Another really stupid argument from William Lane Craig

Craig is not one of the clever ones. He’s one of the glib, superficial ones, and he impresses a lot of superficial people. Here’s one of his latest, the Argument for God from Intentionality.

God is the best explanation of intentional states of consciousness in the world. Philosophers are puzzled by states of intentionality. Intentionality is the property of being about something or of something. It’s signifies the object directedness of our thoughts.

For example, I can think about my summer vacation or I can think of my wife. No physical object has this sort of intentionality. A chair or a stone or a glob of tissue like the one like the brain is not about or of something else. Only mental states or states of consciousness are about other things. As a materialist, Dr. Rosenberg [the interlocutor] recognizes that and so concludes that on atheism there really are no intentional states.

Dr. Rosenberg boldly claims that we never really think about anything. But this seems incredible. Obviously I am thinking about Dr. Rosenberg’s argument. This seems to me to be a reductio ad absurdum of atheism. By contrast, on theism because God is a mind it’s hardly surprising that there should be finite minds. Thus intentional states fit comfortably into a theistic worldview.

So we may argue:

1. If God did not exist, [then] intentional states of consciousness would not exist.

2. But intentional states of consciousness do exist!

3. Therefore, God exists.

The link is to a philosopher’s debunking, pointing out the obvious fallacies and some of the more subtle arguments against it from serious, non-superficial philosophers. It doesn’t bring up the first counter-argument that came to my mind, though.

We know what the physical nature of intentional states are; they are patterns of electrical activity in a network of cells with specific physical properties. We don’t know how to read that pattern precisely, but we can measure and observe them: stick someone in an MRI and ask them to think about different things or engage in different cognitive tasks, and presto, blood flows shift in the brain and different areas light up with different levels of activity. These are properties not seen in chairs or stones, which lack the neuronal substrates that generate these patterns.

Intentional states are ultimately entirely physical states; they are dependent on organized brain matter burning energy actively and responsively in different patterns. There is no evidence that they require supernatural input, so Craig’s first premise that these could not exist without supernatural input is not demonstrated.

An important warning regarding your household recreational drug use

I  try not to abuse my soapbox here by proselytizing too often, given that this is a topic on which hordelings have deeply divided points of view. But sometimes a warning is just far too important not to share.

I’m not moralizing here. What you do with your own body is between you, your conscience, and your connection. But an informed choice is always the best choice. I urge you to pay close attention to this Public Service Announcement.

Can I see an fMRI from a man jumping over a shark next?

I’m feeling cynical today. I think I’ve read one too many fMRI studies. The latest faddish paper is on what the brains of freestyle rappers look like — they compared the brain activity of people reciting memorized words vs. improvising, and guess what…their brains are doing different things during those functions.

What did their brains look like?

No matter what they were rapping about, their brains "activated differently during the improvised flow versus the memorized lyrics," says Stephanie Pappas at LiveScience. When subjects were freestyling, the medial prefrontal cortex — an area associated with organizing and integrating information — showed an increase an activity. Meanwhile the dorsolateral region, which helps with "self-control, self-monitoring, and self-censoring," showed a decrease in activity, adds Pappas. (This area became more active when the rappers were reciting memorized lyrics.) Also active while the subjects freestyled were the brain areas associated with language and motor control ("no surprise given the rappers had to think of words and produce them with the muscles of the mouth and jaw"), and the amygdala, which is the brain’s center for emotional activity.

What does that mean?

"Like jazz musicians, the rappers’ brains were paying less conscious attention to what was going on but had strong action in the area that motivates action and thought," says Sarah Zielinksi at NPR. But unlike jazz musicians playing instruments, the left hemisphere of the brain — where language is processed for most right-handed people — demonstrated a dramatic increase of activity. In other words, says Jon Bardin at the Los Angeles Times, "high-level executive function is actively bypassed to allow for a more natural, spontaneous output of language" — the brain essentially turns off its own censors. There’s an "absence of attention," said Braun. "When the attention system is partially offline, you can just let things fly and let things come without critiquing, monitoring, or judging them."

