Another befuddled person touts panpsychism, proposing some possible (but impossible) tests of the idea that all matter is conscious

May 28, 2020 • 9:00 am

I continue to be baffled by the presence and lucubrations of apparently sentient people who claim that consciousness inheres in all matter, from electrons to us. This view that everything (including the Universe itself) is conscious is called panpsychism, and I’ve written about it at length.

Why is this cockeyed theory so popular? Because it purports to solve the “hard problem” of consciousness—the “problem” of understanding how events in our environment are perceived by our senses and than translated into “qualia,” or subjective sensation. My view (and that of philosophers like Patricia Churchland) is that once we understand the mechanism of how this works—all the neural correlates of having various qualia—then the hard problem disappears. Or rather, it’s a pseudo-problem.

But that’s not sufficient for the panpsychists. They say that correlation is not understanding, and seek some deeper understanding. But the “deeper understanding” always seems to enter the murky swamp of philoso-babble, leaving science behind.

Panpsychism is a supposedly naturalistic attempt to solve the hard problem, but it does so by sleight of hand: by assering that all matter is conscious, even electrons, rocks, and stars.  And when you combine enough atoms and molecules, each with a rudimentary consciousness, then presto!, you get the higher-level consciousness of animals like us.  The sleight of hand is that this is a “turtles all the way down” strategy, and never solves the “combination problem”: how the rudimentary consciousness of many molecules combines in a way to create more complex and sophisticated states of awareness and sensation in humans.

The empirical problem with panpsychism is twofold: it’s an assertion with no evidence to back it up, and there is no way of testing whether it’s true.  But now Tam Hunt praises the theory once again in Nautilus—a site and magazine partly supported by the John Templeton Foundation—and links to his year-old piece in Scientific American where, he claims, there are ways of testing whether nonliving matter has consciousness.

We met Tam Hunt nine years ago, when he was touting what I called “stealth creationism”, a claim that neo-Darwinism was grossly inaccurate, espousing instead a teleological view that, among other things, was panpsychist:

. . . . mind and thus purpose are inherent in all of nature – but extremely rudimentary in most cases. However, as matter complexifies in macromolecules like amino acids (which form spontaneously in many situations), this innate mind and purpose starts to play an increasingly significant role in evolution. It is, thus, a bootstrapping process that has no end in sight. . .

Below (click on screenshot) is Hunt’s new article at Nautilus, where he pushes panpsychism and also links to an article where he outlines some possible tests of the hypothesis. Note that in the title he claims that electrons may “very well be conscious.” That implies a degree of certainty that’s simply not warranted by the evidence. In fact, there is no evidence for the consciousness of electrons.

We can first dismiss two of the lines of evidence used repeatedly by Hunt as evidence of panpsychism:

a.) Panpsychism has been around a long time. 

 So why should we think that creatures with brains, like us, are the sole bearers of consciousness? In fact, panpsychism has been around for thousands of years as one of various solutions to the mind-body problem. David Skrbina’s 2007 book, Panpsychism in the West, provides an excellent history of this intellectual tradition.

But of course, so have many false or unevidenced notions, like Christianity and Judaism, as well as even older forms of faith. The durability of an idea has no bearing on its truth. What we need is evidence.

b.) Famous people have been panpsychists or limned the idea.  Hunt names, among others, Alfred North Whitehead, Galen Strawson, David Bohm, and others who have adhered to some form of panpsychism, as well as physicists like Neils Bohr and Freeman Dyson, who have been naturalists but not panpsychists. Hunt likes to argue that naturalism supports panpsychism because in the end, mind is made of matter, and if brains evince consciousness, then, well, so must matter. But that, of course, doesn’t mean that all matter is conscious, any more than it means that all matter is alive even though living beings are made of electrons and other particles. The Argument from Authority and Famous People again doesn’t move me; we need evidence.

Here’s some of Hunt’s argument:

While inanimate matter doesn’t evolve like animate matter, inanimate matter does behave. It does things. It responds to forces. Electrons move in certain ways that differ under different experimental conditions. These types of behaviors have prompted respected physicists to suggest that electrons may have some type of extremely rudimentary mind. For example the late Freeman Dyson, the well-known American physicist, stated in his 1979 book, Disturbing the Universe, that “the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when made by electrons.” Quantum chance is better framed as quantum choice—choice, not chance, at every level of nature. David Bohm, another well-known American physicist, argued similarly: “The ability of form to be active is the most characteristic feature of mind, and we have something that is mind-like already with the electron.”

Many biologists and philosophers have recognized that there is no hard line between animate and inanimate. J.B.S. Haldane, the eminent British biologist, supported the view that there is no clear demarcation line between what is alive and what is not: “We do not find obvious evidence of life or mind in so-called inert matter…; but if the scientific point of view is correct, we shall ultimately find them, at least in rudimentary form, all through the universe.”

Tam further argues that the nature of quantum mechanics itself supports panpsychism, saying things like the following, which borders on the ridiculous (let me replace “borders on the” with “is”):

Theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, author of the 2018 book Lost in Math, has taken a contrary position. “[I]f you want a particle to be conscious, your minimum expectation should be that the particle can change,” she argued in a post titled “Electrons Don’t Think.” “It’s hard to have an inner life with only one thought. But if electrons could have thoughts, we’d long have seen this in particle collisions because it would change the number of particles produced in collisions.”

Yet “change” means many different things, including position in space over time. What Dyson is getting at in his remark about electrons and quantum theory is that the probabilistic distribution-outcomes of quantum experiments (like the double-slit experiment) are better explained as the product, not of pure chance (another way of saying “we don’t know”), but of numerous highly rudimentary choices by each electron in each moment about where and how to manifest.

Does a rock make such choices, then? If so, why don’t we see rocks moving as well as they choose “where and how to manifest”? “And now I am become Conscious Rock, the Befuddler of Neurology.”

But enough; Tam’s argument is pure panpsychist boilerplate. Where it becomes novel is where it becomes “testable”, or so Tam says. In this year-old article in Scientific American, Tam says (above) that he was trying to transform some philosophical considerations into “a testable set of experiments.” But when you read the piece, you see that what he proposes isn’t testable at all (click on screenshot):

Here he argues that there are three types of correlates of consciousness that we can use to test “inanimate” matter to see if it has consciousness:

Neural correlates.  We can use EEG, fMRI, and other neurological tools to see if a patient is conscious. But of course you can’t use these on electrons or rocks, as they have no neurons!

Behavioral correlates.  Tam uses the example of cats purring, flexing their toes, snuggle when petted, and appearing to show fear and curiosity. To him that’s evidence for consciousness. The response is obvious: you can build robots that show these behaviors, too; in fact, some already exist. Are those robots conscious simply because they show behavior similar to those of organisms we think are conscious? Not in my view!

Creative correlates. I’ll let Tam describe this one:

Creative output is another source of information for assessing the presence of consciousness. If for whatever reason we can’t examine neural or behavioral correlates of consciousness, we may be able to examine the creative products of consciousness for clues.

