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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Enigma of Veridical Near-Death Experiences

During a near-death experience, someone who undergoes cardiac arrest may have some experience of floating out of his body. Skeptics say such experiences are just hallucinations. But there has been a certain category of near-death experiences that seem very difficult or impossible to explain as hallucinations: what are called veridical near-death experiences. During such experiences a patient may report seeing or hearing things that he or she should not have been able to perceive, because the patient was unconscious at the time.

Many people have heard of one or two of these veridical near-death experiences, perhaps the Pam Reynolds case or the often-told story about “Maria's shoe.” But judging from the book The Self Does Not Die: Verified Paranormal Phenomena from Near-Death Experiences, these veridical near-death experiences may not be so rare. Below are some of the cases documented in that book.

Case 2.1: A dying cancer patient remarked to Ricardo Ojeda-Vera (a doctor's assistant) that he had written a beautiful letter to his mother. Ojeda-Vera had written such a letter. The patient “described in detail exactly what he had written,” and accurately recounted that he had worn a green bathrobe while writing the letter. The patient claimed to have seen Ojeda-Vera writing the letter while she had “looked down on him from the ceiling.” Three days later the patient died.

Case 2.2: A patient reported having an out-of-body experience (OBE) during a cardiac arrest, and reported seeing a penny on the top of a cabinet. The cabinet was checked, and a penny was found there.

Case 2.3: In this well-known case, a woman named Maria reported floating out of her body during a cardiac arrest, and that during such an experience she saw a dark blue tennis shoe on a ledge near a window on the third floor. A search found such a shoe in such a location.

Case 2.5: At a hospital a woman who had a cardiac arrest reported having an out-of-body experience during which she floated out of her body, and saw a 12-digit serial number on the top of a six-foot tall respirator. The respirator was later checked and found to have exactly that number on its top.

Case 2.6: A man reported having an out-of-body experience during which he observed a 1985 quarter atop an 8-foot-high cardiac monitor. The top of the monitor was checked, and a 1985 quarter was found on its top.

Case 2.8: A man reported having an out-of-body experience during which he observed medical workers putting defibrillation paddles on him and gel. This matched his actual medical experience during his cardiac resuscitation.

Case 2.11: a woman reported floating out of her body during a cardiac arrest, and that during such an experience she rose up through the hospital's floors, rising up above the roof, where she saw the skyline and a red shoe. A search of the hospital's roof found a red shoe on the roof.

Case 2.12: A man reported that during his cardiac operation he floated out of his body and returned to his home, where he saw a caretaker having sex there with his girlfriend. The caretaker admitted this had happened.

Case 2.13: A woman reported that during her operation she floated out of her body and saw doctors telling her family (incorrectly) that she had died. It was later confirmed that the family had been told that.

Case 2.14: A woman reported having a near-death experience in which she looked down at her body from a corner of a hospital room during her operation. She then reported seeing in a paranormal way two of her grandmothers saying in a cafeteria that they were going to have a cigarette, even though neither smoked. It was confirmed that this improbable thing had happened.

Case 2.15: A patient in the intensive care unit of the hospital had a near-death experience in which he was reportedly able to hear the conversations of relatives elsewhere in the hospital, such as a waiting room conversation about a green toy tractor knocking down a wall of toy bricks. The conversations had occurred far away from his location in the hospital.

Case 3.1: A woman put under general anesthesia during her operation reported details of her operations from an “on the ceiling” perspective, and also correctly reported details of an operation in the adjacent operating room, such as the amputation of a leg and its placement in a yellow bag. She made the report as soon as she woke up, and had no way of knowing such information.

Case 3.7: A man missing his dentures correctly reported a nurse putting them in the drawer of a cart during his cardiac resuscitation, when he should have been completely unconscious.

Case 3.8 A man reported a near-death experience during cardiac arrest. He reported that during the medical efforts to revive him, he saw that a nurse dropped a tray and was scolded about it by a doctor. The account was confirmed.

Case 3.9 A woman had a near-death experience during cardiac arrest. She reported hovering in a corner of the room near the ceiling, and noticed a rose-shaped hair clip and a bottle breaking, details she should have been unaware of. The details were accurate.

Case 3.10 A patient unconscious during his operation reported floating above his body, and accurately described details of his operation.

