Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Is my Nintendog Alive?

For anyone who is unaware of what a nintendog is, it is a virtual pet or a kind of dog simulation video game for the Nintendo DS. My girlfriend's nintendog is called George and she has got very good at teaching it tricks, winning frisbee competitions and generally petting, feeding and walking it. She has already invested over 6 hours of her life playing with this virtual dog and interacts with it, almost as if it were real.

In my last post, I argued that people look at animals and assume they have a mental experience akin to human consciousness. With the nintendog (or any sophisticated virtual pet, like Sony's no longer produced Aibo) people interact with them as though they were alive or real dogs, despite being programmed by humans to merely act like a real dog. We have a kind a basic Turing test, where programming and technology can convince a person that what they are playing with is to some extent alive, despite just being lines of code and engaging graphics. The nintendog is not alive. It is a set of programming routines which react to stimuli from the user. It is designed to elicit reactions and can learn, with basic training. None of that requires any kind of conscious experience. It is a computer program.

But hold on a second, what if we could take a real dog and replace his brain with a programmed nintendog brain. Would you really be able to tell the difference? Perhaps a dog is too complicated, but what if I replaced a fly's brain with a computer version? Would you be able to tell then? And what about swotting the nintendofly? If I delete George, am I murdering a sentient being or merely erasing a simulation?

And so, the more I think about animal consciousness, the more I think that it is almost wholly illusion. That we see instinct and reflex as evidence that animals are mini-humans. Many of the animals we interact with on very close levels have also been selectively bred. Traits such as being less aggressive and bonding with humans have produced domestic animals which can seem very aware, but this is just like tinkering with the programming, it adds to the illusion.

I am not an Animal

Yesterday I read about a new Channel 4 documentary about animals in the womb, where they have created some interesting computer generated images of what animals look like in utero. Now what I find interesting about this is the reaction to the images by other people on the net (check out the Daily Mail website and read the comments). Some people look at these images and see intelligent life. I however, take a different perspective.

During my recent holiday, I spent some time interacting with a pet dog and from watching its behaviour I entertained the possibility that the dog might have emotions, in the sense that it feels pain, hunger or sexual desire. However is emotion without understanding something to respect? To put it another way. I could build a computer, which when you hit it, it says 'OW' but would I feel bad for hitting it? If the computer asked you not to hit it again, would that really make a difference to how you treat it?

Hitting our computer does not hurt it, in the same way that hitting an 8 year old child hurts the child. Surely most people would agree with that. But then, swotting flies, killing bacteria and stepping on ants is pretty much akin to hurting biological machines. A fly doesn't understand anything about the nature of its existence, it just follows its biological programming (as its ancestors did).

So if humans don't mind killing flies, why does this picture of an elephant create feelings of respect? Because we anthropomorphise all the time. We look at other people and try to work out what they are thinking and why they are doing what they are doing. We look at animals and try to do the same. But this must be incorrect. What it is like to be a fly is a non-question, in the same way as the question, what is it like to be a computer. We are all machines (computers, flies and humans) but some are more sophisticated than others.

So is there a line then, between animals like us and animals not like us? It seems to me that there is very little evidence for anything like human consciousness in other animals. Because without language and education, how can you 'know' anything? And as I've already said, emotion without understanding or comprehension seems insufficient for respect.

Now, I eat meat. I do so, because I have evolved to do so, but also because I enjoy it. Do I feel bad that cows and chickens are killed for me to eat? No. Because cows don't sit there depressed and lonely, thinking to themselves 'oh, god, please don't let me die'. What the cow is actually thinking is hard to say. But perhaps it's not really thinking at all. And if it is, perhaps it is very simple emotional thoughts with no real understanding of the context.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Steve Irwin vs The Blob

A few years ago I read an article in the Guardian newspaper, about a strange blob that had been found on a beach in Argentina. It stated that scientists had identified the blubbery mass as belonging to a marine invertebrate, although it went on to suggest that as the oceans are largely unexplored there are many cryptozoological mysteries still to be encountered. The writer, Tim Radford, provided an example:

