Saturday, April 06, 2013

Coyote Populations Continue to Grow, Despite Being a Popular Hunting Target

From ScienceLine, this is a disturbing article on the nature of coyotes, one of the most adaptable and resilient species on the planet - and the asshats who think that hunting them is a real sport. Coyote hunts are supposed to help control the population, but the reality is that the more they are hunted, trapped, and poisoned, the larger their litter sizes and the more they expand their territory, now all the way into New York City's Central Park.

Taking shots in the dark

Coyote populations continue to grow, despite being a popular hunting target

Historically a Great Plains predator, coyotes are now found in 49 states. They are hunted in 47 
[Image Credit: Cristopher Bruno] 
By Nick Stockton | Posted March 31, 2013

The best time to hunt coyotes is at between dusk and dawn. Once you scout a good spot you try to lure the beasts in, using hand held instruments to mimic the calls of different woodland animals. Maybe you choose to be a distressed rabbit, which sounds like a squealing baby. If that doesn’t work, you can yelp like a turkey or cackle like a Pileated woodpecker. On top of your head is a dim red light to help you spot movement. If you’re lucky, a pair of eyes shines back. After turning on the high powered beam attached to your rifle, you have a few seconds to determine what type of predator you’re looking at before you take your shot.

Tom Monko from Mechanicsburg, Pa., loves the sport’s technical challenges — hunting coyotes requires stealth, patience and a lot of scouting. In addition to being nocturnal, coyotes are also highly mobile and have superior senses of smell and hearing. Coyotes’ primary attribute, however, is their intelligence. From Native American folklore to modern research, nearly everyone who encounters coyotes comments on their cunning. Scientists have witnessed coyotes using sophisticated strategies to hunt — like teaming up with badgers to corner squirrels or using debris to set off traps and steal the bait.

This adaptive intelligence is what draws so many like Monko to the sport. “I enjoy it because it’s me against them.” He says successful coyote hunters are always scouting, always learning, always practicing their calls. Monko carries his hunting calls on a piece of braided leather he wears around his neck — his tools of the sport. One of the best calls, he says, is the field mouse. “They like the squeakiness.”

Where humans live, coyotes’ intelligence has made them a success and a nuisance. They’re often blamed for threatening livestock, many people have lost pets and there are even cases where humans have been attacked. Almost every state allows coyote hunting, and in the Northeast many have open seasons — there is no kill limit. In Pennsylvania, the season runs year-round.

In recent years, controversial hunting contests targeting coyotes have popped up all over the Northeast. Advocates say the contests are as valid as any other sport, that they contribute to the economy and help control coyote populations. Critics decry the hunts on moral grounds, and argue that these hunts might be doing the opposite of what they intend. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you [coyotes] never kill a sheep, they never kill a chicken, they never kill a cow, they never kill a deer,” says D.J. Schubert, a New Jersey biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute. “But,” he says, the hunts “aren’t solving the problems that the coyote hunt organizers think they’re solving.”

Hunting may actually contribute to coyotes’ reproductive success, according to conservationists like Schubert and Jon Way, an independent biologist who studies coyotes in Massachusetts. “One reason why coyotes are very successful is they are very social and ecologically variable. For a predator, they are extremely fertile,” Way says. Normally, female coyotes have litters of five to six pups. Large-scale hunting reduces competition for food, according to Way, which means more pups can survive until breeding season in the fall. “It doesn’t matter how many pups are born, it matters how many survive through their first fall,” Way says.

Way has published several studies that point to coyote density increasing in areas where they’ve been affected by humans. In one study, Way saw the population density in a single pack’s territory double after the breeding male was killed by a car. In coyote packs, typically only one pair bears litters. This disrupted the pack’s social structure, and gave way for multiple breeding pairs to occupy the same territory. Though the studies don’t directly measure the impact of coyote hunts, they suggest the same outcomes – that killing key members of a pack disrupts the social structure and leads to more breeding pairs sharing smaller areas. As with many things about coyotes, however, the question is far from settled.

