Starokadomskyy is at the Department of Internal Medicine, UT Southwestern Medical Center. He writes about his work in the area our original post “Decline Of Participation In Religious Rituals With Improved Sanitation” covered. That article criticized the work of Alexander Panchin and others which said religion was caused, somehow, by microbes. Nobody knows which bugs are responsible for that kind of science.
The main attractiveness of science consists in existence of clear standards for new hypotheses. Every new proposal in a given discipline should be confirmed experimentally and be in agreement with the general rules (e.g. thermodynamics, evolution, etc), should complement existing data in a logical way, etc. Even when a new discovery forces us to revise some previous concepts, it should not appeal to a total revision of the entire body of existing data.
For example, when a discovery of a reverse transcription disproved the “main molecular dogma” (DNA-RNA-Protein), a fact of existence of the reverse transcription challenges neither basics of physics nor evolution nor any other related scientific disciplines. The beauty of contemporary science consists is its flexibility: everything can be challenged by new data, but nothing new can contradict existing paradigms without strong theoretical and experimental evidences.
Of course, distinguishing between truth and falsity is not so straightforward process. The best judge for a new hypothesis is a time—an accumulation of data from independent sources finally confirms or disproves a given idea. But in real life, usually it takes too long. Even today, when data are accumulating with an incredible speed, scientists arguing throughout the years to adopt new paradigms. And a long year ago, at the time of Occam, Decartes, and other men that created the basement for contemporary science, the final approval (or refutation) of hypotheses took a time counted in centuries, and sometime whole life of one scholar was not enough for that.
That is why the problem of demarcation of the real data from artifacts and false theories was so important at that time. Several medieval scholars tried to develop some simple and reliable tools for “early screening” of new theories. Probably, only few of these ancient methods survived until today. But these “survivors” became true cornerstones of the modern scientific methodology: indeed, who will be doubting today about a necessity of experimental proves for a new claim? Perhaps, such triviality might have a negative role. Sometimes, people may overlook these simple rules while putting forward some bright state-of-art scientific hypothesis.
Two recent publications can serve as a perfect illustration of the aforementioned. The discussion has been occurring in a respectful journal Biology Direct, where young scientists (Panchin et al.) propose a purely speculative hypothesis: what if some unknown microbe can subtly manipulate with the human mind and incline people to perform some religious ritual in order to spread itself among other believers? At the first glance – why not, indeed: a sanity of religious rituals is known to be far from hygienic standards. But do this really required an introducing of a microbial component to be explained?
A following comment by myself criticizes the proposed hypothesis. Following my critique, the article is in disagreement with a basic logic—a typical flaw in an ultramodern cutting-edge proposal, when the beauty of an idea outshines the elementary logic. Since scientific knowledge embraces all the parts of our life including social, behavioral, and cultural aspects, it would be naive to believe that generations of scientists overlooked some epidemiological consequences of a religion. The existence of some hidden microbial driver has to have clear consequences for entire world history and be detected by hundreds of scholars throughout the time, taking into account more than 2000 years of religious history and millions of participants.
These two articles are a perfect illustration of a practical usage of medieval philosophical approaches in our high-tech time. The hypothesis doesn’t require expensive multi-genomes studies or investigation of the brain-microbiome axis to be proved or disproved. To do so, it is enough simply read any book titled alike “History of religion”. Indeed, boring and critical analysis of available historical and sociological evidences highlights multiple disagreements between the proposed state-of-art hypothesis and our casual life.
The discussion is quite unique because it is a vivid example of a situation, when contemporary hypothesis, even published in a scientific journal, can be opposed by well-forgotten philosophical approaches. Purely philosophic doctrines like Occam’s razor or Popper’s criteria are still actual. No matter what is the object of a research: microbiome, genomes, Freud’s theory, next-generation sequencing or Caloric theory, the basic logic should never be neglected.