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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, February 26, 2018

Any Radio Signal from the Stars Would Probably Be Permanently Controversial

For more than 60 years astronomers have been drawing a rough sketch of a great future event that will transform the world: a day when astronomers with their radio telescopes will receive a radio message from extraterrestrials on some planet revolving around a distant star. Based on the way such an event is imagined, you might think of it as some kind of revelation of great clarity in which suddenly our place on the cosmic totem pole is made crystal clear.

But it is all but certain that we will never receive any message anything like this:

Greetings, cosmic brothers! We speak to you from a distant planet 10,500 light-years away. We are members of a technical civilization 2,460,000 years more advanced than yours. Let us show you some of our dazzling accomplishments, which will probably cause your puny race to become sick with envy.

The reason we will almost certainly never receive a message like that is because it is written in English. We could get a message in English only under a very improbable scenario. It could be that there was some extraterrestrial civilization relatively close to ours – say, 25 light-years away. Such a civilization might have picked up a radio signal transmitted from Earth after 1950. From such a signal, that civilization might have figured out the rules of English; and it might then have sent a radio message back to our planet.

But this scenario is very unlikely. For one thing, radio signals from Earth would be so weakened after traveling light-years that it would be doubtful that any other civilization could pick them up. For another thing, if intelligent life in our galaxy was so common that there are civilizations only about 25 light-years away, we probably would have already received radio signals from extraterrestrials; but we have not. For another thing, it is very doubtful that anyone could figure out how to write a message in English merely from receiving some radio signals in English.

So in all likelihood if we get a radio signal from extraterrestrials, it will not be in English. There's another possibility often considered: we will get a radio message in some extraterrestrial language; then scientists will figure out how to translate that message into English, and the message will become crystal clear. But it seems most unlikely that we could ever figure out the meaning of some message written in some language that originated on another planet. Such a language might have linguistic rules and semantic complications that totally baffled us.

Another idea often discussed is that an extraterrestrial radio message would not be written in the native language of its authors, but would instead be a kind of pictogram. A pictogram can be transmitted by radio, using a system in which an instant of non-transmission represents a white pixel, and an instant of transmission represents a dark pixel. For an example of such a pictogram, we can look at the plaque that was put on the Pioneer space probe:

The image here attempts to transmit three main items of information: a visual showing what humans look like, a depiction of the solar system, and an indication of the position of Earth in our galaxy. The method used to depict Earth's position in the galaxy is a rather dubious one, involving listing relative distances from pulsars and the position of the Earth. There would be a large chance that anyone analyzing this message would fail to interpret this part of the message correctly. One reason is that there are more than a billion pulsars in our galaxy, so it would be hard to figure out which pulsars the message was referring to.

Another example of a pictogram message is shown here. The message is supposed to show a DNA molecule, a depiction of a human, a depiction of some important chemicals, and a depiction of the transmitting telescope.

Let us assume that an extraterrestrial radio message would be some type of pictogram. Once the message had been received, would any of these things be crystal clear:

  1. Would we know for sure the exact location where the message had come from?
  2. Would we know that the message had actually come from extraterrestrial life forms?
  3. Would we know how much older than us such extraterrestrial life forms were?

It seems that these things would be very much in dispute, even after such a message had been received. For one thing, there is the very general fact that a radio signal resembling a signal from extraterrestrials can very easily be faked. One way to do that would be to have a satellite or space probe transmit a radio signal that was designed to look like an extraterrestrial radio signal. The possibility of such mischief can hardly be dismissed in light of the Russian interference in the United States 2016 election.

We know that Russia spent millions of dollars in an influence campaign that often resorted to misinformation. Given that reality, there would always be the possibility that a radio signal that we thought was coming from another planet was actually coming from somewhere else in our solar system, perhaps from one of the satellites or probes of China or Russia or some other nation. There might be any number of reasons why a nation might resort to such a trick. One reason is that such a ruse might be used to create a distraction diverting public attention from some scandal involving that nation. Or if a nation were planning on launching a surprise attack or doing a military buildup, it might create illusory “radio messages from extraterrestrials” to get the world's attention focused on such a matter, and away from threatening troop movements or weapons deployments the nation was starting to make.

Another reason for doubting the source of a message claimed as coming from extraterrestrials is that such a message might crop up as a result of computer hacking. The radio telescopes scanning for extraterrestrial signals are linked up to computers and software needed to analyze the signals. Such computers and software might be subject to computer hacking. Hackers might download a fake signal fooling astronomers into thinking they had received a message from the stars. If this sounds too far-fetched, consider all the shenanigans that went on during the 2016 election, in which quite a few supposedly secure systems were broken into and tampered with.

Then there is the fact that religious theorists might interpret any unnatural radio signal as a message from a divine source, not a message from beings on some other planet. It is interesting that the first movie made about the reception of non-human radio signals was not the 1997 Jodie Foster movie Contact, about the reception of extraterrestrial radio signals. It was instead the 1950 movie The Next Voice You Hear, about humans getting radio messages from God. If some apparently non-human radio signal was received by astronomers, religious theorists would probably jump in with speculations that this message was some kind of revelation from some divine being. It would be hard to rule out such a possibility, given the difficulty of determining exactly who sent some message, particularly if such a message was some kind of abstract or baffling pictogram.

Even if the message had some type of indication of a particular location in the galaxy, this would not prove that the message had been transmitted by extraterrestrials from such a location. Religious theorists might speculate that the depicted location was a special planet, and that the message was a message about that planet – perhaps something telling us to search at that location, or a message telling us about some special blessed location that was particularly sacred or important.

