Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Consciousness Indeed Explained

So I've finished Dennett's 'Consciousness Explained' and I almost entirely agree with his ideas about what consciousness is. An extract:

Are zombies possible? They're not just possible, they're actual. We're all zombies. Nobody is conscious - not in the systematically mysterious way that supports such doctrines as epiphenomalism! I can't prove that no such sort of consciousness exists. I also cannot prove that gremlins don't exist. The best I can do is show that there is no respectable motivation for believing it. (p.406)
In a nutshell then, Dennett has proposed that consciousness is an illusion and the self is akin to a centre of gravity, around which the narrative of our lives is constructed. What we may describe as a unified stream of consciousness is merely the outpouring of various competing units, which attempt to make our job of surviving in the world easier. Conscious explained then. One final extract:
Treating a corpse "badly" may not directly harm any dying person, and certainly doesn't harm the corpse, but, if it became common practice and this became widely known (as it would), this would significantly change the belief environment that surrounds dying. People would imagine the events that were due to follow their demise differently from the way they now imagine them, and in ways that would be particularly depressing. Maybe not for any good reason but so what? If people are going to be depressed, that in itself is a good reason for not adopting a policy. (p.453)
Is this why Dennett disagreed that everything is pointless? Because even though consciousness is an illusion, and there is no god, Dennett does not want to depress everyone with that particular truth? But who gets to decide who understands the truth and reality? Science is about the truth, regardless of whether we like the answers we find or not, and ignoring reality is often a recipe for disaster.

I've not read Dennett's latest book 'Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon' but I have read an interesting review of it. From the World Socialist Website:
What Engels wrote of Feuerbach could be justly applied to Dennett: “In the form he is realistic since he takes his start from man; but there is absolutely no mention of the world in which this man lives; hence, this man remains always the same abstract man who occupied the field in the philosophy of religion.” To put it somewhat differently, because Dennett never really examines the social history of man, his hypotheses about the development of religion after agricultural societies arose have a contrived feel to them. Man as Dennett imagines him, naturalistically, substitutes for historical man. An imagined history is substituted for the real one.
And perhaps this is my beef with Dennett. Like George Orwell's attack on HG Wells for being 'all talk and no trousers' (my paraphrasing), Dennett's consideration of the political (and often nefarious and Machiavellian) motivations for behaviour, is glaring in its absence. Wells urged for an open scientific conspiracy against corrupt political leaders, and Orwell criticised Wells for not being prepared to fight. At times Dennett seems worried that his ideas may destroy consciousness or lead to a worldwide epidemic of depressed zombies, pissed off with Dennett personally, for taking all the fun out of life.

Reality is simpler. Consciousness is an illusion. Everything is pointless. Humans often abuse other humans (for their own benefit or amusement). Death will come sooner than you like. Be happy but be prepared to fight to enjoy life, if you have to.

Dissected Alive

Over at the Times is an article about the human vivisection experiments conducted by the Japanese during WW2. An extract:

“The first time it was one prisoner, a middle aged man. He’d already given up - there was no struggle. He was tied to the bed and anaesthetised with ether, so that he was completely unconscious. The Lieutenant showed me what to do. He cut him open, and pointed out, ’Here’s the liver, here’s the kidneys, here’s the heart.’ The heart was still beating, then he cut the heart open and showed me the inside. That was when he died.” “I didn’t want to do it, but it was an order, you see. At that time, if a commander gave you an order it was understood that it was the order of the Emperor, and the Emperor was a god. I had no choice - if I had disobeyed, I would have been killed.”

The “operation” took about an hour; when it was over the body was sewn up and thrown into a hole in the earth. Eight more vivisections followed, Mr Makino said, up to three hours long. “Over the course of time, I got used to it,” he said. “We removed some of the organs, and amputated legs and arms. Two of the victims were women, young women, 18 or 19 years old. I hesitate to say it, but we opened up their wombs to show the younger soldiers. They knew very little about women - it was sex education.
So we have a real life example of Milgram's experiment: help murder other humans or lose your own life. The article also mentions Unit 731, a secret army medical-experimentation unit, which conducted a variety of heinous acts in the pursuit of scientific knowledge and retribution. From the Guardian:

Between 1939 and 1945, the unit is thought to have killed, maimed or poisoned more than a million mainly Chinese, Russian and Korean civilians by contaminating their water supply and showering towns and villages with pathogens such as the bubonic plague. Known officially as the epidemic prevention and water supply bureau, Unit 731 employed hundreds of doctors and scientists to conduct experiments on prisoners of war and civilians.

Described by their captors as "logs," the victims were deliberately infected with disease and then dissected while still alive so that doctors could check the infections' progress. Between 1936 and 1945, the unit killed an estimated 14,000 people, including several allied prisoners of war.

And this reminds me of Zimbardo's experiment, where the prison guards began to distance themselves from the prisoners and treat them in an increasingly sadistic way.

Those people that believe in a god, or a purpose to life seem to ignore cases like this. The men, women and children subjected to the horrific experiments of the Japanese, died for nothing - or at least were forced to give up their lives for somebody else's morbid curiosity. How can you argue that their lives were pointful; to die horribly and then to be remembered only as a data point hidden in a secret report? Another example of what can happen, when you let criminal lunatics take control.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

George Orwell on Wells

Looking around for information about H.G. Wells, I happened upon an essay by George Orwell, called 'Wells, Hitler and the World State'. It is perhaps one of the most interesting things I have ever read and extremely relevant to my current interests, given my recent reading of both Orwell and Wells. I present an edited version:

What is the use of saying that we need federal world control of the air? The whole question is how we are to get it. What is the use of pointing out that a World State is desirable? What matters is that not one of the five great military powers would think of submitting to such a thing. All sensible men for decades past have been substantially in agreement with what Mr. Wells says; but the sensible men have no power and, in too many cases, no disposition to sacrifice themselves. Hitler is a criminal lunatic, and Hitler has an army of millions of men, aeroplanes in thousands, tanks in tens of thousands. For his sake a great nation has been willing to overwork itself for six years and then to fight for two years more, whereas for the common-sense, essentially hedonistic world-view which Mr. Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood. Before you can even talk of world reconstruction, or even of peace, you have got to eliminate Hitler, which means bringing into being a dynamic not necessarily the same as that of the Nazis, but probably quite as unacceptable to ‘enlightened’ and hedonistic people. What has kept England on its feet during the past year? In part, no doubt, some vague idea about a better future, but chiefly the atavistic emotion of patriotism, the ingrained feeling of the English-speaking peoples that they are superior to foreigners. For the last twenty years the main object of English left-wing intellectuals has been to break this feeling down, and if they had succeeded, we might be watching the S.S. men patrolling the London streets at this moment. Similarly, why are the Russians fighting like tigers against the German invasion? In part, perhaps, for some half-remembered ideal of Utopian Socialism, but chiefly in defence of Holy Russia (the ‘sacred soil of the Fatherland’, etc. etc.), which Stalin has revived in an only slightly altered from. The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.

