Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I Don’t Know

Knowing is a drag.
Etymologically consciousness means “to know with”, from the latin roots cum, which mean with; and scire, to know. The Buddha made the distinction between that which knows something – called mind (nama); and that which doesn’t know anything – called matter (rupa).
The pebble on the road doesn’t know anything – not even that it doesn’t know anything. The same with most (if not all) of your body. The hair you cut off, nailclippings, dead skincells washed down the drain when you shower – they presumably doesn’t know anything about anything.  Ignorance is bliss.
The mind on the other hand seems to be a bundle of knowing. To be human (among other things) means to have self-awareness, which means we know how it feels to be our selves. We know a lot of things, and one of the things we know is that there is a lot of stuff that we don’t know. For every piece of knowledge there is an unknown heap of ignorance. And ignorance is not bliss.
To know that we don’t know is seemingly quite anxiety-producing for most of us. We wish to know things because knowing gives us a sense of comfort and security. And since we don’t know who we truly are, or how the world has come into being, we feel insecure. This is where religion and ideology comes in. To feel secure we exchange knowledge (which is a rather hard to come-by commodity) with belief – the ersatz pacifier standing in the place of real knowledge. It doesn’t even have to be believing that we know how the universe came into being – somehow it seems enough to be sure that someone knows. The priests, God, the Bible-writers, the scientists, Wikipedia – surely someone knows! So I don’t have to bother. Imagine that almost every Wikipedia article would start with “No one actually knows, but…” It would feel less comforting, right? And yet it would be closer to truth.
In a sense practicing zen is practicing to be a stone. To not know anything and accept that lack of knowing as an opportunity to experience the world fresh. Maybe the stone is more conscious than we are. Maybe our consciousness is diminished by the need to know. Funneled into a narrow path of self-awareness. Maybe there is something to be a rock and not to roll. 

Placebo/Nocebo and the anti-smoking campaign

More people get lung cancer in spite of the fact that fewer are smoking. Today 40% more people get lung cancer than 15 years ago. The increase is biggest among women, but also among men there is an increase.  This is strange indeed, since smoking has continually gone down in the population since the seventies. A british poll show that 55 % of the male population smoked in 1970 and 22% in 2007. This trend is true for the whole western world. The strong campaigns against smoking started in the seventies and have been very successful. The risk of getting exposed to second-hand somoke has also dramatically gone down, since fewer are smoking and there is fewer public places whereyou can do it.  And still we have these facts:
 “Finding from the new American Cancer Society prospective study of 1.2 million men and women indicate that mortality risks among smokers have increased substantially for most of the eight major cancer sites causally associated with cigarette smoking. Lung cancer risk for male smokers doubled, while the risk for females increased more than fourfold.
So how can we reconcile these strange facts. We know that smoking is the major cause of lung cancer (hence the strong campaigns against it, including warning texts on tobacco products like: SMOKING KILLS!) Only 15%  of lung cancer cases occur among non-smokers and this number is stable through time. In other words, 85% of lung cancer cases still happen among smokers and 15% among non-smokers.  
Lung cancer goes up, both among smokers and nonsmokers according to statistics, habitual smoking goes down. One possible but usually completely overlooked reason for this could be that the strong campaigning against smoking in itself causes greater risk among both those who still smoke and those who fear second-hand smoke. It’s called the nocebo effect – placebos evil twin. It is the fact that fearing something or believing that something is harmful can itself harm you.
If this is true then maybe the powerful warning texts on cigarettes, as well as all the (accurate) information about the risks of smoking, could actually contribute to the problem rather than solving it.  The fact is: It has become more and more dangerous to smoke according to statistics. 
So to make my point clearer. We know that smoking is the main cause of lung cancer. Smoking has gone down since the seventies. Lung cancer has gone up. I can see three possible reasons for this strange fact. 
1. Lung cancer never was the "real" reason for lung cancer after all. But this doesn't seem right. We know (as surely we know anything) that smoking is the main cause.
2. Another unknown reason is taking the place of smoking. This also seems unreasonable to me. The other known main cause is radon, and radon in the environment has decreased since the seventies since banning asbestos.
3. Smoking has become increasingly more dangerous since the time we started to smoke less, both for smokers and those who get second-hand smoke. This I believe is the most likely reason and nocebo could conceivably play a not so small part in this. Hmm.
Very little research has been done to investigate the power of nocebo. The reason is that it would never pass an ethical committee  to suggest that people will be harmed by some inert pills, for example (and still make them take it). But what if you suggested very strongly to a whole population that something they do is extremely dangerous and harmful (SMOKING KILLS, SMOKING CAUSES LUNG CANCER) for decades? Isn't this then a huge experiment with nocebo?


I have problems with the idea that consciousness is an emergent property of brain function. I simply cannot get my mind around it. I have tried to think about why, and here is some of my thoughts. First a quote from Koch, a neuroscientist that propagates this notion of emergence: "Consciousness emerges from neuronal features of the brain. A system has emergent properties if these are not possessed by its parts. There are no mystical or new-age overtones to this." (Koch; Quest for Consciousness ) But oh yes! There is!
This sweeping statement overlooks the difference between what is called weak emergence and strong emergence. David Chalmers explains the diffrence below; the first part describing strong emergence (as "inexplicable" and "magical"), and the second describes weak emergence (as selfevident).

