Saturday, December 27, 2008

In praise of Jimmy Carter

In four years, Carter did more good than Reagan did in eight.

One of the more annoying aspects of the recently expired Republican hegemony in American politics was its odes to Ronald Reagan. Every candidate was a soldier of the Reagan revolution, every thing Reagan did was tinged with gold, and every opportunity was taken to add his name to airports, government buildings, etc.- we even came periously close to a Reagan dime!

But if one considers the actual issues and how they have turned out over time, this turns out to have been somewhat premature, to say the least. On such topics as winning the cold war, managing the economy, establishing energy independence, even advancing gay rights, Jimmy Carter was out ahead, and will come to be appreciated in the light of history as being not only on the right side of key issues, but also more effective.

First off, the Iran hostage crisis. Ultimately, it was not Carter's fault that the hostages were taken, or how they were treated. The time-honored protection of diplomats should have had special resonance in a traditional culture like that of Iran. The Iranians only besmirched their own position for decades to come by violating norms that they rely on, as do all other countries. On the other hand, it was the US which played the key role in installing and propping up the Shah (thanks to the Republican Eisenhower administration, after Truman refused British overtures on the issue), with the chickens coming home to roost on Carter's watch. The US was/is also the implicit guarantor of the entire international system, so Iran's breach of diplomatic behavior was a way to topple an apple cart that was in large part owned by the US, and would be seen that way around the world, fairly or not. Carter was caught in the news glare of a transfixed nation, and was also unwilling to negotiate with Iran on the base terms that Reagan may have pursued. The Iran-Contra affair later made clear just how corrupt Reagan's dealings with Iran were- not exactly a high point for US international relations.

In energy issues, it goes without saying that Carter was more foresighted and disciplined than Reagan, cardigan or no cardigan. Reagan let energy independence projects slide, let conservation effors slide, let fuel efficiency standards slide, not because the US had become more self-sufficient in energy, but because OPEC had collapsed as more production arrived from other foreign sources. This was never going to be a long-term solution, even in the absence of consciousness about global warming. Peak oil, though still a far-off concept, was surely a proper concern for policy makers, domestic production having peaked some time previously. It was poor policy to increase reliance on foreign oil supplies, most of them in countries with strategic, human rights, and other entangling problems (Russia, Venezuela, Mexico, Nigeria, the entire Middle East).

With respect to Central and South America, the difference is again quite startling. Carter finished negotiations with Panama to sell the Panama canal, against heavy domestic opposition- a deal that has given us rich dividends in a stable canal and improved relations with the entire region. In contrast, Reagan pursued a proxy war with the Sandanistas and supported rightist thug-ocracies in Honduras, Guatamala and Panama (later to be cleaned up by George H. Bush). This amounted to reliving shades of Vietnam, and today, the Sandanistas are once again in power in Nicaragua through democratic means. On the other hand, Reagan's invasion of Grenada, gratuitous though it may have been, was warranted and provided that country a measure of stability after successive coups by Bishop and Coard.

In general economic policy, the overriding issue of the day was inflation. Inflation was finally slain by Paul Volcker, who was willing to turn the screws on interest rates until the money supply finally contracted. And who appointed Volcker? Jimmy Carter, mid-way through his presidential term. The price for this act of bravery and principle was the deep recession that brought Reagan into office. In contrast, Reagan took advantage of Carter's fiscal discipline by spending freely with deficits (called voodoo economics at the time)- giving unfunded tax cuts to the rich and building a cold-war military that we didn't need. This culture of profligate deficit spending for consumption rather than investment has continued to this day, exemplified by the current Bush administration. Indeed the whole tenor of Reaganism- hatred for effective government, business uber alles, deregulation, and supply-side trickle-down tax give-aways now is coming back to haunt us as the culture of borrowing and business "self-regulation" comes to a painful end.

Finally, the feather in the cap of the Reagan administration usually is given as winning the cold war. Who really won the cold war? Was it Kissinger/Nixon offering friendly detente with the one hand while playing the China card with the other? Was it Reagan with a bulked up military and dramatic talk about the evil empire? Was it Bush père, with his Aikido approach of letting the giant fall of its own weight? Or was it Carter, with his emphasis on human rights and principle in foreign policy? I think it goes without saying that Reagan's policies had very little to do with the collapse of the USSR. It collapsed from internal sclerosis and economic stasis, as well as the political/cultural vacuum of long-lapsed Marxism/Leninism. Indeed, Reagan's saber-rattling and proxy wars served here, as they generally do, to strengthen the targeted regime rather than weaken it. And as far as military strength is concerned, the USSR had, and Russia still has, more nuclear missiles than we do, however decrepit the rest of their military was at the time.