Mr. Wells, like Dickens, belongs to the non-military middle class. The thunder of guns, the jingle of spurs, the catch in the throat when the old flag goes by, leave him manifestly cold. He has an invincible hatred of the fighting, hunting, swashbuckling side of life, symbolised in all his early books by a violent propaganda against horses. The principal villain of his Outline of History is the military adventurer, Napoleon. If one looks through nearly any book that he has written in the last forty years one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past. In novels, Utopias, essays, films, pamphlets, the antithesis crops up, always more or less the same. On the one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses. History as he sees it is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man. Now, he is probably right in assuming that a ‘reasonable,’ planned form of society, with scientists rather than witch-doctors in control, will prevail sooner or later, but that is a different matter from assuming that it is just round the corner. There survives somewhere or other an interesting controversy which took place between Wells and Churchill at the time of the Russian Revolution. Wells accuses Churchill of not really believing his own propaganda about the Bolsheviks being monsters dripping with blood, etc., but of merely fearing that they were going to introduce an era of common sense and scientific control, in which flag-wavers like Churchill himself would have no place. Churchill's estimate of the Bolsheviks, however, was nearer the mark than Wells's. The early Bolsheviks may have been angels or demons, according as one chooses to regard them, but at any rate they were not sensible men. They were not introducing a Wellsian Utopia but a Rule of the Saints, which like the English Rule of the Saints, was a military despotism enlivened by witchcraft trials. The same misconception reappears in an inverted form in Wells's attitude to the Nazis. Hitler is all the war-lords and witch-doctors in history rolled into one. Therefore, argues Wells, he is an absurdity, a ghost from the past, a creature doomed to disappear almost immediately. But unfortunately the equation of science with common sense does not really hold good. The aeroplane, which was looked forward to as a civilising influence but in practice has hardly been used except for dropping bombs, is the symbol of that fact. Modern Germany is far more scientific than England, and far more barbarous. Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his own works are based. The war-lords and the witch-doctors must fail, the common-sense World State, as seen by a nineteenth-century Liberal whose heart does not leap at the sound of bugles, must triumph. Treachery and defeatism apart, Hitler cannot be a danger. That he should finally win would be an impossible reversal of history, like a Jacobite restoration.

Up to 1914 Wells was in the main a true prophet. In physical details his vision of the new world has been fulfilled to a surprising extent. But because he belonged to the nineteenth century and to a non-military nation and class, he could not grasp the tremendous strength of the old world which was symbolised in his mind by fox-hunting Tories. He was, and still is, quite incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity. Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them.

I can see wholeheartedly where George Orwell is coming from. I feel just as accused as Wells, in my hope for the future of a humanity built on science. In my defence, I understood Orwell's argument before I had ever encountered this essay, which can be seen in a post I wrote a while back, which compared modern life to being trapped on a hijacked plane - if we don't even try and change the world, what can we complain if a Hitler or Stalin decides to make the world better in their own image? It is not enough to be a passive, smug intellectual. Yes, everything is pointless, but my life is important to me. The hedonism and utopia which Wells hoped for, is similar to the world that I hope for - but I accept that we may be required to fight, before we can lay down our arms and feel safe.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Things About H.G. Wells

Things that I have discovered about H.G. Wells in the last day:

Winston Churchill borrowed from Wells in one of his most important speeches (source):

Dr Richard Toye, a history lecturer at Cambridge University, has discovered that the phrase "the gathering storm" - used by Churchill to describe the rise of Nazi Germany - had been written by Wells decades earlier in The War of the Worlds, which depicts an attack on Britain by Martians. Dr Toye also identified similarities between a speech Churchill made 100 years ago and Wells's book A Modern Utopia, published in 1905.

Tellingly, just two days before Churchill delivered the speech in Glasgow on 9 October 1906, he wrote to Wells to enthuse about the book, admitting: "I owe you a great debt."
He imagined Basra as the centre of the world (source):
HG Wells wrote in The Shape of Things to Come (in 1937) that "airmen will bring peace and civilisation to a war-devastated world". He forecast that within 30 years the world would agree a new global order based on the hub of intercontinental aviation. And where was that hub? His answer was Basra.
Republicans like him (source):
In his lifetime and after his death, Wells was considered a prominent socialist thinker. In later years, however, Wells's image has shifted and he is now thought of simply as one of the pioneers of science fiction; Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and staunch Republican, praised Wells in his book To Renew America, writing "Our generation is still seeking its Jules Verne or H.G. Wells to dazzle our imaginations with hope and optimism"
He interviewed Stalin (source):
In 1934 H. G. Wells had a personal interview with President Roosevelt and his wife. In the same year Wells also interviewed Stalin for more than three hours. When Wells finished interviewing Stalin, he found him to be an honest and just man.
He got depressed by humans (source):
In his last book, Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945). Ill, depressed, and clearly not his own man, he now foresaw the fast approaching final ruin of civilization. Nothing, he lamented, could save us. Mankind had let its last chances slip away.
He enjoyed sex (source):
In practice this meant that Wells, espousing the doctrine of free love, pursued women steadily and relentlessly for the whole of his adult life; the intensity of sexual renewal was his necessity, and he thought that neither he nor anyone else should do without it. Convinced that he was serving a principled article of faith, he conducted his many affairs with the knowledge and apparent consent of the sexually faint-hearted wife whom he had persuaded that his sleeping with other women need not disturb their firmly anchored family life. In fact, Wells kept Jane Wells apprised of his every amorous adventure; she, in turn, often sent gifts and invitations to the mistress of the moment.
He smoked cannabis with Aleister Crowley (source):
Other famous members of the Golden Dawn can also be tied to cannabis use. British poet WB Yeats experimented with marijuana as an aid in the development of psychic powers, and the writer Lewis Carroll incorporated a cannabis-puffing caterpillar and a magical mushroom in his famous Alice in Wonderland.

Probably not realizing what a strong influence it would have on a generation, Crowley is reputed to have introduced the young Aldous Huxley to mescal in a pre-Hitler Berlin Hotel room, as well as initiating sci-fi writer HG Wells to the mysteries of hashish.
Interesting? More on Wells very soon.

