The Lens of Science and Its Flaw

By Doug Marman

Our scientific way of looking at the world as outsiders was pioneered by Isaac Newton, over three hundreds years ago. People found it so effective at helping them understand mechanisms and mechanical reactions that it sparked the Industrial Revolution and our modern technological age.

It soon spread across the globe and is now used in almost every field. We use it so often that it’s almost invisible to us. It has, more than any other lens, shaped our ways of seeing. The problem is that it has a flaw that limits our perceptions.

To understand what this flaw is, we need to go back to Newton’s time and see how he first discovered his “laws of motion” and set down the fundamental principles of science. (For a more complete discussion of this subject, see chapter 3 in the book Lenses of Perception.)

Isaac wanted to know why the planets in our solar system circle around the sun. He had a hunch that gravity, the same force that causes apples to fall from trees, is the cause, but how could he prove it?

Newton wanted to understand the force that keeps the planets in orbit around our sun. Illustration by NASA.

Newton wanted to understand the force that keeps the planets in orbit around our sun. Illustration by NASA.

Newton invented a new type of math, called calculus, to describe the changing motion of the planets. Unfortunately, the general formula for changing rates of motion is infinite—it never ends. It looks like this:

The distance an object moves over time = V + ba2 + ca3 + da4 . . .

The three dots at the end means that it goes on and on forever. That makes it way too complicated to use.

Fortunately, Isaac knew what the formula was describing, so he saw a way to make it simpler. For example, if we’re studying an object moving through space at a constant speed, then the infinite equation reduces to this:

The distance an object moves over time = V

V” in this formula stands for the velocity of the object—in other words, how fast it is moving.

This became Newton’s first law of motion. It says that all things continue moving in the same direction, and at the same speed, unless they’re changed by a force. Until a force acts on them, their own momentum keeps them on the same path, moving at a steady pace.

This idea seems obvious to us today because we’re so used to thinking this way. But it was only sixty years before Newton that Galileo first proposed the idea. Galileo claimed that the Ancient Greek philosophers, who said that a force was needed to keep an object moving, were wrong. Newton showed that Galileo was right and this is a fundamental law of our universe.

To describe the movement of Earth around the sun, however, Isaac needed a different approach, since our planet is continually changing its direction. He couldn’t use the infinite formula produced by calculus, but he could reduce the equation to something simple if he once again limited his study to a special case. This time he focused on the change of motion produced by a single force. If that is all we care about, then the formula produced by calculus is:

Force = (m) x (a)

This is Newton’s second law of motion: Force is equal to the mass of an object (m) times the rate at which it accelerates (a). It tells us that acceleration is the direct result of the magnitude of the force. If a force is twice as strong, the object will accelerate twice as fast. It also says that, any time an object speeds up, slows down, or changes its course, a force must be driving it.

So, the impossibly complex formula for movement was reduced to two simple equations: One that describes steadily moving objects, where motion continues because of momentum, and the other describing a single force causing objects to accelerate.

This is the tool Newton discovered. It describes cause and effect and shows us how to study forces, one at a time, by seeing the changes they produce.

This idea was quickly adopted by every field of science. Even sociology, when it was first founded as a scientific study, used the principle to study the social forces that move people. Around the same time, Freud began describing the psychological forces that are motivating factors in human beings. And economists started seeing the economy as a closed system where prices were driven by the external forces of supply and demand.

What happens when a tool is used so often that it becomes common? It strongly shapes our way of seeing the world. (See What Are Lenses of Perception? for more information.) And this is exactly what happened, since everywhere we look today we see causation at work. Forces move objects, people, and economies.

In fact, within a hundred years after Newton published his laws of motion, it became common to talk about the universe and everything in it being driven by forces. All the stars, galaxies, planets, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and the whole world of nature was nothing but a giant clockwork.

Unfortunately, there’s a flaw in this lens. Can you see where it comes from?

The movements of creatures aren't driven by outside forces. Their actions spring from within. Scientists haven't been able explain this spontaneous behavior. Photo by Davy Siahaan.

The movements of creatures aren’t driven by outside forces. Their actions spring from within. Scientists haven’t been able explain this spontaneous behavior. Photo by Davy Siahaan.

