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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Full Brain Swaps and Partial Brain Swaps: Would Either Prove the “Brain Storage of Memories” Dogma?

We have all been brain brainwashed.

We have been brainwashed into believing various unproven dogmas about the brain, including the idea that all our memories are stored in our brains. Scientists have not proven such dogmas. But they constantly assert such dogmas, so often that the average person is as unlikely to question them as the average person in North Korea is unlikely to question the constantly repeated assertion that his dictator is a brilliant genius.

Consider the dogma that all our memories are stored in our brains. When you recall something, your body does nothing to suggest that you are using your brain to retrieve the memory. If I retrieve an apple on my table, my body gives me two different signals that my arm is being used to retrieve the apple. The first is the sight of my hand grasping the apple, and the second is the feeling of the apple in my hand. But if I retrieve a memory of my childhood, my body does absolutely nothing to hint to me that my brain is being used to perform this retrieval. The memory could be stored locally in my soul, or in some mysterious external consciousness infrastructure unknown to us.

Even when we scan brains with medical devices such as MRI machines, when a person recalls something there is no convincing evidence that information is being loaded from a brain location. See here for a discussion of how such brains scans have been hyped enormously, with their meager results being exaggerated very much. A typical MRI scan of someone retrieving a memory will show something like a 1% variation from region to region in the brain, something that tells us basically nothing. 

We can imagine an experiment that might prove that memories are stored in brains. Some animal might be trained to learn some information. The animal's brain might then be dissected, and scientists might somehow attempt to retrieve information supposedly stored in the brain. If the scientists could retrieve very specific information that was unknown to them – such as an image that the animal had been fear-conditioned with – that might be proof that a memory was stored in a brain. No such experiment has ever been done.

Scientists have done some fancy memory experiments with mice using a technique called optogenetics. Although such experiments have been greatly hyped in the popular press, a close examination of them will show they do not live up to their hype, as discussed here. Such experiments do not prove that specific brain cells of mice store particular memories, and certainly do not prove that any human memories are stored in the brain.

One might claim that death is an experiment proving that our memories are stored in our brains, on the grounds that memories all die when the brain dies. But when a simple TV set stops working, that doesn't prove that the TV shows it displayed were stored in the TV. They were actually stored externally. Moreover, near-death experiences mean that we cannot conclusively claim that cessation of a person's brain activity means the end of his memories.

Is there any experiment with humans that might prove that memories are stored in brains? I can imagine a bizarre future experiment that might attempt to do such a thing. It would be an attempt to perform a brain swap.

Let us imagine some scientists who wanted to test whether swapping the brains of two humans might result in a complete transposition of their personalities and memories. The idea would be to swap the brains of two people, and see whether the body of the the first person was then occupied by someone claiming to be the second person, and the body of the second person occupied by someone claiming to be the first person.

We can imagine a news story describing such an experiment:

January 25, 2045: Scientists completed their controversial brain swap experiment, and things went exactly as predicted. The brain of the terminal cancer patient John Baker was swapped with the brain of the terminal cancer patient Eddy Hawkins. After the operation, the person with the body of John Baker claimed to be Eddy Hawkins, and the person with the body of Eddy Hawkins claimed to be John Baker.

No doubt if such a result were achieved, scientists would say it was decisive proof that memories are stored in brains. But it actually wouldn't be. Let's suppose that John Baker's memories are stored not in his brain but in a soul. Let's suppose that the memories of Eddy Hawkins are stored not in his brain but in his soul. Now suppose we swap the brains of John Baker and Eddy Hawkins. Until death a person's soul may be kind of anchored not to his whole body but only to his brain. So if we swap the brains of the two men, we may cause their souls to move into different bodies. Now after the brain swap, it might be that both the soul of Eddy Hawkins and his brain is now in the body of John Baker, and it might be that both the soul of John Baker and his brain is now in the body of Eddy Hawkins. Doing such a brain swap doesn't allow us to tell whether the memories of these men are stored in their brains or stored in their souls.

