Thursday, September 30, 2010

Behind the scenes of the Kobayashi Maru

Thought I'd tell a little about the reality that motivated me to write my philosophical Kobayashi Maru scenario.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about science and religion and am reaching a conclusion that is very hard to frame in words. The closest I can come is something along the lines of this analogy: the claim that either science is right or religion is right but not both is rather like the claim that an electron is either a particle or a wave but it can't be both. Both statements are intuitively obvious, and yet both statements are wrong. Understanding how electrons can be both a particle and a wave requires an enormous conceptual leap. Understanding how religion and science can both be "right" requires an even greater conceptual leap (and it's one of the reasons I chose to hedge by putting the word "right" in scare quotes). Because if you really want to get at the Truth with a capital T then it is not strictly correct to say that electrons are both a particle and a wave. But explaining why is very, very tricky, and I'm tripping over myself even now trying to formulate even that elementary thought so I'm going to stop there and tell you a story instead. This story is true.

I suffer from two chronic medical conditions. I have been taking medications for both of them for years. Recently one of these conditions has been getting worse, and one particularly awful incident a while back prompted me to consult my doctor to see if perhaps more drastic intervention was called for. (Dan, you may remember the episode I'm referring to.)

Since moving to the Bay Area I have a new doctor so he was able to look at my situation with fresh eyes. He suggested the possibility that both conditions might be related and have the same underlying cause, and that there is a new medication that might make both problems just go away permanently. That sounded good to me, so I had him write me a prescription. The result has been dramatic. Since I've gotten this new medicine both problems have indeed seemed to get noticeably better. Of course, this is not conclusive because both problems tend to come and go, but the change from one day to the next was striking. Before, the one problem seemed to be getting steadily worse. After (and it has been several weeks now) it has not recurred at all.

Here's the kicker: I got the prescription. I had it filled. But I haven't actually taken it yet. The full bottle of pills is still sitting on my shelf. Which is pretty frickin' weird. Because I emphatically don't believe in homeopathy or The Secret or God or any of that crap. And yet, the placebo effect seems to be working for me nonetheless.

Could all be a coincidence. Absolutely. But since this happened I have begun to notice lots of other weird things that I normally would not have paid attention to. Individually any one of them could easily be written off as just Random Shit that Happens to People All The Time. But collectively they add up to one hell of a lot of coincidences for one person. Maybe I'm just lucky (or unlucky depending on how you look at it). After all, someone has to be the luckiest person on the planet, and the odds against it being me are a mere seven billion to one. But it still seems pretty damn odd.

12 comments:

Jared said...

I hope you have no recurrences.

From what I gather, placebos even work on (skeptic) doctors. Humans are strange creatures indeed. Like you said, I think all of us are really lucky in many ways but also really unlucky---to be cursed with the intelligence to question it all and the lizard brain that wants concrete answers.

aaco said...

But do you actually have to believe in "homeopathy or The Secret or God or any of that crap" in order to get the placebo effect?

As far as I know you just have to think the medicine or treatment you're taking will actually work.

I'm just speculating here, of course, but maybe the placebo effect started when the doctor said "there is a new medication that might make both problems just go away permanently". Would that be enough reason for it to take place?

As far as I know, the placebo is still a poor understood mechanism. I wonder when it actually starts to affect the patient. Could it start as early as the doctor starts talking to the patient?

Dennis Gorelik said...

1) It's not enough to new theory to be true. Only if new theory is useful -- only then you should consider adopting it.
So far there is no way to you to meaningfully apply your new theory into your life.

2) Science and religion do not contradict each other. There is nothing new in that.

3) Placebo effect generally works. Nothing new here either.

Bottom line: don't worry about these pretty usual things and move on with your life.

Don Geddis said...

I think the electron example is misleading. Yes, lots of people once said "electrons are both particles and waves", but I think that confuses the issue more than enlightens it.

The Truth is that electrons are their own things, and waves are their own things, and particles are their own things. Now, you may already have some intuitions about waves, and about particles, but not yet about electrons. And somebody may try to be helpful and say "an electron sometimes acts the way your wave intuition would predict; and sometimes the way your particle intuition would predict."