There would also be theorists who might speculate that the message was coming not from extraterrestrials but from some other dimension – perhaps some kind of Other Side that is an afterlife realm. If you object that no one would ever try to link a mysterious radio signal with life after death, I may note that people have already being making such a link for decades. For decades there has been a phenomenon called Electronic Voice Phenomenon, in which people report getting mysterious electronic messages, which may be either radio signals or words that appear unaccountably while recording in a quiet place. The people getting these messages often claim that they are messages from some afterlife realm. There is an Italian researcher named Marcello Bacci who claimed to have received radio messages from some afterlife realm for many years. People supportive of these claims might claim that any new radio message of a non-human origin was another radio message from some spiritual realm.

There might also be multiverse theorists who might speculate that the mysterious radio message was not a message from extraterrestrials but a message from some other universe.  Conspiracy theorists might claim that the radio message was faked by some group of scientists looking for glory or more government funding. If the radio message was a one-shot affair, and not a repeating message, it would be hard to prove otherwise. 

It seems hard to imagine any way that a pictogram message could convey some of the basic facts about senders of a message, such as how much more advanced than us the sender was. Such a message might include a number listing how many years passed since the civilization had started to develop technology. But we wouldn't know what that number meant. The “year” used to state the age of the civilization would presumably be the time it took the home planet to revolve around its star, but that might be anywhere between one tenth of a year and 100 years, leaving the age of the radio-transmitting civilization very uncertain.

If the radio message was some type of pictogram, there would probably be multiple ways to interpret each of the representations in the message.  The multiple possibilities for interpretation would help lead to a long or permanent controversy.  If the message was written in an alien language, there would be endless debates over whether a particular translation was correct.

A radio message of apparently artificial origin would be comparable to a message in the clouds, in that it would be interpreted by people in different ways, according to their philosophical inclinations. For example, let us imagine that clouds were to form a message  in the sky, one stating: you are being watched, so do not act badly. Such a message would be the start of a great controversy. Theists would say that it was a message from God. The non-religious would claim that it was a message from visiting extraterrestrials, and that “do not act badly” was referring to things such as “fighting too many wars” or “creating too much global warming pollution.” Others would say the message had been produced by humans. If only one such message was received, the controversy would probably never end. 

Similarly, a single radio message from a non-human source would probably be the start of an interpretation controversy which might never end, with an endless debate about whether the message was from extraterrestrials, hackers, a foreign disinformation squad, a divine being, an afterlife realm, or transmitters in another dimension or another universe.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Astronomers Strangely Weep Because They're Only Getting One Multi-Billion Dollar Gift

Astronomers are howling over the fact that the government has announced that it will not be funding an infrared space telescope called WFIRST, which stands for Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope. Engaging in some pretty ridiculous hyperbole, cosmologist Ethan Siegel tells us that “canceling WFIRST will permanently ruin NASA.”

Based on how loud they are howling, you would think that the cancellation of the WFIRST telescope means that there will be no more government-funded telescopes for astronomers to make use of. But that is not true. In 2019 the government will deliver a gigantic gift to our astronomers: the James Webb Space Telescope. It will have a price tag of about 10 billion dollars.

Astronomers weeping about the cancellation of WFIRST are therefore like the daughter in the conversation below:

Daughter: You mean I'm not getting a Mercedes on my seventeenth birthday? You're so cruel!
Mother: But sweetie, next year it will be your sixteenth birthday, and on that birthday I will give you a shiny red Ferrari sports car.
Daughter: But I want the Ferrari and the Mercedes!

Part of the reason a telescope like the Hubble telescope was worthwhile is that it produced so many images showing what objects in distant space look like. But an infrared telescope won't show what distant objects in space look like. Such a telescope will show the infrared radiation from such an object. So the photos from WFIRST would look like those weird images that ghost hunters get when they photograph things with an infrared camera. Such a telescope is intrinsically less valuable than a project like the Hubble telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope. 

Infrared image of the Andromeda galaxy
Is there some lack of data for astronomers to analyze? Certainly not. Scientists in fields such as astronomy are already flooded with far too much data for them to ever fully analyze. Once the James Webb Space Telescope launches next year, astronomers will be double-drowning in data. Do they really need an additional space telescope so that they can be triple-drowning in data?

When I look at some of the statements astronomers have made protesting the cancellation of WFIRST, I see some pretty thin reasoning. Some of the astronomers are pointing out the WFIRST was on the “decadal survey” list of recommended projects. They're reasoning: “you can't cancel something on our decadal survey list!” But what is the decadal survey list? It's just a wish list. Putting an item on your wish list does not mean that someone else is obligated to give you that thing. A daughter or son is not entitled to receive all the things they list on their Christmas list.

Let us consider the average amount of money that an astronomer gets from the government, in money spent on space telescopes and grants. There are only about 10,000 professional astronomers in the United States. If you consider only the cost of the James Webb Space Telescope, and divide its cost over ten years, you get funding of about a billion dollars per year. That amounts to about $100,000 per astronomer per year.

It's hard to imagine how anyone blessed by such largess could complain. By comparison, the average Joe is lucky to get $5000 or $10000 in benefits from the government, from programs such as the SNAP program (“Food Stamps”) or Medicaid.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Pinker's Fiery Manifesto Is Not So Enlightening

The new book by psychologist Steven Pinker is entitled Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. I greeted this title with some wariness, having noticed long ago that people who claim self-righteously to be arguing for wholesome things such as “reason” or “science” or “progress” will very often be people who try to sell dubious ideas by sneaking them under the banner of “reason” or “science” or “progress.” 
Pinker gives us a triumphalist account of scientific accomplishments, one filled with quite a few inaccuracies. He begins Chapter 2 very strangely by stating “The first keystone in understanding the human condition is the concept of entropy or disorder, which emerged from 19th century physics and was defined in its current form by the physicist Ludwig Bolzmann.” He refers here to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but this is not at all a keystone in understanding the human condition, and has basically nothing to do with the human condition. 

On page 17 Pinker claims, “One reason the cosmos is filled with such interesting stuff is a set of processes called self-organization, which allow circumscribed zones of order to emerge.” But no such process has been discovered, and Pinker doesn't specifically mention any such process. Theorists have been speculating about  theories of self-organization for quite a while, but no one has come up with any substantial theory of self-organization explaining impressive degrees of functional order (although the term "self-organization" is sometimes applied to minor things we already knew about such as crystallization). 