That Deaf, Dumb & Blind Girl, Sure Plays a Mean Pinball

I'm still reading Dennett's excellent 'Consciousness Explained' and he's certainly making good, on the promise of the title. I really liked one quote in particular, from Helen Keller:

Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness...since I had no power of thought, I did not compare one mental state with another.
So who was Helen Keller? From Wikipedia:
Helen Keller was born at an estate called Ivy Green in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 27, 1880, to parents Captain Arthur H. Keller, a former officer of the Confederate Army, and Kate Adams Keller, second cousin of Robert E. Lee. She was not born blind and deaf; it was not until nineteen months of age that she came down with an illness described by doctors as "an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain", which could have possibly been scarlet fever or meningitis. The illness did not last for a particularly long time, but it left her deaf and blind.
Let's relate this back to one of my most popular posts on the forbidden experiment - where I made the assertion that a child raised without human contact will not be conscious. A baby raised in isolation, on a life-support machine, fed by tubes etc could not develop into a conscious adult, because it would have no way of acquiring the mental tricks to begin thinking. Isn't this what Helen Keller's quote supports? More evidence comes from Helen Keller's educational experience. From Wikipedia:
The school delegated teacher and former student Sullivan got permission from Helen's father to isolate the girl from the rest of the family in a little house in their garden. Her first task was to instill discipline in the spoiled girl. Helen's big breakthrough in communication came one day when she realized that the motions her teacher was making on her palm, while running cool water over her palm from a pump, symbolized the idea of "water"; she then nearly exhausted Sullivan demanding the names of all the other familiar objects in her world (including her prized doll). In 1890, ten-year-old Helen Keller was introduced to the story of Ragnhild Kåta - a deaf blind Norwegian girl who had learned to speak. Ragnhild Kåta's success inspired Helen — she wanted to learn to speak as well. Anne was able to teach Helen to speak using the Tadoma method (touching the lips and throat of others as they speak) combined with "fingerspelling" alphabetical characters on the palm of Helen's hand. Later, Keller would also learn to read English, French, German, Greek, and Latin in Braille.
Because Helen's vision and hearing had been disabled, the teacher had to use the other senses to convey information and with a lot of hard work, Helen was able to live a very productive and essentially normal life. One further Helen Keller quote:
"When I learned the meaning of 'I' and 'me' and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me"
So, Helen Keller is a really interesting example of what happens when you interfere in the development of a human infant. Because of her disability, the components of thinking could not be downloaded to her through the conventional channels and instead new and novel ways of getting information into Helen's brain were used. The clone raised in the box would never get this element, which is so vital to the development of full human cognition. Arguing that it would somehow still be like a human is to ignore the evidence that people like Helen Keller provide.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Consciousness Explained?

For the past couple of days I've been reading Daniel Dennett's book 'Consciousness Explained'. I'm about half-way through and Dennett's certainly on the right track. An extract:

Human consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes (or more exactly, meme-effects in brains) that can best be understood as the operation of a "von Neumannesque" virtual machine implemented in the parallel architecture of a brain that was not designed for such activities. The powers of this virtual machine vastly enhance the underlying powers of the organic hardware on which it runs, but at the same time many of its most curious features, and especially its limitations can be explained as the byproducts of the kludges that make possible this curious but effective reuse of an existing organ for novel purposes. (p.210).
I would think the idea that the mind is a kind of software running on the wetware of the brain, pretty uncontroversial, and I find myself in agreement with a great deal of what Dennett has been saying. This is funny (ha ha) because I've received Professor Dennett's response to that question I like to ask other humans: do you agree everything is pointless?
No, everything is not pointless. There are many deeply important projects, values, hopes, fears that have a point just because we (our species, all of us, but not unanimously) deem them important. What ELSE could make anything important? (For instance, why should I care what some creator God wants me to do? He might be a shmuck, even though he made me and everything else. But if my friends and I find something important, that's important! Not decisive, but worth reflecting further on.)
And this is what I don't get. Am I really supposed to be convinced that there is a point to existence, by a biological machine infected by memes?

I am beginning to feel that this may be a reason for people not readily accepting atheism. Many theists believe god made humans with a purpose and that if you deny god, you remove that purpose. They can't understand why atheists get out of bed in the morning. It's the same argument I hear quite often: "If everything is pointless, why do you...". The answer is that consciousness is an illusion and everything is pointless, but you've just got to deal with it. By saying everything is not pointless (like Dennett) you are seemingly contradicting yourself in the eyes of the theist. What point in arguing that there isn't a god, if there isn't a god?

Instead people need to be given the very basic truth of existence (that everything is pointless) and taught that because of that truth, only our actions (and the actions of others just like us) will initiate real change to improve human life for the better. Maybe then we can begin to redefine human priorities based on the reality of our predicament rather than religious delusion.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Madalyn Murray O'Hair

Over the weekend I watched a very interesting documentary about Madalyn Murray O'Hair, one of the pioneers of atheism in the US. The youtube snippet from 'Godless in America' illustrates the kind of woman, Madalyn O'Hair was and the story of her life is as compelling as it is tragic. Madalyn served in WW2, bore two illegitimate sons, was refused permission to defect to the USSR by the Russians and successfully campaigned to remove prayer from public schools. One of her two sons converted to evangelical christianity and became one of her greatest enemies. And after 76 years of enjoying life, and fighting theism and ignorance, Madalyn was brutally murdered, not for her activities as an atheist, but because of another person's greed.

In 1995, Madalyn, her son Jon, and her adopted daughter Robin, were kidnapped and held hostage by an associate who wanted to get his hands on over half-a-million dollars of funds. Nobody knew what had happened to Madalyn and many believed that she'd just run off with the money. Reality was much more bizarre. The murderer, David Roland Waters, had deposited 600,000 dollars worth of gold coins that he had extorted from the O'Hair's, in a storage container. He went away and spent a small sum, but on returning to the locker found that the gold coins had been stolen. Finally in 2001, the truth was revealed. Madalyn and her family had been horribly murdered. From CrimeMagazine.Com:
One federal agent at the scene told me of how gruesome the situation was. The bodies had been dismembered and then burned...That same agent also told me that he had offered a prayer over the bodies when they were first discovered. He told me, "No one deserves this, no one."
And so Madalyn O'Hair died for a stack of gold coins; all but one of which was spent on prostitutes, drugs, drinking and gambling by a bunch of opportunistic robbers. I guess in the end, the atheist got the last laugh - though she'll never know it. The murderer, Waters, died in prison of cancer in 2003.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Why Do People Do It?

