Friday, December 31, 2010

Ralph Waldo Emerson: thoughts on compensation

A short excerpt from the pen of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), a leader in the transcendentalist movement of the 19th century.


The wings of time are black and white,
Pied with morning and with night
Mountain tall and ocean deep
Trembling balance duly keep.
In changing moon, in tidal wave,
Glows the feud of want and have.
Gauge of more and less through space
Electric star and pencil plays.
The lonely earth amid the balls
That hurry through the eternal halls
A makeweight flying to the void,
Supplemental asteroid,
Or compensatory spark,
Shoots across the neutral dark.
Man's the elm, and the wealth the vine,
Stanch and strong the tendrils twine:
Though the frail ringlets thee deceive,
None from its stock that vine can reave.
Fear not, then thou child infirm,
There's no god dare wrong a worm.
Laurel crowns cleave to deserts
And power to him who power exerts;
Hast not thy share? On winged feet,
Lo! it rushes three to meet;
An all that nature made thy own,
Floating in air or pent in stone,
Will rive the hills and swim the sea
And, like thy shadow, follow thee.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Does biocentrism hold the key?

By Steve Rensberry  

The cosmological theory of biocentrism proposed by renowned American scientist and doctor Robert Lanza is one of a number of theories stemming, in part, from the numerous conundrums posed by quantum physics. But despite its critics, the theory remains an interesting and relevant one that continues to attract significant attention.
   Lanza, together with author and astronomer Bob Berman, expounded on the theory in the book, Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe (BenBella Books, May 2009). Most recently, Lanza discussed his views in the article Is Death the End? Experiments Suggest You Create Time, published online by the Huffington Post.
   In brief, the theory holds that human consciousness is the glue that holds all of existence together. Apart from the presence of a conscious mind, space, time and matter simply do not to exist. Biocentrism builds on the science of quantum physics, where things exist not as definite, absolute objects or entities at any given time, but lie instead within a state of undetermined probability until the moment they are observed.
   The subject matter of biocentrism is reflected in a number of other well-known concepts, including the Boltzmann brain problem, the Fermi paradox, the Gaia hypothesis, the science of abiogenesis or biopoesis, autopoiesis, monistic idealism, neurophenomenology, solipsism, nondualism, and the quantum mind-body problem. See also the writings of  Immanual Kant, Gottfried Wilhelm Leigniz, René Descartes, George Berkely, Arthur Schopenhauer and Henri Bergson.
   "At each moment we're at the edge of a paradox described by the Greek philosopher Zeno. Because an object can't occupy two places simultaneously, he contended that an arrow is only at one place during any given instant of its flight. To be in one place, however, is to be at rest. The arrow must therefore be at rest at every instant of its flight. Thus, motion is impossible. But is this really a paradox? Or rather, is it proof that time (motion) isn't a feature of the outer, spatial world, but rather a conception of thought?" Lanza writes.
   For a critique of Lanza's biocentrism, see Biocentrism demystified: A response to Depak Chopra and Robert Lanza’s Notion of a Conscious Universe, written by Vonod K. Wadhawan and Ajita Kamal in December of 2009.See Nirmukta.
  For a shamefully unprofessional and hateful assault on Lanza and the theory of biocentrism—filled with more ad hominem attacks and logical fallacies than you can imagine—read what has been written by David H. Gorski (a.k.a. "Orac") on his "Respectful Insolence" blog. But beware, biocentrism isn't the only thing Gorski takes aim at. See: David Gorski, M.D.: The Worldwide Wanker of Woo.
   Whether you agree with him or not, Lanza has introduced and defended his theory with clarity and respect in an attempt to provide a cohesive answer to the genuine paradoxes brought upon us by quantum physics and other scientific discoveries.
   In the critique by Wadhawan and Kamal, the writers summarize their response to Lanza (and Deepak Chopra) in these five statements:
   (a) Space and time exist, even though they are relative and not absolute.
   (b) Modern quantum theory, long after the now-discredited Copenhagen interpretation, is consistent with the idea of an objective universe that exists without a conscious observer.
   (c) Lanza and Chopra misunderstand and misuse the anthropic principle.
   (d) The biocentrism approach does not provide any new information about the nature of consciousness, and relies on ignoring recent advances in understanding consciousness from a scientific perspective.
   (e) Both authors show thinly-veiled disdain for Darwin, while not actually addressing his science in the article. Chopra has demonstrated his utter ignorance of evolution multiple times.

  "Chopra’s brand of mysticism gets its claimed legitimacy from science and its virulence from discrediting science’s core principles. He continues this practice through his association with Robert Lanza. Both Chopra and Lanza seem to be disillusioned by the perceived emptiness of a non-directional evolutionary reality . . . . Our contention is that the theory of biocentrism, if analyzed properly, does not hold up to scrutiny. It is not the paradigm change that it claims to be. It is also our view that one can find much meaning, beauty and purpose in a naturalistic view of the universe, without having to resort to mystical notions of reality," Wadhawan and Kamal state.
   Nevertheless, while there may exist some legitimate reasons to doubt the truth of biocentrism, Lanza's contribution is significant for at least one major reason: It draws attention to the role of the mind in the formation and/or interpretation of reality—a role which has been sidestepped by a large portion of society for centuries.
   Does time, space and reality as a whole exist independently of the mind, as is customarily believed? Wadhawan and Kamal suggest that it does, though admitting its relative nature. But what precisely is different between something being relative and something being non-existent? Is it not Lanza's point, more or less, that time and space is relative to observation, to human consciousness? The phrase "relative to" and "dependent upon" are nearly one in the same, are they not?
   Where Lanza gets my respect is in his overall disposition, his sincerity and the depth in  which he approaches the subject. He does not rant. He doesn't take life for granted. And neither should we.
   I urge you to read the online abridgement of Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe, made available by MSNBC here. See also the article, The Universe in Your Head.
   Lanza is faulted for falling back on consciousness as the source of creation without ever fully explaining what consciousness is, but I don't see how this necessarily means he is wrong. If something is neither dead nor alive, neither here nor there—as quantum physics suggests—until it is observed, what is it really precisely that differentiates that uncertain possibility from pure nothingness? It's called an undetermined probability, one of an infinite number of mathematically probable events, a statistical prediction, a potentiality or something along those lines, but that hardly seems to qualify as something which is substantive or definitive.
   Lanza shows that he understands the mystery and the history behind the debate.
   "Could the long-sought Theory of Everything be merely missing a component that was too close for us to have noticed?  Some of the thrill that came with the announcement that the human genome had been mapped or the idea that we are close to understanding the “Big Bang” rests in our innate human desire for completeness and totality.  But most of these comprehensive theories fail to take into account one crucial factor: We are creating them. It is the biological creature that fashions the stories, that makes the observations, and that gives names to things. And therein lies the great expanse of our oversight, that science has not confronted the one thing that is at once most familiar and most mysterious — consciousness," Lanza writes in the above-noted abridgement of Biocentrism.
   From what I read,  Lanza doesn't claim to be able to understand the nature of human consciousness in all its mystery and strangeness. But who does? We're still very much in the process of discovery.
   The following excerpt from Biocentrism is printed here with all due respect and reference to the book's publishers. The book is available on Amazon here.
   The authors write: "There are many problems with the current paradigm — some obvious, others rarely mentioned but just as fundamental. But the overarching problem involves life, since its initial arising is still a scientifically unknown process, even if the way it then changed forms can be apprehended using Darwinian mechanisms. The bigger problem is that life contains consciousness, which, to say the least, is poorly understood . . . . Consciousness is not just an issue for biologists; it’s a problem for physics. There is nothing in modern physics that explains how a group of molecules in a brain creates consciousness. The beauty of a sunset, the taste of a delicious meal, these are all mysteries to science — which can sometimes pin down where in the brain the sensations arise, but not how and why there is any subjective personal experience to begin with. And, what’s worse, nothing in science can explain how consciousness arose from matter. Our understanding of this most basic phenomenon is virtually nil. Interestingly, most models of physics do not even recognize this as a problem."   
   The measurement problem in quantum physics provides us with another ongoing puzzle. How exactly do the infinite number of possibilities or quantum superpositions produce the apparent shared realty we seem to experience in our daily lives? And what about multiple observers?
   "The Schrödinger wave equation, which so accurately described quantum reality as a superposition of possibilities, and attaches a range of probabilities to each possibility, does not include the act of measurement or its apparatus. There are no observers within the mathematics of quantum mechanics itself. Neither, therefore, does the wave equation describe the collapse of the wave function, that moment when possibility gives way to actuality," Ian Marshall and Danah Zohar write in Who's Afraid of Schrödinger's Cat? (Quill, William Morrow, New York, 1997).
   Whether you think reality is all in your mind or merely perceived and altered by it in some way, it makes for fascinating reading. Becoming too judgmental or too absolutist in our thinking is the wrong path to take.
   In the words of Lanza and Berman: "Biocentrism offers a springboard to make sense of aspects of biological and physical science which are currently insensible. Natural areas of biocentric research include the realm of brain-architecture, neuroscience, and the nature of consciousness itself.  Another is the ongoing research into artificial intelligence. Though still in its infancy, few doubt that this century, in which computer power and capabilities keep expanding geometrically, will eventually bring researchers to confront the problem in a serious way."

