[This is a post I typed up during the summer, after a talk at the Unitarian Church by astronomer Dr. Michael West. This post only peripherally touches upon his discussion, at least at first, but it was definitely prompted by it.]
I was chatting with biologist Ola Fink — who studies ephemeral creatures, the mayflies — and she mentioned how one biologist she knows is a staunch Episcopalian. A very literal-minded one at that. For instance, he believes in The Virgin Birth. When she had worked up enough courage to ask him how he could possibly reconcile such a literal belief with his training as a scientist, he answered, “n=1.”
In other words, for him, if something happens only once, then something we don’t understand could be going on. Even a miracle.
I’d never heard that argument before, and although I found it dubious, I also found it captivating. Dubious because you could say n=1 about anything that doesn’t make sense, and dismiss an investigation into the underlying mechanism. Captivating because… well, perhaps because the n=1 argument touches on what we can know and how we can know it.
Parsimony is the simplest explanation for something. The more simple and elegant the explanation, the more likely it is to be the right one. Parsimony is embraced by science. But sometimes the simplest explanation isn’t the correct one. I’m oversimplifying parsimony here probably, not giving it the credit it deserves. Parsimony offers a great guideline for making elegant theories for how the universe works.
What can you say about something that only happened once? Well, not much… the sample size is too small to make any larger claims about how the world works.
But, according to Dr. Fink, one scientist actually went out to survey people to ask if virgin births occurred in the population. Okay, you might already be thinking, how could the survey tell whether people were telling the truth? Before, we cover that component, let’s look at some real life examples.
There is a phenomenon in biology called “parthenogenesis” in which a female essentially clones herself, giving birth to a female without ever having been fertilized. I have heard about this occurring in komodo dragons. (Perhaps people knew that the female was not fertilized by another komodo dragon because she was kept in captivity.) The sample size for parthenogenesis in komodo dragons is greater than one. Okay, but what about human beings?
In the survey, the scientist found many women who claimed to have had a virgin birth. Out of half of the women who claimed that, however, they had given birth to sons. Which doesn’t happen in parthenogenesis. The female always gives birth to another female. So clearly, according to what we know in modern science, people were lying.
But… whether a miracle occurred, or a metaphor, I still find this n=1 argument fascinating, kind of like Hume’s critique of induction: Just because the sun rose yesterday doesn’t mean it will rise again tomorrow.
What’s the word for climbing a mountain and looking from a higher perspective on the way something works, and then descending the mountain so you’re back in it? That’s the word I’m looking for to describe a kind of logic that transcends parsimony and induction. Is it deduction? Or something else? What about wisdom? If you know a word for this, let me know… for now, let’s call this wisdom of the hills, or misdom. Mountain wisdom. It’s got a touch of the mystical in it. Hill climber wisdom.
Wisdom is another discussion. Is there a concept of wisdom that is not anthropocentric? It seems that wisdom is almost always associated not only with knowledge but with compassion, which includes but is not limited to human beings. Kind of like the recognition Michael West touched on today in his talk that we are made from the ashes (or atoms) of stars, and that when we die, we diffuse back into the environment. We aren’t separate from it.
N = 1. Whenever there’s something that only happened once, it’s hard for science to tell us much about it. I’m not saying I believe in a literal Virgin Birth. But there’s something to the n =1 argument.
Two book recommendations from Dr. West’s talk:
Sum, by David Eagleman
Accepting the Universe, by John Burroughs
And a concept coined by Eagleman:
From the NY Times article by Burkhard Bilger:
Eagleman was brought up as a secular Jew and became an atheist in his teens. Lately, though, he’d taken to calling himself a Possibilian—a denomination of his own invention. Science had taught him to be skeptical of cosmic certainties, he told me. From the unfathomed complexity of brain tissue—“essentially an alien computational material”—to the mystery of dark matter, we know too little about our own minds and the universe around us to insist on strict atheism, he said. “And we know far too much to commit to a particular religious story.” Why not revel in the alternatives? Why not imagine ourselves, as he did in “Sum,” as bits of networked hardware in a cosmic program, or as particles of some celestial organism, or any of a thousand other possibilities, and then test those ideas against the available evidence? “Part of the scientific temperament is this tolerance for holding multiple hypotheses in mind at the same time,” he said. “As Voltaire said, uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.”