Sunday, September 30, 2007
Thank you for your readership, and for some great discussions and comments. I'm sure I will see many of you occasionally from time to time on various fora and other blogs. Just a lot less frequently. Life is calling. . .
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Buddhism uses the word "consciousness" as follows. If a factory makes animal crackers out of dough, you could say that "dough" is a name for the substance common to all the animal crackers, regardless of their differing names and forms. In the same sense, Buddhism uses "consciousness" as the name for the substance of all things without exception. Though this definition may seem somewhat different from the one you use, it's still adhering to the understanding that "consciousness" is a synonym for "what you're experiencing right now."
According to the view of "consciousness" assumed in your debate with Searle, you could doubt that it's a property of a chair. But you'd hardly doubt that a chair appears IN consciousness. And in fact, anything you could possibly perceive, experience, or imagine appears in consciousness. For instance, if you can "imagine" something, it's (by definition, by both definitions) in consciousness. You could speculate, "A long time ago, a universe existed in which consciousness had not yet arisen." That speculation itself would be one more thing appearing in consciousness.
So far I am pretty much in full agreement.
To say "consciousness is the ultimate substance" is a way of expressing this conclusion that all things appear in consciousness. It follows that "consciousness" has meaning only as a name for this substance. That is: since nothing could be outside of consciousness, there's no meaning to the idea of "having" or "not having" consciousness. So the Buddhist view is: the very idea that there are things that "have consciousness" (i.e. "sentient beings") is along the lines of a dream, a delusion, or mere jugglery conjured up by some magician.
I would not go as far as Resnick that the idea of things "having consciousness" is necessarily a dream or delusion. However he is certainly correct that we cannot ever hope to know of a world of unconscious materiality. Everything we do, see, or think about is known only insofar as it is registered by consciousness. And this is the foundation of epistemology, which materialists so very often lose sight of.
The relevance to this blog is to notice that the ultimate composition of the only world we can know, is subjective. Objective reality is just another subjectively experienced set of concepts and models for predicting the (subjectively experienced) results of investigations. It may be "true" or not, but its epistemological foundation is exactly the same as belief in Zeus, crystal healing, geocentrism or telepathy. In all cases we are talking about beliefs and models, experienced subjectively. This even goes for beliefs like Dennett's and the Churchlands, who are convinced that subjective experience is not real, and attempt to flog this porridge among their materialist fellow-travellers.
Eliezer Yudkowsky is one of the most prolific bloggers there. A man unwilling to consider the possibility of parapsychology experiments being valid unless they pass a repeatibility test that no experimental psychology protocol (or clinical medical protocol) has ever acheived: a 95% successful replication rate across many different research centers. Now let's read him pontificate about human longevity:
I think it's pretty absurd for any of us to pretend to maturity when all of us are less than a thousand years old, making us infants by the standards of future civilization.
That ranks right up there with his comment on how terrible and immoral it is not to freeze the heads of everyone after they die, presumably so that the nanotech replicators can copy our neural synapses and download them into computer simulations. Eliezer also believes that his non-profit organization will succeed in bringing about the Singularity by developing the world's first artificial intelligence.
Yes, folks, this is "rationalism" for you. . . Meanwhile, Eliezer and his fellow travellers have absolutely no interest in reading about real research suggesting that the mind is something other than just brain processes.
Sunday, September 9, 2007
Sunday, September 2, 2007
Yes, we do know about DNA, transcribed to RNA, which codes for the sequence of amino acids in proteins. What we do not know about biology, however, vastly exceeds what is actually known. While there is a great faith among reductionists that biology can all be explained in terms of contact mechanics, molecular machines and chemistry, the actual explanations are sadly lacking in just about every case. For example, we do not know:
- Why do proteins fold so quickly into a characteristic shape when there are millions of thermodynamically equivalent conformations that a protein could take?
- What controls the unfolding of complexity in development in each case for millions of different species?
- How exactly do acquired characteristics like knee callouses in camels, migration patterns in birds, and predator fear behaviors (which are learned) turn into "hard-coded" behaviors based solely on genes that exactly duplicate the learned / acquired characteristics?
- How do organisms based on blind/dumb contact mechanics "regulate" during development to overcome problems?
- How do organisms heal (which amounts to many of the same processes as development, only in response to particular injuries)?
- How does a single-celled organism like paramecium display complex behavior, including learning?
- How do organisms perceive, which ones are conscious, and how do they learn?
- And on and on. . .
It is obvious at this point that boasts like Eliezer's claiming that biology has been explained reductionistically are almost entirely empty.
Readers who have grown tired of the endless promises of reductionism coupled with an apparent inability on the part of their adherents to notice the lacunae of materialist theories would do well to read Rupert Sheldrake's book on field phenomena in biology, which points towards a very different understanding of morphogenesis, regulation, healing and behavior.
Here is the Wikipedia article, in full:
Some of the yet unsolved problems of neuroscience include:
- Self awareness: What is the neuronal basis of subjective experience, wakefulness, alertness, arousal and attention? What is its function?
- Perception: How does the brain transfer sensory information into coherent, private percepts? What are the rules by which perception is organized? What are the features/objects that constitute our perceptual experience of internal and external events? How are the senses integrated? Is face perception special (e.g. innate)? What is the relationship between subjective experience and the physical world?
- Learning and Memory: Where do our memories get stored and how are they retrieved again? How can learning be improved? What is the difference between explicit and implicit memories? How plastic is the mature brain?
- Development: How and why did the brain evolve (the way it did)? What are the molecular determinants of individual brain development?
- Sleep: Why do we dream? What are the underlying brain mechanisms? What is its relation to anesthesia?
- Cognition and Decisions: How and where does the brain evaluate reward value and effort (cost) to modulate behavior? How does previous experience alter perception and behavior? What are the genetic and environmental contributions to brain function?
- Language: How is it implemented neurally? What is the basis of semantic meaning?
- Diseases: What are the neural bases (causes) of mental diseases like psychotic disorders (e.g. mania, schizophrenia), Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease or addiction? Is it possible to recover loss of sensory or motor function?
Materialists assume that each and every one of these unanswered questions will be resolved through reductionist explanations, in terms of neurons and neural firing patterns. However, the lack of progress on many of these items should bring that unstinting faith into some question. . .
Friday, August 31, 2007
Stephen Braude writes quite eloquently about that here:
As far as parapsychology is concerned, some would say, “I can’t accept that a table levitated (or that someone received information directly from a remote location, or influenced a random number generator by thought alone). It simply makes no sense (or is overwhelmingly improbable) in terms of our scientific knowledge. . .
Besides (and even more to the point), it’s completely obvious that we can know that something is the case without knowing why it’s the case. . .
Many critics, then, seem to have it backwards. Theoretical speculation requires, from the beginning, careful and systematic observation. Without the initial accumulation and systematization of observed facts, scientists won’t even begin to know what they’re theorizing about. Moreover, as the history of science demonstrates, we often think we know how to explain observed facts until better explanations come along. So obviously, our currently preferred explanations never provided much (if anything) in the way of additional assurance that the phenomena were real. On the contrary, no matter what science eventually takes the phenomena to be, their reality was our starting point, the source of our puzzlement and our urge to find an explanation.
Thursday, August 30, 2007
Saturday, August 25, 2007
Go read it.
Frankly, this does not surprise me at all. After all, the desire to have a simple worldview with black and white answers to every question is very tempting for human beings. And when different researchers conduct the same kinds of experiment, they often get contradictory results, or wildly different effect sizes, eg:
So it is not at all surprising that many people, especially a self-selected group of people who tend towards systematizing and simplifying reality, want to use methods that avoid raising difficult questions.
