Popular Delusions: Out-of-Body Experiences

Most religious people believe in the soul, an ethereal locus of consciousness that separates from the body upon physical death and travels elsewhere to receive its reward. To people who hold this belief, it's a natural next step to guess that the soul or spirit could sometimes leave a person's body while they're still alive and travel to distant places on its own initiative. Such is the belief in out-of-body experiences, the subject of today's Popular Delusions post.

Belief in OBEs is probably as old as humanity. The Bible alludes to a man who was "caught up to the third heaven", "whether in the body... or whether out of the body, I cannot tell" (2 Corinthians 12:2-3), and the apocryphal Ascension of Isaiah claims to describe that famous prophet caught up out of his body and taken to heaven to witness prefigurements of Christianity. However, OBEs today are mostly the province of New Age believers, who usually refer to them as "astral projection".

Although many purported OBEs involve voyages to dreamlike, conveniently unverifiable "spiritual realms" (where meetings with Jesus, guardian angels, and other religious figures are guaranteed crowd-pleasers), the existence of the phenomenon is an eminently testable claim. All that would be needed is for a person having an OBE to travel to some distant location, view it, and then give accurate details of their experience that could not have been obtained through normal sensory channels. Alas, all such attempts have come up short.

One of the most famous was the planetary voyage of the psychic Ingo Swann, who was enlisted by ESP researchers Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff to take an astral voyage to Jupiter. As reported by Swann, Jupiter was an eerie and compellingly beautiful place, with a surface of shifting sand dunes, enormous mountain ranges, and lakes or oceans in which icebergs floated. These marvelous discoveries were only slightly tarnished by the fact that none of them turned out to be true; Jupiter is a gas giant with no solid surface. Not to be deterred, Swann later claimed that he must have accidentally overshot Jupiter and traveled into another solar system entirely, and was describing a different planet which he saw there.

Other tests of OBEs, though more modest, proved equally flawed. The best-known were carried out by Charles Tart, such as this one on a subject who claimed she had experiences in which she left her sleeping body and floated up to the ceiling or through the walls of the room. Tart claims that his subject correctly perceived a remote target consisting of a five-digit random number during an OBE, but his methodology was less than rigorous:

The sleep laboratory consisted of two rooms... A large window was between the rooms for viewing, but in this experiment it was covered with a Venetian blind in order that the subject's room could be reasonably dark for sleeping. An intercom system allowed hearing anything the subject said. I monitored the recording equipment throughout the night while the subject slept and kept notes of anything she said or did. Occasionally I dozed during the night, beside the equipment, so possible instances of sleep talking might have been missed.

...The subject slept on a comfortable bed just below the observation window.... Immediately above the observation window (about five and a half feet above the level of the subject's head) was a small shelf (about ten inches by five inches)... This five-digit random number constituted the parapsychological target for the evening. I then slipped it into an opaque folder, entered the subject's room, and slipped the piece of paper onto the shelf without at any time exposing it to the subject.

So, to review: the number the subject was supposed to be psychically viewing was on a shelf five feet above her head throughout the night. She was neither recorded nor observed; the window into her room was covered by a blind, and Tart, who was sitting in the next room, helpfully notes that he dozed off several times during the night. Readers are invited to imagine a non-supernatural means by which the result could have been achieved.

This sloppy methodology, subjective judging, and flat-out inaccuracy pervades parapsychological research in general and on OBEs specifically. It shouldn't be a surprise that all the most striking claims of people gaining true information through OBEs are completely anecdotal, even hearsay - as in the famous case of the woman named Maria who allegedly saw a tennis shoe on a window ledge outside the hospital where she was having one. We have only the word of one person, a social worker named Kimberly Clark Sharp, that this OBE happened at all or that the shoe was there as described. Anecdotal accounts like this are impossible to test or verify. And so far, no rigorous, well-designed experiment has proven that people can acquire information this way at rates significantly greater than chance, much less that they can use it to do something genuinely useful, such as sending or receiving messages.

As with many other popular delusions, belief in OBEs is probably sustained in part by natural psychological phenomena which true believers have misunderstood (such as the role of sleep paralysis in alien abduction and haunting claims). The truth is, many people do have out-of-body experiences - that is to say, they have the experience of being outside their body. But that is not the same thing as saying that something actually leaves the body. Instead, these experiences appear to be nothing more than elaborate hallucinations caused by the brain misfiring.

I wrote on Ebon Musings about the brain's superior parietal lobe, also called the "orientation association area". Among its other functions, this part of the brain orients a person in three-dimensional space and calculates how to move through the world. In deep meditative states and other circumstances, the superior parietal lobe ceases its activity, causing a person to feel as if the physical boundaries of their self have been dissolved - they can no longer tell where their body ends and the world begins. It's easy to see how such an event could be implicated in an OBE. Another brain area, the angular gyrus, is involved in OBEs more directly. In at least one experiment, when electrically stimulated, it repeatedly caused them to occur in the patient.

No matter how impressive they may feel, out-of-body experiences are just tricks of the brain, and do not contain any sensory information not accessible to a person through normal means. A well-designed, repeatable experiment could prove otherwise, but an endless string of unverifiable anecdotes does not.

Other posts in this series:

June 29, 2009, 6:50 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink24 comments

Mystery Does Not Equal God

By Sarah Braasch

When I was about seven years old I almost died. It wasn't the only time I almost died, but it was one of my most colorful near death experiences. I had acquired some sort of flu bug or food poisoning or I don't know what, but my mother, in her either infinite ignorance or indifference, failed to procure anything in the way of medical attention for her ailing child. In all fairness, at first, I attempted to minimize my illness in order to be able to participate in a planned trip to a local amusement park.

