Microcosm / Macrocosm

20 March 2009

Opus medico-chymicum

In yesterday’s le regard scientifique I discussed a new study published in JAMA about the preference of the religiously pious for heroic end-of-life medical intervention. In the course of that discussion I mentioned that in regard to establishing a scientific relation between fear of death and religious consolation, “this kind of correlation is extraordinarily difficult to demonstrate.” Why is it difficult to demonstrate? I want to try to answer this question, but I request the patience of the reader for a digression.

The world is a strange place filled with strange happenings and strange goings-on. It is amazing that we understand any of it. Everyone is familiar with the line from Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Act 1, Scene 5) This is an overly-used put-down line for philosophy, but the spirit of Shakespeare’s comment in the mouth of Hamlet can be retained by replacing “philosophy” with any other academic discipline or human endeavor, salva veritate.

Opinion research reveals some very strange facts about the world, but it is no stranger than quantum theory. People who study quantum theory often maintain that quantum theory is nearly incomprehensible for the human intellect. Niels Bohr is supposed to have said that, “Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.” While Feynman is frequently quoted as saying, “It is safe to say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” But the behavior of human opinion is almost as strange as, if not stranger than, quantum behavior.

If one must shine a light in order to see, shining a light can affect the outcome of seeing, especially if one is trying to observe elementary particles such as photons. Light itself is made up of photons, so that the observation of elementary particles by way of other elementary particles is inherently problematic. This remains true if one is seeking to “see” by way of particles other than visible spectrum photons.

One of the great (failed) thought experiments of physics, intended to buttress (or, at least, to partially explain) the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, is that of Schrödinger’s cat (read about it HERE if you don’t know this thought experiment already). The reason it is a failure is that everyone knows that cats don’t behave like elementary particles. Cats behave more like very large things — say, elephants and whales, or even planets and stars, though not like such massive things as singularities — than like very small things — say, photons, electrons, neutrons, protons, or quarks.

While we know that most macroscopic objects don’t behave like elementary particles, there are nevertheless a great many circumstances in ordinary experience in which the act of observing affects the thing or activity observed. Just ask any celebrity followed by the paparazzi. Even the above metaphor of shining a light in order to see is often true on a macroscopic level.

If one goes down in the cellar and looks without a flashlight, one sees something different than if one shines a light. Not only does one see different things, but the contents of the cellar adjust themselves to the level of light: the rats will scatter at the sight of the light; without the light, one simply hears them without seeing them.

The world, as I said above, is a strange place, and sometimes we don’t realize how really strange it is until we describe it to ourselves in unfamiliar terms. But we can also make this strangeness familiar to a certain degree. One of the ways we do so is by assimilating the strangeness to a traditional cultural theme. One of the great themes of the western intellectual tradition is that of the parallelism of microcosm and macrocosm: the likeness of the large and the small — better yet, the large mirrored in the small and the small mirrored in the large. It doesn’t take much imagination or intellectual effort to see the ways in which this paradigm could be adopted to make quantum theory feel a bit more familiar for minds such as ours.

How is this like opinion research? One of the great difficulties of opinion research is to get honest answers. (Another difficulty is to get any answers at all, as most people don’t like taking surveys.) On a subject as sensitive as religious belief, and especially the belief of those who have doubts on the one hand, but on the other hand also the strong belief that they have a duty to believe, or even a duty not to express their doubts, obtaining honest answers to survey questions would be well-nigh impossible. The pollster is a light shown on opinions, and opinions revealed to the light of day are not always the same as opinions in the dark recesses of privacy, buried within the mind.

It is conceivable that someone with both strong doubts and strong religious views might not even confide their doubts to those closest to them, and no researcher could realistically hope to gain the confidence of the dying to such an extent that the subjects of their research would engage in what amounts to a deathbed “confession” of doubt. It is also conceivable — nay, more than conceivable, rather likely — that such an individual as I have here described, with both strong beliefs and strong reasons to doubt these same beliefs, will have systematically deceived themselves over an entire lifetime.

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Two additional comments need to be made about this:

1) T. S. Eliot wrote, “At the moment when one writes, one is what one is, and the damage of a lifetime, and of having been born into an unsettled society, cannot be repaired at the moment of composition.” We could with as much or more justification make the claim that, “At the moment when one dies…” mutatis mutandis. Anything we could do at this time would come too late to make any difference, and a spectacular deathbed disillusionment would be more cruel than honest. There is no possibility of “repair” here.

T. S. Eliot

2) What business does any researcher have in attempting to get around a lifetime of denial and self-deception, just so as to deny such an individual their consolation and compensation at the moment when it is most needed? Wordsworth famously wrote, “We murder to dissect.” Similarly, a deathbed dissection of the human conscience is the spiritual equivalent of murder. It might be done with the best conscience on the part of the vivisector of conscience — whether sacred or secular, it does not matter. As Pascal said, “Men never do evil so fully and cheerfully as when we do it out of conscience.”


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