But I'm beginning to think that this description is generally not helpful. Because in many cases, your wave intuition and your particle intuition conflict, so you don't understand what the electron is going to do.

The Truth is that electrons just do whatever they do. And you can understand and model that directly. And, in special cases, electron behavior seems a little like wave behavior. And at other times like particle behavior. But those analogies are very loose, and maybe even counterproductive. I suspect it's best just to understand electrons on their own terms, directly, without attempting the analogies.

I would do the same with religion and science. "Which one is right?" is often a misguided question. It's more like "if a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?" You confuse yourself by trying to answer in the abstract. If you concentrate on the specific questions of real interest ("is a human being aware of the tree falling?" "are there acoustic vibrations in the air?") you can find real answers.

Ron said...

>But do you actually have to believe in "homeopathy or The Secret or God or any of that crap" in order to get the placebo effect? As far as I know you just have to think the medicine or treatment you're taking will actually work.

Yeah, that's the thing, whatever it is you have to think/believe it's going to work. But I didn't. The turnaround in my condition has come as a complete surprise to me. In fact, I find myself thinking that it's a little disappointing that the condition hasn't recurred because now I don't have a chance to see if the medicine works. It's a completely perverse thing to think, and yet I can't keep the thought from popping into my head on occasion. (There's a wonderful line in a Pink Floyd song: "There's someone in my head but it's not me." That line really resonates with me right now.) It's a little scary because one of the other observations I have made that make my current situation feel a little surreal is that I generally seem to get the things that I wish for, including a few things that I wish I hadn't wished for.

> 2) Science and religion do not contradict each other. There is nothing new in that.

Ah. Well, that's good to know. I was under the impression that this was somewhat controversial. I guess my work here is done. :-)

> The Truth is that electrons just do whatever they do

No, the Truth is that there is no such thing as electrons. Electrons don't *do* what they do, they *are* what they do.

> If you concentrate on the specific questions of real interest ("is a human being aware of the tree falling?" "are there acoustic vibrations in the air?") you can find real answers.

Yes, that is good advice. The question I'm actually struggling with at the moment is: what should I do with the rest of my life? Or, to make it sound a little less like existential angst (even though that's actually what it is), what is the best process for deciding what to do with the rest of my life? Now, you're probably thinking, is that what all the fuss is about? Everybody deals with that. Except they don't. What other people deal with is deciding what to do with the rest of *their* life. It's not the same question, it just happens to render into the same words when expressed in indexical terms. Seven billion different people, seven billion different questions.

Don Geddis said...

What should you do with the rest of your life? I recommend becoming familiar with positive psychology (aka "happiness research"). Like Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, or perhaps Ben-Shahar's Happier.

The basic lesson seems to be: you need to be striving for a goal that you feel is valuable, while at the same time enjoying the journey. If you work yourself to the bone in the hopes of a future payoff, the payoff is never worth it. Similarly, if you merely live for each moment (say, constantly shooting heroin), then after some time you feel depressed that you've wasted your life. You need to both be "climbing a mountain", and also "enjoying the hike" at the same time.

What else? Oh yes: experiences are more valuable than things, anticipation and planning are more fun than the actual experience, etc. You want a lot of small vacations, instead of saving up to buy one really expensive car. Etc.

As to a specific suggestion, many people find that "volunteering" fits the bill: an experience, social interaction with people, and a long-term feeling of accomplishment.

Ron said...

Oh, yeah, I know about all that. My problem is not that I'm unhappy. :-) Actually, even calling it a "problem" is misleading. More of a puzzle than a problem. Maybe a better way to phrase it would have been: What should I do to make the best use of the time I have left? Even that sounds too dramatic. It's not like I'm dying of cancer or anything like that. All indications are that I have forty or fifty good years ahead of me. But I am more aware now than I have ever been of how fast forty or fifty years can go by. In the grand and glorious scheme of things, that's not a very long time.

Also, it's not like I'm thrashing. I have a few directions that I'm pursuing (you're aware of one of them). But some of them are playing out in unexpected ways, leaving me unsure of how to proceed.

I appreciate your concern, but you don't need to worry about me. I'll be fine :-)

Alan Crowe said...