I know it sounds silly to say that I almost died from a flu bug in the US during the later part of the 20th century, and, yet, my story is true. I hadn't eaten anything solid for about two weeks, and I couldn't remember the last time I'd been able to hold down water. It seemed like I was either vomiting or dry heaving non-stop. I was parched and too weak to lift my head off of my pillow. I hadn't realized it at the time, but my mother later told me that I looked like a little concentration camp survivor, I had lost so much weight.

I remember that there was an old black and white movie on the tiny television on the dresser at the foot of the bed. I remember that the movie took place in a faux harem in a faux Middle Eastern palace in a faux Arabia. I think Gregory Peck may have been involved.

I wasn't scared. I just remember how I wanted nothing more than for the overwhelming waves of pain and nausea rolling through my body to stop. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. I couldn't drink. I couldn't move. All I could think about was the pain. I didn't have the strength to dry heave anymore, but I kept dry heaving while lying on my back. I didn't even have the strength to turn onto my side or even turn my head. My body was convulsing involuntarily. Then, the convulsions started to fade. My body no longer possessed the ability to exercise its involuntary impulses. The ripples in my stomach waned. Everything slowed down. My heartbeat. My breathing. I felt nothing so much as relief. I just didn't want to feel anything anymore. I lost the will to live.

It was so strange how everything came into such clear focus at that moment. I remember the bizarre brown and gold patterned wallpaper. I remember these tiny clip on cabbage patch dolls I had purchased at the local five and dime. I remember the huge yellow plastic bowl I had been throwing up in, when I still had something inside of me to vomit. I remember the bedroom furniture and the way the bedspread draped over my legs and feet. I remember the light in the room.

I was completely still. My little legs began to rise. Actually, my entire body began to rise, but flat as a board, as if someone was lifting me by the feet, but my head was secured to my pillow. I watched this with great curiosity. I realized that my legs remained swathed in my nightgown, even as my legs were lifted higher and higher, until my feet were directly overhead. Then I watched as my body swung back down, in the same manner, towards the bed. As I watched my legs and feet return to the bed, I discovered that my body was also still on the bed, covered in the bedspread, completely still. This occurred multiple times. My head never left my pillow. I didn't feel fear, only intrigue, and, even, amusement.

At that time, death was not particularly terrifying. I had no fear of hell, not because I thought I was without sin, but because I didn't think hell existed. I was a little Jehovah's Witness girl, and Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe in hell. But, I was confused. It seemed to me as if a version of me, a spirit, a soul had left or was trying to leave my physical body. But, I had been taught that I was a living human soul, but that I didn't have a soul, which survived the death of my physical self.

My feet were directly overhead again. It felt final. It felt like I was being asked to make a choice, like I was on the edge of a precipice, about to jump. It felt like my feet were being tugged on, but something inside of me was resisting. My head remained securely on my pillow, as if it were attached. Not exactly terror, because I wasn't afraid, but determination, and, maybe, panic washed over me, almost instantaneously. Then, I chose. I wasn't ready. But, I wasn't sure how to get back inside myself. I didn't know what to do. I wasn't sure I had the strength to do anything.

With everything and anything I had left inside of myself to give, I screamed for my mother. It came out as a barely audible, raspy plea. I tried again. Louder. Again. Then, she was beside me, looking down at me.

"What is it?" she asked, seemingly unable to see that which I could see.

"Mommy, why are my feet up there?" I asked.

"What are you talking about?"

"My feet are up there, in the sky."

"No they aren't. They're right here." My mother sat on the bed, placing her hands on my lifeless limbs under the bed covers. It was the strangest sensation. It was like I fell back into myself. My mother looked terrified. She called the doctor.

I guess it would be pretty easy to chalk up the entire experience to an illness induced hallucination, but I've never forgotten it, and I've never stopped feeling as if there was something more to it than just dehydration or religious fervor induced psychosis. It was hardly my only mystical experience as a child, or even as an adult.

I've had tons of mystical and spiritual (i.e. allegedly nonmaterial, supernatural) experiences. I was able to conjure up transcendental experiences at will as a child, which could probably best be described as astral projection, although I wouldn't have understood that term at the time, of course. But, somehow, I knew that I had separated from my ostensible physical self. All I had to do was contemplate the unfathomable idea that nothing would have ever existed if Jehovah God hadn't chosen to create everything, including existence itself. I would float around in outer space, amongst the planets and stars. It was the strangest feeling. It made me feel high, even after I'd returned to my body. I became addicted to it, and it became more and more difficult for me as I got older. I would spend hours alone in my room trying to recreate the sensation. As I grew older, it also got scarier. I had been raised to believe that anything even remotely attributable to spiritism and the occult was the product of demonic influence. I became obsessed with the notion that I was inviting demons into my life.

I've seen what would commonly be referred to as ghosts, demons, and angels, not to mention the future. I practically have a mystical experience once a day. None of these experiences, past or present, compel me to believe in God, certainly not the God as typically conceived by any of the major mainstream religions. There are lots of things in the world, which I neither understand nor can explain, starting with my personal existence. This doesn't presume a divine source. This doesn't even presume a supernatural or metaphysical cause.

The very act of employing the term supernatural is rather arrogant when we understand so little of our natural world. How do we know that these mystical experiences aren't the result of interacting with alternate dimensions or alternate universes or alternate versions of ourselves? As our perception of reality approaches our wildest science fiction fantasies, we realize just how disappointing, prosaic, and mundane the world's religions' gods are, seemingly endlessly fascinated and preoccupied by the quotidian sexual exploits of my next door neighbor.

