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Dec 06 2013

No Deepak, The Brain is Not Mysterious

There is a notion that liberals are always pro-science.

That is simply not the case, I have pointed out that the left wing conspiracy theories and anti-science ludditery exists in many cases. I have pointed out the hypocrisy of natural birth which is a heavily left wing group. Many anti-vaccine lobbyists are left wingers and anti-capitalist despite the fact that the natural medicines they claim are superior are also made by capitalist companies with incredible profits considering the contents.

Huffington Post’s got that bug. It routinely posts things that are pseudoscience. It’s the feel good factor stuff.

And there is no one as good at that as Deepak Chopra.

As science has steadily undermined the long-held beliefs of religion, almost all that remains for people of faith is to say that God is a mystery and will always be one. Insofar as Einstein was religious, he possessed a feeling of awe and wonder at the mystery of the universe. But science hasn’t stopped chipping away at mystery, promising to reduce spiritual experience to measurable brain activity. I doubt that belief in God, the soul, heaven and hell, and other tenets of faith will be drastically affected — polls continue to show that these things remain articles of belief for around 80-90 percent of responders.

Dear Deepak

Science has not undermined the long-held beliefs of religion. Science explains how the world works. Religion got it wrong. In massive and spectacular ways. Almost as if there was no god like entity demanding our worship and instead there were a bunch of people desperately trying to make sense of a world that they didn’t understand and fearful of the unexplained they created a greater one in order to rule over their lives.

I don’t think you understand how science works. Science seeks to find out how everything works. You cannot wring your hands and demand that the scientists should pay not attention to the man behind the curtain.

That’s like saying that Astronomy reduced the sense of mystery of the Universe by making Astrology look stupid.

Neuroscience has been able to map how we think and knowing how and why we operate the way we do gives us an insight into a variety of neurological issues.

Will neuroscience eventually be able to locate God in our neurons, and if so, should that tiny area of the brain be excised or boosted? No doubt there are arguments on both sides, depending on whether you hold that God has been good for the human race in the long run or bad. Setting aside such judgments, it turns out that the possibility of finding God in the brain creates a baffling mystery that neither religion nor science can tackle alone.

No. There is no god of the Neurons. There is the idea of belief in a god that is inculcated into each one of us by our parents. During that period of evolutionary gullibility we learn that the gods of our fathers exist, but we reject some gods faster than the others. The dinner witch stops making sense after a while. Very few children make it past the age of 14 without learning that Santa Claus is just mum and dad and a man in a fat suit at the town centre. The bogeyman and the thing under the bed go the same way as the tooth fairy and yet we still fear an actual flesh and blood god because we never really are told to grow out of it.

There is no god of the brain. There is the idea of a god and that’s because we are “designed” to recognise patterns. Our evolutionary survival is based on pattern recognition to the point we are capable of extraordinary feats of hand eye coordination.

The pattern recognition of a cricketer lets him recognise how much a ball will swing and how much it will turn before he hits it. The pattern recognition allows us to recognise faces and indeed play the odds of survival. But when that turns to the unexplained we see patterns in things that aren’t there. The wind and the thunder become entities. After all? Thunder and Lightning must have something causing them? Something big and powerful. And they come one after another and the sound is one of violence. It must be huge ginormous creatures battling it out…

If Deepak Chopra had the basic honesty to point out that the entire brain works on chemical depolarisation and neurotransmitters, you would realise there is no “god part”. There is an experience of a god and reinforcements from the brain of different times we as people had that experience reinforced irrespective of what those experiences were in reality or what actually caused them.

This is entirely ions, neurotransmitters and brain architecture. Our sum total of perception, intelligence and indeed every single thing that makes you “you” is down to this.

This I will point out is “pretty damn neat”. Wonderful in fact. We are intelligent Chemistry. Why must we be magic instead?

Now that advanced brain scanning can map the way our brains light up with each thought, word, or action, it’s clear that no experience escapes the brain. For a mystic to see God or feel his presence, for St. Paul to be suddenly converted on the road to Damascus, or for St. Teresa of Avila to have her heart pierced by an angelic arrow, such experiences would have to register in their brains. Yet this indisputable fact (so far as present knowledge extends) doesn’t give science the advantage over religion. For it turns out that the brain has definite limitations on what it can experience.

I think shaping the world we live in through our understanding of the universe and the production of tools and technology that make our lives so indolent, restful and fun gives Science the advantage.