My bet for the most influential policy that brought down the Soviet Union was the focus on human rights and basic freedoms, first by the Helsinki accords, and then by the Carter administration. It was this policy that gave heart to Soviet dissidents like Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, and which struck directly at the core of USSR's self-justification. If the people were poor, they might still appreciate egalatarian principles. If the state was corrupt, it was still a great state- a pluralistic nexus of many nations in the USSR and an empire of many more on its borders. But if the basic human values that the ideology of the USSR supposedly most valued were hollow, as was reluctantly admitted by Kruschev in the post-Stalin era, and on which the Helsinki accords continued to shine a light, with, for instance, the highly publicized defection of Jews, then what was left? What was the point of continuing to be in opposition to the liberal European/American mode of state and government, which had shown itself to be both prosperous and decent?

Of course later times have abundantly highlighted the basic decency and perspicacity of Jimmy Carter, including the honor of a Nobel peace prize. His current observations on the Palestinian question are particularly acute, proclaiming that Israeli treatment of the Palestinians is shameful and akin to Apartheid. It is imperative that the Israelis be given some tough love. But I'd like to put my vote in to rehabilitate Carter's presidential legacy as well- to appreciate that his administration was one of our best, if not most popular at the time, with long-lasting benefits to the nation.

Incidental link to an obituary for Griffin Bell, another fine Carter appointment.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Son and Prophet

In praise of BlackSun and his blog

I've followed the blog of Sean Prophet for some time and recommend it as a fascinating view into the religious mind. Sean is the son of Mark and Elizabeth Prophet, founders of the Summit Lighthouse, also known as the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT). This small cult was founded in 1958 by Mark in the theosophist and "I AM" (not to mention John Bircher) traditions, believing in a sort of ancestor worship, by way of "ascended masters" and truly bizarre incantations called decrees. Sean and his sister Erin were groomed to inherit the leadership, and were well educated. This education had the unintended consequence of making Sean an atheist, and he spends most of his blog plumbing the depths of the cult experience and religion in general. Thus his adopted nom de net of BlackSun. Erin has also left the cult and written a book on her story.

High points include Sean's general comments on belief and philosophy, an extensive narration on his father's role in the church, and numerous posts on the cult's extraordinary apocalypse prophecy and bomb shelter project, traceable to that vintage cult classic of John the Revelator.

Best wishes for the solstice and the holidays!

Nuclear evolution

Proteins of the nuclear pore share evolutionary origins with vesicle coat proteins, providing a fascinating glimpse into the origin of eukaryotes.

One of the great innovations of life, after its origin and after the establishment of DNA as the hereditary material, was the advent of the eukaryotic cell about 2 billion years ago. Eukaryotic cells have numerous internal structures like golgi, vesicles, cytoskeleton, mitochondria, a nucleus and sometimes chloroplasts, and have many other innovations like meiosis and very complex gene regulation. Their origin is believed to be from the union of a phagocytic bacterium with a mitochondrial precursor bacterium, but that is only a very crude picture, with very much unknown. Perhaps the proto-eukaryote was a rather cosmopolitan eater, incorporating quite a few innovations from other bacteria on its way to global hyperpower status.

The nuclear membrane has always been a source of mystery. A huge cellular compartment, pocked with large pores that block only large macromolecules, it completely disassembles during mitosis so that the cell can divide, then spontaneously reforms and resumes its functions. It separates transcription from translation, keeping the DNA inside, and allowing new RNAs to go through complex splicing, capping, and other modifications before they are transported out through the nuclear pores to the cytoplasm where ribosomes stand ready to translate their messages into protein.

The mechanism whereby nuclear pores control the passage of large molecules has recently been solved, and it is a fascinating story in itself- a novel phase of matter composed of phenylalanine (F) and glycine (G) protein residues that lets through nuclear-signal tagged proteins (with their own F-G regions) like knives through butter, but not other proteins without the magic tag, whether they be hydrophobic or hydrophilic.

Anyhow, the present paper is about the proteins that make up the structure of the nuclear pore- a huge (125 megaDalton; most proteins are in the 200 kiloDalton range) complex of proteins that makes the nuclear membrane look like a dimpled sponge, and manages the transport mentioned above. To do this, it has to hang on to the nuclear membrane, which is a membrane like any other in the cell. This paper presents an atomic structure of two of these pore proteins, Nup85 and Seh1, which form a complex with each other and, well, not much else is known about what they do, other than that if their genes are deleted, the pores are severely defective. So they have an important role in pore structure, of the ~30 or so different proteins that make up the pore complex.

