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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Thursday, January 30, 2020

"Move the Goalposts" Is the Skeptic's Favorite Trick

These days our science news sources typically try to get us all excited about many a science study that is not worthy of our attention.  But when a study appears that tells us something important, such a study will receive almost no attention if the study reports something that conflicts with prevailing dogmas about reality.  So some recent not-much-there study involving zapping dead brain tissue got lots of attention in the press, but a far more important neuroscience study received almost no attention.  The more important study was one that showed a rat with almost no brain had normal cognitive and memory capabilities. 

The study was reported in the Scientific Reports sub-journal of the very prestigious journal Nature, and had the title "Life without a brain: Neuroradiological and behavioral evidence of neuroplasticity necessary to sustain brain function in the face of severe hydrocephalus."  The study examined a rat named R222 that had lost almost all of its brain because of a disease caused hydrocephalus, which replaces brain tissue with a watery fluid. The study found that despite the rat having lost almost all of its brain, "Indices of spatial memory and learning across the reported Barnes maze parameters (A) show that R222 (as indicated by the red arrow in the figures) was within the normal range of behavior, compared to the age matched cohort."   In other words, the rat with almost no brain seemed to learn and remember as well as a rat with a full brain. 

This result should not come as any surprise to anyone familiar with the research of the physician John Lorber. Lorber studied many human patients with hydrocephalus, in which healthy brain tissue is gradually replaced by a watery fluid. Lorber's research is described in this interesting scientific paper. A mathematics student with an IQ of 130 and a verbal IQ of 140 was found to have “virtually no brain.” His vision was apparently perfect except for a refraction error, even though he had no visual cortex (the part of the brain involved in sight perception).

In the paper we are told that of about 16 patients Lorber classified as having extreme hydrocephalus (with 90% of the area inside the cranium replaced with spinal fluid), half of them had an IQ of 100 or more. The article mentions 16 patients, but the number with extreme hydrocephalus was actually 60, as this article states, using information from this original source that mentions about 10 percent of a group of 600. So the actual number of these people with tiny brains and above-average intelligence was about 30. The paper states:

"[Lorber] described a woman with an extreme degree of hydrocephalus showing 'virtually no cerebral mantle' who had an IQ of 118, a girl aged 5 who had an IQ of 123 despite extreme hydrocephalus, a 7-year-old boy with gross hydrocephalus and an IQ of 128, another young adult with gross hydrocephalus and a verbal IQ of 144, and a nurse and an English teacher who both led normal lives despite gross hydrocephalus."

Sadly, the authors of the "Life without a brain" paper seemed to have learned too little from the important observational facts they recorded. Referring to part of the brain, they claim that "the hippocampus is needed for memory," even though their rat R222 had no hippocampus that could be detected in a brain scan. They stated, "It was not possible from these images of R222 to identify the caudate/putamen, amygdala, or hippocampus."  Not very convincingly, the authors claimed that rat R222 had a kind of flattened hippocampus, based on some chemical signs (which is rather like guessing that some flattened roadkill was a particular type of animal). 

But how could this rat with almost no brain have performed normally on the memory and cognitive tests?  The authors appeal to a miracle, saying, "This rare case can be viewed as one of nature’s miracles." If you believe that brains are what store memories and cause thinking, you must regard cases such as this (and Lorber's cases) as "miracles," but when a scientist needs to appeal to such a thing, it is a gigantic red flag. Much better if we have a theory of the mind under which such results are what we would expect rather than a miracle.  To get such a theory, we must abandon the unproven and very discredited idea that brains store memories and that brains create minds. 

The Neuroskeptic blogger at Discovery magazine's online site mentions this rat R222, and the case of humans who performed well despite having the vast majority of their brain lost due to disease.  Let's give him credit for mentioning the latter. But we shouldn't applaud his use of a  trick that skeptics constantly employ: always ask for something you think you don't have. 

