What Scientists Can’t See: On Adam Frank, Marcelo Gleiser, and Evan Thompson’s “The Blind Spot”

By Robert P. CreaseApril 20, 2024

What Scientists Can’t See: On Adam Frank, Marcelo Gleiser, and Evan Thompson’s “The Blind Spot”

The Blind Spot: Why Science Cannot Ignore Human Experience by Evan Thompson, Adam Frank, and Marcelo Gleiser

THIS BOOK’S AMBITION is breathtaking. The three authors of The Blind Spot: Why Science Cannot Ignore Human Experience (2024) argue that it is urgent to change the science-shaped worldview that permeates our political, economic, and social systems. “[O]ur collective future and human project of civilization are at stake,” they warn in the book’s opening sentence.

Adam Frank and Marcelo Gleiser are eminent physicist-astronomers, and Evan Thompson is a prominent philosopher and cognitive scientist. They take us through several fields, from relativity and quantum mechanics to cognitive and planetary science, outlining the spectacular progress that scientists have made in these areas of study, along with the intractable puzzles they have encountered—puzzles that spring from the scientific picture that guides our thinking, according to which the world is fully describable in objective terms.

The Blind Spot turns the tables on the scientific worldview by insisting that experiencing the world precedes being able to practice science. “We must live the world before we conceptualize it,” the authors say. Recognizing this does not mean that science loses its authority—rather, it gains its “proper footing.” The discussion is so clear, well paced, and witty that I’d be tempted to describe it as a breezy read if that didn’t risk coming across as a slight. Nonscientists will appreciate sparklingly clear accounts of seemingly forbidding concepts such as phase space, quantum mechanics, and the integrated information theory of consciousness. The authors guide us through conventional understandings of scientific concepts to illustrate why they feel so powerful methodologically to scientists—to the point that the concepts come to substitute for experience and replace the world with our intellectual reconstructions of it. Scientific concepts and theories effectively get a grip on the workings of nature, but the “Blind Spot” occurs when these are taken to be more real than the experience on which they are based. The book doesn’t fit any existing genre; it’s not an academic or popular book about either science or philosophy but draws from each genre to make its argument.

Frank, Gleiser, and Thompson take as their jumping-off point philosopher Edmund Husserl’s remark, in The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (1936), that the West has both flourished because of and been afflicted by the “surreptitious substitution” of theories and ideas for the world itself. We bifurcate the world into what is “out there,” and thus objective, and what is “in here,” and thus subjective, regarding the first as what’s real and our experience as a mere glimpsing of it. This problem has only gotten worse, the authors claim: scientists can act like compulsive cartographers caught up in a Borgesian quest to map not only the world but also their own mapping of the world—a task that eventually creates Escherian impossible objects if it tries to avoid the Blind Spot. “[Y]ou cannot be a mapmaker if you cannot see what you are mapping,” they write. Their book points out where and why scientific mapping breaks down, and the dire consequences of this. “Husserl’s crisis,” they say, “is still our crisis.”

The authors use “Lived Time” versus “Clock Time” to show how surreptitious substitution works. You are living time’s flow, right now, in the process of reading these words. That’s an illusion, say some prominent physicists; time is a variable in equations, a series of measurable instants, and while this series is highly unlikely to go backwards (other equations tell us why), it potentially can. If time seems like a forward flow to us, it is because our imperfect mental and bodily instruments blur what’s really happening. The authors, however, show that our experience of time is primordial. A clock measures a succession of moments, but only experiencing duration enables us to recognize this as a succession. Timekeeping devices do not measure time by themselves: a person uses clocks to mark out the temporal duration that the person is already experiencing. Clocks don’t tell time; people do. Nobody pulls out a clock to know what time is, only what time it is.

The authors then train their lens on problems elsewhere: the “twin paradox” in relativity theory, in which two siblings age differently because one takes a trip in a rocket; “Loschmidt’s paradox,” on the impossibility of proving time’s irreversibility; and the various paradoxes that fill the “opulent basket of weirdness” that is quantum mechanics. In each case, the authors show how these paradoxes result from either trying to avoid talking about experience or trying to turn it into an object. In biology, the authors point out the impossibility of the attempt to begin with mechanistic conceptions and end up with the categories of life, a method that conflates physical dynamics with living. “Biology presupposes life’s experience of itself,” they say, for “it takes life to recognize life.” In cognitive science, the authors demolish an entire series of attempts to treat thinking as a form of computing.

Many of The Blind Spot’s arguments and positions are not new. Philosophers since Immanuel Kant—especially Husserl, Henri Bergson, and Alfred North Whitehead—have demonstrated the fundamental role of the mind in our picture of the world. Despite these thinkers’ efforts, though, the “Blind Spot worldview” has so deeply saturated Western thinking that their arguments have barely dented our natural attitude. We might come to understand the philosophical arguments but then return to our habitual assumption that experience is ephemeral, or at least irrelevant to real science. What’s innovative about The Blind Spot is that the authors focus on the problems that scientists create for themselves by such an assumption.

The authors return, again and again, to the notion that experience is fundamental but cannot itself be made an object, making the discussion a little repetitive. The phrase “surreptitious substitution” occurs over four dozen times. Yet the repetition is helpful: the Blind Spot worldview has been cemented by four centuries of extraordinary successes, and practices such as defining human intelligence as mere cognition. Recently, after a head injury, I was given a test to see if my mind had been adversely affected. Yet the test didn’t check my intuition, my ability to grasp metaphors or appreciate the meanings of texts; instead, my mind was pronounced sound because I could predict what shapes fit where, sort through simple logical problems, and come up with a certain number of words that began with “g.”

The authors navigate the difficult task of drawing our attention to direct experience—what allows things to appear and makes the world available to us—without turning it into an object or explainable thing itself. The awkwardness involved sometimes leads them to appeal to wonky terms such as “mindful meta-awareness” and “suchness,” making the book at times sound metaphysical or even mystical. But this struggle to bring the role of experience to light is precisely the point; it clashes with the human urge to explain rather than experience.

The book’s most ambitious punch comes at the very end, when the authors link the Blind Spot with the inability to recognize and deal with climate change. Their position is counterintuitive: one would think that refusing to admit climate change (and do anything about it) amounts to rejecting science based on ignorance, self-interest, or political hypocrisy. All of that is a sideshow, according to the authors. The failure to address climate change is actually driven by a view of the Earth as consisting of objectifiable things and of human action as driven by quantifiable values, amplified by the codependence of Western science and capitalism. That’s why it will take more than geoengineering and carbon caps to save the planet.

The Blind Spot uses philosophical arguments to resolve scientific puzzles that threaten the integrity of science itself. We philosophers have long dreamed of finding a way to demonstrate the interdependence of the sciences and the humanities. Well, here it is.

LARB Contributor

Robert P. Crease is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Stony Brook University. He writes a monthly column for Physics World on the historical, philosophical, and social dimensions of science. In 2021, he won the Lord Kelvin Medal and Prize for “describing key humanities concepts for scientists and explaining the significance of key scientific ideas for humanists.” His latest book is The Leak: Politics, Activism, and Loss of Trust at Brookhaven National Laboratory (with Peter Bond; MIT Press, 2022).


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