For example, when we examine ancient architectural structures such as Stonehenge or cave paintings in Europe that have been judged to be as much as 65,000 years old, are we reasonable in judging the creators of these items to be conscious in ways similar to our own? Most of us would say: obviously, yes. We know from experience that it would take high intelligence and consciousness to produce such items today, so we reasonably conclude that our ancient ancestors had similar levels of consciousness.

What if we find obviously unnatural artifacts on Mars or other bodies in our solar system? Do we reasonably infer that whatever entities created such artifacts were conscious? It will depend on the artifacts in question, but if we were to find anything remotely similar to human dwellings or machinery on other planets, but which was clearly not human in origin, most of us would reasonably infer that the creators of these artifacts were also conscious.

But robots could do that, too. In response, Tam says that we can distinguish creative things that are products of consciousness from creative things that are the product of, say, artificial intelligence:

We can conduct a kind of “artistic Turing test” and ask study participants to consider various works of art and say which ones they conclude must have been created by a human. And if AI artwork consistently fools people into thinking it was made by a human, is that good evidence to conclude that the AI is at least in some ways conscious?

My answer is “no.” But this is all ludicrous anyway, for we’re not asking about AI, but about rocks, electrons, glasses of water, or, for that matter, bacteria and flatworms. None of these could show creativity of that type. It is curious that while panpsychists don’t accept correlation studies in neurology as a solution to the “hard problem” of consciousness, Hunt touts exactly similar types of studies as a way to see if inanimate matter is conscious.

Thus, all three of Tam’s “correlates” fail to yield a program for determining whether electrons are conscious.  There is no such program.

Then, you’re probably asking yourself, how do we determine whether anything is conscious, including our fellow humans? And my answer is “Inference and self-report”.  We infer that humans are conscious because they’re similar to our individual selves, and that primates and mammals have a consciousness somewhat similar to ours because they’re our evolutionary relatives. As for self-report, well, I tell you that I’m conscious. You could say “prove it”, or take me for a zombie, and I couldn’t really convince you otherwise.

In the end, we can infer that some animals are conscious (given that we define consciousness as subjective sensations and thoughts), but we can’t make an airtight inference. But that’s true of all science. All we can do is make inferences to the best explanation, and I’d claim that the most reasonable inference is that everyone reading this is conscious—not a bot or a zombie. And the best inference about electrons, rocks, and hydrogen atoms is that they’re not conscious, for they show none of the features that makes us think that our fellow humans are conscious.

I am not one of those scientists who denigrate philosophy as a whole. But some philosophers are prey to ludicrous ideas, and panpsychism is one of them. The popularity of the idea shows that intellectual termites are chomping away at the framework of philosophy. Perhaps, as Matthew Cobb said in his interview with Michael Shermer, panpsychism—which he said is “not even wrong”—will shortly disappear from the scene (see 4 minutes in). One can hope!


h/t: Paul

A large percentage of conservatives (indeed, of U.S. adults) subscribe to a bizarre Bill Gates conspiracy theory

May 24, 2020 • 9:30 am

It’s unbelievable what Trump supporters, Republicans, and conservatives can bring themselves to believe, but this new Yahoo/YouGov poll shows that bizarre and unevidenced beliefs are held by a substantial proportion of not just those on the Right, but of all U.S. adults. This article (click on screenshot below) centers on both Bill Gates and the coronavirus, particularly a vaccine. The poll was conducted in May, and you can link to the main results by clicking on the screenshot below.


The most bizarre contention, debunked by Snopes, is that Bill Gates is using his money and promoting Covid-19 vaccinations to create an authoritarian country where everyone will be surveilled via the implantation of microchips (presumably inserted surreptitiously during vaccination).  As Snopes notes,

primary focus of that foundation, and of Gates’ philanthropy in general, is the reduction of inequalities in health outcomes, with a focus on the developing world. Via these organizations, he also funds research into technological solutions to public health problems in the poorest communities globally. Since 2015, he has been raising alarms about the world’s potentially catastrophic lack of preparedness for a pandemic.

In part because of his advocacy for vaccines, Gates has also been a major recipient of the anti-vaccine movement’s vitriol for well over a decade. Years of manufactured animosity built by false claims from these anti-vaccine groups have, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, combined with the dubious claims of doomsday soothsayers and cryptocurrency Youtubers to create a sprawling COVID-19 conspiracy theory centered on Gates.

The basic allegation against Gates goes like this: He is using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to push a vaccine with a microchip capable of tracking you along with the rest of the world population.

Snopes debunks this, saying that Gates’s only remotely related argument is that perhaps people should have certificates of either immunity after having contracted the virus or after having been vaccinated, and those documents could be used for travel and entering new countries. Whether they will be required is up to the countries, not to Gates. That’s about it.

So that’s the basic allegation. How many Americans agree with it? See the chart below of the poll’s results, and weep copiously.

Yes brothers and sisters, friends and comrades, 44% of Republicans and 19% of Democrats—one in five Dems—accept this bizarre theory. Indeed, half of all those who get most of their news from Fox News accept the theory, while only 26% think it’s false. As expected, those who voted for Trump four years ago have statistics almost identical to those of Republicans in general. Those who are most sensible are the Democrats, those who get most of their news from the liberal station MSNBC, and those who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But even the latter categories show more than a quarter of people saying that they aren’t sure whether the microchip implantation theory is true.

Why on earth does anybody believe such a palpably false myth, one supported by no facts at all? Well, for the Right, it’s tribalism, with right-wing tribalism going along with an antivaxer stance. It’s above my pay grade to dilate on why the right is so suspicious of vaccines given that many conservatives support them, but some how it’s taken hold. The Yahoo site gives details:

The new Yahoo News/YouGov survey shows that skepticism about a possible coronavirus vaccine is already taking root on the right. There is little partisan disagreement over vaccines in general: 83 percent of Americans consider childhood vaccines either “somewhat” or “very” safe, and more than 80 percent of Democrats, independents and Republicans share this view. The same goes for concerns over the safety of “fast-tracking” the vaccine through the typical research and regulatory process: 73 percent of Americans are at least somewhat concerned, with little difference by party affiliation.

But when it comes to actually getting vaccinated, Clinton voters are nearly 30 points more likely to say they will (72 percent) than Trump voters (44 percent). A majority of Trump voters say either that they plan to skip the shot (29 percent) or that they aren’t sure (27 percent), even though the president himself has been pushing hard for a vaccine. 

As a result, only half of Americans (50 percent) now say they intend to get vaccinated “if and when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available,” with nearly a quarter (23 percent) saying they won’t — a 5-point decline in the percentage of “yes” responses and a 4-point gain in the percentage of “no” responses since the previous Yahoo News/YouGov survey two weeks ago. The rest (27 percent) say they’re not sure.

With 83% of Americans considering childhood vaccination safe, half of us still won’t get vaccinated when there’s a safe coronavirus vaccine. This is the downside of all the doubt sowed by the conspiracy theorists: it makes people less likely to get vaccinated. And this isn’t the same as ignorant suspicion of evolution or advocacy of flat-earthism, for doubt about tested vaccinations leads to sickness and death. There are no fatal complications of creationism.

