Header 1

Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

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. 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

When a Physicist Got Good Evidence for Dowsing

A recent article on medium.com is entitled In 2017, UK water companies still rely on “magic.” The article is about the practice called dowsing. Practiced for centuries, dowsing involves holding a forked branch, and trying to wait for some branch movement indicating where water is underneath the ground. The practice is dismissed by skeptics as superstition. The problem is that a scientific paper by a physicist has actually presented very good evidence that some people can perform dowsing with very good effectiveness, achieving a level of success that is currently inexplicable.

The author of the article on medium.com, an evolutionary biologist named Sally Le Page, was originally surprised to find that two United Kingdom water companies actually use this practice of dowsing. Her article has been updated, and now states that 10 out of 12 of United Kingdom water companies use dowsing to help find water.

Le Page suggests that the feeling of the branch pointing one way comes from the user's mind itself. But such an explanation does nothing to debunk dowsing. It may simply be that an idea about the water's location could be originating in an anomalous way in the dowser's mind, causing his arm to move and then causing the branch to move. That still leaves standing the possibility that dowsing could stem from clairvoyance in the dowser's mind, which makes more sense than any type of “magic of the branch” type of explanation.

Le Page misleads us by telling us, “Every properly conducted scientific test of water dowsing has found it no better than chance.” That is not at all true. In fact, one of the three studies Le Page refers us to has the following statements, citing or quoting conclusions in another scientific study:

Some few dowsers, in particular tasks, showed an extraordinarily high rate of success, which can scarcely, if at all, be explained as due to chance...In every sort of test conducted, there were some few people who showed location-dependent responses, some with good and some with extraordinarily good reproducibility, which, in
their departure from chance expectations, were highly significant...A real core of dowser-phenomena can be regarded as empirically proven.

The most extensive scientific study about dowsing was one done in the 1990s, a study conveniently not mentioned by Le Page. It was a massive 10-year study involving more than 2000 drillings. The study was summarized as follows in an article by Popular Mechanics:

Researchers analyzed the successes and failures of dowsers in attempting to locate water at more than 2000 sites in arid regions of Sri Lanka, Zaire, Kenya, Namibia and Yemen over a 10-year period. To do this, researchers teamed geological experts with experienced dowsers and then set up a scientific study group to evaluate the results. Drill crews guided by dowsers didn't hit water every time, but their success rate was impressive. In Sri Lanka, for example, they drilled 691 holes and had an overall success rate of 96 percent. "In hundreds of cases the dowsers were able to predict the depth of the water source and the yield of the well to within 10 percent or 20 percent," says Hans-Dieter Betz, a physicist at the University of Munich, who headed the research group. "We carefully considered the statistics of these correlations, and they far exceeded lucky guesses," he says. What's more, virtually all of the sites in Sri Lanka were in regions where the odds of finding water by random drilling were extremely low. As for a USGS notion that dowsers get subtle clues from the landscape and geology, Betz points out that the underground sources were often more than 100 ft. deep and so narrow that misplacing the drill only a few feet would mean digging a dry hole.

The study in question, finding very strong evidence that dowsing can be effective, was vastly larger in scale and scope than two irrelevant studies Le Page cites (neither of which even dealt with dowsing to search for underground supplies of water). In his extremely detailed and lengthy paper, the physics professor Betz stated, “Now, however, extensive field studies...have shown that a few carefully selected dowsers are certainly able to detect faults, fissures and fractures with relative alacrity and surprising accuracy in areas with, say, crystalline or limestone bedrock.” A press release on the study notes the following:

An overall success rate of 96 percent was achieved in 691 drillings in Sri Lanka. Based on geological experience in that area, a success rate of 30-50 percent would be expected from conventional techniques alone. 

An arid area in Sri Lanka
You can use the Vassar binomial probability calculator to compute the chance of such a rate of success, using a chance success rate of 50 percent on each drilling. The results are shown below. According to the Vassar calculator, such a rate of success has a chance probability of less than <0.000000000001. 

binomial calculation

The standard deviation here is 13 sigma, vastly greatly than the 5 sigma used as a standard in physics for considering an experiment result to be a discovery. When I use my own binomial probability calculator, which I have tested successfully against benchmarks, I get a probability of 3.8926168636233847E-156, which is less than the chance of you guessing the full telephone numbers of 14 strangers on the first guess. 

Le Page attempts to argue against dowsing by saying “there was even $1 million up for grabs for anyone who could provide rigorous evidence that you can find water using dowsing techniques.” That, of course, was the Randi Prize, run by arch-skeptics who would never accept previously produced evidence, but always demanded that something be quickly proven in front of them – which isn't practical with anything (such as dowsing) that could only be proven effective by a long study involving many trials and attempts. Of course, the Randi Prize was always run by people so avowedly hostile to all paranormal claims that people soon figured out it was a waste of time to participate, since it was all-but-certain that the judges would always rule that no evidence had been found, no matter what they observed.

