Thursday, March 24, 2011

The response function and the underlying truth

At the age of seven or eight, I recall experiencing a recurring feeling of vulnerability. Being the only child of immigrants, with all of my aunts, uncles, and grandparents overseas - most of them trapped behind the iron curtain of the powerful Soviet Union of the early 1960s - I could sense my precarious existence. The thought of being orphaned was often on my mind.

This angst lead me through various imagined scenarios. What if both my parents had died, but were surreptitiously replaced by artificial beings who were programed to react to all events exactly as would my real parents? If I hurt myself, they would hug me with facial expressions of sympathy; and, would provide the same level of emotional and material comforts as my real parents. I concluded that I would probably be just as happy. If there were no test that could betray their artificial nature, how would I know otherwise?

The scientific method works in much the same way. Controlled experiments are designed to observe the reactions of a system under various conditions to deduce its "essence." The observed behavior under the influence of an external stimulus is called a response function, and provides a window into the inner workings of everything. The characterization of my parents in terms of the sum total of all possible responses to all my possible actions defined their being. The old expression "we are what we do" is not far from saying that a full characterization of our response function defines us. We are all judged by our works - be it our compassion, diligence, intelligence, empathy, selflessness, greed, selfishness, etc.

Thermodynamics serves as an instructive example from physics. The heat capacity of a material is a response function that quantifies the change in temperature (response) per unit of heat supplied (input). Other examples are a material's compressibility; in optics, the nonlinear susceptibility; and in material structure determinations, the scattering cross-section. All of these quantities are measured by poking things and observing how they respond, from which we deduce the underlying properties.

Such simple experiments have lead to some of the deepest concepts developed by the human mind. For example, statistical mechanics seeks to explain all of thermodynamics in terms of the motions of a large number of tiny particles. Since materials responded to all experiments as predicted under the assumption of the existence of small and undetectable particles, early twentieth century scientists begrudgingly accepted the notion that for all practical purposes, materials were made of such stuff.

Whether the result of great intellect or luck, the particle picture turned out to be accurate. New experiments were designed that more directly confirmed the existence of molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles. For example, bubble chambers yield tracks of the paths of elementary particles -- from which their masses and charges can be determined. By the end of the twentieth century, the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) was developed, making it possible to not only directly image atoms and molecules, but atoms could be picked up and placed on a smooth surface at will. One early demonstration of this technique spelled out the letters IBM by intentionally arranging a group of atoms on a flat crystal surface.

This approach we call science, which views phenomena from new angles, leads to an ever more precise characterization of our world, leading us closer to what I would call the truth. The picture becomes more and more in focus as we become more clever in our prodding and poking.

Due to its complexity, studies of the human mind until modern times had been limited to measuring its response function in much the same way as I defined my parents. Breakthroughs in physics, biochemistry and new technologies now allow us to probe the brain directly with noninvasive methods. While an individual is responding to old-fashioned stimuli such as hunger, lust, satisfaction, and deep thought, the neural activity of the brain can be mapped. The STM brought us pictures of atoms while brain-scanning technology has brought us images of thought and emotion.

One can rightly argue that seeing an image of the brain while the subject is having an experience in response to stimuli does not imply that thoughts and experience reside in the complex firing of neurons. Rather, it could be merely a byproduct of thought. A definitive test would be the deliberate creation of thought, emotion, or sensation using a direct stimulus of the brain. Indeed, researchers have been able to reproduce not only simple sensations, but have been able to make subjects feel spirituality, unity with the universe, and a divine presence.

As experimental technology becomes more sophisticated, and researchers more clever, we are finding direct evidence that those qualities that define our humanness and spirituality are all the result of material processes. Ironically, my father is almost 95 years old, so I am yet to be orphaned. The fact that he is defined by his response function and I by mine does not detract from the meaning derived from human interactions. This knowledge enriches my life with the understanding of how the material world is interconnected and I value the incredible privilege of being a locus of material that has arranged itself in a way to give me consciousness and loved ones, friends and collegues with whom I can share my experiences.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Arrogant Scientists

While reading Scientific American a few days ago, I came upon a quote by Christopher Hitchens, "What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof." This quote is simple yet powerful. If someone makes an assertion that is not supported by evidence, we have the right to reject it without providing evidence.

This idea is related to Bertrand Russell's teapot, a concept first coined by the philosopher Bertrand Russell to illustrate the fact that the burden of proof lies upon the person making scientifically unfalsifiable claims. Russell argued that if he claimed that a teapot were orbiting the sun, it would be nonsense for him to expect others to believe him just because they could not prove him wrong.

In a piece titled, "The Neurology of the Spiritual Experience," an essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup, he argues that, "If no metaphysical explanation is required to explain your experience, your 'evidence' is no longer evidence of anything metaphysical." In other words, if a vase falls over in another room, this is not proof that a ghost was responsible if we see a fluttering curtain over an open window that is within range of the vase. Since a fluttering curtain is a known cause for such an event, there is no need to call upon the supernatural for an explanation.

In his essay, Scott Bidstrup summarizes several neurological studies that show how the brain can be artificially stimulated to experience a feeling of spirituality and divine presence. Since such experiences can be produced in the laboratory, again, there is no need to call upon the divine. Some may argue that a deity acts on the brain to create this sensation. Making that claim is logically equivalent to asserting that the flip of a light switch does not release current that powers a light (a known scientific process), but that the phenomena is magic (an unfalsifiable assertion).

As I have written in other posts, I have a strong desire in learning the "truth" without succumbing to the common pitfalls associated with wishful thinking and confirmation bias. The above principles provide examples of simple ways of assessing claims. The scientific method provides an additional arsenal of tools to test assertions that are falsifiable.

