Tuesday, July 17, 2007

This is the old post.

In edited version. Perhaps you'll understand why I was tentative to send it out.

The Creationist's Atlas is being sent to scientists around the country.

Read about it here.

What is most troubling to me is that the general reaction isn't outrage or upset of any kind, it's "Well, we're used to this. It happens all the time." If we get used to people who think that intelligent design or creationism is valid, if we get used to people who invent invalid problems in the theory of evolution, if we don't fight against every single one of them, in a way, they win. The point is that the theory of evolution has corrolaries that are testable and have stood up to being tested, that we can see E. Coli evolving in jars, that there is no scientifically valid opposing theory. To say anything less than that - even if it is "People with certain religious views might not believe in the theory of Evolution and this is okay" - is just plain wrong, and for a scientist to accept the creationist view as something that isn't outrageous strikes me as, well, strikingly unscientific.

I don't really know how to explain my next point without probably offending a lot of my friends. I've purposely stayed away from talking about this side of neurobiology because I know it's contentious and when I have brought it up even with other atheist friends it has sometimes led to heated arguments. So maybe I should just stay away. But the segue is perfect and it's something I've been thinking about a lot. So, take this as a disclaimer: the following is my opinion, and I do not pretend to be an expert in neurophysiology. Also, even if I disagree with you, it doesn't mean I don't respect you as a person in every way possible. That being said, here goes nothing.

In what has become one of my favorite studies, (I should really find and read the paper), patients were wired up to a machine and told to wiggle their finger, basically, when they felt like it. The researchers saw something very interesting, because something like two hundred milliseconds before the subject moved their finger or decided to move their finger, every time the subject moved their finger, there was a specific impulse (called a readiness potential). However, the subject was not concious of any delay between when they willed moving their fingers and in fact moved their fingers; on the contrary, just as in normal life, one's decision to move his fingers happens nicely simultaneously with moving them - otherwise typing this blog post would be tediously slow.

In any case, it appeared that the biological determinant to moving one's finger happened two hundred milliseconds before the conscious choice to move one's finger. In other words, the decision to move the finger happened unconsciously (or perhaps subconsciously or aconsciously), before the conscious choice was made. Hence, the conscious choice to move one's finger could not have caused the motion. Instead, something else entirely had to be causing both the movement of the finger as well as the "conscious choice" to do so.

The way I look at it, there are a couple ways to interpret this study without simply throwing it out the window as faulty or ignoring it:

1) Since "conscious choice" cannot do what we think it does; it is an illusion and an artifact. In reality, our actions are caused by the sloshing about of chemicals in our brains, and we are, at base, automata. I think this is what Megan's boyfriend John believes, although I have not had a discussion with him so I am not certain.

2) Our idea of "conscious agency" is flawed, since the conscious choice does not determine the action. Instead, consciousness is a complex system designed to differentiate self from other - if an action is conscious, it was motivated by your self. If it is not conscious, it was motivated by some other. Hence, when I "consciously choose" to move my arm, it really is me - although it must be some deeper, unconscious me - that is moving my arm. However, when my arm moves because someone pulls on it, and I am not conscious of that choice, someone else is doing it. If my arm were ever to move without my "conscious choice" and without external impetus, something would be very wrong and I would go to see a doctor - which is an understandable safety mechanism for an organism. This is the view I espouse.

All of which is, I think, well and good and will offend few people, if any. The problem arises, mainly, from what I view as implications of this. The first, and most important, is the following: If consciousness does not cause our action, then it is unclear to me how our actions are different from the so-called instinctual actions of an animal. Indeed, a group of researchers recently looked at fly neurology when they were tethered, searching for "free will" in flies, and reports that even animals as distantly related to us as flies contain the ability to "be spontaneous" -- to take actions that are not direct, predictable responses to environmental stimuli (see a review here). If flies have a hard-wired spontaneity circuit in their brain, how much more likely is it that our "free will" is similar or identical to a homologous construct in the brains of mice, or cats, or dogs, or monkeys? Rats can be "altruistic" as I pointed out before in this blog. (Here is the link again, for those of you too lazy to confused to scroll down). I often get frustrated when watching the Discovery channel for anthropomorphising animals, but perhaps it is warranted. Maybe the same things that motivate us motivate them.

I have no problem owning my actions even if they cannot be described as "consciously willed." If the point of consciousness is to identify self versus other, then obviously the actions that are tagged as conscious are those that I chose to do - and conscious or not, it is still my organism. This is probably because I have, at base, absolutely no problem with a purely physical self. I am my atoms, I am my muscle and blood and bone etcetera etcetera etcetera, and that is all that I am. It is in some ways miraculous to me that consciousness could evolve, that neurons firing electrically could create the complex combination of sensory perceptions, emotions, and thoughts that I experience every day. That is wondrous and wonderful. It makes me almost giddy to think about. And, as it turns out, we are continually getting closer and closer to a point where we can begin to understand how that works. That is truly miraculous.

The problem, as I am sure some of you have realized by now, is that if the self is purely physical, there can be no soul. There is no "real" agency or free will. We're all animals, and the difference between myself and a chimp is even less than I ever thought it was.

Which brings me back to my initial point of the arguments about Evolution. I would love to argue that consciousness, and whatever it is that we have been referring to for so long as "the soul", evolved out of neuronal networks and the complex relations between them, that there is no bright line in the sand between ourselves and the rest of the animal kingdom and that in terms of consciousness and ensoulledness, there is a long continuum. However, that is a discussion that I simply cannot have. The evolution of physical traits is being questioned; if I cannot trust that my interlocutor agrees, at least, that evolution is the source for diversity in life on Earth, how can I even begin to talk to them about the new physical bases for consciousness, the revolution in neurophysiology?

Moreover, the idea of the duality between mind and body isn't just a religious notion. It is one that has inundated our thought for as long as western thought has been around, it seems. We are in the process of breaking that wall down. This is massive paradigm shift. This is a new world view. This is stuff on the level of "The earth revolves around the sun"!

It's the stuff scientists dream about. Or at least, scientists who have read Thomas Kuhn. The very way we look at the world around us is changing. The very kinds of questions that can be addressed are changing. The world is changing before our eyes.

And America is being left in the dust, because we cannot face down a bunch of idiots who still cling to creationism in the face of data; who still take pot shots at evolution because they aren't secure enough in their own humanity to not freak out at "being related to a monkey". Because they can't see that all living organisms are one part of the same thing, and that is more beautiful and miraculous than any special creation.

At least, in my opinion.

I hope you see why I've been editing and re-editing this post. I know, at base, that talking about the data that I've read about won't convince any religious person to abandon the notions of the soul and God. I don't honestly expect them/you to. I know that it's a personal thing, that it's Faith and the idea that His ways are not for us to comprehend. But I feel a little bit like I spend a lot of time toning down or holding in my views on stem cell research, abortion, ethics, and evolution because I know that at times they rankle my friends who disagree. And I guess this post is a resolution: I won't be offensive (or I'll try not to be offensive) and I will respect my friends, but that does not mean that I have to treat your beliefs with kid gloves, or stifle my own. I need to get over the fear of saying, point blank, "I disagree."


Duff said...

I've always thought people stating frankly and sincerely what they think to be better than people not stating it. More over, I want my friends to speak to me frankly, as that what friends are in part for. If I ever wish to be able to be heard speaking frankly, a minimum requirement is that I can hear others do so too. I don't think you need be that afraid, I enjoyed what I read.

To me the fine line between civil and uncivil discourse is the line between "I disagree with you opinions, I will actively work against them, but we can still talk." To "I disagree with your opinions, and therefore I hate you, and get off in public by calling you names." Well, perhaps it is not so fine when you look at it in those terms. But I am exagarrating. From you, I feel the former, not the latter, so for me to be offended would be my problem, not yours.

The former I always like in a friend for it actually means I have a basis to work with in talking with them when I disagree. And contrary to what some might believe, one can get far by just talking sincerely. Don't misread this example, but it is worth noting that Christianity became prominent in the Roman Empire largely through just talking. When Constantine made it official and gave it state power (though it wasn't till later emperors that it became much more of a mandate than a state supported option), he was really certifying what was a wide spread phenomona already, not some hidden religion.

So my point about that is alot can be accomplished by the "I disagree with you opinions, I will actively work against them, but we can still talk." Often times I think more than the more vitriolic attitudes. That just because vitriolic attitudes tend to do nothing but assauge the hearts of the already-convinced, and alienate the opposition or those on the fence. Then that makes the business of accomplishing of one's goals that much harder by helping organize and enrage your enemy, so to speak.

