Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Confucius: Those Who are Absolute True Selves

 An excerpt from the writings of Confucius
   Only those who are their absolute true selves in the world can fulfill their own nature; only those who fulfill their own nature can fulfill the nature of others; only those who fulfill the nature of others can fulfill the nature of things; those who fulfill the nature of things are worthy to help Mother Nature in growing and sustaining life; and those who are worthy to help Mother Nature in growing and sustaining life are the equals of heaven and earth.
   The next in order are those who are able to attain to the apprehension of a particular branch of study. By such studies, they are able to apprehend the truth. Realization of the true self compels expression; expression becomes evidence; evidence becomes clarity or luminosity of knowledge; clarity or luminosity of knowledge activates; active knowledge becomes power and power become a pervading influence. Only those whoa re absolutely their true selves in the world can have pervading influence.
   It is an attribute of the possession of the absolute true self to be able to foreknow. When a nation or family is about to flourish, there are sure to be lucky omens. When a nation or family is about to perish, there are sure to be signs and prodigies. These things manifest themselves in the instruments of divination and in the agitation of the human body. What happiness of calamity is about to come, it can be known beforehand.
    When it is good, it can be known beforehand. When it is evil, it can also be known beforehand. Therefore he who has realized his true self is like a celestial spirit.
   Truth means the fulfillment of our self; and moral law means following the law of our being. Truth is the beginning and end (the substance) of material existence Without truth there is no material existence. It is for this reason that the moral man values truth.
   Truth is not only the fulfillment of our own being, it is that by which things outside of us haven existence. The fulfillment of our being is more sense. The fulfillment of the nature of our being is moral sense. The fulfillment of the nature of things outside of us is intellect. These, moral sense and intellect, are the powers or faculties of our being. They combine the inner or subjective and outer or objective use of the power of the mind. Therefore, with truth, everything done is right.
   Thus absolute truth is indestructible. Being indestructible, it is eternal. Being eternal, it is self-existent. Being self-existent it is infinite. Being infinite, it is vast and deep. Being vast and deep, it is transcendental and intelligent. It is because it is vast and deep that it contains all existence. It is because it is transcendental and intelligent that it embraces all existence. It is because it is infinite and eternal that it fulfills or perfects all existence. In vastness and depth it is like the earth. In transcendental intelligence it is like heaven. Infinite and eternal, it is the infinite itself.
   Such being the nature of absolute truth, it manifests itself without being seen; it produces effects without motion; it accomplishes its ends without action.
   The principle in the course and operation of nature may be summed up in one word: because it obeys only its own immutable law, the way in which it produces the variety of things is unfathomable.
   Nature is vast, deep, high, intelligent, infinite and eternal. The heaven appearing before us is only this bright, shrinking mass; but in its immeasurable extent, the sun, the moon, stars and constellations are suspended in it, and all things are embraced under it. The earth, appearing before us, is but a handful of soil; but in all its breadth and depth, it sustains mighty mountains without feeding their weight; rivers and seas dash against it without cause it to leak. The mountain appearing before us is only a mass of rock; bit in all the vastness of its size, grass and vegetation grow upon it, birds and beasts dwell on it, and treasurers of precious minerals are found in it. The water appearing before us is but a ladle full of liquid; bit in all its unfathomable depths, the largest crustaceans, dragons, fishes, and turtles are produced in them, all useful products abound in them.
   In the Book of Songs it is said:
  "The ordinance of God, How inscrutable it is and goes on for ever."
   That is to say, this is the essence of God. It is again said:
   How excellent it is, the moral perfection of King Wen."
   That is to say, this is the essence of the noble character of the Emperor Wen. Moral perfection also never dies.
   Note: Text selection is copyright expired.

For further reading:

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Illusion of Belief

By Steve Rensberry

Does life exist beyond the grave?
Do the eyes lie?
Meaning. Truth. Purpose.
What are they but the mind reaching out?
When you pick up a rock, you know it's a rock.
But you are, alas, a construct-creating entity.
An amalgam of ambiguous forces.
A desire in search of belief.
A framework in need of reinforcement.
So that rock can be anything you want.
A sign. A symbol. A tool.
A deity transformed.
Manifested in all its prophetic glory.
The mind embraces belief like a criminal embraces a scapegoat.
Contingent belief?
Temporary belief? Suspended belief?
Belief in a possibility? A probability?
Not in a million years.
Not in a lifetime.
A mind in need needs belief of eternal proportions.
It needs totality. It needs absolutes.
It needs the physiological release that comes only from total justification.
To sanctify its existence.
To create for itself that which cannot be manifest.
To make the impossible real.
It is not evidence the mind needs but a simple green light.
An all-encompassing reason.
Reality. Facts. Evidence.
What are they really but concepts?
A choice?
Eyed through the lens of subjective interpretation.
Beaten into submission by an infinite ego.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mind, body and emotion

By Steve Rensberry

 The essence and source of human emotions, like that of consciousness itself, is a complex phenomenon that has caused a great deal of bewilderment throughout history. Author and professor Paul Thagard makes an interesting observation in an April 15, 2010 blog for Psychology Today, entitled very simply, "What are emotions?"
   Thagard first appraises the dualist view as being weak on evidence and heavy on wishful thinking or motivated inference, then points to two main scientific explanations for how emotions arise. One is the cognitive appraisal theory, which suggests that emotions represent a reaction to how well we are achieving any particular goal, the result being happiness when we're getting closer and anger when we encounter obstacles. The second explanation argues that emotions are tied to physiological changes.
   "On this view, happiness is a kind of physiological perception, not a judgment, and other emotions such as sadness and anger are mental reactions to different kinds of physiological stages," he writes.
   Most intriguing is Thagard's comment that our current understanding of how the brain functions suggests that the two theories can be unified.
   "Visual and other kinds of perception are the result of both inputs from the senses and top-down interpretations based on past knowledge. Similarly, the brain can perform emotions by interactively combining both high-level judgments about goal satisfactions and low-level perceptions of bodily changes," he says.
   As for the physiological connection, research also points to a number of compounds and molecules in the body that appear to drive various emotional states. These include adrenaline, acetylcholine, dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, serotonin, testosterone, estrogen, melatonin and oxytocin.
   When so many of these substances perform multiple functions in the context of a biologically complex, dynamic living organism, it's no wonder emotions are so difficult to quantify. In artificial intelligence, it remains to be seen if duplication of human emotional reactions will be worthy of broad-based emulation or perhaps something that is a little more on the level of sanity.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Life outside the hive

By Steve Rensberry   

 Why do so many people believe in the absolute reality of so many things with such little evidence to validate their truth? Consider ghosts, angels, demons and that most prominent of deities -- God, or Allah if your prefer.
   If you find yourself one of the believers, I implore you to entertain this one simple question: Is it even remotely possible that such entities could be mere fabrications of the human mind?
  Why exactly do you believe what you do? Is it based on solid, empirical evidence or is it based on subjective, cognitive experience and philosophical speculation? History is replete with examples of magical thinking and superstitious belief. How do you know what you believe is any different?
   Don't get swayed by the human impulse to turn wishes into reality by imagining to be true things which are false. As finite, emotional creatures in a complex world, the best and most rational position to take is one that rests on a healthy foundation of skepticism and critical thinking.
   Part of your challenge--if you choose to accept it--is to wean yourself away from the comfort zone of all-encompassing belief, in the kind of belief that literally takes over your life. The difficulty is that the simple act of believing in something, even if it is based on a falsehood, can offer a tremendous amount of psychological comfort and positive reinforcement, especially when coupled with a supportive social network.
   They say that much of what we believe is simply a matter of inculcation from a very young age, the evidence notwithstanding. But there comes a time when we all need to grow up and become honest with ourselves. Don't give up on reality by thinking you've found the absolute, unquestionable truth, from now until eternity. Trust me, there is life outside the hive.

