Friday, September 12, 2014

A Thought Experiment on Imagining the Future

Suppose you could go back 200 years to 1814.  Imagine that you could hear and ask questions but were not allowed to reveal anything of the future you knew. You would enter a world where no would know that our body is composed of cells, that fertilization involves the union of one sperm with one egg, that there are components of cells called chromosomes, that chromosomes contain genes, that genes transmit hereditary information to the offspring, that genes are composed of nucleic acids, that there are organic compounds made of carbon associated with living matter, that there is a metabolism that takes place in our cells, that organisms evolve by natural selection, that infectious diseases are caused by microbial organisms called bacteria and fungi, that the warmth of our bodies is caused by oxidative phosphorylation in our mitochondria.  People would not know that there are galaxies as big or bigger than our own Milky Way.  They would not know there is an expanding universe consisting of billions of galaxies. They would not know how stars generate their light and heat. They would not know there are x-rays that can penetrate solid objects and can be used to locate foreign objects or reveal their skeletons. They would not know that mass and energy are related. There would be no photography, no electricity to light up a home, no telephones, no jet travel, no railroad system, no postal system, and no automobiles. 
During this trip to the past you would be frustrated because you could not tell those with whom you converse any of this future information and you would have to listen to debates in which one wrong approach is contested against another wrong approach. One physician might argue that illness is caused by unhealthy air and another physician might ague that an imbalance of vital humors was the cause of illness.  One might treat disease by copious bloodletting.  Another might recommend warm enemas to purge the toxins from your system. If you were talking about an epidemic of influenza, you would be frustrated that the idea of flu viruses is not mentioned and immunization against the disease was possible but no would think of this future possibility.

I suggested this thought experiment because I think of it when listening to debates today on topics where we have incomplete knowledge.  Is consciousness a biological phenomenon or is there some sort of non-material soul or being that exists in your body, especially your brain? Neurobiologists will favor a mechanistic explanation and use present day tools to find genes associated with brain formation and function or tools that reveal where in the brain different activities take place. Theologians and philosophers who see the mind as separate from the body will invoke either a divine insertion of a soul or some emergent property of matter that cannot be detected by reductionist techniques and tools. Neither side says that we cannot answer that question because we do not yet know enough about how the brain works or what the genes do that make our brain an anatomical and functional unit.  Confessing ignorance is often considered a cop out.  Just as the answers to the questions raised in 1814 required hundreds of findings, experiments, and new tools to reveal the very small and the very large and to tear cells into their components to see how they worked, a similar abundance of new tools and new findings and new testable theories will emerge in the decades or centuries ahead before we have answers that cannot be imagined today. Humility is not rejecting science in favor of guesswork going back some two to three thousand years ago, but recognition that we cannot know the future and it takes patience to get reason-based answers, not all of them coming in our own life times.   

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