Thursday, October 25, 2007

Sam Harris

Here is the speech Harris gave at AAI. I believe this is his second most profound and courageous stance yet (the first being the initial speeches he gave before atheism was a popular thing). Harris has stuck to his guns and maintained his own identity. It is so incredibly valuable that one of the spokespeople for rationality has a history as a spiritual contemplative. He understands that scientific awe is not the same as satori. Unfortunately, I don't think most of his audience truly grasps a word of what he is saying, which is why I think this is so courageous. His point is that everyone values their deep internal mystical experiences that give their lives enrichment. And just the word "atheism" has an unfortunate connotation that seems to instantly render these precious experience as "false", "pointless" etc... merely because they are so enmeshed in spiritual mumbo jumbo. So using the word "atheist" instantly alienates thousands upon thousands of people who would otherwise be open to everything that is being said against religious superstition. The majority of the audience disagrees with him.

Harris 1
Harris 2

Monday, October 22, 2007

New Age Myths Broken

Dozens of new age books and entire careers have been based on the falsehood that there is a spiritual connection between attitudes and disease processes. I think we can safely put this one to rest.

(above) Cancer growth was not affected by mental outlook

The power of the mind has been overestimated when it comes to fighting cancer, US scientists say. They said they found that a patient's positive or negative emotional state had no direct bearing on cancer survival or disease progression.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Religion - Marcus Brigstocke

"The God Delusion" in 7 minutes.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Edward Tabash

Tabash has another interview with D.J. Grothe on
Point of Inquiry. His story moved me quite a bit for reasons similar to my experience-

1. He rejected most of religion around 18 but then struggled for the next 25 years within spiritualism trying to find a way to transcend the human experience. He tried all sorts of meditation techniques, yogic techniques, out of body projection. Eventually he realized, as did I, that every single experience he had was because he *had* a physical brain and body, not because he was transcending it. Tabash has a sympathy for people who rejected traditional religion but tried to find a way to transcend normal experience for spiritualism. I think all of humanity is constantly trying to transcend whether it is through technology, drugs, exercise highs, achievement gratification, power, dominance, and immortality etc....

I look at someone like Ken Wilber as a genius of our times who is flawed in major ways like all other geniuses. I think he has a tremendously desperate drive to believe in the supernatural in order to uphold self-preservation and to uphold the idea that self-improvement can be infinite. Imagine the futility of the spiritual human potential movement if we don't survive death and get reborn, carrying with us all that we have learned. Imagine the futility of spending all your time in life maximizing your potential only to spend 20 of years growing old and eroding slowly like an ornate sand castle. Despite the vast power of Wilber's intellect and his extraordinary gestalt vision, he still thinks that a guru can transmit spiritual power to a disciple and other such claims which I am incapable of taking seriously, and often amazed that he believes. When a friend of his received a grant for ESP research and asked Wilber to design the perfect experiment that would prove the non-local mind once and for all, Wilber declined and told him to invest in a PR firm. He said ESP was already 100% proven.I would love to believe this. But there has been a spew of non-local healing ("prayer")research and non-local healing ("prayer")research corruption. When asked what his favorite two prayer research studies were, advocate Larry Dossey cited two studies which have since been defamed due to poor study design and outright corruption. I see people who have left the field of ESP research despite a beginning where they wholeheartedly believed it was real, only to realize by looking for themselves that there is no ESP. Wilber is more optimistic for reasons I can't understand anymore. He needs to believe.

2. I think Tabash covers the missing element of our secular campaign which is never covered by Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens or Dennett. This missing element is that there is no good evidence for anything transcendent of the body, and that all the evidence seems to point out that consciousness is in the brain. These arguments are lost in debate about a religious god because people are interested in arguing whether a god exists, and missing a subject which is just as key- what evidence do we have that any of our experiences are not entirely body based? What about actual spiritual experience? Sam Harris is the only "enlightened" one on this issue and the atheists don't understand what he is talking about, unfortunately.