Case 3.11 This dramatic near-death experience account is told in the youtube.com interview below. A patient was written off for dead, and had no vital signs for "close to 20 minutes." During that time he had "no heart beat, no blood pressure, no respiratory function."  But then in a seemingly miraculous manner the patient's vital signs reappeared, and he eventually "recovered fully." The patient described a near-death experience in which he observed post-it notes in the operating room that he should have been unable to observe because his eyes were taped and he was unconscious. The details were accurate. 

Case 3.12 A patient whose heart was stopped reported a near-death experience in which he heard some paramedic say something to the effect that the patient would never revive, but a rookie paramedic could use the patient to practice CPR. After undergoing an amazing recovery, the patient told what he had heard to one of the paramedics, who was amazed that the man had apparently heard what the paramedic had said.

Case 3.16 Medical staff tried to save a patient who had undergone cardiac arrest, and they decided to stop the resuscitation efforts. They later found a faint pulse, and resumed the revival efforts. The man survived, and described the medical efforts trying to revive him. He “got all the details right, which was impossible” because he had no pulse during such efforts.

Case 3.18 A man who had a cardiac arrest during an operation reported to his doctor that he had seen a brown leather key fob fall out of the doctor's pocket during the operation. The doctor confirmed that such a thing had happened, at a time when the patient should have been unconscious.

Case 3.29: This case is the famous Pam Reynolds case, which I discuss here (while also discussing an equally astonishing case more recent).  While having her senses blocked and her temperature dramatically lowered during an operation that should have guaranteed unconsciousness, Reynolds reported a near-death that included very specific details of her operation she should have been unaware of. 

Case 3.30: A boy who underwent cardiac arrest recalled that during the medical efforts to revive him he "had been up in a corner of the room and had looked down on his body." He correctly recalled several details of the procedure. 

Case 3.33: A man who underwent cardiac arrest reported an out-of-body experience in which he felt himself "rising up through the ceiling" and then seeing some hospital area  in which there were mannequins. Above the ICU he was in was a CPR training area in which there were dummies (resembling mannequins) used for CPR training. 

There are many other similar accounts in this compelling and well-documented book, which I recommend. The book documents all the original sources of these accounts. 

Such accounts present two great difficulties for anyone claiming that these near-death experiences were just hallucinations. The first difficulty is accounting for the similarity of the accounts. Many times in the book we hear accounts of people who said they floated out of their bodies and watched their operations or medical resuscitation attempts from a corner of the hospital room or the ceiling of the room. Why should such a narrative element occur so often in hallucinations, which we would expect to have only random content? The second difficulty is explaining the accurate details in such accounts. To deal with that, the skeptic may tie himself in knots, telling us nonsense such as the suggestion that someone might record perceptions while he in unconscious, and then play them back in his mind when he awakes. No such ability of humans has ever been proven.

 Will you one day view your body from this perspective?

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Origin of Life Was a Zillion Times Harder Than "Dividing Droplets"

There's a silly article recently added on the Quanta online science site. The article is entitled “Dividing Droplets Could Explain Life's Origin.” Apparently some scientists have discovered that some lifeless particles can naturally divide, and some of them are talking as if this fact may help us explain the origin of life. But it has been common knowledge for thousands of years that round lifeless particles can naturally divide. This has been known to anyone who ever closely looked at the rain drops on the side of a tree during a rainy day, and who noticed that big drops often divide into smaller drops while they are dripping down the bark.

Why is it very silly to be claiming that dividing lifeless particles do anything to help explain the origin of life? It's because cells are more like miniature cities than like raindrops. So when a cell divides, it isn't like a raindrop splitting into two. When a cell divides, it's more like a city magically making a copy of itself, like you might have if Miami were to make a copy of itself which started floating on the Atlantic ocean.

The claim that cells are like cities is made at this science education site, where we are told that a cell's membrane is like a city wall, that a cytoskeleton is like a city's transport system, that the cytosol is similar to a city's streets, that the lysosomes are like a city's recycling plant, that the mitochondria are like a city's power plants, that the nucleus is like a city's library, that the ribosomes are like a city's factories, and that the endoplasmic reticulum is like a city's industrial park. One does nothing to explain the origin of such incredibly complex functionality by talking about a division of tiny natural particles or droplets that are not complex, and don't have anything like intricate functionality. 