I spend lots of time reading articles that illustrate examples of debunked claims, (See, for example, The Skeptical Inquirer, which is an excellent source of information on studies of the paranormal, medical quackery, scientific fraud, etc.) Not only are there many excellent articles that show how logic and controlled experiments can be used to get the real story, there is also a large scientific knowledge base on how the mind can fool itself.

After reading articles on such topics over many years, a picture of the truth slowly comes into focus. For example, there are many well-designed experiments that show that acupuncture does not work as claimed. There are two main issues. First, there are no physiological structures that connect the purported cause with the effect. In other words, there are no mechanisms nor physical pathways that would explain why placing a needle in the foot would relieve the pain of a headache. We understand the network of nerves that transmit information about pain, and there is no conceivable way that acupuncture can work. This alone, however, is not proof against the efficacy of acupuncture.

A series of elegant experiments were performed that fooled patients into believing that they had been administered acupuncture, but, the skin was never punctured. The researchers used trick needles that were in reality dull collapsing rods. Even so, patients reported feeling relief from pain - clearly, a placebo effect. All studies that are carefully controlled for both researcher and patient bias always show a negative result. All of the studies that have shown positive effects were later found to be flawed experiments.

The preponderance of evidence shows that acupuncture is ineffective. When people try to convince me otherwise by alerting me to studies that show a positive correlation, these studies are invariably the ones that have already been found to be flawed. At this point in my life, I do not have the time nor energy to argue with such people. I usually point out that all of the evidence discredits the efficacy of acupuncture and that I prefer to discus a more interesting topic. Accusations follow that I am closed-minded and arrogant.

There are many wacky things that are believed by even intelligent people. It may sound arrogant when scientists appear to pompously reject such ideas, but at some point, enough is enough. Though we may be arrogant to some extent, I do not believe that we are closed minded. When new evidence is produced, our profession demands that we accept it on its merits. When ideas that I believe to be wacky are proven right, I will gladly change my mind. Until then, pardon me for appearing arrogant...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ways of knowing

The downside of working at a university is the infinite stream of nonsense that is produced by various committees. I believe that evaluating our course offerings and educational outcomes are an important part of improving the curriculum so that we produce students who can use their education to live meaningful lives while contributing to society.

In the spirit of this goal, our university is rethinking its general education requirements. The committee charged with this activity has produced a document that describes what every student should learn prior to graduation, and has outlined a proposed curriculum that leads to these results. I generally agree with the goals. However, based on the wording of the document, some of the committee members need a refresher course in critical thinking.

The document contains a section called "WAYS OF KNOWING," which states as one of the learning goals: "To understand science as a way of knowing." This statement shows an ignorance of the meaning of science.

In terms of understanding the material world, science provides a process for culling out false hypotheses that painstakingly leads us closer to the truth, sometimes through a circuitous path. The concept of a way of knowing is imprecise; it implies both a false multiplicity within a body of knowledge and a non-existent certainty.

Americans' disbelief in anthropogenic global warming serves as a good example of why it is important to have a clear concept of what is meant by knowledge. Certainty is nonexistent. Rather, we use the preponderance of evidence to tentatively add new bits and pieces to a body of knowledge. There are clearly uncertainties in the science of global warming, but the picture that emerges shows with a reasonable degree of confidence that humans are having an effect on climate. Within the range of uncertainties, the prognosis for its effects on humanity ranges from not so good to disastrous.

Rather then spending time and effort arguing whether global warming is real, we need to do a cost-benefit analysis of methods that mitigate the effect. The longer we wait, the more costly the solution. Only after shedding ridiculous concepts such as Ways of Knowing can we get to the task of solving the world's problems. It all starts with a solid education that gives students the tools needed for effective reasoning. I hope we succeed.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Physics of Limits

I spend lots of time thinking - a trance-like state where ideas flow. The feeling is similar when reading about physics, solving problems, doing calculations or randomly following the meanderings of the mind. It brings far greater pleasures than drinking or socializing, though it does not replace the need for human interactions. Exchanging ideas with others is just as fulfilling.

Undoubtedly, the naturally occurring peptide substances in the brain that act as neurotransmitters and appear in abundance while thinking are responsible for the euphoria that is associated with thought. This is augmented by the great satisfaction of new insights that are gained in the process. Strenuous physical activity releases natural endorphins that bring a similar feeling of pleasure. Perhaps these chemical triggers fuel my passion/addiction for physics and ice hockey.

One of our research areas is in fundamental limits of the nonlinear susceptibility. The limits that we calculate follow from the laws of physics. A while back, I got intrigued by the idea that the laws of physics might be derivable from a formulation in terms of limits, or more precisely, constraints. As usual, the idea is not fully original.

In a way, some of the laws of physics are already formulated in this way. For example, the entropy cannot decrease; so, there is a lower limit for the change in entropy. Then there is the upper limit of the speed of light, a crucial constraint from which special relativity follows. The uncertainty principle, which does not allow certain pairs of properties to be simultaneously measured with infinite precision, is yet another constraint. And, that fact that energy is a constant is a very stringent limit; it cannot increase or decrease.

Since physicists have been thinking about these problems for a long time, there are probably few new ideas that would provide a novel approach to physics. However, I still have this gnawing feeling that there is something interesting lurking behind this approach. For example, since the sum rules are a direct consequence of the Schrodinger equation, then perhaps under a constraint, the sum rules could be used to generate general physical principles. Such a formalizing might have unexpected consequences that could lead to the prediction of new and unexpected phenomena.

Since I have been busy with other things, I have not had time to develop this idea, and probably never will. Instead, I will occasionally tinker with paper and pencil to get my neurotransmitters flowing without delusions of success with an occasional vigorous game of hockey to add a tad of spice.