Professor J. Anderson Thomson on Why We Believe

October 20, 2010 § 1 Comment

This is a great talk by Professor J. Anderson Thomson from the American Atheist convention in Atlanta, Georgia in 2009, which addresses ideas of human evolution, the mind’s coping mechanisms, and the way religion probably evolved with us as a by-product of social mechanisms which emerged within us.

Watch and enjoy!

Vox Populi 2 – Education is key

October 2, 2010 § 7 Comments

Welcome to the second of what I hope will be a long series of “Vox Populi” articles on my blog, where I ask for your feedback and thoughts on a given topic. I really do depend heavily on your ideas to help formulate my own, so I decided it was time to give you, the reader, a real chance to say what you think. Hope you enjoy these short topical pieces, and please leave your feedback in the comments.

Topic 2: Education

I’ve talked about education as the key to our continued success on Earth before, and I firmly believe that to be the case. With strong education comes an ability to think critically about the present and the future, and to make decisions based on the wisdom and failures of the past.

Leonardo Da Vinci's Vetruvian Man

Leonardo Da Vinci's Vetruvian Man

However I see a trend in education coming from special interest groups, who feel that their “viewpoint” may be under threat in the education system, and they are demanding that children be taught their viewpoint, regardless of how ludicrous it may be. For example, there is a strong push in the USA in some areas of Australia for young-earth creationism and “Intelligent Design” to be taught as a science alternative to a slow universe evolution. While this holds no water as a viable alternative to the scientifically agreed ideas surrounding the origin of the earth and the universe, schools and the curriculum are under increasing pressure to accept this into the teaching curriculum amid the threats and the berating coming from these groups.

There is also a growing trend from people like the Anti-Vaxxers, who are telling us that vaccination is bad for the children, and yet we are seeing an increase in deaths related to pertussis and the like in areas where vaccination levels are low.

That said, my commitment to education is because of this understanding; with bad education comes bad decisions, and we can ill afford bad decisions in this day and age.  Major problems in our world can be avoided by better education such as population and agriculture, energy efficiency and food distribution, disease management and eradication.

We need to be stronger in our teachings. I see the viewpoint of the creationists as valid in only that it highlights that some variance in cultural upbringing and ignorance can cause people to believe the most unusual things. I’m not saying that the education we have now is by any means un-faslifyable or perfect, but that we can’t fall back on the misunderstandings of human past as a viable alternative is ludicrous.

There are those who deny all the teachings of our modern era as “conspiracy”, but don’t you think someone would notice? I mean someone with a large breadth of learning?

I’d like to hear your opinions on education. I know some of you home school your children because you fear the education system is overly influenced by the minority interests. I know some of you live in areas where vaccination is on the decrease. I know some of you live in areas where overpopulation is a problem. I know some of you have chosen alternative teaching methods such as Steiner, or have been part of it yourself growing up. I want to hear your opinions on the topic of education, the good versus the bad.

You Are Not the Centre of the Universe

September 20, 2010 § 2 Comments

This is an amazing short video showing the relative sizes of objects in the known universe. Sit back and prepare to get some perspective. What is even more amazing is the actual space between these objects in space. Numbers and distances lose all meaning when working at this scale, and the human brain has not evolved to cope with them.

No you are NOT the centre of the universe!

Sugata Mitra: The child-driven education

September 13, 2010 § 2 Comments

This is great. I feel that one of the greatest ways for us to go further as a species, and to save this planet from a multitude of possible dystopian futures is through education. To see that children are able to do this research on their own is very refreshing. Education is key, because through ignorance the only decisions we can make are ill-informed and ignorant ones.

In this TED talk, Sugata Mitra is very funny and seems to really enjoy the work he does with children, and seems honestly surprised by the children all the time.