Creatures hitherto unknown to science still pop up at intervals along shores and estuaries. The Chinese in 1992 reported a mysterious river-borne creature that made for food, enveloped it and moved on. It turned out to be a carnivorous fungus called a slime mould. Normally these are tiny and hang around in compost heaps and rotting logs. This one was the size of a St Bernard dog and seemed to swim in the Shaanxi river.
Now this strikes me as fascinating, just as much now as it did then. Hang on a second, are there really huge deadly slime moulds patrolling Chinese rivers and if so, do the Chinese have their own version of the much missed Steve Irwin, risking life and engulfment in the belly of a slime mould? At the time I was quite intrigued and wrote an email off to Mr Science Ed asking what his sources were and why I'd not seen this on David Attenborough. Although I no longer have his reply, it was something like, 'my source was Reuters and I got stuck in a tube before my deadline...' which I have always thought was a poor response from a newspaper that has a reputation for good journalism.

Herein lies the lesson. How many people read that article and to this day believe that there are St Bernard size blobs terrorising the Chinese? Do such things exist? I don't know, but I doubt it very much!

Would You Get Into The Transporter?

Okay, the situation is this. Bob has developed a transporter device. The machine scans your entire body, breaks down the molecules into its constituent parts, sends them at nearly light speed across the room and then rebuilds you exactly, using the scan as a template. The machine has been approved as perfectly safe and every person that has already gone through has been certified as exactly the same afterwards on all manner of measures and tests.

Would you get into the transporter?

My answer is no. Here is my reasoning. How do we know that the person that steps out of the transporter really is the same? First Bob assures us that on a physical level there is no difference between the person who got into the machine on the left of the room, and the person who steps out on the other side. Except that in nature we already know that although people may have the same genotype (and therefore are almost identical on a physical level) they all have different perspectives (that is, identical twins argue they are separate people and not one consciousness). So firstly, can the scientist convince me that he is not destroying me, and then rebuilding another human being (albeit to my specifications) to produce my twin, so to speak?

Bob shows me psychological testing that is identical before and after transportation and also shows me videos of people recalling the same memories from before and after. Again there seems no difference between before being transported and after. But then I ask Bob to imagine waking up with somebody else's memories. Wouldn't somebody who woke up with your memories and your intentions answer the questions in the same way? To all intents and purposes wouldn't they think that they were you? On the couple of occasions I've ever fainted, I have noticed that there is distinct confusion when coming to. Without access to your memories you wouldn't know who you were. Hence your memories are crucial in defining who you are. And so I would not get into the transporter, just to let my twin with my memories take my place.

Everything might be pointless, but let my twin get his own life - I'm living mine!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


According to the BBC website, there was a TV program broadcast yesterday about the strange red 'rain' that has been reported in India, which at least one of the scientists involved feels is evidence for panspermia; where life from other planets takes a ride through space (inside a comet, for example) and colonises other worlds.

Now I don't know whether what they have in India is an alien cell (although my scepticism and cynicism suggest that they do not). However, in principle it is quite possible that some older planets in the universe, which might harbour alien life, might also accidentally seed other planets with their own replicating molecules. Just because life may have been introduced to the earth in this way, does not change what we know about evolution. Just that the actual cradle of life might be further away than we first thought.

What Have You Lost? Nothing!

I spend a lot of time thinking about life, the universe and everything and yesterday a line from Monty Python's Life of Brian came into my mind.

"You know, you come from nothing, you're going back to nothing. What have you lost? Nothing!"

Now I guess one of the big questions that sits inside my head, is why did the universe begin 15 billion years ago? What made that time in the past so special, as to be the beginning point? What caused the big bang to ignite? Now some people are going to want to invoke god as the mystical power behind the start of the universe, but even if god did start the big bang (which is a fantasy), it was not inevitable that you were the result of it. In other words the universe did not start to make you, you were just a happy little accident. Since god is a man made fiction, why did the universe begin when it did? I really do not know.

I came across this site whilst I was perusing the net and it's very interesting. He seems to be suggesting that the universe sprang from nothing. Something from nothing. I wrote to the owner, asking why I had never heard of his work before and this was his response:

"There are two reasons why my work has received so little attention:

1 - It is a threat to the various "Standard Models", of the structure of matter, of cosmology, etc. that the various physics communities have adopted and defend. I ask questions and point out problems that make them uncomfortable.

