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Monthly Archives: July 2009

I’ll bet you’re thinking, “Now why the heck didn’t I think of that?”


In this the third part of a look at what science has to say on the concept of free will, we will delve into the relationship between volition and consciousness. And it gets weird. I won’t even rag on William ‘Lame’ Craig this time, though it is always tempting. One thing I should say before continuing is what version of free will I am rejecting: the traditional contra-causal free will which is a consequence of discredited dualistic notions. Tom Clark puts it this way:

If you imagine a situation in which you are behaving and you make a particular choice, many people suppose that given that situation exactly as it transpired you could have chosen something other than what you did. But a science-based naturalism looking at the situation as it arises will see the choice as a function of the exact conditions that were present at the time. So if you play that scenario there is no reason to think that anything else would have happened. Many people think, in supposing that they have contra-causal free will, that had they been in that situation even with the same desires, the same exact circumstances inside and outside themselves, they could have chosen or done something other than what they did. And this is what [naturalists] are denying. This is what I think a thorough science-based naturalism challenges is this idea of a causally-autonomous,  metaphysically-autonomous self that somehow gets to cause things but is itself not fully caused1.

There are some types of free will that are compatible with determinism and we will get to those later. True contra-causal free will just has too many issues associated with it to be a viable concept. One I have alluded to before, that we would be paralyzed into inaction if a large part of our everyday actions weren’t calculated at a subconscious level. There are just too many choices at every moment. ‘Walking across the street’ is a high-level intention, but each individual step requires a decision to place the foot calculated from terrain, balance, etc. If you have to think about it, you will simply fall over. Second is that contra-causal free will means that people would be far less predictable than they are, which is not a good thing.

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Help me get Brother Sam to Calgary!

Demand Sam Singleton Atheist Evangelist in Calgary!
Sam Singleton Atheist Evangelist in Calgary - Learn more about this Eventful Demand

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(Note: this is the infamous article printed in The Guardian (Saturday April 19 2008) on chiropractic that got Simon Singh sued. It is being reposted all over the web today by multiple blogs and online magazines.)
Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

Beware the spinal tap

This is Chiropractic Awareness Week. So let’s be aware. How about some awareness that may prevent harm and help you make truly informed choices? First, you might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that, “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.

I can confidently label these treatments as bogus [changed to “utter nonsense” in the scrubbed version] because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Professor Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

Bearing all of this in mind, I will leave you with one message for Chiropractic Awareness Week – if spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.
Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

via Pharyngula

The blogosphere is not a place for the faint of heart. If you have something you feel you need to say, don’t expect everyone to agree with you. Indeed, expect a bit of backlash. Take for instance crsptch. He left a couple of comments on a blog, both were pretty banal. The first was

Your blog is shamelessly boring.

That’s it. The second wasn’t any better. From what he had to say (which was nothing) I have a good deal of pity for him. I mean, I can imagine the acne-faced kid typing away in his grandmother’s trailer and all…

See, that’s how you insult someone, crsptch. Innnuendo, wit. Even a ‘yo momma’ putdown would be far superior.

He’s blocked now, but not because of the weak attempt at insult. Nor do I take such action lightly. He’s blocked because he had nothing to contribute, positive or negative. I saw any further communication from him was going to be futile.

But I didn’t delete his comments.

Take this entry from The Christian Worldview’s blog entitled “Atheist Lies and Christian Truth”. With a title like that, how can I not read it? If I’m lying I would certainly like to know how I’m doing it without realizing it. I was shaken to my core that atheism wasn’t even mentioned- such blatant false advertising!

The whole blog was nothing more than an exercise in sophistry, but that’s not what pissed me off. What pisses me off is the author’s disingenuous response- delete the comment. I’m not writing this blog to complain. I’m writing to make sure my comment is heard. And there’s nothing nasty about it at all:

With a title like that, I just can’t help but play fundie whack-a-mole.

“Christianity and the story of Jesus is the truth and as a result have grown to be the only true international religion.”

Apart from Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc.

“What else but the truth could have started 2000 years ago in a small town in Israel and grown worldwide to be accepted by more than a billion people”

A superstitious belief system. That’s what else it could be.

“There is an abundance of scientific evidence proving the existence of Jesus and the truth of the Holy Bible both in archeology and with historical facts that are ignored and under reported by the worldwide media.”

There is no scientific evidence for Jesus at all. If I’m wrong, refute it by listing this evidence. What evidence we have comes from textual criticism of the gospels and one small mention in Josephus and one in Tacitus (if the latter one isn’t a later forgery). Personally, I’m willing to accept that a historical Jesus existed, though it is far from certain. However, the Jesus of the bible is out.

I’m unsure how archeology can help your case. For instance, archeology refutes the exodus myth outright. The Massacre of the Innocents has no extrabiblical source, something rather unexpected if it did happen. The only census around the time of Jesus happened a good ten years after the death of Harod the Great. That’s one heck of a long pregnancy for Mary.