For further reading about biocentrism, see:

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Wormhole For Your Mind

By Steve Rensberry

I have died a thousand deaths
Looking straight at the light.
A make-believe shrine
In a world of spite.
Am I alive? Am I dead?
I am both. I am time.
I am you without space.
A wormhole for your mind.
I think. I must. I should. I would.
We are not so different, you and I.
Parts of a whole.
Until the day we die.
Broken and bare.
For the love of a lie.
From nothing to nothing.
To see without eyes.
You can chain yourself to fantasy.
To infinite regress.
Or think outside of time and space.
And leave this sorry mess.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Science of Symbiogenesis

By Steve Rensberry   

The science of symbiogenesis, along with that of endosymbiosis and symbiosis in general, raises some interesting questions about both our identity as human beings and about evolutionary biology in general. Symbiogenesis is a theory which involves the symbiotic or beneficial merging of two organisms in a way that produces a uniquely new composite organism of greater complexity. Endosymbiosis involves one organism literally taking up physical residence inside of another, establishing an environment that is beneficial to both in some way. Symbiosis is the more general term referring simply to a close, mutually beneficial interaction between organisms over the long term.
   Names you'll come across: Richard Altmann, A.S. Famintzyn, Konstantin Sergejewitsch Mereschkowski, Boris Mihailovich Kozo-Polvansky, Ivan Wallin and Dr. Lynn Margulis.
    I confess that I've found it puzzling to see a vast number of references to K.S. Mereschkowski as having "proposed," "brought up," or "first formulated" the theory of symbiogenesis in his 1926 book Symbiogenesis and the Origin of Species, when Mereschkowski died in 1921.
   The answer I'm sure is somewhere, perhaps in one of the books cited in the very article you are reading, but not having read all of them myself my presumption is that it was published five years after his death. Mereschkowski, incidentally, committed suicide, his personal life a shambles in the wake of a sex scandal that had forced him to leave Russia in 1914. 
   Although it was Mereschkowski who first formulated the theory, it was Russian botanist Boris Mikhailovich Kozo-Polyansky who first theorized that symbiogenesis was the fundamental or primary mechanism behind evolutionary novelty, while natural selection worked to keep such changes intact, at least that's my understanding of it.
   The theory garnered significant interest after its rediscovery by Dr. Lynn Margulis in the 1960s. This past July, Harvard University Press gave the study of symbiogenesis another boost by publishing Symbiogenesis: A New Principle of Evolution, co-edited by Victor Fet and Lynn Margulis. The publication is a re-release of Kozo-Polyansky 's1924 work of the same name, with additional background material.
   A note on the Harvard University Press Blog says:
   "Last month, we published Symbiogenesis: A New Principle of Evolution by Soviet-era Russian botanist Boris Kozo-Polyansky. Part scientific treatise, part historical detective work, the book resurrects a lost classic of evolutionary theory along with its fascinating backstory. The volume’s co-editors, Victor Fet and Lynn Margulis, argue that Kozo-Polyansky’s theories—now recognized as true by almost all biologists after decades of neglect—were far ahead of their time. Here, editor and translator Fet tells the story of Kozo-Polyansky’s discovery."
   Here's a brief list of some of the names and early works important in the development of the theory.
  • Johann Franz Drège
  • Schimper AFW . "Über die Entwicklung der Chlorophyllkörner und Farbkörper". Bot Zeitung (1883)
  • Schimper AFW - Plant-geography upon a physiological basis. (1903)
  • Richard Altmann - Treatise: Die Elementarorganismen (The Elementary Organism) (1890.
  • Famintzyn, A.S. - work of 1891
  • Schimper AFW, et al - A Textbook of Botany. (1898)
  • Merschkowsky, Konstantin Sergejewitsch - The nature and origins of chromatophores in the plant kingdom.  (1905)
  • Merschkowsky - The Theory of Two Plasms as the Basis of Symbiogenesis, a New Study or the Origins of Organisms. (1909)
  • Paul Portier - Les Symbiotes. (1918) 
  • Kozo-Polyansky, Boris Mikhailovich - Symbiogenesis: A New Principle of Evolution. 1924
  • Konstantin Mereschkowsky. - Symbiogenesis and the Origin of Species. (1926)
  • Wallin, Ivan E. - The Mitochondria Problem (1923)
  • Wallin, Ivan -  Symbionticism and the Origins of Species (1927).
  • Margulis, Lynn, 1967 paper, The Origin of Mitosing Eukaryotic Cells.
  • Margulis, Lynn, Origin of Eukaryotic Cells, Yale University Press (1970)
  • Margulis, Lynn, Symbiosis in Cell Evolution. (1981)
  • Margulis, Lynn, Symbiosis in Cell Evolution: Microbial Communities in the Archean and Proterozoic Eons, (1981, 1992) W.H. Freeman. (Another reference says it was published in 1981).
  • Margulis, Lynn, ed, Symbiosis as a Source of Evolutionary Innovation: Speciation and Morphogenesis, The MIT Press (1991).
  • Sapp, Jan, Evolution by Association: A History of Symbiosis, Oxford University Press (1994).
  • Lynn Margulis. Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution. Amherst, MA: Perseus Books Group. (1998)
  • Margulis, Lynn and Sagan, Dorion. Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species. Amherst, MA: Perseus Books Group (2002).
Note: This article was last updated on 11/29/10 (paragraph five).

    Saturday, November 13, 2010

    Our Robot Future

       With so many scientific fields undergoing rapid advances and in many cases converging, among them the fields of biology, neuroscience, computing and artificial intelligence, is it too much to speculate that some day we may be able to effectively link human cognitive function -- and memories -- directly with a reliable android support system? The 1999 film, The Thirteenth Floor, by Director Josef Rusnak and starring Gretchen Mol and Craig Bierko, theorized its near perfection, as did the movies The Matrix, Surrogates and Avatar.
       What would it mean for the human mind if its existence as a relatively fragile, biological-based physical organism with a finite lifespan were able to be strengthened and maintained indefinitely? It's not a new question, but I'd say the longer time goes on the closer we're moving in that direction. Have researchers ever been able to store even one element of a biological organism's memory in an artificial environment? What would it mean for our future if they were able to? Watch this video from PBS and tell me it doesn't give you an idea or two about where this is all headed. The direct link is here: PBS exerpt on robots.

    Friday, October 29, 2010

    The War from Within

       "Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind."
       Those words, spoken by U.S. President John F. Kennedy, have a straight-forward appeal that strikes a cord with all of us. But how exactly does one put an end to war?
       Planets collide. Volcanoes erupt. Stars burn out and explode. The entire panorama of existence and the organisms that grace our planet--plant, animal, human or microscopic--fight in a war for survival, humans against nature and nature against itself. Do they not? It is not always vicious or brutal. Neither is it always obvious or consistent. Is it war if an aggressor chooses to destroy its foe slowly and subtly, by deception or trickery, rather than where all eyes can see? I think so.
       We war against cancer, against manipulation from those who would abuse and exploit us, against diseases like Alzheimer’s and ultimately against death itself.
       Kennedy was, of course, talking about nation against nation at a time when nuclear weapons were proliferating like none other, and when capitalist fears of a communist takes over had stoked many a mind to the pinnacle of paranoia.
       Jerome D. Frank’s major work, Sanity and Survival: Psychological Aspects of War and Peace, (New York, Vintage Books/Random House, 1967) begins with this introductory paragraph:
       “After about half a million years of ceaseless effort man has finally created the ultimate weapon. The amount of destructive power at every nation’s disposal is now limited only by the amount of resources it is willing to invest in nuclear warheads and delivery systems. At least two countries have stockpiled enough fissionable material to wipe out mankind, and as nuclear weapons become steadily cheaper to produce, more nations can achieve this capacity.”
       That reality, unfortunately, still exists. So do the bunkers, the hideouts, and the fears, justified or not.
       But talk about it we loathe, because the answers are difficult and illusive. Because the obvious is too much to accept and because we are all but parts within a whole, at war from within and at war from without.
       Pandora’s box has been opened.