This combined protein structure is a beautiful extended glob of Nup85 helices (blue and gold) whose end forms one blade of the Seh1 beta-propeller (green). It was already known that these proteins loosely resemble others of the nuclear pore, by detectable sequence similarity, and the structure is very similar indeed to the combination of pore proteins Nup145C and Sec13. Two lessons here- first, this is yet another instance of duplication and diversification of genes/information in evolution, which I explore further below, and second, that three-dimensional structures can reveal similarities that are minimal or absent in the one-dimensional protein sequence- also a common occurrence now that more structures are being solved. Such similarities arise from common ancestry, which can be so distant that each of the amino acids in the protein sequence may have changed, but in such a way that the overall structure remains roughly the same. Beta propeller structures like that of Seh1 are common in other areas of the cell, expecially in signalling and transcriptional control, since they are great platforms for interacting with other proteins.

This structure showed similarity to other and more distant proteins as well- those involved in vesicle formation of a type termed "clathrin-coated vesicles" like Sec31 (the name "Nup" comes from NUclear Pore, and "Sec" comes from SECretion, which is defective in "Sec" mutants). Vesicles are the tiny transport vehicles that ferry materials (like neurotransmitters in neurons, or insulin in pancreatic beta cells) from the golgi to the outside of the cell, and likewise ingest material from outside the cell by budding in from the outer membrane, powered, in part, by their clathrin coats, which contain Sec13 and Sec31.

On closer inspection of the literature, this relationship is not exactly news, since Sec13 was already known to function both in the nuclear pore and in vesicle secretion (though it is not nearly as essential to nuclear pore structure as is Nup85), yet all the same, the close structural relationship of multiple components of the nuclear pores and secretory vesicles was news to me and the special focus in this article- the first one to tie this story together so broadly. [Ed note: no, see Devos et al, for prior work, per comment received below. This includes the proposal that generic vesicle trafficking preceded nucleus formation.] These proteins interact by binding to each other end-to-end on the Nup85 end, and binding to other proteins on the other end (Seh1, in this case). The whole thing is very stiff, thanks to all the helical cross-members. These proteins do not directly contact the membrane, but use adapter proteins to interface with it.

Thus there is a common, if distantly related, structural motif used in at least two places in the cell. A sort of stiff structural spanning member with tinker toy-like ends used as scaffolds for membranes. In one case (the secretion system) it helps form small vesicles that dynamically bud into and out of the outer membrane. In the other case, we can guess with some confidence (following the authors) that these proteins hold onto the membrane of the nuclear envelope, anchoring the rest of the nuclear pore. Indeed, the authors develop a quite detailed model of how 16 copies of Nup85+Seh1, combined with various numbers of the Nup85 homologs Nup84, Nup145C, Nic96, combined with a few other proteins, could account for the entire inner barrel scaffold of the nuclear pore.

It is apparent that useful innovations do not go unrewarded in evolution, and may generate a diversity of offspring in the form of related proteins that originate from accidental copies of the first version, diversifying and specializing over time. There are many other cases like this, such as the 851 copies of olfactory receptor genes in humans (many defunct), or the 800 plus genes encoding GPCR signalling proteins in humans, or the 700-odd zinc finger DNA-binding regulatory proteins, to name a few of the most prolific.

The set of innovations that led to eukaryotes involved a great deal of membrane management, with several eventual compartments involving assembly, growth, targetting and transit of materials, disassembly, signalling about status, etc. If one structural motif could be used for the basic task of holding on to membranes with a consistent yet reversable shape, it was likely to be used for many such tasks before gene duplication allowed specialization to occur. This also indicates that certain internal membrane systems like the nucleus, endoplasmic reticulum, and golgi/vesicle systems did not arise from separate symbiotic incorporations of other bacteria, unlike the mitochondrion, which does not use Sec31/Nup85-like proteins, as far as I can determine, while having a variety of its own membrane proteins, some traceable to its own bacterial ancestor.

PS- One may ask whether this work addresses the question of which came first- trafficking vesicles or nuclei. No, it doesn't, since it only ties these structures (or at least key parts of them) into a common genealogy. There are a couple of ways to look for answers, though. One is to compare more constituents of these structures, especially those that are specific to each. These may have histories that tie them to other cellular milestones that can give relative timings. For instance, nuclei have lamin proteins and outer pore proteins that may be derived from other cell constituents that are more recent, indicating that the fully elaborated nucleus came later than the simpler vesicles. Unfortunately, this approach is unlikely to give definitive answers, since so much uncertainty attaches to what parts of an organelle were developed when, and which were originally the most important ones.

