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.
Monday, July 30, 2007
Skeptic magazine has a meticulously-footnoted article that evicerates the dubious claims of AI:
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.
Friday, July 13, 2007
Reductionistic materialism tells us the brain is an information processing device, where memories are stored, experiences occur, where decisions are made. That our brain is us, and the destruction of the brain is the end of an individual's existence.
We've already seen a lot of evidence that this might be incorrect.
If we let go of the assumption that all of the properties of consciousness and mind are explained by brain constituents, structure, and behavior, if we allow the possibility for a non-corporeal component to awareness and qualia and memory and mind, then what might the brain be for?
The brain and nervous system could be an interface for mind to manifest itself within matter, and to interface with sense perceptions. If this is the correct interpretation, what would we expect to see?
One of the arguments for no free will is that the physical universe is causally closed. That is, all of the behaviors of atoms, molecules, cells, organs and organisms are already specified through the equations of physics.
In the early twentieth century, we learned that at the smallest scale, the universe is indeterminate. Reductionists typically claim that it doesn't matter, that while quantum effects may be indeterminate at the smallest scale, they wash out at the level of molecules, cells and organisms. Chaos theory casts considerable doubt on this claim, ie: the butterfly effect. They also usually say that quantum indeterminacy is essentially random, not meaningful. But what if this is wrong? What if consciousness itself can influence the collapse of the quantum waveform, in a desired direction. This would provide the mechanism for consciousness to act within the world.
Neural firing is indeterminate. That is, the behavior of any given neuron and its firing is probabalistic. In other words, sometimes a neuron will fire under stimulus, and other times not. This is almost certainly because neural firing is mediated by the behavior of ions within the synaptic gap, and the behavior of those ions is subject to quantum fluctuations. Because the firing of a single neuron can be amplified through thousands or millions of other neurons throughout large areas of the the brain, and trigger motor neurons, this gives the possibility for individual quantum events to determine gross motor behaviors (shall I give the possible example of neurons controlling muscles in fingers typing a blog entry?). To a large degree, the brain can be seen as a device for magnifying the effects of quantum indeterminancy to the macro-scale, and if those quantum fluctuations are somehow influenced by consciousness, they can use them to drive behavior.
Certainly there is evidence that consciousness can influence quantum systems (ie: RNG PK). Is this how the mind drives the brain and body?
One of the assumptions of most people with a "scientific" worldview is that human consciousness is entirely a function of the brain. One reason for this is the well-known finding of neuroscience, that damage to the brain often affects the functioning of the mind. For example, damage to or destruction of the hippocampus through stroke or brain injury will lead to memory impairment of varying degrees. Probing different parts of the brain with electrical currents can lead to reliving memories or experiencing emotions. And a loss of blood flow to the brain leads to immediate unconsciousness.
However these phenomena can be interpreted in multiple ways. The standard reductionist viewpoint of the brain could be termed the "ipod model". That is, the hardware, software and content are all encoded and packaged into a stand-alone device. The obvious alternative to this is the "radio" model. A radio looks very much like a tape player or an ipod. Removing components from the radio may prevent it from playing certain bands (AM or FM), lock the tuning onto a particular station, or create distortion in the music. However the music itself is external to the device, and destroying the radio does not destroy the music.
Which of these two models is correct? Is mind / awareness / memory solely a product of the brain, or does the brain "tune into" and affect the mind in some fashion? There are a number of relevant points of fact that shed some light on this question.
The first pertinant factor is the current state of understanding of the mind from the findings of neuroscience. Have the mysteries been solved? Despite the absolute certainty of reductionists that the mind is fully explainable in terms of neural properties, the most prominent questions today are the same questions we had fifty years ago. Certainly, neuroscientists have faith that most or all of these questions will be answered soon with materialist explanations, but this is more a matter of faith in their assumptions than anything else.
Despite many decades of investigation, the sacrifice of thousands of laboratory animals and the efforts of the best minds in neuroscience, memory traces have never been located in the brain. In exasperation, some have posited a "holographic" or distributed storage of memories throughout most or all of the cortex, while others embraced a non-material aspect to the mind and memories.
Brain functions are highly plastic, after a stroke, some patients are able to recover from massive loss of abilities through remapping areas of the brain to take on new functions. What, exactly, is organizing this recovery?
Some people have demonstrated a high degree of functioning despite the lack of most or nearly all of their brain tissue.
Psi experiments provide substantial evidence that mind phenomena extend beyond an individual brain in space-time.
Near-death experiences with veridical perception have been reported when the brain is completely shut down.
Genuine mediums have brought back information from the deceased, even under tightly-controlled experimental conditions that preclude ordinary explanations.
All of these factors give support to the "radio" model of the brain and consciousness versus the "ipod" model.
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Remember those halcyon days of the O.J. Simpson trial, when instead of worrying about the next terrorist attack, we all crowded around our television sets to hear the latest testimony about the double murder in Brentwood? There was, as innumerable commentators pointed out, a "mountain of evidence" against O.J. Simpson -- yet his legal defense team, styled the "dream team," managed to create at least the illusion of reasonable doubt and obtain an acquittal. How'd they do it?
