From my meager mind

The free press has recently been contemplating the concept of free will and its connection to neuroscience. Thanks to Nathan for pointing out a post that muses on a ten year old article by Tom Wolfe that still might echo the sentiments of many who are eyeing neural sciences with disdain and contempt or with solace and justification, depending on what you happen to believe.

At a recent conference, I had the good fortune of having lunch with a couple of postdocs in my department that seemed to have a genuine interest in the basis of my religious beliefs. One very nice but inadvertent compliment I received from these professional mathematicians was that my beliefs seemed, if nothing else, consistent.

This is possibly the first external, independent validation I have had that I’m not a total crackpot. (It still has thus to be proven.) Yet I find it rather irksome that the only ones who would find any intrigue into my religious beliefs are a couple of mathematicians and not a couple of fellow Christians. (This is not precisely true.)

There are many who might believe that neuroscience will be the final nail for those who might look at the world deterministically. This holds implications for questions of souls, free wills, and consciousness. However, there is a lot that I find inconsistent about all arguments for or against souls, free wills, and consciousness.

The Wolfe article is interesting at best, in my opinion. The particular version of the article I read included almost zero citations, and so the claims (as within my informal web log) should be taken superficially at best. I contend that the Wolfe article is ignorance shrouded by eloquence. Nonetheless, it does fire up the ol’ gamma waves (30-100 Hz in EEG, depending on whom you ask) that may or may not be associated with higher cognition.

There are a few comments I would like to make on this article, which I will try to write independently of context for those who do not want to pour through Wolfe’s verbose article (mine is verbose too). I’d rather not paraphrase or quote heavily because I must freely admit that I don’t understand all of Wolfe’s references.

Determinism is state dependent

If there is a pervasive sense that neuroscience or neurogenetics will pave the way toward a deterministic view of the world, it is intimately coupled with this conjecture that “it would be possible to predict the course of any human being’s life moment by moment” (Wolfe).

This is nonsense. It is conceivable that the course of anything can be predicted moment by moment if we know the following things:

1. The initial state of the system (say, an individual human)

2. The physical laws governing the dynamics of the system

3. The system’s response to all inputs and outputs

4. All of the inputs and outputs at all time for a system

5. That the system is noise-free and not chaotic

Allow me a brief aside: the human body is immensely complex. Within the human, the brain is the single most complex thing we have ever encountered. To consider the growth of the brain one would have to consider billions of cells and even more molecules acting in tandem and knowing the precise chemical, mechanical, and electrical interactions of every single one.

Physicist Richard Feynman once said that anyone who says they understand quantum mechanics doesn’t. So too is the study of the human brain.

Consider a computer that can simulate that level of complexity (not yet existent). We would still have to know the precise state of the initial conditions, which in a deterministic framework can actually go all the way back to the Big Bang, if one can put aside from the moment any quibbles about its existence and say “the start of all things.” Thus the initial state of the system is infinitely more complex than we give it credit for.

Ok, even within a reasonable simplification, one could start with genes, and note along the way the thousands of errors made by the replication of genes for any given human, the errors made in the expression of proteins, and the resultant sentient being.

But that computer still would be charged with the task of taking into account the effects of every single state variable surrounding that system! At its extreme, this means every last movement of particles in the air that interact with our system, let alone any other sensory input in the auditory, visual, gustatory, and olfactory domains. If these are the important inputs, then the computer would have to know how each of those things affects the system, alters it, and is stored. We are no where near this ability yet.

Ah, but he said “yet.”

It is my belief that we as humans will never be this good. (But God is.)

Genetic determinism + initial state

Somewhere in what seemed to be a nice argument, another major problem exists. Even written in 1996, which we as scientists (in training, even) often chuckle at as being very old (in a rapidly changing field), any neuroscientist had access to plenty of information contrary to the idea that anything is fixed at birth.

Jon Kaas, among other neuroscientists, observed adult plasticity in mammalian brains for years. Though it may not have been conceivable then, neuroscientists in training of today are inundated with the idea that the adult brain, once thought to be static and only degrading, is actually quite dynamic and responds at a cellular and subcellular level to its environment.

Thus anyone who thinks that moment to moment prediction is possible from the initial state of birth is sadly mistaken, unless such a prediction has the robustness to take into account all of these subcellular changes to the very system whose journey they are predicting.

Shame on any neuroscientist that claims that your “brain is fully imprinted at birth” (Wolfe) – plasticity reigns, within the genetic limits, supreme.

