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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, December 11, 2017

He's Off on a Wild Goose Chase to Help Save a Sinking Paradigm

The leading doctrine concerning how memory is stored is the doctrine that memory is stored by a process of the strengthening of synapses of brains. But what we know about the lifetimes of proteins in synapses contradicts this doctrine. Humans can remember old memories for as long as 50 years. But as far as we know, the proteins in synapses have lifetimes no longer than a few weeks. How could memories be stored in synapses that have their parts being constantly replaced? That would be like storing an essay written on leaves on a table, when the wind is frequently blowing away the leaves, and replacing them with other falling leaves -- not something suitable for long-term information storage. 

This paper finds that synaptic proteins turnover at a rate of about 17% per day. This paper says that a study of 90 synaptic proteins found an average lifetime of only about 12 days, with the most long-lived one lasting only 48 days. 

Such a fact is extremely troubling to those who think that long-term memory is stored in your brain. So what do you when there is a troubling fact that contradicts your theory of memory? You ask the government for lots of money to look for something that might help out your bad theory, even though that there is no evidence that the thing you are looking for exists.

That seems to be what is going on in the case of National Institute of Health Project # 1R01MH112152-01A1, described here. Some $610,745 has been granted to Richard L. Huganir of Johns Hopkins, so that he can look for “exceptionally long-lived proteins” in synapses. Given what we know about the extremely short lifetimes of synapse proteins, this seems to be like getting lots of money from the government to look for flying rats.

Below is an excerpt from the grant proposal:

Most of the individual proteins that are known to make up the synapse will turnover, being degraded and replaced within hours to a few days. Therefore the question remains as to what physical substrates underlie the persistence of long-lasting memories. One possibility is that exceptionally long-lived proteins (LLPs) reside in synapses and act as molecular anchors to maintain the synaptic strength or a network property that defines a given memory.

The grant proposal admits that there is no evidence that any such “exceptionally long-lived proteins” exist in synapses, for it says, “no studies to date have addressed whether such proteins exist at synapses and contribute to the establishment and maintenance of long-term memories.”

Given the known extremely short lifetimes of synaptic proteins, we should characterize this research project as a wild goose chase. It seems to be kind of a desperate shot-in-the dark to try to save the materialistic paradigm's claims about memory. No doubt our neuroscientists are troubled by the idea that because of synapse proteins with very short lifetimes, the brain is simply not up to the job of storing memories for years. That would seem to mean we could only explain human 50-year memories by supposing that our minds must involve something more than the brain, such as a soul or some mysterious immaterial consciousness infrastructure.

There is no reason to think that Huganir will find any synapse protein that can last for years.  Let's suppose you were to make the very surprising discovery that some protein in synapses lasts for years. We would still know that almost all the proteins in synapses are very short-lived. So the discovery of such a long-lived synapse protein would be futile. It would be like trying to explain the persistence of a much-used book supposedly lasting 50 years – a book made almost entirely of gossamer spider-web pages – by finding that every twentieth page is not made of flimsy short-lived gossamer but of paper. That doesn't do you much good in explaining how most of the book's information could persist for 50 years.

I may note an irony here. Human observers have got much evidence for astonishing things that cannot be explained by modern science: things such as extrasensory perception, apparition sightings, mysterious orbs with highly repeating stripe patterns, and near-death experiences. Such things challenge the dogmas of the materialistic  paradigm. If you were to ask for a half million dollars for a government grant to investigate further such things which have already been extensively observed, you would be turned down quickly, and you would be told: not one cent for such research. But if you seem to be in service of prevailing dogmas, you will have no problem getting a half million dollar grant to go on a quixotic quest looking for something that has never been observed, which is what Huganir has got. I guess the rule is: there's no government research money for anything that might challenge the materialistic paradigm, but plenty of government research money for any project that might help patch one of the many holes that have sprung up in such a paradigm, which are threatening to sink the paradigm. 

