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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

NASA's Flawed Plan to Search for Life on Mars

Last week the Daily Express had a headline, “NASA announcement shock: space agency closing in on finding alien life.” The paper quotes the agency as saying, “As we continue checking off items on the habitability list, we'll draw closer and closer to finding a world bearing recognizable signs of life.”

The headline and the statement are both bunk. NASA is not closing in on finding extraterrestrial life, and it is not getting “closer and closer” to finding a world with extraterrestrial life.

A fundamental truth about extraterrestrial life (one that NASA never tells us) is that the natural origin of life on another planet would require fantastically improbable arrangements of matter. You can get a rough analogy of the unlikelihood of this by imagining how improbable it would be if someone were to throw a large box of 1000 scrabble blocks on the ground, and the blocks were to accidentally spell out a very complex computer program.

In fact, such an analogy greatly underestimates the improbability of life accidentally appearing from mere chemicals. By all accounts the most primitive cell requires at least 100 functional proteins, most of which require more than a hundred amino acids arranged in just the right way. So a better analogy would be a dumpster of scrabble blocks dumped on the ground, with the totality of 10,000 tossed scrabble blocks forming into a single coherent computer program accomplishing some fantastically complex task. It is not at all true that if a single protein of the 100 or more required were to form by chance, that such a protein would stick around for a long time until the other required proteins originated. Protein molecules don't self-reproduce unless they are part of a living cell requiring 100 or more proteins. So you would need to have a fantastically improbable stroke of luck in which all or almost all of the minimum required proteins by chance originated at about the same time.

This is merely one mountainous difficulty for the origin of life. A separate but equally great mountainous difficulty is the need for a genetic code (a complex system of symbolic representations), the need for self-reproducing nucleic acids, and the need for homochirality, something with apparently less than one chance in a quintillion of occurring accidentally.

Using only chemical considerations, we can therefore compare the search for extraterrestrial life on any planet to buying a lottery ticket. But we would have to imagine a lottery with insanely bad odds, in which the chance of winning is much smaller than the chance of you winning a billion dollars in the Powerball lottery.

Given such a reality, is it correct for NASA to suggest that the more planets are searched for signs of extraterrestrial life, the “closer and closer” we get to finding it? No, it is not correct. You don't get “closer and closer” to getting a billion-dollar jackpot in the lottery by buying more tickets. If one is trying to design some new type of machine, and your designs get better and better, beginning to more closely resemble your desired design, then you could honesty say that you are getting “closer and closer” to your target. But you do not get “closer and closer” to reaching some incredibly improbable result by making additional searches that are each very unlikely to succeed. You don't get “closer and closer” to finding Bigfoot with each additional search of a forest patch, and you don't get “closer and closer” to finding extraterrestrial life with each new planet searched.

The latest baloney on this topic from NASA is only the latest of quite a few overconfident statements NASA experts have made on this topic. In 2015 Ellen Stofan (a chief scientist at NASA) predicted, “I think we are going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we're going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years.” There is no scientific basis for such optimism, and based on purely natural considerations it would be reasonable to predict no success will occur in the next 100 years.

Stofan tried to support her prediction by stating “we know where to look.” No, we absolutely do not know where to look. We would know where to look if we had some reason to believe that a particular extraterrestrial planet had a high chance of having life. We have no reason to believe that about any planet. A NASA scientist predicting that extraterrestrial life will soon be found on the basis of “we know where to look” (habitable planets) is about as convincing as a Loch Ness monster specialist claiming that the Loch Ness monster will soon be found because we know where to look (in the Loch Ness lake in Scotland).

The people who make such statements seem to be believers in a kind of Easy Abiogenesis tenet, which maintains (contrary to the relevant scientific facts) that life will naturally appear from non-life on any planet with suitable conditions. Such a belief is contradicted by the following:

  • The abundant biological reasons (previously discussed) for thinking that abiogenesis (a natural origin of life from non-life) would require a state of organization fantastically unlikely to naturally occur by chance on even 1 in a million planets.
  • The complete failure of scientists to reproduce abiogenesis in a lab, or even produce a single functional protein in a lab simulating early Earth conditions (a single one of the building blocks of life).
  • The complete failure of all attempts to search for extraterrestrial radio signals, which presumably would be abundant if it were true that abiogenesis was relatively easy.
  • The existence of only one genetic code in all of Earth's life, something we would not expect if abiogenesis was relatively easy, in which case life would have arisen multiple times on Earth, with each separate origin having a different genetic code.

NASA has a plan to look for signs that life once existed on Mars. It is a plan that is rather stupid. They plan to send in 2020 a new Mars rover that will dig into the Martian soil and retrieve samples. Will the samples then be analyzed in a way sufficient to prove living things or traces of life that once existed? Not really (see the postscript at the end of this post for a technical note on this). Will the samples be sent back to Earth for analysis by human scientists? No, the 2020 mission will have no such capability.

Instead, the not-very-brilliant plan is to simply gather soil and rock samples and just leave them on the ground as “caches” that might be retrieved by some future “Mars cache retrieval” mission, which might then return them to Earth for analysis by human scientists. There are no firm plans for such a retrieval mission, and no one knows how it might work.

Giving us an example of why you can't trust the journal Nature as a very reliable source of information, a Nature article has the title “The $2.4-billion plan to steal a rock from Mars,” and the headline “NASA is now building the rover that it hopes will bring back signs of life on the red planet.” But the article then states something very different:

Once it arrives, the rover will drive across the Martian surface and fill each tube with dirt, rock or air. Then it will seal the tubes, place them on the ground, and wait — for years, or possibly decades — for another spacecraft to retrieve them and fly them back to Earth.

This is how a NASA page describes this bizarre plan:

The mission takes the next step by not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself. The Mars 2020 rover introduces a drill that can collect core samples of the most promising rocks and soils and set them aside in a "cache" on the surface of Mars. A future mission could potentially return these samples to Earth. That would help scientists study the samples in laboratories with special room-sized equipment that would be too large to take to Mars.

This seems like a rather absurd way to spend money looking for extraterrestrial life. The Mars 2020 mission will cost billions, and some future mission that might retrieve these surface “caches” would cost billions more. The chance of actually finding evidence that life once existed on Mars would be very, very small, because of the reasons previously discussed. There would also be a high risk that the samples would never be returned, because no one has ever done anything like retrieving samples from another planet and returning them to Earth.

A manned mission to Mars could retrieve these “sample caches,” but why would the astronauts even go to the trouble of searching for them, when it would be much easier for them to just drill themselves to get a soil sample wherever they were?

The NASA Mars 2020 mission sounds poorly conceived compared to a European 2020 Mars rover mission that will drill for soil samples and actually analyze them for life. The European Space Agency site says, “The rover will collect samples and analyse them with next-generation instruments – a fully fledged automated laboratory on Mars.” (I discuss in the technical postscript of this post the key thing the ESA rover will have that the NASA rover won't.) 

One of the astrobiology scientists has the same unfounded optimism as the previously quoted NASA scientist, and stated that there's a “50-50” chance of finding life on Mars. Based on the actual difficulty of life appearing from chemicals under the best of conditions, we should instead assume the actual chance of success as very much less than 1 in a thousand.

