Magi Mike's Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘Evolution

The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case against Life After Death

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Heaven may not be what you imagine

Because every one of us will die, most of us would like to know what—if anything—awaits us afterward, not to mention the fate of lost loved ones. Given the nearly universal vested interest we personally have in deciding this question in favor of an afterlife, it is no surprise that the vast majority of books on the topic affirm the reality of life after death without a backward glance. But the evidence of our senses and the ever-gaining strength of scientific evidence strongly suggest otherwise. Until recently emotion and emotional processing have been largely neglected by experimental psychology and neuroscience more generally. Emotion has adaptive and biological value for humans and other animals, and substantial psychological and neuroscientific evidence suggests that each emotion is localized in specific neural structures, and so souls or spirits are not needed to explain emotions or emotional processing held to be distinctive of a soul.

In The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case against Life after Death, Michael Martin and Keith Augustine collect a series of contributions that redress this imbalance in the literature by providing a strong, comprehensive, and up-to-date casebook of the chief arguments against an afterlife all in one place. Divided into four separate sections, this essay collection opens with a broad overview of the issues, as contributors consider the strongest available evidence as to whether or not we survive death—in particular the biological basis of all mental states and their grounding in brain activity that ceases to function at death. Next contributors consider a host of conceptual and empirical difficulties that face the various ways of “surviving” death—from bodiless minds to bodily resurrection to any form of posthumous survival. Then essayists turn to internal inconsistencies between traditional theological conceptions of an afterlife—Heaven, Hell, karmic rebirth—and widely held ethical principles central to the belief systems undergirding those notions. In the last section, authors offer critical evaluations of the main types of evidence for an afterlife.

Fully interdisciplinary, The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case against Life after Death brings together a variety of fields of research to make that case, including cognitive neuroscience, philosophy of mind, personal identity, philosophy of religion, moral philosophy, psychical research, and anomalistic psychology. As the definitive casebook of arguments against life after death, this collection is required reading for any instructor, researcher, and student in philosophy, religious studies, and theology. It is sure to raise provocative issues new to readers, regardless of background, from those who believe fervently in the reality of an afterlife to those who do not or are undecided on the matter.

The Myth of an Afterlife: The Case against Life After Death, Keith Augustine & Michael Martin (eds), Rowman & Littlefield (2015)

Written by mikemagee

13 April, 2015 at 2:01 pm

What is the Incentive for People under Communism?

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We have to realise that capitalism has distorted our humanity. Social Darwinism is utterly mistaken so “survival of the fittest” is not how evolved societies work. Darwinism applies to solitary animals competing for resources, but society is one way in which animals can evolve so as to have better chances of surviving through co-operation, sharing, caring, empathy and altruism. Capitalism pretends that humans within society are equal to solitary animals outside it. On that basis they establish that the least human (the most greedy and selfish) will do better than the ones who stick to their social instincts to help others and care for them.

In the primitive communistic phase envisioned by Marx before there was any surplus to exploit, society still had different tasks to be done, and those that did not do their fair share were punished by the community, almost certainly by expulsion in serious or persistent cases. That will have meant death, and will have been the way the prosocial genes were increased in the genome relative to the anti-social ones, the latter over several million years being culled out (a process not completed). What though made someone agree to take on an onerous job like say the group leader? A leader was necessary because there is no time nor inclination to hold a conclave when we are attacked by a pride of lions, say. A leader shows the way, but why should anyone accept such a job?

There are no perks in terms of surplus value but what there is is prestige, the esteem of others in the group. Once we have had a few generations of socialism—which will need to guard against lapses back into capitalism meanwhile (“dictatorship of the proletariat”, would you believe), the instinctive kindly, sharing, helpful nature of people will return and the attitude will be one of wanting to do risky and unpleasant things for others, to have the regard that comes with it. Wanting to be admired is another natural instinct, complementary to sharing and caring. When we return to natural behaviors, helping each other because we like it and want to, the state can whither away.

Milton quotation: Gratitude

BBC Documentary: What Darwin Didn’t Know

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An excellent BBC programme with Professor Armand Leroi explaining evolution. Professionally presented and widely recommended.

Written by mikemagee

10 July, 2012 at 9:39 pm

Killing Darwin to Accommodate Cow Country Christians

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The evangelical cow country messiahs since the nineteenth century say: “If you meet Charles Darwin in your travels, kill him”.

Pace the ninth century Buddhist master, Lin Chi, for cow country Christians, it is more important to eliminate their challengers as Devils than it is to face up to them as humans, notwithstanding the Ten Commandments. The reason is that they know they have no answer for them, so it is far better to eliminate them! Darwin proposed a theory of evolution, and because Christians are better at eliminating people than their ideas, they have ever since called it Darwinism—so for 150 years Charles Darwin has been the chief Christian Devil. Sadly for the evangelical messiahs, the theory of evolution has been so successful that Darwin no longer stands alone, defended by a solitary bulldog—he has innumerable bulldogs, or Devils as those with the ghastly antennae call them.

