[Paleopsych] Edge: John Horgan: In Defense of Common Sense

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John Horgan: In Defense of Common Sense

    All these theories are preposterous, but that's not my problem with
    them. My problem is that no conceivable experiment can confirm the
    theories, as most proponents reluctantly acknowledge. The strings (or
    membranes, or whatever) are too small to be discerned by any buildable
    instrument, and the parallel universes are too distant. Common sense
    thus persuades me that these avenues of speculation will turn out to
    be dead ends.

    By John Horgan


    John Horgan, author of The End of Science, and feisty and provocative
    as ever, is ready for combat with scientists in the Edge community.
    "I'd love to get Edgies' reaction to my OpEd piece -- "In Defense of
    Common Sense" -- in The New York Times", he writes.

    Physicist Leonard Susskind, writing "In Defense of Uncommon Sense", is
    the first to take up Horgan's challenge ([10]see below). Susskind
    notes that in "the utter strangeness of a world that the human
    intellect was not designed for... physicists have had no choice but to
    rewire themselves. Where intuition and common sense failed, they had
    to create new forms of intuition, mainly through the use of abstract
    mathematics." We've gone "out of the range of experience."

    Read on.

    -- [11]JB

    JOHN HORGAN oversees the science writings program at the Stevens
    Institute of Technology. His books include The End of Science and
    Rational Mysticism.

    [12]John Horgan's Edge bio page

    [13]THE REALITY CLUB:[14] Verena Huber-Dyson, [15]Robert Provine,
    [16]Spencer Reiss, [17]Daniel Gilbert, [18]John McCarthy, [19]Leonard
    Susskind respond to John Horgan. [20]Horgan replies.


    As anyone remotely interested in science knows by now, 100 years ago
    Einstein wrote six papers that laid the groundwork for quantum
    mechanics and relativity, arguably the two most successful theories in
    history. To commemorate Einstein's "annus mirabilis," a coalition of
    physics groups has designated 2005 the World Year of Physics. The
    coalition's Web site lists more than 400 celebratory events, including
    conferences, museum exhibits, concerts, Webcasts, plays, poetry
    readings, a circus, a pie-eating contest and an Einstein look-alike

    In the midst of all this hoopla, I feel compelled to deplore one
    aspect of Einstein's legacy: the widespread belief that science and
    common sense are incompatible. In the pre-Einstein era, T. H. Huxley,
    aka "Darwin's bulldog," could define science as "nothing but trained
    and organized common sense." But quantum mechanics and relativity
    shattered our common-sense notions about how the world works. The
    theories ask us to believe that an electron can exist in more than one
    place at the same time, and that space and time -- the I-beams of
    reality -- are not rigid but rubbery. Impossible! And yet these
    sense-defying propositions have withstood a century's worth of
    painstaking experimental tests.

    As a result, many scientists came to see common sense as an impediment
    to progress not only in physics but also in other fields. "What, after
    all, have we to show for ... common sense," the behaviorist B. F.
    Skinner asked, "or the insights gained through personal experience?"
    Elevating this outlook to the status of dogma, the British biologist
    Lewis Wolpert declared in his influential 1992 book "The Unnatural
    Nature of Science," "I would almost contend that if something fits in
    with common sense it almost certainly isn't science." Dr. Wolpert's
    view is widely shared. When I invoke common sense to defend or -- more
    often -- criticize a theory, scientists invariably roll their eyes.

    Scientists' contempt for common sense has two unfortunate
    implications. One is that preposterousness, far from being a problem
    for a theory, is a measure of its profundity; hence the appeal,
    perhaps, of dubious propositions like multiple-personality disorders
    and multiple-universe theories. The other, even more insidious
    implication is that only scientists are really qualified to judge the
    work of other scientists. Needless to say, I reject that position, and
    not only because I'm a science journalist (who majored in English). I
    have also found common sense -- ordinary, nonspecialized knowledge and
    judgment -- to be indispensable for judging scientists'
    pronouncements, even, or especially, in the most esoteric fields.

    For example, Einstein's intellectual heirs have long been obsessed
    with finding a single "unified" theory that can embrace quantum
    mechanics, which accounts for electromagnetism and the nuclear forces,
    and general relativity, which describes gravity. The two theories
    employ very different mathematical languages and describe very
    different worlds, one lumpy and random and the other seamless and

    The leading candidate for a unified theory holds that reality stems
    from tiny strings, or loops, or membranes, or something wriggling in a
    hyperspace consisting of 10, or 16 or 1,000 dimensions (the number
    depends on the variant of the theory, or the day of the week, or the
    theorist's ZIP code). A related set of "quantum gravity" theories
    postulates the existence of parallel universes -- some perhaps mutant
    versions of our own, like "Bizarro world" in the old Superman comics
    -- existing beyond the borders of our little cosmos. "Infinite Earths
    in Parallel Universes Really Exist," the normally sober Scientific
    American once hyperventilated on its cover.

