Burn and pop…

“Cherokee and other ritual specialists used deer tongues in divination, by throwing them onto a fire using the manner in which they burned or popped to forecast sickness or health, success or failure, drought or rainfall….”

— Shepard Krech III, The Ecological Indian (Norton, 1999), p. 155.

Neuroscientists and other physiological specialists use neurons in prognosis, by viewing them in an fMRI using the manner in which they interact to forecast behavior and disease.

*  *  *

To the scientifically sophisticated mind the above, admittedly provocative, pair of statements will be little less than revolting. To compare neuroscience with aboriginal augury is the mark of a mad mind! I grant the charge sticks, if, that is, I meant the pair of statements to be more than a Gedankenexperiment. Just what is it that separates the former, folk science from the latter, exact form of science? What draws the line in the sand between good and bad scientific explanations, and just where does it fall? What are the analogically key differences between the ritual auguring of deer tongues and neuroscience?

Let us imagine someone makes predictability the decisive difference. MRI findings predictably correlate with symptoms, and symptoms predictably correlate with MRI findings, but can the same be said for deer tongues? Well?

In a deterministic universe, every physical interaction strictly entails its subsequent effects. Therefore, given sufficient knowledge of the atomic correlations between the fire, the tongue, and next year’s rainy season, a Laplacian demon could predict any number of things from the popping and burning of a deer tongue under Cherokee eyes. Indeed, in a strictly deterministic universe, one could predict the ailments had by a neurology patient as well as the correct MRI diagnosis from millions of years before. Logically, therefore, one could also extrapolate backwards from that MRI and those ailments to immensely ancient antecedent conditions. On determinism (with formal reversibility), it’s just a matter of which end of the telescope you choose to look through, once you have sufficient knowledge. So, assuming a Laplacian demon had adequate physical knowledge, it could indeed predict a patient’s condition from the merely phenomenologically “removed” deer tongue augury. Hence, it seems there is no strict difference in principle between deer augury and neuroscience, but merely a limitation of empirical data. Paradoxically, then, we rely on MRI’s and the like precisely because we know so little. A complete science, by contrast, could look at anything and predict and explain anything else.

At this point someone might interject something about quantum indeterminacy and chaos theory to account for the inexactitude of an otherwise allegedly exact science. But what then of predictability as the keystone of science? Is quantum mechanics, rooted as it in these days in the Copenhagen interpretation of radical indeterminacy (i.e., subatomic unpredictability), not an exact science? Is chaos theory, predicated as it is on natural unpredictability, not a real science? Says who? Why?

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