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New book by Pat Churchland

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Yes! Pat Churchland has a new book coming out on July 22nd, according to Amazon. She is a pioneer in the field of neurophilosophy (the intersection of neuroscience and philosophy) and one of the reasons why I decided to get a philosophy degree.

Here’s the book description, lifted from Amazon:

A trailblazing philosopher’s exploration of the latest brain science—and its ethical and practical implications.

What happens when we accept that everything we feel, think, and experience stems not from an immaterial soul but from electrical and chemical activity in our brains? That is the question at the heart of this new book by Patricia Churchland, one of the pioneers of neurophilosophy. In a narrative detailing her own personal and professional transformation, Churchland explains what the latest brain research into consciousness, sensory experience, memory, and free will can tell us about enduring philosophical and ethical questions: What is the self? How are our personalities created? What determines our decisions and behaviors? These questions have real-world repercussions—for example, whether an adolescent or someone mentally ill can be held responsible for his or her actions. As Churchland reveals, once we accept that our brains determine everything about who we are and how we experience the world, neuroscience offers new, critical insights into a fascinating range of ethical and philosophical dilemmas.

If Churchland’s previous books are anything to go by, this should be another entertaining, insightful and profound read into the relationship between science and philosophy. Can’t wait.

Consciousness and Buddhism

I just ran across this great quote by Stephen Batchelor, lifted from his book Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, which made me wonder how different the world would be if Buddhism—and not Christianity and Islam—was the most dominant form of spirituality:

"Consciousness is an emergent, contingent, and impermanent phenomenon. It has no magical capacity to break free from the field of events out of which it springs."

Buddhism surely has its problems and its superstitions, but failing to accept the nature of consciousness as something natural grounded in the laws of physics doesn’t seem to be one of them. Well, in some Buddhist traditions, at least. 

Is it too far-fetched to say that a world where this simple truth is accepted and not fought to the death, would be at least a tad less superstitious, a lot more humane, and a bit less insane?

¿Religion for atheists?

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Last year, writer and philosopher Alain de Botton gave a TED Talk at the TED Global 2011 in Edimburgh, Scotland. It has been doing the rounds online for a couple of months now. He had been writing a book called Religion for Atheists (coming on March 6th), in which he asks atheists not to succumb to the temptation of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We atheists are already convinced that the factual claims of religion are false, says de Botton, but “even if religion is wrong, why can’t we enjoy the best bits?”

It seems like a perfectly sensible question to ask and one that causes a knee-jerk reaction from many of us. Some of us see religion in the same way that Bertrand Russell did when he said that “[i]t is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be necessary first to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion.” We think this way because there is plenty of empirical evidence to support this conclusion. To put it mildly, religion has been a roadblock on the way to knowledge, human development and world peace in a way that no other idea or philosophy has ever been. To put it bluntly, it has been the direct cause of many of the world’s misery. It has inspired wars, crusades and inquisitions; it has ennobled dogmatic faith, which is a painfully wrong way to think about the world; and it has divided the world into “Good” vs “Evil” camps. As Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “[t]he Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad has made the world ugly and bad.” This is not limited to Christianity, of course. What some vocal atheists have been doing is pointing out these things, as well as pointing out that the whole thing is ridiculous to begin with. 

We are all perfectly justified in thinking this, says de Botton, but if we concentrate too much on this aspect, we take the risk of missing out on some of the good bits that religion has to offer, which are the ones that make them so attractive to people in the first place. And that is a very dumb risk to take, according to de Botton. “[W]e invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill” says de Botton. “[f]irstly, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And secondly, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.” This, in short, is his central argument. The reason he wrote a book, the reason he appeared on the TED stage.

I agree with his assessment on why religions were invented in the first place, although I believe that the issue is much more complex than that. What I don’t agree with is his other assessment - that secular society has not been able to deal or engage with those things. One has to wonder what he means by “secular society”. Perhaps he explains it in much more detail in his book, but the impression that I get so far is that he means something more akin to an atheistic worldview, than a society with secular values per se. If this is the case, I need only to point de Botton towards a subject he’s very familiar with: philosophy. It may not be perfect or provide one with answers to all of life’s riddles, but then again, neither does religion. Philosophy can help you realize that there might be more than one or two sides to every issue, and it can get you thinking about questions that may never have popped-up in your head if it weren’t for Plato, Hume or Nietzsche. Hell, even Heidegger can stimulate the occasional neuron. Ever wonder where morality comes from? Read Plato’s Euthyphro. Reflect upon it. Go out for drinks with your friends. Read David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature. Reflect upon it. Go make love to your loved one. Read Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. Reflect upon it. Resist the temptation to kill yourself. Read them all over again. You may not have come out of the experience with an absolute answer to your initial question, but at least your ignorance is much more informed than before. Repeat this experience with enough books, and you will very likely discover a deep truth about the human condition - our lives are driven by uncertainty, and one of the best things we can do for ourselves and for humanity is to learn how to live with it. 

Another area that can be very illuminating and opens up a whole new world of ideas, answers and possibilities is science. It shows us exactly where we stand in the grand scheme of things, and can fill us with deep humility. And, continuing with the road opened up by philosophy, a scientific understanding of the world can inform our ignorance even further. It is often said that philosophy asks questions and science answers them, providing philosophy with more things to ponder about in the process. Sticking with the question of where morality comes from, scientists can take the ideas of Plato, Hume and Nietzsche and get to work in the lab, thinking about possible ways to test them and come up with actual answers. Often, scientific research in other areas, can bring in ideas and data from unexpected places. Such was the case with morality and Charles Darwin. His work is now the unifying theory in all of the biological sciences, spawned new ones and even illuminated philosophy. This is because, as philospher Daniel Dennett puts it, “[t]here is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.” Thanks to Darwin’s work, which was expanded upon by many scientists since his time, we now know that morality is certainly a trait that evolved in social mammals, all the way to humans. Thanks to neuroscience, we can correlate moral behavior with neural activity. So, where does morality come from? According to the best of our knowledge, it arose in nature and stayed with us because it provides us with behaviors that are useful to social animals such as ourselves. There are still some gaps in our knowledge of morality, but there are many people - very intelligent people - determined to close them. Just as with all the gaps that currently exist in all of our knowledge.