If the psi hypothesis is true, then the beliefs of experimenters can have a strong result on the results of their experiments, even when the experiments are conducted double-blind, most particularly when the overall experiment is statistical in nature and the experimental subjects are extremely complex and non-deterministic. Medical clinical trials certainly fall into this realm. Given the demonstrated reality that the beliefs of experimenters do effect the results of their experiments, it is certainly possible that psi correlations might help account for this (as opposed to experimenter fraud, biased errors, biased conclusions, etc. which materialists believe account for funding effects on experimental outcome).
Given the inevitable messiness of real science and the often varying results of experimental trials, it should be expected that some people want to avoid all those questions being raised by setting "rules" for science along the lines of what Topher Cooper suggested, tongue in cheek:
1) Don't reach a conclusion.
2) Completely ignore the data and just go with your faith.
3) Kill anyone who ever looks like they might ever do a second test of any hypothesis of interest.
But, of course, a committment to truth and reality demands that we face all of the facts, not just those that confirm our world-view. So long live multiple independent labs and experimenters. Long live meta-analysis!
Friday, August 24, 2007
New virtual-reality experiments show the brain can be tricked into believing it's outside the body, lending credence to the strange claims of some patients and shedding light on how the brain might generate its "self-image."
Notice two things. The first is that these experiments are supposed to be about tricking "the brain". The clear implication is that "the brain" and "the person" are identical and interchangable concepts. This is practically de rigueur for science reporting and is considered much more scientific than talking about people or selves (presumably in imitation of the Churchlands). The second is that this experiment somehow explains the "strange claims of some patients" that they believe they are "outside the body". That is an obvious reference to out-of-body experiences associated with the Near-Death Experience. Clearly the "science writer" is assuming the materialist metaphysics here without the least bit of question.
The point of this kind of science article is not really to discover the truth about near-death experiences, but rather to attack other interpretations of the NDE and to proselytize the materialistic one. It doesn't really matter to materialists that this research actually does not address the most important fact about near-death experiences -- that they often result in veridical perception. The point is not to actually address that kind of evidence, but instead to come up with some kind of nice-sounding way explain away the NDE while completely ignoring those aspects of the NDE that contradict materialism, to defend the materialism meme from alternative concepts, allow materialists to feel smarter and better-informed than those 'superstitious and backwards' people who think that the NDE has a non-materialist explanation, and in effect to "twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones".
Next time you read an popular media article about any kind of psychology or consciousness research, look for the key words indicating an unquestioning assumption of materialism and mind = brain. You are almost certain to find it.
Tuesday August 28, 4PM PDT / 7PM EDT.
UPDATE: Unfortunately, the show will not be aired live because of scheduling conflicts. So you can't call in. Darn! However you can certainly email Marcel or Alex with your questions this weekend before they record the show.
TDG: . . .I'm interested to know why you concentrated on the 'William James era' of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Were you lead into the topic accidentally when originally researching James, or is there something about this period of psychical research which made it stand out to you as a writer?
DB: First by accident, then by plan. I was researching the history of psychology for an earlier book (on the science of affection) and I stumbled across some references to William James losing his mind and getting caught up in spiritualism. Other psychologists were just furious with him, angry enough, that I began to wonder why.
As it turned out, they were angry because he was such a leader in the field, they were afraid he would lead the field astray. And was what led me to concentrate on the Victorian period. Because it turned out to be the one time when some of the best scientists in the world - James, Charles Richet and John Strutt (both Nobel Prize winners), Oliver Lodge, a pioneer in wireless communication - were willing to risk their careers to explore supernatural science.
They were so smart, such good researchers, I wanted to know what they found. . .
DB: Here's the blessing and curse of mainstream science. It's the most powerful investigative tool ever invented. It has succeeded by following a very strict set of rules for "proof" of a phenomenon. That phenomenon, for instance, must be predictable, testable, replicable, confirmable. An example of this is the freezing temperature of water (phase change from liquid to solid at 32 degrees fahrenheit.) I can predict this and I (and you and the entire population of the world) can repeat and confirm it ad infinitum.
So far, paranormal phenomena don't follow those rules. They're not predictable in any consistent sense, and rarely perfectly replicable. So - and this William James complained about bitterly - mainstream science has responded by declaring them nonsense and the scientists who pursue them as pseudo-scientists. The problem with that is that our scientific rules may prevent us from trying new approaches, considering alternative ways to measure reality - in other words, box us into a very limited world.
Bottom line, science plays it safe and ruthlessly defends its limits. Totally human and - here's the scandalous part - punishes those who try to make the universe a little more open. . .
TDG: A number of those 'skeptical' reviews of Ghost Hunters have suggested that your 'balanced position' shows that you did not read up on the techniques of fraudulent mediumship, and hence your account was overly credulous (James Randi himself made this point in his newsletter). Can you clarify as to whether you researched things like cold reading, and the other methods used by conjurors and charlatans?
DB: Yes, I knew I was going to get that reaction and, candidly, I thought I could live with it. I'm an obsessive over-researcher so I looked at cold readings, muscle readings, the wonderful fraudulent devices used by mediums, the works. But what made the story interesting, worthwhile, wasn't the fraud. Do we need another book debunking dead mediums?
The whole point of my book - the one I knew would get me in trouble with the Randis of the world - was that possibility exists, that some things remain genuinely fascinatingly explicable, and that there are still questions that deserve to be answered in the realms of the supernatural. Even if we only learn that "supernatural" is the wrong word, that the real answer is that we simply haven't found the limits of the natural world yet.
. . .
TDG: To finish, the tough question - but you can keep your answer extremely short, no need for an explanation. In light of your experience in writing Ghost Hunters, if you (personally) had to answer the question with only a yes or a no: is there something beyond death?
DB: I don't know. But I will tell you that before I researched the book, my answer would have been No. So I'm glad I took the time and trouble - it's made the world a more interesting place for me. . .
This interview is very much worth reading in full.
Saturday, August 18, 2007
To tell people that their non-religious beliefs are just a religion is an insult. Why is it an insult? There isn't any nice way to answer, so I'll be blunt. It is an insult because the way that people form religious beliefs is so intellectually irresponsible that their conclusions are almost guaranteed to be false. People:
· accept their religious beliefs with little or no evidence
· accept religious beliefs that are contrary to the evidence
· accept religious beliefs without studying competing views
· are certain about religious beliefs that are dubious at best, and
· accept their religious beliefs not because they are intellectually compelling, but because they are emotionally comforting.
Forming non-religious beliefs in a religious way is irrational because forming any beliefs in a religious way is irrational.
Now let's examine these criticisms in detail and see if they apply to reductionistic materialism and the denial of psi phenomena:
1) Do most reductionistic materialists "accept their . . . beliefs with little or no evidence" or "accept . . . beliefs that are contrary to the evidence"? I think that is the case. Reductionist materialists who deny psi phenomena are real discard a large body of research pointing towards a non-material aspect of mind and consciousness. They also ignore a vast body of anecdotal evidence to this effect, often extremely well corroborated.
2) Do most reductionistic materialists "accept . . . beliefs without studying competing views"? I think the answer to that could easily be "yes". There are certainly exceptions, like Andrew Endersby, but even the designated skeptics in debates about psi are often poorly read on the research they are attacking. I see no evidence that the run-of-the-mill reductionistic materialist has read books like Entangled Minds, Best Evidence or Irreducible Mind, nor that they have read the studies from researchers like Dean Radin, Rupert Sheldrake, Ian Stevenson and the like.
