Friday, May 30, 2014

Man's second favorite organ

Woody Allen described the brain as 'Man's second favorite organ'. Robert Krulwich wonders whether the brain or the universe is bigger and is undecided about the question. But whichever way you look at it, the human brain is a remarkable organ. (Although in one memory test a chimp will beat you.) When Steven Pinker appeared on the Colbert Report and was asked to describe the brain in 5 words, he said, '“Brain cells fire in patterns.” But when those patterns are disrupted by an injury or due to genetic reasons, some bizarre disorders result.

I first read about such disorders in Phantoms in the Brain by V.S. Ramachandran. It described problems that I had never heard about like anosognosia, hemineglect, blindsight, Capgras Sndrome, Cotard's syndrome, phantom pregnancy etc. I later learnt about  more strange disorders like reading blindness and  body integrity identity disorder (BIID). Oliver Sacks describes more strange neurological disorders. It is amazing what s/w glitches can plague a symbolic animal trapped in a body that once belonged to a fish. Bertrand Russell had it right when he said, “If I had omnipotence, and millions of years in which to experiment, I would not consider humanity much to boast off for my efforts."

I recently read a more recent book by Ramachandran, The Tell-tale Brain. (He talks about the book in this video.) This book is more speculative covering areas of more recent research in neuroscience and I didn't enjoy it as much as the earlier book. Ramachandran is a big champion of mirror neurons which has been called the most hyped concept in neuroscience. He says that it is responsible for our powers of empathy, language and the emergence of human culture, including the widespread use of tools and fire. He believes that when mirror neurons don’t work properly, the result is autism. Others are more skeptical.

In the book, he gives his suggested Ten Universal Laws of Art. He describes some of these principles in Lecture 3 of his interesting and entertaining series of talks in the BBC Reith Lectures.

PS: One of the most talked about topics in neuroscience is about the plasticity of the brain. In this transcript of a talk by Ramachandran, I came across this anecdote involving Francis Crick:
I remember after a fundraiser at UCSD he was approached by a lady during the cocktail reception. "All this stuff on the brain is interesting, Dr. Crick", she said, "but can you name any one single discovery in the last two decades that has really important implications?" "Well, my dear, "replied Crick, "one thing we have now learnt is that the brain is really plastic". The lady fainted.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

God debate in Malayalam - II

(Part 1 and Part 2 of debate)

Rahul Eashwar keeps saying that Richard Dawkins uses the words 'Intelligent Design' although he never reads out a full sentence in which he does so although he is repeatedly asked to do so. If you searched on Google for 'Dawkins Intelligent Design' you will find thousands of hits. You will find plenty of hits on YouTube too. Nowhere will you find him even remotely defending the commonly held idea of ID.

The most famous argument for ID was given by William Paley who said that if you find a watch lying in your path, you will think that there is a watchmaker so Creation should have a Creator. Dawkins wrote a whole book, The Blind Watchmaker to explain how blind natural processes create the illusion of design. In this talk, Dan Dennett says that Natural Selection is 'a strange inversion of reasoning' which gives rise to 'competance without comprehension'. In his book, Dawkins writes:
There is no reason to think that the laws of physics are violated in living matter. There is nothing supernatural, no 'life force' to rival the fundamental forces of physics. It is just that if you try to use the laws of physics, in a naive way, to understand the behavior of a whole living body, you will find that you don't get very far. The body is a complex thing with many constituent parts, and to understand its  behavior you must apply the laws of physics to its parts, not to the whole. The behavior of the body as a whole will then emerge as a consequence of interactions of the parts. 
In this video where Dawkins talks of taking back the words 'Intelligent Design' from religion (which presumably is one of  the videos that Rahul Easwar was referring to) ,  he warns at the outset of being wary of quote mining It is a type of lying in print in which people are quoted in part and out of context to show that they  actually have different views. It is a  favourite tactic of creationists to show that evolutionists actually support their view as shown by the Quote-mine Project. A well-known example is of creationists quoting Darwin's statement on the eye in Chapter 6 of On the Origin of Species:
To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.
But they never quote what he goes on to say in the rest of the paragraph. Nature is full of Rube Goldberg machines sculpted by evolution tracking changes in local conditions over Millena. If there was a Designer, he doesn't appear to be very intelligent. Bertrand Russell said, “Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.” People who accept ID easily fall for the Deepak Chopra brand of arguments. Bertrand Russell was once asked what his reply would be if he met god and was asked why he didn't believe. He replied that he would say, "God,  you didn't give enough evidence." Similarly Rahul Eashwar doesn't give me enough evidence to change my views.

Kerala is reputed to be  the most literate state in India but going by the  proliferation of superstitious beliefs and the ease with  which godmen fleece  people, the evidence seems to be lacking. As Lawrence Krauss says, “The purpose of education is not to validate ignorance, but to overcome it”.  People who are intelligent and rational in all walks of life suddenly suspend their critical faculties when it comes to religion. I have often heard extremely religious people hum a hit Malayalam humanitarian song with obvious relish although their views will be exactly opposite to what the song says. It is like me enjoying a favourite Malayalam song even though I don't know many words in it. The difference is that those people know Malayalam a lot better than me.

Religion asks to be mocked. As Stephen Hawking said 'heaven is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark'. Even moderately religious people say that god-soaked people tend to think that their god  will take care of them and other people don't count. But then they don't take the next step and say that religion is highly over-rated. It has to do with the social climate where even unbelievers are reluctant to proclaim their unbelief. The Internet helps to make them realise that there are plenty of people with similar doubts.

What really irritates me is the blatant hypocrisy displayed by many god-soaked denizens . For eg., they will boast about having donated thousands for some temple function. They will characterize it as a good deed and strut about like vain peacocks. But if a servant or a driver approaches the same people for a raise of a couple of hundred rupees, they will be reluctant and shop around for cheaper labour. It is a mind-set that I detest.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

God debate in Malayalam -I

For the first time,, I heard a debate about  religion in Malayalam. (Part 1; Part 2) When people say that one should ignore the wacky aspects of religion and debate about concepts that nobody is bothered about, I am reminded about a story regarding Lincoln's assassination. Lincoln was shot while he and his wife were watching a play. Afterwards Mrs. Lincoln was asked, ' "Otherwise how was the play?"

The theist in the debate, Rahul Eashwar, keeps talking about Einstein's God and Spinoza's God saying that these are the concepts that atheists should argue about and not the ideas of the more simplistic believers. I have never met anybody who has talked to me about these concepts. If I have met anybody who is bothered by these concepts,, they have been been very quiet. A friend told me that he has only come across Jeeves and me reading about Spinoza. The criticism of religion by the atheists happen in a particular context where the ideas that Rahul Eashwar calls simplistic or childish predominate by a wide margin. I have written a bit about this tactic of theists.

People will keep telling you that making the right propositions and donations will cause medical miracles, increase marks during exams, fix cricket matches....Nobody will tell  you that Krishna is the Indian version of Dennis the menace. There are powerful politicians, bureaucrats, army commanders etc. who believe implicitly in these ideas. (Advani's letter to religious leaders before the 2009 General Elections was disturbing) There are millions of subscribers of Rahul Eashwar's "childish" beliefs.The ASI digs for  gold based on a sadhu's dream.

Movies, TV channels and the print media give you a constant stream of superstitious beliefs. There will be advertising slots on TV where you will be told about various threads and lockets which can be easily purchased (all credit cards accepted) which are capable of affecting tremendous miracles.  There are a number of religious channels in which folks in various uniforms give gyan. (A saving grace is that in Tata Sky, all these channels are classified under the head 'Entertainment'.) Songs like this or talking to statues is a common feature in Indian movies.

The indoctrination continues in schools where the children are often made to learn Sanskrit slokas whose meanings they don't understand.(It would be interesting to see if the adults who look on approvingly understand the meanings or not. Having said that, the atheist in the above-mentioned debate Prof. Ravichandran. quotes Sanskrit slokas.) You will be harassed if you don't follow religion mandated drills. Nonsense is often peddled in schools. For eg., some years ago, Sujit told me a story that was related by a biology teacher. It was about a man who could turn into a snake to get into a narrow hole. From what I could make out, it was related as a true story.  If a biology teacher believes that then you don't have to go far for your daily dose of rubbish.

Reputed institutions of higher learning are used to spread mumbo-jumbo. During a talk at IIT Madras, a Hindutva activist said, ' “God send his prophet to Saudi Arabia and God sent his son to Israel. God came here 10 times”. You don't have to look further than that to know what is wrong with India. Public funds are used to encourage universities producing priests. Jairam Ramesh was absolutely correct when he said that the country would be better off with more toilets than temples.

I have never been in a discussion where Einstein's God or Spinoza's God (both are the same since Einstein said that his God is Spinoza's God) were the topics of discussion. Einstein makes his views about organised religion clear in a letter which was auctioned recently. Here is Einstein's descirption of his idea of God:
Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious.”
What's to quibble with that? If that is all it takes to be classified as religious, then I would be one too. So I am sure would be Dawkins. If you tell an audience that Spinoza was "god intoxicated", they are likely to think that Spinoza was referring to some version of an anthropomorphic god which is far from the truth. In the Beyond belief conference, Steven  Nadler talks about Spinoza's idea of God (from 47:30 to 1:22:38 ). He says that Spinoza's God is synonymous with nature, that Spinoza thought that conventional religions are organised superstitions, etc. If you tell this to most believers, you will be laughed away. And if you are in an Islamic country, the result may be more unpleasant.

There are people from both sides of the argument - atheists (who Dawkins calls the 'athiest, but...' folk) and moderately religious people - who find ways to excuse all the ills of religion. Franz de Waals, who has done a lot to show continuity in behavior between humans and other animals, is one of the religion-excusing atheists. In this debate between two Oxford dons Richard Dawkins and John Lennox, the latter finds the mysteries of physics as evidence for his version of God.Both types illustrate an XKCD cartoon. In The tell-tale Brain, V.S. Ramachandran writes:
Many of the greatest physicists of this century - Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrodinger, Wolfgang Pauli, Arthur Eddington and James Jeans - have pointed out the basic constituents of matter, such as quanta, are themselves deeply mysterious if not downright spooky,with properties bordering on the metaphysical. So we need not fear that the self might be any less wonderful or awe-inspiring for being made of atoms. You can call this sense of awe and astonishment God, if you like.
As Richard Feynman said, scientific knowledge adds to the beauty of nature; it doesn't subtract.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Dealing with body wastes and other issues - III

Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story (PDF) in which he described an empire that wanted to build a map. The maps they had seen before were not precise enough. They had too much approximation and inexactitude. They kept making bigger and more exact maps and eventually made a map of the empire that was the size of the empire, and “coincided point for point with it.” But even this map could not capture the totality of experiences within the empire. Sure, it could tell you exactly where a a road is or where a building is but it couldn’t, for example, tell you what that building smelled like.

This blog is like that empire-sized map. It may give you some idea of being and looking after a bed-ridden patient but it will not be exact. For eg., you will get only a distant idea of what it is like to lie on your feces , the physical and mental strength required to clean me up after I make a mess of myself etc. But no matter how hard I try, you will not get the complete picture. You will get only an approximate sense of the smells, the disgust, the fears, the anger, the impatience, the relief, the exhaustion, the reminiscences, the little occasions of happiness (kochu kochu santhoshankal, as the title of a Malayalam movie put it)...

In the midst of all this, Jaya has had to contend with emotional blackmails which were much more frequent than now during the time I was admitted in the hospital. I have maintained a diplomatic silence about who all were part of that group. When the group includes relatives, it doesn't put you in a good mood. Although these numbers were small and the carping was infrequent, they were enough to hint at the validity of the saying that friends are god's apology for our relatives.This was a major contributor to my becoming a strident atheist,perhaps the only such black sheep in my extended family. As Rajnikanth said, "En vazhi tani vazhi."

All the people who have tortured Jaya have been ardent believers. If they are the exemplars of religion then I am glad I don't have that affliction. We are all hypocrites to varying degrees on various issues but if you want to find the biggest hypocrites of all, you have to look among the religious. And you won't have to look very long. Very religious people are extremely good at giving advice to others but how about following their own instructions? C'mon that is not part of the deal, is it?  They seem to blithely ignore the fact that there is a significant difference between talking and walking the talk.

It is the height of arrogance to think that the spook who ostensibly created the world has the time to listen to their pathetic whining (aka prayers).To have convinced the major part of the world that this implies humility is a miracle. The fact that I haven't read the books of the major religions does not disqualify me from criticizing them. As Dawkins said, 'You don't have to read Mein Kampf to have an opinion about Nazism.' It is the same about any other belief system. The effects on the real world of a particular belief system can be seen.

The marketers of religious stuff like charms, amulets, religious books (mostly bearded guys in some saffron uniform) and the alternative medicine guys remind me of a gang called 'The Vultures' that I read about in in a Phantom comic. Their modus operandi was to attack towns that had just suffered some kind of natural disaster like floods or earthquakes. Their rationale was that the people in such places would be too devastated by their misfortunes to put up much resistance and hence would be easy pickings.

I saw a debate in Malayalam (the other two parts can be got from the link) which was typical of the kind of arguments I used to get mainly in the first couple of years after my stroke. It is very difficult to argue with the purveyors of superstition who will use all the tricks of the trade to get you to do what they want.Bertrand Russell made a very pertinent comment :"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt. " As Voltaire said, " incantations will destroy a flock of sheep if administered with a certain quantity of arsenic." But it is always the incantations that get the credit not the arsenic. It is probably a blessing that I cannot speak because arguing with them would have been a waste of time. This is another of the 'advantages' of suffering a brain stem stroke. The problem is compounded by the fact that these days everyone is a Google educated doctor. "In a video review of --

But first I must tell you about an old man of around 80 who lived near our house. His wife suffered from Alzheimer's. He was always shopping around for a nurse for his wife because he was often dissatisfied with them. For example, when his wife accidentally passed stool on the toilet seat, the nurse refused to clean it and at his age, he had to do the cleaning. His wife's mind is so far gone that she can't even recognize her children but from somewhere in the recesses of her shattered mind, she recognised that her husband was the person to trust so she will listen to what  he says even when she refuses to do the  same thing if told by others.

He is always cheerful and positive inspite of his difficulties. He says that he has had a good life and if he faces some difficulties now, it is part of life. For long,he resisted the idea of staying with his children because he did not want to disturb them. He recently shifted to his son's place because he once had a fainting fit and became worried about what would happen to his wife if something happened to him. ( To emphasise the point that this could happen to anybody , his son is the MD of TISCO.)

In this video review of Family Matters (it was this review that persuaded me to read the novel and the other two novels by Rohinton Mistry, Such a Long Journey and A Fine Balance), the reviewer Robert Adams says that the novel touches on many unpleasant details of looking after a bed ridden patient when it describes how Roxana looks after her invalid father, at which point the audience  laughs. Adams says, 'those of you who find that amusing, I promise it will come so and you had better hope that there will be some one like Roxana to take care of your bodily functions, that love will pitch its mansion in the place of excrement.' I couldn't agree more with that statement.