Thursday, November 30, 2006

Religious Symbolism, A Book I Forgot, Marcel Cairo & a note to Believer Michael:

Once again, I love all the comments. I guess - after turning it over in my mind for a day - that I am thankful that Mulan does not have any references to Jesus at school. Even though I also hate it. Cause I guess I want it both ways. I want to enjoy the myths as myths and I am tired of rejecting the symbols of those myths because some people think they are real.

But leftdog said something wonderful and I think true: Leftdog wrote, "Sure, it's a good story. I understand that, but it needs to be discredited before it can be reclaimed. Think Norse Mythology or any other similar; great stories, but only acceptable now because they have been defanged." Defanged. I like that word in regards to the Christ story. Sheldon said this too -- we need space and time before this story can be indulged in as a good story.

Plus, it's true - Jesus is everywhere, on every church lawn, inside churches, and it's only in the public areas where it's absent - or should be absent. I dream of a day when Jesus is as interesting and weird as Persephone or Eros. And I want that day to be NOW.

Austin Cline: thanks for all your wonderful research and writing. I read everything you linked to at your site. But still, even though I agree that it was the Christians that killed Christmas to a large extent -- how do we account for Europe, who have state sponsored religions and yet seem to be highly non-religious (at least at the moment, and in regards to Christianity.) They seem to be able to slip into secularism without a war with the fundamentalist Christians. Do they ban the creche from the government lawns? I don't know. I'm looking into it.

Maria: thanks for reminding us about Mithra. It's true. And the Mithra story is rawer and I think, better in lots of ways, over the Jesus story. See, Christians are plagiarists! Or, as I heard at a recent Skeptic lecture at Cal Tech, "Ingenuity is simply a matter of masterfully concealing your sources." Or maybe he said "Creativity." In any case, you get the drift.

Norma: I wasn't suggesting that the Jesus story be taught as another way of looking at the world, I like it as one of the myths that is part of our culture. In answer to your question: You are unduly cranky and cantankerous, but that is what I love about you. ONE of the things I love about you. But I don't think you have to be perpetuating fraud to enjoy a Sader meal or a Passover meal or Easter or the story of Jesus being born at Christmas. But I do agree, we aren't there yet. It's weird to enjoy the Jesus birth story amongst a group of people who actually believe that story is true. It feels condescending and wrong, but still, I'm going to do it. I want my daughter to feel what it's like in church on Christmas and the songs and the candles and all the rest. And if my experience last Christmas is an indication (I was told by my fellow pew-mates that they had seen my show and agreed wholeheartedly with my view of Catholicism and God...) I'm not sure that most of the people in that church won't feel just like I do.

Ben Turk: You are absolutely right about Donohue when you wrote: "Donohue's attempt to paint himself as a victim of exclusion by straw-man 'multi-cultural gurus' is an attempt to 1. reaffirm the dominant culture's symbol set. 2. make that dominant culture feel threatened and incite a backlash." And for that alone, I revise what I said. I wish we could have Jesus and the songs, but we can't at the moment. Maybe in my lifetime but probably not.

Boo Hoo.

Okay. There is another book I totally forgot from my 17 and is almost the most important!

18. The Moral Animal, Robert Wright.

I am still recovering from this book. As I said to Robert Wright, when I met him at the TED conference last year, "Your book totally f**ked me up!" It's so hard to accept that even those qualities that I strive to perfect in myself: compassion, love, sacrifice and so forth, stem from the most unwily and advantage-seeking impulses. Also, this book made me truly admire Charles Darwin, the man. Wright analyzes Darwin from an evolutionary psychological standpoint. And this book made me realize that if you were to put Darwin the man, and Jesus, the maybe-a-man side by side, Darwin -- outside of his scientific research and what he contributed to the knowledge of our species -- was truly admirable, much more so than Jesus. Darwin was an exemplary family man, devoted to the needs of his community, he stood up for animal rights and even took two neighboring farmers to court over their mistreatment of their animals. He was conservative in his advice to others, kind and compassionate. He was not damning anyone to hell for not "believing in him." He was not frightening people into thinking the world was about to end. He was not counseling others to abandon their families. Wright doesn't make these comparisons, I am making them. But it was impossible for me not to think about Darwin's life this way. In any case, I recently reread the Moral Animal. When I first read it, I had to go lie in the fetal position for what seemed like months, just to recover from it. I gave it out as a Christmas gift to the entire Sex & the City writing staff. This book is so important to me.

And now we come to Marcel Cairo. Yes, I agree, our discussions of God on this blog have been childlike in that they are referring to the God that most Abrahamic religions believe in. And i would like to take you seriously, but it is hard when you make statements like you do. You say you believe in the afterlife BECAUSE you are a spiritual medium. What does that mean, exactly? This is what a spiritual medium is to me - a person who takes other people's money by playing on their weaknesses. I think what you must mean is that you feel you have communicated with people who are dead?

What do you say, gang? Should I engage this fellow? I went to look at the research that you mentioned in your blog responses and none of it looked terribly legitimate to me. The thing is this: I have a biological and natural view of the world. My understanding about consciousness, which was opposed to my inclinations - is that it is an evolved adaptation that our species has in order to help us survive and reproduce. Why would that survive death? The whole idea that this organ would survive death, just because I like my brain so much, seems narcissistic and silly. My critical thinking tells me that the chance of the brain having some special otherworldly-function is so highly unlikely that it is not worth pursuing. Do you think animals brains survive death too? What about insects? Anything with a brain? What about people with Alzheimer disease, whose brains have atrophied? Do they have some other brain, their healthier brain, that survives out in the universe after they die and is just hanging in purgatory until they do?

Why do you discredit James Randi and Richard Dawkins? Those of us who admire them are admiring them because they strictly follow the scientific method and are willing to speak out about their findings and are willing to expose people who do not. This is not adulation, but respect. I can't believe you would put Randi and Sylvia Brown in the same category. They are completely different. I am suspicious of engaging with you based on that alone.

If you say your experiences with those who are dead are not able to stand up to the scientific method, then I don't know what we have to talk about. I reread the recent research on near-death experiences and I don't see anything revolutionary about it since I was reading Susan Blackmore.

Believer Michael (If you are reading this...) I just saw that you posted an answer to my question to you from a couple of days ago. I am going to read it later today and write about it tomorrow. Thanks so much for writing back. I appreciate it.


Sheldon said...

Ah, Julia. Sweet Julia. If you enjoy banging your head against a wall, then by all means engage Marcel Cairo. He seems like an intelligent guy who hasn't quite come around to using critical thinking to figure out the world. If he believes that he is in touch with a spirit world, then he's not going to respond to any reasoning by you or me or anyone else who comments here.

It may be of some use to refer him to the story of Ray Hyman, I suppose. Ray is a professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon. He put himself through college doing palm reading, and has a wonderful story about what happened when a friend dared him to "go against the books" and tell people the OPPOSITE of what the professionals said was actually in their palms (long life life described as a short one, etc.). The result? Exactly the same "success rate." That's because it doesn't matter what you TELL people; all that matters is the WAY you tell them, the trappings, and their belief. Ray had the ability to see those results for what they are. Although Marcel is likely a very intelligent person, he probably wouldn't.