We can ask: why would ten out of twelve United Kingdom water companies use dowsing if it had no effectiveness? What we have in the case of Le Page's article sounds like what goes on frequently in regard to massive evidence (discussed here, here, here, and here) for extrasensory perception (ESP): mainstream scientists refusing to acknowledge very strong evidence for a phenomenon, and falsely telling us there is no evidence for such a phenomenon, when there is actually very good and abundant evidence for it. The scientists who make such pronouncements are typically ignorant about the phenomenon they are telling us is impossible, and they typically show no signs of having seriously researched the relevant evidence.  Sadly we have an academic conformity culture in which it is considered politically correct to say there is no evidence for any phenomenon considered taboo, regardless of how high a mountain of evidence has accumulated. 

When I look at some of the skeptic articles on dowsing, I am not impressed by the reasoning used. We are told we should think dowsing cannot be effective because Chris French and James Randi did negative studies on the topic.  These two are anti-paranormal crusaders who we can hardly expect to have produced objective studies on the topic. Moreover,  you never discredit the idea that some people can produce a paranormal effect by doing a study in which some other people do not produce that effect.  For example, if you test 100 people for ESP, and get chance results, that does nothing to discredit very impressive results produced by other people you did not test.  

Dowsing is something which seems like an unthinkable possibility when we consider it in isolation. But when we consider dowsing within the context of the very many strange observations of the paranormal made by humans, the idea of dowsing does not seem so unthinkable. There is good evidence that humans have quite a few abilities beyond the understanding of physicists and evolutionary biologists. Our conclusions about such matters should be based on the actual empirical evidence, not based on a priori assumptions about whether something is possible.

Dowsing could simply be a form of clairvoyance, an anomalous ability of the human mind to perceive external physical reality in a way not involving the senses. There is abundant evidence for clairvoyance accumulated by parapsychologists such as Joseph Rhine, and more recently by the US government in tests of remote viewing. That some humans might have an ability for clairvoyance is not something that will be admitted by someone maintaining that the mind is simply a by-product of the brain. But if humans have a soul we should not at all be surprised that some humans may have psychic powers that reach beyond the body.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Chemical Reductionism Prospers as the Morgues Fill Up

The United States is in the midst of a frightening opioid crisis. A story in the New York Times this year states that last year more than 59,000 died from drug overdoses. The story has a graph showing drug overdoses skyrocketing, growing from only 20,000 a year around the year 2000 to more than 59,000 last year.

A CDC site says, "We now know that overdoses from prescription opioids are a driving factor in the 15-year increase in opioid overdose deaths."  Why are so many opioids being prescribed?

Let's consider a viewpoint that is popular among many in the mainstream, a viewpoint that we may call chemical reductionism. The idea is that a person is little more than a bag of chemicals. Chemical reductionism is popular among many doctors and psychiatrists. Psychiatrists sometimes push the idea that mental problems are caused by chemical imbalances. The evidence for this claim is weak.

 Thankfully only a minority of doctors think like this

Let's imagine a doctor has been trained to think along the lines of chemical reductionism. What is he going to do when a patient comes in complaining of some pain? His first inclination will be: prescribe some powerful chemicals to treat the pain.

But there are quite a few alternate techniques for treating pain, techniques that do not involve the risks of prescribing opioids. They include the following:
  • Surgery. Some types of pain (such as dental pain) can be reduced by permanently dulling nerves.
  • Meditation.
  • Hypnosis.
  • Acupuncture. The World Health Organization says acupuncture can be effective in reducing pain.
  • Marijuana. Many states now allow medical marijuana for pain relief. People using it sometimes say they still have the pain, but it doesn't bother them when they use marijuana.
  • Chiropractic care. Chiropractic care can be effective in reducing lower back pain.
  • Massage. Massage can be effective in reducing muscle pain.
  • Exercise.
  • Biofeedback.
  • Guided imagery.
  • Music therapy.
  • Yoga.

With so many non-opioid pain techniques, why have so many doctors tended to prescribe addictive opioids as soon as a patient complains of pain?  One reason is that such an approach is convenient from a profit standpoint. A doctor can write a prescription in just a minute, a much shorter time than the many minutes that might be needed to explain some non-drug program of pain treatment.  The more patients handled in a day, the greater the profit for a clinic.  Another reason is that pharmaceutical companies are constantly influencing doctors, to help keep them thinking that pills are the solution to almost any medical problem not requiring surgery  -- largely because the more medicine is chemistry-centered, the higher the profits of pharmaceutical companies.

The enormous influence that pharmaceutical companies have on doctors is documented in the book “White Coat Black Hat” by Carl Elliott. We learn about the enormous number of pharmaceutical sales reps who often arrive at doctor's offices offering free samples or minor gifts like a box of donuts or perhaps a pizza for the staff. Then there are the pharmaceutical companies that pay for doctors to attend conferences or meetings that may have free food and luxury lodging, which often amount to a kind of bribe to the doctor in the form of a paid travel junket.

Then there are the pharmaceutical companies that pay for “ghost-written” research articles. A doctor may put his name on a scientific paper that was conceived and largely written by some “medical ghost-writer” funded by a pharmaceutical company. The benefit for the doctor is that it is an easy way of increasing his number of published papers (the more published papers, the more prestige for the doctor). A 2009 New York Times article guessed that 11% of New England Journal of Medicine articles used medical ghost-writing. The worst abuse occurred when medical ghost-writing was used to help gin up research studies for the pain-killing drug Vioxx. An NPR article says, “Research published in the medical journal Lancet estimates that 88,000 Americans had heart attacks from taking Vioxx, and 38,000 of them died.”