Browsing YouTube, I came across what is my new favourite TV show, 'To Catch a Predator'. For those that have never seen it, the clip provides a couple of examples of the programme's very simple premise; pretend to be a child online and record what happens when men come and visit the sting house, interview them and then arrest them. As you watch more and more clips, you begin to realise that turning on the computer and engaging in sex chat with a pseudo-child, may have been one of the worst decisions that these men have ever made. Whether you deserve to go to prison for talking to a pseudo-child is a difficult question to answer - though certainly most of them intended to have sex with a minor. But it's not just men who are capable of such stupid behaviour, as a story at CNN (about an octogenarian woman who has been charged with abusing a boy under 12) illustrates:
An 84-year-old woman who confessed to having sex with an 11-year-old boy in her foster care reached a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty Thursday to attempted sex abuse, officials said. Georgie Audean Buoy will serve 36 months in prison, said Leslie Wolf, chief deputy district attorney for Wasco County. She was originally charged with six counts, including attempted rape, for which she faced eight years in prison, Wolf said. In a taped confession, Buoy admitted to having sex with the boy while he was in her care in 2004, Wolf said. Her age and lack of prior criminal convictions played a role in the plea deal.
And so, why do people do it? Most of the men featured in 'To Catch A Predator' have had their lives ruined. Their marriages collapsed, fired from their jobs, outcast by society. All because of a desire to have sex with a child. And to think that there are plenty of prostitutes and pornography, which might to some degree satiate the desire that these people have - but obviously it's just not enough for some. Perhaps this honey-trap technique might eventually dissuade people from engaging in the behaviour in the first place, by making it too dangerous to even risk it, though given human tendencies, that seems unlikely.

The Aberfan Coal Disaster

The main reason I pursued an interest in parapsychology was because I was intrigued by the very odd experiences that people report. I was particularly struck by the disaster premonitions; occasions when people seemed to have information about the future, which might allow them to avoid death. On the morning of the 21st October, 1966, the Aberfan coal-mining disaster took the lives of a large number of children and shocked the nation. From the BBC on this Day:

More than 130 people, mainly children, have been buried by a coal slag heap at Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. At least 85 children have been confirmed dead after the tip engulfed a school, some terraced cottages and a farm in just five minutes. Many more are missing or injured. In one classroom 14 bodies were found and outside mothers struggled deep in mud, clamouring to find their children. Many were led away weeping. The deputy head teacher, Mr Beynon, was found dead. "He was clutching five children in his arms as if he had been protecting them," said a rescuer.
So it is another terrible human tragedy. And like many similar disasters, people have reported that they experienced premonitions of what was going to occur. Barker (1967) compiled a collection of 76 premonitions of this particular disaster (thirty-six of the reports were from dreamers, the rest were claims of waking visions, or feelings of impending doom). One of the very best cases of disaster premonition is given in Baker's report:
She was an attractive dependable child, not given to imagination. A fortnight before the disaster she said to her mother…’Mummy, I’m not afraid to die.’ Her mother replied, ‘Why do you talk of dying, and you so young; do you want a lollipop?’ ‘No’, she said, ‘but I shall be with Peter and June’ (schoolmates). The day before the disaster she said to her mother, ‘Mummy, let me tell you about my dream last night.’ Her mother answered gently, ‘Darling, I’ve no time now. Tell me again later.’ The child replied, ‘No Mummy, you must listen. I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down all over it!’ The next day off to school went her daughter as ever. In the communal grave she was buried with Peter on one side and June on the other.’

The day E.M.J went to school the clock stopped at 9.00AM. Had it not stopped, her mother would not have been later going to school and this is what saved her life. (p. 173).
Obviously this is a very striking case, but before you start getting all excited, there are some good, normal explanations for this premonition. Importantly, the danger the coal-tip represented was apparently well known, and not isolated to Aberfan. The fact that the coal tip was directly over a primary school would no doubt have directed concern to the school children. Given anxious parents and anxious school children, it's not surprising that these concerns were reflected in anxiety dreams. There is also the added fact that this case was compiled by the local minister and merely signed by the parents. It is easy to see how the minister's prior beliefs about the supernatural, could certainly have influenced his retelling of the story. It is also possible that given the tragic nature of the events, the parents themselves may not have been very motivated to ensure the report was an exact record and may well have been comforted to read about the death of their child, as embellished.

And so, though I diligently investigated the question of precognition, I finally concluded that all of the evidence is like this case: interesting but doesn't bare scrutiny.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

FitzRoy's Demise

So I've finished reading 'This Thing of Darkness' a fictional account of the voyage of the Beagle and, not wanting to spoil the ending for anybody, the demise of Captain FitzRoy is a sorry tale indeed.

Briefly, Fitzroy was appointed captain of the Beagle and given the task of surveying around the coast of South America. Due to a depressive tendency, Fitzroy employed a companion aboard the Beagle, for their second voyage - a young trainee Anglican parson, by the name of Charles Darwin. FitzRoy and his crew spent more than five away from England, with Darwin - who returned home having formulated his ideas on evolution thanks to all the different things he had seen on the voyage. FitzRoy was a deeply religious man and despite maintaining a close relationship with Darwin during the trip, could not agree with the findings of his friend, given his own belief in god and the great flood.

After his captaincy, FitzRoy went on to serve as a member of parliament, and in 1843 he was even appointed governor of New Zealand. Returning to England, he developed the first weather forecasting system - which was heavily criticised during his lifetime, although he is now seen as a pioneer of meteorology. Fitzroy had a tough life - although by today's standards, most of the people that lived during Fitzroy's time had a tough existence. His beloved first wife died of cholera, and he felt deeply responsible for the changes that had occurred thanks to Darwin's work. From H2G2:

Whether it was his apparent failure as a weatherman, persistent ill-health (including the onset of deafness), or the fact that he'd essentially aided and abetted Darwin's anti-Creationist heresy that cost Robert FitzRoy his life will never be known for sure. But on 30 April, 1865, Robert FitzRoy - now promoted to Vice Admiral - got up early without waking his wife, kissed his daughter, locked himself in his dressing room of his home in Upper Norwood, and cut his throat with a razor. He was no stranger to suicide; his uncle, Lord Viscount Castlereigh had taken his own life in 1822, and his first command, of the Beagle, had been as a result Pringle-Stockes' self-inflicted demise.
And despite FitzRoy's great life, his story reminds me of that of George Price - the man who set out to prove that altruism isn't caused by genetic selfishness but ended up killing himself with nail scissors after he proved it absolutely correct. It seems that these people really do believe that a god made them and perhaps finally, when the truth eventually sets in, the cognitive dissonance is too much, and metal meets skin so the pain is over. Everything is pointless, but killing yourself because there is no god, is even more pointless still.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Scared to Death: Long QT

So this is a story that I saw a while ago that quite worried me. Apparently 17 year old, Kasia Ber, died unexpectedly in bed, after being literally scared to death by her mobile phone ring-tone. From the BBC:

An inquest in Hartlepool heard evidence from Miss Ber's boyfriend Scott Wheatley, who said she began shaking when her mobile phone alarm went off on the morning of 28 December last year. She stopped breathing soon afterwards. Coroner Malcolm Donnelly recorded a narrative verdict that the teenager died as a result of an undiagnosed genetic condition. The cause of death was congenital fatal ventricular arrythmia brought on by Long QT syndrome.
So what is Long QT syndrome? From the BBC on the condition:
The duration of the QT interval is a measure of the time required for depolarization and repolarization to occur. In long QT syndrome, the duration of repolarization (or recharging of the electrical system after each heart beat) is longer than normal. This leaves the person vulnerable to a very fast, abnormal heart rhythm (an 'arrhythmia') known as torsade de pointes. When this rhythm occurs, no blood is pumped out from the heart, and the brain quickly becomes deprived of blood, causing the usual symptoms of sudden loss of consciousness (syncope) and sudden death.
There is usually no warning, or sensation of feeling faint or dizzy beforehand. In one in three cases the person appears quite fit and healthy, with no symptoms at all before sudden cardiac death strikes. Long QT syndrome affects one in 7,000 people and in the US is responsible for 3,000 to 4,000 sudden deaths in children and young adults each year.
And so, that seems a remarkably large number of people, who suddenly drop dead unexpectedly every year. You have been warned.