Some say that scientific knowledge is “dry”, that it fails to connect with human preoccupations. Such people surely have never read Carl Sagan. He dedicated his life to bringing scientific knowledge to the masses, and more importantly, into taking such scientific knowledge to its ultimate consequences, providing a “naturalist spirituality” of sorts. His work is filled with awe-inspiring words such as these: “We are star stuff which has taken its destiny into its own hands […] We are a way for the cosmos to know itself. We are creatures of the cosmos and always hunger to know our origins, to understand our connection with the universe.” This awesome reflection is based on the “dry” knowledge that the atoms that form our body are created in the cores of stars. If this does not elicit a feeling that can be called “spiritual”, about nature, then I suspect that you might be clinically dead.

Contrast all of this with sticking to what religious books and leaders have to say, and you will rapidly see why de Botton is seriously misguided. Atheists are most definitely not “living on a spiritual wasteland under the guidance of Walmart and CNN”, as he is eager to claim. Atheists are actually sitting in the middle of an enormous library whose shelves are filled with thousands upon thousands of tomes written by some of the most thoughtful mammals that have ever lived on this planet. All they have to do is get up from their chairs and begin to indulge. Most atheists have already done this. It’s precisely why they are atheists now. A lot of atheists have already realized that religion can only ever address important questions, never actually answer them. And it does so in a mediocre way because it has to adhere to one or several dogmas. Science and philosophy may sometimes be questions without answers, but religion is answers that can never be questioned. Even the religious have been realizing this for several years, and church pews have been slowly emptying. The impression that I get is that de Botton is catering a banquet of attractive-looking meats to people who do not like the taste of meat.

De Botton does point out something very important that countless academics before him have pointed out. Namely, that our dominant educational system sucks. He is not the first one and will most certainly not be the last. We know that secular schools and universities are doing something horribly wrong when they fail to interest people in science and philosophy. Which, as I have argued above, are vastly superior ways to head towards truth and meaning. The problem (if it can even be called a problem) with science and philosophy is that they require effort. They require active learning from people. Reading, thinking, discussing, investigating, questioning. Some of these things come naturally to us when we are children, but are seriously diminished as we grow up and go to school. We are often not taught to think, but to memorize. Parents play an important role in this too. How many times is an inquisitive child wanting to know why things are the way they are, brushed away as an annoyance? So, this is truly a problem. But what is it exactly that de Botton is proposing to avoid this? A “new way of being an atheist”. He calls it “Atheism 2.0”. In a nutshell, in Atheism 2.0, “[t]he real issue is not whether God exists or not, but where one takes the argument to if one concludes he doesn’t.” And according to de Botton, we need to take the argument right back to religion and “steal from [it]”. Sermons, rituals, services, clothing, hierarchies, food, temples. The whole shebang. Minus the supernatural doctrines, of course.

De Botton thinks that gathering in a place built specifically for the occasion, to hear someone read from books and deliver sermons about “living well”, is a good way to fill the void of secular education. He says that people often forget why they do the things that they do, and religions cope with this rather ingeniously:

By constantly hammering them into their heads.

Right here, I’m not sure de Botton is identifying a real problem. People forget why they should be generous or why they should not embark on murderous rampages? Most atheists deal with a godless morality rather well. And religious people have their own - often reward/punishment based - reasons for their actions. I don’t share them and wish they would reconsider them, but they have them, nonetheless. What a misguided and condescending view of humanity that de Botton has. Furthermore, I am very confident that what this constant hammering of points accomplishes is lazy and dogmatic behavior. So, what de Botton identifies as virtue in the repetitive educational methods of religion, is really a vice. Instead of creating people who think critically about things and who are able to find depth in anything Plato, Hume, Nietzsche or Sagan have to say, while at the same time identifying the deficiencies, de Botton’s way only makes the problem worse. Educating in sermons is not only a horrible idea, it is also condescending and insulting. Which is something that I perceive along the entirety of “Atheism 2.0”.

Matters become worse when he proposes to blend this communal aspect of religion with art and architecture. Plans to construct an “atheist temple” (reminiscent of A.C. Grayling’s example of “sleeping furiously”) in the center of London are already underway. Some atheists (his intended audience) are already pointing out that this is a waste of time and money and an embarrassment to what atheism is all about. I agree with them, for the reasons I already pointed out. Also, atheism has had to deal with misguided and often derogatory accusations of being just another religion, when in fact, it’s nothing of the sorts. It’s like calling non-stamp collecting a hobby or calling baldness a hairstyle. What is an atheist temple going to do in the minds of the religious?

Exactly.

To add insult to injury, de Botton completely ignores the uncomfortable fact that billions of religious followers around the world do believe the doctrinal bits, and take them so seriously, that they are often willing to strip people of their liberties or even kill them. The reason those people from “North Oxford” have been so vocal is because of these things. I have often discussed with fellow atheists that if religious people were just “comforted” by their beliefs, and those beliefs were limited to finding meaning in life, we would have no need to be “loud”. Not at all. However, religions often make claims about reality that are completely at odds with what we know through the aid of science. And not content with holding these misguided beliefs, they constantly pressure governments to create legislation based on them. They don’t want homosexuals to get married. They want to stop the teaching of evolution. They want government to control women’s reproductive rights. “Shrill” atheists like Sam Harris, Salman Rushdie, Kurt Westergaard and Aayan Hirsi-Ali, often speak about these uncomfortable, but necessary subjects, often at the risk of their lives. By failing to engage with these facts, de Botton appears too eager to own the friendly-sensitive-atheist-who-gets-standing-ovations-at-TED niche and joins the ranks of people who should know better than to hammer these vocal atheists for their troubles. Yes, some of their methods are open to criticism, but this holier-than-thou attitude does nothing to advance them. Ironically enough, the people he criticizes so much, would most likely agree with de Botton’s concerns - if not with his solutions - and have even publicly expressed their appreciation of religious art and architecture.