I think there seems to be an increasing tendency in America, or maybe I am just old enough to notice it now, for both sides to want to polarize a debate (any debate!), cause all they care about is only the already converted, the faithful. So they become loud mouth and abusive. I have observed this in regards to string theory and particle physics at large, where some string theorists and anti-string theorists want to only put on the battle paint and kill each other. Why? I haven't a clue. My personal thought is that even if string theory is wrong, it was a good and interesting idea, and so worth the effort. Further, it is entertaining mathematics.

I hope I don't sound too preachy, and know I largely avoided the actual substance of what you said. But I wanted to be encouraging, so you don't feel hamstrung. Speak! And work against those you disagree with! (See I wound up preachy anyways.)

But don't worry, I too have thoughts on these matters, and will respond. Why else say what you think unless you want someone to think on them thoughts?

Duff said...

That said, I am not sure we can trust anything you say, cause you ARE short. I know what my momma always said...

Duff said...

I also enjoy having friends who disagree with me around cause they are more apt to catch me and correct me when I myself all too often fall into the "I disagree with your opinions, and therefore I hate you, and get off in public by calling you names."

Elizabeth said...


I'm just glad you didn't say "Well, that doesn't make sense to me, but then again you are very small." Because I am so tired of hearing that line.

Duff said...

Sorry about the short joke, sometimes I let myself get the better of me. I do have one question, you wrote:

"'Well, we're used to this. It happens all the time.' If we get used to people who think that intelligent design or creationism is valid, if we get used to people who invent invalid problems in the theory of evolution, if we don't fight against every single one of them, in a way, they win."

What do you mean by fight? Or they win?

It's just I'm not sure that you have to beat every single one of them, and that to really pursue that goal would require governmental enforcement of ideology (which I am against religious or non-religious, that is why I dislike the idea of creationism being taught in a public school, aside from its in general very bad science. Evolution, of itself I don't see as ideological, though people can base ideologies on it. In the abstract, I would say one could come up with a non-ideological version of intelligent design. I just don't think that's been done, except maybe Francis Crick saying we're made by aliens). I mean, it is true that science itself has philosophical and ideological commitments that are non-scientific (but well made knowledge from science would not have those committments, it is just the human process of science that has them), but I have no problem with that (nor do I think it lessens the validity of science despite what Paul Feyerabend thinks.)

I think one also runs into the sticky issue that interpretation of a set of facts really cannot be subverted by those facts, but only subverted by showing those "facts" turned out to be not true or factual different in some way. But then often the interpretation can morph to fit the new data, retaining whatever ideological commitments it a priori wants. Science aims (and succeeds) at establishing facts, but is as helpless as anything else in proving or disproving how one non-scientifically interprets those facts. That is why the argument with certain creationists can be so frustrating. An interpretation can only really be assailed via argument if it is inconsistent with itself. After that, other rhetorical techniques are necessary.

Anonymous said...

Well. Duff beat me to some of what I wanted to say. Particularly with the encouragement for you to continue speaking and saying what you think, and doing so in a civilized way, and not expecting that other people will respond in an uncivilized way--of course, some people will, but I think that your friend aren't those types. In fact, I was talking to Duff just a few minutes ago, and the subject of blogging came up, and I even mentioned your blog and said I was really interested in reading what you were going to say, largely because I expected to disagree with it (I had checked earlier but not noticed the edit that pointed out that it was down below.).

As for the content of your post, I'd be interested in looking at the studies on the matter. I can think of a number of things that would affect the reach of the study mentioned, and questions I would want to discuss (e.g. can we talk about spontaneously conceived action and its relation to spontaneously timed action?), but I would be wary of arguing on or discussing any of them without reading the study and thinking about it more. But I'll reiterate here that my opinions on this stuff, and any disagreements we might have, don't change how I see you as a person worthy of my time, attention, respect, company, or conversation.

It only seems reasonable that the interlocutors on each side should be endeavoring to understand the interlocutors on the other as much as possible for the discussion to be fruitful to anyone--and this only happens when each side speaks. And, when each side wants to discuss it. There are, after all, lots of people who wouldn't. And i'm not sure, no matter which side they're on, that cornering them in this particular issue will really do much for anyone.

