The Grand Illusion: Not the one by Styx

Ok, my last post was a bit sarcastic but it's really not far from the claims of philosophers who insist on the immutable nature of consciousness. Essentially it is what they are claiming: brain and mind are analogous to computer and software. It's the software that makes us human and special above all others. Kind of the way Mac users feel. It is software as a service. We get access to our soul under certain limited terms and conditions which can be revoked at any time. So all those people who complain about Gates or Jobs thinking they're God, really aren't too far off...

I, of course don't buy this. I think that what we have named consciousness, doesn't really exist. It is a grand illusion. Over the next many months I hope to share my reasons. I've already started with the beginnings of some very basic primers on the basics of our anatomy. Fleshing out the basics will take several installments. In between I hope to continue to post bad poetry, sarcastic political commentary, self-amusing anecdotes, and the occasional story.

The question is complex and brings together a number of disciplines. But in the end, I think we'll be able to show that the basic structure of cognition is written not in some lore, but in our neurons.

Let the games begin!


Soulware as a Sevice

I don't know why I did not see this sooner. I have had an epiphany. I bought a new computer recently. It arrived with all the software pre-installed. To activate it I had to agree to the terms and conditions which basically state that I don't really own the software. I'm basically just leasing it. When the computer goes belly up, I have to get a new software suite. Some part of the hardware fails and the software is toast too.

That was when it hit me - That's what happens to us! We come with pre-installed software that only runs on this model of brain (CPU, RAM and Memory requirements for the system, etc.) - Soulware as it were. Chimp brains for example, don't have the right CPU. Dolphin brains have the CPU but not enough RAM. Mouse and Rat brains for example can only run Windows 7. The big provisioning system in the sky preloads the software at the factory and off we go. We don't actually own the soul, which can be disposed of at The Great Software Makers discretion.

Too bad it's not a polytheistic belief - we could stand some competition or else we'll never get any upgrades.

(Sorry, left over post - didn't want to waste it.)


And the Child Shall Lead

A bittersweet event happened a couple of weeks ago. Our eldest, of highschool age, expressed an interest in taking a comparative religion course. She has been raised to be ethical and moral without religion. She knows how her mom and I feel about religion but from time she could ask such questions my answer has always been the same - deciding what you believe is a choice that you alone get to make. And she is a wonder. A kinder and more empathetic soul has never lived. She is also smart and confident and not easily swayed. She is free of guilt and baggage. She gives me hope for our future.

I suggested that we could have a series of sessions like that at home. She politely said that she preferred to gain an outside perspective on the subject.

"I'm not interested in the teachings so much as the history of religions,"She said.

"No offense, but you and mom kind of cloud the discussion with political commentary about religion."

It is a bit of a shock when your wildest hopes for your children come true - a father's hope that his children would be better than he.

She is.

Punching Out Before We Buy the Farm

What do flat spins and investments have in common?

Easy - in both if you stay the course too long, you become part of a smoking hole in the ground.
Cutting your losses is a tough thing. "Just another second", or "it'll turn around" can easily become an epitaph. At some point, a reasonable person just has to decide to punch out and live to fight another day.

Today I'm going to punch out on the subject of theology. The reason's pretty simple. I've reached a point where I am no longer interested in hearing the arguments. The evidence is compelling enough for me to assume a piori, in any context, that gods don't exist. There's about 10,000 books I'd love to read before I die. I've developed a tin ear to theology. It's all started to sound the same, and it's been years since I've heard a novel argument. Even something as complicated as quantum physics rewards the casual reader with incentives as to why they should dig deeper. The theological reader is treated to archaic thinking, poor logic and circular arguments. If the deists ever come up with some compelling proof, I'll be happy to reconsider. But it will have to be something a lot more tangible than arguments about first causes, etc.

Stripping away all the rhetoric, it came down to this for me - there is ample evidence that the universe came to be through natural means.

I have no quarrel with descent people who feel religion in their hearts and live their lives just because they believe. That doesn't bother me. Some of them actually visit here and I enjoy their perspectives. If it feels like faith to them, and cognitive bias to me, well so what. I can appreciate them as fellow human beings trying to make their way just like me. It's all the Pseudo-intellectual clap trap that annoys me no end. I wish them all well - as long as they stay out of politics. Politicians who hide behind God are still fair game.