On page 18 Pinker makes the following claim:

Organisms are replete with improbable configurations of flesh like eyes, ears, hearts and stomachs which cry out for an explanation. Before Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace provided one in 1859, it was reasonable to think that they were the product of a divine designer....Darwin and Wallace made the designer unnecessary.

A claim like this has become an almost standard bromide in the books of a certain type of writer. Nowadays the writer of a certain type of book will not bother with giving us any reasons at all for thinking that Darwinism explains biological complexity. We will simply be told that Darwin took care of that by showing that a designer is unnecessary. Such a claim isn't merely a theological comment – it is a claim of enormous scientific accomplishment. Anyone claiming that someone showed that a designer of life is unnecessary is essentially making the claim that someone solved the riddle of biological complexity. What we have in such books is a simply an appeal to a dubious legend, like someone telling us that Woodrow Wilson made the world safe for democracy. There are several reasons why this claim about Darwin and Wallace does not stand up to scrutiny.

The first reason is that Darwin and Wallace did nothing at all to explain the origin of life itself. The first living thing must have been something of very high biological complexity and organization. But the theory of natural selection does nothing to explain the origin of life. Natural selection cannot occur until life already exists.

The second reason is that Darwin and Wallace never even learned about much of the most complex functionality in living things. Darwin knew nothing about the complexity of cells. We now know that cells are so complex they are like miniature cities. Darwin and Wallace also knew nothing about the intricacy of proteins – fantastically fine-tuned structures the origin of which is the most difficult unsolved problem. And Darwin and Wallace knew nothing at all about the genetic code, one of the hardest aspects of biology to explain. So how can any reasonable person claim that such things are explained by anything written by Darwin and Wallace back in the nineteenth century? That's like claiming that Aristotle and Plato explained the workings of digital computers.

The third reason is that Alfred Russel Wallace very explicitly stated that the theory of natural selection he helped pioneer was not adequate to explain the human brain. In an essay containing many similar comments, Wallace stated the following: "Natural Selection could only have endowed savage man with a brain a little superior to that of an ape, whereas he actually possesses one very little inferior to that of a philosopher." Clearly in light of the quote above, Pinker has no business citing Wallace as someone who “made the designer unnecessary.”

The fourth reason is that the theory of natural selection does not actually explain the origin of biological complexity or the origin of species. This is made clear in the book 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."

Pinker tries to give a Darwinian explanation for biological complexity by giving us this concise explanation on page 19:

Since no copying process is perfect – the Law of Entropy sees to that – errors will crop up, and though most of these mutations will degrade the replicator (entropy again), occasionally dumb luck will throw one up that's more effective in replicating, and its descendants will swamp the competition. As copying errors that enhance stability and replication accumulate over the generations, the replicating system – we call it an organism – will appear to have been engineered for survival and reproduction in the future, though it only preserved the copying errors that led to survival-of-the-fittest and reproduction in the past.

The “copying errors” he refers to may be more concisely referred to as typos. Pinker has tried to explain the mountainous levels of organization in biological systems by suggesting that they are merely an accumulation of typos. This is not a reasonable explanation. We cannot explain mountainous amounts of organization by merely using a theory of accumulation that is not a theory of organization. People who claim that accumulations of random changes can produce dazzling engineering effects are typically people who know nothing about engineering, and who have never accomplished any type of complex engineering.

A very important point is that Pinker is absolutely wrong when he says this about a random mutation: “occasionally dumb luck will throw one up that's more effective in replicating, and its descendants will swamp the competition.” Visible biological innovations that improve an organism's chance of survival could only occur through mutations if very many mutations occurred in a way to achieve a coordinated effect. We would never expect that to happen by chance. A single lucky mutation (corresponding to a single nucleotide change in DNA) would never produce any complex visible innovation that improved an organism's survival value or chance of reproduction, just as a single typed letter would never upgrade a software program. Visible biological innovations that improve survival value require very large amounts of information as complex as some organized text consisting of thousands of letters; and the more complex the innovation, the more new functional information is required.  The visual below gives an example.

You can realize this point by considering a random text generator that appends random characters to some text. Could it be that there would be some random letter added to the text would make the text more likely to achieve functionality or excellence? Not at all. It requires coordinated combinations of letters to add functionality to some text. Each mutation would be merely like some random alphabetic letter added to a text -- not something leading to a greater chance of reproduction or survival.

As A.N. Wilson points out on page 253 on his recent biography on Darwin, “There has never been a coherent explanation of the emergence of highly complex life forms.” Wilson points out that most available copies of The Origin of Species are the first edition, rather than the sixth edition in which Darwin expressed many doubts and qualifications. We are thus hidden from the reality that “Darwin himself, doughty as a warrior for his theory, nevertheless had many moments of doubting it or (which is different) of not seeing how it could be defended,” as Wilson states on page 256.

Continuing his triumphalist tall tales, on page 21 Pinker makes this very untrue claim: “A momentous discovery of 20th-century theoretical neuroscience is that networks of neurons not only can preserve information but can transform it in ways that allow us to explain how brains can be intelligent.” To the contrary, there is no understanding at all of how a brain could possibly be generating intelligence, nor is there even any solid proof that neurons can store learned information.

We know the type of test that would be done to prove that learned information was stored in a neural system. One scientist might train some animals to learn something or receive some sensory input. Then some other scientist might dissect that animal's brain, trying to learn from the brain exactly what information was taught to the animal when it was alive. No such test has ever succeeded. It has absolutely not been proven that neurons have ever preserved information that was taught to any animal subject.

