The Psi thing

Greek psi

Greek psi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I read a book recently, a real paper book, which was called “brain wars” and was written by Mario Beauregard, who is a neuroscience professor at the University of Montreal. The book amounts to an attack on materialist philosophy, arguing that the materialist philosophy cannot explain everything, especially the phenomenon of consciousness and “psi” phenomena.

One of the cornerstones of his argument is based around the dualist notion that mind and brain are separate “things”, and indeed one key section from the text, quoted in the blurb on the dust cover as follows:

The brain can be weighed, measured, scanned, dissected, and studied. The mind that we conceive to be generated by the brain, however, remains a mystery. It has no mass, no volume, and no shape and it cannot be measured in space and time. Yet it is as real as neurons, neurotransmitters, and synaptic junctions. It is also very powerful.

A little later he poses the question that the opponents of Decartes posed : “How, they asked, can an immaterial, mental substance act upon the material brain?”

A diagrammatic section of human brain by René ...

Beauregard later quotes Minsky’s statement “The brain is just a computer made out of meat”. For reasons that he goes into in depth later he states that quantum mechanics “has effectively smashed the scientific materialist worldview.” He then complacently concludes that “(m)aterialistic theories, despite their stubborn persistence in the scientific community, cannot solve the mind-brain problem”.

This despite the fact that Quantum Mechanics is completely materialistic and rational!

Marvin Minsky at the KI 2006 artificial intell...

Marvin Minsky at the KI 2006 artificial intelligence conference in Bremen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I believe that Minsky’s view is closer to true than the view that there is more to reality than the materialistic view allows. Beauregard is not a computer scientist so he would not know, in detail, how computers work, under the covers. At a basic level running computer is all about signals. These signals flow through the computer like signals flow through the brain’s network of neurons. (Caveat: I’m not a neuroscientist like Beauregard so I may be misrepresenting his field.)

neuron fractal 1

neuron fractal 1 (Photo credit: Anthony Mattox)

At a slightly higher level, a computer runs an operating system. This is program that runs all the time on the computer, running the programs that the user requires, handling the users input by running other little pieces of code, and handling all the bits of equipment (peripherals) that are connected to the computer. Crucially, the operating system can make the peripherals do things, like print the letter “A” on a sheet of paper, or spit out the sheet from the printer. Special purpose computers are the core of the robots that build cars or assemble toasters and pack them  and label them. They can even sort letters, reading ordinary human writing, much of the time accurately.

Factory Automation with industrial robots for ...

Factory Automation with industrial robots for metal die casting in foundry industry, robotics in metal manufacturing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Interestingly people don’t think of robots as mobile computers that can interact with physical objects. The computers in robots run an operating system like your ordinary laptop or desktop, but they are often special versions called “embedded” operating systems.

Open up a computer though, and boot it up. Although you can point to various named parts, like the CPU, or the memory chips, you can’t point to the operating system. It essentially just a pattern impressed on the memory and the various registers and the CPU, and it changes over time. As Beauregard said about the mind, “it has no mass, no volume, and no shape, and it cannot be measured in space and time”. Yet it can influence things, print a letter or paint a car chassis.

June 11, 2007

June 11, 2007 (Photo credit: HeatherKaiser)

It seems that the computer, with its operating system and subsidiary programs, is a good analogy for the brain/mind duality. A big caution here, in that this analogy is just analogy, but it could form the basis of a model of the way that the mind and brain work together. It doesn’t, per se, explain consciousness, but I think that I have, above, provided an explanation of how the supposedly immaterial mind can, through the brain, affect the body, so that we can think above moving a limb, and it happens.

Quantum Physics

Quantum Physics (Photo credit: Jonathan Thorne CC)

Beauregard fastens on “quantum physics” as a possible enabler of psi phenomena, arguing that in quantum physics there is no separation between the mental and the physical. He bases this on what he calls the observer effect : “particles being observed and the observer are linked, and the results of the observation are influenced by the observer’s conscious attempt”.

Hmm. Wikipedia defines the “observer effect” as follows :

In science, the term observer effect refers to changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner. A commonplace example is checking the pressure in an automobile tire; this is difficult to do without letting out some of the air, thus changing the pressure. This effect can be observed in many domains of physics.

This is a purely physical effect of measurement – the measuring photon knocks the observed particle slightly off course. Nothing to do with the observer. (A related effect, the Heisenberg principle puts limits on the accuracy with which we can know both the original values of a pair related properties and the subsequent values – roughly speaking).

An optical illusion. Square A is exactly the s...

An optical illusion. Square A is exactly the same shade of grey as square B. See demonstration. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think that Beauregard is actually referring to is an interpretation of quantum mechanics known as the “Copenhagen Interpretation” otherwise known as the “Collapse of the Waveform”. As such he interprets it as saying that the act of observation affects the result of the observation. This is fundamentally not true, because what really happens is that the act of observation merely determines which of probabilities is true. As Wikipedia says :

What collapses in this interpretation is the knowledge of the observer and not an “objective” wavefunction.

In no way does the observer influence the results of the experiment except as a result of the real “observer effect” above, so there is no room there for psi effects.

English: Example of a subject in a Ganzfeld ex...

English: Example of a subject in a Ganzfeld experiment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You may think that I didn’t enjoy the book, but I did! There are unexplained and challenging events described in the book, but I don’t think that it goes anywhere near challenging the materialistic philosophy of science. The only part that I have issue with is when Beauregard challenges what he calls “pseudoskeptics”, those who profess to be skeptics and who are unwilling to look at the evidence for psi phenomenon.


USE IT… (Photo credit: Demetrios Georgalas aka brexians)

In fact these so called pseudoskeptics have probably looked into psi phenomenon at some stage and decided that further consideration is pointless given the diffuse and dubious nature of some evidence and the lack of any information about how this could tie in to or extend in some logical way existing materialistic physics.

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