But let us imagine a different type of experiment – not a full brain swap but only a partial brain swap. It might be done on two terminal patients. First a complete inventory of both of their skills and memories might be made, by having them answer a long series of questions and fill out various standardized subject tests. Then a small part of their brains could be swapped. A small part of the first patient's brain might be replaced with a corresponding part from the second patient's brain, and that same part of the second patient's brain might be replaced with a similar part that had been removed from the first patient's brain. Then scientists might look for sudden losses or sudden additions in the memories of the two patients.

What might conceivably happen is something like this. After this partial brain swap, the first patient might still claim to be the same person he had always been. But he might claim that his memory had been changed. He might now be able to remember things he never knew before.

There are all kinds of weird possibilities. It might be that John Baker might remember his experiences between ages 5 and 20, and also remember his experiences between ages 30 and 60. But his memories of life between ages 20 and 30 might be the memories of Eddy Hawkins. Or it might be that John would no longer remember how to play the piano, but would now remember how to fix cars – knowledge that he had gained from Eddy Hawkins. Eddy, on the other hand, might no longer know how to fix cars, but might now know how to play the piano, something he had never previously known.

It would seem to be impossible to reconcile any results such as these with any theory that memories are stored in the soul. Given such results, you would finally have proof that memories are stored in the brain. 

partial brain swap
Hypothetical result of a partial brain swap

It is quite possible that such an experiment might be performed. But I doubt very much that it would produce results like those just described. As discussed here, scientists do not have any workable theory of how the brain could be storing memories that last for 50 years. The main theory of memory is that memories are stored in synapses. But there is a huge reason for doubting such a theory. Synapses are subject to rapid molecular turnover and structural turnover which make them unsuitable for storing memories lasting longer than a year.

If this partial brain swap experiment is ever done, I think it will not produce results showing a swapping of memories. I think we will one day be able to swap brain tissues between two people, but I think such an experiment will not actually result in a transfer of memories.

There are experiments such as these that could in theory verify the idea that our memories are stored in brains, but such experiments haven't been done. The claim that all our memories are stored in our brains is a dogmatic assertion not yet proven by either observations or experiments.  Near-death experiences, Lorber's cases of people with good memory but fractional brains, and the lack of a workable detailed theory of brain memory storage all suggest that such a dogma is not correct.  Another thing casting doubt on such a dogma is the very fact that we are able to instantaneously recall obscure facts and distant memories. Scientists have no explanation as to how a brain can do such a thing, which creates all kinds of "how could a brain know where to find the exact location where a memory was stored" explanatory problems discussed here.

Postscript: Some have claimed that Wilder Penfield's experiments show memories are stored in brains, but such claims are unwarranted. Penfield's experiments are described in the book The Human Mind Explained (page 132):

When this area [the temporal lobe] was stimulated, 40 out of about 1000 patients reported vivid flashbacks -- a fragment of a tune, a child calling, being in a room. All were marked by a dreamlike quality with no sense of time or location. He believed that this was evidence that our memories are stored in one place in a complete and recoverable form. Later researchers pointed out, however, that few of the patients recalled actual memories.  

A page online says Penfield "did not provide support for the claim that what was elicited was actually a memory and not a hallucination, fantasy or confabulation."

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Dennett's Book Dodges the Real Problems in Explaining Minds

Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett has long been regarded as one of the top apologists of materialism, so no doubt his fans must have had high hopes for his new tome, entitled From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. But the book fails to give us anything like a coherent plausible explanation for the origin of human mentality.

The first part of the book consists largely of Dennett pontificating about natural selection, which Dennett inaccurately portrays as some great creative force. What we have are the typical exaggerations and misstatements of Darwin fanboys on this topic, and they are delivered most dogmatically, with very little supporting evidence. Dennett provides no examples of innovative complex macroscopic features of organisms that have been proven to have originated by natural selection and random mutations –  because no such proof has been produced by scientists. Contrary to Dennett's assertions, natural selection is merely a kind of pruning effect or filter that gets rid of bad designs, not something that has any power to produce complex good designs. Natural selection may describe survival of the fittest, but does not explain the arrival of the fittest. 

 natural selection

The diagram above tells the true nature of natural selection. It is not something that explains the appearance of the yellow circles in the diagram, but merely explains how the red circles got filtered out.