Another way is to look for existing organisms that have one or the other organelle- either vesicles without nuclei, or the reverse. So little is known about microorganisms that this is not a vain quest. There have been eukaryotic protists found without mitochondria, for instance, which were thought to be primitive and argue for the late incorporation of the endosymbiont. Later, however, these parasites (like Giardia) were found to have numerous mitochondrial genes in their nuclear genomes and have other molecular abnormalities, indicating that they previously had mitochondria which they lost in the mean time, being able to survive without them in food-rich host tissues. Since the history of life is a wildly diversifying bush rather than a ladder, there are many organisms that retain primitive states and are doing quite well, thank you ... like the amazingly vast diversity of bacteria, the proto-chordate sea quirt, the proto-vertebrate hagfish, the platypus, etc.

My speculative bet is that, the proto-eukaryote being putatively a phagocytic amoeba-like organism, having an endocytic and exocytic vesicle system would have been a good bet to be an early feature, with elaboration of nuclei happening later as the rewards of doing extra regulatory steps of RNA maturation, or just protecting the DNA from the occasional loose food item, prompted the gradual segregation of DNA into a nucleus using pre-existing cell components.

Economics and biology

A Victoria's Secret catalog gets me thinking about economic stimulation, credit, and regulation.

At this time of hair-raising de-leveraging, the going joke is that "We found the WMD's!". This came up in an excellent piece by Henry Blodget in the Atlantic. But I'd like to suggest a different metaphor- that of cancer, another syndrome of defective regulation/intelligence. Blodget takes the position that the system (and human nature) is built to forget the past, so whatever we learn now will inevitably go up in smoke, in the excitement of the next bull/bubble market. Just as competition is the life blood of economic activity and its associated ills, so selection is the lifeblood of biology, and its associated ills such as cancer.

Over evolutionary time, our cells have acquired ornate mechanisms of growth regulation, so that they divide like hell's bells early on, producing a baby from one cell in nine months, but then slow to a crawl, or in the case of many cells like neurons, enter complete stasis, not dividing at all while doing the work of adulthood. There are many controls over cellular decisions like responding to local damage, living amicably with one's neighbors, and whether to divide, culminating in the most extreme solution to all three- cell suicide, called apoptosis.

The most well-known example of such a regulator is p53, a protein which is positioned at a central nexus, receiving signals about damage to DNA, chemical stresses, and other problems that might warrent holding up cell division or even committing hari kari. When signalled, it binds to various genes on the DNA and turns them on to execute the program of either shutting down cell division (p21/CDK complex), or shutting down the cell completely (Bax/caspases).

Through the inexorable process of natural selection, some cells will find a way around the commands to stop growing or to destroy themselves. They may have DNA damage to the very genes, like p53, that provide that regulation, or their defect may generate vast over-expression of pro-growth signals that become immune to countervailing influences. This is cancer, and it takes several defects in the regulatory system to allow such over-growth to develop.

Is that starting to sound familiar? The financial system is set up with its own selective imperatives, foremost of which is to make money. Once a bull market gets going, as Blodget relates, the naysayers tend to be wrong year after year after year, lose money, and get sidelined. Cheerleaders such as Blodget himself during the internet stock boom, and real estate agents parrotting the mantras of "real estate never goes down" hold the floor while the music is playing and the disease is getting worse. And worst of all, regulators like the Fed are also overtaken with deregulatory zeal, even in cases like Ben Bernanke, who despite being a student of the great depression promoted the idea that regulators had no role in preventing bubbles, but can only hope to clean up after them. The regulatory systems become compromised, and the disease spreads until the music finally stops, and everyone scurries for cover. Thankfully, this disease is not terminal, but it is still extremely painful, and worth trying to prevent.

I think that throwing up our hands in the face of this process (as Blodget fatalistically does) is not acceptable. Biology labors against a far more difficult problem, there being billions years of evolution that went into the cellular control mechanisms that keep us (mostly) alive through reproductive age. We ask medical research to win the "war on cancer", but are we to ask no more of economists than to accede to human psychology, and let wealth and productivity wither periodically for the freedom of the financial markets to engage in speculative excess?

One template to look at is bank regulation. Banks in their regulated aspects did quite well during this crisis- it was the unregulated derivatives, hedge funds, and wildly overleveraged "investment" banking that collapsed, with the remaining investment houses ironically seeking protection by taking the form of regulated banks. Banking regulation restricts leverage to about 1:10, as well as restricting the targets of that leverage- collateralized loans in such things as real estate or businesses with whose operations the bank has some, if not thorough, familiarity. In combination with modest deposit insurance and other guarantees from the government, this makes for a quite stable system.