I don’t know how this whole thing is going to end. After all, I haven’t read the book yet. But considering that de Botton seems to have thought about all these things for a time shorter than thirty seconds before writing his book, appearing at TED and embarking on architectural enterprises; together with the fact that atheists are the ones who are supposed to engage with his “Atheism 2.0”, I have a feeling that it will not get past the beta stage. All we may be left with is a jarring abandoned tower in the heart of London as a reminder that we atheists - or anyone else, for that matter - do not need religion or religious imagery in order to lead fulfilling lives.

To answer de Botton’s original question - “even if religion is wrong, why can’t we enjoy the best bits?” Well, while there are some good things about religion - community and an interest in morality for example - I feel that de Botton seems very confused about what the “best bits” actually are. He seems to want to steal bits that secularists already have, or the things that allowed the worst things to flourish in the first place.

Materialism and Naturalism are Myths.

At least according to Anthony DeStefano, that is. A self-proclaimed authority in Christian spirituality and writer of a book called The Invisible World: Understanding Angels, Demons and the Spiritual Realities that Surround Us.

If there is one thing that must be credited to the New Atheists, it is that they have managed to inspire a lot of religious folk to take a new approach to writing or speaking in defense of their faith. It has forced them to think a bit deeper before they write or say anything, but since their logical reasoning has already been distorted by faith this often results in hilarious mental gymnastics. As amusing as these logical pirouettes often are, few of them have raised the bar to stratospheric new heights as a recent piece by DeStefano in USA Today, called How Easter and Christianity undermine atheism. In relatively few lines, DeStefano manages to pinpoint in vivid detail just what is it that prevents a good portion of the faithful to think clearly about reality: they are ignorant and they are proud of it.

First, DeStefano expresses his concerns that “those who believe in nothing”, a common euphemism for atheism, are gaining new adherents every year. While atheism is often depicted by religious apologists and the public at large as the “belief in nothing”, that is a far cry from what atheism really is. It is not true that we atheists “believe in nothing”, we believe in a lot of things, actually. We just happen to appreciate one simple concept that the faithful appear to either disdain or define in a strange way: evidence. And in the case of gods, angels, demons, and every other supernatural phenomena, there simply is no evidence to warrant belief in them. On the other hand, there have been extensive studies performed on these phenomena that demonstrate that there are rational, natural explanations for them. But in an ironic twist of events, DeStefano thinks that to hold this approach towards discovering reality amounts to deluding ourselves with myths and superstitions. He writes:

Of course, it’s not quite fair to say that atheists believe in nothing. They do believe in something — the philosophical theory known as Materialism, which states that the only thing that exists is matter; that all substances and all phenomena in the universe are purely physical.

The problem is that this really isn’t a theory at all. It’s a superstition; a myth that basically says that everything in life — our thoughts, our emotions, our hopes, our ambitions, our passions, our memories, our philosophies, our politics, our beliefs in God and salvation and damnation — that all of this is merely the result of biochemical reactions and the movement of molecules in our brain.

What nonsense.

My grandfather used to have a saying: “The problem is not that he is ignorant, but that he flaunts his ignorance in public”. I think it would be hard to come up with a more accurate description of DeStefano. According to him, myths and superstitions are all those things that do not agree with his magical conception of the Universe. I wonder what term he uses when he speaks of Prometheus or the inconveniences of spotting black cats. My money is on “spiritual realities”.

Our brains, as powerful as they are, did not evolve to figure out the innermost workings of the Universe. They evolved over millions of years as a powerful and effective tool in the survival of the individuals that possessed them. They were not designed by natural selection to discover quantum mechanics, to figure out our origins, to philosophize about the true nature of reality, to write poetry, to invent computers or to build rockets to fly us to the moon. They were built by evolution to aid us in performing the tasks that were essential to our survival like hunting, gathering, nurturing and social living. This, however, does not undermine the fact that we do engage in science, engineering and the arts and that all of these things are quite remarkable feats worthy of awe and admiration. It does not mean, however, that we should just stop there and let the sense of awe and admiration overcome us. That is exactly what our ancestors did for thousands of years, and it led to completely wrong explanations, not only of natural phenomena like rain, thunder and the seasons, but of humanity. It was thought that diseases were caused by evil spirits and mental illness was a product of demonic possession, for example. These beliefs, based on the same embracement of “spiritual realities” that DeStefano proudly promotes, led to huge amounts of suffering and misery for millions of human beings. Many completely innocent but mentally ill men and women were burned alive at the stake for being suspects of witchcraft. These were not Neanderthals, these were pious believers in the “spiritual realities” of Christ’s church that were igniting the flames. It was only when we moved further and further away from this mentality that the real causes of things began to be uncovered. It is worth mentioning that theists like DeStefano, turn blind to the fact that while this was taking place over the span of several hundred thousands of years, their god was sitting in his throne watching the misery and the suffering ensue. The omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent god of Christianity found it important to “reveal” to us that a woman who is menstruating is unclean but said nothing about germs, medical procedures or how to prevent fatal diseases by simply washing one’s hands after wiping.

DeStefano’s explanation of why atheists are deluded by myth and superstition goes on:

We can’t reduce the whole of reality to what our senses tell us for the simple reason that our senses are notorious for lying to us. Our senses tell us that the world is flat, and yet it’s not. Our senses tell us that the world is chaotic, and yet we know that on both a micro and a macro level, it’s incredibly organized. Our senses tell us that we’re stationary, and yet we’re really moving at incredible speeds. We just can’t see it.