They did it by taking each piece of evidence individually and casting doubt on it. The doubt in question was often based on nothing but far-fetched speculation, and much of the speculation was contradictory. For instance, bloodstains on Simpson's driveway were said to have been planted by the police, while other blood samples found at the crime scene were said to have been contaminated. In other words, we were asked to believe that in some cases the blood was unquestionably Simpson's but it got there through sleight of hand on the part of some corrupt detective, while in other cases the blood wasn't Simpson's at all but somehow matched his DNA because of an unspecified error in chemical analysis.
As for eyewitness testimony, it was debunked by casting doubt on the competence, credibility, or honesty of every single witness from the hapless Kato Kaelin to the limo driver to the neighbor who found Simpson's vehicle awkwardly slant-parked outside the Rockingham Estate. In order to believe Simpson's innocence, you pretty much had to believe that every other person involved in the case was corrupt or hopelessly prejudiced or impossibly stupid or desperately seeking the media limelight. Police detectives who had handled hundreds of cases without incident were presented as bumbling nincompoops who were simultaneously criminal masterminds bent on framing Simpson for some nefarious reason that was never quite explained. All the evidence was either planted or faked on the one hand, or hopelessly mishandled and misinterpreted on the other. It worked. But you don't have to go back to the 1990s to see this strategy in effect. Because as you might have guessed by now, this is very much the same strategy that is used by many diehard skeptics. . .
Faced with a "mountain of evidence" that is in some respects even more intimidating than the evidence in the Simpson case, the skeptics have chosen the same counterattack. They simply dismiss all of it, claiming that there is no evidence of all, not a single bit, and they back up this sweeping assertion by casting doubt on any and every individual item of evidence. . .
It turns out that just as O.J. Simpson was the only honest man in the courtroom, so the skeptic is the only perceptive person on the face of the earth.
It doesn't much matter if the skeptic can't support most of these speculations, or even if the speculations contradict each other, as they did in the Simpson case. All that matters is that a penumbra of doubt has been cast over the evidence. The testimony has been called into question. The data have been challenged. And most people, lacking the time or the interest or, in some cases, the ability to look into the matter for themselves, will conclude that the doubt is justified. They may not side wholeheartedly with the skeptics in denying all paranormal phenomena, but they will grant that they just don't know and probably nobody knows -- which is really all the skeptics need to accomplish. . .
Now go read the whole post. . .
Monday, July 9, 2007
I will be appearing tomorrow (Tuesday July 10) on Marcel Cairo's internet radio show AfterlifeFM at 7:00 PM EDT / 4:00 PM PDT. You can listen live and call in too. . .
Thank you very much Marcel for the opportunity to appear on your show. You are a very generous host, free iPhone or not. ;-)
You can download the show from Marcel's archives here.
Thursday, July 5, 2007
Recent developments in cosmology radically change the conception of the universe as well as the very notions of "probable" and "possible". The model of eternal inflation implies that all macroscopic histories permitted by laws of physics are repeated an infinite number of times in the infinite multiverse. In contrast to the traditional cosmological models of a single, finite universe, this worldview provides for the origin of an infinite number of complex systems by chance, even as the probability of complexity emerging in any given region of the multiverse is extremely low. This change in perspective has profound implications for the history of any phenomenon, and life on earth cannot be an exception.
Ah, yes. We are now in a position where googleplexes, or even an infinity, of completely unobservable, untestable universes are used to explain (away) anything that looks purposeful or friendly towards the development of life about the properties and regularities of our universe. But any mention of the possibility of psi phenomena being real means instant relegation to crackpot status. Such are the sociological taboos of science.
Here they are, in no particular order:
Camera Obscura by Billie -- This gifted artist writes about and photographs the subtle currents and nuances of her life with a deep groundedness and soulfulness that I marvel at and strive to notice within my own life.
Michael Prescott's blog -- Michael writes much more eloquently, and in far greater length, about many of the topics that appear here on AMNAP, as well as other things that interest him and his many readers and commenters.
The Daily Grail -- Not exactly a blog, but there are always new and amazing things on the daily link / story updates. There's also stuff there that exceeds even my rather extensive boggle threshold. TDG has also been very generous with links to AMNAP, and I expect many of you reading this originally found your way here via TDG.
Marginal Revolution -- Tyler Cowen is a polymath, and the breadth of his interests always surprises me. Alex Tabarrok argues the case for liberty most persuasively. MR is NOT really an economics blog, although a few economics posts do manage to find their way there from time to time. . .
Fifth place is a tie, and neither are actually blogs either. But I always listen to the Skeptiko podcasts with its list of impressive psi researchers, skeptics, and spiritual philosophers, and Marcel Cairo's new Afterlife FM internet radio show and podcast is off to a great start with some very knowledgable and articulate guests. Marcel has been gracious enough to invite me to his show next Tuesday, July 10th.
Thanks again Jack for listing AMNAP as a "blog that makes you think".
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
I'm sure one of the usual subjects will be the first to read and review it. ;-)
H/T Annalisa @ Public Parapsychology