Yes, science has limitations. The boundary of current knowledge is one of them. In the future we may know more things. Things we consider true today may not be tomorrow. We can postulate, we can predict but sometimes the way the world works shocks us.

But insisting that religions were right all along is unlikely to be one of those shocks.

The brain has definite limitations. We know this! It is the entire point of optical illusions. Our brain cannot cope with the input and displays it according to it’s best interpretation.

The best example of this we must go to another Atheist. Penn Jillete. See Penn is considered by many people to be a fine purveyorr of magic tricks. The usage of science, engineering and sleight of hand to fool and trick the audience into believing that something unbelievable has just occurred. He fools you into thinking he has done the impossible.

Nice trick. But again it preys on the weakness of our brain. He is fooling our detection software into giving us the “wrong input”.

Now you and me know that Penn is a trickster. But imagine if you didn’t know it was a trick?

The work of the late Polish-American mathematician Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950) is relevant here, because Korzybski worked out the layered processing that goes into the everyday processing of reality. Billions of bits of data bombard our sense organs, of which only a fraction enter the nervous system. Of that fraction, more is filtered out by the brain, which uses built-in models of reality to filter out what doesn’t fit. When people say, “You’re not hearing me” or, “You only see what you want to see,” they are expressing a truth that Korzybski tried to quantify mathematically.

Not as such. Our body simply has a limited span of detection. We detect only specific frequencies of sound and light. Why? Because of the way we evolved. These were the most advantageous to our ancestors and we just kept on with it.

The narrow letterbox through which we view the world is expanded by our technology and science. We figured out ways to see the invisible and to hear things that are impossible to hear.

Sometimes the things a person sees are simply outside the range of human experience, like our inability to see ultraviolet light. But a great deal more depends on expectations, memories, biases, fears, and simple close-mindedness. If you go to a party, and someone tells you that you are about to meet a Nobel Prize winner, you will see a different person than if you had been told he is a reformed Mafia hit man. When all the filtering and processing is complete, there is no doubt that the brain doesn’t actually experience reality but only a confirmation of its model of reality.

No. That’s called making conclusions. If someone you trust tells you a fact about a stranger you are evolutionarily biased to believing those you trust over those who are strangers because survival depended on it. You are not going to like a Mafia hit man because he is a culturally and socially terrible person.

The elimination of expectation, memory, bias, fears and “simple close-mindedness” is the point of science. Science does not work through subjective experiments but through objectivity.

Even subjectivity can be converted to objectivity through repeat experiments and vast cohort data.

If we show 10 random people my blog and they all say it’s great it is a subjective experience. How can we know if it’s good or not?

We poll 1000 or even 10,000 people. They then chart their subjective experiences down a controlled by diverse grid of answers. We then plot those out and we can show how well my blog was liked by a diverse group of people. We can even make this more specific by showing it different demographies of 10,000 people and charting those and show how different people perceive a subjective idea.

Two interesting points follow:

1. All models are equal as viewed from the level of the brain.
2. Reality transcends any model we can possibly make of it.

No. No they are not

1. Not all models are equal. We have empirical testing devices that convert the models into mathematical data and mathematics is universal. If you are a zlorbian from the 3rd Zlorbian dynasty of the Thomjoanes Galaxy and you happen to meet Billy aged 8. You can still communicate through mathematics since it is a universal code. I + I = II or 2 in our Hindu-Arabic decimalised system. This means that we can utilise tools to analyse the world around us and show us how it works. Deepak being a doctor should know how this applies in terms of CT Scans, Ultrasound, X-Rays and MRI. Where we manage to provide interpretations of physiology and pathology without relying on cutting people into slices.

2. That may be the case as of now. BUT that doesn’t mean we should pack it in and start tossing babies into the maw of Tlaloc.

These two points allow God, the soul, and all other spiritual experiences back into the picture. The first point demolishes the notion that science is superior to religion because it gathers facts while religion deals in beliefs. In truth, science filters out and discards a huge portion of human experience — almost everything one would classify as subjective — so its model is just as selective, if not more so, than religion’s. As far as the brain is concerned, neural filtering is taking place in all models, whether they are scientific, spiritual, artistic, or psychotic. The brain is a processor of inputs, not a mirror to realty.

No they don’t.

Just because we don’t understand precisely how something works doesn’t mean we should accept blatant nonsense as “possible truth”.

