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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Wednesday, January 22, 2020

No, That Dead Tissue Study Didn't Show That Neurons or Dendrites Compute

When you read news relating to neuroscience, you will typically read a great deal of baloney and shameless hype. The first reason for this has to do with the runaway hype and exaggeration that is currently going on in regard to Internet sites reporting scientific research. Major websites have learned the following fundamental formula:

                                     Clicks= Cash Income

The reason for this is that major websites make money from online ads. So the more people click on a link to some science story, the more money the website makes. This means that science reporting sites have a tremendous financial incentive to hype and exaggerate science stories. If they have a link saying, “Borderline results from new neuron study,” they may make only five dollars from that story. But if they have a story saying, “Astonishing breakthrough unveils the brain secret of memory,” they may make five hundred dollars from that story. With such a situation, it is no wonder that the hyping and exaggeration of scientific research is at epidemic levels.

Part of the problem is university press offices, which nowadays are shameless in exaggerating the importance of research done at 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”

Another giant reason for the baloney and hype in today's neuroscience news is that neuroscientists simply aren't finding results that back up dogmatic neuroscientist claims about the brain. Specifically:

  • Neuroscientists are not finding any real evidence of any system of encoding by which human conceptual knowledge or episodic memories could be stored as neuron states or synapse states (nor do they even have any detailed theory to explain such a thing).
  • Neuroscientists are not finding any legitimate evidence of specific learned knowledge stored anywhere in brains (such as learned knowledge that can be read from the brains of dead people or dead animals).
  • Neuroscientists are not finding any evidence that could explain how a brain could think or imagine or create abstract ideas.
  • Neuroscientists are not finding any evidence of how memories could be stored for decades, and their research is suggesting exactly the opposite, that brains are totally unsuitable for storing information for any length of time longer than a year (the average life of synapse proteins being only a few weeks).
  • Neuroscientists are not finding any real evidence that brains look different during thinking or recall than during mental inactivity (brain scans showing no difference of more than half a percent). 
  • Neuroscientists are not finding any brain action that could explain the instantaneous formation of memories, which can form so much quicker than can be explained through "synapse strengthening" that would take quite some time.

So what do our neuroscience news sources do when they don't have the kind of research findings they would like to have? They hype like crazy all kinds of dubious stuff. They take weak or faulty or second-rate studies, and try to make them sound like “eureka” breakthroughs.

An example of this can be found in recent stories in the science news press claiming that some evidence of computational ability had been found in neuron or dendrites. The claim is false, and is based on research that found no robust evidence of such a thing. One of the stories (in the online Quanta magazine) had the title “Hidden Computational Power Found in the Arms of Neurons.” The site Singularity Hub had a bunk headline of "Scientists Discovered ‘Mini-Computers’ in Human Neurons—and That’s Great News for AI." No such thing was actually found. The underlying study was able to claim to find the barest trace of “computational power” only after taking dead brain tissue, artificially zapping it with electricity, and then plugging the resulting data into a computer model, which we can assume was carefully programmed to allow such a report of "signs of computation" to be made. As I will explain, someone could use similar techniques to report “computational power” coming from any of many things as witless and non-computing as a stone.

The study (behind a paywall) was the Science study “Dendritic action potentials and computation in human layer 2/3 cortical neurons.” The two main types of biological studies are in vivo studies (using an actual living organism), and in vitro studies (merely using some dead specimen, or some tissue or cells detached from an organism). The “dendritic action potentials” study was an in vitro study. The study used brain tissue that had been removed from human brains during brain surgeries conducted for other purposes. There is a big reason why it makes no sense to be making any claim about a computational ability of neurons from any type of in vitro study using detached human brain tissue.

The reason is that in an actual living brain, every neuron is connected to many other neurons, and is constantly receiving signals from all of those other neurons. It has been estimated that a typical neuron is connected to thousands of other neurons. Each of these neurons is constantly emitting electrical/chemical signals called action potentials. Although estimates of neuron firing rates vary, it is typically estimated that each neuron sends out an action potential at an average rate of once per second or more. All of this creates the most gigantic noise issue, which should prevent reliable computation from occurring in a brain.

We may compare a neuron to a person on a stage in a very large theater or auditorium, at a time when thousands of people in the audience are all shouting at him. Just as it would be impossible for such a person to hear a full sentence from even one of these voices, it should be impossible for any neuron to have the type of noise exclusion  needed for effective computation, when each neuron is being flooded with signals from hundreds or thousands of other neurons. Neurons and synapses are flooded with so much noise in such high amounts that they cannot be doing the things our neuroscientists like to hope they are doing.  Neuroscientists  pretty much ignore this gigantic "neural noise" problem, and turn a deaf ear to what nature is telling us in this regard. 


If the whole audience was shouting at you, you'd be like a neuron

But imagine you take some brain tissue out of the brain, and test that artificially, in vitro. Then by zapping a neuron with a single electrode, you can get a nice clean situation in which all of those signal bombardments are eliminated. But such a situation tells us nothing about a real human brain. For it bears no resemblance to what is going in a human brain in which each neuron is bombarded by electrical signals from thousands of other neurons.