Pinker's triumphalist tall tales continue on page 385 where he quotes a bogus brag by physicist Sean Carroll, who claimed that the laws of physics underlying everyday life are “completely known.” Pinker says, “It's hard to disagree that this is 'one of the greatest triumphs in human intellectual history.'” But there is no basis other than egotism and hubris for claiming that the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely known. Future physicists will look back on such a statement with scorn. As discussed here, we don't even understand why the space surrounding us isn't vastly denser than steel as predicted by quantum field theory, which predicts a cosmological constant at least 1060 times greater than the one we observe. 

Very strangely, on page 356 Pinker tells us this: “Professing a belief in evolution is not a gift of scientific literacy, but an affirmation of loyalty to a liberal secular subculture as opposed to a conservative religious one.” He rather seems to be suggesting that being a good Darwinist is not mainly about the science, but about some sociological act of affirming your loyalty to a subculture. This does not help the case he is trying to make. 

On page 426 Pinker states, "Nor are the computational and neurological bases of consciousness obstinately befuddling." But no one understands or can explain any neurological or computational explanation for consciousness.  Pinker again and again claims that he and and colleagues understand deep things that they do not at all understand.  

In his zeal to support an atheistic world view, Pinker sometimes gets his facts mangled. On page 438 he asks, “Why is the world losing its religion?” No such thing is currently happening (as the polling data here makes clear). In a comment that reminds us of the recent “s***holes” statement reportedly made by Donald Trump, Pinker states on page 438, “Many irreligious societies like Canada, Denmark and New Zealand are among the nicest places to live in the history of our kind....while many of the world's most religious societies are hellholes.” He has his facts very wrong in referring to Canada as an irreligious society, and the wikipedia article on Canada tells us that 67% of the people in that country are Christians. We also learn from wikipedia.org that only 41% of the people in New Zealand report having no religion. I may note the inhumanity of referring to anyone's country as either a “s***hole” or a hellhole.

This comment about religious societies being hellholes epitomizes Pinkers treatment of anyone believing anything religious. All such people are very darkly portrayed in Pinker's book as fools and stumbling blocks to progress – as people who believe purely on faith rather than evidence. Although he mentions some things that are very substantial reasons why someone might have a religious belief (the sudden origin of the universe in the Big Bang, cosmic fine-tuning and near-death experiences), Pinker seems absolutely incapable of realizing that people might actually believe something religious based on substantial evidence reasons.

Pinker claims this on page 394-395: “We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well being....By exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, science forces us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet.” These are very misleading statements. They imply that the laws of physics are indifferent to humans. This is not at all correct.

Instead, in recent decades many scientists have extensively discovered that our existence depends in many ways on such laws. For example, modify in a rather slight way the laws of nature involving the strong nuclear force binding the nucleus of an atom, and humans could not exist. Change the laws of electromagnetism a little bit and the chemistry allowing life could not exist. Change the electric charge on either the proton or the electron by a tiny bit, and there would no longer be an exact precise equality between the absolute magnitude of the proton charge and the electron charge. The result would be that the electromagnetic repulsion between particles would overwhelm the gravitational attraction between them, and planets could not hold together. It is just as if the laws of physics were specifically created with the eventual existence of humans in mind. See here for additional examples.

In recent decades, scientists have very widely acknowledged and discussed the fine-tuning in the laws of nature and the universe's fundamental constants – something that first came to public light because of the papers and books of scientists themselves. By claiming that science has exposed “the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe,” Pinker is simply making up a fairy tale that is pretty much the exact opposite of the truth. On page 423 Pinker himself says this about the universe's fundamental constants: If any of these constants were off by a minuscule iota, then matter would fly apart or collapse upon itself, and stars, galaxies, and planets, to say nothing of terrestrial life and Homo sapiens, could never have formed.”

Pinker states this on page 422:

Memoirs from oxygen-starved patients who experienced their souls leaving their bodies could contain verifiable details unavailable to their sense organs. The fact that these reports have all been exposed as tall tales, false memories, overinterpreted coincidences and cheap carny tricks undermines the hypothesis that there are immaterial souls which could be subject to divine justice.

Pinker refers here to near-death experiences. The typical near-death experience does not involve oxygen deprivation. And the “fact” that Pinker refers to is no fact at all. It is certainly not true that all near-death experiences have been exposed as “all tall tales, false memories, overinterpreted coincidences and cheap carny tricks,” nor is it true that even a majority or a large fraction of such accounts have been shown to be such a thing. To the contrary, as discussed here there are many near-death experiences in which people reported medical resuscitation details that occurred while they were unconscious with stopped hearts -- details that were compared to what happened, and found to be true. Such corroborated accounts are indeed “verifiable details unavailable to their sense organs.” We may note the remarkable untruth of Pinker's claim that the set of such accounts (in which people often report their souls floating out of their bodies) “undermines the hypothesis that there are immaterial souls.” Someone might as well claim that observations of bears mauling humans undermines the hypothesis that bears exist. 

In trying to shame and stigmatize those who have near-death experiences, Pinker is using the same type of tactic that would be used by a lawyer of a serial sex abuser -- try to cross out the large number of witnesses by claiming they're all confused or liars or people with "false memories."  In this case there are too many witnesses and too much corroboration for such a tactic to work. 

Obviously Pinker has made no serious study of paranormal phenomena, for on page 428 he ignorantly lists as an argument against the existence of a soul that it "falsely predicts the existence of paranormal phenomena." To the contrary, there is very strong evidence for a wide variety of paranormal phenomena, including extremely strong evidence gathered by psychologists at universities under laboratory conditions or by the US government (see here, here and here and here for examples).  

To try to account for the universe's fine-tuning, Pinker evokes the multiverse, the idea that there is some vast collection of universes. This actually does nothing to explain our universe's fine-tuning, for the reasons discussed here. But Pinker thinks that imagining some vast set of a billion trillion quadrillion quintillion universes is simpler. He says on page 425, “The multiverse is the simpler theory of reality, since if our universe is the only one in existence, we would need to complicate the elegant laws of physics with an arbitrary stipulation of the universe's parochial initial conditions and its parochial physical constants.”