The government seems to have been very generous in giving lots of grants to Huganir, who we can assume is mainly involved with projects with a larger chance of success than this one.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

How to Get Your Weak Scientific Theory Accepted

Imagine you create some scientific theory, and you want the theory to be generally accepted in some corner of the academic world. You might think that this is an incredibly hard task, requiring that you both come up with a new theory and somehow marshal convincing evidence showing that the theory is correct. But it may not be so hard. The world of scientific academia is often not a world of dispassionate judges weighing evidence with great objectivity. It is often a world in which sociological effects, psychological effects and ideology play a large role. So the path to getting the academic world to accept your theory may not be so difficult, and there are techniques you might use to get even a very weak or dubious theory accepted by the academic world.

The first step is to get some scientific paper published describing your weak theory. This is not particularly hard to do, because there are ways to make weak ideas seem rather impressive-sounding. The first way (very commonly used) is to load almost every paragraph of your paper with dense, all-but-impenetrable technical jargon. Such jargon will impress lesser reviewers of your paper.

The second way to make your weak theory sound rather impressive is to load up your paper with obscure mathematics. You need not worry that anyone will complain that the mathematics were irrelevant, for almost no one makes such a complaint about scientific papers, even when the mathematics is absurdly extraneous. The all-but-incomprehensible math in your paper may impress some peer reviewers of your paper, giving them the impression that your weak theory is a weighty intellectual contribution.

Once your paper is published, you will need to start leveraging the popular press, so that some articles about your theory will appear in magazines and online web sites. The first step is to get your college or university to release a fawning press release trumpeting your weak scientific paper and claiming that it is a stunning breakthrough. This is very easy to do. The writers of university press releases are a very compliant lot, and will be unlikely to challenge your extravagant claims. The rule for university press releases seems to be that it is okay to trumpet utterly far-fetched claims, as long as such claims somehow seem to shed glory and prestige on the university.

Then you may have to reach out to some science journalists to get them to write about your weak scientific paper. This is not very hard to do. Today's science journalists are very often docile and compliant “pom-pom journalists” eager to repeat any claim you may make to have achieved a “stunning theoretical breakthrough.” There will be very little chance that the science journalists you contact will subject your claims to much critical scrutiny.

Having got some press coverage, you now need to reach out to a few of your pals in the academic world, to get them to make supportive comments about your weak theory. This will probably not be very hard, as the world of academia has countless “I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine” relationships. If you have been a professor for many years, you probably know quite a few people who owe you favors, such as people whose books you favorably commented on.

You can then start using authority techniques, by calling your weak theory “science.” Using such verbiage will be like sprinkling magic fairy dust, and will cause many a person to start treating your weak theory with great respect. If someone objects, claiming that science is best defined as facts that have been determined by observation and experiment, and that there are no such facts substantiating your weak theory, you can respond by presenting an alternate definition: the much looser definition (recently stated by a scientist blogger) that science is simply whatever scientists are working on. Of course, under such a definition every weak theory published in a scientific journal is “science.” 

weak theory

The next step requires audacity. The idea is to start claiming that your theory is starting to achieve mass acceptance among your little tribe of scientific peers. There are various artful expressions you can use to make such a claim. For example, you can say that “a consensus is starting to emerge” that your theory is correct, or that “a growing number of experts” are adopting your theory. No one will be likely to challenge these claims, which are hard to verify.

The next step requires even more audacity. At some point you can stick your neck out and claim that there is now a consensus of experts in your field who believe that your theory is correct. Such a claim will be difficult or impossible to verify, but it will have enormous force and power from the sociological perspective of the bandwagon effect. If people hear such a claim repeated enough times, then your theory will get all kinds of new supporters who never would have adopted it, but who will now adopt it just because they want to run in the direction they think the herd is running. No one wants to be in defiance of a consensus of experts. So countless people will flock to your weak theory the moment they hear that there is a consensus of experts in favor of your theory, even if no such consensus has really developed. Claims that a consensus of experts has agreed on something often are kind of self-fulfilling claims that help cause such a consensus to appear because of a sociological bandwagon effect.

This step may fail, and you may fail to get people to accept your claim that there is a consensus of experts in favor of your weak theory. But if you get people to accept such a idea, even if a consensus does not yet exist, then your work is almost done. The bandwagon effect will continue, the snowball effect will keep rolling, and your theory will have triumphed in some little corner of the academic world.

There may still remain many who think that your theory is pure nonsense. But since you have now got something you can claim to be a consensus of experts, you can now make use of a technique that is incredibly popular in the academic world: the technique of nonconformity shaming tactics. You could employ this technique, by calling your weak theory “science,” and demonizing all who oppose it as “anti-science.” Few will object in the academic world, where the term “anti-science” is shamelessly employed with reckless abandon, such as by those who call anyone preferring not to consume gene-spliced food as “anti-science.”

Your efforts in this regard will be enormously more likely to succeed under two cases: (1) if your weak theory allows scientists to enhance their prestige by triumphally claiming that they have solved some long-standing mystery; (2) if your weak theory allows scientists to claim they have an explanation for some event or phenomenon that does not fit in with their claims that everything can be explained by random physical processes. In the latter case, there will be a kind of “ideology boost” that will make your theory 300% or 400% more likely to be accepted than if it had no ideological relevance. Your fellow scientists will show almost infinite tolerance for accepting silliness in theories that seem to help them evade what they most dread: that there may be spirits or souls, or that the universe or life may be the result of intentional purpose.

Yes, given the very strong influence of sociological and ideological factors in the success of academic theories, you could use all of these tactics to get the academic world to adopt your weak theory. But you would not be a very honest person if you did that. It would be much better to not do such things as I have mentioned here, and to have greater intellectual integrity, even at the price of having less success in getting people to adopt your theory. And it is much better to honestly admit your ignorance about some great mystery than to get the academic world to accept some very dubious theory of yours about that mystery, some theory that does not warrant belief.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Scientist's Weird Hope About Extraterrestrials

In his new book Life 3.0 MIT physicist Max Tegmark confesses a strange hope he has about the search for extraterrestrial life: that it finds nothing. Below is his reasoning on page 245 of the book:

Although I'm a strong supporter of all the ongoing searches for extraterrestrial life, which are shedding light on one of the most fascinating questions in science, I'm secretly hoping that they'll all fail and find nothing! The apparent incompatibility between the abundance of habitable planets in our Galaxy and the lack of extraterrestrial visitors, known as the Fermi paradox, suggests the existence of what the economist Robin Hanson calls a “Great Filter,” an evolutionary/technological roadblock somewhere along the developmental path from the non-living matter to space-settling life. If we discover independently evolved life elsewhere, this would suggest primitive life isn't rare, and that the roadblock lies after our current human stage of development – perhaps because space settlement is impossible, or because almost all advanced civilizations self-destruct before they're able to go cosmic. I'm therefore crossing my fingers that all searches for extraterrestrial life find nothing: this is consistent with the scenario where evolving intelligent life is rare but we humans got lucky, so that we have the roadblock behind us and have extraordinary future potential.

Tegmark presents here rather concisely an argument similar to the argument presented by philosopher Nick Bostrom in this paper. The argument can be stated like this:

  1. There must be some Great Filter which makes it very unlikely that planets produce civilizations that spread throughout the galaxy – something such as an unlikelihood of life originally appearing, an unlikelihood of intelligence ever appearing, an unlikelihood of interstellar travel, or an unlikelihood of a civilization surviving for long.
  2. Such a Great Filter can either be in our past or our future (for example, if the Great Filter is the unlikelihood of life ever appearing on a planet, then the Great Filter is in our past, and we have already leaped over this hurdle).
  3. If the Great Filter is in our future, we should be very sad, because it will mean our civilization will probably not last very long.
  4. But if the Great Filter is in our past (some hurdle we have already jumped over), then we are in good shape, and our future is bright (the whole galaxy might be ours for the taking).
  5. If we discover life on another planet, it is evidence that life commonly evolves in our galaxy, and this shows that the Great Filter must be in our future, and that we won't last very long.
  6. Therefore, it is bad news if we discover any extraterrestrial life.