Remember, Newton picked a special case to simplify the formula for motion. He looked at forces acting on objects from the outside. What about living creatures that change direction from within themselves? Can we apply Newton’s approach to see where the autonomous actions of organisms come from? Can we reduce the self-driven movements of plants and animals down to mechanisms? No, we can’t.

“Okay, we may not have the answer today, but every day we get smarter and smarter, learning more and more through new scientific discoveries. Surely, one day we’ll be able to understand the building blocks of life.

“But the problem isn’t a lack of intelligence. We’ve been running into this wall for hundreds of years. Brilliant people have tried solving it. We don’t need more brain power. We’re missing something basic.

“What if we can’t reduce life down because it’s impossible? The question staggered me. I had to think about it over and over. Could this be true? Finally, the realization hit me: Newton’s principle of cause and effect can’t help us answer this question because it tells us nothing about causes originating from within. It applies only to external forces.

“Does this mean that science will never, ever, be able to explain the secret of life? Never? No, but it suggests that we need a different approach. We need new tools and a fundamentally new lens to show us how powers can originate from within.”

From Lenses of Perception, page 28.

The lens of perception that formed from using Newton’s approach to study cause and effect is based on the idea that forces act on objects from the outside. In other words, it is a third-person perspective, as if we were standing outside of the action and looking in as observers. This is the lens of science. It’s a way of seeing that dominates scientific research today, even though it has a number of limitations.

For example, third-person lenses can’t see where forces originate, the intentions behind actions, or the purposes of those action, to name a few of the smaller issues. Most scientists treat these as pesky mosquitos. They’re easily ignored. And if you are dealing with mechanical reactions, they can be overlooked because they play no role.

However, if you only look for truth through third-person lenses, then these three little issues change your whole perspective. Reality no longer seems to have a purpose. You can’t see any meaning to life, since everything is just the result of a chain of reactions. One domino knocks over the next.

This is where the “post-modern” view of life comes from. It has infiltrated every aspect of society, especially our schools. This is the result of seeing only through third-person lenses.

Recently, the problem has grown much bigger, however, since we find ourselves faced with the paradoxes of quantum mechanics and the bizarre behavior of sub-atomic particles. And leading biologists have come to the conclusion that we not only can’t explain the origin of life, we don’t even know where to start looking for an answer.

Plus, physicists discovered a serious problem with the way our universe evolved. For some reason it seems to be exactly designed for life to exist. They don’t know why. This is made worse by the fact that science doesn’t know why life exists in the first place.

Living things possess a spark that cannot be explained by mechanical reactions. Their actions cannot be predicted by any laws. The lens of science can't make sense of it, but other lenses can. Photo by Davy Siahaan

Living things possess a spark that cannot be explained by mechanical reactions. Their actions cannot be predicted by any laws. Third-person lenses can’t make sense of it, but other lenses can. Photo by Kristof Degreef.

And how do our minds move our bodies? Science is no closer to answering this question today than it was two hundred years ago. We simply don’t know. Or how does consciousness emerge from brains, as most biologists believe? No one can explain it.

It turns out that all of these issues, plus many more, originate from the flaw in the lens of science. We need a new approach—a new way of seeing to make sense of these mysteries. A new lens that helps us see things not only from the outside, but from the inside as well.

“Don’t fall for the story that organisms are complicated, as if this explains why reducing them down is difficult. What if life is irreducible? What if we’ve been missing something? What if a new lens could reveal the problem? Then, as Rosen says, “the consequences are profoundly revolutionary.”

“Imagine finding new principles as simple as Newton’s laws of motion that can fill in the missing picture and explain life. If Isaac’s laws of motion changed our world dramatically, imagine how these new principles will transform our ability to see and understand.”

From Lenses of Perception, page 40.

See also the next in this series: A New Foundation for Science

What are Lenses of Perception?

By Doug Marman

Lenses are ways of seeing. They frame everything we perceive. They make sense of the situations we find ourselves in, the people we meet—even the ways we see ourselves. They allow us to understand everything from science and art to relationships and teamwork.

We can recognize drops of water on a window because we have a lens that shows us what they are. Photo by kappachan.

We recognize drops of water on a window because we have a lens that shows us what they are. Photo by kappachan.

