Deep science, creative science: Patient brooding versus evidence-reason-based techniques

  1. 1.  School of Psychology, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, England

Abstract

It may seem odd to assert that patient brooding and waiting for imaginative validation is the proper way of doing science; after all, most professional scientists and philosophers believe that the essence of science is ‘evidence’ derived from observations and experiments, synthesized by some kind of logical and rational method. But personal experience, history and theoretical considerations all suggest that a prolonged state of ‘patient brooding’ is the hallmark and prerequisite of ‘deep science’; a practical necessity for the most creative and significant breakthroughs.

Looking back over the thirty years since I published my first papers; it is clear that there are a few publications that I regard as deep science (that is significant, creative and valid science) – and these were the product of what I would term ‘patient brooding’ and an intuitive-imaginative validation. These writings continue to please me, seem to be valuable, and are a source of personal satisfaction.

However, on the other hand, there are publications that – while honest, in a negative sense of not being dishonest - seem to have been ‘manufactured’ (or ‘squeezed-out’) by the mere application of technique (‘scientific method’). These include things like summaries of data that I had collected and didn’t want to ‘waste’ – and which I vaguely hoped ‘might be useful’ to someone-or-other, sooner-or-later; ideas that I regarded as potentially ‘stimulating’; favours to colleagues; and theories that had been assembled (like a mosaic) from cited bits and pieces of other people’s evidence and ideas… These publications I am retrospectively not so pleased with. At best I regard them as part of a learning process, stepping stones to something valid that came later; but sometimes they were merely careerist place-holders or tokens. 

It may seem odd to assert that patient brooding and waiting for imaginative validation is the proper way of doing science – or at least deep science; after all, most professional scientists and philosophers believe that the essence of science is ‘evidence’ derived from observations and experiments; synthesized by some kind of logical and rational process. Even those ‘Popperians’ (followers of philosopher Karl Popper: 1902-1994) who regard science as driven by hypotheses, tend to emphasise that the crucial aspect is the ‘testing’ of hypotheses; with this process being conceptualised as a matter of stating clear predictions and performing rigorous evaluations; with prior criteria (preferably quantitatively defined) set-out for passing or failing each test. Some regard this as the ‘scientific method’ – and infer that if the method is not followed, then the activity is not really science…  

Nonetheless, from personal experience I have concluded something very different, and almost the opposite; which is that in practice - and inevitably - evidence is so slippery and contextual a phenomenon as to be at best controversial and at worst almost worthless when taken in isolation; and much the same applies to what are regarded as the ‘proper’ processes of logic or reason. In sum; evidence and logic are not ‘objective’; and when regarded as such they become profoundly misleading. More is needed.

The problem, if it is really a problem, is that science does not and cannot itself validate science. Science is inevitably based-on a restricted, partial and biased set of assumptions – that is its strength, but it is also an unavoidable constraint. Science is therefore embedded in a larger world; and the validity of science depends utterly on relating science to that larger world. So any assertion about how science ought to be conducted must be taken from outside of science – and such assertions are ‘metaphysical’ in nature.

That science is based on metaphysical assumptions has been denied by theory since the days of the ‘logical positivists’ about a century ago (who regarded metaphysics as strictly non-sense), and is denied in practice by many or most practising scientists, who typically refuse to acknowledge any non-scientific assumptions, or fundamental constraints to the validity and applicability of science (and who regard metaphysics as sheer nonsense).

I don’t propose to go into the specifics of the wide-ranging metaphysical assumptions of science; indeed, I do not think these assumptions are well understood, neither are they easy to summarise, and certainly they are not widely agreed-upon. But rather I want to suggest that in the practical life of a scientist they have their impact in the activity I have dubbed ‘patient brooding’. In particular, I propose that patient brooding is the hallmark and necessity of pretty much all significant creative science.

