The consciousness gap and physicalism reloaded

japanese style wave patternHow real is your existence? Is your world constantly re-inventing itself around you? Or is human life no more mysterious than an actor playing a part on a lifeless stage set? Science is well equipped to account for all the matter and energy around us, from the the Big Bang onwards. Yet the most important tool in understanding our world, consciousness itself, is so subjective and potentially unscientific we struggle to account for it. As a consequence science lacks an account of how conscious beings, humans and other animals, can be composed of nothing more than the atoms that compose the unconscious inanimate world that surround us – what I call the “consciousness gap”.

In common with most scientists, I believe our consciousness is a direct product of matter and energy and cannot exist without them. As an atheist I agree our existence and behaviours can be largely explained by evolution, mathematical biology, chaos theory etc, all without reference to supernatural forces or an intelligent creator. Physicalism, materialism and naturalism give us the best explanation of our world to date and largely do so without mythologising human existence.

Yet science cannot bridge that consciousness gap in a way that is useful to our hunter-gatherer brains without some account of how living consciousness comes into being. Continue reading…

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BioDiesel. The Good, the Bad, and the Chippy

I only do around 2000 miles per year by car. To further reduce carbon emissions and air pollution I’ve been filling up my Golf Tdi mk4 with recycled food oil biodiesel. Crops grown for Biofuels compete with food production for land and water, so can they only be a stop-gap until electric, Hydrogen and other truly renewable fuels take over. However bio-fuels should not be completely dismissed as they bring some environmental benefits.

biodiesel tanks on a farm
In use I’ve found no loss of power and the engine runs as smoothly as before. Because biodiesel contains more Oxygen and can clean deposits from your fuel system, it’s recommended to change the fuel filter after the first 1000 miles. My 2002 Golf Tdi is well suited to running 100% biodiesel. Cars from around 2004 usually require a 50/50 blend to protect the particulate filter, but with an older diesel I can use either bio or mineral diesel as needed, the engine management system adapts to these in any proportions without modification. A major selling point of biodiesel is also price, around 30% cheaper at 86p/litre.

Diesel engines can use fuel from a wide range of sources – I know someone who poured 20 litres of Sunflower Oil from Lidl into his tank, then added 20 Litres of mineral diesel, and his van ran perfectly. But modern turbo diesels have complicated engines so I buy EN14214 (EU standard for biodiesel) because having something properly filtered and made to a specific standard should minimise risk of damage.

Recycled biodiesel does have a slight food-oil smell, which is only as strong as the mineral diesel smell I was getting before (and so far I’ve been free of cravings to stop at the nearest chippy as I’ve been driving along). The only real downside is that my car does give off some white smoke (unburnt diesel, likely caused by a leaking injector seal) on starting if the car hasn’t been used for a few days. This is more visible with biodiesel, as it’s slightly thicker than mineral diesel.

The good and bad of biodiesel

Bio-fuel useage is quite low in the UK compared to some European countries, for example 85% of Stockholm’s buses run on biodiesel. More widespread adoption of bio-fuels has been tarnished by the misguided addition of bio-fuel to all UK petrol/diesel around 10 years ago. This created an instant demand, and the horrifying effect of developing nations ripping up rainforest and replacing it with monocultural palm oil plantations to power our school runs and weekly shops1. Deforestation also meant some Palm oil biodiesel may have created 3x more carbon than mineral diesel. Even the sustainability of German made Rape Seed biodiesel on existing agricultural land is lower than was originally thought, possibly as low as 30% sustainability.2

However biodiesel made from recycled oil shouldn’t contribute to deforestation and 30% is better than 0% sustainability. Apart from the provenance issue, one probably reason the UK government hasn’t promoted biodiesel is because it produces more Nitrous Oxides (NOx) up 8% according to a 2016 Defra study3, and NOx is a key measure of EU air quality standards. However the same report estimates Carbon Monoxide and particulate matter are lowered by a third, and Hydrocarbons by two thirds, which is a significant pollution reduction overall.

Although UK government policy from 2001 was to promote diesel, they’re now considering toxin taxes to discourage diesel use. A workmate angrily told me the government lied to us because they knew diesel was dirty. But ministers have admitted they made a mistake and governments rarely take decisions in isolation. I suspect the government consulted the motor industry who would have favoured more diesel because few manufacturers had invested in hybrid and alternative fueled vehicles, but they all knew how to make diesel engines. Diesel is far more efficient than petrol per mile, leading the government to believe they had a quick fix for meeting Kyoto protocol Carbon emission targets. They also believed better engine design and exhaust filtering would create a new generation of ‘clean diesel’ – something we know doesn’t work in the real world.

