Posts Tagged ‘dualism’

Scientific investigation of heaven

March 18, 2009

O.K., not quite heaven, but near-death experiences, anyway. Earlier, I posted about the possible physical bases of near-death experiences (or NDEs). Now, a study has been launched to investigate just this. Fortunately, some of the methodology seems to be scientific, more or less, in nature. They will be studying patients who undergo hypothermic cardiac standstill procedures and so are possible candidates to experience one of those NDEs. From the link:

The experiments are fairly rudimentary: In addition to monitoring brain activity, researchers will plant pictures near the ceiling that are not visible from the ground, and test the subjects’ memories by uttering random words in the room.

If patients report an out-of-body experience in which they claim to watch their operation from above — that is, if their consciousness separates from their dying brain — then the reasoning is that they should be able to identify the pictures.

“I am not a religious person so I am not trying to validate religion,” Dr. Beauregard says. “I just think these questions are the most fascinating questions for humanity, and they deserve to be investigated further.”

I think nothing conclusive will be demonstrated, although if done carefully enough, I rather doubt any evidence will be found for existence of the self outside the physical body. Further, although a good start, I think recollection of hearing random words uttered would not be conclusive as the brain may be picking up on it somehow. Putting up pictures out of view though is a better approach. So far, out of 65 patients, nobody has seen the pictures, which is, of course, exactly what we’d expect if it’s all the brain. Of course, it seems none them experienced an NDE either.

In addition to the photographs placed on the ceiling, a special sensor will be attached to the patients to test whether those who see tunnels and visions have minute levels of oxygen in their brains that previously went undetected. A doctor with the study will call out the names of cities or colours during the cardiac arrest to see if patients recall them upon reviving.

If no one can identify the visual or verbal cues, Dr. Parnia says, the experiment will confirm the “false memory” theory; however, if they are recalled, he says, the study will demonstrate that consciousness is something that can exist, if for only a short time, outside the physical brain.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think the verbal cues will be conclusive of anything. They may not detect all the oxygen and it is not clear to me that the brain can be receiving and storing some sort of signal.

However, I think Dr. Parnia is completely correct when it is noted:

But at the very least, Dr. Parnia and his colleagues say, the phenomenon of near-death experience merits the search for a scientific answer to what is often deemed a spiritual event.

“People die; death is a biological process,” Dr. Parnia says. “And science should take over the study of death.”

I certainly don’t have a problem with a scientific approach to these experiences. As I’ve mentioned earlier, this has already led us to a better working knowledge of neural networks, etc. Dr. Parnia has taken, what appears to be at least, a rational mindset. Make a hypothesis about an external (to the body) existence of personality and, as rigorously as possible under the circumstances, test it. Of course, there are already a number of expectations I would have if this were the case. Out of the millions and millions of people who have died, I would expect at least one reliable communication from the beyond. There has been none. I would expect personality and emotions to not be so entirely susceptible to physical changes in the brain, as has been repeatedly documented elsewhere. I think it would be reasonable to expect at least one reliable success from people who have been trying to do “remote viewing”. There are none. I think it is a fairly safe bet what Dr. Parnia is going to find, or rather, not find.

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Exploring the afterlife

January 13, 2009

I’ve discussed before how one of the consolations offered by many religions is the possibility of an afterlife. That after death you’ll have some real quality time with the guy (typically referred to in the male sense in Abrahamic religions anyway) you’ve been worshiping and be able to get reunited with all your loved ones (assuming you guessed the correct religion of course, which may not always be necessary for all religions). This state of affairs is often said to last for eternity.

I’ve seen comments from many of my fellow atheists elsewhere that living for eternity would be horrible. After doing everything you could every possibly want, what could possibly keep one interested in anything anymore after the first 50 billion years or so? A typical analogy is that of an eagle whose wing tip brushes off one grain of sand each day from a large mountain. Starting from the first day to when the disappearance of the mountain is like one day of eternity. Sounds like my commute to work. In fact, the situation is worse. Since eternity is, by definition, unbounded, the time for the mountain’s disappearance might as well count for a fraction of a second of eternity.

