Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Varkam Kills Himself Some Afterlife

Friend and commenter Varkam, whom I've posted about before, recently posted an essay at Neural Gourmet. The essay is entitled "The Scars of Religion's Profanity," and in it, he makes some acute observations:

The belief that there is life after death (which, definitionally speaking, is a contradiction of terms) serves to ease the fear of nothingness, but does little to cope with the reality of the situation.

...Religion has murdered humanity. The murder weapon is the afterlife.

The whole essay is good readin', so go read it.

Thanks Varkam!

Monday, September 25, 2006

I Got Tagged by KA!

My good friend KA from Biblioblography has tagged me with a book-reading meme. It took me a little while, but I finally got a response up. Check it out at Goosing the Antithesis here.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Review: "After Life," by Simon Funk

About a month ago, a commenter by the name of Simon Funk stopped by this blog to say hello, and to mention that he had just finished writing and publishing a book, "After Life." I decided to give the book a read, and boy am I glad I did.

Simon Funk is a man of many talents. In addition to being a writer and an all around great thinker, he is also a man who works in the field of Artificial Intelligence, or A.I. And that's what his book, After Life, is about. You see, Simon Funk's book isn't about an immaterial dimension that ghosts go to after their bodies die (a dimension which the title of this blog demands be destroyed), but it is about continuing one's consciousness outside of one's biological body here in the real world. And that is an idea that I wholly support.

The book is written in first-person, through the eyes of the main character, Alex Harris, PhD. Alex has just figured out how to transfer one's consciousness from a biological brain into a man-made computer. He performs the procedure on himself, and as a result, the entire world is changed. Perhaps the most significant change, though, occurs in Alex's own consciousness.

After transferring his consciousness to a machine, Alex experiences a series of unusual events. Some of these events seem like dreams, and some seem all too real. At first, the experiences are very puzzling to the reader (and to Alex himself), and don't make sense. But as the story unfolds, the pieces fall into place and produce a very mind-blowing cohesive picture.

Simon Funk is a very skilled writer. His writing is very personal and involving; I felt like I was Alex himself trying to make sense of the strange situations he kept finding himself to be in. But Simon Funk is not afraid to dig deep into the technological, philosophical, and ethical questions that naturally arise when consciousness, identity, and life itself are permanently altered.

Simon Funk also knows his stuff when it comes to Artificial Intelligence. His writing incorporates technological concepts used in today's A.I. field, yet he presents the ideas in a way that just about any reader can grasp. Simon also provides a familiar, human perspective to these ideas. What the reader ends up getting is an excellent mix of technological, philosophical, ethical, and emotional perspectives on the main character and his story. Allow me to quote a passage from chapter 1:

What makes the process tolerable is that half the drugs we're using are devoted entirely to protecting the brain. Specifically, we completely halt the processes that normally lead to the physical changes underlying the formation of memories. In effect the brain is held in a sort of chemical deep freeze, a state immune to change, but still able to function in a purely reactionary way. Other drugs keep the necessary neurotransmitters and nutrients replenished, and also keep the level of spontaneous activity as low as possible. This latter point would amount to keeping the subject unconscious, except that we then go in and light up their brain with activity much as if they were conscious, but completely under our control. In some sense, we have drugged their will to sleep, closed their eyes and ears, and replaced all of that with a machine that decides exactly what they're going to think, see, hear and feel in each moment. Yes--some day this could lead to the ultimate virtual reality experience, but that's a long time off. Right now there's no real coherent thinking or experience going on. We don't know nearly enough, nor have the compute power, to do that. Right now, it's just a random nightmare of disconnected thoughts, feelings, and sensations, experienced in rapid fire succession and immediately and forever forgotten. But that's enough--that's enough, I believe, for us to reconstruct the mind within the brain.

So, why am I talking about carburetors and grandmothers instead of cheese and mazes, considering we've only really done this with a mouse? Because I've been having nightmares about this for days. Because...I am going to have it done to me. Or maybe I already have.

As you can see, both the story and the writing style in Simon Funk's After Life are delectable.

My one gripe about this book is that it was too short. The book is 25 chapters, and in printed form it is only 160 pages. I literally tore through it as fast as I could, and the end of the story came all too quickly for me. But isn't that what happens with most good books? In addition, the book is short because it's writing style. While it gives you significant morsels of the story, it skips a few details here and there. This was obviously done deliberately as a way of leaving certain things unsaid so that the reader can either fill in the blanks with their imagination, or be left with questions in their head to ponder. This book definitely makes you think, no question about it.

Simon Funk's After Life is an all around excellent book. I can't remember the last time I read a fiction book that got the gears in my head to turn so much. I also forwarded the book to my good friend David Mills, author of the #1 bestseller Atheist Universe, and Mills had nothing but praise for Simon and his book.