Thus is the twisted “Bizzaro world” of Steven Pinker's logic. According to Pinker, since we find that there are all kinds of physical laws and physical constants extremely fine-tuned to allow the existence of living creatures such as us, this is something “exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe.” According to Pinker, if thousands of people all over the world report experiencing their souls drifting out of their bodies when their hearts stopped, in vivid near-death experiences, that is something that “undermines the hypothesis that there are immaterial souls.” And according to Pinker, if we try to explain away cosmic-fine tuning by imagining that there is a multiverse of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 other universes, such an assumption has the advantage of making things “simpler.” Such weird reasoning is baffling and topsy-turvy. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Academics Mostly Disappoint with Their "Last Questions"

For years the web site edge.org has submitted an annual question to about 70 different people, mostly professors. The answers to the questions have made some pretty interesting reading. This year the site has simply asked “Can you ask the Last Question?” The responses are all given as questions, rather than the usual essay-length answers given in previous years.

I was expecting to get many thought-provoking questions that might get me thinking on many an important topic. But the results were rather disappointing, with some exceptions. I think a good way to answer a question like this is to think of some question that will really stimulate someone to do some deep thinking on some topic. A bad way to answer is to create some question that mainly just advertises your position on some topic. We can call such questions “position statement questions.” An example would be if someone were to say, “Why are we spending too little on border security and letting so many Mexicans enter the country?” A question like that simply advertises someone's opinion on some topic, and doesn't stimulate someone to thinking.

An example of a useless “position statement question” was given by Lisa Feldmann Barrett, a psychology professor who asks, “How does a single human brain architecture create many kinds of human minds?” An equally useless “position statement question” is offered by neurobiologist Leo M. Chalupa, who asks, “What new methodology will be required to explain the neural basis of consciousness?” And just as useless a “position statement question” is offered by psychologist Alison Gopnik, who asks, “How can the few pounds of grey goo between our ears let us make utterly surprising, completely unprecedented, and remarkably true discoveries about the world around us, in every domain and at every scale, from quarks to quasars?” These questions are essentially just statements of the dubious position that the brain is the sole source of your mind.

But there's a glimmer of hope that some of these minds are questioning this dogma. For example, roboticist Rodney A. Brooks asks, “Can consciousness exist in an entity without a self-contained physical body?” And W. Brian Arthur asks, “Does consciousness reside only in our brains?” And psychologist David Goleman asks, “Is there a subtle form of consciousness that operates independent of brain function?” And Dave Morin asks, “Is the brain a computer or an antenna?” That's actually a good question, because of the difficulty of accounting for human minds and memory from brain activity, and the very substantial possibility that our intellects actually come from some mysterious unfathomable external source. 

 A better question would be: “Is the brain a computer, an antenna, or a receptacle?” The receptacle possibility (discussed here) allows for a one-time origin of consciousness from an external source, something different from the “continuous transmission” idea that seems to be involved in thinking that the brain is like an antenna. 

Thinking in such a heterodox vein, a good question to ask would be: is your body merely the genie bottle that temporarily imprisons your soul?

The question asked by philosopher Daniel Dennett seems rather revealing. He asks, “How can an aggregation of trillions of selfish, myopic cells discover the unwitting teamwork that turns that dynamic clump into a person who can love, notice, wonder, and keep a promise?” We might ask him four questions in response:

  1. How can you believe that the output of a curious, loving, wondering human is something produced merely by cells, given that no cell produces any trace of such a thing?
  2. How could cells possibly “discover” such an effect, when they aren't questing, inquiring agents?
  3. How can you maintain that such an effect is a “discovery” of cells when your question suggests you have no idea of how such a thing could happen?
  4. Does it not stretch credulity to suggest that that the “teamwork” supposedly producing such a stupendous output (teamwork vastly greater than we see in a Super Bowl champion team) is actually “unwitting,” since teamwork is in general something (indirectly or indirectly) the result of intentional purpose, and is not “unwitting”?
Two of the questions make it seem scientists are still scratching their heads about the appearance of complexity in nature, despite the pretentious noises to the contrary from many scientists. Physicist and computer scientist W. Daniel Hillis asks, “What is the principle that causes complex adaptive systems (life, organisms, minds, societies) to spontaneously emerge from the interaction of simpler elements (chemicals, cells, neurons, individual humans)?” Similarly, Nobel-prize-winning physicist John C. Mather asks, “What is the master principle governing the growth and evolution of complex systems?” These two don't sound like people persuaded that natural selection does much to explain such things; they're still wondering what “big principle” might explain complex things.

Physicist Leonard Susskind offers the surprisingly good question, Is there a design to the laws of physics, or are they the result of chance and the laws of large numbers?” The physicist Andrei Linde also offers the good question, “Where were the laws of physics written before the universe was born?”

But the great majority of questions in the Edge.org are pedestrian queries that aren't worth quoting here. An example is the question by Sam Harris: “Is the actual all that is possible?” That is a “lead you nowhere” kind of question. Thought-provoking philosopher Nick Bostrom disappoints us with the “lead you nowhere” question, “Which questions should we not ask and not try to answer?” Many of the authorities ask questions with a form “Will we be able to accomplish X?” (where X is some technological feat) or “What will happen when we accomplish X?” – a type of question that isn't particularly thought-provoking.

Let me suggest my own “Last Question,” hopefully fulfilling my suggestion that such a question should not be some “position statement” question but instead a question leading to thought or inquiry. My question would be: “Which 50 observations made by scientists or other reliable witnesses are most incompatible with the most popular assumptions and theories held by scientists, in what ways do such observations cast doubt on such assumptions and theories, and in what ways could such observations be used to help construct rival theories serving as alternatives to such assumptions and theories?” The posts here, here, here, and here (discussing fifty things science cannot explain) can be read (along with this post) to get some candidates for these 50 observations. The job of using such observations to help construct rival theories is a very complex one, but potentially a very fruitful line of activity. Fully answering my question would pretty much require a book-length response, but that would be a very interesting book to read. Little pieces of such a book can be found in past and future posts of this blog. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Turmoil of the Baffled Engram Theorists

A recent article in Science News was entitled “Somewhere in the Brain Is a Storage Device for Memories.” The article showed how little agreement there is about any theory of how a brain could store memory.