2 - I don't have the establishment credentials of having gotten a PhD in one of the "standard" physics points of view.

No one has confronted my work; no one has found any fault with it; they just ignore it.

I have tried as much as I can by publishing scientific papers, by giving presentations at scientific meetings [not "main stream" ones because they are the "ignorers" and won't give me a chance] and by placing copies of my book at major national and academic libraries around the world.

It's just that, whatever they are supposed to be, establishment scientists are not objective seekers of truth but ardent defenders of their academic / financial position in the system."
As a former parapsychologist, I understand the fickleness of academic science. I'd be interested in hearing other people's opinion about this site or the problem of why there is something here, instead of nothing.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The 'Amazing Randi' Answers Why

I like to ask people what motivates them, especially people who I find interesting . I finally decided to write and ask James 'the Amazing' Randi essentially the same question that I posed to Susan Blackmore.

Q. Why, given that there is no god, do you do what you do?

I've just received Randi's very short but succinct answer, which is

A. “Because I care, and there are probably many hundreds of generations yet to come…”

I guess this represents a kind of stock answer which I'm used to. I've got it from a few other atheists I know and it seems slightly lazy to me. Take Randi, for example, who's regular Friday newsletter is certainly required reading. He writes each week about one crazy con-artist or another and about the general stupidity of people who choose not to engage critical thinking abilities that others of us seem to have. In his own way he helps to try and reduce the spread and influence of pseudoscience and shams.

And yet, since every single thing is ultimately pointless, why bother interfering in the things that other idiots do? If people are silly enough to fall for other peoples' schemes including believing that they are descended from intergalatic aliens, isn't that their own fault?

I think my position has shifted from this apathy for the things humans do, to being more pro-active in making my bit of the universe that I live in better for me. I wrote an article last week which was a call to arms for atheists to try and change the way people think on a fundamental level. Change can only happen with action. If we sit around knowing that god doesn't exist, but just choose to collaborate with the masses who live in a fantasy world, then can we complain when they do things like destroy the environment or kill each other and us. I am often angered not by people's stupidity, but when people's stupidity affects my life. The rules were never written in stone by god, but were made up, by other human beings. Nobody is given divine rule. Humans give each other power, and belief plays a huge role in that. Maybe atheism should too.

So thanks to Randi. Short but sweet seems an apt way to end.

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Bleeding Hearts

Last week I had a dream which seemed to sum up very neatly some of the feelings I have been having about life. I thought I would share it because it was so distressing that unlike most of my dreams, this one has stayed with me ever since.

The dream began with me looking down my chest, where I could see my heart in the palms of my hand, resting on my lap. It was connected to my body by a small plastic tube, and I could feel my blood being pumped from my body, to the heart through the tube.

As distressing as this was, it became more so, when a small hole appeared in the tube, and my blood literally began to drip, drip, drip out of the tube onto the floor. I shouted for people to come and help me, to fix the leakage and save my life, but to no avail. I watched my blood drip away and my life with it.

And that was the end of the dream. It was intensely frightening and I'm certainly not ashamed to say that I was very upset for a while afterwards. Being alive can certainly be scary, when being dead is so very final!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Short Atheist Poem

There is one wager,
on all, I'd surely bet.
That the universe was not made,
to ensure your parents met.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

A Conversation With Susan Blackmore

I hope Susan Blackmore doesn't mind me sharing our brief email exchange, but as we both concur that there is no point to the universe, it doesn't really matter either way! Here is a slightly edited version of what we discussed:

"Jan 17th 2006

Dear Susan,

I have been involved in the parapsychology community for a number of years.

However about March last year it suddenly dawned on me that not only were my peers conducting poor research, but that parapsychology itself is almost entirely delusion. My PhD had been inspired by Darwin and Dawkins alike (though I'm sure Dawkins' would not be pleased to know that) and I have always used evolutionary theory for the basis for all of my theorising about almost any subject.

So at a parapsychology conference I realised that there is no god. No afterlife. And that there is no point to anything. So, I quit parapsychology completely.