I also want to invite anyone who visits this place from time to time to submit guest posts if they wish or request that I respond to something in particular. I won't censor any posts beyond some obvious ones (like Holocaust denial, but I don't suspect that's a problem with this small crew) but I will work to ensure that we all remain civil. (I drafted this on the 15th - funny coincidence)


Science and Philosophy

I admit that I don't see much use for philosophy without purpose. As many of the recent blogs show, it's easy to get tied up in knots and get regularly insulted by so called philosophers who tend to look down on those of us who aren't convinced by their practiced linguistic contortions. We get lectured on not being 'schooled' in all the nuanced arguments about how many angels can fit on the head of a rhetorical pin. It's an incredible waste of time. Mostly it shows the mental hazards of disconnecting philosophy from reality. People can come up with all sorts of logic exercises that may seem somewhat compelling until you ask the question of how it fits with what is real. Logic that contradicts reality is just nonsense, no matter how skillfully argued.

That's not to say that I think philosophy isn't important. I think it is, as long as it remains linked to science and not allowed to go off on some cockamamie quest into metaphysical LaLa land. Philosophy is a useful way to explore the next great questions that should be posed to science. But the questions need to be coherent with what we already know. Does that mean that once science answers the questions that philosophy is no longer useful? Hardly, because philosophy (ethics) is useful in discussing and imagining the consequences of what science has learned. What do we do about the new knowledge? It's a loop.

For example, science is revealing the biological nature of thought. Over time, we will learn more and more about how we think and what 'thinking' and mind really are. But what are the ramifications of that knowledge? How should our laws, and expectations, even our democracy adapt to the new realities? That sounds like a great job for some philosophers.


Would Thomas Aquinas be an Atheist if He Were Born in the 21st Century?

A favorite of 'scholarly' deists is to fall back on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas. Any time you say anything about the dangers of putting too much emphasis on ideas percolated well before 99% of what we currently know to be fact, these guys take it as a personal affront either for themselves or poor old Thomas, or in one case as an indictment of the 13th century. They trot out how enlightened it all was in the 13th century, with all the university's being founded and such. Not so much about the 4th through 9th Crusades, the Children's Crusade, the Medieval Inquisition, the Church condemnations (including some of the works of Aquinas himself), the fact that University's were placed outside of secular law allowing students freedom for all sorts of crime, and the fact that the 'Queen of the Sciences' taught at these places to rich kids was theology. The 'natural sciences' as taught were based mostly on the teachings of Aristotle, another intelligent guy who was completely wrong about what we now think of as science. If you were a scholar you had to learn Christianity in Europe. Everything else was learned from that perspective. God was a priori knowledge. The pope granted great latitude to university curricula. Except when you taught heresy that would get you excommunicated. In other words, the scholarly theists cherry pick what they need at the moment just like always.

To argue against the ideas is to attack the man. I have a bombshell for you. I personally find Aquinas to be an extremely interesting and important figure from history. I also believe that he was clearly very intelligent and a skilled writer. He also was pretty wrong about the actual science. Here's a quote about spontaneous generation (admittedly a persistent meme that survived until Pasteur conclusively proved it false).

Since the generation of one thing is the corruption of another, it was not incompatible with the first formation of things, that from the corruption of the less perfect the more perfect should be generated. Hence animals generated from the corruption of inanimate things, or of plants, may have been generated then.

I don't include that to belittle the man at all. He was a man for his time. But what if he wasn't?

The whimsy I propose is something that I have thought about from time to time. It's part of the old nature or nurture argument. What would a man like Aquinas born and raised in our time, think of what he wrote in his own time? Maybe it sounds silly, but I'm not convinced that a modern version of Aquinas would have come to the same conclusions as one from the 13th century. If he was the thoughtful and insightful man his modern acolytes insist he was, what if any, would have been the effects of modern knowledge? If he had attended modern university would he have emerged like Behe, like Ruse, or like Shermer?