There’s more misinformation and tribalism concerning—yes, you guessed it—hydroxychloroquine, which has been unproven as a virus preventive and seems positively harmful when given to those already infected. Have a look at this:

Vaccines are not the only subject of misinformation. Another example with dire implications is hydroxychloroquine. A majority of Fox News viewers (53 percent), along with nearly half of Trump voters (49 percent) and Republicans (44 percent), think the antimalarial drug is an effective treatment against COVID-19 — even though study after study has not proved that to be true. In fact, a new study of 96,000 hospitalized coronavirus patients on six continents found that those who received the drug had a significantly higher risk of death compared with those who did not.

Far fewer Trump voters, meanwhile, say that hydroxychloroquine is ineffective (just 17 percent) or that they are not sure (34 percent) — an upside-down perspective that may have something to do with the fact that the president told reporters Monday that he has been taking the drug for the last “couple of weeks” as a preventive measure.

In contrast, only 5 percent of Clinton voters say hydroxychloroquine is effective. Seventy-three percent of Clinton voters say it is not.

The poll also found that a plurality of Trump voters (41 percent) say they would take hydroxychloroquine if it were available to them. Only 4 percent of Clinton voters say the same; 80 percent say they would not take the drug. The Food and Drug Administration has warned that hydroxychloroquine should be used only in clinical trials or hospitals because it can trigger fatal heart arrhythmia in COVID-19 patients.

Well, physicians who are responsible doctors won’t treat infected people with the drug, and I hope that they won’t write prescriptions for it as a preventive. But some will. The upshot is that trust in science in general will be eroded, as well, I think, as trust in vaccinations.

As we saw from the statistics above, the Left isn’t resistant to the blandishments of misinformation, either. For example, on the issue of “reopening” cities and states, we see this:

The left is not immune to picking and choosing its preferred version of events. Democrats (58 percent) are more likely than Republicans (33 percent) to believe that “coronavirus-related deaths have surged” in early-to-reopen red states such as “Florida, Georgia and Texas” — as are Americans in general (45 percent). Yet average daily deaths have declined in Georgia and Florida since reopening, while holding roughly steady in Texas.

The statistics for reopened states were given on the news last night, and, as the poll notes, they contravene the Left’s scenario that prematurely reopened states will suffer huge tolls from a resurgence of the pandemic. That hasn’t happened so far, and yet the Left believes it more than the Right. Again, tribalism. It is, of course, possible that these states will suffer another onslaught of the virus, and our best attitude should be a wait-and-see one.

There are a bunch of other results, all showing tribalism in belief about what’s true, even when we don’t have sufficient data yet (well, what did you expect in such a religious nation?):

But views on reopening are starting to diverge as well. Asked in previous Yahoo News/YouGov polls whether stay-at-home orders were the only way to stop the spread of COVID-19 or whether “the cure is worse than the disease,” majorities of Americans, both Democratic and Republican, said the former. Now for the first time, a majority of Republicans (53 percent) say the cure is worse. Among Trump voters and Fox News viewers, that number skyrockets to 59 percent and 66 percent, respectively.

On the right, nearly every question about reopening is trending in the same direction. Pluralities of Republicans (44 percent) and majorities of Trump voters (55 percent) and Fox News viewers (61 percent) now support the protesters demanding an end to lockdown measures. Wide majorities of these right-leaning groups also say they are more concerned about lifting restrictions too slowly than too quickly; most Americans — by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin — still say the opposite. And while 62 percent of Americans say they’re more worried about the impact of the coronavirus on people’s health than on the economy, the right disagrees: 63 percent of Republicans, 68 percent of Trump voters and 73 percent of Fox News viewers say they’re more worried about the economy.

This is going to cause another fractious election result, which we knew anyway. I still think Trump will lose, and have bet a few hundred bucks on that result; but I’m appalled at how many American continue to support a man who’s so obviously mentally ill—a narcissist of the first water—and how many still buy into his ridiculous statements. As I’ve said, I lived through the Sixties—through Nixon, Reagan, and W., but I never thought I’d live to see a President and an administration so dysfunctional. And, even worse, how many Americans support Trump. Do they really admire the guy, or are they using him as a cudgel against the Left and what it represents to them (lax immigration policy, more concern for racism, and so on)?

And I have no idea why tribalism has increased so much in the last decade or so. Even the Reagan years seem almost halcyon compared to the today’s seemingly irreparable divisions in the ideology of Americans. I’d be interested in hearing readers’ take on this.

Apropos, here’s a photo sent in by reader Barry:

h/t: Ken

Francis Collins, new Templeton Prize winner, pushes woo in a Scientific American interview

May 22, 2020 • 2:00 pm

As I reported two days ago, NIH head Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian, just nabbed the lucrative Templeton Prize, usually given to people who are both science minded and blather on about the “Big Questions”:  metaphysical “why” questions like “Why are we here?” or “What is our purpose?” Designed to exceed the Nobel Prize in dosh, the prize enriched Collins by a cool $1.3 million. Below is a photo of his press conference and the announcement of the award, in which Collins, unlike Tr-mp, is setting a good example by being properly masked.

Before I proceed to take apart Collins’s “theology”, such as it is, let me say that by all accounts he’s a really nice guy. Remember when he helped Christopher Hitchens get the best cancer treatment, even though Hitchens mocks and reviles everything Collins holds sacred? I’m sure I’d enjoy having a beer with the guy—until  the conversation turned to God.

National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins, right, received the Templeton Prize for his work to de-escalate mistrust between scientists and people of faith.Andrew Harnik / Pool via Reuters

Apparently there was an NPR interview with Collins yesterday, but it isn’t online yet. I’ll link to it when it appears. But if you want a precis of his views, John Horgan interviewed Collins for Scientific American in 2006 and, as far as I know, Collins’s form of Christianity hasn’t changed since then. (You can read about it in his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents evidence for Belief.) Horgan has (excuse the metaphor) resurrected the interview to mark Collins’s prize.

Now the “evidence for belief” in Collin’s book and this interview is both thin and unconvincing, and in fact doesn’t go beyond C. S. Lewis in sophistication or novelty.  Collins, for instance, argues that the fact that humans have a “Moral Law” constitutes strong evidence for God, as an innate morality could have been bequeathed only by God.  That, of course, is ridiculous: not only could evolution instill rudiments of morality, but there’s a cultural veneer on our evolutionary legacy, born of human experience, that can spread from society to society. And, of course, moral dicta are not universal, and I shouldn’t have to mention variations over time or among societies to show that.

Collins notes that he believes in the Resurrection, but avers that God uses miracles sparingly. But that’s one of them, and it’s curious that if God resurrected Jesus so that humans could be saved by their Christian faith, why Collins doesn’t think strongly that Christianity is the “right” religion? He goes on at length about Christianity not being privileged with the unique truth about God? But if there are many “right” religions, why his adherence to Christianity?

