Unreal Nature

April 13, 2009

New Species of Paradox

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:00 am

Recalling how it all started, Channa who is a Junior Executive Assistant at the e-banking section of the Commercial Bank, acknowledges with humility that he has no scientific background. He did maths. But after schooling at St. Sebastian’s College, Moratuwa, he developed an interest in elephants.

Well, of course. Don’t we all develop an interest in elephants, sooner or later? But, after a while, the course of Channa’s curiousity led him down a different path:

Channa was not on the trail of a huge majestic beast like the elephant or the beautiful and sleek leopard. His mission was different; to track the humble but endangered kalawedda (maram nai) or palm civet. The civet, a nocturnal creature, described in encyclopaedias as being “related to cats and hyenas but are more primitive”, is facing extinction in Sri Lanka as it is losing its habitat, being hunted for its meat and may also be falling victim to parasitic diseases.

paradoxurus-aureus

And Channa has stumbled on a new species (Paradoxurus stenocephalus) and resurrected another hardly-mentioned one (Paradoxurus montanus), while also giving satisfaction to hundreds of people of seeing civets in the Dehiwela Zoo once again.

Read more about Channa in Chasing Civits, from The Sunday Times (Jan 18, 2009).

Curiosity. Uncertainty. The urge to explore, to find out, to go toward the unknown rather than stop inside the known. These are recurring themes in my blog because I value both greatly. So by definition, I find certainty to be problematic. Necessary, but sometimes misleading or even stifling.

In On Being Certain, neuroscientist and novelist Robert A. Burton tries to get to the bottom of the curious sensation he calls the “feeling of knowing” — being certain of a fact despite having no (or even contrary) evidence. Throughout his book, Burton makes the compelling argument that certainty “is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process.” Instead, he says, that unmistakable sense of certainty “arises out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.”

… Because alternative choices are present in any situation, logical thought alone would be doomed to a perpetual “yes, but” questioning routine. Burton reasons that it is the feeling of knowing that solves this dilemma of how to reach a conclusion. Without this “circuit breaker,” indecision and inaction would rule the day.

Hmmm… what does that mean for questions about free will?

That (above) is from a review of the book, On Being Certain: Believing You are Right Even When You’re Not by Robert A. Burton. Here (below) is a bit from an interview between that book’s author, neurologist Robert Burton, and Jonah Lehrer:

LEHRER: What first got you interested in studying the mental state of certainty?

BURTON: A personal confession: I have always been puzzled by those who seem utterly confident in their knowledge. Perhaps this is a constitutional defect on my part, but I seldom have the sense of knowing unequivocally that I am right. Consequently I have looked upon those who ooze self-confidence and certainty with a combination of envy and suspicion. At a professional level, I have long wondered why so many physicians will recommend unproven, even risky therapies simply because they “know” that these treatments work.

The next two are partial quotes from Burton’s answers to Lehrer’s questions:

… The pleasure of a thought is what propels us forward; imagine trying to write a novel or engage in a long-term scientific experiment without getting such rewards. Fortunately, the brain has provided us with a wide variety of subjective feelings of reward ranging from hunches, gut feelings, intuitions, suspicions that we are on the right track to a profound sense of certainty and utter conviction. And yes, these feelings are qualitatively as powerful as those involved in sex and gambling. One need only look at the self-satisfied smugness of a “know it all” to suspect that the feeling of certainty can approach the power of addiction.

… Only in the absence of certainty can we have open-mindedness, mental flexibility and willingness to contemplate alternative ideas.

This strange conjunction of quotes — about civits and a neurologist — was prompted by a thoughtful and interesting post by Dr. C on the workings of the brain, in which he outlines his ideas of about the mechanics of perception, thought and memory. As you surely know, that’s an enormous amount of subject matter to try to cover in a blog post — therefore not to be dissected as if it were in any way conclusive. For that reason, my responses, which is in particular to the Model part of his post, will, I hope be taken merely as stream-of-thought reactions in the interest of the ongoing dialogue that I have enjoyed with Dr. C on the various topics touched on. The italicized quotes are Dr. C’s words, taken from the Model section of his post:

“Memory is a collection of neural structures.” No, it’s not. Dead people have collections of neural structures. Amnesiacs have collections of neural structures.

“There is a one to one correspondence between objects in the “real” world and a neural structure (or collection of structures).” Oh dear (peering down into the philosophical abyss of “one to one”).

“pathways” ? Please delineate the extent (start, end) of such. Endocrine and nervous system rolled into one?

“Sensory perception always invokes memory.” No, it doesn’t. Most of the time it doesn’t invoke anything at all.

