The Unbinding Problem

We human folk are pretty good at taking information from different sensory channels and combining it into unified impressions. When I watch a video recording of Richard Feynman, for example, my optic nerves carry a flood of data pulses, signals which somehow arrive in my brain and sync up with the voice which sounds like a Brooklyn gangster (but which actually came from Far Rockaway, of course). A unified whole then emerges, without my conscious effort.

Like they’ve done with all the other odd aspects of brain function, people have invoked quantum mechanics to “explain” this: the mind is mysterious, quantum physics is mysterious, and so the two must be related. Only your blind devotion to linear, Western, patriarchal science prevents you from seeing the Truth! (Oddly enough, the OprahChopra-woo crowd never seem to remark on how the original developers of quantum physics were, almost all of them, White Males who are now Dead.) The “binding problem” is no exception.

However, as both Max Tegmark and Ray F. Streater have pointed out, the proponents of what we might call “quantum binding” — Henry Stapp in particular — fail to consider that correlations are perfectly possible in classical physics. The invocation of quantum physics is only a maladroit solution to a non-problem. In Tegmark’s words,

For instance, oscillations in a guitar string are local in Fourier space, not in real space, so in this case the “binding problem” can be solved by a simple change of variables. As Eddington remarked [77], when observing the ocean we perceive the moving waves as objects in their own right because they display a certain permanence, even though the water itself is only bobbing up and down. Similarly, thoughts are presumably highly non-local excitation patterns in the neural network of our brain, except of a non-linear and much more complex nature.

Now, a patient has turned up in whose brain binding does not occur. G. Lee and H. B. Coslett write of the patient “K.E.,”

He was unable to report more than one attribute of a single object. For example, he was unable to name the color of the ink in which words were written despite naming the word correctly. Several experiments demonstrated, however, that perceptual attributes that he was unable to report influenced his performance.

K.E. had suffered stroke damage to his parietal lobes on both sides of his brain, or in technical terms, “bilateral posterior parietal infarcts.” In addition to his binding difficulties, he experienced simultanagnosia, an inability to see more than one object out of several presented to his view at once.

It may be a “dog bites man” report by now, but I think it’s worth noting that finding patients with neural dysfunctions is still a more productive way of gaining new neuroscientific knowledge than woolly-headed speculation about quantum mechanics, speculation which incidentally ignores big facts about physics.

(Tip o’ the fedora to Mind Hacks, and to Warren Ellis, whose “4am” provides my current background score.)

What I Value Most in Life

I was just about to settle in with a slice of chocolate cake, fresh from the oven, and a DVD of Laura (1944), when I noticed that a new Carnival of the Godless had come online. While skimming the essays therein collected, I left a comment at John Wilson’s place, on a subject I’d like to explore more fully sometime soon, and then I found that Mike Haubrich had discovered a book called (it really satirizes itself) The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible (2007). Its author, Robert J. Hutchinson, should certainly be proud of the reviews:

The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible by Robert Hutchinson fires back at this icy trend with history, statistics, logic, humor and even a few rabbit punches. If counter-terrorist Jack Bauer were to take up Christian apologetics, he might have penned something like this.

Well, Dan Dennett might get his fingernails torn off, but I’m not sure that style of apologetics really constitutes a worthwhile intellectual argument.

“For secular fundamentalists, religion in general, and the Bible in particular, are not just wrongheaded but actually dangerous,” Hutchinson writes. “That’s because religion and the Bible stand in the way of everything they value most in life—primarily unlimited sex, of course, but also the power to reshape society into a kind of secular utopia free from traditional ethical restraint.”

That these words were put in this order the way they were just fills me with admiration for the sheer variety of wirings which can exist between human ears. It also pumps up my urge for the cheap shot: don’t ya know that the “traditional ethical restraint” against, oh, say, rape was only fifty shekels and an arranged marriage? You can’t get much more traditional than Deuteronomy 22:28–9.
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According to Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), the United States is spending $15 billion a month on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This is almost three times the National Science Foundation’s annual budget, spent every month.