The authors state the following:

Somehow, memories get etched into cells, forming a physical trace that researchers call an “engram.” But the nature of these stable, specific imprints is a mystery.

The claim about engrams is not a statement of scientific fact, but a statement of weakly supported scientific dogma. There still exists no solid proof that any such thing as an engram exists in the human brain.

The article tells us this:

New insights haven’t yet revealed the identity of the physical basis of memory, though. Scientists are chasing a wide range of possibilities. Some ideas are backed by strong evidence; others are still just hunches.

That's pretty much right, except for the part that “some ideas are backed by strong evidence.” There is no theory of physical storage of memory that is backed by strong evidence. Statements such as “insights haven't yet revealed the identity of the physical basis of memory” and “scientists are chasing a wide range of possibilities” are actually indications that there is simply no solid proof for the claim that memories are stored in the brain.

The article says, “One of today’s most entrenched explanations puts engrams squarely within the synapses, connections where chemical and electrical messages move between nerve cells, or neurons.” But the article notes that there are “synapse skeptics” doubting such an explanation, and the article refers to some research challenging this doctrine that memories are stored in synapses. But the article neglects to tell us about what is by far the best reason for doubting this doctrine. It is the fact that human memories can last for 50 years, but synapses are not a suitable place to store memories lasting for years. As discussed here, the proteins that make up synapses are subject to very rapid turnover and replacement, and have an average lifetime of only a few weeks. Even the synapses themselves are subject to turnover, lasting less than a few years.

The article discusses some scientific studies involving optogenetics and memory, and treats the “high hype” press release claims about such studies way too credulously, acting as if such studies provide evidence of some type of cellular storage of memory. They do not do that, because of the reasons discussed here.

The article then quotes a heretical memory storage theory by David Glanzman:

The real engram, he suggests, is the folding pattern of DNA in cells’ nuclei. Changes to how tightly DNA is packed can govern how genes are deployed. Those changes, part of what’s known as the epigenetic code, can be made — and even transferred — by roving RNA molecules, Glanzman argues. He is quick to point out that his idea, memory transfer by RNA, is radical. “I don’t think you could find another card-carrying Ph.D. neuroscientist who believes that.”

Then the article discusses a theory that memories are stored using DNA methylation, and a very different theory that memories are stored in something called perineuronal nets. DNA methylation occurs when a very simple molecule becomes attached to part of a DNA molecule. Such a simple methyl molecule can act like a kind of flag that switches part of a gene on or off. The set of all of these methyl molecules attached to DNA is known as the DNA methylome.

The DNA methylome seems like a fairly stable thing, and so you don't have the “low stability” problem of very rapid protein molecule turnover that you have with the theory that memories are stored in synapses. But there are several reasons why it is not credible to maintain that human memories are being stored in such a DNA methylome.

The first reason is that we already know the function of this DNA methylome, that it is something other than storing memories. The methyl molecules that make up the methylome serve the purpose of genetic expression, a very different task than storing memories. If you were to maintain that the DNA methylome serves both of these purposes, it would be kind of like the Saturday Night Live comedic sketch that described a product like “Miracle Whip.” It went like this:

Wife: New Shimmer is a floor wax!
Husband: No, New Shimmer is a dessert topping!
Wife: It's a floor wax!
Husband: It's a dessert topping!
Wife: It's a floor wax, I'm telling you!
Husband: It's a dessert topping, you cow!
Spokesman: [ enters quickly ] Hey, hey, hey, calm down, you two. New Shimmer is both a floor wax and a dessert topping!

The second reason for doubting that memories are stored in the DNA methylome is that the DNA methylome couldn't be read with the speed needed for memory recall that is very fast. The DNA methylome consists of methyl molecules scattered across a DNA molecule. All evidence suggests that reading DNA is relatively slow. DNA transcription occurs at a rate of about 40 to 80 nucleotides per second, and there are billions of such nucleotides. But think of how fast people can recall memories. On the TV show Jeopardy we see people recalling very obscure memories in only a few seconds. When someone talks rapidly, he is retrieving language memories (such as the memory of what a particular word means) in a fraction of a second. That couldn't happen so fast if some relatively slow process of reading DNA was being used.

The third reason for doubting that memories are stored in the DNA methylome is that the methylome does not grow in size as learning occurs. As discussed here, the DNA methylome is larger (percentage-wise) in a newborn baby than in either a young adult or an old man.

The fourth reason for doubting that memories are stored in the DNA methylome is that methylation suppression experiments do not affect memory very dramatically. Scientists have ways of suppressing DNA methylation, and they have tested the effects of such suppression on learning and memory. A wikipedia.org article says that when DNA methylation is suppressed “recall of existing memories is impaired, but not the formation of new ones.” A scientific paper says that “inhibiting DNA methylation alters olfactory extinction but not acquisition learning.” Another scientific paper says that when DNA methylation was inhibited, “long-term memory strength itself was not affected.” These are not the type of very dramatic effects on learning and memory that one would expect from DNA methylation inhibition if memories were being stored in the methylome.

So since DNA methylation is no better a theory of memory storage than storage of memories in synapses, what is the “really believable” theory of how the brain stores memories? There isn't one. The very claim of the article's title (“Somewhere in the Brain Is a Storage Device for Memories") is itself very dubious (while also being an indication of the lack of a well-established theory). We do not know that brains are storing our long-term memories. The claim that they do is something that has been repeated 10,000 times, but never proven.