I therefore highly recommend that you read After Life by Simon Funk. I also recommend that you purchase the book from Lulu. Simon is currently selling his book from Lulu at cost, so it will only cost you around 8 bucks, and it comes with a beautifully designed cover (also created by the author), and good production quality. I suggest you buy it now while the price is low, because I have been repeatedly trying to convince Simon to sell it for a profit (hey, I am a capitalist).

Finally, be sure to tell your friends about the book, as right now word-of-mouth is the only form of advertising being used to promote it, and the word definitely needs to get out about this excellent book.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Belief in the Afterlife is the Basis for the Hatred of Women

Props to Francois Tremblay for bringing this article to my attention.

Caron Cadle speaks my language. Although she is a Pagan (I used to be one for a short while too), she is definitely in the anti-afterlife camp. She makes a great argument for the afterlife being a realm of women-haters:

It all hangs together: an obsession with impossible purity, hatred and fear of real women, of the dirt and imperfection of real life, even of one's own physicality, one's own body. Mohammed Atta's last will and testament stipulates that no woman be allowed to mourn him, attend his funeral or even go near his grave. He disdained his own body so much that he stipulated that the man who was to wash his genitals after his death wear gloves, so his impure sexual parts would theoretically remain untouched. But let's not kid ourselves that this thought complex is the exclusive property of Islamic fundamentalists. Consider orthodox Judaism, which demands that women cleanse themselves of their menstrual pollution each month, and be banned from synagogue for twice as long after the birth of a female child as after the birth of a male. Any man who touches a menstruating woman has to ritually purify himself and still remains unclean until sunset that day; if he has sex with a menstruating woman, he is unclean for a week. As for Christianity, early "church father" Tertullian (ca. AD 200) makes it clear: "[W]oman [is] the obstacle to purity, the temptress, the enemy. . . her body is the gate of hell." The all-male Catholic church hierarchy couldn't stand the thought that Mary, mother of Jesus, might be a normal, fleshly woman. So the New Testament mentions of Jesus's younger siblings are explained away, to make sure no-one dares think she actually had sex with her husband Joseph, and by the mid-19th century, she was declared a perpetual virgin. Just like the houris. It's a given in male-monotheist religions: the immaculate super-woman, a figment of the imagination, is set up as an impossible standard that we "standard-issue" women can never meet. This fills women with despair and self-hatred, while men may cultivate exaggerated expectations, sure to be disappointed.

Emphasis hers. Be sure to click on the link and read her whole article.

Since both men and women are simply "human," isn't woman-hating just a projected form of self-hate? Look at it from a technical standpoint. For example, I have a sister. She was created by the same material and process that created me. My sister is closer to my "blood" than either my father or mother! In fact, I could have been a female had a different sperm fertilized the egg that I came from. Humanity cannot even survive without women, and vice-versa! What is humanity without both genders? Humanity doesn't even exist unless both "halves" of it are present! A humanity with only one gender is a soon-to-be-extinct humanity!

All this women-hating religious bullshit reminds me of kindergarten. Back in kindergarten, I was much less mature, mentally and emotionally. Me and all my kindergarten pals would play "cooties." Do any of you remember this game? The boys and girls would group together, and try to give each other "cooties" in a game similar to tag. I remember the disgust and grossness of being touched by a girl. If a girl gave me "cooties," then I would need to get a "cootie shot" post-haste. And "cootie shots" could only be administered to the "infected" person by another member of the same sex.

That is the mentality of this gender separation bullshit that is found in religion and afterlife-belief. It is immature, it is divisive, and it is no longer a relatively harmless game when adults with guns and power play it.

Most normal people, when they mature, no longer look at the opposite sex as having "cooties." Instead, most mature adults look at the opposite sex as something beautiful, something desirable, something to want to be close to, and something to want to be joined in emotional, mental, and physical unity with.

Unfortunately, this afterlife voodoo fucks it all up. I swear, it seems like these Abrahamic afterlife concepts were invented by 5-year-old kindergartners! Who else ever thinks that way naturally? Sexism is merely projected fear of the opposite sex, and fear of the opposite sex belongs in kindergarten playgrounds!

Fuck the afterlife, and love the opposite sex.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Phantom Limb Pain and its Afterlife Implications

Ever heard of phantom limb pain? I saw a show about it once a long time ago on the Discovery Channel. Basically it works like this: A person has a significant body part amputated or severed (usually an arm or leg, but sometimes a breast or even an eye). After the limb or body part is gone, the person feels sensations from that missing body part. The sensations are usually painful in nature, but not always.