David said...

Julia and marcel,
Julia, I love your tapes and bought a dozen to give to my friends. My Christian friends enjoyed them immensely which shows that there are many open minded Christians out there separate from the fundamentalists as you found when you attended church. marcel, as I said, I enjoy your humor. I also take your complaint about our discussion of god seriously. What I like about Letting Go of God is that it is both humorous and serious at the same time--like life. It is easy to dismiss the fundamentalists and I have no interest in discussing the validity or lack thereof of spiritual mediums and do not think such a discussion should be part of this blog. However, I would like a somewhat deeper discussion of the god question. For example, some serious scientists like Francis Collins somehow square evangelical Christianity with modern science. Dawkins and Collins had a recent debate in TIME magazine--it is unfortunate more discussions of this type do not occur. Another example would be John Polkinghorne, a reputable scientist now theologian--or, Robert Pollack, professor of biological sciences at Columbia, who wrote The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith. Recent books by Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Dan Dennett make good arguments against fundamentalism but do not entirely come to grips with their fellow scientists and thinkers who are able to hold deeply passionate religious beliefs while accepting all the findings of modern science. I am looking for more discussion along these lines. I think Michael was striving to do this to some extent. Does anyone else on this blog care about debating serious scientific arguments for and against the idea of god or is this ultimately a waste of time? It may well be that there are no absolute answers to these questions as even an atheist such as physicist Steven Weinberg admits. Science cannot prove that god does exist or that god does not exist. Of course the answer certainly depends, as marcel says, on one's conception of god. We can set probabilities and for me the probability of the existence of the Christian personal god and especially Jesus as god is very low. However, it also seems that there is alot that we don't know, alot of mystery out there which still needs explanation so it would seem that the odds against such a deistic god are not as low as they are against a personal god. Spinoza and even Einstein appeared to believe that god is in some sense all of nature. I agree with Bertrand Russell that what science cannot teach us we cannot know. If there is a spiritual realm and if there is any contact between that realm and our natural world it is reasonable to expect that we can eventually find the evidence through the scientific method. To date we have not found such evidence. Perhaps some others would like to discuss these matters. I hope so.

AndySocial said...

I had to explain to a friend the other day why I appreciate Christmas music but believe it's all just a story. Using examples of other myths, I think I may have made a slight impression.

I think leprechauns are cool, but there's no pot of gold, sadly.

Ivy said...

Wait, what now? No pot of gold? Thanks for crushing my dreams, andysocial. Thanks a LOT.

Re: the Mithra thing. Yes, Christians are plagiarists. I don't think it means the stories are worthless. Quite the contrary-- these things keep getting rechurned and regurgitated and respat-out in new ways, retooled for new populations. The conventional wisdom takes this as proof that the stories are wrong and stupid, but to me, it underscores their beauty and essential meaningfulness over time. Like Julia said in another entry, we NEED stories. It's okay for them to just be stories, though. We still have the ideals within us that give the stories meaning regardless of their factuality.

By the way, I'd trust James Randi or Richard Dawkins with my credit card number over anyone claiming to be a medium. That may just be my prejudice, as I'm sure there are earnest mediums who honestly believe in their abilities even if I think it's... *ahem* factually questionable.

Carl R. Sams said...

Dear Ms. Sweeney,

"Once more into the breach dear friends....". Ahhh the call to battle. Even though myself and Ivy have been talking reconcilliation of late, (BTW yes Ivy, it is rather difficult for me to find a creative way of responding to your posts besides "Me too" :) ) I have to weigh in on this one. Mr. Randi is a personal hero of mine, and considering I was still quite the beleiver when I first encountered his writings, and closed down the browser window in anger many time, only to return when I truly thought about wjat he said, any "hero worship" he has gained from me, he earned. As he has eloquently stated so many times, when evaluating the claims of supernatural gifts, you are not dealing with non-sentient data sources, you are dealing with thinking, intelligent, calculating people who have it in their best interest to skew the findings, and anyone who undertakes these studies without an eye to the probability that they are being actively decieved and are in an adversarial relationship with their test subject is either painfully naive or a fool. As such any study of these people should include someone like him, skilledin the arts of deception, to look on for the common ploys. This is where we find our groups of parapsychologists and a large number of our xenobiologists. Without such a guide. But as much as I vainly snicker at "new" findings of Bigfoot of Nessie, I will staunchly support funding of xenobiology. Why? Because as rare as it is, they have found results. They have located giant squid and the celeocamp (I know, I butchered that one). Here it differs from parapsychology. To date this field of study has fond not a SINGLE REPEATABLE discovery. This is the major qualification in the self correcting nature of science. No matter what your data shows, no matter the number of letters that follow your name, or how gosh darn honest you are, if the tools for your experiment are avaliable to many, and yet NO ONE can replicate your findings.......somebody is fooling somebody. *deep breath* Sorry, getting a little worked up here.

Mr. Cairo,
You have stated that these discussions are almost "cartoonish" in their discussion of god/no god. I can only assume that you have long ago passed over the idea of an Abrahamic diety in favor of your more enlightened "jetstream". I can only speak for myself, but my first step tonon-beleif was to cast off such magical ideas to begin with, the difficult part was the realization that I could no more back up the "magic" of my faith that I could defend yours. And not to be pendantic, but the jet stream is at high altitudes in the atmosphere, not under the water as you suggest. I can only assume you meant the gulf stream. The idea of mediums and spiritual speaking across the "veil" has long been discredited as chicanery and manilipulation of the highest order, yet it seems to come into vouge again every century or so. So let me speak plain. As some of my fellow posters are aware, my first post was a few weeks ago where I thanked Ms. Sweeney for providing a community for new atheists, and how much her empathy ment for me, especially with the recent loss of my mother. Strangely mediums and believers offer the same non specific comforting answers. "They are in a better place. Thay are happy now."


I find it awefully conveinent that when I have asked those of a spiritual bent "of which I know many" questions about my mother, she strangely seems to have developed holes in the spiritually perfect mind of hers. Even odder is there are the same gaps of knowledge that appear in the memories of people who have no idea who I am. My mother and beloved, offering kind thoughts letting me know she remembers the "good times". Time for some reason she cannot remember? For the love of all that's good!1 Even Patrick Swazeey floated a penny in ghost! Throw me a frickin' bone here!

*Deep breath again*
But I could be wrong. I must ALWAYS keep that in the back of my mind. When confronted with proper evidence, I must be willing to re-evaluate my position. But vague ain't gonna cut it! Since I use my actual name to post, alot of specific information can be gleaned from the internet, so riddle me these things that cannot.

1. What was my childhood nickname?
2. What about me caused the appliation?
3. When I left from my last speaking with her in the hospital, how did she feel about my atheism?

If you cannot answer these questions I will consider to suspect one of the following two things about you.
Either you are self deluded and I am sorry. There is no shame in that and I honestly apologize for the venom contained in my post. I would only hope that you continue to post and read, and consider WHY you can't answer these questions. The second possibility is that you prey upon the weekness and pain of people, like an emotional paracite, for which I am for the first time since casting off my faith, sorry there is no hell.