Spending billions to search for life on Mars makes little sense as a way to spend astrobiology dollars. If you want to search for extraterrestrial life in a way that gives you “bang for the buck,” the most sensible strategy is to search for radio signals from other solar systems. For one tenth of the cost of an unmanned Mars mission, you can check not just one planet but 1000 planets, looking for radio signals.

In the very unlikely event that it succeeds, the best we would ever get from a Mars soil retrieval mission is evidence of microbes on Mars. That would be a relatively boring find that might hold the public's interest for no more than two weeks. A search for extraterrestrial radio signals, on the other hand, might actually produce photos of extraterrestrials and photos of extraterrestrial cities (visual data can be transmitted over radio using the right coding system). That would hold the public's interest permanently.

A scientist named Golombek claims that the NASA Mars 2020 rover is “our best chance of finding out if life evolved independently on another world and that life here is not just a lucky accident.” It is not any such thing. The best chance of finding out if life evolved independently on another world is to have a much less expensive mission that checks many planets looking for radio signals from civilizations.

A statement such as Golombek's reveals the ideological motivation of looking for life on Mars. It's all about scientists hoping to prove (against all indications) that Earth getting life was not a very lucky event. Our scientists are troubled by the idea that when life originated here, Earth seemingly got some specially lucky blessing, some miracle that seems providential; and they want to spend billions as a kind of analgesic to remove this discomfort (finding life on a planet like Mars with bad conditions might prove that the origin of life is rather automatic). The scientist who asks for billions to search for underground traces of Mars life to try to prove a far-fetched belief (the Easy Abiogenesis tenet that the origin of life on Earth wasn't very lucky or providential) is rather like some fundamentalist who asks for millions so he can search for underground wooden traces of Noah's Ark.  

Contrary to the overblown hype you may have read last summer (debunked here), scientists have not at all found the building blocks of life on Mars. The building blocks of life are proteins and nucleic acids, and no such things have been found on Mars.  And since no one has even found a single amino acid on Mars, it is not even true that the building blocks of the building blocks of life have been found there.  For this reason, a mission to look for life on Mars is rather like calling in a structural engineer to determine whether a habitable apartment building exists at some site when no one has even reported seeing bricks at that site. 

Postscript: Referring to the 2020 NASA Mars mission, the National Geographic has a story calling a scientist someone who designed "a device to look for signs of past life on Mars." The device in question is called PIXL, short for planetary instrument for X-ray lithography. But it is mainly an instrument for detecting elemental compositions, and does not seem capable of actually verifying that microbes once existed in the soil. You can't distinguish between non-biological organic compounds and traces of life merely by looking at elemental compositions.  The instrument's optical resolution of .1 millimeter (100 microns) isn't powerful enough to see something bacteria-sized, which would only be about .5 micron to 5 microns. What we would like to see in the technical documents related to this PIXL instrument is mention of some test in which the device was able to distinguish between sterile soil and soil that contained (or once contained)  bacteria.  I don't see that in the technical documents, although one of them refers to a too-easy test involving blueberries. 

But apparently the ESA rover scheduled for 2020 will have the ability to find a unique signature of life, for according to this page, their rover will be able to detect homochirality.  Homochirality is one of the little-discussed marvels of life -- the fact that virtually all amino acids in living things are left-handed, and virtually all sugars are right-handed (which is not at all what we see when such things are synthesized in labs).  Checking for homochirality is a great way to search for life, but the very requirement of homochirality (an incredibly improbable thing for you to get by chance) is an additional reason for thinking Mars won't have accidentally spawned life.  Why isn't the NASA 2020 Mars rover also looking for homochirality? 

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Fake News Academia-Style

One of the big problems in the culture of modern science is that web sites very often give us hype-filled stories that do not accurately state the findings of new scientific research. The problem is not at all limited to popular web sites. A large part of the problem is university press offices, which nowadays are shameless in exaggerating the importance of research done at their university. The authors of such press releases know the more some scientific research done at their institution is hyped, the more glory and attendees will flow to their university.

A scientific paper reached the following conclusions, indicating a huge hype and exaggeration crisis both among the authors of scientific papers and the media that reports on such papers:

Thirty-four percent of academic studies and 48% of media articles used language that reviewers considered too strong for their strength of causal inference....Fifty-eight percent of media articles were found to have inaccurately reported the question, results, intervention, or population of the academic study.

At this link you can find analysis of recent misleading press releases on health research, many of them issued by major organizations such as universities and hospitals. Here are some of the article titles from the past several months, each corresponding to a faulty scientific press release:

  • Claim that milk protein alleviates chemotherapy side effects based on study of just 12 people
  • University PR misleads with claim that preliminary blood test detects early pancreatic cancer
  • Supposed ‘breakthrough’ for detecting gut disorders tested in only 12 healthy people
  • Announcement oversells blood test for predicting treatment outcomes in prostate cancer
  • No, an asthma drug tested in mice does not bring 'new hope' to Alzheimer's patients, at least not yet
  • University touts new device to protect women from HIV, buries fact it was only tested in rabbits
  • Daily ibuprofen can prevent Alzheimer’s disease’ and other unproven claims by Canadian neuroscientist

But in none of these cases do we have a press release as faulty as a particular press release issued by Johns Hopkins University, a press release that very much misled the reader about an important scientific study. The study was one led by Richard Huganir to look for long-lived proteins in synapses. There is a reason why such a study was of considerable philosophical interest.

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

The Huganir study was one specifically looking for long-lived proteins in synapses. If lots of long-lived proteins could be found in synapses, with lifetimes of many years, then it might be that the main theory of a brain storage of memories (the synapse memory doctrine) is not so unbelievable as it once seemed. But if few or no brain proteins were found with very long lifetimes, it would bolster the case that brains are not up to the job of storing human memories that can last for 50 years.

Now, judging from the press release about this study that was released by Johns Hopkins University, you would think that the study was a great success. The press release was entitled “In Mice, Long-Lasting Brain Proteins Offer Clues to How Memories Last a Lifetime.” Talking about two proteins in the body that last for years (crystallin in eyes and collagen in connective tissue), the press release states the following, ending with a quote from Richard Huganir, the leader of the study:

His team also knew of long-lasting proteins such as crystallin, which makes up the lens of the eye, and collagen, found in connective tissue. Proteins within nuclear pores, the transport tunnels in and out of a cell’s nucleus, and histones, a kind of “spool” that DNA winds around, also are very stable. “So, we reasoned, there must be proteins in those synapses that are long-lasting, too, and we believe we have found a lot of them.”

The problem is that this statement does not at all match what is in the actual scientific paper, which found no such thing. Quite to the contrary, the paper found the following:
  • Studying thousands of brain proteins, the study found that virtually all proteins in brains are very short-lived, with half-lives of less than a week.
  • Table 2 of the paper gives specific half-life estimates for the most long-lasting brain proteins, and in this table only 10 out of thousands of brain proteins had half-lives of 10 days or longer.
  • Of the proteins whose half-life is estimated in Table 2, only one of them has a half-life of longer than 30 days, that protein having a half-life of only 32 days.
  • A graph in the paper indicates that none of the synapse proteins had a half-life of more than 35 days.