Wikipedia describes phantom limb pain thusly (I am removing references in the quote for your reading convenience. If you want the references, click on the Wikipedia link):

A phantom limb is the sensation that an amputated or missing limb is still attached to the body and is moving appropriately with other body parts. Approximately 50 to 80% of amputees experience these phantom sensations in their amputated limb, and the majority of these people report that the sensations are painful. Phantom sensations and phantom pain may also occur after the removal of body parts other than the limbs, e.g. after amputation of the breast, extraction of a tooth (phantom tooth pain) or removal of an eye (phantom eye syndrome).

Phantom pains can also occur in people who are born without limbs and people who are paralyzed. Phantom pains occur when the missing limb causes discomfort. Other induced sensations include warmth, cold, itching, squeezing and burning. The missing limb often feels shorter and may feel as if it is in a distorted and painful position. Occasionally, the pain can be made worse by stress, anxiety and weather changes.

For afterlife-scoffing materialists such as myself, phantom limb pain causes no controversy, and creates no explanatory problems:

Some people with phantom limbs find that the limb will gesticulate as they talk. Given the way that the hands and arms are represented on the motor cortex and language centers, this is not surprising. Some people find that their phantom limbs feels and behaves as though it is still there, others find that it begins to take on a life of its own, and doesn't obey their commands.

In the early 1990s, Tim Pons, at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), showed that the brain can reorganize if sensory input is cut off. Hearing about these results. S. Ramachandran realized that phantom limb sensations could be due to "crosswiring" in the somatosenory cortex, which is located in the postcentral gyrus, and which receives input from the limbs and body. Input from the left side of the body goes to the right hemisphere and vice versa. The input from extremities comes into the somatosensory cortex in an ordered way, the representation of which is referred to as the somatosensory homonculus. Input from the hand is located next to the input from the arm, input from the foot is located next to input from the hand, and so on. One oddity is input from the face is located next to input from the hand.

Ramachandran reasoned that if someone were to lose their right hand in an accident, they may then have the feelings of a phantom limb because the input that normally would go from their hand to the left somatosensory cortex would be stopped. The areas in the somatosensory cortex that are near to the ones of the hand (the arm and face) will take over (or "remap") this cortical region that no longer has input. Ramachandran and colleagues first demonstrated this remapping by showing that stroking different parts of the face led to perceptions of being touched on different parts of the missing limb and subsequently demonstrated that the somatosensory cortex reorganizes using magnetoencephalography (MEG) which permits visualization of activity in the human brain.

But what about the afterlife-believing immaterialist? Does phantom limb pain create problems for such a worldview? Well, I believe that it depends on the immaterialist in question.

Some immaterialists may accept the above quoted materialistic explanation for phantom limb pain. This is all well and good, and I would indeed applaud any immaterialist who adopts such a materialistic explanation. But if the immaterialist accepts such a material explanation for phantom limb pain, then why not also accept a material explanation for near-death experiences, or even death itself (in other words, no afterlife and no immaterial consciousness or soul)?

But let's move on to the immaterialist who believes that phantom limb pain is the result of that part of one's spirit or soul continuing to be attached to one's body, while the corresponding physical body part is missing (By the way, the reason I'm bringing this whole topic up in the first place is because I recently had a discussion about phantom limb pain with an afterlife-believing immaterialist).

Why, if the immaterial spirit portion of the amputated limb is still "attached" to one's soul, is it uncontrollable? Shouldn't one be able to still control one's spirit limb just like one can control their own thoughts? Or why wouldn't the spirit limb disappear into the immaterial afterlife dimension and wait for the rest of one's soul to arrive upon their death? Why would a material tool such as a mirror box be so helpful in relieving the phantom limb pain if the cause of the pain is the immaterial and disembodied spiritual portion of the limb?

At one point while discussing phantom limb pain with my immaterialist friend, I took the conversation one step further. I asked, "What if one's head is amputated instead of an arm? Would the person feel phantom head pain?" To this he only laughed, as if my question was totally absurd. I considered his laugh a victory on my part. Why? Because in his laughing dismissal of my question, he revealed that he believed the soul or spirit to be materially limited to the head, and that he was assigning a spiritual-physical disconnect or independence in an arbitrary fashion.

If one's spirit exists in one's arm and one's head, than isn't it logical to conclude that one's spirit exists in the entire body? Why would a spirit be able to control a physical body that is missing an arm, but not a body that is missing a head? Why would a person's immaterial spirit or consciousness experience phantom pain when an arm is severed, but not when one's head is severed?

Isn't the immaterialist's assumption that a severed head results in death some kind of concession to the materialist position? Why can't I just cut off my head and continue to live while experiencing phantom head pain? Isn't the immaterialist's assertions regarding the spirit and various severed body parts totally arbitrary?