With the ever exponentially telescoping expansion of knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, I believe that we are moving closer and closer to answering those most difficult ontological and teleological existential questions. We will know the nature of God, and we will discover that God is nature. General relativity, special relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, M theory, supersymmetry, the multiverse. We just keep getting closer and closer.

I am not troubled at the thought of losing life's zest and purpose once the mystery is gone. First of all, that point is far, far away, still, despite our amazing progress. Second, just imagine the possibilities. The infinite universes to explore, the infinite selves with whom to acquaint oneself. Ultimately, we will harness our ability to shape our myriad existences and universes. Time and materiality will be of little consequence. We will become gods with the ability to determine our own destinies, our own realities. And I, for one, unlike Jehovah, Yahweh, Jesus, and Allah, will not be much bothered with the sexual goings-on of my neighbors.

June 4, 2009, 6:47 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink64 comments

How to Think Critically: Memory & Confabulation

The reliability of eyewitness accounts is one of the bedrock beliefs of our society. In ancient cultures - and in some modern cultures that still follow ancient laws - some crimes could only be proven by eyewitness testimonies. One of the most infamous examples was Pakistan's Hudood Ordinances, which mandated that allegations of rape could only be proven by four eyewitness accounts; otherwise, the woman was to be punished for making false accusations. Even in our supposedly more enlightened society, eyewitness testimonies still carry great weight in criminal trials - this despite ample evidence that they are often mistaken, resulting in many wrongful imprisonments.

The willingness of juries, and people in general, to believe eyewitness testimony stems from a faulty view of the nature of memory. Human memory is not like a tape recorder or a video camera, creating a record of events and then playing them back exactly as they were first observed. Rather, human memory is basically reconstructive: in most cases, we remember only the basic outlines of an event, and if we're called upon to retell what happened, the mind fills in the gaps with whatever details are at hand. This means that details that are fed to a person may subconsciously be incorporated into their memories and presented by that person as an accurate account of history.

One of the classic examples of this is an experiment done by the memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus. In it, Loftus interviewed the relatives of her research subjects to get three true stories of childhood events that had happened to each of them. To those three stories, she added a fourth one, which she confirmed with relatives had not actually happened: a story about the subject being lost in a mall at the age of five, crying and being comforted by an elderly woman, and finally being reunited with their parents. The subjects were each presented with these stories and asked to write down as much additional detail as they could remember about each of them. About 25% of Loftus' subjects "remembered" the fictitious account and described it as a true story that had happened to them in childhood (source). Similar studies along this line have found that, in follow-up interviews conducted later, more and more subjects remembered the false stories over time, with some even embellishing them with details of their own that weren't part of the original presentation.

Another study by Loftus found that subjects' memories of events can be altered by questions that presuppose a particular set of facts. In this experiment, 150 students saw a short film of an accident involving a white sports car and then answered questions about it. One set of students was asked, "How fast was the white sports car going when it passed the barn?" (There was no barn in the film.) The other set was simply asked, "How fast was the white sports car going?" One week later, both sets of students were brought in for a follow-up interview, and both were asked, "Did you see a barn in the film?" Students who had previously been asked about the non-existent barn were far more likely (17% vs. 2%) to incorrectly believe that it had been present the first time.

Even memories of highly emotionally charged events - so-called "flashbulb" memories - are just as likely to suffer this distortion. Just like any other memory, subjects tend to forget true details or add embellishments over time. But what's worrying is that, despite this error creep, people tend to put more confidence in their flashbulb memories and are more likely to believe they're accurate, even when the record shows otherwise.

And finally, the most sensational example of how memory can fail us: In 1975, the Australian psychologist Donald Thomson was arrested and charged with rape, and was informed by police that the victim had positively identified him as her attacker. This was a great surprise to Thomson, because he had a seemingly invulnerable alibi: he was on live TV at the time, being interviewed in the presence of a studio audience, cameramen, and an assistant police commissioner. As it turned out, the woman who was raped had been watching that very program just before the attack. She had mixed up Thomson's face on the TV screen with the face of her attacker. Ironically, Thomson had been on TV to discuss the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. (source; see also)

The human tendency to confabulate details and misattribute sources means that memory, especially in the long term, cannot be counted on as a reliable source of information. This doesn't mean that eyewitness accounts should be excluded from trials and other decision-making altogether, but they should be considered with greater attention to their fallibility. When we question witnesses about the details of an event, we must avoid leading questions that could implant details into their minds. When victims of crime are asked to pick their assailants out of a lineup, those lineups should be double-blind. And testimonies should be given greater weight when two or more witnesses independently agree on the same details or when they are supported by other evidence.

Other posts in this series:

March 28, 2009, 11:36 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink16 comments

A World in Shadow VI

In 2006 and 2007, I wrote several entries in a series called A World in Shadow, bolstering the atheist's argument from evil by describing particularly shocking or egregious instances of natural and moral evils. However, I haven't written any new entries for this series in some time.

To be honest, I stopped writing these posts because I found them too upsetting. There are more than enough - far too many - examples of tragedy and catastrophe in this world to make the case against a benevolent overseer; we need not dwell on them. But today, I have to make just one further exception. I don't like writing about these things, but this is one case where the tragedy is so shattering, the suffering so horrendous, and the action needed to stop it so trivial, that it perfectly sums up and encapsulates the argument from evil.