This "keep moving the goalposts" trick works rather like this. If someone shows a photo looking like a ghost on the edge of a photo, say that it doesn't matter because the ghost isn't in the middle of the photo. If someone then shows you a photo that appears to show a ghost in the middle of the photo, say that it doesn't matter, because the photo isn't a 6-megabyte high resolution photo.  If someone then shows you a 6-megabyte high resolution photo that appears to show a ghost in the middle of the photo, say that it doesn't matter, because it's just a photo and not a movie. If someone then shows you a movie of what looks like a ghost, say that it doesn't matter, because there were not multiple witnesses of the movie being made. If someone then shows you a movie of what looks like a ghost, the photography of which was observed by multiple witnesses, say that it doesn't matter, because the movie isn't a movie-theater-quality 35 millimeter Technicolor Panavision movie.  If someone then shows you a movie-theater-quality 35 millimeter Technicolor Panavision movie of what looks like a ghost, the photography of which was observed by multiple witnesses, say that it doesn't matter, because the ghost wasn't levitating. If someone then shows you a movie-theater-quality 35 millimeter Technicolor Panavision movie of what looks like a levitating ghost, the photography of which was observed by multiple witnesses, say that it doesn't matter because the ghost wasn't talking.  If someone then shows you a movie-theater-quality 35 millimeter Technicolor Panavision movie of what looks like a levitating talking ghost, the photography of which was observed by multiple witnesses, say that it doesn't matter, because the levitating talking ghost didn't explain the meaning of life to your satisfaction. 

The Neuroskeptic uses such a technique when he writes the following:

"In the case of the famous human cases of hydrocephalus, the only evidence we have are the brain scans showing massively abnormal brain anatomy. There has never, to my knowledge, been a detailed post-mortem study of a human case."

If there were such an alleged "shortfall," it would be irrelevant, because we can tell perfectly well from a brain scan the degree of brain tissue loss when someone has lost most of their brain, as happened in the case of Lorber's patients and other hydrocephalus patients.  Complaining about the lack of an autopsy study in such patients is like saying that you don't know that your wife lacks a penis, because no one did an autopsy study on her.  Neuroskeptic's claim of no autopsy studies on hydocephalus patients is incorrect. When I do a Google search for "autopsy of hydrocephalus patient," I quickly find several studies which did such a thing, such as this one which reports that one of 10 patients with massive brain loss due to hydrocephalus was "cognitively unimpaired."  Why did our Neuroskeptic blogger insinuate that such autopsy studies do not exist, when discovering their existence is as easy as checking the weather? 

There are many animal studies (such as those of Karl Lashley) that conflict with prevailing dogmas about the brain. One such dogma is that the cerebral cortex is necessary for mental function.  But some scientists once tried removing the cerebral cortex of newly born cats. The abstract of their paper reports no harmful results:

"The cats ate, drank and groomed themselves adequately. Adequate maternal and female sexual behaviour was observed. They utilized the visual and haptic senses with respect to external space. Two cats were trained to perform visual discrimination in a T-maze. The adequacy of the behaviour of these cats is compared to that of animals with similar lesions made at maturity."

Figure 4 of the full paper clearly shows that one of the cats without a cerebral cortex learned well in the T-maze test, improving from a score of 50 to almost 100. Karl Lashley did innumerable experiments after removing parts of animal's brains. He found that you could typically remove very large parts of an animal's brain without affecting the animal's performance on tests of learning and memory. 

Ignoring such observational realities, our neuroscientists cling to their dogmas, such as the dogma that memories are stored in brains,  and that the brain is the source of human thinking.  Another example of a dubious neuroscience dogma is the claim that the brain uses coding for communication.   A scientific paper discusses how common this claim is:

"A pervasive paradigm in neuroscience is the concept of neural coding (deCharms and Zador 2000): the query 'neural coding' on Google Scholar retrieved about 15,000 papers in the last 10 years. Neural coding is a communication metaphor. An example is the Morse code (Fig. 1A), which was used to transmit texts over telegraph lines: each letter is mapped to a binary sequence (dots and dashes)."

But the idea that the brain uses something like a Morse code to communicate has no real basis in fact.  The paper quoted above almost confesses this by stating the following:

"Technically, it is found that the activity of many neurons varies with stimulus parameter, but also with sensory, behavioral, and cognitive context; neurons are also active in the absence of any particular stimulus. A tight correspondence between stimulus property and neural activity only exists within a highly constrained experimental situation. Thus, neural codes have much less representational power than generally claimed or implied."

That's moving in the right direction, but it would be more forthright and accurate to say that there is zero real evidence that neurons are using any type of code to represent human learned information, and that the whole idea of "neural coding" is just a big piece of wishful thinking where scientists are seeing what they hope to see, like someone looking at a cloud and saying, "That looks like my mother."



