Personal Science

By Chris Churchill

Babies are natural scientists and philosophers, even if they’re very slobbery, poopy ones. They’re constantly in the field, figuring out what's real and how things work.

A good friend of mine, Dave, upon getting to see the world through his first baby's eyes, used to joke with people about the look on his newborn's face as he was figuring out how to work his toes. "I can move this with my mind!" the baby would say. That’s science. Without having read about scientific method, that baby figured out how something worked by experimenting, interpreting data and, eventually, was able to predict and even control the outcomes of any mind/toe interactions.

There are a lot of other things we figure out during that time of life, as well. Basically, we are learning the rules of this new game we've been thrust into, called Life. Once certain lessons are learned, they can be internalized and you can stop testing them. Like gravity. It's pretty reliable for babies on earth. We take it for granted. In fact, if it isn’t learned and internalized, chances are that juvenile human will die. Chances are, from an evolutionary standpoint, that those who would question gravity were weeded out long ago. Another important idea, the idea that other people are real and have their own internal reality takes a few years to figure out as a reliable truth. If that period in your research is interrupted by trauma, neglect, injury or anything else, you might be a little more suspicious of reality itself than others are. And you might walk around wondering why all these other people (if they're even real) aren't flipping out, wondering the same thing. They couldn't tell you. They've internalized the answer. The step-by-step scientific research they did as toddlers was never written down. But every solipsistic problem they could come up with, they solved to their own satisfaction before kindergarten. 

Baby considering gravity.

I think "I think, therefore I am" isn't as profound as we think. Originally, Descartes, having questioned the reality of every stimuli his senses could deliver to his brain, decided to strip the whole reality question down to basics. “I’m thinking, so at least that must be real," he may have shrugged before climbing into an oven to hide. It’s true. That’s a great place to start, but I’ve been stuck there and it’s not a great place to live. It’s lonely. It made me ponder the question further. There are four separate unique words in “I think, therefore I am” and the meaning of each one could be debated. Think Bill Clinton’s consideration of what “is” is. Seriously, do a thought experiment. You could find the weakness in the assumptions of that famous phrase.

We understand this because we internalized a lot of other stuff a long time ago. We don't have to think about the simplest aspects and assumptions of life. We don't even realize how intelligent we are. Yeah, Descartes, we already worked that out. We just didn't write it down. (Okay, I’m being a little dismissive here but you see what I mean, I hope.)

Life keeps going after kindergarten, high school and philosophy 101 in college. It continues to give you problems to figure out. Ultimately, you internalize the answers to these questions. The problem then arises that, the longer we live, the greater the chance that we internalize an answer to one of life's challenges differently than almost everyone else on earth. It is possible that in most cases, this means we did our internal science wrong. Maybe we were not as objective in the interpretation of the data we collected as most others. Maybe we took the forty years of annoyed looks on people's faces as we talked loudly in public to mean that we were hilarious, supremely interesting people when, actually, we were jerks. Somewhere along the line, we misinterpreted the evidence. And then we ran with it. Maybe, twenty bad job interviews lead you to believe that you're ahead of your time rather than someone who makes a hiring manager nervous. Maybe the idea that other people’s reactions to you are their problem is wrong. Maybe, it really is your problem. Maybe it hurts you more than it hurts them.

Eventually, we all diverge from others based on our internal science—whether performed well or not. My interpretation of the data I've collected about the world, when cross referenced with my previous experiences and current feelings, leads me to different conclusions about how the world works than others might have been lead to. The next step in this process should be to occasionally recheck the science. Introspection, is where that happens. This is what I think should be meant by the phrase open minded. New evidence is always available. If the world and your worldview collide, time to do some internal, or even external, science. Walk around doing science. Poll people, poll yourself, collect evidence, understand confounding variables—you might be the confounding variable. I confound others all the time. Adjust for these.

That's life. All day long, everyday.