While this is true, it is only true in a narrow and incomplete sense. Our senses are indeed unreliable when it comes to interpret the Universe in a deeper sense than the one we need to survive. As I said earlier, our senses evolved -just like those of every other animal- as useful artifacts for surviving, not as a toolkit to figure out the shape of the Earth, the organization of the Universe, or celestial mechanics. But even if that is the case, our senses and our reason capabilities have proved to be very useful in those tasks as well. Oh yes, because that is a fact that DeStefano leaves out: our senses, by themselves, give us nothing really useful for our science or our philosophy; what gives them their value is the brain that interprets them.

Take Eratosthenes of Cyrene, for example. Using only his senses and his knowledge of Euclidean geometry he managed to figure out that the Earth was not flat, but spherical; and calculated the length of its circumference with a margin of error of less than 2%. This was almost 2300 years ago. Carl Sagan gives a clear and brilliant explanation of Eratosthenes’ logic and methods in the first episode of his wonderful Cosmos series. Another great example is that of Aristarchus of Samos, who interpreted the same observations that everyone else before him had access to and came to a different conclusion about the mechanics of the solar system. Pretty much everyone thought that all celestial objects revolved around the Earth, as it sat still in the center of the Universe. Aristarchus, on the other hand, had trouble reconciling the mathematics with the observations. Exactly how he reached his heliocentric model is unknown. On the only book of his that is still preserved, On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon, he accurately calculates the size of the Moon and its distance from Earth. He also attempts to estimate the size of the Sun and how far from Earth it is, although incorrectly. He thought that the Sun was about 20 times further from Earth than the Moon, and about 300 times bigger. The reality is that it is 400 times further and 1.3 million times bigger. These gross inaccuracies were due to poor observation and faulty measurements, but his logic and his mathematics were incredibly sound. Judging from this, it is believed that when Aristarchus realized that the Sun was so much larger than the Earth, he had difficulties reconciling it with a geocentric model. After looking at other options, he realized that a heliocentric model provided a simpler mathematical explanation of the observations and was therefore, more likely to be correct. Aristarchus was right. And the rest of humanity would have caught up with him sooner had his work not been lost in the burning of the Library of Alexandria by pious Christians, presumably aware of the “spiritual realities” that DeStefano talks about.

Aristarchus' notebook

As these two examples show, sometimes our senses are receiving the right information but we are unable to do the required logical reasoning to interpret it correctly. In fact, history is filled with similar accounts like those of Democritus, Kepler and Darwin, for example. The problem is not that our senses are lying to us, but rather that we are too lazy or too ignorant to figure out that the truth is often more complex than it seems and requires intellectual work on our behalf to arrive at it. There are other instances, though, in which our senses do deceive us. Look at the below picture, for example:

Which square is darker? A or B? Upon a first glance, it seems obvious that A is much darker. However, they are exactly the same color. If you do not believe this, then open the image with Photoshop or any similar image editing software and see for yourself. Both squares should have the same RGB: 120-120-120. Or simply cover the areas surrounding both squares and watch the illusion vanish before your eyes. By performing these simple tests on the picture, the truth is revealed and with more sophisticated research, we learn that the illusion works because of the way the brain uses the information it receives from our visual system to construct images. The specific details are not important for my purposes, but if you are curious you can find the explanation here.

In other occasions, our senses give us a completely accurate depiction of the phenomenon we are observing but reason tells us that it must be wrong and therefore we refuse to accept it. Pretty much everything that happens at the atomic and subatomic level falls under this category. Even though Democritus arrived at the conclusion that matter consists of indivisible particles nearly 2400 years ago using nothing but his reasoning abilities, he never could have devised the actual atomic model as we know it today nor the behavior of matter at this scale. That took great efforts, both in developing sophisticated instruments to allow us to study things at this scale, and intellectually, to correctly interpret measurements and observations which defied all logic. The field of quantum mechanics was born this way. As we dug deep into the atom, new particles were discovered and their behavior was absolutely baffling. In the realm of quantum mechanics the simple act of observing influences the behavior of particles; waves behave like particles and particles behave like waves; matter can move from one place to another without having to travel the required space. DeStefano affirms that “[…]our senses tell us that the world is chaotic, and yet we know that on both a micro and a macro level, it’s incredibly organized.”, but in fact it is the other way around. We perceive things as organized because we are only looking at a narrow scope of reality, but when we study things deeper we see that chaos is what rules. Quantum mechanics has showed us that the Universe is a collection of infinite probabilities, that fortunately for us, breaks down at our scale. This is the value of science, it helps us when our senses lie to us, when we need to look further than it is possible to look with our unaided eyes, or when our observations defy logic. As Richard Feynman once said: “Science is what we do to keep us from lying to ourselves”. Sadly, people like DeStefano are not interested in doing that, as is shown by this next comment:

But the most important things in life can’t be seen with the eyes. Ideas can’t be seen. Love can’t be seen. Honor can’t be seen. This isn’t a new concept. Judaism and Christianity and Islam and Buddhism have all taught for thousands of years that the highest forms of reality are invisible and mysterious. And these realities will never be reducible to clear-cut scientific formulae for the simple reason that they will never be fully comprehensible to the human mind. God didn’t mean them to be.

Of course they cannot be seen directly in the “spiritual realities” sense that DeStefano understands them. Things like “ideas”, “love” and “honor” are just the names that we give to human phenomena that we observe or that we directly experience. They have not been reduced to “clear-cut scientific formulae”, not because they cannot be reduced, but because the principles that underly them are probably very complex and discovering them will take time. The fact that something is unknown today does not mean that it will remain unknown forever, it is a fallacy to think that way. Charles Darwin said it before: “It has often and confidently been asserted that man’s origin can never be known. Ignorance most frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science”. Again, instances of the sort of thing that Darwin was talking about are abundant throughout history, but people like DeStefano have not been paying attention. In the specific cases of mental concepts and emotions, science has already begun to explain them in strictly naturalistic, materialistic terms. It has been shown, for example, that if certain parts of the brain are damaged, the ability to “love” is lost. The deficiencies of certain chemicals in the brain, for example render one incapable of feeling empathy towards others. Whether DeStefano likes it or not, emotions and thoughts that for centuries have been considered as abstract or immaterial by philosophers, are turning out to be completely material in nature. A lot of people, philosophers and academics included, have been very slow to understand this.

