Enjoyed this article in Wired about the problems inherent in trying to understand why things happen in the body:
This assumption—that understanding a system’s constituent parts means we also understand the causes within the system—is not limited to the pharmaceutical industry or even to biology. It defines modern science. In general, we believe that the so-called problem of causation can be cured by more information, by our ceaseless accumulation of facts. Scientists refer to this process as reductionism. By breaking down a process, we can see how everything fits together; the complex mystery is distilled into a list of ingredients…
The problem with this assumption, however, is that causes are a strange kind of knowledge. This was first pointed out by David Hume, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher. Hume realized that, although people talk about causes as if they are real facts—tangible things that can be discovered—they’re actually not at all factual. Instead, Hume said, every cause is just a slippery story, a catchy conjecture, a “lively conception produced by habit.” When an apple falls from a tree, the cause is obvious: gravity. Hume’s skeptical insight was that we don’t see gravity—we see only an object tugged toward the earth. We look at X and then at Y, and invent a story about what happened in between.
It provides a good and startling overview of a few controversies in medicine over the past 30 or so years: I especially liked the bit on back pain. But obviously the more fundamental question is the extent to which we should feel comfortable with a scientific approach to things at all. The insight that humans become comfortable with the universe by telling stories about it seems important and perhaps profound, although I’m left in some doubt about it. Are we telling ourselves causation stories in order to provide a comforting but false coating of meaning on the haphazard goings-on of the universe, or does our sense of the plausibility of the stories we tell about the universe reflect its actual underlying truths?
In the comments below the article a lot of people get angry because they think the article is trashing science. I think the more measured view comes from those who recognise that the real problem being pointed out is that scientists have not yet developed really good research methods for studying complex systems. Of course, the human body is the most complex system in the known universe, so it perhaps shouldn’t surprise us that it’s continuing to confound us at this stage.
Oh hey, related: a guy wants to build a completely simulated human brain inside a supercomputer. Seriously guys, this is what computers were invented for, not frickin’ iTunes. It also heralds the arrival of yet another previously unimaginable future.