    All these theories are preposterous, but that's not my problem with
    them. My problem is that no conceivable experiment can confirm the
    theories, as most proponents reluctantly acknowledge. The strings (or
    membranes, or whatever) are too small to be discerned by any buildable
    instrument, and the parallel universes are too distant. Common sense
    thus persuades me that these avenues of speculation will turn out to
    be dead ends.

    Common sense -- and a little historical perspective -- makes me
    equally skeptical of grand unified theories of the human mind. After a
    half-century of observing myself and my fellow humans -- not to
    mention watching lots of TV and movies -- I've concluded that as
    individuals we're pretty complex, variable, unpredictable creatures,
    whose personalities can be affected by a vast range of factors. I'm
    thus leery of hypotheses that trace some important aspect of our
    behavior to a single cause.

    Two examples: The psychologist Frank Sulloway has claimed that birth
    order has a profound, permanent impact on personality; first-borns
    tend to be conformists, whereas later-borns are "rebels." And just
    last year, the geneticist Dean Hamer argued that human spirituality --
    surely one of the most complicated manifestations of our complicated
    selves -- stems from a specific snippet of DNA. Although common sense
    biases me against these theories, I am still open to being persuaded
    on empirical grounds. But the evidence for both Dr. Sulloway's
    birth-order theory and Dr. Hamer's "God gene" is flimsy.

    Over the past century, moreover, mind-science has been as faddish as
    teenage tastes in music, as one theory has yielded to another.
    Everything we think and do, scientists have assured us, can be
    explained by the Oedipal complex, or conditioned reflexes, or
    evolutionary adaptations, or a gene in the X chromosome, or serotonin
    deficits in the amygdala. Given this rapid turnover in paradigms, it's
    only sensible to doubt them all until the evidence for one becomes

    Ironically, while many scientists disparage common sense,
    artificial-intelligence researchers have discovered just how subtle
    and powerful an attribute it is. Over the past few decades,
    researchers have programmed computers to perform certain well-defined
    tasks extremely well; computers can play championship chess, calculate
    a collision between two galaxies and juggle a million airline
    reservations. But computers fail miserably at simulating the ordinary,
    experience-based intelligence that helps ordinary humans get through
    ordinary days. In other words, computers lack common sense, and that's
    why even the smartest ones are so dumb.

    Yes, common sense alone can lead us astray, and some of science's most
    profound insights into nature violate it; ultimately, scientific truth
    must be established on empirical grounds. Einstein himself once
    denigrated common sense as "the collection of prejudices acquired by
    age 18," but he retained a few basic prejudices of his own about how
    reality works. His remark that "God does not play dice with the
    universe" reflected his stubborn insistence that specific causes yield
    specific effects; he could never fully accept the bizarre implication
    of quantum mechanics that at small scales reality dissolves into a
    cloud of probabilities.

    So far, Einstein seems to be wrong about God's aversion to games of
    chance, but he was right not to abandon his common-sense intuitions
    about reality. In those many instances when the evidence is tentative,
    we should not be embarrassed to call on common sense for guidance.

    [Editor's Note:[21] First published as an Op-Ed Page article in The
    New York Times on August 12th]

    Felix Bloch Professor of Theoretical Physics, Stanford University
    Leonard Susskind Responds to John Horgan

    [susskind100.jpg] John Horgan, the man who famously declared The End
    of Science shortly before the two greatest cosmological discoveries
    since the Big Bang, has now come forth to tell us that the world's
    leading physicists and cognitive scientists are wasting their time.
    Why? Because they are substituting difficult-to-understand and often
    shockingly unintuitive concepts for "everyman" common sense. Whose
    common sense? John Horgan's (admittedly a non-scientist) I presume.

    The complaint that science -- particularly physics -- has lost contact
    with common sense is hardly new. It was used against Einstein, Bohr,
    and Heisenberg, and even today is being used against Darwin by the
    right wing agents of "intelligent design." Every week I get several
    angry email messages containing "common sense" (no math) theories of
    everything from elementary particles to the rings of Saturn. The
    theories have names like "Rational Theory of the Phenomenons.

