27 Nov 2008

World Pantheism

Are you searching for a path that focuses on this Earth rather than some imaginary beyond, that makes saving the planet its focus not saving your eternal soul, that respects individual choice rather than pushing prejudice down people's throats, that values reason rather than fanaticism?

Do you find it impossible to believe in supernatural beings, and difficult to conceive of anything more worthy of reverence than the beauty of Nature or the power of the Universe?

Do you feel a deep sense of peace and belonging and wonder in the midst of Nature, in a forest, by the ocean, or on a mountain top? Are you speechless with awe when you look up at the sky on a clear moonless night and see the Milky Way strewn with stars as thick as sand on a beach? When you see breakers crashing on a rocky shore, or hear wind rustling in a poplar's leaves, are you uplifted by the energy and creativity of existence?

If you answered yes to these questions, then you will feel thoroughly at home in the World Pantheist Movement.

==

This doesn't, on the face of it, sound like a traditional philosophical position that is usually labelled pantheism. However, reading further,"If atheism, humanism and naturalism are to advance, then they need approaches that don’t simply leave the individual alone in the face of an increasingly threatening physical, social and international environment. They need ways of life that offer as rich a range of benefits as traditional religious ones. " Indeed, the best description is one they themselves use, which is spiritual naturalism. This group also has a strong ecological element, putting nature back into naturalism in a concrete rather than wholly abstract way. Interesting site.

21 Nov 2008

Compassion and Choices - Euthanasia organization

Compassion & Choices is a nonprofit organization working to improve care and expand choice at the end of life. As a national organization with over 60 local groups, affiliates and chapters, and 30,000 members, we help patients and their loved ones face the end of life with calming facts and choices of action during a difficult time. We also aggressively pursue legal reform to promote pain care, put teeth in advance directives and legalize physician aid in dying.

The Hemlock Society

The Hemlock Society is committed to providing information regarding options for dignified death and legalized physician aid in dying.

To strengthen our ability to serve the terminally ill, and forward aid-in-dying laws across the country, Hemlock is now partnered with the national US leader in aid in dying, Compassion & Choices.

Interesting read is
Students' Guide to Physician Aid in Dying


Hemlock (conium maculatum) was also, of course, the poison of choice to quieten Socrates.

The Atheism Tapes by Jonathan Miller

As part of the making of the ground-breaking series “A Brief History of Disbelief,” Jonathan Miller filmed conversations with some very distinguished minds. Jonathan, of course, could not resist the temptation to make these conversations wide ranging and so – naturally enough – their final contributions to “A Brief History of Disbelief” are only a small part of the original interviews.

Now this six part series is an opportunity to see and hear the conversations at much greater length as Jonathan Miller goes head to head with Daniel Dennett, Denys Turner, Richard Dawkins, Colin McGinn, Arthur Miller and Steven Weinberg.





Out of Body Experiences Simulated

An out-of-body experience (OBE) occurs when a person who is awake sees themselves from a location outside their physical body. OBEs have been reported in conditions where brain function is compromised, such as stroke, epilepsy and drug abuse. They have also been reported in association with traumatic experiences such as car accidents. Around one in ten people claim to have had an OBE at some time in their lives.

Now Dr. Henrik Ehrsson, a University College London neuroscientist, has devised the first experimental method to induce an out-of-body experience in healthy participants.

Dr Ehrsson said: “Out-of-body experiences have fascinated mankind for millennia. Their existence has raised fundamental questions about the relationship between human consciousness and the body, and has been much discussed in theology, philosophy and psychology. Although out-of-body experiences have been reported in a number of clinical conditions, the neuro-scientific basis of this phenomenon remains unclear.

“The invention of this illusion is important because it reveals the basic mechanism that produces the feeling of being inside the physical body. This represents a significant advance because the experience of one’s own body as the centre of awareness is a fundamental aspect of self-consciousness.”

The set-up of the illusion is as follows: the study participant sits in a chair wearing a pair of head-mounted video displays. These have two small screens over each eye, which show a live film recorded by two video cameras placed beside each other two metres behind the participant’s head. The image from the left video camera is presented on the left-eye display and the image from the right camera on the right-eye display. The participant sees these as one ‘stereoscopic’ (3D) image, so they see their own back displayed from the perspective of someone sitting behind them.

The researcher then stands just beside the participant (in their view) and uses two plastic rods to simultaneously touch the participant’s actual chest out-of-view and the chest of the illusory body, moving this second rod towards where the illusory chest would be located, just below the camera’s view.

The participants confirmed that they had experienced sitting behind their physical body and looking at it from that location. Dr Ehrsson said: “This was a bizarre, fascinating experience for the participants – it felt absolutely real for them and was not scary. Many of them giggled and said ‘Wow, this is so weird!’”

