The Power and Limits of Reductionism
The roots of the First Dimension approach to science can be traced to the experiments performed by the great scientists of the modern age starting in the 16th century. The early modern period saw a renewed interest in the systematic observation of natural phenomena. Out of this interest gradually grew a scientific method for explaining them. The first task was to observe a phenomenon carefully and catalogue its effects quantitatively, such as recording the position of a stellar body over the course of a whole year, or measuring the height of a growing plant over several weeks. After tabulating these observations and recognising a pattern, one could hypothesise its causes using inductive reasoning. Then one or more experiments could be devised and conducted to verify whether the hypothesis was plausible. While many early experiments were virtual (that is, thought experiments), real experiments became more common as the quality of instruments improved. A controlled environment like that of a laboratory facilitated systematic experiments where one could isolate a certain variable and perform the experiment by altering that variable while all other variables remained constant. Results could then be tabulated and if they were consistent, one could infer that the hypothesis was either correct or incorrect. Once a hypothesis was tested in one experiment, the next step was for the results to be replicated. Finally, when results were successfully replicated, the hypothesis became a theorem.
Armed with this powerful First Dimension methodology, science initially made rapid strides because there was plenty of low-hanging fruit. Many theories of simple causality involving simple relationships between a limited number of variables emerged, and thus many of the phenomena around us were explained adequately. Applications of the many theorems and laws that were discovered in this manner gave rise to extensive technological benefits in medicine, transport, construction, communications, hygiene, and agriculture, leading to a rapid and dramatic improvement in the quality of human life.
The growth of capitalism and the limited liability company meant that the inherent risks in funding scientific discoveries could be divided between shareholders, making it much easier to fund research – and the process of experimentation and invention – as the funders knew, increasingly, that there were markets and buyers for the new technologies. The pushback against religious orthodoxy freed scientists from persecution by the dominant religious classes. The decline in the power of orthodoxy in Europe gave the spirit of scientific inquiry room to breathe. People began to see that there were practical benefits and profits to be made from scientific advances, whether geographical ones like America and Australia, or technological ones like steam engines and spinning jennies.
It was at that point that the connection between science and capitalism was forged. This is the first predicament of First Dimension science: its spirit of inquiry is often directed by the search for utility. Almost every investigative effort must demonstrate that the results will have potential practical applications that will eventually bring about significant and quantifiable benefits to end-users of the technology developed with them. Utility, in turn, is frequently driven by the expectation of profit.
The second problem of First Dimension science is that many of the easy gains have already been made. To be sure, in every field, from cosmology to sub-atomic particles, from genetic sequencing to invertebrate zoology, there are vast domains of knowledge that remain unexplored, and an endless list of research questions to be answered. But many of the mechanisms of nature that impact directly the daily lives of most people have been discovered and exploited already, to a sufficient degree, that little more needs to be done. Electricity and the light bulb have been invented and refined enough to give us all the lighting solutions we need. While researchers continue to study more efficient methods of delivering these essentials to our homes, the great leaps forward are a thing of the past, and only small incremental gains can be expected. Making new discoveries seems to require exponentially more investment – of time, money, and labour. In the beginning there were a number of things that could be established with simple causality. It was like exploring a mine: it is easy to extract minerals close to the surface, but as time goes by, you have to dig deeper, spend more money and labour, and go off the beaten track to find progressively smaller residues of the precious metal you seek.
The third constraint of First Dimension science is that the experimental methods upon which it is founded typically force us to reduce the number of variables under investigation to make the results discrete and easy to understand. This reductionist approach yielded great returns in the beginning, but, after a while, it hampered our ability to understand the interaction of multiple variables and thus the true nature of the world around us. The tunnel vision of this method – one hypothesis and a handful of variables to be tested in search of a yes-or-no answer – meant that entire realms of nature and spectra of results were ignored.