    Modern science is difficult and often counterintuitive. Instead of
    bombastically ranting against this fact, Horgan should try to
    understand why it is so. The reasons have nothing to do with the
    perversity of string theorists, but rather, they have to do with the
    utter strangeness of a world that the human intellect was not designed
    for. Let me explain.

    Up until the beginning of the 20th century, physics dealt with
    phenomena that took place on a human scale. The typical objects that
    humans could observe varied in the size from a bacterium to something
    smaller than a galaxy. Similarly, no human had ever traveled faster
    than a hundred miles an hour, or a experienced a gravitational field
    that accelerates objects more powerfully than the Earth's
    acceleration, a modest thirty two feet per second per second. Forces
    smaller than a thousandth of a pound, or bigger than a thousand
    pounds, were also out of the range of experience.

    Evolution wired us with both hardware and software that would allow us
    to easily "grock" concepts like force, acceleration, and temperature,
    but only over the limited range that applies to our daily lives --
    concepts that are needed for our physical survival. But it simply did
    not provide us with wiring to intuit the quantum behavior of an
    electron, or velocities near the speed of light, or the powerful
    gravitational fields of black holes, or a universe that closes back on
    itself like the surface of the Earth. A classic example of the
    limitations of our neural wiring is the inability to picture more than
    three dimensions. Why, after all, would nature provide us with the
    capacity to visualize things that no living creature had ever

    Physicists have had no choice but to rewire themselves. Where
    intuition and common sense failed, they had to create new forms of
    intuition, mainly through the use of abstract mathematics: Einstein's
    four dimensional elastic space-time; the infinite dimensional Hilbert
    space of quantum mechanics; the difficult mathematics of string
    theory; and, if necessary, multiple universes. When common sense
    fails, uncommon sense must be created. Of course we must use uncommon
    sense sensibly but we hardly need Horgan to tell us that.

    In trying to understand the universe at both its smallest and biggest
    scales, physics and cosmology have embarked on a new age of
    exploration. In a sense we are attempting to cross a larger uncharted
    sea than ever before. Indeed, as Horgan tells us, it's a dangerous sea
    where one can easily lose ones way and go right off the deep end. But
    great scientists are, by nature, explorers. To tell them to stay
    within the boundaries of common sense may be like telling Columbus
    that if he goes more than fifty miles from shore he'll get hopelessly
    lost. Besides, good old common sense tells us that the Earth is flat.

    Horgan also complains about the lack of common sense in cognitive
    science, i.e., the science of the mind. But the more psychologists and
    neuroscientists learn about the workings of the mind, the more it
    becomes absolutely clear that human cognition does not operate
    according to principles of common sense. That a man can mistake his
    wife for a hat is-well-common nonsense. But it happens. Cognitive
    scientists are also undergoing a rewiring process.

    Finally I must take exception to Horgan's claim that "no conceivable
    experiment can confirm the theories [string theory and cosmological
    eternal inflation] as most proponents reluctantly acknowledge." Here I
    speak from first hand knowledge. Many, if not all, of the most
    distinguished theoretical physicists in the world -- Steven Weinberg,
    Edward Witten, John Schwarz, Joseph Polchinski, Nathan Seiberg, Juan
    Maldacena, David Gross, Savas Dimopoulos, Andrei Linde, Renata
    Kallosh, among many others, most certainly acknowledge no such thing.
    These physicists are full of ideas about how to test modern concepts
    -- from superstrings in the sky to supersymmetry in the lab.

    Instead of dyspeptically railing against what he plainly does not
    understand, Horgan would do better to take a few courses in algebra,
    calculus, quantum mechanics, and string theory. He might then
    appreciate, even celebrate, the wonderful and amazing capacity of the
    human mind to find uncommon ways to comprehend the incomprehensible.

    Computer Scientist; Artificial Intelligence Pioneer, Stanford

    John Horgan pontificates:

      "But computers fail miserably at simulating the ordinary,
      experience-based intelligence that helps ordinary humans get
      through ordinary days. In other words, computers lack common sense,
      and that's why even the smartest ones are so dumb."

    Horgan regards a lack of common sense as an intrinsic characteristic
    of computers; I assume he means computer programs. However, much
    artificial intelligence research has focussed on analyzing commonsense
    knowledge and reasoning. I refer to my 1959 article "Programs with
    common sense", my 1990 collection of articles "Formalizing common
    sense", Erik Mueller's forthcoming book "Commonsense reasoning", and
    the biennial international conferences on common sense. I fear John
    Horgan would find this work as distressingly technical as he finds
    physics. Common sense has proved a difficult scientific topic, and
    programs with human-level common sense have not yet been achieved. It
    may be another 100 years.