Carl Safina, a MacArthur fellow, and adjunct professor at Stony Brook University, writes in The New York Times:

Equating evolution with Charles Darwin ignores 150 years of discoveries, including…

  • Gregor Mendel’s patterns of heredity—which gave Darwin’s idea of natural selection a mechanism, genetics, by which it could work
  • the discovery of DNA—which gave genetics a mechanism and lets us see evolutionary lineages
  • developmental biology—which gives DNA a mechanism
  • studies documenting evolution in nature—which converted the hypothetical to observable fact
  • evolution’s role in medicine and disease—bringing immediate relevance to the topic.
Carl Safina

Which is to mention the most obvious additions and improvements made to the theory. So “Darwinism” as a word for the theory of evolution is so misleading it is no longer correct. The theory of evolution is not the guess of one man as the cow country messiahs pretend, and nor is it one theory, but it is a series of related hypotheses, each of which has been thoroughly tested and not found wanting. The theory of evolution encompasses all these ideas and ones not mentioned, so that it stands on several legs, all of which are solid and sound.

Almost everything we understand about evolution came after Darwin, not from him. He knew nothing of heredity or genetics, both crucial to evolution.

Carl Safina

Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk, discovered that in pea plants inheritance of individual traits followed patterns. His religious superiors tried to “kill” Mendel, burning his papers posthumously in 1884. But Mendel’s “genetics” complemented Darwin’s natural selection and exlained how it worked yielding the “modern synthesis” in the 1920s. James Watson and Francis Crick using Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray diffraction data obtained in Maurice Wilkins’ laboratory, then made a huge advance by proposing the correct structure of DNA, the molecule that shows how variation and inheritance happen.

Safina decided all this constituted a good enough set of reasons for us to do the evangelical holy joes’ job for them:

Making a master teacher into a sacred fetish misses the essence of his teaching. So let us now kill Darwin.

Charles Darwin didn’t invent a belief system. He had an idea, not an ideology. The idea spawned a discipline, not disciples. He spent 20 plus years amassing and assessing the evidence and implications of similar, yet differing, creatures separated in time (fossils) or in space (islands). That’s science.

Carl Safina

Darwin got an amazing amount right considering he did his work without knowing any of this, and before even microbes had been discovered, and medical men still had no idea what caused disease, when ships still had sails, when railways were a novelty, and long before the Wright brothers had defied gravity to fly the first aeroplane, before even Neanderthal man had been found and named, and even before the South had seceded from the Union, let alone that Lee had surrendered to Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse.

Indeed it was before the cow country messiahs even had a cow country!

Video: Evolutionary Study of Religion—David Sloan Wilson

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Ernst Mayr on Evolution and US Ignorance

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My book (What Evolution Is, 2001) attempts to explain evolution. I don’t need to prove it again, evolution is so clearly a fact that you need to be committed to something like a belief in the supernatural if you are at all in disagreement with evolution. It is a fact and we don’t need to prove it anymore. Nonetheless, we must explain why it happened and how it happens.

Ernst Mayr, 1904-2005


Ernst Mayr was a long lived and very eminent biologist, who based his thinking on the theory of evolution, just as all successful biological scientists must. He was interviewed by, just a few years before he died and was asked:

“How do you account for the fact that in this country, despite the effect of Darwinism on many people in the scientific community, more and more people are god fearing and believe in the 8 days of creation?”

To which he replied: “You know you cannot give a polite answer to that question”.

The Edge interviewer insisted:

We appreciate impolite, impolitical, answers.

So Mayr replied, saying:

They recently tested a group of schoolgirls. They asked, “Where is Mexico?”. Do you know that most of the kids had no idea where Mexico is? I’m using this only to illustrate the fact that—and pardon me for saying so—the average American is amazingly ignorant about just about everything. If he was better informed, how could he reject evolution? If you don’t accept evolution, then most of the facts of biology just don’t make sense. I can’t explain how an entire nation can be so ignorant, but there it is.


The Reason a Whole Nation can be Ignorant is Religion


In the Dark Ages, Europe was called Christendom. It was under Christian dominion, and few people could read because the Christians neglected all scholarship, and the whole of classical learning in favour of devotion to God. Only clerics were supposed to be able to read, and what they were supposed to read was devotional writing, especially, of course, the bible, although it was available only in Latin. Many monks could not even read their bibles, and simply learnt passages off by heart to mumble their way through Mass, which was also given in Latin. A few scholarly monks could read and write, and are now famous—they are remembered for it! They were, of course, the teachers of the ordinary clerics, who didn’t bother to do their lessons. So it continued for 600 years.