-Veritas Imprimis

Cranky Cantankerous said...

Religion is not all one thing to all skeptics: there are components to religious power.
One is the questionable material in the Bible, and the disbelief that is the logical result of reading it under the tutelage of those who believe it to be the word of god in a universe made by god himself.
Second is the idea that somehow, in some way, some moral framework can be derived from such a belief.
And that if one misses the lessons or finds them wanting the fault lies within oneself, determned by which version of the world of god one subscribes to.
And the third is the actual basis for non-theism, which is that one god, or one version of god is not better or worse than any other version, but that there is no god - that is, supernatural force- of any kind that impacts on the safety, survival, or moral life of man.
It's not good myth/bad myth, mean god/benign god, Jesus/Yahwah/Allah myth,it's NO myth about any gods that impart significance to our lives, or detract from it,
And further, that the perpetuation of the stories other than as interesting, dramatic (as well as often foolish) anachronisms can have no value if man is going to get off the religious stick, and start to seriously pay attention to how much trouble religious thinking has caused and continuess to cause.

A case in point - I do sound harsh perhaps, but that never stopped any priest, pope or rabbi, and it certainly didn't impede Martin Luther - is the respondent whose mother explained that the Christmas story was, for her, just an extension of magnanimity, of charity, of doing good works..
Golly, who WOULDN'T want to be a Christian with such an end in view?
Goodness spilleth over..
But more likely not,
Christmas celebrates the birth of the Christ, and
the Christ for more than half of the world's population does not bring to mind a light unto the world, or even the good smells coming out of Macy's in honor of his arrival, but rather the greatest single source of sorrow and horror in the history of the world.
Without exception.
Attila the Hun and Ghenghis Khan were pikers, small potatoes compared to the blood spilled in the name of Jesus,,,
Now does that mean Christianity is worse than any other religion in it's power to spread dismay in the name of God, and his only begotten Son?
Not at all.
Religious horror as we see every day in our newspapers is an equal opportunity employer of cruelty and mindlessness inflicted on those who accept its blandishments.
Christ simply, so far, has larger armies, hosts with bigger and better bombs, just as the armies of God had horses, sabres and muskets with which to vanquish the aborignes of four continents.
I know this is repetitive, but can it be said often enough to those who insist that religious symbols and shibboleths are simply pleasant rituals "for the children?'
I don' t think so,
And all of that is in addition to the reasons why religion and its symbology are repellent and retrograde to scientists and philosophers , like Dawkins, Dennet, Pinker et al, who have other gripes against the mythologies:specifically that they IMPEDE the pursuit of knowledge, because they INSIST that one system of belief (religion) is equal to another (scientific methodology).
After all, how long can developed adults be expected to seriously contrast the observations of Darwin with the power of the Hebrew Bible, and the subsequent story of the Christ as the Son of God.
And if he ISN'T the Son of God, then for Christ's sake, what is all the FUSS about?
(I guess this means no milk and cookies for me.)


Anonymous said...

You're conflating "brain" with "consciousness." But consciousness, for many, is not bound to the physical realm. It exists before, during and after the poor, magnificent, temporal organ that is the brain.

Marcel said...


I know there's nothing like a good tussle to fuel some excitement in the room. I am as guilty of this as anyone else here on this blog. However, I didn't come her just to tussle. What my aim in participating on this blog, also eludes me. Deep down, I guess I like engaging conversation with ideas I don't fully agree with.

I will say this, I didn't come here to sell my services, espouse a dogma, or convert the nonbelievers. I am not that narcissistic or delusional (really!). Simply put, I just found the tone of some postings and comments on here a bit hypocritical and self-righteous. The very same qualities that atheist condemn religious zealots of. Yes, I think there is an arm of atheism that is militant and reactive. Qualities I don't much favor.

I wish people on this blog didn't always go on the defensive, or feel affronted, when someone disagrees with their position. I admit, I did make comments in a slightly tongue and cheek (provocative) manner, but I didn't go on personal attacks.

About James Randi... here is a link to an essay on James Randi from a best selling fiction writer and a former atheist, Michael Prescott. He has a really interesting blog as well.

Julia, I've always joked that mediumship is an imperfect form of communication in light of a better one. It will perfectly satisfy anyone, pro or con, by simply using the scientific method. However, many theories in science begin with an imperfect fit.

If you are truly serious and honest in your quest for truth, and would ever want to conduct your own legitimate experiment seeking answers about the survival of consciousness, I would gladly participate. Honestly, though, I think you have already made an impenetrable commitment to your beliefs, and I am not sure you could approach this with an open, uncensored mind.

In short, it doesn't bother me in the least that you, or anyone else for that matter, believe in a God. What does get under my skin is the aggressive desire by some atheist to dictate their doctrine of truth upon others by trying to eradicate spiritual beliefs and faith in others. It's a bit Draconian.

BTW, I still love this blog. I just may go back to reading it lurking in the shadows, so as not to wake up the Medusa. ;-)

Marcel said...

Oooops!!! Typo correction.

I meant to say this about mediumship...

It will never perfectly satisfy anyone, pro or con, by simply using the scientific method.


Anonymous said...


I see no point in "engaging" Marcel Cairo.

Marcel and others who fervently cling to the idea of a spirit world and life after death may not be using common English words in the same sense that many of the rest of us use them. Remember Humpty Dumpty, who told Alice "Whenever I use a word, it means exactly what I say it means, no more and no less"? Marcel and other believers in the supernatural may have rather vague and slippery ways of defining "god" or "existence" or
spirit," and as a result, their beliefs are remarkably slippery and reslilient when confronted with evidence that would convince anyone else to abandon those beliefs as worthless. The extreme elasticity with which spiritualists and New Age types use language means that their discourse can be so vague as to be approximately meaningless. Trying to engage in serious discussion with such folks is neither productive nor entertaining, in my opinion.

New Age types or "mediums" like Marcel aren't the only people who do this. In the realm of religion, John Shelby Spong, who strikes me as a decent man and an expressive writer, interprets Christian scripture so loosely, so metaphorically, that it could be made to mean anything.

It used to be that "faith" was defined and used to mean something like "openness and a positive attitude." Alan Watts once wrote, "Belief is clinging to a rock. Faith is learning to swim -- and this universe swims in boundless space." In much the same vein, a Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast, said that faith is a "courageous trust in life."

No more. Nowadays, "faith" is a code word for holding tight to a particular belief, and the less evidence there is to support the belief, the more virtuous it is to profess such faith. Faith now usually means a certainty and persistence of belief that is impervious to evidence and reason. A person such as Marcel who calls himself a spirit medium and believes in communication with the dead is no less extreme in his faith than the Evangelical Christian or the devout Muslim, each of whom regards his or her scripture as inerrant and absolutely true.

None of this should be regarded as a character flaw in a person such as Marcel or Michael or even C.S. Lewis. We human beings have the extraordinary ability to compartmentalize our brains, and to use critical thinking and reason in most of our workaday lives and daily activities, but to switch off or wall off our reasoning faculties in certain areas, where it is more comforting to believe what we want and to "keep believing when reasons fail," as Sam Harris wrote. Some people just get into the habit of this compartmentalization more often (and with larger portions of their brains) than others, that's all. It's a difficult habit to break.