For example, the image of a plane flying across the sky makes sense because we have a lens that shows us what it is. We learned what planes are as children. We know that there are people inside, they aren’t as tiny as they  look, and they move faster than they seem.

We also learned to recognize when someone is angry or when a mother is worried because she lost track of her child while shopping. Lenses gives us the ability to bring the world into focus, to put things in perspective.

We literally can’t fathom anything without lenses. Psychologists call them “perceptual sets” because they bundle our comprehension of events, people, and situations.

Why Do Lenses Matter?

Because they subconsciously shape our perceptions and and limit what we see. Lenses also play deep roles in the foundations of our physical world. They define time and space and explain how our universe came into existence.

A deeper understanding of lenses of perception gives us new insights into the foundation of science itself—why science is distinct from other fields. And it shows us how to expand the reach of science to understand the origin of life and the paradoxical nature of quantum mechanics. (For more on this see The Lens of Science and Its Flaw.)

Lenses allow us to focus and see clearly, but they also limit what we see. Photo by g baden.

Lenses allow us to focus and see clearly, but they also limit what we see. Photo by g baden.

Why are lenses so powerful? Because they are formed from using tools. The more a tool changes our life the more it shapes what we see.

For example, the introduction of cars, trains, and planes gave people the chance to visit and see far away places for the first time. Their lives changed. The feeling of being rooted to a place gave way to a sense of freedom and the desire to explore. Children began moving away from their families as they grew up. Ties to their communities became weaker. People today see the world differently.

The invention of television had a similar impact. The generation who first grew up with TV began picturing the events of their lives as if they were watching a screen in their minds. Visual images became more important. They know more about the whole world, but have lost touch with their next-door neighbors, as sitting on a front porch together was replaced by TV.

A similar change took place two thousand years earlier when the written word became popular. According to Plato, the wisdom that had been passed down from generation to generation through audible stories was lost. It was replaced by a false sense of truth found in books. Plato was right about this change, however, it also created a boom in linear thinking. Mathematics and philosophy blossomed. In fact, we only know about Plato because of the books he wrote.

All great leaps in civilization come from the use of new tools. Spoken language, the written word, the cultivation of crops and livestock—all changed us and the way we see life.

In other words, beliefs and thoughts are secondary. We got it backwards. Our beliefs don’t define the way we see. Lenses are the true source. They shape our beliefs. Our ways of seeing emerge subconsciously. We learn, first and foremost, from our experiences.

We have a saying: You need to walk a mile in another person’s shoes to know them. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Accountants and actors have different lenses. Artists and scientists are so different that they rarely cross paths. The gap that separates generations can be significant, even between people who have lived with each other for years.

Modern world has become fragmented because we have become a society of specialists. Photo by g baden.

Our modern world has become fragmented because we have become a society of specialists. Photo by Benjamin Earwicker.

We see breakdowns in communication because we use different tools and have different experiences growing up. We are often baffled by people. How can some be so cruel? Why don’t they see humor in a situation the way we do?

Our modern civilized world is more divided than ever. We have fragmented into a growing number of special interests for a simple reason: We have increasingly become a society of specialists. Specialized skills make us more valuable, but they also distance us from each other. We are like ships passing in the night. This is the problem of our times.

It isn’t just our understanding of each other. The same obstacles making it “impossible” for physicists to understand the quantum world, or to crack the puzzle of organic life.

There is an answer. We simply need to find different lenses.

Unfortunately, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. We have to let go of our way of seeing before we can switch to another lens. This is often unsettling. It means losing our sense of who we are and how we fit in the world. Next, we must pass through a zone where it feels as if something is seriously wrong. Only then can we truly understand another lens.

That’s the psychological barrier standing in our way. It’s a significant one. And this is why people fight so hard to hang onto their ways of seeing, pitting themselves against others.

It all happens because letting go of our lens feels threatening at an unconscious level. This single problem has held us back in countless ways. It stunts our ability to grow and understand. Sometimes we can’t see what is even right before our eyes.

The root of the problem is that we keep trying to see all of life through one lens.

Rational thought and logic isn’t the answer. Belief isn’t the problem. We need to learn how to change lenses and see in new ways. We need to realize that these uncomfortable feelings are normal and they are signs that we’re growing. Once we do, the world makes a lot more sense—even the unpredictable behavior of sub-atomic particles.