You know, there’s nothing really wrong with this work: it’s not bad science. It’s just pointless science. It’s settled that we have this technology that can monitor variation in blood flow in the functioning human brain, and that’s nice, but what are people going to do with it? So far, it seems to be simply crudely phenomenological, with investigators stuffing people’s heads in cylinders and asking them to do X, Y, and Z, while we all coo over the pretty colors the computer paints on the screen.

The results of this study, for instance, are completely unsurprising…and they also don’t tell me what should be done next, other than bringing in artists in other genres and seeing what their brains do. Which wouldn’t tell me anything other than more correlations between brain blotches and behavior. I’m not seeing any new questions arising from this work, which to me is the real hallmark of interesting science.

But seriously, I hope someone develops a portable fMRI helmet, so we can take someone and strap it and a pair of waterskis on them, and jump them over a shark. And then we can do a reading of people in an episode with a Special Guest Star that ends with them waking up from a dream as the two leads get married in a very special finale.

Learn your neuroanatomy lingo

Go study this and master the vocabulary. Everyone is so familiar with our brains with their parietal lobes and sulci and ganglia, but do people ever stop to contemplate the cephalopod brain? Nooooo. And it’s pretty cool.

Possibly the most obvious difference is that the nervous system of most invertebrates develops ventrally, rather than dorsally, like ours. Imagine that your nervous system formed on the other side of your throat, so that as the brain expanded, it had to wrap itself around your esophagus.

Newsweek panders to the deluded again

I’ve got to wonder who is responsible for this nonsense, and how it gets past the staff at Newsweek. Every once in a while, they’ve just got to put up a garish cover story touting the reality of Christian doctrine, and invariably, the whole story is garbage. This time around, the claim is proof of life after death, in Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife. This time, we have a real-live doctor who has worked at many prestigious institutions, as we are reminded several times in the story, whose brain was shut down and who then recites an elaborate fantasy of visiting heaven.

[Read more...]

What does it even mean to pass the mirror test?

The mirror test is a well known indicator for some degree of self-awareness: surreptitiously mark an animal’s face, show it a mirror, and see if it recognizes that the reflected image is of itself by whether it reaches up to touch or remove the mark. We see that behavior and infer that the animal has some knowledge of itself and can recognize that the mirror image is not another animal.

But now robots are being specifically programmed to pass the mirror test.

Ow. It makes my brain hurt.

So this is a computer that has no other indicators of consciousness or awareness or autonomous “thought” (whatever that means…my brain is hurting again), and is being coded to respond to a specific kind of visual input with a specific response…to literally pass the mirror test by rote. Does that really count as passing?

I think that all it actually accomplishes is to subvert the mirror test. It’s always been a proxy for a more sophisticated cognitive ability, the maintenance of a sophisticated mental map of the world around us that includes an entity we call “self”, and I don’t think that training a visual processing task to identify a specific shape unique to the robot design counts.

I’d also like to see what happens if two identical robots are made and put in the same room. To recognize “self” you also have to have a concept of “other”.

Who’s conscious?

A recent meeting of neuroscientists tried to define a set of criteria for that murky phenomenon called “consciousness”. I don’t know how successful they were; they’ve come out with a declaration on consciousness that isn’t exactly crystal clear. It seems to involve the existence of neural circuitry that exhibits specific states that modulate behavior.

The neural substrates of emotions do not appear to be confined to cortical structures. In fact, subcortical neural networks aroused during affective states in humans are also critically important for generating emotional behaviors in animals. Artificial arousal of the same brain regions generates corresponding behavior and feeling states in both humans and non-human animals. Wherever in the brain one evokes instinctual emotional behaviors in non-human animals, many of the ensuing behaviors are consistent with experienced feeling states, including those internal states that are rewarding and punishing. Deep brain stimulation of these systems in humans can also generate similar affective states. Systems associated with affect are concentrated in subcortical regions where neural homologies abound. Young human and non- human animals without neocortices retain these brain-mind functions. Furthermore, neural circuits supporting behavioral/electrophysiological states of attentiveness, sleep and decision making appear to have arisen in evolution as early as the invertebrate radiation, being evident in insects and cephalopod mollusks (e.g., octopus).

This is where they’re losing me. So, basically, they’re saying that aspects of consciousness are about 600 million years old? There is a bit of a slip in the text; some states and circuitry are present in insects, but then it goes on to declare certain subsets of animals to be conscious, which do not include insects. So what do insects lack that makes them not conscious? Or are they?

They seem to have reached an agreement that a mammalian neocortex is not necessary for consciousness, which seems entirely reasonable to me. But that doesn’t suffice to say what anatomical substrate is required for consciousness. It is basically a declaration that narrow, mammal-centric views of how the brain works are not adequate, and that opens the doors to considering the possibility of consciousness in non-mammalian organisms, but I’m still not clear on exactly how we’re going to measure consciousness.

Anyway, here’s their conclusion.

We declare the following: “The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non- human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

Wait, I missed something again. What are the “neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states”? They don’t say. What are the anatomical substrates that are present in humans and not cows or mice? (Hint: I don’t think there are any qualitative differences). So this document has just declared that cows are conscious? Please tell McDonald’s.

It’s nice that the octopus gets singled out as a conscious creature, but under these definitions, it seems to me that every animal with a nervous system above a nerve net (wait…is there reason to exclude those?) is conscious. Vegans will be happy to embrace this statement, but I’m left unsatisfied by the lack of concrete explanations.

Also, here is an interesting summary of evidence for sophisticated intentional behaviors in octopus. Notice that intent and mental states are inferred from observations of behavior, not by slicing open a few ganglia and noting the existence of consciousness circuitry.

The octopus is the only invertebrate to get a shout-out at all. And plenty of research has been accumulated to back up this assertion. A 2009 study showed that some octopuses collect coconut shells to use as portable shelters—an example of tool use, according to the researchers. Other research has documented sophisticated spatial navigation and memory. Anecdotal reports from researchers, such as Jennifer Mather, describe watching octopuses in the wild make errands to collect just the right number of rocks to narrow the opening to a desired den. And laboratory experiments show a distinct change in behavior when octopuses are kept in tanks that do not have enough enrichment objects to keep them stimulated.

Shorter Cambridge declaration: animals other than humans look like they might be conscious, so let’s admit that neural circuits other than those in the mammalian neocortex are involved. And that’s all.

A poll on kitty experimentation

There is an extremely common sort of experiment to understand plasticity of the developing brain. These are important experiments to understand an important phenomenon: the brain does not simply unfold ineluctably to produce a fully functional organ, but actually interacts constantly with its environment to build a functioning organ that is matched to the world it must model and work with. This was one of the very first things I learned as a budding neuroscientist; my first undergraduate research experience was in the lab of Jenny Lund at the University of Washington, where we were given prepared slices of embryonic and infant human brains (the products of abortions, stillbirths, and childhood mortality) and counted dendritic spines in the visual cortex. The brain is constantly remodeling itself, and is especially doing so in young individuals.

Now in those old observations, we weren’t really manipulating either the brain or the environment: you don’t get to do that with human babies! All we were doing was documenting the natural progression of synaptic connection density — which, by the way, declines rapidly as the brain learns and refines. What we could see anatomically is that as young children adapt to their environment, the brain is busily pruning and shifting connections — but what we couldn’t see is what was causing those changes, or what effect those anatomical changes had on visual processing.

For that, you have to tinker. And since you can’t do that with human babies, you have to go to animal models.

And the most common animal models for studying the visual system in humans are mammals: cats (also ferrets, for technical reasons involving some of the pathways). And since we’re interested in the plasticity of the brain in young, developing animals, you can see where this is going.

Neuroscientists do experiments on kittens.


Actually, it sort of does. The Mirror just put up an article decrying kitten experimentation, with lots of quotes from celebrities moaning in horror.

Ricky Gervais: “I am appalled that kittens are being deprived of sight by having their eyelids sewn shut. I thought sickening experiments like these were a thing of the past.”

Why, no, Ricky. These experiments go on right now. It’s how we learn to understand the role of sensory input in shaping the function of the visual cortex.