    Sunday, October 10, 2010

    Small modular reactors: The shape of things to come?

       The World Nuclear Association and other groups involved in energy policy are reporting a spike in interest in what are termed small modular reactors (SMR). There are a number of reasons, a recent report from the WNA explains, including economics, the practicality in providing power to remote locations, and the overall need to reduce the world's dependence on larger grid systems.
       In a report at  (See also:, updated in October, 2010, the association cites the following:
    • Modern small reactors are simpler in design than older ones and are easier to mass produce.
    • Inherent safety features are incorporated into many SMRs in the event of a malfunction.
    • Four 62 MWt (thermal) units at the Bilbino plant in remote Siberia have been in operation since 1976 and generate electricity more efficiently than would fossil fuels.
    • Construction of the world's first floating nuclear power plant (Akademik Lomonosov) in Vilyuchinsk, Russia, began in 2007 and is expected to be completed next year.
       "As nuclear power generation has become established since the 1950s, the size of reactor units has grown from 60 MWe to more than 1600 MWe, with corresponding economies of scale in operation," notes the report at "At the same time there have been many hundreds of smaller power reactors built both for naval use (up to 190 MW thermal) and as neutron sources, yielding enormous expertise in the engineering of small units."
       The IAEA defines small as "under 300 MWe, though 500 MWe is a considered a limit elsewhere.
       A nuclear-powered battery system under development in Japan, described as "4S" -- for super safe, small and simple, would have built-in safety features and power a steam cycle from an underground location for as long as 30 years. Some versions of the system produce an outlet coolant temperature of 550 degrees Celsius, the report says, "suitable for power generation with high temperature electrolytic hydrogen production."
       Traveling wave reactor (TWR) technology being developed by TerraPower and with funding from Bill Gates is another promising future nuclear power source in which a slow-burning reactor actually makes its own fuel in the process of burning.
       As noted in the WNA report:
       "The reactor uses natural or depleted uranium packed inside hundreds of hexagonal pillars. In a 'wave' that moves through the core at only one centimeter per year, the U-238 is bred progressively into Pu-239, which is the actual fuel that undergoes fission. The reaction requires a small amount of enriched uranium to get started and could run for decades without refueling."
       As the world's population grows larger and its energy needs accordingly, expect to hear a lot more about these and other alternative sources. We're also certain to here plenty of debate. Among the critics is the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, which states in a recent fact sheet.
       “Efficiency and most renewable technologies are already cheaper than new large reactors.  The long time — a decade or more — that it will take to certify SMRs will do little or nothing to help with the global warming problem and will actually complicate current efforts underway."

    Sunday, October 3, 2010

    Remember Resveratrol?

       This 60 Minutes excerpt from last year brought a great deal of attention to the compound resveratrol (3,5,4'-trihydroxy-trans-stilbene), a substance found in the skin of red grapes and in red wine. Does it hold the key to longevity? The verdict seems to be still out, but more recent studies suggest resveratrol may also be of benefit to heart patients, in fighting cancer, and in reducing inflammation. The wiki entry located HERE provides some good background.