I'll begin where Gene Weingarten begins, from his March 8 article in the Washington Post:

The defendant was an immense man, well over 300 pounds, but in the gravity of his sorrow and shame he seemed larger still. He hunched forward in the sturdy wooden armchair that barely contained him, sobbing softly into tissue after tissue, a leg bouncing nervously under the table. In the first pew of spectators sat his wife, looking stricken, absently twisting her wedding band. The room was a sepulcher. Witnesses spoke softly of events so painful that many lost their composure. When a hospital emergency room nurse described how the defendant had behaved after the police first brought him in, she wept.

This ordinary man, Miles Harrison, was a loving father who made an irrevocable mistake: on his way in to work one day last summer, distracted and beset by daily trivialities, he forgot to drop off his infant son at daycare. He entered his office, leaving the child still strapped into his car seat in the parking lot. And over nine hours, on a sweltering July day, the temperatures inside the car rose until the boy slowly boiled to death.

It seems incredible, unbelievable that any parent could forget their own child. But this case is not the first, and it will not be the last. It happens, on average, around 20 times a year in the United States alone, to parents of every occupation and social class:

Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.

Part of the reason why this happens is the recommendation of safety experts that young children in child seats be in the rear of the car, facing backwards, to protect them from injury in crashes. A child who can't easily be seen by the driver is easier to forget about. But the larger reason, as Weingarten's article explains, simply has to do with the fallibility of human memory and attention. Though we value the lives of our children, that does not mean the memory is treated any differently by the neural circuitry of the brain. In people who are stressed, sleep-deprived, distracted, the higher executive functions can be shunted aside by the lower, more primitive system of the basal ganglia, an evolutionary autopilot that carries out frequently rehearsed tasks with mechanical single-mindedness. (This is why you can sometimes drive a familiar route and end up at your destination with no memory of the journey.) Usually this is a harmless mental shortcut, but when it goes awry, this is the tragedy that results.

I have no desire to place blame on the parents who do this. For the most part, they're not bad people; they're loving parents who made an awful mistake, and who've already punished themselves far beyond anything a judge or jury could ever impose. But consider, now, how little a benevolent god - if there was one - would have to do to stop this from happening. It would take no dramatic interventions, no obvious miracles - just a small, possibly even subconscious nudge to the parent before it was too late. It would interfere with no one's free will to do this. These parents, after all, are not murderers, did not desire to kill their children.

But these tragedies continue to occur, and that can only mean one of three things. Either there is no cosmic authority watching the affairs of humankind, and we are on our own and must take the initiative ourselves if we are to prevent tragedies like this. Or there is a god who lacks either the knowledge of what is going on or the ability to do anything about it. Or, most horrifyingly, there is a god who knows perfectly well when this happens, could save these children if he so desired, but does nothing - only stands by and watches while innocent infants slowly broil to death behind glass.

For reasons I cannot fathom, millions of people adopt the third of those three choices and call it comforting. What comfort they find in believing that their lives are overseen by such a heartless monster, I couldn't say. But there is reason to believe that at least some people to whom this has happened have drawn the obvious moral:

The Terrys are Southern Baptists. Before Mika's death, Mikey Terry says, church used to be every Sunday, all day Sunday, morning Bible study through evening meal. He and his wife, Michele, don't go much anymore. It's too confusing, he says.

"I feel guilty about everyone in church talking about how blessed we all are. I don't feel blessed anymore. I feel I have been wronged by God. And that I have wronged God. And I don't know how to deal with that."

Four years have passed, but he still won't go near the Catholic church he'd been working at that day. As his daughter died outside, he was inside, building a wall on which would hang an enormous crucifix.

Other posts in this series:

March 20, 2009, 6:39 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink20 comments

The Happiness Machine

As any regular reader of Daylight Atheism knows, the topic of morality is a major concern of mine. In essays on Ebon Musings, I've sketched out a secular moral theory I call universal utilitarianism. Here on this site, In the past, I've written about the roots of this morality and the virtues that can be derived from it, as well as musings on what UU has to say about some controversial moral topics. In 2009, I plan on taking these explorations in a new direction.

This year, I intend to write some posts further detailing universal utilitarianism and how it can respond to difficult ethical dilemmas - not the practical dilemmas that we encounter in daily life, but thought experiments specifically dreamed up to stretch moral philosophies to the breaking point. If UU can survive being tested in this way, then I think we'll have greater reason for confidence that it can cope with everyday issues. I've already written about one such problem, the "trolley problem", in "The Doctrine of Double Effect". Today I'll confront a different one.

Today's post concerns the Happiness Machine, a hypothetical invention that produces pure pleasure for the user in unlimited quantities - say, an electrical implant that stimulates the brain's pleasure centers, producing a feeling of bliss at the push of a button. It's undeniable that universal utilitarianism counsels us to seek happiness as the highest good. If we follow UU, then if this machine is invented, should our highest goal be to hook ourselves up to it for the rest of our lives?

Lynet, of Elliptica, has an answer in Challenging the Paramounce of Happiness:

I wouldn't. It would be like dying. Even with heaven included, I don't want to die.

I suspect many of my readers share this intuition, as I do myself. Intuitively, there's something deeply repellent about this scenario, but what is it, and can UU justify this intuition despite its promotion of happiness as the highest good?

The first thing to note is that the Happiness Machine is not an entirely hypothetical scenario. It strongly resembles a real-world phenomenon: the use of narcotic drugs for pleasure. And, if such a machine were ever invented, we can be fairly confident that users would end up in much the same way as addicts of these drugs.

First of all, what would keep users of this machine alive? If the Happiness Machine works as advertised - if it truly replaces all suffering with total contentment - then it will make you oblivious to your need for the necessities of life. We satisfy our bodily needs, in the end, because it causes suffering if we do not. If they cannot feel this suffering, users of the Happiness Machine will soon die of starvation and dehydration and miss out on all the further happiness they might have had in a longer life. Clearly, this is not a good outcome.

