our brains might really be more accurately described as “a lump of fat” with distinct areas of more or lesser plasticity, of course with synapses and neurons it’s a bit more complicated than that except as evidenced by:


    Extensive reading on this site is likely to reveal that the subject of study has achieved what physical fitness experts and the NIH folk have determined:excess fat is unhealthy. The subject is likely to live forever. However that does not address your question as to “what is the mind.”

    In my opinion only: the mind is the Universe you occupy. Malcolm may well disagree. It may be all well and good to be as “fat-free” as possible but societies need politicians and so society needs hydrogenated trans fats to exist. To put it simply, where did you come up with such a question?


    Posted March 30, 2008 at 10:41 pm | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    You may well be right about the issues of translation you raise. It is, of course, tangential, as you say, to the more general point I was making about falsifiability, but is an interesting comment nonetheless.

    Posted March 30, 2008 at 10:54 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says


    Please don’t feel that it is inappropriate for you to respond to other commenters’ remarks. My hope for this website is for it to be a salon, not a lecture hall. I have been lucky enough to acquire a marvellous assortment of thoughtful and intelligent readers, and I am happiest when a post sparks a lively conversation amongst several of them at once.

    Posted March 30, 2008 at 10:59 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says


    What is the mind? That’s a good question.

    Of course we all know what we mean by the word “mind”; it’s that running dialogue in our heads, and the awareness that observes it. But it is more than just consciousness: there is a great deal going on that we are utterly unaware of, and indeed experiments show that our sense of the unity and completeness of consciousness is very much an illusion. Our consciousness is gappy in a variety of ways that we are completely unaware of; as I’ve said before, consciousness cannot see its edges.

    So we could also say that our minds are our cognitive apparatus in action; the dynamic processing of our knowledge and dispositions that results in our behavior. They are what psychologists study.

    Some people will tell you that the mind is a sort of independently existing immaterial “substance”, one that is tightly bound to the “merely material” body, and is the part that both experiences the sensations the body provides and issues the commands that cause our behavior. They say this, usually, because they are convinced that matter cannot be conscious. Why anyone should be convinced of this — as if they had exhaustive knowledge of what matter, in the form of the most complex material object we have ever discovered, might or might not be capable of — simply baffles me. Furthermore, why anyone would imagine that “answering” the puzzle of consciousness simply by postulating, on no evidence, an immaterial “substance” about which we know nothing other than that it, in contrast to “mere” matter, can do the mysterious trick of self-awareness, baffles me also. These are “answers” that explain nothing.

    I think minds are one of the things that our brains do.

    Posted March 30, 2008 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

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