Monday, September 12, 2011

P.D. Ouspensky and Tertium Organum

By Steve Rensberry  

 I first came across the work of Russian writer P.D. Ouspensky in 1978 after his book, Tertium Organum, caught my eye in the philosophy section of a local Canadian bookstore. The subtitle: "A Key to the Enigmas of the World"
   The book, written in 1912, has since become available online. There is a link to it on this website. Although Ouspensky was associated early on with the work of George Gurdjieff and esotericism, it was neither Gurdjieff nor esotericism that interested me at the time. It was simply Ouspensky's book, The Third Canon of Thought, and the challenges to conventional wisdom that it presented.
   It's a complex piece of work and I don't by any means agree with, nor necessarily understand, everything Ouspensky was trying to say, but I still find it amazing that one of his conclusions is to ultimately deny the reality of motion itself. Ouspensky's book questioned some of the most basic assumptions people have about human perception and the world, and did it in a way that was profoundly analytic and rational, unlike the narratives and undefinable leaps of faith so prevalent among white anglo-saxon protestant culture.
   The fact that Ouspensky was a journalist, having written for several newspapers while in addition penning such books as The Fourth Dimension and A New Model of the Universe, is something else I can appreciate.
   Following is the 1998 film directed by Zivko Nicolic based upon Ouspensky's 1949 book, "In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching." It was, as noted on YouTube, produced by Sidney Fairway Films in association with Anak Productions Belgrade. Part I is embedded.

Part II -- In Search of the Miraculous
Part III -- In Search of the Miraculous
Part IV -- In Search of the Miraculous
Part V -- In Search of the Miraculous

Monday, August 29, 2011

Proteus Syndrome study may aid cancer research

   The National Institutes of Health issued a report this month announcing that scientists had pinpointed the mutation they believe is responsible for the very unusual Proteus Syndrome, a finding which they suggested may hold promise in understanding and treating cancer. For more information about Proteus Syndrome, see: FAQ.
   Details of the study were first published this month in the New England Journal of Medicine here: A Mosaic Activating Mutation in AKT1 Associated with the Proteus Syndrome.
   Proteus Syndrome is an extremely rare condition involving the uncontrolled, typically asymmetric overgrowth of various body tissues, bones and other parts. Identification involves noting the unequal distribution of affected areas, the appearance of the suspected syndrome among only one member in a family, and continued growth over time of the body areas experiencing accelerated growth.
   "Proteus syndrome does not run in families, but faulty genes were believed to be responsible. Some experts proposed that the condition might be a genetic mosaicism. Mosaic disorders arise when a genetic mutation occurs spontaneously during embryonic development," the NIH report states.
   A research team at the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) used a technique called whole-exome sequencing to examine the cells of six affected individuals in order to determine if their hypothesis was correct. What they discovered was a gene that had already been implicated in cancer studies and related therapies.
   "The analysis reveled a single-letter misspelling in the genome of affected cells," The NIA states. "The mutated gene, called AKT1, is a known ocogene—a gene that can promote the uncontrolled cell growth associated with cancer."
   Further confirmation of the role played by a gene defect was found by testing 29 others, for who 26 showed the variation. No variations have been found beyond affected individuals.
   Accelerated AKT protein activity had been observed in previous research into the cause of the syndrome.
   The focus now is on developing a drug to inhibit the increase in AKT protein activity.
   For further reading, see: Gene Variant in Proteus Syndrome Identified.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Quantum entanglement from a microwave?

   The term quantum entanglement refers to a phenomenon which occurs when quantum particles with a shared relationship become separated yet still maintain a type of indefinite-connectedness, continuing to share the same basic quantum state no matter how far they are apart. Their continued relationship is apparent when one of the pair is measured, causing both to exhibit complementary values.
   For more on the subject, see this reference in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or Wikipedia's entry on Quantum Entanglement. This article by Paul Comstock published in 2007 in the California Literary Review called "The Strange World of Quantum Entanglement" also makes some interesting observations.
   Currently, laser beams have been the instrument of necessity for scientists working to create such a state of quantum superposition. That may all change, however, with further advances on the recently-discovered capability of microwaves to propel ions into this precise state, as was announced by researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
   Microwave technology would enable far smaller devices to be built and lead to significant advances in quantum computing--or so it's hoped.
   Clay Dillow, writing in POPSCI, states: "The entire layout described by the NIST researchers in an upcoming issue of the journal Nature is tabletop-size, or roughly one-tenth as big as the usual room-sized “laser park” needed to generate controlled ion entanglement with light."
   Dillow cites the potential as huge and notes the already-common use of microwaves in wireless communication.
   Richard Adhikari, writing in TechNewsWorld: "The microwaves used are similar to those used in smartphones, and NIST speculates that eventually a quantum computer could resemble a smartphone."
   Quantum physics is fascinating--and a bit spooky. What other things in the realm of human existence are entangled--connected though separated--that we have yet to recognize?
   Following is a 2006 lecture on quantum entanglements by Standford University Professor Leonard Susskind.

Lecture 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtBRKw1Ab7E&feature=relmfu
Lecture 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaTF4QZ94Fk&feature=relmfu
Lecture 4: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5vfo512fvlE&feature=relmfu
Lecture 5: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XlLsTaJn9AQ&feature=relmfu

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Knowledge without limits

By Steve Rensberry

So strong
So unbelievably silent.
So incredibly sweltering and pathetic.
How many are there? The walking dead?
The heartbroken? The rejected and demonized?

Feared by those who dare not understand.
Scorned. Forgotten. Does anyone see?
Does anyone care? To free these 
minds from their

But time
does its work,
when suddenly it stops.
Frozen. Shut down like a switch.
Dissolved in despair. No
tears. No memory.
No more 

the leap
you would
think, now was it?
A simple door, held from within.
There to be opened.
Or forever shut. 
The choice 
is yours.

Who knew,
within this infinite dream,
the limitations of thought? That like Occam's
razor, the answer with the fewest
unnecessary assumptions
is most often

That what
we all want is
but the same exact thing?
Life without death. Laughter without
pain. Knowledge without limits.
Is that, my friend, really
too much to

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Causation, the future and free will

By Steve Rensberry

 The idea that the future is something which can be predicted or known with certainty, as opposed to a mere hypothesis or likelihood, raises a host of questions.
  There is a very limited sense, of course, in which predicting future events is no more fantastic than knowing that water will boil at a certain temperature or that most humans will fail to live beyond a certain age. One can predict with near certainty that the sun will still be shining 10 years from now and that most people will still be falling asleep at night and waking up in the morning.
   The ability to reason and predict the future with some limited degree of accuracy, based upon simple observation and pattern recognition, would seem to be a basic fact of the human condition. Educated judgments with a scientific basis aimed at predicting future social trends likewise would not seem out of place.
   Everything changes, however, when such predictions become even moderately specific or involve events well into the future. How possible would it be would be, for example, to know exactly what project you will be working on, who the president of the United States will be, and what you will be wearing at 10:05 a.m. on January 15, 2035?
   This may all seem like so much common sense, but the fact is, the belief in prophetic truth and in things like destiny continue to beset the minds of many people, even in this modern day and age and despite the host of philosophical contradictions and conundrums presented by such presuppositions.
   The problems are especially acute for persons professing to know the future in totality, right down to the most minute detail. Admittedly, it is not so much select mortals who claim to have such ability as much as it is their belief that there exists a genuine, bona fide deity who is nothing less than omniscient. But if the future is known, what happens to free will? How can a person know with certainty that a prediction is accurate before it happens? What is the difference between prediction and happenstance? Imagine the complexity of knowing the consequences of all of the accumulated choices made by millions of people decades down the road.
   Surely it is all to convenient to dress one's predictions in allegory or in statements which are generally true for most civilization and cultures throughout most periods in time, as in the prediction that "there will be wars and rumors of wars." What are such statements but rational observations and educated guesses with some possibility of coming true?
   Intelligent beings need a basis and a framework in which to judge and make decisions affecting the course of their lives. While such frameworks need not be eternal and permanent, very often are assumed to be precisely that. Why? Is temporal uncertainty simply too much to bear? Is it all part of the scramble to find meaning and purpose in life? Is it essential for humans to project a known or deterministic future in order to feel as though their lives have value?
   Ironically, prophecy adherents very often embrace the concept of free will at the same time that they assume there is a future that cannot change. May I suggest their error is in assuming, evidence aside, that the human will is an entity unto itself, entirely separate from the body and fully responsible for the choices it makes. But what is life if it is not governed by some measure of reason, cause and effect, the will included? And by what evidence does one conclude that choice itself does not lie within that same eternal stream of connectivity?
   Consider these words from English reformer Robert Blatchford:
   "When a man says his will is free, he means that it is free of all control or interference: that it can over-rule heredity and environment. We reply that the will is ruled by heredity and environment. The cause of all the confusion on this subject may be shown in a  few words. When the free will party say that man has a free will, they mean that he is free to act as he chooses to act. There is no need to deny that. But what causes him to choose? That is the pivot upon which the whole discussion turns." (Blatchford, Robert, Not Guilty, Albert And Charles Boni, Inc., 1913).