As the phenomena under investigation have become more complex, however, the power of mathematical modelling has come to the rescue. Most systems in nature are complex, from the fluid mechanics of a flowing river to the molecular interactions in the human body, but they can be tackled using multivariate analytical techniques. Imagine, for example, an epidemiologist trying to determine what is causing an unusually high incidence of cardiovascular disease in a particular population. In her analysis, she must consider a large number of causative variables (risk factors), such as gender, age, the presence of other medical conditions (obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and so forth), each subject’s lifestyle (diet, exercise regimen, alcohol use, and smoking habit), environmental factors (air quality, for example), and several others. Yet many of these variables are correlated. Obesity, though it has a genetic component, is closely associated with lifestyle habits, especially diet and exercise. Diabetes, in turn, is closely correlated with obesity. Hypertension is affected by smoking and alcohol consumption. And the incidence of many medical conditions increases with age. Trying to sort through this tangle of correlations necessitates a sophisticated multivariate analysis. Multivariable methods are used to assess and adjust for confounding (when a risk factor is correlated to another risk factor and also to the outcome, but does not actually cause that outcome), to determine whether there is effect modification (when a risk factor has a different effect on different subgroups), and to assess the simultaneous contribution of several risk factors on an outcome. This work is computationally difficult and relies on the use of powerful statistical software made possible by advances in computing over the last few decades.
The study of complex systems such as the weather, climate change, fundamental particle dynamics, and the behaviour of financial markets, also relies heavily on the powerful hardware and increasingly refined software that make computational modelling possible. Using computers capable of churning through immense amounts of data, and software that can accommodate the influence of a vast number of variables, computational modelling has become the norm in many modern-day scientific efforts. Simulations based on mathematical models typically yield probabilistic results rather than confirmations of a hypothesis, that is, they predict a range of outcomes and assign a likelihood to each outcome. They acknowledge that many natural as well as man-made systems are far too complex to accommodate simple cause-and-effect interpretations.
The Role of Tangentialism in Second Dimension Science
By adopting methodologies – multivariate analysis and computational modelling – that specifically address the complexity of the natural and artificial systems that surround us, First Dimension science has already come very far. To fulfil its mandate at the cutting edge of human endeavour, however, it must do more. I propose three avenues by which it can achieve new discoveries to supply our need for continual innovation.
Second Dimension science must embrace the notion that knowledge, in the past as well as now, is often arrived at indirectly. The effect of multiple variables cannot be tracked directly. When we track it obliquely, on the other hand, we enter a realm where insight becomes important. Insight is the ability to process information from the ‘non-rational mind’ or from a different level of consciousness in a way that is very different from the way you process information in the linear, measured context of a scientific experiment. If we come across any information that stretches our hypothesis or demeans our theory, then we must test the efficacy of our tools, or seek better ones. The Second Dimension provides such tools, and science here relies on the abilities of people who have developed great powers of insight.
At present, the pace of scientific research is set by controlled experiments and trials, but increasingly the nature of what we observe will become more oblique. We need to develop a more nuanced mindset to understand the various degrees of influence that each variable exerts in a complex multivariable situation, and how that affects the data we collect. Our methods of gathering and analysing data will need to become more oblique. Too often nowadays the scientist shuts off the possibility of a new, unexpected discovery because he is too narrowly focused on achieving a particular result – the confirmation or rejection of a hypothesis. But in the early years of scientific inquiry, when so much less was known, there was a much greater scope for accidental discovery than there is today. If inquiry could recover that original flexibility and rely more on observation of entire systems within nature, rather than narrowly focusing on highly specialised scenarios, the likelihood of discovering new interactions would be greatly increased.
In the Second Dimension, funding of scientific research must be spread out more evenly and supported more consistently. Today there is some fundamental research happening because of support from government agencies and philanthropic organisations. Much of the most advanced research, however, is currently funded by private entities – corporations driven by the expectation of profit. Private or corporate funding of scientific research invariably affects what is researched, with the bulk of funds being spent on projects that have relatively short gestation and that can be monetised easily. Fundamental research is often too risky for corporations to fund. Indeed, research into pure science without any discernible purpose is usually impossible for private companies to support. In the Second Dimension all private firms engaging in research and development (R&D) of any kind will be required to set aside a percentage of their budget for scientific activities not directly related to any product they manufacture or service they deliver. The funds made available in this manner will be pooled by an independent agency that will oversee the disbursement of such monies to various research activities not already supported by private enterprise or government grants. We can change the incentives for funding and shift the focus from short-term investments to fundamental research by adopting an innovative system of corporate taxation based on the Utility Index.
Investigation of Alternative Paradigms
The third characteristic of Second Dimension science will be a greater willingness, indeed a stated mission, to embrace and foster alternative forms of inquiry – what we pejoratively call ‘fringe science’. There are several therapeutic traditions – including Ayurveda, meditation, and yoga – that are still very much on the periphery of what is considered canonical medical understanding, at least in the West. But there is increasing clinical evidence that such therapies do indeed deliver measurable health benefits. They can no longer be dismissed as Eastern fads or pseudo-medical quackery. In other domains of science, too, there needs to be a more concerted effort to valorise and properly investigate all phenomena, however odd they might seem at first, to bring them into the fold of systematic scientific investigation.