Below is a graph from the Huganir paper. It shows that the study found that virtually all proteins in synapses are very short-lived.

Below is another graph from the same paper. It shows that the study found that virtually all proteins in synapses are very short-lived.

Judging from these graphs, none of the proteins found had a half-life of longer than 35 days, and only a few had a half-life of more than 14 days.

Given these results, it is extremely misleading for Huganir to be saying in the press release that he found “a lot” of “long-lasting” proteins in synapses. He found no such thing, and did not even find a single protein with an average lifetime of years.

So far from offering “clues to how memories last a lifetime,” as the misleading Johns Hopkins press release states, this study gives us all the more reason for thinking that memories would not even last a year if they were stored in our synapses as our neuroscientists maintain. An accurate title for the press release would have been “Study Indicates Synapses Cannot Store Memories for Longer Than a Month.”


The results in the Huganir paper are consistent with the results from this 2018 paper by German scientists that studied a similar topic. The paper starts out by noting that one earlier 2010 study found that the average half-life of brain proteins was about 9 days, and that a 2013 study found that the average half-life of brain proteins was about 5 days. The study then notes in Figure 3 that the average half-life of a synapse protein is only about 5 days, and that all of the main types of brain proteins (such as those in the nucleus, mitochondrion, etc.) have half-lives of less than 20 days. 
The 2018 study here precisely measured the lifetimes of more than 3000 brain proteins from all over the brain, and found not a single one with a lifetime of more than 75 days (figure 2 shows the average protein lifetime was only 11 days). 

In this paper by German scientists, tubulin proteins are the only type of brain proteins identified as having a half-life of longer than 14 days. Tubulin proteins are used in tube-shaped microtubules. But there's no chance that such microtubules could be a stable storage site for memory, because microtubules are known to be very short-lived. A scientific paper tells us how short-lived these microtubules are:

Neurons possess more stable microtubules compared to other cell types (Okabe and Hirokawa, 1988; Seitz-Tutter et al., 1988; Stepanova et al., 2003). These stable microtubules have half-lives of several hours and co-exist with dynamic microtubules with half-lives of several minutes.

The Johns Hopkins press release misleadingly suggested that there were some proteins in synapses that could account for memories that lasted for decades, something completely contrary to the actual data in the paper it was discussing, and also entirely contrary to the data in the other paper I have cited above. This reminds us of a type of bogus language use that has been going on among neuroscientists for decades.  For decades neuroscientists have been trying to suggest that an effect misleadingly called long-term potentiation might account for human memory. But the term long-term potentiation is a great misnomer. The effect is actually a short-term effect that almost always disappears within a few weeks, and has never been observed to last for years. Neuroscientists have known from the time of its discovery that so-called long-term potentiation is really a very short-lived effect. So why do they keep using this deceptive term “long-term potentiation”?

In this case of the Hopkins press release, personnel at a university are to blame for bad science reporting. That is very often how it is. An article entitled, “How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting” refers to a study that found that about one third of science press releases contain exaggerated causal claims. The article states the following:

But a recent study suggests that journalists aren't the weakest link. The source of misrepresentations and exaggerations in science news stories is often much closer to the scientists themselves: press releases put out by researchers' own institutions. Surveying hundreds of news stories and press releases about medical research, a group of scientists at Cardiff University found that most exaggerations and misrepresentations of science in print news "did not occur de novo in the media but was already present in the text of the press releases produced by academics and their establishments." …. When a press release had no exaggerations or misleading claims, relatively few—less than 20 percent—of the related news stories carried misleading claims. But when a press release did include an exaggerated or misleading claim, the majority of the associated news stories also featured exaggerations and misleading claims....More than a third of the press releases examined contained misleading statements or exaggerations, so the bad influence of academic institutions on science reporting is very likely substantial.

Who should we blame for all this exaggeration and misinformation coming from college and university press offices? You might want to blame it on lowly press office staff members, but remember that any careful scientist will review the press release describing any study he led.  

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

An Absurd Proposal Reminds Us of the Limits of Science

At the “Science-Based Medicine” web site there is currently an essay advocating one of the most absurd proposals I have ever heard. Entitled “A right to science,” the essay advocates that there should be a new amendment to the United States constitution, one that reads, “Neither Congress nor any State shall make or enforce any law unless it is based on the best available science.” The author, a lawyer, notes “I cannot find a single mention of any such proposal in the legal literature.” I can think of a reason why no one has ever previously proposed such an amendment. It is that if such an amendment were enacted, we could no longer enforce laws against murder, theft, fraud, or kidnapping.

Science tells us about physical realities, and it can tell us some things about human behavior and human thinking. But science tells us nothing at all about value, morality, or right or wrong. There is no scientific evidence that murder is wrong. The judgment that murder is wrong is one that humans reach because we have a conscience. So if we could no longer enforce any law “unless it is based on the best available science,” we would have to stop enforcing laws against murder. We would also have to stop enforcing laws against theft. There has never been a single shred of scientific evidence showing that it is wrong to steal from someone else.

You could try to argue against the opposite by arguing for some principle that whatever produces sadness or pain is wrong, and that science can show that certain actions tend to produce suffering. But the principle that whatever produces sadness or pain is wrong is a debatable philosophical principle, not a scientific principle. And such a principle doesn't even work as an ethical principle, as it would prevent us from paying our income taxes (a source of sadness), and prevent us from forcing students to study hard subjects like physics (a source of pain).

Science cannot prove the morality or rectitude of anything. Scientific evidence can prove that some particular person killed someone. But science is absolutely mute about what should be done as a consequence of such an event. Science has nothing to say about whether it is better to hang murderers or to give them a second chance and let them go free.

If all laws had to be based on scientific evidence, we would have to repeal any law gathering taxes to help pay for a military to defend the country against foreign threats. Science tells us nothing about whether it is better for an American flag, a Chinese flag or a Russian flag to be the main flag flying over United States soil.

Here are some of the things that science can measure: mass, charge, weight, speed, momentum, heat and position. Here are some of the things that science cannot measure: value, justice, rightness and morality.

There were many scientists involved in the building of the first atomic bomb. But not one of them protested to his superiors that such a weapon should never be used. They could not see in their physics equations or data anything suggesting it would be wrong to incinerate 100,000 people. Scientists later developed hydrogen bombs that helped put mankind on the brink of destruction. The hydrogen bomb scientists did not let moral considerations stop their work, seeing nothing in their equations suggesting it would be wrong to create a bomb that might kill 10 million people at a time. Warning of the risks of gene splicing, a recent scientific paper stated, “Given the pace of biotechnology’s progress, the irresistible pressure to continue that progress for universally-desired medical purposes, the dual-use potential of the technology, and its potential worldwide reach, many humans could soon have the capacity to end Earth’s technical civilization.” But the paper's warning has attracted little attention, and today's scientists show unbridled enthusiasm for gene-splicing. Why should we be surprised by such things, given that there is scarcely a moral statement to be found in the average textbook on physics, chemistry and biology?