“Interaction of perceptions with neural structures generate secondary perceptons. They may be a modified version of the original or an entirely novel collection of action potentials.” Exactly. Something we agree on! This is the “butterfly effect” where the tiniest variation in initial input causes exponential, whopping big changes in output — in ways that, by definition, cannot be mapped.

“These potentials are not, for instance, dependent on unknowable spin states and are therefore entirely predictable in theory.” It is my understanding the identical amounts of neurotransmitter sent into the synapse may or may not trigger the action potential. There is not a one-to-one correlation between what is sent from one side of the synapse and the response that it triggers on the other side.

Reading my responses, above, I fear that they are too grumpy. I hereby assure you (*hand over heart*) that I am not grumpy. I love the provocation and the stimulation of this back-and-forth — and I appreciate Dr. C’s tolerance of my flyaway mind. [ —> paradox]

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

18 Comments

  1. >> …alternative choices are present
    >> in any situation…

    > Hmmm… what does that mean for
    > questions about free will?

    For myself … it means that we must assume free will in order to live, whether it really exists or not. Of course, that assumes (as I must) that we have the free will to assume…

    Comment by Felix Grant — April 13, 2009 @ 8:11 am

  2. But he seems to be saying that, when we are genuinely undecided after rationally evaluating the evidence, that we resort to an arbitrary “feeling of knowing” to cast our lot — that is purely random or somehow unrelated to our rational/reasonable effort.

    Comment by unrealnature — April 13, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

  3. The mathematician in me would have to disagree with the “purely random” part of that. Dr C would presumably agree with you, though: he would trace the decision back to a single neuron firing or not firing on random a random basis. I, on the other hand, would point out that human beings (like all creatures with a CNS, at least) are demonstably incapable of behaving randomly and can only produced patterned responses from subconscious learning stores.

    “…or somehow unrelated to our rational/reasonable effort”, however, I can buy. Instinctual response (but Dr C would say that ALL response is instinctive … let’s ignore him…) bypasses conscious mentation.

    Comment by Felix Grant — April 13, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

  4. > “Memory is a collection of neural
    > structures.” No, it’s not. Dead
    > people have collections of neural
    > structures. Amnesiacs have
    > collections of neural structures.

    I don’t see the argument, there. A dead person may have a memory but can’t access it. Ditto an amnesiac. A dead person may have a collection of neural structures which used to be a memory bust has, in death, scrambled or decayed or otherwise ceased to be a memory. The statement “Memory is a collection of neural structures” in no way implies (as your statement implies) the reverse “a collection of neural structures is a memory”.

    > “Sensory perception always invokes
    > memory.” No, it doesn’t. Most of the
    > time it doesn’t invoke anything at all.

    I don’t have an objective knowledge based position on this, but my subjective gut response is that I feel Dr C’s assertion to be reasonable and yours unlikely. This is unusual … it’s usually t’other way round :-)

    Comment by Felix Grant — April 13, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

  5. Good gracious! We don’t ignore Dr. C; rather we pound him mercilessly (think WWW wrestling where I, in a star-spangled leotard, am leaping off of the rubbery ring ropes onto Dr. C’s nearly unconscious form lying on the canvas as Felix, dressed in a chicken costume, also does something dastardly to him [but somehow acceptably nonviolent; vegan Kung Fu]).

    What’s pickling my understanding is that Burton seems to be saying that it is one’s instincts that have reached an impasse. In other words, the causally predictable kind of thought that Dr. C espouses has been unable to resolve itself between vaious choices. So whatever this “feeling” is that Burton claims will step in as tie-breaker must be … what? I can’t figure it out. It sounds like random to me, but that would mean we have neither determinism, nor free will — and on top of that some bizarre mechanism that, after we’ve been randomly pushed (just a wee bit to get us unstuck) we really like that little push.

    Comment by unrealnature — April 13, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

  6. A memory that can’t be accessed is not a memory. That’s my point. Structure is not memory. Where a memory is is not memory.

    On “invokes memory,” I don’t believe it does. I don’t believe it is possible; that’s why we miss so much. We focus. I guess you could make it circular and say that if we didn’t notice it, we didn’t see it, but I expect there are tests to show that skin/eyes/ears were getting signals even when we didn’t notice them.

    Comment by unrealnature — April 13, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

  7. Trying to post a comment but they keep falling into a black hole somewhere near Charlottesville. ???

    Comment by Dr. C. — April 13, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

  8. > …I, in a star-spangled leotard,
    > am leaping … onto Dr. C’s nearly
    > unconscious form…

    Ummm … don’t get him overexcited …

    Comment by Felix Grant — April 13, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

  9. DrC> …a black hole somewhere near
    DrC> Charlottesville. ???

    That’ll be the old well in the Mill Creek industrial Park on I64.