On page 43, Dennett claims that natural selection is a collection of algorithms, and on page 384 he claims that “natural selection is a substrate-neutral family of algorithms.” These claims are false. An algorithm is a sequential set of steps to follow to achieve a particular result, being something that is processed by either a mind or a computer. Natural selection is simply the observational fact of survival of the fittest, the fact that fit things survive longer and reproduce more than unfit things. Natural selection is neither an algorithm nor a collection of algorithms.

The great question about natural selection is: how could this mere pruning effect (which is merely a filter) ever explain the astonishingly complex and coordinated biological complexity we see in the real world? Dennett doesn't explain this in any substantive way, although he very clumsily provides a visual to try to warm us up to the idea that something apparently designed can be produced naturally. He gives us a Science magazine photo showing some circles of stones, and discusses a geological theory that supposedly naturally explains these circles as natural geological effects. The problem with that, of course, is that the complexity we see in biological systems is trillions of times more complex (and gigantically more coordinated) than some little circles of stones.

Later on Dennett has a chapter with the rather silly title “Brains Made of Brains.” On page 155 he advances the frequently stated misconception that the brain is massively parallel. Getting things all mixed up, he states, “Brains are parallel (they execute many millions of 'computations' simultaneously, spread over the whole fabric of the brain); computers are serial (they execute one single simple command after another, a serial single-file stream of computations that makes up for its narrowness by its blinding speed).” To the contrary, human brains do not do many computations simultaneously, and humans can do only one math computation at a time; conversely you can buy desktop computers that actually do dual-processing which is parallel processing.

Sounding like a real Richard Dawkins fanboy, Dennett goes on to a long enthusiastic discussion of Dawkins' idea of memes. But such a discussion is not something that helps at the job of explaining the appearance of human minds. Memes are ideas, and do nothing to explain how we have a mind that produces ideas.

Dennett seems to dodge or largely ignore the main difficulties of explaining the origin of minds such as ours. One of the principal difficulties is the fact that according to the prevailing account, in a period of a few million years hominid ancestors evolved into large-brained humans; but the population of these hominids was supposedly very small when this happened, being no greater than 20,000 or so. The problem is that such a progression would have required many beneficial mutations, and the number of mutations in a population is proportional to the size of the population; so beneficial random mutations in a small population should be incredibly rare. As discussed in this scientific paper, calculations based on known mutation rates suggest that a few million years is way, way too small a time to allow for so many favorable mutations in such a small population, which we should not have expected to see in even 500 million years of time. This “waiting time” problem is one of the chief difficulties of explaining the origin of human minds. But Dennett simply ignores it.

Another set of difficulties lies in the fact that our minds have quite a few characteristics that we cannot plausibly explain by appealing to natural selection. As was pointed out at length in this essay by the co-founder of the theory of natural selection (Alfred Russel Wallace), the human mind has many capabilities and abilities that seem to be impossible to explain by means of natural selection, because they are things that do not improve an organism's chance of surviving in the wild. Among these things are aesthetic abilities, insight, curiosity, philosophical abilities, language abilities, mathematical abilities, spirituality, and altruism. As argued here, none of these things would make an organism significantly more likely to survive in the wild, so we cannot explain them by the idea of natural selection. So how did we get them? Dennett fails to provide an answer.

In my essay I referred to in the previous paragraph, I didn't even mention an additional problem: the difficulty of explaining man's very long-term memory. Humans have memories that can reliably recall things that happened 50 years ago, but this is very much a “luxury feature” exceeding by a factor of 25 what is necessary for survival. An organism would do just fine in the wild remembering things for only one or two years, by just remembering all of the skills and body/location memories it used in the last year or two. Besides being inexplicable from a Darwinian standpoint, our minds capable of storing memories for 50 years are inexplicable from a neurological standpoint. The leading theory of memory involves the idea that synapses store memories. But that doesn't work, because (as discussed here) synapses are subject to very rapid molecular turnover and structural turnover which should make them unsuitable for storing memories for longer than a year.

As far as I can see Dennett completely ignores the whole issue of explaining human memory, not even trying to explain it. He also seems to dodge or largely ignore the main philosophical issue involved in explaining human minds – the issue of how it could possibly be that a merely physical thing could produce the rich mental reality of our consciousness. Philosophers have long smelled an inherent implausibility that any merely physical thing (no matter how complicated its arrangement) could yield the very non-physical thing we call the human mind. For a physical brain to produce Mind seems rather like a stone pouring out blood when you squeeze it.