But it may be argued that the cells we observe in our microscopes are more complicated than the first living cells. That's true, but even the first living cells must have been incredibly complicated, far too complicated to have arisen by any known natural process. A team of 9 scientists wrote a scientific paper entitled, “Essential genes of a minimal bacterium.” It analyzed a type of bacteria (Mycoplasma genitalium) that has “the smallest genome of any organism that can be grown in pure culture.” According to wikipedia's article, this bacteria has 525 genes consisting of 580,070 base pairs. The paper concluded that 382 of this bacteria's protein-coding genes (72 percent) are essential. So multiplying that 580,070 by 72 percent, we get a figure of about 418,000 base pairs in the genome that are essential functionality.

What is the chance of such functionality falling into place accidentally? Essentially zero.  Analysis of what is known as the fitness landscape of proteins indicates that proteins are highly sensitive to changes, with minor changes disrupting their performance. They “can be exquisitely sensitive to changes in the amino acid sequence,” as a biology text notes. For example, an analysis of the fitness landscape of a protein used in fluorescence found that “3/4 of the derivatives with a single mutation showing reduced fluorescence and half of the derivatives with four mutations being completely non-fluorescent.” So a protein has to be “just right” to do its job – a few random changes here and there, and you break its functionality.

Straightforward calculations suggest that you would need something like 1070 tries before random combinations would produce a particular protein. Natural selection would not help, because we are talking about proteins that need to appear before any cellular life appears, and before natural selection can begin. The miracle of a functional protein appearing would need to occur not just once but hundreds of times before even a primitive cell could appear.

Then there's the unsolved problem of homochirality. Our cells use only left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars. Were it not for that fact, it wouldn't be possible to make complex proteins. It would be like trying to finish a jigsaw puzzle when half of the pieces were turned upside-down; in that case there would be no way to fit the pieces together. But when amino acids are created in the laboratory, half are left-handed and half are right-handed; and so it is for sugars. You would have to have seemingly impossible lucky breaks needed for all amino acids to have the same left-handedness, with the sugars all being right-handed. Something like this seems rather like an additional winning 20-digit lottery ticket that needs to exactly match before life can get started. And I won't even go into the difficulties of explaining the origin of the genetic code, an ordered system of symbolic representations used by all living things. 

A simple particle splitting into two is very easy to explain. A self-reproducing cell is a very, very hard thing to explain. Even if such a cell were the simplest early cell, and acted merely like a self-reproducing machine rather than a self-reproducing city, then you still have two gigantic difficulties. The first is explaining how the machine appeared in the first place, and the second is explaining how the machine learned the trick of being able to make a copy of itself. We don't even understand very well how today's cells are able to reproduce. A University of Chicago science site says, “There are many remaining mysteries about how cells perform this remarkable feat.”

An example of machine-like functionality in our cells is the cell component called a centriole, which a biology text tells us is something that “looks more like something made in a machine shop than in a living cell” (Life Itself by Boyce Rensberger, page 59). The same text says molecules of tubulin in a cell are “ like magic bricks that assemble themselves into a wall” (page 23). The same type of “magic brick” behavior is found in a vast number of complex proteins, which spontaneously assemble themselves into very intricate and complicated 3D shapes through a process called protein folding that scientists have been trying to figure out for decades, with very little success. 

Because explaining the appearance of a self-reproducing cell with hundreds of proteins is literally trillions of times harder than explaining the existence of simple particles or droplets splitting into two, I estimate that the Quanta article in question is guilty of a trillion-fold underestimation of the difficulty of cellular abiogenesis. But the article is in good company, because requirements underestimation is pretty much the central sin of the modern theoretical scientist (along with the sin of claiming to understand things that are not actually understood). Such folks often seem to be considering Everest-sized requirements for the existence of creatures such as us, and then trying to paint these requirements as if they were trifling. This involves trying to make high, high mountains look like molehills smaller than a basketball.

A similar example of nonsense-speak is found in this recent news story which tells us that the “building blocks of life” have been found 200 light-years away. What were thesebuilding blocks”? Merely carbon, nitrogen, and water.

Calling such things “building blocks of life” is, of course, nonsense. Using a similar approach, you might print a big headline screaming “BUILDING BLOCKS OF CITIES FOUND ON MARS,” and then mention that these “building blocks” were merely unorganized deposits of carbon, nitrogen, and water. The building blocks of cities are houses, and the building blocks of life are things like proteins, cells, and nucleic acids such as DNA. No such things have been found in distant space.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Is Our Universe More Improbable Than a “Boltzmann Modern Earth” ?