I pointed out a comment recently by a Christian commentator after a Richard Dawkins debate where the Christian could not comprehend how Dawkins could possibly suggest that evolution gave humankind a lust for doing good. This lack of knowledge base is revealed again and again in news articles in major publications. The public at large is completely unaware of evolutionary psychology, which was one of the primary things that led me personally to non-belief. People literally have never heard these arguments before, and they are some of the most powerful arguments for atheism. One problem is that believers don't have the knowledge base to understand how powerful these arguments are. I can't even think of a believer I know who would have the slightest idea what I was talking about if I brought up arguments from evolutionary psychology. I suppose that understanding this is partly a definition for not believing anymore. But it is not all that difficult to gather the knowledge base. The problem is that it requires an openness to consider the ideas before they settle in, and as can be seen, believers are not willing to do that. The second problem is that the these people don't understand how well subscribed these arguments are. These are not just some hazy opinions pulled out of the imagination, but generally agreed upon by anyone who is anyone in this realm of scientific inquiry. If you even bothered to begin arguing with a believer about how morals were designed by evolution, you would likely just be cut off midstream and be told how much a mother loves her child. At which point you would quip "like a prairie vole?", and then you'd see a deer in headlights.
There was a point in the Hitchens vs McGrath debate where McGrath left himself wide open for a very easy and obvious shot from evolutionary psychology, but this is not Hitchens' strength. Hitchens managed to catch it and provide a good refutation, mentioning human evolution, however, it would have been a slam dunk were it in the hands of an expert on evolutionary human psychology.

We are not using all the tools at hand to combat religious superstition yet. As the believers become more familiar with atheist arguments, they will begin to be capable of absorbing the bigger and more important argument of whether we survive death. As Tabash says, religious people are more concerned with living forever than whether or not there is a god. And so am I. God is the easy part.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Best Hitchens Debate Ever

Hitchins McGrath debate

Hitchens has been doing some exercise and has had spa treatment. He even combed his hair. Shit, he even bought a new suit for the first time since the publication of his last book.

This is the single most one sided debate I've seen I think. Hitchens lays forth his arguments so solidly that his opponents has little desire to continue talking after awhile and even the moderator seems mesmerized and subservient to Hitchen's desire to hog the floor as he always tries to do. The simple and obvious thing here is that Hitchens wants to keep talking and his opponent has nothing really to say.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Dan Dennett award and speech at AAI 07 part 1 of 2

Wow! Daniel Dennett rips it apart at AAI. The man not only still has it, he's got all of it. After listening to Dennett I realized that of all the critics of religion, he really gets into the mind of the believer and dissects it from a behavioral and psychological vantage point like no other. Dennett is deep, stick with him and he will take you on a journey through the human nature of belief. You have to sit through Julia Sweeney's jubilation for a few minutes before it starts.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ken Wilber - Integral Politics

This is fascinating. You need an understanding of spiral dynamics to understand it though.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Why We Lie

Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind by David Livingstone Smith

This book was a disappointment to me. With a title so compelling I thought it would be full of great insights and examples similar to "The Blank Slate" by Steven Pinker. Instead, it is mostly a rehash of selfish gene ideas and the introduction of a supposedly new pet theory from the author which turns out to be as provocative as a cup of tea at noon in England.

Scientists have their hands tied behind their backs. They aren't allowed to state the obvious if there is no data to back it up. That's why every once in awhile you'll see some sort of headline like- "dramatic new study shows that believing in an afterlife and gathering in social groups makes people happy". Wow. Stop the world. I never would have guessed.

Smith discusses the processing of the unconscious (an idea universally accepted now and backed by neuroscience), "Social Poker", and what he calls the "Machiavellian Module". An interesting conjecture in the book is that the development of the large human brain is parallel with the use of language for social deception (social poker). With the advent of language came gossip and social maneuvering which led to a mental arms race which gave obvious Darwinian advantages and quickly led to large brains. One thing is certain- the human mind did not evolve to favor those who had the most accurate perception of reality. We are dependent on self deception to deceive others. The easiest way to deceive another is to not know you are doing it. No nervous ticks or shaking or looks give it away, when you yourself believe your lies. It would seems that our brains are so constructed to bend over backwards making sure that we believe what is most convenient to believe. Thus, somewhere in a dank paleolithic cave, the first politicians arose.

