Friday, June 26, 2015

Mentioning institute affiliations is not enough - III

Man is a Reasoning Animal. Such is the claim. I think it is open to dispute. - Mark Twain

In this post Sanjeev says, 'I could never get a satisfactory answer to what the source of this consciousness is. If I fear death, feel pain and pleasure, who is this I actually?' Many people think that we are more than just chemicals and electrical impulses. Thoughts, beliefs, choices etc. seem to suggest Decarte's concept of mind-body duality - the body is made of material stuff but the mind is not. It seems difficult to accept that the mind is the emergent property of the brain.

There is plenty of neurological evidence to show that all aspects of our mental lives depends solely on physiological activities in brain tissues. When some part of our brain tissue dies some part of the mind disappears. As I heard Sam Harris say in a discussion about life after death, when different bits of brain tissue is destroyed, people lose different abilities, yet they seem to think that when the whole brain is destroyed on death, they will rise up perfectly intact, recognising grandma and speaking English. As Steven Pinker says in The Blank Slate: is still tempting to think of the brain as it was shown in old educational cartoons as a control panel with gauges and levers operated by a user - the self, the soul, the ghost, the person, the "me". But cognitive neuroscience is  showing that the self, too, is just another network of brain systems.
The hint first came from the case of Phineas Gage, a 19th century railroad worker. While at work, a sudden explosion blasted a rod straight through his brain, left eye and skull and lay meters behind him. There was a hole in his head where his frontal cortex had been. Incredibly he was only briefly stunned and was able to walk and talk soon afterward. He seemed okay but from the next day, as one co-worker put it, 'Gage was no longer Gage'. His personality had changed.

From a pleasant, reliable, popular person, he had changed to someone who lied and cheated uncontrollably.He lost his sense of responsibility, his moral compass had degenerated and he was not able to hold a job for the rest of his life. In one lecture during his Human Behavioural Biology course at Stanford, Robert Sapolsky gives several instances of problems with frontal cortex damage.This shows that consciousness  is not some disembodied concept mediated only by culture and religion. Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else about us.

There isn't even a single 'I'; the brain just gives the illusion that a single 'I' is in control. It is not just in fiction that Dr. Jekyll turns into Mr. Hyde. In an earlier post, I had mentioned several brain disorders like anosognosia, hemineglect, blindsight, Capgras Sndrome, Cotard's syndrome etc. But the realisation that genes have a role to play in deciding one's morality need not make Sanjeev have such existential hopelessness as to make him say that his fate 'was decided in the first nanosecond of big-bang or even less'. In most cases the effects of genes are probabilistic in nature and depends on a complicated interaction with nurture. Moreover, most DNA are non-coding i.e. they don't seem to do anything.

Complex traits are affected by multiple genes with individually small and typically fickle effects. Most genes are pleotropic i.e. they have multiple effects, and most behaviours are polygenic i.e. they are mediated many genes working in a network having positive and negative feedback loops.Also some DNA sequences are regulatory elements i.e. they regulate the actions of genes near them, often under the influence of environmental factors.

 Thus most human behaviours can't be predicted with 100% accuracy. The reason is that the causation involved is so complex and deeply probabilistic that it is, in effect, unpredictable even if we were to try to enumerate all the contributing factors. Thus for all practical purposes, we are indeed free.As Robert Sapolsky says in Monkeyluv:'ve have got nature - neurons, brain chemicals, hormones, and, of course, at the bottom of the cereal box, genes. And then there's nurture, all those environmental breezes gusting about. And the biggest cliche in this field is how it is meaningless to talk about nature or nurture, only about their interaction.  And somehow, that truism rarely sticks.
Sgmund Freud said, “Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science three great outrages upon its naive self-love. The first was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable...The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world, implying an ineradicable animal nature in him...But man's craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from present-day psychological research which is endeavoring to prove to the ego of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind." Neurological findings have increased the third outrage and many are not willing  to acknowledge it.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Mentioning institute affiliations is not enough - II

It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this - Bertrand Russell 

In his post, Sanjeev says, 'Anything that is not measurable under their telescope or microscope or meters etc does not exist for them.' One reason for relying on instruments is that they are free of human biases. Perhaps the most problematic of these biases is confirmation bias - the tendency of people to look for evidence that confirms what they already believe. As Richard Feynman said, ' The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.' Eyewitness testimony is a very unreliable form of evidence. People see what is not there and don't see what is there. Optical illusions show that people can be fooled by simple lines drawn on paper.