Oliver Sacks: What hallucination reveals about our minds

September 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

Oliver Sacks, one of the foremost leaders in the popularisation of the intricate workings of the brain. In this TED talk he speaks of how hallucinations give us an insight into the weird and wonderful way the brain responds to the deterioration of visual and audio stimulus, with the main focus being on a condition called Charles Bonnet syndrome, a condition where visually impaired people can experience particularly strong and vivid hallucinations. He also touches on how brain trauma (such as a tumor or cyst) can cause hallucinations.

Personally, having a loved one who has suffered from a brain tumor, and who experience terribly from hallucinations which went undiagnosed for some time, I can see how these kinds of things cause people to question their own sanity.

Marvin Minsky on Consciousness

August 25, 2010 § 2 Comments

This video struck me as a great example of the fact that all that happens and that we experience is interpreted by the brain. In an earlier blog piece I discuss the notion of the souls, and conclude that there is, in all probability, no soul. In this video Marvin Minsky speaks of much of what I was writing about in that post. Enjoy.

Does an Atheist Have a Soul?

August 11, 2010 § 60 Comments

I’ve not covered this topic as yet, so what a better time to do so than now?

I’ve covered death, afterlife, evolution, space, existentialism, gods, demons, medicine et al., but haven’t really touched on soul. And there’s a reason for it, it’s a difficult topic to cover with any sense of authority because it’s a grey area, one where there is no proof either way as to its existence. And because it is such a hotly debated and highly sensitive are for some,  I am also bracing myself for a barrage of criticism over this one, so I’m a bit hesitant to publish it.  But it is a loaded question, for if there is no soul, and it is eventually proven by science to be the case, then the basis for the major religions’ fixation with the afterlife falls over, and after all who is going to enjoy eternity by god’s side, or get the promised 72 virgins?

Theists claim there is an eternal soul, one that carries on forever well after the body has rotted in the ground. This suggests that there is a living soul within every human that is breathing right now. As usual, a quick search for the definition of “soul” reveals this:

1. The animating and vital principle in humans, credited with the faculties of thought, action, and emotion and often conceived as an immaterial entity.
2. The spiritual nature of humans, regarded as immortal, separable from the body at death, and susceptible to happiness or misery in a future state.
3. The disembodied spirit of a dead human.

So the soul is what makes us breathe, move, think, act, and emote. It is immortal, and continues to have feelings after it is separated from the body at death. And it is a ghost. Very convenient for those who want to postulate that there is indeed a soul; it can’t be seen or measured, has never been observed, and is immaterial. In fact some might say it is beyond understanding (now, where have I heard that before?)

Recent scientific studies which include brain scans can reveal that certain parts of the brain fire when we experience something, or make a decision, or do something. These firings happen all over the brain, like an electrical storm, and the long-held belief that humans “only use 10% of their brain” has been disproven or at least refuted. We can now watch real-time how the brain fires off when a person is thinking about a loved-one, or experiencing pain, or playing chess. We can also, through stimulation of parts of the brain, replicate feelings like extreme sadness, sensations such as the taste of roast beef, or out-of-body experiences such as feeling like you are floating a metre above your physical body. So where does the idea of “soul” fit within the framework of the discoveries of modern neuroscience?

But before we look at that, let’s first look at the human animal.

We like to think that we are pretty special among the animals on earth, and to some extent we are quite special, and unique in many ways. We have evolved to a point where we can alter the world to our liking, have developed complex language and commerce, societies that contain millions of individuals. We are the only animal to have taken this path of evolution, where the body has remained relatively unchanged for 500,000 years, but the brain and our built societies continue to evolve. We have free will, and a very distinct sense of self. We also have a very distinct sense of “others”, and can empathise at the plight of those around us. We have built moral structures around our societies, firstly to preserve ourselves and our immediate communities, then to help us interact with other communities with the least amount of bloodshed ( this is not universal, but it is common). And with our self-awareness comes this thing we call “consciousness”.

People like to separate “self-awareness” from “consciousness” as a way to back up the idea of a soul stating something like “How can we be conscious of ourselves if there is no soul?” But consciousness is merely the ability to know that you are alive (living), you are separate from others around you (individual) and to recognise that fact (self-aware). So from that, consciousness is a description of the act of being able to discriminate between our own self and those around us, and to realise our own “living”.

Self awareness develops from almost none (we are born and only recognise outside influences such as food) to a very acute “persona” (I am me, and I know these things, like these things, dislike these things, my history is this, I belong to these groups). A baby doesn’t know the idea of self until well after it starts to consciously make decisions about its life, and after it discovers that the decisions that he or she makes can be advantageous to him or her.

And we become very attached to our own consciousness. Anyone who has knowingly had a change of their consciousness, either through illness of or injury to the brain, will attest that the idea of losing themselves, or at least their perceived selves, is a very scary thing to experience. Brain injury sufferers for instance may still be able to think and do things they had been able to before the injury, but may feel disconnected from themselves due to this injury, as if they’ve lost their sense of their own selves.

And we make our judgments of the world and those around us consciously. But consciousness also varies in nature from person to person. Temple Grandin, a diagnosed autistic person famous for her work with ethical treatment of animals, says in the introduction to her essay “Consciousness in Animals and People with Autism”:

“As a person with autism, my ‘autistic like’ consciousness is different from normal people. I think in pictures and language is not used to form thoughts or make decisions.”

In this document she talks about varying levels of consciousness and decision-making in animals, talking from her perspective as a person living with autism. She has been able to make breakthroughs in the way humans treat domesticated animals because she believes her consciousness is much more akin to that of a non-human animal than to the human public at large. She definitely has a good understanding of the way non-human animals think and will react to given situations as has been proven by her work in the field.

So in different people consciousness and self-awareness will differ depending on brain chemistry, neurology of the brain, brain injuries, illnesses of the brain etc. This means consciousness, and the definition thereof, is subjective to the physiology of the person describing it. We all have it, but it is different for each one of us. And the general consensus is that many of the animals on earth have consciousness also, but in varying degrees of complexity.

Higher consciousness is a concept whereby, through  great control of the mind and body, once can see better, think better and more clearly, and have a transcendent understanding of the world and the universe. Things like meditation can alter the patterns of the brain and allow for different kinds of experiences, some of which could be called “a state of higher consciousness”. These states are reached through techniques of breathing control and bodily relaxation, and have been proven to change the patterns in the brain. Some people attribute this sense of “higher” consciousness to the existence of a soul, because it is so unusual to our accustomed knowledge of our consciousness it must be otherworldly. But is it really proof of the existence of the soul?

Our consciousness is all we know. It defines how we interact with the world, and it informs our emotions and reactions. It allows for us to reflect on what certain situations mean for us, for those around us, and for our surroundings. And it is for each of us, as well as our sense of self, our sense of individuality, our identity, and some would say our soul. We hold onto it tightly in our waking hours, and let go of some of it every night when we sleep and dream, but a loss of this is a very scary concept indeed.

And when we die, and our brain ceases to function, the MRI stops showing the lightning storms of neural activity, the body’s electrical impulses stop functioning and the heart stops, so too does our consciousness. But some would argue that the consciousness is then freed from the body in the form of a soul (which weighs 21 grams apparently).

Could it not be said then that the concept of “soul” could be encapsulated in here somewhere, somewhere within the consciousness, self awareness and self-preservation of our identities, and our longing not to die (the abyss scares us so much as a species), that we define the idea of “soul”? Or do we just fizzle out, our electrical impulses and chemicals dissipating to be redistributed among the universe, following the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics?

I think that, with all the evidence pointing in one direction, humans, like rabbits or insects, are no more than the sum of the incredibly beautiful and astoundingly complex parts from which we exist.

So to answer the question, “Does an atheist have a soul?” I would say, all things taken into consideration, probably not. But then again, I don’t think it’s likely that a theist has a soul either.  What do you think?

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