28 May 2009

Metaphysical musings

Vitalism is the belief that all living things contain a spirit. Animism is the belief that all things, living or otherwise, do.* A friend recently asked me, which am I? And how do I reconcile that with being an evolutionary biologist?

My answer: Biology is about the physical forms of life, and evolution is about how they got to be the way they are. For that matter, all of the hard sciences are about the physical world. Animism and vitalism are about spirits, which are not physical. What does the one have to do with the other? To me, not a whole lot. Physical form probably influences how a spirit perceives and interacts with the world, but in the end body and soul are separate things.

So what do I think about spirits in general? Well, all living things certainly have them. Not sure about non-living things. There are also spirits that aren't attached to physical forms. Some of them survived their deaths in the physical world; others, I have no idea whether they came from a somewhere or if their there is where they've always been. But the physical plane is not the only one.

I'm not sure whether my friend was satisfied with that answer or not.

*Apparently it's more longwinded than that, with whole philosophical schools of thought behind those concepts, with which I'm completely unfamiliar, so I'll just go with how it was defined to me, as above by said friend.


Anonymous said...

Ahem. *All* sciences deal with the physical world.

neurondoc said...

Interesting. I really enjoy hearing how scientists reconcile these types of views with the need for evidence that "hard" science engenders. You make me think hard, which is a good thing...

John the Scientist said...

Yeah, I pretty much see science and religion as orthogonal vectors, too.

Bakho - Social Sciences are looking at derivatives of the physical world, not at the physical world directly, which would be the province of neurology. Which is too much in its infancy to be able to predict human behavior, yet. Because the Social Sciences are measuring a derivative, noise is increased, precision is decreased, measurement is difficult, statements of opinion and fact are often blended, and the scientific method can take quite a long time to sort out mistakes, relative to the hard sciences.

I currently make my living as a marketer, and I have lots and lots of conversations with my colleagues in the lab about the validity of applied psychology (which is what marketing, especially Consumer Behavior, is).

In the physical sciences, measurements are not so heavily dependent on the framing of the hypothesis as they are in the softer sciences. I can skew the results of a marketing survey any way I want to by the way I ask the questions. I have to be very careful to omit my own biases from an instrument, and even then they creep in. I see gross methodological errors all over the place in the Social Science literature.

Anonymous said...

@John: So the 'hard sciences' don't deal with what you'd call derivatives? Take the atom for example. The atom is not a directly observable phenomena (it was postulated and 'proven' by observation and experiment which are conclusive to its postulated properties). And it's a derivative, because I cannot empirically observe it directly (if I'm wrong, I'm not sure how far micro scoping techniques went since my highschool...but I'm pretty sure they never observed an atom, and if they did...what about an electron?:P).

What I'm trying to say...the atom is a theoretical construct; a really good one because it predicts reality and the physical world flawlessly, but it still IS a theoretical construct.

The problem with psychology (and I'm guessing with other social sciences) is that we still haven't discovered or proved beyond doubt such 'flawless' constructs. We did a good job with things like intelligence and personality, for example, but that's still far far away from something like the atom.

Comparing Consumer Behavior to psychological scientific method is very limited. After all, such 'research' is usually purely correlative, which is only a shadow of causative research - the experiment (from what I know about marketing research, correct me if I'm wrong).

I agree that causative AND correlative research in social sciences is a much trickier business than in what you call the 'harder sciences', but does that push them down on your established pecking order? I think not. Because what makes a science science is its methodology, not its subject of interest.

About the gross methodological errors...I've seen dozens of those, and I'm only a sophmore. There's always room for improvement of methodological awareness; especially in a science which has a subject of interest that can only be measured indirectly (I'm not including here the measurement of perceptive phenomena, which is direct).

@Ner: Apologies for swarming your post :P

MWT said...

Well, this wasn't the direction I thought this post was going to go, but yay discussion! :D I'd been wondering what would happen if you two met up on this particular topic.

bakho: I was going to write "all sciences" initially but then started thinking too hard about it, so decided to be conservative and just write "hard sciences." As written, my statement is definitely true. ;)

neurondoc: glad you liked. :)

Anonymous said...

Ehh. I think he'll beat me to pulp. But I'll be back in a couple of years (in case he does), to prove him wrong.

John is my windmill :D

John the Scientist said...

Heh, sorry Bakho - Atomic Force microscope have actually imaged atoms. And are you saying we have to see something to know it's there? What about air?

The problem with the social sciences is not the constructs, it is the same problem we had in Biology until recently - the objects of study are embedded in multiple feedback and feed-forward loops, and thus variable are hard to isolate.

And no, marketing encompasses a whole spectrum of research, from basic to extremely applied. Most of the consumer behaviorists are psychologists by training.