Further, Collins explains immorality—those who break God’s law—as a result of God’s having given us free will. This is, of course, not compatibilist free will that coxists comfortably with determinism, but libertarian free will. This is what his fellow evangelicals, who are many, believe as well. Those who claim that most people who espouse free will are really compatibilists are wrong.

Collins and Horgan:

Horgan: Many people have a hard time believing in God because of the problem of evil. If God loves us, why is life filled with so much suffering?

Collins: That is the most fundamental question that all seekers have to wrestle with. First of all, if our ultimate goal is to grow, learn, discover things about ourselves and things about God, then unfortunately a life of ease is probably not the way to get there. I know I have learned very little about myself or God when everything is going well. Also, a lot of the pain and suffering in the world we cannot lay at God’s feet. God gave us free will, and we may choose to exercise it in ways that end up hurting other people.

Horgan: The physicist Steven Weinberg, who is an atheist, has written about this topic. He asks why six million Jews, including his relatives, had to die in the Holocaust so that the Nazis could exercise their free will.

Collins: If God had to intervene miraculously every time one of us chose to do something evil, it would be a very strange, chaotic, unpredictable world. Free will leads to people doing terrible things to each other. Innocent people die as a result. You can’t blame anyone except the evildoers for that. So that’s not God’s fault. The harder question is when suffering seems to have come about through no human ill action. A child with cancer, a natural disaster, a tornado or tsunami. Why would God not prevent those things from happening?

Once again, we have to deal with the idea that God gave people free will so they could freely choose whether or not to accept Jesus (I suspect this would be Collins’s take). And if you make the wrong choice, you’re punished unto eternity? That then turns into the question of why God did this. Why is free will so important? For surely God knew that this would lead to untold suffering, so why couldn’t He just give people a form of free will that allows them to choose a saviour, but doesn’t allow them to commit moral evil? Or can’t He give you that form of free will? I thought he was omnipotent!

Well, it’s all obscure, of course (Collins doesn’t answer). But when it comes to physical  evil: tsunamis, earthquakes, childhood cancers, and other bad stuff that doesn’t result from human “choice”, well, it’s all very murky—but God has his reasons!

Horgan: Some theologians, such as Charles Hartshorne, have suggested that maybe God isn’t fully in control of His creation. The poet Annie Dillard expresses this idea in her phrase “God the semi-competent.”

Collins: That’s delightful–and probably blasphemous! An alternative is the notion of God being outside of nature and of time and having a perspective of our blink-of-an-eye existence that goes both far back and far forward. In some admittedly metaphysical way, that allows me to say that the meaning of suffering may not always be apparent to me. There can be reasons for terrible things happening that I cannot know.

Here we have a watertight edifice that can’t be refuted.  Collins has enough “evidence” to know that God exists, gave us morality and free will, but he’s not quite sure why. But he is sure we have libertarian free will. Why? Because twins tell us!  Apparently Horgan is also a libertarian free-willer, at least judging by the following exchange. (My emphasis.)

Horgan: Free will is a very important concept to me, as it is to you. It’s the basis for our morality and search for meaning. Don’t you worry that science in general and genetics in particular—and your work as head of the Genome Project–are undermining belief in free will?

Collins: You’re talking about genetic determinism, which implies that we are helpless marionettes being controlled by strings made of double helices. That is so far away from what we know scientifically! Heredity does have an influence not only over medical risks but also over certain behaviors and personality traits. But look at identical twins, who have exactly the same DNA but often don’t behave alike or think alike. They show the importance of learning and experience–and free will. I think we all, whether we are religious or not, recognize that free will is a reality. There are some fringe elements that say, “No, it’s all an illusion, we’re just pawns in some computer model.” But I don’t think that carries you very far.

Why, exactly, do the differences between identical twins in thought and behavior give any evidence for free will rather than the non-goddy explanations like “learning and experience” (or somatic mutation)?

And with that I’ll stop, because Collins is just spouting boilerplate Lewis-ian Christianity for the masses. And if I do say so myself, his views are theologically unsophisticated. But I’ll take that back, for to deem any form of theology “sophisticated” is to commit a profound error of thought.


h/t: Paul

The New York Times is dying before our eyes

May 20, 2020 • 12:30 pm

by Greg Mayer

The New York Times is dying before our eyes, and for longtime subscribers, such as myself, it is a sad and painful experience. From Orwellian editorial practices to crusading for wokeism, the decline has been clear for some time now. I used to think that Jerry was reacting too strongly to some of the Times‘ missteps, but I’ve realized for a while that, sadly, he was prescient.
One area in which the Times has stumbled in a major way has been its coverage of woo, everything from “energy healing” to “non-invasive face lifts“.  Its embrace of astrology has been especially dismaying– why on heaven’s earth would they do this? We’ve noted this before here at WEIT (for example here and here), and the woo just keeps coming. Here’s one of the latest:

The online sub-header is exquisite in its irony:
Will Coronavirus Kill Astrology? The pandemic has affected all of us. Who saw it coming?
The answer, of course, is epidemiologists and virologists saw it coming, not astrologers. But through journalistic gymnastics that defy common sense, it turns out that, according to the article, astrology is doing a fine job. It’s like all those various millennial cults who have gathered for the second coming (or the rapture, or Armageddon, or whatever), and when it doesn’t happen, they double down, finding some excuse for why the prophecy really is correct– it’s not just that the believers are fools. It’s textbook motivated reasoning. I’m reminded of what a colleague said after 9-11: “If this doesn’t give religion a bad name, nothing will.” Nothing did, and I guess the same goes for astrology.
This next example of the Times‘ love affair with woo one goes beyond astrology to ghosts!!

The online sub-header is oh-so dishonest:
For those who believe they’re locked down with spectral roommates, the pandemic has been less isolating than they bargained for.
“For those who believe…” What crap. Do they do articles coddling the idiotic myopia of “those who believe” that Obama is not an American? Or “those who believe” the world is flat?

In an article last summer, which I missed at the time, but which Jerry has recently brought to my attention, the Times actually lays out its strategy and goals for its popularization of astrology. It’s disturbing reading coming from a paper that once aspired to be, and was thought of as, the ‘newspaper of record‘.

Read this, and weep:

“We cover it because people have made it newsworthy,” said Choire Sicha, the editor of The Times’s Styles section, which reports on cultural trends and has published many of the recent articles on astrology. “It is a so frequently used part of people’s Instagram lives and online lives.”

Cicero said there is nothing so absurd that it has not been said by one philosopher or another. And the corollary to that you is don’t have to be a philosopher; masses of people, both small and large, may say and do absurd things (see Wikipedia on Heaven’s Gate; if you click on the immediately previous link, I would not advise clicking on anything within the page it goes to). It may be interesting to explore and understand the motivation for why people hold absurd beliefs. The study of extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds has been well underway since at least the 19th century. But we should take the phenomenon of credulity and delusion seriously, not the beliefs themselves.