All these bribes and conditioning from the pharmaceutical companies help reinforce in many a doctor's mind the idea that pills are the only non-surgical way to treat pain. The result has been a great excess of prescriptions for opioid medications, which in turn has led to massive cases of addiction, and tens of thousands of overdose deaths per year. 

Given this situation, it would seem sensible for the government to fund additional research into alternative methods of relieving pain, and for doctors to give greater consideration to such non-chemical alternatives when first hearing a patient's complaint of pain. You will hear some people argue the opposite. They will tell us: just because so many thousands are dying of opioid overdoses, that's no reason for us to pay more attention to alternative medicine or integrative medicine. The question we must always ask such people is: are you receiving any money or benefits from the pharmaceutical industry?

Friday, November 17, 2017

Quantum Mechanics and Life After Death

In a previous post I discussed a faulty case against life after death that appeared in the pages of Scientific American. Having rebutted that argument, presented in an opinion column by columnist Michael Shermer, I should also rebut an earlier argument against an afterlife that appeared in the pages of Scientific American, particularly since it has been recently repackaged in an online article. The earlier argument appeared in an opinion piece written by physicist Sean Carroll. Carroll's argument is a weak piece of armchair reasoning, with a little irrelevant physics flavoring.

Carroll is a physicist who likes to play philosopher occasionally, although his sojourns into metaphysics are sometimes disastrous, as when he has written approvingly of the altogether metaphysical (and extremely absurd and groundless) "many worlds" notion of a vast number of parallel universes in which every improbable possibility is actualized. Early on in his column, Carrroll misinforms us, by stating this about evidence for life after death: “Admittedly, 'direct' evidence one way or the other is hard to come by -- all we have are a few legends and sketchy claims from unreliable witnesses with near-death experiences, plus a bucketload of wishful thinking.”

This is not at all correct because the evidence for life after death includes all of the following things:
  1. The accounts of thousands of reliable witnesses who had near-death experiences.
  2. The many cases in which medical personnel who did not have such experiences verified the medical resuscitation details recalled by people who had near-death experiences, who recalled medical details that occurred when such people should have been completely unconscious because their hearts had stopped.
  3. Abundant cases of people who reported seeing dead relatives on their deathbeds.
  4. The very careful research of people like Ian Stevenson who documented countless cases of children who recalled past lives, and found that their accounts often checked out well, with the details of the “past lives” being corroborated, with the children often having birthmarks corresponding to the deaths they recalled, and with the children often recognizing people or places they should not have been able to recognize unless they had the reported past life.
  5. Sightings of apparitions of the dead, made by normal people in good health.
  6. Spectacular cases in the history of mediums, with paranormal phenomena often being carefully documented by observing scientists, as in the cases of Daniel Dunglas Home, Eusapia Palladino, Leonora Piper, and Indridi Indridason.
  7. Extremely numerous cases in which living people report hard-to-explain events and synchronicity suggesting interaction with survivors of death.
  8. The inability of modern science to account for normal activity of the human mind, such as the very fact of consciousness and 50-year-old memories, the latter not being explainable through any plausible physical theory, because of reasons discussed here (such as the short-lifetimes of brain protein molecules).

We may note the casual mudslinging that Carroll engages in, calling those who have near-death experiences “unreliable.” There is no basis for this “smear the witnesses” defamation, which Carroll does nothing to substantiate. 

Carroll then reasons as follows:

Claims that some form of consciousness persists after our bodies die and decay into their constituent atoms face one huge, insuperable obstacle: the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood, and there's no way within those laws to allow for the information stored in our brains to persist after we die.

Carroll again misinforms us. It is very false indeed to state that the “the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood.” This is just an example of the overconfident hubris that the modern theoretical scientist is so often guilty of, hubris that often leads him to claim to have a knowledge far beyond that which he actually has. The modern physicist maintains that all around us is both dark matter and dark energy. But we have zero understanding of any of the physics involving these mysterious things. The modern physicist also tells us that there is a huge contradiction between the two biggest theories of physics: quantum mechanics and general relativity. The same modern physicist is extremely baffled by why the Big Bang did not leave a universe consisting of nothing but photons, and why all of space is not filled with a density of virtual particles vastly denser than solid steel because all of the contributions from various fields and quantum effects (something known as the vacuum catastrophe problem). So evidently physics is very much an uncompleted affair, and no physicist has any business stating “the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood.”