The original cost estimate for Mars Direct, a manned mission to Mars relying on present-day propulsion technology, was only $55 billion, which would be spent over a decade.

You know, whenever grant-writing time rolls around, everybody jokes about working in “fight the war on terror” applications for their research (in carbon nanotubes, or category theory, or whatever). I don’t think it’s working.

(Tip o’ the accountant’s visor to Phil Plait.)


Jay Novella writes about absinthe, and how this classic beverage is really just another kind of booze: the “special ingredient,” thujone, isn’t really a hallucinogen after all. This is doubtless the cause of much heartbreak and disappointment, but I have a solution:

LSD-spiked absinthe.

What could possibly go wrong? This is serious psychiatry we’re talking about, here. I mean, a bottle in front of me is still better than a prefrontal lobotomy, right?

A Meme for Year’s End

Tyler DiPietro tagged me with a meme, in obedience to which I’m supposed to answer a series of questions about my personal behavior. I said I would do this if I could answer the questions in a way which wasn’t terminally dull; if you see this post, then I’ve succeeded, at least in my own estimation. If you don’t see this post, then I failed and I didn’t want you to know.
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Commies Conquer Publishing Industry!

Yesterday morning, an omnibus spending bill was signed into law, a bill among whose provisions lurked the mandate that the National Institutes of Health require Open Access for all research funded under its auspices. The language in question states,

The Director of the National Institutes of Health shall require that all investigators funded by the NIH submit or have submitted for them to the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication: Provided, That the NIH shall implement the public access policy in a manner consistent with copyright law.

And it ain’t just a good idea no more.

John Gordan has had the best rimshot so far:

I’d also like to thank the biomedical publishing industry. This could never have happened without the transformation of a cottage industry into short-sighted publicly traded corporations dedicated to maximizing near term revenue. Publishers pushed journal subscription and archive access prices to stratospheric levels, knowing their subscribers had no real options. It was a great short term strategy …

This is what happens when those slinky, no good Reds are “both elusive and in possession of a better message“.

Creationist Tax Policy

One of my Christmas gifts this year was Peter Irons’ God on Trial (2007), a rollicking account of courtroom clashes about religious influence in the public sphere. Irons, you may recall, was a dry-humored champion of justice in the Stuart Pivar affair, and these days, he’s been doing a little gumshoe work to uncover cdesign proponentsist shenanigans with regard to copyright violations. This is a pretty tangled business, and it probably won’t escalate into the next Dover trial, but it does have its amusing aspects.

For example, known pseudoscientist William Dembski has been complaining to his lawyer that Irons just won’t shut up with the pesky honesty. To hear poor li’l Dembski tell it, he just can’t go a single day without some e-mail from Irons, pestering him about academic integrity and intellectual property. This part caught my eye:

Moreover, I’m not particularly happy that Irons sends them from the UCSD server, which my tax dollars are indirectly supporting.

Gee, I wonder if Dembski is going to stop paying his taxes, given that during the 2007 fiscal year, the National Science Foundation was appropriated $5.9 billion dollars, and all those half-a-trillion pennies went to support actual science instead of Intelligent Design. Now, this isn’t very much of his withholding tax, since the NSF’s slice came out of a $463.5-billion pie (called H.J.Res.20), but it’s still enough to make him yowl like a wet LOLcat: “Noooo! They be takin mah taxez! Do not want!”
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X-Mas Update

I now have a camera phone which won’t talk to Apple computers and an iPod Nano which won’t talk to anything at all. In addition, I have a GPS-based automobile navigation device — the kind with an insistent female voice which never says “please” or “thank you” — of a brand which I just heard my cousin saying doesn’t work in Boston, thanks to all the tall buildings (and, probably, the non-Euclidean geometry of the roads).

Season’s greetings from gadget-geekery land. . . .