The Times used to boast that it had “All the news that’s fit to print.” Now its motto and operating procedure is “Anything that will attract eyeballs.” And they’re willing to swallow their principles—if they still have them—to do so.

Faith-soaked physician to conduct study of prayer in curing Covid-19

May 2, 2020 • 10:30 am

Does prayer work to cure diseases? Anecdotal evidence from Lourdes, where amputees and the eyeless aren’t cured, suggest not. And we all know the results of the Templeton-funded study of the effects of intercessory prayer on recovery of cardiac patients, the most thorough study of intercessory prayer yet, involving over 1800 patients (Benson et al. 2006). Those results: no effect of prayer; or, as the study notes:

Our study had 2 main findings. First, intercessory prayer itself had no effect on whether complications occurred after CABG. Second, patients who were certain that intercessors would pray for them had a higher rate of complications than patients who were uncertain but did receive intercessory prayer.

In other words, the only effect even close to being statistically significant was that patients who knew they were being prayed for had more complications than patients not prayed for. Prayer worked in the wrong direction! That must have disappointed Templeton!

Further, a 2006 meta-analysis of 14 studies of medical effects of intercessory prayer showed no significant effects overall. The results and conclusions are in a red box below; note that the authors advise “that further resources not be allocated to this line of research.” (Click on screenshot to go to the study.)

But someone disagrees about there being no more need for research: Dr. Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy, a cardiologist at the Kansas City Heart Rhythm Institute. Lakireddy is doing a double-blind study of the effect of intercessory prayer on the mortality rates (and other indices of “being cured”) from Covid-19. NPR, which always has a weakness for the numinous, highlights it in the article below (click on screenshot):

There’s no audio yet, but the site says there will be. UPDATE: The online version is here, and it’s short (2 minutes) and not the same as the transcript. But there’s little difference between them.

Lakkireddy plans a study of 1000 patients in intensive care with Covid-19. Lakireddy is a true believer, and it shows in his comments to NPR (below). The emphases are mine.

We all believe in science, and we also believe in faith,” Lakkireddy says. “If there is a supernatural power, which a lot of us believe, would that power of prayer and divine intervention change the outcomes in a concerted fashion? That was our question.”

We believe in faith? What does that mean? Faith is belief—belief without strong or convincing evidence! Perhaps Lakkkireddy means he believes that faith can cure, which is what he’s testing. But saying that we “believe” in science is a bête noire of mine, and bothered me enough that I wrote an article in Slate arguing that “faith” in science really means “confidence in the reliability of the methods and its outcomes”, not “blind adherence to unevidenced claims,” which is what religious faith is.

But wait! There’s more! Lakkireddy, who has dipped his toes into several faiths, and clearly has a weakness for the numinous, goes on:

The investigators will assess how long the patients remain on ventilators, how many suffer from organ failure, how quickly they are released from intensive care and how many die.

Lakkireddy describes himself as “born into Hinduism,” but he says he attended a Catholic school and has spent time in synagogues, Buddhist monasteries, and mosques.

“I believe in the power of all religions,” he says. “I think if we believe in the wonders of God and the universal good of any religion, then we’ve got to combine hands and join the forces of each of these faiths together for the single cause of saving humanity from this pandemic.”

He already knows that religion will help with the pandemic! Is this the right guy to conduct a double-blind study on Covid-19? He has an interest in the outcome, of course, but one can only hope that he’s being supervised by other people to ensure rigorous, double-blind methodology. But wait! There’s still more!

Scientific studies of the power of prayer have been attempted before. Lakkireddy’s description of his study lists six previous clinical trials involving religious intervention. Some showed slight improvement for patients receiving prayer. Other studies have found no significant prayer effect.

Note that the “other studies” links to the meta-analysis above: a summary of ALL studies, and a summary that shows no effect of prayer overall. As far as I can see, previous studies cited by Lakkireddy were already incorporated into that meta-analysis. Shame on NPR for pretending that a meta-analysis of 14 studies is the same thing as a group of studies.

Lakkireddy says he can not explain how people praying remotely for someone they don’t know (or a group of people,) could actually make a difference in their health outcomes, and he acknowledges that some of his medical colleagues have had “a mixed reaction” to his study proposal.

“Even from my wife, who’s a physician herself,” he says. “She was skeptical. She was, like, ‘OK, what is it that you’re looking at?”

Lakkireddy says he has no idea what he will find. “But it’s not like we’re putting anyone at risk,” he says. “A miracle could happen. There’s always hope, right?”

Yes, there’s always hope of a miracle. But given the meta-analysis above, which recommends that “we should stop this nonsense”, there are no data to give us hope. There are data to give us no hope. And hope is really something that should not be entertained by a principal investigator, for that gives rise to confirmation bias. You could, for example, do p-hacking, hoping that at least one outcome will be in your favor, reaching statistical significance.

You can learn more about Lakkireddy’s study at the “clinical trials” section of the National Institutes of Medicine, which registers all proposed and ongoing trials. It also adds the interesting tidbit that Lakkireddy’s prayers will involve those of five different denominations. Is Lakireddy testing which religion is “right”, i.e., prayers to its god are the only ones that work?

I can find no information about funding on the site.

Brief Summary:

This is a multicenter; double blind randomized controlled study investigating the role of remote intercessory multi-denominational prayer on clinical outcomes in COVID-19 + patients in the intensive care unit. All patients enrolled will be randomized to use of prayer vs. no prayer in a 1:1 ratio. Each patient randomized to the prayer arm will receive a “universal” prayer offered by 5 religious denominations (Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism) in addition to standard of care. Whereas the patients randomized to the control arm will receive standard of care outlined by their medical teams. During ICU stay, patients will have serial assessment of multi-organ function and APACHE-II/SOFA scores serial evaluation performed on a daily basis until discharge. Data assessed include those listed below.

I’m torn between thinking this is a waste of time, as an overview of previous studies shows no effect of prayer—not surprising in view of the inefficacy of God in “faith based healing” as practiced by various Christian sects, of the failure of prayer to restore missing limbs and eyes, and of no evidence for the presence of any God)—and, on the other hand, wanting it to proceed because, if the study is done properly and with sufficient rigor, it’s not going to support evidence for a prayer-answering God. (I do think that, as a true believer, Lakkireddy should let others run the study and analyze its results).

Now it is possible that the study will “work”: either prayer will have a significant effect, or prayers for one religion will have a significant effect. (If only Jewish prayers work, for example, will Christians, Hindus, and Muslims immediately abandon their faith? I wouldn’t bank on it!).

In Faith Versus Fact I detail what kind of results would make me (tentatively) accept a deity. Consistent effects of one kind of prayer (or all kinds of prayers) on healing would make me sit up and take notice, that’s for sure. But we haven’t had that.

Two more points. First, if the study shows no effect of prayer, I expect NPR to do a followup reporting that result. (They surely would if they find a positive effect!). And I will badger them about this after the study ends in August.

