Sunday, 19 June 2016

Brains and Brain Modelling

In May Professor Mark Humphries from Manchester University
spoke to Greater Manchester Humanists on the subject of Brains and Brain Modelling.  With a gentle introduction to the topic, Mark introduced us to a multiply-appendaged soft toy called Ben.  Ben is a neuron, and one of 87 billion in any human brain.  Mark explained that Ben sends electric spikes to other neurons and that these control all bodily functions.  At the present time neuroscience has not mapped all these connections so we cannot understand the cause and effect of each spike.  Here lies the reason for brain modelling which in Mark’s view is one of the toughest jobs in the world as it focuses on understanding how the brain works.  Mark advised that through continued brain modelling all the spikes in a brain will have been mapped in 5 to 10 years!

Mark talked about one of the contributing figures in the early world of neuroscience - Walter Pitts who was born into a disadvantaged background.  He was bright and at the age of 12 he spent three days reading Principia Mathematica in a library.  He then wrote a letter to Bertrand Russell pointing out some mistakes in it.  He decided that he was interested in neuroscience and took on a role as a janitor at the University of Chicago.  Warren McCullock, an expert in the field of neuroscience at the University, recognised Walter’s talent and hired him.  They worked together and in 1943 provided the foundation for the first brain theories showing that the neuron was the basic logic unit of the brain.  Their model continues to be the standard reference in the field of neural networks.  

Mark went on to talk about some known’s.  Before any muscle action there is increased neuron activity or spikes and during the action there is less; the phenomena of blind sight where people who cannot consciously see have an awareness that would normally be attributable to sight, for example they can catch a ball; and the independent consciousness of the right and left sides of the brain and how they talk to each other and fill in gaps for the other side.  

Mark took a number of questions from the audience.  In reply to a question whether computers could be conscious he answered no because computers cannot have sensations.  Another question led Mark to talk about how learning associated with brain functions was being applied by Google and Apple in their artificial intelligence products or programmes.   


In May, Ray Evans, co-ordinator of Republic in the North West, came to Stockport to talk about electing our head of state. He began by introducing the organisation Republic which is a national campaign group, with local groups, not aligned to any political party. It has only one full time and two part time staff members, the rest of the work being carried out by volunteers. It is a fast growing group which gets many new members and supporters at times of royal events.

Many aspects of Republic are in tune with Humanist thinking: Separation of Church and State, Political Equality for all from birth, Opposition of prejudice against any group, Promotion of Free Thinking. They believe in the three P’s: Monarchy is wrong in Principle, in Practice and for our Politics.

The British Monarch is a huge organisation with 18 working royals plus support staff, security, aides, footmen, Lords Lieutenants etc. Charles employs 150 on his own. The Monarch still has immense political power even though much has been transferred to the Government under Royal Prerogative. A bizarre association with the armed forces reinforces the notion that patriotism is synonymous with support for the Monarchy.

There is a myth that the bloodline goes back to William the conqueror, but there were usurpers in the 1400s and William of Orange was imported to avoid a Catholic succession. George I was a distant cousin from Germany who didn’t speak English. A few years ago, the “Real King of England” was found in Australia.

Wrong in principle. The Monarchy is undeniably undemocratic in a country that prides itself on democratic principles. David Cameron called the new laws, allowing females to inherit ahead of younger males, a victory for Human Rights but the institution discriminates against everyone not born into the house of Windsor. The Coronation Ceremony has a core religious message that the Monarch is appointed by God through the Archbishop of Canterbury. The concept of a State Religion is incompatible with a Republican Democracy.

Wrong in Practice. Charles Bradlaugh MP refused to take the religious oath but was re-elected four times. The New Oaths Act (1888) resulted in MPs being able to affirm but the oath to the Queen still exists. The Royal Family cannot be openly criticised in Parliament. Price Andrew’s dodgy dealings in his overseas trade role cannot be discussed, four years after he was effectively sacked. Prince Charles has a continual involvement in politics.  After the Guardian successfully campaigned for the release of Charles’ 26 spider letters to government departments, the law changed in 2010 to exclude Royals from the Freedom of Information Act (FOI). Royal Consent is required before any Bill is presented which affects the Queen or Charles private interests as heads of the two duchies. This has affected twelve Bills between 2005 and 2011, but we are not allowed to know what changes were made. The Queen has defined the role of the monarch because she has been there so long and people are comfortable with it. Charles will redefine it.

Wrong for our politics. Royal prerogative gives more power to politicians without them being held to account. The Queen is said not to interfere but she made comments on the Scottish referendum. The weekly meeting with the PM is not just a formality and the Privy Council is not a ceremonial. These are influential, undemocratic Parts of our constitution.

The Alternative. Republic are not seeking an executive model like USA or France and feels that the Republic of Ireland has an excellent model which has thrown up excellent presidents.

The way forward.  In reality there will be no change while the Queen is still there. Much of the support for the Monarchy is centred on her personally. She has avoided controversy by saying little. Charles is a man of strong opinions. Republic would like to see a referendum ahead of a coronation. In the meantime they would like to take steps to end the monarchy’s exemption from the FOI, change the oath of allegiance to one for the nation not the Monarch, give MPs the right to criticise the Royals, end Royal political interference, end the State Opening of Parliament and end the lavish expenditure.

This won’t be easy. They are up against a huge PR machine and there are plenty of vested interests.