The Struggle for the (Possible) Soul of David Eagleman

Robert Jensen in Killing the Buddha:

A neuroscientist imagines life beyond the brain.

There’s a struggle inside the brain of David Eagleman for the soul of David Eagleman.

That is, there might be such a struggle if Eagleman’s brain believed that Eagleman had a soul, which he is not sure about. In fact, Eagleman’s brain is not completely sure that there is an Eagleman-beyond-Eagleman’s-brain at all—with or without a soul, whatever that term might mean.

Welcome to the world of “possibilian” neuroscientist-writer David Eagleman, to life in the space between what-is and what-if, between the facts we think we know and the fictions that illuminate what we don’t know.

Eagleman-the-scientist would love to rev up his high-tech neuroimaging machines to answer the enduring questions about the brain and the mind, the body and the soul. But Eagleman-the-writer knows that those machines aren’t going to answer those questions.

Eagleman rejects not only conventional religion but also the labels of agnostic and atheist. In their place, he has coined the term possibilian: a word to describe those who “celebrate the vastness of our ignorance, are unwilling to commit to any particular made-up story, and take pleasure in entertaining multiple hypotheses.”

Taking seriously the old saying “the absence of proof isn’t the proof of absence,” Eagleman recognizes that people who don’t believe in God (at least not in God defined as a supernatural force or entity) can never say with certainty what doesn’t exist. So, the difference between agnostic and atheist is typically a matter of attitude, and such is the case with adding possibilian to the mix. Eagleman is not trying to support or rule out any particular claim but simply suggesting that it’s healthy to imagine possibilities.

While he reports on what-is in scientific journals, Eagleman’s brain and mind run free pondering the what-ifs. In his 2009 book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, Eagleman imagines life beyond death, in a playful series of short philosophical musings: What if there were an afterlife in which we relive all our experiences but shuffled into a new order? What if in an afterlife we confront all the possible versions of ourselves that could have been? What if we experience death in stages: when the body stops functioning, when we’re buried, and the moment when your name is spoken by another for the last time? Sum offers 40 such what-ifs. The stories aren’t meant as serious proposals about what an afterlife may be. They are vehicles for Eagleman’s ruminations on the vexing philosophical questions of human life.

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Historian claims Plato’s manuscripts are mathematically ordered according to 12-note scale

Julian Baggini in The Guardian:

It may sound like the plot of a Dan Brown novel, but an academic at the University of Manchester claims to have cracked a mathematical and musical code in the works of Plato.

Jay Kennedy, a historian and philosopher of science, described his findings as “like opening a tomb and discovering new works by Plato.”

Plato is revealed to be a Pythagorean who understood the basic structure of the universe to be mathematical, anticipating the scientific revolution of Galileo and Newton by 2,000 years.

Kennedy’s breakthrough, published in the journal Apeiron this week, is based on stichometry: the measure of ancient texts by standard line lengths. Kennedy used a computer to restore the most accurate contemporary versions of Plato’s manuscripts to their original form, which would consist of lines of 35 characters, with no spaces or punctuation. What he found was that within a margin of error of just one or two percent, many of Plato’s dialogues had line lengths based on round multiples of twelve hundred.

The Apology has 1,200 lines; the Protagoras, Cratylus, Philebus and Symposium each have 2,400 lines; the Gorgias 3,600; the Republic 12,200; and the Laws 14,400.

Kennedy argues that this is no accident. “We know that scribes were paid by the number of lines, library catalogues had the total number of lines, so everyone was counting lines,” he said. He believes that Plato was organising his texts according to a 12-note musical scale, attributed to Pythagoras, which he certainly knew about.

“My claim,” says Kennedy, “is that Plato used that technology of line counting to keep track of where he was in his text and to embed symbolic passages at regular intervals.” Knowing how he did so “unlocks the gate to the labyrinth of symbolic messages in Plato”.

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The art of slow reading

Patrick Kingsley in The Guardian:

Has endlessly skimming short texts on the internet made us stupider? An increasing number of experts think so – and say it’s time to slow down . .

If you’re reading this article in print, chances are you’ll only get through half of what I’ve written. And if you’re reading this online, you might not even finish a fifth. At least, those are the two verdicts from a pair of recent research projects – respectively, the Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack survey, and analysis by Jakob Nielsen – which both suggest that many of us no longer have the concentration to read articles through to their conclusion.