    It lies between ganglia.

    Comment by Felix Grant — April 13, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

  10. Ummm … don’t get him overexcited …

    Don’t be ridiculous. He’s a doctor. They have classes in medical school called “How to Retain Your Professional Starchy White Demeanor No Matter What” — and I feel that we are a “what.”

    Comment by unrealnature — April 13, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

  11. Dr. C,

    Your comments “fell”? That means yours are too heavy. Mine are light and fluffy. Try adding a little more yeast and a little less flour. Or, if that doesn’t work, some rocket fuel and a match should persuade the little buggers.

    Comment by unrealnature — April 13, 2009 @ 7:16 pm

  12. Didn’t work, I wonder if it because I had an imbedded URL:

    Once more:
    Thanks for the commentary on the modest proposal to which I’ll try to respond in another post.

    A few points:
    “….Burton makes the compelling argument that certainty “is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process.” Instead, he says, that unmistakable sense of certainty “arises out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of reason.””
    Comment: I assume he is referring to limbic system function. I find it hard to separate out brain processes like this. Yes, “lower” animals seem to always move with certainty. The cobra’s seeming hesitation is just looking for the best movement to strike. To bad if it is a particularly fast mongoose.

    Comment by Dr. C. — April 14, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

  13. Ah, success: Second point (without URL)

    “At a professional level, I have long wondered why so many physicians will recommend unproven, even risky therapies simply because they “know” that these treatments work.”
    Comment: Here he touches on a sore point with many other physicians. In my humble opinion, teh role of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) in allopathic medicine is extremely limited. In fact, it is non existent. There is no evidence that homeopathic, naturopathic, and a number of other “woo” therapies are beneficial.
    This is all reviewed extensively at: Science-Based Medicine and related blogs. From a personal standpoint, it is hard to deal with people who believe chelation therapy will cure their autistic child or who refuse vaccines because Jenny McCarthy says they are bad.

    Comment by Dr. C. — April 14, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

  14. “The mathematician in me would have to disagree with the “purely random” part of that. Dr C would presumably agree with you, though: he would trace the decision back to a single neuron firing or not firing on random a random basis. I, on the other hand, would point out that human beings (like all creatures with a CNS, at least) are demonstably incapable of behaving randomly and can only produced patterned responses from subconscious learning stores.”
    No, I don’t think that it is random at all. In fact, I agree whole heartedly that we can’t behave randomly. Those who do don’t make the first evolutionary cut.

    Comment by Dr. C. — April 14, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

  15. “Those who do don’t make the first evolutionary cut.” — Dr. C

    I don’t believe that’s true. In game theory, random can be advantageous. For example, the direction that a prey animal, for example, a gazelle (but anything about to be leaped upon by a predator) will jump when attacked — left, right or backwards — is random. If it were predictable, then predators would adapt to the more probable direction and — end of species. (If there is any predicablity at all, then the other party can/will capitalize on it.)

    Comment by unrealnature — April 14, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

  16. (think WWW wrestling where I, in a star-spangled leotard, am leaping off of the rubbery ring ropes onto Dr. C’s nearly unconscious form lying on the canvas as Felix, dressed in a chicken costume, also does something dastardly to him [but somehow acceptably nonviolent; vegan Kung Fu]).
    Hey, I want a costume too, even if I am unconscious [<–normal state; quiescent neural structures]. However, I am undecided. I had thought something like Henry VIIIth at Richmond, but that was too austure. Ah, I know: Silver Surfer….

    Comment by Dr. C. — April 14, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

  17. the direction that a prey animal, for example, a gazelle (but anything about to be leaped upon by a predator) will jump when attacked — left, right or backwards — is random
    except directly at the attacker; otherwise predictably unpredictable [<–snark]

    Comment by Dr. C. — April 14, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

  18. I’m working on your costume. Just remember, you asked for it . . .

    Back to randomness, it’s not as if biology can’t do it. Alleles always sort randomly from parents to offspring.

    If you’re interested in research on randomness in decision-making, Google Paul Glimcher’s Uncertainty, and the Brain: The Science of Neuroeconomics. And/or Google the research he did with Platt on LIP neurons in monkeys during decisions (perceptual responses to moving dots). I have it nicely (briefly) paraphrased in normal English. All I find via Google is thoroughly infested with scientific lingo and a those annoying little footnote thingies, and it’s much too long for a recreational science spectator such as myself . . .

    Comment by unrealnature — April 14, 2009 @ 5:07 pm


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