It is just such an in vitro situation that was used by the “dendritic action potentials” study, which got some data from zapping dead brain cells rather than data from living human brains. The data they got did not by itself indicate that anything like computation was going on in the dead brain tissue that was tested.

So the experimenters had to insert their data into something called a computer model. A computer model is some computer program designed to simulate physical reality. Of course, when we are dealing with the near-infinite complexities of human biology, trying to simulate things with computer models is pretty much a joke. You can get pretty much anything you want to show from a computer model. You just program things to favor the desired result.

The study authors claim to have got a little evidence of computation, but merely some minimal couldn't-be-simpler computation called an  “XOR” computation. They claim to have got this after they took their data from zapping dead brain tissue, and plugged it into their computer program. I may note that you could use such an approach to yield such “evidence of computation” from very many things which we regard as being as mindless and non-computing as a stone.

I will give an example. Below (according to the wikipedia article) is the truth table describing the simple-as-it-gets “XOR” computation:


Input Output
A B

0 0 0
0 1 1
1 0 1
1 1 0


I could write a computer program to simulate coin flips. There would be four possibilities: (1) a non-successful flip because the coin went down the flipper's shirt; (2) a “heads” flip; (3) a “tails” flip; (4) the coin landing on its edge, which can be considered both “heads” and “tails” (since both sides of the coin can be seen). So now the truth table for this coin flipping would look like the table below, and would resemble the table for the "XOR" computation:

Input Output (1=
successful flip)
Comment
Heads” Tails”



0 0 0 Coin lands in flipper's shirt
0 1 1 Coins lands “tails”
1 0 1 Coin lands “heads”
1 1 0 Coin lands on edge


Using such assumptions, I could simulate the flipping of coins in my computer program. And what would my program suggest? Not very much, but you might claim that such a program suggests that mindless coins can compute. For in such a program, the mindless coin flipping is producing something rather like an “XOR” operation (if we use the analysis above).

Of course, such a program would be no real reason for thinking that a coin can to any degree compute or think. And it would not give us any reason for thinking that big sacks of coins are computing or thinking, or that a whole bunch of coins jiggling around in some machine would be producing anything like computation or thinking. Similarly, studies done with dead brain tissue hooked up to electrodes  (studies relying on plugging the data into a computer model designed to extract some sign of computation) don't prove that living neurons or dendrites can compute.

Just as I have shown how you can do a computer model that seems to yield a little "XOR computation" from simulated coin flips, I could have shown how other computer models might seem to show "XOR" computation from numerous other inanimate mindless non-computing objects. The "dendritic action potentials" paper has produced no robust evidence of computation in the brain. Because it used dead tissue rather than live brains, the “dendritic action potentials” paper was rather like a study trying to prove that gorillas can play baseball, not by doing experiments with live gorillas, but by taking a baseball glove and sticking it on the hand of a dead gorilla, to see if you could pitch a ball into the glove of the dead gorilla without the ball falling out.  

In reality, the human brain bears virtually no resemblance to a computer, and there is still no good evidence that the brain does anything like computation. Brains don't have any of seven major things that computers use to store and retrieve information. Computers compute by using software, and nothing like software exists in the brain. A non-metallic device without software doesn't seem like something that can be doing much in the way of computation.  Someone who claims that a brain without software is "just like a computer" is like someone claiming that a wagon without an engine is "just like a car." 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

His “Spiritual Materialism” Is an Oxymoron

The Templeton Prize is a huge monetary award of more than 1,400,000 dollars. The prize was established by John Templeton, an incredibly successful investor who in his will gave a huge endowment to the Templeton Foundation he had established. The Templeton Foundation now has assets of more than 3 billion dollars, and gives out lots of small grants as well as the big jackpot of the annual Templeton Prize. Until 2001 the Templeton Prize was officially called “the Templeton Prize for Progress in Relgion.” From 2002 to 2008 the Templeton Prize was officially called ”the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities."

Nowadays the Templeton Prize has no such official title other than the Templeton Prize. But on the Templeton Foundation's page describing the prize, the prize is described in these terms: “The Prize celebrates no particular faith tradition or notion of God, but rather the quest for progress in humanity’s efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine.” The page also refers to “the John Templeton Foundation's mandate for breakthroughs in discovery and outreach with direct or indirect relevance to 'Spiritual Progress.' ” What is very strange is that the Templeton Prize has sometimes been given to those who seem to deny any spiritual realities or things such as manifestations of the Divine.

Let us take the case of the most recent winner of the Templeton Prize, physicist Marcelo Gleiser. Gleiser's opinions can be read in his blog posts at this site. The 2019 posts are rather vague and bland about ideology. But in a post from September 2018 entitled “Spiritual Materialism,” Gleiser calls himself a materialist. After a section heading of “Only Matter Exists,” we read the following:

We must, first and foremost, eliminate the connection between spirituality and spirit, in particular, of spirit as a supernatural manifestation. As I am sure Democritus, Lucretius, and Einstein would agree, the starting point of the argument is that only matter exists. There is only the natural.”

This is the doctrine of materialism, that only matter exists, and Democritus and Lucretius are two of the five most famous atheists. Materialism can be concisely described as atheism on steroids. An atheist is someone who rejects the idea that there is some Supreme Spirit. A materialist is someone who goes further, and rejects the idea that there is any type of spirits or souls whatsoever, either in living human beings or in some post-mortal or otherwordly realm.

Of course, there is nothing the least bit spiritual about materialism. When I search for a definition of spiritual, I get two definitions:

1."Relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things."
2. "Relating to religion or religious belief."

Materialists do not believe in any such thing as spirits or souls, and reject all religious belief. So Gleiser's “spiritual materialism” is a self-contradictory oxymoron, like the concept of a square circle. Materialism make no philosophical sense for an abundance of reasons, such as the sudden unexplained origin of the universe, the extremely precise fine-tuning of the universe's laws and fundamenal constants, the impossibility of credibly explaining the origin of life through chemical effects, the apparent impossibility of explaining either the protein complexity or morphogenesis of a human through mere physical effects (without resorting to "DNA as body blueprint" myths), the very large body of evidence for psi and paranormal phenomena, and the utter inability of material effects to credibly explain basic human mental abilities and effects such as consciousness, abstract reasoning, instantaneous memory recall and the 50-year retention of memories, the latter not being explicable by a brain in which synapse proteins have an average lifetime of only a few weeks. The human mind and human mental experiences cannot be credibly imagined as something material.

Materialism also makes not a bit of sense from a physics standpoint. As the study of physics constantly involves you in important aspects of physical reality that are not matter (such as pure energy and the laws of physics), any competent physicist should be ashamed to call himself a materialist. We are here partially because of an abundance of physical laws that end up permitting habitable planets such as ours and organisms such as ourselves. An example of such a law is the law of the conservation of charge. When high energy particles collide, you might think that protons (with 1836 times the mass of electrons) would be created vastly less often than electrons. Instead electrons and protons are created in exactly equal numbers. The result is a planet like ours with an equal balance of positive charges and negative charges. Were it not for such a law of nature, we could not be here, there being various reasons why life would be impossible if electrons were 1836 or even a hundred times more common than protons. Laws such as this are not matter; the four fundamental forces of nature (including gravitation) are not matter; and the fields and the energy particles that fill the universe are also not matter. So a physicist should know better than anyone the folly of saying “only matter exists.”  

In another blog post entitled, “Does Life Have a Purpose?” Gleiser gives us the answer that “there is no such thing,” and that “our intelligence is not part of a grand plan.” These Gleiser statements are inconsistent with what physicists know about the extremely precise fine-tuning of the universe's fundamental constants, such as the very precise equality (a difference of less than .0000000000000000001) between the absolute value of the charge of every proton and the absolute value of the charge of every electron (an exact match necessary for our existence). Such precision seems to suggest a grand plan. But such Gleiser statements are consistent with his previous statement of materialism, that only matter exists. In these two blog posts Gleiser seems to reveal himself to be an opponent of the core notions of those who are spiritual and religious. 


cosmic fine-tuning
The kind of luck needed for a habitable universe

A similar very puzzling choice occurred when the Templeton Prize was awarded to cosmologist Martin Rees years ago. I rather doubt that you could ever find any spiritual-sounding thing Martin Rees had ever stated, although you could easily find some moral statements he had written. Rees has stated, “We are the nuclear waste of stellar fusion,” which concisely states his view that we are just random accidents. He has also stated, “What I would like best would be for scientists not even to use the word 'God.' " Note the words "like best," as if such a thing is his heart's fondest desire. That seems to suggest a very irreligious view. 

So we may ask: why were Gleiser and Rees each given the Templeton Prize, a "spiritual progress" prize described on its web page as one given for those who further “the quest for progress in humanity’s efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine”?  It's rather as if Donald Trump were to get some huge money prize from some Society for Progressive Liberalism, or if Bernie Sanders were to get some huge money prize from some League of Reagan Conservatives. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Panpsychism Involves Simplistic Shrinkage

The book Galileo's Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness by philosopher Philip Goff is a book with quite a few misfires. The biggest one is an extremely common one among today's philosophers. The error is to use the way-too-small term “problem of consciousness” in discussing current shortfalls in explaining the human mind.

What we actually have is an extremely large “problem of explaining human mental capabilities and human mental experiences” that is vastly larger than merely explaining consciousness. The problem includes all the following difficulties and many others:

  1. the problem of explaining how humans are able to have abstract ideas;
  2. the problem of explaining how humans are able to store learned information, despite the lack of any detailed theory as to how learned knowledge could ever be translated into neural states or synapse states;
  3. the problem of explaining how humans are able to reliably remember things for more than 50 years, despite extremely rapid protein turnover in synapses, which should prevent brain-based storage of memories for any period of time longer than a few weeks;
  4. the problem of how humans are able to instantly retrieve little accessed information, despite the lack of anything like an addressing system or an indexing system in the brain;
  5. the problem of how humans are able to produce great works of creativity and imagination;
  6. the problem of how humans are able to be conscious at all;
  7. the problem of why humans have such a large variety of paranormal psychic experiences and capabilities such as ESP capabilities that have been well-established by laboratory tests, and near-death experiences that are very common, often occurring when brain activity has shut down;
  8. the problem of how humans have such diverse skills and experiences as mathematical reasoning, moral insight, philosophical reasoning, and refined emotional and spiritual experiences;
  9. the problem of self-hood and personal identity, why it is that we always continue to have the experience of being the same person, rather than just experiencing a bundle of miscellaneous sensations;
  10. the problem of intention and will, how is it that a mind can will particular physical outcomes.

