[This book review is being published directly to this web site, Dec. 2009.]


Book Review


13 Things that Don’t Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time

Michael Brooks

Vintage Books, 2009


              This is a fascinating book of popular science.  Brooks has devoted separate chapters to “thirteen of today’s scientific anomalies [that]… all cry out for explanations and further study.”  The thirteen include such subjects as “dark matter” and “dark energy,” space-craft deviations from trajectories that would be predicted from the 400-year-old law of gravity, the still-unsettled possibility of “cold fusion,” the study of the difference between living and non-living things, the search for intelligent signals from outer space, the evolutionary origins of sex, whether “free will” exists, and what is known about why placebos actually do work.  Each of these and the other subjects can be taken alone, or they can be considered together in support of the broader points Brooks makes about science.

              One of his broader themes is that “in science, being completely and utterly stuck can be a good thing,” since “it often means a revolution is coming.”  He quotes Isaac Asimov, who said “the most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds most discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!,’ but ‘That’s funny….’”  It is anomalies – the unexpected – that lead to the revision of existing theories, and sometimes to entirely new paradigms.  His “thirteen mysteries” all point to one way or another in which contemporary science is confronted by anomalies and seems “stuck,” not yet seeming able to explain them.    His message is hopeful – that science isn’t really “stuck” at all, but simply challenged to proceed further. 

              A second theme will surprise a reader who may otherwise assess this as a “feel good” book about science, however intriguing.  It is that science is an endeavor by human beings, and therefore is subject to the various foibles and sometimes even venalities that touch other human enterprises.  Brooks doesn’t put it is quite this way, but we may say that science must, in at least one of its dimensions, be understood “sociologically.”  Sometimes, he says, when evidence “doesn’t fit,” that evidence will at first “be ignored or sabotaged.”  An example is that dark matter “was first spotted in the 1930s,” but “was ignored for nearly forty years” as a demonstration of “just how resistant science is to change.”  Another is that “it took decades for astronomers to spot an error that had been made early in the twentieth century.”  This caused astronomer J. Donald Fernie to comment that “the definitive study of the herd instincts of astronomers has yet to be written.”  That such things should be so is bound to shock anyone who abstracts the “human factor” out of science, making it an idealized Science. 

              Sometimes, Brooks tells us, science “has gotten too good at public relations, and good PR… suppresses proper scientific debate.”  Readers are bound to think of the current debate over “global warming,’ in which each side suspects the other of fashioning a tissue of half-truths out of a mixture of public salesmanship, ideologically-induced tunnel vision, response to private and/or governmental monies influencing the research, and careerist conformity.  A prime example of how government and ideology can impact on science was supplied, of course, by the Lysenko Affair, where Stalin installed Lysenko’s genetics in place of Mendel’s for several years in the Soviet Union.

              Brooks says that “sometimes the obstacle is a scientist’s own fear of the unknown,” and tells of an astronomer’s not having “gone public [with a discovery] because he couldn’t explain it.”  “Then, when all else fails to block progress, there is always the assumption that there is nothing new to discover.”

              We have given so much attention to these aspects of Brooks’ discussion because they are themselves significant and interesting, but it would be a mistake to think that an undercutting of science’s reputation by such realism is more than a parenthetical offshoot of his narrative.  Rather, the main thrust of the book is, as we have explained, one of fascination with the intellectual struggles by which science grows and develops.                      

             Specialists dealing with any given one of the “thirteen mysteries” may (or may not) agree that the issues relating to the respective mystery remain unsettled.  We are thinking specifically, for example, of Brooks’ statement that “more than three decades after the birth of string theory [in physics], we still don’t know where to start.”  This reviewer isn’t in a position to judge whether that is true or not, and so must hold open the possibility that Brooks’ discussion of the mysteries might well be contested by those knowledgeable in the various fields.  If that were so, however, Brooks would seem the first to applaud any robust debate, pointing out that that is exactly what he would hope for from scientists.

              To this reviewer’s untrained eye, there is only one of Brooks’ analyses that seems discordant.  This is his discussion of “free will.” The gravaman of Brooks’ position is that “our minds do not exist separately from the physical material of our bodies,” from which he infers that “we do not have what we think of as free will.”  To him, the inference is unavoidable that if there is a physiological underpinning for every thought we have and action we take, that underpinning is “all there is,” so that “free will” is an “illusion – rather, a delusion.”

              By “free will,” he means the act of choice.  “If we think we choose to eat, to get out of bed in the morning, if we think we choose to do much of anything at all, we are sorely mistaken.”  (He seems to hedge with the words “much of,” but there is nothing in his discussion that builds on this to acknowledge that there is in fact a domain of human choosing.)  His statement, just quoted, that “our minds do not exist separately from the physical material of our bodies” suggests that he is denying more than just the act of choosing, but also “mind” itself as a non-physical entity.