    Click here to watch the video on YouTube:  Resveratrol: 60 Minutes

    Thursday, September 30, 2010

    Transhumanism and the Challenges of Aging

    By Steve Rensberry   

    The phenomenon of aging and the ultimate disintegration of the human biological organism has been an intractable part of human existence since the dawn of civilization. Has anyone come close to stopping it, or better yet reversing it? Did the alchemists of old or the throngs of ecclesiastical authorities, supernaturalists, occultists and mystics throughout history ever truly succeed in bringing the giant to its knees? No. Many have claimed they did. But in terms of concrete, measurable progress, one camp and one camp alone stands categorically apart from the rest. That camp is the relatively modern transhumanist movement. They haven't succeeded either, but they're edging a whole lot closer than the rest.
       Transhumanists to be sure aren't alone in their desire to overcome aging, but the approach they take is clearly one of the most comprehensive. Read the Transhumanist Declaration. Joining them on the anti-aging front is a growing army of medical specialists and scientists fast at work in the battle to keep people alive.
       Change. Adaptation. Transformation. Need I say it? We live in an age of hope, but also one which is laced with an inordinate amount of hate, fear and paranoia.
      As the ideas of transhumanism have spread, there has, unfortunately, been a corresponding rise in criticism and mischaracterization. Before you follow suit, I would strongly urge you to read what they have to say first hand. Dreamers and hopelessly optimistic they may be, but the transhumanists I read and know are profoundly pragmatic, rational and as ethically-minded as anyone else. Familiar names in the movement include those of Nick Bostram, Ray Kurzweil, David Pearce,  Max More, Eric Drexler, Anders Sandberg and others whom I reference in this post.
       Not that there aren't differences of opinion, but on the subject of aging their consensus is refreshing. For those who count themselves among the critics, who lay hope not so much in the living but in some thing or being from beyond the earthly realm, I plead with you to open your mind, open your heart, and take an honest look at the realities of the human situation.
       How long must we wait? How many people must suffer as the mechanisms of aging strip them of their last dying breath, against their will and against the will of those around them? We pay homage to nature as a source of nourishment and strength, but it is as much a slave master as it is liberator. Into nature we are born and in its hands we parish. We are both dependent on it and distracted by it, diverted from a cohesive challenge by emotion, impulse and the simple need to feed the biological machine.
       The unconscious mass of forces that it is, master nature cares not about the longevity of the creatures it spawns. It just is. The entities and creatures within this earthly realm we share in live—most often—only to replicate, for those which do not simply disappear. See Life History Theory.
       Michael Anissimov, writing for Humanity+  in an articled published on March 18, 2009, entitled Engineering an End to Aging, breaks down some of the latest research and challenges of the anti-aging movement.
       "The first thing to realize is that nature doesn’t specifically want us to die. There is no 'death gene.' For any species in any environmental context, there is an ideal life span from an adaptive point of view—an evolutionary optima. One evolutionary strategy includes species that reproduce quickly and die off fast.
       Another includes species that reproduce slowly and live for a long time. Call it quality versus quantity. Thankfully for humans, we’re squarely in the quality column, but many would agree that 80 to 90 years is not enough," he writes.
       Among those whom nature seems to have bestowed with extraordinary life spans are tortoises, turtles, terrapins, whales and the microscopic hydra, which live in freshwater and are able to regenerate tissue so efficiently that some scientists believe they may, in fact, be immortal, at least in regard to the mechanism of aging. So might the worm-like planarians.
       As simple as they are, planaria are very unusual creatures—possessing both male and female sex glands, although needing another planaria for fertilization of its eggs. But when all else fails they can reproduce using a process called fragmentation, literally splitting themselves into two parts and then using their ability to regenerate body parts until there are two complete planarians.
       "Scientists have examined the internal organs of young and old turtles and found that they look exactly the same. Something in a turtle’s physiology prevents these organs from breaking down," Anissimov writes.
    Crabs, lobsters, jellyfish, earthworms, and many insects exhibit varying degrees of regenerative abilities. In humans and most other higher animals regenerative powers are limited to things such as the formation of new skin tissue, the reconnection of broken bones and limited regeneration of some organ tissues.
       Anissimov's article cites the work of UK biogerontologist Dr.Aubrey de Grey and his focus on early damage repair rather than on trying to decode all of the exceedingly complex underlying causes, a plan which de Grey calls Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS).
       Cited also are the primary and most commonly understood causes of aging as noted by de Grey, namely: cell loss, cell resistance to death, mutations in nuclear DNA and mitochondrial DNA, excess or unusable intracellular and extracellular material, and junk molecular substances lying outside the cells themselves that form crosslink molecules at odds with healthy function.
      Here's a longer list of aging theories that I compiled some time ago:
    • Autoimmune Theory or Immunologic Theory of Aging: The production of antibodies in the immune system, necessary for fighting disease, declines with age, causing the immune system to turn on itself. Examples: lupus and adult-onset diabetes. Proposed by Dr. Ron Walford.
    • Calorie Restriction Theory: The theory that a high-nutrient, low-calorie diet (undernutrition without malnutrition) would dramatically slow aging. Proposed by Gerontologist Dr. Roy Walford, UCLA Medical School.
    • Codon-Restriction Theory: This theory puts forward the idea that aging cells become unable to accurately translate genetic information from ribonucleic acids (mRNAs). Errors thus occur in protein synthesis. Proposed by B.L. Strehler in 1971.
    • Cross-Linkage Theory: As  the number of callogen protein cross-links increases with age, it results in a reduction of skin elasticity and joint flexibility, and, and may also stop important nutrients from moving between cells.
    • Death Hormone Theory (Aging Hormone): A hormone, called the decreasing oxygen consumption hormone (DECO) and released by the pituitary gland as we begin to age, produces changes in the human metabolic rate and thus accelerates aging. Introduced by endocrinologist Dr. W. Donner Denckla of Harvard University.
    • Disposable Soma Theory (entire body): A theory which proposed that aging is a generalized accumulation of unrepaired faults in the cells and tissues of the body.
    • Epiphenomenalist Theory of Aging (Extrinsic Theory): Suggests that aging is the result of unavoidable environmental influences. Proposed by British author Alex Comfort and Canadian scientist Hans Selye.
    • Errors and Repairs Theory (Error Catastrophe Theory): A theory which observes that DNA and protein production sometimes is less than perfect, requiring repairs. When repairs are sometimes made imperfectly, the result is disease and other age-related problems. Proposed by American biologist Lislie K. Orgel.
    • Exhaustion Theory of Aging: A theory which attributes aging to an essential nutrient which finally become depleted.
    • Free Radical Theory: Proposed that unbalanced electrical charges within molecules produce excess free radicals within the body that attack cell membranes and disrupt DNA and RNA synthesis, along with other damage to vital biological and chemical processes. Introduced in 1954 by R. Gerschman and developed by Dr. Denham Harman of the University of Nebraska College of Medicine.
    • Gene Mutation Theory (Somatic Mutation Theory, Random Hits Theory): Experiments with radiation have indicated that genetic mutations and seemingly accelerated aging can occur with certain levels of exposure. This theory attributes aging to accumulated mutations in the genomes of somatic cells). Proposed by American nuclear physicist Leo Szilard.
    • Hayflick Limit Theory: The theory that aging is the result of a biological clock within each cell, limiting the number of times which human cells divide. Proposed by cell biologists Leonard Hayflick and P.S. Moorehead.
    • Hormone System Decline: A theory which focuses on the fact that key hormones in the human body decline in production during aging.
    • Limited Number of Cell Divisions Theory: A theory which attributes aging to the slowing rate of cell division as the accumulation of waste increases with age, thus causing increased cell degeneration. Studied by Dr. Alexis Carrel.
    • Mitochondrial Theory: The theory that energy produced by the mitochondria within cells leads to an increase in free radicals, thereby accelerating aging.
    • Neuroendoctrine Theory: This theory is related to the wear and tear theory on the level of the Neuroendoctrine system. This system plays a role in controlling important bodily functions and the release of hormones. Proposed by Vladimir Dilman, Ph.d.
    • Order to Disorder Theory: The theory that aging is due to a general deterioration of things on the molecular level, from order to disorder.
    • Oxidative Stress: Damage occurs during the collision of oxygen free radicals with cellular material. Oxygen free radicals are highly toxic.
    • Programmed Aging (Genetic Control Theory): Also called the biological death clock, aging clock, clock theory and pacemaker theory of aging. Attributes aging to inherited factors of individual organisms and to a type of biological clock ticking away within the human DNA code.
    • Rate of Living Theory: A theory that says we are born with only a certain, limited amount of energy. When it is used up, we die. First proposed by German physiologist Max Rubner.
    • Redundant DNA theory: The theory that genetic errors which accumulate results in aging. Also blamed are "reserve genetic sequences" of the DNA which "take over." Dr. Zhores Medvedv, National Institute of Medical Research.
    • Shangri-La Phenomenon: A theory which suggests that somewhere in the world resides a small group of people who are able to live to be incredibly old, as old as 140 years or more. The term was created by American biologist Gairdner B. Moment in "The Biology of Aging."
    • Telomerase Theory: A sequence of nucleic acids at the end of chromosomes called telomeres have been shown to shorten each time our cells divide. Introduction of an enzyme called "telomerase," found only in such things as germ and cancer cells, may repair the telomeres. Discovered by scientists at the Geron Corporation in Menlo Park, California.
    • Testicular Extract Theory: A controversial theory which says that sexual prowess in aged men can be rejuvenated by injecting them with liquefied testicles from pigs or dogs.
    • Thymic Stimulating Theory: Hymic hormones produced by the thymic gland shrink in size as people age. This theory suggests that this may influence the aging process through the control of neurotransmitter production and hormones produced by the endocrine system. Researched by Washington University Biology Department Chairman Dr. Alan Goldstein.
    • Waste Accumulation Theory: Attributes aging to the accumulation and inadequate disposal of waste produced by cells, called lipofuscin.
    • Wear and Tear Theory: A theory which suggests that the body and organs become worn down by substances in the environment and in the human diet, as well as by such things as stress and ultraviolet rays. Proposed by German biologist Dr. August Weismann in 1882.
       The book, Reversing Human Aging, by Dr. Michael Fossel, broke new ground in 1996 in expounding on the science of telomeres and on Fossel's belief that some type of telomerase therapy might the answer. He also discussed Hayflick's startling discovery, that our cells—most of them anyway—divide only so many times before dying. Two types of cells which do not follow the pattern: germ cells and cancer cells, which manage to cheat death by using a cell's very own protein-synthesis capability to create enzymes that rebuild the telomeres.  Add sperm cells and ova among those which is some sense never die.
       What it tells us, and what Fossel believed, was that the existence of such mechanisms of immortality in germ and cancer cells, and of accelerated aging disorders such as progeria, is powerful evidence that aging is an alterable process and not at all something that is inevitable. At minimum, aging appears to be something that can be regulated and most certainly extended once we are able to control the cellular mechanisms that govern its progression.
       Nevertheless, the pace of change in the biological sciences over the past 20-30 years has raised the level euphoric predictions to new heights. Two decades after Fossel's book, I ask, will we see telomerase therapy do what it was hoped it will do, what Fossel suggested would happen in 20 years, by 2016 .
       "We will be able to prevent, even reverse, aging within two decades," Fossel writes in the second paragraph of Chapter I. "At the same time, and as part of the same process, we will also cure most of the diseases that now frighten and destroy us. Cancer, a disease in which malignant cells refuse to age, will be among the first to do."
       I encourage you to read the book, as it contains a mountain of insight and worthwhile research, but I think even Fossel may now realize the overly-optimistic projections it contains.  Maybe. On December 14, 2009, he made a blog post that said essentially the same thing that was asserted in Reversing Human Aging 13 years earlier.
       What happened to the missing years?
        "Science may soon be able to slow, stop, or even reverse the aging process in humans," he writes in his blog. "What will happen when people can live on and on for centuries? Within the next two decades we will extend the healthy human life-span indefinitely and, in doing so, alter human culture forever."
       I do hope he's right, but I just don't see it happening in "the next 20 years." Perhaps with a dramatic turnabout in collective will power, coupled with massive amounts of public funding, we might—just might—make some headway. But what are the chances?
       A major obstacle (which the transhumanists and the anti-aging researchers I know are cognizant of) is that it is not just the human body which is weak and afflicted but the human mind. Could we even handle immortality if we possessed it? Humans have had thousands of years to become maladjusted, to fight their wars, and to brainwash and hypnotize themselves into believing that death is normal. But what really do we mean by normal? The irreversibility of death has affected nearly every aspect of our being. Why not be cruel to our neighbor? — the subconscious mind reasons. Why not hog the earth's resources and turn our backs on the sick and dying when we're all due to grow old and die in a few short decades anyway? The certainty of death has given us an excuse to escape obligation, to drop out and close our minds, oblivious to our own inner suppression and delusions of grandeur.
       How many social structures and cultural mores are fabricated around the assumption that aging is unavoidable? Nearly all! Entire religions and a host of financial systems would wither away without it. There are a thousand ceremonies, habits, rituals and career decisions predicated on death's faithful execution. Children are born and families are created without the slightest worry of overpopulating the world because, of course, "no one lives forever."
       My opinion: Blunting the blow through psychological acceptance and supernaturalism may help to distract us from reality, but how long can we allow ourselves to be lulled into inaction, into the creation of meaning for comfort's sake, or into rationalizing what’s always been as somehow innately good? Perhaps the transhumanists have it right.
       For those who prefer living over death, I’d say it's time to move on.

    Monday, September 6, 2010

    Out of body, out of mind

    By Steve Rensberry

    Three years ago Dr. Henrik Ehrsson, a researcher at University College London (UCL) in the UK, crafted an experiment designed to make a healthy person feel as though they were having an "out-of-body experience."
       I'd like to recap the experiment and the implications, as reported by Science Daily in an article dated Aug. 24, 2007, as I think we have a ways to go before we really understand this phenomenon.
       The video, Laboratory-Induced Out-of-Body Experiences, is informative. You can watch it at the end of this article,
       When I first read about Ehrsson's experiment in 2007, it seemed so simple that it struck me as funny. Sitting in a chair, the participant is fitted with a live, head-mounted video display with separate displays for each eye in order to give the full 3D stereoscopic effect. The displays are then hooked up to a camera about 6 feet behind the person and the camera focused on the back of their head. Standing beside the participant within eyesight, the researcher then touches the participant's actual chest with a plastic rod while at the same time (pretending) to touch the chest of the illusory one by the camera.
       Visually, the person sees their illusory body getting gently poked in one location, but feels it getting poked in another, disrupting the mind's normal sensation of where it senses the "self" to be located.
      But Ehrsson took the experiment even further by measuring the perspiration of the participant's skin while pretending to threaten the phantom persona of sorts behind the participant's actual body. True to the illusion, their bodies showed a strong reaction to the simulated threat as thought it were real.
       You can see a picture of the experiment and read the ScienceDaily story here. The full text of Ehrrson's conclusions are available online by subscription at Science Mag.  You can also read about Ehrsson's experiment in an extensive out-of-body page on Wikipedia. See: Out of Body
       "The invention of this illusion is important because it reveals the basic mechanism that produces the feeling of being inside the physical body," Ehrsson says in the article. "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."
       According to Ehrsson, the experiment was one of the first to induce such experiences in healthy individuals.
       "OBEs have been reported in clinical 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," he said.
       Further experiments using the technique were reported in a Dec. 1, 2008 story by the New York Times entitled, "Standing in Someone Else’s Shoes, Almost for Real."  For more about Ehrsson's current research, visit: Ehrsson's Lab.

    Sunday, August 29, 2010

    Outer Space vs Inner Space

        Why it is that the space within our minds "feels" almost as expansive as the space without? In some ways it is even more so. Inside, we really can, imaginatively speaking, "go where no man/woman has gone before," while the physical world limits our options in a much more dramatic fashion.
       The number of cells in the human body? Some scientists estimate they number about 10 to the 14th power. That is, about 100 trillion. And how many trillions of trillions of subatomic particles are these cells comprised of? The observable universe itself contains an estimated 80 billion galaxies, made up of somewhere between 30 to 70 sextrillion (1 sextrillion = 6 trillion) stars. The number of atoms in the universe is estimated to be at least 10 to the 80th power.

    Saturday, August 21, 2010

    Rudolf Dreikurs on social equality

    By Steve Rensberry   

    Among the books written by Alfred Adler protégé Rudolf Dreikurs was a 1971 book entitled "Social Equality: The Challenge of Today," published by the Alfred Adler Institute of Chicago. The back cover carries this bold statement:
       "It has become obvious, as the fabric of society has been assaulted from all sides, that the mechanistic proposals put forward as tentative solutions of society's problem -- usually involving the expenditures of money, and little else -- do not work. What is needed is a new and workable proposal that takes into account the totality of human existence, at the personal as well as the social level."
       Adler's central contention is that one of the most important motivating forces within humans is to feel as though they belong, to feel accepted by the group. A reference by CTER, an on-line Master of Education program available through the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, cites the basics of Adler and Dreikurs' theory:
    • Humans are social creatures and their basic motivation is to belong.
    • All behavior is purposive. We cannot understand the behavior of other people until we know what goal it is directed toward -- "and it is always directed towards finding one's place."
    • Humans are decision-making organisms.
    • A person's perception of reality is based upon their own particular perception of it and is open to mistakes and bias.(See: CTER)
       Postulates three and four make sense, but exactly how much and to what degree humans are "social" is, I think, open to debate. And whether it is fundamentally good for them to be social at all times and in all places raises other questions. Introspection. Tending to one's self. Removing oneself from destructive people and destructive group influences are all advantageous. Furthermore, what was good for perpetuating humanity's existence in prior years or in terms of evolution may not be so in the future. Most behavior might be purposive to some degree, but the assumption that it is always directed toward finding one's place is, in my view, somewhat less certain Dreikurs doesn't stray far from the teachings of Adler, his major point in "Social Equality" being the importance of attending to the social needs of people, and "finding a safe place with the group." Related to this are feelings of inferiority and the negative self-concepts that prevent people from reaching their full potential.
       The theistic community will, of course,take exception to much of what Dreikurs says, given his emphasis on humans taking charge of their own lives rather than on a chosen deity, but what he says about attitude, and about trusting and believing in oneself as a prerequisite to success, is worth repeating.
       Part of what Dreikurs defends is plain old social equality and democracy. That's a good thing. "We are still saddled with an autocratic tradition and we still fail when we try to emancipate ourselves," he says. Still, Dreikurs tends to write in phrases that lack clear definition, leaving many of his ideas open to debate. I do agree with much of what he says, but there are other points he tries to make that seem way off base.
       "In a deeper sense, death symbolizes life. Our attitudes toward death-acceptance or denunciation--reveal our attitudes toward life," he writes. "If we free ourselves of our antagonism to both death and life, we can realize that death is not necessarily terrible. If we free ourselves of our antagonism to both death and life, we can realize that death is not necessarily terrible. Most people die without suffering. Of course, anything alive wants to live; intrinsic to life is the desire to grow, to develop, to continue. But life is struggle too--pain torture--and death is a release. (page 163).
       But does our attitude toward death really reveal our attitude toward life? I don't think so. To the contrary, our attitude toward life may reveal how much we understand death, but to suggest people should accept something as final as death, or view it as an innately positive thing, could just as easily facilitate its progression by leading people to subconsciously step away from possible solutions, and in effect deny reality for the sake of psychological comfort.
       And who is to say that death is either natural or inevitable? A strong case has been made in recent years that it is, in fact, neither. Maybe at this point in time it appears to be. Maybe historically it has been. But will it be out of reach100, 200 or 500 years from now? Hundreds of years ago much of what we can do today was also deemed absolutely impossible. Acceptance, as much as it leads to fatalism and a state of learned helplessness, can be the absolute antithesis of happiness and progress.
       His statement that "life is struggle too....and death is release," is grossly mistaken and in my opinion fails to realize that as painful as life is, the pain we experience while alive is never endless. Death is not release, it is the ultimate cessation of possibility. Even a life full of pain carries with it the possibility that such pain could stop under the right conditions. Life is of near infinite value. Death is permanent, irreversible and devoid of the possibility of change. Death is qualitatively a zero and the absolute negation of life. Rejecting death, and everything that leads to death, with all your heart, soul and mind is, if anything, positive and life affirming. If you think something is impossible, or train your mind to "accept" it as inevitable, you unwittingly contribute to making it so. What I find most despicable are those people who even wish for the death of those they hate, terrorists for instance, in the name of justice even. Teachings of eternal damnation and torment take it to the extreme and help only to perpetuate the violence we see in the world.  What they should be wishing for is the transformation of those they hate, from bad to good, from destructive to kind. Only in a mind that has failed to sufficiently mature, or which woefully misunderstands life, is death seen as any kind of solution.

    Updated on 12/7/10

    Sunday, August 1, 2010

    Tuesday, July 20, 2010

    To infinity and where?

    By Steve Rensberry
    The success of the movie Toy Story 3, along with the character Buzz Lightyear's "To infinity and beyond" statement, reminded me of a book by Eli Maor that has sat on my shelf now for several years. Published by Princeton University Press, the book "To Infinity and Beyond: A Cultural History of the Infinite," delves into a number of complex mathematical theories that I have yet to fully comprehend, but it's a book I've cherished for the depth of the subject matter alone and the fact that I can pick it up after just about any length of time and learn something from it. See: Princeton University Press. (1)
       Just the phrase, "To infinity and beyond" is a remarkable one in itself, if you think about it. How does one go "beyond" infinity? And where does one end up if he or she does accomplish the feat? The writers of Toy Story deserve credit for attaching such a crafty phrase to one of their star characters.
       The preface of Maor’s book begins with an interesting story which he attributes to the mathematician David Hilbert. The story involves a man who walks into a hotel one night looking for a room. He is at first told that they don’t have any available rooms, however, the owner thinks about it and tells him that maybe they have one after all. He then reluctantly wakes up each of his guests and asks them, one by one, to move one room over. The guest in room one would move to room two. The guest in room two would move to room three. And so on.
       Amazingly, the man is then shown to room number one, which of course is now vacant. In fact, every guest has a room because, as the story goes, the man had unknowingly checked into Hilbert's Hotel -- the "one hotel in town known to have an infinite number of rooms!" Maor writes.
       An idea of just how strange things can become when dealing with concepts like infinity is seen in Chapter 10, entitled simply "Beyond Infinity." Using studies first published by George Cantor at the University of Halle in Germany in 1874, Maor discusses the concept of denumeration, and certain sets which contain elements so dense that it is impossible to count every element, one being the "set of points along an infinite line, the number line."
       Such points -- which reflect the real number system and all their corresponding decimal forms -- form what Cantor called the infinity of the continuum. "They are not denumerable; they contain more elements -- vastly more- - than a denumerable set," Maor writes. (2)
       Then comes the remarkable opening statement of Chapter 10:
       "To show that the real numbers cannot be counted, Cantor first established a fact which, if anything, seems to be almost beyond belief: There are as many points along an infinite straight line as there are on a finite segment of it." Think about that for minute.
       The rest of the chapter is used to expound on Cantor's Continuum Hypothesis, which Maor says remained unsettled for 60 years, until 1963. "The  hypothesis turned out to be both true and false -- depending on what assumptions one starts from," he writes. In other words, the hypothesis sets apart from the standard axioms of set theory and can be rejected or accepted accordingly.

    (1) Published by Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540. Copyright 1987 by Birkhauser Boston, 765 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, Mass. 02139.
    (2) "To Infinity and Beyond," page 60.

    Wednesday, June 30, 2010

    Social stability, population growth and the experiments of John B. Calhoun

    By Steve Rensberry   

    As far along as we may be on the pathway to a singularity, it's hard to deny the acceleration that has taken place over the past century in terms of population growth, and the chance that it could leave a vast majority of us shaking our heads in disbelief when it's all said and done.
       Consider the compounding effects, and a total world population that was only around 1 million in 10,000 BCE. By the year 1,000 CE it had multiplied to 300 times that size, to 310 million. We surpassed the 1 billion mark in the early 1800s, then grew to some 1.26 billion in 1850 and to 2.5 billion in 1950.
       Now, just 60 years later, we’re at an incredible 6.8 billion. That's according to estimates put together by the United Nations. That's 4.3 billion more human beings living on this magnificent floating ball of rock in 2010 than there were at the time my parents pledged their lives to one another!  The rate of growth has slowed, fortunately, with speculation that total world population will peak at about 9 billion people sometime between 2040 and 2050.
       Much has been written about the threat to the earth's ecosystem and environment, but the positive and cumulative effects in terms of increasing knowledge, together with the possible, but uncertain ways in which it could affect social and psychological aspects of the human race may be two commonly overlooked dynamics.
       American research psychologist John Calhoun was an exception. Calhoun died in 1995 but was widely known for his studies of population density and its effects on animal behavior, in particular rats. He had worked in the division of neuropsychiatry at Walter Reed Army Medical Center before joining the National Institutes of Health in 1954, where he remained for more than 30 years.
       But it was in 1946 and 1947 at Johns Hopkins University that Calhoun began a massive study of a colony of Norway rats, maintained in an outdoor pen that was some 10,000 square feet in size. Despite the ability for the five pregnant females in the group to produce more than 50,000 offspring within the space provided, the total population in the pen never surpassed 200 rats. The rats also broke up into colonies of only about a dozen each instead of spreading themselves throughout the pen, pointing to a maximum size before which the rats succumbed to forces and stresses which would work to their detriment. See: Escaping the Laboratory
       Calhoun continued his behavioral experiments in a Maryland barn in 1954, and again in the 1960s in another elaborate arrangement on property owned by the National Institutes of Mental Health. Here he constructed what was known as his "mouse universe," a 9-foot square, 54-inch tall, meticulously designed and constructed living environment. Space was the only limitation.
       What he found was a total, eventual breakdown in social structure within the colony, leading to extinction. Male rats would withdraw, tending only to themselves, and the females would all but stop reproducing.
      "The conclusions drawn from this experiment were that when all available space is taken and all social roles filled, competition and the stresses experienced by the individuals will result in a total breakdown in complex social behaviors, ultimately resulting in the demise of the population," the entry on Wikipedia says. See: John Calhoun.
       Human civilization and the cognitive complexity of  humans far exceeds that of rodents, but do we really know what the future holds? Were Calhoun's experiments relevant to our understanding of human culture and population growth? As time marches on, we might do well to keep matters related to adaptability and that tremendously creative, inventive spark that sets us apart from so much of the animal kingdom well in mind.

    Wednesday, June 16, 2010

    ------------------------------ Gray --------------------------

    Caustic consequences
    Sequence initiated.
    What! With only a whisper are we lured us into acquiescence.
    But surely it is all but a game.
    Zero, nine, eight, seven, zero, nine, four.
    A roll of the dice.
    What really did we humans do –
    to force time into retreat?

    A sea of darkness
    There was no reference point,
    as I looked around – nothing to see, to feel, to smell,
    nothing but thoughts without matter.
    In perpetual motion.
    An ocean of silence in a sea of gray.
    As a void slices, suddenly, through a crack in the sky.
    Split like a seam, in a moment of birth.

    Critical juncture
       I am millions of years old and broken beyond measure,
    imploding, transmuting, shifting into a state
    of non-definition and delirious despair.
    Misery fights for control, tearing me in two,
    between past and future –
    between what I am
    and what so many must endure;
    such a prolonged, deplorable existence,
    forcing their hand with what little there is  –
    all at the expense of mere numbers.
    Not that anything is easy.
    Many of the brightest have thought it through,
    and thought they had it figured out,
    even without proof
    even without correspondence,
    with formulas far removed from reality.
    Like bees to pollen, the theoretical, the speculative,
    the string-laden phenomenon in
    league with faith and absolutism
    of a thousand transcendent varieties
    comes loaded with half-truths
    and a bevy of broken neurons,
    to give us anything and everything
    to avert the pain of uncertainty.
    Cause and defect
       – external sensory collection –
    – biological-based genetic data –
    – hierarchical mechanisms of storage –
    – the manifestation of time –
    – emotion to mood to attitude –
    – intuition and sensing –
    – a synthesis of biological and psychological movements –
    – urges to desires to a need for structure –
    – logic to reason –
    – self-awareness to consciousness –
    – to universal awareness –
    – equilibrium to despair  –
    – anger to reconstruction –
    – struggle to seclusion –
    – meaning to knowledge –
     – acceptance to tranquility –
    – growth to transference –

    Trust and decay
    There should be. There ought to be. 
    There must be –
    because comprehensive reality includes subtleties,
    possibilities, worlds beyond perception –
    gradients of matter stealthily occupying
    the same earthly space
    light years beyond recognition.
    Abstraction or substance?
    If every effect has a cause,
    where's the tie between nothing and something?
    Where's the link between body and mind,
    between the real and the unreal,
    between matter and non-matter?
    Do objects ever touch?
    Unseen forces have you feeling in the dark –
    ripping, tearing, shredding the tiniest
    morsel of knowledge –
    inverting and flipping and reshaping
    the obvious until its true nature is
    effectively obscured.
    You want to believe.
    It feels good to believe.
    We will make you believe.
    You will believe.
    In a world of restriction,
    the socially dominant live for supremacy –
    fragmenting and reforming themselves
    until group control is assured.
    The lies are true.
    Trust us.
    The contradictions are fabricated –
    shameful insecurities bred in obscurity.
    You have a duty to trash your tired imperatives –
    wrapped as they are like wire around your soul.

    A universe of gray
    Strange it was.
    Like the mind.
    Bigger on the inside than it was on the outside
    We surmised it was related to balance,
    perplexed by the infinite nature of it all. 
    Our minds it turns out were the strangest things of all. 
    Were we making things too complex, or too simple?
     Where was the bedrock?
    Why can we not immediately turn that which is
    within our minds into material reality?
    Imprisoned we are by the forces of the inanimate,
    by the unknown and untouchable.
    We observe patterns and shapes and centers
    and breaks and cycles and borders and arrows
    and sheets and spheres
    and every possible synthesis in between.
    We observe recurrent processes and phenomenon.
    A complexity of emotions and drives and disassociation –
    from fears to heartaches to love –
    coursing through our veins, beyond our conscious awareness
    We fasten our beliefs on unsighted faith and presupposition.
    We make it so by redefining the nature of evidence.
    We call everything matter or everything mind
    – complementary but independent.
    Do we really know what's real?
    Are we not but conglomerates?
    Relationships in search of a structure.
    Compounds tethered to elementary forces
    a thousand times more complex
    and profound than we can imagine.
    Phenomenally frail creatures
    with small minds and big delusions.
    We feel the edges. We touch a whisper.
    We think we know it all.
    Absolutes. Infinity. Morality.
    Disingenuous desperation.
    Assume – extend – believe – demand – conform
    Can no one see – the depth, the ingrained elements,
    the core in humanity that changes only by chance?
    That idolizes then repeats? Ad infinitum.

    Tuesday, June 1, 2010

    Life by (human) design

    By Steve Rensberry   

     The recent announcement by Craig Venter and his team of scientists that they had created the first, truly synthetic life form has drawn reactions as predictable as the earth's rotation around the sun. Neither has it been all that surprising that bloggers everywhere were pondering its implications more than any other subject last week, according to a Pew Research Center update of June. 2.
        "Bloggers often seem more interested in scientific discoveries than does the traditional press. And last week, one such scientific achievement led the online conversation despite receiving very little coverage in the mainstream media," the PRC's analysis says.
        I don't feel I need to even tell you how the news has been received, but it appears to me the reactions have been nearly identical to those we've been seeing since first mucking around with even the slightest of DNA structures years ago.
        Certainly many of us have suspected that life could, conceivably be formed at the hands of humans, someday maybe, but in 2010? One site I stumbled upon predicted genetic engineers would design the first artificially-created species oh, in about the year 3,000! Surely, the bacteria dubbed "Synthia" by the J. Venter Institute group has only the ability to survive and reproduce, but it's potentially a mighty big first step. The bacteria's formal name is Mycoplasma mycoides. Interestingly, Venter even embedded his own name into the synthetic bacteria's DNA, along with the name of other team members.
        Pharmaceutical companies like what he's done. Big oil likes it. Others have forthrightly trivialized it, perhaps even with some degree of justification. Athena Andreadis, who is an Associate Professor of Cell Biology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, questions on her blog at, whether the description of what Venter did is even accurate
        "To propagate the synthesized chromosome, the Venter team used a bacterium whose endogenous DNA had been removed but was otherwise intact. This means that they used existing natural components to do the real task of propagation – the entire structure and machinery of the host cell. This makes the endeavor even less groundbreaking than injecting genetic material into a mammalian egg or stem cell (as was done to produce Dolly the sheep with far less advanced technology)," she writes.
        In Andreadis' words, Venter's achievement was "expensive, glitzy – and banal."
        "What Venter really announced was that a team under his direction inserted a chemically synthesized genome into Mycoplasma and succeeded in getting the resulting bacterium to propagate," she says.
        It's going to be interesting, to say the least, to see where Venter's work takes us over the next few months and years.

    Sunday, May 16, 2010

    Dark, invisible or non-existent?

    The interest in so-called dark energy and dark matter continues, but so do the doubts. Is it merely a modification of gravity? Is it the product of a new type of particle? The verdict is still out, though the dominant theory still seems to point toward a mysterious, invisible substance of some kind. The term “invisible” matter or energy seems to me to be the more appropriate one, but the term “dark” does grab the headlines. This video from Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, hints at the ambiguities.

    Thursday, April 29, 2010

    Mind, body and brain

    By Steve Rensberry

    The human brain interacts with the body by way of a complex network appropriately called the central nervous system. This itself is composed of functional units such as the brain stem, spinal cord and the matter which makes up the brain itself. Other functional units: the limbic system - associated with such things as anxiety - and the motor system - associated with such things as speech.

    A series of membranes lying just under the skull effectively creates a blood-brain barrier that allows only a restricted range of substances to pass through to the brain. Beginning with the brain, the central nervous system extends through the brain stem, through the spinal cord and through a series of ganglia and peripheral nerves branching out throughout the body. The peripheral nervous system consists of nerves and nerve roots. The anatomic nervous system controls such things as heart beat and digestive processes.

    Large bundles of nerves or conduits, themselves composed of millions of nerve cells and neurons, exist to help the brain communicate with other parts of the body. Scientists have identified more than 200 neurotransmitters.

    The brain's primary source of energy is blood glucose. Also important are those nutrients which are necessary for the metabolism of glucose, such as magnesium, pantothenic acid, biotin, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and chromium. Vitamins B12 and B6, protein, copper, zinc, folacin and iron are believed to be essential in the creation of red blood cells, which are responsible for delivering oxygen to the brain. Other nutrients, such as potassium, assist in the transmission of nerve impulses.

    What evidence is there that the human mind is anything more than a product of this complex, multi-functional physical organ we call the brain? Can the totality of mental phenomenon be adequately explained as a product of purely non-personal, physical and chemical processes? Can the conscious mind exist apart from what is generally understood to be the brain?

    On my way to positing a theory, let me first note the following:

    - At no time in human history has any human being ever been shown to have thoughts after their brain is removed or after it is denied oxygen for more than but a very few minutes. They have, however, been shown to have a very high propensity to decay, with barely the slightest sign of reconstitution.

    - Split brain studies undertaken by Michael Gazzaniga, Roger Sperry and Joseph Bogen at the California Institute of Technology several years ago revealed striking differences between the two hemispheres, with the left brain (responsible for such things as invention and interpretation) appearing to have a substantially higher degree of consciousness than the right (responsible for such things as emotion, subconscious processes, vision and pattern recognition.) Dr. Robert Buckman, who wrote "Can We Be Good Without God? Behaviour, Belonging and the Need to Believe," points to brain research as suggesting that "supernatural experiences" are a uniquely right temporal lobe phenomenon.

    - Dr. Paul MacLean, a researcher with the National Institute of Mental Health, suggests that conflict arises among the three, fundamentally distinct types of brains we all have, one being the reptilian brain centered in the brain stem and associated body organs; another being the mammalian brain, central to learning and memory; and the other being the primate brain centered in the frontal lobes and responsible for intellectual theorizing, higher reasoning and experimentation. The urges and needs of each are not always aligned.

    -  The classic 1902 book, "The Varieties of Religious Experience," by William James argues that all humans share impulses belonging to one of two types: lower level, instinct-based impulses, and those involving higher, more cognitive processes. James claims that these two types of impulses, acting together, is what gives rise to religious experience. You'll note the assumption on my part that so-called religious experience or all experiences of the supernatural for that matter, are tied in some way to some measure of philosophical and metaphysical dualism, in the belief that a person's mind is a separate and living entity set completely apart from the physical brain within our skulls.

    - While working on his doctorate in 2003 at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, Clinical Psychologist Ben Hidalgo wrote a thesis entitled "The Utility of a Neuropsychological of Religious Experience." Included in the piece is a composite definition of religious experience, in which Hidalgo cites works by William James, Walter N. Pahnke, Roland Fischer and James B. Pratt.  See:  I quote:

    "These characteristics can be present in any combination to identify a religious experience and have each been verified as characteristic of a religious experience through observation and self report. Together they address all known cultural expressions of religion."

    He lists these characteristics: 1) Loss of awareness of discrete limited being, passage of time. 2) Obliteration of self-other dichotomy. 3) Visual, auditory hallucinations. 4) Feelings of bliss, ecstasy, transcendence, internal unity, cosmic union and consciousness, transcendence of space and time. 5) Sense of presence of a higher being or reality. 6) Sense of insight into the very nature of the universe. 7) Trance states. 8) Sense of sacredness. 9) Sense of ineffability. 10) A preoccupation with ritual.

    - A growing body of evidence exists showing the two-way relationship between a person's mind and body. The body, using a variety of biochemical substances, can affect an individual's mood, attractions, appetite, alertness, and overall state of mind. Physical activity is known to cause the release of endorphins, working against feelings of depression and anger. Do we think about things such as intimacy with a loved one because the chemical in our bodies prompt us to, or do our hearts beat faster and our bodies become aroused because we tell them to? What I read seems to suggests that it's a bit of both.

    - The placebo affect, as it relates to both mental and physical health, is well documented. Believe you took an antidepressant, and the sugar-pill you took may just have an effect on par with that high-powered pharmaceutical. Allow yourself to be convinced that a simple sugar-filled capsule contains a powerful narcotic and will eliminate your pain, and in some cases it does just that. Why? Because while our brains have the ability to direct the actions of our body at the same time that the body works its magic directly upon our brains using such biochemicals as endorphins, bombesin and vasopressin.

    There's certainly something to be said for the feeling that some sort of dualism is at play within the universe and the mind in particular. Mental phenomenon can be exceedingly bizarre, throwing us into a world of self reflection and contemplation, unlimited by time and space, tradition or conventions, allowing us to conceptualize and  move nearly seamlessly from image to emotion to desire to conviction to deep, abstract analysis on a level unmatched anywhere else on earth. Humans are exceedingly unique and unusual. Plato described the body as a prison for the soul. Death preceded the life we live, therefore life must follow again once we die, he says. Sacrates argues for a soul that exists prior to birth because of what we appear to know almost instinctively upon birth. The invisible (Forms) outlasts the visible, thus the soul (mind) must outlast the body, he reasons. Hume, Locke, Descartes and many others have all weighed in on the issue of mind and dualism, but a good summation of the common flaw among those who believe in some sort of dualism, that mind can exist apart from the brain, was given by Nagel.

    An entry on Dualism and Mind in the "Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy" (Problems with Leibniz's Law Arguments for Dualism, (see written by Scott Calef, reads:

    "Although each of these arguments for dualism may be criticized individually, they are typically thought to share a common flaw: they assume that because some aspect of mental states, such as privacy, internationality, truth, or meaning cannot be attributed to physical substances, they must be attributable to non-physical substances. But if we do not understand how such states and their properties can be generated by the central nervous system, we are no closer to understanding how they might be produced by minds . . . . Dualists cannot explain the mechanisms by which souls generate meaning, truth, internationality or self-awareness. Thus, dualism creates no explanatory advantage. As such, we should use Ockham’s razor to shave off the spiritual substance, because we ought not to multiply entities beyond what is necessary to explain the phenomena. Descartes’ prodigious doubt notwithstanding, we have excellent reasons for thinking that bodies exist. If the only reasons for supposing that non-physical minds exist are the phenomena of internationality, privacy and the like, then dualism unnecessarily complicates the metaphysics of personhood."

    My take on it: Creativity, the ability to shape and suspend belief, to imagine, to dream, to rationalize and establish meaning on a purely subjective level, is one of the single most powerful human faculties that makes us who we are, that sets us above and beyond every other known creature on the planet, giving us a deciding advantage in particular when working in groups and in social formations. But almost by default it is a faculty without limits. The feeling of dualism, of a mind or soul that is categorically distinct from our flesh and blood bodies is thus, fundamentally, a matter of simply failing (or deciding not) to apply the brakes. We suspend belief in a naturalistic universe in the hopes that we are right, because we want desperately to be right. We imagine, pray, dream and desire to be unrestrained by the limitations of the human condition, willfully allowing ourselves to be sucked into rationalizing the existence of that which does not exist. Meaning and value are no less important to the good life, whether you presuppose they come from an invisible realm shared by mind and spirit, or from a singular earthly realm shared by neurons and synapse gaps. But there's pleasure in believing the magical realm is real, an evolutionary advantage perhaps .... in imagining a world beyond our own, in throwing the entire weight of one's cognitive devotion into a whole-hearted belief in the paranormal or the supernatural and the presumed permanence that comes with it.

    Tuesday, April 6, 2010

    Illusions of Immortality

    By Steve Rensberry

    A 1997 article written by author Keith Augustine entitled “The Case Against Immortality” sets out to define the problem as thus:

    “Is there life after death? This question has been asked since the dawn of civilization. It is arguably the most important and most personal question that can be asked in light of the realization of one's own mortality. Immortality is a complex issue dependent on several other philosophical questions which need to be addressed."

    It is these philosophical questions he cites that I’d like to address, rather than the vociferous debate over a well-known deity. I will say first off that I am the type of person who likes to have solid and sufficient evidence for what he believes. And as for life beyond the grave, well, the questions are many.

    Do we have scientific evidence to prove it true? No. Do we have evidence capable of being recorded with the aid of audio-visual devices or photographic technology? No. Do we have professed eye-witness accounts of someone “coming back from the dead?” Yes. Is it trustworthy testimony? Without being able to verify it independently or to repeat it, I would have to say no.

    You can assume it’s correct. You can choose to believe it with all your mind, heart and soul. But to make the leap from historic, cross-cultural human testimony to total, complete intellectual certainty about things that are out of line with all known laws of physics is a leap I wouldn’t advise making.

    The basic problem is that what people consider “evidence” can be conceptualized either very narrowly or very broadly. And both have their problems.

    Define it very broadly and yes, you could present some “evidence” for life after death. If by evidence we mean anything which someone believes in their heart to be true is in fact true, why wouldn’t there be? Belief. Confidence. Trust. Assurance. If all that mattered was for someone to summon one of these types of emotional and cognitive states in order for something to qualify as evidence, then surely you could argue that life may indeed exist after death. But so could just about anything and everything that comes into a person’s head. People talk themselves into believing in UFOs, alien abductions, lizard people living under the earth, reincarnation and all kinds of bizarre ideologies and belief systems because of loosely-defined criteria for evidence.

    But define what constitutes evidence too narrowly and we also run into problems. Are the only things which are real those things which we can replicate through scientific experimentation or analyze with one of  our major senses, such as sight, sound or touch? Is human testimony  never to be trusted as a source of truth or as evidence? Answer yes  and we might find ourselves denying that humans ever landed on the moon or that the earth is round. You can’t tell it’s round just by  looking at it can you? In another sense, even so-called first hand evidence requires us to assume that our senses can be trusted in what they are telling us and that the three dimensional, space-time universe we seem to live in has some basic degree of order and continuity to it.

    Augustine, referencing in part a sermon by Jonathan Edwards called “Dependence,” writes:

    “Immortality is related to the mind-body problem and the problem of personal identity in philosophy. The mind-body problem is concerned with how the mind and body are related to each other . . . . Modern materialism contends that mental states are reducible to physical brain states. Thus, if materialism is true, survival in the form of disembodied minds or astral bodies is ruled out automatically. Epiphenomenalism, which contends that the mind is a separate yet dependent by-product of the brain, has the same implications for survival. Resurrection is compatible with both of these theories of mind. A dualism that contends that the mind is a separate, independent entity from the brain is a necessary presupposition for the possibility of disembodied minds or astral bodies."

    Again, you can choose whether you want to apply a very loose standard of evidence on which to base your essential beliefs, or a very broad standard, but I’d warn you not to get too hung up on issues of certainty, especially if it comes down by way of human recollection and folklore passed along from generation to generation -- or if there is some institutional benefit or vested interest in perpetuating the belief. In a court of law, human testimony is notoriously prone to error. People make things up, levy false accusations, tell outright lies, sometimes even convince themselves of things that are plainly untrue. There have been cases where the accused have plead guilty to things they were completely innocent off.

    Immortality is the dream of a lot of us, myself included. However, coming up with the kind of genuine, hard evidence to justify a belief in life after death is something that has yet to be demonstrated.

    Carl Sagan on God, Faith and Religion