Sunday, January 26, 2020

Why the Sizable Biologist Misconduct They Found May Be Only the Tip of the Iceberg

Without getting into the topic of outright fraud, we know of many common problems that afflict a sizable percentage of scientific papers. One is that it has become quite common for scientists to use titles for their papers announcing results or causal claims that are not actually justfied by any data in the papers. A scientific study found that 48% of scientific papers use "spin" in their abstracts. Another problem is that scientists may change their hypothesis after starting to gather data, a methodological sin that is called HARKing, which stands for Hypothesizing After Results are Known. An additional problem is that given a body of data that can be analyzed in very many ways, scientists may simply experiment with different methods of data analysis until one produces the result they are looking for. Still another problem is that scientists may use various techniques to adjust the data they collect, such as stopping data collection once they found some statistical result they are looking for, or arbitrarily excluding data points that create problems for whatever claim they are trying to show.  Then there is the fact that scientific papers are very often a mixture of observation and speculation, without the authors making clear which part is speculation.  Then there is the fact that through the use of heavy jargon, scientists can make the most groundless and fanciful speculation sound as if was something strongly rooted in fact, when it is no such thing. Then there is the fact that scientific research is often statistically underpowered, and very often involves sample sizes too small to be justifying any confidence in the results. 

All of these are lesser sins. But what about the far more egregious sin of outright researcher misconduct or fraud?  The scientists Bik, Casadevall and Fang attempted to find evidence of such misconduct by looking for problematic images in biology papers.  We can imagine various ways in which a scientific paper might have a problematic image or graph indicating researcher misconduct:

(1) A photo in a particular paper might be duplicated in a way that should not occur.  For example, if a paper is showing two different cells or cell groups in two different photos,  those two photos should not look absolutely identical, with exactly the same pixels. Similarly, brain scans of two different subjects should not look absolutely identical, nor should photos of two different research animals. 
(2) A photo in a particular paper that should be different from some other photo in that paper might be simply the first photo with one or more minor differences (comparable to submitting a photo of your sister, adjusted to have gray hair, and labeled as a photo of your mother). 
(3) A photo in a particular paper that should be original to that paper might be simply a duplicate of some photo that appeared in some previous paper by some other author, or a duplicate with minor changes.
(4) A photo in a particular paper might show evidence of being Photoshopped.  For example, there might be 10 areas of the photo that are exact copies of each other, with all the pixels being exactly the same. 
(5) A graph or diagram in a paper that should be original to that paper might be simply a duplicate of some graph or diagram that appeared in some previous paper by some other author. 
(6) A graph might have evidence of artificial manipulation, indicating it did not naturally arise from graphing software. For example, one of the bars on a bar graph might not be all the same color. 


research misconduct

There are quite a few other possibilites by which researcher misconduct could be identified by examining images, graphs or figures. Bik, Casadevall and Fang made an effort to find such problematic figures. In their paper "The Prevalence of Inappropriate Image Duplication in Biomedical Research Publications," they report a large-scale problem.  They conclude, "The results demonstrate that problematic images are disturbingly common in the biomedical literature and may be found in approximately 1 out of every 25 published articles containing photographic image data."  

But there is a reason for thinking that the real percentage of research papers with problematic images or graphs is far greater than this figure of only 4%.  The reason is that the techniques used by Bik, Casadevall and Fang seem like rather inefficient techniques capable of finding only a fraction of the papers with problematic images or graphs.  They describe their technique as follows (20,621 papers were checked): 

"Figure panels containing line art, such as bar graphs or line graphs, were not included in the study. Images within the same paper were visually inspected for inappropriate duplications, repositioning, or possible manipulation (e.g., duplications of bands within the same blot). All papers were initially screened by one of the authors (E.M.B.). If a possible problematic image or set of images was detected, figures were further examined for evidence of image duplication or manipulation by using the Adjust Color tool in Preview software on an Apple iMac computer. No additional special imaging software was used. Supplementary figures were not part of the initial search but were examined in papers in which problems were found in images in the primary manuscript."

