Why science falls short when it is independent of metaphysics
One of the most peculiar teachings in the biological sciences is the requirement of “proof” and what this actually is. In the physical sciences, the burden of proof is often in “deduction” (e.g. You can’t see “gravity” but when you see an apple fall, you can deduce that a force is exerted on that apple.) However, in the biological sciences, the burden of proof is frequently in “perception”. If you can see it, it exists. If you can count it, it’s real. If you can touch it, even better. But if it is invisible, and you can’t invent a machine to see it, you’d be hard pressed to avoid being thought of as a kook by claiming that something invisible matters. In fact, in the biological sciences, we often ignore the “invisible” or “unreal”, either because the visible is not yet a mirage, or because we rely too much on our perceptions to give us meaning. A little metaphysics, like an actual relationship, might add just the touch we are looking for. It might prevent us from buying into the objectification of “being human” by biology.
The stunning array of biological pornography: I’ll grant you this—perception is seductive, and the biological sciences do make a convincing case for the curiosities and glories of the visible. CRISPR technology will edit genomes. Increasingly powerful brain scanners will show you brain blood flow. Blood assays will allow you to measure hormones and chemicals. And outside the lab, you can even track your heart rate variability with an app. “Measurement” is the food du jour for the human ego. And biology is the natural science that utilizes these special “lenses” to see and feed that ego. On the basis of these measurements, we determine how to avoid disease, and how to live longer too. But perhaps we should appraise this “data” with the same apprehension we so willingly give to the invisble or unreal.
Clues to the fact that biological pornography is not what you think it is: Take, for example, the apparent evils of “cholesterol.” On the surface, this is an incontrovertible issue, right? This has been seen? Demonstrated, even? Few of us roam around without visualizing how cholesterol clogs our arteries and kills us. We even believe that it depends on the type of cholesterol, and we exalt in a kind of moral superiority without giving cholesterol a fair trial. “LDL”, we say, is “bad cholesterol.” “HDL” is “good cholesterol”.
But a closer reading of the “data” would suggest that this sensational story is much more complicated and we must give cholesterol its due. The British Medical Journal reports that when 19 studies were analyzed, elderly people with high LDL-C live as long or longer than those with low LDL-C. And if you have a heart attack, the American Journal of Cardiology reports that having a lower LDL is worse.
Of course, as is often the case in biological data, there are a million caveats, and by the time you wade through them, they’re quite dizzying. The story is always more complicated. And if you throw your hands up in despair, you wouldn't be the first. Yet, that’s far wiser than giving cholesterol an unfair trial and judging it as good or bad.
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
doesn’t make any sense.” — Rumi
Hopefully, this single example will illustrate that neither perception nor deduction is “proof” of anything. But the point I want to make is that when it comes to biological observations, what you see, is NOT simply what you get.
The invisible is frequently at play when your life is cut short. And biology, as a field, would be wise to embrace the “invisible” and “unreal”, and not insist on seeing it prior to advocating that we act on it.
Another persuasive reason to undermine perception is that our sense of “seeing” is actually quite impoverished. We have infinite data that surrounds us, but the eye and brain only weakly represent reality. Ten billion bits of information arrive at the retina, 6-million bits enter into the optic nerves, but only 100 bits per second constitute conscious perception. By the time you see anything, a lot of information has already been filtered out.
Embracing the invisible and unreal: One such example, I will hesitatingly offer, is “stress.” Even with stress, we cannot avoid imposing our moral judgments. There’s apparently “good stress” and “bad stress” and biologists will go to great lengths to tell you that short- term stress will bolster your resilience, while chronic stress will drive you and your brain toward death.
But when it comes to stress, it’s the invisible elements that frequently get you. That’s why you can’t stop being stressed.
Invisible factors can kill you: For instance, did you know that when you suppress your emotions, you are more likely to die earlier, and this earlier death may occur by developing cancer too. Of course, psychoanalysts have long suspected this, but they have been relegated to the land of “a little kooky” because they rely on free association and inference, both of which are the enemies of perception.
Biological “scientists” like to argue that a finding must be replicated or statistically significant (in an entirely different group of people) to be true. Yet, statistical truths are just as relative, and a subject for another piece. In fact, most published research has a high degree of falsity.
Invisible interventions can help you: As we age, there are caps called telomeres at the tips of our chromomes that get shorter and shorter. But Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn and her colleagues found that you may be able to protect these telomeres by engaging in mindfulness meditation, an invisible process that seems to have visible effects.
“Unreal” interventions can help you: When it comes to life and death, we’re tempted to get real. Yet, psychedelics and virtual reality, the ultimate reality ”takeovers”, can both promote death-defying defenses.
Psychedelics produce perceptions of the world not afforded by the perception and measurement devices of the biological sciences. In so doing, they elevate mood and enhance meaning.
Depression and anxiety are associated with greater mortality. And meaning may prolong your life. So anything that reduces depression or anxiety or enhances meaning may promote life. Psychedelics clearly do have some effect on depression, anxiety and meaning, so they are serious contenders for being modifiers of longevity.
Biology has long-relied on the perceptible to guide the science of longevity, but I believe that it is missing out by not interacting with the invisible and the unreal. Sure, the studies above show that some biologists do want to connect biology with these more esoteric ideas. But my point about the invisble runs deeper.
In a world obsessed by measurement, “perception” is driving funding and the future of science. Funders believe that if you can see it, it’s worth its weight in gold. But if mindfulness, psychoanalysis, psychedelics and virtual reality—all representations of a reality that separate from ordinary perception—can modify risk factors associated with premature death, is there not room in the quest for longevity to embrace the metaphysical world as having the potential to elevate us beyond our biology so that we live longer and happier lives? Is this only meaningful when we can measure it in average samples? What if different things are suitable for different people, and too much money is being wasted on an “average” effect that is “perceived”, when in reality, most people are outliers, and more than simply objects to observe.