The amazing thing was that the Fed, other regulators, and congress decided that other actors in the system that made far riskier loans (to speculators in financial markets) could be far more highly leveraged, (1:50 or above), since the government was not directly on the hook through deposit insurance or other guarantees. Even the LTCM collapse did not warn Greenspan and others that this leverage is a disease that could bring down the entire system, while not offering much public good in return. It is, simply, a genteel form of gambling with very, very large amounts of borrowed money.

So, in a rational world, we would have a regulator with general responsibilities to limit leverage, allowing the most leverage in closely regulated and beneficial institutions (banks), while allowing less (instead of more) in speculative and more lightly regulated institutions. Indeed, it has always mystified me why margin accounts at brokerages are allowed at all- borrowing to buy stocks is the surest way to increase market volatility. There is nothing wrong with speculation, which plays an important role in market efficiency, but lending someone money to speculate is like playing Russian roulette, not just for the speculator and the lender, but for the markets and the economy as a whole.

A general leverage regulator is needed because, like the cancer process, financial markets are endlessly inventive (aka "innovative") at devising new ways to gamble. Mutations and lapses in attention will always occur, so that formal rules will always be out of date. No regulatory system is perfect, just as nobody is completely immune to cancer, but we can learn from history and do better, on a speedier time frame than that of evolution. The Fed is ideally positioned to be this regulator, and should have the function of restricting all kinds of leverage added to its portfolio of regulating banks, keeping the currency stable, and promoting sustainable economic growth.

While I am at it, let me throw out several more pieces of an economic reform program, though this is mostly oriented to the car bailout and general economic mess, not the financial industry specifically.
  • Health care: Relieve businesses of the administrative burden of health care by nationalizing it, as per the pending Obama plans, or something more adventurous like single-payer. Businesses should not shop around for younger employees because they are cheaper to insure. Employees should not depend on employers to provide health care. Incidentally, one step towards cost control could be to revise the FDA approval process to have two levels of approval- one basic level for safety and efficacy, as is done now, and a second level for demonstrated cost/benefit advantage over the current standard of care. One cause of rising health care costs (aside from the absurd duplication and expense of private care insurers/deniers) is that new treatments are not put through a rigorous benefit analysis. Drug and device companies relentlessly push marginal products through the approval process, then devote vast sums to advertise them for benefits that are often absent or minimal.
  • Pensions: Businesses should likewise be relieved of the administrative burden and cost inequality of pensions, switching to a nationalized program combining a beefed-up social security with government-run 401K funds. Nowhere is the burden of retirement provisioning more apparent than in the domestic car industry. With roughly 2 or 3 retirees for every worker, they are groaning under this burden, and every sensible program to downsize them in accordance with their self-managed decline in market share makes this ratio even worse. Pensions for all companies (and government entities, which are likewise facing financial chaos from their pension obligations) should be immediately nationalized, so that each employer pays a set tax rate per current employee (like the social security system, only not capped by maximum income). This could be a mix of defined benefits as a safety net and an optional 401K-like account with the government, offering a few selections of risk. Then all retirees, including those not employed (such as housewives, for instance) would get a mix of defined benefits and invested returns that are partially tied to their contributions and former income, and partially set as a safety net not dependent on prior work at all. This would allow older companies with many retirees to compete on a level playing field with new startups, give all citizens the assurance of retirement income whether or not they worked or were married to a worker, and allow workers to switch jobs without fear of losing their pension.
  • Unions: I support greater unionization, but unions impose costs as well, especially when they are too successful in gaining income and working (or non-working) condition benefits. Unions should organize downtrodden farmworkers and janitors, not dictate no-work jobs, antiquated labor-intensive technologies, and 100K/year longshoreman salaries. My proposal would be that unions be prohibited from representing anyone over the national median income. This would put higher-salaried workers into the regular job market, instead of an artifically negotiated system. What would this do to NBA players? I am not sure- Insofar as management has monopoly power, in this case congressionally sanctioned, workers should likewise be able to organize. However the government's role should generally be to break monopolies, not sanction them.
  • Executive pay: The salaries of many corporate and investment managers have been clearly excessive and economically detrimental, motivating them to find beneficial option sale and exit strategies rather than building better companies. Salaries should be capped at 25X the median salary of the managed corporation including subsidiaries. Extra income should be restricted to a new kind of stock option granted on a five year plan, where the grant price is the mean price for the current year, and the options can be redeemed only after five years, at the mean stock price of the trailing year. This would go a long way to re-aligning the interests of management with those of employees and stockholders. There would be no private pensions, parachutes, etc. One interesting side-effect of this proposal would be to motivate management teams to separate themselves from the underlying base companies so that they could be paid more. But since they would have separated rather than subsidiary relationships, this might open a new market for management services, which might enable corporate boards to bid more effectively for these services, enhancing competition and keeping prices down.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Consciousness update

A recent scientific review lays out what is known about consciousness.