I have a mission for you. Solve the forum problem. I posted my idea on Hacker News but my health collapsed and I have not been able to work on it (not that I'm actually skilled enough anyway :-(

What personal qualities are needed to solve the problem? I see three as vital

1)Superior coding skills. The idea needs a peer to peer protocol, similar to that for usenet, to be the transport layer. So the design and implementation challenges are formidable.

2)The human touch. This is social software. The programmer must have introspective access to the human condition.

3)A Hari Seldon like insight into quantitative social dynamics. The forum problem is about large numbers of people with different tastes and goal interacting repeatedly, being changed by those interactions, and this process being iterated indefinitely. The programmer must be able to step back from identifying good guys and bad guys to think dispassionately about the social dynamics. Then he has to step forward to chose dynamics that will solve the problem.

I think that 3 trumps 2. So don't worry if you haven't got the common touch.

Who else could do this? A long time ago there was some-one else on comp.lang.lisp who had the skills: Erin Gnatt, but he vanished. I wonder what became of him :-)

Ron said...

> Solve the forum problem.

That's actually been, in one form or another, one of the things on my list of possibilities for a long time. Would you be interested in discussing this more off-line? This is the sort of thing where it would be really useful to have a collaborator.

Curt Sampson said...

1. What you experienced with your illness mysteriously vanishing is far from unusual; this sort of thing in fact happens all the time. Medical science still has a long way to go to find out more about why and how these things happen, but that health and sickness are not purely a function of obvious physical inputs is well established, and something scientists always to try to take into account when doing studies.

Note, by the way, that this sort of thing can be triggered by things other than belief. For example, Pavlovian training can produce similar effects, though no belief is involved.

2. As for "notic[ing] lots of other weird things that [you] normally would not have paid attention to," well, that you're now noticing them and you didn't before doesn't mean that anything special is happening, or that the world has changed in any way. Humans love to invent patterns where none exist, so you need to be extremely wary of things you think may be patterns that you've identified after the fact.

3. I wonder if the "what to do with the rest of my life" thing might be age- and circumstance-related. I've been starting to think about that as well, and looking at ten- and twenty-year projects rather than one-year ones.

Or perhaps we just got blasted by the same alien mind-control lasers. :-)

Ron said...

> this sort of thing in fact happens all the time

Well, it's the first time it's ever happened to me. It's one thing to know about the placebo effect in the abstract. It's quite another to actually experience such a dramatic manifestation of it firsthand.

> this sort of thing can be triggered by things other than belief

Obviously. But whatever happened to me, it wasn't Pavlovian. Pavlovian responses require training.

> Humans love to invent patterns where none exist, so you need to be extremely wary of things you think may be patterns that you've identified after the fact.

Yes, I know. But this is just a blog. It's not a scientific journal.

> I wonder if the "what to do with the rest of my life" thing might be age- and circumstance-related.

Of course it is. I think I may have muddied the waters a bit by mentioning that. I only mentioned it in response to Don's suggestion that I "concentrate on [a] specific questions of real interest." I mentioned that because I *was* focusing on a specific question of real interest (at least to me) which is what led me by way of a very long and convoluted path to all this recent weirdness.

Curt Sampson said...

> It's one thing to know about the placebo effect in the abstract. It's quite another to actually experience such a dramatic manifestation of it firsthand.

Indeed. Let me state clearly that I certainly believe that this felt very weird and important to you, and I understand why you feel doubt about others positing that this is just "normal stuff" to which you really shouldn't pay much attention.

And yes, what happened to you wasn't Pavlovian. I was just bringing that up as an example of a similar result that is clearly not due to placebo effect.

The point is, animals' heath sometimes improve due to things that are more likely than not causes, yet we have no mechanism to explain what seems very likely cause and effect. (At least, at the moment.) The placebo effect is a particularly good example of this because, as scientists, we are forced to take it into account even though we have no real idea of how it works.

(Perhaps that's part of the beauty of science. When we can measure something, we are forced to admit that it exists, even if we can't figure out what the heck it is. But we don't just give up and assign it to the "miracle" category; we stubbornly keep trying to figure out how it works.)

I have further thoughts on your more general theme, which I think is not actually a sign that you've gone crazy or anything like that, but I'm going to contemplate this a bit more before I start spewing about it.