Overview,  Research

Innovator’s Dilemma in Science

The main goal of today’s academic research is to keep the pretense that the situation is, after all, not all that bad.

I say this because, if you happen to take a closer look at the biggest outstanding problems facing academic research you will find problems that require not just a patch; they require a drastic overhaul, a fundamental revision to conceptual foundations. But scholarship aims to show that it’s not that bad. That we can continue extending what we already know and we will thus solve today’s problems.

If you are wondering which problems I’m referring to, here is a brief list:

  • In mathematics, it is the incompleteness of all number systems.
  • In computing theory, it is the inability to comprehend natural language.
  • In physics, it is probability and uncertainty.
  • In chemistry, it is the inability to formulate predictive laws.
  • In biology, fundamental questions about information replication and translation are unanswered.

These are all ‘hard’ sciences based on fact and experiment. Their problems are even harder.

There’s also the divide between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences. The latter include psychology, economics, sociology, linguistics, etc. Soft sciences recognize the existence of a mind that enjoys and chooses, but the hard sciences don’t. Soft sciences study the mind’s effects on matter, while hard sciences deny there is anything beyond atoms.

This conflict can only be solved in one of two ways. One, if it turns out that there is indeed a mind and the mindless description of matter is false; this will falsify most of the ‘hard’ science theories. Two, if there is no mind and we are simply zombies who think that we think; the irony is now inescapable: to think that we think, we must still think about ourselves. In the former case, the world is different than we have thought so far in science. In the latter case, we don’t exist in the sense we believe we do.

Scientists have, over the last several centuries, relentlessly pursued a reductionist approach to the observer, while denying that this means we are zombies. In other words, scientists do not accept that there is a problem, but claim that the current approaches will eventually solve it. Science is in the throes of what technologists call the Innovator’s Dilemma. The dilemma is that an established system will not disrupt itself. The establishment will argue that new approaches are not needed because the current approach – when pursued to its logical limits – will over time fix all issues.

The problem is slightly more acute in science because science is an elite community and not too many people outside this community understand the nature of the problem, let alone question it. Unlike technological disruption where consumers make up their minds about what products they like, in science the ability to decide is limited. Technology works on the principle of “fail fast” by trying and rejecting things quickly. Science uses the converse principle of building things incrementally but at a much slower pace. It is harder to get a new idea accepted, and if it has been accepted, much harder to throw it away.

Most scientists today believe that there is no mind apart from the brain. The brain is nothing more than cells, which are molecules, that can be described by physical theories. How can such a theory of matter explain the mind? Reductionists claim that the mind-body divide is misconstrued since there is actually no mind apart from the brain. The mind is a phenomena (and not a separate type of reality) created as a by-product of chemical reactions, although we cannot say what in the reactions makes it mind.

I believe that we have misconstrued the nature of matter. Mind and matter are separate and matter has to be redefined in a way compatible with the existence and interaction with the mind. This thought is so scary for most scientists that it will be very hard to find patrons for it within the mainstream. Like technological disruptions happen on fringes, it is possible that science too will a see a revolution outside the mainstream.