As for the claim that a belief in life after death requires we believe that “information stored in our brains” somehow persists, it certainly requires no such thing. A person believing in a soul can believe that human memories are stored mainly in such a soul, or in some mysterious non-local information infrastructure, not in a human brain. A strong case can be made that such a belief is not only possible, but actually necessary, for several reasons. The first reason (discussed here) is that neuroscientists have not presented any plausible detailed theory explaining how memories lasting as long as a lifetime could be stored in brains. The most popular theory is that memories are stored in synapses, but such a theory in not believable, because of the very short lifetimes of the protein molecules that make up synapses (which last less than a month), and the short lifetimes of synapses and their structural components (lasting less than two years). Then there is the fact that humans can have very good memory recall despite enormous brain damage, such as shown in the cases documented by John Lorber, and similar cases discussed here. No one who has read the case of an employed French civil servant who was found to have almost no brain should have very much confidence in the dogma that all memories are stored in brains (a dogma that is simply a speech custom of scientists, not something they have actually proven). Still other reasons are the reason (discussed here) that scientists have failed to give any plausible theory of how instantaneous memory recall could occur if a specific memory is stored in a specific part of the brain (an organ with no addressing system or indexing system supporting such a thing), and the reason (discussed here) that there is no understanding of how the many types of things humans remember could ever be encoded in brain molecules (something that would require a wealth of encoding schemes more elaborate than humans have ever constructed).

Carroll then asks:

If you claim that some form of soul persists beyond death, what particles is that soul made of? What forces are holding it together? How does it interact with ordinary matter? Everything we know about quantum field theory (QFT) says that there aren't any sensible answers to these questions.

But I know of no one who believes in a soul who believes that such a soul is made of particles. Particles are only parts of material things, not souls or spirits. As for the rhetorical questions Carroll asks, I can simply note that you can ask a dozen far more embarrassing questions about the theory that brains generate human mental phenomena. For example, you could ask:

  • How could mere neurons– things that are totally material – give rise to something that is totally immaterial (the human mind)?
  • How can memories that last 50 years be stored in synapses when the proteins that make up synapses have lifetimes of much less than a year?
  • If you had a memory stored in some particular “address” of the brain, how could your brain ever instantly find that address, fast enough for you to recall something in less than a second, when the brain has no address system?
  • How could visual information, auditory information, semantic information, and emotional information ever be encoded in the proteins that make up synapses, particularly considering that proteins (unlike DNA) don't have free storage space to write information?

These questions are certainly more troubling than the questions Carroll raises. As for his statement that. “Everything we know about quantum field theory (QFT) says that there aren't any sensible answers to these questions” about a human soul, this is just pure hogwash. Quantum field theory suggests nothing negative about the possibility of a human soul. Like some plumber telling us that plumbing tells us very important things about geopolitics, Carroll here is giving us the same kind of misuse of physics that he gave in his book The Big Picture. On page 212 of that book he claimed. “The Core Theory of contemporary physics...leaves no wiggle room for intervention by nonmaterial influences.” The appendix of the book explained that what he meant by the Core Theory was a particular physics equation. The equation in question consists of a bunch of components, none of which has anything to do with life, spirit, mind, or immaterial influences.

Always beware of anyone claiming that “everything we know about” some obscure topic “says that” some particular opinion is true. In 99% of the cases, including this one, the obscure topic will do nothing to support such an opinion. Examples include statements such as, “Everything we know about microeconomics tells us that we need to cut corporate taxes,” and “Everything we know about Freudian psychology tells us that you should break up with your boyfriend.” Usually the person is claiming that “everything we know about” some topic “tells us that” some particular opinion is true because the person doesn't have a single specific example to provide; and when you don't have a single good example, it's always easier to just make vague claims such as “everything we know about” some topic supports some opinion. And so Carroll provides no specific part of quantum field theory (or any specific scientific finding) incompatible with the idea of life after death.

And it hardly makes sense to be using quantum field theory (QFT) as some cudgel against the idea of a soul, seeing this scientific paper tells us that, “By contrast, theoretical estimates of various contributions to the vacuum energy density in QFT exceed the observational bound by at least 40 orders of magnitude.” That means QFT is wrong by a factor of 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, predicting the space around you should be super-dense with energy (denser than steel, actually). Apparently it isn't the soul that is prohibited by quantum field theory (QFT) – it is biology itself. 

Quoted in a tabloid, Carroll says this: “Within QFT, there can't be a new collection of ‘spirit particles’ and ‘spirit forces’ that interact with our regular atoms, because we would have detected them in existing experiments.” This reasoning is fallacious, as people believing in a soul or life after death do not maintain that there is such a thing as “spirit particles.” And no one who believes in a spirit force or spirit has ever predicted that it would show up in physics experiments such as the high-speed collisions occurring at the Large Hadron Collider. We may note that physicists continue to believe steadfastly in both dark energy and dark matter, even though no physics experiments have produced any sign of such things. In light of such a fact, it makes no sense for a physicist to be applying “it hasn't turned up in our experiments so it can't exist” logic. We can actually imagine no experimental result that would ever cause any high-energy physicist to conclude that a “spirit force” or “spirit particles” exist, since anything observed at places like the Large Hadron Collider would always be declared to be non-spiritual. As for claims that no signs of a spirit force has ever been detected, this is not even clearly true, as all kinds of anomalous inexplicable events resembling a manifestation of spirit forces seem to have been repeatedly displayed when scientists examined figures such as Daniel Dunglas Hume, Eusapia Palladino, and Indridi Indridason.

If you do a Google search of “quantum mechanics+life after death,” you will very likely find no one other than Carroll claiming that quantum mechanics or quantum field theory is inconsistent with life after death, and numerous people (including some scientists) speculating that quantum mechanics supports the idea of life after death. The reasoning is often used that the most famous experiment of quantum mechanics -- the double-slit experiment -- suggests that there is no real independence between observers and physical reality,  and that all reality is wrapped up in observation, something with potential life-after-death implications. 