My question to you is this. I understand that you are completely aware of the real nature of existence. That everything really is pointless. But that being said, why bother trying to do anything? Why try and convert people? Why participate to any great degree in the fictions
that human create? So it doesn't matter if you do or don't, but why do? I met James Randi a few years ago and find him an interesting character. Why fight against superstition, when ultimately all human being is made up and there is no real point doing anything?

I hope you don't mind this email - but then it doesn't really matter either way!


Jan 17th 2006

Gosh - that's pretty dramatic. I am torn between being glad that someone else has had the same experience I had, and sorry that it must be so painful for you. After all, I got my PhD and had a lot of interesting times before I finally gave it all up. Either way I congratulate you on taking such a strong and principled decision.

Now - to your deep and difficult question. I would say this, though I don't exactly have good answers. As living organisms we have to keep acting; that's what living things do. Committing suicide is acting, staying in bed and refusing to do anything useful is doing something, getting on with a creative and fulfilling life is action. So which should we do?

Perhaps it's clearer to say "which DO we do?" because the "should" implies a self with free will who has to choose, and I do not think this self exists. I mean - if you press the inquiry deeper you have to ask who is acting? One answer is that the body is acting, another is that the whole universe is acting. An answer that most people believe but I think is untrue is that some kind of soul or inner self is doing it. The Zen approach (and I've long practiced Zen) is to drop the false notion of self and stop doing. Tough! But this is what this thing here does. Perhaps surprisingly it seems to be having a great time, getting on with a very full and interesting life !

I don't know if this helps, but thanks for writing. It was really interesting to hear from you.


Jan 17

Hi Sue.

I wasn't expecting such a speedy reply. By all means ignore it if you so desire. When I read your response on The World Question Center, I was reminded of your experiences in parapsychology (in which you are still a dirty word) and beyond. I was impressed that your interest in evolution and your rejection of parapsychology suggests that we both had something of a very similar experience. This certainly has been a very tough time for me.

I agree that even the you that we experience is an illusion. Consciousness is given to us by brain functioning. We are all an end product and yes, free will must to some degree be an illusion. I have tried to drop my ego as much as I can. I do not think I make a difference in the universe and I do not wish to be worshiped by anyone.

There are three facts which I now choose to acknowledge as the most important. There is no point to life. There is no survival after death. One day, the whole universe will die. With that knowledge I now find my life almost joyless. What point knowledge acquisition? Since one day it will be gone. What point acquiring money to buy pointless things that I have no interest in? The only important thing is experience and I would argue happy experiences. By all means do what you want to make yourself happy. That is how I am trying to live my life. But it is very very hard to do. I used to fill my life with inane past times (such as reading and watching films) but this seems to me to be unreal. Letting people's memes infect my brain.

Your reply made me smile, which is always a positive thing.


Jan 19

Dear Louie

I have been thinking about your message and wondering why you might find life joyless and I do not. I cannot remember whether I did find it so when I first began to accept these things but it is so long ago! I think the "as if" route is quite common. I do not take it myself but I understand why other people do (I have discussed this to some extent in my book "Conversations on Consciousness" and even in my cons textbook - look up "as if" in the index).

Otherwise I can only say this - I suspect that if you just get on with it you will find joy arising in the most unlikely times and places. Don't go seeking it, don't hang onto it when it comes, and surely it will. of course joy, like everything else, is pointless but .....

Well , best of luck.


Why I Quit Parapsychology

The question of whether the paranormal is real has always concerned me, ever since I was a small boy. Early on, I developed a love of science, which fostered in me the ability to critically evaluate the world and I rejected outright, notions of God and the teachings of religion. However based on the personal reports of people whom I loved and respected, I was open to the possibility that the paranormal was real. At the age of sixteen, I joined the Society for Psychical Research, and began to immerse myself in the evidence for paranormal claims. Impressed as I was by the variety of different authors who were convinced that more needed to be explained, I undertook to pursue vigorously the underlying question as to the veracity of paranormal claims. I was never really interested in why people believe (because it was obvious to me that a great many people claim a great many extraordinary beliefs, which science readily dismisses out of hand). However the question of the paranormal and life after death, seemed to me to be very important questions which needed to be answered, to understand our place in the universe. At the beginning of my PhD (studying at Goldsmiths College, under sceptic Professor Chris French) I would describe myself as very much convinced by the empirical and anecdotal nature of psi (and specifically the body of evidence suggestive of precognition) although there was a great deal of parapsychological research which I was willing to dismiss outright (such as much of the survival research).