It is therefore a ridiculous oversimplification for philosophers to be raising a mere "problem of consciousness” that refers to only one of these problems, and to be speaking as if such a “problem of consciousness” is the only difficulty that needs to be tackled by a philosophy of mind. But that is exactly what Philip Goff does in his book. We have an indication of his failure to pay attention to the problems he should be addressing by the fact that (according to his index) he refers to memory on only two pages of his book, both of which say nothing of substance about human memory or the problems of explaining it. His index also contains no mention of insight, imagination, ideas, will, volition or abstract ideas. The book's sole mention of the problem of self-hood or the self is (according to the index) a single page referring to “self, as illusion.” The book's sole reference to paranormal phenomena is a non-substantive reference on a single page. Ignoring the vast evidence for psi abilities, near-death experiences and other paranormal phenomena (supremely relevant to the philosophy of mind) is one of the greatest errors of academic philosophers of the past fifty years.

Imagine a baseball manager who has a “philosophy of winning baseball games” that is simply “make contact with the ball.” If you had such a philosophy, you would be paying attention to only a very small fraction of what you need to be paying attention to in order to win baseball games. And any philosopher hoping to advance a credible philosophy of mind has to pay attention to problems vastly more varied than a mere “problem of consciousness” or problem of why some beings are aware.

Goff's philosophical approach is to try and sell the old idea of panpsychism. Around for a very long time, panpsychism is the idea that consciousness is in everything or that consciousness is an intrinsic property of matter. A panpsychist may argue that just as mass is an intrinsic property of matter, consciousness is an intrinsic property of matter.  

As shown by psychology textbooks that may run to 500 pages, the human mind (including memory) is an incredibly diverse and complicated thing, consisting of a huge number of capabilities and aspects. It has always been quite an error when people try to describe so complicated a thing as something simple and one-dimensional.  This is what panpsychists have always done when they try to reduce the mind to the word "consciousness," which they then describe as a "property." A property is a simple aspect of something that can be described by a single number (for example, weight is a property of matter, and length is a property of matter, both of which can be stated as a single number).  A mind is something vastly more complicated than a property.  

Goff commits this same simplistic error by trying to shrink the human mind to the word "consciousness" throughout his book, and then telling us on page 23 that consciousness is a "feature of the physical world," and telling us on page 113 that "consciousness is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of physical reality." When I look up "feature," I find that it is defined to mean the same thing as "property": "a distinctive attribue or aspect of something."  Human minds are vastly more complicated than any mere "feature" or "property" or "aspect" or "attribute."  We are being fed simplistic pablum when we are told that our minds are some "feature" or "aspect" or "property." If you've started out with the vast diversity and extremely multifaceted richness of the human mind, and somehow ended with up a one-dimensional word such as "feature" or "aspect" or "property,"  you've gone seriously wrong somewhere. Call it a shrinkage snafu. 

So many professors act like masters of concealment by acting in so many ways to misrepresent the gigantic mental and biological complexity of human beings, as if they were so interested in covering up our complexities.   And so we always have utterly misleading cell diagrams included in our biology textbooks, which make it look like there are only a few organelles per cell (the paper here tells us that there are typically hundreds or thousands of organelles per cell). And so we have "cell types" diagrams, which make it look as if there are only a few types of cells (the human body actually has hundreds of types of cells). And so we have the false myth that DNA is a blueprint or a recipe for making humans,  false not only because of the lack of any such human specification in DNA, but also because of the naive error of speaking as if you could ever build an ever-changing supremely dynamic organism like a human (as internally dynamic as a very busy factory) through some mere recipe or mere blueprint like you would use to construct a static house or a static piece of food.  And so we have the complexity-concealing claim that the vastly organized systemic arrangements of the human body can be explained by the "stuff piles up" idea of the accumulation of mutations (as if something as complex as a city could be explained by something like what we use to explain snow drifts). And so we have the frequent reality-denying assertions that mentally humans are "just another primate" or that other mammals are "just like us." And so you have the great complexity concealment of speaking as if a human mind was mere awareness or consciousness that could be described as a "property" or "feature." 

Panpsychism creates the problem that we have to then end up believing that all kinds of inanimate things are conscious to some degree. If consciousness were to be some intrinsic property of matter, it would seem to follow that the more matter, the greater the consciousness. So we would have to believe that the large rocks in Central Park of New York City are far more conscious than we are. And we would also have to believe that the Moon is vastly more conscious than we are. But if such inanimate things are far more conscious than we are, why do they not give us the slightest indication that they are conscious? There is no sign of any intelligent motion in the comets or asteroids that travel through space. Instead they seem to operate according to purely physical principles, just exactly as if they had no consciousness whatsoever. That's why astronomers can predict very exactly how closely an asteroid will pass by our planet, and the exact day that it will pass by our planet. So it seems that Goff's claim on page 116 that panpsychism is “entirely consistent with the facts of empirical science” is not actually true. To the contrary, we see zero signs of any consciousness or will in any non-biological thing, no matter how great its size, contrary to what we would expect under the theory of panpsychism.