Jeff D

fun2bfree said...


I was going to write to ask why you did not name The Moral Animal on your list- as I first heard of that book here on your BLOG and I am so glad you brought it to my of the best books I ever read...
as to how Europe can have state sponsored religion and yet become ever more secular...I wonder if it might be another one of those things that you might not like to be true but is nevertheless... liberatarians whom you don't seem to like too much have argued that when governments do things, people feel free to stop doing them...Europeans have state religion so they themselves don't feel any obligation to be religious amd become less relgious...liberaterians argue this is why government charity like Welfare does not work because it makes people feel less charitable in general than they would be if the government were not there doing the job---not an argument for Liberaterianism--just a thought

fun2bfree said...

lest anyone follow that link Marcel provides and think it has anything worthwhile to say--

It cites Randi's lack of scientific credentials as somehow meaning something...of course credentials mean nothing -either what someone says is true and can be reproduced without faking or not--as the fakers who tried to pass off cold fusion proved...Randi is qualified to spot fakers because he knows the tricks that they use--he does not need a Ph D to do this is immediately a red flag that the writer cannot think about truth critically and how to tell real from fake phenomena.

2) It criticizes the Randi challenge because it says Randi decides what is reasonable proof--this claim is demonstrably false--the challenge is publically available and it specifically says that the judge is someone other than Randi- and only that the challenger and Randi MUTUALLY agree to the judge and the MUTUALLY agree what will constitute success BEFORE the test...fakers have a hard time with this because they always want to wiggle out when they fail

3)I have no idea if the rest of the claims about Randi suing are true or false--but they are likely fictions of the writer's imagination or lies from fakers who hate having someone like Randi expose them...this is my speculation based on what I have seen others make up about Randi and what I know of him myself and what this article says elsewhere that is so obviously wrong...

3)clearly there are a lot of fakers--how can we tell the real fakers from the real psychics if not by a scientific method then how can we tell? The writer and marcel never seem to have an answer for this...

maria said...

Oooh! The Moral Animal sounds amazing. Thanks for the tip!

But see, that's the thing when we start comparing Jesus' life to regular human beings: Christians talk about Jesus's "sacrifice" and how "human" he was, but he never really lost anything. He started as God, ended as God. Never really lost The Boom Stick (that is, his God stuff) along the way. When Christians talk about his "sacrifice," I say: Huh? What exactly did he sacrifice? Dude's eternal. He lost 33 years hanging around on earth -- so? Yeah, he died painfully, sure. (I don't believe he ever existed; I'm just laying down the basic story.) Many people suffer a whole lot more than that, and they never get The Boom Stick. Not even for, like, a minute. Although I could carry this analogy forever, it boils down to the fact that, no matter what Jesus "lost" or "suffered," I can think of many people who suffered a whole lot more and they didn't get The Boom Stick, nor will they ever.

As for Cairo (that's my cat's name, BTW), I think that anyone who comes to another person's blog to convince them they are wrong about some matter of belief has got it all upside-down. My cat Cairo would agree.

Anonymous said...


Thanks so much for your point about Jesus in which you said *When Christians talk about his "sacrifice," I say: Huh? What exactly did he sacrifice? Dude's eternal.*
Right on! The purpose of his existence (according to the myth) was for him to make the sacrifice. He did not have to choose, as would a mortal man, to martyr himself for the good of others--he was fated to do so. Could he have done otherwise? (Maybe he could have--if so, someone please straighten me out on this). And furthermore, the line I often hear that states that "God gave his only son...." --what's that all about? I would think God could have as many sons as he would want (and besides, we are all his children, aren't we?)
Well, thanks for making the point. I have much more admiration for Jesus the actual flawed human being who inspired others and searched his soul and so forth than I do for the divine "son" of the myth who seems to me to have been somewhat of a pawn. I can celebrate the historical Jesus, and even celebrate his birth (he was an interesting dude), but I don't celebrate the divine pawn.

A different anonymous said...

Anonymous said, "You're conflating "brain" with "consciousness." But consciousness, for many, is not bound to the physical realm. It exists before, during and after the poor, magnificent, temporal organ that is the brain."

ALL evidence suggests that consciousness is purely a manifestation of the brain. For instance, drugs like alcohol have very specific "physical" effects on proteins on the surface of neurons in the brain. Those effects are measurable, testable, and repeatable. We also know that at the same time alcohol causes changes in consciousness that those changes have the same dose-dependency as alcohol. Pick your favorite mind-altering drug. Same result. Effects on consciousness occur in parallel with their molecular affinities for receptors and other proteins in neurons in the brain. Alternatively, damage to specific parts of the brain cause reproducible and predictable changes in consciousness. The bottom line is that there is NO evidence to suggest that consciousness exists outside of neural-activity in the brain. Zero evidence. But lot's of evidence to the contrary.

Sned2 said...

I love reading this blog. Julia you are so articulate about these issues! But I also worry -- I would much rather you put your time and creativity into another show than this blog. Are you working on your next show?

allenupl said...

Regarding the post above about consciousness not being separate from the brain, you might want to check out the website of the International Association for Near-Death Studies at During the past 30 years, near-death experiences have been the focus of many scientific studies at universities and medical centers throughout the U.S. and around the world. Check under the Research Tab for the published papers outlining new findings from the most current research. In particular, read the papers by Dr. Peter Fenwick and Dr. Pim Van Lommel (this latter paper deals specifically with this subject of consciousness). Many medical professionals who have seriously studied the research – and it is extensive – no longer dismiss this phenomenon as hallucinations or pharmacologically induced.

I recently attended a 4 day conference on NDEs at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston that reviewed in detail 30 years of research on NDEs. Audio files and DVDs of the presentations should be available soon on the website above, and conference papers will be available next year.

ShellyD said...

Oooh, ooh, ooh [waves hand wildly]. Call on me! Quick, before I forget everything I want to respond to (that's because of my premature senility - very premature - I'm 30). But anyway, David, Guy Who Read Time Article:

Did it bother you that Richard Dawkins was shown looking toward a mirror? Not quite IN it, but he had a mirror directly across from him and I just cringed. Sometimes he comes off as a little arrogant and that image didn't help.

Also, Julia, have you ever read anything by Judith Hayes, the Happy Heretic? She's kind of like you. Except with less humor and more anger.

And about Mithra and the similarities - what about Apollonius, whose story sounds suspiciously like that of another miracle worker in his era? "Things that make you go, Hmm..."

Sheldon said...

Poor little put-upon Marcel. It's so terrible what all us Atheists have done to the Theists' world. So few people actually believe in a god anymore. We've taken over politics completely, every U.S. president has been an Atheist, we've made huge in-roads in ensuring that all churches are closed, and have quietly planted a copy of "Origin of Species" in every hotel room in the country. And the fact that our Atheistic ideas would be SO welcomed on a Theist blog only proves how acerbic and confrontational we are in comparison.

Poor you.

Donita said...

Great show tonight! You and Jill make an awesome team! The last time I saw you two you were playng that little melodica but were too shy to sing. Tonight you sang and did really well. And you were singing harmony!