In light of current science would he have concluded that once you remove yourself from all the word games what evidence is left? Impossible to know. But it's something to consider when these guys trot out the religiosity of some scientist from a few hundred years ago. They never seem to stop to consider what those scientists would think today - particularly now that the penalty for spiritual honesty is not roasting on a stake.


The Cosmological Argument

In fairness, it probably does look interesting from the dog's perspective.


Natural Election 2012: Proposed New Rules for Political Speech

With the ready availability of information on the Internet, I propose the following: Every time a major politician speaks, nonpartisan fact checkers must be present to immediately research any zingers and post their results on an aggregate BS meter that must be in camera view at all times.

Any time the dial is active, a continuous loop of the term BS, will be played at a decibel level appropriate for the reading. Each level of dial activity will be associated with an increase of 10 decibels over the one below it. Any time the dial reaches critical, the speaker has to stop, and can only resume speaking if they win a round of roshimbo with a Navy Seal.

The Problem With Being on a Mission From God

She's on a mission from God. Michelle Bachmann scares me. She really does. She scares me on many levels, not the least of which is that she has followers.

Whenever I hear some politician talk about being on such a mission, I'm reminded of the old Stephen King book, The Dead Zone. Pushing the button because of a higher calling. I have a real problem with a President being on such a mission. Beyond the obvious, it's an issue of accountability. I want a President to feel accountable deep down in their gut. I want them to feel the weight of their responsibility. I want them to believe that the buck stops with them. I want them to feel the burden of the consequences of their acts. They wanted the job, after all.


You are what you glutamate; Basic Neuroscience part 2: Plasticity and Pruning

Part one was a simple review of the structure and the function of the basic building block of the CNS: the neuron. This installment will attempt to cover a simple explanation of the very complex processes of Neuroplasticity and pruning. These are critical concepts in our understanding of the biological basis of cognition.

To review, each neuronal soma (body) has many input jacks (dendrites and receptors) and one output cable (axon) which can have more than one end connector. These individual neurons are arrayed in vast networks with many specialized functions (a subject we will return to in a later installment). These arrays are very flexible and adaptable depending upon the quality and quantity of inputs; what we call experiences. Below is a greatly simplified diagram illustrating a section of brain tissue with all the supporting bits removed. It’s important to realize that although this diagram looks pretty complex and meaty, in reality each of the neurons could have 5-15 thousand dendritic connections. In real brains the connectivity runs into the trillions.

The next diagram illustrates the beginning of neuronal impulse propagation. The neuron with the red arrow has been stimulated sufficiently by the axon end terminus to the left, for it to depolarize and propagate the impulse to other neurons down the line. Although the blue arrowed neuron also received a signal from the left neuron, in this case either the signal was inadequate to fire the blue arrowed neuron or other neurons were sending it suppressive signals to stand down. Although there may have been local alterations in the membrane potential of these dendrites, a full scale action potential was not triggered.

The fourth diagrams shows how the signal may be passed down a particular pathway to the exclusion of others.

Or it may take a more circuitous route or even multiple routes as in the diagram below.

How one or more tracks gets favored is the fun part. The availability and facility with which an impulse travels along various pathways within this network is the cornerstone of our minds. The tracks selected depend upon inputs and a variety of structural, electrochemical, and genetic processes. It’s very complicated. It is rocket science. But that doesn’t mean a person can’t understand the basic premise. How these pathways come to be, is at the heart of our thinking, our core being, and our memories (both procedural and experiential). It’s what experts call neuroplasticity.

There’s a lot of confusion about this term, but hopefully we can get rid of some of the mystery. At a high level, neuroplasticity refers to the fact that structural and functional changes to the brain can be permanently created through the variety and intensity of experiences. Keep in mind that experiences are combinations of sensory inputs to the brain mitigated by the residual effects of similar experiences and the their behavioral impact. That definition is true but I think it’s confusing to all us non-neuroscientists. It conjures up images of neurons replicating and filling our heads with more cells or creating new brain regions in response to new experiences. That’s not really it. Plasticity has more to do with biochemistry and 'functional anatomy' than classic anatomy with one huge exception we’ll get to later.