To test the illusion further and provide objective evidence, Dr Ehrsson then performed an additional experiment to measure the participants’ physiological response – specifically the level of perspiration on the skin – in a scenario where they felt the illusory body was threatened. Their bodily response strongly indicated that they thought the threat was real.

The creation of this perceptual illusion stems from an idea Dr Ehrsson had as a medical student, when he wondered what would happen to the ‘self’ if you could effectively move your eyes to another part of the room, just a few metres away, so you could observe yourself from an outside perspective. Would the self ‘follow’ the eyes or stay in the body?

Dr Ehrsson added: “The illusion is different from anything published previously. It is the first to involve a change in the perceived location of the self, relative to the physical body. It is also different from any virtual reality set-up because it examines what happens when you look at yourself, and there is also multisensory information that triggers the illusion. There has been no way of inducing an OBE in healthy people before, apart from unsubstantiated reports in occult literature. It’s a very exciting development, and has implications for a range of disciplines from neuroscience to theology.”

You can read the original paper The Experimental Induction of Out-of-Body Experiences and take a look at the Ehrsson Lab, including links to other research papers.

The Study was supported by the Wellcome Trust and the PRESENCCIA project, an EU funded Project under the IST programme. Dr Ehrsson was supported by the Human Frontier Science Program, the Swedish Medical Research Council and the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research.

Article: ‘The experimental induction of out-of-body experiences

There was also some discussion at the Dawkins website.

19 Nov 2008

What does it feel like to have faith?

This question was posed on the Richard Dawkins forum and so far only one real reply of merit as been posted. However, it was interesting enough to warrant a few comments. People who claim to have faith in their religious doctrine exist in a particular state of mind. There is no way for them to step outside their faith and look back at themselves in the knowledge that they can then step back inside. It is therefore the kind of question that only makes sense to someone who was once a believer but who then "lost" their faith - or, of course, possibly a shift in the opposite direction.

One of the defining characteristics of a believer is their absolute certainty in the truth of their object of belief, whatever the lack of evidence. It may seem like the person's rational faculties have been unplugged, but I suspect this merely shows that the condition takes place at an unconscious level. There is one other state of mind which is very similar and which directs its affections to a real object rather than a fantasy - being in love. And being in faith feels very much like being both loved and in love. It is like the whole universe is perfumed with this love. It doesn't even enter into one's mind that this is all purely self-generated. Like many other forms of religious experience, as it feels like it comes from outside, then it is ascribed to an outside influence; in this case, the love of one's God. It is also the case of many psychiatric disorders that manifestations of the mind appear to be externally created.

But just as the love for another person can sometimes evaporate, so can the love for one's God. As quickly as the mist descends so too can it clear, leaving behind a feeling of... possession, dare one say. The feeling of human love as well as cosmic all-pervading love are associated in the chakra system with, fairly obviously, the heart chakra. I don't want to dwell on this particular theory too long but is interesting to note that in many meditational systems the opening of the chakra centres should be done in a particular order and with a certain care and guidance. The obsession in some new age groups to focus on the heart chakra does indeed lead to a feeling of benevolence to the universe but at the expense of foregoing all the other experiences associated with the other chakras. Thus opening only one chakra leads to a one-sided view of our human nature. It is just partial knowledge, and no knowledge at all if done as part of the religious indoctrination without a conscious sense of what one is activating.

Apart from the feeling of unconditional love, the other aspect of faith is the rituals associated with maintaining and strengthening that faith. One may think that rituals are not really part of the feeling of belief but rituals do serve the purpose of fixing both images and behaviour. Studies of comparative religious
iconography show that beyond culturally local symbols there are similarities in the psychic functions of symbols or, more importantly, a family of symbols that create a meaningful internal myth. The tragedy and ignorance of fideist religions is to believe and preach that these psychodramas are external metaphysical entities rather than mental constructs. Only in eastern religions do we find the acceptance that these are deep mental constructs, including methods to see this clearly so that one is no longer a slave to indoctrination.

One interesting consequence of rituals being the prop of belief is the experience of increasing dependence on rituals in times of a crisis of faith. Somehow, the unconscious mind seems to prepare for what is about to happen, with the conscious mind being totally ignorant of this. The lady who described her experiences said
she went through a period of sudden increase in prayers, in thinking about becoming a nun and a morbid concentration on being with God. These acts of faith rose to a crescendo up until the poit where her belief suddenly collapsed. The fog had lifted, the world looked very different, the love had vanished. The rituals that were once learnt expressions of an underlying faith had become mere gestures - excessive mannerisms as a substitute for genuine belief.