But if that problem could be solved, another would rapidly follow. Pure sensory pleasure will soon become insipid and unsatisfying. The human mind habituates: if you constantly experience a high level of pleasure, it does not remain equally pleasurable indefinitely. Rather, it soon becomes the base level against which new experiences are judged. The same stimulus produces a steadily diminishing reward. If you use the Happiness Machine often, soon it won't be a source of bliss, but something you'll need to use constantly just to function, and ordinary activities without it will become unbearable. Like any other drug addict, you'll experience a brief period of pleasure, but it will be followed by a much longer period of misery and dependency. In the long run, it will cause far more suffering than happiness, and might even permanently impair the brain's capacity to take pleasure in anything else.

And what about the potential loss of independence? If someone controls the master switch for all the Happiness Machines, or if they hold the patent and are the only ones who can repair it, they will have a population of slaves. The addiction which such a machine would produce would render its users utterly dependent on whoever can supply that continued jolt of pleasure. To anyone who values freedom and autonomy, the thought of being controlled by another in this way ought to be intolerable, and again, a sure pathway to a life of misery and servitude.

The only way to avoid habituation and dependency is to live a life with not just one source of pleasure, but a variety of meaningful pursuits. The most enduring and fulfilling kind of happiness is the kind that has this rich texture of knowledge and experience, the kind that only comes from interacting with the world. (If nothing else, the more you know about what's out there, the better a position you're in to appreciate the things you really like.) Running a wire into the pleasure neurons of the brain is a poor substitute.

Finally, excessive use of the Happiness Machine undermines the development of empathy that UU holds as the highest moral virtue. After all, UU does not counsel us to only seek pleasure for ourselves, but to live in the world and be the source of happiness for others, to work to defeat suffering and improve the lives of our fellow humans. Someone who is anesthetized by this machine, cocooned in a blissful coma and deaf to the cares of other people, is not acting in accord with the principles of UU but against them. Like a greedy millionaire who hoards his wealth and refuses to give to charity, addicts of the Happiness Machine are not doing good but merely indulging their own selfishness.

February 27, 2009, 7:40 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink50 comments

Forms and Essences

In the past, I've written about the origins of religion and how belief in gods likely arises from one of humanity's most common psychological fallacies, the tendency to attribute agency where none exists. (When was the last time you got angry at your computer and felt as if it was trying to balk you? It happens to me much too often - even when I know there's no one inside there.)

There's another, related tendency that often manifests in religious belief, which is that human beings are concrete, categorizing thinkers. Our ability to create abstractions and parse the world into categories is a very successful strategy, one that forms the basis of our science, but it can be taken too far. That point is passed when we lose sight of the fact that our abstractions and categories are just mental conveniences, and begin treating them as if they were real things in their own right. In short, we're susceptible to reification.

One species of reification is the belief that things of this world inherit their nature from cosmic archetypes that exist on another plane. This, of course, is Plato's idea of "eternal forms", and the influence it's had on religion has been enormous. In all the offshoots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we find beliefs about how things that exist on Earth are imperfect reflections of perfect processes in Heaven. Thus, in Christianity, we encounter beliefs that the ritual animal sacrifices of Temple Judaism were inferior precursors to Jesus' once-and-for-all sacrifice of himself. In Islam, each earthly copy of the Qur'an is thought to be a mirror of a preexistent heavenly copy.

But more than anything else, the belief in forms has been the underpinning of creationism. To the naive observer - and the most creationists past and present certainly fall under that category - most living species appear to be distinct, and this supports their conclusion that all life can be classified into "created kinds", which are divided from each other by boundaries beyond which evolution cannot go. Of course, if you include all living species and not just a few carefully chosen representatives, many of the seemingly wide gaps shrink by a significant margin; if you include the many more extinct species known to us by fossils and other traces, those gaps contract still more; and if you examine the genetic commonalities that form a nested hierarchy of descent, the gaps disappear entirely.

A similar concept is the idea of the "essence", as if the qualities that define a thing had an objective existence all their own and could be distilled and extracted like a rare liquid. Again, it seems to be natural for us to think in this way. Consider how easily we accept the notion that Cupid's arrows could be coated with the pure essence of love or that a particular stone or plant could be impregnated with good luck, or how many tribes have believed that they would acquire the qualities of animals by consuming those animals. Or consider the classic sci-fi plot, dating back to Robert Louis Stevenson, of splitting a person into their "good side" and "evil side" - as though these were two separate essences mixed together in the same body, and one or the other could be made to precipitate out of solution by the right technique.

But most of all, the idea of essences gave birth to the notion of the soul. It causes people to think erroneously that the information-processing activity of the mind is not just the product of the brain's functioning, but a separate thing in its own right that can exist independently and survive the death of the body. Given what we now know about how the brain works, this makes about as much sense as believing that a computer could continue to process data and display programs after its hard drive and CPU have been melted down. But when our tendency to reification is not checked by evidence, humans are natural dualists, and find little difficulty in believing in ghosts in the machine.

When well-chosen, our mental patterns accurately capture the way the world is organized and may even point to hidden truths. Consider the twin nested hierarchy of evolution, or Mendelev's successful prediction of undiscovered elements based on the gaps in his periodic table. But even in this case, we must take care to resist the trap of reification. Many superstitions have been born in the minds of people who failed to realize that the patterns they saw were descriptive conveniences, artifacts of human perception, and not things in their own right.