DeStefano goes on to say that it is absurd to think that humans would invent a god that makes such harsh demands like “[sacrificing] our own desires for the sake of others” or “[loving] our enemies”, or that requires people to “believe [they’re] going to be judged and held accountable for every sin [they’ve} ever committed” simply because they’re afraid of death. On the surface, this looks like a reasonable objection to make, but once again, DeStefano is either not looking at the whole picture or willfully building straw men to help him sell his nonsense. The origins of religion are much more complicated than that, they do involve a fear of death and an overall ignorance of how the Universe works, but that is not the whole story. For one thing, religion has been a very powerful instrument in controlling people. As the first-century Roman philosopher Seneca once said: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful”. In any case, who ever said religion has to make sense?

While DeStefano is very fond of calling Materialism a “superstition”, it is quite obvious that the one who is so engaged in superstitious nonsense and self-deception is himself. Materialism is based on what our science has revealed. It could be wrong, of course, as all good science and philosophy should be, but quite honestly, I do not see any threat on the horizon. If any evidence that shows that Materialism is in fact wrong and that a supernatural world exists, I will change my mind. DeStefano’s Supernaturalism is based on the assumption that not only a Universe outside of our physical reality exists, but that the basic principles were revealed by a creating entity to a group of ignorant peasants in the middle of the desert in an ancient book that is riddled with factual errors and self-contradictions. Talk about “wishful thinking”.

Engaging in the usual tactics of manipulators, DeStefano even cites Albert Einstein in a spurious attempt to use his name to give his worldview any credibility:

No less a genius than Albert Einstein once said: “The most beautiful thing we can experience in life is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: for his eyes are closed.”

This is taken out of context, of course, and used to support a worldview completely opposite of Einstein’s own. He was a pantheist, which is really just “a sexed-up atheist”, as Richard Dawkins described it. He did not believe in deities of any kind, the name of his “god” was spelled “N-A-T-U-R-E”. He was often the victim of quote-mining due to his extraordinary intellect, and thus the desire of theists to recruit him as one of their own. Here’s one of the many things he said regarding gods and religion:

“It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

Furthermore, what was actually meant by Einstein in regards to the mysterious can be cleared up by citing the quote in the actual context of his book The World as I See It:

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. It was the experience of mystery—even if mixed with fear—that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvellous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavour to comprehend a portion, be it never so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.

Ah, very different from what DeStefano is trying to sell, is it not?

 So far, DeStefano has emphatically demonstrated a deep ignorance of the advances that are now a part of our knowledge of the Universe and a remarkable intellectual dishonesty. As amusing as that is, it is not as harmful as this toxic bit:

Too many people go through life today with their eyes closed. They miss out on the mysterious because they’re so fixated on what they can see and smell and touch and taste and hear. They’re so steeped in the “superstition of materialism” that they’re totally blind to the existence of another world — a radically different world than the one they’re familiar with, but a world nonetheless: a world of miracles, a world of grace, a world of angels, a world of diabolical warfare, a world where the highest values are completely opposite from those of our secular societywhere weakness equals strength, sacrifice equals salvation, and suffering equals unlimited power.

The emphasis is mine, but the overwhelming stupidity is all DeStefano’s. Whenever I am told that I should be polite with religious people and leave them alone to believe whatever they want to believe, this is exactly the kind of thing that I point out. If religion was only about believing nonsense in the privacy of your own home, and providing us atheists with endless comedy, I would not be as hostile. But that is not what religion is about. It is about being certain that one’s book has all the answers, no matter how absurd or harmful they might be, no matter how much suffering they might inflict because, in fact, suffering is a good thing and should be cherished and desired, for it is just a test from God. The values of a secular society are rooted in Humanism, the belief that ethical principles should be based on a deep understanding of human nature to seek the well-being of humanity, not in supernatural beliefs. Religious ethics, however, are not concerned with the well-being of humans: they are concerned, as DeStefano readily admits, in gaining the favor a deity through sacrifice and suffering to be allowed entrance into paradise after death. This was what the Inquisition was all about. I am aware that not all religious people think this way, but that is not a triumph of religion. It is a triumph of secularism. A fact that many religious people ignore, is that secularism is winning so much, that the most prosperous nations on Earth are now those in which religious belief is lowest. Countries with large percentages of atheists and agnostics, like Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, New Zealand, Czech Republic and Finland, consistently rank at the top of all measures of human flourishing.

If you are religious and you managed to read all the way through, and think of yourself as a responsible citizen of the world, then please for the love of everything that is good and worthy, examine your beliefs. By not doing so, you are enabling ignorant demagogues to spew their filth under the banner of “respect for religion”.

A “stroke of insight”? Yes. Into complete nonsense, that is.

I got acquainted with Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor and her TED talk on her “stroke of insight” through two very different sources, both within one day of each other. Just last morning through a friend of mine who’s father suffered a stroke this week, and today through a blogger who sent me a comment after reading my blog post debunking the pernicious left brain vs right brain myth.

After watching the video, I must acknowledge that Dr. Taylor is a very good motivational speaker. But that’s about it.  She might be great at telling stories and connecting with people’s emotions but she is really bad at science.  Technically, she is a scientist, but what she is doing is most definitely not science.  And she dresses everything in so much poetry, mysticism and cheap philosophy that it is quite difficult to point out exactly what is wrong with it, or even know where to begin a rational criticism of it.  There is just too much.  Watch the video for yourself, and see what I mean.

