Monday, July 27, 2009

An interesting article

Scripts are running, and although this afternoon is "Bench Organization Time (TM)", for the present I'm just waiting for results to filter through the server (hurry, computer, hurry!). Which means checking on the progress (line 1277 of 4648) rather obsessively, and reading NYTimes articles on teh intarwebs.

And I found Sam Harris' critique of Obama's nomination of Francis Collins as head of the NIH very interesting, which got me thinking about something sort of tangentially related. (Find it here -- he says it much better than I could.)

The basic gist: Collins is a wonderful choice because he has found an intersection between devout faith and modern science, but his belief that people are endowed with an immortal soul/moral law which can never and will never be explained or explainable by science is at odds with recent advances in neuroscience.

There's a bit of Ivan Karamazov there, too: “If the moral law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil.” (Which is a discussion for another time...)

It's interesting to me because what is being argued is not, in fact, whether it is possible to do good (great, brilliant, world-changing) research while holding these views. Because that would be an incredibly stupid argument. It is self-evident and obvious that it is entirely possible to do good (great, brilliant, world-changing) research, in biomedical fields, while holding these views. Period. The question that is being asked, instead, is whether or not there exists worthwhile biomedical research that is inherently counter to these views, and as such, whether such views are desirable in someone who will be controlling the direction of a huge portion of the funding for biomedical research not simply in the United States but worldwide.

And so the question becomes: are we capable of addressing the development of and action of the human mind, the sense of ethics, and altruism in a molecular scientific fashion, in an evolutionary fashion, and in a fashion which (here's where I might step on some toes) abnegates the hand-of-God in the origin and continued existence of said characters? (And second, will Collins' belief that such questions are unanswerable without the hand of God effect his decisions on which research to support?, but that's not particularly interesting on a philosophical level.)

I would posit that at this point in time, the question 'Can we come to an understanding of the human mind through molecular, and evolutionary, means?' can no longer simply be answered 'no'. Advances in brain imaging techniques, in our understanding of neurological signals and circuitry, in our understanding of cellular memory and feedback mechanisms, in computation, and in many other fields have combined to allow us to study the mind, and model the mind, with heretofore impossible capacity.

An example to illustrate the point: there is an artificial brain that is being built in a supercomputer (my mother pointed me to a description here). The idea that we could build, out of purely material things, a human brain, would have seemed patently ridiculous (to the point of being horrifying) to most people at most times. (To the point that one character describes building a mind out of aluminum cans in Stoppard's "Rock And Roll", to the eventual point that for her there has to be something more, not that that's particularly relevant, but still.) However, here they are, trying to build a mind out of transistors and wires and circuits. And to those of you who think that this is just a brain, and not a mind, the last line is particularly relevant: "Is it really possible to put a ghost into a machine? "When I say everything, I mean everything," he says, and a mischievous smile spreads across his face."

For a more molecular/cellular/basic scientist (as opposed to engineer?) approach to it, I would suggest reading just about anything by V.S. Ramachandran. But there are tons of neuroscience books for laypeople that are being published, which is evidence in and of itself that neuroscience is going through a rather significant paradigm shift at the moment.

In the end, no one is going to prove (or disprove) the existence of God. Even evidence for a center in the brain that, when activated in epileptic patients, causes intense religious/spiritual experiences, is neither proof of nor evidence against Him. And I think that Ramachandran also rings a bell when he says (in this interview) that science enriches the spiritual experience and spirituality enriches the scientific experience. But spirituality, in my mind, is not any given formalized religion.

Which is I think where the concern about Collins comes in. What it comes down to is, basically, that any specific line you draw in the sand to corroborate a strict religious tradition with science will, eventually, be torn down. Galileo did that, Darwin did that, and many others along the way. And so whenever someone draws a line in the sand, and says "Science can explain this, and this, and all of this, but not that, because that is special," it raises a red flag. Instead, it seems easier, and truer, to say that there will always be mystery in the world, and spirituality and science will always offer ways of understanding, and investigating, that mystery.