The second point is even more telling. If our brains are constantly filtering every experience, there is no way anyone can claim to know what is “really” real. You can’t step outside your brain to fathom what lies beyond it. Just as there is a horizon for the farthest objects that emit light in the cosmos, and a farthest horizon for how far back in time astronomy can probe, there is a farthest horizon for thinking. The brain operates in time and space, having linear thoughts that are the end point of a selective filtering process. So whatever is outside time and space is inconceivable, and unfiltered reality would probably blow the brain’s circuits, or simply be blanked out.

Yes but if anything is outside the realms of reality you wouldn’t perceive it nor would it be capable of influencing the “real world”. You are literally making unprovable claims about entities that exist outside the ken of all detection and that we should satiate them with their specific interpretive dances lest they get mad and turn us into a condiment.

And this is your statement as a man of science? That if we perceived things outside the letter box we would blow our minds because the software of our brain is not fit to handle it?

HP Lovecraft is not a valid source of theological defence.

You have no proof for the existence of any such god and merely a “what if”. It’s not even a hypothesis since hypothesis are based on observed phenomenon or educated guesswork rather than trying to hammer theology into reality.

Korzybski held that even mathematics was a model, subject to the limitations of all models that the brain constructs. Not everyone would agree — holding on to mathematics as a universal truth gives advanced physics its toehold on the quantum world. But I am not using any of these ideas as bludgeons to bash science. All agendas aside, Korzybski simply pointed out, using the language of mathematics, that whatever reality is, it transcends the brain.

Sure but said reality doesn’t mean that the gods exist in it and that we should sacrifice butter to them. Or small children.

In that single word — transcendence — there’s a level playing field between science and religion. Reality transcends, or goes beyond, what the brain discerns. If something supernatural springs from the transcendent, materialists and skeptics may argue that it can’t be real. Actually, there’s no way to prove that a natural experience is real. Seeing angels and seeing a tree, mountain, or cloud are equally inexplicable. As the noted physicist Freeman Dyson has asserted,

Not really. A tree is a solid object. People have been killed by falling trees but never by angels getting sucked into jet engines.

Deepak’s argument boils down to “Angels exist but you cannot see them because they exist outside the detectable spectra of our eyes” which forgets that we have tools that detect those.

And if Angels exist outside all detectable formats then how the hell does Deepak Chopra know about them.

To summarize the situation, we have three mysteries that we do not understand: the unpredictable movements of atoms, the existence of our own consciousness, and the friendliness of the universe to life and mind. I am only saying that the three mysteries are probably connected. I do not claim to understand any of them.

Okay, so that doesn’t mean that there is no explanation, ergo “gods and fairies” but “we don’t know how these things work, quick let’s try science”.

And consciousness is easy. It’s the software. Our computer is all 1s and 0s but the letters on my screen and the moving pictures on my youtube are not. Why? Because the laptop’s software turns the data into easily interpreted forms.

Likewise our brains do the same thing. The illusion of that there is a little “Avicenna” behind my eyes controlling me like a robot is the idea of consciousness. That ties into a soul because some people think that the consciousness lives on. Which is simply not true. Consciousness is intrinsically linked to the architecture of the brain as seen in head injuries and people with brain tumours and death is the end of said consciousness.

There are no souls, no fairies, no little men behind our ears. That is the sad and terrible truth. That for centuries we lied to ourselves and excused great atrocity because we felt that it was alright because the soul lives on. We were in fact snuffing out the one chance of living that a person had. Often for no real reason but they believed in the existence of different unproven magic beings outside the ken of all possible science.

And that’s the real tragedy.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    dukeofomnium

    “We are intelligent Chemistry. Why must we be magic instead?” This is a great line. I will probably steal it.

  2. 2
    cressida

    Wait. Duke of Omnium? A Trollope fan? Random, I love it!

  3. 3
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    So .. understanding the brain isn’t rocket surgery after all then Avicenna? ;-)

    As a non-neurologist and human I must confess I find the brain pretty mysterious myself – although not necessarily in the way Chopra meant it!

  4. 4
    Pierce R. Butler

    HP Lovecraft is not a valid source of theological defence.

    The Great Old Ones do not play defense. They don’t need to.

  5. 5
    pianoman, Heathen & Torontophile

    chopra needs to change his name to Shabda Ulti (Hindi for “Word Vomit”)

  6. 6
    Tony! The Queer Shoop

    “The friendliness of the universe towards life”???

    Deepak, seriously…the universe is hostile towards life.

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