    The AI research has identified components of commonsense knowledge and
    reasoning, has formalized some of them in languages of mathematical
    logic, and has built some of them into computer programs. Besides the
    logic based approach, there have been recent attempts to understand
    common sense as an aspect of the human nervous system.

    Research on formalizing common sense physics, e.g. that objects fall
    when pushed off a table, are not in competition with physics as
    studied by physicists. Rather physics is imbedded in common sense.
    Thus applying Newton's F = ma requires commonsense reasoning. Physics
    texts and articles do not consist solely of equations but contain
    common sense explanations.

    When Horgan says that string theory is untestable, he is ignoring even
    the popular science writing about string theory. This literature tells
    us that the current untestability of string theory is regarded by the
    string theorists as a blemish they hope to fix.

    Psychologist, Harvard University

    Horgan's Op-Ed piece is such a silly trifle that it doesn't dignify
    serious response. The beauty of science is that it allows us to
    transcend our intuitions about the world, and it provides us with
    methods by which we can determine which of our intuitions are right
    and which are not. Common sense tell us that the earth is flat, that
    the sun moves around it, and that the people who know the least often
    speak the loudest. Horgan's essay demonstrates that at least one of
    our common sense notions is true.

    Contributing Editor, Wired Magazine
    Surely Susskind is joking:

      "Why, after all, would nature provide us with the capacity to
      visualize things that no living creature had ever experienced?"

    Art? Music? Heaven? God? The Red Sox win the World Series? Science
    fiction, for chrissake!
    Buy the man a drink! This is the kind of stuff that gives scientists a
    bad name.

    Psychologist and Neuroscientist, University of Maryland; Author,

     Hunter-Gatherers Make Poor Physicists and Cognitive Neuroscientists:
                             Horgan 0, Susskind 1

    Horgan continues to expand his franchise that is based on the
    technique of assertively posing provocative and often reasonable
    propositions. The boldness of his assertions earns him an audience
    that he would not otherwise achieve. But as in The End of Science, he
    picks a fight that he is not prepared to win and never delivers a
    telling blow. Susskind effectively exploits a basic weakness in
    Horgan's thesis, the fallibility of common sense, especially in
    scientific context.

    Researchers working at the frontiers of many sciences use mathematical
    and theoretical prostheses to expand the range of phenomena that can
    be studied, escaping some of the limits of their evolutionary history
    and its neurological endowment. The startling truth is that we live in
    a neurologically-generated, virtual cosmos that we are programmed to
    accept as the real thing. The challenge of science is to overcome the
    constraints of our neurological wetware and understand a physical
    world that we know only second-hand and incompletely. In fact, we must
    make an intuitive leap to accept the fact that there is a problem at
    all. Common sense and the brain that produces it evolved in the
    service of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, not physicists and cognitive
    neuroscientists. Unassisted, the brain of Horgan or any other member
    of our species is not up to task of engaging certain scientific
    Sensory science provides the most obvious discrepancies between the
    physical world and our neurological model of it. We humans evolved the
    capacity to detect a subset of stimuli available to us on the surface
    of planet Earth. Different animals with different histories differ in
    their absolute sensitivity to a given stimulus and in the bandwidth to
    with they are sensitive. And some species have modes of sensation that
    we lack, such as electric or magnetic fields. Each species is a theory
    of the environment in which it evolved and it can never completely
    escape the limitations of its unique evolutionary history. But the
    problem of sensing the physical cosmos is even more complicated,
    because we do not directly sense physical stimuli, but are aware of
    only their neurological correlates. There is not, for example, any
    "blue" in electromagnetic radiation, pitch of B-flat in pressure
    changes in the air, or sweetness in sucrose. All are neurological
    derivatives of the physical world, not the thing itself.
    Neurological limits on thinking are probably as common as those on
    sensing, but they are more illusive -- it's harder to think about what
    we can't think about than what we can't sense. A good example from
    physics is our difficulty in understanding the space-time continuum --
    our intellect fails us when we move beyond the dimensions of height,
    width, and depth. Other evidence of our neurological reality-generator
    is revealed by its malfunction in illusions, hallucinations, and
    dreams, or in brain damage, where the illusion of reality does not
    simply degrade, but often splinters and fragments in unanticipated
    The intellectual prostheses of mathematics, computers, and
    instrumentation loosen but do not free our species of the constraints
    of its neurological heritage. We do not build random devices to detect
    stimuli that we cannot conceive, but build outward from a base of
    knowledge. A neglected triumph of science is how far we have come with
    so flawed an instrument as the human brain and its sensoria. Another
    is in realizing the limits of common sense and its knowledge base of
    folk wisdom.