Michelle Thew of The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection: “This is unacceptable cruel research. The public will be shocked to learn of publicly-funded experiments where kittens have been subjected to this.”

Of course they will, because your organization will beat the drum of ignorance and lie about their practice and utility.

Dr Ned Buyukmihci, a vet: “The eyelid procedures would have been painful for the kittens. There are substantial ­differences in cats versus humans. There are ­established methods of obtaining information humanely.”

I’ve done experiments like these in the past, and even more substantial surgical manipulations. The investigators know how to do these experiments humanely: we know about anesthesia, for instance, and anything involving surgery on animals is tightly policed by Institutional Review Boards (actually, they tend to be discouraged by IRBs, but that’s a different complaint), which usually have veterinarians serving on them. If Buyukmihci has evidence that these surgeries were done in a way that did not minimize suffering, he should speak up, and the neuroscience community would join him in deploring them.

But these protocols went through Cardiff University’s ethical review process and the Home Office Animals in Science Regulation Unit. There’s no reason to think they were anything less than impeccable.

Ralph Cook, some politician or bureaucrat: “It’s an academic producing a paper which is meaningless and can’t be transferred to humans. Vivisection is completely wrong.”

No, actually, most of this research isn’t just an abstract pursuit of knowledge (although there’s nothing wrong with that, either). This is research that is directly applicable to alleviating human suffering. Treatment of visual system disorders in children is informed directly by these kinds of experiments: they tell us about the sensitivity of the visual system to abnormalities in inputs and long term effects of sustained aberrations. I had a child with ‘lazy eye’ at birth: the doctors (as well as the parents in this case) knew how important it was to correct this problem as quickly as possible, and gave us protocols (tested in cats!) that we could implement until she was old enough to get surgery.

Ingrid Newkirk, PETA’s fanatical nutball: “Not only is sewing shut the eyes of kittens ­ethically and morally abhorrent, it is so crude and cruel that it sets science back decades. The kittens will suffer from having their eyes sewn shut and will also experience psychological distress from being reared in the dark. We learn far more about what happens in humans by investing in state-of-the-art research methods that provide reliable data on human experience.”

Scientists don’t do these experiments to get their jollies torturing kittens. These are experiments that advance our understanding of the wiring of the brain.

I agree that there is an amount of suffering involved, and having done similar work, I also know that good investigators do their best to minimize it. My second job as an undergraduate was as an animal care assistant in a surgery, and one of the things I was paid to do was to spend a few hours a day just playing with post-op cats and kittens, and making sure that their housing was clean and comfortable. These were conscientious scientists. They needed to do these experiments, but they also cared about the animals. I was really impressed with their concern and respect for the animals they had to do experiments on.

(By the way, this was an animal surgery that was also used as a training unit for the medical school. One other thing I learned there was that while Ph.D. researchers were people with a deep affection for their subjects, M.D. students were assholes who didn’t give a damn. I hope they learned some humanity later in their careers, because I didn’t see it at the early stage when they were practicing on animals.)

So, after doing a hatchet job on the research and quoting lots of ignorant celebrity wankers and cranky nobodies, the Mirror has a poll. This will be a challenge: you’re going to have to go up against the whole kitty-loving internet to shift this one.

Is the scientific experiment on kittens acceptable?

Yes 7.44%

No 92.56%

Good luck with that one.

Pharyngula Podcast #3

We had another fun Google+ Hangout this morning with Esteleth, James Rook, Tommy Leung, and Yankee Cynic, building on a couple of articles I mentioned before. Basically, we talked about the attractiveness of the premises of evolutionary psychology vs. the extravagance of their conclusions, and the unreliability of brains and how we have to work hard to overcome them. It turned into a kind of discussion about psychology, of all things.

And now you can watch it all, too.

Isn’t it amazing how you can assemble a small group of people, give them the seed of an idea, and then they can go on to talk about it for an hour, easy?

We’ll probably do another one in about two weeks. Make suggestions! I’m also planning to do the next one at sometime in my local evening, so maybe we can bring in an Australian or two.