When the financial crisis hit a couple of years back, we mostly blamed it on the greed of bankers and the lack of safeguards in the world's financial system. No doubt these were and remain significant problems. However, what many people failed to notice, but which various astute observers pointed out, is that the crisis grew out of a culture that was rampant in financial circles at the time. You could call this the revenge of the nerds, the nerds being those "quants," people with doctorates in math and physics who have taken up residence on Wall Street in recent times. They bring with them a culture of quantification and precision that they carry over from the mathematical and physical sciences and which they then apply to economic and financial situations. The complex mathematical models that they use may be brilliant, but the better they are the greater their potential is to misrepresent the actual human situation that they are looking at. Because they give people like CEOs and politicians the idea that everything is understood and under control, these models often have the perverse effect of making the problem worse ? taking us from a problem that is a local blip to one that is a global catastrophe.
It is vital for us all to get our heads around what science and scientific thinking can do for us and, on the other hand, what its limitations are. For modern western civilization, science is a kind of secular religion. We sometimes imagine that there is no problem too complex to be solved, or potentially solved, by science. This is a kind of act of faith related to our belief that computers can potentially do everything that human beings can do (and better). We don't always focus on the fact that science is a human activity that involves certain assumptions and depends on a certain way of using the mind. In my books, I go into these assumptions with the aim of strengthening science, but more importantly of improving the way in which science is used to solve contemporary problems.
Science has intrinsic limitations; it has blind spots that are built in. A blind spot, like the blind spot associated with our vision, involves something that is there but you don't see. We are all familiar with the driver's blind spot when we look into our rear-view mirror, see that our way is clear, start to change lanes, and are shocked to find out that there is another car right beside us. This happens to us all, and when it happens, it is always a shock. The shock comes from the fact that we assumed we had an accurate picture in our minds of the cars on the road around us, but actually our picture was incomplete. As a consequence, we put others and ourselves in danger. So it is with those hidden assumptions in math and science.
What are the blind spots of science? They involve the belief that science is certain and objective, that it reveals what is there ? no more and no less. When we do science or just think about some scientific theory, it is as though we are standing outside of reality; we imagine that we see reality spread out in front of our mind's eye. It's a very comfortable, even God-like, position to be in. This leads us to think that the world, the environment, for example, can be controlled by us and molded to our own purposes. The truth is that we are always, in one way or another, part of the situation that we are investigating. Isolating and systematically exploiting objectivity is a great human achievement, but thinking that this is the only thing that is going on is a blind spot.
We believe in an "objective world" that is made up of stuff: atoms, molecules, cells, stars. We further believe that the things that are really important for us ? our subjectivity and our minds ? are of secondary importance, and that someday in the future we shall understand the mind through playing around with the "stuff." Even though a great deal of science has moved on and no longer holds with what you could call naïve scientific objectivity, other scientists and also many people who use science or scientific thinking still hold on to this way of thinking. As a result, we have difficulty dealing with the problems we face, all of which have to do with human beings, what they think, and the way they behave. Like an old science-fiction story (Foundation by Isaac Asimov), we think that it's just a matter of time until someone writes down the right set of equations that will describe human beings and human behavior. People have made movies speculating about at what stage we will have to give voting rights to robots because they have the idea that robots, like Data on Star Trek, are sentient beings like you or me. This is all a dangerous fantasy.
Human beings have many capacities, and we make machines to strengthen those capacities. We make telescopes to help us see further. We make computers to augment and strengthen our logical or rational capacities. There are some people who think that rationality is the defining property of human beings, but, in fact, logic and rationality are just one way that human beings have learned to use their minds. We must not forget that there are many other ways that the mind can be used. Human beings are not machines and we are not (only) rational. The greatest human capacities include capacities like intuition, empathy, and, especially, our inherent creativity ? capacities which are shared by all people to a greater or lesser degree. However, creativity requires both objectivity and subjectivity, both rationality and intuition, operating in tandem. No one will ever develop an algorithm for creativity, although many have tried, and others are still trying. What is so exciting about computers is the amazing creativity of the scientists that created their hardware and software ? a creativity that is ongoing and expanding. The idea that we shall one day write a program that will make all further creative breakthroughs on its own is just silly.
Some people want to reduce subjectivity to objectivity, to the neural circuits in the brain. Unfortunately for them but not for us, subjectivity is irreducible. Talking about subjectivity in science makes us nervous precisely because it is not objective and cannot be controlled. We can talk about consciousness and subjectivity and make them into areas of research, but what we study will inevitably be a model of subjectivity, not the thing itself. In a sense, the scientist who studies human subjectivity is studying himself or herself. It is their subjectivity that is studying subjectivity. This is a kind of self-referential loop that is very familiar to mathematicians. The thing to remember about self-reference is that it often leads to paradox and thus the breakdown of a strictly logical model. This makes it difficult to handle. Reality is a complex business. We don't do ourselves any favors by eliminating self-reference and thereby reducing reality to the objective and the logical.
You can't escape from human subjectivity and that means that there is no escape from the things it brings in its wake ? uncertainty, self-reference, ambiguity, and incompleteness. Even the best of models are not and cannot be free from error. This is not to denigrate science or the wonderful improvements in modern life that have spring from its discoveries. However, it imposes an intrinsic limitation on how far science can go. The positive side of the coin of human subjectivity is that it is inseparable from the things we value most about our lives ? creativity, the sense of wonder that we get from the natural world and from scientific and artistic accomplishments, and the joy of simply being alive.
To be human is to have the capacity to stand outside ourselves and see ourselves from an objective point of view ? this is our blessing and our curse. But let's not forget about the person who is doing the looking, about the scientist who is performing the experiment. We have been given two intelligences ? two ways of being in the world ? the capacity both to be on the outside looking in as well as to be on the inside looking out. No doubt there is sometimes a tension between these two modalities, but, as in all ambiguities, one can react in one of two ways. Either we repress one mode (as we do when we reduce the subjective to the objective) or we use the tension between them as a springboard to creativity and a deeper and more fulfilling culture that addresses the human needs of human beings.