Monday, February 26, 2007

What's cooking?

While washing baking sheets on Ash Wednesday a cafeteria worker found the following pattern on one of them. She asked her co-workers what it looked like. She also asked the cafeteria manager, and finally the principal. What did they all say it was?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

No privacy with one's privates

Dan Dennett asks a simple rhetorical question: Would you masturbate in front of your mother (or for that matter your father/grandparents/pastor/priest)?1 I bet my soul none of us has ever done so and would never ever do so. In fact we've made sure we're not seen in the act by these people (and by most others).

Now not a few Christians believe that their deity frowns upon masturbation. For instance the Catholic Church teaches that masturbation is an "intrinsically and gravely disordered action" and is an "offense against chastity."2 Christians also believe that their god, among other things, is all-seeing and is everywhere (omnipresent). So how is it that these believers are able to perform autoerotic acts in front of God? Think about it. Such believers are never alone; God is always there with them. They can lock themselves inside a hermetic bank vault and God would still be there (and everywhere else simultaneously), closer to them than all the duffel bags of cash in the room. And if they also believe in guardian angels, then surely their personal bodyguard is with them 24/7. Unless angels can become afflicted with diseases such as glaucoma, they see everything their charge does.

So I'm scratching my head here. If their deity forbids masturbation how can they ever have the gall to do it right in front of God (and angels)? Isn't that much worse, more shameful, more scandalous than wanking off in front of one's parents?

It seems to me that one possible explanation why such believers are able to commit such a proscribed act in the very presence of their deity, is that they don't fully believe--they aren't totally sold on the idea--that their deity is right there with them all the time (not least because they don't see him/it), they don't completely believe that this entity can actually see everything, or at that moment when biological urges become strong enough they go into a (transient) state of denial of their god's existence/presence. (If Ted Haggard really believed in his all-powerful, all-seeing deity, how could he have committed the acts that led to his downfall?)

But can you imagine how ludicrous and delusional such psychological trickery would be were you jacking off right in front of your parents? You could close your eyes and deny that they're there watching but that won't change the facts, would it? You would only do it if you believe that you're alone, that the walls are opaque, that there are no hidden cameras.

If you truly believe your parents are there in front you, you won't even go naked. But if you can't see, hear, feel, smell, detect by any means whatsoever your deity, and you've never seen, heard, felt, smelled this thing you worship, then maybe, just maybe, it isn't really around--and so you can touch yourself, "in private."

Given that this deity is right there in front of them all the time (and behind, above, below, to the left, right, and all around them at the same time, and see/know everything inside them including their thoughts and feelings) how is it that any believer can cheat, lie, steal, plagiarize, be hybristic, think evil thoughts, etc.? Again, one possible explanation is that they haven't bought into the belief as fully they profess. Indeed if a person believed in the reality of this all-seeing, omnipresent deity so fully that s/he has been able to make herself see and hear its presence all the time (even if only in their heads), that person cannot possibly commit any wrongdoing. How can you possibly cheat, tell a lie, steal, ... when you're always face-to-face with this omni-everything being that has the power to punish in the worst ways imaginable for eternity? So perhaps it may do believers well to become hallucinatory and see and hear their God 24/7 if they wish to become saintly. On the other hand, to be constantly aware that God is there with you every second of your life--that might just be a living hell for some. I think the denial or de facto atheism that believers practise from time to time keeps them sane and "normal."


1. Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Viking, 2006, p. 227.

2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2352.

Jesus telecoms

He's been sighted again. No pareidolia this time. It's Jesus in the flesh.

In Gulu town, excited residents, many of them primary school pupils, rushed to an MTN mobile phone mast following rumours that a manifestation of Christ had been sighted at its top.... Eric Odongo, one of the onlookers, claimed he first saw clouds on top of the mast and that Jesus appeared to be standing amidst clouds. "I saw Jesus standing on top of the mast. He was standing between two people and was putting on a white cloth. His hair was black," Mr Odongo claimed, in a description that was echoed by many more at the scene. Reporters, however, did not see anything, and Herbert Omoding, the MTN Assistant Engineer in Gulu, said he had seen nothing unusual.

They should check their cell phones for any text messages from Him.

Friday, February 16, 2007

What the bleep do they know?

In a response to Alister McGrath, Richard Dawkins makes a most important point:

[W]hereas I and other scientists are humble enough to say we don’t know, what of theologians like McGrath? He knows. He’s signed up to the Nicene Creed. The universe was created by a very particular supernatural intelligence who is actually three in one. Not four, not two, but three. Christian doctrine is remarkably specific: not only with cut-and-dried answers to the deep problems of the universe and life, but about the divinity of Jesus, about sin and redemption, heaven and hell, prayer and absolute morality.