Finally, the mere existence of this study gives the lie to religionists’ claim that “Science cannot study the supernatural, for that realm is off limits to naturalistic analysis.” But, as even Lakkireddy admits, this is a case in which science can indeed study supernatural claims! But we shall see if they’re supported. These studies usually have a one-way effect: if they show an effect, the faithful trumpet it to the skies. But if they show no effect, the faithful quietly shelve the results and speak no more of them.

h/t: Bob

Pentagon releases videos of UFOs, but remember what those initials mean. And now we have non-alien explanations.

April 28, 2020 • 12:45 pm

Three videos have just been officially released by the Pentagon, and yes, they do show true “unidentified flying objects”—in the sense that they weren’t identified and they were flying.  CNN describes the release. I believe these have been kicking around the internet for a few years, but now the release is official. 


The Pentagon has officially released three short videos showing “unidentified aerial phenomena” that had previously been released by a private company.

The videos show what appear to be unidentified flying objects rapidly moving while recorded by infrared cameras. Two of the videos contain service members reacting in awe at how quickly the objects are moving. One voice speculates that it could be a drone.

The Navy previously acknowledged the veracity of the videos in September of last year. They are officially releasing them now, “in order to clear up any misconceptions by the public on whether or not the footage that has been circulating was real, or whether or not there is more to the videos,” according to Pentagon spokesperson Sue Gough.

“After a thorough review, the department has determined that the authorized release of these unclassified videos does not reveal any sensitive capabilities or systems,” said Gough in a statement, “and does not impinge on any subsequent investigations of military air space incursions by unidentified aerial phenomena.”

Have a gander:

Well, the pilots don’t know what they were, either, and of course rumors are circulating on the internet that we have ALIENS AT LAST.  Those rumors are inspired by statements like these in the CNN piece:

In 2017, one of the pilots who saw one of the unidentified objects in 2004 told CNN that it moved in ways he couldn’t explain.

“As I got close to it … it rapidly accelerated to the south, and disappeared in less than two seconds,” said retired US Navy pilot David Fravor. “This was extremely abrupt, like a ping pong ball, bouncing off a wall. It would hit and go the other way.”

The Pentagon has previously studied recordings of aerial encounters with unknown objects as part of a since-shuttered classified program that was launched at the behest of former Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. The program was launched in 2007 and ended in 2012, according to the Pentagon, because they assessed that there were higher priorities that needed funding.

Nevertheless, Luis Elizondo, the former head of the classified program, told CNN in 2017 that he personally believes “there is very compelling evidence that we may not be alone.”

“These aircraft — we’ll call them aircraft — are displaying characteristics that are not currently within the US inventory nor in any foreign inventory that we are aware of,” Elizondo said of objects they researched. He says he resigned from the Defense Department in 2017 in protest over the secrecy surrounding the program and the internal opposition to funding it.

Yes, of course we can’t dismiss these out of hand. What are they? Are they piloted by little green men with a long finger, like an aye-aye? Or are they things we already know about?

Before you drink the numinous Kool-Aid, have a look at one possible explanation (both videos, by the way, were sent to me by reader Don). According to the person who made the video, Mick West, the UFOs are images of jet engines mile away that produces glare in the camera lens—glare that rotates with the camera itself. Evidence in favor of a naturalistic explanation is the ability to reproduce these videos using images of jet engines, as well as seeing, at high resolution, the background rotate along with the “UFO”.

Well, watch the video and judge for yourself.

Egnor: We need to pray during this pandemic

March 9, 2020 • 11:30 am

Once again the creationist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor can’t resist scrutinizing my website and trying to find flaws in what I say. I suppose this is because he and his Discovery Institute colleagues, despite their confident assurances of two decades ago, have failed to make progress in getting the scientific community to accept Intelligent Design. So, like a frustrated pigeon pecking at a leaf, he pecks at me.

He’s really surpassed himself this time, though, for in his latest diatribe he claims to show that a.) prayer works during a pandemic, despite my mocking Mike Pence’s coronavirus response team praying together; b). Science’s rejection of gods, or at least its failure to seriously entertain divine actions in science—is circular and wrong; and c.) There’s strong proof that there’s a God.

This article appears in the site Mind Matters, which is run by the creationist Discovery Institute. Its theme appears to be that materialism (what I call “naturalism”) is false and that science can’t explain the material phenomena of the world. The usual guff! Click on the screenshot for a good laugh:

Let’s take Egnor’s three claims in order. Since he’s drunk the Kool-Aid, it’s easy to respond.

1.)  Prayer works in a pandemic. Egnor’s claims are indented.

The wisdom and efficacy of prayer in a crisis depends wholly on one question: is the prayer directed to Someone who is real, or is prayer based on a delusion?

If the Object of supplication is real, then prayer is probably the first thing you want to do in a crisis. A plea to the Boss is a fine preamble to the grunt work of managing a crisis. I’m a neurosurgeon, and I pray before each operation. It really helps.

If there is no real Object of supplication, then prayer is based on a delusion. But it’s interesting to note that, as historian Rodney Stark has pointed out, prayer and Christian faith during ancient epidemics saved lives because faithful Christians stuck around during epidemics. They provided care to afflicted neighbors who would not have survived except that they had kindly courageous friends to nurse them. St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital—the world’s leading cancer center for children, was founded because of a prayer. So the focus and compassion evoked by prayer saves lives, whether or not God is there to hear the prayer.

This is Pascal’s Wager applied to prayer.  First of all, what evidence does Egnor have that prayer “really helps” when he operates? And whom does it help? If it helps Egnor operate, fine; a New Ager could also be calmed by rubbing crystals before an operation.

But the true test is whether it helps the patient. I doubt Egnor has any evidence for that, as it would require controlled tests. Do religious neurosurgeons who pray before an operation have better outcomes than nonbelieving surgeons? I doubt it, but the onus is on Egnor to show it. The only really good test of the efficacy of intercessory prayer in healing—the Templeton-funded study of healing in cardiac patients—showed no effect at all of prayer in healing, not even an effect in the right direction. The only significant effect was in the direction opposite to that prediction—intercessory prayer hurt the patients in one measure of healing!

And we don’t need a Christian community now during a pandemic: that’s been replaced by epidemiologists and, most of all, medicine and medical care, all based on materialistic science. 

Finally, has Dr. Egnor asked himself this: if praying to God stops people from dying, so God has the power to cure, why did God allow coronavirus to spread in the first place? It’s not just killing off evil people, you know: it’s taking babies who haven’t even had the chance to do evil, or learn about the salvific effects of accepting Jesus.  In fact, pandemics are one bit of evidence against the existence of any god who is powerful and empathic.

2.) Science’s rejection of God and divine intervention in nature is wrong because it’s circular. This is Egnor’s dumbest argument:

Of course, if God does not exist, Coyne is right to imply that prayer is based on a delusion. But here’s the point: if God does exist, prayer is essential.

So, I ask Coyne, does God exist? Coyne’s answers to the pivotal question have been puerile. His arguments center on an astonishing line of reasoning:

1) [S]cience is about finding material explanations of the world
2) Only materialistic explanations have been found by science
3) Therefore, no non-material explanations for nature are needed.