Cosmologists sometimes discuss a possibility called a Boltzmann brain. A Boltzmann brain is the hypothetical possibility of a brain forming somewhere in space from an incredibly unlikely random combination of particles. Some have tried to explain the very unlikely existence of our universe by using reasoning along these lines: don't be surprised to be an observer in a universe like ours, because observers can only exist in universes like ours. But the possibility of a Boltzmann brain is sometimes presented to rebut such reasoning.

Let's consider two possibilities. In the first case, you live in a universe that is 99.9999% disorderly and chaotic, but there is just a tiny little area of space that is highly orderly, just orderly enough for your brain to exist. In the second case, you live in a universe that is orderly for vast regions stretching billions of light-years, with enough order to allow the possibility of trillions of life-bearing planets. Our reality is the second of these cases. But some cosmologists have argued that from a thermodynamic standpoint and an entropy standpoint, a "blind chance" standpoint, it is inconceivably more probable that you should find yourself as an observer under the first of these two cases.

Another possibility to consider (rather similar to a Boltzmann brain) is what we may call a “Boltzmann modern Earth.” This is the incredibly unlikely possibility that a planet the size of Earth, with all of the complexity and biology of our planet, could arise fairly suddenly from a random combination of particles.

Boltzmann modern Earth

This possibility of a "Boltzmann modern Earth" is discussed by ace cosmologist Roger Penrose in his recent scientific book Fashion Faith and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe. On page 316 of his book, he says, “One can make a very rough estimate of the probability that life, as it now exists on Earth, with all its detailed molecular and atomic locations and motions, came about simply by chance encounters from particles coming in from space in, let us say, six days!” Penrose then estimates that such a thing would have a probability of about 1 in 10 to the ten to the sixtieth power. That is a probability not anything like the microscopic probability of 1 in 1060 but instead an almost infinitely smaller probability. It's the probability you would have if you started out with one tenth and then kept multiplying by one tenth a total number of times equal to a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion times.

But then Penrose tells us that this fantastically unlikely event (a life-filled Earth like ours suddenly forming from random collisions of particles) would be far more probable than the existence of a universe as orderly as ours, saying it “would be a far 'cheaper' way of producing intelligent beings than the way in which it was actually done!” He's indicating  that the incredibly improbable sudden formation of a “Boltzmann modern Earth” would actually be much more likely than the chance of you getting a universe such as ours accidentally.

Speaking of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Penrose states this on page 317:

The lower-entropy earlier states of the universe that initially gave rise to humanity in its earliest stages (being of lower entropy simply by virtue of the 2nd law) must have been far more improbable (in this sense) than is the situation now. This is just the 2nd law in action. So it must be “cheaper” (in terms of improbabilities) for the state to have come about as it is now purely by chance, than for it to have arisen from an earlier much lower entropy state – if that had come about purely by chance!

And on page 313 Penrose states that “the improbability of the universe conditions that we actually seem to find ourselves in” is roughly 1 in 10 to the 10 to the 124th power, which is a probability almost infinitely smaller than the 1 in 10 to the 10 to the 60th power estimate he made for the chance of a planet with all of Earth's biology appearing suddenly from random particle collisions (a “Boltzmann modern Earth” occurring). This 1 in 10 to the 10 to the 124th power probability is the probability you would have if you started out with one tenth and then kept multiplying by one tenth a total number of times equal to ten thousand trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion times.

Why such a low probability? The Second Law of Thermodynamics dictates that entropy must steadily increase. But right now the entropy of the universe is fairly low. Situations such as solar systems surrounded by vast amounts of empty space are very low entropy situations (as opposed to a universe that is a uniform sea of particles, which is high in entropy). It seems that if the universe has the low entropy it now has after 14 billion years of existence, the entropy of the universe must have been staggeringly low at the time of the Big Bang. And from a thermodynamic standpoint, such a thing seems insanely unlikely.

Penrose is one of the most well-known cosmologists around. If his statements on this topic are correct, then we have perhaps a tremendous irony. Centuries ago, people argued that our planet and its life could only have appeared if there were some higher power in the universe, on the grounds that it was too improbable that so much order could arise by chance. Now after all our advanced science, much of it done by people wishing to overturn such a conclusion, we may have discovered that the chance of this type of order existing randomly by chance (considering the history of the universe, the Big Bang, entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics) is not greater than was imagined long ago, but actually very much smaller.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Three Vested Interests That Can Hype and Exaggerate Scientific Data

In an ideal world, you would only read news accounts that accurately described scientific research, without giving you exaggerations or misinterpretations. But we don't live in such a world. In our world there are three vested interests that may cause the raw data of a scientific experiment to be distorted, twisted or exaggerated.