Albert EinsTime

I was reading the Wikipedia entry on time and came across this quote attributed to Albert Einstein:

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn't happen at once.
Now, since spending the last few years investigating precognition (which is the alleged ability to see into the future) I like to think about time. More importantly, though I've never found any evidence that anybody actually can see into the future, it is pretty obvious that nobody has any good ideas what time actually is. The Einstein quote is an example of this, and it seems to me that arguing that time exists just so everything doesn't happen at once, is just ludicrous.

Maybe it's that I just don't understand time, but it seems to me that the fossil record and the stars in the sky, are evidence of a time before human beings. The universe existed before our species and we cannot be an important part of why the universe looks the way it does. Even if we are looking at the universe through a human brain. Finally from Wikipedia:
Time appears to have a direction to us - the past lies behind us, and is fixed and incommutable, while the future lies ahead and is not necessarily fixed. Yet the majority of the laws of physics don't provide this arrow of time. The exceptions include the Second law of thermodynamics, which states that entropy must increase over time; the cosmological arrow of time, which points away from the Big Bang, and the radiative arrow of time, caused by light only traveling forwards in time.
Since there is no god and nobody set the properties of our universe, it follows that they must be due to some configuration or underlying structure. Maybe time then, is just a consequence of the expansion of the universe, rather than to stop everything happening at once. But then time is a very confusing concept - so I could be completely wrong.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

200 Posts

This is my 200th post, since starting everything is pointless last year and I thought I'd take the opportunity to look at what I've learnt over that time.

Firstly, I am now more certain than ever, that we already possess the answers to most of the important questions of life. There is no god. Life began randomly. The universe was not made for us. Death is a certainty. One day everything will be gone. Ergo everything is pointless.

The god question is boring. There is no god. The life-after-death question is boring. There is no life-after-death. The paranormal question is boring. There is no paranormal. The consciousness question is interesting, although since the brain creates consciousness, the actual details of the process will only be interesting to those who need to know exactly how each neurone's activity contributes to conscious experience. For the rest of us, the fact remains that the brain is the only organ which is required for consciousness and more specifically, a trained human brain.

We then find ourselves alive, in a very old and very big universe, on a small rock populated by intelligent apes. We have to deal with it. My favourite post of the last 200, is entitled What Are We To Do With Our Lives, which is the title of a book by H.G. Wells, on his hopes for the advancement of our species. What I find sad, is that nothing has really changed since Wells' day and that his name would have been forgotten, were it not for the enduring appeal of his science fiction stories. And so if a man like Wells cannot effect social change, what hope for one voice in blogosphere of millions?

Yet Darwin's words changed the world and at first he was alone in understanding evolution. Today we know even more than Darwin could have hoped for, and for that knowledge I am extremely grateful. How much longer I am going to keep banging on about the pointlessness of existence, I do not know. I do have some very big plans (and I'm talking bigger than Segway here) but part of me cannot believe that the human race is going to survive much longer. The other side of me hopes that before I die, I can put into action my plans, which I hope may one day provide all of the things that theists and non-theists alike have dreamed of. We'll have to wait and see if my hopes for the future, will become regrets of opportunities squandered.

The Civilising of Jemmy Button

I'm still reading through Harry Thompson's excellent fictionalised account of the voyage of the Beagle, but I've been particularly struck by the fate of one of the characters, known as Jemmy Button. Jemmy was a native from the islands around Tierra del Fuego and was captured by the captain of the HMS Beagle - Robert FitzRoy, who took Jemmy (and three other Fuegians) from their stone-age lives and transported them back to England, for a good christian education. The picture shows two sketches of Jemmy, the left hand picture depicting Jemmy before his education and the right hand showing the transformation of Jemmy into a more modern human being.

At the heart of Jemmy Button's story is an empirical test. At the time of Jemmy's capture, human slavery was still very much a fact of life and the prevailing opinion was that the native and slave people that the Europeans encountered, were little more than animals and certainly incapable of being educated to the level of their white counterparts. But FitzRoy showed that by transplanting a stone-age human, within a modern environment, that the natives of Tierra del Fuego were just as capable of attaining civilisation as any other human being.

After about a year in England, FitzRoy returned the three remaining Fuegians (the forth having died of small-pox) to their homelands, in the hope that the civilisation that they had attained, would spread amongst the rest of their kind and benefit them all. Finally from Wikipedia:

After initial difficulty recalling his language and customs, Jemmy was soon out of his European clothes and habits. A few months after his arrival, he was seen emaciated, naked save for a loincloth and long-haired. Darwin was appalled at Jemmy's resistance to returning to England, and preferred to relate that to the presence of his "young and nice looking wife", Lassaweea. It appears, however, that he and the others had taught their families some English and he was happy and healthier, given the disease and diet to which he had been exposed away from home.

Some twenty years later a group of Christian missionaries, the Patagonian Missionary Society, arrived to find Jemmy still had a remarkable grasp of English. Some time later in 1859, the group was massacred at Wulaia Bay by the Fuegians, supposedly led by Jemmy and his family.

And so Jemmy Button was one of the first proofs that civilisation is learnt rather than an innate quality of a particular race. In today's multicultural and multiethnic world such a finding might appear quite obvious, but back in the days of Fitzroy, Jemmy Button and Charles Darwin, the blatantly obvious, wasn't necessarily considered the truth.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

To Future-Me, From Me-of-the-Past is a neat little website which offers to forward emails to whoever you want at a time in the future. From the site:

here's the story:
two fellas started this so that you could write yourself a letter to be delivered at a later date. we've all had to do them in high school and college. it's sorta cool to receive a letter from yourself about where you thought you'd be a year (two years? more?) later. is based on the principle that memories are less accurate than emails. we strive for accuracy.
I left myself a message over a year ago, to get to me a decade from now, with the sentiments that I hope I'm still alive and that I still understand that everything is pointless. Why not send yourself a similar email, warning the future-you, that you're going to be disappointed if you've started believing in god? And if we're lucky, we'll all be around to receive them.