3) Are reductionistic materialists "certain about . . .beliefs that are dubious at best"? I think so. I've discussed many topics with reductionistic materialists on a number of blogs and fora. These kinds of statements are typical: "ghosts are nonsense", "of course mind is reducible to brain states", "death is the end, extinction, annihilation". Very well documented psi phenomena suggests that at least some doubt is warranted about these positions, but instead many materialists express absolute certitude in their uninformed position.
4) Do reductionistic materialists "accept their . . . beliefs not because they are intellectually compelling, but because they are emotionally comforting"? For this question we have to look beyond the surface of the question. Certainly there are discomforting aspects to materialism, such as the nihilism that many of its adherents seem to feel is the ultimate truth of reality. However, looking through a sociological lens, a straightforward answer appears. Materialism provides the opportunity to distance oneself from the beliefs of the masses of "deluded" people and join the club of the wise, intelligent, culturally powerful and unquestioned leaders of academia. So from that perspective it is clear that materialism is quite a comfortable position indeed. I think B. Alan Wallace stated it quite nicely in his Skeptiko interview:
So this is what bothers me about many of the so-called skeptics. What they're doing is defending the status quo, which doesn't take a whole lot of guts, frankly. The status quo, where so much money, power and status is, of materialism. And so no skepticism is required there at all, and so standing up in front with a whole team of scientists behind one all agreeing on the same metaphysical worldview, and then saying "we're skeptics", they're about as skeptical as Pat Robertson or Billy Graham. . .
In short, I think I have demonstrated that the criticisms that Caplan made against religious beliefs apply quite nicely to the unquestioned metaphysical materialism which holds sway in academia. However denunciations of religion are very popular within that circle, while questioning materialism is practically never done. And that's really too bad. . .
One of the most relevant and historically obvious observations about materialism (and have no doubt, materialism is the unofficial doctrine of most official institutions of science) is that its prevalence today owes a great deal to the historical relationship of conflict between scientists and the religious institution of the Catholic church at the dawn of the Enlightenment. It is not difficult to see that today, the identity of a great many of the most influential materialists is caught up in a conflict with religion and religious beliefs.
This blog barely discusses religion, but if you read prominent and high-traffic science blogs written by materialists, religion is very often front and center on the agenda. On the one hand, you have blogs like GNXP, where Razib continually pokes and prods at religious beliefs as an odd curiosity of the human mind (although of course never subjecting his own materialism to the same kind of analysis). But even more common (and much more popular according to site traffic) is a "demonology" approach to religion, as displayed by P.Z. Myers antipathic Pharyngula blog (by far the highest traffic blog for Seed's scienceblogs). This is also the kind of analysis of religion we see in books like Sam Harris' The End of Faith, Richard Dawkins The God Delusion, and Stengers's God: the failed hypothesis. Religious belief as a toxic mental delusion and pathology.
This same kind of combatative attitude is very easily seen in many articles on science written in mainstream publications. For example, there is an incessant parade of articles meant to bash religious beliefs like the soul, free will and God.
All of this attention on religion by materialists serves a very obvious purpose of maintaining group identity by praising the in-group beliefs (these things don't exist, only atoms in motion and the void) and poking fun at the out-group beliefs (religion). After all, materialists already disbelieve in these things, so why the constant harping on them? It is a way to construct a sociological identity of the praiseworthy against the intellectually condemned. A very clear and obvious reaction to religious beliefs.
Here is an invitation from AMNAP to all the religion-obsessed. Move on. Get over it. Start constructing your beliefs based on the observations, instead of constantly reacting to mythologies from hundreds or thousands of years ago. . .
Thursday, August 16, 2007
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Thanks Jacob for providing this service!
UPDATE: Jacob brought to my attention that the second link was incorrect. Fixed now.
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
The author of "The Discovers" wrote: "The greatest impediment in the whole history of science to progress is not ignorance, but the illusions of knowledge". Thinking that we know something that we've actually assumed. Susan Blackmore's words there, I think in many respects. . . have expressed illusions of knowledge rather than actual knowledge. . . In this regard her statements are enormous impediments to knowledge rather than knowledge. She said we must start with what we know of reality, and then she goes on to this whole sequence of things she says we know [but don't]. . .
What do we know about what happens to consciousness at death?. . . Do we have any means of measuring the presence of consciousness? The answer is no. . . Is there any scientific definition . . .of consciousness? The answer is no. We don't know whether insect-eating plants are conscious. We don't know whether coral are conscious. What are the causes of consciousness? We don't know. . . This is a massive amount of ignorance. . . If we take that as a starting point. . . how on earth with confidence can we say we know anything about what happens to consciousness at death with all that ignorance? And so to start off and say any spiritual practice has to take place in terms of what we know, very good. But why don't we be a bit skeptical about what people think they know as opposed to what has actually been demonstrated in a rigorous scientific fashion? So this is what bothers me about many of the so-called skeptics. What they're doing is defending the status quo, which doesn't take a whole lot of guts, frankly. The status quo, where so much money, power and status is, of materialism. And so no skepticism is required there at all, and so standing up in front with a whole team of scientists behind one all agreeing on the same metaphysical worldview, and then saying "we're skeptics", they're about as skeptical as Pat Robertson or Billy Graham. . . I just don't see much difference in the skepticism of a religious fundamentalist and the skepticism of a hard-core committed scientific materialist. . .
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
Abstract—Remote viewing (RV) is a perceptual ability whereby individuals are able to describe and experience objects, pictures, and locations that are blocked from ordinary perception, either by distance, shielding, or time. RV is usually carried out as a team effort, consisting of a viewer who is attempting to describe a target, and an interviewer who assists the viewer in exacting images and sensations from his of her subconscious process. We report a RV experiment carried out at a conference in Arco, Northern Italy, with a class of 24 participants, many of whom were healers and “energy workers.” Based on previous work of the authors, great attention was given to creating a feeling of community and coherence of intention within the group during the threeday class. In the fourth of the five sessions of the class, a formal, RV experiment was conducted with class members working in pairs, wherein each person served alternately as viewer and interviewer. Viewers were asked to describe a picture of an outdoor scene, encased in an opaque, sealed envelope, which they would be shown immediately after the session. The interviewer then was directed to take the viewer’s sketches and written impressions to the front of the room and rank order the material (from 1 to 4) against the four possible pictures from a preset target package. In this blind-ranking protocol, 6 first-place matches would be expected by chance from the 24 viewers. Instead, 14 first-place matches were achieved. The binomial probability of this outcome is 5 ´ 10- 4, with an effect size Z/(N)1/2= 0.64
Below are photographs of two of the remote viewing session drawings that were blindly matched with the correct target, and the target and decoy photos.
Disputes in academia are nothing new, but thanks to the internet, and the fact that both Radin and Hansen are bloggers, this one has the potential to be a lot more public than many previous dust-ups in parapsychology. . .
UPDATE: Radin has addressed Hansen's critique here. H/T Book Surgeon, in the comments. . .
Monday, August 6, 2007
When I want to listen to internet content, I want to download it and listen to it later, usually while driving home from the office. And many people like to listen to audio programs on their iPods or other MP3 players. The protected / streaming formats do not allow this.
I consider seeing a site with audio content where MP3 files are not provided as evidence that that site is completely clueless about how people wish to use the internet. For a media organization like Wisconsin Public Radio to offend in this manner is simply beyond acceptable.
Get with the program, folks!
Hansen's book is a must-read for those interested in psi phenomena and why they inhabit the murky and ill-defined edges of our knowledge and institutions. Don't miss it.
As always, this show will begin at 4:00 PM PDT, 7:00 PM EDT.
