Monday, December 31, 2007

Superstition in Hollywood

Last night I went to see the new animated "Bee movie". It was a cute entertaining movie and I would recommend it to anyone, however, one thing in the movie bugged me =). In the very beginning of the movie there was a black screen and on it they wrote the infamous myth that "According to all known laws of aviation the bee should not be able to fly, but unaware of this fact, the bee continues to fly anyway.

This is of course nonsense, and it annoys me a little bit that they could not do a Google search to find out whether their claim is true or false… So Seinfeld, if you read this, Bees have been studied intensively, and according to the laws of aerodynamics they can fly. The citation above is based on the assumption that insects fly like airplanes and thus need same wing-area, an assumption which is simply not true. Bees and insects in general are small compared to airplanes and they accomplish their lifting force in qualitatively different ways. We do not know the details of how all insects fly, however, bees have in fact been studied rather intensively, and they can fly. If you are still in doubt take a look at any one of these links:

Caltech – Transcript of the original research

Wikipedia – Go to "bee flight"

Live Science

Ask Dr. Galapagos – Detailed analysis of this question

Skepticality discussion board – Discussion on all explicit and implicit claims in Bee Movie

Seinfeld and his friends are hardly the sole perpetrators when it comes to spreading superstitions. I have always been a fan of the series X-files. In the X-files (which I have heard is based on real cases) you have two FBI agents, Mulder and Scully. In a typical episode Mulder and Scully gets a case with weird circumstances and they go to investigate. Mulder always come up with a supernatural explanation, often involving grey aliens with pear-shaped heads, whereas Scully always comes up with a scientific explanation involving hallucinations and rare scientific phenomenon. Sounds like a perfect setting right?

The only problem is that in every episode Scully's scientific explanation is always ridiculed. In the series you often see the supernatural events actually occurring, sometimes they happen right in front of Scully, and yet she sticks with her scientific dogmatism – looking really dumb in the process.

My worry here is simply that a lot of people will walk away from their screens believing that scientists are extremely narrow minded people, even though they are not. I would bet that no scientist would ever claim that bees cannot fly – we see that they do. Just because there currently is no satisfactory theoretical explanation for a certain phenomenon does not mean that one has to deny its existence, and I don't know any scientist who would think like that. As a student of the brain I constantly come across examples where a phenomenon has been detected "e.g. consciousness", and yet there is no good theoretical account of how that phenomenon is caused. Much of science is devoted to finding such explanations – how are bees able to fly even though they have so small wings?, how does this thing that we call consciousness come about in the brain? Scientists do not deny inexplicable phenomenon, they study them and try to come up with an answer, a noble endeavor indeed.

Ps: My productivity has been a little poor lately. The reason is simply that I have been extremely busy. My blog is not about to die…

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Do we have a soul?

It is easy to get lost in a discussion about the existence or nonexistence of the soul. However, quite frequently conflicts do not arise because people disagree, but rather because they are using different definitions of the soul. Depending on the definition used I either believe or do not believe in the existence of a soul. A common though not very useful definition of "the soul" is what we really are, the core of our selves, or something like that. I would perhaps be inclined to call this "personality" rather than soul, but if that is what is meant by soul then yes, I think I do have one.

If on the other hand the soul is seen as something which is necessarily immaterial, then I do not believe in it. Hypothetically, should someone make an exact replica of me, with the exact same atoms in the exact same places, nothing more would be required. The replica and I would be impossible to distinguish from each other. The replica would react to any stimuli like me, would have the same childhood memories, be attracted to the same things, and just like me the replica would be disgusted by the smell of an orange.

This would not last long though. If me and my replica would continue our lives, then gradually subtle environmental differences would form us in non-identical ways, resulting in some small differences. These differences would ultimately affect the choices of me and my replica and consequently our preference would diverge. This, in turn, would lead to escalating environmental differences and increasingly different personalities or, if you prefer, souls. The resulting differences between me and my replica would be reflected in the way our atoms are put together, so we would no longer contain the exact same atoms. Nevertheless, there would probably be many striking similarities as well. There are examples of genetically identical twins that have grown up in very different environment, and still similarities have been extremely apparent.

What do I base this belief on? My main piece of evidence is that there does not seem to be any part of the personality that cannot be affected by brain injury. In my neuropsychology course I read about many patients with exotic brain injuries. A famous patient called HM, who is still alive, is unable to form any new memories. As a result he still thinks that he is 25 years old and he does not recognize the researchers who have visited him every day for several decades. Another older case is that of Phineas Gage who got a metal stick shot up through the frontal part of the brain. To everyone's amazement Gage did not die from the injury, however, according to his colleagues he was not the same after the injury. Following the injury he started swearing and behaved inappropriately to the extent that he lost his job. However, the most striking case that I can remember only vaguely is that of a responsible normal woman with three kids. Due to a tumor in her brain she suddenly underwent a radical personality change. Her behavior went from normative to completely reckless, and from being a good and faithful wife, she became extremely uninhibited and promiscuous…

One needs merely to take a look at a severe case of Alzheimer disease to see that material changes in the brain can change a person beyond recognition. Some would say that there is always something left, that even though Anna is now eating her own feces and hitting her children when they come to visit, she is still Anna, somewhere inside. I don't think so. Sure, she is still called Anna, and one can still recognize her appearance, but other than that Anna is not Anna anymore. The soul of Anna is very different from the soul Anna used to have before she got Alzheimer.

In sum, due to the fact that there seems to be no sacred part of the personality, nothing which cannot be affected by changes of a material nature. Due to this I do not believe that we have an immaterial soul. Normally I try to avoid the word altogether because of the confusion that arises, but this is my current thoughts on this issue. The discussion here has many important implications, for instance it should affect how to think about free will vs. determinism. I have written about that here.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

My review of Richard Dawkins "The God Delusion"

I have now completed my extensive review of Richard Dawkins latest book, The God Delusion. My word counter tells me that the entire review is about 10,000 words long. The book has received massive attention, and Dawkins has visited many Universities as well as talkshows to speak about his book. You can take part of some of it by going here.

Here follows links to my reviews on all the different chapters...

Chapter 1 - A deeply religious non-believer
Chapter 2 - The God hypothesis
Chapter 3 - Arguments for God's existence
Chapter 4 - Why there is almost certainly no God
Chapter 5 - The roots of religion
Chapter 6 - The roots of morality
Chapter 7 - The good book and the changing moral zeitgeist
Chapter 8 - What's wrong with religion? Why be so hostile
Chapter 9 - Childhood, abuse, and escape from religion
Chapter 10 - A much needed gap?

Happy reading!