Truth in the Brain?

I've been thinking quite a bit about an article I saw last week, over at the New Scientist website, on the beginnings of the use of fMRI scans as a possible means of determining the truth of a statement. An extract:

In what amounted to the world’s first commercial lie-detection test using function magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), technicians at No Lie mapped blood flow within Nathan’s brain while he answered a battery of questions about the deli fire and compared the results to control tests during which Nathan was asked to lie. The differences in the way his brain responded to these tasks appear to confirm his innocence.
It seems to me that a perfect truth or lie detector would be an immensely powerful tool, although not without the potential for misuse. The difficulty with any truth or lie detection is in the ability to determine those people who believe that they are guilty of a crime, when they are not, or those that are guilty, but do not show the same kind of emotional response as other people. For example if a psychopathic murderer can pass detection, then it is not one hundred percent effective, which must be the requirement if such a thing is going to be useful within a law and order setting. Nobody will be happy if innocent people are locked up and the guilty set free, because this technique isn't reliable.

In the end though, this technique may end up being no more reliable than the polygraph (which seems more gimmick than actual science). From Skepdic:
Is there any evidence that the polygraph is really able to detect lies? The machine measures changes in blood pressure, breath rate, and respiration rate. When a person lies it is assumed that these physiological changes occur in such a way that a trained expert can detect whether the person is lying. Is there a scientific formula or law which establishes a regular correlation between such physiological changes and lying? No. Is there any scientific evidence that polygraph experts can detect lies using their machine at a significantly better rate than non-experts using other methods? No. There are no machines and no experts that can detect with a high degree of accuracy when people, selected randomly, are lying and when they are telling the truth.
To accurately and reliably detect lies must be the holy grail of many researchers (not to mention a few chat show hosts). But as to whether such a thing is actually possible, is for the time-being still an unanswered question.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Headless Chickens

I was perusing an article at LiveScience, on the top ten most popular myths of science, when I happened on a snippet about headless chickens:

Chickens can live without a head. True, and not just for a few minutes. A chicken can stagger around without its noggin because the brain stem, often left partially intact after a beheading, controls most of its reflexes. One robust fellow lived a full eighteen months. Likely he was a real birdbrain, however.
Now this peaked my interest, since I couldn't believe that a headless chicken could survive without any food or water for a full 18 months. But on further investigation, it all became clear. From Useless Information:
So how was Mike able to survive? Scientists examined him and determined that Mr. Olsen had not done a very good job at chopping Mike's head off. Most of the head was actually removed, but one ear remained intact. The slice actually missed the jugular vein and a clot prevented him from bleeding to death. Apparently, most of a chicken's reflex actions are located in the brain stem, which was also largely untouched. Mike was also examined by the officers of several humane societies and was declared to have been free from suffering.

Through his open esophagus, Mike was fed a mixture of ground up grain and water with your typical eyedropper. Little bits of gravel were dropped down his throat to help his gizzard grind up the food.

And finally, just in case we still don't believe it, here's Straight Dope on the phenomenon:

This sort of thing evidently occurs fairly often. When Dear Abby ran a column on it a while back she got clippings and eyewitness reports about headless-but-living chickens from all over the country. The phenomenon has even found its way into literature, namely Garrison Keillor's Leaving Home. If you don't think it happens in humans too, you've never had a close look at the contestants on "Let's Make a Deal."

Stone Age Chimps

According to an article at Scientific American, researchers are claiming to have discovered evidence of prehistoric tool use amongst chimpanzees. Archaeologists working at sites in Ivory Coast have dated stones which appear to have been used to crack open nuts, around 4000 years ago and because of their large size argue that they are more likely the work of chimpanzee intelligence, rather than humans (who generally made smaller tools). An extract:

The antiquity of the stones means that chimpanzees have been cracking nuts since long before human farmers reached the region—one explanation for the ability of modern chimps to use hammer stones and anvils to open food. This is no easy feat; modern chimps undergo a seven-year apprenticeship to master the technique. But it turns out this training may be age-old. Mercader, for one, believes that the use of such stone tools may be a technology traceable to a shared ancestor of chimps and humans. "I'd like to see if there is any evidence of stone pieces that could resemble these kinds of technologies at early hominid sites," he says. "But in order to find those, you have to be open to the possibility."
That we are not the only ape that uses technology is apparent from watching modern chimpanzees, but neanderthals and other early human species, showed similar tool construction and use. What is really interesting is that chimpanzee technology has not developed much at all, during the last 4000 years. Whereas our own species has achieved some amazing feats (including putting a chimpanzee into space). Isn't the universe weird?

Depression & Reality

There are some interesting findings in psychology which suggest that depressed people have a more realistic view of the world, than non-depressed people. I recently found an interesting paper by Taylor and Brown (1988) which covers some of this evidence. An extract:

