(reading time: 9 mins)
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?
There is a growing understanding that the human body evolved to run for several hours and cover 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, and our ancestors pursued 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…
(reading time: 30 mins)
How 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. 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. A problem I am calling 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…
(reading time: 8 mins)
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%.
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. Continue reading…
(reading time: 3 mins)
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…
(reading time: 19 mins)
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…
(reading time: 7 mins)
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.
You cannot be serious!
The cognitive studies involve simple motor tasks. For example, with brain activity being monitored, the subject presses a button Continue reading…
(reading time: 18 mins)
In 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…
(reading time: 3 mins)
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?
(reading time: 8 mins)
I took up tennis last summer, taking lessons and joining a club, finally shifting from being an armchair expert during Wimbledon fortnight to becoming another learner mis-hitting balls at the local courts. Wimbledon on TV is one of the great markers of an English summer, and the televised sunshine on the courts of SW19 can be more inviting than actual sunshine on the garden outside. Television seems to access those day-dreamy brain waves just as fire did for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, as if our brains are preprogrammed to be hypnotised by a pool of flickering lights close by. Is TV the technological world’s camp fire, or was the Stone Age camp fire just television at the concept stage?
But as I struggled with my topspin forehand under unforgiving floodlights one blustery Winter evening, I wondered if my physiological response to the incoming ball wasn’t something else I had inherited from my hunter-gatherer ancestors? Continue reading…