February 11, 2009, 7:50 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink25 comments

On Agent Causation

Among the band of philosophers who hold that free will is supernatural, one of the reigning ideas is called agent causation. This hypothesis states that volitional acts are a special category of event, one that is caused not by any other event but - in some deeply mysterious way - by the agent itself. Philosopher Roderick Chisholm describes this as follows:

If we are responsible... then we have a prerogative which some would attribute only to God: each of us, when we act, is a prime mover unmoved. In doing what we do, we cause certain events to happen, and nothing—or no one—causes us to cause those events to happen.

The consequence of agent causation is that free will is not a process but some sort of irreducible substance: one that spontaneously originates acts and decisions, unconnected to the causal chain that binds together all other causes and effects. The usual apologetic corollary is that even God cannot intervene in or influence this process short of destroying free will altogether. It's plain that this is just the religious doctrine of the soul, the supernatural "ghost in the machine", portrayed in technical philosophers' language.

Agent causation depicts human free will as a binary state - a quantity which can either be present or not present, but which has no internal structure and cannot be subdivided. However, this is obviously false, which makes this entire view unsustainable. Free will is not a mathematical point; free will is a complex bundle of contingent desires, habits, and predispositions, which can be added to, altered or removed.

You can determine this by empirical studies of human behavior. There are countless things that human beings could do that we do not do and do not feel any desire to do. On the other hand, the vast majority of us do experience desires to have sex with an attractive partner, to consume foods high in fat and sugar, or to form tight emotional bonds with parents and relatives. Human free will, then, is not just an irreducible point source that bubbles up actions at random; it operates within a defined set of parameters, giving rise to a predictable variety of behaviors (anthropologists call them cultural universals).

You can also determine it by the evidence of the human brain: it's well known that certain, specific kinds of brain damage alter desires and behavior in predictable ways. Dementias such as Alzheimer's disease often cause loss of interest in religion, while epileptic seizures in the temporal lobes can induce religious experiences. Damage to the frontal lobes leaves people unable to control their behavior or ignore sudden impulses; injuries localized to the left hemisphere often cause depression, while injuries to the right can leave people constantly and inappropriately euphoric. And of course, drugs and intoxicants also have reliable, predictable effects on behavior.

If free will was an irreducible, nonphysical substance, producing actions free from external causation, then we should not see brain damage affect desires or behavior - much less change them in the predictable ways that neurologists observe. That we do see this shows beyond a reasonable doubt that it is false that "nothing... causes us" to make the decisions we do. Our decisions manifestly are caused.

Of course, there are other varieties of supernatural dualism that are not as clumsy as agent causation. But what these other varieties have in common is that they must give up the line in the sand. They cannot declare, as agent causation does, that we are purely supernatural beings whose decisions ultimately arise from the soul and nowhere else. Instead, these other dualisms must acknowledge that we are, at least in part, material beings, and that changes to the physical composition of body and brain can affect and alter our selves. Whether they realize it or not, advocates of these beliefs are drawing closer to atheism, as they implicitly grant that we are not spirits whose choices arrive from outside the world, but physical beings whose acts are an inextricable part of the fabric of cause and effect.

January 20, 2009, 1:33 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink47 comments

Dawn of the Dead: Are Zombies Possible?

Inspired by a recent post on Philosophy, et cetera, I want to talk a little about zombies and what they imply for a materialist theory of the mind.

When I say "zombie," I don't mean the shambling, flesh-eating undead of horror films. This thought experiment is about philosophical zombies, which are a different beast altogether. The philosophers' zombie is a hypothetical creature which, to all outward appearances, is indistinguishable from an ordinary human. The difference is that they lack phenomenal consciousness - they lack qualia.

Qualia are the subjective sensory perceptions of our inner mental life. We see colors: the redness of red, the greenness of green. We hear tones, sharp or high-pitched or dull or low. We taste flavors, salty or bitter or sweet. We feel emotions like joy, anger, or sadness. Zombies, by contrast, have none of these experiences. They are not truly conscious of anything, any more than a stone is conscious, but they act exactly as if they were. A zombie can duck a thrown baseball or write a restaurant review. Point a gun at one and it will flinch and act as if it were afraid.

What does such a bizarre idea have to do with atheism? The answer is that some prominent philosophers claim that zombies are a conclusive disproof of any strictly naturalistic theory of how the mind functions. The train of argument usually goes that zombies are not a metaphysically impossible notion; it involves no self-contradiction to imagine their existing. If they are not self-contradictory, then they are possible. If they are possible, then we could hypothetically build one - a sophisticated robot, let's say. Such a being would act with rationality and apparent intelligence, yet lack consciousness. But if it's possible to be an intelligent, rational being without consciousness, the question is, why aren't we zombies? What makes us different from the robot? The answer, they say, is that there must be a supernatural component to the mind, in other words, a soul. This supernatural component is what gives us our consciousness, our qualia, whereas a being lacking that component could never truly be conscious no matter how much mental processing power it might have.

The problem with zombies, as with many philosophical notions, is that they do not truly prove a point but simply play on people's differing intuitions about what is possible. No obvious self-contradiction arises when we imagine a zombie, I grant. It is logically possible for such a thing to exist. But that does not mean that zombies are possible in our world, under the laws of physics that hold sway here. Our ability to imagine them is no disproof of this. We, fallible humans, are not cognizant of all the laws of physics, much less their almost infinitely complex hierarchy of ramifications. An intelligence like Laplace's demon, with perfect knowledge of the universe, might well see some consequence of physical principles which we overlook, and which renders zombies impossible in our world.