After being treated to an explanation of why she decided to be a brain scientist (she has a brother with schizophrenia), we are also given a peek at what might turn out to be an ironic twist of events, because schizophrenia, the inability to tell dreams from reality, is a very suitable explanation of what is happening with Dr. Taylor. Next, she gives a poetically articulated but very factually wrong explanation of the differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain (yes, that ugly myth again).  Since I already tackled that subject on a previous post, I will not do it again here.  The only thing I will say about it is that no matter how many times she repeats it at her frequent conferences, that does not make it true.  Calling your dog a fish will not magically turn it into a fish, regardless of how many times you say it or how strong your conviction is (unless you are a Jedi, of course).  If you want to prove that your dog is a fish, you will have to give evidence that it is.  If Dr. Taylor wants to bring back that myth, that is fine by me as long as she has evidence to support it.  Hint: “It was revealed to me during a stroke” is not evidence.  To be fair, she does not seem to be trying to bring back a previously debunked conception, it is that she does not seem to be aware that it was debunked over thirty years ago in the first place.

Aside from those two things, the first thing that became obvious to me was that Dr. Taylor is a perfect example of something that I have pointed out many times before.  Namely, what happens when a scientist is bad at philosophy.  In this case, I mean philosophy in the simple sense of keeping your ideas in order, of structuring your own thoughts and to be cautious in your conclusions.  In this sense, Dr. Taylor is as bad at philosophy as Charlie Sheen is at staying sober or Lady Gaga at keeping a low profile.  She had a very unusual experience resulting from an hemorrhagic stroke in her left hemisphere, and she describes in vivid detail how she gradually loses her faculties and how her conscious experience of the world is changed multiple times.  This is what she says:

And then I lost my balance, and I’m propped up against the wall. And I look down at my arm and I realize that I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can’t define where I begin and where I end, because the atoms and the molecules of my arm blended with the atoms and molecules of the wall. And all I could detect was this energy — energy.

According to her, this is evidence that a) losing the left hemisphere of your brain enables you to get a better picture of reality because by losing its influence over your consciousness, you are treated into some privileged viewing angle of what reality is. And b) we are one with the “energy” of the universe.  She goes on:

And I’m asking myself, “What is wrong with me? What is going on?” And in that moment, my brain chatter — my left hemisphere brain chatter — went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button. Total silence. And at first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of the energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there.

We are all obviously packets of energy interacting with the energy that composes the universe and all that energy is one and the same.  Her left hemisphere is the only thing that was preventing her from realizing this “truth”, and it is exactly what is preventing us too.  Unfortunately for her, it did not last long:

Then all of a sudden my left hemisphere comes back online, and it says to me, “Hey! We got a problem! We got a problem! We gotta get some help.” And I’m going, “Ahh! I got a problem. I got a problem.” So it’s like, “OK. OK. I got a problem.”

She is now attached to the “normal reality” (she refers to it that way several times) that all of us experience every day.  But luckily, she slips out of it again:

But then I immediately drifted right back out into the consciousness — and I affectionately refer to this space as La La Land. But it was beautiful there. Imagine what it would be like to be totally disconnected from your brain chatter that connects you to the external world.

As a philosophy student, this sort of thing is particularly irritating.  Since she claims that the left hemisphere of the brain is where a person’s “rational self” is contained, this amounts to saying that rationality is what keeps people from getting in touch with reality.  I am sure Dr. Taylor holds this conviction strongly, and is admirably consistent at it. Throughout the whole eighteen minutes of the talk, not a single shred of a rational argument can be found.  I know that I might be starting to sound extremely harsh, but I am just being honest.  She bases everything she is saying on bizarre experiences that she had while suffering from brain failure, explains them by alluding to a physiological and psychological model of the brain that is demonstrably wrong (the left brain vs right brain myth), and then concludes that her experiences are a reliable indicator that provides insight into the true nature of reality.  This is simply a non-sequitur, and the reason why I said that her philosophy is abysmal.

I said that her science is also really bad, and mentioned one reason above (her failure to acknowledge that the left vs right view of the brain has been thoroughly debunked), but there are other reasons.  When one does scientific work, what one does is simply apply the scientific method to one’s ideas.  I can have a really crazy idea but that does not immediately disqualify it.  Neither does the fact that I have a seemingly reasonable idea, immediately validate it.  In science we have a lot of ideas competing with one another for a place in our scientific explanations of the world.  Which of these ideas prevail?  The ones that survive a process of thorough experimentation, publication, peer review, and independent verification.  Again, Dr. Taylor has not done this.  All she has done is write a book, go on intervews with Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra, a monologue on TED and give pep-talks to audiences as diverse as MRI technicians, university students, prison inmates and 4th graders (I’m not making this up, it’s all on her 25 page resume), where she presents what she’s doing as a revolutionary scientific discovery and as a scientific basis for spirituality and new age bullshit.  The end of the talk is probably the worst part of the whole thing, where she claims that the secret to world peace is to learn how to get away from the rational, calculating, reasonable self of your left hemisphere and step into the right to become the “life-force of the universe”. This is as simple as deciding to do so.

So who are we? We are the life force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds. And we have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world. Right here, right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere, where we are. I am the life-force power of the universe. I am the life-force power of the 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form, at one with all that is. Or, I can choose to step into the consciousness of my left hemisphere, where I become a single individual, a solid. Separate from the flow, separate from you. I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: intellectual, neuroanatomist. These are the “we” inside of me. Which would you choose? Which do you choose? And when? I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner-peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be.

And I thought that was an idea worth spreading.

I, on the other hand, do not.  As I said before, ideas must compete with one another before becoming accepted into our body of knowledge.  In an age where the internet allows immediate global propagation of ideas, some really bad ideas are getting undeserved air time.  This is one of them.  It does not even have a value as an inspirational piece, I believe, because it is not even grounded on facts and I cannot help but feel that she is almost touting the benefits of having a stroke for one’s own enlightenment.  It is almost as if she is recommending to have a stroke so that you can get in touch with the “life-force of the universe” (whatever that means), and your spirituality. Even further than that, she is presenting a false image of what a stroke is to people with loved-ones who have suffered from one. Some people might find comfort in the idea that a loved one experienced unparalleled bliss as opposed to agony and suffering, but as it happens with several other things that are not grounded on facts, like religion and the paranormal, false comfort is no comfort at all.