When I design circuits, unless the circuit is something as simple as feeding the right amount of juice to an LED, I don't have the doubtless confidence of telling myself or the world that I know it's going to work perfectly, flawlessly. As is typical and standard practice, I go over the design a number of times, recheck my calculations, and then breadboard the whole thing, crossing my fingers that I don't blow a fuse or fry an IC (again). A crucial part of the design cycle is testing. However confident I may be that a design is ok, I can never be absolutely certain until I build the circuit, power it up, put it through its paces, and see whether it does all the things it's suppose to do. (and even then I can't be certain that I've not pushed any component to its operating limit, including thermal limit, thus leading to possible early failure).

A circuit design issues from the brain. It may or may not work. And when one's a novice the odds are in favor of unwittingly zapping something or turning out a lemon. The only real way to find out whether it actually works (and how robust it really is) is to build it and power it up. Testing is all important in order to validate our belief that the design works. (Yes, I'm aware of simulation software that can obviate some actual hardware testing. I actually use Microchip's simulation software whenever the design incorporates one of their PIC microcontrollers)

Theologians, religionists who insist that this and that theological claim is true, on the other hand, are perhaps some of the most hybristic people in the world. How can they possibly claim to know and insist a certain claim about the supernatural is true when they haven't checked whether what their brains have churned out is in fact in consonance with reality? When they haven't tested the validity these ideas? And how can they simply trust--have faith--in these claims despite or because of the fact that these claims can't ever be tested and checked for validity/veracity? There's something very wrong in this line of thinking and behavior.

It's actually much worse. Those who design circuits have various premises. For example, I take for granted that (nondefective) diodes conduct only when there's a positive potential difference between their anode and cathode, but not the other way around. I don't go about questioning this assumption. Why? Because there already exists much evidence that this is so. Furthermore, if someone, including myself, were to question this claim, it can always be tested. Another example. One of the most important equations in electronics is Ohm's Law. V = IR, where V = voltage (in volts), I = current (in amperes), R = resistance (in ohms). Again I take it for granted that this law holds. And again those who are skeptical of it can always build a circuit using precision components and test this equation's validity to their satisfaction. While it may seem that we take certain things on authority, the fact is that not only are the presumptions backed up with evidence, but also that they are testable and can be proved (or disproved) if one wishes to do so.

What about theological premises? None of them are known to be true. And they can't be known to be true--they are untestable. Now if the facticity and veracity of the premises are not known to be true, then no argument or conclusion founded upon them can be known to be true. When it comes to theology--whether Hindu, Zoroastrian, Muslim, Christian, or what have you--there is no claim therein that is known to be true. Every one of them is at best a hypothesis.

So what in fact do theologians know when it comes to the supernatural? Isn't it that they're merely spouting fantastical, unverifiable claims and performing mental gymnastics?

If we claim to know then we must be able to elucidate a valid way of actually knowing it, and show that what is being declared is in fact true. To say that we know through revelation or through authority or tradition--these are illicit and vacuous ways. Just to tackle revelation: Because we know that humans are unreliable (would you really fall on your knees and lend your ears and brain every time someone claims s/he's received a communique from his/her deity?) all so-called revelations need to be tested and checked. But how do we test whether a claimed revelation is not just a misfiring of neurons, or a result of some illness, or a mere delusion, or some other thing? Is there a way of doing so? And of course there are more fundamental questions: How do religionists know that revelations really exist? Is there at least one indubitable instance that they can cite? If so, how do they know it really was a revelation? And is revelation not the same as intuition? How do we definitively and testably differentiate one from the other?

Thus, I cannot but agree with Dawkins when he asks whether theology is a subject at all. What could theologians be experts in? Well certainly not in phenomena that are or can be known to be real, in claims that you can go check and confirm/disconfirm. If you ask me, devoting half a century of one's life to theology is a pitiable waste. It's not much better than spending the same amount of years in becoming an authority on the Lord of the Rings. The thing about theists that sets them apart from Shakespeare, Rowling and Tolkien experts is that the latter know their expertise is in works of fiction. Theists have the delusion that their claims are in consonance with reality, that they know of an otherworldly reality.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Jesus' sparkling eyes

Some are claiming that they've seen sparks emanating from the eyes of a steel and bronze statue of Jesus on exhibit at the Liverpool Academy of Art.