As For Smith's personal theory, it is merely the idea that certain observed events and statements lead to later conversations which involve "Coded Narratives", which are the mind's subtle ways of suggesting things safely to others without revealing the entire hand. For instance, if you think your girlfriend is cheating, you may subconsciously mention something in front of her about infidelity, without really realizing where the urge came from. That's it. Hardly earthshattering. It becomes interesting in it's window into the unconscious however, because you can put people into groups, give them various promptings and observe how the course of the conversation parallels the promptings.

"Human nature stands in the way of understanding human nature"- Smith

Flashback. Let's Not Forget How This Happened.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Books That Led Me to Nonbelief in a Soul

Forget "atheism". About 6 years ago I started to open my mind to the possibility that the brain and the soul were one and no little god connector was in there. 3 years ago I decided I did not believe in an eternal soul. I decided to reflect on the journey and describe some books and things that changed my mind.

1. The Bible- Read it when I was 15. Reading it alone, with no social group telling me *how* to read it, led me to a shocking conclusion- people were lying about what was in this book or they were ignorant about it. This helped me to understand that human beings were liars, and they lie about religion out of fear.

I grew up watching NOVA and Cosmos on PBS. I learned about evolution there and understood that it was true. I never debated that much even as a believer because I saw it with my own eyes. My highschool biology class taught nothing at all about evolution. My 4 college biology classes also taught nothing at all about the mechanisms of evolution, only the classifications. The final book we were required to read in college biology was "Klamath knot". The moral of the book is that evolution is a myth which provides meaning. I only wish I could go back in time and speak to the class about how only an incomplete understanding and ignorance of the process can provide a sense of meaning. The book is not really bad, but my teacher's intent was to soften the contraversy between creation and evolution, so people could leave the class with their religious pants still on. For shame!

My spirituality phase lasted 7 years. I read countless books displaying the abject ignorance of nuage writers concerning the natural world as they discussed the "non-physical" as an alternative way of understanding the mind/body/consciousness, without ever seriously acknowledging what already *is* known about these things in a naturalistic context.

By age 27 my disillusionment with spirituality had reached a zenith. I had begun exploring the truth about the various holy men, yogis and spiritual leaders. Going to groups of people who were spiritual was like going to a museum of ignorance, superstition, and unresolved personal issues. Flashback-

2. The Path- This book is a chronicle of the life of my favorite Indian Guru Paramahansa Yogananda from the perspective of one of his students- Kriyananada (Donald Walters). I went to Kriyananda's yoga service in Seattle one day to check it out. I participated in the service and listened to the talk. When I went out into the forum, I noticed how everyone eyed me suspiciously. I asked "where is Kriyananda". The people were uncomfortable with the question, but one red haired man told me that he had moved to Europe. I went across the street to the bookstore the religious group owned and bought "The Path". From the book I learned that Yogananda was a fallible, often ignorant human being who had disdain for intellectual examination of life. This did not phase me too much, as I had become the same way at age 26. Then I had a profound experience. I looked the book up on the internet. Turns out that Kriyananda fled the country after sexual abuse to numerous students. Thats why he was in Europe. As I studied more, I found that neary every spiritual leader is corrupt. The one's that aren't are good at hiding it. I began to realize that the idea of "liberation" was impossible. Even the best were never liberated. It was a fantasy.

By 27 my mind was open to the possibility that all these brilliant rationalist people who did not believe in souls may be correct. I had trained myself over the years to stop being skeptical, as is the case with spiritualists. I started playing chess, to force myself to recover my satisfaction with pure logical calculation. If one is checkmated, they are checkmated. One cannot merely say "Bishops don't move that way in my world, maybe they move diagonally for you, but that's not my truth." What made it easy for me to leave the absurd post-modernist relativism of spirituality was my lack of comfort around people who were like this. I'm somewhat proud that I knew better.

3. The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker. Admittedly I have not finished the book yet. I wasn't ready for it at the time, and now I know so much about what it says I haven't forced myself to actually finish it, but I own it. This book argues persuasively using empirical evidence we come into this world already having a disposition. An idea we spiritualists do not allow ourselves to comprehend. I realized I had been living in ignorant denial. I had always been a reflective, introspective, thoughtful, peaceful, equinimitous person. I did nothing to achieve this. Whereas my brother is hyper-active, unplanning, addicted, uncritical, and impulsive. I realized eventually that I could not take spiritual credit for my nature. My genes are what caused my nature, not some mystical soul. I was not more "evolved" than my brother due to some experience in some past life. My genes were different. There are no "wise souls". Violent animals such as foxes and certain dogs can be selectively bred over mere decades to produce docile, loving, and shall we say, "more spiritual" dogs, merely by getting rid of some bad apples. No, I did not earn my good nature. Neither did my brother magically deserve all the problems his demeanor caused him. Shit happened. It's not fair. Life is... absurd? I began to wonder.

4. Nature versus Nurture- Matt Ridley. A more digestable book explaining how genes and environment cooperate. What I realized reading this book is that all of our nature is not determined by our genes. Our behavior is a result of our own genes interacting within a social environment created by the actions of other people's genes which influence our own. Which is my way of saying that genes don't account for everything, only the things that are important to any discussion involving human nature. It began to dawn on me that it isn't necessary to even bring the concept of free will into the discussion.

5. The Problem of the Soul- Owen Flanagan. I was mostly not ready for this book at the time. But what I got out of it is that someone who spends all their life studying this issue can explain exactly why there is almost perfect certainty that there is no such thing as a soul. He could not answer the question of consciousness, of course, but the concept of an autonomous free wheeling soul imbedded in the brain is squarely shot to shit.

6. Zen and the Brain- I never read the book and probably never will. But the existence of the book and it's author- an atheist who does not believe in an immortal soul yet has had Kensho and Satori experiences, eradicated my misconception that authentic spiritual experiences are all that is necessary to persuade anyone of an immortal soul. Not so.

7. Into the Silent Land: Travels in Neuropsychology- A man falls out of a tree and hits his head. Everything about him is basically the same except for one thing- He can no longer experience love. Love is caused by neurons. This is a direct assault on my accepted idea in East Indian spirituality and NDEs that consciousness/love/bliss were one and were the Godhead. Not so. I also learned that temporal lobe excision destroyed people's ability to feel that sense of spirituality they once had.

8. Moral Animal- Robert Wright. I think this was the single most devastating piece of literature for me. And many others like me agree. This book is a damning endictment on the human animal. It was here that I learned that I am not only an animal, but that my entire journey through my spiritual pursuit was guided by impulses which were blatantly Darwinian. If I had free will of any kind regarding my pursuit of enlightenment, it was nowhere to be seen.


I was already an atheist before Harris, Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens published their latest books. But these books helped to create an identity set with which to define myself openly. I must say that "Selfish Gene" was good for providing a more mathematical basis explaining the evolution of altruism and cooperation which really solidifies the idea that the human "soul" is merely an arbitrary survival mechanism which evolved through natural selection.

In closing this long winded post, I must note on how incredibly ignorant people are of the most powerful arguments for atheism. The most powerful arguments are not indictments of God, but endictments on the human soul and free will. I just finished listening to a debate between Richard Dawkins and a theist from Oxford. It was sponsored by a church group, so at the end of the radio broadcast they had commentary by a couple of Christians. One of the Christians said that he was astonished by the terminology that Dawkins used. He remarked that he could not understand how Dawkins could possibly say that Darwinism had instilled in humanity "a lust to do good". This concept flew entirely over the man's head so high that he was ignorant enough to admit his own ignorance over the air. His partner offered no clarification.

The Selfish Gene was published over 30 years ago. The ideas in the book are older than that. The idea that evolution instilled a "lust to to good" and that the sense of morality evolved to protect genetic replicators is an idea accepted by every serious biologist the world over. It is one of the cornerstone arguments for atheism. Yet it flies right over their heads.

<--- This is the future, like it or not.

Saturday, October 06, 2007


INFIDEL by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

This was one of the best books I have ever read in my life. Probably in my top 3. When it comes to my understanding of Islam, from here on I will count time based on before and after reading this book.

There are plenty of things on youtube about Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Here is a great video book report on Infidel.

She gave a speech at AAI which will be posted soon.

Reading this book takes you on a vivid journey through an incomprehensible culture, and how a devout Muslim women adapted to Western society, realized atheism, and became a member of Dutch parliament. She is only 37 now, so who knows what is in store for her future.

"When people say that the values of Islam are compassion, tolerance and freedom, I look at reality, at real cultures and governments, and I see that it simply isn't so. People in the West swallow this sort of thing because they have learned not to examine the religions or cultures of minorities too critically, for fear of being called racist. It fascinates them that I am not afraid to do so."

This is an example of her crystal clear writing and thinking. When I first discovered Ayaan, I wrote on this blog that she was the soul mate of Sam Harris. On Sam Harris' website there is a huge list of recommended reading, and he recommends INFIDEL if one were to choose anything on that list. I haven't read half of what he has, but I know it's a good choice.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Andy Thomson

Man I love living in the 21st century. Just twenty years ago, you went to the library and searched for hours through microfiche. Now you can sit in your study and watch seminars by PhD's on a vast range of topics all day long if you want, and never run out.

This speech given at the recent AAI by Andy Thomson is awesomely enlightening. It has been posted on the Dawkins website. Soon I think all the speeches will be posted, and I plan to view all of them.

I seriously plan to attend this event next year. They plan to have tickets available for over 1000 people next year, and I think there were around 600 sold this year. If you are interested in attending let me know, maybe we can get a group to go together.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Problem With Atheism

Sam has edited and published his speech from the AAI convention. This, I believe is one of Harris' most profound pieces of writing (speaking) to date. I agree with him wholeheartedly, that using the term "atheist" sets us up for endless insurmountable straw man arguments, and is a trap we are falling right into.
Though I don't think people will stop using the term, I hope they choose to use it sparingly and focus more on the argument at hand. One of the great strategems of religious people in these debates is to avoid the meat of the discussion by picking on the connotations of the word "atheism" and not addressing the actual criticisms of their beliefs.

It's much like talk radio where the host can choose to side-track a meaningful confrontation of his baseless argument from emotion by resulting to name calling or some form of spurious and weasely rope-a-dope technique that has nothing to do with the point. He comes out the winner at the end not because he refuted the challenge, but because he defamed the opponent or undercut their credibility with some false association with Mr. Straw man. Example: "But Stalin, Hitler, and Mao were atheists". To many people this is just the be all and end all of the argument. They can stop right there and wallow in their victory over the "atheist". Nevermind the rest of the discussion. Case closed. They never allow themselves to admit that these people were not rationalists by any means under the sun, had no interest at all in open debate, and carried their regimes out as if they themselves were THE LORD just like in a religion.

North Korea's system is not a religion for instance, but in every noticeable way but a God, it is JUST like one, centered around a leadership figure. In fact, the leadership figure is Kim's dead father, if that's not spooky enough. Where is the infallible leadership figure of atheism who singlehandedly calls all the shots? But this point takes more than 3 seconds to explain, therefore it is immediately cut off on talk radio.

It would not hurt to point out that Einstein and Bill Gates are/were also complete atheists. It would really piss Bill Oreilly off to mention that genius Alan Turing- considered by many to be the single most important person involved with defeating the Germans because he was the one who cracked their naval code... was an atheist. He was gay to boot.

Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, did not believe in Christianity. Yet they were key in setting up this nation.

The concensus at the convention was that it is too soon to be throwing out the term "atheist". Of course, Sam is always on the cutting edge and thinking forward.

Monday, October 01, 2007

AAI Convention

I wish I could have gone. If they have a convention like this next year I want to go. Here's the ABC news piece on it.

Rational Response Squad had a blast and got to interview Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris in their private room and will likely have the videos up soon. They have a little bullshit session about it on the RRS website.