Instruments increase the range of signals that can be detected. For eg., the human eye can detect signals only in a narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum and has limited power. Telescopes and microscopes enable us to see objects that are far away and tiny objects respectively, objects that can't be seen by human eyes. For eg., the Hubble Deep Field image is produced by pointing Hubble space telescope at an apparently empty patch of sky.It is revealed to contain many galaxies each with millions of stars many of which are a few billion times dimmer than what can be seen by the human eye.

Dogs can smell far better than humans, bats can hear sonar, insects an see in infra -red, birds can see in ultra-violet.  Then there are signals like the magnetic field of the earth that you will not detect without instruments. Relying exclusively on human senses reveals  a small world enabling humans to harbour the delusion that they are the pinnacle of creation. The vastly bigger universe revealed by instruments is far grander than the tiny universe revealed by human senses.Maybe everything we know about the universe now is wrong but what will replace it will be backed by evidence not dreams.

Sanjeev says, 'They do not have any conclusive logic to justify how they are so certain that no world apart from what can be measured by their scopes and meters can at all exist.' The conclusive logic is the absence so far of evidence to that effect. The personal experiences that people relate are very real and convincing to them but as evidence, they are worthless. As Oliver Sacks shows in his book Hallucinations (I had written a post about it), people can experience many things in many circumstances and be certain that they are real.

Sanjeev asks, “Who guided atoms to become humans?” Nobody. That was the brilliant discovery by Darwin. He noticed how breeders moulded the shapes and qualities of plants and animals in the way they wanted by choosing the breeding individuals in each generation. The entire first chapter of On the Origin of Species is devoted to artificial selection. But in artificial selection human beings are the controlling agents.

Then Darwin had his leap of imagination - why can't the same thing occur in nature with gradual change in wild plants and animals over many generations without the aid of a controlling agent? The individuals that breed in each generation are chosen automatically - those individuals that have the superior equipment to survive in their environment are most likely to reproduce and pass on the genes (a word that Darwin didn't use since he didn't know about them) that helped them to survive.

Sanjeev asks, “Why not slightest of evolution take place in documented history?”. If he means visible human evolution, then the time period is too small. Evolution by natural selection depends on the generation time of the organism and not enough human generations have gone by in recorded history for there to be visible evolutionary change. In organisms with shorter generation times, evolution has been documented. One of the most potent examples of evolution by natural selection which has the potential to cause havoc for humans in the not too distant future is the development of antibiotic resistance by bacteria.

Evolution by natural selection has occurred at the genetic level in human beings in recent times. An oft-cited example is the evolution of lactose tolerance in adults in pastoral communities. Another common example is the evolution of genetic resistance to malaria in some African populations due to hetero zygote advantage - When carrying two copies of an allele is disadvantageous (in this case, causing sickle-cell anaemia), but carrying only one copy is advantageous(in this case, conferring resistance to malaria). Isaac Asimov writes in his essay The Relativity of Wrong:
If the rate of change were more rapid, geology and evolution would have reached their modern state in ancient times. It is only because the difference between the rate of change in a static universe and the rate of change in an evolutionary one is that between zero and very nearly zero that the creationists can continue propagating their folly.
Actually, the idea of vast stretches of time should not  faze the Indian mind since such ideas are part of myths.For eg., in Hindu mythology, there are 4 yugas which make up a cycle called divya-yuga, which lasts 4,320,000 years. One thousand of these yugas equal one day of Brahma. Brahma's lifespan is 100 years of this time. The idea of a 6000 years old earth believed by Young Earth Creationists in the US will strike the Indian mind as strange.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Mentioning institute afiliations is not enough - I

Far too many people — especially those with great expertise in one area — are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas, or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge. But taking pride in their ignorance is self-defeating - Peter Drucker.