There are multiple problems involved in this line of reasoning. The first is the problem of assuming that extraterrestrials have not spread throughout the galaxy. We do not know that such a thing has not occurred. UFO sightings may provide evidence against such an assumption. The fact that Earth has not been colonized by extraterrestrials is no proof that some other civilization has not spread throughout the galaxy. It is quite possible that a civilization spreading throughout the galaxy would not colonize every habitable planet, but leave some planets as kind of zoos or nature reserves. When descendants of Europeans spread throughout North America, they did not fill the whole continent with settlements, but preserved quite a bit of North America as nature preserves. A similar conservation principle could be observed by some galactic civilization spreading across a galaxy. Or it might be impractical to colonize every habitable planet, for any number of technical or logistical reasons.

Another problem with the line of reasoning cited above is that it commits a fallacy along the lines of stating: if we discover extraterrestrial life, that would show the Great Filter is in the future, not our past. The discovery of any type of life other than civilized intelligent life would not at all do such a thing. Let's consider various possible candidates for a Great Filter:

great filter

Now after reviewing all of these possible candidates for a Great Filter, it should be clear that the mere discovery of some type of extraterrestrial life would not by any means show that this Great Filter is something that mankind has not yet overcome. For example, if some very simple prokaryotic microscopic life were to be discovered on Mars or a moon of Jupiter or Saturn, that would still leave standing the last seven of these candidates as possibilities, including the “Multi-cellular Life” filter that it is too hard for multi-cellular life to appear from microscopic life. And if we were to discover signs of oxygen in the atmosphere of a distant planet, suggesting that photosynthesis had occurred, that would still leave standing the filters such as the “Intelligence” filter and the “Language and Civilization” filter. It would still be perfectly possible that the Great Filter is that it is too hard for intelligent language-using tool-making life to appear.

So Tegmark is very much in error when he states, “If we discover independently evolved life elsewhere, this would suggest primitive life isn't rare, and that the roadblock lies after our current human stage of development – perhaps because space settlement is impossible or because all advanced civilizations self-destruct before they're able to go cosmic.” Discovering primitive life would do no such thing, as it would still leave standing as candidates for the Great Filter such possibilities as the “Intelligence” filter and the “Language and Civilization” filter. Discovering primitive life would still leave standing the possibility that it is very unlikely that life would ever evolve to a state of intelligence, language-use, tool-making and civilization, and that such a difficulty is the Great Filter.

And, similarly, Nick Bostrom committed the same error when he stated the following:

And if we discovered the fossils of some very complex life form, such as of some vertebrate-like creature, we would have to conclude that the probability is very great that the bulk of the Great Filter is ahead of us. Such a discovery would be a crushing blow. It would be by far the worst news ever printed on a newspaper cover.

This is completely wrong. From such a discovery, it would not by any means be true that we would have to conclude that the probability is very great that the bulk of the Great Filter is ahead of us.” For there would still be standing the “Intelligence” filter and the “Language and Civilization” filter. It would still be perfectly possible that it is exceptionally rare for life to evolve to a state of intelligence, language-use, tool-making and civilization, and that such a difficulty is the Great Filter. If you think that intelligence, language-use, tool-making and civilization automatically follows once large-scale life exists, consider the fact that humans have a whole range of mental characteristics (including spirituality, artistic creativity, mathematical ability, philosophical reasoning, intellectual curiosity, imagination, and language use) that cannot be explained by appealing to natural selection, as these are things that do not increase an organism's chance of surviving until reproduction. Some evolution experts have argued that the appearance of something like humanity was extremely improbable. Until we discover some extraterrestrial civilization, it is still a very viable possibility that it is incredibly rare for life to evolve into civilized language-using life.

The only discovery that might allow us to reasonably say that the Great Filter is in our future and not our past would be the discovery of civilized life elsewhere in space. Would that be something that would be a cause for grief and sorrow, along the lines Tegmark and Bostrom have suggested? Would such a discovery tell us something negative about our future?

No, simply because the very moment such a discovery was made, the very idea of a Great Filter would be discredited. In our current state of knowledge, lacking any proof for extraterrestrials, this idea of a Great Filter has significant weight. But at the very moment we discovered proof of an extraterrestrial civilization, the idea of a Great Filter would be discounted and discredited. People would start saying: evidently this idea of a Great Filter isn't very sound, if we have already discovered an extraterrestrial civilization. They would also start saying: if we have already discovered one extraterrestrial civilization, there must be many others in our galaxy. The discovery of an extraterrestrial civilization would be a crippling blow to the very idea of a Great Filter.

We can therefore imagine no circumstances under which it would make sense to lament and grieve over a discovery about extraterrestrial life, on the grounds that it told us something negative about our future. Discovering anything less than civilized intelligent life would do nothing to prove the idea that the Great Filter is in our future and not our past. And if we did discover civilized intelligent life, the very idea of a Great Filter would instantly be so discredited that it would at that point not make sense to be drawing conclusions about our future based on such a concept.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Consciousness Is More Than Just Information

Some thinkers have gone overboard about the concept of information. Some have suggested that the whole universe can be described as being fundamentally information. Such thinking seems to involve a too-broad definition of “information.”

An example of sloppy inconsistent claims about information can be found on page 234 of the book The Hidden Secrets of Water by Paolo Consigli. Consigli states the following:

Information operates at every level of existence....The ordered structures of crystals are information. The more elaborate structures of all living things are information...Information is not be confused with mere data. It is rather the transmission of messages endowed with meaning.

This account of information is inconsistent. If information is “the transmission of messages endowed with meaning” (not actually a good definition of information), then how could a crystal structure be information, when it involves no such transmission?

Let us consider a rock that has this crystal structure. Is there any information in the rock? No, there actually is not. Those who think there is information in a rock with a crystal structure are confusing information and information potential, or are confusing order with information.

When I do a Google search for a definition of information, I get two definitions:
  1. Facts provided or learned about something or someone.
  2. What is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things.
It is certainly true that each cell has information, because each cell uses DNA, which does use a symbolic system of representations known as the genetic code, in which certain combinations of nucleotide base pairs stand for particular amino acids. If any thing uses any “x stands for y” arrangement, we should say it is information or that it uses information.  

But a rock does not have information in either of these senses. I can find out some facts about a rock by measuring it or weighing, but until I do that there are no facts provided or learned about the rock. Nothing at all is conveyed or represented by the arrangement of atoms in a rock. It is true that I can scratch some words on a rock, or smash the rock into 100 pebbles, and then out spell out words with those pebbles. But that is information potential (the potential to make information), not information itself. It seems a rock has no information, particularly if that rock is buried far underground or if that rock is found on some distant lifeless moon or planet revolving around some other star, where it is most unlikely that anyone will ever make any observation or measurements involving the rock.

The orderly lattice structure in a crystal is not an example of information. Consider this example. I go to a web site with a random number generator. When I press a button, I get a 9-digit sequence of numbers. Suppose that after many times pushing the button, I witness the rare occurrence that instead of a random-looking number such as “235257032,” I get the sequence “123456789.” That sequence is orderly, but it would not seem that information has somehow appeared merely because of the orderly sequence.

If a rock buried far underground doesn't have information, it seems to make no sense to describe a physical universe as “just information.”

Others support a less vaunting conclusion, and try to assert that consciousness is just information. There is a theory called integrated information theory, which maintains that consciousness is just information that has become integrated to a sufficient degree. Such a theory seems to be endorsed in the recent book Life 3.0 by the MIT physicist Max Tegmark. 

Tegmark goes all gaga over a neuroscientist named Giulio Tomoni who has advanced this integrated information theory. On page 301 of his book, Tegmark tells us that Tomoni is the “ultimate renaissance man” and a “fearless intellect” with “incredible knowledge.” Tegmark says, “I'd been arguing for decades that consciousness is the way information feels when being processed in certain complex ways,” and that the integrated information theory fits in with this claim.  But information doesn't feel.

Tegmark says, “In summary, I think that consciousness is a physical phenomenon that feels non-physical because it's like waves and computations: it has properties independent of its specific physical substrate.” But it does not make sense to be describing consciousness as something physical. A Google search for the definition of “physical” produces two definitions:

  1. Relating to the body as opposed to the mind.
  2. Relating to things perceived through the senses as opposed to the mind; tangible or concrete.

