Volta, Galvani, Animal Electricity and the Nature of the Mind

The other day I went to my daughter’s mechatronics engineering lecture (ok, I do weird things to pass the time). I wanted to see what changes there have been over the years and to recapture some of my youthful memories. The lecture was about electrical engineering techniques for analysing circuits (eg Thevenin & Norton equivalent circuits, substitution, mesh analysis, etc) – memories flowed back like there was no tomorrow. And I realised, nothing had changed. The ratio of 4 females in a class of 30+ students was marginally better than the 3 in 60 back in the 80s, students still had no clue what was going on in the lecture and engineering students are still as geeky and awesome today as they were back then!

At one stage the lecturer played a video about a scientific controversy that I had not heard about before. It was the Volta/Galvani controversy. To cut a long story short, it was discovered that certain rays could produce quite an electrical shock. Galvani, who was very religious and originally wanted to join the clergy, stated that this was “animal electricity” quite distinct from other forms of electricity hitherto discovered and went about trying to prove it with various experiments involving frogs legs moving themselves with electricity. Volta was incensed by this and set about to disprove Galvani, stating that it was just electrical stimulation of muscles that made them move and that there was no such thing as “animal electricity”.

Needless to say Galvani’s mistaken explanation based on his religious bias was disproved. That would be that but for the fact that this sort of thing occurs all the time in our society. One has come to expect it from the religious nutjobs but it is disappointing to see when it comes from those that should know better. A case in point is the statement from the “About Us” page of the Atheist Foundation of Australia. On this page they state: “No personality or mind can exist without the process of living matter to sustain it”. Innocuous enough at first sight but let’s think this through. Quite apart from the definitions of “personality” and “mind” being tenuous and difficult for science to grasp in the first place, it is a statement that makes claims that science has yet to investigate. Why would a foundation that espouses reason and common sense make such an outlandish statement?

It was Alan Turing, the father of modern computing who pondered the question of a machine mind and developed the now famous Turing test to test whether a machine could “think” as well as a human. Today we have a whole field of computer science known as Artificial Intelligence dedicated to mimicking human-like thinking. Is thinking, or mind a special “thing” that defines life or is it a natural property of complex organised biological electrochemical processes or even complex electronic silicon substrate devices running the appropriate AI code? Science has yet to answer that question but there are many papers on the subject and many researchers attempting to create conscious machines.

In the light of all the research and all the papers proposing machine consciousness as a possibility why is it that the Atheist Foundation of Australia makes statement that contradict scientific endeavour just as the religious leaders of today are also making wild statements contradicting science? Is the Atheist Foundation of Australia a new religion? Or worse still are their leaders incompetent amateur scientists that make bumbling statements much like the near incoherent leader of the most powerful nation of the world? It is a mystery that may never be solved but the Volta/Galvani controversy brought it into new light. One can only hope that their leadership can either change to someone with a more scientific background – I’m not expecting a Richard Dawkins here but someone with a little knowledge of science would be helpful – or that reason and sense prevails and they can stop making outlandish unscientific statements beyond the only statement they need to make as atheists – “there is no god”!

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Comment by Bobby on May 13, 2019 at 7:49am

The lecture was about electrical engineering techniques for analysing circuits (eg Thevenin & Norton equivalent circuits, substitution, mesh analysis, etc)

In my third year circuits course 1, the professor had a quiz question "Describe Thevenin's Theorem in an English language paragraph". Next lesson he announced that the same question will be on the next quiz because so many students provided inadequate definitions. This went on every week till the final exam when a couple of winners still got it wrong. My last years as an engineer, as I was interviewing potential hires I would ask the same question and even gave them pencil and paper. Most candidates looked horrified and less than 1/3 gave decent answers. I was almost afraid to ask them to draw a schematic to turn on an LED or bias a transistor or make a non-inverting op amp or minimize a logic circuit. I was wondering what they teach these days. The best engineers where the ones who understood the basic concepts as they appear over and over and over again in different incarnations.

Comment by Frankie Dapper on April 13, 2019 at 1:24am

No it is Frankie Dapper! 

Although Frankie Innocuous is an appellation without condemnation. 

My guess is that you are interpreting that line in a way that was not intended by the author(s). The words mind and personality make me think that only humans were being contemplated. I doubt there is any opinion being offered about whether AI can become conscious. Rather it is an inartful refrain against spiritualism, the soul and similar thinking.  If your interpretation of that line is accurate then i agree with you.

Comment by Vangelis on April 12, 2019 at 5:36pm

@Tom The comment is on the About Us page as you scroll down to the "Our Philosophy" section.

@Frankie Innocuous? Is it innocuous or materialistic to confer special properties to biological material and make a statement that those properties do not apply to other forms of material? Is it innocuous to state that a conscious mind can only arise within biological material when science is attempting to achieve this in devices based on a silicon substrate? Is this akin to Galvani's flawed assumption that there is biological electricity which is different to "normal" electricity? I think what is happening here is that in the AFA's fervor to defend materialism they are overreaching in making statements that are very unscientific and therefore very un-atheist. It needs to stop and the leadership should consult scientists before they make such outlandish statements.

Comment by Tom Sarbeck on April 10, 2019 at 4:12am

Van, how would you phrase the line you are protesting?

Also, where on the Aussie site did you see the line, and did you go there more than once on different days to see if the line differed?

I ask because I just went to the site (Australia I understand is one day ahead of the US) and on its home page below the pic found a different line:

“Atheism is the acceptance that there is no credible scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a god, gods or the supernatural.”


Comment by Frankie Dapper on April 9, 2019 at 10:17am

In the scheme of outlandish and unsubstantiated it seems rather an innocuous statement.

Sure, AI may prove it false. But it is at base an endorsement of materialism. Materialism is consistent w science and at odds w theism. 



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