And just because places existed lends no credence to the stories just because they were said to take place there. For example, we can be fairly certain that Atlanta exists and that the Civil War happened. But this does not mean that Gone With the Wind was a biography of Scarlett O’Hara.

The gospels were written decades after Jesus’ supposed crucifixion and were based on stories kept alive through oral tradition. Not exactly a good way to maintain fidelity. Only John, the latest of the gospels written some 65 years after Jesus, claims Jesus’ divinity. Mark, Matthew and Luke never seem to think it important to mention that.

I’m always amazed by the statement that there are mounds of evidence for a biblical Jesus and the truth of the stories contained within the bible, yet the claimants seem incapable of listing said evidence.

“Tolerance of anything and everything except Christians is the governmental authoritarian order of the day and the western world governments are certainly doing their part. The Christian worldview, which clearly defines where we come from and our place in it with God at the center, is being replaced with tolerance for all and hatred for anything or anyone who is different.”

Pot calling kettle black. Secularism, upon which the US was founded, treats everyone equally and fairly. Fundamentalist Christians like you hate that. They see being unable to force their brand of belief on everyone else as an infringement on their rights.

I’ve got news for you. Not everyone believes what you do. Imagine that. But for some reason you are upset by that. Unlike you, I will defend your right to speak this nonsense. But don’t equate that with respecting what you’re saying, because I don’t.

The US is arguably the most religious of all western nations. It also has the dubious distinction of leading in a number of other categories as well, having the highest rates of nonviolent and non-lethal violent crime, homicide, adolescent suicide, teen pregnancy and teen STD transmission. But I’m sure your solution would be ‘more religion’ rather than doing something real to tackle these problems.

Is there anything egregious in what I said? I can back up every word, even if he can’t for his.

It’s his blog. He can do what he wants. But this is mine, and I can call out anyone who I see is intellectually dishonest and post the response that was deleted so people can see what an opposing view looks like. I don’t write a word that I can’t back up and when I’m wrong and can be shown to be wrong I thank that person. Fundies are incapable of that.

Weird title for a religious blog, right? Not as weird as you might think, though it is weird in its own way. Hutterites take the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol”, in a very strict and literal sense. They believe that having their photograph taken for government-issued id, in this case a driver’s license, violates this commandment.

In 2003, the province of Alberta introduced a new driver’s license which is as secure as a passport. Except when you get a change-of-address slip issued, which is a piece of paper that a two-year-old can forge. In fact, Albeta driver’s licenses are actually issued by the Canadian Passport Office. As you can imagine, identification theft is an issue, and a photo on the license became mandatory. Till the change in rules, Hutterites were not required to have their photo on the license, and there were some 400 of these licenses granted.

Hutterites took the matter to court on a Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge. Freedom of Religion is enshrined in the Canadian constitution within the Charter, and the Hutterites felt that their rights were being infringed. Indeed, I think they were. But freedom of religion is not absolute, and there certainly are competing interests here. The province of Alberta argued that identity theft ws the issue, and I think they could have gone further than that and cited national security issues. The province lost on appeal to the Alberta appelate court, but in a 4-3 split decision, the Supreme Court of Canada sided with the province.

At this point it is unclear what action will be taken by the Hutterites, whether they will comply or refuse to comply with the ruling. The ruling itself is now part of Canadian case law, so any of the other provinces that currently issue these special photo-less licenses can now require that a photo.

Not sure what to say here. Does security override religious freedoms in this case? What say you good people?

In the first installment, wherein I bashed William Lane Craig (as I do at every opportunity – he’s a terrible philosopher and I’m not sure he is even a good person, what with thinking genocide is okay if it is ordered by god) and presented evidence which suggests that the classical version of free will, which relies heavily on the discredited concept of mind-brain duality, should be discarded. Instead, the only model which makes sense of these data is the computational model of the mind. (For those interested in getting into the nitty-gritty of this way of looking at consciousness, I highly recommend Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works.) Perhaps I should clarify my position on philosophy a bit, since I ragged on it in my last post. I don’t think philosophy useless. But a philosophical argument in a vacuum is not evidence (listening, Craig?). The argument must have a context within it is couched. Indeed, philosophy in the absence of at least some form of verification simply underscores its impotence. Craig is an extreme form of this, making the claim that “verificationalism” (is that even a word?) has been discarded.

If by “verificationalism” he means we demand that claims be verified, then, my response is this: “Says who, Brylcreem-boy?” Without verification, one can believe anything, like some dude turning water into wine or such. Has he never heard the phrase, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”? According to Craig, historical claims can’t be verified. Well, a little evidence would be nice, wouldn’t it? Craig’s view of science is that we use only our senses to find explanations for phenomena. Horse manure! We accept historical evidence all the time! But the quality of historical evidence matters to a skeptic. Francis Collins defends this same position in Religulous, where he makes the claim that nonbelievers set up an impossible standard of evidence for Christianity to meet. I don’t think so at all. I think my standard of evidence is quite reasonable. That the evidence for Christianity fails to meet this standard is not my problem.  Craig and Collins seem to think that we should lower our standards that have worked well enough for everything else, but that is just so much special pleading. Do that and you will accept anything at all, like homeopathy or iridology. I don’t play that, and both of these guys should be ashamed of themselves for trying to make excuses for belief in the face of a paucity of evidence. If they want to believe, believe! But don’t try to snow me….

