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Debate: Is There An Afterlife? With Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, David Wolpe, and Bradley Artson, moderated by Rob Eshman

2011-04-25 1 comment

On 2011-02-17 in Los Angeles, California, there was a debate entitled “Is There An Afterlife?” featuring such prominent figures as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, David Wolpe, and Bradley Artson.

I attended this debate in person and it was very enjoyable. The topic of discussion may seem a bit silly, and in fact Sam Harris joked about this at the beginning of the debate saying, “I’ve been very worried about this, that all of you [in attendance] have given up a perfectly serviceable Tuesday evening only to hear the four of us tell you every which way that we have no idea what happens after death.” Despite this, it turned out to be very interesting.  I found each of the panelists to be articulate, entertaining, concise, and witty. The only exception in my opinion was Artson, who was rambling, boring, and just kept droning on and on, talking in circles as well as going off on tangents rather than addressing the issues put forth to him by the others. It seemed to me Artson did not belong up there with the others who are the top dogs in their field and masters of their craft. But like I said, overall the event was great. The moderator Rob Eshman did an admirable job as well, and he wrote a good summary of the whole event which you can read here: http://www.jewishjournal.com/bloggish/item/hitchens_wolpe_harris_artsen_and_the_afterlife_excerpts_20110222/ In fact, if you watched the debate and didn’t know anything about Eshman, you would have a very difficult time determining which side of the issue he agreed with, and that is definitely the mark of a good debate moderator so I laud him for that.

At one point the conversation turned to the idea of dualism, the notion that the mind exists separately from the body and that a person is more than just the “sum of their parts.” Obviously this is closely tied in with the notion of an afterlife. One (or both) of the rabbis brought up the phenomenon of near-death experiences inducing a spiritual feeling in the person going through the experience, and used this as an argument for making their case for the existence of dualism. I was surprised and disappointed that Harris (who has a doctorate in neuroscience) did not refute this argument as many have done already. There is a growing body of evidence showing that the spiritual or religious feel of a near-death experience is a manifestation of biochemical processes going on in the brain. For example, researchers have been able to artificially induce this spiritual/religious feel of a near-death experience by stimulating the brain of a person in a certain way. There’s much more to be said about that topic but I will save it for another time; I merely brought it up to express my disappointment that Harris didn’t talk more about that, for whatever reason.

One other minor thing to note is that some of the audience was having trouble hearing Hitchens who had fairly recently undergone treatment for esophageal cancer (i.e. throat cancer). This was remedied when someone finally gave him a better microphone.

Feel free to watch the debate below. For the most part the entire discussion is fascinating and entertaining, regardless of your own personal beliefs on the issues. If you are interested in the topics of religion, death, afterlife, god, or a lack thereof, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the debate as much as I did.

Educational deficiencies

2011-04-02 3 comments

Many people these days are aware of problems with schools.  It’s an extremely complex issue with no easy answer.  So I’m not proposing anything or trying to make any kind of grand sweeping generalization, or claiming I know how to fix the problems.  But I want to share with you a personal example of a deficiency in my education (through no fault of my own).

I always paid attention in history class (or at the very least read all the assigned reading and did all the assigned work).  So while I may not be a history whiz, I should at least know some of the basics, right?

Today I was on wikipedia reading about the Industrial Revolution.  I’ve heard the term before, but we never covered it in school.  Someone may have mentioned it in passing, but I really knew nothing about it until I started reading about it today.  In the opening paragraph, it states “Economic historians are in agreement that the onset of the Industrial Revolution is the most important event in the history of humanity since the domestication of animals and plants.”

As I learned more about the Industrial Revolution, I began to see that this statement about the importance of the Industrial Revolution is not an exaggeration.  Every single one of us lives the way we do because of what happened during the Industrial Revolution.  I learned about economic growth.  Mechanization.  Worker exploitation.  Labor unions.  Collective bargaining.  These things are huge.  They matter, in a very direct and real sense.  I’ve only skimmed the surface but now I at least have a foundation of knowledge about that subject.  So many things in our every day lives are a direct result of global changes that took place during the Industrial Revolution, and having now learned the basics of it, I have a much better understanding of the world.