Vested Interest 1: The Scientific Researcher

Many people think that a scientific researcher is some entirely impartial person who will write a scientific paper describing data with dry objectivity. Many researchers act in such a way, but many others do not.

Consider the following all-too-common type of case. Imagine you are a scientist who has put forth a research proposal asking for funding from some institution such as a university or the federal government. You do the experiments, but nothing very interesting comes up. How do you then describe these results in your scientific paper? You have a problem if you honestly describe the research as a failure to find anything interesting. For one thing, such honesty may decrease your chance of being funded the next time you present a research proposal asking for funding from the same institution. Also, honestly reporting the research as a failure to find anything very interesting may mean that your scientific paper will not get published. That's a problem given the “publish or perish” culture inside universities, in which it's almost as if each researcher is expected to produce a certain number of published papers each year.

So under such conditions a researcher may have a motive to do something like data dredging or correlation fishing, in which the data is diced, spliced, and crunched until some type of semi-interesting correlation coughs up. The problem is that such a correlation will often be coincidental. Or the researcher may have a motive to describe the results in some manner that makes the results seem more interesting or suggestive than the data actually suggests. For example, instead of describing a weak correlation (between, say, TV watching and prostate cancer) as a “borderline correlation,” the scientific paper's title or abstract may describe this as an “intriguing connection.”

Vested Interest 2: The College or University Issuing a Press Release

When you read a news story on some scientific finding, you are typically reading an account that is based on a press release issued by a college or university, typically a press release issued at the same time the scientific paper is published. Some web sites simply publish such university or college press releases word-for-word; others have stories that are based on such press releases. What often happens is that the college or university press release will exaggerate or over-dramatize the scientific research it describes.

Why would such a thing occur? It occurs because the college or university has a motive to present itself as a place where important research is occurring. If a university issues a press release entitled, “We Funded This Research, But It Didn't Find Anything,” then such a story is not one that can be used on the university's web site to help attract student enrollments and donors. But if the same research is described with a press release entitled, “Fascinating New Research Probes the Frontiers of Knowledge,” or something along those lines, then such a press release has some value in helping to uphold or build the university's reputation or prestige.

So clearly a university or college can have a vested interest in hyping or exaggerating somewhat the announcement of scientific research it has funded.

So by now we see the chain of exaggeration can be:

Unimportant Research Results→ Researcher Exaggeration → University Press Release Exaggeration

Vested Interest 3: A Web Site Hyping the Press Release

The biggest inflation in the chain of exaggeration can occur when some popular web site writes a story based on the press release issued at the same time as the scientific paper. Here shameless hyping and unbridled exaggeration are very common, and simple lying is not very uncommon. Some research suggesting a possibility only very weakly may be trumpeted as dramatic proof of such a possibility, or the research may be described with some claim completely at odds with what the research actually found. It's pretty much an “anything goes” type of situation.

Why does this happen? It all boils down to money. The way large modern web sites work financially is that the more people access a particular page, the more money the web site gets from its online ads. So large web sites have a financial motive to produce “click bait” stories.

Here's an imaginary example. A scientific study asking lots of health questions of respondents may “data dredge” its way to reach a very modest, borderline correlation between Alzheimer's disease and, say, brushing with toothbrushes older than two months. Let's say it finds that you are 2% more likely to get Alzheimer's if you brush with old toothbrushes. This borderline result (probably due to just coincidence) may be hyped up a bit by some university press release with a headline such as “An Intriguing Link Between Alzheimer's and Toothbrushes?” But then when you go to your favorite news site, you may see a "runaway hype" link such as “PROOF YOUR TOOTHBRUSH IS MELTING YOUR BRAIN.” That link is click bait.

When you follow the link, you may either find a story honestly mentioning how borderline the results were, or you may find a story exaggerating the results and terrifying you. For the web site, it really doesn't matter. The people running the site were merely interested in getting you to click on the link, so that they could make money from the display of the online ads.

So by now we see the chain of exaggeration can be:

Unimportant Research Results → Researcher Exaggeration $$$$University Press Release Exaggeration $$$$→ Popular Web Site Exaggeration $$$$

And at each of these $$$$ points we should hear the ka-ching of the cash register, the sound of a vested interest profiting directly or indirectly. 

For some tips on how to spot overblown hype in a science-related news story, see this post.