Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Common Misconceptions

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Nothing demonstrates that better than the way some religious fundamentalists with little or no familiarity with science use random bits of information from the popular press or casual conversation to claim that science validates God and religious dogma. A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a theist who had apparently heard about work being done in physical anthropology to trace the genetic ancestry of the human race. She ecstatically proclaimed that it had been scientifically proven that Adam and Eve were real. For anyone actually following the research this kind of statement is stunning in its ignorance. Of course I will say that many researchers tend to fan the ardent fire of these believers when they use Biblical names or Biblical references in their research. And journalists can’t resist headlines like; Have Scientists Discovered Adam and Eve? It’s a sure way to sell magazines. The problem is that many lay people don’t get past the title and a quick skim of the opening paragraph. Their conclusions aren’t really surprising. It actually seems that people are telling them that science has found Adam and Eve.

Of course, if they bothered to read the actual research (assuming they could understand it) they would see that it does not remotely support Biblical genesis stories – nor could it. Yes, we do all have common ancestors but no one is seriously claiming that two people suddenly appeared and started a family that led to the entire human race. Even if that had happened, this research is statistical analysis of a fairly small number of DNA samples and there is no way for it to trace back to specific people. It is abundantly clear that we did not all descend from one mated pair of humans a long time ago. However, this kind of research has concluded that all living humans have two common ancestors, one female who is a everyone’s common ancestor and one male who is a common ancestor of all living men. These are called our most recent common ancestors (MRCA). This does not imply that we have found their bodies. As I said, it has only been calculated through DNA analysis.

The analysis suggests that our female MRCA lived about 140,000 to 200,000 years ago and our male MRCA lived about 60,000 - 90,000 years ago (determined through molecular clock and genetic marker studies). They were obviously not contemporaries. They were separated in time by tens of thousands of years. I think it's safe to say that these two people didn't even know each other, much less have babies together. Mitochondrial-Eve is the female MRCA of all humans as traced via mitochondrial DNA passed only through the maternal line. Y Chromosome Adam is the male MRCA all living men as traced via the Y Chromosome passed only through the paternal line. We all have Mitochondrial DNA but only men have the Y Chromosome.

Another misconception theists take from this research is that it is tracing lines back to when only one set of people lived. However, Mitochondrial Eve was not the only woman in her day and Y Chromosome Adam was not the only living man in his day. If that had been the case, the human race would be extinct. The existence of a most recent common ancestor does not imply that there was a population bottleneck or a first couple. It is very likely that they were part of large populations. Each of these other people who were their contemporaries potentially has living descendents today although some lines have died out. As a matter of fact, the MRCA will change when a line dies out. This all might seem like a paradox but it can be easily explained, if the nature of genetic lineage is taken into account. I won't go into it. You can look it up if you are interested. There is something about this that theists can gloat about if they want. For what it’s worth this research does indicate that humans originated in Africa which is the continent where the Bible stories take place.

Note: I will be on vacation for the next week so don't expect any new posts or responses for a while. WF

Saturday, August 4, 2007

The Question of the Soul

One of the basic tenets of religion is the idea that humans have souls (or spirits) that are separate and distinct from our physical bodies, integrated only during life and freed after physical death to some fate or another. It would take volumes to discuss all the dogma religions have contrived regarding souls but that’s it in a nutshell. However, “soul” is not an exclusively religious term so talking about it can result in misunderstanding. The soul is generally considered to be the unique, self-aware, inner essence of a living person. But in religion, it has a supernatural basis. It is implanted or “breathed” into the body by God. Thus it is thought by some to be part of (or akin to) the supernatural essence of God, including immortality. To avoid confusion, I will be referring to the immortal soul here and not the poetic or philosophical notion of soul unless I specify otherwise. Some of my readers have expressed a belief in reincarnation. So let me just say that the question of the soul’s existence is not affected by its possible migration to other bodies before attaining its final goal. If anything, this provides even more ways to disprove it. I don’t plan to discuss reincarnation further. If souls don’t exist, that point is moot.

The soul is generally considered to be the true basis of sapience and one’s sense of identity. In a secular context, soul is just a convenient name for these attributes. Aristotle described the soul as the core essence of a being - that which defines a being. Although he did not believe the soul could continue after death, oddly enough, he was inclined to believe the intellect was eternal. However, he didn’t have the benefit of our current understanding of the role of the physical brain in cognition, memory and reason which form the basis of intellect. Humans have long used the term “soul” in folklore, poetry, art and philosophy. It permeates our culture. While much of this is intended to be metaphorical, that is seldom clear. Considering all this, I think it’s easy to understand why the idea of the immortality of souls is so pervasive, especially since so few people are aware of the current scientific understanding of the human neocortex and its relationship to consciousness and higher brain function. But I think close examination shows that the immortal soul is a fundamental misunderstanding of what life is and, and even more importantly, what the mind is.