Does there exist a group of individuals that is accepting of both the good and the bad aspects of themselves as many views of mental health maintain the normal person is? Suggestive evidence indicates that individuals who are low in self-esteem, moderately depressed, or both are more balanced in self-perceptions (see Coyne & Gotlieb, 1983 ; Ruehlman, West, & Pasahow, 1985 ; Watson & Clark, 1984 , for reviews). These individuals tend to (a) recall positive and negative self-relevant information with equal frequency (e.g., Kuiper &; Derry, 1982 ; Kuiper & MacDonald, 1982 ), (b) show greater even handedness in their attributions of responsibility for valenced outcomes (e.g., Campbell & Fairey, 1985 ; Kuiper, 1978 ; Rizley, 1978 ), (c) display greater congruence between self-evaluations and evaluations of others (e.g., Brown, 1986 ), and (d) offer self-appraisals that coincide more closely with appraisals by objective observers (e.g., Lewinsohn et al., 1980 ). In short, it appears to be not the well-adjusted individual but the individual who experiences subjective distress who is more likely to process self-relevant information in a relatively unbiased and balanced fashion. These findings are inconsistent with the notion that realistic and evenhanded perceptions of self are characteristic of mental health.
Simply put, depressed people have a more realistic view of themselves and others, than so-called 'normal' people. From Wikipedia:
illusion of control is the tendency for human beings to believe they can control or at least influence outcomes that they demonstrably have no influence over.
An example of this might be praying to a god to cure cancer. More from Taylor and Brown:
Is there any group in which this illusion of control appears to be absent? Mildly and severely depressed individuals appear to be less vulnerable to the illusion of control ( Abramson & Alloy, 1981 ; Golin, Terrell, & Johnson, 1977 ; Golin, Terrell, Weitz, & Drost, 1979 ; M. S. Greenberg & Alloy, in press ). When skill cues are introduced into a chance-related task or when outcomes occur as predicted, depressed individuals provide more accurate estimates of their degree of personal control than do nondepressed people. Similarly, relative to nondepressed people, those in whom a negative mood has been induced show more realistic perceptions of personal control ( Alloy, Abramson, & Viscusi, 1981 ; see also Shrauger & Terbovic, 1976 ). This is not to suggest that depressed people or those in whom a negative mood has been induced are always more accurate than nondepressed subjects in their estimates of personal control (e.g., Abramson, Alloy, & Rosoff, 1981 ; Benassi & Mahler, 1985 ) but that the preponderance of evidence lies in this direction. Realistic perceptions of personal control thus appear to be more characteristic of individuals in a depressed affective state than individuals in a nondepressed affective state.
So there is some good evidence that depressed people seem to have a much better grip on reality, than normal people. Being normal is to some extent characterised by ignoring the bad things in the world (or at least ignoring them in relation to the self). It is like a happy ostrich, with its head in the sand. Ignorance may be bliss, but it's also dangerous living in a dream world, especially when the real world is so hostile. Some final thoughts from Taylor and Brown on the optimism of normal people:
Is there any evidence, however, that such optimism is actually unrealistic? Although the future may well hold more subjectively positive events than negative ones for most individuals, as with excessively positive views of the self, evidence for the illusory nature of optimism comes from studies comparing judgments of self with judgments of others. The evidence indicates that although the warm and generous vision of the future that individuals entertain extends to all people, it is decidedly more in evidence for the self. People estimate the likelihood that they will experience a wide variety of pleasant events, such as liking their first job, getting a good salary, or having a gifted child, as higher than those of their peers (Weinstein, 1980). Conversely, when asked their chances of experiencing a wide variety of negative events, including having an automobile accident (Robertson, 1977), being a crime victim ( Perloff & Fetzer, 1986 ), having trouble finding a job ( Weinstein, 1980 ), or becoming ill ( Perloff & Fetzer, 1986) or depressed ( Kuiper, MacDonald, & Derry, 1983 ), most people believe that they are less likely than their peers to experience such negative events. In effect, most people seem to be saying, "The future will be great, especially for me." Because not everyone's future can be rosier than their peers', the extreme optimism that individuals display appears to be illusory.
Of the people who are diagnosed with cancer, or die, or have anything bad happen to them today, most probably didn't wake up expecting the bad thing to occur. The fact that the future is so unpredictable is one of the reasons that people need to believe in a god, a purpose, an order to the universe. They fear that godless atheists don't have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. But although reality and depression seem to be related, knowing that everything is pointless doesn't have to put a damper on things. Since it is all pointless and we find ourselves alive, conscious and able to do things (and much more than previous generations) I say we should make the best of the universe we find ourselves in. Don't live your life with your head in the sand, ignorant of reality, but use reality to achieve what you want and want whatever makes you happy.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Bird Flu Warning

Over at the Guardian is a worrying report on a senior UK health expert and his warning that we are under-prepared for the impending threat of bird flu. From the article:

Measures to curb the spread of a pandemic include flu vaccination; antiviral drugs, such as Relenza and Tamiflu; restricting social contact by closing schools; hygienic precautions such as wearing protective masks, washing hands and not shaking hands; and travel restrictions in and out of the country.

Prof Anderson showed estimates that if all these control measures were put in place there would be fewer than 100,000 deaths in the UK in the event of a pandemic. If none of these precautions were taken nearly 300,000 people could die. A similar pattern is predicted in the US, with around 600,000 expected to die without any controls in place, but only half that number if they all were.
Fingers crossed people, that our politicians are looking out for our collective well being. If they make a mistake over things like this, it could mean the end for a lot of us.

Monty Python's 'The Galaxy Song'

This clip is from the Monty Python film, 'The Meaning of Life' and combined with the song from the end of 'Life of Brian' ('Always Look on the Bright Side of Life') they make the perfect summary of what I say on this blog: you're insignificant, you're going to die, be happy.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Ramachandran, the Temporal Lobes & God

This weekend I watched a fascinating documentary about the work of neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran. These two youtube clips are from the end of the documentary, when Ramachandran is discussing the case of a man with temporal lobe epilepsy, and the brain functioning that may account for his bizarre experiences. When people ask how I can be so sure about what I write, it is because the answers are so very simple. The god question is boring - there is no god. The consciousness question is interesting, but not really of great importance to most people. We find ourselves conscious and alive, we just need to deal with it - how brain activity and functioning results in the experience of being, is by-the-by. And one day we may even answer that question, though the details won't make any difference: knowing how the mind works doesn't make anything less pointless.

Team America World Police

When I was a boy, one of my personal ambitions was to be a puppeteer (second only to ghostbuster). I had quite a collection of marionettes and still to this day I have a trusty ventriloquists doll that I like to scare people with. It should come as no surprise then, that Team America World Police - by the South Park duo Matt Stone and Trey Parker - is one of my favourite films, and is very, very funny. Enjoy this clip from the end of the film.

My Lai Massacre

The My Lai Massacre is another of those atrocities committed by men in a war situation, this time American soldiers during the Vietnam conflict. From Wikipedia:

On the eve of the attack, U.S. military command advised Charlie Company that any genuine civilians at My Lai would have left their homes to go to market by 7 a.m. the following day. They were told they could assume that all who remained behind were either Viet Cong or active Viet Cong sympathizers. They were instructed to destroy the village. At the briefing, Captain Ernest Medina was asked whether the order included the killing of women and children; those present at the briefing later gave different accounts of Medina's response.

The soldiers found no insurgents in the village on the morning of 16 March 1968. It is rumoured by Vietnamese that the soldiers asked the villagers where the Viet Cong were and that the villagers either didn't know or refused to reveal their location. Many suspected there were Viet Cong in the village, hiding underground in the homes of their elderly parents or their wives. Nevertheless, the American soldiers, one platoon which was led by Lt William Calley, killed hundreds of civilians — primarily old men, women, children and babies. Dozens were herded into a ditch and executed with automatic firearms. At one stage, Calley expressed his intent to throw hand grenades into a trench filled with villagers.

And from a BBC article on the massacre:
Elsewhere in the village, other atrocities were in progress. Women were gang raped; Vietnamese who had bowed to greet the Americans were beaten with fists and tortured, clubbed with rifle butts and stabbed with bayonets. Some victims were mutilated with the signature "C Company" carved into the chest. By late morning word had got back to higher authorities and a cease-fire was ordered. My Lai was in a state of carnage. Bodies were strewn through the village. The death toll totalled 504. Only one American was injured - a GI who had shot himself in the foot while clearing his pistol.