With convenient timeliness, Science magazine published a lengthy review of the state of consciousness research, within a standout issue devoted to behavioral genetics. Unfortunately, the review begins: "How consciousness arises from the brain remains unknown". Nevertheless the basic analytic approach of investigating variations in a phenomenon upon perturbation has yielded a wealth of clues about how the mind happens. I will use "mind" to denote the subjective experience which has been so difficult to explain scientifically and philosophically.

Minds turn off during deep sleep, then back on during dream sleep and during waking. They turn off again during the super-activation of epileptic seizures. The mental on state correlates with the complexity of brain wave (EEG) patterns, where deep sleep is characterized by a low complexity pattern (delta wave) of slow and regular on, off alternating at four cycles per second or less. This state also appears to be the default state of the cortex, when in a coma or when otherwise lacking the activating functions of the reticular activating system in the brain stem. Waking is a noisy condition with jumbled, higher-frequency waves (15 to 40 cycles per second- gamma waves), and then epilepsy is characterized by everything firing at once- again a low complexity state. Many variations on these states are achievable by drugs, whether professionally or recreationally applied. Many more variations appear after physical damage, such as from strokes, trauma, neurosurgery, etc.

It looks like brain waves are somewhat like the cloud of radio waves from radio stations, where signal complexity is a sign of information, and a repetitive test signal, or flat-lining, or hyperactive noise, are each degradations of that signal- a loss of information. If we knew how to decipher the signals, would we be able to peek into someone's mind? It is not at all clear that they would be decipherable in that way. The broadcast nature of brainwaves, while convenient for us to measure on the scalp, is not their real role- the EEG signal is merely a messy side-effect of activity in the many neurons going back and forth between specific locations in the brain.

It is in the rapid signaling between a large number of specific places where one would have to look for correlates of the mind. Indeed the leading theory regards complex waking gamma-wave states as reflections of transient coalitions of active brain regions, bound together in cleverly time-compressed neuronal gamma-pattern firing (the actual neuronal firings, not the waves we detect on the scalp). This is suggested by Gyorgy Buzsaki in his magisterial review of brain waves (especially Cycle 9: The gamma buzz: gluing by oscillations in the waking brain, which addresses the binding problem of consciousness). In this way, anatomical localization of activity, which is very well characterized by now, (another article in this issue uses fMRI scans of subject brains to peek into and predict speech and speaker identification to a remarkably accurate degree, based on location of brain activity ), could be melded together into what we experience as a unitary mind.

Anatomically, regions of the brain are involved in consciousness to various degrees. Small lesions in the thalamus can induce immediate coma, whereas frontal lobotomies have much less effect, and lesions in the cerebellum little to none. This review argues very plausibly that the middle region of the brain, comprising medial cortex on the outer brain, and thalamic core below it, serves as a sort of central nexus in terms of connectivity of the brain, and likewise has the most central role in consciousness. For instance, the visual processing system is arranged hierarchically from V1 to V5, where V1 is most closely connected to input from the retinas (firing with and representing simple features of the visual scene, such as light at a specific coordinate), and never contributes to consciousness directly, while the neurons in V5 represent complex aspects that do enter consciousness directly, like the identity of objects and faces. The orientation of the visual cortex places the V1 areas at the back of the head and V5 areas closest to the middle mind-relevant features mentioned above.

The review also promotes a rather vague theory about information and complexity, where data integration over large regions (roughly measured by brain waves), and discrimination between many alternative states, is the key measure of any process that can be called consciousness. For instance, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) can be used to directly activate brain regions. If this is done on someone deep in deep non-REM sleep, the result is a localized and brief low-frequency wave. In contrast, TMS on the waking brain stimulates complex wave responses that propagate far and wide through the rest of the brain, resounding for twice as much time. The paper does not relate what thoughts TMS induces in waking subjects, but other studies indicate that it induces flashes of light or other random perceptions depending on what region of the brain is being stimulated, similar to what is generated by migraines. So, though there are more and less relevant areas of the brain, consciousness still seems to be a distributed phenomenon, as indeed one might guess from the vast amount of information it subjectively integrates.

This is all of special interest to anesthesiologists, who are in charge of managing body control, pain, and consciousness. The review mentions many variations that can occur- patients that suddenly wake up during anesthesia, low doses of anesthetics that induce out-of-body experiences and depersonalization, low doses that generate amnesia and unresponsiveness despite consciousness still being present in some form. The immediate problem is that there are currently no perfect measures of consciousness per se, and anesthesiologists are naturally anxious to have one. What everyone is sure of, however, is that when brain waves cease entirely, the patient is dead- to the world, if not permanently.