That being said, I don’t really mind the idea of having eternal life. But if I were designing an Eternal Life Package, I would probably include an opt out clause that would allow the eternal life participant to painlessly blink oneself out of existence when one has had enough. There are, after all, some interesting events to observe in the future. When the sun expands to engulf the current orbit of the earth in 3-5 billion years, it would be kind of cool to see the land melt and watch the planet possibly burn up. If you had any bets on that, that would be the time to collect. Although I hope our descendants will have figured out how to save the biosphere first. Speaking of descendants, it would be interesting to see what path evolution takes in regards to our species and others.

But let’s get back to reality.
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Mental Health in the Military

November 8, 2008

In a move indicative of better understanding concerning mental problems, Army reserve General Blackledge is defying the military’s culture of silence regarding mental health problems. This is welcome news. From the article:

Blackledge got psychiatric counseling to deal with wartime trauma, and now he is defying the military’s culture of silence on the subject of mental health problems and treatment.

“It’s part of our profession … nobody wants to admit that they’ve got a weakness in this area,” Blackledge said of mental health problems among troops returning from America’s two wars.

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Also:

Officials across the service branches have taken steps over the last year to make getting help easier and more discreet, such as embedding mental health teams into units.

They see signs that stigma has been slowly easing. But it’s likely a change that will take generations.

Last year, 29 percent of troops with symptoms said they feared seeking help would hurt their careers, down from 34 percent the previous year, according to an Army survey. Nearly half feared they’d be seen as weak, down from 53 percent.

The majority of troops who get help are able to get better and to remain on the job.

I suspect that part of the problem with people admitting that they need help has to do with the deep seated idea of dualism we have in our culture. If the soul is independent of the body, the thinking may be, one should be able to remain emotionally fit and strong regardless of circumstances. One’s identity and character does not change. This is fundamental to many religious ideas since the soul, independent of the body, is what “goes home” to heaven and reaps the rewards for whatever behavior or belief a particular religious system prescribes. This runs counter to all we have learned about the brain. Our personal identity and trains are deeply rooted in the brain, as dramatically observed in the extreme example of Phineas Gage. If for example, a soldier is shot, he or she obviously sees a doctor. Likewise, the experiences one goes through causes state changes in the brain (or mind, if you will) and these changes are also physical (physical in the sense of changing neurological states). So there should be no shame at all in seeking help to remedy to mitigate undesired changes, for example waking up from nightmares in a cold sweat as Gen. Blackledge had experienced.

On my long commutes home, I’ve had the occasional amusement of listening to right wingers such as Michael Savage decry psychiatry and the use of various drugs to help with mental problems. He continually refers to people simply needing more (to paraphrase here; it’s been a while since I’ve heard this) “strength of character”. One’s character is based upon the physical brain, and as such, is subject to physical changes from physical damage, illness, stress, and other environmental factors. As such, this complex organ is subject to being treated, like any other organ. Treatment may take the form of operations, drugs, or even retraining the brain (changing the brain map). It probably is true that drugs such as Prozac are over prescribed, but that does not mean they can not be useful in some circumstances. Everybody does get the blues now and then, so one does need to be careful in correct diagnosis. People like Savage seem to derive their ideas from the dualistic perspective of mind (or soul) and body. This is a perspective bolstered by an irrational and outdated religious point of view. This point of view is no longer useful and may even hinder people from seeking the treatment that they need. It just one more indication that religion has outlived its usefulness and that we should seek to base our society on general humanistic principles informed by science.

One question someone inevitably raises is about the contributions of society from people suffering from possible mental problems. Would we have “The Raven” if Edgar Allen Poe had not been an opium addict, etc.? If he had been treated and never wrote “The Raven”, we would never have known it was missing. Perhaps, with his talent, he would have come up with something equally as good and memorable. At least, in all probability, he could have had a better life.

Allowing all the opportunity for happiness, without dogma’s stigma blocking the path, will lead to a better society.