              He says that “almost everyone you talk to will say that such experimental results [i.e., those that demonstrate that our thoughts and actions are fully dependent upon “the physical material of our bodies”] are anomalous; [that] they don’t fit into the framework of our conscious experience.”  In so saying, Brooks is choosing physical determinism as the anomaly to be explained, thus fitting the discussion into his theme that it is anomalies that spur on science.  To arrive at this, however, he would seem to have turned things around.  It’s doubtful whether the average person would deny (i.e., consider it anomalous) that our mental processes would be blanked out if our brains were destroyed, or greatly affected if anything interfered with the underlying physiology.  What Brooks has failed to see is that it is not the physiology that is the anomaly that needs to be explained; it is, instead, the consciousness and volition that arises out of, and interacts with, the physiology.  But Brooks declines to treat this as something to be explained.  It suffices just to deny its existence.  If he were to do that with regard to any of his other “mysteries,” the message would be very different from the one he wants to convey; he would be saying, in effect, that “the unexpected outcomes (the anomalies) don’t really exist, and we consequently don’t have anything to puzzle over.”

              In effect, those who argue that human consciousness and decisions arising from it are delusions are doing something radically unscientific.  They are denying the data.  They do this by taking the position that conscious states are not data, but are rather “illusions/delusions.”  It is no wonder that this seems so ridiculous to the average person, whose entire existence in a normal lifespan consists of a long-running  motion-picture, so to speak, of mental states.

              Brooks points out how experiments have shown that much human action is taken spontaneously, without prior deliberation.  Certainly it is true that this is observable in many of the things we do.  I chose the word “deliberation” in the preceding sentence, say, without pondering it first, although I easily might have. 

              What needs to be explained, though, is how physiological processes by themselves, unaided by consciousness and choice, can lead to impulses that have relevance to the complex external circumstances in which an individual so often finds himself.  How is it that bodily chemistry and electricity can “know” what colleges exist for someone to attend, and make the “choice” based purely on firing synapses without the slightest “awareness” of that outside world?  When the experiments demonstrate how physiology can leap to action appropriately in such a context without the intermediation of awareness and choice, the time will come to agree with Brooks that “free will is a delusion.”  But science will never make that demonstration if it simply denies the reality of consciousness as an anomaly to be explained.

              The problem is that consciousness, with its consequent awareness and choice, is a “thing” of an existentially different sort than all other objects.  The physiological processes of complex living creatures produce something more than just themselves, adding a non-physical aspect that is extraordinary.  Here, the physical and non-physical are tied together like Siamese twins, so that they are both separate and one.  For serious thinkers to accept the one and discard the other, flying in the face of their own conscious existence, would seem to be perhaps the best example we could think of of how ratiocination can go awry when it follows its logic into radical reductionism.      

              Before we conclude this discussion, it is well to think about how causal dependency actually runs both directions.  Mental processes are utterly dependent on physiology; but the physiology also reacts to mental processes.  This became very clear to me a few years ago when my son split his leg open on some iron stairs at school.  I stood by him to comfort him as the doctor started to sew up the long, ugly gash.  The doctor wasn’t doing this to me, and never even touched me.  But suddenly I became deathly ill, and had to retire to the waiting room where I was still in shock when my son emerged smiling.  The chemistry and impulses inside my brain had no way of being triggered by the situation in the doctor’s office – other than through my awareness of the context and its meaning. 

              To look at the causation in only one direction, and to say that “mental processes are entirely dependent upon physiological processes,” so therefore “awareness and volition are delusions” is a non sequitur.    That is to say, the premise is inadequate to justify the conclusion.

              It is interesting how much those who adopt a determinist position, thinking themselves devotedly scientific in doing so, think and act inconsistently with it in other contexts.  Brooks, for example, writes about the search for radio or laser signals of intelligence from outer space; and ponders the interaction of mind and body as part of his discussion of why placebos are found to have some effect.  Throughout the book, one finds him caring deeply about the progress of science.  But if outcomes are determined only by the movement of molecules, why should we think our own human action relevant to how anything happens?  Why not just total indifference?  (And even indifference is a mental state and an act of choice.)

              If my thinking here is nonsense to you, you are free to blame me.  Be aware, of course, that if you “blame” me, you are being judgmental, and thus at odds with the determinist position, thus incongruously placing yourself in agreement with me.  Brooks discusses the moral implications of the determinist position at the end of his chapter when he says “for all practical purposes, it makes sense to retain the illusion… (G)iving up on the notion of personal responsibility will most likely remain too dangerous….”  This reveals clearly that to Brooks personal responsibility (of which “blame” is an application) is an artifact of an illusion.


                                                                                          Dwight D. Murphey