Another clear conclusion is that consciousness is graded- that we can, under the influence of brain damage, exotic drugs, or just plain alcohol or sleepiness, experience vastly different amounts of consciousness. Indeed, we love exploring these altered states, consuming coffee, coca, chocolate, or riding in roller coasters for stimulation, while taking heroin, alcohol, barbiturates, or meditating for tranquilization (among many other options, like marijuana and LSD). Each of these variations are clearly connected to physical alterations in the brain. The graded-ness of consciousness has significant implications, especially for the moral status of other conscious beings. Obviously, animals such as dogs experience consciousness- perhaps not quite as exquisitely as we do, but richly nonetheless, especially in the smell department. Thus there is a graded order of beings that deserve our sensitive attention due to their consciousness, especially their capacity for conscious suffering. Conversely, human embryos are not conscious, and nor are fetuses up to some mid-stage in gestation (roughly five months), which informs our moral duties towards them as independent, conscious beings.

In view of all these detailed connections between mind, consciousness, and the brain, it should be exceedingly difficult to imagine that consciousness can exist in any form after death. Putting another nail in the coffin, as it were, will be a study that tests the hypothesis that out-of-body (or near-death) experiences reflect separation from the body. Operating rooms have been set up with upward-facing images on high shelves- items that would only be visible to someone floating above. Patients who have out-of-body experiences will then be asked about these, which will test whether their sensory selves are floating as they subjectively appear to, or whether they are strictly confined to the operating table- to what they can hear and what they have seen, either before or after the operation. We will see. My bet is that our sense of hearing is extremely sensitive and capable of painting a rich picture of what is going on outside, accounting for the various anecdotal accounts of uncanny perception while having out-of-body sensations, much like it does in half-asleep states.

All this presents a further question- if consciousness is eventually nailed down to brain functions, as it seems certain to be, does that present any philosophical problems, either for free will or for the efficacy of reason? For free will, how can we be truly free in our choices if our mind is strictly subject to material cause and effect? And similarly for reason, how can our reason be an impartial judge and guide if it arises from such an inherently compromised and contingent substrate as the brain?

In the first place, our free will is a good deal less free than we suppose, as advertisers and tobacco companies know so well. We are influenced all the time, thus the desperation of theists to maintain their influence. Secondly, our conscious ignorance of most influences (in addition to a big helping of randomness in the system) amounts to free will- a will that has no obvious origin and which makes decisions based on reason, or impulse, or whatever happens to come to mind. That can make psychological investigations threatening. If we expose reasons for our heretofore "free" actions, whether cast in the languages of complexes, archetypes, psychodynamics, parental influences, memes, consumerism, etc., we are less "free" insofar as these interpretations are true. Nothing has changed, but our view of ourselves is altered, and we may become more "self-conscious", which means ... more suspicious about our so-called free will.

This may be one of the deeper reasons for theist antipathy towards knowledge in general, which one might see as impairing our natural, reflexive engagement with the world (not to mention religious authority). Whether it is the knowledge given by the fruit of the tree of life, carnal knowledge, critical historical knowledge of their own texts, biological knowledge, or psychological self-knowledge, this hostility is quite remarkable. Scientologists take the prize in this last department for quite understandable reasons with their vitriolic campaign against psychology, while they simultaneously peddle their own pseudo-psychology of "clearing" and dianetics.

So is reason itself futile? If thoughts all have causes, many of them less than noble, let alone free of outside influence, how can reason operate at all? I think one can ask the same of a hand-held calculator. Does it provide reliable answers, despite its inner workings being fully understood? At best, human reason is a similarly general tool, which we can apply to any problem, and, given sufficient discipline, get robust answers from. Such is the case with mathematical proofs, where all steps can be written down, going their leisurely way from premises to conclusions. In more nebulous realms such as philosophy and ethics, each step is fraught with subjective interpretations, so the framework of reason is less in evidence, if it is present at all. It falls to critics to make that framework and its defects or successes as explicit as possible. The success of science has hinged on making its reasoning about the natural world as explicit and open as possible, thereby making useful critique possible, especially in the form of the acid tests of reality- experiment and evidence.

Incidental links:
  • Related podcast on Hume and reason.
  • Podcast on blind sight, phantom limbs, alien hands, body sense, mirror neurons, and extra senses, in a philosophical context.
  • Death of HM, the man who had complete amnesia due to damage to his hippocampus.