Maybe time to go electric

It would be great if in a few years time I can preserve some of the energy invested in building and maintaining my car by replacing its diesel engine with an electric motor and batteries, as one garage is doing in Mexico city.

However I’m sure the motor lobby will site safety, and lobby the UK government for scrapage schemes and make buying entirely new vehicles the only option.

If you’re running a business with mostly local mileage, an electric van is a viable option now. I know of one landscape gardening business who ditched their unreliable and expensive diesel van for an all electric Nissan e-NV200. Range is just over 100 miles, so it needs charging every 2-3 days. But per mile fuel costs are less than half the diesel fuel. It always starts, is road tax free and the purchase qualified for a 35% grant from the government. It should also be good for the long-term as the electric drivetrain has fewer moving parts than any petrol or diesel engine to need expensive maintenance once it’s out of waranty.

There is more to gain than just meeting targets with cleaner vehicles. Friends of mine recently visited Tokyo and were surprised by how quiet and clean a city of 13 million people can be, due to high air quality standards and the large number of hybrid and electric vehicles – even on busy streets they could smell flowers by the roadside. The technology is just around the corner to cut pollutants and in so doing make our cities much more enjoyable places to live.


1. Unintentional damage from bio-fuel
2. New biodiesel sustainability below 30%
3. Tables 4 and 8 show lower pollutants with biodiesel in this Defra report

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Frequent fails of barefoot shoes

What’s a long distance to run? 10,000 metres? A marathon? A 100 mile ultra-marathon in mountainous terrain, barely stopping through day and night for 20 hours?

barefoot on leaves

There is a growing opinion all humans are capable of running several hours and covering tens of miles daily. Over long distances humans are the fastest animal on the planet because we lose heat efficiently, making us the supreme ‘persistence’ hunters as we pursue our prey to collapse for an easy kill. Humans have only made tools for around 200,000 years, so for the first 1.8 million years of human evolution, the ability to run long distances was a probably a key factor preventing our extinction – before large brains and the ability to change our surroundings really gave us the evolutionary leg-up.

Long distances used to be shorter

In 1972 my father watched an athletics event in Edinburgh, where a mix of Olympic hopefuls and lower ranked amateurs were competing. In the 10k the slower runners came in long after the podium places had been decided, but everybody stayed and cheered the stragglers home, feeling that anyone finishing a 10,000m run was achieving something special. At this time distance running was to the general population a bit eccentric and unnatural. It was the same for many scientists, Continue reading…

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10 WordPress plugins for a writer’s blog

WordPress is an excellent tool for getting your writing online, but as a web programmer I know that it lacks some important features ‘out of the box’. When I set up this site I immediately added ten free WordPress plugins to get the basic functionality all good websites need.

Here is my list of ten essential WordPress plugins for any writer’s blog, which I’ve divided into three groups; QA, Extra functionality, Security and utilities. Continue reading “10 WordPress plugins for a writer’s blog”

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Public transport – an alternate route?

bus graphic

Public transport is the most efficient way to move people around our cities, so why is it not more widely used? In many UK cities people use their public transport unwillingly. Increased privatisation has not fixed the problem. Outside of London bus passenger numbers have been in sharp decline since 1984/85, down 37%. Although Labour has proposed some nationalisation of public transport, even if a government was elected tomorrow with nationalisation as a key manifesto pledge, legal challenges and the mechanics of government mean the process could take years. And more privatisation is around the corner – in March 2017 the (ironically delayed) Bus Services Bill will return to Parliament, which prevents local authorities starting their own bus services, even if they can offer a better and more cost effective service than the private sector.

Efficient public transport is vital to our environment and our economy, and I believe our overly privatised buses and trains are failing on both counts. Here I’m going to suggest a way to enable low cost public transport across the UK to improve our environment and increase passenger numbers. For an idea to work practically the devil is in the detail, so this is neither a political strategy or a business plan. It is simply a starting point for consideration and discussion. Continue reading…

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Cancer is a lottery, not a judgement


Cancer is a dreadful illness. The conventional treatments can be harsh and unpleasant to endure, and perhaps there should be a better way. Many people have claimed the power of thought prevents and even cures Cancer, some of whom have themselves survived Cancer against the odds. But before anyone puts their faith in such claims I think there is a statistical point to consider.

According to Cancer Research UK, worldwide there were 14.2 million new cases of Cancer diagnosed in 2012. If all those 14.2 million people had been given the very worst prognosis by their doctors of only a 1 in 100 chance, that still means 142,000 of them would likely have survived, and half a million would have seemingly done the impossible by 2016. Fortunately the actual odds of surviving all types of Cancer averages out around 50/50 over 10 years.

So for every person who can testify to their thoughts beating the disease, there will be many more making no such claims, and many more who sadly will not make it. It’s an obvious point maybe, but only those fortunate enough to live through Cancer are then around to write an inspiring book, make a video, or charge for a ticket to their seminar on how they believe they did it. Continue reading…

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The Human Animal – a breed apart?

chick with blackboard

For the majority of Western history the only consciousness worth examining was human. Until recently scientists lacked the tools to examine the consciousness of other animals. But Western science has also developed within a Judeo-Christian cultural heritage in which only humans have souls – a religious tradition which taught that God has taken us and only us, over that threshold of animal consciousness into the realm of moral beings.

Although science has largely overtaken religion as a way of explaining human existence, like religion it has emphasised differences between humans and other animals rather than common ground. In recent years more detailed experiments into animal consciousness show much of what has been regarded as solely human characteristics, such as the potential for language, ability for abstract thought, the capacity for emotions, jealousy and cruelty even, can be found in other species to some extent. Here I want to consider some of that evidence with some observations of my own on how this might be interpreted.

Is there a danger here of Anthropomorphizing? Continue reading…

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Free will, Determinism and Frogger


Is free will an illusion? Some recent Neurological experiments have hit the headlines with that conclusion. The studies reveal that the conscious mind is sometimes slow to recognize a course of action the subconscious has already set in motion. Absence of free will is a possible explanation. Certainly most people don’t realise how much they invent reality to suit the events. Memory is highly subjective, and most of us occasionally use reason to justify decisions which are primarily motivated by our emotions.

Understandably scientists feel religion has got it wrong and science has got it right (generally true). Do some scientists further have a desire to liberate us from the burden of free will, apparently the remnant of an outdated belief system? Personally I am undecided. But to me there are significant doubts in the assumptions behind these experiments which mean going from ‘it is possible free will is an illusion’ to ‘this proves free will is an illusion’ or even ‘probably an illusion’ is quite a stretch.

Is Captain Kirk a robot?

The studies involve simple motor tasks – for example the subject presses a button Continue reading…

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The electron tendency

thomas_youngIn the third and final episode of the excellent BBC series ‘Atom – The Illusion of Reality’ Dr Jim Al-Khalili asks the apparently unanswerable question: We are made of the same atoms as the rest of the material world, so why do we have consciousness when the vast majority of stuff around us does not? (I’ve paraphrased for brevity).

Similarly hard to explain, the measurement problem is the Achilles heel of physics as the more closely we study the building blocks of the Universe the harder it becomes to remain the independent observer of a material world and avoid determining the outcome of our experiments. The most stark example of this is the double slit experiment. The measurement problem remains because there is no entirely satisfactory explanation for what happens in the quantum version of this experiment.

I’m going to suggest there is a simple possible atheist’s interpretation. Philosophically based certainly, but with a practical value. A possible answer both to the measurement problem and the great unanswerable question of consciousness above. Continue reading…

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Understanding Car, Goat, Pigeon

image of door, car and goat

Understanding something that runs contrary to ‘common sense’ is often about finding the right form of words, in this case The Monty Hall problem.

Here’s a quick description of the problem in case you’re not familiar with it:

You’re the contestant on a TV game-show, trying to win a car. You are given three doors to choose from. The car has been randomly placed behind one door, behind the other two are goats. The host knows where the car is, so once you’ve made your choice, the host opens one of the two other doors to reveal a goat – a ‘wrong’ answer. That door is then discarded. Now you are given a choice; stick with your original choice or pick the other remaining door. Surely it doesn’t make any difference if you change because with two doors your odds are 50/50 whatever you do?

Continue reading…

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