Proof that I have not always been as sceptical as I am today can be seen in the conference publications which were based on my early research (e.g. Savva & French, 2001). Despite not producing any real evidence for the paranormal, the conclusions of these initial reports were often overly open to further significant research providing better evidence in the future, rather than the overall opinion which I now espouse, that the results of my research are only supportive of the null hypothesis. I was also awarded the Eileen J. Garrett Scholarship in 2001, a Bial Foundation grant and later a Perrott-Warrick grant.

After completing the experimental phase of my PhD thesis, I obtained a rare research assistant post at Liverpool Hope University (one of the few universities in the UK with a dedicated group of parapsychological researchers). Employed for one year researching the ganzfeld effect, I had an opportunity to work on what is often declared the best evidence for parapsychology and at the same time conduct a range of other parapsychological investigations, including helping to develop a precognition test using visual-noise . I was also involved in the informal testing of a number of other parapsychological claims (e.g. telephone telepathy) none of which showed a significant paranormal effect and none of which were written up and communicated to a wider audience. I also continued to investigate precognitive claims from the perspective of using spider stimuli (e.g. Savva, Child & Smith, 2004), but to continued non-success.

At the end of my one year contract, with the ganzfeld research not completed (and that particular large-scale study is still uncompleted), I gained another rare parapsychological research-assistant post at another UK centre for parapsychological research (at the University of Northampton) where I was involved in a large-scale dream ESP test and continued further testing of the precognitive habituation effect using spider stimuli. Along side my formal research investigations of parapsychology, I have had the opportunity to work with a number of self-professed psychics and be involved in spontaneous investigations of haunted locations. I have had the opportunity to examine a wide variety of paranormal claims; from analysing photos of ghosts that members of the public had sent to me (hearing of my interest through the local media), to working with some of the most famous and reputed psychics (through a participation with a number of televisions shows on the paranormal). None of the spontaneous or evidential claims of the paranormal have ever impressed upon me a need for recourse to a paranormal explanation and in fact the very obvious is apparent; that any connection between events in our mental life can tally, with shocking coincidence, so much so, that those who are prone to magical thinking believes has a paranormal basis.

In the summer of 2005, I served as programme chair for the Parapsychological Association convention. Part of the function of the programme chair is to put out a call for papers to the wider community and then gather together a committee to assess the contributions and thus build up that year’s selection. As parapsychology is a small field, it was hugely interesting to examine the variety and quality of different parapsychological research throughout the world. What struck me was that the quality of this work was so very poor and that there was a lot of bad research being conducted in the hope of proving a paranormal effect. I myself had been honest in the job of conducting research (or at least I hoped that I have never made any strong claims in favour of a paranormal hypothesis given the little empirical support that I have found). However many of the papers I was sent showed gaping flaws which left their conclusions open to suspicion. Many papers were rejected by the committee (and it is interesting that there are researchers conducting seemingly guerrilla parapsychology; that is parapsychology that is too ‘far out’ for main-stream parapsychology) as these may also represent a kind of file-drawer source. This raw view of the evidence shook my trust in parapsychology. Any area is a group of researchers who are interested in similar questions and hope to find the answer. However this dirty and unsanitary form of evidence looked too shaky to be of evidential value to science.

Evaluating parapsychology as a whole, it seems best described as a house of cards and one whose very foundations are extremely shaky and yet people continue to build on top, regardless. The ultimate motivation, as I have now concluded, seems to be a failure to completely understand the implications of evolution (and thus to some degree parapsychology is a thinly veiled, theistic domain; not interested in finding out the impassionate, scientific reality, but allowing a belief in god, a design and a purpose to influence opinion). Fortunately, science already dismisses those concepts out of hand and thus parapsychology should be too. And with that I promptly left the field (leaving the dream study I had been working on to be carried on without me, although again, despite seeing remarkable coincidences between targets and dreams, I never witnessed any empirical results which required a paranormal explanation).

Like Susan Blackmore had done a few years before, I left, neither making much noise or difference.