The problem doesn’t just stop there: academics report that we are becoming less attentive book-readers, too. Bath Spa University lecturer Greg Garrard recently revealed that he has had to shorten his students’ reading list, while Keith Thomas, an Oxford historian, has written that he is bemused by junior colleagues who analyse sources with a search engine, instead of reading them in their entirety.

So are we getting stupider? Is that what this is about? Sort of. According to The Shallows, a new book by technology sage Nicholas Carr, our hyperactive online habits are damaging the mental faculties we need to process and understand lengthy textual information. Round-the-clock news feeds leave us hyperlinking from one article to the next – without necessarily engaging fully with any of the content; our reading is frequently interrupted by the ping of the latest email; and we are now absorbing short bursts of words on Twitter and Facebook more regularly than longer texts.

Which all means that although, because of the internet, we have become very good at collecting a wide range of factual titbits, we are also gradually forgetting how to sit back, contemplate, and relate all these facts to each other. And so, as Carr writes, “we’re losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we’re in perpetual locomotion”.

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OMG! It’s Muhammad’s footprint

Pervez Hoodbhoy in New Humanist:

The sudden appearance of the Prophet Muhammad’s alleged footprint in the sleepy village of Dharabi near Chakwal has sent a wave of religious excitement across Pakistan. At a three-hour drive from Islamabad, Dharabi is now attracting tens of thousands of visitors from Swat to Karachi. They seek blessings, spiritual enlightenment, miracle cures and relief from life’s other stresses. A road that is sparsely travelled in normal times is now clogged with traffic, vendors of food and drink are having a field day, new businesses selling pictures and holy paraphernalia have sprouted, and a permanent shrine is under construction. The village could not have hoped for better.

My encounter with this phenomenon was accidental and preceded the heavy rush that came in subsequent weeks. While on the way to Chakwal, I became curious about the heavy police presence. Upon inquiring, I was told of a recent momentous event – a giant footprint was said to have suddenly appeared, which the local Muslim scholars promptly declared to belong to the Holy Prophet. But this had ignited a fierce war of words between various religious factions in the larger Chakwal area. Some believers insist that the Prophet had left the earthly world once and for ever, while others contend that he revisits it periodically to remind followers of his presence. The police had been called to prevent physical violence.

Several weeks later the story hit the national press. And when I spoke villagers I had met in Dharabi I discovered that new embellishments and inventions are being added to the original narration of events. Village sceptics, on the other hand, are being silenced and speak only on condition of anonymity.

The story begins on 12th Rabi-ul-Awwal (the 12th day of the third month of Pakistan’s lunar calendar), the Prophet’s birthday, when celebrations were held as is village custom. This involves cooking sooji ka halwa (a sweet dish of semolina and almonds) in large flat iron dishes called karahis. Since there are no stoves large enough for the purpose, shallow holes are dug and then filled with twigs, charcoal or other flammable material. After the cooking is done and the fires have dimmed, the holes are filled with loose earth. On that particular evening there was a heavy rain shower.

That evening a woman looked out into her backyard and saw a glow that appeared to move. In her excitement, she summoned her mother-in-law, who says she saw it too. It appeared very briefly and was not seen subsequently (although a six-week-later version is that it lasted for three days and was so bright that the house did not need electric lights). The women also claimed that the glow was accompanied by a sweet smell. In the morning, the cooking area was discovered to have a mysterious ground impression: a huge footprint.

What scientific explanation exists for this phenomenon? If you Google the ‘Dharabi miracle’ you will see countless photographs and hastily made celebratory videos of the miracle. By straining the imagination, some may be able to see a footprint. But its enormous size – three to four feet long – would indicate that it belongs to the long-sought mythical Himalayan Yeti rather than any human (or human-sized divinity). The shape of the impression can be more plausibly explained as that of loose earth, brought together by rainwater, from two adjacent irregularly rounded cooking holes. It could also be the water-distorted image of two heavy round karahis of different sizes placed on the soft earth. Or it could simply be deliberate fraud.

Assuming that the women had their wits about them, and had not been overpowered by the devotional intensity of the day’s celebrations, the softly glowing ephemeral light could have multiple explanations. First, it is possible that a swarm of phosphorescent insects was somehow attracted to the cooking area. Bioluminescence in insects is a well-known phenomenon. As in the common firefly known as jugnoo, ‘cold light’ is produced via chemiluminescence.