So like members of the Einsatzgruppen, American soldiers showed themselves just as capable of killing innocent women and children - and just as capable of inflicting as much hurt and torture as the Nazis. Social psychologist, Stanley Milgram was as moved by the My Lai massacre as he had been by the atrocities of WW2. From an article on Milgram's work:
Milgram argued that the following factors could help explain the situation at My Lai. Military training sets apart soldiers from all others to prevent competition with authorities outside the military. The purpose of basic training is to break down the concepts of individuals and expand on the group or unit. During this time the soldiers spend a lot of time being disciplined. Following orders is the basis for the soldiers' actions. Cultural differences set the two sides (U.S. and North Vietnam) further apart and race was used to depersonalize the actions of war. The soldiers involved with this massacre felt that they were just following orders and it was their duty to follow orders from their "authority" figure.

Milgram has noted reoccurring themes (as found in Obedience to Authority) in these specific incidents as well as others. People who are doing a job as instructed by an administrative figure are following the instructions of that administrative outlook and not the outlook of a moral code. The feelings of duty and personal emotion are clearly separated. Responsibility shifts in the mind of the subordinate from himself/herself to the authority figure. There is a well defined purpose behind the actions or goals of the authority, and the subordinate is depended upon to help and meet those goals. Milgram points out, "The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory, are to this author disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature, or -more specifically-the kind of character produced in American society, cannot be counted on to insulate the citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority."
Blindly following authority figures can be a recipe for disaster and history shows us that events like the My Lai massacre are by no means unique, but are a consequence of human psychology being manipulated to nefarious ends - either intentionally or unintentionally by authority. Obedience can be dangerous, for you and others - you have been warned!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

On The Beach

'On The Beach' is a film about the end of the world, starring Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire and others. It is set in a time after a third world war, when nuclear conflict has literally made the northern hemisphere uninhabitable and human civilisation only remains in the southern hemisphere - specifically Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. But the nuclear fall out which has poisoned the top of the world, slowly and inexorably moves down towards the last human beings on the planet - threatening to annihilate the species. From Wikipedia:

The Australian government makes arrangements to provide its citizens with free cyanide pills and injections, so that they will be able to avoid prolonged suffering from radiation sickness. One of the novel's poignant dilemmas is that of Australian naval officer Peter Holmes, who has a baby daughter and a naive and childish wife, Mary, who is in denial about the impending disaster. Because he has been assigned to travel north with the Americans, Peter must try to explain to Mary how to euthanize their baby and kill herself with the cyanide should he be unable to return in time.
Discovering a mysterious morse code signal coming from America, a small band of men set off to learn if humanity has in fact survived somewhere in the north - only to find that the signal is nothing more than the result of the wind knocking a telegraph key, and is just random. More from Wikipedia:
The characters make their best efforts to "enjoy" what time and pleasures remain to them before dying from radiation poisoning, though they sometimes engage in behavior that, on the face of it, seems ridiculous. The Holmeses plant a garden that they will never see; Moira takes classes in typing and shorthand; scientist John Osborne and others organize a dangerous motor race that results in the violent deaths of several participants. In the end, Captain Towers chooses not to remain with Moira but rather to lead his crew on a final mission to scuttle their submarine beyond the twelve-mile limit, so that she will not rattle about, unsecured, in a foreign port – even though the impending demise of everyone renders such an action pointless.
And so we are all in a similar predicament to the characters in 'On The Beach', and life itself is a terminal illness with death a certainty for everyone. But we don't have to be infected with radiation or wait for WW3 to live out the last of our days in happiness. You can start now, if you want to.

Ramachandran on Anosognosia

This short youtube clip is from a talk by neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran on the topic of anosognosia. From Wikipedia on the condition:
Anosognosia is a condition in which a person who suffers disability due to brain injury seems unaware of or denies the existence of their handicap. This may include unawareness of quite dramatic impairments, such as blindness or paralysis.
So as Ramachandran describes in the clip, a patient with anosognosia appears to be consciously unaware of their handicap, even though through testing, you can show that some part of their brain is aware of the extent of their handicap. Patients maintain a delusion in their consciousness that denies the handicap - caused by damage to the brain. What is interesting is, that I wonder if theists realise that this is how they look to atheists - maintaining a deluded belief in god, in the face of absolutely no good evidence to support it?

Friday, February 09, 2007

Psilocybin, Reality & Me

In the year 2005, magic mushrooms were finally made illegal in the UK, ending a brief resurgence in their availability and popularity. Just before their status was changed, I decided that it would be an important experience to investigate the effect of psilocybin (the psychotropic element in magic mushrooms) and gain first hand experience of their hallucinatory effects.

As a psychologist and former parapsychologist I have always been interested in people's weird experiences and have heard many stories about hallucinations and ghosts, but have had no personal experiences to fully understand what the people where reporting. I have never had a lucid dream or hallucination (at least not under the influence of magic mushrooms) and for me consciousness falls into two distinct states: being awake and alert, and dreaming - where I am never aware I am dreaming until I wake up.

Despite the disapproving opinion that society now places on magic mushrooms, there is quite some precedent for its use within the annals of psychology and in the sixties, former Harvard psychologist, Timothy Leary gave many of his colleagues and students psilocybin and the related compound LSD. The discoverer of LSD, Albert Hoffman, in fact celebrated his 100th birthday last year and is also an interesting fellow.

So what was my experience of magic mushrooms? I took them maybe three or four times and each experience was initiated with extremely pleasurable sensations - amounting to being very drunk, but without any of the sick feelings (I am a terrible drinker and do not like alcohol very much). After an hour or so, this euphoria would die away, and I was left with a distorted version of reality. The best way of describing the experience would be like a waking dream. Reality was distorted by the chemical, so that part of what I was experiencing was real, but part of it was very unreal.

One experience I remember quite vividly, was engaging in conversation with a toilet. The toilet distorted to make it seem more life-like, and began to talk to me (nothing very deep) with it's lid as a top-lip. But instead of being horrified at the bizarre events taking place in my head (the toilet wasn't really alive) my mind took it perfectly within its stride and didn't think there was anything strange about conversing with a toilet. This was perhaps my oddest experience, though on magic mushrooms random things would occur in the room I was sitting in (such as pencils would get up and scuttle away) and it was very much like an Alice in Wonderland experience.

I have taken one other, also legal substance, called salvia divinorum. It is a type of mint plant originally found in Mexico. Its effect on me was very different from that of the psilocybin, and though its effects only last a matter of seconds (compared to the four hours or more of magic mushrooms) it reminded me of the moment that Han Solo gets frozen in carbonite. The substance made me feel as though my ego was dissipating, and freezing, until I was nothing - and then quickly I unfroze again. It was not what I would call a pleasant experience.

What did I learn from these limited encounters with psychotropic substances. That reality is very much constructed within the brain and that seeing is most definitely not a requirement to believing something is real. I didn't have a 'spiritual awakening', but it provided me with personal experience of the constructive nature of perception and illustrated the fact that it is wholly less accurate than people give credit for.