Friday, May 27, 2011

Critical examination of the Near Death Experience, Part One

A book by Jeffrey Long, M.D., with writer Paul Perry, entitled Evidence of the Afterlife, has been a bestseller. It is a book about Near Death Experiences, which many people, including the authors, claim to be evidence of life after death. I have read about Near Death Experiences for many years, and am very skeptical that they are manifestations of an afterlife, despite the fact that I would like to believe that they are. For some of you, it is important to know whether these experiences reveal the existence of an afterlife; for all of us, it is an interesting example of how to apply the scientific method to phenomena that involve the human brain.

This subject is, of course, relevant to evolution for two reasons. First, if they truly are glimpses into heaven, then science is a deficient way of understanding the human experience, even though it may be a perfectly adequate way of explaining atoms and cells and organisms. Second, if Near Death Experiences are not mere delusions, then evolution has to explain them somehow. It is also interesting from the viewpoint of the process of scientific thought: how can you examine such a subject, while avoiding bias?

A Near Death Experience (NDE) may occur when a victim or patient begins to die, or actually dies, usually under medical care, and then returns to life. When they return to consciousness, they may report that they have had an intense experience that they usually interpret as seeing into the afterlife, in which the souls of dead people still live. There are certain stereotypical experiences that are very common in NDEs, including the following:

• Bliss. Most NDE are blissful experiences.
• The Comforting Presence. The person experiences the presence of a powerful spiritual being who leads them through the NDE, and does not pass judgment on them.
• The Life Review. The person sees a movie-like rerun of the events of their lives.
• Out of Body Experience. The person reports seeing themselves lying unconscious or dead, and sees medical or other personnel attempting to revive them.
• The Tunnel. The person progresses through a tunnel toward a bright and welcoming light.

It is obvious that Long and Perry have a bias: their purpose is to convince you that the victims or patients are actually seeing or entering into a real afterlife; that is, the experiences are not merely occurring within their brains. It cannot be denied that, if this is true, it is one of the most significant facts in the world, and the authors’ enthusiasm would be justified. However, their enthusiasm leads them to make critical errors in interpretation and analysis, errors that may or may not be fatal to the belief that NDEs are visions of the afterlife.

One piece of evidence that the authors are not being objective is that they do not consider or present credible alternative interpretations. Instead, they use straw men as their alternative hypotheses. For example, their logic seems to be that if an NDE is not a hallucination then it must be a vision of the afterlife. In fairness it must be added that some of their careless critics have created these straw men for them. But this is no more convincing than a Tea Partier claiming to be correct because a Communist is wrong. In these blog entries, I intend to develop an alternative interpretation.

The authors also reveal their bias by also entirely omitting any mention of the evidence that connects the elements of NDEs to stimulation of the right temporal lobe and by the drug ketamine. Stimulation of the right temporal lobe, either by a medical occurrence (stroke or epilepsy) or by experimental induction (Persinger’s famous God Helmet) produces some, though not all, of the characteristics of NDEs. It is clear that an NDE is not merely a delusion produced by epilepsy or brain chemicals, but it appears to be partly so, and the authors could at least have mentioned this evidence.

We must admit that NDEs are no mere delusions brought on by lack of oxygen (due to cessation of blood flow to the brain) or other trauma. NDEs differ significantly from delusions experienced by living people.

• They are vivid and clear. The emotionally-charged clarity of an NDE is usually strong enough to change the life of the person who experiences it.
• They are nonrandom. They contain some of the elements listed above, and usually very little else.
• They contain experiences that are difficult (the authors claim impossible) to explain in scientific terms.

The vividness and emotional power of NDEs also distinguish them from dreams. The authors claim that people dream about those whom they have recently encountered, while NDE include visions of people who are dead. The authors are incorrect about what they say about dreams; the very night before I read their book, I had dreamed of two people of whom I had not recently thought and to whom I had no particularly strong connection. But it is fair to note that NDEs contain visions of a nonrandom set of people: dead family members, even those that they did not know where dead.