You have such an expressive speaking voice and you use it very skillfully when you're telling your stories. I think you can be just as confident with your singing.

More, please.

Thank you for a very fun evening.
-Donita (Green jacket, concerned about you walking to your car. Yeah, her)

A different anonymous said...

Allen said, "Many medical professionals who have seriously studied the research – and it is extensive – no longer dismiss this phenomenon as hallucinations or pharmacologically induced."

Many? How many? And you suggest they are more reliable than the VAST MAJORITY of neuroscientists who think near-death experiences are very explainable in terms of CELL death in the brain. The Lancet paper by Pirn Van Lommel is a joke, and says nothing about the origin of near death experiences ("NDE"). Those kinds of "survey" studies are notorious for bias, especially unintentional bias. Given that Van Lommel is obviously a proponent for "supernatural"-causation of NDE, he is the last person I would believe in terms of his data. One way he could have helped his study is by doing it "blind". But he didn't. The paper states that he, and he alone, collected all of the data. Further, he does find a statistically significant relationship between the number of times a person was givne CPR and if they experience a NDE (the more CPR = greater probability of NDE). Further, those who had a NDE had a greater chance of dying in the next 30 days. Sounds like the more your heart attack screwed you up, the more likely you were to have these expereinces. Again, this says nothing about the cause of the experiences themselves. Therefore it's hard to understand why NDEs would lead you or anybody to believe in the supernatural (and if you do begin to believe in the supernatural, WHAT supernatural thing do you decide on to believe???).

If there were any real good data suggesting that ischemia is not related to NDE, it would be a covery story in Science or Nature, and would be a Nobel prize. It wouldn't be published in "Journal of Near Death Studies" with the works of people who have degrees in clinical psychology, theology, or a Masters in "Non-profit Management" (as do the authors in volume 24 of JNDS, a huge-impact journal that published about 1 paper per month). PS. The theologin also beleives in "after-death communication".

Look. I know you must be quite interested in near death experiences, etc. And you went to Texas to see their conference, etc. But you have to critically analyze what they are actually saying. Just because something is published (even in Science or Nature), doesn't mean it reflects the truth. You have to go with the weight of evidence in total, and if there isn't enough, you have to get some more yourself or wait until someone else does. I would suggest reading some books by Michael Shermer, of the Skeptics society. He once believed in the same things you did, and eventually came to realize it was all a load of ****, much the way Julia did. I think you might get a lot out of it. You should have plenty of reading time on your hands, as JNDS hasn't published anything new since spring 2006.



Maria Alexander said...

Anonymous Person, you're so welcome!

And shellyd, you are absolutely right on. Apollonius had lots of weird similarities to Jesus. It all goes to show that there were lots of would-be messiahs and messianic mystery religions then.

Michael said...

I've always been a fan, but it was only days ago that I became an admirer. That's when I stumbled on your blog. It's been so much fun reading back thru the archives. I don't remember a single day in my life where I honestly thought there was an invisible guy in the sky listening to those trillions of prayers flying at him on a daily basis. But, I always kept my atheism to myself...mainly because the few times I shared my thoughts with someone things turned south pretty quickly. This blog and several other sites are truly a breath of fresh air, to use a tired cliche. Thanks for all the time you devote to this and thanks to all your friends who share their thoughts. I'll continue to read on a daily basis.

Marcel said...

Sheldon... you are a true role model. Your educated engagement of difficult subjects, your warm endearing debate style and your refusal to condescnd to personal attacks are truly to be admired.

I hope you are somehow involved in the educational field because the world could really use fair, polite and open-minded teachers such as yourself.

I applaud you. Bravo!

Anonymous said...

I've recently found your blog and have enjoyed it very much. You describe alot of the same feelings I have regarding the story of christmas. I have a newborn baby girl and I don't want her to miss out on the magic of christmas (and church bells, and nativity scenes... all the stuff I grew up with), but I also feel the same way you do while viewing these items with people that really believe it to be true. Anyhow ... thanks for the daily inspiration!

Austin Cline said...

how do we account for Europe, who have state sponsored religions and yet seem to be highly non-religious

The two aren't in opposition, such that the former makes the latter more difficult to explain; on the contrary the latter appears to be largely a product of the former.

One of the reasons America is so religious is precisely because no Christian church has been the official state church. Here people are free to do as they want without suffering social and economic consequences. As a result, people are founding new religions all the time; those religions in turn influence the old ones. Without an established church or religion, there is a lot more development, innovation, and shifting going on. This allows religion to more quickly adapt to changing cultural circumstances and, hence, survive longer than in circumstances where it's more rigid.

In Europe, close association between the government and the church meant that anti-government dissent and discontent was inevitably transferred to the church as well. It didn't happen overnight, but they had a long time for it to develop. The consequence is a de-fanged Christianity. Even among those who are still devout, Christian institutions don't have the same level of authority over their lives like they had 100 years ago.

Is it a coincidence that America's "Golden Age" of freethought occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century, a time when there was a strong de facto Protestant establishment in America? Perhaps freethought appealed to more people in large part because of political discontent that transferred to religion. It's not difficult to imagine that people are better able to see the flaws in a system when it feels like its being imposed on them by unwanted authority figures like the state.

It's important to remember that there's nothing about being an atheist which requires also being anti-theistic and anti-religious. These are all closely associated in the West precisely because a single religion dominated Europe and, therefore, dissent from that religion was most easily channeled through anti-religious and anti-theistic activism. There weren't alternative religious traditions through which such activism could move.

In Europe, that has helped produce widespread secularism, atheism, and indifference to religion. In America today, though, people who question the domination of Christianity have a host of alternative religious, theistic, and paranormal groups to turn to.

Sheldon said...


Take a look at your last comment to me. See any irony in it? If not, look up "irony." A personal attack that decries personal attacks fits nicely into that definition, I believe.

An alternative might be to actually address my point (sarcastic and personal, or not) which was that Atheists are the minority in power as well as in number, so to cry foul and claim that your group (the larger group of Theists) is somehow the victim is ridiculous.

Oh, and your wish was granted by whatever freaky, ethereal gods you believe you're tapped into...I AM in education (and I ain't talkin' 'bout grade school, boy).

Jeff D said...

The historical evidence supports Austin Cline's explanation of why organized religion and religious feeling is strong in America, compared with Europe. The separation of church and state under the 1st Amendment and the lack of an official state church are the primary causes. Another closely related cause is that because we haven't (since the 1780s or earlier) had an established church entangled with government, we haven't had religious wars and similar persecutions. Europe's longer history -- and its unfortunately rich history of violent religious wars, inquisitions, etc., has done wonders to produce populations who are weary or wary of organized religion.

The only point in Austin's post with which I disagree (in part) is this: "Is it a coincidence that America's "Golden Age" of freethought occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century, a time when there was a strong de facto Protestant establishment in America? Perhaps freethought appealed to more people in large part because of political discontent that transferred to religion."

