#48 Suffering at the hands of conceptual freaks
While reviewing some highlights I made in Feyerabend’s Against Method, I did some digging into an uncited quote made by physicist Niels Bohr (Feyerabend, 1993, 129; Feyerabend didn’t reference where he got it). It turns out Bohr made the comment at a lecture, which Freeman Dyson (the same Dyson who thought up the Dyson sphere) attended and then wrote about in his article called Innovation in Physics (1958). I need that quote for the chapter on Feyerabend that I’m currently writing for my book. The idea that I want to discuss in today’s stream, however, is from Dyson:
“The reason why new concepts in any branch of science are hard to grasp is always the same; contemporary scientists try to picture the new concept in terms of ideas which existed before. The discoverer himself suffers especially from this difficulty; he arrived at the new concept by struggling with, the old ideas, and the old ideas remain the language of his thinking for a long time afterward” (1958, 76).
I’m fascinated by this idea of the discoverer using an outdated language, conceptual framework, and worldview to explain some new discovery. In comparison to the new language and conceptual system, it makes me wonder how we ever managed to do the things we did with the little we had. For example, the computing capability of contemporary mobile phones are orders of magnitude more powerful than the Apollo 11 spacecraft that went to the moon. If we could do so much with so little back then, what are we capable of doing and discovering now?
The discoverer of new things, then, must develop the maps as s/he goes along or re-draws old ones. Old maps and ways of thinking only go so far, they can only serve up until a point. The same crisis happened over a hundred years ago when physicists struggled using Newtonian mechanics to describe small units of reality regarding quantum mechanics; Newton’s calculations worked up until a point. New theories and mathematics were needed, and so the brilliant minds of the day struggled with newly presented puzzles. Many puzzles were solved or extended, and many remain today waiting for the next person who will use their outdated system of their historical epoch to figure out or discover the next big idea.
Not only physicists, but philosophers struggle with making sense of and describing reality as well. They make up new words (e.g. Heidegger’s Dasein), add the suffix -ness to a lot of words, or string words together using multiple hyphens. Just as the quantum mechanic disassembles finer parts of the universal engine, the philosopher breaks down the world of ideas and mental constructs toward a more granular understanding of reality, the human being, his/her mind and consciousness. Upon doing so, s/he discovers new conceptual things, things with no names, wholes broken into their parts and parts within parts. In this sense, philosophers are discoverers as well; they grapple with ideas, pushing ever farther outward from their once taken-for-granted vantages. Explorers take nothing for granted and never assume for this could cost them their lives, or careers, for conceptual explorers.
Now I want to focus on another of Dyson’s words, that is, the discoverer’s “suffer[ing].” The way Dyson uses this word is in the context of suffering to make sense of a new conceptual system with the mindset from the old conceptual system. In this sense, it’s more of a struggle, which might not be necessarily fun either, but this is how I interpret his words. However, discoverers do suffer, as in actually suffer, pains because they are looked on by their peers (at least initially) as madmen who entertain wild ideas. The discoverer is usually looking for another result in the data, they are trained to look for and expect certain results determined by their paradigm, and so, when an anomaly pops into view they cannot ignore it because once seen it will always be there; it won’t be shaken until they prove that the anomaly was a mistake on their part, some human error in the results. But the error doesn’t go away many times. Discoverers suffer to explain away this freak of scientific nature, and when they can’t they shift gears to explain why it had occurred and will repeat again if certain procedures are followed. In this sense, they are the first to bear witness to the freak, and this freak currently exists without the likely future mathematics and worldview needed to properly explain what it is.
Additionally, the discoverer can only go so far because s/he’s mindset is too engrained in the old system; the task of explaining and expanding the conceptual freak will be left to younger peers in the immediate future. Young researchers and those new to the field (Kuhn  speaks of this) will learn what the discoverer found and it will be one of many present puzzles (in a normal-science context) or anomalies (in an extraordinary science context) on which they start working right off the bat in their career. Their mindset will be slightly different to the discoverer’s mindset. Also, advances in other fields might assist in seeing one’s own conceptual problems in one’s field.
Equally interesting regarding this suffering aspect is suffering at the hands of theoretical and presumptive ideas. Imagine being a theoretical physicist; your maths says something is possible, something currently invisible should be there, but you have to wait decades before technology catches up so a device can be built to test whether you wasted your whole career on a maybe. Haha. And I’m sure people do. It worked out for some such as Peter Higgs who hypothesized the existence of the Higgs boson. He had to wait nearly four decades for the Large Hadron Collider to be built to find out. That’s a long time to stake your whole career on a maybe. It was worth it though; such findings advanced science in new ways and most definitely the thinking of future researchers.
As for me, I’m interested in the phenomenology of psychedelic experiences. Such research can be done now. Even though I have much observational data and philosophical notetaking for my future books on this topic, however, the question is how much time I should invest in “theoretical phenomenology”? (I just made that up; not sure if such a field actually exists.) I think phenomenology of psychedelics contains an inkling of theoretical because subjective psychedelic experiences differ from person to person. My goal is to find these common denominators across experiences of particular substances irrespective of, or I should say to place less value on, their contents, instead focusing more on how the experience unfolds by studying their experiential structures. In this sense, phenomenology of psychedelics will at first be a theoretical exercise in discovering such intentional acts and experiential structures because someone has to initially report what they had discovered in those altered realms in order to compare future reports of similar experiences against. The only reason phenomenology of psychedelics is partly conceptualized as theoretical is because one must take that particular drug to know what experiencers are talking about. With this in mind, the psychedelic explorer suffers too since they wait for others to confirm, deny, or add to his/her observations.
Dyson, F. J. (1958). Innovation in Physics. Scientific American, 199(3), 74-82.
Feyerabend, P. (1993/1975). Against Method (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Verso.
Kuhn, T. S. (1996/1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (3rd ed.). University of Chicago Press.