Consider a similar example. Just as dualist philosophers claim they can imagine creating a zombie, I claim I can imagine creating a perpetual motion machine. I couldn't tell you exactly how to build it, just as no one can say exactly how to build a zombie, but I can readily imagine some marvelous machine - blinking lights, coils of wire conducting electric arcs, spinning flywheels, a big brass switch - that, once it's powered up, begins producing free energy out of nowhere. No self-contradiction arises when I imagine this. But does that mean we can actually build one? Have I just disproved the laws of thermodynamics without getting out of my armchair?

Obviously not. Though we may think we can imagine a working perpetual motion machine, reality is bound to disappoint. So far, every attempt to build one has ended in utter failure, stymied by some physical principle they failed to take into account. The laws of our universe, it appears, interlock in such a way as to perfectly rule out the possibility of perpetual motion machines. There is no loophole where an inventor, however clever, can slip through. It only seems possible because our imaginations do not take into account the critical details that any practical attempt cannot avoid.

The dualists, I believe, are in the same boat. They may think they can imagine zombies, but that doesn't mean they're actually possible. Indeed, I suspect the opposite is more likely true: any creature complex enough to behave with all the creativity and adaptability of a human being would have to have consciousness and qualia, or something very much like them.

After all, how could a zombie dodge a thrown baseball, unless its eyes (or cameras) conveyed images of nearby objects; unless those images were in some way converted into an internal model of the world; and unless that model contained some data stream or symbol which represented a small, round, rapidly approaching object? How could a zombie write a restaurant review unless its chemical sensors were linked to a sophisticated mapping of what readings correspond to what flavors and the many subtle ways in which various combinations could interact with each other? How could a zombie convincingly simulate fear unless it had a wide-ranging ability to keep track of events in the external world and infer which ones could pose a threat to its continued existence?

It is not at all obvious to me that a being with such a sophisticated repertoire of memory, understanding and perception could fail to be conscious. In fact, I strongly suspect the opposite: any being with this capability would have to be conscious, given the physical laws that hold in our world. Consciousness is not an optional add-on, but an inevitable product of a certain degree of cognitive sophistication. In particular, I believe the ability to explicitly represent one's own self in one's mental catalog of objects, and to introspect one's own internal information processing - which, again, a zombie can do - is a vital building block of true consciousness as humans possess it, if it is not consciousness itself.

The dualists assume that an intelligent being could fail to possess qualia, and therefore conclude that intelligence and consciousness are separable. But this claim is an example of the fallacy of circular argument. If you assert that it's possible to hold everything else about the world constant, but subtract consciousness, then you're not arguing for dualism, you're assuming dualism! The conclusion which you wish to reach is already contained in the starting assumptions you feed into your argument. Whether consciousness is an inevitable outcome of the working-out of physical laws inside intelligent brains, or whether it's an unnecessary epiphenomenal accompaniment, is the very thing at issue. I argue that, contrary to some people's intuition, consciousness and intelligence are in fact not separable. I can't prove it; but neither can the dualists prove that they are.

The only remaining question, which I admit is a vexing one, is: why qualia? Why does consciousness have any subjective character at all? The way in which our minds represent characteristics of the external world as ineffable interior perceptions does seem strange, and not like most other phenomena we encounter. It does indeed seem difficult to imagine that any science, however advanced, could explain precisely how such subjective experiences arise from the collisions of atoms inside the brain.

But our inability to imagine it, at this point in time, is no proof that it's impossible. The existence of life was also once considered to be an impenetrable mystery, inexplicable except by postulating a supernatural "vital force". Yet life has since been shown to have an explanation comprehensible in terms of physical laws. (Overcoming Bias writes about "encapsulating the mystery as a substance" - an apt description of the situation.) I see no reason to believe that qualia will prove to be any different. Though they may seem to be a fundamentally different kind of thing, that's just an artifact of our present ignorance. Most likely, qualia arise from the physical laws of the cosmos no less than any other natural phenomenon. We don't understand precisely how - and maybe the mysterians are right, and we never will - but still, that is no proof that it is impossible.

May 2, 2008, 7:41 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink37 comments

The Default

Back in March, I commented on a Beliefnet debate between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan. In part 4 of that debate, Andrew Sullivan made what I thought was an astonishing concession:

But I can say that [this experience] represented for me a revelation of God's love and forgiveness, the improbable notion that the force behind all of this actually loved us, and even loved me. The calm I felt then; and the voice with no words I heard: this was truer than any proof I have ever conceded, any substance I have ever felt with my hands, any object I have seen with my eyes.

You will ask: how do I know this was Jesus? Could it not be that it was a force beyond one, specific Jewish rabbi who lived two millennia ago and was executed by the Roman authorities? Yes, and no. I have lived with the voice of Jesus read to me, read by me, and spoken all around me my entire life - and I heard it that day. If I had been born before Jesus' birth, would I have realized this? Of course not. If I had been born in Thailand and raised a Buddhist, would I have interpreted this experience as a function of my Buddhist faith rather than Jesus? If I were a pilgrim right now in Iraq, would I attribute this epiphany to Allah? An honest answer has to be: almost certainly.

I couldn't agree more, and we should remember this lesson when faced with stories of religious experiences told by other believers. Take this post, which I found through a comment in the thread "Instruction Manual or Chronicle?"

What happened instead was that I slowly became aware that someone else was in my room. I couldn't see anyone, but I could sense a presence. The intensity of the presence began to grow, until it was so overwhelming that I was aware of nothing else, not even myself. I knew I was in the presence of God.

...Tonight is the 20th anniversary of that experience, and the memory is still as fresh in my mind as if it happened yesterday.

