Friday, October 02, 2009

Psychic phenomena: Persistent paradox

Here is an interesting old paper by Robert G. Jahn, in the Proceedings of the IEEE (Vol. 70, No. 2, February 1982), "The Persistent Paradox of Psychic Phenomena: An Engineering Persepective." Abstract:
Abstract-Although a variety of so-called psychic phenomena have attracted man's attention throughout recorded history, organized scholarly effort to comprehend such effects is just one century old, and systematic academic research roughly half that age. Over recent years, a sizeable spectrum of evidence has been brought forth from reputable laboratories in several disciplines to suggest that at times human consciousness can acquire information inaccessible by any known physical mechanism(ESP), and can influence the behavior of physical systems or processes(PK), but even the most rigorous and sophisticated of these studies display a characteristic dilemma: The experimental results are rarely replicable in the strict scientific sense, but the anomalous yields are well beyond chance expectations and a number of common features thread through the broad range of reported effects. Various attempts at theoretical modeling have so far shown little functional value in explicating experimental results, but have served to stimulate fundamental re-examination of the role of consciousness in the determination of physical reality. Further careful study of this formidable field seems justified, but only within the context of very well conceived and technically impeccable experiments of large data-base capability, with disciplined attention to the pertinent aesthetic factors and with more constructive involvement of the critical community.
Mario Beauregard and I talk a bit about this in The Spiritual Brain.

The basic problem is that there are two confounding factors in the study of psychic phenomena. One is Madam Rosa the Psychic, who allegedly uses occult powers - for a fee - to help a lonely woman find a tall, dark, and handsome man. The good thing about Madam Rosa is that she doesn't even pretend that what she is doing is science, which clears at least some rubbish out of the public's way.

Then there are the materialist atheists, who need to discredit any psychic effects because their theories require the mind to be an illusion with no power to cause anything to happen.

In principle, an atheist could accept psychic effects. Not believing in God is not at all the same thing as not believing in the existence or causal power of the human mind. But a materialist atheist can't accept such a solution. So he will forever be finding some reason to discredit any findings regarding psychic effects. Even one such finding would be fatal to his case.

The ongoing problem isn't with finding a critical community, but with finding one that can offer constructive criticism as opposed to simple denunciation.


Reptile brain: Even reptiles don't have one, or not exactly, anyway

In "Reptile Brain: Fight or flight response"(Nora Lockwood Tooher, Lawyers USA, April 13, 2009), we learn about the "fight or flight" response of the "reptile brain" (the part of the brain that humans share with reptiles), and how it might help in convincing juries.

It did not convince me, and I am scheduled for jury duty at some point. As I mentioned to a friend a few days ago, nothing to do with intelligence is ever that simple:
The only person I ever knew who knows a lot about reptiles – he has tagged many alligators for conservation research (which meant climbing into the water and wrestling with the big ones) – laughs at the concept of the reptilian brain.

Here are some things he told me:
Alligator cows behave pretty much the same way as mammal cows if their offspring are threatened. The offspring den with the mother for months or years and often ride around on her back. She may carry them in her mouth down to the water after they hatch, and she doesn’t swallow them.
So the reptile does not need a mammalian brain in order to have primal feelings.

Of course alligators are not especially smart, but how many mammals are? Every porcupine I have ever met has been intensely stupid. It’s easy to understand why. The porcupine spends most of his time alone up a tree, and his quills stand up when he is frightened on the ground. Intelligence would be wasted on him because he doesn’t have any problems that could be solved by intelligence.

The question of whether intelligence is needed could be an interesting concept in understanding the evolution of intelligence. It might help us understand why some birds are vastly more intelligent, in the sense humans understand, than other birds and most mammals, even though their brains are dissimilar to ours.

Of course, any such inquiry would raise issues for materialism.

My alligator-wrestling friend pointed out that the reason he won his fights with big alligators has nothing to do with superior intelligence but rather, the reptile is exothermic and therefore quickly exhausts his energy supply. A human is endothermic and therefore can fight for hours. So if the fight is over in minutes, the human will usually win, assuming he has not sustained a serious injury. And the reptile splashes back under water wearing a conservation tag or a radio tracker.

Fight or flight? Not necessarily, according to my friend. In his experience, alligators sometimes use a third option, they just reduce their metabolism to next to nothing. He actually witnessed that when he was tracking an alligator which he had outfitted with a collar that provides radio signals of metabolism. When his boat passed over the area where he knew the alligator had hidden itself, the signal suddenly declined to zero.