Understanding the limits

There is no doubt that there are limits in any given system, including biological systems. If you’re not convinced of this, let me know the next time a human gives birth to 100 children simultaneously (or, insert your own incredulity here). I think genetics imposes certain limits. I cannot grow copious amounts of forearm hair to save my life. My feet are not getting substantially bigger, and I’m not entirely sure what I can (or would want to) do with that. It is true that manipulations can exist for many of these things, but discussing genetics even has the limits of controlled spontaneity. This could be an entire volume of books, let alone a blog post, so I must leave it here.

Understanding the limits of a technology is possibly more valuable than understanding its promise. In fact, I would argue that one can only know the promise of a technology once its limits are carefully considered.

A popular sentiment is that the amazing technology of brain imaging is somehow going to debunk all myths about humanity. Each week, one can read popular media fluff concerning “the predisposition to believe in God,” “Researchers use Brain scans to predict when people will buy products,” or “Imaging Pinpoints brain regions that ‘see the future’.”

But imaging is not faultless. Imaging has imperfect spatial and temporal resolution. Magnetic resonance imaging cannot capture the dynamics of Ca2+ flowing into neurons and setting off cascades of second messenger signaling schemes involving complex molecules of proteins. That’s not what it’s for; in fact it is for getting functional data on gross structures by looking at a very indirect measure of blood oxygen changes in a particular region of the vasculature surrounding the brain’s surfaces based solely on the arguable and as of yet unproven premise that there is a definable and consistent or at least predictable correlation between this blood oxygen and neural activity in a given region of the brain! There is only so much one can surmise from such data, and thus those 21st century anatomists who study with the wonderful technological tools of fMRI must tread carefully in their conclusions (as must we all in science, religion, life, etc.)

Everything that we see here is a product of what came before

This is really the essence of determinism. It is not so much that the future is predictable as it is that the present is a product of the past. It cannot be any other way (though I would argue that it could infinitely so; rather it was not any other way), and so I guess I’d argue for this as an absolute truth. Even if the details are somewhat disputed, an absolute truth exists. Even if one argues that God has somehow intervened in mysterious ways that are difficult or impossible to explain with the laws we have teased out of the reality in which we live, the fact that it happened the way it did influenced where we are today.

Perhaps there is a negative sentiment surrounding the earlier history of psychologists, who were the neuroscientists of their day. But I would argue for respect and reverence to these thinkers, such as Freud, whose ideas I may not agree with, but I acknowledge that his ideas were possibly the natural precursor to our ability to explore the depths of the human psyche (with an inextricable connection to the physical brain). I have read (no reference) that Freud was very interested in cellular and molecular level explorations of the human brain; this is a concept that is well ahead of his time, and thus he did not have two fundamental elements necessary to explore such levels completely: the aggregation of knowledge that we so thoroughly enjoy today and technology, which we still do not have in a satisfactory form.

P.S. Phrenology is not the precursor to EEG (??) as mentioned in Wolfe; rather, phrenology is simply the precursor to topography, the study of functional anatomy. EEG (electroencephalography) is simply a recording modality of electrical activity on the cortical surface that is one of several measures by which this topographic organization is mapped.

Never fear, your paradigm is in tact

Unless a scientific experiment can be designed to test free will, the question will always be one of speculation and sheer belief. So believe away that you have free will or that you do not. It has never been a question of science, yet. Some would claim the same for string theory. A good theory must do two things: accurately explain the things we hold to be true and make predictions that are experimentally verifiable. String theory in many of its various iterations does the former, but no one has teased out valid experiments for much of the latter. And thus it remains to be seen.

The same goes for states of consciousness, the existence of God, free will, and the soul. These are not questions of science, and it is my belief that consciousness is the only of these things that really will become a biological question. Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying, “One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike, and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”

I believe that this is a wise statement though I would argue that the most precious thing we have is that which Nathan, among many others against our logical brains, hopes is true – that the soul exists in a world ordained by a benevolent God.

And so I leave you …

I believe that consciousness can be thought of as a biological problem. I believe that consciousness is an emergent property of the neurological machinery. However, souls, free wills, and God(s) are not questions of biology. I do not know what is meant by the concept of a soul, and I do not believe in it. I believe in a benevolent, omniscient God. I am too dumb to understand the concept of God, but I still believe in it. I do not believe in free will. I believe that (genderless) man “does what he can until his destiny is revealed to him.” I believe that our purpose on earth as humans is clear. (But I’m not gonna tell you what it is!)

As if that’s not enough, I believe that we should not hold anything in science as absolute truths but as theories that are pretty well supported by observations but can certainly be usurped at any time by better evidence.


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