I find this article from nature interesting in a similar way. I find the conclusion nicely worded -- "Perhaps it just takes a rare person to advance a scientific career while balancing belief and bioscience — without corrupting either." It's not impossible, just difficult to balance?

Friday, July 24, 2009

I think I must have told quite a few stories about one person I had the (mis?)fortune to meet by virtue of my newly inherited Kindle over spring break; but the fact of the matter is that sitting for a couple hours at a bar in a coffee shop, sipping tea and reading Sherlock Holmes off of a piece of flashy technology garnered me more than one conversation. And although the ridiculousness and idiocy of the one might have pushed from my mind another, it was only a matter of time before subsequent coincidences brought it back again.

To be brief: While sitting in a coffee shop on my first day in San Diego for Spring Break, I crossed paths with a raving madman and a barista on his lunch break. The madman told me things about DNA that were not covered in my Advanced Genetics class (or in fact any class I have ever took). The barista recommended to me a spanish author by the name of Carlos Ruiz Zafon, a name which I wrote down on the back of a receipt, and promptly forgot.

3/4s of the way through "The Shadow of the Wind", however, and I have just realized that this author -- the author of this book which I cannot stop reading, busy as I am -- is exactly the one recommended to me some four months ago, in San Diego. The book is wonderful; gothic and frightening and full of beautiful language that I am sure only just barely comes through in translation, bringing a city to life with all of its grime and disease, believable characters who you love even as they barrel through life, selfish and oblivious, and a main character who really develops - a boy who slowly grows up through the pages of the book. It has been the wonderful antidote to the dry, technical nature of the rest of my late reading.

So, to all the baristas in San Diego who give out book recommendations to tourists on their lunch breaks, thank you.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How to Catch a Koala

Oh my goodness, is this a drabble? I think it is. I suspect it may be the first in a series. Today has been rife, I tell you, utterly rife with inspiration.

Really, you just wanted a teddy bear. And he looked so cute with his fluffy ears, munching on a leaf. “How hard could it be,” you thought, “to climb up there and grab him?”

You hadn’t quite realized how he was staying up there himself – the three inch long claws embedding themselves into the branch. But it’s hard not to notice them now that they’ve been intimately acquainted with your face, arms, and chest.

“See, that’s why we use the flag,” she says, holding back a laugh. “Gets ‘em to climb down.”

You groan.

“I warned you about the claws.”

Don't get your hopes up or anything, for regular (or even semi-regular) posts. (All four of you.)

Friday, July 03, 2009

Can't get this idea out of my head

So, I just read Plato's Symposium (my new favorite Platonic Dialog, hands down, and up there with favorite works of philosophy in general). Well, to be precise, I read it about a week ago. But it gave me an idea (a ridiculous idea) and that idea has been entrenching itself more and more firmly in my brain until I can't ignore it any more.

Idea: Socrates the Player. Like all of those terrible (some only mediocre) remakes of classical works of literature set in modern times, only this time it's a series of Socratic Dialogs! I imagine it like a movie; set in "Generic Urban Setting", with a semi-unintelligible, slang-speaking hip hop Socrates dishing out all sorts of wisdom to his bros and his hos, saying all the time, "I ain't no smarter than any of y'all. And eventually being killed by the rival, Sophist, gang. Or possibly put in prison for being a public menace. I haven't decided. But, seriously; Apology: "Y'alls just hatin' on me 'cause I talk funny and tell it like it is!" Crito: "C: We can bust you out, Socrates," S: "Naw, man, that ain't how I roll." And, of course, Symposium, which is the night of drunken debauchery turned oddly philosophical. Um. Right. Hopefully teh intarwebs will take my idea so I can start having other ones. Preferably, you know, ones that could possibly be related to my studies. That would be nice.