If I lose my hand, and I still "sense" it's existence, then why don't I still "sense" the existence of my complete and intact mental facilities when I get a frontal lobotomy? Why don't I still "sense" the existence of my head when it gets blown off? Why do I instead die and (presumably) move on to the afterlife once my head is blasted to bits?

If the destruction of my head but the preservation of the rest of my body results in ascension to the afterlife, then does only my "head" portion of the spirit ascend while my "spiritual" arms and legs remain on Earth? I doubt that any immaterialist would agree with that proposition! So why should my spiritual arm remain with me after physical amputation, if my spirit in its entirety will ascend to Heaven when something as simple as a .22 caliber bullet pierces my brain stem?

As you can see, many unusual questions arise when immaterialism is combined with phantom limb pain (or any biological phenomenon for that matter). When biological hairs are split, such as in the case of phantom limb pain, only the materialist explanation makes any sense at all.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

To Sign or Not to Sign?

My friend and fellow atheist, Ka, from Biblioblography says he doesn't want to sign the Wal-Mart Bible Letter. He gives his justification thusly (his post came up with some funny characters in it [รข€™] due to some kind of browser/font issue on my end, so I had to edit out the strange characters the best I could and the quote may not be 100% syntactically correct):

My point here is that we need to contribute more positive items to the world. Charity work, volunteer work, throw some money at a recurring problem, hell, give out free copies of the Atheist Manifesto, or The End of Faith ('cause let's face it, you can get all sorts of bibles for free, or next to nothing) sure, you get what you pay for and all, but when it comes to the Almighty Dollar, people ain't gonna pay extra for something unless the novelty value is extreme, and most think that we believe in "nothing," where's the value in that?).

Short version, is what I'm always trying to teach my 17-year-old niece: pick your battles. Choose the ones you can win.

A fair point, indeed. Incidentally, the esteemed Austin Cline also mentions the same sentiments that Ka points out, yet he still concludes that signing the letter would be a good thing overall:

Is there any chance that this petition will be successful? No, quite frankly, I don't think so. I'll grant that it's nice to imagine companies like Wal-Mart treating Christianity and Christian material in a manner that it ethical and intellectually consistent with how they treat other sorts of material. I agree with Aaron Kinney that the ideal situation would be for Wal-Mart to sell all the material, but also that if they going to ban some of it on the basis of sexual or violent content, then they should evaluate the Bible on the same basis. I doubt that it would survive such a review if conducted fairly and objectively.


That doesn't make this petition entirely worthless, though. If nothing else, it may draw people's attention not only to Wal-Mart's censorship policies and how they can negatively impact the distribution of information in America, but also perhaps some of the violence, sex, and hatred conveyed in the Bible. That's not such a bad goal to have as well.

I agree with both Ka's and Austin's sentiments, but I must respectfully part ways with Ka's conclusion.

Both Ka and Austin are right in that this letter has a snowball's chance in Hell of actually getting Wal-Mart to stop selling Bibles. I mean, even if I am wrong about the non-existence of God, surely I am not so delusional to think that this letter would get Wal-Mart to stop selling Bibles?

No, I am not. What I am fairly sure about, though, is that if enough people sign this letter, it will bring the atrocities of the Bible to the attention of the average Joe Six-pack American public. How many self-professed Christians in America are even aware that the Bible has stories of incest-rape committed on Lot by his own daughters? Surely, most self-professed Christians in America are aware that the Bible says not to work on the Sabbath, but how many of them are actually aware that the Bible proscribes execution for those who break the rule? How many self-professed Christians in America today are aware that the Bible says to execute non-Christians?

How many self-professed Christians in America today even realize that their own holy book would be banned from libraries and store shelves if their own anti-obscenity policies were uniformly enforced?

To me, this is about awareness. Not Christian awareness of atheism as Ka states, but Christian awareness of the contents of their own sacred book. Unfortunately, I didn't make this point clear in my original post about the Bible Letter. Instead I argued from effect: The effect of either having obscene books sold in Wal-Mart again, or the (unlikely) effect of having the Bible pulled from their shelves. But after some further thought on the issue, I think that awareness of the Bible itself and it's contents is definitely the most important point in this whole issue. Austin Cline seems to understand that rather well:

If nothing else, it may draw people's attention not only to Wal-Mart's censorship policies and how they can negatively impact the distribution of information in America, but also perhaps some of the violence, sex, and hatred conveyed in the Bible.

Emphasis mine.

So, while I do respect Ka's decision and understand where he is coming from, I think that he should reconsider. I also think that any atheists who are hesitant to sign the letter should think long and hard about the importance of bringing the Bible's full contents into the thoughts of the average Joe Christian, and sign the letter just like Austin Cline, PZ Myers, and myself have done.