It is clear that humans are conscious and self-aware. Even with our advanced understanding of the brain, we still have many different theories, conceptions and misconceptions about consciousness. My view of consciousness is that it is really nothing more than perception - awareness of reality including self-awareness. I certainly agree that consciousness is a rare thing in nature. Other animals have varying degrees of consciousness but nothing like the primate ability to think in terms of “I” and “me.” Of the primates, humans have the most developed example of this kind of self-awareness. In evolutionary terms, the most significant recent development in brain structure is the highly developed human neocortex. But for all the mystery in which we shroud these concepts, the functions of perception, sensation, memory, reason and emotion as well as maintenance of bodily functions are performed by our physical brain. How else would we lose consciousness when the brain is shut down as during surgery, brain damage or simply from a blow to the head? There are volumes of information that demonstrate inconsistency in the concept of the soul. Skeptical literature often cites phenomena such as brain lesions (as in Broca's aphasia) and conditions like Alzheimer's disease as evidence that personality is material, and exists in discrete physical components, contrary to the philosophy of the immortal soul. Owing to its complexity, most people are completely in awe of the brain as an organ and consider it, and the very act of thought, significant mysteries. To discuss all of the scientific literature would turn this already lengthy article into an unwieldy project that few would have time to read. I will try to confine my discussion to the conscious and volitional part of the human brain as I think it is the key argument for the existence of the immortal soul.

It is important to note that we naturally have difficulty analyzing the nature of our own consciousness because of our perspective. We have the same difficulty as we do when analyzing the entire universe. We can't get a “bird’s eye view” or examine it under a microscope. We also can’t avoid the observer effect. We can only know that we are conscious and self-aware. It is the irreducible basis of who we are. We know we think, but we don’t really understand how we think. We can observe others from an external perspective. But then we lose the internal perspective. To view this problem circumspectly we must consider our internal perspective to be generally equivalent with that of others who we can observe externally. This is not really a problem. As I said in a previous discussion, humans vary only trivially in our genetic structure. Our physical bodies are essentially identical. This applies to our brains as well. Why wouldn’t our cognitive awareness be effectively the same from one individual to another? We may arrive at different conclusions based on different experience and other conditions but the underlying mechanisms are identical for the purpose of study.

I think the brain/body dichotomy seems obvious to us because we understand and relate to the brain and body in different ways. To us, our consciousness seems to be completely separate from our physical body. They appear to be in totally different categories. One is obviously material and the other seems ethereal. The body is measurable. Consciousness is as nebulous as thought. Furthermore, we cannot see a connection between our brain and our consciousness. We don’t feel ourselves think. We know our brain is connected to our body because we receive the messages of our sense organs. But even with the greatest effort of will, we cannot sense that consciousness is a mere function of our brain. It is more difficult than trying to look at the inside of our own eyelids. So it is natural to speculate that it might be something different and special. We are clearly more than the sum of our parts. So, when we hear about spirits, it seems to make sense. We begin to think that maybe the mystics are right. Maybe there is such a thing as an immortal soul. After all, it is intangible and mysterious but definitely real. It doesn’t seem to get hungry or thirsty like our body. And perhaps it has a supernatural existence independent of the old “mortal coil.”

Our brain does some things that appear magical or mystical until they are understood. For instance, in the eyes of vertebrates the photo-sensitive cells called rods and cones lie behind the optic nerves and a layer of blood vessels resulting in loss of visual acuity. These nerves and blood vessels must emerge through the back of the retina, leaving a hole in the organ with no light-sensitive cells, and forming a blind spot. But our mind compensates for these blind spots by extrapolating and filling in the missing data. We don’t do this consciously but completely without thinking about it. Our mind does this in other circumstances, also without conscious effort. In any scene of our experience there are many elements including visual, tactile, auditory, and olfactory. And these are not all on one level. There are background elements and foreground elements as well as peripheral elements. There are also conditions that affect the amount of information received such as the level and intensity of each stimulus. If anything in the scene is incongruous or essentially missing, our mind can and usually does fill in the scene with what seems most likely based on our experience and expectations. If, for some reason, we are concentrating on certain specific details and don’t think about others at the moment of the experience, our memory may be a bit patchy on some details. But our mind helpfully fills in those details and sometimes when we recall the scenes for reexamination, we get the filled in details and cannot reasonably tell them from the clearly perceived data.

The cold hard fact of the matter is that when we die, our brain ceases to function. This is an observable and verifiable fact. We may be able to revive a dead body if we get to it soon enough, but dead bodies decompose rather rapidly if not preserved. Sometimes we can revive a dead body even after decomposition has started. But when we do this, we invariably find there is a significant loss of brain function. All victims of brain damage are observably not the same person they were before. The point is that all of our sensations, feelings, thoughts, memories and dreams are due to brain function. When that is damaged, there is often little left of the person we were. When we die, the body, the brain and the whole universe of matter continue to exist but the personality, intellect and consciousness of that person is gone. It is easy to see that a dead body is incapable of being aware of anything much less being self-aware. The more difficult concept to grasp is that a disembodied soul could not be self-aware. That is simply because it would have no self to be aware of. The question is: Why is this disputable? There is the notion promoted by such stories as the recent “Matrix” movies that say the mind retains a residual self-image. However, if the mind is the function of a physical brain, there is nowhere for this residual self-image to be retained. Even if we imagine a spiritual body, why can’t we detect the function of such bodies? For any information to be stored and processed requires power and substance. Where is this power and substance that allows a soul to perform the activity originally managed by the brain? If a spirit is invisible and immaterial, it cannot do what a brain can do. If it could, why would we need a brain in the first place?