Their equations didn't tell them it was wrong to invent H-bombs

Science tells us that our planet is getting warmer, and that this is mainly because of man-made activity. But science tells us nothing about whether we should inconvenience ourselves to help limit global warming. Should we build smaller cars with less legroom to try to help save thousands of little-known animal species from extinction? Science is mute on this, and almost all other moral questions.

Morality is something that does not come from science, and moral sentiments are something that cannot be well-explained by science. The science of sociology can explain why certain group taboos can arise that may include things that are forbidden largely as the result of custom. But science cannot explain the basic fact of human conscience. Why is a person troubled if he does some bad act causing pain, injury or death for another, even if he thinks there is no chance he will be punished? Science cannot explain this. The idea that it comes from our genes or DNA is nonsense, as are all claims that attempt to genetically explain unique human mental characteristics. Genes merely specify the linear polypeptide sequences in proteins, and cannot possibly express behavior rules or subtle mental feelings.

It is reasonable to assume that the moral light that shines within us comes us from our souls, the very existence of which many a scientist would deny.  Scientific facts can be morally relevant, but what is right and what is wrong is never or almost never something that can  be scientifically determined.

Friday, October 19, 2018

It's Many Times Harder Than Just a “Hard Problem of Consciousness”

There are many discussions that talk about a problem of consciousness or a “hard problem of consciousness,” and such discussions tend to make the same mistake. The mistake is in trying to shrink the gigantic problem of explaining human mentality into a relatively tiny problem of explaining consciousness.

The visual below may help show what I mean. We see in the grid various diverse aspects of human mentality. The great big problem is how man got all these diverse mental aspects and capabilities. As shown in the grid, consciousness is merely a tiny part of human mentality.

aspects of human mentality

Reductionist theorists love it when people do not raise the big problem of explaining human mentality but instead raise a much tinier problem of the problem of consciousness. Then such theorists can attempt to offer some little neural explanation and then say, “You see, the brain can explain consciousness.” Whenever such theorists attempt to do that, we should always point out that the problem of explaining human mentality is many times larger and harder than a mere problem of consciousness.

As it happens, our neuroscientists cannot even explain mere consciousness, which is a only a small part of human mentality. Scientific American recently published a fallacious explanation for consciousness that commits the fallacy of mistaking things that come after consciousness as things that cause it. The article had the smug title “Unlocking the 'Mystery' of Consciousness.”

The authors quickly show their confusion on the topic of consciousness by stating in their second paragraph, “We study primary consciousness, the most basic type of sensory experience.” Consciousness is not a type of sensory experience. Sensory experience is instead something that may or may not occur during consciousness. If you are floating in a sensory deprivation tank, you continue to have consciousness, but do not have any significant sensory experience. 

The authors give the following ass-backward “horse in front of the cart” explanation for consciousness:

The special neurobiological features that we identified include an explosion of senses (eyes, good hearing, keen smell), a multitude of new neural processing subsystems, more combining of information from the different senses, more levels of information processing at the top of the brain, more back-and-forth communications between brain levels, and more memory. From these neural features arise consciousness in a way comparable to how the complex property of life naturally arises from the interactions of its chemical and cellular components.

In a nutshell, what the authors are claiming is that things like thinking, sensory experience and memory give rise to consciousness. This claim is clearly erroneous. Instead, consciousness is something that is necessary for thinking, sensory experience and memory. The authors have committed the elementary fallacy of confusing a possible after-effect of something with a cause of that thing. If a mind has consciousness, then it can have sensory experience. If a mind has consciousness, then it can do thinking or information processing. If a mind has consciousness, it can form a memory. But if a mind does not have consciousness, it cannot have sensory experience, cannot do thinking or information processing, and cannot form a memory. It is not at all correct to claim that consciousness is something that arises from sensory experience, memory, thinking or information processing, any more than it is correct to say that a parent arises from its daughter.

Imagine yourself awaking from a coma in a hospital bed. Your eyes closed and your senses dulled by drugs, you may have no sensory experience when you awake. Feeling sleepy, you may be thinking of nothing at all. And you may be remembering nothing. But it is nonetheless true that you have consciousness at that moment when you awake. Many times when you awake from a deep sleep, and lie in bed with your eyes closed, you have pretty much the same situation: consciousness without sensory experience, thinking or use of memory.

The paragraph I quoted above from the Scientific American essay ends with the sentence, “From these neural features arise consciousness in a way comparable to how the complex property of life naturally arises from the interactions of its chemical and cellular components.” This is a nonsensical comparison for several reasons. Life is not a property, a property being a simple aspect of something such as height, weight, length, or width. Oversimplifying biological life, and ignoring its countless functional aspects, we can say that life is an incredibly complicated state of physical organization. Such a vastly complex state of physical organization cannot be compared to consciousness or human mentality, which is a non-physical, mental reality that does not have any physical organization. And life does not arise from cellular components, but cellular components are things that exist after life has already originated. It is not true that we get life after some cells interact, as life already exists when you have those cells.

After discussing some not-very-relevant research of theirs that merely suggests that some organisms other than humans can create mental images and have positive and negative feelings (hardly a surprise), the authors state the following:

The important point is that these features are unique to conscious brains and indeed unique in all of nature. Therefore, it is not surprising or mysterious that something unique in nature—like feelings—could emerge from their unique neurobiology.

But we do not at all know that the features of human mentality are “unique to conscious brains,” and such an idea is merely an assumption of neuroscientists. In near-death experiences human minds have strong thoughts and feelings even when their brains have shut down after cardiac arrest. So it is not true that features such as feelings are unique to conscious brains.

As for the author's reasoning about what is surprising or mysterious, it is fallacious. Imagine if there was a song that was only sung by one type of thing: a tree. Imagine there was some forest where a row of twelve trees all sung that song. It would be fallacious to reason that it was not surprising or mysterious that the trees could sing the song, because trees were the only thing that had been observed singing the song. Just as we do not have any idea of how trees could sing a song, we do not have any real idea of how a brain could produce most of the aspects of human mentality, such as consciousness, self-awareness, creative thoughts or abstract ideas. We do not to any degree make this wonder any less surprising or mysterious by claiming that only beings with brains have been observed to have consciousness, self-awareness, or abstract ideas.

The rest of the essay adds nothing of substance to the author's case. In their last paragraph, they state, “We conclude that the 'mystery' of consciousness and Levine’s 'explanatory gap' and the 'hard problem' can be naturally and scientifically explained.” But they have given no such explanation. Confusing after-effects of something with a cause of something, the authors have vacantly listed sensory experience, thinking and memory as things that give rise to consciousness, when such things are instead things that cannot occur until consciousness already exists.