Organized coyote hunts began in the Northeast in the mid-1980s. The Mosquito Creek Sportsman’s Association in Frenchville, Pa. was among the first, and is the largest hunt in the region. Its 22nd annual hunt, which was held in February, had nearly 4000 registered hunters. Dozens of other annual hunts have sprung up across the Northeast, and most emulate Mosquito Creek’s structure.

The rules are simple: Whoever kills the biggest coyote, judged by weight, wins the prize money — generally half of the registration revenue, which can be up upwards of $7,000. The coyotes must be killed between designated start and end times, and within certain geographic boundaries. At some hunts, Mosquito Creek included, judges give the winners polygraph tests to keep things honest. Though most hunts are smaller, Mosquito Creek allows its contestants to kill coyotes anywhere in Pennsylvania.

Sullivan County Sportsman’s Association in upstate New York also held its annual hunt in February. Jack Dancheck is the contest’s founder as well as his club’s current president. He says the coyote population has gotten out of hand, and contests like this barely help keep their numbers at bay. “We haven’t even put a dent in it. We had 715 hunters in the hunt and they only got 48 coyotes.” In addition to preying on pets and livestock, Dancheck complains that the coyotes are eating all his region’s small game, including turkeys, squirrel, grouse and rabbits.

Iconic out west, coyotes have only relatively recently expanded east of the Great Lakes. The first sighting in New York was in 1925. By 2010 coyotes were hunting ducks in Central Park. New York officials believe there may be up to 30,000 in the state, but because the predator is so elusive, there are no official counts. Pennsylvania probably has the most coyotes in the east, with some estimates as high as 50,000. But again, since the predator is so shifty, this number is tentative. “We have no population numbers on them, anytime, anywhere,” says Roland Kays, who studies coyotes at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science. The only thing for certain, he says, is that their numbers in the east have increased: “They started at none, and now they’re at many.”

Coyotes are the most heavily hunted predator in North America, according to Pennsylvania State biologist Matthew Lovallo. “And in the face of that,” he adds, “they’ve increased their range tenfold.” Their expansion into the Northeast is most likely due to the decline of other top level predators. Wolves, bears and mountain lions have been decimated in the region because they need more territory, larger prey and can’t exist at the periphery of humans like coyotes can. “They’re such a generalist that they can occupy all kinds of vacant habitats,” Lovallo says.

Despite this, neither Kays nor Lovallo agree with the theory that hunting increases coyote populations. Not on an ecological level, Roland Kays says. Their numbers fluctuate with the amount of prey available, and hunting does little to control that number. He says there is little doubt that coyotes have been successful, but is skeptical that hunting has in any way contributed to this. As for Jon Way’s claims: “That’s just over-speculation,” Kays says. Hunting may free up more resources and cause females to breed at a younger age, but the studies don’t account for other factors, he says. For one, most of the research only looks at single territories — the population in one heavily culled area might swell because neighboring areas are emptying into it.

Also, as Lovallo points out, Ways studies were done in a suburban area, which generally has more resources available than somewhere in the wild. “I think what’s been lost is that the studies are being done in human-altered landscapes.” Lovallo thinks that the studies would need to be expanded to show a meaningful correlation between hunting and population growth. Lovallo thinks that the additional resources available in the suburbs contributed to the coyote density increases that Way observed. “I don’t think you’ll see that in wild systems.”

Even if hunting coyotes did control their population, hunter Jeff Millihard says that’s not the reason for the contests. “In the Mosquito Creek hunt this year, they had 4,000 people registered, and they only had 129 coyotes killed,” Millihard says, “that tells you something.” Though he doesn’t agree with Way’s hypothesis, he also says it isn’t hard to imagine that it could be true: Nature hates a vacuum. “The more food that coyotes, foxes, any animal have, the more young they’ll have,” Millihard says.

But long-term population control isn’t the only issue to consider. Millihard says hunting thins coyotes near farms and livestock, and helps control the spread of rabies and mange. Besides, for him hunting coyotes is more than a wildlife management effort. He explains that he and many others simply value the hunting experience. “With coyote hunting, you’re trying to outsmart that animal, and it’s enjoyable. It’s a challenge,” Millihard says. “People think hunters, all they want to do is kill something,” but it’s also a way to be alone in the woods and focused on something other than his job, his stress, or his problems, he says.