The situation in the USA now is getting similar to how it was in the fifth and sixth centuries in Europe when classical scholarship and even cleanliness was being discouraged as vanity by the clerics. The modern clerics, right wing pastors interested more in money than morals, oppose modern learning, like the theory of evolution, and large numbers of Americans follow them in decrying evolutionary theory and science in general. The outcome can only be bad—a parallel with medieval Europe. The USA cannot possibly remain the leading technological nation while teaching religious dogmata rather than modern science. Already the USA is falling completely behind countries like China and India, and is in a state of economic collapse.

Americans have to decide whether they want to retain the leadership they established over the twentieth century, or rapidly fall into a vainglorious yet worthless piety ending in the destitution of a new Dark Age.

The US is falling into dereliction

Written by mikemagee

17 October, 2011 at 11:25 pm

Superstition as a Lack of Adequate Data to Distinguish Causal Outcomes

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Superstitious and ritual behavior can be recognized in many animals, not just humans. The first description of superstitious behavior in animals came from psychologist B F Skinner in 1948. He put hungry pigeons in cages, offering them a few seconds of access to food trays at regular intervals. As long as the intervals were short, the birds began offering up behaviors—like turning round in a particular direction, rocking from side to side or tossing their heads up as if they were lifting a bar. They did these things “as if there were a causal relation between behavior and the presentation of food” (Skinner). Once the behaviors were established, they tended to persist, even as time intervals between feeding lengthened. Skinner’s work compared pigeon behavior to conditioned responses—the birds evidently thought their actions were causal when they were not. Moreover, they persist even when experience shows they are false.

Yet such behavior is not free—they have a cost in terms of energy and lost opportunities. It makes no sense for organisms to think something they do influences the future when it cannot. How then can superstitious and ritual behavior arise by natural selection?

In 1977, Peter R Killeen, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, challenged Skinner’s analysis. He gave his pigeons opportunities to detect whether or not a result was due to their actions or simply random. Killeen found that the birds could judge cause and effect, at least when they had all the information they needed. They could distinguish subtle differences, even scoring as well as humans making the same discriminations. He found it was insufficient data that led birds to the wrong conclusions. The data they had led to the false belief and they had no way of rectifying it.

Kevin Abbott, biologist at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, and co-author with Thomas Sherratt of study published in Animal Behaviour, explains:

From an evolutionary perspective, superstitions seem maladaptive.

Perhaps superstition is adaptive as a placebo, or for social bonding, or maybe it is maladaptive now, but came from traits that once were adaptive, rather like behavioral wisdom teeth.

Foster and Kokko, in 2009 compared superstition to a bet. A mouse, hearing a rustle in the grass, quickly finds a cat leaping on it, and dives into a hole. Subsequently the mouse figures it as an odds on bet it’s a cat whenever it hears a rustle, and dives underground, even when the rustle is just the wind. Its diving habit reflects the mouse’s lack of data—it can’t tell whether the rustle is a dangerous cat in the grass or just the wind.

Abbott and Sherratt’s work goes a step further, designing choice, multiple trials, and experience into their model, so the animal can learn from experience, allowing for change or retention of the superstition or ritual. On any given trial, the animal must decide whether to give the action that maximizes its expected fitness based on current information—exploit—or to give the action that provides the most information about the true nature of the causal relationship—explore. Now the results tend to follow common sense. The animal will stop a superstition if it is not too expensive in comparison with its old ways—the model predicts what we tend to see in real life.

Superstitions are more likely when the cost of the superstition is low relative to the perceived benefits, and when the individual’s prior beliefs suggest that the superstition is true. Both the total number of learning trials available, and the nature of the individual’s uncertainty affect the probability of superstition, but the nature of these effects depends on the individual’s prior beliefs. Humans will be convinced a lucky charm doesn’t work, the more times they carry it only when they originally believed it would. If they did not believe initially, carrying it long enough could give enough apparent positives that they might begin to believe it has some effect. Adaptive learning can be leading us to places we shouldn’t go. But Killeen thinks something is left out of their model:

Sometimes simpler answers suffice. For beasts like us who are never quite sure that we are well enough informed, taking that multivitamin and knocking wood puts the semblance of control back in our hands, and that feels good.

So we have to have some way of distinguishing the validity of a belief, but when the belief is deliberately involved, and is justified whatever the outcome by pseudoscientific explanations and sophistry, it is hard to make the distinctions. That is the case with religions. They certainly offer false feelings of having some control over things through ritual and prayer, and so professional clergy can generally find arguments to pacify doubters. Thus when horrific events shock us as they just have in Oslo, the clergy will say, “Thank God it wasn’t worse”, and immediately hold a memorial service… and lo! people feel better about it!

Written by mikemagee

25 July, 2011 at 1:00 am