Sunday, September 30, 2007

Maxwell's Demon and the Soul

Over at DC, Lee Randolph has been writing about how neuroscience provides grounds for reasonable doubt over the beliefs that we have free will and that we can all be held equally accountable for our sins: two recent posts here and here. The Christian response so far has been to assert that we won't be held equally accountable come Judgment Day, but this response completely dodges the apparent counter-evidence to the theory of free will.

Being engaged in science myself, I'm never content to let one side dominate the discussion without providing other sides the chance to test its predictions. Thus, while riding my bike today, I traipsed upon an architecture for experiments that could potentially reveal evidence for the soul or whatever transcendental entity theists' believe supplies free will.

But first, some background on the inspiration.

In 1867, James Clerk Maxwell described a thought experiment about a "demon" that could violate the second law of thermodynamics, which we should remember states that a closed system of two bodies in contact and with equal temperatures will never reach a state where one body has a significantly higher temperature. This is the law that gave us the concept of entropy: over time differences in temperature, density, and pressure become diminished across an isolated system.

Here's Maxwell's description of the demon, taken from the Wikipedia page.
... if we conceive of a being whose faculties are so sharpened that he can follow every molecule in its course, such a being, whose attributes are as essentially finite as our own, would be able to do what is impossible to us. For we have seen that molecules in a vessel full of air at uniform temperature are moving with velocities by no means uniform, though the mean velocity of any great number of them, arbitrarily selected, is almost exactly uniform. Now let us suppose that such a vessel is divided into two portions, A and B, by a division in which there is a small hole, and that a being, who can see the individual molecules, opens and closes this hole, so as to allow only the swifter molecules to pass from A to B, and only the slower molecules to pass from B to A. He will thus, without expenditure of work, raise the temperature of B and lower that of A, in contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics.
If you've ever read The Calling of Lot 49, then the description will sound familiar (its occurring to me now that the section may have been Pynchon self-correcting his previous amateurish obsession with entropy documented in Slow Learner).

Maxwell's demon is, of course, an impossible entity in the physical world. The Second Law only applies to an isolated system, and Maxwell's conclusion to the thought-experiment fails to include the demon itself within the system. To perform its actions, the demon - as a physical entity - would be as much involved in the system's sliding toward a state of equilibrium as the molecules in A and B.

Yet if the demon, like its namesake, is not a physical entity and not subject to the physical laws that apply to the molecules or the vessels, then the Second Law could be violated. An observer from within the system could identify that some supernatural effect was taking place by the evidence available to them without needing to describe the specific mechanisms that allow the demon to sustain itself and interact with the physical world. The observer couldn't describe the the demon but only its effect on the material world.

If the soul allows humans to have wills that are free (at least to some degree) from material causality, then our souls must act like Maxwell's demon in some sense. The soul must allow neural impulses to proceed unhindered in some instances but not others, but being separate from the physical world, there's no physical requirement for the soul to balance the energy consumed and the energy expended. The purpose of the soul is less specific than Maxwell's demon, but we might expect to see that energy is added to the system extra-physically when the brain makes moral decision and that the energy added may be proportional to the complexity of the dilemma or to the desire of the individual to do the immoral act.

Directly observing the brain and the circular system interact at this level of detail is still a difficult task, but our methods for studying the body are improving all the time. Given a specific hypothesis and the funding, I'm sure the next decade could see at least early trials performed and the methodology refined until the real experiments can be done.

Regardless of how soon the work is done, these experiments could provide solid evidence for a concept that is now currently sustained through faith alone. Current material evidence and prevailing scientific attitudes suggest that our minds are purely the product of our physical brain. If Christians and other theists wish to assert otherwise, it might be beneficial for them to close the empirical gap rather than continue to assert their position by appealing only to faith, ancient writing, and fear that a material universe provides no absolute morality.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Insurance Language

Wading through my insurance policy, I found the line:
Covered Medical Expenses for pregnancy, childbirth and complications of pregnancy are payable on the same basis as any other Sickness.
That's a bizarre defintion of sickness that they're working with. I would search to see how common that might be, but I imagine 99% of my results would be about morning sickness.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Abrahamic Religions and Intersexuality

Rather than continue to inject comments on this subject over at Debunking Christianity, I felt it appropriate to build up my case in a post here.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. - Gen 1:27
Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him? But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her: for [her] hair is given her for a covering. - 1 Cr 11:14-15
In several places, the Old and New Testaments and the Qur'an make it clear that the Hebrew and Christian gods intended that there be two human sexes with a distinct gender role assigned to each within the religion and within the ideal family structure. For a member of either of these sexes to perform the other sex's gender is a shameful or sinful thing. This model was the dominate view within European and Middle Eastern societies since that time as it has been in many other cultures. With the advent of empirically driven medical sciences, many within these societies have come to acknowledge the fact that other cultures have long recognized: among all sexually dimorphic animals, there is room for "error" when primary and secondary sexual characteristics are expressed in an individual.

Among homo sapiens, around 0.018% of all children born fall within that margin of atypical sexual development and are born with ambiguous genitalia or other mismatches between external phenotype, internal body chemistry and structure, and genotype. Due to social norms and the success of behaviorist psychology, the dominant approach by European and North American medicine to these children over the past century had been to "fix" their genitalia when they displayed outward signs of their condition. Often this meant simulating the outward appearance of the female organ due to an assumption that living as a female with lessened reproductive capabilities would somehow be less distressing than living as a male with an atypically small penis. The professionals involved assumed that conditioning during childhood would cause the child to develop in the assigned gender role. The number of cases that were successful cannot be determined, but the number of cases where a gender was chosen unsuccessfully are building. You can read more about the current state of affairs at the Intersex Society of North America's website.

A few things should be noted here:
  1. I am not discussing transsexuality, where an individual of one sex identifies psychologically as another gender. Although intersexuality is often included under the blanket transgender label, the causes of the two conditions and their manifestations are different enough to distinguish them.
  2. Like the rest of us, individuals with disorders of sex development tend to identify as one of the genders typical in their culture. The majority of intersexed individuals in the United States, for example, identify as a man or a woman and not as a third gender because our mainstream culture does not recognize more than two genders. I do not see this as a contradiction of my point, as I am discussing sex, not gender. The first is biological, the second is a combination of the psychological and social.
  3. I understand that what I am arguing poses no problems for theists who have left the exclusivist or literalist wings of monotheism and recognize that all ancient books are human documents and subject to human failings.
My question is: when the documents one is supposed to accept as divinely inspired law maintain that sex is a discrete category and the biological reality is something else entirely, how does one reconcile the difference? What becomes of the strict gender roles when their biological basis is shown to be a failed hypothesis?

When raising a child with fused labia, no uterus, and an enlarged clitoris, do we require them to cover their head or not in prayer? Should they wear hijab? Can they become a priest? Who are they allowed to marry? Do any answers change if they undergo masculinzation at puberty? What if they identify with that masculine identity but had been raised a girl up until then?

Today we might recognize an individual's specific disorder and prescribe hormones or other treatments to help them achieve a semblance of sexual normality and restore some function. Individuals in the past may have been wrongfully condemned or punished because they were unable to seek similar treatments. Who is at fault: the individual, their contemporaries, or the authors of the religious texts that insisted there were discrete sexes and condemned homosexuality and gender atypical behavior?