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Richard Feynman and the Drug War

aka On the Limits of the Scientific Method

by Ballard Quass, the Drug War Philosopher




August 6, 2022

n "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out," physicist Richard Feynman professes his disdain for (or at least his frustration with) the vast majority of Americans who have no concept of the scientific way of thinking. And he has a point, of course. One has only to think of the "Madonna of the Toast" or the "Virgin of the Cheese Sandwich" to agree that some people simply do not have a clue when it comes to looking at phenomena logically. But what Feynman does not realize (or at least does not admit) is that a dogmatic reliance on logic and the scientific method leads to absurdities every bit as bizarre as those produced by superstition and ignorance. Take animal sentience, for instance. Descartes believed, based on seemingly dispassionate and logical analysis (based on "science," that is) that animals had no feelings, notwithstanding, for instance, the obvious screams of our fellow mammals when they are subjected to torture. And this belief had consequences, for it cleared the path, ethically speaking, for scientists to vivisect animals at will and without scruple in the name of "advancing science."

It's interesting to ask, of course, why the seemingly pain-induced screams of animals did not count as evidence against Descartes' theory. The answer seems to be that scientists (especially in Descartes' time), considered "feelings" to be a "touchy-feely" subject about which no "hard figures" were to be had, and therefore a topic unworthy of a true scientist, who deals only in verifiable facts. Besides, animals were presupposed to be machines in the 17th century, existing in a universe that itself was thought to be 'clock-like' in its predictability. Of course, today, most scientists will gladly agree that animals have feelings -- but only because these scientists believe that they can clearly demonstrate that fact scientifically through logical experiment, not because they have latterly developed some newfound instinctive empathy with their fellow creatures. In other words, science has not yet freed itself of the problematic assumptions and methodologies that motivated Descartes to deny sentience to the "lower animals" -- instead, it has simply caught up with emotional reality viz the animal world, but on its own nerdy and didactic terms.

This, I believe, is what the Poet Rimbaud meant when he said that "science is too slow for us." And why is it too slow? Because as Pascal told us: "The heart has its own reasons that reason can't understand." Of course, Feynman may have never encountered these quotes, given his self-confessed disinterest in the humanities in his school days, but the glacial advancement of science when it comes to human psychology is evident even (indeed especially) today.

Consider the 2021 article in Forbes magazine entitled "Can Laughing Gas Help People With Treatment-Resistant Depression?"

As someone who has suffered from depression for 40-plus years, this headline made me laugh! Of course nitrous oxide would help -- in the same way that MDMA and psilocybin would help, not to mention the occasional use of opium and coca. And why would they help? Because they would improve my mood in two ways: first because the use itself would bring joy, and second because I would look forward to that use, and that anticipation would naturally improve my mood. This is not rocket science, folks; it's something that even a child naturally understands, notwithstanding their obvious inability to put these concepts into words. It's an obvious psychological truth that laughing gas would help the depressed. It would have to help, by definition.

Why then is the author, Dr. Robert Glatter, scratching his head over this matter?

Answer: Because, like Descartes, he wants to ignore subjective feelings entirely. And so while Descartes considered the screeching of animals to be irrelevant to science in the 17th century, so Glatter considers the laughing of formerly depressed patients to be irrelevant in the 21st century. Like Descartes, Glatter wants to know what's "really" going on, without regard for the mere unverifiable evidence of his own eyes and ears. Descartes didn't care how much bestial screaming he heard: he needed documented logical proof before he could sign off on animal sentience. Glatter, for his part, doesn't care how much laughter he hears from depressed patients who are using laughing gas: he needs documented logical proof before he can admit that laughing gas works for the depressed.

Of course, it could be that Dr. Glatter has physics envy and wants to refer depression to a chemical imbalance and will deny the efficacy of any drug that does not fit with his own supposititious biochemical "cause" of depression. And so, spurred on by emotionally purblind science, Glatter wants to find and treat the "real" cause for depression, rather than merely making a patient happy.

The result? Hundreds of millions of depressed around the world must suffer while materialists like Glatter try to get their head around the fact that "the proof is in the pudding," that rendering a depressed person happy is indeed rendering a depressed person happy.

As for myself, I want to tell scientists like Glatter: Just approve the damn laughing gas, for the love of God, and then carry on with your task of trying to find a "real" cure for depression. Personally, I don't want your "real" cure, because I know what science means by a "real" cure. Modern antidepressant SSRIs were touted as "real" cures because they were said to fix a chemical imbalance in the brain -- whereas it turned out that they actually caused the chemical imbalances that they were purported to fix -- and turned the user into a patient for life thanks to the extreme chemical dependencies that they induced. Besides, if you are going to give me a pill that cures my depression, I need to know what you mean by "cure." And if you mean that you're going to make me a good capitalist consumer who does not consider suicide, then I do not want your pill. A "cure for depression," as I would define it, would enable me to see the world in living color, close up, and feel a newfound empathy with my fellows while allowing me to attain some measure of self-fulfillment in life rather than merely surviving, because for many of us, survival comes in second place to self-fulfilment on our priority lists, a fact to which the Pollyanna psychology of the 21st century pays little or no shrift.

Rimbaud was right. Science is too slow for us (for we the depressed). And this slowness has consequences, for it gives a green-light for scheming politicians to outlaw godsend psychoactive substances. "After all," they say,: "science has yet to figure out that even laughing gas can be useful for the depressed." Thus modern science gives the DEA a pretense (albeit a feeble one) to say that medicines which have inspired entire religions have no known therapeutic benefits whatsoever -- this despite the fact that botanical medicine can never be justifiably criminalized in the first place under natural law, even if said plants truly did have no therapeutic uses whatsoever -- which, if true, by the way, would be an unprecedented sort of 'anti-miracle' in itself: the fact that there should exist a psychoactive substance for which creative humanity can find no therapeutic use whatsoever. Indeed, some nature lovers find it therapeutic merely to gaze on nature's creations and contemplate them, for which activity they should not be required to get a special permit from Congress.

This is why I find Feynman's view of science to be far too rosy -- and I say this without even referencing the fact that the "bomb" that scientists like Feynman helped develop will likely someday destroy the world, a fact that even Feynman himself admits. For I have personally suffered from science's willful blindness to "mere feelings" (whether those of lower animals or of human beings). How? Because science's dogmatic devotion to Galileo's method of dispassionate analysis for finding truth has forced me to treat my depression with "scientific" Big Pharma drugs for which addiction is a feature not a bug, at the same time that almost all of mother nature's psychoactive godsends have been placed off limits to me. And why are they off-limits to me? Because scientists refuse to acknowledge the obvious fact, that drugs that make a person happy are drugs that make a person happy, even if they fail to satisfy the scientist's desire to achieve those results in some predictable, repeatable and materialistic way.

Author's Follow-up: August 7, 2022






I have argued above via reductio ad absurdum against those who feel that the scientific method is a self-sufficient way of looking at the world, one full of quantifiable certainties, and that scientists therefore wrongly believe that they have no need to dirty their hands with the touchy-feely subject of human (or indeed animal) emotions. But this tendency to scientific hubris can also be rebuked by logical argument, ironically enough, as Kurt Godel of the Vienna School discovered after reading Bertrand Russell's Principia. Here is the gist of Godel's game-changing conclusion as summarized by Hans Rosling in his documentary series "The Joy of Logic":

"In any logical system, you could either be consistent or complete, but you couldn't have both at the same time... This means that, in mathematical logic, there are going to be some truths which, although true, can never be proven to be so."

In short, you can despise metaphysics and subjectivity all you want, but you cannot get rid of either of them even when you limit yourself to cold, hard science. Some assumptions are always implicit in the scientific method insofar as it depends on logic and mathematics.


Author's Follow-up: August 8, 2022






I feel obliged to unload on Richard Feynman here because he seems to be the standard bearer, so to speak, for the materialistic world view that causes doctors like Mr. Glatter to ask absurd questions like, "Can laughing gas help the depressed," questions which have the real-world effect of denying depressed folks like me access to godsend substances. The problem is that Feynman is so focused on his disdain for nonscientific methods -- as understandable as that disdain usually is -- that he has left the impression among his vast ideological following that science can legitimately stand in the way of what would otherwise be no-brainer solutions to modern problems merely by declaring that the efficacy of a given solution has not yet been proven scientifically. I would counter that certain potential solutions (like the idea that pets have feelings or that laughing gas can help the depressed) are so prima facie sensible (dare I say to the human heart?) that scientists should not have the power to veto them on the grounds that they have not yet been proven scientifically. According to this viewpoint, folks living in the 17th century need not have been kind to their pets because science had not yet found any way to prove that they actually had feelings.

Do we really need to prove scientifically that it helps to laugh -- and that merely looking forward to the intermittent use of nitrous oxide would be a morale boost for the depressed? We know these things by virtue of being human, and we should not have to put that knowledge "on hold" (or apologize for it as "intuition") while we grope about for a way to make it obvious to number-crunching scientists.