We have these enormous neural networks waiting for something to do. We start out with vastly greater numbers of connections than we will likely ever need. The redundancy is in orders of magnitude. So neuroplasticity is not so much building new structures as much as it’s making certain existing ones much more efficient (and preferred) and eliminating ones we don’t ever use (a process aptly named ‘pruning’). Starting with a situation where two competing paths are possible (obviously there are many other possible permutations), how do we arrive at a situation where one is favored? It’s actually very simple to explain as long as we keep way from the complex molecular biology and biochemistry of the process (which is unbelievably cool if you are into that sort of thing).

At its most basic the process is this:
  1. Strong or repetitive stimulation of a dendritic connection by impulses from an associated axon.
  2. Responsive activation of genes linked to the dendritic membrane receptors within the nucleus resulting in transcription and mRNA formation.
  3. Translation of the mRNA and production of either increased numbers of receptors or receptors with more efficient neurotransmitter binding.
  4. Selective transport of the enhanced receptors to the specific dendrite (or dendrites) that triggered the response, resulting in greater sensitivity of those dendrites to future stimuli. (for Jared, I was careful to avoid the dreaded ‘code’ word)
In essence, the connections to these axons are plastically enhanced. This mechanism appears to be extremely important to how the brain actually functions outside of philosophy discussions. Although the basic structure of the neural net is the same as before, functionally, a new executable has been structurally created (biochemically) that changes the behavior of the system to subsequent stimuli. Future stimuli can trigger this enhanced pathway more easily and the target neuron may not require as many supporting stimuli from other axons as it originally required. We’ll return to this topic when we look at the effects of hallucinogens in a future installment (it also explains why some of those drug induced states may become permanent). We’ll also noodle a bit on how this arrangement may explain a host of observable phenomena from mnemonics to confirmation bias (that’s a teaser!).

So as the next two diagrams show, strong, multichannel, or repetitive stimulation of a pathway results in the creation of changes to the structure of the connections between neurons. The interplay of major pathways, regulatory paths (the neuron with the blue aura), and multiple convergent channels can strengthen these enhanced pathways. Future stimuli or previously inadequate stimuli from primary or secondary pathways may be sufficient to trigger the path. Since the pathways don't exist in a vacuum, previously unrelated stimuli (coming in from any of the thousands of alternate attachments) may be sufficient, post enhancement, to trigger an action potential - think about what memory process that helps explain.

This explains the plastic changes that result in new functional structures at a high level. It also helps explain why the old computer / software saw falls apart a bit. Memory and cognitive processes are more akin to self etching chips than to a traditional digital computer with fixed hardware and add on software. The flip side to this is what happens to connections that aren’t doing anything. This next process helps explain why kids may have twice as many connections per neuron as adults. Take the circled axon dendrite connection circled below.

If this connection never amounts to much (few stimuli, or greatly overshadowed by others) it may be ‘pruned’ as in the second picture. This latent connection is lost resulting in another permanent change to the structure of the brain. "Use it or lose it" is something the brain has known about for a long time.

Talk about pruning! This little exercise prunes about 98% of the science away, but hopefully this helps to better understand three vital aspects of the brain: the extensive networks of neurons, how new functions and experiences result in permanent changes, and how lack of activity can result in loss of connectivity. FYI: If you understand the pun in the title, you get a gold star for today...


Do Materialists Dream of Etherial Sheep?

Sorry to Phillip K. I think a lot of non-material thinkers believe that materialists can't have a good time. Since we are skeptical of a lot of the things that such individuals enjoy they seem to think that we never have any fun. Not so. Being objective about the world doesn't destroy the value of subjective experience.

The fact that we don't think that our existence is magical doesn't take away from the magic of living.

Let me give you an example.

I suspect that the first painting needs no introduction, but the one on the left may. The painting to the left is "Lavender Mist" by Jackson Pollock. As way of introduction, Ole Pliny is a very (very, very) minor artist who has sold some of his work over the years. Art is not my vocation nor my hobby. Art for me has always been my emotional outlet. I paint for my own needs. If on occasion one of my works connects to someone, I'm just as likely to give it to them as sell it. The value for me is in the creation of the piece not the end product. That is a very subjective process. To me, art has both an objective worth and a subjective one. I appreciate the former - and enjoy the later.

