Liz S (ixwin) wrote,
Liz S

Science, truth, reality

Western 'scientific/rational' thought locates 'reality' outside our heads, with our senses as imperfect instruments for perceiving it. By this definition, things like Feng Shui with their talk of energy flows are nonsense, because there isn't anything 'out there' that corresponds to this supposed flow of energy (or at any rate, it is only the discovery of such an objective, external, element that would validate the assertions from a scientific point of view).

However, if instead, reality is defined as the subjective experience (as, it seems to me, some other cultures do), then it makes perfect sense - that energy flow is a way of describing the subjective way that a harmonious, uncluttered room produces a harmonious uncluttered level of attention - as opposed to a cluttered room in which the attention bounces around all over the place, and gets 'stuck' at particular points. And there is a boost in mental/emotional energy on entering a pleasant environment, and a corresponding slump on entering an unpleasant one.

The assertion of truths about what the world is like then includes the assertion of the commonality of human perception, which makes it a much fuzzier concept - we lose the 'one counterexample proves falsity' axiom, because, for example, one person failing to be taken in by an optical illusion doesn't mean the optical illusion isn't, in some sense, 'real'. Instead, truth becomes more a matter of common agreement - and different (apparently contradictory) truths may be accepted by different people, or even by the same people in different contexts, depending on what makes most sense, and is most useful, at that time. This ties into things I have read about e.g. Japanese businessmen making, on the face of it, absurd claims such as "we only buy Japanese skis because the snow in Japan is different from the snow everywhere else in the world" - it's more important to come up with an answer that leaves everyone feeling satisfied & no-one having lost face, than to come up with an answer that is driven by some assumed 'out there' objective reality.

Even western scientists do that to some extent - using models of things (such as an atom as a hard central nucleus with electrons 'in orbit' around it) which they know don't correspond to 'real reality' but are still useful to accept as truth in certain circumstances, because they give results that correspond to reality in those circumstances whilst being much easier to work with and think about than the 'more accurate' alternatives. Quantum wave/particle duality of course is a prime example of two contradictory truths about the nature of the world, that are both accepted because each is useful in a certain context. And it's interesting that some of the solutions people have propose for resolving (what they see as) this paradox do so by bringing subjective experience ('observation') back into the picture.

The placebo effect is another branch of this same topic. Its existence is acknowledged, but most of the time only so the success of treatments with no physiologically active component can then be dismissed as 'just' due to the placebo effect. However, given how powerful it can be; and given how many factors feed into it, and affect its strength (good summarising article), I do wonder if it deserves more attention as a genuine clinical tool. We could probably up the success rates of many treatments at little or no cost, just by using it to its best effect. And alternative treatments like homeopathy - even if their successes are 'just' due to the placebo effect, that doesn't stop them being worth investigating - it just changes the question to "Why do these treatments have such a powerful placebo effect in the first place?".

As usual for me, I have no conclusions, I just wanted to share my thoughts, and see whether you lot had any comments.

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