The problem with Feynman is that he's too categorical. He finds problems with ESP therapies, and he discounts ESP entirely. But what are pheromones but an extra-sensory way for animals, like human beings, to communicate? ESP, in this case, is not non-scientific, but rather a realm of science of which humans were not even aware until 1959. Presumably, if you had told Feynman that animals (including humans) could communicate in this extrasensory way in 1950, he would have called you a pseudoscientist -- or worse yet, a member of the South Pacific Cargo Cult. Moreover, he implies that, because obvious cases of ESP seem to be nonexistent in his time (Uri Geller didn't succeed in bending a spoon for Feynman), that we can safely discount any more modest claims of ESP communication. But viewed philosophically, it would be ground-shaking news if an experiment could prove ANY statistically significant ESP effects, no matter how small. And there is reason to believe that such effects have been found already at the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab, where human beings have been shown to mentally affect the roll of dice (or random event generators) to a small but statistically significant degree. In other words, the effect may have no immediate practical use, being so small, but the fact that there IS an effect should by rights open up a whole new field of scientific inquiry -- were hardcore scientists like Feynman not apparently opposed in principle to even acknowledging such results.

Again, why do I mention this in the context of drugs? Because it is Feynman's disdain for apparently non-physical things (like ESP or indeed I would almost say human emotions) that informs our approach to approving (or rather NOT approving) medicines today, for those who approve mind drugs never ask, "Does this make the user happy?" but rather, "Do we have scientific charts that can show that the user is made happy?" That's a huge bar for any medicine to jump, since we're asking scientists to measure a subjective quality like happiness -- which is really not their field, and certainly should not be their field in a sane world. This is why it's so problematic for Big Pharma scientists to cure my depression with pills, because it begs the question: what is Big Pharma's definition of "a cure for depression"? If their cure is to make me a good consumer, then I have a different view than they have as to what constitutes the good life and I would not want to take their pill even if it "worked" according to their non-ambitious definition of that term. I personally want the kind of pill that Big Pharma will probably never make, i.e. one that will help me 'live large,' be open to opportunities, see a world in a grain of sand, and feel compassion for my fellow human being.

Actually, such medicines already exist, but the Drug Warriors are doing everything they can to disguise that fact by criminalizing and demonizing the substances in question -- a crime that they get away with, in part, by parroting the scientific line that such medicines have not yet been "proven" to truly make someone happy -- as if government or science should be in the business of defining happiness, let alone deciding when and where it actually exists.

Author's Follow-up: August 9, 2022






Towards the end of "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out," Richard Feynman warns us that one of the greatest perils threatening America in the future (other than nuclear Armageddon, of course) is the use of biochemistry to control humankind. What, he asks, would happen if we found a way to design human beings so that they were more -- or less -- ambitious? Feynman finds it horrible that a government should regulate how ambitious a citizen is allowed to be.

What Feynman fails to realize is that America is already doing precisely that. How? By outlawing substances like the coca leaf which help one live an ambitious life.

Likewise, government already tells us how religious we can be by outlawing all the plant medicine which, in previous millennia, inspired the creation of entire religions, medicines like psychoactive mushrooms and the coca plant.

--

As I increasingly expose the false premises upon which the Drug War is based, I find myself doing much more than writing about "drugs." I am, it seems, tacitly advancing a new philosophy of life. Nor is this surprising, since our attitude about "drugs" presupposes basic stances toward life, such as what constitutes the good life, whether naturally occurring medicines -- and nature in general -- is a friend or foe, and whether one should seek safety first (doing everything possible, say, to avoid possible side effects of "drugs," for instance) or whether one should rather prioritize self-actualization and put one's safety in second place. For some of us still believe with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living, and when government controls our mental ability to examine life from every angle and to be all that we can be psychologically speaking, then it is interfering with our power to examine our life. But more on this in another essay.


Related tweet: November 25, 2023



I noted Feynman's question above:

"what would happen if we found a way to design human beings so that they were more -- or less -- ambitious?"

Here I give another answer:

"We have already found a way: they are called antidepressants. 1 in 4 American women take them daily and they keep that population productive but not inspired, ambitious but not TOO ambitious."




Next essay: Open Letter to Richard Hammersley
Previous essay: American City Homicide Awards 2021

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You have been reading an article entitled, Richard Feynman and the Drug War: aka On the Limits of the Scientific Method, published on August 6, 2022 on AbolishTheDEA.com. For more information about America's disgraceful drug war, which is anti-patient, anti-minority, anti-scientific, anti-mother nature, imperialistic, the establishment of the Christian Science religion, a violation of the natural law upon which America was founded, and a childish and counterproductive way of looking at the world, one which causes all of the problems that it purports to solve, and then some, visit the drug war philosopher, at abolishTheDEA.com. (philosopher's bio; go to top of this page)