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”!