Talking about the idea of a soul that might have some interaction with the body, Carroll writes the following in the Scientific American post:

So any respectable scientist who took this idea seriously would be asking -- what form does that interaction take? Is it local in spacetime? Does the soul respect gauge invariance and Lorentz invariance? Does the soul have a Hamiltonian? Do the interactions preserve unitarity and conservation of information? Nobody ever asks these questions out loud, possibly because of how silly they sound. Once you start asking them, the choice you are faced with becomes clear: either overthrow everything we think we have learned about modern physics, or distrust the stew of religious accounts/unreliable testimony/wishful thinking that makes people believe in the possibility of life after death.

Again, he makes a claim about “unreliable testimony” which he has done nothing to substantiate. What we have here is a fallacious type of argument that might be called the argument from inconvenience. Stated in a modest form the argument goes like this: we shouldn't believe that our ideas about this topic need modification, because if that were true, we would have to revise our textbooks, and that would be very inconvenient. Of course, this kind of reasoning is entirely fallacious. We should not judge whether some new idea needs to be adopted based on how inconvenient the adoption of such an idea might be to textbook writers.

This very fallacious argument from inconvenience is typically stated using an absurd exaggeration involving a claim that we would have to throw out everything we've learned about x if we were to concede that y is true. So, for example, someone might claim that we would have to throw out all of our biology textbooks if we admitted that biological innovations cannot be explained merely by natural selection, or that we'd have to throw out all our psychology textbooks if we admitted that ESP might occur. Carroll makes an equally absurd exaggeration by claiming that if we learned there was a human soul, it would “overthrow everything we think we have learned about modern physics.No, instead 99.5% of modern physics would survive just fine if such a thing were to be discovered. And even if 100% of modern physics were to be in need of revision because of some particular idea, that is not a sound reason for arguing against that idea. We should not be judging a question of truth on the basis of whether it is inconvenient for it be true or false.

Carroll's physics-based argument against life after death is completely unsubstantial, consisting of bad armchair reasoning, rhetorical tricks, rhetorical questions and misstatements, mixed with some superfluous physics jargon that might impress only those who fail to see that the jargon terms used have no relevance to the topic under discussion. He then switches near the end of his essay to what he calls “an analogous line of reasoning that would come from evolutionary biology .” This isn't an argument at all, but merely some rhetorical questions, which he asks as follows:

Presumably amino acids and proteins don't have souls that persist after death. What about viruses or bacteria? Where upon the chain of evolution from our monocellular ancestors to today did organisms stop being described purely as atoms interacting through gravity and electromagnetism, and develop an immaterial immortal soul?

Rhetorical questions like these like have little force, because they can simply be answered by saying, “We don't know,” or by pointing out that such questions are no more troubling than dozens of similar questions we could ask of the materialist, such as these:

  • When nonexistence suddenly burst into the explosive existence of the Big Bang, how could that have happened naturally?
  • Since the Big Bang should have produced equal amounts of matter and antimatter, and that should have combined to be nothing but photons, how come we don't live in a universe of nothing but photons?
  • Where upon the chain of random chemical reactions did there first appear a life form, and how did all that information explosion -- that vast surge of order -- happen all of a sudden?
  • When did neurons first generate a thought, and how could that have possibly happened?
  • How could natural selection have produced biological innovations, when it cannot select a biological innovation until it has already appeared?
  • What was the first sentence ever spoken, and how could it have been spoken, when there were no grammar rules or vocabulary conventions?

Carroll's question presupposes there was actually a time when organisms could be “described purely as atoms interacting through gravity and electromagnetism,” which is a very doubtful idea. As for his question, a good possible answer might be: when humans started talking. As the introduction of language represents a radical break from all previous organisms, it is not very implausible to imagine that at the same time other similar big changes occurred.

If souls exist, they cannot be explained as products of Darwinian evolution by natural selection. But that's not much of a problem, since so many of our mental faculties cannot be explained through Darwinian evolution. For reasons explained here, natural selection is not a plausible explanation for the appearance of language, spirituality, 50-year-old memories, intellectual curiosity, artistic creativity, aesthetic appreciation, wonder, altruism, mathematical ability or philosophical reasoning. None of these things add to the reproductive likelihood of an organism in the wild, so none can be explained by natural selection.

Near the end of his essay, Carroll reaches a shrill crescendo of rhetorical excess, insinuating that the idea of life after death is “dramatically incompatible with everything we know about modern science.”  Carroll again uses the word “everything” when he should have used the word “nothing.” The pure absurdity of Carroll's claim can be seen when we ask questions like this:

  • Is there anything discovered by chemists incompatible with the idea of life after death?
  • Is there anything discovered by meteorologists or oceanographers incompatible with the idea of life after death?
  • Is there anything discovered by astronomers incompatible with the idea of life after death?
  • Is there anything discovered by geologists or sociologists incompatible with the idea of life after death?
  • Is there anything discovered by botanists or ecologists incompatible with the idea of life after death?

