Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Neurology and the Soul

I've just found time to read John Wilkin's Is the soul something we should be agnostic about?, as well as two posts he links to: Sean M. Carroll's Physics and the Immortality of the Soul and PZ Myers' Ain't no heaven, ain't no afterlife of any kind, either, say the physicists.

Are you folks kidding me? Or has physics actually discovered and verified an underlying source of determinism while my back was turned? Or is everybody missing at least one part of the big picture? (Or am I imagining things?)

The underlying assumption in all these arguments is that there's no way for something going on in "spirit space" to interact with the real world. Now, I don't claim to be the physicist Sean M. Carroll is, in fact my understanding is amateur and older than decoherence. But my understanding is that, in practical terms, quantum indeterminacy still reigns, at least with regard to even theoretically predicting the outcome of local wave function collapse (or, if you wish, "decoherence").

Consider the situation where an action potential arrives at a synapse, and releases a certain amount of neurotransmitter. The number of molecules of neurotransmitter vary within a small range due "indeterminacy", and the number of receptors for that neurotransmitter that are actually active will also vary, depending on many factors within the cell, many of them also slightly "indeterminate". Thus the actual size and shape of the current resulting from that action potential can vary within small limits. (In fact, even with a fixed number of molecules of neurotransmitter and receptors, there will be some variation in current due to indeterminacy of position of each neurotransmitter molecule while diffusing across the synaptic gap.)

Now, let's suppose that that one action potential is just on the border of causing the receiving neuron to fire an action potential. That is, given the current (heh) condition of the nearby dendritic arbor, the amount of current necessary to cause an action potential to fire is right in the middle of the potential variation (in current) due to indeterminacy.

Does the neuron actually fire? Or does it end up in a state of superposed states of firing and not firing? Well, I think we can state that it fires, that is that decoherence has taken place. Do we actually know the source of all the information involved in the decoherence?

We don't, of course. People who state that decoherence has proven that everything happening on the quantum state is completely deterministic are simply projecting their own prejudice (i.e. religious convictions) on what is still a highly controversial field. There's plenty of room in those little wave function collapses for huge amounts of information to flow into our universe.

We certainly don't know how many of the neurons in our brains actually balance on the head of this pin. For that matter, the calculations that go on in the dendrites to integrate the information from the current flows in the synapses also depend on distributed molecules of receptors, most of which open and close "randomly" depending on quantum processes that contain "indeterminacy".

So, is it possible for:
some sort of blob of spirit energy that takes up residence near our brain, and drives around our body like a soccer mom driving an SUV?

as Sean M. Carroll mocks and PZ Myers quotes? Well, conceivably, if we assume these "spirit" people are using the word "energy" metaphorically. (Which they probably are since they don't understand physics or thermodynamics well enough to use it in a technical sense.)

Of course the blobs of "spirit energy", actually some sort of informational phenomenon, would have to have some way of predicting the outcomes of all their interventions in these decoherences. Perhaps time and information work differently in "spirit space". Perhaps they can "see" the potential outcomes of different combinations of interventions directly, rather than having to compute it with incredibly powerful modeling. In the same way, perhaps, that a man riding a balloon can see the road ahead without having to rely on asking passing strangers about it.

Of course, this is all very interesting, and would make a great "magic system" for a fantasy novel, but is there any evidence, no matter how tenuous, that such a thing might be so?

Actually yes. Compared to other anthropoid species, humans have a third or so higher ratio of glial cells to nerve cells in at least on area of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (area 9L):
Based on the nonhuman species mean LS regression, humans displayed a 46% greater density of glial cells per neuron than expected.


From this prediction, glial density in humans fell within the 95% PIs (observed log glial density = 5.19; predicted = 5.02; upper PI = 5.40, lower PI = 4.63) and represented 32% more glia than expected.[1]
Perhaps the human brain has evolved, over the last few million years, to be "ridden" by a "blob of spirit energy", and supporting the receipt of information from the blob is what requires the extra glial activity.

Of course, the actual increase isn't all that great, and:
The human frontal cortex displays a higher ratio of glia to neurons than in other anthropoid primates. However, this relative increase in glia conforms to allometric scaling expectations, when taking into consideration the dramatic enlargement of the human brain. We suggest that relatively greater numbers of glia in the human neocortex relate to the energetic costs of maintaining larger dendritic arbors and long-range projecting axons in the context of a large brain.[1]
So this "evidence" is highly tenuous. But that's very different from saying it would require a new formulation of natural law.

So when PZ Myers says:
The biologists' perspective, which is a little less fundamental, is simply that there is no identifiable 'receiver' localized in the brain (no, not even the pineal gland, as Descartes believed), distributed physiological activity is associated with thought, and injury, disease, and pharmacology can all profoundly influence the mind. Furthermore, the way the brain works involves trans-membrane ion fluxes and synaptic activity — it's all electrochemistry and biochemistry. In addition to that new physics, we'd need a new chemistry to explain how spirit interacts with neurotransmitters or gene expression or protein phosphorylation.
Well, we don't need "new" physics (although we would need to add some stuff to the one we have) and we don't need new chemistry. The receiver is distributed, just like the physiological activity.

Despite what atheists would like to believe, there are still big holes in our scientific understanding of the world; big enough to drive the biggest spirit.

For the moment, I'd recommend agnosticism.


1. Chet C. Sherwood, Cheryl D. Stimpson, Mary Ann Raghanti, Derek E. Wildman, Monica Uddin, Lawrence I. Grossman, Morris Goodman, John C. Redmond, Christopher J. Bonar, Joseph M. Erwin, and Patrick R. Hof Evolution of increased glia–neuron ratios in the human frontal cortex PNAS September 12, 2006 vol. 103 no. 37 13606-13611 doi: 10.1073/pnas.0605843103 Read more!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Evolutionary Theory for Creationists

I was recently informed by a creationist that "evolution is a lie!" I went to the trouble of thinking through and writing down my response, so I thought I'd share it with my readers. I created it as a .PDF so clean copies can be printed for creationists who "don't get" the internet. If you want to print it, or save it as a .PDF, click on the word "File" under "Google docs" over at the top left, and select "Print(PDF)".

Evolutionary Theory for Creationists

Can you tell it was written by an agnostic?

This document is entirely original with me, except that the "old saying" I heard somewhere: I don't remember where, I don't know who said it first, and it's something of a paraphrase anyway. With this post I'm putting this document in the public domain as a public service: feel free to copy, modify, and use the result as you please, for profit or not. (Of course, if you claim credit, you'll be "guilty" of plagiarism, but not (AFAIK) theft.) Credit would be nice, but I don't insist on it.

AK Read more!