Also, I reserve the right to refer to you as 'noodleberry', and if I do so, you must concede that I'm right in whatever it is I'm saying at the time, regardless of what you may have thought before and regardless of how well I've said it.

Elizabeth said...

Re: fight and they win:

I agree that one can't enforce an ideology, religious or not. I guess a priori I don't want to force anyone to believe anything - the theory of evolution included. So we agree there. And obviously, if one cannot enforce ideology, well, then you can't prevent anyone from disagreeing with Evolution necessarily, just like you can't prevent anyone from disagreeing with Newton or saying that the world is flat.

However, it is much rarer for someone to say that the earth is flat or the sun revolves around the earth than it is for someone to say that evolution is nonsense. Part of this certainly has to do with the fact that the theory of evolution is newer. I'll hand you that. I'm sure there were people in Galileo's day (and a hundred or so years thereafter) saying "The Galilean system is a theory, not a fact, there are significant holes in said theory, and another equally valid explanation is the Ptolmeic model." So maybe it is just a waiting game. But in the meantime it is frustrating.

I guess what I mean by "fight" and "win" is the following: I would love, in another hundred or two hundred years - or really as soon as possible I guess - for Darwin's theory to be as accepted as Galileo's. I would define that as winning. The fight is, then, the effort to convince people, through good science education and a clear presentation of facts, that Darwin's theory is as watertight as Galileo's. However, if the official stance isn't strong, it is hard to convince people of anything. If a biologist says "I believe in the theory of Evolution, but there are many brilliant people who disagree with me" and a clergyman says "I believe in the Creation story, and anyone who disagrees with me is wrong, unenlightened and probably going to Hell," well, one of them is more striking. You get points for moderation and tolerance, but in some ways you get more points for vigor and 'courage'.

Elizabeth said...

Ryan: I've looked for the studies but have had a bit of a hard time finding them. The finger-moving one is by a researcher named Libet, I believe. I'll do some more searching, and if I find any of them I'll send them your way.

Re: Noodleberry: Well, in that case, I reserve the right to call you "Schlubdub", and if I do so, you must admit that I am right in whatever I am saying at the time, regardless of your opinion on the matter and regardless of how inarticulate I am.

Duff said...

That makes sense.

There is a book you might want to read, called American Science in the Age of Jackson, coupled with an essay by a fellow named George Marsden (the essay sites the book). What is interesting about it is that it points out how alot of creationists still operate in a paradigm of a strict Baconian view of science that was the dominant way of thinking about science in America and Britian up to the early to mid 19th century. This Baconianism sort of a priori rules out any science of historical phenomona. As Gould points out, one of the things Darwin did that was so critical to the success of his venture is to invent a new workable paradigm of scientific endeavor that was outside strict Baconianism. So one can get into arguments with them when one doesn't even have the same ground rules for science. The rules they play by have largely been superceded.

What makes it all interesting is that many of these fundamentalists are invested in a view of science that most scientists themselves don't hold (they couldn't if they wanted to continue their research methodologies). It kinda parallels how the Catholic Church was heavily invested theologically speaking with Aristotelean philosophy, and hence Aristotelean science and scientific methodology. It wasn't just that the Bible said this, and Galileo saw that, but that Galileo was subverting a whole way of thinking about the world.

Often times what people don't understand about science for its knowledge to be objective and become non-ideological, is that it has to adopt a methodology and adhere rigorously to it until it needs must be adapted. In adhering to a methodology, this will enable one to come to conlcusions without making prior assumptions about whether they are true or not. One comes to believe evolution (at least, this was the case for me) because good methodologies lead me to that conclusion.

To me a good pragmatic test for a methodology is both its internal consistency, and its ability to explain without contradiction its otherwise recalcitrant data, while fitting in with other known already in use good methodologies (which may require a rethinking of the old ones and a retuning, but as Neurath said, "Science is a boat being rebuilt at sea.")

Anonymous said...


Elizabeth said...

Duff: I'll look into the book, it sounds interesting. I had never really thought about Darwin that way (although I had thought about Galileo that way) and it's interesting and makes sense.

Schlubdub: I think you'll find that I do.