It could also be that the organic matter buried in the holes, assisted by the heat of imperfectly quenched coals or twigs, could have converted into methane and phosphine gases. The latter is known to oxidize spontaneously upon coming into contact with air and can burn at a low temperature causing glowing light. Apparitions in western folklore, such as Jack-o’-the-Lantern or Will-o’-the-Wisp, have been traced by scientists to various flammable gases and insects.

A detailed investigation would involve looking at the soil composition, local entomology and recorded statements of different witnesses. It seems, however, that the Dharabi event will be ignored by Pakistan’s scientific institutions, of which there are well over two dozen. With exorbitant budgets but zero or little scientific output, some are housed in shiny new buildings on Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue. These include the Pakistan Academy of Sciences, the Committee on Science and Technology in the Islamic World (COMSTECH), the Pakistan Science Foundation and the Pakistan Council on Science and Technology.

Unfortunately not one of the above or, for that matter, any other Pakistani scientific institute has ever debunked the unreasonable and anti-scientific attitudes that prevail in this increasingly devout country. For example, after the October 2005 earthquake killed nearly 100,000, none challenged the view in the public media that this tragedy was a consequence of our bad deeds, such as watching television or allowing unveiled women to go out of the house.

To be sure, superstitious beliefs exist in other countries as well. One recalls the hysteria in 1995 following the discovery that Lord Ganesh, the Elephant God, would ‘drink’ milk if a spoon of milk was held up to his trunk. Even minor temples in India overflowed with superstitious devotees. So great was the rush that a traffic gridlock resulted in New Delhi and sales of milk jumped by 30 per cent.

Fortunately for India an independent body, the Indian Rationalist Association, was quick to show that Ganesh’s milk drinking had a physical explanation. It was shown to be simple capillary action – which everyone learns about in school. The surface tension of the milk was pulling the liquid up and out of the spoon, before gravity caused it to run down the front of the statue. To its credit, India’s Ministry of Science and Technology confirmed the explanation and the country’s religious craziness slowly abated.

With such precedents, surely it is time for Pakistan’s Ministry of Science and Technology to investigate the so-called Chakwal miracle, as well as the many similar superstitions that delude our people.

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Reaching for immortality

From msnbc:

The quest for immortality goes back to Adam and Eve, but now some smart people are getting serious about actually bringing it within their grasp. And they’re getting more attention as well.

Let’s take Aubrey de Grey, for example: The British gerontologist has been beating the drum for anti-aging therapies for years. He plays a prominent role in a recently published book on the immortality quest titled “Long for this World,” a new documentary called “To Age or Not to Age” and a just-published commentary on the science of aging.

In this week’s issue of Science Translational Medicine, de Grey and nine other co-authors urge the United States and other nations to set up a Project Apollo-scale initiative to avert the coming “global aging crisis.” The experts’ prescription includes a campaign to raise the general public’s awareness about lifestyle changes that can lead to longer and healthier lives; a lab-based effort to develop anti-aging medicines; and a push for new techniques to repair, restore or replace the cellular and molecular damage done by age.

“There is this misunderstanding that aging is something that just happens to you, like the weather, and cannot be influenced,” another co-author, Jan Vijg of Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said in a news release. “The big surprise of the last decades is that, in many different animals, we can increase healthy life span in various ways.”

When it comes to translating anti-aging research into real life, however, the experts face at least three types of challenges: First, the basic lifestyle advice is pretty pedestrian: Eat wisely and exercise moderately. Some folks might wonder what the big deal is all about. “To enjoy the fantastic voyage, stay with the tried and true,” Jonathan Weiner writes in “Long for this World.”

Genetic factors also affect longevity, of course, as pointed out by a recent study (which has come under question, by the way). But it’s hard to tease out exactly how those factors interact with each other and with the lifestyle factors. There’s no magic bullet … yet.

The second challenge has to do with anti-aging therapies, which could offer a magic bullet someday. Some substances do seem to extend longevity, and caloric restriction has been found to be a life-extender as well … for worms and mice. But it’s not yet clear how these strategies will work for humans. It could well turn out that what works for mice would make humans sicker, or make life so unpleasant that it’s not worth living that much longer.

The third challenge involves the same issue that Adam and Eve faced: Reaching too hungrily for the fruit on the tree of life might make you seem presumptuous. In his reviewof “To Age or Not to Age,” New York Times film critic Stephen Holden complains that the movie “beats the drums so enthusiastically for a pharmaceutical fountain of youth that you have the uncomfortable sensation of being harangued by snake-oil salesmen.”