It is important to remember that there is more to the world than the strictly measurable universe. As Einstein remarked, ‘it would be possible [to describe everything scientifically], but it would make no sense. It would be description without meaning – as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.’ There is a whole universe beyond the boundaries of First Dimension science, and scientific inquiry should move past them to explore this other world. Just because First Dimension science works well within its boundaries does not mean we should not seek to go beyond them. If we abandon the assumption that only what has been proved experimentally is real, and accept instead that nature still holds a vast reservoir of secrets which we have neither the instruments to analyse nor the intellectual capacity to comprehend yet, then our rate of discovery will accelerate rather than be held back.
The Third Dimension: Scientific Discovery Powered by Consciousness
The application of reason – upon which all inquiry since the Enlightenment has been based, including the scientific method – is helpful only up to a certain limit. In the beginning, science used a reductionist technique to rationalise nature’s behaviour. Reliance on simple, single-variable causality yielded tremendous results at first, allowing scientists to explain much of nature’s gross behaviour. Under closer scrutiny, however, this method revealed its limitations. In complex situations, in microscopic environments, in structures influenced by too many variables, the reliance on simple causation failed to explain phenomena. When trying to predict the motion of sub-atomic particles or anticipating gene mutations, the reductionist principle ran into a road block. Increasingly divergent theories – such as quantum mechanics, relativity, and string theory – were developed to correct the approximations of First Dimension science. This eventually resulted in a probabilistic interpretation of phenomena aided by computation models. But even that avenue seems to have reached the limits of its usefulness, as manifold increases in computation power have not ushered equivalent leaps in understanding.
In the Third Dimension, therefore, science must turn to a more intuitive approach that will allow us to break the barriers imposed by our primitive understanding of causality. It is the very assumption of causality that distorts our view of reality. In order to go beyond it we must embrace nonlinear thought processes and alternative phenomenological explanations – a supra-logical capacity for intuition that all thinkers of the past, from rationalists to shamans, have sought in everything from intoxication to spiritual transcendence. The route to further discoveries lies in our innate, but underdeveloped, capacity for intuition, insight, and clairvoyance – what psychologists call ‘thin-slicing’.
Let us assume for a moment that the world we see around us – from what happens at the subatomic level, to the cellular level, to our bodies, our minds, nature, our environment, the solar system, the galaxies around us – is like watching children playing a game. As observers, however, we are forced to watch from a distance, without interfering, as if we were watching the game through a visual telecommunication medium. How we perceive and understand the game played by the children depends heavily on the medium. In the beginning the medium was early black-and-white film with no sound; by watching closely we could surmise certain things, like lip movement and gestures, but we could not hear any sound, so at best we could guess the rules of the game and who the winner was. Then came a new version with sound, and then another version with both sound and colour. In the near future we will be able to watch through an even newer medium that will be able to display the children’s brain waves in real time. It will also maintain a database of their game-playing histories and be able to offer probabilistic predictions about each player’s next move based on analysis of this stored information.
With each new stage, with each new medium or tool, the observer is able to reach a closer understanding of the game. But each stage is exponentially more difficult to achieve, because it requires increasingly more sophisticated equipment and computational power. What if there were a faster way to leapfrog all the stages and reach the point of understanding directly? Such a leap forward is possible. It can be achieved by developing our powers of concentration and observation. That is what a rise in our level of consciousness will do. When genuine commitment, mindfulness, and the capacity for deep concentration exist in the mind of the scientist, this mind becomes capable of innovation at a rate and to a depth hitherto unprecedented. The ability to make progress in leaps rather than small steps will result from a heightened level of consciousness.
Insight and intuition are fundamental ingredients for meaningful scientific advance, and the consistent practice of meditation in the Third Dimension will prime the scientist’s mind for frequent and sustained moments of insightful deduction. Now, the definitions of ‘insight’ and ‘intuition’ can be ambiguous: insight can mean either a deep understanding that arises slowly from prior knowledge, or it can mean an instant breakthrough that comes like a thunderbolt. Intuition, although often equated with insight, can be more precisely defined as an inner knowledge gained without the use of rational thought. Intuition will guide Third Dimension scientists to probe in areas where important discoveries can be made, while insight will reveal such discoveries to them. Insight will indeed take the form of sudden revelation, but such a revelation will be the fruit of extensive previous application. The new acuity gained through consistent meditation will prepare the mind for such insight, such that ‘eureka moments’ will be much more frequent.