Among the experiences that are difficult to explain are the following examples. One victim reported overhearing a conversation that occurred outside of the hospital room down the hall. Another reported that, while he was in a coma, someone had brought a candle and left it in a drawer; he was able to tell the nurse which drawer it was in. Another man knew which drawer his dentures had been placed in. A woman reported meeting a grandmother who had died before she was born, and she did not know who it was until, later, she saw a photograph of this grandmother. Perhaps the most interesting of all was the woman who reported seeing a shoe on a window ledge that she could not have seen from her room (page 73). It would seem impossible for a person in a coma to actually see and know things that occurred during the coma.

Nevertheless, there are alternative explanations, though not easy ones. These observations cannot be brushed off as mere delusions. How could someone know what was going on while they were in a coma? We know of no way this could happen. But it is possible that people experiencing an NDE do, in fact, have some kind of perception of what is going on around them, a modality of perception that is not merely seeing or hearing. A person in a coma cannot see which drawer a candle or a set of dentures is placed, but may sense it in some way we do not yet understand and which a coma does not inhibit. This opens up new possibilities for research; the ability of the human body to perceive stimuli, and transmit them to the brain, may be much greater than we had thought. But this does not prove that the victim was seeing into the afterlife. In fact, the best description of what might be happening was provided in the authors’ own words. In Chapter 8 they write, “It is a unique and remarkable state of consciousness.” And on page 201, they write, “…there is far more to consciousness and memory than can be explained solely by our physical brain. I find that incredibly exciting.” I think the authors are right about this and wrong about NDEs being visions into the afterlife.

Some of the other experiences can be explained by the ability of the brain to deceive itself. The woman who “saw” the grandmother who had died before she was born may in fact have seen a photograph of her years earlier, and had forgotten about it consciously. The woman who saw the shoe on the ledge may have seen it while being wheeled down the hall (the shoe was, after all, beside a window) and then forgotten it. The people who had visions of these things were not lying; they may have simply forgotten what they had seen at a previous time. We’ve all been there.

I conclude this first entry about Long and Perry’s book with this tentative conclusion: people who experience NDE are having a unique and vivid kind of mental experience, into which is incorporated things they have previously seen or that they have perceived during their comas in a manner not yet understood. There is no reason to conclude that they are seeing into the afterlife. In fact, as described in later entries, there are reasons to suspect that they are not.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Altruism and the Definition of the Human Species

As I have argued in my book, Life of Earth, altruism is one of the most basic aspects of the human mind. I believe it is a fundamental component of human behavior. Almost everybody has at least a little bit of it. There are some people (psychopaths) who do not have it; aside from them, every human being practices altruism. There are some people who practice what Barbara Oakley has called “cold-blooded kindness” who know how to simulate altruism even when they do not feel it. But these people recognize that altruism, even if they cannot themselves experience it, is a fundamental aspect of human identity.

Species can be defined on the basis of fundamental characteristics; but there are always outliers that are included within the species even if they do not have these characteristics. In an alpine meadow in the Black Hills, I saw a Delphinium (larkspur) whose flowers had only four petals, none spurred; but larkspurs are defined as plants whose flowers have five petals, one of them spurred. This plant was a mutant larkspur. Similarly, humans are characterized by 46 chromosomes; but people with 45 chromosomes (Turner’s syndrome) or 47 (Trisomy 21, formerly Down’s syndrome) are included within the human species. Psychopaths are humans, even though they lack altruism.

This raises the question of whether people who reject altruism are fully human. I am not talking about psychopaths; I refer to human beings who know and feel altruism but make a deliberate decision to reject it. Unlike people with genetic mutations, who are included within the human species but lack some defining human characteristics through no fault of their own, anti-altruists have chosen to place themselves on the fringes of the definition of what it means to be human.

The richest 400 Americans have more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the population. Think about this. This is an imbalance of wealth that more closely resembles ancient Babylon than any modern nation. There is more. These 400 people insist that they should pay fewer taxes. Right now, according to page 86 of the IRS instructions for Form 1040, the top tax rate is 35 percent, which is one of the lowest in the world. Republicans are now proposing that the top tax rate be only 25 percent. This would vastly reduce federal revenues, which would mean that essential services on which many poor and middle-class people depend would be nonexistent. Only an anti-altruist would rejoice in this. To one of the wealthiest 400, $10,000 means nothing; to the bottom 50 percent of Americans, $10,000 can spell the difference between survival and collapse.