I will analyse the phenomenon of ‘patient brooding’. Firstly ‘patient’. This word is intended to convey that the pace of insight cannot be forced. The scientist must wait for imaginative validation of his work and ideas; and he must be prepared to wait for as long as it takes. This is necessary, because it is only in the imagination that ‘the whole person’ is brought to bear on the matter in hand. I regard the imagination as the most complete form of cognition; since imagination includes the emotional and the implicit, as well as the rational and factual.

The imagination of a scientist (after – it goes without saying - sufficient and appropriate education and experience) contains not just the evidence which he knows he knows; but imagination (over time, and with attention) brings forward especially that evidence that he most needs and values; discarding that which is irrelevant and unreliable (this happening, to the extent of his personal scientific ability and judgment).

This ‘trained-imagination’ of a scientist is not just logical and rational, but includes all kinds and types of thinking – such as emotions of euphoria or well-being, angst or despondency; gut-feelings; the discernment of the heart and so on – these being the kind of ‘sensations’ that creative people report experiencing as evaluations of their own performance. 

In sum, patient imagination, over time, will bring to bear the total scientist upon his subject. =

What then of ‘brooding’? What do I mean by that?

By ‘brooding’ I intend to convey that creative science is about reflecting on relatively broad themes – and not about answering very specific and pre-defined questions. This breadth is necessary because a highly specific question will nearly-always pre-judge the answer too narrowly to include the valid answer. The brooding means that the creative scientist is seeking the correct question, at the same time as he is seeking the correct answer – and the valid question and the valid answer both come at the same time

What happens while patiently brooding? This is surely unpredictable, and must vary case-by-case, person-by-person. But as the most extreme example of my experience, I spent some 15-20 years brooding on the twin questions: What is the cause of melancholia (or endogenous depression)? And why are antidepressants effective? During that long time (during which I worked at many other things) the pieces of the jigsaw making-up what eventually became the answer came gradually, a piece at a time. (This was published as The malaise theory of depression in Medical Hypotheses, 2000; 54: 126-130.)

For instance, I learned of the depressant effect of glandular fever from my own experience as a student; about the pain relieving effects of antidepressant from my medical training; I met patients with disseminated cancer and autoimmune disease who had depressive symptoms while a junior physician; I encountered depressed patients who complained of ‘feeling ill’ while I was a trainee psychiatrist; I read of the immune abnormalities in depression during my doctoral studies; I read the idea that recovering from depression was similar to recovering from influenza in a book I found in a second-hand shop on holiday; while studying evolutionary psychology I encountered the theories of Antonio Damasio concerning the nature of emotion; and so forth…

Because I was alert and interested, these and other clues were noticed and remembered, until they crystallised in a particular ‘eureka moment’ in 1999 – after which I spent some further brooding time checking the predictions and implications, and my own state of conviction; before proceeding to publication. 

Another term I have used above is ‘intuition’. This simply means introspection, looking-within – and taking it seriously. A creative scientist who (after patience) is rewarded by an insight, then needs to develop the ability to look within himself, and to become aware of the content of his own imagination. To become aware of this imagination in an explicit form is one step, the next is to take what is perceived and make it into a linguistic form which can be communicated to other people. Communication may be in such forms as a conversation, seminar, lecture, letter, paper, monograph, a textbook...

Patient brooding cannot be faked, forced or contrived; although deliberate it is a spontaneous consequence of strong and sustained inner motivation. In sum, it is the antithesis of expediency and careerism – and the apotheosis of dedication to truth and knowledge. It is a personal vocation from within; not just ‘a job’, to which you are allocated.

But – having said that evidence and logic are inadequate - why should patient brooding be regarded as a valid method of seeking truth in science, or indeed in any other domain of human activity?

In answering this, firstly it must be made clear there is absolutely no guarantee that patient brooding will yield deep science. It is not a ‘truth-machine’ – and its value depends on the individual scientist’s capability, circumstances, efforts and luck.

Secondly, patient brooding ought to include science and logical, rational thinking – they certainly are a part of the ‘recipe’ for valid science.

Following on; thirdly, the special quality of patient brooding is that it recognises that creative science does not know exactly where it is going, nor how. We do not know in advance what evidence is important, nor what evidence is false, misleading or fake; we do not know how to set-about formulating an answer nor what kind of an answer needs formulating.