No sign of any Mind here (credit:NASA)

On page 113 Goff suggests that maybe it is just certain arrangements of matter that might be conscious.  Goff isn't being terribly clear when he tells us on page on page 113, "Most panpsychists will deny that your socks are conscious, while asserting that they are ultimately composed of things that are conscious." So what does that mean, that the threads of your socks are conscious? If a panpsychist tries to defend his beliefs by denying that all material things are conscious, this actually pulls the legs from out under the table of panpsychism, depriving it of any small explanatory value it might have.  Once you go from "all matter is conscious" to "only certain arrangements of matter," you still have the same problem in materialism, that there is no reason anyone can see why consciousness would appear from some particular arrangement of matter. 

It would seem that the panpsychist has a kind of dilemma: either maintain that consciousness is an intrinisc property of matter (leaving you perhaps with some very small explanatory power, but many absurd consequences such as large rocks being more conscious than humans), or maintain that only special arrangements of matter are conscious (which would seem to remove any explanatory reason for believing in panpsychism in the first place). 

On page 150 to 153 Goff shows himself to be an uncritical consumer of one of the biggest legends of neuroscience, that split-brain patients have a dual consciousness. They have no such thing, as we can discover by watching Youtube interviews with split-brain patients who clearly have a single self. A scientific study published in 2017 set the record straight on split-brain patients. The research was done at the University of Amsterdam by Yair Pinto. A press release entitled “Split Brain Does Not Lead to Split Consciousness” stated, “The researchers behind the study, led by UvA psychologist Yair Pinto, have found strong evidence showing that despite being characterised by little to no communication between the right and left brain hemispheres, split brain does not cause two independent conscious perceivers in one brain.” The actual facts about split-brain surgery are related here by a surgeon who has performed such an operation. He states this about split-brain patients:

"After the surgery they are unaffected in everyday life, except for the diminished seizures. They are one person after the surgery, as they were before."

Panpsychism does very little to help with the explanatory problems in the philosophy of mind. The main reason is that it does not help with more than one of the ten problems listed at the beginning of this post. For example, panpsychism is worthless in explaining how humans are able to instantly retrieve memories, or why humans are able to form abstract ideas.

In the last paragraph of the book, Goff makes a pitch that kind of follows that classic salesman's advice to “sell the sizzle not the steak.” He states the following (imagine some violins playing as you read this passage):

Panpsychism offers a way of 're-enchanting the universe.' On the panpsychist view, the universe is like us; we belong in it. We need not live exclusively in the human realm, ever more diluted by globalization and consumerist capitalism. We can live in nature, in the universe. We can let go of nation and tribe, happy in the knowledge that there is a universe that welcomes us.”

But I fail to see any reason why a belief in panpsychism would produce any good change in human behavior. I can also imagine it having a bad effect. If you believe that all matter is conscious, you might have no particular guilt about killing someone. You might think to yourself: “He will still be conscious, even if I kill him, because all matter is conscious.” Similarly, if you believe that all matter is conscious, you might think it would be no great tragedy if all humanity were to become extinct, on the grounds that this would produce only a slight reduction in the total consciousness that exists in the universe (humanity having less than .0000000000000000000000000000000000001 of the universe's matter).

When panpsychists use simplistic shrinkage to describe mind as a mere "property" or "feature," it is like someone telling you that New York City is just a geographical coordinate, or like someone telling you that Brazil is just a pair of sounds someone can make with his mouth. 

Postscript: After writing this post, I found that Scientific American has an interview with Goff about his book. In the interview I didn't find anything to change my opinion about his ideas. Goff states the following;

"The basic commitment is that the fundamental constituents of reality—perhaps electrons and quarks—have incredibly simple forms of experience. And the very complex experience of the human or animal brain is somehow derived from the experience of the brain’s most basic parts."

We can try to imagine such a whimsical possibility. A quark might have an experience of a dull, static existence stuck inside an atomic nucleus. An electron might have an experience of constantly whizzing around a nucleus at incredible speeds, like some person stuck on an amusement park ride. Or a neuron might have an experience of just sitting there motionless inside a brain.  If there were billions or trillions or quadrillions of such tiny micro-experiences, they would never add up to anything like the experience of being a mobile thinking human free to walk around anywhere he wishes.

Friday, January 10, 2020

A Method for Evaluating the Strength of Causal Claims

An elementary school student might think to himself something like the following,

"When scientists figure out the cause of some effect, they start saying that such a cause is the reason why the effect occurs. If they don't know what causes the effect, they just say they don't understand what causes it."

Such a generalization is naive. A more accurate and realistic description is the one below:

Scientists often determine the cause of an effect, and begin to state that cause as the reason why that effect occurs. In many other cases, humans are unable to figure out what the cause of an effect is. But that doesn't stop scientists from making claims about what causes the effect. In many cases such claims are weakly supported by evidence or logic, but scientists continue to make such claims because the assertion of such claims has become a speech custom of scientists, or because the claims help the scientists avoid or sweep under the rug some possibility they prefer not to believe in.

Given such a situation, it is helpful to have some method for evaluating the strength of causal claims. Using such a system, we might be able to distinguish between strong causal claims and weak causal claims. I can think of such a method, which I list below.

In the method I propose, we ask many different questions, and either add or subtract points based on the answers. Here are the questions:

Y= Effect, X=proposed cause of the effect
1. Has Y always been observed occurring whenever X occurs?
+1
2. Has Y usually been observed occurring when X occurs?
+1
3. Has Y sometimes been observed occurring when X occurs? +1
4. Has Y never been observed occurring when X occurs?
-1
5. Does X usually occur without producing Y?
-1
6. Does X sometimes occur without producing Y? -1
7. Does Y always occur very close in time and space to X?
+1
8. Can we think of some reason why X would always produce Y?
+1
9. Can we think of some reason why X would usually produce Y?
+1
10. Can we think of some reason why X would occasionally produce Y?
+1
11. Can we think of some reason why X would never produce Y?
-1
12. Can we think of some reason why X would usually not produce Y?
-1
13. Are there no other reasonable theories of how Y could be produced other than assuming X produced it?
+1
14. Can we think of a fact or facts that are true, but which are surprising or unexpected if X causes Y?
-1
15. Can we think of some fact or facts that are true, but hard to explain unless X causes Y?
+1
16.  If X an undisputed reality that has been instrumentally measured or photographed?
+1


Using this system, we should find that strong causal claims end up with a positive score, and weak causal claims end up with a zero or negative score. The stronger the causal claim, the higher the should be, and the weaker the causal claim, the lower the score should be.

Let's try this system, using a specific example. An example of a causal claim is the claim that water freezing is caused by temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius. Below is how we can compute the score of this causal claim. (For the purpose of simplicity, the only places being considered are the surface of Earth and the surface of the moon.) 

Y= Water freezing, X=Temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius

1. Has Y always been observed occurring whenever X occurs?
0 An arid landscape (such as on the moon) can show no signs of water freezing even when temperatures are below 0 degrees Celsius.
2. Has Y usually been observed occurring when X occurs?
+1 We usually observe freezing at temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius.
3. Has Y sometimes been observed occurring when X occurs? +1 We usually observe freezing at temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius.
4. Has Y never been observed occurring when X occurs?
0 Water has been observed freezing at emperatures below 0 degrees Celsius.

5. Does X usually occur without producing Y?
0 Temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius usually do not occur without producing water freezing
6. Does X sometimes occur without producing Y? -1 Temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius sometimes occur without producing water freezing, in arid places like the moon.
7. Does Y always occur very close in time and space to X?
+1 Water freezing always occurs at the same time and place as temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius.


8. Can we think of some reason why X would always produce Y?
0 We can think of no reason why temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius would always cause water freezing, because on some landscapes like the moon there is no water.
9. Can we think of some reason why X would usually produce Y?
+1 We can think of a reason why temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius would usually cause water freezing, given that most places have water that might freeze.
10. Can we think of some reason why X would occasionally produce Y?
+1 We can think of a reason why temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius would sometimes cause water freezing, because most places have water that might freeze.
11. Can we think of some reason why X would never produce Y?
0 There is no reason why temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius should never produce water freezing.
12. Can we think of some reason why X would usually not produce Y?
0 Given that most places have water, there is no reason why temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius should usually not produce water freezing.
13. Are there no other reasonable theories of how Y could be produced other than assuming X produced it?
+1 No one has advanced an alternate theory of how water freezing could occur other than temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius.
14. Can we think of a fact or facts that are true, but which are surprising or unexpected if X causes Y?
0 No, we can't.
15. Can we think of some fact or facts that are true, but hard to explain unless X causes Y?
+1 Frozen water (ice) is very cold, and we would not expect it to be so cold unless temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius had caused it get so cold.
16.  If X an undisputed reality that has been instrumentally measured or photographed?
+1 No one disputes that there are temperatures below 0, and such temperatures have been instrumentally  measured with a thermometer.

So using this scoring system and adding up all the numbers, it turns out that the claim that water freezing is caused by temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius ends up with a score of +7. In this case, the system seems to work well. We have a very strong cause and effect relation in this case, and the causal explanation has scored highly using our system.

Let's try this system, using another specific example. An example of a causal claim is the claim that thunder is caused by lightning. Below is how we can compute the score of this causal claim.


Y= Thunder, X=Lightning

1. Has Y always been observed occurring whenever X occurs?
0 While thunder is believed to occur whenever lightning occurs, we sometimes hear no thunder when we see lightning.
2. Has Y usually been observed occurring when X occurs?
+1 We usually do hear thunder when lightning occurs.
3. Has Y sometimes been observed occurring when X occurs? +1 We usually do hear thunder when lightning occurs.
4. Has Y never been observed occurring when X occurs?
0 Thunder does occur when lightning occurs. 