And there is yet more. On a news program on NPR, one of these richest 400 people called in and said that if his taxes were not lowered, he would take revenge (he did not use this phrase) on his fellow citizens by cutting back on employment and pay in his corporation. His attitude was fiercely hateful toward his fellow citizens. He hates the rest of us. Really. He may technically be a citizen of the United States, but his loyalty is not to his country but only to himself. He would choose to inflict an unlimited amount of damage on others rather than to give up even the slightest amount of the increased luxuries that would come from a tax reduction for the richest Americans. He obviously hates anyone who is not as rich as he is; in fact, he probably hates the other 399 of his fellow super-rich.

And yet this man depends upon the altruism of all of the rest of us. He may be able to pay for any medical procedure that he needs or desires, but these procedures were developed by researchers who are paid much less than he is, and often at taxpayer expense. He would not be able to afford health care using only procedures which were developed entirely by his personal funding. If he fell down on the sidewalk, he would expect someone to call an ambulance, rather than to say, gimme 500 bucks, sucker, then I’ll call the ambulance. His reasoning is, I am rich therefore I do not need to do anything for anybody unless I am paid for it; but because I am rich, you need to do things for me, even when you are not paid to do so.

I believe that this man has, by his own volition, placed himself outside of the range of behavior that defines humanity. Technically, he is a human, but no more so than the four-petaled larkspur is a larkspur. Perhaps this man should live on an island, and if he gets sick, he should receive only medical care which was developed at his own personal expense. See how long he could survive without the altruism of the rest of us. See how long he could survive by being an incipient subspecies that is not quite human.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

DNA, Intelligent Design, and Theodicy, Part Two

In the previous entry I presented one of the main points that John C. Avise made in his recent book Inside the Human Genome: A Case for Non-Intelligent Design. If God designed the world, why are there so many, and such horrific, mutations in the human genome? Not only is there a huge number of different genetic diseases, but each one of these diseases can be caused by numerous different mutations. Mutations happen so often that the same diseases keep evolving over and over and over. This presents a major challenge to theodicy, which is the attempt to justify God in a world of suffering—in this case, genetically-based suffering. Thus one of Avise’s points is that, if God designed DNA, he could have made more efficient repair mechanisms to counteract the (perhaps inevitable) mutations.

Avise goes on to make another, very important challenge to theodicy: the very structure of the genome itself is inconsistent with the idea that the genome, or the human body, or the world was designed by God. Not just the mutations in the genome, but its very structure.

The human genome is full of stuff that interferes with the use of genetic information to produce healthy and functional enzymes and bodies. First, consider the fact that only about 1 percent of human DNA codes for those enzymes. About 68 percent of the DNA consists of non-coding DNA that is between the genes, and about 31 percent of the DNA consists of non-coding DNA that is inside of the genes. This is, at best, a clumsy system, because whenever a cell divides, all of this DNA is copied, not just the DNA that the cell will use. In addition, since each gene is broken into little “exon” fragments by a large amount of internal “intron” DNA, the genetic information must be spliced together in order to be put to use. That is, to get a functional enzyme, the genetic information from lots of exon fragments has to be cobbled together. If it works, there is no problem, but the whole system is so cumbersomely complex that it often fails. Not only are many genetic diseases caused by mutations in the genes themselves, but many genetic diseases are caused by (or also caused by) failures of the cell to deal properly with the non-coding DNA and the splicing.

Much of the non-coding DNA bears the clear mark of evolutionary origin. For example, there are a lot of pseudogenes, which are old genes that are not used anymore. Some of them are extra, duplicated copies of genes, complete with their introns (unprocessed pseudogenes); others are DNA copies of RNA transcripts, from which the introns have been removed (processed pseudogenes). There are also lots of mobile genetic elements, which either have or had the ability to move around among the chromosomes. Some of them are transposons, which can “cut and paste,” to use Avise’s metaphor, moving from one place to another. Some of them are retrotransposons, which can “copy and paste,” with one copy being left behind and the other going to a new place in the genome. Many of these retrotransposons are old dead viruses. We know this because they still have major chunks of the reverse transcriptase enzyme, an enzyme used only by certain kinds of viruses! Retrotransposons cannot actually become viruses anymore, because they have lost the genes that allow them to make protein capsules. Another evolutionary pattern is that species that have the most similar genetic DNA also have the most similar non-coding DNA, which makes no sense if they do not share a common evolutionary ancestry. You see, we know where much of this non-coding DNA came from, and it is not part of a system designed by a God.