Brian Burgess, the sculptor, said,

It began when one woman who saw the statue fell to her knees and began praying. She was transfixed for more than thirty minutes and when she came out of the trance she said she had witnessed sparks coming from the eyes of the Christ figure. Now the word has spread and we have hoards of people coming along to pray and venerate the statue and many of them have said they have witnessed these sparks too.... I worked on the piece for about a year but I never saw any sparks apart from those coming from the welding torch.

Sparks or reflections? Or something else?

I'd recommend turning off the lights and checking for anything "anomalous" but then we know how it's so easy for us humans to hallucinate, specially when we're expectant and know what's supposed to be detected/perceive. The mere suggestion that we should alert people if we see sparks is enough to elicit the hallucination in some people.

Mesmerized by dancing suns and sparkling eyes. Human psychology is fascinating indeed.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Delusions continue despite Evolution Sunday

Not a few Christians already accept evolution. And some of them are making it known publicly.

Flocks of the Christian faithful in the US will this Sunday hold special services celebrating Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. The idea is to stand up to creationism, which claims the biblical account of creation is literally true, and which is increasingly being promoted under the guise of "intelligent design". Proponents of ID say the universe is so complex it must have been created by some unnamed designer.

Support for "Evolution Sunday" has grown 13 per cent to 530 congregations this year, from the 467 that celebrated the inaugural event last year. Organisers see it as increasing proof that Christians are comfortable with evolution.

There's a deluge of evidence supporting the theory of evolution (as well as the evolution of galaxies, stars, planets, including the age of the universe and our home planet). The evidence simply cannot be ignored. To believe a Bronze Age claim and reject the wealth of scientific findings is totally irrational. Because there is an irreconcilable contradiction between the creation story in an ancient text (just one among many creation stories in the ancient world) and what science has discovered, one has to choose one or the other (or perhaps reject both). Creationists (including young earth creationists) take the irrational route and opt for literalizing mythology. Other Christians--apparently those who are not as attached to the bible and who permit parts of it to be read as fiction--have implicitly given science and the methods of science a thumbs up.

The reasoning of this latter group seems to me to be as follows. Since science has discovered such and such and it is universally accepted in the scientific community that this is so, and since biblical account G is totally at odds with that scientific truth, therefore G must be fictional and is just allegorical/metaphorical/poetic/etc. Well and good.

The problem is with those accounts in the bible (in the gospels for instance) that are claimed to be historical for which disconfirming evidence is very hard to come by or even impossible. I have in mind such events as virgin birth, miracles (water into wine, multiplication of loaves/fishes, etc.), resurrection. The strongest argument for not believing in these claims is that we have never observed these events, and that there is no known way of producing these phenomena. But that of course seldom puts a dent in the faith of believers. They merely argue (albeit ad hoc) that these are one-off events which only a deity(-incarnate) could perform and had performed. Strictly speaking they would be right in throwing at skeptics and atheists the principle, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." Just because we don't know how these events can come about and just because we have not encountered such events does not imply they cannot and did not happen. But what Christians who resort to this fail (or realize) to say is that absence of evidence hardly warrants belief, and certainly does not merit unwavering faith! Since there is no evidence for Shiva, Muhammad riding a flying horse, gremlins manipulating our thoughts, aliens inhabiting the Moon ... why do they not believe in these extraordinary claims as well? The rational thing to do when there is no evidence for X is to withhold belief in it.

Given that it will probably be impossible to disprove the virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection, I think most of those who are reared in Christianity or have adopted that religion will continue to believe that these events did occur, that they are not merely fictional/allegorical/metaphorical, or just an exercise of storyteller's license by the biblical writers, or just part of an encomium wherein a hero's biography is embellished (posthumously) to suit the public's perception of this person's stature.1

Unlike the evolution vs. creationism issue where the former more than satisfactorily disconfirms the latter, no such thorough disconfirmation is forthcoming vis-a-vis the gospel claims. Thus, while there is no good reason to believe the extraordinary claims, the lack of a definitive disproof (notwithstanding the various reasons to disbelieve), will ensure that not a few will continue taking these claims on faith.

Still from the same article:

Michael Zimmerman, founder of Evolution Sunday and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University in Indianapolis. "We're saying you can have your faith, and you can also have science."

When Zimmerman claims that science and theism can co-exist I read that as: scientific understanding of the world and supernatural beliefs can coexist in the same mind, that one can hold both very rational and truly irrational beliefs simultaneously without any sense of conflict. Well, I don't understand how he (and Human Genome Project director Francis Collins, among others) is able to do this. It must take some self-deception to get away with it.


1. Robert W. Funk, Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium, New York: Harper Collins, 1996, p. 281ff. Funk explains the hellenistic encomium:

The retrospective interpretation of the hero's life from the perspective of his or her noble death was regarded as a legitimate perspective. The basis for that perspective was the view that one's destiny was predetermined or controlled by fate. What a particular individual turned out to be was determined at the outset, at birth. At the same time, one could not know what fate had in store until that life had run its course. Birth stories were considered an essential part of the biography because infancy anecdotes recounted omens that pointed to the future, a future known only from the perspective of the hero's noble death. If someone had died a noble death and lived an exemplary life, that person must have had a noteworthy birth.

The hellenistic biography or encomium, following the model of Aristoxenus, a student of Aristotle, consisted of five elements: a miraculous or unusual birth; revealing childhood episode (or episodes); a summary of wise teachings; wondrous deeds; a martyrdom or noble death. This form of the biography was more suitable for philosophers and religious heroes, such as Socrates and Jesus. The New Testament gospels encompass precisely these five elements and are thus examples of the hellenistic biography. (p.282)

Friday, February 09, 2007

Misplaced skepticism

I have this friend who's been up in arms since the 2007 IPCC report on global warming came out. He's a skeptic. He doubts that global warming is real, despite the IPCC findings. Is my friend a meteorologist or climatologist or even a volcanologist? No. Does he have a science degree? No. Has he provided empirical evidence that refutes the IPCC claims? No. He's only made claims. So should I give his skepticism weight?

Judging from his emails, what's really eating him is that atheists (I believe that for simplicity's sake he uses this term loosely to mean nonbelievers, rationalists, critical thinkers and the like) are skeptical of religious claims but are not being skeptical of the IPCC report. He's used "hypocrisy." I think he means prejudice and bias. In so many words he's saying that on the one hand we critique Christianity and dismiss it. We hardly listen to Church fathers and theologians (so called experts in religion). But when a bunch of scientists (so called experts in climate) pronounce that global warming is very likely already happening and very likely to be anthropogenic, we don't even switch our critical thinking faculties on but simply nod our heads wildly in toadyish assent.

Well, I have really been scratching my head over the past week. I don't understand what has gotten over this friend of mine who by the way still has one foot in Christianity. Sure, being skeptical of claims, even by scientists is good. We shouldn't believe anything just on the basis of authority. The problem though is that a good number of scientists, experts in climate change, have for many years been studying the evidence and in the latest international gathering have said that global warming is occurring and is caused by humans. I don't have a fraction of the expertise necessary to pore over the evidence--both for and against--to find out for myself whether there is indeed good reason to say that temperatures are or will be increasing. And neither does my friend. While it is fallacious to argue that since most scientists say X is true, therefore X is true, it is pretty strange to say that, being a layperson who has no expertise and has not examined the evidence, we should be highly skeptical of the claims of these scientists.

I have not studied medicine but I trust my doctor is going to help my body fight the disease I'm saddled with through the medication he's prescribed. I don't have the expertise to say whether his prescribed treatment is right or wrong. But when a second and third expert opinion are in agreement I tend to become quite confident of the treatment's predicted efficacy. Same thing with the recent IPCC report. When you have a good number of scientists (whom I presume have studied lots of data/evidence) come to conclusion that it is highly probable that there's warming and that we humans are to blame, and when they are even more confident today than when they isued their 2001 findings (90% versus 66% in 2001), then I tend to believe that anthropogenic warming is real. I have less (or little) reason to be skeptical.

In one of my earlier replies to my friend I shared the following heuristic by Bertrand Russell:

[T]he opinion of experts, when it is unanimous, must be accepted by non-experts as more likely to be right than the opposite opinion. The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment.

It is not that when there's a majority consensus among scientists that what they're saying is therefore true. Rather, being nonexperts we can do no more than rely on those who know the subject matter far better than we do and who have the ability to analyze the data and evidence properly. It always is the case that our belief must be in proportion to the evidence. We nonexperts, however, can only depend on those who are qualified and who have examined the evidence. Think of these panel of scientists as consultants if you like.

So I find my friend's skepticism a bit puzzling. I find it disproportionate. I find it irrational even. He's mentioned Michael Crichton several times in the past during our phone conversations and I'm just wondering whether he's being skeptical on the basis of Crichton's skepticism. I should hope that he's got a more reliable source and foundation than a novelist.

Now moving on to what I think is really bugging him. My friend wrote:

My say is that if the skeptics of religion believe in global warming, they are applying a double standard because global warming deserves just as much skepticism.

To also say that global warming can and will be proven within the next decade or within the next century whereas religion such as Christianity cannot be proven because of supernatural claims is also deficient of reasoning.

It escapes my friend that there is a huge difference between empirical claims made by scientists studying the greenhouse effect and global warming and supernatural claims by theologians and Church fathers. For instance, most supernatural claims are nonfalsifiable, not least because religionists always posit an out--they provide ad hoc explanations to rationalize apparent disconfirmations. The greenhouse effect and global warming are observable events, can be measured, and are falsifiable claims.

Why should we be very skeptical of supernatural claims? Well, for starters up to now there is not a shred of good evidence for them. There has been no progress in the realm of theology. Not a single theological claim (and I'm talking of all religions) has been proved to be true. In contrast we know that the greenhouse effect is real. Just train your scopes on Venus to see what a runaway global warming can do. So, no, my friend. Theistic claims deserve more skepticism.

He then goes on to say that a majority of scientists now are of the opinion that global warming is for real. And because this is the majority opinion, atheists he says believe it as well. He continues:

If the atheist believes this line of thinking, then he is applying the double standard. For the atheist is a minority when it comes to religion. Majority of the world's populatiion believe in some kind of God or Gods. In the line of thinking that the majority should prevail in the interpretation of Truth, then the religious are right and the atheists are wrong.

The atheist as skeptic should question the climate change issue just as much as he questions the the religion issue.

He's asserting that if we are not be guilty of double standards and we believe scientific consensus then we should also believe the world consensus when it comes to the supernatural. Of course what he's advocating is that we commit the fallacy of argumentum ad numerum.

Scientists are experts in their respective fields, just as an oncologist is an expert on cancer. Is there any theologian who is an expert in the supernatural? Is there any nontheologian who is an expert in the same? No. For the very simple reason that no one, not even the best theologian has any evidence (or proof) that the supernatural is real, that any deity exists. No theologian, no theistic religion can even substantiate the most fundamental premise and truth claim they have. And needless to say there is no consensus among the menagerie of religions on what the supernatural is, how many deities there are, etc. On the contrary.

Those who believe in global warming and root their belief in expert opinion of scientists are being rational, not least because science has a reputable track record. Science works.

In his email today, among other things, he wrote:

Why should skeptics of global warming be saddled with the burden of proof for their doubts? Atheists argue that religious people should show evidence while the non-believers sit back in their armchairs and criticize?

I replied: Skeptics don't have the burden of proof. The thing is, if those claiming that global warming is real already have a litany of evidence in support of their hypothesis then the burden of proof shifts to those who are claiming that it is not occurring. Should there be a time in the future when warming skeptics gain the upper hand, then the onus shifts again. This is similar to what happened with evolution. The prevailing hypothesis before Darwin was religious creationism. But during and after Darwin evidence in support of evolution came pouring in such that by the 20th century the burden of proof had squarely shifted to the creationists to provide evidence for their hypothesis. Conspicuously, creationists have not been able to provide positive evidence. But what they've been trying to do is to produce/find confuting evidence against evolution. But this strategy is fallacious. If we find disconfirming evidence against hypothesis X, it does not imply that hypothesis Y then is true. This is a false dichotomy. If evolution is found false it does not mean creationism is true. Both could be wrong; some yet unproposed explanation being the correct one. Right now the burden of proof is most definitely on those who are skeptical of evolution, or for that matter, those doubtful of the theory of relativity, theory of electromagnetic radiation, ....

I don't exactly know what my friend has been reading that's made him so skeptical and critical of the IPCC and its findings. As I said above I find his skepticism disproportionate and even irrational. I--one who won't be able to pass a Metereology 101 exam--would be skeptical of my skepticism should there be a consensus among climate experts. So I find my friend's staunchly held position a bit arrogant. I find it really strange that he'd be so skeptical of global warming but not of the existence of the supernatural.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Grayling's challenge

Philosopher and author A.C. Grayling offers this challenge: What contribution has Christianity ever made to science?

Looks like no one has come up with any. Grayling notes,
I asked Madeleine Bunting to name a single contribution to science made by Christianity. She accepts with pleasure the magnificent response of the many special-pleaders who responded on her behalf by naming Christian (whether nominal or convinced) scientists, the evolution of science in Christian (nominally or convinced) countries, and the role of Christian institutions (and institutions under church control: monasteries, universities).