Philosophers of mind (and any scientist claiming to explain the mind) should stop talking about “the hard problem of consciousness,” and should instead be talking about “the hard problem of human mentality.” This is the problem of explaining the main features of human mental experience, and also the most anomalous features of human mental experience. The hard problem of human mentality involves questions such as the following:

  1. How are humans able to form abstract ideas, a capability that seems beyond anything that neurons could do?
  2. Why do humans display empathy, compassion and guilt, things that have no clear survival value for an individual organism?
  3. How are humans able to instantly form memories, much faster than can be explained by imagining that synapses are strengthened by protein formation (which takes minutes)?
  4. How are humans able to remember things for 50 years, which is 1000 times longer than the average lifetime of the proteins in synapses?
  5. Why do humans who have their brains shut down during cardiac arrest continue to have extremely vivid near-death experiences that they can remember very well?
  6. Why do humans have so many traits (such as artistic creativity, spirituality and intellectual curiosity) that can never be explained on some natural selection basis?
  7. How are humans able to instantly recall very old memories despite the lack of any known physical characteristic in the brain (such as indexing, neuron numbering, or a neuron coordinate system) that would allow the brain to perform the “instantly finding the needle in a mountain-sized haystack” operation needed to instantly find an obscure memory?
  8. Why do humans even have a sense of selfhood, something not necessary for biological survival?
  9. Why are savants so often able to have astonishing mental skills far beyond those of ordinary people, even though such savants often have major brain damage?
  10. How is that people with hyperthymesia (and brains not significantly different from ordinary people) are able to remember in great detail what happened to them every day since reaching adulthood?
  11. Why do five percent of the population (gay people) have a sexual drive completely different from what we would expect from Darwinian assumptions?
  12. Why do epilepsy patients who have half of their brains removed (to stop seizures) show little damage to intelligence and memory?
  13. Why do some humans show psychic abilities such as ESP in careful scientific experiments, thereby showing capabilities completely inexplicable in terms of brain activity?
  14. How could a human ever be able to memorize vast amounts of words (such as 10 major operatic roles), when the words use a language that is less than a thousand years old, which human biology (having only very old genes) should never be to store as neural states?
  15. How could a French civil servant (and the patients Lorber documented) have had either fairly good or above-average minds when almost of all their brains were destroyed by diseases such as hydroencephaly?
  16. How were humans (alone of all species) ever able to develop language, when it seems that you could never establish a language among a group unless you had an existing language to enforce the conventions of that language?
  17. How are toddlers able to learn a language at a rate vastly faster than we should expect from their mere exposure to their parents speaking?
  18. How could a brain store memories, when it seems to have neither a mechanism for writing memories, nor a mechanism for reading memories?

Once we consider such questions, the “mystery of mind” (that our Scientific American authors have clumsily tried to sweep under the rug) comes back a thousandfold.

Monday, October 15, 2018

For Widows and Widowers, the Paranormal Is Rather Normal

Our materialist skeptics frequently try to suggest that people who report paranormal experiences are some kind of rare freaks. Such insinuations are contrary to actual experience, in which we find that reports of paranormal phenomena are very common. Those who wish to get a better understanding of just how common are human reports of the paranormal should go to a public library and look for a good handbook of parapsychology, or the three-volume Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. You can actually read this excellent publication online by using this link, this link and this link. (These links worked fine last week, although there is now a message saying the link is offline until November.)  Other sources of information include the very recent Psi Encyclopedia of the SPR (available here), and the much older 1932 Encyclopedia of Psychic Science by Nandor Fodor available here

You will read in the Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained countless cases of paranormal human experience. Polls indicate that large fractions of the population report direct experience with the paranormal. A scientific paper refers to a 2006 poll finding 52% of men and 56% of women saying they had waking ESP experiences.  A 2015 Pew Research poll found that 18% of Americans said they've seen or been in the presence of a ghost, and that 29% said that they've felt in touch with someone who died. 

Among widows and widowers the percentage is even higher. A recent meta-analysis compared several studies on widows and widowers who reported seeing or hearing their departed spouses, or having a sense of their presence. The meta-analysis found that 56% of widows and widowers had such experiences.

In the meta-analysis I previously mentioned such experiences are referred to as hallucinations. This is an appallingly subjective and judgmental term that should not be used in objective scientific literature, unless a paper is dealing with people under psychiatric treatment for mental illnesses. A more appropriate term would be an objective non-judgmental term such as “anomalous experience.” There is no evidence that any pathology is involved when widows or widowers report seeing, hearing, or having a presence of a departed love one. Modern day scientists who attempt to portray paranormal experiences as pathology are comparable to 1950's psychiatrists who attempted to portray homosexuality as pathology, and psychiatrists in the Soviet Union who attempted to categorize political dissidents as people suffering from “sluggish schizophrenia.”


Those who discuss the high number of anomalous sensory experiences of widows and widowers will often insinuate that such experiences are some kind of coping mechanism in which the brain generates hallucinations to ease stress or sadness. But other than people who report seeing or hearing deceased loved ones, there is essentially zero evidence that humans ever have anything like hallucinations to make themselves feel better in times of stress or sadness. Let us consider these facts:

  1. As shown on the TV show American Greed, there are very many people who have been swindled out of their life savings, losing decades of their savings. But none of these people ever had a “comforting hallucination” in which they saw something like a stack of cash on their dining room table to make themselves feel better.
  2. We have many historical experiences of people who put their hearts and souls into a war, only to be bitterly disappointed when their country lost the war, and was occupied by a foreign power. There are no cases of any such people having a “comforting hallucination” in which they learned that it was a mistake, and their side really won the war.
  3. Many people have the greatest emotional involvement in a romance, only to have their fondest dream crushed when they are dumped by their loved one, or have their marriage proposal rejected. None of these people have ever had a comforting hallucination in which they saw or heard their loved one say something like, “I've changed my mind; let's stay together.”
  4. There are many people who learn they have cancer, and begin to suffer from it. None of them have “comforting hallucinations” in which they see a doctor telling them their cancer has been cured.

So since sad and depressed and grief-stricken people other than widows and widowers do not have hallucinations to make them feel better, it is implausible to be evoking the concept of “comforting hallucinations” to explain the anomalous experiences of widows and widowers.

Scientific papers and scientific literature often make unnecessary use of terms that draw unnecessary and inappropriate conclusions about the source or nature of a phenomenon. In the second and third rows of the table below we see two examples of such inappropriate language, along with a similar example of poor phrasing that an ordinary observer might make.

Statement Problem with statement Better way to make statement
I first started seeing the extraterrestrial spaceship when I noticed a bright blue light in the sky. The extraterrestrial spaceship moved quickly across the sky, until it vanished from view.”
We do not know that unidentified lights in the sky are extraterrestrial spaceships, so why use such a phrase in describing them?
I first started seeing the sky anomaly when I noticed a bright blue light in the sky. The sky anomaly moved quickly across the sky, until it vanished from view.”
When your brain considers two different choices, your brain sometimes hesitates because it does not see an obviously superior choice. But usually your brain chooses one of these options fairly quickly, even though it may not be able to explain the exact reason.”
We do not know that brains produce thoughts or decisions, and no one has any idea of how neurons could produce a thought or make a decision.
When you consider two different choices, you sometimes hesitate because you do not see an obviously superior choice. But usually you choose one of these options fairly quickly, even though you may not be able to explain the exact reason.”
A large percentage of widows and widowers have hallucinations in which they report seeing, hearing or sensing their deceased spouse.
We do not know that such reports are hallucinations, and they may result from causal factors outside of the mind of the observer.
A large percentage of widows and widowers have anomalous experiences in which they report seeing, hearing or sensing their deceased spouse.

In table 8 of the study here, there is a list of various studies done involving anomalous experiences. For example, in Arcangel's study of 827 people, 64% responded affirmatively to the question, “Have you experienced an encounter after the death of a loved one?”