And fourthly, the idea of patient brooding places the individual scientist at the heart of science. One reason that creative science cannot be captured in an algorithm is that it is done by people, not computers. Computers may be patient, but they cannot ‘brood’.

From surveying the history of human achievement, it looks as if every significant breakthrough in knowledge about which details are known – whether in science or any other difficult human activity – seems to have been preceded by a prolonged search, and this search is relatively wide-ranging with respect to subject and methods. In a sense patient brooding is the opposite of a ‘method’ – but if there is any consistent psychological strategy to deep science, then it is probably patient brooding.

Reviews

Showing 2 Reviews

  • Bruce charlton
    Bruce Charlton
    0

    @Michael Bland - Thank you for such a thoughtful and appreciative review.

    To focus on your main point - I said much more about metaphysics in this paper, published in The Winnower earlier this year:

    https://thewinnower.com/papers/3497-reconceptualizing-the-metaphysical-basis-of-biology-a-new-defini...

    I have read Wittgenstein with great absorption in the past; but without an explicit theistic underpinning I am forced to regard his work - even his late work - as insufficient. Certainly, it was for me.

  • Placeholder
    Michael Bland
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    The moment I saw the title, I wanted to read this paper. And I found nothing within it that disappointed me. Indeed it was both easy to read and a pleasure to read. Accordingly, I wouldn't like to see any changes made at all.

    That said, you are clearly on a scientific mission. (I'm sure you've been brooding on it for quite some time.) The paper is not a work of science as such, but it pertains directly to science tout court - the very phenomenon of science - nonetheless. And I don't suppose for a moment that you now consider the mission to be complete.

    The paper is also a work of art. But then, any result of human creativity is a work of art - irrespective of its quality. (Here's the opening line of the entry for 'art' in The Concise Oxford Dictionary: "Skill, esp. human skill as opposed to nature".) That linguistic point made, I believe your paper is an exceptional work of art. And again, that's something the paper has in common with any exceptional work of science: a great scientific experiment, for example, is necessarily a great work of art. We're just not accustomed to using the word 'art' in such a way. (In certain contexts, such as the present scientific context, there's a tendency to use the word 'art' in a somewhat cliché'd fashion; accordingly, there's an associated tendency to think of art and science as being irreconcilable polar opposites.) And that's very telling.

    In your paper's penultimate paragraph, you write: "science .... is done by people". And indeed, throughout the paper, you effectively deliberate on the human psyche. That's perfectly appropriate; for the phenomenon of science is a human phenomenon. And the stand-off between creative science and the more plodding, so-called 'reason-based' variety of science - the subject of your paper - is a human stand-off.

    Moreover, halfway through the paper, you emphasise the involvement in creative science of 'the whole person': "... it is only in the imagination that ‘the whole person’ is brought to bear on the matter in hand." And: "In sum, patient imagination, over time, will bring to bear the total scientist upon his subject." But that's in the context of explaining what you intend to convey with your use of the word 'patient'. What you don't expressly deal with is the explanation of the notion of 'the whole person', and what that notion contrasts with. You don't even mention the paradox of how anyone could ever be anything other than a whole person - never mind the paradox of not being a whole person on a kind of nine-to-five, professional basis.

    Yet, strange to tell, you do effectively paint a picture of the whole human being: it's a picture that's elaborated within the very text of the paper itself. In the first paragraph, you refer to what you consider your own contribution to what you call 'deep science' or 'creative science'. And then, in the second paragraph, you contrast such science with the more mechanistic variety. That second paragraph begins with these words: "However, on the other hand, ...". And that perfectly commonplace phrase, 'on the other hand', is the initial illustration of what I mean by a 'picture' of the whole human being. We are, of course, corporally bilateral beings: we're bilateral beings who (for better or worse) have a sometimes somewhat one-sided behavioural tendency, which manifests in all kinds of ways. Moreover, by virtue of the means of language, the outbreaks or eruptions of that one-sided behavioural tendency are potentially communicable.