Finally, I had intended not to write up my PhD, in the light of the fact that there seems no apparent audience. The parapsychologists will continue to ignore null findings (on the basis already discussed) and the sceptics will say ‘so what’. I was finally motivated to finish it, in the hope that I might dissuade others who are interested in the question of the paranormal, from pursuing it any further.

If, ‘ifs’ and ‘ans’ were pots and pans: but alas, they never were.

Publications & Presentations:

Savva, E., & Savva, L. (2001). The enigma of Florence Cook. The Skeptic, 14(1), 16-17.

Savva, L., & French, C. C. (2001). Investigating the presentiment effect as an adapted behaviour. Evolution and psi. 25th International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research. Clare College, Cambridge, 14th - 16th September 2001.

Savva, L., & French, C. C. (2002). Is there time-reversed interference in Stroop-based tasks? Proceedings of the 45th Annual Convention of the Parapsychology Association, pp. 194-205.

Savva, L., & French, C. C. (2002). Use of a complex psi-mediated timing task. 26th International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research. Manchester Conference Centre, 30th August – 1st September 2002.

Savva, L., & French, C. C. (2003). An investigation into precognitive dreaming: David Mandell, the man who paints the future? 27th International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research. Manchester Conference Centre, 5th – 7th September 2003.

Savva, L., Child, R., & Smith, M. D. (2004). The precognitive habituation effect: An adaptation using spider stimuli. Proceedings of the 47th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association, pp.223-229.

Smith, M. D., & Savva, L. (2004). Experimenter effects and Ganzfeld-ESP performance. 28th International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research. West Downs Conference Centre, 3rd – 5th September 2004.

Cole, S. A., Savva, L., & Smith, M. D. (2004). Schizotypy, Psi and Immersive Sensory Noise. 28th International Conference of the Society for Psychical Research. West Downs Conference Centre, 3rd – 5th September 2004.

Roe, C. A., Sherwood, S. J., Savva, L., & Baker, I. (2005). Assessing the Roles of the Sender and Experimenter in Dream ESP Research. Proceedings of the 48th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association (L Savva Program Chair), pp.242-245.

Savva, L., Roe, C. A., & Smith, M. D. (2005). Further Testing of the Precognitive Habituation Effect Using Spider Stimuli. Proceedings of the 48th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association (L Savva Program Chair), pp.163-170.

Savva, L., Roe, C. A., & Smith, M. D. (2006). Further testing of the precognitive habituation effect using spider stimuli. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 885, 225-234.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Atheist Call To Arms

It seems to me that the great struggle to come is in convincing everybody that there is no god. That we, atheists, must anticipate a time when theism is eradicated from the human mindset.

Today much human effort is dedicated to utterly pointless theistic pursuits. There are many problems in the world and either we choose not to participate at all or we should try and change things for the better (if only to prevent those who believe in god dictating things to those of us who don't). Religion only serves to divide and destroy us. People need to be told that we are all 100th cousins. But people will not be willingly told that there is no god. There will be no proof to satisfy all. This is due however, to a misunderstanding of the problem. People just do not understand randomness. They think that the things they see, the universe around them, was designed for them. It was not. There is no possibly, maybe, just might be so. There is no design. Evolution provides that answer. But if people will not willingly accept the truth, what to do? Science must utilise its significant lobbying power and direct opinion in favour of removing religious education from school and ensuring honest scientific answers about the universe are instilled in every child.

There is little chance that believing in god will ever be made illegal. It could, however, become unfashionable. This will happen slowly and will only occur when technological advances have improved living conditions for every human (and eradicated many of the problems that we face today). Perhaps it will take many thousands of years, when man has fled the solar system in search of pastures new. There is however a problem with the waiting game. Human civilsations are notoriously fragile things and there are plenty of natural and man-made disasters to befall the human race in the future. If we wait for humans to stop believing in god, we may go extinct before it occurs. For that reason alone, it is worth trying to change the world now. We humans need to begin changing the way we think about the purpose of life. We need to stop thinking that god will reward us in another life and we need to attempt to have the best time we all can have, in the only one we get.

This then, is a call to arms for atheists. It is not enough just to know there is no god. But we must act on that knowledge to begin to change the world.