Everything that I have said so far is based on the assumption that her elaborate metaphors are a somewhat accurate representation of her experience.  They are grounded on the assumption that what she is saying is true.  I believe, however, that there are good reasons to suspect that she is not telling the truth.  Some of her descriptions do not make any sense at all.  Take her description of the experience of losing her language faculties:

[…] my colleague picks up the phone and he says to me, "Woo woo woo woo." (Laughter) And I think to myself, "Oh my gosh, he sounds like a Golden Retriever!"

And so I say to him — clear in my mind, I say to him: "This is Jill! I need help!" And what comes out of my voice is, “Woo woo woo woo woo.” I’m thinking, “Oh my gosh, I sound like a Golden Retriever.” So I couldn’t know — I didn’t know that I couldn’t speak or understand language until I tried. So he recognizes that I need help and he gets me help.

What enables us to understand what is going on in the world around us is precisely our language faculty.  The way that you know that you are sitting in a black leather chair reading about Dr. Taylor from your computer monitor is because your brain is able to relate the objects around you to words like “black”, “leather”, “chair”, “Dr. Taylor”, “computer” and “monitor”.  It also relates other things that are more abstract in nature, like activities, with words and the concepts that they represent such as “sitting” and “reading”.  The same process enables you to understand the words written on the screen.  So, how on Earth is Dr. Taylor able to be conscious of the fact that she lost her language faculty if she lost her language faculty?  It would be like saying that I am conscious that I am dead, even though I’m dead.  If she said that she could not articulate her thoughts because she is unable to coordinate her vocal chords and her mouth, that would be perfectly understandable and reasonable.  That kind of thing does happen.  That is not what she is saying, however, since she claims that she was both unable to speak words and understand what other people were saying to her.  I call shenanigans.

In any case, no matter how great her presentational skills are and how inspiring some people may find her story, Dr. Taylor is just another snake-oil salesman spreading bad ideas dressed as science to anyone naive or emotionally affected enough to listen (and pay for it).  She is really bad at science and really bad at philosophy and she might not even be telling the truth about her experience in the first place.

Addendum: There is a movie, directed by Ron Howard, based on her book that is coming out soon.  Considering that Ron Howard is directing and that Jodie Foster is probably going to star in it, it may even get some Oscar nods and make Dr. Taylor a millionaire. I sense a disturbance in the “force” coming soon.

What the first civilized humans can teach us about life and death…

You have to understand the past to understand the present.

-Carl Sagan

Ancient literature is a field that has many things to teach us.  By studying the first texts that humans ever wrote we can gain valuable insights into the origins of written language and its subsequent evolution and ramification.  We can know, for example, about the different physical media and storytelling techniques that have been used and consequently -as with written language itself- we can begin to create a genealogy of sorts of the different literary genres.  It also opens up a window into the plethora of social systems, religious beliefs and human values maintained by different ancient civilizations.  I believe, however, that the most valuable contribution bestowed upon us by ancient texts like The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Book of the Dead or The Mahabharata is that it opens up our eyes to a series of facts that at first sight don’t appear to be intuitive, given the vast differences between ancient and modern cultures.  That we know and comprehend these facts is of the utmost importance to our development as human beings, both individually and collectively.  To illustrate my point, I will focus on two literary works that I believe speak for themselves: The Epic of Gilgamesh (Sumeria, 2.500 BCE) and The Book of the Dead (Egypt, 1.500 BCE).

When we read The Epic of Gilgamesh and observe the original media in which it was written, we are able to learn a great deal about the people that conceived it.  Through its many lines, we know that a king that went by the name of Gilgamesh probably existed and ruled over the ancient city of Uruk; we know that they were polytheists and that they believed that the reason for their existence was to perform mundane tasks for the gods that created them out of clay; we can deduct that at least some of them were literate and that they created the cuneiform system of writing by using a blunt stylus to leave wedge-shaped marks on tablets made of clay. We can learn similar things from the Egyptian Book of the Dead as well. We know that they had a very extense pantheon of human/animal hybrid gods that were responsible for natural phenomena; we know that they invented a paper-like substance from the pith of local plants called papyrus as a medium in which to write; we also know that they had a highly elaborate logographic and pictographic system of writing known as hieroglyphs; and we can infer that they were quite anxious to put their thoughts into writing by looking at how prominent hieroglyphs are throughout Egyptian art and architecture.

A deeper analysis, however, reveals the different sort of facts -alluded to earlier- that I believe to be more important because it provides interesting insights into our psychology and therefore improve our understanding of ourselves.  This is the case of the role that our ability -unique or not- among sentient beings (1), to be aware of our own mortality plays in our lives.  When we read about Gilgamesh’s lengthy and perilous quest for immortality and the numerous spells in place to successfully face the weighing of the heart in front of the gods of the underworld and acquire Osiris’ approval to carry on in the afterlife, we realize that the same fears and struggles that our ancestors had -probably ever since we evolved traits like language and intellect- are with us still, dozens of centuries later, and that our comforting tales have remained essentially the same.  Especially those related to death.