Of course, the answers to these questions are: no. And there is also nothing discovered by physicists or cosmologists incompatible with life after death. To the contrary, such scientists discovered that the universe suddenly began without any known cause, and the physical constants and laws of the universe are extraordinarily fine-tuned to allow for the existence of living things, with some fundamental constants most improbably having just the right values allowing life to exist. This suggests nothing directly about life after death, but may indirectly lend credence to such an idea, by making it seem more likely that there exists some creative or benevolent power behind the universe, the type of power that might drive a reality of life after death. If you were an entity with no special requirements for your existence, living in a universe with random, run-of-the-mill characteristics, a universe that had existed forever, you perhaps should be very surprised to find yourself surviving after death. But if you lived in a universe like ours that suddenly began without any known cause, a kind of “1 in a gazillion” long-shot type of universe, with all kinds of fantastically improbable characteristics needed for your existence, you should not be very surprised to find yourself existing after death, such a thing being perhaps kind of the second or third “miracle” to be thankful for, rather than the first. 

Postscript: In one of the passages I quoted above, Carroll claims that any respectable scientist who took the idea of the soul seriously would ask whether the soul has a Hamiltonian.  That's not actually true, because Wikipedia tells us the Hamiltonian has something to do with the sum of the kinetic energy of all the particles, and it is almost never maintained that a soul is made of any particles.  Carroll also claimed in that quote that it sounds silly to ask whether the soul is local in spacetime.  But far from sounding silly, this is a serious philosophical question. According to some philosophical ideas, a soul might be local to the human body, and according to other philosophical ideas such as idealism, what we call a soul (lacking a better term) might be something essentially non-local. 

My point about the vacuum catastrophe is supported by a recent  post on realclearscience.com, where we read, "Our best theories from quantum mechanics still overestimate the influence of dark energy by sixty orders of magnitude," which is a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion times. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Disastrous Blunders of the Experts

Often when someone wants to get you to believe in some dubious doctrine popular among some current group of experts, that person will basically tell you, “Trust the experts!” The reasoning is that when some group of experts reaches a consensus, it is very likely to be true. But history is full of examples in which the opinions of experts were not merely wrong, but disastrously wrong. Below are some examples, many from recent history.

Expert Fiasco #1: The Bay of Pigs Invasion

When John Kennedy assumed the office of US President in 1961, he found that his experts were unanimously (or all but unanimously) in favor of the Bay of Pigs invasion. This was a harebrained scheme of dumping on the shores of communist Cuba a group of 1400 Cuban exiles. The experts believed that this small group could whip up an insurrection that would lead to the downfall of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. The invasion very quickly failed, with more than 1000 being captured. Commenting on how wrong the advice was, Kennedy later said, “The advice of those who were brought in on the executive branch was also unanimous, and the advice was wrong.” By creating worries of Cuba being invaded, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion helped to sow the seeds of the Cuban Missile Crisis of the next year, in which the world was brought to the brink of atomic destruction.

Expert Fiasco #2: The Vietnam War

In his book The Best and the Brightest, journalist David Halberstam documented the disastrous role of expert advice in the Vietnam War. A group of intellectually brilliant US experts (many with Ivy League credentials) urged full American military involvement in the conflict between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. President Kennedy to some degree and Presidents Johnson and Nixon to a much larger degree took the advice of the experts. The result was a disastrous treasury-draining war that ended up costing more than 58,000 US lives, and many times more Vietnamese and Cambodian lives. The war ended in defeat for the United States, as South Vietnam was taken over by communist North Vietnam. The experts kept pushing a “Domino Theory” which maintained all of Southeast Asia would go communist if South Vietnam become communist. After the war was lost, the theory's prediction did not come true.

Expert Fiasco #3: Eugenics

In the decades prior to World War II, the academic scientific community embraced theories of eugenics, including ideas that certain “inferior” people should be encouraged or forced to be sterilized. Almost every major college or university offered a course in eugenics. Over 62,000 people were forcibly sterilized in the United States alone. After it became clear that the Nazis had embraced eugenics, and used it to try to justify their senseless slaughter of millions in concentration camps, eugenics started to fall out of favor.

Expert Fiasco #4: The Housing Bubble of 2005, and Financial Meltdown of 2008

In the years 2003 to 2005 a huge bubble arose in the US housing market, with housing prices inflating to unreasonable heights. Quite a few independent bloggers who were not financial experts began to raise alarm bells that a housing bubble had arisen, and was about to pop, causing prices to plunge. But the financial experts on Wall Street almost completely failed to alert people to such a possibility. When house prices started to fall between 2006 and 2008, the experts on Wall Street almost all failed to understand the financial disaster that was unfolding. At one point the experts at Standard and Poor's agency gave an AAA rating to CDO securities, which officially signified that there was only about 1 chance in 800 that such securities would default. But it turned out that 28% of these same securities defaulted. Based largely on the astonishingly bad judgments of financial experts, the financial meltdown of 2008 ended up causing countless home foreclosures, a sharp rise in unemployment that lasted for years, and a huge stock market decline that wiped out a good fraction of the retirement savings of millions of people.