This seems like a rather inefficient technique which would find less than half of the evidence for researcher misconduct that might be present in photos, diagrams and graphs. For one thing, the technique ignored graphs and diagrams. Probably one of the biggest possibilites of misconduct is researchers creating artificially manipulated graphs not naturally arising from graphing software, or researchers simply stealing graphs from other scientific papers. For another thing, the technique used would only find cases in which a single paper showed evidence for image shenanigans. The technique would do nothing to find cases in which one paper was inappropriately using an image or graph that came from some other paper by different authors. Also, the technique ignored supplemental figures (unless a problem was found in the main figures). Such supplemental figures are often a signficant fraction of the total number of images and graphs in a scientific paper, and are often referenced in the text of a paper as supporting evidence. So they should receive the same scrutiny as the other images or figures in a paper. 

I can imagine a far more efficient technique for looking for misconduct related to imagery and graphs. Every photo, every diagram, every figure and every graph in every paper in  a very large set of papers on a topic (including supplemental figures) would be put into a database.  A computer program with access to that database would then run through all the images, looking for duplicates or near-duplicates in the images, as well as other evidence of researcher misconduct. Such a program might also make use of "reverse image search" capabilities available online.  Such a computer program crunching the image data could be combined with manual checks.  Such a technique would probably find twice as many problems.  Because the technique for detecting problematic images described by  Bik, Casadevall and Fang is a rather inefficient technique skipping half or more of its potential targets, we have reason to suspect that they have merely shown us the tip of the iceberg, and that the actual rate of problematic images and graphs (suggesting researcher misconduct) in biology papers is much greater than 4% -- perhaps 8% or 10%. 

A later paper ("Analysis and Correction of Inappropriate Image Duplication: the Molecular and Cellular Biology Experience") by Bik, Casadevall and Fang (along with Davis and Kullas) involved analysis of a different set of papers. The paper concluded that "as many as 35,000 papers in the literature are candidates for retraction due to inappropriate image duplication."  They found that 6% of the papers "contained inappropriately duplicated images." They reached this conclusion after examining a set of papers in the journal Molecular and Cellular Biology.  To reach this conclusion, they used the same rather inefficient method of their previous study I just cited. They state, "Papers were scanned using the same procedure as used in our prior study."  We can only wonder how many biology papers would be found to be "candidates for retraction" if a really efficient (partially computerized) method was used to search for the image problems, one using an image database and reverse image searching, and one checking not only photos but also graphs, and one also checking the supplemental figures in the papers.  Such a technique might easily find that 100,000 or more biology papers were candidates for retraction.

We should not be terribly surprised by such a situation. In modern academia there is relentless pressure for scientists to grind out papers at a high rate. There also seems to be relatively few quality checks on the papers submitted to scientific journals. Peer review serves largely as an ideological filter, to prevent the publication of papers that conflict with the cherished dogmas of the majority. There are no spot checks of papers submitted for publication, in which reviewers ask to see the source data or original lab notes or lab photographs produced in experiments.  The problematic papers found by the studies mentioned above managed to pass peer review despite glaring duplication errors, indicating that peer reviewers are not making much of an attempt to exclude fraud.  Given this misconduct problem and the items mentioned in my first paragraph, and given the frequently careless speech of so many biologists, in which they so often speak as if unproven claims or discredited claims are facts, it seems there is a significant credibility problem in academic biology. 

Postscript: In an unsparing essay entitled "The Intellectual and Moral Decline in Academic Research," PhD Edward Archer states the following:

"My experiences at four research universities and as a National Institutes of Health (NIH) research fellow taught me that the relentless pursuit of taxpayer funding has eliminated curiosity, basic competence, and scientific integrity in many fields. Yet, more importantly, training in 'science' is now tantamount to grant-writing and learning how to obtain funding. Organized skepticism, critical thinking, and methodological rigor, if present at all, are afterthoughts....American universities often produce corrupt, incompetent, or scientifically meaningless research that endangers the public, confounds public policy, and diminishes our nation’s preparedness to meet future challenges....Universities and federal funding agencies lack accountability and often ignore fraud and misconduct. There are numerous examples in which universities refused to hold their faculty accountable until elected officials intervened, and even when found guilty, faculty researchers continued to receive tens of millions of taxpayers’ dollars. Those facts are an open secret: When anonymously surveyed, over 14 percent of researchers report that their colleagues commit fraud and 72 percent report other questionable practices....Retractions, misconduct, and harassment are only part of the decline. Incompetence is another....The widespread inability of publicly funded researchers to generate valid, reproducible findings is a testament to the failure of universities to properly train scientists and instill intellectual and methodologic rigor. That failure means taxpayers are being misled by results that are non-reproducible or demonstrably false."

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.