When worlds collide (Part 3)

The worldview that says, “human beings are the product of mindless random events governed entirely, and only, by the laws of Physics”, has been around for a longtime. By its constant repetition, it has succeeded in diffusing deeper and wider throughout our culture. Sometimes this is the goal of the promulgators of a worldview: not to posit it as an issue to be debated and reasoned over but rather to spread it so wide that it is accepted implicitly, so that it becomes “common knowledge”.  By the looks of our media, they appear to have succeeded.

Last time, I pointed out that even within worldviews that deny the possibility of a supernatural reality, we can find thinkers that notice and argue against the fallacies of strict (mindless) materialism. The thinkers that step up are ones that know how to think: usually trained physical scientists or philosophers. Last time, I mentioned Hubert Yockey, who used the mathematics of Information Theory to prove that life could not evolve out of random events. Since Information cannot be created from random events, he concluded that all the information in DNA was there at the beginning of life.

Following this reasoning, we can prove that the graduality hypothesis of Darwinian evolution is also impossible because it assumes the creation of new information at each step, out of random (mindless) mutations. Furthermore, I pointed out, that the limited age of our planet reduces any reasonable expectation that humanity arose out of purely random processes to a practical impossibility.

The problem is then: How do we explain that we are here? This is really where almost everybody who believes in Darwinian evolution starts from: Since we are here, there must have been a mechanism that got us here. Since that mechanism cannot have been a supernatural cause (for we all know those do not exist), then it follows that the mechanism of Darwinian evolution indeed works. It is all we have and it sounds plausible, after all, and we have the fossil record to prove it.

photo of man walking nest to cutouts of the ascent of man

I hope it is obvious to the reader that this argument is nearly circular because it has removed from the outset the competing hypothesis of a supernatural cause. In one of my previous discussions about the implications of Yockey’s conclusions, I pointed out that the fossil record also supports his view. Because if all the information to make all life on earth was in DNA from the very beginning, it should not be a surprise that we should find creatures as diverse as dinosaurs and horseshoe crabs and antibiotic-resistant bacteria all over the fossil record, existing precisely when the environment of the time could support their existence.

So, neither the fossil record, nor the presence of humanity at this point of history in our planet provide any proof that Darwinian evolution, due to purely physical random processes, is the reason for our being.  But you can see how believing in Darwinian evolution is a preamble to the worldview I am discussing here: Namely, that all we are, all that a human being is, is an accidental result of the laws of Physics that have been relentlessly at work since the Big Bang. Carrying forward with this viewpoint we can then make the case that there is nothing intrinsically more significant or more valuable about human beings than, say, an amoeba. Both man and amoeba resulted from the same mindless process.

The dehumanizing potential of such a worldview should be obvious. It is therefore interesting that a scientist who firmly believes in Darwinian evolution should rise to decry how wrong and illogical this viewpoint is.

Enter Raymond Tallis

I am talking about Dr. Raymond Tallis, a retired medical physician and clinical neuroscientist who has written several books critiquing what he calls neuromania: the belief that the purely physico-chemical activity of the brain, as elucidated, for instance, in functional MRI, is capable of explaining all that humans are and do. All = our motivations, our preferences, and even our choices.

Tallis clearly states that he is an atheist and certainly not a dualist. Yet he has been moved to show how this dangerous worldview has been seeping not only into general society but academia. It is dangerous because it denies our humanity by claiming we are no different from any other natural process in the universe.

In his work, he points out that we all know we humans are different from everything else in this universe. You are able to say “I am a person”. And you know what you mean by that. The fact that we all think, that we have individual preferences for certain types of music, that we can act on purpose against our “animal” instincts, that we routinely delay pleasure for the sake of a future reward, that we make detailed plans about the future, far in advance, to enable us to accomplish abstract goals… all these things distinguish us completely from every other form of life in this world.

This self-evident truth is what the worldview of neuromania  aims to deconstruct. Usually, the claims of neuromania appear in the form: “Researchers X at University Y have discovered the region in the brain where Z originates.” And Z can be anything from love, to the propensity to gamble, to our appreciation of music, even to our concept of God. Tallis recognizes this movement as part of Darwinitis run amok.

brain fMRI image

I would think the reader has run into this before, probably in the popular press; where people claim to have proven that such and such human behavior, say adultery, is not aberrant or immoral because it is hardwired into our genetic makeup as an obvious evolutionary advantage. The fatuousness of such arguments ought to be trivial to point out by anyone trained in the scientific method because, as a rule, these great revelations take the form: “We know behavior A occurs. We know humans, like all animals, are the products of Natural Selection. Therefore, behavior A must have been selected and be advantageous for our survival. Let me show you why it is plausible that behavior A constitutes an evolutionary advantage. See? Doesn’t that make sense?”

But just because an argument is plausible does not mean it is the only plausible argument.