The history of science is replete with instances where a ground-breaking advance was made entirely through either intuition or insight, or both. We need not repeat the most common anecdotes – Archimedes’ discovery of buoyancy, or Newton and his apple, or Einstein’s first glimpse of relativity during his dull days at the patent office – because they have been retold, embellished, and exaggerated too often. But there are many others worth noting, such as Rene Descartes’ invention of the Cartesian coordinate system because he followed the movement of a fly flitting across his ceiling and realised that he could describe its exact position by measuring its distance from each of two perpendicular walls. Or Friedrich von Stradonitz’s discovery of the ring-like structure of the benzene molecule as a result of a dream.
In technology, too, insight has yielded many of the useful products that we use today. The lowly Post-It note – an indispensable item on everyone’s desk – was invented by 3M employee Art Fry when he realised that a mild glue that had been created years before but was as yet unused because of its weakness could be useful in solving a problem he himself had experienced – how to permanently bookmark a page in his hymnal without damaging it. Swiss mountaineer George de Mestral came home one day after walking his dog and realised that they were both covered in tiny burrs. Intuition told him that this was not a trivial occurrence at all, so instead of brushing off the burrs he looked at them under a microscope, and saw that they clung to his clothes with tiny hooks. His insight was that this mechanism could be reproduced artificially and find useful applications, so he designed a two-sided fabric fastener – Velcro – that mimicked nature. The process must have been much the same for the primordial inventor of the wheel: while walking down a hill he was overtaken by a rolling stone and intuited that this rotating motion could be faster and more efficient than walking. Then the insight struck him: it was the shape that made all the difference.
While we are ready to acknowledge the role of intuition and insight in many important discoveries and inventions of the past, we typically associate such instances with lucky guesswork, or serendipity, or a momentary flash of genius – unexplainable and usually unrepeatable. Consequential moments of insight are neither mysterious nor unique. In most anecdotes that describe such ‘eureka experiences’, we notice a similar pattern. The scientist, researcher or designer – an experienced thinker or practitioner in his field – thought long and hard about a problem or issue, without being able to solve it. Later, in a moment when he was distracted and thus was able to relax his mind, the insight came to him unexpectedly. This happened because for a brief moment the thinking mind switched off and the experienced practitioner was able to make the connection to the essence of what was being observed through direct, intuitive insight.
Thus it was for Einstein, who famously hit upon the fundamental insight that time is not constant (time can flow at different rates, depending on how fast you move) while riding a street car home, after having been vexed by the relationship between space and time for years. After struggling to find a way to create a rotating magnetic field, Nikola Tesla made the breakthrough that resulted in the invention of the AC induction motor while walking through a park in Budapest and reciting poetry. Biochemist Kary Mullis developed the idea for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) – a technique that allows a strand of DNA to be copied and amplified – while driving to his cabin on the north coast of California. And German pharmacologist Otto Loewi, thanks to a dream, famously discovered that nerve impulses were transmitted chemically, not electronically.
Original insight and invention are unlikely to occur without hard work and perseverance, of course. Einstein’s insight that time is not absolute was the result of years of hard work; the theme of Mahler’s 7th symphony came to him when he heard the sound made by the oars of a rowboat, but only after many hours of struggle to find the right tune. As Louis Pasteur put it, ‘chance favours the prepared mind’. But even when trying to solve a problem consciously, great mathematicians and scientists employ a process of trial and error that also requires moments of creative, irrational insight for their work to progress. Karl Popper wrote in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, ‘There is no such thing as a logical method of having new ideas, or a logical reconstruction of this process [...] [E]very discovery contains “an irrational element,” or “a creative intuition.”’
Unconventional, irrational, inspired ways to access knowledge have been sought by many over the ages – researchers, priests, soothsayers, oracles, Sybils, and psychics – especially with the help of hallucinogenic substances. The collected evidence of such attempts to reach a state of mind that favours brief periods of sharpened intuition was exclusively anecdotal until 1965, when a group of US researchers led by psychologist James Fadiman conducted an experiment designed to evaluate whether the use of a psychedelic substance like lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) could enhance creativity in solving scientific and technical problems of a high, professional order.