    Logician; Emeritus Professor, University of Calgary
    It seems to me that John Horgan in his Edge piece "In Defense of
    Common Sense" is confusing "common sense" with "prejudice". The human
    capacity for common sense reasoning is undergoing an evolutionary
    process as science and technology are progressing. Just look back over
    the last two millennia for spectacular illustrations of this pretty
    obvious observation. Presumably Mr. Horgan watches TV, uses his
    personal computer and takes airplanes to get places he cannot reach on
    foot nor by his questionably commonsensical motor car. If he does not
    know how to fix whatever trouble his car may come up with -- like some
    people do -- he really should not drive it.
    To some of my colleagues the telescope serves as the extension of
    their vision to others the cloud chamber extends the reach of their
    cognition, just the way his car serves Mr Horgan to get around. In the
    cloud chamber we witness effects of events too small to see directly.
    Oh there are so many wonderful illustrations of this evolution of the
    human cognitive faculties. Ideas, models, conjectures acquiring
    reality by circumstantial evidence and repeated reasoning become part
    of our life; as they get entrenched our common sense expands through
    familiarity. Sometime our notions have to be adjusted, or some, like
    the idea of the ether, become obsolete. That too is progress.
    Common sense that refuses to evolve becomes prejudice, or bigotry to
    use a more bold expression.
    I have seen quite a bit of scientific evolution in my time. In my
    childhood the planetary model of the atom was the way we were thinking
    of matter; now it has become a metaphor or a handy tool, useful under
    certain conditions. The same is about to happen with strings. We have
    learned to think more abstractly, we do not really need to think of
    strings as wiggly worms much too small to see. We have become quite
    adept at mathematical modeling. I'd love to be around to see the
    evolution of cognition happening ever so much faster. Even the men in
    the street are keeping pace. Let us not encourage spoil-sports like Mr

    My modest defense of common sense as a guide for judging theories --
    particularly when empirical evidence is flimsy -- has provoked a
    predictable shriek of outrage from Lenny Susskind. His attempt to lump
    me together with advocates of intelligent design is more than a little
    ironic, since in rebuking me he displays the self-righteous arrogance
    of a religious zealot damning an infidel. Moreover, as a proponent
    (!!) recently acknowledged in the New York Times, string theory and
    its offshoots are so devoid of evidence that they represent "a
    faith-based initiative."
    Susskind urges me to "take courses in algebra, calculus, quantum
    mechanics, and string theory" before I mouth off further about
    strings. In other words, I must become a string theorist to voice an
    opinion about it. This assertion recalls the insistence of Freudians
    -- another group notoriously hostile to outside criticism and
    complaints about testability -- that only those fully indoctrinated
    into their mind-cult can judge it.
    Susskind's protestations to the contrary, string theory can be neither
    falsified nor verified by any empirical test. At best, experiments can
    provide only necessary but insufficient evidence for components --
    such as supersymmetry -- of certain variants of string theory. That is
    why in 2002 I bet the physicist Michio Kaku $1000 that by 2020 no one
    will be awarded a Nobel prize for work on string theory or similar
    quantum-gravity theory. (I discuss the bet with Kaku, Lee Smolin,
    Gordon Kane, and other physicists at [29]"Long Bet"). Would Susskind
    care to make a side bet?
    As to the other respondents: John McCarthy merely confirms my
    assertion that computer programmers have failed to simulate common
    sense -- except that McCarthy expends many more words to make his
    point than I do. And like Lenny Susskind, Robert Provine and Verena
    Huber-Dyson merely point out that many scientific theories violate
    popular, common-sense intuitions about nature and yet prove to be
    empirically correct.
    No kidding. I said just that in my essay. The question that I raised
    -- and that all these respondents have studiously avoided -- is what
    we should do when presented with theories such as psychoanalysis or
    string theory, which are not only counterintuitive but also lacking in
    evidence. Common sense tells me that in these cases common sense can
    come in handy.


   12. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/bios/horgan.html
   21. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/12/opinion/12horgan.html
   22. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/bios/susskind.html
   23. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/bios/mccarthy.html
   24. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/bios/gilbert.html
   25. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/bios/reiss.html
   26. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/bios/provine.html
   27. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/bios/huber-dyson.html
   28. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/bios/horgan.html
   29. http://www.longbets.org/12%3Ehttp://www.longbets.org/12

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