I’m sure some will bring up the idea of Near Death Experience (NDE) and Out of Body Experience (OBE). Sometimes people who die are revived before any significant brain damage can occur. And some people report the ability to move their “soul” out of their body. Under these circumstances, odd things have been reported to occur. If you read the anecdotal evidence about these things, it can sound rather convincing. People are said to report all kinds of things they “couldn’t possibly have known” that occurred during their “death” or in remote locations. But all serious scientific studies into NDEs and OBEs have shown that the reported phenomena are fabrications, guesswork or otherwise easily explainable. If you believe in these claims, I suggest you read both sides of the issue and use critical thinking. If you are one who contends there is some kind of conspiracy on the part of scientists to cover up such real events, you don’t know much about scientists. Such a discovery, if sufficiently validated by double blind studies, could make the career of a scientist. It would be big news and guarantee the fame of anyone who proved it. But consider the incentives of profit and fame that might motivate the purveyors of such claims. Many people have made lucrative careers out of writing books and lecturing about this kind of thing. They are hucksters preying on the gullible and the hopeful people of the world. The idea of the soul as a separate ghostly occupant inhabiting the body also gives rise to other notions like haunting and demonic possession. I think it is obvious that we need to develop what Carl Sagan called a “Baloney detector” that will allow us to use knowledge and critical thinking skills to relegate these absurd ideas to the category of mystical quackery and pseudoscience where they belong.

Probably the main attraction of the notion of immortal souls is that it is comforting to think of loved ones continuing to live on in some peaceful way after their bodily death. This is perfectly understandable. When we lose a loved one, it’s natural to grieve and wish that things were different. Even the desire for personal immortality is natural. But wishing and hoping for things doesn’t make them happen. There is no correlation between desire and actuality. Facts are facts. We can’t change what is. The healthier thing to do is to come to terms with mortality. We all die. Life is too short. It sucks. Get over it. Sometimes we are left alone. Sometimes children die. It is heartbreaking, but it is reality. Besides, I think the notion of an afterlife causes people to put things off assuming there will be time later in another place to do things. Fortunately, they will never have the opportunity to regret this waste of their lives. But their children and friends might.

Personally, I find the whole idea of life after death to be demeaning to actual life. One of the worst examples of this is the idea that if you kill someone, it isn’t really that bad. That is how tyrants and terrorists can justify killing innocent people. They can just say that God knows his own and will give them a new life in heaven (or the paradise of your choice). It is actually an insidious rationalization. Religions sometimes even encourage this kind of thinking especially when it applies to unbelievers. The witch hunts are a good example. Ironically, this quick path to paradise doesn’t generally apply to suicides. This has to be a serious sin that would keep you out of heaven. The churches want you to believe in a glorious afterlife, but they don’t want too many people trying to take the short way out. That would seriously curtail their revenue if it got popular. They also depend on numbers of believers to give them power. Dead believers aren’t as useful as live ones. They can’t vote or protest or proselytize.

Most believers in the soul think of it as completely spiritual, supernatural and immaterial. However there have been those who think it has some material component. Some have even tried to establish mass or weight of the soul. Many of you may have heard it said that the weight of the soul is 21 grams. This was the inspiration for the title of a 2003 movie. The origin of this 21 gram weight comes from the work of one Dr. Duncan MacDougall of Haverhill Massachusetts in 1903. Believing the soul must have some sort of corporeal mass, Dr. MacDougall conducted a series of experiments to determine if the moment of the soul’s departure could be detected. He never concluded that the weight of the soul was 21 grams. In fact, he admitted that his experiments could not be considered conclusive of anything and no one has been able to duplicate his results. But 21 grams was his measurement of weight loss at the moment of expiration of his first test subject. While this is an interesting story, it clearly doesn’t help our understanding of the question of the soul. It also goes to show you that even if you rely on the claims of scientists, you still need to use critical thinking.

Of course, the only way to believe a God that is pure consciousness could give rise to the entire physical universe is to believe that consciousness can exist outside of a living body and is itself able to be a cause. First of all, we have no experience of such a thing. Every conscious being ever known is a living being. To the believer, disembodied souls are considered invisible and immaterial. In essence they are thought of as a force of some kind. But force is not a cause, it is an effect. Just like the mind is not a cause but an effect. The law of causality is how the universe works. You can’t have a cause, without an effect or an effect without a cause. No matter how attractive or popular these ideas are, they have no basis in fact.