I was in equal parts staggered and amused by this response, staggered because it seemed astonishing to me that anyone would seriously think it was not obvious that there were scientists who were (nominal or convinced) Christians, that science developed in countries many of which were (nominally or convinced) Christian countries, and so on, and amused because in their triumphalist teaching of how to suck eggs on this matter, the responders had so vastly missed the point of my challenge, even when I clarified it for them. For obviously and manifestly I did not ask Ms Bunting if there had even been Christian scientists, or whether science had been pursued in Christian countries. I challenged Ms Bunting to explain what Christianity, a body of beliefs and doctrine about virgin birth, miracles, resurrection of the dead, angels and archangels, voices from heaven, stigmata, and all the rest of the superstitious paraphernalia, had contributed to science.

I even, in clarification to those who had astonishingly mistaken so straightforward a challenge (but perhaps wilfully?), asked if the virgin birth was a contribution to gynaecology, whether the miracle of the loaves and fishes was a contribution to food science and marine zoology, whether the assumption of the virgin was a contribution to aeronautics. I fail to see how this challenge is unclear; I fail to see how it constitutes a claim that no scientists were ever Christians and that science did not develop in Christian countries, as all the would-be rebutters endlessly chorused. But so it did: remarkable.

I still await a reply to my challenge, though I am not holding my breath.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Understanding consciousness

Psychology professor Steven Pinker has an enlightening piece on the brain and consciousness. Here's an excerpt:
Although neither [the easy nor the hard] problem has been solved, neuroscientists agree on many features of both of them, and the feature they find least controversial is the one that many people outside the field find the most shocking. Francis Crick called it "the astonishing hypothesis"--the idea that our thoughts, sensations, joys and aches consist entirely of physiological activity in the tissues of the brain. Consciousness does not reside in an ethereal soul that uses the brain like a PDA; consciousness is the activity of the brain.


SCIENTISTS HAVE EXORCISED THE GHOST FROM THE MACHINE NOT because they are mechanistic killjoys but because they have amassed evidence that every aspect of consciousness can be tied to the brain. Using functional MRI, cognitive neuroscientists can almost read people's thoughts from the blood flow in their brains. They can tell, for instance, whether a person is thinking about a face or a place or whether a picture the person is looking at is of a bottle or a shoe.

And consciousness can be pushed around by physical manipulations. Electrical stimulation of the brain during surgery can cause a person to have hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality, such as a song playing in the room or a childhood birthday party. Chemicals that affect the brain, from caffeine and alcohol to Prozac and LSD, can profoundly alter how people think, feel and see. Surgery that severs the corpus callosum, separating the two hemispheres (a treatment for epilepsy), spawns two consciousnesses within the same skull, as if the soul could be cleaved in two with a knife.

And when the physiological activity of the brain ceases, as far as anyone can tell the person's consciousness goes out of existence. Attempts to contact the souls of the dead (a pursuit of serious scientists a century ago) turned up only cheap magic tricks, and near death experiences are not the eyewitness reports of a soul parting company from the body but symptoms of oxygen starvation in the eyes and brain. In September, a team of Swiss neuroscientists reported that they could turn out-of-body experiences on and off by stimulating the part of the brain in which vision and bodily sensations converge.

Consciousness is, of course, the product of the brain. The mind is an epiphenomenon of our gray matter. The manifestations of what has been traditionally called "soul" is indistinguishable from sentience, self-awareness, capacity for ethical judgement. We know that "soul" is merely a natural phenomenon because psychotropic drugs, trauma to the brain, neurological disease, hypoxia (lack of oxygen), electrical stimulation of the cortex--all these affect this so called soul. And needless to say, to date, no one has provided testable evidence for a disembodied soul, much less interaction with such (notwithstanding the litany of anecdotes out there).

Furthermore, just as there are no souls, there is no such thing as contra-causal free will. Our thoughts, actions, behavior are all the result of natural causation; they are all determined by various physical factors. This is only to be expected. And it follows from the fact that consciousness is a product of neurological processes. Those processes are caused by various determinants including neurons, chemicals (including medication we take), electrical impulses, and environmental stimuli. What we see as our freedom to choose is not freedom without causal determinants. The "I" that knows, understands, chooses, and makes decisions is an epiphenomenon of the brain.

The "I" is not a free-floating entity transcendent of and untrammeled by the natural world. Rather, it is a fully caused and fully determined phenomenon. It is as natural as the brain of which it is a derivative, and fully subject to the laws of nature.