5. Does X usually occur without producing Y?
0 Visible lighting usually produces audible thunder.
6. Does X sometimes occur without producing Y? 0 It is believed that lightning always produces thunder, even when we fail to notice the thunder.
7. Does Y always occur very close in time and space to X?
+1 Thunder is thought to always occur at the same time and place as lightning.


8. Can we think of some reason why X would always produce Y?
+1 There are scientific reasons why lightning should always produce thunder.
9. Can we think of some reason why X would usually produce Y?
+1 There are scientific reasons why lightning should always produce thunder.
10. Can we think of some reason why X would occasionally produce Y?
+1 There are scientific reasons why lightning should always produce thunder.
11. Can we think of some reason why X would never produce Y?
0
No.
12. Can we think of some reason why X would usually not produce Y?
0 No.
13. Are there no other reasonable theories of how Y could be produced other than assuming X produced it?
0 There is the theory that thunder is a roar of angry gods or spirits.
14. Can we think of a fact or facts that are true, but which are surprising or unexpected if X causes Y?
0 No, we can't.
15. Can we think of some fact or facts that are true, but hard to explain unless X causes Y?
0 There may well be, but I can't think of any.
16.  If X an undisputed reality that has been instrumentally  measured or photographed?
+1 No one disputes that lightning exists, and it has been photographed.


So using this scoring system and adding up all the numbers, it turns out that the claim that thunder is caused by lightning ends up with a score of +7. In this case, the system seems to work well. We have a very clear cause and effect relation in this case, and the causal explanation has scored highly using the method I have proposed for judging the strength of a causal effect.

Thunder is actually produced by lightning

Now let us consider the claim that complex visible biological innovations are caused by random mutations and what biologists call "natural selection" (a term that is not literally accurate because blind unconscious nature does not literally select things).  By "complex visible biological innovations" I refer only to things appearing in nature, not anything produced artificially by humans, and I refer only to things involving a high level of complexity (not mere superficial changes such as darkening).  Below is how we can compute the score of the causal claim that complex visible biological innovations are caused by random mutations and natural selection.


Y= The appearance of complex visible biological innovations, X = random mutations and natural selection



1. Has Y always been observed occurring whenever X occurs?
0 Humans have not actually observed any complex visible biological innovations appearing. All such innovations appeared before 3000 B.C.
2. Has Y usually been observed occurring when X occurs?
0 Humans have not actually observed any complex visible biological innovations appearing.
3. Has Y sometimes been observed occurring when X occurs? 0 Humans have not actually observed any complex visible biological innovations appearing.
4. Has Y never been observed occurring when X occurs?
-1 Humans have never observed any complex visible biological innovations appearing.
5. Does X usually occur without producing Y?
-1 Scientists say that natural selection is constantly occurring, and that random mutations are constantly occurring. But still humans have never observed any complex visible biological innovations occurring.
6. Does X sometimes occur without producing Y? -1 Scientists say that natural selection is constantly occurring, and that random mutations are constantly occurring. But still humans have never observed any complex visible biological innovations occurring.
7. Does Y always occur very close in time and space to X?
+1 Although we have not observed complex visible biological innovations occurring, it is claimed that random mutations and natural selection have always been occurring, so we can generously grant that when previous complex visible biological innovations occurred, they were close in time in space to random mutation and some type of survival of the fittest that might be metaphorically called "natural selection." 


8. Can we think of some reason why X would always produce Y?
-1 We can think of no reason why random mutations and natural selection would always produce complex visible biological innovations, and scientists think that in most years they do not produce such a thing. 
9. Can we think of some reason why X would usually produce Y?
-1 We can think of no reason why random mutations and natural selection would usually produce complex visible biological innovations, and scientists think that in most years they do not produce such a thing. 
10. Can we think of some reason why X would occasionally produce Y?
-1 We can think of no reason why random mutations and natural selection would occasionally produce complex visible biological innovations, just as we can think of no reason why tornadoes passing through a city (which produce random effects and a kind of architectural "survival of the fittest") would occasionally produce complex new architectural innovations.
11. Can we think of some reason why X would never produce Y?
-1 We can think of several  reasons why random mutations and natural selection would never produce complex visible biological innovations: (1) the fact that such complex visible biological  innovations require such extremely high states of organization  and fine-tuning that it seems impossible that they would ever be produced accidentally, just as houses of cards should never be formed by throwing a deck of cards into the air, and just as log cabins should never form from falling trees; (2) the fact that individual random mutations (point mutations) are merely tiny fragments of what is needed for a complex visible biological innovation, typically less than 1%; (3) the fact that natural selection (or a superior reproduction rate) never works in regard to some complex biological innovation until such an innovation has already appeared. 
12. Can we think of some reason why X would usually not produce Y?
-1 Same as above.
13. Are there no other reasonable theories of how Y could be produced other than assuming X produced it?
-1 There are three other reasonable theories of how complex visible biological innovations might have happened (1) they might have been introduced by a divine creator; (2) they might have been introduced by extraterrestrial visitors wanting for Earth to eventually produce intelligent life; (3) they might have been produced by some cosmic life-force.
14. Can we think of a fact or facts that are true, but which are surprising or unexpected if X causes Y?
-1 The Cambrian Explosion in which most animal phyla originated rather suddenly is unexpected under the theory that complex visible biological innovations are produced by random mutations and natural selection, which have always been described as very slow and gradual effects.
15. Can we think of some fact or facts that are true, but hard to explain unless X causes Y?
+1 There probably are no such facts, given a wide variety of alternative possibilities, but let's grant this +1 point just to be charitable. 
16.  If X an undisputed reality that has been instrumentally  measured or photographed?
0 "Natural selection" is disputed as a literally accurate term, on the grounds that only conscious agents select things.  The main idea behind natural selection (that fit things reproduce more) has been disputed, on the grounds that it is unproven (for example, not-very-fit bacteria seem to reproduce at a much higher rate than mammals).  Natural selection has never been instrumentally measured or photographed. 

