Incorrect hypotheses point to correct observations

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1. The Con­scious­ness Re­searcher and Out-Of-Body Experiences

In his book Con­scious­ness and the Brain, cog­ni­tive neu­ro­scien­tist Stan­silas De­haene writes about sci­en­tifi­cally in­ves­ti­gat­ing peo­ple’s re­ports of their out-of-body ex­pe­riences:

… the Swiss neu­rol­o­gist Olaf Blanke[ did a] beau­tiful se­ries of ex­per­i­ments on out-of-body ex­pe­riences. Surgery pa­tients oc­ca­sion­ally re­port leav­ing their bod­ies dur­ing anes­the­sia. They de­scribe an ir­re­press­ible feel­ing of hov­er­ing at the ceiling and even look­ing down at their in­ert body from up there. [...]
What kind of brain rep­re­sen­ta­tion, Blanke asked, un­der­lies our adop­tion of a spe­cific point of view on the ex­ter­nal world? How does the brain as­sess the body’s lo­ca­tion? After in­ves­ti­gat­ing many neu­rolog­i­cal and surgery pa­tients, Blanke dis­cov­ered that a cor­ti­cal re­gion in the right tem­poropari­etal junc­tion, when im­paired or elec­tri­cally per­turbed, re­peat­edly caused a sen­sa­tion of out-of-body trans­porta­tion. This re­gion is situ­ated in a high-level zone where mul­ti­ple sig­nals con­verge: those aris­ing from vi­sion; from the so­matosen­sory and kines­thetic sys­tems (our brain’s map of bod­ily touch, mus­cu­lar, and ac­tion sig­nals); and from the vestibu­lar sys­tem (the biolog­i­cal in­er­tial plat­form, lo­cated in our in­ner ear, which mon­i­tors our head move­ments). By piec­ing to­gether these var­i­ous clues, the brain gen­er­ates an in­te­grated rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the body’s lo­ca­tion rel­a­tive to its en­vi­ron­ment. How­ever, this pro­cess can go awry if the sig­nals dis­agree or be­come am­bigu­ous as a re­sult of brain dam­age. Out-of-body flight “re­ally” hap­pens, then—it is a real phys­i­cal event, but only in the pa­tient’s brain and, as a re­sult, in his sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience. The out-of-body state is, by and large, an ex­ac­er­bated form of the dizzi­ness that we all ex­pe­rience when our vi­sion dis­agrees with our vestibu­lar sys­tem, as on a rock­ing boat.
Blanke went on to show that any hu­man can leave her body: he cre­ated just the right amount of stim­u­la­tion, via syn­chro­nized but de­lo­cal­ized vi­sual and touch sig­nals, to elicit an out-of-body ex­pe­rience in the nor­mal brain. Us­ing a clever robot, he even man­aged to re-cre­ate the illu­sion in a mag­netic res­o­nance imager. And while the scanned per­son ex­pe­rienced the illu­sion, her brain lit up in the tem­poropari­etal junc­tion—very close to where the pa­tient’s le­sions were lo­cated.
We still do not know ex­actly how this re­gion works to gen­er­ate a feel­ing of self-lo­ca­tion. Still, the amaz­ing story of how the out-of-body state moved from para­psy­cholog­i­cal cu­ri­os­ity to main­stream neu­ro­science gives a mes­sage of hope. Even out­landish sub­jec­tive phe­nom­ena can be traced back to their neu­ral ori­gins. The key is to treat such in­tro­spec­tions with just the right amount of se­ri­ous­ness. They do not give di­rect in­sights into our brain’s in­ner mechanisms; rather, they con­sti­tute the raw ma­te­rial on which a solid sci­ence of con­scious­ness can be prop­erly founded.

The naive hy­pothe­ses that out-of-body ex­pe­riences rep­re­sented the spirit gen­uinely leav­ing the body, were in­cor­rect. But they were still point­ing to a real ob­ser­va­tion, namely that there are con­di­tions which cre­ate a sub­jec­tive ex­pe­rience of leav­ing the body. That ob­ser­va­tion could then be in­ves­ti­gated through sci­en­tific means.

2. The Artist and the Criticism

In art cir­cles, there’s a com­mon piece of ad­vice that goes along the lines of:

When peo­ple say that they don’t like some­thing about your work, you should treat that as valid in­for­ma­tion.

When peo­ple say why they don’t like it or what you could do to fix it, you should treat that with some skep­ti­cism.

Out­side the art con­text, if some­one tells you that they’re pissed off with you as a per­son (or that you make them feel good), then that’s likely to be true; but the rea­son that they give you may not be the true rea­son.