These two pieces illustrate my meaning. I greatly appreciate and admire Leonardo's skill and his historical importance is unquestionable. But subjectively there is no contest - I would much prefer to have Pollock's painting over my mantel than the "Mona Lisa". That sounds crazy to some, after all, objectively, the "Mona Lisa" is extraordinarily valuable and historically significant. As an investment it would be the best choice. As art it falls flat to me.

Well, not exactly flat but I still enjoy "Lavender Mist" more. Now you are surely convinced that Ole' Pliny is completely wacked. The paintings work emotionally for me for different reasons. The allure of the "Mona Lisa" is that expression. What is she thinking? Leonardo has captured facial ambiguity perfectly. The viewer can create a world to explain that look because it's not an obvious expression that we can easy catalog. It gives us pause. That is masterful. But it's easier than what Pollock does.

Pollock, and the other great abstract painters, have a more difficult task in my opinion. They have to create drama and emotion absent common place cues. There is no expression to capture our interest in "Lavender Mist". And yet, to view it in person, is to be filled with emotion. Emotion created without the benefit of the obvious. That to me is great art. It's very subjective, but so what?


Defending the Blivit!

Over at 'Evangelical Realism', a site I used to visit with some regularity, there is an ongoing battle between some fellow named Alan Roebuck and some familiar faces about the importance of consciousness as a 'proof' of the existence of non-material things which with the usual slight of hand means that God exists. QED and a smug smile. It makes me crazy how people think.

Here's most human thought in a nutshell:
  • We make shit up.
  • We convince ourselves that the shit we concocted is real.
  • We defend the made up shit with logic based upon the inscrutable nature of made up shit.
  • We remember the 2 experiences that support the shit and ignore the 12 billion that don't.
  • We scoff at skeptics who insist on evidence because shit plays by its own rules.

Did I miss anything?

Let's take an example. There exists a thing called a Blivit. A Blivit, as anyone knows, is 20 pounds of dung in a ten pound bag. We know it exists despite the materialistic limitations of said ten pound bag. The fact that rationally, 20 pounds won't fit is immaterial... A Blivit exists and can be defending through logic. Ontologically, a perfect Blivit must also exist since perfection must exist. Any silly naysayer just doesn't get it because we know it exists through means not limited by ridiculous notions of material evidence. It FEELS like I'm carrying around 20 pounds so it must be true.

Consciousness is another such a concept. Consciousness is not a substance, it is a word. It's a word that was created to describe something long before humans had any knowledge of the underlying physical processes. It’s just a label we insist on clinging to when describing a complex set of neurosensory perceptions created by well studied anatomic and physiologic structures and processes. These processes are accessible to anyone with an interest in neuroanatomy and physiology. These disciplines form the strong basis for taking a material view of the mind. Most (if not all) of the emotions, perceptions, mental states (including deeply religious ones) can be reliably duplicated by stimulation of specific regions of the brain or the application of either neurotransmitters or their analogs. As a corollary, damage to these regions results in predictable alterations in emotion, cognition, perception, notion of self, or even spirituality. These constitute very strong evidence of a material explanation of thought processes. No evidence of any consciousness outside of the constraints of neuroanatomy has ever been demonstrated in any valid test. Claims to such have always been anecdotal, biased or poorly tested. Such claims have not been repeatable nor have they demonstrated any findings that cannot be explained by the neurosciences. Neuroscience experimentation has resulted in enormous support for a material explanation of the mind while other explanations fail to provide any support outside of philosophy debates.

Can you measure consciousness? Who cares! It's a word we made up to describe a bunch of processes that are completely governed by the anatomy and physiology of the brain. These can be measured and studied. It's time to stop studying Blivits.


Natural Election 2012 (July 1, 2011)

Republican Visual Recognition and Talking Points Aid Packages are now available for purchase! No more embarrassing gaffes! An example below:

LEFT: John Wayne Gacy: notorious serial killer,
responsible for the murders of 33 people.

RIGHT: John Wayne: beloved republican icon and actor responsible for the simulated deaths of several hundreds

Real deer in the headlights vs metaphorical..