So Coyne uses science that expunges theism to refute theism. In short, he concludes that atheism is true by using a scientific method that presupposes atheism. Oddly, Coyne finds this logic compelling.

There’s no circularity here. Science is perfectly capable of sussing out supernatural explanations for things, as I discuss in Faith Versus Fact. If prayer worked, that would be one hint of a god or gods, and you can test that (n.b., it doesn’t work). If only CHRISTIAN prayers worked and not those of Jews or Muslims, that would be even more evidence for a god. And I discuss scenarios in my book which would convince many, including me, that there was a god. It’s just too bad for Egnor that none of this evidence has ever come to light.

In fact, there was a time when the supernatural and religion were part of science: when Newton thought God’s twiddling was necessary to keep the planets in their orbits, because Newton thought their orbits were otherwise unstable. Then Laplace showed that a naturalistic explanation explained the stability. There was a time when everyone thought the remarkable adaptations of plants and animals, as well as their origins, required a divine creator. Then Darwin came along and gave the correct naturalistic explanation. Over the history of humanity, one divine explanation after another for things like lightning, diseases, and plagues have been replaced by naturalistic explanation.

So here’s the lesson, which I’ll put in bold.  Science doesn’t reject divine or supernatural explanations because we rule them out in advance. We reject them because they haven’t been shown to work. (Sadly, my Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin once gave an unwise quote that has served repeatedly as ammunition for creationists who claim that scientists are sworn not to accept any evidence for gods, divinity or the supernatural. We’re not! Science investigates supernatural claims all the time.)

3.) Finally, Egnor says that the arguments for God’s existence are convincing. Here’s how he proves God:

It is noteworthy that Coyne’s efforts to refute the actual arguments for God’s existence consist of his insistence that he really isn’t so stupid and he provides a few links. He obviously doesn’t understand the arguments, nor does he wish to learn them.

If God exists, prayer in crisis is warranted and even essential. The arguments for God’s existence are irrefutable. Aquina’s Five Ways are a handy summary:

Aquinas’ First Way and a Stack of Books

Irrefutable, Impeccable, Inescapable: Aquinas’ Second Way

Aquinas’ Third Way: An Analogy to Moonlight

Evidence for the existence of God, as provided by Aquinas, actually consists of the same logical and evidentiary process as science itself, only with much stronger logic and more abundant evidence than any other scientific theory.

And, as Porky said,

And it is all. If there are going to be arguments for god that are convincing, they will have to be empirical ones, not theoretical lucubrations of ancient theologians.

More woo from the NYT? A $285 “non-invasive facelift” (i.e., a massage)

February 27, 2020 • 8:30 am

The New York Times continues to tout various species of woo (remember their astrology penchant we discussed here and here?) Now they’re (implicitly) promoting a form of facial massage which is supposed to be a non-invasive “face lift”. While there’s one reservation buried at the end of the article, in general the tenor of the piece is pro-woo-face-lift (they used the same buried caveats with astrology). The thing is, based on how the massage is done, I do not believe its effects can be anything more than temporary. And indeed, that’s what you see at the end.

As you see, it costs $285 for a bit more than an hour, and that’s exclusive of tip, which would be about another $50.

Here’s how they describe the “instant face lift” (author Caity Weaver had one):

It is alarming to understand oneself as a heavy, precarious pile of discrete muscles adhering to bones and skin, performing rote motions with little to no supervision — rather than as a person with ideas.

But what if, in exchange for subjecting yourself to that existential reckoning, for 285 American dollars plus tip, you could have zhuzhed cheeks and a temporary glow? Would you dare?

For an increasing number of Brooklyn residents for whom any price is a small price to pay for any good or service, the answer is a radiant yes.

Damn capitalists! It goes on:

. . .The result is what the aesthetician Carrie Lindsey describes as a “nonsurgical face-lift.” In her small, bright Fort Greene salon, Ms. Lindsey methodically rearranges the clay of her clients’ features until they resemble their own almost imperceptibly more attractive evil twins. She achieves this effect by smushing and smooshing and spreading and stretching their faces, for upward of an hour, and then (having donned gloves) rooting around inside their mouths for several minutes.

If you go to the site linked in the article, Sculptural Face Lifting, there’s not the slightest indication that this procedure might, at best, make you look good for about an hour or so. Indeed, it implies that there are permanent or semi-permanent effects on various aspects of your physiology:

Sculptural Face Lifting propels the internal resources of the body for the natural rejuvenation and recovery. It improves blood circulation and lymphatic drainage, increases the microcirculation in the subcutaneous adipose tissue,  normalizes cellular respiration, activates metabolism and tissue nourishment. The secret of the success of the technique lies in the deep study of the basic facial and masticatory muscles of the face simultaneously – from the outside through the skin and through the oral cavity from the inside.

And that SFL site implicitly promises more than a day’s improvement:

Sculptural Face Lifting triggers metabolic processes not only in the skin and tissues of the face, but in the whole body. Excessive fluids are drained. Harmful foreign substances and toxins begin to be excreted more quickly and efficiently from the body – that’s why it’s very important that you drink plenty of fresh clean water to help your body clean itself. As a result, new tissues regenerate, and the appearance and elasticity of the skin improves. Your immune system becomes stronger, too! Your beauty is inseparable from your health – we want you to have both!

New tissues regenerate, and your circulatory and lymphatic systems change. Toxins are excreted! (That’s a sure sign that you’re dealing with woo.)

Author Weaver recounts her experience:

. . . Before and after photos revealed that my skin no longer sagged in places I hadn’t known it sagged, until I saw photos in which it no longer did. It was as if my regular skin had received the unhelpful note “do better” and acted on it, but not in any specific way I could identify. I was my own mirage.

. . . After an initial assessment, during which Ms. Lindsey scrutinizes what she calls “the knit” of her supine client’s skin, she begins the treatment by pressing gently around the clavicle, underarms and jawline — locations of lymph nodes. She works her way more forcefully up the neck to the face, where the pressure becomes muscle deep. The movements, she said, are intended to encourage activity in the lymphatic and circulatory systems, to “feed” the skin.

“I’m not feeding it just topically with, like, a mask or a serum,” she said. “Your body’s feeding your new skin cells. And I think that that’s great.”

If you get new skin cells, wouldn’t that suggest a more-than-temporary improvement? But of course if that was the case, people would be doing this instead of having more conventional face lifts.  The article continues:

. . .at $285 for a 75-minute session, the sculpting massage service is, per minute, the salon’s most expensive treatment.

“I struggle with this,” said Ms. Lindsey. The price, she said, is intended to reflect “the energy of the massage and the time and the results.” Initially, it was $305.

This part is hilarious (my emphasis):

Ms. Lindsey said she lowered it to make the service “accessible” to more people, then added, “I’m trying to stay competitive but, also, I don’t want to price gouge. I’m not using a ton of products and I want it to be fair.” She said: “It’s a lot of money still.”