Going back to secular love, we see similar situations arising when one partner is waning in their love for the other. Somehow, making an effort to be loving and caring, buying presents and trying to please your partner eventually reveal themselves as empty gestures when the reality dawns that you really don't love that person anymore. We think that repeating the right actions will somehow resurface the original feelings. But feelings, like faith, cannot be manufactured - not if the person is free to develop themselves.

Actions can be difficult to stop. Another commenter mentioned how de-programming from religious mannerisms was similar to remove hypnotic suggestions. The rituals of religions do have many aspects in common with hypnotic suggestions. It does also leave the possibility that many people may survive within their religion purely because of the comfort generated by performing certain rituals. It will need further investigation as to whether there is a neurological difference between the genuine believer acting out of faith and the default believer whose faith is a consequence of their actions.

To sum up, the feeling of faith is an emotional and neurological condition with many similarities with secular love. This love is, however, directed towards a metaphysical entity. To a believer, such an entity feels real. However, it is possible that such religious faith can disappear, just as human love can, and that the person feels freed from the obligation to be faith-full. Much of this appears to happen at an unconscious level, with the conscious reaction to this being to adjust to both states of mind. But one interesting difference is that the non-believer does not perceive to be "in" any particular state. We do not have a special word for somebody who is not in love, as we see that not being in love is the default condition. Rather strangely, many think that being a believer is the natural state, rather than the more obvious situation in which being non-believer is the natural state, just as not being in love, and that both belief and love are altered states. Living in an altered state may have its advantages but it is not clear that it is a good basis on which to claim knowledge of reality.

8 Nov 2008

Research in Belief in God at Oxford

Researchers at the University of Oxford will spend £1.9 million investigating why people believe in God. Academics have been given a grant to try to find out whether belief in a deity is a matter of nature or nurture.

They will not attempt to solve the question of whether God exists but they will examine evidence to try to prove whether belief in God conferred an evolutionary advantage to mankind. They will also consider the possibility that faith developed as a byproduct of other human characteristics, such as sociability.

Researchers at the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion and the Centre for Anthropology and Mind in Oxford will use the cognitive science disciplines to develop “a scientific approach to why we believe in God and other issues around the nature and origin of religious belief”.

Justin Barrett, a psychologist who has been quoted in support of arguments by both the atheist Richard Dawkins and his critic, Alister Mc-Grath, a Christian theologian, said: “We are interested in exploring exactly in what sense belief in God is natural. We think there is more on the nature side than a lot of people suppose.”

He compared believers to three-year-olds who “assume that other people know almost everything there is to be known”. Dr Barrett, who is a Christian, is the editor of the Journal of Cognition and Cultureand author of the book Why Would Anyone Believe in God? He said that the childish tendency to believe in the omniscience of others was pared down by experience as people grew up. But this tendency, necessary to allow human beings to socialise and cooperate with each other in a productive way, continued when it came to belief in God.

“It usually does continue into adult life,” he said. “It is easy, it is intuitive, it is natural. It fits our default assumptions about things.”

Dr Barrett said: “The next step therefore is to look at some of the detailed questions – which religious beliefs are most common and most natural for the human mind to grasp?” The most exciting questions were in areas such as the different responses to polytheism and monotheism, for example, and relationships between religion and evolutionary biology.

He and his colleague Roger Trigg will be investigating whether religion is a part of the selection process that has helped humans survive or merely a byproduct of evolution.

The three-year study is being funded by a £1.9 million grant to the Ian Ramsey Centre from the John Templeton Foundation, which supports research into religion, science and spirituality. There will be seminars and workshops, while £800,000 will go towards a small grant competition, with 41 grants for different projects.

Professor Trigg, a senior research Fellow at Oxford and author of Religion in Public Life: Must Faith be Privatised?, said: “Religion has played an important role in public life over the past few years and the debate about the origin of religion, and how it fits into the human mind, has intensified. This study will not prove or disprove any aspect of religion.” (Times Online)

==

I will keep track of this research and will post more. If you have any news then please leave a comment. One word of caution; the research is another Templeton funded project. The Templeton Foundation has a lot of money and is unashamedly Christian in outlook. Look closely and one of the goals is to see how "natural" belief in God is. In the theologian's mind if it can be shown to be natural then it is very close to being true. Trying to prop up metaphysical beliefs, rather than investigating spiritual mental states is not, in my opinion, a huge step forward.


6 Nov 2008

Was HIV-AIDS Manufactured by the US government?

I know you won't believe this, but it really is worth looking at the evidence.

I started researching this by accident as the 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to two scientists involved in discovering the HIV virus (the fact that others may well have done so before is another story). The propaganda machine of nearly all governmental agencies and pharmaceuticals has spun the story that HIV came from some accidental transmission of the virus from a simian to a human host somewhere in Africa.

The truth is altogether more disturbing. Numerous scientists who have not been paid off are also distressed that the genuine research to test the alternative hypotheses is almost impossible to get funded.

However, an official document came to light in 1999 under the Freedom of Information Act. For a brief background on Boyd Davies and his discovery see here. A HIV/AIDS timeline is available and the original 1971 report can be downloaded for a small fee (the man's gotta live!) However, the timeline gives enough details for the general public.

The main finding is that HIV was man-made by a secret Special Virus Program. The USA had some of its allies helping in the research. The live experiments were conducted in Africa and amongst New York's gays. The most likely vector for the HIV infection was a smallpox and hepatitis B vaccine. Monkeys were also infected at the same time in the same locations in Africa. It is possible that the virus was perfected by human to monkey to human experiments but the monkeys infected in Africa seem designed to present a future false genesis of the virus for propaganda purposes. The aim was to target blacks and gays. I know, shocking. But the proof is in the government documents.

There is more recent research that sheds light on the fact that HIV was manufactured and distributed by humans. I will write about it further but in the meantime you can read the articles at The Origin of AIDS.

1 Nov 2008

Near Death Experiences Research

A three-year study will explore the nature of death and consciousness.

After countless accounts of near-death experiences, dating as far back as ancient Greece, science is now taking serious steps forward to explore the nature of the phenomenon.

The Human Consciousness Project sets out to explore the nature of human consciousness and the brain. The first step of the project is the "Awareness During Resuscitation" study, a collaboration among more than 25 medical centers throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. (popsci.com)

Contrary to popular perception, says the HCP webpage, death is not a specific moment, but a well-defined process. From a biological viewpoint, cardiac arrest is synonymous with clinical death. During a cardiac arrest, all three criteria of clinical death are present: the heart stops beating, the lungs stop working, and the brain ceases functioning. Subsequently, there is a period of time—which may last from a few seconds up to an hour or longer—in which emergency medical efforts may succeed in resuscitating the heart and reversing the dying process. The experiences that individuals undergo during this period of cardiac arrest provide a unique window of understanding into what we are all likely to experience during the dying process.

Studies by Parnia and other researchers show that between 10 and 20 percent of who are resuscitated from cardiac arrest had a near-death experience (NDE). Various other studies show the frequency of near-death experience to be between 4 and 18 percent. The experience is typically described as a progression of stages. First, the person has a sense of peace, then a sense of separation from the body. The person then enters into darkness, and sees a bright light like the end of a tunnel. Finally, the person enters the light and interacts with an entity, described as God, Allah, or simply a universal cosmic force.

==

Good to see research money going into something that is of scientific, medical and philosophical importance.

Will post more info as I research this.

Overcoming Fear

Creating a new blog is a transformational process. The very act of posting, whether news links, resources or editorial, leads to a process of selection but also creates conceptual links between what otherwise would seem random disconnected pieces of information.

This is not a news agency with the imperative to be first with breaking news. It is not even, as yet, wholly a news aggregator trawling the news feeds for specific topics. The news and resources posts are not meant to be exhaustive, but rather the starting points for further investigations. The thing that is, I think, most important is bringing the whole lot together in the editorials.

There are many websites on conspiracy theories, on the covert controls that are slowly but surely taking over the whole planet, on political, religious and military enslavement of bodies and minds. But is living in a state of informed fear any better than living in ignorant fear? The former lives in fear because of the propaganda, the latter in fear of the creators of the same propaganda. If one is justified and the other manufactured they are still both bad for our health and well-being.

The propaganda machines of this world are huge, well funded and ultimately backed by physical force. You may live in a democracy which makes token nods to freedom, but just try investigating anything in depth and you will soon discover the iron fist within the velvet glove. That is likely to be terminally bad for your health.

Nietzsche wrote that the measure of a human is how much truth they can bear. This may seem like a never-ending task but I don't think Nietzsche was talking about becoming an encyclopedia. He was talking about overcoming one's self, overcoming one's fears and prejudices, un-knotting that tangled mess of beliefs we hold in our minds. Those knots may appear to us to be what is holding us together, what makes us individuals, but they are what binds us to a prison of our own making.

Before seeking to right the wrongs in the world, it is worth becoming truly independent. Then, if it still seems like a good idea, you can change the world without fear being the driving force. Before I am misunderstood, this is not a plea for pacifism but rather a call to be stronger than the prison guards.