- Boy: Why are you washing your hands?
- Shaman: Because this root is poisonous.
- Boy: Then why pull it out of the ground?
- Shaman: Because the pulp within it can cure the mosquito disease.
- Boy: But, I thought you said it was poisonous.
- Shaman: It is, but the outside is more so than the inside.
- Boy: Still, if it's poisonous, how can it cure things.
- Shaman: It's the dose that makes the poison.
- Boy: So can I eat the pulp?
- Shaman: No, because you are not sick, it's the disease that makes the medicine.
- Boy: So it's good for a sick man, but bad for me?
- Shaman: Yes, because, the sick man must suffer in order to be cured.
- Boy: Why?
- Shaman: Because he made the spirits angry, that's why he got the disease.
- Boy: So why will suffering make it better?
- Shaman: Suffering is part of admitting guilt and seeking forgiveness, the root helps the sick man atone for his transgression. Afterwards, the spirits lift the disease.
- Boy: The spirits seem evil.
- Shaman: The spirits are neither evil, nor are they, good, as we understand it.
- Boy: Ohhh
- Shaman: Here, sit, let me tell you how our world was made...
Ok, that sounds like a half believable wise mystic, right? That would make for a decent intro to a mediocre young-adult fantasy coming of age powertrip novel
Now, imagine if the shaman just left it as "The root is poisonous if you are not sick, but it helps if you are sick and eat a bit of its pulp, most of the time". No rules of thumb about dose making the poison, no speculations as to how it works, no postulation of metaphysical rules, no analogies to morality, no grand story for the creation of the universe.
That'd be one boring shaman, right? Outright unbelievable. Nobody would trust such a witcherman to take them in the middle of the jungle and give them a psychedelic brew, he's daft. The other guy though... he might be made of the right stuff to hold ayahuasca ceremonies.
This is not limited to shamans though, but it's more obvious to see in the case of shamans, because you don't use their services.
If you are willing to stop adverting your eyes from uncomfortable uncertainty, you'll see it in most modern specialists, from electricians, to doctors to nuclear physicists. We are all just 2 or 3 reality-validated claims away from babbling nonsense in order to give answers to a a "why".
Ok, let me try again:
- Boy: Why did you give my dad ibuprofen?
- Doctor: Because it helps cure diseases, like colds.
- Boy: So if I take it every day, will I never get sick?
- Doctor: Oh, no no, you shouldn't do that, it can be dangerous.
- Boy: Then why is it good when you're sick?
- Doctor: Because it treats inflammation, which is something that happens only when your sick.
- Boy: What's inflammation, why does it happen when you're sick?
- Doctor: It's a process through which the body fights diseases.
- Boy: So isn't it good?
- Doctor: Well no, because the body also damages itself by doing it.
- Boy: Why?
- Doctor: Well, because it's impossible to fight a disease without also damaging the body, the infected cells need to die, and the systems fighting the infection are imprecise, they will end up destroying nearby healthy tissue.
- Boy: Ok, but then if we stop inflammation, how does the disease go away?
- Doctor: Ahm, it's specific types of inflammation that are bad, or specific parts of it, and ibuprofen stops those nasty parts.
- Boy: Why are the nasty parts there to begin with?
- Doctor: Well, because evolution made our immune system adapted for an environment with more dangerous pathogens and injuries, but for modern man diseases are less dangerous.
- Boy: But aren't there more diseases now due to people travelling all over? Like the coronavirus
- Doctor: Oh, well, yes, but hygiene also played a part in this. Have you ever heard about Louis Pasteur? No? Ok, let me tell you a story...
Is this a believable smart doctor? I'd say so, I'd say she's even above average. The kind of medic you want as your GP.
Would you be less likely to go to her if she just said: "Because ibuprofen makes people with colds feel better until they go away on their own. It might be a bit dangerous, but it might also be a bit helpful. We don't really know, the processes involved are so complex as to be on the edge of scientific understanding, and the few studies that tried to take the question seriously I've never read, it's just common practice to take them when cold."
To most people this doctor sounds like an uninformed moron, they'll go and complain about her in their antivaxx naturist mom facebook groups. But, why? This doctor is being more honest, both about their own reason for saying take ibuprofen (everybody does it) and about the real state of knowledge on the subject of efficacy and mechanism (it's complicated and uncertain).
We really don't understand if NSAIDs are useful when confronted with "inflammation", which in itself is a vague term that nobody agrees on. We neither perfectly understand how COX1&2 interact with the immune system, platelets and other signalling mechanisms, nor do we understand the multitude of NSAID effects beyond COX inhibition. Even if we did, we don't understand the immune system as a whole. There's likely some situations where NSAIDs help and others when they hurt and others when they are neutral but help alleviate unnecessary suffering, but currently, we can't explain why or even when those happen.
I have observed a pattern around the internet:
- Someone holds claims the expert/educated/mainstream consensus on some topic is bonk. Some branch of medicine is hogwash, some physics theory is incoherent and useless, the ethical stances of some group is blatantly inconsistent and dangerous.
- I cheer them on, you go fellow crazy person! This stuff is bs and more should hear about it.
- I keep reading their reply/post/article/book... and get increasingly sad as they finish of their claims with: But I have THE SOLUTION that medics don't want you to know, but I KNOW the correct interpretation for this realm of physics, but MY ETHICS could be imposed upon that group and they'd be saved.
I cannot express how much this saddens me. Why must it be that all healthy scepticism always turns into quackery.
Maybe this in part scares me because it contributes towards a rule like: All writers which are sceptical of a lot of popular theories are insane quacks. Given that I fit in that category, I might be the same, and simply missing out on whatever my outrageous claims are.
More broadly though, it fits this model of people needing to know certain things, being unable to live in scepticism, in lack of knowledge.
You can't just disagree with modern medicine, you must be into yoga and crystal healing. You can't just think that cosmology is unfalsifiable and unreplicable, thus unscientific, you must then go on about your own theory of the universe. You can't just think that the tectonic plate model adds little value and is unfounded, you must then predicate at length why your cult has a better answer in your theory of geogensis.
Why ? Why !? Why !!
And I think in that very desperate question I've given myself an answer of sorts.
Because sometimes we can't stop demanding answers and other people, or our own selves, feel obliged to provide them.
I don't know why people can't be sceptical of things (theories, models, findings) without needing to fill that hole with other things.
I don't even claim that I'm correct in thinking this. Maybe my observations of this phenomenon are wrong, maybe the vast majority of sceptical thinkers don't do this, maybe I'm just selectively remembering these incidents because they bug me.
I think there's some probability that it's a thing that happens, that we should safeguard against being sceptical of something as an excuse for inserting our own dumb theory. Ideally, try and cultivate the ability to be ok without knowing under almost any circumstances.
I feel like any further speculation would be gravely disrespecting my own opinion.
But it does seem like something that a good pop writer would do. I'd be a much more credible social critic if I went on to expand about how this phenomenon defines what are fundamental questions, or how the rational mind needs some sort of "completeness" for its models, or how conceptual thinking is additive... or some such.