And that is where all these misguided conclusions run afoul of the scientific method. As pointed out by John Platt in the article “Strong Inference: Certain systematic methods of scientific thinking may produce much more rapid progress than others,” in Science, 16 October 1964, Volume 146, Number 3642, the scientific method consists of these straightforward steps that must be applied to every problem in science, formally, explicitly, and regularly:

  1. Devising alternative hypotheses;
  2. Devising a crucial experiment (or several of them), with alternative possible outcomes, each of which will, as nearly as possible, exclude one or more of the hypotheses;
  3. Carrying out the experiment so as to get a clean result;
  4. 1′) Recycling the procedure, making sub-hypotheses or sequential hypotheses to refine the possibilities that remain; and so on…

When was the last time you read one of those popular science narratives that you find on the newspaper, or the web, or on that university’s website (or – heaven forbid – Facebook) and the author actually told you that there were several possible explanations for the results of his experiment, and then proceeded to tell you how he eliminated the erroneous ones, one by one? Isn’t almost all that you read today written in the style: “I think W is true. I did these experiments, and sure enough they support my assertion that W is true.”

I wish I could tell you this is only a problem with the popular, watered down, science narratives. It is not. I still occasionally serve as a referee for peer reviewed engineering journals and what a lot of people try to get published today is flabbergasting. More flabbergasting than the content submitted, that flagrantly ignores the scientific method, is the sad possibility that those authors truly think they had something novel and worthwhile to say.

The scientific method requires the acknowledging that there may be more than one answer to the research question being asked. And, most importantly, to recognize that my “pet theory” does not deserve any special treatment as I put all the hypotheses under the knife.

Is neuromania Science?

Consider the paper by Moll J, Krueger F, Zahn R, Pardini M, de Oliveira-Souza R, Grafman J.; “Human fronto–mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation”. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2006;103(42):15623–15628

By using functional MRI monitoring of the brain of 19 volunteers, as they chose whether or not to give money to a charitable organization, the authors claim to have shown “the mesolimbic reward system is engaged by donations in the same way as when monetary rewards are obtained. Furthermore, medial orbitofrontal–subgenual and lateral orbitofrontal areas, which also play key roles in more primitive mechanisms of social attachment and aversion, specifically mediate decisions to donate or to oppose societal causes. Remarkably, more anterior sectors of the prefrontal cortex are distinctively recruited when altruistic choices prevail over selfish material interests.”

photo of man giving alms

But have they proven such a thing? They acknowledge that the lateral orbitofrontal regions of the brain are also involved in other behaviors, as seen by the title of another article you can find: “Lateral orbitofrontal cortex activity is modulated by group membership in situations of justified and unjustified violence.” And, what about this one? “Subgenual Anterior Cingulate-Medial Orbitofrontal Functional Connectivity in Medication-Resistant Major Depression: A Neurobiological Marker for Accelerated Intermittent Theta Burst Stimulation Treatment”, where again that dorsolateral prefrontal cortex region of the brain was chosen as a target for accelerated intermittent theta-burst stimulation (using magnetic fields) as a treatment for depression.

The same region of the brain appears to be involved in altruism, violence, and depression.

I could be misunderstanding some of these articles, since I am not a neuroscientist. But Tallis is. And in his book “Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity” he gives his own examples of this phenomenon where regions of the brain are singled out by one group of investigators as forming some sort of circuit that supposedly is responsible for (explains) the human behavior under investigation, and then another group of investigators, addressing a different behavior, also find the same regions forming part of their circuit that explains their completely different behavior.

Usually, an answer that claims to explain everything turns out to be an answer that explains nothing. We can surmise that these investigators have seen in their data what they expected to see.

A hypothetical experiment

To illustrate what is happening with these papers and their conclusions, consider this hypothetical experiment.

I invite you to my office where I have a desktop computer. A customer has given me a set of data files with their measurements of the transmission of a microwave signal through a known thickness of an unknown material. They want me to tell them what the properties of that material are.

I call up on the screen an executable file, click on it, and within a couple of seconds the answers come out in the form of a set of output files. Now, in my office I have three colleagues who are going to determine how I succeeded in doing this.

The first one is Dr. Moe who is armed with his ultrasensitive microphones and air-flow meters. He has observed that during the execution of this process the fans in my computer kicked into overdrive precisely during the period of time between that click on the executable file and the time the output files appeared. He concludes that the mechanisms responsible for the right answer are the fans.

Dr. Larry instead has come armed with infrared cameras. He observes the interior of my computer during this process and sees that the cpus got warm during the process. He concludes the change of temperature in the cpus of the motherboard was the mechanism responsible for the right answer.

Dr. Curly, not to be outdone has highly sensitive magnetometers and is able to map the current flow into and out of the cpus and through all the printed circuits. In addition, he also found a significant amount of current flowing out of the power supply. The power supply and the circuits are responsible.

Who is right? Would you say that they missed the obvious, that it was the executable file that was responsible for getting the right answer? But I can give you another executable file that looks just like it on the screen of the computer, and it will not do it.

Why are they all wrong? Because the responsible mechanism for getting the right answer was me. I wrote the FORTRAN program that performed the computations that gave rise to the right answer.

But my esteemed colleagues will insist that every time they perform their experiments, they get repeatable results. Sure, all those observed phenomena correlate with the execution of the process in question. But that doesn’t mean they are the cause.

The fallacy of neuromania is the assumption that the processes observed in the brain with the latest clinical laboratory tools constitute the cause of the behavior in question. If they cannot measure it, then it doesn’t exist. Moe, Larry, and Curly would agree with them.


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