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.
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]