Millihard doesn’t compete in the hunting contests, but he believes the hunts are important, partly because a bunch of guys can get together on a weekend, kill some coyotes, win prizes and share a dinner — usually hamburgers, never coyote — on Sunday. “Every year they get together for the hunt and maybe that’s the only time all year they can get together.”

D.J. Schubert of the Animal Welfare Institute finds this type of bonding disgusting. Though he has never been to a coyote hunt, he has seen pictures, including of the kill pile — where coyote corpses are discarded after they are weighed. To him, this waste could be bad publicity for the sport. “I would encourage hunters to start advocating against these events, because they do detract from the image of hunters and hunting. It’s not rocket science that these [are the] types of hunts that the general public would find distasteful,” he says.

Tom Monko has been hunting coyotes with his brother Jim for the past 25 years. He is retired now and between hunts, he teaches youngsters about coyote hunting safety, tactics and law. “Have the proper license, look at the laws that pertain to predator hunting that apply to you.”

His success has been hard-earned: Monko confides that he didn’t harvest a single coyote for the first two years he hunted them. There are more prey options for Eastern coyotes, compared to their western cousins, so they are less desperate for a good meal. This means hunters have to work harder to lure them in. “Out here in the east have to use some extra strategy.”

Learning the calls, he says, is the most difficult skill to master, and takes hours of practice. Each call is like a different musical instrument, pitch tuned to a different animal. Each call’s authenticity relies on the hunter’s dedication — and his family’s tolerance. “Your wife usually makes you go outside or the dog starts howling.”

Monty Python's John Cleese Almost Explains Our Brains

Summary: "John Cleese's brain is so agile (coming up with words and cadences that sound convincingly English, but aren't) and artificial intelligence is so un-agile (not aware it's being duped), that you should be proud, proud, proud to be an intelligent mammal. It will take silicon chips another thousand years to do what Cleese does. So we're safe. For a little while."

Monty Python's John Cleese Almost Explains Our Brains

April 05, 2013

You've met them, I'm sure. People who are so learned, so scholarly, so deeply invested in what they're doing, that you can't understand a word they're saying — well, maybe you catch a familiar word or two, but the gist? No. They seem to be speaking a language near yours, like the Sims in "SimCity." The sounds are right, but the words are beyond you. In this video John Cleese gives us a short introduction to the anatomy of the brain. It's complete nonsense. There is only one complete sentence. It comes at the very, very end.

Pity The Poor Closed Caption Robot ...

If you think you're having a stroke — or maybe hearing problems — you're not. He's just THAT good. But for a real giggle, as you listen, click on Closed Caption button at the bottom of the YouTube window. That poor translator bot is like a drowning man in very rough seas; all it can do is fling up words that sound like Cleese's, but its guesses make no sense, have no grammar, and sometimes it just ... freezes. It gives up and goes blank.

In a way, this is the real lesson here: John Cleese's brain is so agile (coming up with words and cadences that sound convincingly English, but aren't) and artificial intelligence is so un-agile (not aware it's being duped), that you should be proud, proud, proud to be an intelligent mammal. It will take silicon chips another thousand years to do what Cleese does. So we're safe. For a little while.

Thank you, "Professor."

Is the Human Mind Unique? - Archaeological Evidence, Desperately Seeking Explanation, Moral Sense

Nice discussion on the evolution and uniqueness of the human mind featuring Colin Renfrew (McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research) discussing the Archaeological Evidence for Mind, followed by Daniel Povinelli (Univ of Louisiana at Lafayette) on Desperately Seeking Explanation, and Patricia Churchland (UC San Diego) on Moral Sense.