The only way Dennett seems to handle this issue is through a gigantic cop-out. His fourteenth chapter is entitled, “Consciousness as an Evolved User-Illusion.” I won't describe his nonsensical reasoning, but will merely note that the moment a thinker starts claiming that consciousness is an illusion, he has revealed the intellectual bankruptcy and unreasonableness of his assumptions.

In the last four pages of his book, Dennett provides a grand summary of his explanation of our minds. The summary is an incoherent mess. It starts with the last of his numerous appeals to the authority of Darwin, the type of Darwin showed nature is purposeless talk that thinkers like Dennett give like some Freudian reverently stating Freud showed our anxieties are caused by our childhood sex conflicts. Then Dennett goes on to mention Alan Turing (who helped get computers started) and Shannon (who made contributions to information theory). This seems more like name-dropping than something that helps in explaining our minds. Computers have nothing to do with explaining the origin of human minds. Giving a final salute to Dawkins, Dennett also mentions in italics “words striving to reproduce,” which is a strange personification that does nothing to clarify the origin of our minds. Then in the book's second-to-last paragraph he reiterates his cop-out claim that consciousness is a “user-illusion.”

Of course, by claiming that consciousness is just an illusion, a writer has a convenient excuse for failing to explain it, on kind of the grounds of “there's pretty much nothing there to explain.” It's convenient Dennett has such an excuse, as his book sheds little light upon the origin of our minds. 

Postscript: Today I am reading Evolution and Ecology: The Pace of Life by Cambridge University biology professor K. D. Bennett. Referring to speciation (the origin of species), this mainstream authority says on page 175, "Natural selection has been shown to have occurred (for example, among populations of Darwin's finches), but there is no evidence that it accumulates over longer periods of time to produce speciation in the Darwinian sense."  So why have we been so often told the opposite by Darwin enthusiasts?

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.  Such a claim is contradicted by the fact that the brain's electrical activity very soon ceases after the heart stops, making hallucinations impossible. Experimental results on the cessation of brain electrical activity after heart stoppage are summarized on page 28 of this document.  There we are told that Hossmann and Kleihues in 1973 tested with 200 cats and 21 monkeys, and found that EEG (a measure of the electrical activity in the brain) became "isoelectric" (in other words, a flat line) within 20 seconds following the stop of blood to the heart.  We are also told that a result of the brain flat-lining within 15 seconds was produced in 1991 with 37 dogs (Stertz et. al.), with 143 cats (Hossmann, 1988), and with 10 monkeys (Steen et. al. 1985).  

Moreover, 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 here. 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?

Postscript: See this link for why DMT is not an explanation for near-death experiences. 

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. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Visualizing a Top-Down Theory of Mind and Cosmic Connectivity

Conventional thinking has been that the human mind is a bottom-up kind of thing. The idea is that your mind is produced solely by some combination of neurons in your brain. The thinking is kind of like this: your consciousness is like some juice, and your brain is the juice maker.

But there are some good reasons for thinking that this “bottom-up” assumption is quite false. For one thing, we have no understanding of how mere neurons (physical things) can produce the wonderful thing we call consciousness (a mental thing). Imagining that a mere grapefruit-sized blob like the brain can produce the human mind (a totally different type of thing) seems rather like imagining that a stone can be squeezed so that blood will drip out of it. We also have no understanding of how brains can store human memories that last for 50 years. As discussed here, rapid molecular and structural turnover in synapses should make it quite impossible for brains to be storing memories for longer than about a year. The speed with which we can recall memories seems inexplicable given any theory that memories are stored in brains, for reasons discussed here. Then there is the fact documented by the physician John Lorber that some humans can retain fairly normal minds and memory even though most of their brains have been destroyed by disease. Then there are near-death experiences, in which people undergoing cardiac arrest often report floating out of their bodies, sometimes reporting accurate details of the medical efforts going on while their heart was stopped. Such a thing should be impossible if the human mind is merely a bottom-up effect produced only by our brains.