David Chalmers:
"(1) Emergence as "inexplicable" and "magical". This would cover high-level properties of a system that are simply not deducible from its low-level properties, no matter how sophisticated the deduction. This view leads easily into mysticism, and there is not the slightest evidence for it (except, perhaps, in the difficult case of consciousness, but let's leave that aside for now). All material properties seem to follow from low-level physical properties. Very few sophisticated people since the 19th century have actually believed in this kind of "emergence", and it's rarely what is referred to by those who invoke the term favourably. But if you mention "emergence", someone inevitably interprets you as meaning this, causing no end of confusion.
(2) Emergence as the existence of properties of a system that are not possessed by any of its parts. This, of course, is so ubiquitous a phenomenon that it's not deeply interesting. Under this definition, file cabinets and decks of cards (not to mention XOR gates) have plenty of emergent properties - so this is surely not what we mean."

Strong emergence would simply mean that out of a certain functioning assembly of parts you get an effect that cannot be understood by seeing how the parts function together. An example of the difference between this two concepts of strong and weak would be the following: Imgine a mechanical clock. It's hands are moving and this movements are emergent properties ( in the weak sense) of the different parts (cogs, springs) of the clockwork. If the clock made a large sound every hour and this sound could not be explained by any of the functional parts of the clock, but would still disappear when you take the clock apart, that would be a case of strong emergence (the magic that Chalmers refer to). Nowhere in nature do you find examples of such "emergence".

The very notion of "complexity" leading to new "emergent" properties also to me seems rather dubious. There is something psychological about these concepts. Nature is not complex. We assign complexity to it. No truly new properties emerge from this imagined complexity. Every emergent phenomenon found in nature is conceptual, not physical. All physical objects consists of elementary particles and fundamental forces, located in spacetime. No object, no matter how "complex" it may be, has properties that transcend those of these basic constituents.Which to me seem to imply that consciousness is a "brute fact". A basic fact of the world.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Free Will

"Free will is probably located in the pre-frontal cortex, and we may even be able to narrow it down to the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex." --Stephen Pinker, How the Mind Works

I recently held a seminar on the subject of Free Will. The main point I tried to get across was that if the mind is produced by the brain (or that the mind somehow is the functioning of the brain), then free will is impossible. Others have of course come to the same conclusion, for example Sam Harris in his blog. But since free will seems to be necessary to make sense of almost anything that humans do  - hold each other accountable for our acts, for example - maybe we have to accept that there is something irreducible and nonmaterial to consciousness. This to me seem rather obvious. If the brain, which is a material thing ruled by material laws of cause and effect produces consciousness, then how can this consciousness be in any meaning free? Daniel Dennet, for example says: "There is only one sort of stuff, namely matter — the physical stuff of physics, chemistry, and physiology — and the mind is somehow nothing but a physical phenomenon. In short, the mind is the brain ... we can (in principle!) account for every mental phenomenon using the same physical principles, laws, and raw materials that suffice to explain radioactivity, contin­ental drift, photosynthesis, reproduction, nutrition, and growth."
And again Steven Pinker: "The mind is a system of organs of computation designed by natural selection to solve the problems faced by our evolu­tionary ancestors.” 

One of the participants said that he didn't see any contradiction between the notion that the mind is the brain, (or that the brain "produces" the mind), and the notion of free will. He suggested that even though material processes are determined by strict cause and effect, there is also randomness at work - random fluctuations on a quantum scale as well as macroscopic randomness of complex systems (as theorized in chaos theory). 
But this, to me, seems more to confuse than clarify the matter. Will is purposeful and intentional and therefore the very antithesis to randomness. And Free (in "free will") means unrestrained and is therefore an opposite of determined. All physical processes are seemingly a mix of random and determined, but how such a mix can give both freedom and will is beyond at least my ability to reason. Wether it is a predetermined chain of physical events in my brain or if it's a random release of chemicals in the brain, that forces me to choose tomatoe soup rather than mushroom soup in the supermarket, doesn't seem to matter. Both alternatives leaves me and my intentions out of the picture. 
And it also seems to me that there is something suspiscious to locate intentionality in the physical realm. If somenone tells me that this house or this forest (or this car or this computer for that matter) has ill intentions, I would believe the person saying this to be somewhat deluded. Because mental states do not have locations. Places don't have intentions. But if someone says that free will is located in the prefrontal cortex it's suddenly ok? It sounds like animism to me. 

Indras Net and Entangled Minds

When I was writing this book my working title was always Entangled Minds. It seemed to me to be the perfect title for the book I was writing. At some point in the writing process I wanted to find a quote from Niels Bohr about the difficulty in understanding Quantum physics, to put into the introduction of the book. I googled and came to an advance notice for a book called Entangled Minds, by Dean Radin! He had "stolen my title! And the introduction of his book had "my quote" in it! I wrote to Dean and mentioned this, and also marvelled at how much of our (by that time unpublished) books seemed to have in common. He kindly wrote back and we both agreed that this was a living example of "the entangled universe" , the common theme of our books.
It so turned out that Dean was visiting Sweden the coming summer and we decided that if by chance I would be in Stockholm then, we could meet. I gave him my phone number. Months later, at 7 AM,  I was waiting for my zen teacher at the airport in Stockholm. He was visiting us for a few days. I had at that time more or less completely forgotten about Dean, and had no idea of when he would come to Stockholm. To my surprise while waiting for my teacher Dean arrived. I recognized him from youtube videos and approached him with some worry. I was afraid he would think I was a crazy stalker, since he hadn't given me any notice of arrival times - not even a date.  He was surprised, for sure, but turned out to be a very nice person.
So later we did have lunch in this entangled universe.