Schematic of a model for volition (reference 1).

Schematic of a model for volition (reference 1).

Well, now that I got out of my system, let’s get back to free will and the idea of using the computational model of the mind to make decisions. When viewed in this manner, it is possible to construct a testable model of volition. Volition is modeled “as a set of decision processes that each specify details of an action.”1 The final decision of whether to perform an action (called the ‘whether decision’) is a combination of early and motivational components, with a final predictive check. Each process specifies particular kinds of information that determines our actions, and thus volition can be looked at as a form of decision making. We shall look at what each of these processes supplies in turn.

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Ever had the question, “If you don’t believe in God, how do you explain ‘free will’?” The question itself presupposes that the asker actually knows what ‘free will’ is. Indeed, just as we have a strong perception of the dual nature of humanity, we have this strong perception that we have ‘free will’. Long considered the domain of theology (and later philosophy), science has been reluctant to answer questions regarding ‘free will’. I’m not one to take philosophy in the absence of evidence in support seriously at all. My mantra has always been “Show me the evidence, or go home!” I don’t give philosophy alone the time of day. Some, like William Lane Craig, consider philosophical arguments as the gold standard and that it is up to others to prove his philosophy wrong. Phah! That’s just a burden of proof shift. It’s up to him to provide evidentiary support for his arguments. Craig is a good debater, but as a philosopher he’s a failure. How much of a failure? When I mentioned his name to a colleague at a CFI meeting, a member of the faculty of philosophy at the local U, her response was delicious: “Who?” (I had to put a dig in there on Craig. Anyone who can justify genocide is going to get hounded for life from me.)

But perceptions can be deceiving, and the perception of ‘free will’ is no exception. We have this belief that we control our actions which are initiated by conscious decision making processes. But, at the risk of lapsing into philosophy, consider what would happen without a huge amount of background processing by the brain. We would all be paralyzed into inaction by the sheer number of choices we would make in actions we don’t even consciously think about. The act of walking in bipedal fashion is a marvel of real-time sensory feedback processing only now being duplicated in robotics (and not all that well, either). Why on Earth would we be so arrogant as to believe that decision making isn’t just as automated?

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Dualism is the philosophy of mind where the mind is nonphysical and independent of the physical brain. While the idea goes back as far as Zarathustra, it is Descartes’ formulation which is usually what we mean when we speak of dualism. Descartes believed that the mind is made of an immaterial substance and is the seat of consciousness, while the brain is where intelligence resides. Of course, this postulation of an immaterial substance accounting for the mind is without basis and, like the ether, never verified.

In researching what I hope will be an interesting blog on the placebo effect and ran across a paper by M. Beauregard. The same Beauregard that wrote a sophistry-laden book with Discovery Institute hack Denyse O’Leary called The Spiritual Brain (I refuse to provide a link to Amazon to legitimize that kind of dreary crap – the overview printed on the jacket alone was enough to make me nauseous). You can already see Beauregard’s bias in a review entitled “Effect of mind on brain activity: evidence from neuroimaging studies of psychotherapy and placebo effect.” The presumption that the mind is a separate entity from the brain is obvious from the title. He’s under the mistaken belief that phenomena such as the placebo effect can be explained by mind-brain duality. I suppose it can, but it is totally equivocal with the explanation that the mind and brain are inseparable.

Just because the two explanations are equivocal in and of itself doesn’t mean that dualism is wrong. Rather, it is the spectacular failure of dualism to explain certain other phenomena (which I will get to) that does. I find it difficult to believe that Beauregard is unaware of these problems and is being selective about where he invokes it to avoid having to deal with what I see are insurmountable problems for dualism. The problem for people like Beauregard is that while dualism and monism both explain phenomena such as the placebo effect, other phenomena, such as personality alterations following brain injury, can only be explained by monism.

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Miss InformationHomeopathy is a form of ‘alternative medicine’ wherein patients are treated with heavily diluted preparations of an ingredient based on the concept that small doses of “what makes a man ill also cures him”. It arose during a time where other long-discarded quackery were in common use – blood letting and purging, for instance. Homeopathic dilutions are such that it would take many gallons of the preparation to ingest even one molecule of the active ingredient. As physicist Robert L. Park noted,

…since the least amount of a substance in a solution is one molecule, a 30C solution would have to have at least one molecule of the original substance dissolved in a minimum of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water. This would require a container more than 30,000,000,000 times the size of the Earth.

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