In addition to a large fraction or majority of widows and widowers reporting seeing, hearing or sensing a deceased person, there are also very many others who report baffling hard-to-explain occurrences that they suspect could be caused by some spiritual presence. Most of these cases are not picked up by the type of questions typically asked by the surveys listed in that table.

For this reason I strongly suspect that the actual number of widows and widowers who have paranormal experiences is much higher than the 56% cited in the meta-analysis I referred to. Another reason for this suspicion is the strong likelihood of under-reporting on this topic. Our society often stigmatizes anyone who reports a paranormal experience. Report a paranormal experience, and there will always be some people who will ridicule you or say or think that you have lost your mind. Given this appalling stigmatization effect, we should imagine that the actual number of people having a paranormal experience is far greater than the number who report the experience in surveys, and that a large fraction of those who have the experience will never report it for fear of being ridiculed or accused of a mental problem.

One could summarize the situation by saying that for widows and widowers, the paranormal is rather normal.

It is interesting that Haraldsson found that college education did not seem to cause any decline in the reporting of paranormal experiences.  In a paper he compared a 1974 poll in Iceland showing 59% of men and 71% of women reporting some psychic experience to a 2006 poll showing 70% of men reporting psychic experience and 81% of women reporting such a thing.  Between 1974 and 2006 the number of college-educated people in Iceland had increased from 6% to 36%. 

Postscript: A recent Groupon survey of 2000 people found that more than 60% claim to have seen a ghost. 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Flaws in Gould's “New Understanding” of Life

The book “Universe in Creation” by Roy R. Gould has the pretentious subtitle “A New Understanding of the Big Bang and the Emergence of Life.” Given the incredibly mysterious nature of both of these things, it would seem that no one has any business claiming to have an understanding of them, and a more modest subtitle might have been “A New Outlook on the Big Bang and the Emergence of Life.”

Gould states on page 70, “The Big Bang is not a theory or a hypothesis or guess” on the grounds that it “is a conclusion supported by many lines of evidence.” This is not correct; the Big Bang theory is indeed a theory. According to the Big Bang theory itself, it will forever be impossible for us to observe the first 300,000 years of the universe's history, because matter and energy were concentrated so densely during those years that all light from the first 300,000 years must have been hopelessly scattered. Not only is the Big Bang a theory, but according to the theory itself the theory will forever be unverifiable, because we cannot observe anything in the first 300,000 years of the universe's history. Instead of “many lines of evidence” supporting the Big Bang theory, there are basically only two: the existence of the cosmic background radiation, and the red-shift of galaxies, indicating the universe is expanding.

It is conceivable but unlikely that we might one day find alternate explanations of these two things, and if that were to happen, there would no longer be any reason for believing in the Big Bang. A major current problem with the Big Bang theory is that it does not correctly predict the current distribution of matter and antimatter. The Big Bang theory predicts that the universe should have equal amounts of matter and antimatter (or nothing but pure energy), and this is not at all the case. You can do a Google search for "baryon asymmetry" to read more on this topic. Another major problem with the Big Bang theory is that it does not correctly predict the amount of lithium in our universe. An article yesterday at phys.org says, “The standard models of the Big Bang predict an abundance of Li7, the main lithium isotope, three or four times more than that actually observed.”

There doesn't seem to be anything particularly new in Gould's “new understanding” of the Big Bang. The dust jacket of the book says that the book will expound the idea that “the cosmos expands inward, not outward,” but such an idea is barely mentioned in the text. It seems to have something to do with the idea that the universe is not expanding into empty space, but such a point has already been made many times, so it's hardly new.

As for the emergence of life, Gould advances the idea that life was kind of foreordained by the universe's laws. There is nothing new about this claim, it being a piece of wishful thinking that has been long pushed by those trying to make it look like the origin of life was a not-too-impressive event or a sure thing. Speaking of his 245-page book, he says on page 144, “The remainder of this book presents the chief lines of evidence that life really is written into the universe's building plan.” Based on chapter 15 of the book (discussed below), I conclude that when Gould speaks of the universe's “design” or the “universe's building plan,” he seems to be speaking merely of the universe's physics and physical characteristics. The idea that life was foreordained by the universe's laws and physics is not a correct one, based on the universe's laws as we currently understand them. To clarify the matter, we must distinguish between necessary conditions and sufficient conditions.

A necessary condition is something that must occur first for something else to occur. A sufficient condition is something that will guarantee that something will occur. For example, water and light are necessary conditions for plant growth, but not a sufficient condition. If we launch into space a sterile globe of water, that globe will have two necessary conditions for plant growth (water and light), but no plant growth will occur.

In regard to the appearance of life, the universe's physics and physical characteristics include many necessary conditions for the appearance of life. There are, for example, quite a few conditions that have to be just right for stable atoms to exist, for planets to exist, and for lots of carbon and oxygen and water to exist. But none of these things are anything like sufficient conditions for life to appear. We know of nothing in the universe's physics or laws that is a sufficient condition for life to appear. Given a planet with suitable temperatures in which there is a mixture of both land and water, we know of no reason at all why there should ever occur the “organization explosion” required for life to form. The origin of life seems to require a fantastically improbable arrangement of matter. Based on what we currently know, such an arrangement should be fantastically improbable, even given billions of years and billions of planets for random combinations of matter to occur.

Based on what we now know about the universe's physics, it seems false to make statements implying that life was foreordained by the universe's physics. It could conceivably be that there are dramatic undiscovered laws of nature that make the appearance of life probable, but we have not discovered any such laws yet. On page 150 Gould states, “The extreme stability of life's infrastructure suggests that, far from being an 'accident,' life is a necessary part of the universe.” This statement makes no more sense than claiming that the extreme stability of your house in the woods suggests that the house was a necessary part of the woods.

On page 179 to page 180 Gould tells us about an experiment done by Jack Szostak at Harvard. Gould claims that Szostak “generated one trillion different protein molecules,” and found a handful of them were capable of binding to the molecule ATP, a molecule that provides energy in the body. Gould says, “These experiments provide further evidence that life can arise naturally from the universe's initial conditions.” There are two errors here. The first is that the “universe's initial conditions” were the incredible density and heat of the Big Bang, which were, of course, totally inhospitable to life. Even if we amend Gould's statement to be simply “these experiments provide further evidence that life can arise naturally,” it is not a correct statement.

The Szostak experiment Gould describes actually states that it started out with a random generated library of 4 X 1014 sequences, which is 400 trillion. This library was then whittled this down to a library of 6 trillion. The “ATP binding” functionality in question (found in four of the random molecules) was not something terribly complicated. According to the Szostak paper, it involved merely “a core domain of 45 amino acids sufficient for ATP binding.” By comparison, the median number of amino acids in a human protein is about 400, and the median number of amino acids in a yeast protein is about 400. Getting by chance a functional arrangement of 400 amino acids is very many times more difficult than merely getting an ATP binding functionality. The functionality described in the Szostak paper was found in only about 1 in a hundred trillion random molecules, about 1 in 1014.

Why is such an experiment not at all “evidence that life can arise naturally” as Gould claims? In order for a living thing to arise from chemicals, you would need (among other things) many functional proteins, more than 100 of them. You would need these to appear more-or-less simultaneously, to produce a cell capable of self-reproduction. It would not at all be a case that if you got only one of these incredibly unlikely “long shots” producing a protein, that such a protein would stay around until you got the next one many years later. Instead, you would have to get about 100 of these incredibly unlikely long shots occurring at about the same time in the same little space, so that a single cell had everything needed for self-reproduction. We can roughly calculate the odds of that, using a figure suggested by the Szostak paper of a 1 in 1014 figure for the chance of one of the proteins being functional (although the chance of each functional protein appearing by chance would almost certainly be some vastly smaller probability such as 1 in 1025 or 1 in 1050). It's something like 1 in 1014 to the hundredth power, which has a probability of something like 1 in 101400. We wouldn't expect something that improbable to happen by chance even once in the history of the universe.

Gould states this on page 183:

Nature says, Give me a trillion bacteria, and I'll guarantee that one of them has resistance to your antibiotic. Give me a trillion antibodies, and I'll guarantee that one of them fights the invader. Give me a trillion protein molecules, and you can count on finding the function you are looking for.

But it is extremely misleading to insinuate that given a trillion random protein molecules you'll get any function you're looking for. The functionality of the more complex protein molecules is unlikely to be found even once in a billion trillion random protein molecules. The type of functionality discussed in the Szostak paper is some of the simplest functionality that you could experiment with. Since “ATP binding” is merely connecting to another molecule, you can compare it to the simplicity of an electrical socket. There are countless proteins that have functionality vastly more complex. Protein expert Douglas Axe has estimated that the chance of getting a functional protein from the set of all random proteins is 1 in 1074This a probability more than 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times smaller than the “1 in a trillion” probability that Gould is suggesting to his readers. 

One of the extremely complex protein molecules used by living things is the hemoglobin molecule. It consists of two “alpha chains” of 141 amino acid residues each and two “beta chains” of 146 amino acid residues each. Getting functionality that complex to appear by chance would require some set of random protein molecules enormously larger than the 400 trillion random proteins in the Szostak experiment – probably 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 or more random protein molecules, more than the number of random protein molecules that would be produced in the history of our planet.

On page 156 Gould says something about the origin of hemoglobin – something goofy indeed. He states this:

But in practice, nature selects for proteins that automatically fold into a single shape, step by step, as they are manufactured by the cell. An example is hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in the bloodstream.

This type of speech is extremely erroneous. Natural selection simply means differential reproduction, the superior reproduction that can result once an organism gets some biological innovation. A trait or characteristic can only be “selected for” through something like natural selection if the trait or characteristic already exists in one or more organisms of a population. We cannot explain the origin of any complex biological innovation by saying that “nature selected it” or “nature selected for it,” for there can be no natural selection going on in regard to that biological innovation until after it appeared. The sequence of events is:

  1. First a biological innovation appears.
  2. Then (if other conditions are right) that innovation may cause some organism to have a better survival rate or reproduction rate (natural selection).

Anyone who inverts this sequence and suggests that “nature selected” some complex biological innovation or that nature “selected for” that complex biological innovation is making the elementary error of speaking as if something was caused by a consequence of that thing. It's the same same type of error a person commits when he says that the dark thundercloud was caused by the summer downpour that appeared after the dark thundercloud.  

A hemoglobin molecule

The idea of "nature selecting for" hemoglobin molecules becomes all the more absurd when we consider that such molecules are only beneficial if there exists a very complex circulatory system that would have no reason to exist until there were already molecules such as hemoglobin molecules, the interdependence of the two being a kind of "which came first, the chicken or the egg" problem defying our attempts at explanation.  

In Chapter 15 (entitled “Design Without a Designer?”) Gould asks, “Can simple rules – for example, the rules with which the universe was born – create something as complex as a human being?” Gould then discusses at length something that he thinks “bears on the question”: the Mandelbrot pattern. Mandelbrot patterns are beautiful patterns that can be produced by simple mathematical rules. But there are two reasons it is laughable to be citing Mandelbrot patterns to shore up the idea that “simple rules” can create something as complex as a human. The first reason is that Mandelbrot patterns are totally non-functional, and are created purely for beauty reasons. The second is that Mandelbrot patterns do not naturally exist in nature, but are produced only by graphical computer programs designed by humans.

On page 238 Gould tells us “there is every reason to believe that within our lifetimes, we'll hear the historic announcement of the first evidence for life on another world.” This is not at all correct, because of the math I previously discussed. If the most primitive living thing requires 100 proteins, and each has a likelihood of no better than 1 in a hundred trillion of appearing, the chance likelihood of life appearing in some particular spot is less than 1 in 101400. Given such odds, and the failure of all SETI radio searches so far, it is quite absurd for Gould to be saying “there is every reason to believe that within our lifetimes, we'll hear the historic announcement of the first evidence for life on another world.” Certainly Gould has not cited any facts or made any arguments justifying such optimism. Life might well exist all over our galaxy and all over the universe, but only if there is some dramatic teleological causal factor at play different from any Gould has discussed.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Poll Reveals the Absurd Over-Optimism of AI Experts

Consulting opinions of experts is often an extremely poor way of getting a good judgment about some topic. If you doubt that, just read the post here in which I describe cases in which the majority opinion of experts was not just wrong, but disastrously wrong, with huge loss of life resulting from the faulty expert opinions. One of the reasons why communities of experts are so often wrong is that such communities are often ideological enclaves subject to groupthink in which some particular opinion becomes the norm, and in which a community expectation arises that everyone in the community will conform to that opinion. Because of sociological reasons and peer pressure reasons, a kind of herding behavior can arise in the expert community, and the great majority of the experts in that community can start thinking the wrong thing.

The small community of AI experts is just the type of thought enclave in which we might expert a faulty opinion to arise because of groupthink reasons. For decades, AI experts have been making wildly over-optimistic estimates about when such a thing as Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) would arise. Page 12 of the paper here gives a graph showing that 8 experts predicted that computers would have human level intelligence by about the year 2000, and that 8 other experts predicted that computers would have human level intelligence by the year 2020 (something incredibly unlikely to happen in the next two years). A recent poll of AI experts shows that they're still hopelessly unrealistic about the prospects of human-level Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). A poll of experts at a Prague conference on artificial intelligence indicated that 37 percent of the experts expected human-level Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) to emerge within 5 to 10 years, while 28% expect it to emerge within the next two decades.

There is no sound basis for such optimism. All cases of progress made thus far in artificial intelligence have been cases of creating programs that have specialized expertise or specialized skills such as Jeopardy-playing ability. There has been zero progress in creating anything like a general artificial intelligence. There is no sound basis for optimism that anything like a general artificial intelligence will ever appear in the lifetimes of anyone living.

No one has the slightest real idea of how to proceed in creating a general artificial intelligence. A general artificial intelligence would require understanding, something that no computer has ever had. We have no more of an idea how to get a computer to produce understanding than we have an idea of how to get a computer to give birth to children. Understanding is something that goes on in minds, in organisms that have lives. No computer has ever had a mind, a life, or understanding. By “understanding” I mean the mental experience of knowing something. A programmer may say, “My program has an understanding of the difference between males and females,” but all he really means is “My program can distinguish between males and females.” When a computer distinguishes between two different things, that isn't mental understanding; it's just data processing. A subway turnstile can distinguish between a subway card and a discount coupon, but we would not claim that the subway turnstile understands anything. The mental understanding of computers and subway turnstiles is zero.