    The picture of the whole human being is certainly there more deliberately, too: eg. "I regard the imagination as the most complete form of cognition; since imagination includes the emotional and the implicit, as well as the rational and factual." And: "This ‘trained-imagination’ of a scientist is not just logical and rational, but includes all kinds and types of thinking – such as emotions of euphoria or well-being, angst or despondency; gut-feelings; the discernment of the heart and so on – these being the kind of ‘sensations’ that creative people report experiencing as evaluations of their own performance."

    I believe however that there is also an expression of mechanistic one-sidedness on your own part, within the text of the paper. But that will take a few paragraphs to disclose.

    You write: "any assertion about how science ought to be conducted must be taken from outside of science – and such assertions are ‘metaphysical’ in nature." (I take your use of those scare quotes to be an indication that you're not too sure you know what you're talking about in relation to the notion, or the nature, of metaphysics.) You go on to write: "I don’t propose to go into the specifics of the wide-ranging metaphysical assumptions of science; indeed, I do not think these assumptions are well understood, neither are they easy to summarise, and certainly they are not widely agreed-upon." And with those words, I believe, you effectively make assumptions - metaphysical assumptions - about the nature of metaphysics.

    Perhaps most notable of all about the text of the paper is the complete absence of any remark about language itself. Well, that's not quite true. In relation to your use of the term 'intuition', you write: "To become aware of this imagination in an explicit form is one step, the next is to take what is perceived and make it into a linguistic form which can be communicated to other people." But that makes the formulation of an idea's linguistic expression appear quite trivial. Sometimes, of course, an idea's expression - linguistic or otherwise - can be utterly trivial; but sometimes it's anything but. And surely, the idea expressed in your paper is an example of the kind of idea for which the form of linguistic expression is crucial. Elsewhere, it's clear that you're actively interested in the very nature of human language. (Eg. http://www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton/awconlang.html) But in the present paper, it's rather as though there's an active unwillingness to consider the sometimes crucial nature of the role that language plays in the development and communication of ideas. And I suspect that's due to the assumptions you effectively make - the metaphysical assumptions - about the nature of metaphysics.

    You mention "the days of the ‘logical positivists’ about a century ago (who regarded metaphysics as strictly non-sense)". And their hero, Ludwig Wittgenstein, came to expressly repudiate his earlier thinking. (In the index of Philosophical Investigations, check the entries for Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.) Moreover, in The Blue and Brown Books - aka. Preliminary Studies for the 'Philosophical Investigations' - he expressly links metaphysics with both language and science (p. 35): "the characteristic of a metaphysical question [is] that we express an unclarity about the grammar of words in the form of a scientific question."

    I take Wittgenstein's 'the grammar of words' informally: I take him to have meant, very simply, the appropriate use of words. (Grammar has a lot to with the appropriateness of word-use, of course; but one's language is sometimes perfectly appropriate without having to be perfectly grammatical, innit?) And it follows from his effective - if partial - characterisation of metaphysics that those who regard metaphysics as nonsense are thereby, quite unwittingly, engaged in metaphysics themselves.

    Metaphysical questions can be used to disclose intellectual pathology. And I use that word 'pathology' quite deliberately and pointedly. (I hope you may find a paper of mine here on The Winnower to shed light on that pointed use: https://thewinnower.com/papers/5270-lord-kelvin-the-body-snatchers) As regards the foundation of science, I don't believe that's something needing assumption at all. Indeed, and moreover, I believe the ultimate foundation of science is the same as the ultimate foundation of anything. Wittgenstein came out with what I believe to be the ultimate in aphorisms: "Perhaps the ineffable, what I find mysterious and am not able to enunciate, is the background against which whatever I could enunciate has its meaning." There's a reference for that remark, and an indication of what I take to be its far-more-then-merely-human significance, at the end of my paper Lord Kelvin & The Body Snatchers: from the words, "Finally, the dénouement ..." onwards.

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