There are even examples of some genes fighting against other genes. Some mutations cause a gene to over-represent itself in the next generation (“selfish genes”), which is harmful to the organism that carries it; and there are other mutations that suppress those selfish genes. So not only does the genome contain a clumsy load of non-coding DNA, but even DNA that fights against itself.

We know that such complexity of non-coding DNA is not necessary for the function of a genetic system, because bacteria do not have any of this: no introns, no pseudogenes, no transposons. They get by just fine without them.

The more we learn about DNA, the more we see that there is really no place for a Creator or Designer to fit in. It looks like, in Avise’s words, the Creator’s “primary role was to set into operation natural evolutionary forces.” Yes, you can believe that God designed evolution, and then let evolution do everything. But this would be like saying that angels push the planets around the sun by means of the laws of gravity and momentum. To slip God into an invisible realm behind the operation of natural laws, including genetic processes, seems more and more like fantasy.

And it sets God up for culpability for an immense amount of human suffering. Mutations of genes (previous essay) and malfunctions of genetic operation (this essay) cause human misery and death, in addition to killing perhaps one-third of fertilized egg cells. If God is behind the processes of human genetics, says Avise, then God is the “world’s leading abortionist and mass murderer.” Does this offend you? Then you need to reconsider what you believe about the role that God might play in the universe.

Creationists often claim that all of these mutations and flaws have occurred just since the Fall of Man. There is no Biblical basis for this belief. Genesis says, cursed is the ground, not cursed is the chromosome. Some creationists insist that the pre-Flood world had few if any mutations, which is why people lived to be over nine hundred years old. Either way, this entire burden of bad genes would have accumulated just in the last few thousand years. Mutations are not accumulating that rapidly today. Some creationists believe that Satan designed all the bad things in the genome. This is, needless to say, also without any scriptural basis. In no part of the Bible is Satan depicted as being smart enough to have redesigned the entire architecture of the human genome.

Don’t miss my new book, Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, just published by Prometheus Books.

Friday, May 13, 2011

DNA, Intelligent Design, and Theodicy, Part One

John C. Avise published a book last year entitled Inside the Human Genome: A Case for Non-Intelligent Design. I would like to share some ideas from this book for your consideration. Avise looks at the age-old question of theodicy (why a good God would permit suffering) in light of the our understanding of human genetics, especially the new revelations that have come from the Human Genome Project just in the last dozen years.

Avise's main point is that if the world were designed by a loving intelligence (which Intelligent Design proponents publicly hesitate to call God), the DNA system shared by all organisms from amoebas to humans would look a lot different from the way it is. And his first set of examples is the sheer number and horror of mutations that fill the human genome.

Many mutations are neutral, or can be easily overcome by technology. And some of them cause a great deal of psychological suffering, such as the mutation that causes trimethylaminuria, which is physically harmless but causes the victims to smell like rotten fish no matter how clean they are. But many other mutations are deadly or, worse yet, can cause a person to have a lifetime of suffering. Perhaps the most disturbing mutation is the one that causes Lesch-Nyhan syndrome. This one mutation, of a single amino acid in a protein, causes the victim to have an uncontrollable compulsion for self-mutilation: they chew their own lips and fingers, and find sharp objects to stab their faces and eyes. The victims are fully able to feel their pain and they know what they are doing, but cannot control it.

But there is more to the story. Most of these genetic syndromes have come into existence many times. Consider glycogen storage disease, in which a defective enzyme causes glycogen (animal starch) to build up in tissues throughout the body. A childhood friend of mine has this disease, which he inherited from his father; by middle age, he was almost constantly incapacitated by this disease. I do not know if he is still alive. Geneticists know of 86 different mutations that can disrupt the enzyme and cause this disease. That is, this genetic disease has mutated into existence 86 separate times. The author directs our attention to several databases, one of which is the Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM), which lists over 18,000 genes, three-quarters of which have documented mutations. And these are just the single-gene defects!