Strong emphasis on "de facto." Compared to the late 20th century and today, church attendance and regular public participation in religious services, etc. occurred less among the U.S. population in the 19th century. It's true that by 1850 and later, the "Protestant establishment" had advocated and implemented a number of public policies (involving public education, immigration, etc.) that were intended to prevent dominance by Roman Catholics (as in "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion"). My suspicion or personal prejudice is that the Freethought "movement" (maybe too strong a word) in the 19th-century U.S. was more a result of the lasting effects of concepts from the Enlightenment in 18th century America and the rather fuzzy, non-denominational Christianity that was embraced by most Americans. In the mid-1970s, Herman Kahn could have been writing about 19th-century Americans when he wrote (I am paraphrasing) "In America the dominant religion is basically Unitarianism: There is at most one god, and we worship him if he exists." I think most Americans who don't regularly attend church would not be offended by that statement.

Jeff D

Austin Cline said...

Compared to the late 20th century and today, church attendance and regular public participation in religious services, etc. occurred less among the U.S. population in the 19th century.

Church attendance in colonial America (around 17% is the number that sticks out in my mind) was low for a number of reasons, not least of which was how spread out the population was and how difficult it could be to get to church (leading to religious indifference and less desire to attend church at all, naturally).

I don't think that this persisted into the late 19th century, though (I'm thinking 1870 and after, and I say "think" because I really don't know the numbers - I'm making educated guesses based on other cultural changes which I am familiar with). It was certainly still true in the early 19th century, but I think the major shift occurred by the Civil War when all sorts of religious movements started springing up to combat slavery, polygamy, alcohol, immigration, etc. Both sides in the Civil War used religion heavily to support their causes and this wouldn't have worked if church attendance was still very low.

In this context, I think I might include the early socialist, communist, and union movements of the early 20th century as part of "freethought movement." I don't dispute that these groups themselves could be very repressive against dissent, but taken in the larger social context they still represented a means of dissent and resistance against dominant political, corporate, cultural, and religious institutions.

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passionate bright said...

I went to Marcel Cairo's website and was impressed to see that he says he "Will NOT fish for clues with clever conversation". I and many of you have probably seen "mediums" on TV who are clearly fooling people by tricking them into giving them information which they then think they got from the medium.

But the fact that there are a lot of fake mediums, doesn't mean that there couldn't be real ones. I honestly don't know. I don't think science knows if there is an afterlife or not. I also dare ask: Why do people want to contact the dead? This opens a whole other can of worms.

I do not believe in a personal God, but I am open to the possibility of a nonpersonal God. Even the sharp Richard Dawkins says that that he doesn't believe in a supernatural God, but does not rule out a natural God. I don't know of anywhere he elaborates on this. I also think that some paranormal experiences may be true, (though I think they are really subtle forms of the natural and not supernatural). Sam Harris thinks there is proof for the paranormal.

James Randi and Michael Shermer have very strong biases against anything that doesn't fit into their worldview, so I don't think they are always relible in these areas.

I think that we all believe what we do because of feeling or intuition, not just hard reasoning as much as we would like to believe that. I have heard Sam Harris, who is a neuroscientist confirm this, too:

I am trying to define more precisely why I believe what I do:

To me religions and the paranormal are offensive when they:

1. are dogmatic
2. are self-centered
3. are exploitative or manipulative
4. interfere with science in a major way, like the creationists try to do
5. are projections of ancient stories or other conditioning and desires and fears
6. second-hand

Science does have its limits and there are mysteries in this world.
I would love to see a really intelligent discussion about what these limits are.

I have had paranormal experiences and I don't think that I made them up or that they can explained away by probabilities or coincidences, etc. I can't prove they were real, which doesn't prove they weren't. But I also don't think they have much importance.

Note: I have seen some wonderful ideas and information presented in these comments which I really appreciate. Fellow commenters, please do not ruin it by being mean or condescending. Please remain polite and respectful, no matter how sure you are that you are right.

LorMar said...

Julia said:

"It's weird to enjoy the Jesus birth story amongst a group of people who actually believe that story is true. It feels condescending and wrong, but still, I'm going to do it. I want my daughter to feel what it's like in church on Christmas and the songs and the candles and all the rest."

I think it's admirable that you would still expose your daughter to a church at Christmas even though you experience those uncomfortable feelings. It's a good idea for children to learn about various worldviews even if we personally disagree with them.

Anonymous said...

The atheistic majority commenting on this blog appear to me to be rather hubristic in their implication that since no human has yet to prove by the scientific method the existence of a god (creator/intelligent underlying force or energy) and/or the existence of a metaphysical consciousness (awareness/attention/soul/atman) therefore none could possibly exist and no other human could possibly experience and therefore know such.

While being a mystic and therefore having no dog in this debate of Atheism vs. Theism I still cannot help but wonder: are there any other lurkers out there with similar thoughts?


Kevin said...

Julia, Julia why don’t you reply to me? I have a simple, streight forward question. You reply to many others, so is there some kind of initiciation rite to pass through before I can get recognized as a participant, a questioner? Did you indirectly reply to me with the statement “…the chance of the brain having some special otherworldly-function is so highly unlikely that it is not worth pursuing.” To repeat my question: “how important is "nothingness" after death?” Please answer from a personal perspective. Do it in only a few words if you must. For example, it’s either: not important – somewhat important – or very important. If it is the second or third, then… just do it - knock the crap out of G. Schwartz’s experiements. Show us where he went wrong in his scientific methodology!

Anonymous said...

"While being a mystic and therefore having no dog in this debate of Atheism vs. Theism I still cannot help but wonder: are there any other lurkers out there with similar thoughts?"
I have just been turned on to this web site, and I have to say, it has really gotten under my skin, in a good way. I have been writing comments in my head, and I will now attempt to share some of my thoughts. Julia, thanks so much for your perspective and this site.
I don't have label for what I am- but I think that consciousness may well not be limited to the brain- Candace Pert wrote a book called Molecules of Emotions where she discusses (using the scientific method so revered on this site)consciousness being located all over the body, and NOT primarily in the brain. I don't remember if she discusses God at all, and I am not saying this has anything to do with belief in a "higher power", just that the brain may not be the end all be all. I have had psychic experiences myself, as at least one other person has mentioned, and my conclusion is - not all that important either, except that it may point to an idea that consciousness may exist outside of the body. I frequently have precognitive dreams-and no, not on command, and not unfortunately about winning lotto tickets or where you lost your keys. My point I guess is there is just so much we don't know, and while the ol' scientific method is a wonderful tool- perhaps not the only valuable tool. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
And , what about the search for transcendence, the numinous, the unknowable? Where does that fit into a conversation about God, or a larger reality than we currently have scientific knowledge of?
Finally,as areader, I will say that sarcastic, condescending, "I am right and you therefore are an idiot" type comments seem to lessen the richness of the debate, whatever the so called rules of internet blogging are- Karen Finan Bowers

allison said...

I don't believe in God. Let's just assume there is no God. Then what is the purpose of life? Why are we here? Our lives are so rich, so filled with love, happiness, sorrow and pain. But why? Is it pointless?
The best I can really come up with is that it IS pointless and all our endeavors are either to give ourselves an illusion of order ( like academics, government, religion,etc) or to divert oursleves from the reality of the pointlessness (entertainment). I want to believe there is more to it than that but I cannot honestly see it. I'd like to hear your thoughts on this.

bookboy said...