UPDATE: The show is now scheduled for tomorrow, August 7th.
Sunday, August 5, 2007
In 1994 the ABC news show "Put to the Test" created an informal test for McMoneagle.
Skeptoicriticized McMoneagle's interpretations of the scene, but I found their critisms rather strained. McMoneagle's drawing was of a river with straight sides, and a bridge, which were obvious matches for the target site and not the other three sites. A few of their criticisms were very misleading. . .
She's looking up at it. This would apply best to the treehouse, the waterslide, or the Water Wall. There was really nothing to look up at at the dock.
Did the skeptoid commentor actually watch the entire video? First of all, McMoneagle said "There's something tall at the target. She keeps looking up at it". The video footage clearly shows her repeatedly looking up at the bridge, which looks to be over 100 feet tall. For the skeptoid commentor to make this misleading comment is ridiculous. Of course, he is correct that the other sites also have something tall at the target site, and if they were chosen it is likely that the individual at the target site would have looked up at them as well.
She's standing on an incline. She was not standing on an incline, and there were no apparent inclines at any of the four locations.
McMoneagle never said this. He said "the actual target itself is more on an incline". And the bridge, the most prominent visual feature of the target site and target photo, is certainly on an incline up from ground level to high above the river, curving back down to an incline on the opposite bank.
There's a river or something riverlike nearby, with manmade improvements. Houston is a famous river town, so this was a pretty good bet. It applies equally well to the waterslide and to the dock.
I saw no evidence in the photographs or video footage that the other two sites fit nearly as well with this description. Perhaps they were near a river, but the target photo and video footage from ABC made it clear that the important aspects of the other potential targets was something completely different. Certainly the dock is the best possible fit for the illustrations and commentary McMoneagle provided during the program.
I argue that the target person could have been at any one of the four locations, and Joe's psychic predictions would have seemed equally impressive. Joe made numerous sketches, but the only two that they showed were a sketch of a squiggly river (the river at the dock is between straight cement seawalls) and a vague triangular shape, which they interpreted as similar to a crane on a barge when seen from a certain angle.
The river McMoneagle drew was clearly squiggly in the distance, but the part in the foreground was drawn with completely straight banks, which fit the manmade straight lines of the dock area perfectly.
In addition, ABC news showed many more than two sketches. Again I find myself questioning whether Skeptoid bothered to watch the entire video carefully?
An interesting video, certainly not a scientific test, and not proof of anything, but I found it intriguing and entertaining.
I'll address a more formal study of remote viewing soon here on AMNAP.
UPDATE: Brian in the comments questions whether the woman was looking up or not.
Based on these stills from the video, I would say it appears to me that she was looking "up" at the bridge, which is very large and a hundred feet or more high. Now if Joe had suggested that she was looking "straight up" that would be obviously inaccurate.
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
Monday, July 30, 2007
Skeptic magazine has a meticulously-footnoted article that evicerates the dubious claims of AI:
On March 24, 2005, an announcement was made in newspapers across the country, from the New York Times1 to the San Francisco Chronicle,2 that a company3 had been founded to apply neuroscience research to achieve human-level artificial intelligence. The reason the press release was so widely picked up is that the man behind it was Jeff Hawkins, the brilliant inventor of the PalmPilot, an invention that made him both wealthy and respected.4
You’d think from the news reports that the idea of approaching the pursuit of artificial human-level intelligence by modeling the brain was a novel one. Actually, a Web search for “computational neuroscience” finds over a hundred thousand webpages and several major research centers.5 At least two journals are devoted to the subject.6 Over 6,000 papers are available online. Amazon lists more than 50 books about it. A Web search for “human brain project” finds more than eighteen thousand matches.7 Many researchers think of modeling the human brain or creating a “virtual” brain a feasible project, even if a “grand challenge.”8 In other words, the idea isn’t a new one. . .
The fact is, we have no unifying theory of neuroscience. We don’t know what to build, much less how to build it.12 As one observer put it, neuroscience appears to be making “antiprogress” — the more information we acquire, the less we seem to know.13 . . .
A Brief History of A.I.
Duplicating or mimicking human-level intelligence is an old notion — perhaps as old as humanity itself. In the 19th century, as Charles Babbage conceived of ways to mechanize calculation, people started thinking it was possible — or arguing that it wasn’t. Toward the middle of the 20th century, as mathematical geniuses Claude Shannon,17 Norbert Wiener,18 John von Neumann,19 Alan Turing, and others laid the foundations of the theory of computing, the necessary tool seemed available.
In 1955, a research project on artificial intelligence was proposed; a conference the following summer is considered the official inauguration of the field. The proposal20 is fascinating for its assertions, assumptions, hubris, and naÃ¯vetÃ©, all of which have characterized the field of A.I. ever since. The authors proposed that ten people could make significant progress in the field in two months. That ten-person, two-month project is still going strong — 50 years later. And it’s involved the efforts of more like tens of thousands of people. . .
According to the roboticists and their fans, Moore’s Law will come to the rescue. The implication is that we have the programs and the data all ready to go, and all that’s holding us back is a lack of computing power. After all, as soon as computers got powerful enough, they were able to beat the world’s best human chess player, weren’t they? (Well, no — a great deal of additional programming and chess knowledge was also needed.)
Sad to say, even if we had unlimited computer power and storage, we wouldn’t know what to do with it. The programs aren’t ready to go, because there aren’t any programs. . .
With admirable can-do spirit, technological optimism, and a belief in inevitability, psychologists, philosophers, programmers, and engineers are sure they shall succeed, just as people dreamed that heavier-than-air flight would one day be achieved.88 But 50 years after the Wright brothers succeeded with their proof-of-concept flight in 1903, aircraft had been used decisively in two world wars; the helicopter had been invented; several commercial airlines were routinely flying passengers all over the world; the jet airplane had been invented; and the speed of sound had been broken.
After more than 50 years of pursuing human- level artificial intelligence, we have nothing but promises and failures. The quest has become a degenerating research program89 (or actually, an ever-increasing number of competing ones), pursuing an ever-increasing number of irrelevant activities as the original goal recedes ever further into the future — like the mirage it is.
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Rupert Sheldrake has posted a concise autobiography on his website. Here are some short extracts:
I was born and brought up in Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, in the English Midlands. My family were devout Methodists. I went to an Anglican boarding school. I was for a while torn between these two very different traditions - one Protestant and the other Anglo-Catholic with incense and all the trappings of Catholicism.
But the thing that really preoccupied me was my interest in living things. From a very early age I was interested in plants and animals. My father was an amateur naturalist and microscopist and he encouraged this interest. My mother put up with it. I kept lots of animals at home and she said, as mothers always say, "It's all very well, but who's going to feed them?" And of course, in the end, she usually did.
I knew from quite an early age that I wanted to do biology, and I specialized in science at school. Then I went to Cambridge where I studied biology and biochemistry. However, as I proceeded in my studies, a great gulf opened between my original inspiration, namely an interest in life, actual living organisms and the kind of biology I was taught: orthodox, mechanistic biology which essentially denies the life of organisms but instead treats them as machines. I had to learn that you can't respond emotionally to animals and plants. You can't connect with them in any way except by detached objective reason. There seemed to be very little connection between the direct experience of animals and plants and the way I was learning about them, manipulating them, dissecting them into smaller and smaller bits, getting down to the molecular level and seeing them as evolving by blind chance and blind forces of natural selection.