Like de Grey and his colleagues, futurist/inventorRay Kurzweil has been facing these challenges for years – not as an anti-aging researcher per se, but as a smart guy who has made his name by predicting trends in information technology that bring benefits on an exponential curve rather than a linear progression. He has applied the “law of accelerating returns” to the rise of artificial intelligence, predicting that A.I. will match human intelligence by 2029 and lead to a technological singularity by 2045 – beyond which predictions can’t be made.

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Lost Sleep Is Hard to Find

Erin O’Donnell in Harvard Magazine:

it’s a time-honored practice among medical residents, cramming undergrads, and anyone else burning the candle at both ends: get very little sleep for days, maybe even pull an all-nighter, and then crash for an extra-long night of shut-eye to catch up.

Ten hours of sleep at once may indeed recharge us, and allow us to perform well for several hours after waking, according to research recently published inScience Translational Medicine. But “the brain literally keeps track of how long we’ve been asleep and awake—for weeks,” says Harvard Medical School (HMS) neurology instructor Daniel A. Cohen, M.D., lead author of the study. And that means that the bigger our aggregate sleep deficit, the faster our performance deteriorates, even after a good night’s rest.

Cohen and his coauthors monitored nine young men and women who spent three weeks on a challenging schedule: awake for 33 hours, asleep for 10—the equivalent of 5.6 hours of sleep a day. (This approximates the schedule of a medical resident, but many of us live under similar conditions; the National Sleep Foundation reports that 16 percent of Americans sleep six or fewer hours a night.) When the study participants were awake, they took a computer-based test of reaction time and sustained attention every four hours.

The researchers were surprised to discover just how much an extended rest boosted test performance. “Even though people were staying awake for almost 33 hours, when they had the opportunity to sleep for 10 hours, their performance shortly after waking was back to normal,” Cohen says. “The really interesting finding here is that there’s a short-term aspect of sleep loss that can be made up relatively quickly, within a long night.”

But the days and weeks of lost sleep eventually took their toll. The investigators knew from previous research that people awake for 24 hours straight display reaction times comparable to those of people who are legally drunk. Cohen’s new study reveals that those who pull an all-nighter on top of two or three weeks of chronic sleep loss reach that level of severe impairment faster—after just 18 hours awake.

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Veiled Threats?

Martha Nussbaum in The New York Times:

In Spain earlier this month, the Catalonian assembly narrowly rejected a proposed ban on the Muslim burqa in all public places — reversing a vote the week before in the country’s upper house of parliament supporting a ban. Similar proposals may soon become national law in France and Belgium.  Even the headscarf often causes trouble.  In France, girls may not wear it in school.  In Germany (as in parts of Belgium and the Netherlands) some regions forbid public school teachers to wear it on the job, although nuns and priests are permitted to teach in full habit.  What does political philosophy have to say about these developments?   As it turns out, a long philosophical and legal tradition has reflected about similar matters.

Let’s start with an assumption that is widely shared: that all human beings are equal bearers of human dignity.  It is widely agreed that government must treat that dignity with equal respect.   But what is it to treat people with equal respect in areas touching on religious belief and observance?

We now add a further premise: that the faculty with which people search for life’s ultimate meaning — frequently called “conscience” ─  is a very important part of people, closely related to their dignity.   And we add one further premise, which we might call the vulnerability premise: this faculty can be seriously damaged by bad worldly conditions.  It can be stopped from becoming active, and it can even be violated or damaged within.  (The first sort of damage, which the 17th-century American philosopher Roger Williams compared to imprisonment, happens when people are prevented from outward observances required by their beliefs.  The second sort, which Williams called “soul rape,” occurs when people are forced to affirm convictions that they may not hold, or to give assent to orthodoxies they don’t support.)

The vulnerability premise shows us that giving equal respect to conscience requires tailoring worldly conditions so as to protect both freedom of belief and freedom of expression and practice.  Thus the framers of the United States Constitution concluded that protecting equal rights of conscience requires “free exercise” for all on a basis of equality.  What does that really mean, and what limits might reasonably be placed upon religious activities in a pluralistic society?  The philosophical architects of our legal tradition could easily see that when peace and safety are at stake, or the equal rights of others, some reasonable limits might be imposed on what people do in the name of religion.  But they grasped after a deeper and more principled rationale for these limits and protections.

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