But if the human mind is not a bottom-up kind of thing, maybe it is a top-down kind of thing. Maybe the human mind is an effect produced by some cause outside of the human body. Maybe instead of something coming from inside our bodies, the human mind is instead coming mainly from outside of our bodies. Such an idea seems very abstract and philosophical, but perhaps we can take a stab at trying to make it more understandable, by the use of some imagery. The images I will offer are quite schematic and speculative, but they may at least serve as a kind of crude device to help clarify a particular philosophical possibility. To be visually displayed adequately, a model like the one I will present would require a sophisticated animation; but not being an animator, I'll have to make do with some rather crude diagrams.

Let us start by imagining that there might be some cosmic source of minds, which may be the source of human minds and other types of minds (possibly also minds on other planets). We can visualize this mind source as being rather like a giant balloon filled with either hot gas or a warm fluid. 

Now let us imagine that your mind and the mind of each of us is like a little protrusion or bump on the surface of this giant balloon. We normally think of balloons as being spherical, but a balloon can have lots of little bumps and protrusions (for example, in one of the big balloons used in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, there may be little bumps corresponding to the nose or ears of some cartoon character). We can imagine that there might be billions or trillions of little bumps on the huge balloon of the cosmic mind source, and that each little bump might correspond to a particular person.

In the schematic diagram below, we see two little balloon bumps or protrusions corresponding to particular persons. They exist on the circumference of the great sphere of the cosmic mind source, and are some of billions of similar little bumps or protrusions on that sphere. 

I use red and blue in this diagram simply to illustrate different persons. But the idea is that the mind substance or consciousness fluid inside your little balloon bump is very much the same mind substance or fluid that is flowing around inside the huge balloon of the cosmic mind source. The same mind substance or fluid is flowing around inside your mind and all other minds that exist as little bumps on the circumference of the balloon. Under this model your mind does not arise from your brain, but from the cosmic mind source. So instead of there being a million different mind sources for a million different humans (each being a brain), there is instead a single mind source for these million human minds.

If you got your mind in such a way, by being a little protrusion off of the circumference of the huge balloon of the cosmic mind source, you might think of your mind as originating from inside your body. But in this model your mind does not at all originate from your body. It comes from the cosmic mind source. In fact, under this model the only way in which any mind can exist is by being inside the great balloon of the cosmic mind source, or as a kind of protrusion on the circumference of that balloon.

But notice that there is a little neck that connects your little bubble with the vastly greater bubble of the cosmic mind source. That little neck may be almost totally closed, or it may be more widely open. When that little neck is almost totally closed, you may feel no connection whatsoever with some great higher reality beyond yourself. But when that little neck is open wider, you may feel more of a sense of being in touch with some great reality beyond yourself. Perhaps mystical experiences or paranormal psychic experiences occur when this little neck opens much wider than normal. Under this model there is a direct line that can be traced between any one mind and any other mind, with no more than distance and bottlenecks inhibiting communication. So the potential for connectivity is almost limitless.

The diagram below illustrates this idea. The second person (shown in blue) is much more prone to spiritual or psychic or mystic experiences, because the neck-like opening at the base of his little bubble is much wider. In this model, all minds are inside the same vast balloon of mind-fluid. So when the neck like opening widens, a person may have greater connectivity with other minds, which may or may not correspond to minds inside bodies. In the visual below, I illustrate this idea, borrowing a line from one of the Star Wars movies.

theory of mind

In conventional bottom-up models of the mind, ESP is impossible. But in this model something like ESP is quite possible. Below is a diagram illustrating what happens. There is a path that can be traced from any given mind to another, since no mind exists outside of the huge bubble of the cosmic mind source. In the diagram below, we see ESP occurring between two minds.

When a person undergoes a near-death experience, it may be a little like depicted in the visual below. Such a person may undergo transcendent experiences, as he starts to move outside of the little bubble like protrusion that he has been previously confined to.

And what about when a person dies? It may be like the diagram below. Inside the great cosmic mind balloon may be trillions of minds, some corresponding to what we may call “the living,” and others corresponding to what we may call “the dead.” The main difference between the living and the dead is simply when you are living, you are isolated in a little protrusion on the circumference of the great cosmic mind balloon. When you exist in such an isolated little protrusion, you have little feeling of connectivity with other minds. But when your mortal life ends, you are no longer in that protrusion. Then you may have a great connectivity with a horde of other minds floating around inside the huge cosmic mind balloon.