I could learn this stuff; in fact, I was quite good at it. But the gulf grew bigger and bigger. When I was at Cambridge in the Biochemistry Department, I saw a wall chart showing the different chemical reactions in the body. Someone had written in big letters across the top of it KNOW THYSELF. This brought home to me a huge chasm between these enzymatic reactions and my own experience. The first thing we did in the Biochemistry Department was to kill the organisms we were studying and then grind them up to extract the DNA, the enzymes, and so on.
I felt more and more that there was something wrong, but I couldn't put my finger on it. No one else seemed to think there was anything wrong.Then a friend who was studying literature lent me a book on German philosophy containing an essay on the writings of Goethe, the poet and botanist. I discovered that Goethe at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century had had a vision of a different kind of science, a holistic science that integrated direct experience and understanding. It didn't involve breaking everything down into pieces and denying the evidence of one's senses.
This filled me with great excitement, the idea that there could be a different kind of natural science. So invigorated was I by this prospect that I decided I wanted to study the history of science and philosophy to see why science had got to where it was. I was fortunate to get a fellowship at Harvard where I spent a year studying philosophy and history. Thomas Kuhn's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions had recently come out and it had a big influence on me, gave me a new perspective. It made me realize that the mechanistic theory of life was what Kuhn called a paradigm, a collectively held model of reality, a belief system. He showed that periods of revolutionary change involved the replacement of old scientificparadigms by new ones. If science had changed radically in the past, then perhaps it could change again in the future. I was very excited by that. . .
I was beginning to explore the holistic tradition in biology, which is a minority tradition, but it's always been there. I began to formulate the idea of morphic resonance, the basis of memory in nature, the main thing I've been working on since. The idea came to me in a moment of insight and was extremely exciting. It interested some of my colleagues at Clare College - philosophers, linguists, and classicists were quite open-minded. But the idea of mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and of collective memories within species didn't go down too well with my colleagues in the science labs. Not that they were aggressively hostile; they just made fun of it. Whenever I said something like, "I've just got to go and make a telephone call," they said, "Ha, ha, why bother? Do it by morphic resonance!" . . .
Some observers believe that CSICOP and other debunking organizations are a major cause of the science blues because, in their attempt to save science, they are creating a public backlash. Consider, for example, that more than half of the adult population in the United States has had psychic experiences and believes in the reality of these phenomena. As Hansen states: "Those who have had [these] experiences but encounter the debunking attitudes of apparent 'scientific authorities' are likely to conclude that science is a dogma and inapplicable to important aspects of their lives." Parapsychology researcher Jacques Vallee goes further. He suggests that debunkers "are among the primary contributors to the rejection of science by the public.". . .
Over the past 2 decades we've seen many CAM [complementary and alternative medicine] therapies condemned as implausible--acupuncture, exercise, nutritional supplementation, meditation, biofeedback, and others--only to win eventual endorsement and acceptance within conventional medicine. No wonder the public is leery when experts say a particular CAM therapy can't work because it's implausible.
Experts who are hung up on the plausibility of CAM therapies ought to get out more. They might actually try biofeedback, acupuncture, or yoga--not because personal experience constitutes irrefutable proof, but because personal experience shapes our worldview, our concept of what is possible and plausible.
A ruckus over plausibility took place in England between famous scientists over a century ago. The dispute involved telepathy, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis, which suggest that consciousness can operate remotely. Nobelist Sir William Crookes (1832-1919), the discoverer of thallium, favored the investigation of these phenomena even though they could not be explained. He contrasted his approach with that of fellow physicist Michael Faraday (1791-1867), famous for his work in electricity and magnetism, who bitterly opposed them. Crookes stated:
Faraday says, "Before we proceed to consider any question involving physical principles, we should set out with clear ideas of the naturally possible and impossible." But this appears like reasoning in a circle: we are to investigate nothing till we know it to be possible, whilst we cannot say what is impossible, outside pure mathematics, till we know everything. In the present case I prefer to enter upon the enquiry with no preconceived notions whatever as to what can or cannot be.
We should be cautious in rejecting events as implausible, because subsequent developments may reveal that our notion of plausibility reflected little more than our own ignorance. For example, when Newton advanced the notion of universal gravity in the 17th century, his colleagues condemned his ideas as implausible and a sellout to mysticism. Most scientists today probably believe they would not have been as hidebound as Newton's doubting colleagues, but in 1995 "an editorial in the journal Nature questioned whether Newton would have been able to publish his theory today, given its self-evident preposterousness .... "
hat tip to commentor "anonymous" on Michael Prescott's blog. . .
This coincides with my own take on phenomena suggestive of reincarnation -- that the memories and information transfer (and sometimes birthmarks, etc.) are real, but do not necessarily indicate that a particular person has died and is then reborn again.
Go watch it and come up with your own explanation. . .
H/T Daily Grail
There are some of you who have read many parapsychology papers, popular books on the subject like Entangled Minds, Best Evidence and the like, and academic tomes such as Irreducible Mind, as well as anti-psi material. To you, I tip my hat. You have exposed yourself to some of the best evidence for psi phenomena and against it, and so your opinion is informed by the relevant facts. You bring value to the discussion.
But for the far larger community of psi deniers who have not read the literature of evidence for psi, and get all your information from the Shermers and Randis of the world, I have a simple message: you are uninformed. You are unaware of the enormous amount of evidence that these phenomena do occur and cannot be explained through "conventional" reductive materialist theories. You are taking an essentially faith-based position regarding the non-existence of psi phenomena. And I will no longer engage in any extended, time-consuming debates with you, until you familiarize yourself with the relevant literature. Because, frankly, your opinion on psi is worth very little, since you are judging it without possession of the relevant facts.
Feel free to convert yourself to the first kind of critic, which only requires some study on your part, although I cannot promise that you won't end up changing your mind. . .
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Sounds like a great topic.
As always, the show starts at 4:00 PM Eastern, 7:00 Pacific.
The guest today is blogger Brian Hines, who has often had interesting things to say on his blog. Call in and talk to Brian and Marcel on this interesting subject. . .
So we have a clear discrepancy between Clark's account of the shoe and that of the two student investigators. It seems to me that there are two ways of resolving this discrepancy:
1. Clark's account is simply wrong, either because of dishonesty or because she has unwittingly embellished the story over the years. Or ...
2. Ebbern and Mulligan did not put the shoe in exactly the same place where Clark says she found it 17 years earlier.
The authors obviously want us to accept the first option and do not even mention the second one. Yet the second possibility cannot be ruled out. If we skip ahead just a bit in the Skeptical Inquirer article, we find the authors observing in a different context, "As far as we were able to ascertain, Clark never photographed the shoe on the ledge." They also take pains to report that "Clark has not produced notes or recordings from her interviews with Maria."
Now, if Clark did not take any photographs of the shoe in situ, nor did she make any contemporaneous notes or records, then how did the students know where to place the shoe? The article tells us that they put it on the ledge "at the place Clark described." The article does not say that Clark accompanied the students and pointed specifically to where the shoe should be placed. It appears that the students were relying on Clark's verbal description alone.
It should be obvious that the visibility of the shoe, either from the ground or from a window, would vary tremendously depending on exactly where and how it was placed. For instance, if it was right up alongside the wall of the building, perhaps it would not be visible from the ground. Or if it was some distance away from the window, perhaps the telltale details would not be seen even when pressing one's face to the glass.
One detail the authors offer inadvertently lends credence to the thesis that they put their shoe in a more visible position than the original. When they returned to the hospital "one week after placing the shoe on the ledge, the shoe had been removed, proving that it was also discernible to someone not specifically looking for it."
No doubt it was. But if the original shoe, back in 1977, was equally visible, then why wasn't it removed from the ledge before Kimberly Clark hunted it down? If people could see the shoe from both outside and inside the hospital, and it was easily retrievable, then what was it still doing there when Maria had her NDE?
The bottom line is that we have no reason to assume that the student researchers put the shoe in exactly the same place where it was found 17 years earlier. Without photographic records or detailed notes, and without Kimberly Clark's direct participation in the recreation, they could rely only on guesswork. And yet on the basis of their guesswork, they were willing to call into question Clark's recollection of the entire event. . .
How could Clark so thoroughly fail to interrogate Maria or to accurately recollect one of the most dramatic events of her life? The authors suggest an answer. "Kimberly Clark is not a trained investigator," they say.
This, of course, raises the question of whether the researchers in this case, Ebbern and Mulligan, were trained investigators at the time when they took their trip to Seattle. Here is what we are told about the pair at the end of the article:
Hayden Ebbern is an undergraduate in the Department of Psychology and Sean Mulligan is a graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences at Simon Fraser University.
Ebbern was an undergraduate?
Are we supposed to believe that an undergraduate -- a college student who has not even earned his degree -- is a "trained investigator"? Are his powers of observation, analysis, and memory automatically assumed to be better than those of an experienced social worker at a major hospital?
At least Mulligan was a graduate student at the time, but does a grad student in the biology department have the skills necessary to evaluate the testimony of witnesses or determine their allegedly hidden motives? Are biology departments teaching interrogation techniques nowadays?
I would suggest that if a parapsychologist sent two students with comparable qualifications to investigate a controversial case, he would be roundly criticized -- especially if the students began casting aspersions on the honesty, intelligence, training, and motives of the people they were sent to interview. . .
Besides allegedly taking too long to report the case, Clark was found to have a "cavalier attitude." How so?When Ebbern and Mulligan asked Clark about the current whereabouts of the shoe, Clark replied that she probably had it around somewhere, maybe in her garage, but that it would be too much trouble to look for it. The cavalier attitude toward the most important artifact in the field of near-death studies struck us as odd.
Two responses are possible. First, I'm not aware of any near-death researchers who regard the shoe itself as an especially important "artifact." It is, after all, just a beat-up old shoe. What's important is the story associated with it, not the shoe itself. Second, and more important, there may be another explanation for Kimberly Clark's lack of cooperation with Ebbern and Mulligan. I submit that it is at least possible that Clark, upon meeting the intrepid pair of student investigators, sized them up as militant skeptics, strongly biased against any nonmaterialist interpretation of NDEs, researching a CSICOP hit piece. She may also have noticed that the researchers were contemptuous of her friends in her NDE support group, and were more than willing to cast aspersions on her own memory, intellectual capabilities, honesty, and motives. Under the circumstances, she may not have felt particularly interested in presenting the shoe to Ebbern and Mulligan so they could snicker at it.
The authors finish up by allowing that "perhaps" Clark "now honestly misremembers" the details of the case -- the alternative, of course, being that she dishonestly misremembers or misrepresents the details.The motivation to defend cherished or self-serving beliefs makes it easy for unintentional embellishments to creep into key accounts as they are retold. In our discussions with her, Clark exhibited obvious emotional commitment to the spiritual interpretation of Maria's story. She has become a minor celebrity because of her involvement with it and is writing yet another, potentially profitable, book on the subject."
Unpacking this passage is almost too easy. I'll leave it to you to count all the ways that the authors cast aspersions on Clark's psychology and motives. Naturally, no skeptic could ever be motivated to "defend cherished or self-serving beliefs," or to have an "emotional commitment" to a point of view, and and no skeptic has ever become "a minor celebrity" or written a "potentially profitable" book. By the way, aren't all books potentially profitable? This is like saying that someone just bought a "potentially salable house." Why would they phrase it like that? What are they trying to imply? Gosh, I wish I knew.
The authors take a moment to disparage Clark's NDE support group, which, they claim, "bills itself as devoted to scientific research into NDEs." If so, it's a pretty unusual support group, but for the sake of argument, let's assume that the group did characterize itself this way. So what, exactly? Even if the members of the group are rank amateurs, they are hardly typical of the leading researchers in the field of near-death studies -- accomplished professionals like Michael Sabom, Melvin Morse, Peter Fenwick, Bruce Greyson, and Pim Van Lommel, who have published their research in peer-reviewed journals. (Skeptical Inquirer, incidentally, is not peer-reviewed.) In any event, Ebbern and Mulligan reportedlywere struck by the revival-meeting atmosphere. The participants exhibited a conspicuous lack of scientific knowledge and low levels of critical thinking skills. They seemed quite unaware of how to mount a proper investigation of such incidents. The appeal throughout was strictly to faith. The few mildly critical questions the visitors raised were decidedly unwelcome.
So a group of people who have experienced NDEs are met by two researchers -- one, a grad student, the other, an undergrad -- who are openly skeptical of the most meaningful, life-changing event of their lives, and the NDErs made the students feel "unwelcome." How welcome do you think Kimberly Clark would feel at a CSICOP meeting?
Perhaps it is cynical of me, but I can't help thinking that Ebbern and Mulligan would regard any gathering of spiritual seekers as having a "revival-meeting atmosphere." (From what I've read of CSICOP events, the description might be better suited for the get-togethers sponsored by that organization.) . . .
The authors conclude their essay in an effusion of self-congratulation:We have shown several factual discrepancies [have they? or did they put the shoe in the wrong place?] and plausible ways [plausible? really?] that Maria's supposedly unobtainable knowledge could have been obtained by quite ordinary means. In delving into this incident, we were first disappointed [sure they were], then amused, that such a weak case should have achieved the importance it has been accorded....
Now go read the entire series of posts from Michael. They are not to be missed. . .
Sunday, July 15, 2007
But evolution is not the only domain in which people reject science: Many believe in the efficacy of unproven medical interventions, the mystical nature of out-of-body experiences, the existence of supernatural entities such as ghosts and fairies, and the legitimacy of astrology, ESP, and divination. . .
In fact it is Paul Bloom who rejects science in this case, not the public. To Bloom, science is equated with the belief system of reductionist materialism. In reality, science is the method of observing reality, creating models to describe reality, and testing the models by experiments and further observations that can either support or weigh against those models. For people like Bloom to dismiss phenomena with massive collaborated observational and / or experimental support like crisis apparitions (ghosts) and telepathy is utterly unscientific, dogmatic, and in reality no different from the methodology of the fundamentalist religionists he decries who reject evidence for common descent and an ancient earth and universe.
The biggest reason that the public distrusts science is that scientists distrust science. They prefer to maintain a belief system in reductionistic materialism instead of admitting any observations which do not fit. For example, Michael Prescott quotes the following accurate observations from Michael Sabom's Recollections of Death during a surgical NDE:
When I left that room [prior to surgery], I was totally unconscious and don't have any awareness whatsoever as I was transported from there down to where they do the operation until all of a sudden the room is lit up, not as bright as I thought it ought to be. . . .I recall consciously... seeing two doctors stitch me up after the operation; Dr. C., I think it was because the hands were so large, injecting a syringe of something into my heart on two occasions, one on one side and another on the other side of the heart; the apparatus that they used to keep the ribs apart to make the aperture; . . . And the fact that my head was covered and the rest of my body was draped with more than one sheet, separate sheets laid in layers. I knew it was my body. I always imagined that the lights would be brighter, but it didn't seem that bright. More like banks of fluorescent lights rather than a big high-powered beam... I was amazed that I had thought there would be blood all over the place, but there really wasn't that much blood. Not what I expected it to be... A lot of it was draped. I couldn't see my head too much but I could see from about my nipples down better.... [Sewing him up] they took some stitches inside me first before they did the outside. And then it was just like they sew you up. The shorter doctor started down here and worked this way. The other doctor could have started in the middle and worked up. They had a lot of trouble right here, but the rest of it was pretty fast... And the heart doesn't look like I thought it did. It's big. And this is after the doctor had taken little pieces of it off. It's not shaped like I thought it would be. My heart was shaped something like the continent of Africa, with it being larger up here and tapered down. Bean-shaped is another way you could describe it. Maybe mine is odd shaped... [The surface was] pinkish and yellow. I thought the yellow part was fat tissue or something. Yucky, kind of. One general area to the right or left was darker than the rest instead of all being the same color... I could draw you a picture of the saw they used and the thing they used to separate the ribs with. It was always there and I can remember the details of that probably better than the other things. It was draped all around, but you could see the metal part of it. I think all they used that for was to keep it constantly open. They had instruments hanging around it that obscured it and they undid the clamps sometimes and stuck in sponges stuck on the clamps and there were hands so I couldn't see it constantly because it was obscured sometimes... It seems Dr. C. did most everything from my left side. He cut pieces of my heart off. He raised it and twisted it this way and that way and took quite a bit of time examining it and looking at different things ... That thing they held my chest open with, that's real good steel with no rust, I mean, no discoloration. Real good, hard, shiny metal... [Stopping his heart] I sensed they did it with the needle when they injected something into my heart. That's scary when you see that thing go right into your heart...
What is the response of the "scientific" priesthood to such events? Typically, they simply ignore all such stories. When they are addressed, stories are invented which fit the assumptions of reductionist materialism, but ignore the details of these cases. Only a very few actually address the details of these cases and attempt to create materialist explanations that actually fit the facts (although fail to escape Ockham's razor in my book. . .)
In pointed contrast, writers like Paul Bloom get a huge amount of attention for simply patting his fellow materialists on the back for their clearheadedness and rationality, and in contrast denigrating the biases and ignorance of the general public who disagree with Bloom and the NAS.
Is it any surprise that the general public distrusts what scientists say about psi phenomena, life after death, meaning and purpose in cosmic and biological evolution, and the like?
There is definitely no point in saving any particular department which claims to be "science," any university which pleads that it's "private," any "newspaper" or "public school," etc. The entire system of official "education" has to be completely wiped. . .
It's not clear to me that Digg, Wikipedia, arxiv.org, and other modern systems which solve, or at least purport to solve, the critical problem of separating content from nonsense, are quite ready for their new roles. But perhaps we'll be surprised. Certainly, industry will not suffer from the impact of a large population of extremely intelligent and potentially productive individuals, who until now have been devoting their nervous systems to what might as well be Neoplatonist astrology. As for "science," most of the advances in Western scientific history, contrary to popular belief, occurred when scientists were not servants of the State. . .
The problem with CS - and I suspect in other sciences, such as physics, although I am certainly not qualified to fire so much as a BB gun in the great Woit-Motl war - is that science today is, contrary to popular belief, a business.
And it is a very special kind of business. In this business, there is exactly one customer, and his name is Uncle Sam. And there are no companies in this business - apart from your "mafia," you're on your own. You can get students to do your programming, true, but you have to do your own research and, more importantly, your own sales.
Selling to Uncle Sam is a fascinating problem. Uncle Sam wants his serfs to know that their tax dollars are being spent on top-notch research which will make America #1. If the dollars are being spent in the constituency of a Congressman with the right seniority, this is even better. Otherwise, Uncle Sam does not give a tinker's damn what he funds, as long as the result does not actually make him look like an idiot. Fortunately, Sen. Proxmire has departed this earth and all of your big-league journalists are pro-science pretty much the way Pat Robertson is pro-God, not to mention that if they have a BA in anything besides basketweaving it's a surprise, so Uncle Sam is unlikely to see any trouble from this front.
In any event, Mencius has some very interesting things to say about how government funding of projects actually works.
Saturday, July 14, 2007
Last week, I linked to an article in the Guardian showing amazing recovery for some PVS (persistent vegetative state) patients given a particular kind of sleeping pill.
Here is additional evidence from another article in the Guardian that at least some PVS patients are not hopeless vegetables but instead awake and aware of their environment:
A 23-year-old woman who has been in a vegetative state since suffering devastating brain damage in a traffic accident has stunned doctors by performing mental tasks for them. Brain scans revealed that the woman, who has shown no outward signs of awareness since the accident in July last year, could understand people talking to her and was able to imagine playing tennis or walking around her home when asked to by doctors.
The discovery has astounded neuroscientists who believe it could have dramatic implications for life and death decisions over other patients diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). Last year, an intense legal battle over the life of Terri Schiavo, a woman diagnosed as PVS, was brought to an end when US courts upheld the decision to remove her feeding tube in March. She died 13 days later in a Florida care home.
Neuroscientists at the Medical Research Council's cognition and brain sciences unit at Cambridge and the University of Liege in Belgium used a brain scanning technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to detect signs of awareness in the woman, the first time scientists have been able to do so in a PVS patient. The technique is now likely to become a standard way of determining how conscious vegetative patients are.
"This is extremely important. It's the difference between life and death. From cases in the UK and the US, we know that end-of-life decisions are of course extremely important and this will definitely change the way we deal with these patients. When you have signs of consciousness, you cannot decide to stop hydration and nutrition," said Steven Laureys, a neurologist at the University of Liege and co-author of the study which appears in the journal Science today.
Researchers led by Adrian Owen at Cambridge University began tests on the woman five months after her accident. Although she had emerged from a coma, she was diagnosed as being in a vegetative state, in which patients enter a cycle of sleeping and waking and even open their eyes, but are completely unresponsive.
Scientists ascertained that the woman could understand speech by playing a variety of sentences. Using the fMRI scanner, which takes snapshots of brain activity every second or two, they spotted different parts of her brain lighting up depending on which sentence she heard.
Previous attempts to spot signs of awareness in PVS patients have been inconclusive because brains can respond to some actions automatically. The uncertainty forced the scientists to come up with a test that would show categorically whether the patient was conscious or not.
Dr Owen said: "We said to her, when you hear the word 'tennis', we want you to imagine being on the centre court of Wimbledon playing a big rally and every time the ball comes to you, you struggle to get it back. Then, we had a second scenario in which we wanted her to imagine going from room to room in her home."
The two scenarios were chosen to trigger activity in different parts of her brain so they would be picked up by the scanner. While thinking about tennis, the scientists hoped to see a part of the brain called the premotor cortex, which governs limb movement, flicker into life. If she thought about walking around her flat, they expected to see a brain region called the parahippocampal gyrus, which handles mental maps of places, light up.
During the scans, the scientists said the words "tennis", "home" or "rest" every 30 seconds and looked for changes in her brain activity. Remarkably, after each word, her brain lit up as expected, suggesting she was responding to the instructions. Further tests showed her brain activity was indistinguishable from that of healthy volunteers doing the same task.
Scientists now have to discover how common it is for others in a vegetative state to be similarly aware of their surroundings. The woman in the study has since been able to follow her own reflection in a mirror, leaving open the possibility the brain scans may simply have picked up very early signs of her recovery.
I'm sure we all remember the spectacle last year of Terri Schaivo's last days. Court decisions came down, then were appealed appealed to higher courts. In the end, Schaivo - who we were told emphatically was "already gone" years ago - was pulled off her feeding tube and dehydrated to death and was laid to rest.
Practically the entire "scientific" medical community assured all of us that Schaivo's condition was permanent, that the real Terri Schaivo was hopelessly gone. But what if the medical consensus was based on a flawed understanding of how human consciousness works? What if our memories and personalities are not really "stored" in our brains after all, but simply accessed through them. In that case recovery from extremely severe brain damage seems much more reasonable.
This week, the Guardian published a fascinating article about a new treatment for "hopeless" PVS cases that is bringing many of them back to life:
We have always been told there is no recovery from persistent vegetative state - doctors can only make a sufferer's last days as painless as possible. But is that really the truth? Across three continents, severely brain-damaged patients are awake and talking after taking ... a sleeping pill. And no one is more baffled than the GP who made the breakthrough. Steve Boggan witnesses these 'strange and wonderful' rebirths.
For three years, Riaan Bolton has lain motionless, his eyes open but unseeing. After a devastating car crash doctors said he would never again see or speak or hear. Now his mother, Johanna, dissolves a pill in a little water on a teaspoon and forces it gently into his mouth. Within half an hour, as if a switch has been flicked in his brain, Riaan looks around his home in the South African town of Kimberley and says, "Hello." Shortly after his accident, Johanna had turned down the option of letting him die.
Three hundred miles away, Louis Viljoen, a young man who had once been cruelly described by a doctor as "a cabbage", greets me with a mischievous smile and a streetwise four-move handshake. Until he took the pill, he too was supposed to be in what doctors call a persistent vegetative state.
Across the Atlantic in the United States, George Melendez, who is also brain-damaged, has lain twitching and moaning as if in agony for years, causing his parents unbearable grief. He, too, is given this little tablet and again, it's as if a light comes on. His father asks him if he is, indeed, in pain. "No," George smiles, and his family burst into tears.
It all sounds miraculous, you might think. And in a way, it is. But this is not a miracle medication, the result of groundbreaking neurological research. Instead, these awakenings have come as the result of an accidental discovery by a dedicated - and bewildered - GP. They have all woken up, paradoxically, after being given a commonly used sleeping pill.
Across three continents, brain-damaged patients are reporting remarkable improvements after taking a pill that should make them fall asleep but that, instead, appears to be waking up cells in their brains that were thought to have been dead. In the next two months, trials on patients are expected to begin in South Africa aimed at finding out exactly what is going on inside their heads. Because, at the moment, the results are baffling doctors.
The remarkable story of this pill and its active ingredient, zolpidem, begins in 1994 when Louis Viljoen, a sporty 24-year-old switchboard operator, was hit by a truck while riding his bike in Springs, a small town 30 minutes' drive east of Johannesburg. He suffered severe brain injuries that left him in a deep coma. He was treated in various hospitals before being settled in the Ikaya Tinivorster rehabilitation centre nearby. Doctors expected him to die and told his mother, Sienie Engelbrecht, that he would never regain consciousness. "His eyes were open but there was nothing there," says Sienie, a sales rep. "I visited him every day for five years and we would speak to him but there was no recognition, no communication, nothing."
The hospital ward sister, Lucy Hughes, was periodically concerned that involuntary spasms in Louis's left arm, that resulted in him tearing at his mattress, might be a sign that deep inside he might be uncomfortable. In 1999, five years after Louis's accident, she suggested to Sienie that the family's GP, Dr Wally Nel, be asked to prescribe a sedative. Nel prescribed Stilnox, the brand name in South Africa for zolpidem. "I crushed it up and gave it to him in a bottle with a soft drink," Sienie recalls. "He couldn't swallow properly then, but I helped him and sat at his bedside. After about 25 minutes, I heard him making a sound like 'mmm'. He hadn't made a sound for five years.
"Then he turned his head in my direction. I said, 'Louis, can you hear me?' And he said, 'Yes.' I said, 'Say hello, Louis', and he said, 'Hello, mummy.' I couldn't believe it. I just cried and cried."
Hughes was called over and other staff members gathered in disbelief. "Sienie told me he was talking and I said he couldn't be - it wasn't possible," she recalls. "Then I heard him. His mother was speechless and so were we. It was a very emotional moment."
Louis has now been given Stilnox every day for seven years. Although the effects of the drug are supposed to wear off after about two and a quarter hours, and zolpidem's power as a sedative means it cannot simply be taken every time a patient slips out of consciousness, his improvement continues as if long-dormant pathways in his brain are coming back to life.
i) Dr Sheldrake said the programme's treatment of his decision to remove trials when N'kisi did not respond, was flawed for two reasons:
a) The programme did not understand that the decision not to include these trials was in line with established practice in mainstream research with animals, young children and autistic people. Dr Sheldrake explained that analysis is performed in this way, to take into consideration the subject's limited attention span and inability to know that they are being tested.
b) Notwithstanding the first reason, Dr Sheldrake said the programme completely ignored a key finding of one of the paper's reviewers. This reviewer, included at the end of the paper, directly questioned and tested the effect that the removal of non-response trials had had on the results. The reviewer found that if the non-response trials were included, the results "differed only trivially". Therefore it was false for the programme to imply that by omitting these trials the results would have altered.
Dr Sheldrake said the programme implied that by removing the trials, where rarely used words were used, from the analysis of test results he increased the probability that N'kisi would appear telepathic.
However, Dr Sheldrake said that, as his paper had explained, by removing such trials the opposite occurred: the removal of such trials "made the result slightly less significant, rather than more". Dr Sheldrake said the programme failed to explain that regardless of which methods of analysis were used, the experiment's results remained significantly above the level of chance.
ii) Dr Sheldrake maintained that the test conducted by programme makers was flawed, therefore making a comparison between the two tests unscientific. However notwithstanding such flaws, Dr Sheldrake said that the programme's attempts to apply his methods of analysis were misleading for the following reasons:
a) Dr Sheldrake's conclusions were not based on 'percentage hit rates', as used by programme makers. Rather the conclusions were based on standard kinds of statistical probability analysis including randomised permutation analysis.
b) The programme implied that N'kisi's success in telepathy tests was a result of data manipulation rather than due to any genuine ability of N'kisi. The programme made it appear to viewers that Dr Sheldrake had omitted or massaged data to get the desired result, regardless of what the facts indicated. Dr Sheldrake said his results were analysed in several alternative ways and the significance of the results were not dependent of the type of analysis used.
. . .
Dr Sheldrake complained that the programme makers gave assurances that his work would be presented fairly and without bias, which they did not fulfil. Ofcom noted that both broadcaster and complainant offered correspondence which confirmed that such an assurance had been given by programme makers to Dr Sheldrake.
. . .
Dr Sheldrake complained that the programme did not offer him or any other qualified scientist an opportunity to respond to Mr Youen's claims, which resulted in unfairness. As previously noted, if a programme alleges wrongdoing or incompetence or makes other significant allegations, those concerned should normally be given an appropriate and timely opportunity to respond. Accordingly, Ofcom first considered whether the programme made any such allegations. In this respect, Ofcom concluded that the programme's critique of Dr Sheldrake's work was capable of adversely affecting the regard in which Dr Sheldrake's work was held which in turn drew into question Dr Sheldrake's professional credentials. As such, Ofcom considered that in order for the programme not to be unfair to Dr Sheldrake, programme makers should have given Dr Sheldrake an opportunity to respond to the criticisms contained in the programme concerning the conduct of his experiment and his interpretation of that experiment. Ofcom noted that though Dr Sheldrake had been asked to make a contribution to the programme on a number of occasions, at no time was he asked to comment on the specific criticisms of his research which were to be included in the programme. This failure to give Dr Sheldrake an opportunity to respond to what would amount to a damaging critique of his research resulted in unfairness to Dr Sheldrake. Ofcom has upheld this part of the complaint.