Of course, the alligator could not keep up a zero metabolism indefinitely, but it wouldn’t usually need to.

My researcher friend’s subsequent research showed that a number of reptiles and marsupial mammals could “freeze” in this way. The tactic is well known among Virginia opossums, of course.
I think real intelligence research would best blow clear of simplistic theories like the "reptilian brain." It is far easier to see the harm they could do than the good.


Law and society: Why I don't believe in the death penalty

While corresponding with a friend, I noted that my opposition has nothing to do with any idea that people are not responsible for their actions. Instead,
I don’t say that the death penalty would always be wrong. Rather, I don’t see its necessity in an advanced Western society, and am unpersuaded by fundamentalist-type arguments that it is what “God wants,” even when it is not really necessary.

Here in Canada, we can afford to keep someone in jail for as long as he is a threat to society, and I don’t have a problem with that. Granted, the perp might not like it, but presumably, he is a demonstrated threat to society.

However, at the height of the Pol Pot or Rwandese massacres, shooting one man might be the key to saving 500 children, and I am NOT a pacifist. And yes, I would do it myself.

But so many Canadian murderers are just stupid people acting rotten. The death penalty transforms a dreary court case into a huge public drama – who needs it?

It’s not going to change anything. Mr. Stupid Rotten B isn’t going to learn anything from the fact that Mr. Stupid Rotten A is hanged. So I’d just rather not.

Why make someone a gallows hero when he can just be some anonymous loser in the Millhaven Pen until he is too old to be a problem any more?


Baby bigots? Or adults who pay too much for fishwrap?

Here's a fun column from Janet LaRue,
... Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, in their new book, NutureShock, is based on one "test" of 100 white babies and 100 black babies by one researcher revealing the same response by both races:

How do researchers test a 6-month-old? They show babies photographs of faces. Katz found that babies will stare significantly longer at photographs of faces that are a different race from their parents, indicating they find the face out of the ordinary. Race itself has no ethnic meaning per se-but children's brains are noticing skin-color differences and trying to understand their meaning.

Newsweek editors apparently concluded from this "research" that 6-month old white babies are born racists. What else explains Newsweek's cover question: "Is Your Baby a Racist?"
Well, sure. Maybe. I dunno. Probably not.

If we start with the proposition that a six-month-old child never has any problems figuring out the world around her, there is no reason other than racism that she would stare longer at an unfamiliar type of face. We can go anywhere from there.

As a matter of fact, it's hard to even see when you do not know what you are looking at. There have been rare cases of people who recovered their eyesight after a lifetime of blindness, and that is precisely what happened. It took them a while to even interpret what they were seeing, because they were so unused to getting visual information.

If this is research, I really do prefer ignorance.


Neurolaw: The new "Freudian psychology", but this time with expensive gadgets?

Recently, I noted here and here the growth of "neurolaw," the - in my view often misguided - attempt to apply neuroscience to crime and punishment. I've since had a chance to read the excellent article by Michael S. Pardo and Dennis Patterson, "Philosophical Foundations of Law and Neuroscience", to be published in the University of Illinois Law Review in 2010. It provides an overview and critique of this growing field (and explains why it should shrink instead).

On a personal note, all this reminds me so much of Freudianism. Once upon a time, many years ago during an argument, an amateur Freudian psychologist informed me that my problems - as he perceived them - were due to the fact that I hated my mother.

I had never imagined that. How could I hate my mother and not even know it? Well, he explained, the hatred was in my Unconscious ....

So I solved the problem immediately by just disbelieving in the Freudian Unconscious. I continued to disbelieve and to not hate my mother, so far as I know and my behaviour would suggest, for another 45 years. Of course, it is possible I have a Freudian Unconscious somewhere in which I hate my mother, but it has had no impact on my life.

Today, the same person would announce instead that he had found a "hate Mom circuit" in my hippocampal gyrus, or something.

So no, I don't think neurolaw is any more scientific than Freud's Unconscious. Finding someone's fingerprints - and only his fingerprints, not anyone else's - on the steak knife used to stab another patron in a bar plus a security videocam catching him stabbing that guy, now that's what I mean by "scientific." I don't mind paying taxes for a criminal justice system that deals in that sort of evidence, but I am very skeptical of this "neurolaw" craze.

I've always thought neuroscience should stay as close to medicine as possible. In medicine, as Sir William Osler put it, you cure sometimes, alleviate often, and comfort always. So neuroscience would never be a weapon against anyone; it might help or might not help, in cases of strokes or mental disorders, for example, but the first principle of medicine, as Hippocrates used to say, is "First, do no harm."