My, my, Julia, what have you cratered? So many facts and statistics where does one begin. How about here. We are all going to die. And though I love reading all the blog entrees the questions still remains. That we will die and no one knows what awaits us. I have had a glass of wine but I fell it sharpens my mind. To all you blogres (is that a word) do you really know how trivia all this is. Sheldon you are bright (is the only name I remember) but your light only shines as far as your mind which is your brain. I love this discourse it makes me feel alive. For now. There are many on your site that have incredible insights and I acknowledge them.. But wait an till death knocks on your door like Julia’s and then all these words come to naught. I have seen a Mother in law and and Brother in law die. An what that has done to my wife. It reduced her to a shell of what she was. Which does not mean we do not go on living but only in a more humble way. We still love one another but at a distance. I think there is something we are missing in all of is hyperbole, and that is the ability to suffer our being ness. Don’t want to be a downer. Just want to say what is in my heart. Keep up the good work. Love you all.

Smartypants said...

allison said: I don't believe in God. Let's just assume there is no God. Then what is the purpose of life? Why are we here? Our lives are so rich, so filled with love, happiness, sorrow and pain. But why? Is it pointless?

I don't see how lacking belief in a God equates with life being pointless, nor do I understand how belief in God adds any meaning.

Just because evidence and rational thought should bring mankind to the conclusion that there is no God, no afterlife, etc., it in no way means we can't be interested in our origins, that we can't be curious about the universe around us, or work towards a brighter future for our children and the generations to come.

Curiosity is a wonderful human trait, as are sociability, a desire for community, love of family and friends. (If only all our traits were so wonderful -- superstition comes to mind as an expendable one.)

In my book, knowing this is the one life we have makes it all the more important to make the here and now a better place, and that includes finding stuff out! Those that believe there's a better world awaiting them in an afterlife have considerably less incentive to find the point to living in this one.

allison said...

thank you, smartypants. that does help and in an odd way so does bookboy (he may think more clearly with a glass of wine but I don't think it is helping his spelling!). He mentions death of loved ones and that (the death of both my parents) is what got me wondering about what it could all possibly mean. Their lives so full and rich and then just over in an instant. It seems to mean so much and then in an instant, it doesn't. God or no God, I wish I could understand that. Yes, smartypants, curiousity, socialbility, love, all these are part of the richness of life that I describe but WHY?

allison said...

thank you, smartypants. that does help and in an odd way so does bookboy (he may think more clearly with a glass of wine but I don't think it is helping his spelling!). He mentions death of loved ones and that (the death of both my parents) is what got me wondering about what it could all possibly mean. Their lives so full and rich and then just over in an instant. It seems to mean so much and then in an instant, it doesn't. God or no God, I wish I could understand that. Yes, smartypants, curiousity, socialbility, love, all these are part of the richness of life that I describe but WHY?

BEN said...

Death! Yes, this is what it call comes down to, i think julia's monolouge confronts this issue so so so well.

My perspective:

The ONLY thing we can KNOW about death is that there is no coming back to this life, the life I am living now. Regardless of what you beleive, EVERYONE accepts this fact. Reincarnation, god, spirits, consiousness survival etc all promise a seperate, second life. So, it's something (maybe the only thing) we can call a universal truth. This alone is reason enough to live everyday in a total panic. I mean, total panic.

The great thing about science is that it is the only approach to the world that refuses to allow that panic to make our decisions. i'm not saying that all scientists acheive such objectivity, but as a whole, the system corrects.

To me, awareness of the panic is a prerequisite to struggling through existence. I can't trust my emotions or 'intuition' because they are totally caught up in this panic, inseperable from it. I don't use science like a hammer because it's the only tool i have, i use it because it's the only tool i have any reason to trust.

bookeraptor said...


I used to think about death as "nothingness" when I was a teenager and I think the problem here is this: that thinking of death as "nothingness" is thinking of it as an EXPERIENCE of nothingness. Death is a total cessation of all brain function, including awareness and consciousness. No awareness of nothingness is no nothingness at all. I would have thought this was kind of obvious, but I guess it's really hard to think of the world without oneself as part of it.

I really think this is the bottom line in Chrisianity and in other religions in which the individual self is supposed to survive death. It seems to be all about personal reward. What's the first question you hear from an evangelical? It's not "where do you think you fit into the fabric of the universe" or "is your life satisfying", or any number of other more interesting and meaningful questions. It's "where are you going to spend eternity?". It seems that if you can secure some kind of reward for yourself after you die, that's enough. What a selfish approach to spirituality.

I don't believe in life after death. I don't know of any evidence that compels me to believe that there is, and I think that is the only position of any intellectual dignity for myself. I am completely open to the possibility, but unless it can be verified somehow, anything else is simply wishful thinking and living in a state of denial, which somehow strikes me as less than psychologically healthy and mature. But I could be wrong.

There is nothing so special about my person or personality that it needs to endure forever and ever. As Whitman I think said, I have been here, that is enough.

I am really much more interested in life BEFORE death and if this is the only life I will ever have (there is that egotistical "I" again!) I don't intend to waste any of it thinking about what will happen to me after I die. The "I" who wants to worry about such things will be no more.

Anonymous said...

I think that what we are chatting about it consciousness which is beyond the scope of science. Scientist reduce the human brain to synapses and neurotransmitters. These break down to basic chemicals carbon, hydrogen, etc. which break down to atoms which again reduce to whatever, ad infinitum... Never does reductionism address the origin or the quality of consciousness. Reductionism merely reduces the object, in this case the brain-presumed by most scientist to give RISE to consciousness to smaller and smaller entities that are then labeled as this or a that. Never does reductionism confirm or provide any evidence that the brain creates consciousness though this premise is widely accepted by most scientists.

Consciousness defies reductionism, defies definition, defies objectification.

Science only tells us what consciousness is not.


zorathruster said...

Robert Wright's work Nonzero, the logic of human destiny is one of my pivotal works. This work published in 99 refered to the concept of the "super empowered angry man". Two years later a group of 19 such men tore down the twin towers. Wright's ability to describe a structure where such things are understandable is powerful.

Jeff D said...

Here is my comment on consciousness, triggered by two fragments from earlier posts: The idea (credited to Candice Pert) of "consciousness being located all over the body, and NOT primarily in the brain" and the observation that science can tell us only what consciousness is not.

I think that both of these ideas have considerable validity, but not for the same reasons.

Consciousness is extraordinarily difficult to define and describe. In my own reading I have found Marvin Minsky's "The Society of Mind" and some early writings and lectures by Gregory Bateson to be most illuminating (I haven't gotten around to reading Dennett's "Consciousness Explained"). I concluded long ago that consciousness is not a "thing" that can be specifically located in the brain or the big toe or the liver (which some of the ancient Greeks regarded as the seat of consciousness). Judged on the evidence available to us, consciousness is also not a thing or phenomenon that consists of "energy" or "spirit," which therefore would allow astral projection, transmigration, life after death, etc.