Expert Fiasco #5: Blunders of the Psychiatrists

In the field of psychiatry there have since 1950 been three huge blunders supported by experts. One was support for lobotomies as a treatment for mental illness. Lobotomy surgeries were widely supported for decades, although they are now generally regarded as a grotesque horror. Another error was classification of homosexuality as a mental disease. It was only in 1973 that psychiatrists stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder. For decades before that, people discovered to be homosexuals were often forced into bizarre treatments that are now looked on as senseless interventions. A third blunder of the psychiatrists was a dogmatic embrace of the dubious doctrines of Freud, such as his weird theory that much of mental illness was caused by sex-related conflicts stemming from early childhood. The popularity of Freudianism is declining, but for decades his farfetched dogmas were embraced by a large fraction of psychiatrists.

Expert Fiasco #6: The Iraq War

In 2002 and early 2003 the United States government led by George W. Bush tried to whip up public support for an unprovoked invasion of Iraq. The rationale given was that Iraq had assembled terrifying “weapons of mass destruction” that were a threat to the United States. In the time between October 2002 and March 2003 I remember seeing a long parade of experts on my television screen, almost all of which assured us that the coming invasion of Iraq was a wise step that was vitally necessary. Many of these experts said that the invasion was something that would be a breeze. Even though United Nations weapons inspectors had searched the country in the months before March 2003, finding no weapons of mass destruction, the experts told us such weapons would be found.

In March 2003 the unprovoked invasion was launched. No Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were found. The war ended up being a big treasury-draining disaster, leading to more than 4000 US soldier deaths, and more than 30,000 US soldier injuries. The total number of Iraqis that died from the invasion and its resulting unrest has been estimated between 151,000 and more than a million. In the following years, the nation of Iraq suffered very frequent suicide bombings and almost constant violent unrest, with the eventual loss of a large fraction of the country to crazed ISIS fanatics. The price tag for this misadventure was countless trillions of US dollars. 

Expert Fiasco #7: Vioxx

The drug called Vioxx (also known as rofecoxib) was developed by Merck to treat arthritis and its associated pain. The scientific experts at the Food and Drug Administration gave Vioxx their approval in 1999. In the following years doctors also gave the drug their approval, writing some 80 million prescriptions for the drug. But the drug was actually very dangerous, and the wikipedia.org article on the drug says that it caused “between 88,000 and 140,000 cases of serious heart disease.” Finally in 2004 Merck withdrew the drug. 

Expert Fiasco #8: The Opioid Overdose Epidemic

We are currently in the middle of an opioid overdose epidemic. A CDC site tells us, "From 2000 to 2015 more than half a million people died from drug overdoses." Very many of these come from prescription pain medicines that were over-prescribed by doctors. The CDC site says this:

We now know that overdoses from prescription opioids are a driving factor in the 15-year increase in opioid overdose deaths. The amount of prescription opioids sold to pharmacies, hospitals, and doctors’ offices nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2010, yet there had not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans reported.

Clearly the experts writing prescriptions made a big blunder, writing far too many prescriptions for opioids.

Expert Fiasco #9: Nuclear Weapons

When the atomic bomb was being developed, physicists thought there was a substantial chance that the first atomic explosion might ignite the atmosphere, destroying all life on earth. This fact has been whitewashed by many accounts claiming that they made calculations that there was no chance of such an ignition. But Chapter 17 of Daniel Ellsberg's book The Doomsday Machine makes quite clear that physicists still thought there was a significant chance of such a planet-killing event when the first atomic bomb was exploded in July, 1945. At one point Enrico Fermi estimated the chance at 10 percent, according to one source. 

Physicists should have advised that exploding an atomic bomb was an unacceptable risk. Instead, they allowed the testing to occur. They then supported the creation of ever more destructive bombs including hydrogen bombs vastly more powerful than atomic bombs. For decades the world was put at grave risk of nuclear destruction -- all of which could have been avoided if Fermi and his colleagues had done the right thing and said that any test of any atomic bomb was an unacceptable risk.  The atomic bomb was not needed for Japan's defeat, as a naval blockade and relentless aerial firebombing were creating equivalent military pressure in the summer of 1945. 
Why Experts Are So Often Wrong

We still see spectacular errors being committed by experts. A very recent example was the fact that prior to the 2016 election of Donald Trump, the great majority of political pundits predicted very confidently that Trump would lose the election. Then there was the BICEP2 affair. In March 2014 scientists announced they had proof of primordial gravitational waves proving the cosmic inflation theory. Almost the entire community of physicists and cosmologists endorsed this claim. By the end of 2014 it had become clear that BICEP2 had detected something that could just as easily be mere dust, and the claims of an important scientific finding were retracted. In this case the red flags were there from March 2014, so there was no excuse for this erroneous bandwagon effect. Then there was the 2016 affair of the 750 GeV diphoton resonance. A certain signal blip showed up at the Large Hadron Collider, and physicists wrote more than 500 scientific papers about this blip, speaking as if this was some matter of great cosmic importance. By July 2016 it had become clear that the signal blip was mere random noise, of no significance at all. 

Is there some general reason why experts often get things wrong? There seems to be such a reason. It is the fact that experts often are trained in ideological enclaves. An expert typically becomes an expert by volunteering for some particular graduate or specialized training program at a university or in the military. These graduate programs are often ideological enclaves, places where there predominates some particular ideology not embraced by most people.