Peo­ple have poor in­tro­spec­tive ac­cess to the rea­sons why they like or dis­like some­thing; when they are asked for an ex­pla­na­tion, they of­ten liter­ally fabri­cate their rea­sons. Their ex­pla­na­tion is likely false, even though it’s still point­ing to some­thing in the work hav­ing made them dis­like it.

3. The Tra­di­tion­al­ist and the Anthropologist

The Scholar’s Stage blog post “Tra­di­tion is Smarter Than You Are“, quotes Joseph Hen­rich’s The Se­cret of Our Suc­cess which re­ports that many folk tra­di­tions, such as not eat­ing par­tic­u­lar fish dur­ing preg­nancy, are adap­tive: not eat­ing that fish dur­ing preg­nancy is good for the child, mother, or both. But the peo­ple in ques­tion of­ten do not know why they fol­low that tra­di­tion:

We looked for a shared un­der­ly­ing men­tal model of why one would not eat these marine species dur­ing preg­nancy or breast­feed­ing—a causal model or set of rea­soned prin­ci­ples. Un­like the highly con­sis­tent an­swers on what not to eat and when, women’s re­sponses to our why ques­tions were all over the map. Many women sim­ply said they did not know and clearly thought it was an odd ques­tion. Others said it was “cus­tom.” Some did sug­gest that the con­sump­tion of at least some of the species might re­sult in harm­ful effects to the fe­tus, but what pre­cisely would hap­pen to the fe­tus varied greatly, though a non­triv­ial seg­ment of the women ex­plained that ba­bies would be born with rough skin if sharks were eaten and smelly joints if morays were eaten. Un­like most of our in­ter­view ques­tions on this topic, the an­swers here had the fla­vor of post-hoc ra­tio­nal­iza­tion: “Since I’m be­ing asked for a rea­son, there must be a rea­son, so I’ll think one up now.” This is ex­tremely com­mon in ethno­graphic field­work, and I’ve per­son­ally ex­pe­rienced it in the Peru­vian Ama­zon with the Mat­si­genka and with the Ma­puche in south­ern Chile.

The peo­ple’s hy­pothe­ses for why they do some­thing is wrong. But their be­hav­ior is still point­ing to the fish in ques­tion be­ing bad to eat dur­ing preg­nancy.

4. The Mar­tial Artist and the Ki

In Types of Know­ing, Valen­tine writes:

Another ex­am­ple is the “un­bend­able arm” in mar­tial arts. I learned this as a mat­ter of “ex­tend­ing ki“: if you let mag­i­cal life-en­ergy blast out your finger­tips, then your arm be­comes hard to bend much like it’s hard to bend a hose with wa­ter blast­ing out of it. This is ob­vi­ously not what’s re­ally hap­pen­ing, but think­ing this way of­ten gets peo­ple to be able to do it af­ter a few cu­mu­la­tive hours of prac­tice.
But you know what helps bet­ter?
Know­ing the physics.
Turns out that the un­bend­able arm is a lev­er­age trick: if you treat the up­ward pres­sure on the wrist as a ful­crum and you push your hand down (or rather, raise your elbow a bit), you can redi­rect that force and the force that’s down­ward on your elbow into each other. Then you don’t need to be strong rel­a­tive to how hard your part­ner is push­ing on your elbow; you just need to be strong enough to redi­rect the forces into each other.
Know­ing this, I can teach some­one to pretty re­li­ably do the un­bend­able arm in un­der ten min­utes. No mys­ti­cal philos­o­phy needed.

The ex­pla­na­tion about mag­i­cal life en­ergy was false, but it was still point­ing to a use­ful trick that could be learned and put to good use.


Ob­ser­va­tions and the hy­pothe­ses de­vel­oped to ex­plain them of­ten get wrapped up, caus­ing us to eval­u­ate both as a whole. In some cases, we only hear the hy­poth­e­sis rather than the ob­ser­va­tion which prompted it. But peo­ple usu­ally don’t pull their hy­pothe­ses out of en­tirely thin air; even an in­cor­rect hy­poth­e­sis is usu­ally en­tan­gled with some cor­rect ob­ser­va­tions. If we can iso­late the ob­ser­va­tion that prompted the hy­poth­e­sis, then we can treat the hy­poth­e­sis as a bur­den­some de­tail to be eval­u­ated on its own mer­its, sep­a­rate from the origi­nal ob­ser­va­tion. At the very least, the ex­is­tence of an in­cor­rect but com­mon hy­poth­e­sis sug­gests to us that there’s some­thing go­ing on that needs to be ex­plained.