Even more incidentally, we happen to be getting to the end of War and Peace, where, on the very last page, Leo Tolstoy makes essentially the same argument about free will as I make above (translation by Rosemary Edmonds):
As with astronomy the difficulty in the way of recognizing that the earth moves consisted in having to rid oneself of the immediate sensation that the earth was stationary accompanied by a similar sense of the planets' motion, so in history the obstacle in the way of recognizing the subjection of the individual to the laws of space and time and causality lies in the difficulty of renouncing one's personal impression of being independent of those laws. But as in astronomy the new view said: "True, we are not conscious of the movement of the earth but if we were to allow that it is stationary we should arrive at an absurdity, whereas if we admit motion (which we do not feel) we arrive at laws", likewise in history the new theory says: "True, we are not conscious of our dependence but if we are to allow that we are free we arrive at an absurdity, whereas by admitting our dependence on the external world, on time and on causality we arrive at laws."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Against theology

In all sad sincerity I think we must conclude that the attempt to demonstrate by purely intellectual processes the truth of the deliverances of direct religious experience is absolutely hopeless.
-William James, 1902

As I have engaged in debates on theism, I have been fascinated by the existence of theology. Believing in religion is bad enough, but to make a career of offering up absurd rationalizations and hairsplittings in its defense, in tomes of unread pablum, is surely worse (Ed note- and who, exactly, do you think reads this blog?). There are many sub-disciplines of theology of varying delusion, ranging from church history, biblical exegesis, and historical criticism, to the apologetics and dogmatics (even pneumatology!) that I focus on here.

My model of religion (following Carl Jung and William James, and consistent with contemporary evidence) is that it expresses vital psychological dynamics generated by the unconscious, which has personal, cultural, and universal components. The unconscious does not need to template itself to reality as the conscious mind does- it fantasizes, wishes, and dreams (and motivates). It is free from constraints of time and space, generating inchoate ideas of the supernatural. Religion is the practice whereby people coordinate their inner worlds into numinous social, philosophical, ethical, artistic, and therapeutic communities, seizing on key symbols to express the inexpressible.

If this were all, it would not be so bad, but the typical practice is to believe that the symbol is not a symbol, but is real- that divinity is not a metaphor but the personal description of a prophet, that the father in heaven is not a symbol of transcendence and life, but an actual ruler, comforter, and judge, and that the world itself, instead of being what it is, is something else, created by the father figure and destined to some apocalyptic end, hopefully imminent, followed by personal immortality. Religions make supernatural phenomena a focus- even a test- of adherence, bonding members by communal dreams. These projections of the unconscious are natural and numinous, but of course have nothing to do with outer reality. Indeed their whole power comes from their disagreement with outer reality- the more preposterous the better, as exemplified by miracles.

This error is carried to great lengths by those who devote their waking moments and mental energies to justifying the dreamscape that is religion, posing putatively rational arguments and sophistry of all kinds to ward off the suspicion that their emperor not only has no clothes, but no reality at all. Since all honest theists acknowledge that the mystery of faith is at its root inexplicable and irrational (gloriously so), it seems odd that there is a class of people employed to find just the opposite. Strange, but humans come in different kinds, and some operate on a more conscious, ego-driven level than others, feeling the mystic impulse, (one hopes), but unwilling to give up reason. They must find ways to rationalize the irrational, to square the circle.

One simple sign of the oddity of theology is its parochial nature. Science, art, and technology are international- one discovery is the world's discovery- universally appreciated, applied, and added to the growing corpus. No special efforts at ecumenical science need be hammered out across fractious borders. Religion, on the other hand, has as its criterion traditions of psychological symbolism that are often recognizable by all, but are also culturally specific, sometimes requiring prodigious feats of indoctrination and credulity. It is all too easy for one tradition to dismiss the absurd beliefs of its rivals, a very modest skepticism being sufficient to render biting, dismissive, and accurate critiques. How odd, then, that the beam in one's own eye should be so invisible!

Yet so it is, and schools of theology of all kinds press on to organize, categorize, and systematize what is inherently artistic and irrational- what should never have been taken literally in the first place.

Incidental links:

A philosophy podcast interviews theologian (or possibly ex-theologian!) and fellow-biophilic Don Cupitt, apropos of this blog entry.

Roger Ebert reviews Ben Stein, ID, and Expelled.

PS: Apropos cartoon

A couple more quotes from William James, from The Varieties of Religious Experience:
I believe, in fact, that the logical reason of man operates in this field of divinity exactly as it has always operated in love, or in patriotism, or in politics, or in any of the other wider affairs of life, in which our passions our our mystical intuitions fix our beliefs beforehand. It finds arguments for our conviction, for indeed it has to find them. It amplifies and defines our faith, and dignifies it and lends it words and plausibility. It hardly ever engenders it; it can not now secure it.
The pivot round which the religious live, as we have traced it, revolves, is the interest of the individual in this private personal destiny. Religion, in short, is a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism.