Sunday, 26 January 2014

What is depression like?

I know there is so much written about depression, but there are so many kinds, and each has its own character.  I'm a sufferer from what is called "anxiety depression".  What is it like?  It's like a phobia about life, a phobia that just won't go away, leaving the mind utterly drained and unable to cope with anything much.  (What's the difference between anxiety and phobia? Anxiety results from thoughts about what might happen.  Phobia is a gut feeling that bypasses thoughts.  Anxieties can sometimes be dealt with by discussion and reasoning, whereas phobias are much stronger and far harder to sort out, and sometimes they never are)

I have had this illness many times throughout my life.  It tends to happen at times of stress, but it's not easily predictable.  It usually starts with a feeling of fear and vertigo, as if the world is spinning and if I don't concentrate hard I'm going to lose my mind.  This is a panic attack.  There need be nothing rational or predictable about what starts the attack - once it gets started it can drift from one thing to another, as if my mind is seeking the next thing to worry about, although 'worry' is a huge understatement of the feeling.  If the panic attack fades soon, then I'm probably going to be OK, but when it lasts for days, I know I'm in trouble.  I end up locked into a state of fear and exhaustion, which soon becomes full depression.  I feel everything is grey, that I'm worthless and undeserving, that I'm trapped, normal routine aspects of life become just too much to deal with, leading to feelings of fear and weepiness at the thought of having to cope with them.  This can be so sudden that it fits the now somewhat outdated term 'nervous breakdown'.  Depressions, for me, don't always start like this - they can start because of other causes of mental exhaustion, but the panic attack is the most common way.

There's no positive side to this kind of depression, it's not like manic depression where there are periods of feeling happy and hyper.  It's all down.  From past experience, I know what to do to deal with this illness when it recurs.  I find a place of security - home, or even just a bed or a sofa, and stay there while constantly distracting my mind with activities such as reading.  At the same time, I get from the doctors a prescription of an SSRI antidepressant, which helps calm my emotions and has always worked as a cure before, although it can take a long time (months at least).

Right now I'm on the SSRI, and occasionally able to cope with some work, although I am still having really bad days when I can't manage anything.  Feelings of fear and anxiety along with phobia mean I have not been able to travel far for some time, and I can't see that changing as things are - this is agoraphobia and part of this recurrence of depression.

I'm very lucky to have a supportive husband, understanding family, and so many friends I can reach online - past depressive attacks have been very lonely times.

So that's what it's like: fear, anxiety, phobia, lack of mental capacity to deal with what should be routine, low self-worth, exhaustion.  It gets better, but it takes a long time.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

How the Higgs field (really) works

The Higgs effect gives particles mass, but how it gives them mass isn't explained well (so I have found after watching a talk by Leonard Susskind), and the analogies given for how the Higgs effect works are invariably wrong.  The Higgs field doesn't make space seem sticky like molasses, and it doesn't work like a celebrity not being able to walk fast through a room (both common analogies).  I'm not enough of a physicist to be able to go into detail, but I can explain how a field like the Higgs can give particles mass which will result in them having inertia.

Quantum fields fill space - they are everywhere even though their typical values almost everywhere may be zero.   Also, fields can exist even without having definite sources.  The Higgs field is present everywhere and one of its properties is that its lowest energy state - the state it is at when nothing else is going on, isn't zero.  The default value of the Higgs field in our universe is not nothing.  This means that the Higgs field can have an effect everywhere.  Relativity says that the laws of Nature should appear the same however you are moving - whatever speed you are travelling.  This means that the Higgs field appears the same for any situation of constant speed (or no speed at all).

Given that the Higgs field is everywhere and for everyone, we can then look at how a field can give something energy.  To make thinks simpler, imagine that there was a magnetic field everywhere - that there was some universal North pole and an opposite South pole.  Now, if you had a bar magnet in deep space, away from the magnetic fields of planets, stars and galaxies, it would try and line up with the universal magnetic field, with the magnet's North pole pointing to the universal South and the magnet's South pole pointing to the universal North.  This would be the lowest energy state of the magnet.  Now, if you turned the magnet 180 degrees so its North pointed to the universal North and its South pointed to the universal South, the magnet would be at a higher energy (it takes energy to turn it to that direction).  Now, as Einstein said E = mc2 : energy has mass.  The magnet in this new position would be more massive, and so it would take more force to accelerate it.  The effect would be extremely small, but it would be there.

Now, the Higgs field isn't like a magnetic field.  For one thing, it has no direction (it's a 'scalar' field).  But, it can interact with things in a similar way so as to give them more energy than they would have than if the Higgs field were not there, and that energy means that such things have mass that they would not have.  It's nothing like the analogies listed above - the Higgs field doesn't slow anything down, or get in the way, it simply adds mass-energy to particles because they interact with the Higgs field.

There is still much to be discovered - different particles interact with the Higgs field to difference extends, and so there is a (vast) range of masses of the known fundamental particles.  But, why particles gain mass from the Higgs field isn't particularly hard to understand.

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Week - "Memo to atheists - God's not dead yet"

In this article in "The Week", it's suggested that there is an argument for God that atheists haven't dealt with.  I could not resist a look:

"But, of course, the major world religions don’t view God in this way at all. They treat God, instead, as the transcendent source, the ground, or the end of the natural world. And that is an enormous — actually, an infinite — difference."

"The deeper reason why theism can’t be rejected, according to Hart, is that every pursuit of truth, every attempt to be good, every longing for beauty presupposes the existence of some idea of truth, goodness, and beauty from which these particular instances are derived. And these transcendental ideas unite in the classical concept of God, who simply is truth, goodness, and beauty. That’s why, although it isn’t necessary to believe in God in some explicit way in order to be good, it certainly is the case (in Hart’s words) "that to seek the good is already to believe in God, whether one wishes to do so or not.""

This is, as expected, nonsense.  To deal with the first point, we have no reason to believe that the natural world has a "ground" or needs a "transcendent source".  There certainly can be no evidence for such a thing, and because there can be no evidence, there is nothing in human experience that can justifiably lead to a believe in such a "ground".  It's nothing but digging up outdated Aristotelian ideas of the cosmos yet again.

The second statement is logical nonsense, as it attempts to reify abstractions.  To say that God "is" truth, goodness, beauty is nothing but waffle.  One might just as well say that atheists can't reject God because God IS smell, and so anyone who searches for an odour is already seeking God.

Such arguments for God are full of category errors, assuming that abstractions are real and require some "source", without (of course) ever describing how being a source of such abstractions is supposed to actually work - does God have to concentrate really hard to be a source of goodness?

Finally, the God that is described here is nothing like the Gods believed in by billions.  A vague grounding of reality cannot be the Father In Heaven, or the Forgiver of Sins - there can be no justification for belief in prayer, miracles, or an afterlife.

What is described here isn't a theistic God, and it's not really anything at all.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Haidt, Libertarians and Statistics

In this talk Jonathan Haidt talks about research into the views of Libertarians as compared to Conservatives and Liberals.

The results seem to me to be seriously flawed.

The first point is that at no time does Haidt present any visual indication of the sampling errors in the data.  There may be a difference of a few percent between Liberals and Libertarians in one of the charts, but what significance does this few percent have?

The second point is that there was no indication in the data of the distribution of views.  Were Libertarians all just a bit lower than Conservatives in one of the charts, or were the views widely distributed, or in clumps?

The third point is that no control questions were asked - some of the questions were designed to seek out specific values (or lack of values!) of Libertarians, but no results of neutral questions were presented to see if there was any sampling bias.

The final point is that the results of the most data seems to be a general 'so what?' - the differences between Libertarians and either Conservatives and Liberals was so slight as to make the drawing of  any conclusions seem rather a waste of time.

What Haidt has presented here are slight and obvious effects, with no surprises, and with little in the way of solid conclusions.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Why dualism and ephiphenomenalism are incoherent positions

There is a widely accepted principle called 'causal closure' which says that what happens in the world has a complete physical explanation. There are no gaps in the world for magic. The behaviour of the pieces of our world are well-understood, even though the behaviour of those pieces in large numbers can be intractable: we know the physical principles that are involved in water and air molecules and yet long-term weather prediction may be forever beyond us. That intractability doesn't mean that any new physical forces or substances are involved: weather is only molecules doing what molecules do.

Causal closure has implications for what we can sensibly say about our minds, because no matter what we think or believe or feel, causal closure means that there is a complete physical explanation for those mental states. Causal closure also means that whatever we say about our mental states has to have a complete physical explanation too – after all, the transferring of mental states into movements of the mouth, tongue, throat and lungs is a physical process! It might seem pendantic to go into such detail about what is involved in speaking, but the sheer physicality of our conversations about the nature of mind is an important part of understanding what is going on in such conversations: it's a mistake to think of human conversation as hovering some way between the physical and mental realms – it's a physical event, known particles and forces doing what they do, albeit in vast numbers.