. . . Ms. Lindsey said that the biggest “drawback” to the treatment is that “it is done best in a series.” She estimated that clients augmenting their sessions with “at home care,” may be able to maintain their results for “a good week or two.” My results, without home care, seemed to fade after a day or so.

They lowered the price by $20 to $285 to make it “more accessible”! Only in New York City! But don’t forget that $50 tip, which raises the price to $335 all told (and that’s less than a 20% tip).

There you have it ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters (and those with other pronouns): it lasted the author exactly one day, which only makes sense given what they do to you. The temporary effects of this “non-invasive face lift”, which are not mentioned on the procedure’s website, are said by the massager to last “a good week or two”, but even that’s not credible; and the author’s own results lasted at most one full day. That’s not what should happen if your lymphatic and circulatory systems get re-jiggered and new skin cells grow.

I suppose the way to look at this, if you’re a woman, is like paying a lot of money to get a fancy haircut and hairdo before a big event, or if you’re a man, just to get a one-off face “improvement” before such an event. (I can’t imagine doing this in any other circumstances).

What irks me is that the paper didn’t consult any experts in massage or facelifts or any other medical experts before writing a long article on this woo! They would have instantly sussed out that this is a pretty much a sham procedure whose promises exceed its results

Physicist takes apart a goop lab episode

February 21, 2020 • 2:45 pm

Here we have Professor Philip Moriarty, a physicist at the University of Nottingham, taking apart one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s goop lab segments that appears to be about reiki “healing”. Dr. Phil simply vets the statements in the goop Netflix episode and, as the segment proceeds, gets angrier and angrier as he watches the statements on goop get dumber and dumber.  Moriarty is egged on by the guy behind the camera, apparently named Brady, who tries to play the devil’s advocate. Phil reminds me a lot of Sean Connery as James Bond, complete with Scottish accent.

This is part of the University of Nottingham’s Sixty Symbols Project, which makes videos about science (YouTube site is here). Here are some YouTube notes:

Moriarty watched episode 5 of the goop lab, which focuses on energy.  The goop lab on Netflix:

More videos with Phil: He wrote a blog about the goop lab —…

It’s great to see a physicist taking Gwynnie and her nonsense to pieces. Reiki, which purports to heal you by manipulating your body’s energy, even by waving hands over your body and not touching it, is a pile of horse manure.

Panpsychism: a big bag of nothing

February 21, 2020 • 9:00 am

I was suckered by the Courtier’s Reply of panpsychists like Philip Goff, and so have finished his popular (i.e., trade) book, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. I am not going to summarize it or review it at length, as it says little beyond what I’ve summarized previously. It has not convinced me that there’s anything to panpsychism: in fact, it’s turned me away from it, since it seems bundled up with all kinds of mysticism as well as additional bizarre and untestable views.

What is new in the book is Goff’s proposed “solutions” to the “combination problem”: How do atoms and particles with rudimentary consciousness, when they get together in a human brain, suddenly produce “higher”, self-reflective consciousness able to have subjective experience (“qualia”)? This is the “hard problem” of panpsychism, but there is no good solution. (Of course, it’s insane to accept at the outset that atoms and electrons are conscious, anyway.)

Goff offers two solutions, but neither makes sense. The first invokes experiments with “split brain” patients, which, he says, have “two consciousnesses” when you divide the corpus callosum. (I think neuroscientists would take issue with the “two separate consciousness” bits, for the patients, while having some aspects of their consciousness divided, don’t perceive of themselves as two distinct people.)  But Goff goes on to extrapolate downwards: if you divide the brain in two and get two consciousnesses, then eventually, if you keep dividing, you will get down to atoms or molecules that are also conscious. I kid you not. I repeat: the logic is that if you get two consciousnesses by dividing a brain in two, you’ll get trillions of consciousnesses if you keep on dividing. A quote (it’s a screenshot from Google books and there was yellow in my capture because I searched for a phrase:

Yeah, there are all those pesky dead people that have conscious atoms in their brains but inconveniently lack consciousness themselves! So there’s yet another problem to be solved.

And, of course, this doesn’t solve the problem at all, it’s just a “top down” way of saying that the consciousness of the brain’s material constituents manifests itself in a “higher” consciousness of the brain. “Reverse this process, and you’ve got mental combination” is simply a misleading way of restating the combination problem, not solving it.

Goff’s second solution involves something called the “Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness (IIT), proposed by his colleague Hedda Mørch at the University of Oslo. But that boils down to saying that when a system of atoms and molecules is sufficiently integrated (as in our brain), you get “higher” consciousness as an emergent property. I won’t go into the details of IIT, but there is no “there” there: what we have is just an assertion that at a certain level of “maximum integration”, consciousness appears. This is not a theory but merely a claim based on armchair speculation of the empirically uninformed sort. Here’s a bit of Goff’s discussion:

This isn’t a solution to the combination problem, but a form of magic that simply puts the problem into fancy words, invoking “basic principles of nature” (i.e., magic).

There’s a lot more I could say and criticize, but I have neither the time nor the will. Just let me mention one more issue: free will. Despite the assertion of some readers here that nobody really believes in “you can do otherwise” libertarian free will, Goff in fact does. He thinks that not only humans can decide at any given moment to behave in several different ways, so can particles! He posits a brain having particles that are not only conscious, but have free will of a sort, so they can “decide” what to do based on their “inclinations.” These inclinations appear free from the laws of physics:

This then is a form of pan-free-willism.  Particles aren’t compelled to act by the laws of physics, but via their own rudimentary consciousness.

But is there anything in the laws of physics that claims particles act on their own volition? Could you argue that when a radioactive atom decays—and that is unpredictable in principle—that the particle is decaying under its own volition? But of course it’s unwise to rest libertarian free will at a higher level on quantum mechanics, because we have no evidence that our decisions rest on indeterminate quantum events, and no libertarian wants to argue that their choosing fish rather than steak was based on a quantum event at the molecular level.

Goff’s explanation of libertarian free will makes no sense to me, unless he’s simply renaming “quantum unpredictability” as “the inclinations of particles.” And even so, the combination problem still obtains on the macro level: how is the so-called libertarian free will of particles translated into the libertarian free will of our brain? Remember, Goff is not a compatibilist like Dennett; he is a libertarian when it comes to free will. He’s also not a dualist, and so has to explain libertarian free will in purely physical terms. He does this by claiming that we’re made up of particles that have free will.  I needn’t dwell on the intellectual vacuity of that solution, nor on Goff’s annoying penchant of anthropomorphizing particles by saying that they have inclinations and pressures to behave in certain ways. 

At the end, the book degenerates into mysticism and the idea that the world may not be real but all a figment of our occupying a Matrix, but I’ll leave you to fry your brains on that bit.

To me, panpsychism remains a religion, which, though not accepting a deity, accepts a number of fiats for which there is no evidence, and yet is promulgated by fervent believers like Goff. (“Good afternoon. Do you have some time to talk about the consciousness of electrons?”)

Shall we call it a pseudophilosophy?