Is the Human Mind Unique? - Archaeological Evidence, Desperately Seeking Explanation, Moral Sense

Published on Apr 4, 2013 | UCTV

Cognitive abilities often regarded as unique to humans include humor, morality, symbolism, creativity, and preoccupation with the minds of others. In these compelling talks, emphasis is placed on the functional uniqueness of these attributes, as opposed to the anatomical uniqueness, and whether these attributes are indeed quantitatively or qualitatively unique to humans.
  • Colin Renfrew (McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research) begins with the Archaeological Evidence for Mind
  • Daniel Povinelli (Univ of Louisiana at Lafayette) on Desperately Seeking Explanation
  • Patricia Churchland (UC San Diego) on Moral Sense 
Series: "CARTA - Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny" [4/2013]

Friday, April 05, 2013

Michel Bauwens - Proposed Next Steps for the Emerging P2P and Commons Networks

From Michel Bauwens' P2P Blog, here are his proposals for "Next Steps" in the emerging P2P and Commons networks.

Proposed Next Steps for the emerging P2P and Commons networks

Michel Bauwens
2nd April 2013
In short, we need a alliance of the commons to project civil and political power and influence at every level of society; we need phyles to strengthen our economic autonomy from the profit-maximizing dominant system; and we need Chambre of the Commons to achieve territorial policy; legal and infrastructural conditions for the alternative, human and nature-friendly political economy to thrive. Neither alone is sufficient, but together they could be a powerful triad for the necessary phase transition.
Michel Bauwens:

The recent success of a global mobilization (500+ participants and collectives in 23 countries and over 50 cities) to collaborative map P2P-driven, commons-oriented, collaboration/sharing-based initiatives in hispanic countries, has shown a grassroots hunger for more mutual coordination to enhance the capacity to initiate social change. I would like to add the hypothesis that what is in the making is not just a new social imaginery, but also a potential new political subject. To build and obtain more civic infrastructures to enable and empower autonomous social production, I believe we must move to mutualize our forces and create a new set of political, social and economic institutions which can have ‘transitional’ effects, i.e. prepare the ground for a phase-transition to a political economy and civilization in which socially and environmentally friendly free association between autonomous producers and citizens become the norm.

I believe the time is there to start constructing the following three institutional coalitions:

* The civic/political institution: The Alliance of the Commons

An alliance of the commons is an alliance, meeting place and network of p2p-commons oriented networks, associations, places; who do not have economic rationales. These alliances can be topical, local, transnational, etc … An example is the initiative Paris Communs Urbains which is attempting to create a common platform for urban commons intiatives in the Paris region; another Parisian/French example is the freecultural network Libre Savoirs, which is developing a set of policy proposals around digital rights. (both examples were communicated to me by Lionel Maurel).

An alliance of the commons is a meeting place and platform to formulate policy proposals that enhance civic infrastructures for the commons.

* The economic institution: the P2P/Commons Globa-local « Phyle »

A phyle (as originally proposed by is a coalition of commons-oriented, community-supportive ethical enterprises which trade and exchange in the market to create livelyhoods for commoners and peer producers engaged in social production. The use of a peer production licence keeps the created exchange value within the sphere of the commons and strengthens the existence of a more autonomous counter-economy which refuses the destructive logic of profit-maximisation and instead works to increase benefits for their own, but also the emerging global commons. Phyles created integrated economies around the commons, that render them more autonomous and insure the social reproduction of its members. Hyperproductive global phyles that generate well-being for their members will gradually create a counterpower to the hitherto dominant MNO’s.

* The political-economy institution: The Chamber of the Commons

In analogy with the well-known chambers of commerce which work on the infrastructure for for-profit enterprise, the Commons chamber exclusively coordinates for the needs of the emergent coalitions of commons-friendly ethical enterprises (the phyles), but with a territorial focus. Their aim is to uncover the convergent needs of the new commons enterprises and to interface with territorial powers to express and obtain their infrastructural, policy and legal needs.

In short, we need a alliance of the commons to project civil and political power and influence at every level of society; we need phyles to strengthen our economic autonomy from the profit-maximizing dominant system; and we need Chambre of the Commons to achieve territorial policy; legal and infrastructural conditions for the alternative, human and nature-friendly political economy to thrive. Neither alone is sufficient, but together they could be a powerful triad for the necessary phase transition.

Marcelo Gleiser - Where Did Life Come From? The Mind? The Universe? Can We Even Know?

The title of this post comes from the first article of three by Marcelo Gleiser at NPR's 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog. This is a pretty interesting series of articles on life, the mind, and the universe. Enjoy.