Friday, June 3, 2011

The philosophy of David Hume

   The following three videos contain excerpts from Bertrand Russell's "A History of Western Philosophy" where Russell discusses the philosophy and teachings of David Hume. The readings are from Book Three, Part I, Chapter 17.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

An inquiry into philosophical skepticism

By Steve Rensberry

   British philosopher and social critic Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) suggested in a 1927 essay, Philosophic Doubts, that even among the hallowed halls of science the adoption of skepticism as a rational approach to the unknown, remains warranted for one basic reason: We human beings share a relentless, undying dependence on perception and inductive reasoning to acquire knowledge, even within the scope of the most rigorous of scientific inquiry.
   "Philosophy arises from an unusually obstinate attempt to arrive at real knowledge. What passes for knowledge in ordinary life suffers from three defects: it is cocksure, vague, and self-contradictory," Russell says.
   By cocksure Russell refers to the striking overconfidence and naivety which humans often display when it comes to accepting what they perceive as certain knowledge, when in reality what they really see are merely the effects of a cause rather than the actual cause itself--effects that are often dramatically altered by any number of factors.
   Editors John R. Burr and Milton Goldinger paraphrase Russell's view: "All sense perception is a matter of cause and effect. All causes differ from their effects because otherwise all causes would be identical with their effects. Whatever we perceive (colors, sounds, smells, and so on) is an effect. Therefore, we never perceive causes. All causes are postulates, entities inferred by inductive reasoning." (John R. Burr and Milton Goldinger, Ed., Philosophy and Contemporary Issues, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1972, pg 317).
   Inductive arguments, in other words--as a method of generalizing from the part to the whole--always carry with them a certain level of uncertainty and the possibility that they could be in error, even if all of the premises for that specific argument are true. (ibid).
   "Induction raises perhaps the most difficult problem in the whole theory of knowledge. Every scientific law is established by its means, and yet it is difficult to see why we should believe it to be a valid process," Russell says. "Induction, in its bare essence, consists of the argument that, because A and B have been often found together and never found apart, therefore, when A is found again, B will probably also be found."
   It's an insightful essay and interesting in the way it reveals the all-to-common tendency for people to lay claim to absolutely certainty based simply on extrapolating from one small, relative sample to some overall principle or truth. But even Russell has his doubts. "I am convinced that induction must have validity of some kind in some degree, but the problem of showing how or why it can be valid remains unsolved," he says.
   From the perspective of those who believe that they are in possession of the ultimate key to absolute truth, as those who ascribe to theism or the objectivist school of thought traditionally do, skeptics are little less than sinful heathens and lost souls, too stubborn and too arrogant to recognize the nose on their own face and incredulous to a fault.
   But who, really, is more obstinate, more dogmatic? The one who insists on a sufficient answer for the things he or she believes, who leaves themselves open to the possibility that they could be wrong? Or the one who feels that they know, with a certainty that is absolute and beyond any shadow of a doubt, the final, ultimate and true meaning of all there is or ever will be, vowing even to themselves and to "God" to never so much as doubt the "truth" again?
   While skepticism as a concept has many branches, my interest here is in philosophical skepticism, noted by The Skeptic's Dictionary as being one of the very oldest. Theological skepticism is also of interest and is duly noted in the same article.
   What is philosophical skepticism? From my perspective it's defined as much by what it is as by what it isn't. First-and-foremost it stands in opposition to the idea of acquiring knowledge deemed to be absolutely certain. In contrast, philosophical skepticism advances the idea of an embedded, deep-rooted uncertainty that is extensive, pervasive and all but inseparable from reality itself. There are variations, but that's the general drift. Relative, limited knowledge isn't the issue. The issue is the near impossibility of acquiring knowledge on the level of absolute certainty given the limitations of the human mind and the inaccessibility of the objects in question. Can we really know something is true everywhere and everyplace in the universe, or that it will always be true at all times in the future, and in all places? This especially becomes an issue with hard or impossible to observe objects, such as those on the level of quantum physics or those involving supernatural and paranormal lines if inquiry.
   Philosophical skepticism has its roots in ancient Greek and was furthered by Pyrrho of Elis (360-270 B.C.), Gorgias (485-380 B.C.), Socrates (469-399 B.C.), Arcesilaus (316-241 B.C.), Sextus Empiricus (160-210 ), Michael de Montaigne (1533-1592), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) and David Hume (1711-1776). For additional names, see: Encyclopedia Britannica.
   G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) is considered to have first formulated the ontologically monistic philosophy of absolute idealism. See also: Josia Royce (1855-1916) and F. H. Bradley (1846-1924). Objectivist theories of knowledge such as objective realism, foundationalism, objective idealism, representative realism, intuitionalism, ethical rationalism, moral absolutism and critical realism stand in opposition to most skeptical lines of thought. Here we have, among others: Thomas Reid (1710-1796), René Descartes (1596-1650), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Blanshard (1892-1987), St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Aristotle (384-325 B.C.) and St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) who have sought to bolster the position in some measure.
   Consider these definitions from The Skeptic's Dictionary:
   Philosophical skepticism: "Philosophical skepticism systematically questions the notion that absolutely certain knowledge is possible . . . (and) is opposed to philosophical dogmatism, which maintains that a certain set of positive statements are authoritative, absolutely certain, and true."
   Theological skepticism: "A theological skeptic raises doubts regarding the possibility of knowledge about God. A theological skeptic may be an atheist, but the two positions are distinct. A theological skeptic may be a theist or an agnostic. The theological skeptic maintains that we cannot know for certain whether God exists."
   Skeptical Society co-founder Michael Shermer warns in the Skeptical Manifesto against the extreme:
   "Skepticism is itself a positive assertion about knowledge, and thus turned on itself cannot be held. If you are skeptical about everything, you would have to be skeptical of your own skepticism. Like the decaying sub-atomic particle, pure skepticism uncoils and spins off the viewing screen of our intellectual cloud chamber."
   Shermer suggests modifying the word "skeptic" with "rational," then goes on to define a rational skeptic as "one who questions the validity of particular claims of knowledge by employing or calling for statements of fact to prove or disprove claims, as a tool for understanding causality."
   Shermer adds, "In other words, skeptics are from Missouri — the 'show me' state. When we hear a fantastic claim we say, 'that’s nice, prove it.'"
   The common concept of simply being skeptical and wise about what one believes is something which people seem to intuitively support. Practically everyone realizes the value of being open to new evidence and approaching new claims with a questioning mind. They realize the liability of being gullible. Where the agreement begins to fade is with the idea of "absolute certainty." Are those who criticize Pyrrhonian skepticism, absolute skepticism and other more "extreme" forms being fair? I'm not sure they are. Here's why:
   One of the most common criticisms of philosophical skepticism is that it is self-contradictory in the assertion that "there is nothing that can be known with certainty." If the statement is true, then it is false. And if it is false, then it just might be true.
   However, because a phrase or proposition appears self contradictory in its language structure does not necessarily make the converse true. In other words, saying that it is not possible to know if something is absolutely true or absolutely real does not suffice as evidence that whatever it is we're talking about is real. Stating that there are absolutely no cows anywhere which have two tails does not amount to proof that there are, in the same way the claim, "God does not exist," does not suffice as prove that he does in fact exist.
   To say that human beings absolutely cannot obtain absolute knowledge does not necessarily mean that they can, only that the way the statement is phrased appears to be logically contradictory. Then again, are not the statements "there is no certain knowledge," and "there are no absolutes" really just awkward ways of saying "there is no certain knowledge other than this" or "there are no absolutes except one--the one that rules out all other claims of being absolute?" And who is to say that such a singular absolute is not in fact true? Moreover, what is really being said, I think, is not that a person is absolutely certain that there is no absolute certainty, only that the likelihood appears to be nearly infinite--in the light of common sense, reason and existing evidence.
   A second major criticism of those who disavow the likelihood that anyone can know anything with certainty is that such people simply cannot live their lives without assuming to be true the very thing they claim to be false, without relating to things as though they were absolutely certain and absolutely real. But again, the criticism falls flat. Generally consistency is more than sufficient to provide people with enough predictability and order in which to live and enjoy their lives--without taking it to the level of an absolute. That, really, is what we human do anyway. They assess likelihoods and probabilities, weigh them against past experiences, and go with it. Living does not necessitate interacting with things as though they were absolutely certain. All that is required is a willingness to interact in a world that shows some measure of relative consistency.
   To be fair, there are three basic categories under which the term "knowing" or "knowledge" can fall, and that stand to confuse the issue. These are: 1) As a personal acquaintance, such as "I know Jim." 2) As a mastery of data, such as "I know English." And 3) As a truth-claim, which is the category of most concern to epistemology. (Ed Miller, Questions that Matter, 2nd Edition. McGraw Hill, 1987, pg 195).
   The person who says they know someone or something with total certainty may in fact believe they do, but knowing in the sense of ultimate truth and reality is whole different kind of claim in the philosophical sense.
   Now, one certainly may believe with every ounce of their being that certain things such as mathematical equations and one's overall existence on planet earth are irrefutable and absolute, but keep in mind the magnitude of the term "absolute." Do we live in a multi-verse or a universe? Is there one dimension or multiple dimensions? Do we know what the universe we identify with at the present time will be like 50 million years from now? A billion years from now? Do we really understand the nature of time? Laws of physics that scientists long took for granted appear to break down almost completely at the quantum level, or be altered considerably when light itself is surpassed in speed or trapped within a collapsing star

