Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Is it true?" vs "Does it work?"

Lately, I have been so intrigued by the question "Why" that it has clouded my life-long fascination with the "How".

Trying to answer the fundamental Why questions remains a quest - its deep, its meaningful, even sexy.

Trying to answer the How is less glamorous. It is an arena filled with squabbling crooks, missionaries, conmen, charlatans, quacks and well... those like me. Since masses care about the How more than the Why, there has been commercialization of this space too.

Here is why I care about "How"

The lack of empirical evidence is more the norm than an exception of the discipline of mind-science (to use a not-so-graceful term).

John Horgan in his book "The Undiscovered Mind - How the brain defies explanation" says... (not verbatim)

Evolutionary Biologist Erns Mayr argued that no field of biology can match the precision and power of physics, because unlike electrons and neutrons, all organisms are unique. Even then, the difference between two different kinds of bacteria or different types of horses is trivial compared to differences between two human beings, even those who are genetically identical. Each individual mind may change dramatically when its owner is spanked, learns the alphabet, reads a book, takes a drug, falls in love, gets divorced, undergoes Jungian dream therapy, suffers a stroke. The variability and malleability of the human mind enormously complicate the search for general principles of human nature.

Investigations into the human mind have failed to generate the kind of applications that compel belief in a particular paradigm. Physicists can boast of lasers, transistors, nuclear bombs. Biologists can show-off vaccines, cloning, antibiotics. By-products of mind-science are less impressive: cognitive behavioral therapy, thorazine, prozac, shock therapy, IQ tests etc.

Millions and millions of people receive inputs through psychoanalysis, which Freud invented a century ago. Psychoanalysis also fares very poorly in empirical research. Freud has been described as a cult-leader who excelled at self-promotion and also as a genius whose insights into the psyche, though difficult to pin down empirically, still "ring" true. Each of these views is defensible, and the persistence of psychoanalysis proves the inability of science to offer an obvious superior explanation of the mind and its disorders. Freudians cannot point to an unambiguous evidence of their paradigm's superiority, but neither can proponents of more modern paradigms.

The field of social psychology - which continues to speculate about human culture - coining terms that we are so intimately familiar with as teachers - like "identity crisis", "conventional wisdom" or "learned helplessness" - these are not scientific theories but "help us think".

A slightly different approach then, would be to judge paradigms of thought, not on what they say - but for what they do. The question shifts from "Is it true?" to "Does it work?"

Early advocates of Quantum Physics could only describe results from esoteric experiments. Later, they had the supporting evidence from fission reactors, transistors, lasers, thermonuclear bombs - technologies that altered the course of history. For many physicists; whether quantum mechanics is true is almost irrelevant. It works.

I believe - the name, the label, the thought-movement or affiliations don't matter. I discovered NLP and several other philosophies in a personal quest for meaning and growth and accepted that which made sense and matched my experience. This strategy has worked for me. I cannot claim in all honesty that I have not been skeptic or unfairly judgmental of certain bodies of knowledge. However, in such cases - the loss has been mine.

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