Consciousness does not fit either of these definitions of “physical.”

What about the idea that consciousness is just information? There are some thought experiments you can try that suggest this idea is not correct.

Experiment 1: Imagine yourself standing under a waterfall, not thinking about anything, but simply seeing the water drops fall around you. You are unable to see anything but the water falling around you. At such a time you are conscious, but you are not creating or using information. Some might argue that raw visual data is information, but it isn't according to the two definitions previously cited. Seeing disordered raw visual data whiz by in such a place does not involve using information created using some system of representations (unlike reading, in which you do process information created using the systems of representations known as the alphabet and the English language). And while you can create information by processing visual data and drawing conclusions or stating facts, when you are simply viewing a stream of visual data without processing it or thinking about it or speaking about it, there would seem to be no information involved in such an activity. It would seem that at such a time you have consciousness, but there is no information involved.

Experiment 2: Imagine yourself dreaming. During your dream you have consciousness, but there is no information involved. The random visuals you see in your dream cannot be called “information.”

Experiment 3: Imagine yourself lying awake on your bed, with your eyes closed as you day-dream some wild fantasy about living on an extraterrestrial planet. This activity is consciousness, but it does not involve information. The imaginary elements that you use to populate your fantasy cannot be called information. While you might be able to use information if you made such a fantasy have realistic elements drawn from your memory, if you let your mind run loose, you could easily think of some really wild and crazy fantasy not based on any facts or information you had learned. (Conversely, if you were to write your wild fantasy down on paper, that would be information, because there would be a symbolic system of representations involved – the English language and the English alphabet. The instant you have an “x stands for y” situation, there is semantic information. So if I write “I flew to Mars,” then when I write down “M-A-R-S” to stand for the planet Mars, there is an “x stands for y” situation.)

Experiment 4: Turn off the television and lie on your bed, with your eyes closed. Repeat to yourself over and over again a meaningless sound such as “oooooooooooooooo.” While you were doing that, you were quite conscious. But your mind was not using information. A meaningless Mantra-type phrase such as “oooooooooooooooo” cannot be called information. And don't bother claiming that you were still getting information from your ears or skin, because you can just as easily imagine this occurring while you are floating in one of those fancy sensory-deprivation tanks in which there would be no sensory inputs.

These examples all seem to show that you can have consciousness without information. It would seem, therefore, that mind is much more than information, and cannot be reduced to merely “integrated information.”

I can think of another thought experiment to try. Let us imagine a source of information such as an online encyclopedia. Imagine a server farm stores this information in multiple computers. Now imagine a computer program that processes this information, creating all kinds of information links and hyperlinks. Imagine after 1000 hours of such processing, the degree of integration in the information is increased a billion-fold. So, for example, whenever you come to some text using the word “cow,” there is a link you can use to navigate to any of a million other places where the encyclopedia text refers to “cow.” Now, would we expect that all this additional integration of information would cause this encyclopedia to become conscious, so that the encyclopedia would start living a kind of encyclopedia life? Certainly not. Given a body of information, we should not expect that any level of increased integration would cause consciousness to appear. So we cannot describe consciousness as being integrated information.

Tomoni and Tegmark are off the mark in their thoughts about consciousness, which cannot be reduced to information. But their thoughts are at least much more intelligent than the ludicrous thoughts on this topic recently published by psychologists David Oakley and Peter Halligan. They recently published a paper with the nonsensical title, “Chasing the Rainbow: The Non-conscious Nature of Being.” In their paper the psychologists repeatedly use the term “consciousness” in quotes, as if it was something that only allegedly exists. They state, “Personal awareness is analogous to the rainbow which accompanies physical processes in the atmosphere but exerts no influence over them.” Which is, of course, an absurd thing to say, seeing that there are obviously 1001 ways in which our personal awareness can influence physical processes (as scientists frequently remind us when they tell us to live a more green lifestyle to reduce global warming).  When academics in ivory towers try to throw doubt on whether consciousness exists, their prose ends up sounding sillier than the credo of a flat earth believer.