This is not a new story, but it is worth repeating. At the moment that bullets were being fired into JFK’s motorcade, a man can be seen standing on the side of the road near the car holding an open black umbrella. It was a sunny day (although it had rained the night before) and no one else in Dallas was holding an umbrella.
This is exactly the kind of detail that sets a fire under conspiracy theorists. It is a genuine anomaly – something that sticks out like a sore thumb.
The event also defies our intuition about probability. Even if one could accept that somewhere on the streets of Dallas that morning one man decided to hold an open umbrella for some strange reason, what are the odds that this one man would be essentially standing right next to the president’s car when the bullets began to fly?
Our evolved tendency for pattern recognition and looking for significance in events screams that this anomaly must have a compelling explanation, and since it is associated with the assassination of a president, it must be a sinister one.
When you delve into the details of any complex historical event, however, anomalies such as this are certain to surface. People are quirky individual beings with rich and complex histories and motivations. People do strange things for strange reasons. There is no way to account for all possible thought processes firing around in the brains of every person involved in an event.
Often the actions of others seem unfathomable to us. Our instinct is to try to explain the behavior of others as resulting from mostly internal forces. We tend to underestimate the influence of external factors. This is called the fundamental attribution error.
We also tend to assume that the actions of others are deliberate and planned, rather than random or accidental.
The common assumption underlying all of these various instincts is that there is a specific purpose to events, and especially the actions of others. We further instinctively fear that this purpose is sinister, or may be working against our own interests in some way. In this way, we all have a little conspiracy theorist inside us.
*Who Was the Umbrella Man?
Whenever the discussion of a dualist vs materialist model of the mind comes up, one common point made to support the dualist position (that the mind is something other than or more than just the functioning of the brain) is that the brain may not be the origin of the mind, but rather is just the receiver. Often an explicit comparison is made to radios or televisions.
The brain as receiver hypothesis, however, is wholly inadequate to explain the relationship between the brain and the mind, as I will explain below.
As an example of the brain-receiver argument, David Eagleman writes in his book Incognito:
As an example, I’ll mention what I’ll call the “radio theory” of brains. Imagine that you are a Kalahari Bushman and that you stumble upon a transistor radio in the sand. You might pick it up, twiddle the knobs, and suddenly, to your surprise, hear voices streaming out of this strange little box. If you’re curious and scientifically minded, you might try to understand what is going on. You might pry off the back cover to discover a little nest of wires. Now let’s say you begin a careful, scientific study of what causes the voices. You notice that each time you pull out the green wire, the voices stop. When you put the wire back on its contact, the voices begin again. The same goes for the red wire. Yanking out the black wire causes the voices to get garbled, and removing the yellow wire reduces the volume to a whisper. You step carefully through all the combinations, and you come to a clear conclusion: the voices depend entirely on the integrity of the circuitry. Change the circuitry and you damage the voices.
He argues that the Bushman might falsely conclude that the wires in the radio produce the voices by some unknown mechanism, because he has no knowledge of electromagnetic radiation and radio technology.
This point also came up several times in the 600+ comments following my post on the Afterlife Debate. Commenter Luoge, for example, wrote:
“But the brain-as-mediator model has bot yet been ruled out. We can tamper with a TV set and modify its behaviour just as a neurosurgeon can do with a brain. We can shut down some, or all, of its functioning, and we can stimulate to show specific responses. And yet no neurologist is known to have thought that the TV studio was inside the TV set.”
There are two reasons to reject the brain-as-mediator model – it does not explain the intimate relationship between brain and mind, and (even if it could) it is entirely unnecessary.
To deal with the latter point first, I have used the example of the light-fairy. When I flip the light switch on my wall, the materialist model holds that I am closing a circuit, allowing electricity to flow through the wires in my wall to a specific appliance (such as a light fixture). That light fixture contains a light bulb which adds resistance to the circuit and uses the electrical energy to heat an element in order to produce light and heat.
One might hypothesize, however, that an invisible light fairy lives in my wall. When I flip the switch the fairy flies to the fixture where it draws energy from the electrical wires, and then creates light and heat that it causes to radiate from the bulb. The light bulb is not producing the light and heat, it is just a conduit for the light fairy’s light and heat.
There is no way you can prove that my light fairy does not exist. It is simply entirely unnecessary, and adds nothing to our understanding of reality. The physics of electrical circuits do a fine job of accounting for the behavior of the light switch and the light. There is no need to invoke light bulb dualism.
The same is true of the brain and the mind, the only difference being that both are a lot more complex.
More importantly, however, we have enough information to rule out the brain-as-receiver model unequivocally.
The examples often given of the radio or TV analogy are very telling. They refer to altering the quality of the reception, the volume, even changing the channel. But those are only the crudest analogies to the relationship between brain and mind.
A more accurate analogy would be this – can you alter the wiring of a TV in order to change the plot of a TV program? Can you change a sitcom into a drama? Can you change the dialogue of the characters? Can you stimulate one of the wires in the TV in order to make one of the on-screen characters twitch?
Well, that is what would be necessary in order for the analogy to hold.
Every skeptic’s new favorite website is Spurious Correlations. The site is brilliant – it mines multiple data sets (such as causes of death, consumption of various products, divorce rates by state, etc.) and then tries to find correlations between different variables. The results are often hilarious.
The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Often it is more effective to demonstrate a principle than simply to explain it. By showing impressive looking graphical correlations between phenomena that are clearly not related (at least proposing a causal connection superficially seems absurd.), it drives home the point that correlation is not enough to conclude causation.
I think most people can intuitively understand that funding on science, space, and technology is unlikely to have a meaningful causal connection to suicide by hanging, strangulation, or suffocation.
Yet – look at those curves. If a similar graph were shown with two variables that might be causally connected, that would seem very compelling.
There are a couple of points about this I want to explore a bit further. First is the important caveat that, while correlation is not necessarily causation, sometimes it is. Two variables that are causally related would correlate. I dislike the oversimplification that is sometimes presented: “correlation is not causation.” But it can be.
The second point is a statistical one. The important deeper lesson here is the power of data mining. Humans are great at sifting through lots of data and finding apparent patterns. In fact we have a huge bias toward false positives in this regard – we find patterns that are not really there but are just statistical flukes or complete illusions.
Correlations, however, seem compelling to us. If we dream about a friend we haven’t seen in 20 years then they call us the next day, that correlation seems uncanny, and we hunt for a cause. We aren’t even aware of the fact that . . .