The author's first point is that an intelligently-designed genome would not have such a stunning number of mutations. If God designed the DNA to make us adapted to the world we live in, could God not have done a better job? Evolution, in contrast, is dependent upon random mutations, upon which natural selection acts by eliminating the bad ones (that is, disfavoring and perhaps killing the individuals who express them) and favoring the good ones. The existence of a large pool of mutations, which natural selection has not completely gotten rid of, is consistent with evolution but not with Intelligent Design.

One answer that Intelligent Design proponents have to this problem is that the Designer created a mutation-free set of human DNA when our species came into existence, then abandoned the system to take care of itself. But if this is the case, the system was so poorly designed that it could not, in fact, take care of itself.

The connection to the problem of theodicy is obvious, and Avise makes it. Defenders of God (which is the meaning of theodicy) claim that God allows bad things to happen as an inevitable consequence of free will. Their platitude is that if fire did not burn, then it would not be fire. I can understand why God would not automatically give all of us a perfect set of genes; limitations, including genetic ones, are necessary for character development, to show God on judgment day what kind of people we are (from the traditional Christian viewpoint). But Lesch-Nyhan syndrome? Potentially deadly mutations in three-quarters of human genes? Isn't this a bit excessive?

I will summarize some of Avise's other points in the next entry. Please post your comments and/or send the link to this blog to others who might be interested.

Don't miss my new book, Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, just published by Prometheus Books.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Science and Philosophy

(My struggle with computer and biological viruses continues, hence the delay.)

In an earlier entry, I wrote about why I do not read philosophy books. The main reason was that philosophers tend to think they can answer every question by just thinking about it hard enough with our modified ape-brains, a concept I found unacceptable.

But apparently there was a group of philosophers that I did not know about. It was with some excitement that I discovered, while reading a recent issue of Science, the existence of the field known as experimental philosophy. No, not the philosophy of doing experiments, a la Karl Popper; but using experiments to study philosophy. The author, Shaun Nichols, had my attention.

Nichols addressed one of the most difficult philosophical topics, the question of free will. If there is such a thing as free will, then humans have a soul, or at least a self, that can make decisions independently of the chemical reactions that occur inside the brain. If there is no free will (if determinism is correct), then everything we do can be traced by a network of cause and effect to our genes and our environments (prenatal, developmental, recent, and immediate). Now, in actual practice, it may be impossible to disentangle the causation; and so, just for the efficient operation of society, we have to assume free well (we cannot let murderers roam free just because they have a mutant version of a brain protein). But this does not answer the philosophical question.

Nichols admitted that the problem of free will was, from the viewpoint of philosophy, intractable. But he addressed the question of why people believe in free will vs. determinism. And this question can be addressed using psychological data. He pointed out that most people actually believe both viewpoints. When they are calm and discussing general principles, many people accept determinism; but when they are confronted with details of, for example, a gruesome crime, these same people will claim the perpetrator had free will and deserves punishment.

This is where the experiment comes in. The researchers studied the responses of experimental subjects (as usual, university undergraduates, the most thoroughly studied group of people in the world) to stories about realistic events: did the subjects blame the perpetrators of bad deeds (thus displaying a belief in free will), or did they not (determinism)? In one experiment, the students tended to blame the perpetrators for emotionally appalling deeds, but not for minor infractions. This demonstrated that their belief in free will was determined by the emotional impact of the deed. But prior to administering the questions, the researchers had presented them with one of two introductions. One introduction suggested that the universe is indeterminist (that people have free will); the other suggested a determinist universe. Students who had been experimentally preconditioned by the indeterminist introduction attributed moral responsibility to all of the infractions, whether minor or appalling. Students who had been experimentally preconditioned by the determinist introduction were less likely to lay blame for minor infractions—but they usually blamed the perpetrators of appalling deeds for what they did. This is an experimental affirmation of the hypothesis that people are more likely to believe in free will in circumstances in which an emotionally significant deed has been done.

If, in fact, our brains cannot know the truth, then philosophers seem destined to frustration—unless they take a new approach, such as experimental philosophy, which brings psychology, and thus science, into the realm of philosophical inquiry.

Reference: Nichols, Shaun. “Experimental philosophy and the problem of free will.” Science 331 (2011) (March 18): 1401-1403.