The physicality of conversation means that it is subject to the laws that apply to all physical systems, and some of those laws deal with the nature of information. The activity of the brain is information processing, this information being present as the states and connections of brain cells. Each cell is a switch with tens of thousands of inputs. The signals from the inputs are summed and the cell either sends out its own signal or not depending on that sum. Cells can also change the number and character if their inputs based on aspects of the signals they receive. The brain is a vast and complex web of information processing units, yet there is nothing more going on than millions and billions of cells communicating and changing connections (although 'nothing more' seems dismissive of the richness and complexity of what brains actually do).

How does information end up in physical brain states? There are limited possibilities. One way is through the activity of brain cells: existing brain states can be transformed to new brain states. Another way is via sensory input: a variety of physical inputs from the world are encoded by sense organs into neuron activity and this is fed into the brain via nerves. Those are the only ways. Thinking and imagination have to be brain state transformations because of causal closure, and sense inputs are brain state transformations because of external signals. Of course, sensory input can itself contain coded information, as in speech or writing, but the purely physical nature of that information remains, no matter what the degree of encoding.

These limits of the possible sources of information about what is real are a real problem for any kind of dualism or epiphenomenalism, because these limits prevent thoughts from representing knowledge of dualism or epiphenomenalism. Thoughts can, of course, represent beliefs about things that are or might be real. Through some amazing co-incidence such beliefs might be true, but they can never be true because of knowledge. When someone comes to believe that some kind of extra non-physical aspect of mind exists, that change in belief cannot be caused by any property of that aspect, because a change of belief is a change in information, and that requires physical interactions: given causal closure, none of the reasons for believing in any non-physical aspects of mind are good reasons.

Some positions about consciousness consider that consciousness could exist as a parallel form of reality that exactly follows the physical. An example of this is pan-psychism, the idea that every particle in the universe has some minute quantity of consciousness, but less broad suggestions of the relationship between consciousness and the physical are rather more respectable. However, even these positions which respect the physical and causal closure fail in terms of knowledge. If some aspect of reality is completely mapped on to the physical, then it cannot differ in information content from the physical: every state change of the physical is accompanied by a parallel state change in the non-physical. This means that the non-physical aspect of reality cannot contain knowledge of itself, only beliefs about itself. It's not possible, because of causal closure, for either the existence of the non-physical or the relationship between the physical and non-physical to have causal influence on the physical, and so knowledge of the existence of even this relatively respectable form of semi-dualism is not possible – beliefs in this dualism cannot be justified.

Dualism and ephiphenomenalism are not just dead but well-buried. It's hard to justify the belief in such aspects of reality as even coherent. It may be reasonable to talk of 'what it is like' to be a conscious being, but, given causal closure, it isn't coherent to talk of 'what it is like' as being any justification for there being a non-physical extra part to minds. It just doesn't work.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Why be moral if there is no god?

This is a question that has been discussed for thousands of years, and is still very relevant to those who want to understand the motivations of non-believers or who are questioning faith.

I'm absolutely not an expert about this, but I hope I can give a brief summary of how morality can be established without any supernatural basis.

The first place to start is evolution.  There is a good book by the philosopher Patricia Churchland called "Braintrust - what neuroscience tells us about morality".  It's an easy read and explains how our moral sense evolved over hundreds of millions of years.  We have evolved as a parenting species and social species and that means we have developed empathic abilities that mean that we (or at least those of us who are healthy) share the feelings of others.  We find joy in in the happiness of others and we experience pain when we see suffering.  This is an objective part of our biology.

That suffering and happiness are objective biological facts gives us a basis for a naturalistic morality, given the reasonable understanding that suffering is to be avoided and happiness to be encouraged.  We use a combination of discussion with others and our empathic senses to work out frameworks of morality that reduce suffering and encourage happiness.  Of course, there is nothing simple about working out such frameworks, but the foundation of thought behind this is sound and based on objective facts - the existence of mental states of others, determined by discussion and empathy.

There is another way to look at how to act morally in the world without gods that can also be successful and that is the very practical guidelines given by the core of Buddhism:  life involves suffering and we want to reduce or avoid suffering.  One important aspect of avoiding suffering is to consider the consequences to others of your actions, because of Karma, which can be thought of as the reasonable view that you experience the consequences of your actions when they affect others.  Example: if you are a jerk to others, you can expect them to be a jerk back to you!  Buddhism suggests that to help live a happier life yourself it's a good idea to be kind and supportive of others.  There is no notion of absolutes here, no concept of holiness or sin, just a practical recipe for a happier life.

Finally, part of living without the idea of supernatural moral absolutes is to trust yourself.  You are an organism that has resulted from evolution over hundreds of millions of years to produce a successfully social species.  Unless you have psychopathic tendencies you have a mental framework that will encourage you to do good and inhibit you from doing bad.  Trust your neurons!