Fearfully and wonderfully broken
   Humans are fallible, finite creatures, subject to untold sicknesses both in body and in mind. They are imperfect in their judgments and prone to delusions. The human brain, while a work of wonder compared to less developed creatures, remains a source of intense mystery and ongoing discovery.
   The list of bizarre theories proposed throughout the ages on what goes on within our skulls is enormous. Variations in perception and interpretation are huge. For some people, that which is real consists only of what they can touch and feel. For others it consists only of what they sense inside, something which is invisible, emotional and intuitive. For others it is all about taking that grand leap of faith into the arms of "something."
   But as Werner Heisenberg wrote in Physics and Philosophy, "What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning."
   Ask yourself, is it rational to trust the judgment of creatures with so many strange and divergent views, who have, time and time again, proven themselves to be so drastically wrong about things which they had once wholeheartedly believed to be absolutely true?

Incredible, undefinable and downright bizarre
   "From causes which appear similar, we experience similar effects. This is the sum total of all our experimental conclusions," wrote David Hume in An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding.
   Life has this rather peculiar quality of losing definition the closer we try to examine it. Relativity, time, quantum physics, the vastness of the universe and the ongoing mystery of how consciousness arises all seem to suggest that we have only scratched the surface. Yes, it's claimed that there exists another world in addition to this one, a "supernatural" world no less. But by what criteria is it determined to be real?
   Is there certifiable proof beyond a series of hard-to-reconcile-with-known-reality stories--passed down, reinterpreted and rewritten hundreds of years ago? Has any human we know been to this other-worldly playground, where the fundamental laws of physics are totally upended and death is no more? Have they returned alive to speak about it? Is there sufficient evidence apart from subjective personal testimony and one's own feeling, apart from some "still small voice" that no one has yet been able to objectively differentiate from their own subjective consciousness?

Delusion, despair and the making of myth
   At one time there there were people who thought the world was flat. They thought the sun revolved around the earth and that a wide variety of gods and goddesses were constantly out and about intervening almost daily in human affairs.
   Some believed that the biological body was sustained by some kind of "vital force" and that you could instill life into a scorpion by placing it between bricks along with some basil and leaving it in the sunlight. People never dreamed that mankind would physically land an astronaut on the moon or break open the atom. Women, Jews, blacks and many others in minority positions have all suffered discrimination and criminal brutality at the hands of those who considered them of lesser worth than the dominant group, only to be proven wrong, and terribly so.
   People want certainty. They want to feel as though they know who they are and where they're going. The urge to latch on to something, anything, to give oneself a sense of permanence, seems almost irresistible. The problem is that despair can lead to delusion, and delusion to all sorts of wrong and even dangerous thinking.

In the final analysis, philosophical skepticism may be a hard pill to swallow in a world that cries out for permanence, but living a life of make-believe certainly isn't advised. Four final thoughts:
  • Every claim to absolutely truth must be made using some type of criteria. But every criteria, ad infinitum, must itself be subject to judging by some other criteria.
  • Belief without evidence is not only presumptuous but often dangerous.
  • Suspending one's faculties of critical thinking is never wise. Even when one is as certain as they can possibly be, they should continue to remain alert to contrary evidence. Continual testing, doubting and re-testing is vital when it comes to understanding the nature of the world we live in.
  • Moral values have been shown time and again to be relative both to the culture in which they arise and to certain physiological and genetic predispositions.
For further reading:

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Autism: signs of a reorganized brain

By Steve Rensberry  

 A recent study of autism completed by researchers at the University of Montreal's Centre for Excellence in Pervasive Development Disorders adds weight to the growing view that people along the autism spectrum not are so much broken and in need of repair as they are merely different, carrying with them their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses.
   The question that has puzzled researcher is why autistic children seem to have unusually high capabilities when it comes to processing visual information. Their conclusion, as detailed in the study, was that the brains of people with autism are simply organized in a different way, with areas at the back of the brain developed to a higher degree than areas that are traditionally more involved with organization and planning. Autism, in other words, may more accurately be described as a reorganization rather than a disorganization of the human brain.
   In a statement from the university, research director Dr. Laurent Mottron gave this  summary of its significance: "We synthesized the results of neuroimaging studies using visual stimuli from across the world. The results are strong enough to remain true despite the variability between the research designs, samples and tasks, making the perceptual account of autistic cognition currently the most validated model," Mottron said. "The stronger engagement of the visual system, whatever the task, represents the first physiological confirmation that enhanced perceptual processing is a core feature of neural organization in this population. We now have a very strong statement about autism functioning which may be ground for cognitive accounts of autistic perception, learning, memory and reasoning."
   The dominant view has been that autism is simply a disorder that needs to be fixed. It may not be fully understood and the cause may be undetermined. But it is still viewed as a disorder, often to be treated with various formers of behavior modification techniques or pharmaceuticals. This latest research from the University of Montreal is one more indication that the traditional approach may be wrong, if not detrimental to those with autism.
   If the brain is indeed organized differently, it could be argued that trying to alter its fundamental organization using drugs or psychological methods in effect would turn an organized brain into a disorganized one. Learning and working with each individual's unique strengths and weaknesses would seem the better approach.
   The study was published in the April 4 edition of Human Brain Mapping, produced by the Organization for Human Brain Mapping based in Minneapolis, Minn.
   Research funding came from a variety of sources, among them the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.

For further research:
Perceptual Processing among High-functioning Persons with Autism
Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry
The Sunday Times

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Supernaturalism in an age of science

By Steve Rensberry   

 The brute facts of existence can be a hard thing to bear for us mere mortals, so much so that throughout nearly every culture and nation on earth there are people who wrap themselves around a set of beliefs that have neither grounding in science nor in simple, everyday common sense. Even in the year 2011, it's fair to say that modern humanity is nearly awash in a sea of supernaturalism, religious ideology, magical thinking and paranormal obsessions--its respective adherents each convinced that there is more than enough evidence to prove as true their own unique set of propositions.
   Of the approximate 6.7 billion people who live on planet earth, a clear minority, about 14 to 16 percent according to some estimates, are considered secular. About 2 billion people adhere to some form of Christianity, 1.5 billion to Islam, 900 million to Hinduism, 400 million to Confucianism or some other type of traditional Chinese religion, and 375 million to Buddhism. Some researchers have estimated the total number of religions in the world at more than 4,000. Some say it is as high as 10,000. Add to this the scores of people who believe in ghosts and other such apparitions, and in such things as alien-piloted UFOs, werewolves, the Loch Ness monster, ESP, reincarnation, astrology, telepathy, clairvoyance, channeling, prophets and psychics. See: Religious facts, Adherents, Paranormal.
   Why the persistence of so many contradictory, other-worldly beliefs? May I suggest that the answer could lie simply in the way the human mind reacts to threats, primarily the threat of death. In the face of near certainty, what else is a mind to do but to attempt to convince itself for comfort's sake that death is only a portal to another life, a better life where justice will prevail and happiness will reign? Belief, as such, is little different than an assertion.
   Paul Kurtz, founder of the Center for Inquiry and former editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry magazine writes: "The domain of the religious, I submit, is evocative, expressive, emotive. It presents moral poetry, aesthetic inspiration, performative ceremonial rituals, which act out and dramatize the human condition and human interests, and seek to slake the thirst for meaning and purpose. Religions--at least the religions of revelation--deal in parables, narratives metaphors, stories, myths; and they frame the divine in human (anthropomorphic) form. They express the existential yearnings of individuals endeavoring to cope with the world that they encounter and find meaning in the face of death. Religious language in this sense is eschatological. Its primary function is to express hope." (Are Science and Religion Compatible?, Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 26.2, March/April 2002).
   On the face of it, supernaturalism represents a profound denial of temporal reality. This world is but a shadow of the real world. The characteristic pattern is one of magical thinking and a host of associative errors pertaining to causation, filtered through and heightened by that wonderful faculty of the human mind known as the imagination. Cause and effect, for the deeply religious and superstitious, is a phenomenally personal experience of unfathomable breadth, dimension and illogic.
   What place is there, really, for cause and effect when the master of all cause an effect is worlds beyond us? What place is there for freedom of thought in a world where an omniscient and omnipresent being called "God" knows all and sees all? None. Apart from the intractable march of biological death, the tyranny of matter itself may provide another clue as to why humanity gravitates toward a belief in the supernatural.
   Former Rand Corporation member and philosopher Emmanuel George Mesthene gives his assessment of the "tyranny of matter."  (Macmillan Publishing Co., Philosophy and Contemporary Issues, 1972 edition, eds: John R. Burr and Milton Goldinger.)
   "The consciousness of physical impossibility has had a long and depressing history. One might speculate that it began with early man's awe of the bruteness and recalcitrance of nature. Earth, air, fire, and water -- the eternal, immutable elements of ancient physics--imposed their requirements on men, dwarfed them, outlived them, remained indifferent when not downright hostile to them . . . . From that day to this, only the language has changed as successive ages encountered and tried to come to terms with physical necessity, with the sheer 'rock-bottomness' of nature. It was submitted to as fate in the Athenian drama. It was conceptualized as ignorance by Socrates and as metaphysical matter by his pupils. It was labeled evil by the pre-Christians. It has been exorcized as the Devil, damned as flesh, or condemned as illicit by the Church. It has been the principle of nonreason in modern philosophy, in the form of John Locke's Substance, as Immanual Kant's formless manifold, or as Henri Bergson's pure duration. It has conquered the mystic as nirvana, the psyche as the Id, and recent Frenchmen as the blind object of existential commitment . . . . It would be difficult to overestimate the consequences of this recalcitrance of the physical on the thinking and outlook of men."

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Psychotropic drugs and the nature of reality

  This 2007 video features an award-winning lecture by Canadian researcher and university professor Dr. Michael Persinger on the relationship between psychotropic drugs and consciousness as they impact political and economic realities.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Confucius and the nature of good government

   The world of today is a far different place, both sociologically and technologically, than it was 2,500 years ago. This despite the near-intractableness of human nature. The excerpt that follows, from the teachings of Confucius (551-479 BCE) on ethics and politics, is an interesting one for a numbers of reasons. One is because it shows just how ingrained the need is for ethical, self-disciplined leadership in the political sphere. Another is because of its advice that rulers treat those who are under them with genuine love and concern.
   While the teachings of Confucius stood to justify the perpetuation of a feudalistic form of government, they also contained an emphasis on virtue and moral perfection that stood in stark contrast to the prevailing worship of bloodline and the mere following of a formal set of rules to assure social stability.
   The Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on Confucius, revised on Sept. 5, 2006, states: "Most troubling to Confucius was his perception that the political institutions of his day had completely broken down. He attributed this collapse to the fact t hat those who wielded power as well as those who occupied subordinate positions did so by making claim to titles for which they were not worthy."
   From this writer's perspective, Confucianism has much to offer but borders on naivety in light of the historical record, and in light of our current understanding of the phenomenal but “imperfect complexity” of human nature. This is not so say that other forms of human governance or social teachings are any less free from the curse of naivety, as we are all in some sense blind. Authoritarianism is another demon they all seem to grapple with.
   In an essay entitled simply "Confucianism," attributed to Wu-Chi Liu, professor emeritus of Chinese Language and Literature at Indiana University, the essential elements that set Confucius apart as one of the worlds great social thinkers are apparent.
   "Politically, Confucius advocated a paternalistic government in which the sovereign is benevolent and honorable and the subjects are respectful and obedient. The ruler should cultivate moral perfection in order to set a good example to the people. In education Confucius upheld the theory, remarkable for the feudal period in which he lived, that 'in education, there is no class distinction,'" Wu-Chi Liu writes.
   Here's an excerpt from Confucius contained in a book of mine on social philosophers in which the copyright has since expired:

Confucius on Ethics and Politics
   Duke Ai (ruler of Lu, Confucius' native state) asked what constituted good government.
   Confucius replied: "The principles of good government of the Emperors Wen and Wu are abundantly illustrated in the records preserved. When the men are there, good government will flourish, but when the men are gone, good government decays and becomes extinct. With the right men, the growth of good government is as rapid as the growth of vegetation is in the right soil. Indeed, good government is like a fast-growing plant. The conduct of government, therefore, depends upon the men. The right men are obtained by the ruler's personal character. To cultivate his personal character, the ruler must use the moral law (tao). To cultivate the moral law, the ruler must use the moral sense (jen, or principles of true manhood).
   "The moral sense is the characteristic attribute of men. To feel natural affection for those nearly related to us is the highest expression of the moral sense. The sense of justice (yi or prosperity) is the recognition of what is right and proper. To honor those who are worthier than ourselves is the highest sense of justice. The relative degrees of natural affection we ought to feel for those who are nearly related to us and the relative grades of honor we ought to show to those worthier than ourselves: these give rise to the forms and distinctions in social life (li, or principles of social order). For unless social inequalities have a true and moral basis (or unless those being ruled feel their proper place with respect to their rulers), government of the people is an impossibility.
   "There is necessary for a man of the governing class to set about regulating his personal conduct and character. In considering how to regulate his personal conduct and characters, it is necessary for him to do his duties toward those nearly related to him. In considering how to do his duties toward those nearly related to him, it is necessary for him to understand the nature and organization of human society. In considering the nature and organization of human society it is necessary for him to understand the laws of God.
   "The duties of universal obligation are five, and the moral qualities by which they are carried out are three. The duties are those between ruler and subject, between father and son, between husband and wife, between elder brother and younger, and those in the intercourse between friends. These are the five duties of universal obligation. Wisdom, compassion and courage--these are the three universally recognized moral qualities of man. It matters not in what way men come to the exercise of these moral qualities, the result is one and the same.
   "Some men are born with the knowledge of these moral qualities; some acquire it as the result education; some acquire it as the result of  hard experience. But when the knowledge is acquired, it comes to one and the same thing. Some exercise these moral qualities naturally and easily; some because they find it advantageous to do so; some with effort and difficulty. But when the achievement is made it comes to one and the same thing."
   Confucius went on to say: "Love of knowledge is akin to wisdom. Strenuous attention to conduct is akin to compassion. Sensitiveness to shame is akin to courage.
   "When a man understands the nature and use of these three moral qualities, he will then understand how to put in order his personal conduct and character. When a man understands how to put in order his personal conduct and character, he will understand how to govern men. When a man understands how to govern men, he will then understand how to govern nations and empires.
   "For every one called to the government of nations and empires there are nine cardinal directions to be attended to:
   1. Cultivating his personal conduct.
   2. Honoring worthy men.
   3. Cherishing affection for, and doing his duty toward, his kindred.
   4. Showing respect to the high ministers of state.
   5. Identifying himself with the interests and welfare of the whole body of public officers.
   6. Showing himself as a father to the common people.
   7. Encouraging himself as a father to the common people.
   8. Showing tenderness to strangers from far countries.
   9. Taking interest in the welfare of the princes of the Empire.
   "When the ruler pays attention to the cultivation of his personal conduct, there will be respect for the moral law. When the ruler honors worthy men, he will not be deceived (by the crafty officials). When the ruler cherishes affection for his kindred, there will be no disaffection among the members of his family. When the ruler shows respect for the high ministers of state, he will not make mistakes. When the ruler identifies himself with the interests and welfare of the body of public officers, there will be a strong spirit of loyalty among the gentlemen of the country. When the ruler becomes a father to the common people, the mass of the people will exert themselves for the good of the state. When the ruler encourages the introduction of all useful arts, there will be sufficiency of wealth and revenue in the country. When the ruler shows kindness to the strangers from far countries, people from all quarters of the world will flock to the country. When the ruler takes interest in the condition and welfare of the princes of the empire, he will inspire awe and respect for his authority throughout the whole world.
   "By attending to the cleanliness and purity of his person and to the propriety and dignity of his dress, and in every word and act permitting nothing which is contrary to good taste and decency; that is how the ruler cultivates his personal conduct. By banishing all flatterers and keeping away from the society of women, holding in low estimation possession of worldly good, but valuing moral qualities in men--that is how the ruler gives encouragement to worthy men. By raising them to high places of honor and bestowing ample emoluments for their maintenance; sharing and sympathizing with their tastes and opinions--that is how the ruler inspires love for his person among the members of his family. By extending the powers of their functions and allowing them discretion in the employment of their subordinates--that is how the ruler gives encouragement to the high ministers of state. By dealing loyally and punctually with them in all engagements which he makes with them and allowing a liberal scale of pay--that is how the ruler gives encouragement to men in the public service. By strictly limiting the time of their service and make all imposts as light as possible--that is how the ruler gives encouragement to the mass of the people. By ordering daily inspection and monthly examination and rewarding each according to the degree of his workmanship--that is how the ruler encourages the artisan class. By welcoming them when they come and giving them protection when they go, commending what is good in them and making allowance for their ignorance--that is how the ruler shows kindness to strangers from far countries. By restoring lines of broken succession and reviving subjugated states, putting down anarchy and disorder wherever they are found, and giving support to the weak against the strong, fixing stated times for their attendance and the attendance of their envoys at court, loading them with presents when they leave, while exacting little from them in the way of contribution when they come--that is how the ruler takes interest in the welfare of the princes of the empire.
   "For every one who is called to the government of nations and empire, these are the nine cardinal directions to be attended to; and there is only one way by which they can be carried out.
   "In all matters success depends on preparation; without preparation there will always be failure. When what is to be said is previously determined, there will be no difficulty in carrying it out. When a line of conduct is previously determined, there will be no occasion for vexation. When general principles are previously determined, there will be no perplexity to know what to do."

   Photos courtesy of Image After

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Was the Great Pyramid of Giza an inside job?

By Steve Rensberry  

 The name of French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin has become a familiar one to researchers of the great Egyptian pyramids, the primary reason being a detailed theory which Houdin has advanced suggesting that many of the blocks used to built the 4,500-year-old Great Pyramid of Giza were raised to their lofty position not by ramps constructed on the outside but by an inner corkscrew series of ramps built on the inside.
  An article posted by IBMLive on January 31, 2011, Great Pyramid may hold secret rooms, makes reference to L-shaped rooms cited by Houdin in 2008 as evidence for his theory. The rooms may have been used to maneuver the blocks, and may also contain artifacts.
   "Jean-Pierre Houdin, who has been asking for a probe into how the great structure was built, said 3-D simulation and data from American Egyptologist Bob Brier pointed to two secret chambers in the heart of the structure," the article states.
   Euronews published an update and an animated video on Feb. 2 entitled "Architect unveils pyramid's secret rooms." Houdin is quoted as saying that he has spent an estimated 35,000 hours of work on the pyramid over a span of 12 years. But while he is convinced the rooms are there, he has so-far been denied access by the Egyptian government, which turned down his request in 2008 to use various non-invasive technologies to search for the rooms.
   One of the strongest pieces of evidence for Houdin’s theory comes from a 1986 survey of the pyramid using a density-measuring process called microgravimetry. Although the team's conclusion was that there were no hidden chambers in the structure, their tests did produce one image that they found unable to make sense of, which at the time they ignored. That image, it turns out, bears a strong resemblance to Houdin’s diagrams of an inside, spiraling ramp. See this 2007 article How to Build a Pyramid, by Bob Brier.
   Houdin is now laying out hope that scientists from Canada--primarily Xavier Maldague of Laval University along with four students-- will be given the permission he was previously denied, this time using infrared thermography.
   Marianne White, with the Montreal Gazette, writes in Quebec scientists to probe Great Pyramid for secret ramp that the infrared cameras Maldague and his crew would use would be placed nowhere near the pyramid, but would instead be set up hundreds of meters away in a nearby hotel. Maldague, she says, was hoping to get approval this year in time to begin testing in 2012.
  With Egypt having gravitated into almost total upheaval, only time will tell whether their hopes will be realized any time soon.

Jean-Pierre Houdin
Great Pyramid of Giza Research Association
Egypt: Secrets of an Ancient World
Great Pyramid of Giza
Talking Pyramids

Monday, February 14, 2011

Tunguska explosion continues to mystify

By Steve Rensberry

 If you just so happened to be near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in central Siberia shortly after 7 a.m. on June 30, 1908, you would have witnessed an event like nothing you had ever seen before. 
   Not that there were very many people living in this remote area of Russia at the time, but there were some. What they reported: A bright light streaking across the sky, a huge flash, an equally huge explosion and a shockwave powerful enough to knock some of them clean off their feet.
   We're talking, of course, about the now-famous but still mysterious Tunguska event --  a nuclear-sized explosion that occurred well before the days of nuclear technology and that created a seismic shockwave that was detected hundreds of miles away, wiping out an estimated 800 square miles of forest containing some 80 million trees in the meantime.
   "Such was the force of the explosion that horses were thrown down in an area south of Kanska, more than 400 miles distant. Equally remarkable were the flash burns sustained by residents of the sparsely populated region," author Walter Sullivan writes.  "A farmer, S. B. Semonov, was sitting on the steps of house house, 40 miles away, when he saw the flash. He instinctively lowered his eyes, but the heat was searing. 'My shirt was almost burned on my body," he told later visitors. When he raised his eyes again, the fire-ball had vanished.
   Moments later, the blast hurled him from the steps, leaving him briefly unconscious." (Did a Black Hole Hit Siberia?, 1978,  Reader' s Digest).
   An online article published by Science@Nasa and edited by Dr. Tony Phillips on the occasion of the event's 100th anniversary, follows the dominant theory by attributing it to a large, exploding asteroid.
   "It is estimated the asteroid entered Earth's atmosphere traveling at a speed of about 33,500 miles per hour. During its quick plunge, the 220-million-pound space rock heated the air surrounding it to 44,500 degrees Fahrenheit. At 7:17 a.m. (local Siberia time), at a height of about 28,000 feet, the combination of pressure and heat caused the asteroid to fragment and annihilate itself, producing a fireball and releasing energy equivalent to about 185 Hiroshima bombs."
   As to be expected, numerous theories have been introduced over the years ascribing the blast to everything from black holes to advanced weaponry, to anti-matter and exploding alien spacecraft. 
   One of the best sources of information on the event is the University of Bologna in Italy, which maintains a dedicated website on the incident. See: University of Bologna: Department of Physics.
   In 2007, scientists from the university announced that a small, bowl-shaped lake called Lake Cheko was being researched as a possible impact crater resulting from a fragment in the Tunguska explosion.
   A statement on the university's site reads: "On June 30th, 1908, something exploded 8 km above the Stony Tunguska river. About 2,150 square kilometres of Siberian taiga were devastated and 80 millions trees were overthrown. Up to now, it is not clear whether the great explosion was due to a comet or an asteroid or something else. We are searching for an answer."
   Almost as fascinating as the physics behind such an amazing event, whatever it may be, is the impact of such a sudden catastrophe on the human psyche. One belief among some of the locals was that the blast was due to a curse from the god Ogdy/Agdy, the Evenki god of thunder. See this account from social anthropologist  Joachim Otto Habeck on the Evenki view of the Tunguska event.
   Russian scientist Vladimir Shaidurov of the Russian Academy of Sciences proposed a theory in 2006 that the Tunguska event may have played a role in the global warming phenomenon.
   "Current global warming models show that the rise in carbon dioxide emissions neatly coincides with the onset of the industrial revolution, but Shaidurov’s own analysis of yearly mean temperature changes over 140 years indicate that there was actually a slight cooling in temperature up until the early twentieth century. Shaidurov believes that it was not the industrial revolution that caused the rise in temperature, but the catastrophe known as the Tunguska event, or Tungus meteorite," notes a story entitled Tunguska Event Responsible for Warming Climate, published March 27, 2006.
   Shaidurov's paper was submitted on Oct. 6, 2005 and is available here: Atmospheric hypotheses' of Earth's global warming.
    Shaidurov's first hypothesis: "The Tungus meteorite considerably changed the theormoprotective properties of the earth's atmosphere and turned out to be one of the agencies which launched global warming."
   A second hypothesis is presented after a discussion of a number of atmospheric changes leading to a  "self-stimulated process." It states: "The above mentioned variant of self-stimulated process (with a permanent rise of average humidity, and resulting concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases) was launched in 1908 after the atmosphere reconstruction due to the Tungus meteorite."
   Given that the Tunguska event happened at  a time well before the advent of high tech video, satellite surveillance and supercomputer simulations, we may never know exactly what happened on that frightful morning of June 30, 1908 in Siberia.
   But the next time it happens--which they estimate will occur every 300 years or so--you can rest assured the evidence it yields will be far more than we can imagine.

For further reference:
NASA Science
Planetary Science Institute
Tunguska event on Wikipedia

Notes on photos:
Photo one shows the small, bowl-shaped Lake Cheko on June 30, 2008. Scientists at the University of Bologna believe it may be a possible impact crater that was created at the time of the Tunguska event.
Photo two is a 3-D reconstruction of the morphology of Lake Cheko. The water level in the reconstruction is placed 49 meters below the actual level. 
Photos are used with permission giving full credit and acknowledgment to the Tunguska Page of Bologna University.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Turning a sphere inside out

    This video does not give a lot of specifics but it is interesting. In simple terms, the challenge is all about avoiding sharp bends while inverting a circle with the unusual characteristic of having a surface that can pass through itself.
   I urge you to watch a second video discussing the process in detail. It is presented here: "Sphere Inside Out Part II."
   You can question the exercise's relevancy, but in my opinion solving such mathematical puzzles is inherently valuable if not for exercising the human mind alone. Both the mathematical calculations needed to solve it and the animation are admirable.
   See also:

Sunday, January 23, 2011

One giant leap for robotics

By Steve Rensberry  

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is preparing for at least nine separate launches this year, the next being on Feb. 23 with the launch of the Orbital Sciences Taurus Rocket at Landenberg Air Force Base. On Feb. 24 it plans a launch of the Space Shuttle Discover at Kennedy Space Center after a roll out to the launch pad on Jan. 31. On April 19, Space Shuttle Endeavor is due to launch, followed by the United Launch Alliance Delta II 7320 on June 9, the Space Shuttle Atlantis on June 28, the United Launch Alliance Atlas V on Aug. 5, the ULA Delta II Heavy on Sept. 8,  the ULA Delta II on Oct. 25 and the United Launch Alliance Atlas V on Nov. 25. See: Launch schedule.
   If this alone isn't enough to grab the attention of space enthusiasts like myself, the payload surely is. These range from measuring earth's atmospheric and sea surface temperatures, to the Mars Science Laboratory Mission in November aimed at determining the planet's habitability. September's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission hopes to significantly boost to our understanding of the moon's thermal evolution, and the August Juno mission will send a solar-power spacecraft around Jupiter's poles 33 times, NASA says, in order to further analyze the planet's origins and magnetosphere.
   The first of two missions in February will collect data on the Earth's atmosphere in order to increase our understanding of the Sun's affect on climate, while the second will deliver important items to the International Space Station. The April mission also involves a delivery to the Space Station. Of the two missions in June, the first, called Aquarius, will study heat transport and storage in the ocean. Of particular interest in the study of robotics will be the inclusion on the Feb. 24 STS-133 mission of Robonaut 2.
   The acceleration in robotics research and development that has taken place over the past decade has become increasingly apparent. Some research is no doubt being conducted entirely behind closed doors, such as with the military or with corporate interests that depend on proprietary research and development to boost market share beyond that of their competitors.
   However, as a public entity NASA is significantly more open with most of its projects. In the case of Robonaut 2--a joint project of GM and NASA--its eerily realistic hand dexterity is simply astounding and a key feature of  "the first dexterous humanoid robot" to venture into space.
   "The value of a humanoid over other designs is the ability to use the same workspace and tools - not only does this improve efficiency in the types of tools, but also removes the need for specialized robotic connectors," NASA says on a site dedicated to Robonaut 2.
   In NASA's words: "Advanced technology spans the entire R2 system and includes: optimized overlapping dual arm dexterous workspace, series elastic joint technology, extended finger and thumb travel, miniaturized 6-axis load cells, redundant force sensing, ultra-high speed joint controllers, extreme neck travel, and high resolution camera and IR systems. The dexterity of R2 allows it to use the same tools that astronauts currently use and removes the need for specialized tools just for robots."  See: Robonaut 2
   NASA's promotional team surely deserves some kudos. Robonaut 2 even has his own Facebook page, Flicr account and Twitter profile. The public face of Robonaut 2 will either satiate the public's anthropomorphic thirst or scare those who remain fearful that we are fast approaching the use of real live Robocops. Needless to say, 2011 could very well be a pivotal year leading to even greater and more rapid advances in robotic science.
   Rodney Brooks, then director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Fujitsu Professor of Computer Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote an essay published in the 2002 book The Next Fifty Years (Edited by John Brockman, Random House, Inc., New York). In that essay, entitled The Merger of Flesh and Machines, Brooks raises the question of what effect such incredible advances in science and technology will have on humanity's sense of self.
   Brooks cites Galileo's clash with the church over the earth's place in the cosmos, Charles Darwin's placement of humanity squarely within the confines of the animal kingdom, and research by Francis Crick, James D. Watson and others showing that in terms of genetics humans in fact differed little in the number of genes (sometimes having even less) than yeast, fruit flies, potatoes and many animals. And with each new generalization has come new challenges as to the way in which humanity in general views itself, shrinking our place within the realm of phenomenal reality to a far less centralized position.
   "Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we can see signs that the next fifty years promise another such generalization. Our very humanity will feel threatened, and that may well lead to violent wars over what are essentially intellectual and religious ideas," Brooks writes. "We already see the early skirmishes in these wars, and they are not at all pretty. The generalization we are facing is that we humans are machines--and as such, subject to the same technological manipulations we routinely apply to machines."
   Brooks prediction for the coming years--in terms of contrast with earlier watershed changes--is a bold one, prompting him to urge us to "moderate our hubris" if we hope for out children to be around to enjoy it. The entirety of Brooks article, and the book it is published in, is worth the read.
   "We are breaking out of our roles as passive observers of life and the order of things to become manipulators of life and the order of things," Brooks says.
   Note: Photos are courtesy of NASA and do not imply ownership nor endorsement of the website www.sentientsynergy.com.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The mysterious nature of music

By Steve Rensberry  

   What is music?
   A world beyond time?
   A refuge for the heart in a world of longing and uncertainty?
   A synthesis of mind, body and soul?
   "What is the secret of music's stranger power? Seeking an answer, scientists are piercing together a picture of what happens in the brains of listeners and musicians," reads the subhead to an article by Norman Weinberger entitled Music and the Brain, published by Scientific American in 2004.
   What lies at the heart of music's ubiquitous nature? How exactly does it move us? Weinberger asks.
   His summary findings: "Overall, findings to date indicate that music has a biological basis and that the brain has a functional organization for music. It seems fairly clear, even at this early stage of inquiry, that many brain regions participate in specific aspects of music processing, whether supporting perception (such as apprehending a melody) or evoking emotional reactions. Musicians appear to have additional specializations, particularly hyperdevelopment of some brain structures."
   Associated Press Science Writer Malcolm Ritter looks at another aspect to the issue in the article, Study: Love music? Thank a substance in your brain, which points to new research suggesting one specific reason for humanity's undying and historic attraction to music.
   "Whether it's the Beatles or Beethoven, people like music for the same reason they like eating or having sex: It makes the brain release a chemical that gives pleasure," Ritter says in regard to the new study.
   That substance, in case you're wondering, is dopamine.
   Real-time brain scans of people as they were listening to music revealed another interesting fact: The effect was immediate and direct.
   "PET scans showed the participants' brains pumped out more dopamine in a region called the striatum when listening to favorite pieces of music than when hearing other pieces. Functional MRI scans showed where and when those releases happened," Ritter says.
  Nevertheless, while recent research gives us a glimpse into the complex effects of music on the human brain, the verdict remains out on a number of fundamental questions, namely: What is music? Does it have meaning? And what exactly is its evolutionary or metaphysical purpose?
   There are a number of theories, but none so far appears to be definitive.

For further study:

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Is free will nothing but an illusion?

By Steve Rensberry  

 It is commonly believed that upwards of 90 percent of the activity that goes on within the individual human brain stems from unconscious processes, whether for the purpose of interpreting visual or auditory stimuli or for the regulation of such basic things as breathing, eating and memory formation.   
   The observation raises a number of questions. Just how free are we if such a large part of our brain (or mind if you will) lies outside the realm of conscious control? Can a person rightfully be held responsible for behavior which is largely the result of unconscious brain activity? We feel as though the choices we make are done with some degree of conscious volition. But are they really?
   University of California researcher Benjamin Libet (1916-2007) is well know for his work in the early 1970s that was aimed at trying to answer this exact question.  In one instance, Libet's investigation involved an analysis of what are called sensation thresholds, and the accompanying neural activity that goes along with it. As the name suggests, a sensory or sensation threshold is defined on various levels as the precise spot at which any particular stimulus can be detected, recognized, perceived and ultimately  terminated.
   Libet's experiments lead him to an examination of the Bereitschaftspotential, or readiness potential (RP), a measurement of the unconscious neurological activity within the brain's motor cortex prior to conscious action. His experiments made use of a cathode ray oscilloscope, an electrocencephalogram (EEG) monitor, an electromyograph (EMG), and a great deal of meticulous scientific observation.
   The essence of the groundbreaking discovery by Libet and other researchers was that decisions supposedly made by a subject's conscious mind were, on a very fundamental level, preceded by a noticeable build up in unconscious brain activity--in effect nodding in the direction of the decision even before the subject himself became aware of it. The conscious mind appeared almost to play a secondary role in the process of exercising choice. It could veto or alter that choice, but it did not appear to be the primary source.
   Author Fred Alan Wolf writes in The Dreaming Universe:
   "What Libet has found can be said simply, but I doubt if it will be believed simply. It is that our minds operate mostly unconsciously. This means that we make decisions and respond to sensations from the outside world totally unconsciously. We only become conscious of the outside world much later (about half a second later -- a long time on the neural level), after the slings and arrows of our fate have already passed us by or struck us. But then there is an interesting twist: we refer the later moment of conscious awareness back in time to the moment of sensation and out in space to the location of a stimulus even if it is outside our bodies." (Fred Alan Wolf, The Dreaming Universe, Simon and Schuster, 1994).
   Although his experiments suggest a secondary role for the conscious mind in the decision making process, Libet defended the concept of free will.
   "The role of conscious free will would be, then, not to initiate a voluntary act, but rather to control whether the act takes place. We may view the unconscious initiative for voluntary actions as 'bubbling up' in the brain. The conscious-will then selects which of these initiative may go forward to an action or which one to veto and abort, with no act appearing," Libet says in an essay entitled Do We Have Free Will? published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies.
   Such an interpretation may be harmonious with some ethical and religious views about the primacy of free will and moral responsibility, but Libet has no such sympathy for those who would argue that someone should be held accountable merely for the "urge" to commit a reprehensible act.
   "The mere appearance of an intention to act could not be controlled consciously; only its final consummation in a motor act could be consciously controlled. Therefore, a religious system that castigates an individual for simply having a mental intention or impulse to do something unacceptable, even when this is not acted out, would create a physiologically insurmountable moral and psychological difficulty," Libet says. 
   Indeed, if thoughts alone are enough to render a conviction, then the religious thought police have all the ammunition they need to keep their followers at their knees, the evidence not withstanding.
   We won't solve the free will debate in one article, nor do I think we can get very far without first defining what it is we really mean by "free" and "will."
   You can read more about Benjamin Libet's views and work at Machines Like Us.

Carl Sagan on God, Faith and Religion