The study subjects were twenty-seven men engaged in a variety of technical professions: engineers, mathematicians, architects, and designers. Each participant brought along a professional problem he had been working on for at least three months, but had been unable to solve. After having taken a combination of drugs, including mescaline, the subjects were encouraged to work on the problems they had brought with them. After completion of the experiment, most subjects reported various changes in their approach to work, including the ability to see the problem in broader terms; enhanced fluency of ideation and heightened capacity to visualise potential solutions; increased ability to concentrate; and an enhanced sense of ‘knowing’ when the right solution appeared. In many cases, the subject was able to find a new and viable solution to the creative problem he faced. Moreover, in structured creativity tests administered by the study designers both before and after the experiment, the majority of participants showed a significant improvement in fluency of ideas, visualisation acuity, and speed, when under the influence of the psychedelic drug. (Further experimentation was prevented by the Food and Drug Administration’s subsequent ban on the use of psychedelics in clinical research involving human subjects.)
Whether induced by a chemical substance or occurring naturally, the potential of heightened states of insightfulness is undeniable. Brief periods of irrational genius have played a clear role in the development of science and technology. To a certain extent, the existence of, and indeed the necessity for, an intuitive and irrational element in scientific enquiry was posited in scientific terms by one of the greatest minds of our time. In 1931, Czech mathematician Kurt Gödel demonstrated that in any branch of mathematics there would always be propositions that could not be proved or disproved using the rules and axioms of that mathematical branch itself. Gödel showed that there can exist propositions that we know by insight to be true but that cannot be proven mathematically. Although this idea can be stated in a rigorously mathematical way, as Gödel did, what it seems to say is that rational thought alone cannot achieve any ultimate and complete truth. What came to be known as the Gödel Incompleteness Theorem has thus had profound implications for our understanding of the limitations of reason, making, as he put it, ‘continued appeals to mathematical intuition’ necessary.
If intuition and insight are indispensable ingredients of scientific progress, then the goal of a higher-dimensional methodology for the advancement of science must be to increase the frequency and profoundness of such insightful breakthroughs. In the Third Dimension, the greater elasticity of mind attained though the consistent practice of meditation will foster the qualities of intuition and insight in a greater number of scientists and engineers. Meditation increases the mind’s ability to focus and concentrate, and this, in turn, opens it to insight. The first step in this process is the ability to still the mind, emptying it of distracting and confounding thoughts. In other words, the starting point is the ability to relax the mind. As we have seen, the alternation of these two mental states – intense concentration and relaxation – has produced some of the greatest scientific and technical breakthroughs in the past. It is reasonable to expect, therefore, that minds trained through years of meditation to achieve both great focus and complete relaxation, will be able to intuit with greater agility the many secrets that still lie hidden in nature.
Stated differently, scientists in the Third Dimension will develop a new avenue to acquire knowledge, an avenue that is neither rational nor sensory. That such an avenue exists has long been posited by various traditions of Eastern mysticism, especially with regard to the esoteric concept of the Third Eye. This speculative, invisible eye – often depicted in statues of the Buddha and of Hindu deities as occupying the middle of the forehead – is said to provide perception of a reality that lies beyond ordinary vision. It is a window that allows some to introspect upon the inner reality of higher consciousness, but also to examine the world with special acuity, amounting to an almost supernatural perception that brings out our ability to observe vibes, energies, connections and implications. Stripped of its religious connotations, the idea of a Third Eye simply suggests that a deeper truth can be grasped directly by accessing the mind’s extrasensory capacity. The Third Eye – which can be opened and trained through meditative techniques – is merely another term for our intuitive capacity.
Today there are many individuals, in science as well as in other disciplines, who already possess the intuitive ability to see what others cannot, and can at times glimpse solutions and connections that can prove revolutionary. They are the most successful investors, the most productive researchers, the most perspicacious writers, the most inspirational teachers. But whatever heightened level of intuitive understanding they have been able to develop, it is a miraculous quality that sets them apart from the vast majority of their colleagues, who may be equally hard-working and dedicated. The powers of concentration fostered by increased meditational practice in the Third Dimension will result in such levels of natural insight in many more intellectuals, scientists, and thinkers, such that we will enjoy an era of unprecedented discovery and breakthrough in all realms of knowledge.