Shockingly, the
 theory that random mutations and natural selection produce complex visible biological innovations produces a score of only -8, which is 15 points lower than the score produced by the claim that lightning produces thunder and the claim that temperatures of 0 degrees Celsius or lower produce freezing.  This very low score suggests that the theory that random mutations and natural selection produce complex visible biological innovations is far from being a strong causal claim. 

Could it be that something is wrong with my method for evaluating the strength of causal claims? Let's try it again, testing it with the claim that accidental falls from high altitudes produce fatal injuries. 

Y= Fatal injuries, X= accidental falls from high altitudes

1. Has Y always been observed occurring whenever X occurs?
0Occasionally someone will survive an accidental fall from a high altitude.
2. Has Y usually been observed occurring when X occurs?
+1Most people who accidentally fall from high altitudes have fatal injuries. 
3. Has Y sometimes been observed occurring when X occurs?+1Most people who accidentally fall from high altitudes have fatal injuries. 
4. Has Y never been observed occurring when X occurs?
0Most people who accidentally fall from high altitudes have fatal injuries. 
5. Does X usually occur without producing Y?
0Most people who accidentally fall from high altitudes have fatal injuries. 
6. Does X sometimes occur without producing Y?-1Sometimes people accidentally fall from high altitudes without having fatal injuries.
7. Does Y always occur very close in time and space to X?
-1Fatal injuries can occur without falling, such as in auto collisions.


8. Can we think of some reason why X would always produce Y?
0A person accidentally falling from a high altitude may land in a soft surface like a haystack.
9. Can we think of some reason why X would usually produce Y?
+1Given the acceleration produced by accidental falls from high altitudes, we can think of a reason why they would usually produce fatal injuries. 
10. Can we think of some reason why X would occasionally produce Y?
+1Given the acceleration produced by accidental falls from high altitudes, we can think of a reason why they would usually produce fatal injuries. 
11. Can we think of some reason why X would never produce Y?
0
No.
12. Can we think of some reason why X would usually not produce Y?
0No.
13. Are there no other reasonable theories of how Y could be produced other than assuming X produced it?
0Fatal injuries can be produced by car crashes that do not involve falls from high altitudes. 
14. Can we think of a fact or facts that are true, but which are surprising or unexpected if X causes Y?
0No, we can't.
15. Can we think of some fact or facts that are true, but hard to explain unless X causes Y?
0No, we can't.
16.  If X an undisputed reality that has been instrumentally measured or photographed?
1No one disputes there are accidental falls from high altitudes, and they  have been photographed.

So according to this system, the overall strength of the claim that accidental falls from high altitudes produce fatal injuries is +3. While not as strong as the +7 scores reached by the theory that lightning causes thunder and the theory that temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius produce freezing, at least the scoring system has given a positive score to a strong causal claim.  So it seems that the method I have suggested here works well in distinguishing between causal claims that are weak and those that are strong. 

So why is it that we continue to have so many assertions of the claim that complex visible biological innovations are caused by random mutations and natural selection, despite the weakness of such a causal claim? It would seem the answer is: largely because this is a speech custom that is imposed by institutional powers that compel or prod people to say a particular thing.

We might also ask: why do millions of children in school state every day the false claim that there is "liberty and justice for all" in America? It is a fine thing for school children to "pledge allegiance to the flag, and to the republic for which it stands." But a BBC article tells us, "Prison rates in the US are the world's highest, at 724 people per 100,000." Very many of these people in prison should not be there, and are there because the people could not afford good lawyers, were imprisoned because of over-zealous drug laws, or were the victims of racial prejudice. Meanwhile many people who commited the worst kind of crimes between 2003 and 2009 suffered no legal penalties at all, because they were rich enough to afford skillful lawyers or politically protected.  So it seems that while in the United States there is liberty and justice for most, there is neither "liberty for all" nor "justice for all."  So why is it that millions of children every school day assert the false claim that in America there is "liberty and justice for all"? The answer is:  because this is a speech custom that is imposed by institutional powers that compel or prod people to say a particular thing.