I don't know the original source, but many years ago, Isaac Asimov wrote a wonderful essay titled "The Subtlest Difference," touching on the origins of beliefs in the "soul," "spirits," and ghosts. The essay appears in the book "Science and the Paranormal," edited by Abell and Singer. I don't think that Dr. Asimov would have disagreed with anything that I am rather clumsily suggesting below.

In the past 50 years, information theory and general systems theory have done at least as much to explore/explain "consciousness" as biology. The "mind" isn't merely the brain, but neither is it an incorporeal thing that inhabits the brain or body. The "mind" is a label for the patterns of information processing within the brain, as those patterns evolve and persist during a person's lifetime. Similarly, I think that "consciousness" is a label for one emergent property of that information processing in the brain: partial awareness of some of those information processes within the brain, where each of us comes to link this partial awareness with his or her "self."

Gregory Bateson (a third-generation atheist who enjoyed reading the Bible and Wm. Blake) wrote about the "mind" from the perspective of cybernetics and systems theory. He offered two examples: a lumberjack with an axe chopping a tree, and a sightless person with a white cane, making his way along a busy sidewalk. Bateson rhetorically asked, "Where is the outer boundary of the person's mind?" When the entire range of actions is considered, the "mind" of the lumberjack could fairly be said to include the lumberjack's eyes, his arms, the tree, and the array of precise adjustments that he makes in the force and angle of his axe strokes as he strikes the tree. Similarly, the sightless person's "mind" could extend to the tip of his cane, as a sensory organ.

If consciousness is an emergent property of the system that is the operating, information-processing brain, then consciousness could be said to be "immaterial," in the sense that a pattern is not material (the map is not the territory, etc.). If I splice several kinds of rope together (jute, nylon, polyester, hemp) and tie a simple, loose knot in the rope, I can slide the knot along the rope, through the parts that are jute, nylon, polyester, and hemp). The knot remains the knot, even though the pattern is "expressed" by each type of rope fiber in turn.

The "immateriality" of consciousness, in this sense, doesn't mean that consciousness can exist without a human brain and body or after the death of a human brain and body (I am leaving aside the field of artificial intelligence, which someday may succeed in producing some technological substrate in which something like consciousness can exist). People who want to believe that consciousness can continue to exist after the body/brain cease to function are entitled to do so, but they are doing it in the absence of any credible, testable evidence.

So, science can tell us what consciousness is not, and it is not an immaterial spirit that survives death.

Jeff D

fun2bfree said...

"...knock the crap out of G. Schwartz’s experiements. Show us where he went wrong in his scientific methodology!"

Sheldon said...

Jeff D: Thanks for your comments on Consciousness. Very thought provoking and entertaining. I recently found an interview (SOMEBODY EMAIL ME AND TEACH ME TO ENTER HYPERLINKS IN MY COMMENTS!) on Google Video in which DNA guru James Watson said that, if he had 80 more years to live, he'd concentrate entirely on solving the problem of Consciousness.

It's really too bad that, for the past 40 years or so, this field of study has been dominated by woo-woo practitioners who've taken advantage of the god-in-the-gaps argument to confuse people about our admittedly limited understanding of how our brains allow us to be aware of ourselves.

In teaching Psychology, I've found that there's nothing more irritating to me than people who THINK they're engaging a question in a scientific way, but they're NOT. All the '60s Consciousness freaks really did a number on research in that the point that, even bringing it up in my classes results in my students revealing all sorts of bizarre beliefs they've picked up along the way.

I try to explain to them how to approach the question from a scientific viewpoint, but it's not something that comes naturally to them for the most part. Of course, by the time I get them they've had at least 18 years to be taught how to thin UNscientifically. Oy! : )

Sheldon said...

Dear Anonymous: I'd post as anonymous, too, if I made a comment like yours.
"...consciousness which is beyond the scope of science"

You seem to have your mind made up that science will NEVER be able to explain human consciousness. I feel the need to caution you about making statements like that, if that's what you meant. Shall I make a list of things that were considered "beyond the scope of science" at one time or another? I won't bore you with such a thing, but I think you get my point.

The ONLY way we ever come to understand ANYTHING is through science. You seem to be one of those folks who thinks that science is this religion-like thing full of old men who remind you of your father. Science is a process that separates BULLSHIT from FACT. All that bullshit comes from two sources: 1) people who tell us things that are wrong, and 2) our own brains, which often use faulty reasoning to tell us what's what.

Science takes the illusion out of our experiences and shows us what's real. If it didn't you wouldn't have the aspirin you took this morning to get rid of your headache, you'd have put a leech on your shoulder instead, and hoped for the best.

It never ceases to amaze me, these "science haters" who deride those horrible scientists even as they reach for the medicine cabinet, or eat their wonderfully microbe-free food, or drive their amazingly fast and efficient car to their warm, cozy office full of technologically advanced communication and data storage equipment. But science is so LIMITED, right!

Anonymous said...

Dear Sheldon,

I am glad you put me straight there. I will be patiently looking forward to adding a new “scientific” instrument to my collection of electronic instruments - an instrument to measure metaphysical phenomena. I wonder. What would the units of measurement be? “Sheldons”

It is interesting to know that science is branching out - going beyond the physical into the metaphysical.

BTW I did sign my name, please inspect the bottom of my posts .


Anonymous said...

Smartypants said:

"Those that believe there's a better world awaiting them in an afterlife have considerably less incentive to find the point to living in this one."

This couldn't be further from the truth. It's HARDER to live with a belief in an afterlife, because your actions matter much more, and for a much longer time. If I didn't believe in an afterlife, I wouldn't have any hesitation about killing certain violent criminals and White House usurpers. How freeing that would be!

And from a kinder, gentler angle, believing in an afterlife doesn't rob this life of its preciousness and importance in any way. If you think believers love their children less, or care less about global warming, you're high on crack.

ben turk said...


i haven't seen any correlation between actual moral actions and belief in god.

i have observed a correlation between judgementalism, highly opinionated ignorance and beleif in god.

and i have seen a lot of religion being used to justify insane and immoral actions. When canvassing for Greenpeace the only people who said global warming was a-okay used religious arguments to justify their position. I've never heard an atheism-based incitement for genocide or hatred. I don't see anyone other than the devoutly religious calling for bans on gay rights or stem cell research.

I'm not saying that ALL religious people support such INSANE policies, i'm saying i don't see ANY non religous people supporting them.

joan B. Gonzales said...

Dear Julia...thankyou so much for opening this issue. I love reading the dialog. I am 73 and feel very comfortable knowing that the son of god is only a myth to make one not afraid of death. I will blog as I feel the need to jump in. Thanks, Joan

Anonymous said...

The world may see you as this intelligent and remarkable woman who is bold enough to say, "The story of Jesus is a myth"; but who gives you the right, with all your "power and fame" to be judgmental of Christians? Doesnt it go both ways? You can write your books and story lines about how Christianity is a joke and that it's a way to make people feel better about death; but who are you to say that? Where is your authority? Where is your integrity? It's really sad when a person with a soul no longer has the will to respect another's belief. Just because some Christian's judge Non-Christians doesn't mean it's right; your not exempt. Maybe you should consider that...GOD IS LOVE

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