The Epic of Gilgamesh explains death away as the will of the gods (2) and many of the specific aspects of mortality were a source of great angst and despair, for the belief of the times was that when death came, all souls go to a dark and horrifying place where “dust is their drink and their food is clay” (3).  The unsettling feeling that we get from knowing we will eventually perish combined with the belief in a dantesque place were we dwell for all eternity is reflected in the part of the story in which Gilgamesh witnesess the death of Enkidu, his companion.  He goes into a state that we would now describe as of great depression, not out of grief for his friend, but out of the realization that he was going to suffer the same tragic end.  His life becomes so unbearable that he decides to go on a journey of epic proportions in search of immortality.  He faces giant scorpions, crosses lands of absolute darkness and dangerous waters that kill immediately upon contact.  He finally reaches a man called Utnapishtim, the only man ever to become immortal.  According to the story, Utnapishtim is the lone survivor, along with his wife, of an attempt of the gods to destroy the world.  He is warned by the god Ea, who instructs him to build a large ark and to gather all living beings inside.  Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?  Yes, this seems to be the origin of the well-known Jewish myth of Noah’s Ark, an example of how stories are constantly adapted and retold in later cultures (4).  (This will be evident again in the egyptian weighing of the heart myth).  Gilgamesh’s quest ends unsuccessfully, a reflection of how futile it is to try to beat death.  Utnapishtim agrees to concede him immortality if he passes a test: he must stay awake for seven days. Gilgamesh falls asleep almost immediately and as a consolation prize he is given a plant that restores youth to those who eat from it.  Gilgamesh can’t catch a break though.  On his way back he stops to take a nap and a snake eats the plant (5), leaving him with nothing else but resignation and memories of glories of years past.  This is symbolized at the end of the story when Gilgamesh returns to Uruk and admires the walls and the foundations of his great city along with a lapis lazuli stone in which the adventures of the great king are carved for posterity.

The Book of the Dead, on the other hand, despite explaining death away in the same way as the Sumerians did by claiming divine authority, drives away from the angst and despair of Gilgamesh by offering a light at the end of the tunnel.  Egyptians no longer search for immortality, they now look forward to an afterlife of continuous happiness and everlasting bliss.  The common belief is now that upon death, Anubis guides our spirit through the underworld to appear before Osiris’s court.  Here, Anubis proceeds to take out our heart and places it on one of the two plates in a balance.  The other plate contains the feather of Maat -symbol of truth, eternal justice, morality and cosmic order- and serves as a reference to weigh our lives against.  A jury composed of the gods of the underworld asks a series of questions and our heart increases or decreases in size according to our answers.  These are written down and taken to Osiris who passes judgment.  If he decides favorably, then our spirit travels back to join our mummified body and can now enter Aaru (6) -the Egyptian paradise- to live forever.  On the other hand, if Osiris decides that we have led unworthy lives, our heart is thrown to Ammit -a creature with the head of a crocodile, the mane and body of a lion and the legs of a hippo- who devours it.  This was known as the “second death”, and meant the definitive end of one’s existence.  This again sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?  Yes, this is the origin of the belief of reward with eternal, blissful life to those who lead good lives and devote themselves to the gods.  This belief was later adopted by the Jewish people and remains very popular today through the influence of the Abrahamic religions.

As we can see, both works transmit a very different message.  The Epic of Gilgameshseems to tell us that fighting against death is an exercise in futility and we should just accept it and live our Earthly lives no matter how horrifying it may be.  The Book of the Dead -and Egyptian mythology in general- attempts to deal with fear of death by inventing an exciting life after the first one.  All negative aspects of life go away and are replaced by profound states of happiness and bliss.  Ironically, if Egyptian paradise is seen as an attempt to comfort its people and calm the angst produced by a view of death as eternal torture, its effect seems to be practically the same.  Egyptians were obsessed with death and many of them dedicated their whole lives to prepare for the afterlife and gain the favor of the gods.  This, in itself, is a source of continuous angst and despair.  The certainty that death equates to mental and physical sodomy is now replaced by new disturbing thoughts.  ”Am I really doing the will of the gods?”, “Do the gods have me in their grace?”, “If I die today, will I go to paradise or cease to exist forever?”, “Are my loved ones going to die forever?”.

Almost two thousand years later after the Sumerian and Egyptian civilizations came to an end and despite of how much we know now through the study of nature, these conceptions and questions are still a big part of our modern culture and continue to be the source of great anxiety. That is precisely why the study of ancient texts that deal with death like The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Book of the Dead, is very valuable to us.  They help us realize that many things that we just assume to be true or unquestionable are probably false; that what we think of as highly original or unique is really a modification of someone else’s myths; and that faith in very unlikely things about the nature of reality has always been present, although the character’s names are different.  By learning about the human condition and striving each day towards a better understanding of how the universe really works, we can dominate our fears.  Studying ancient literature can help us with the former, and that is where its true value lies.  What the authors of all those stories could not do for their own people, they are doing for us now, thousands of years later. In a strange and ironic way, they did achieve immortality.

Notes:

1. I have always felt that asserting that human beings are the only animals with awareness of their own mortality lacks a solid foundation and given the millions of years of evolutionary history that we share, assuming it is just absurd.  Two recent papers were published that might aid to shed some light on this difficult subject:

Dora Biro, Tatyana Humle, Kathelijne Koops, Claudia Sousa, Misato Hayashi and Tetsuro Matsuzawa. Chimpanzee mothers at Bossou, Guinea carry the mummified remains of their dead infants. Current Biology, 2010; 20 (8): R351-R352 DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2010.02.031

James R. Anderson, Alasdair Gillies, Louise C. Lock. Pan thanatology. Current Biology, 2010; 20 (8): R349-R351 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.02.010

A good analysis of both papers can be read here:

http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/04/30/do-chimps-know-death/

2. From Tablet X:

"The life you seek you will never find

when the gods created mankind

death they dispensed to mankind

life they kept for themselves.”

3. From Tablet VII:

“Seizing me, he led me down to the House of Darkness,

the dwelling of Irkalla,

to the house where those who enter do not come out,

along the road of no return,

to the house where those who dwell, do without light,

where dirt is their drink, their food is of clay,

where, like a bird, they wear garments of feathers,

and light cannot be seen, they dwell in the dark,

and upon the door and bolt, there lies dust.

4. A detailed comparison an be found here:

http://www.livius.org/fa-fn/flood/flood6-parallels.html

Author Mark Isaak compiled an extensive and detailed list of flood myths from different cultures around the globe which can be viewed here:

http://home.earthlink.net/~misaak/floods.htm

5. Could this be the explanation the Sumerians came up with for why snakes shed their skin?

6. This ritual is described in great detail on Chapter 125 of The Book of The Dead.

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