Agniveer is a site which, while introducing itself, says, 'Vedas are the best available benchmarks cum workbooks cum textbooks to help us model ourselves.' In it,  I came across an article by one Sanjeev who says, ' I am an alumnus of IIT-IIM and hence try to find my humble ways to repay for the most wonderful educational experience that my nation gifted me with.' Citing the names of well-known institutes can only take you so far. The effect wears off after a while. I think he should have read and thought a bit more before writing his post.

Education is an investment that will yield returns after a while. The returns are increasingly being viewed only in monetary terms rather than about whether you learn something. As a Mehmood song says' 'The whole thing is that ke bhaiyya, sabse bada rupaiyya.'“Why create a generation of thinkers when what’s needed are workers?” seems to be the thinking behind education in most Indian schools. The RSS recently advised the government to  make education 'more practical and less theoretical'. In other words, don't think, just do.

I won't entirely blame Sanjeev for this post. The school system is geared towards training children to jump through the requisite hoops to get to college. Once there, you are expected to know about progressively narrower ranges of knowledge. When working, with the current fashion for staying late in office, there is no time to develop other interests. So people can be very knowledgeable about one area and astonishingly simplistic in their views about other areas.

It will be erroneous to think  that if a person is very good in one field, he is equally good in other fields. I was trapped in this bubble and would have continued in blissful ignorance but then I slipped on Life's banana skin and everything changed. Since then I have been reading about many things (since time is not of the essence, I can indulge in such luxuries)  and the common element in all  of them is that they have very little to do directly with what I studied in college. What I found was that the universe is a lot more complicated (and therefore more interesting) than I had been led to believe.  I agree with what another person said in this post:
All our technical universities seem to have one thing in common: their constant refrain to us to be ‘successful’. Be it the IITs, BITS or of course, the myriad others, anyone observant enough can make out that ‘success’ is the buzzword. ‘Achievement’ is a virtue, and dreams of 50 Lakh p.a. starting salaries seem to be the bench mark of the student who has ‘used his time wisely and worked hard’. And somehow, somewhere down the line, the real point of it all seems to have been lost.
It is simply not enough that universities exhort their students to make something of themselves. It is not enough that they churn out well-educated young professionals who still seek solace in astrology, continue to hold conflicting views about the universe in the face of scientific evidence, and continue to cling to crippling fears and insecurities about themselves and their purpose in life.
The cat is already out of the closet, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that a spurious understanding of science can co-exist with academic brilliance in higher education. If we are to really get anywhere to begin with, we must shed our collective cultural tolerance for faith-supremacy and stop riding on the popular bandwagon of Appeal to Antiquity. This manifestation of Karmic Capitalism comes at the cost of the rational worldview, and feeds off modern insecurity. It festers in a vacuum of discourse and open debate about what it means to be successful, or how we can overcome our anxieties thoughtfully.
Sanjeev seems to think that a scientific theory is a random guess that someone came up with over dinner. A theory is a system of ideas that gives an explanation of a group of facts or phenomena. It begins as a hypothesis and finally becomes a theory that is accepted by the scientific community after it has been confirmed by experiment/observation. If even one observation is wrong then the theory is wrong and has to be modified. The new theory must not only explain the anomalous fact but also explain the facts that had been satisfactorily explained by the old theory. Stephen Jay Gould says:
Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.
Like the theory of gravity or the atomic theory, evolutionary theory is an extensively documented set of principles with evidence from multiple independent sources - morphology, embryology, paleontology, bio-geography, molecular biology, etc. There are multiple books and online sources which give information about evolution in language accessible to the layman. Following the advise of the Bible is useful: 'Seek and ye shall find'. As Jacques Monod said, '[A] curious aspect of the theory of evolution is that everybody thinks he understands it."

There are an amazing number of misconceptions about evolution by natural selection, an idea that can be summarized in just a few words - non-random selection of random variation. The use of the word 'evolution' as a synonym for the word 'change' in many contexts like evolution of Indian foreign policy, evolution of cities, evolution of car design etc. are misleading. These processes have nothing in common with the process of biological evolution.