There's no doubt that experiences like this are real, and that they often have a profound and lasting effect on the lives of people who have them. But at the same time, there are some important features of religious experience which the passage above exemplifies, and to which I'd like to call attention.

First: These experiences, while rich in emotional color and texture, are typically light on actual content. (Sullivan revealingly refers to "the voice with no words"). In the many accounts like this that I've read, there's hardly ever an audible voice or a clear message. Instead, the believer experiences a variety of sensations: an oceanic feeling of transcendent bliss, a vivid sense of heightened significance and interconnection, a perception of being swept away from oneself or unified with the infinite.

Second: These experiences virtually never cause a person to convert to a completely different religion, one which they were unfamiliar with prior to the experience. Instead, the religious experience is almost always interpreted as confirmation of a belief set which the person either already belonged to or was seriously considering converting to. Look for a lifelong Christian who had such an experience and felt it as the presence of Vishnu (or a lifelong Hindu who felt the presence of Jesus) - I can all but guarantee your search will be in vain. As Sullivan says, these experiences are shaped and interpreted in light of the believer's upbringing and culture. Whenever and wherever they occur, they are almost invariably believed to be manifestations of the local god, whichever one that is.

These facts add up to an important conclusion for atheists. In many cases I've encountered, the life-altering power of religious experience is put forth as the first reason for belief in God. The people who have these experiences rationalize that no other power could have moved them so deeply. Yet this is an argument that assumes its own conclusion: people consider it as proof of their particular god because that is the only thing they have been taught to interpret it as. That is the conventional wisdom, the default interpretation, in our society. And since it's widely claimed that these epiphanies are experiences of God, people who have them naturally fall into believing and proclaiming that this is what they were, thus setting up the next generation of self-supporting circular interpretation.

In reality, the sense of rapture is like many other things: not a religious phenomenon, but simply a human phenomenon common to all people. If it were more widely known that believers of all sects have equally persuasive experiences of this kind - and if it were more widely known that atheists have them as well (yes, atheists also have moments of transcendent joy) - then we might develop a more realistic view of their cause.

Rather than leaping to interpret them as divine visitations, we should recognize them for what they are: natural products of human neural wiring. They emerge from the structure of the brain; they are precipitated by the right kinds of events, either internal or external; and when they occur simultaneously with the making of a decision that had been coalescing in the believer's mind, they're viewed as powerful confirmation of that decision and can inspire people to restructure their life around it. These experiences are real, yes, and they can certainly be meaningful, but they do not point to anything outside the self.

December 21, 2007, 7:20 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink32 comments

Popular Delusions VII: Alien Abduction

Back in August, in "Some Thoughts on Fermi's Paradox", I proposed some explanations for why there's no evidence of intelligent alien species. But I left out what seems like the most obvious explanation of all: they do exist, and they're already here.

This may well be the most popular answer. To judge by polls like this one from 2002, almost half of American adults believe that intelligent aliens have visited the Earth. (Ironically, The Onion actually gets this percentage right in its deadpan take.) And it's not just visiting Earth, either: the same poll shows that 20% of Americans - which is on the order of 60 million people - believe that some human beings have been abducted by aliens or have otherwise physically interacted with them. Even some fringe Christian groups believe in this, although they tend to believe that aliens are demonically aligned, if not demons themselves.

I've written previously about sleep paralysis, which figures into many claims of hauntings and is probably at the root of most alien abduction claims as well. The common symptoms of sleep paralysis - inability to move, strong sensation of a menacing presence, mild hallucination - are perfect parallels to the usual elements of an abduction story.

To complete the tale, many alien abduction claimants undergo hypnosis to "remember" their experience. In reality, hypnosis makes a person highly suggestible and prone to confabulate. When primed with leading questions by the therapist, a subject under hypnosis is very likely to invent details which they later believe to be real memories. In fact, some studies have shown that abduction claimants are more likely than the general populace to concoct false memories. In this way, alien abduction becomes a self-sustaining phenomenon, as the stories and images in popular culture seed the abduction reports of the next generation of true believers.

What I've always wondered is, if aliens are really visiting Earth and abducting us, why is it so easy for people to find out about it? To judge by the accounts of abductees, it is extremely easy to recover the details of their experience under ordinary hypnotic regression. I would imagine that a race advanced enough for interstellar travel would either not care about concealing themselves, or would be able to hide their presence so effectively that we would be completely unable to detect them.

Even today we have drugs, such as scopolamine, that can block the formation of memories (it's often used by date rapists and other criminals, and in the past was given to mothers in labor), and as an added bonus, makes recipients highly cooperative and suggestible. Hypnosis is ineffective at helping a person recall what they did under the influence of this drug, because the memories are never stored in the first place. Wouldn't highly advanced aliens have something at least as effective as this?

And for that matter, why would they need to keep abducting us? Couldn't a species so advanced just abduct one human and then reverse-engineer our genome to run whatever experiments they wanted? And couldn't they come up with implants and sensors that could be read out remotely and wouldn't need repeated visits? (Don't aliens have Wi-Fi?)

Ultimately, alien abduction has simply become another modern-day religion, with advanced extraterrestrials taking the place of gods, angels and devils. Like latter-day prophets, some of them come to warn us of planetary catastrophe or guide us toward salvation. Others, like demons, come to torment and terrify us. Some true believers have created elaborate Manichean cosmologies where some aliens are good and others are evil. And, like all religions, these convoluted and fantastic claims are always advanced without a scrap of real evidence.

Other posts in this series:

October 21, 2007, 8:08 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink17 comments

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