So what’s my point?  Well, we’ve already talked about how we’re autodidacts. I just want to continue the conversation.  There is so much to learn out there about the universe we live in.  The more you learn, the more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that comprises our reality fit into place.  Let your curiosity guide you.  And know that there’s always so much more to be learned.  You just have to teach it to yourself.  It’s empowering.

 

EDIT 2011-10-16: The following videos about the future of education and how it can be changed for the better are both inspiring and jarring:

Both videos are TED talks regarding the current state of and the future of the educational system.  In the first video, Salman Kahn (of Kahn Academy fame) talks about how he has begun working with schools to revolutionize teaching.  The second video, which is a bit more bleak, has Bill Gates (of Microsoft fame) talking about the consequences of the budget cuts to education as well as the possibilities for fixing the problems.

 

Not Feeling Guilty Just Because Religion Doesn’t Go Down Smooth and Always Lets You Down 101

Spurred by the frustrations of a good friend trying to reach common ground with a loved one,  I am providing a funderful crash course.

Not Feeling Guilty Just Because Religion Doesn’t Go Down Smooth and Always Lets You Down 101 (regardless of how many spoonfuls of sugar you take it with)

Professor Teezey: Professor works as a Biomedical Engineer and has explored the issue extensively (from scientific and psychological standpoint) during world travel with much spirited discussion as well as extensive reading and exploration into the issue during a period of being between school and jobs. Officially raised catholic, your professor was a student of “Sunday School” (which he attended on Mondays), and he had a generally good experience with the organization and the people in it. Raised by a highly conservative family in very liberal areas of coastal southern California, your professor is an extremely intelligent individual who loathes contradictions and cognitive dissonance. Essentially, he has agonized over this issue so you do not have to. The professor hopes that you will no longer feel guilty for being who you are, and that any conclusions you end up drawing are your own.

Your education begins…

1)

God bless Joe Pesci:

2)

The God Delusion, preface linked below. You do not have any choice in the matter, if there was something higher than Required Reading, this is it. If you were read chapter 2 and then go to hang out with friends downtown…they would know that your mind was elsewhere. Chapter 2 is where he called me out, it was one of those zen like reading experiences where the author was talking directly to  me and me only, even though we had never met and the book was a bestseller. Essentially he said, you are on the fence, I know how you got there, and I’m going to pull you off of it.

God Delusion Preface

3)

One summertime family dinner on the patio I had this 1 v 4 debate with my parents and grandparents as the sun was setting (erstwhile my siblings looked fairly uncomfortable).

http://www.nobeliefs.com/Tripoli.htm

I was not looking for an argument but if they insisted saying things that were patently false with me there…it was only a matter of time.

4)

All the proof you need:

5)

http://www.godisimaginary.com/

6)

Split brain patient: 1/2 atheist, 1/2 Christian

7)

This piece of ABC programming is a good representation of the debate today: the chosen ones, i.e. zealous writers and actors, making insipid attempts to stay one step ahead of those meddling scientists.

8)

Do you fear that you are going to isolate yourself from other people? Don’t worry, not all of them:

http://www.reddit.com/r/atheism/

http://skeptoid.com/

ThoseOnboard will take your poor, your huddled masses…they just better be smoking hot though.

9)

TV Shows you can watch that will not alienate you:

Penn & Teller’s Bullshit

Derren Brown (watch anything from Derren Brown)

10)

My advice:  Do not try to think of all the people in your life and then try to devise a way not to piss any of them off. Your concern is never to worry that other people feel threatened by your views.  Allow yourself t come to your own understanding. Don’t forget to check the comments here, my cohorts will probably put up better links than I have. Feel free to post as well if you are new.

Categories: Life, Psychology, Science Tags:

That Makes Me a Sad Panda

2009-11-15 1 comment

Yesterday I finished J. Craig Venter’s autobiography, “A Life Decoded.” As you may have guessed from the clever title he was the first person to have his genome sequenced, an effort he led. Before that he led the charge on the first and second organism to be sequenced using his novel “EST Shotgun method.” Even if you’re not into biology or the politics of science, the book is inspiring and, taking into account all that he has been able to accomplish, it makes you want to borrow his mindset.

Intermittently he would add boxes that tie his life into what he knows about his DNA. A comment from Jaybe last weekend about his preference for serotonin pharmaceuticals as well as some trying events in my life this year incited me to share this one:

Depression

The attacks and setbacks I have experienced over the years would have plunged some people into profound depression. That is not to say I have not been down from time to time, but I have been fortunate that I have been mostly able to escape deep clinical depression. Is this because of my genes? A team led by Kay Wilhelm of Sydney’s St. Vincent’s Hospital and the University of New South Wales in Australia found that the influence of adversity on the onset of depression was significantly greater for those who inherited on chromosome 17 a short version of the serotonin transporter gene, known as 5-HTTLPR, from both parents.

The difference in length is in a part of the gene called the “activation sequence” that controls how much of the protein is made. As a result of having a shorter version, around one-fifth of the population makes less of a protein responsible for transporting the brain chemical serotonin, which plays a key role in mood and pain regulation, appetite, and sleep, and is affected by Prozac. They have an 80 percent chance of becoming clinically depressed if they experience three or more negative events in five years. Once again we have a study that undermines simpleminded genetic determinism: Brain chemistry depends on both genes and circumstances, on both biology and society.

The work also showed that those with a long version that gave them “genetic resilience” against depression had only a 30 percent chance of developing the mental illness, given similar circumstances. The remainder-about half of all people-have a mix of the two genotypes. Many other studies have linked the short version to anxiety-related personality traits including harm avoidance and neuroticism and increased experimentation with illegal drugs. Fortunately for me, I have two copies of the long form and more serotonin.

In addition to copious amounts of serotonin (which makes sense because he’s always sailing through big storms on the open ocean), I can tell by using the book as a portal into his brain and his obvious talent for research that he has tons of inductive reasoning skill. At least I think I can, whatever the case, it’s safe to say he found his calling.

sad_panda

“Hepped Up on Goofballs”

2009-10-28 1 comment

My comrade at work tendered his Two Weeks Notice and will therefore be passing me the torch, that is, the dubious honor of being the “Most Disgruntled Employee in Show.” We had often contemplated that at the crux of our mutual dissatisfaction lie a dearth of the neurotransmitter and neurohormone 4-(2-aminoethyl)benzene-1,2-diol of the catecholamine family.

Dopamine

Ain't it Dope?!

Dopamine, or Goofballs to you kids, is something that God assiduously spurns from our receptors. I will often liken the one operational dopamine receptor in my prefrontal cortex to the creaky screen door of a lone house on a dusty windswept plain. Comrade envisions greener pastures back in New Mexico, however, before bidding his adieu he seeks to refine our notion of dopamine function and I thought I would likewise share:

New York Times, Science Section (10/26/09)

Science Blog which starts by quoting the above (10/27/09)

Tools of Education

In an ongoing quest to continuously educate myself I find it paramount to take note of any new educational tools.  The most accessible of these tools is undoubtedly the internet.  Staying congruent with Jon’s post regarding a union between education and videogames, I feel that that which is most engaging is most likely to stick in one’s memory.  Using the fantastic firefox add-on Stumble Upon I have come across so far two of what may possibly be hundreds of such websites that are capable of teaching via intriguing flash animations and short bursts of information that are easy to inculcate and process.

Physics concepts


Introduction to Biology


Hodge Podge of Science

If anyone else has anything to add to the list, feel free to post it in the comments.

Dawkins is at it again

I took a break from reading The God Delusion, flipped on the radio, and heard a familiar voice; Richard Dawkins was talking to conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager about his latest book that just came out The Greatest Show On Earth.  Soldier on, Dawkins.  Soldier on.

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