Real general intelligence also requires imagination, something no computer has ever had to any degree. Real imagination requires the ability to form abstract ideas in a mind. Computers can produce novel combinations of words, but we should not confuse such mindless permutations as being anything like the imagination that actually goes on inside a mind.

There is no sound basis for thinking that some great AGI computer breakthrough will result from studying the brain. Scientists have no real understanding of how neurons could produce a mind or a thought. There are very good reasons (discussed at this site) for doubting that the brain is actually the source of human intelligence and the storage place for human memories. The idea that we can make computers smart by studying how brains make people smart is erroneous, and involves an incorrect position in the philosophy of mind (the position that the brain is the source of the human mind). And given the lack of progress in the past few decades in understanding how a brain could produce consciousness and thinking, there is no basis for assuming that progress in neuroscience will do anything to enable a general artificial intelligence (AGI) in the next twenty years.

It is true that we have some moderately impressive chatbot programs that you could have a conversation with, and that you might be fooled for a few minutes into thinking that you were chatting with a human. But such a result is not particularly impressive. It is not terribly hard to write a chatbot program. The first chatbot program was produced with very simple programming.

You should not be impressed at all by chatbot conversations like this, which today's software is capable of producing:

Human: Hi, who are you?
Chatbot: I'm John, and I'm a real person.
Human: So what kind of stuff do you like doing?
Chatbot: I like playing video games and using my smartphone.
Human: So who was Theodore Roosevelt?
Chatbot: Um...I think he was a US president.
Human: And what is your favorite video game?
Chatbot: Skyrim.

It is not terribly hard for a large programming team to write a computer program that can produce such answers, if the team has access to the right databases. Using the right knowledge database, a program can retrieve the answer to a question such as the Roosevelt question, and then add an “Um...I think” at the front to make the answer sound more like a human remembering something. A really sophisticated chatbot program would draw on a database produced by analyzing thousands of hours of real human chat conversations. It could then supply answers based on popularity rankings. So if a human asked, “What do you think of the last Star Wars movie?” the chatbot software could simply retrieve from its database the most common answer. This might result in an exchange like the following:

Human: What do you think of the latest Star Wars movie?
Chatbot: The special effects were great, but the plot was kind of confusing.

Such outputs are not thinking; they're just data processing. The fact that we have chatbots that can give answers like this does not mean we are 100 years away from developing a general artificial intelligence.

It is no real test of a computer's understanding to connect an average human with chatbot software and to see whether human-sounding answers result from the human asking random questions. It is too easy to use various programming tricks and data processing tricks to get realistic sounding output. But I can imagine a test that would be really challenging for any computer program or chatbot software. I may call this the Mustang test. In the Mustang test the computer is asked the questions below, and the computer will fail the test unless it answers detailed answers as good as the sample answers I give below.

Here are the questions the Mustang test would ask:

I'm going to ask some questions about Mustangs, and whenever I use the word “Mustang,” please give answers that cover each of three different types of Mustangs: a wild horse, the Ford automobile called a Mustang, and the World War II fighter aircraft called the P-51 Mustang.

Now please answer these questions, giving very detailed, explicit and imaginative answers that cover all three of these types of Mustangs:

  1. Can a Mustang fit inside a Mustang?
  2. Describe a typical successful experience with a Mustang.
  3. Describe how you and your friends might make a Mustang or improve a Mustang.
  4. Could you fit inside a Mustang and did people ever do that?
  5. Describe how a Mustang might interact with things that were kind of like a Mustang but not exactly a Mustang.
  6. What kind of unpleasant experiences might you have with a Mustang?
  7. Describe the smells, sights, and sounds of a Mustang.
  8. Describe a kind of merging of two different types of Mustangs.
  9. Describe some fairly plausible ways in which different types of Mustangs might interact with each other.
  10. Describe ten unusual uses you could make using the parts of different types of Mustangs.

The computer would fail the Mustang test unless it gave answers as detailed and knowledgeable and imaginative as the answers below:

Question 1: You could never put a P-51 Mustang inside another P-51-Mustang, nor could you ever put a Ford Mustang inside a Ford Mustang. You could not fit a Ford Mustang inside a P-51 Mustang, nor could you do you the opposite. And given that it was merely a single-seat aircraft, you never could have fit a Mustang horse inside a P-51 Mustang. But if you had a convertible Ford Mustang with the roof down, and it happened to have reclining seats, then you could probably drop a Mustang horse so that it barely fit inside a Ford Mustang, assuming that you had a crane to lift up the captured horse. But it sure would be difficult to ever capture such a wild horse so that you could perform such a dropping into the Ford automobile. As for whether a horse Mustang can fit inside a horse Mustang, to some degree that could happen during sexual intercourse between horses, but for you to have a horse Mustang fully fit inside the horse Mustang, it would require for a female horse Mustang to become pregnant, in which case there would be a small horse Mustang (a baby horse) inside the big horse Mustang.

Question 4: You could fit inside a P-51 Mustang and a Ford Mustang, and people did that very frequently. The only way you could fit inside a horse Mustang would be if you killed the horse, and then sawed its body into two. You could then crawl into the middle of its severed carcass. Almost never in history has this been done, but it conceivably could have been done a few times in history when people were near wild horses in extremely cold weather, and desperately needed to shelter inside of the warm flesh of the horse to save themselves from freezing to death – kind of like in that Star Wars movie The Empire Strikes Back.

Question 8: We cannot really imagine a merging between a horse Mustang and either the Ford Mustang or the P-51 Mustang, because the first one is biological and the second and third are mechanical. About the best you could do is paint a picture of the horse Mustang on the side of the Ford Mustang or the P-51 Mustang. I can imagine a merging between a P-51 Mustang and a Ford Mustang, in which the P-51 Mustang gets two rows of seats (like the Ford Mustang), and then becomes capable of carrying four passengers. I can also imagine a merging between the P-51 Mustang and the Ford Mustang in which the Ford Mustang gets the more high-powered Rolls Royce engine of the P-51 Mustang, and the Ford Mustang also gets the machine guns of the P-51 Mustang, perhaps concealed in its front or rear fenders. The Ford Mustang would then be kind of like one of those James Bond cars, capable of destruction at a distance.

Any computer today would fail miserably when faced with a set of questions like the ones above. The computer could never produce sample answers like the sample answers I have given, because answers like this can only be given by an imaginative mind that understands things. There is no way to get good detailed answers to questions such as these using data processing tricks or knowledge lookup techniques.

We do not yet have chatbots that can perform anything like humans when faced with a really challenging set of questions like those in the Mustang test. No computer in the next thirty years will be able to pass the Mustang test, unless it had programming done by a programmer who knew the questions beforehand.

Computer scientists who think we will soon have artificial general intelligence are committing the error of requirements underestimation, which is a rampant error among theoretical scientists nowadays (see here for many examples).