Now you may ask: in this model, what is outside this vast balloon of cosmic mind fluid? The answer is: no mind at all. In this model, there are no little bubbles at all floating outside of the great cosmic balloon of mind fluid. Every single mind exists as a protrusion on the circumference of this balloon, as shown in the diagrams below, or in a more central position inside the balloon. The result is that all minds in the universe have a real degree of connectivity. For minds that exist within the main part of the balloon, and not its outer circumference, there may seem to be a tremendous degree of connectivity. If you are such a mind, you might easily or instantly be able to connect with many other minds, perhaps in something like mind-reading or thought-reading.

The images I have presented here are extremely crude. Do things work exactly as I have diagrammed here? Probably not. What I have discussed is a kind of crude schematic visualization designed to make you think about radically different ways in which reality could work, rather than an attempt to describe exactly and literally some alternate way in which reality works. The visualizations I have presented are kind of metaphorical, but there may be strong similarities between these metaphors and the way in which consciousness works.

But what is fascinating here is how easy it is to create a top-down idea of mind, under which various types of anomalous phenomena fit in naturally. Under a bottom-up theory of mind, things such as ESP, apparitions sightings, mystical experiences, and near-death experiences may seem like unthinkable abominations. But such things fit in easily and naturally once we move to a top-down theory of mind.

The biggest failure of all bottom-up theories of human mentality is not their failure to account for fairly rare paranormal phenomena but their failure to adequately account for the everyday reality of the human mind. We cannot account for our minds or our very long-term memories neurologically. Brains seem to have no functionality that can account for either the storage or the instant retrieval of very old memories, for reasons discussed here and here and here. The idea that there is some special combination of cell connections that can cause something like the lofty thoughts of philosophy to emerge from mere neurons does not seem credible, and seems hardly more credible than the idea that some combination of vines, roots, and trees in a dense Amazon jungle would cause that jungle to become conscious. Nor can we account for the origin of our minds using Darwinian ideas. As argued here, the human mind has many “luxury item” characteristics (such as math abilities, musical abilities, artistic creativity, abstract reasoning, and spirituality) that are not things that increase an organism's chance of surviving in the wild, and which therefore cannot be accounted for by using the explanation of natural selection (which is merely the threadbare, thimble-sized idea that fit stuff prospers, and unfit stuff doesn't).

But if we develop a top-down theory of the mind's origin, then all of the marvels of the human mind may become easily explicable. If human minds come top-down from some cosmic mind source, we would indeed expect that our minds should have every wondrous ability they have ever displayed.

Let us imagine an extraterrestrial planet on which the skies were always covered with thick clouds. Imagine that on such a planet the clouds are so thick that you can never see the sun in the sky. Intelligent beings on such a planet might wonder: how is it that their planet is lit up with light during the day? Unaware of the sun above them, such beings might come up with a bottom-up theory of illumination: that the dirt and rocks and the trees give off light during the day, which keeps the land illuminated. Such beings might think that such a theory was a certainty, and say to themselves, “Of course, it must be true; where else could light be coming from?” But they should instead be considering a top-down theory of illumination – that the illumination of daylight comes from a great unseen source above them.

Similarly, the average scientist holds to a bottom-up theory of consciousness, that our consciousness bubbles up from little neurons in our head. He says to himself, “Of course, this theory must be true; where else could our consciousness be coming from?” But such a person should be considering a top-down theory of consciousness, that our minds come mainly from some great unseen source. Just as it seems farfetched that rocks or dirt or trees could illuminate a planet, it seems farfetched that the great universe-pondering effect of human mentality could possibly arise from a little blob of protoplasm inside our skulls.

Postscript: Scientist Bernard Carr stated the following:

The existence of telepathy also suggests that our minds are part of a communal space rather than being wholly private. This "Universal Structure", as I term it, can be regarded as a higher dimensional information space which reconciles all our different experiences of the world. It necessarily incorporates physical space but it also includes non-physical realms which can only be accessed by mind.