The fact that the graduates of such programs are volunteers creates the opportunity for sociological selection effects. Let's imagine an extreme example. Let's imagine there arises some new discipline called tricostics. It might be the opinion of 90% of those who have read about tricostics that tricostics is pure nonsense. But tricostics might be “all the rage” at some Graduate Program in Tricostics Studies at a particular university, or some Pentagon training program specialized in tricostics. The people who sign up for such a program might almost all be from the tiny fraction of the population that believes in tricostics. At this particular program there might then be tremendous sociological pressure for students to embrace tricostics. So 90% of the graduates of this tricostics program might be believers in tricostics, even though a randomly selected jury from the general population would probably conclude tricostics is worthless nonsense.

ideological enclave
An expert existing in some ideological enclave may get be filled with dogmatic overconfidence about some opinion that is popular within his little ideological enclave. He may think something along the lines of: “No doubt it is true, because almost all my peers and teachers agree that it is true.” But the idea may seem senseless to someone who has not been conditioned inside this ideological enclave, this sheltered thought bubble. 

A good rule is: decide based on the facts, and not merely because there is some consensus of experts.   

Postscript: It is interesting that a government web site gives us a "hierarchy of evidence" pyramid, one of a number of similar pyramids you can find by doing a Google image search for "hierarchy of evidence."  In the hierarchy of evidence (ranging from weakest at the bottom to strongest at the top), "expert opinion" is at the very bottom of the pyramid. So why is it we are so often asked to believe this or that explanation for some important matter, based on expert opinions?

Post-postscript: See this post for another case of a disastrous blunder by experts.  The post states that there were between 340,000 to 690,000 US deaths caused by atomic testing. The US government presumably polled the experts about whether it was safe to test atomic weapons above ground, and there was presumably a consensus of experts that such above-ground testing was safe.  The result was probably more US deaths than from the bombs dropped on Japan. 

The reaction to the research of Ignaz Semmelweis was a case of a disastrous expert blunder in the nineteenth century. Semmelweis accumulated evidence that cases of a certain kind of deadly fever could be greatly reduced if physicians would simply wash their hands with an antiseptic solution, particularly after touching corpses. According to a wikipedia.org article on him, "Despite various publications of results where hand washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis's observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community." Thousands died unnecessarily, because of the stubbornness of experts, who were too attached to long-standing myths and cherished fantasies such as the idea that physicians had special "healing hands" that would never be the source of death. The wikipedia article tells us, "At a conference of German physicians and natural scientists, most of the speakers rejected his doctrine, including the celebrated Rudolf Virchow, who was a scientist of the highest authority of his time."  Decades later, it was found that Semmelweis was correct, and his recommendations were finally adopted.   The wikipedia.org article notes, "The so-called Semmelweis reflex — a metaphor for a certain type of human behavior characterized by reflex-like rejection of new knowledge because it contradicts entrenched norms, beliefs, or paradigms — is named after Semmelweis, whose ideas were ridiculed and rejected by his contemporaries." 

Post-post-postscript: Very sadly, the year 2020 has given us a new example of a disastrous blunder by experts. In the US a deadly coronavirus began to explosively spread in the second half of February 2020. For the next six weeks leading experts kept telling us that ordinary people did not need to wear face masks to prevent the virus from spreading. Around April 3, experts reversed their previous position, and started teaching that it was very important for everyone to wear face masks to prevent the virus from spreading.  A full discussion of the erring statements by experts can be found here. By this date more than 450,000 Americans have died from coronavirus, and the experts are saying the death toll in the US will exceed 500,000. A large fraction of this death toll could have been prevented if the experts had started giving us back about March 1, 2020 the correct advice that everyone should be wearing face masks.

The World Health Organization's blunder in this matter was gigantic. From the beginning of the global coronavirus pandemic around March 1, 2020 to June 2, 2020, the World Health Organization senselessly taught on its website that there was no need for ordinary people to wear face masks as a global pandemic raged. A meta-analysis published in the leading medical journal The Lancet on June 2, 2020 concluded that "face mask use could result in a large reduction in risk of infection." This was an analysis of studies that had already been published.  A CNN story on this meta-analysis says, "The chance of transmission without a face mask or respirator (like an N95 mask) was 17.4%, while that fell to 3.1% when a mask was worn." The World Health Organization's disastrous blunder of telling people they did not need to wear face masks during a pandemic is an example of the stubborn persistence of errant biological dogmatism, something that we see all over place in biology. Finally in early June, 2020 the WHO reversed its position, telling us we should wear face masks to prevent coronavirus. 

In February 2021 a group of experts wrote a letter to the CDC and leading authorities, complaining that the CDC had bungled things by not correctly describing the airborne nature of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes coronavirus:

"CDC guidance and recommendations have not yet been updated or strengthened to address and limit inhalation exposure to small aerosol particles. CDC continues to use the outdated and
confusing term 'respiratory droplets' to describe both larger propelled droplet sprays and smaller inhalable aerosol particles. It also confuses matters with 'airborne transmission' to indicate inhalation exposure exclusively at long distances and does not consider inhalation exposure via the same aerosols at short distances....CDC guidance and recommendations do not include the control measures necessary for protecting the public
and workers from inhalation exposure to SARS-CoV-2."