As discussed here, the brain seems to have none of the characteristics of physical systems capable of storing information for decades and allowing very rapid retrieval of information. We know from computer systems the kind of things such physical systems have, and the brain doesn't have such things (things such as read-write surfaces allowing permanent storage and very fast retrieval, and indexes and coordinate systems allowing the very rapid retrieval of a specific piece of information from an exact spot).

The term “memory” is perhaps too broad a term, used to describe a learning of body movements, memories of intellectual concepts, and episodic memories of experiences (sometimes called autobiographical memories). It is relatively easy to kind of account for a type of muscle “memory” or body movement “memory” by just imagining a kind of beefing up or strengthening of neurons that were accessed during body movements. But explaining how a brain might store autobiographical memories or conceptual memories seems vastly harder. It is possible that the brain only accounts for muscle memories or body movement memories; and any evidence for such a thing never establishes that a brain is storing autobiographical memories or conceptual memories.

In one of the papers cited by the Science News article, we are told “worms that regenerated from the tails (which lost the original brain) required significantly less training trials to learn ('saving' paradigm) compared to untrained animals.” That's a baffling result inconsistent with claims that memories are stored in brains. Karl Lashley spent many years removing parts of the brains of animals, trying to find some part of the brain that could be identified as the center of memory. He could find no such region. 

We can no more explain memory physically than we can explain consciousness by neurological activity. No one has presented any credible theory of how there could be any neural system that could map all of the types of things that people can remember into any type of molecule that could be used for memory storage. Such a thing would require a wealth of very sophisticated encoding schemes, and there is no evidence that such encoding schemes (which would be a miracle of design if they existed) actually exist.

Let us consider what goes on in a computer with some voice recognition software that stores vocal inputs you speak into a microphone, using a hard disk to write the results. There are three different conversion routines being used. First the sound is converted into a string of alphabetic characters such as d-o-g. Then those characters are converted into decimal numbers using the ASCII system. So that d-o-g is converted to the numbers 100-111-103. Then those decimal numbers are converted into binary numbers, for storage on a disk. 

It seems that a brain would need to be doing many such conversions instantaneously for memory to be written to the brain,  so that some words someone spoke were somehow stored by molecular changes in neurons. But how could that happen, when it seems unthinkable to imagine the idea of such a conversion routine in a brain? No such faculty has ever been discovered, and our minds are terrible at such conversions. Try speaking some words using the simple rule that each letter shall be converted to its ordinal position in the alphabet. That will go at a snail's pace. How could a brain have all these lighting-fast conversion routines when all evidence suggests that minds and brains can't do such work fast? If such lightning-fast conversion algorithms existed in the brain, these elaborate encoding schemes would be miracles of design that would make the problem of explaining human biology much worse.

Then there is the problem of explaining instantaneous memory retrieval, discussed here. I hear the name "John Kennedy" and I instantly recall an image of him and some facts such as the exact date of his death. But if that information was stored on some exact spot of the brain, how could I ever know where that exact spot was, to read that information instantly, when the brain has no coordinate system and no indexing by which some exact  neural location can be specified? A brain is like a vast post office with a million little boxes, and no identifying numbers on any of the boxes -- not an architecture allowing fast retrieval of specific information.

So be suspicious that your mental activity and memory is largely the result of something like a soul, rather than just the by product of neurons.

On page 249 of his book Living in a Mindful Universe, neurosurgeon Eben Alexander says, “The mechanism and location of long-term memory storage remains a complete mystery.” Alexander mentions a reason for doubting that any theory of the brain storage of memories will ever be proven. He states this: “The overall experience of neurosurgeons who have resected large regions of neocortex from every lobe of the brain in countless patients over the last century for myriad pathological conditions...without encountering patterns of broad swaths of memory loss in their patients, belies the notion of the general cortical storage of specific memories as false.” In a similar vein, we read here about how people who have half of their brains removed suffer relatively little loss of memory. How can that be if memories are stored in brains? Near-death experiences give us an additional reason for doubting the brain storage of memories, for in such episodes people often remember things that occurred when their brains were shut down and their hearts stopped.

Let us imagine a planet called Wesoria permanently covered with thick clouds. It might be that no one on such a planet had ever observed the sun providing warmth for the planet. Now, let's consider: how would scientists on this planet account for the warmth of a living organism? They would probably say that the warmth of a body comes purely from chemistry inside the body. But that would be wrong. The warmth of a body on this planet would mainly be coming from an unobserved external heat source – the sun no one on the planet had ever seen.

Scientists on our planet may be comparable to scientists on such a planet. On our planet there is the mystery: what gives rise to the consciousness and mental faculties that we have? Our scientists typically say: it comes purely from our brains. Such a conclusion may be as wrong as the “your body gives you all of your heat” conclusion of the scientists of Wesoria. Our consciousness may be coming from some mysterious external consciousness source, something as unknown and mysterious to us as the unseen sun would be to the scientists of Wesoria. Under such a scenario, it might not at all be true that our long-term memories are stored in our brains.

Postscript:  The 2017 paper here is entitled, "On the research of time past: the hunt for the substrate of memory."  It is a portrait of memory theorists in disarray, presenting no one theory about how memory might be stored in a brain, and instead suggesting seven or more possibilities, none of which is plausible. The paper is all over the map in its speculations, like someone shooting a gun in all different directions. Such theoretical incoherence has no more weight than someone listing 7 possible theories of where angels live. We are told, "Synaptic weight changes can now be excluded as a means of information storage." That shoots down the main theory that neuroscientists have been pushing for decades.  The paper then suggests speculation after speculation, without presenting any evidence for any of these speculations. 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Interplanetary Spy: A Science Fiction Story

It will surely hurt the ears of a fierce and brave warrior such as you to hear the tale of shame and defeat I will now tell. But the story must be told, so that my error will never be repeated.

