Saturday, December 02, 2006

Poles apart

I first heard of Stuart Hameroff a year or two ago and from some psychic-astrology-new age site at that (in hindsight, perhaps appropriately so). After visiting his site, I came out very skeptical of what he was proposing, not least because he was invoking quantum mechanisms for neurological activity. What stopped me from pigeonholing him as a complete woowoo was his stated collaboration with Nobel Prize laureate Roger Penrose. I know next to nothing about quantum mechanics and if, even implicitly, an eminent physicist as Penrose says there's something to what Hameroff is claiming, then there must be something there. Fine. Well, Hameroff never crossed my mind from then on. And I never had to entertain what to me were wacky ideas about the mind/brain.

That is, until Session 4 of the Beyond Belief conference. Lo and behold, he turns out to be one of the speakers. Actually took a couple of moments for me to remember and realize that this is the guy I stumbled upon sometime ago. Listening to his "quantum consciousness" hypothesis was an ordeal. Easily the most technical paper delivered during the conference. By the time he came to his point about consciousness, neurons, and going back in time, my skeptical mind just about had enough. I haven't seen all the Beyond Belief sessions but thus far Hameroff's proposal takes home the prize of being the zany one in the lot, one very sore thumb sticking out indeed. Joan Roughgarden's points in her own talk, even if kind of lame, were pretty run of the mill compared to Hameroff's.

So it was a relief (felt like a vindication of the running condition of my baloney detector) that after the presentation, physicist Lawrence Krauss burst out and told Hameroff straight from the shoulder that he was plainly wrong, that he'd misunderstood and misapplied quantum physics. I wish physicist Steven Weinberg could've stayed on and thus lent his opinion on the matter.

The camera never cut to V.S. Ramachandran nor to Michael Shermer. And neither made any comments during the Q&A portion. It would've been interesting (and edifying) to hear from the neuroscientist and the skeptic by trade.

I think this Hameroff vignette reinforces the heuristic that it pays to be wary and skeptical of a non-physicist who talks (authoritatively) about quantum mechanics and of anyone who starts blabbing about how quantum physics explains some pet macrocospic phenomenon of theirs. I think we should keep pointing the spotlight on (and even ridiculing) those who glibly and recklessly use the adjective as in Hameroff's "quantum consciousness" in the hopes that people leave "quantum" to the physicists.

What was never addressed and what I'd like to know is what Penrose actually thinks of Hameroff's hypothesis, what Penrose himself is suggesting vis-a-vis the mind and consciousness, and what his fellow physicists as well as neuroscientists think of these ideas of his.

Moving to the other end of the spectrum, Harvard professor Mahzarin Banaji's short presentation (Session 7) is for me by far the most captivating. Human psychology is always a fascinating subject, particularly the various perceptual and judgment errors that we inherently are predisposed to, what Banaji calls "bugs in our mind." Just to summarize, she talked about the availability error; about a recent odor study which showed that people in a room sprayed with Lysol (without the subjects being told explicitly about this fact) tended to dine more neatly; unconscious biases in decision making; racial stereotypes/prejudices and how they've changed (at least in America, or more specifically Princeton) or so it seems in the conscious level but may still be lurking or even operative somehow unconsciously; how we have a gender-career bias and how it is very much correlated with age with younger people showing less of the bias; how it is that we all have unconscious biases albeit varying from person to person--even if we know what ought and ought not to be and subscribe to those beliefs--and how such seemingly deep-seated biases are actually, as Banaji puts it, quite malleable to change. Banaji treated the audience to a couple of fun psychological tests that demonstrated our use of the availability heuristic as well as our proclivity toward gender-role bias. For more of these pretty self-revealing tests she suggests visiting

Banaji's hope is that discoveries in (social) psychology including the ones she talked about, particularly unconscious biases that all of us have, would lead us to a better understanding of the phenomenon we call religion. I'm reminded of Daniel Dennett's 2005 work whose subtitle contends that religion is a natural phenomenon, implying that it is a legitimate subject for science and its methods to bear upon. To me at least it is a truism that religion is a natural phenomenon. I don't see how it can be otherwise. Deities may, by definition, be outside the natural realm, but religion per se--the act of believing, socialization into the beliefs of one's culture/family, the rituals, formation of institutions, etc.--are pretty much human activities and spring forth from us--evolutionarily, culturally, psychologically. My own personal bias is that psychology is one if not the most important field that can enlighten us about religion. The subdiscipline of psychology of religion has, of course, been around for over a century, although there has unfortunately not been that much progress in it (Dr. Michael Nielsen's site is one that I've been visiting for some years now for updates on this field of study).

I think Banaji's really lively and interactive presentation had an impact on how Richard Dawkins' own talk, which was right after hers, came across. Bluntly speaking, it was pretty dull. Two reasons I believe. One is that he ostensibly lacked enthusiasm and energy (or maybe the abrupt change in energy levels between him and Banaji was simply too jarring, while the difference in the level of alacrity couldn't have helped either). Another, perhaps more important, reason is that I've already heard the various points he raised either in other talks he'd given during his recent book tour or read them in The God Delusion. Except for the slides he showed (finally saw what I only heard in audio files) there was nothing new to me. Certainly not to pooh pooh the various things he raised. It is worth watching if you haven't heard or read these thoughts of his yet.

(An aside: I myself have no fashion sense at all, but what Banaji wore was pretty hard not to notice and train your eyes on. Inspired by some traditional Indian attire perhaps? Pleasing to the eye, I should say. I think the scarf (which I doubt has any Indian roots) she had on served beautifully to break the monochromatic monotony.)

No comments: