Climate change, anxieties and actions

Oil refining
Image courtesy of NASA

This summer’s heatwave through Europe and Asia was one of many extraordinary weather events, which along with forest fires, storms and flash floods, are becoming less extraordinary every year. Scientists are not claiming direct cause and effect for individual weather events, rather there is a very simple principle at work – CO2 and Methane put more energy into our weather systems. The more energy goes in, the more energy comes out, with greater frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

The IPCC October 2018 report and the ‘hothouse earth’ report that rounded off the summer both re-state that climate change may become irreversible, but with the worrying twist that the tipping point may be closer than previously thought. There are more frequent warnings that we really could leave Earth permanently damaged for our species, perhaps within a few generations.

Such headlines grab the attention for a time because our hunter-gatherer brains are hardwired to monitor for immediate threats. However as the solution requires action outside of our control, what remains is often a sense of powerlessness.

Those of us who grew up in the shadow of the nuclear arms race lived with a similar sense of anxiety and powerlessness. Every childhood from the 1950s to the 1980s came with the realisation that the complete destruction of everything you love is an ever present man-made threat. The adult world is dominated by a love of abstract concepts – political ideology then, short term profit now – which become more important than life on this planet.

Yet, despite our species many flaws, we have to focus on the positives and believe our species has a strong enough instinct for self preservation to avoid complete catastrophe.
Continue reading…

Why do people catch a yawn?

seal pup having a nap

No, don’t yawn. You’ll set me off…..

As infectious yawning is only found in apes and humans, the unanswered question of why we do it keeps drawing in the research dollars. Consensus seems to be settling on contagious yawning as a form of social bonding. But I wonder if our hunter-gatherer ancestry means there’s more to it than a symbol of simple social cohesion, unrelated to sleep?
Continue reading…

Video release

After some months of work, I’ve boiled down the content of three previous blog posts on the measurement problem and consciousness into a 28 minute video.


(or on Vimeo https://player.vimeo.com/video/247760088)

The video and blog posts came about because modern science still treats the existence of consciousness in a world made only of atoms and energy as unexplained, even mysterious. Some 25 years after first hearing about the measurement problem, I’ve still not come across a credible account of these things using a scientific or materialist panpsychism. Possibly the word itself is the root of the problem – it just sounds as if Ouija boards must be involved! Advocates of philosophies like panpsychism do sometimes promote unproven ideas, like telepathy or astrology, which may undermine otherwise valid arguments for the scientific community.

However if you properly examine our concept of consciousness in the light of recent scientific research, Continue reading…

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. It follows on from David Chalmer’s idea of the hard problem of consciousness, and I am calling it 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…

The Human Animal – a breed apart?

chick with blackboard

For the majority of western history the only mind considered worthy of examination was the human mind. This is in part because we lacked the tools to examine how other animals experienced the world. However western science also developed within a Judeo-Christian cultural heritage – religious traditions which taught that God has taken us, and only us, over that threshold of animal awareness into the realm of moral beings, because we were the only animals with souls.

Although science has largely overtaken religion as a way of explaining human existence, like religion it has historically emphasised differences between humans and other animals, rather than common ground. In recent years more detailed experiments into animal cognition 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 on how this might be interpreted.

Taking a philosophical approach to scientific research might be seen as anthropomorphizing other species. Continue reading…

Free will, Determinism and Frogger

frogscene2-600

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? Perhaps. Whether or not there is such a mission, there are significant problems with the assumptions behind these experiments, which mean going from free will may be 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 cognitive studies involve simple motor tasks. For example, with brain activity being monitored, the subject presses a button Continue reading…

The electron has a 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…