I, like you, have been trained for only one thing since early childhood: to be a warrior whose deeds would fill all enemies with fear. When I was only a young child, I was brought to the barracks, to begin ten years of harsh military training. It was the hardest possible way to grow up: walking through half-burning woods, hunting killer beasts with spears, wrestling man-eating sea creatures with my bare hands, sleeping many nights on the outdoor rocks alone, and often being thrown into pits of snakes as punishment. By the time the training was finished, all the softness and weakness had been squeezed out of me. I was like a piece of molten steel that becomes forged into a strong sword by the hammer blows of a blacksmith. By the time I was grown, I was fully ready to serve our noble race in its epic wars.

I fought many years in the Unification Wars that helped make our planet Guzor united under a single government. Many times when I was in great danger I felt like fleeing my fellow soldiers. But I also remembered what I had been told as long as I can remember: that the only real glory belongs to the victor who faces the bloodiest battles without flinching. For my bravery I rose rapidly in the military ranks.

The years of peace following the Unification Wars were like some hell for me. There was no fighting to do, no more battles to win. But then I heard about the discovery of intelligent life in the planet Welora, the warmest planet in our solar system. I was told that this planet would be our noble race's next conquest. But before an invasion could be launched, more information needed to be gathered. Someone needed to act as a spy, to live among the people of Welora, and gather information useful for a military conquest.

I volunteered for this dangerous mission. I would travel to Welora in a ship too small to be noticed. I would land on the planet, and gather information, disguising myself as a member of the local population. 

I landed on the planet in a metal capsule that ejected a parachute. The capsule landed in a wooded area, far from any city. I tried to cover up the capsule as best I could with tree branches. Then I began a long walk to try to get to the nearest city. Our scientists had trained me to speak rather crudely the language of the Welora people. The scientists had found out about the language by intercepting radio signals from Welora.

When I reached the city, I took notice of the unusual sky. It seemed there was a huge flock of birds circling around above the city, something I would see many times again. I also noticed many strange types of small animals wandering about.

I stole some money to use to obtain lodging. Then I began to gather information about the Welora people. I found they were a sickening type of people: weak, soft and effeminate, the exact opposite of fierce soldierly people like you and me. I could see little difference between the males and the females of the Welora people. They both wore flowers in their hair, and dressed in extravagant clothing, clothing with lots of bright colors and decorative flourishes.

These Welora people always spoke with soft, gentle voices, treating even strangers like friends. There was no sign of any army. The people seemed to love pleasure and comfort. Their beds and chairs were all soft, with a pleasant smell. Not wishing to become anything like these weak, soft people, I never used the soft bed in my room, and slept only on the hard floor.

Studying their culture, I discovered that these people thought that males should act and dress like females, and females should act and dress like males. What a crazy notion! It will hurt the ears of a manly warrior like you to hear it spoken. Somehow these people thought conflict in their society was caused by differences between males and females, and that society would work better if the men and women acted and dressed the same.

Using the radio equipment I had brought with me, I transmitted my findings back to our planet. I said the planet Welora was ripe for conquest. I said that the Welora beings were a sickening people: soft, weak, and effeminate. I recommended that the invasion be launched as soon as possible. Then I waited for our invasion ship to arrive.

After a long delay, our spaceship arrived. We could have conquered the planet by threatening it with nuclear weapons, or landing robot machines. But that would be the way a woman conquers, not a way following our ancient manly warrior tradition! So our 2000 soldiers were landed near the main city of Welora, armed like traditional soldiers of our race, armed only with swords and shields.

We were met by a leader of Welora, who came only with unarmed people. There was no sign of resistance. Victory seemed certain. I addressed the leader.

You are a sickening type of people: kind, weak, soft and effeminate,” I said. “We are the strong and the fierce. The stronger will conquer! Surrender now, or feel our swords severing your heads.”

You are right – we are indeed kind, weak, soft, and girly-gentle,” said the Welora leader. “But our killer sky drones are no such thing.”

I looked up at the sky. I saw what looked like what I had very often seen above the city, what I thought was a strange huge flock of birds. But when this “flock” swooped down, it became clear it was no flock. It was a swarm of killer drones! The drones attacked our troops, using machine guns, lasers, and poison gas. Almost every one of our 2000 soldiers died in the attack. Only me and five injured soldiers made it back to our spaceship. On the journey back to our planet, the five injured soldiers all died from their wounds and injuries. I alone survived to tell the tale.

Filled with shame, I went to the Highest Council, and reported how the invasion had failed. They deliberated for two hours before announcing the horrible punishment I would receive for recommending the failed invasion.

No!” I said. “Condemn me instead to live 20 years hunting with my bare hands the huge fierce beasts of the Felsun forest, sleeping on rocks and dodging frequent forest fires!”

But the Highest Council said I must face the punishment they had ordered.

No!” I said. “Condemn me instead to a life of pulling teeth from the live jaws of the people-eating ocean creatures, selling their teeth as souvenirs!”

But the Highest Council said I must face the punishment they had ordered.

No!” I said. “Condemn me instead to serve 10 years as a target dummy, dodging the arrows of our warriors training in archery!”

But the Highest Council said I must face the punishment they had ordered. In a vast field, tombstones would be erected for every one of the 2000 soldiers who had died. I would be condemned to work the job of bringing flowers to these tombstones, with the requirement that I bring a new flower to each tombstone every week. You know the term they use for someone with such a job. Such a person is always called a “Flower Girl.” And that is the job I have been forced to serve for five long years: the lowly, womanly job of a “Flower Girl.”

But you may ask: why did I request you come see me today? I have heard you too despise the Highest Council. You are not alone in these thoughts. I know of twenty others who have grievances against the Highest Council. We plan on storming into one of its meetings with our swords drawn, in hopes of overthrowing the government, and establishing a council of soldiers as the new government. Can I interest you in joining our conspiracy?

Author's note: it is clear that the way-too-fierce narrator of this story has some serious attitude problems that are causing him difficulties. Do not act or think in such a way, but instead always be kind and peaceful.