Where Did Life Come From? The Mind? The Universe? Can We Even Know?

March 20, 2013

The Universe has an origin; whether we'll ever get to the bottom of it is the question.

Today I'd like to start a discussion on the ways certain kinds of questions present formidable challenges to the conventional scientific method of explanation, based on hypotheses and empirical validation. Given that the topic is vast and space short, I will divide the discussion into three parts (at least). Although there may be many questions that pose a challenge to the scientific method (for example, the much-debated questions of morality and altruism), I am interested in a trio that can be grouped as the "three origins questions": cosmos, life, and mind.

Working with any of these can fill many lifetimes of research, without any promise of success. In fact, how we measure success in answering any of these questions is already part of the challenge. They each invoke different areas of research, with different operational principles and scientific methodologies. Even so, there are points in common, and it is to those that I turn today, and in subsequent blog posts. (There have been many books and essays written on these three issues, taken together or separately. At the end I provide a list of further reading.)

The first point in common is that not so long ago these three questions were not considered scientific. On the contrary, the origin of the Universe, of life, and of mind were thought to be the result of divine work, products of supernatural intervention. Which god or gods were responsible depended (and still does to the vast majority of the world population) on your particular faith. Differences aside, in any religion only an entity that transcended space and time could create the cosmos, which exists within space and time; only an immortal entity had the power to create life; and only an omniscient power could endow His creatures with intelligence and a sense of being.

The confrontation with natural processes is immediate: Nature is within space and time, living entities are not immortal and no one is — or can be — omniscient. (Although the World Wide Web, allied with global human intelligence and powerful search engines, could, in some sense, be called a proto-omniscient entity. Stuff for another week.)

For this reason, it is not at all surprising that scientists encounter such resistance when they state that they are near — or at least making progress — in answering such questions without recourse to divine intervention. According to the scientific viewpoint, the origins of the cosmos, of life and of mind are natural processes that obey material laws and principles. Their complexity and our current lack of answers do not mean that such questions are completely beyond the reach of science, or that such questions can only be addressed through religious belief. In science, ignorance is the pre-condition to knowledge; to not-know is the pathway to knowing.

Perhaps the proper way to phrase the question is not whether science can provide answers to the three origins but how far it can go in answering them. For it may very well be that science can only go part of the way. To see why, let's begin with the one that may, perhaps, be the "easiest" of the three, the origin of life.

Although we are far from understanding the details (see guest blogger Wim Hordijk's recent contribution to these pages), it seems clear that the transition from non-life to life follows from the increasingly complex chemical reactions that took place on primal Earth: at a certain point, networks of chemical reactions became self-sufficient and, partially isolated within protective membranes, were able to absorb energy from the outside environment and to produce copies of themselves with some efficiency. We certainly don't know how this happened here some 3.5 billion years ago (or even earlier).

More to the point, unless someone offers a formal proof that there is only one biochemical pathway toward life — a possibility that I consider highly unlikely — we will never be able to know exactly how life emerged here. At best, we can come up with viable scenarios of the origin of life given the conditions prevalent on primal Earth (another challenge in itself, to find those out).

So, the question of the origin of life, at least in the exact way (or ways, for it may have happened more than once) in which it emerged here or in any other planetary platform out there, is not answerable scientifically. Does this mean that science can't help us understand the origin of life? Not at all. We can only understand the origin of life through science, even if this understanding is necessarily limited. Of the three origins questions, the origin of life is still the most tractable, given that we can simulate conditions and chemical reactions in the laboratory with some degree of control.

Contrary to the origin of the Universe or of mind, the origin of life is a problem we can attack from the outside in. It is for this reason that I call it the "easiest" of the three, although there is nothing easy about it.

Molecular biologists like Gerald Joyce, from the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, and Nobel laureate Jack Szostak from Harvard University, among many others, are making spectacular advances toward understanding life. They can manipulate RNA and DNA and coax them into enacting the game of life, that is, respond and adapt to environmental pressure as the theory of evolution dictates; they can strip away cellular structures and genes from living cells to search for the minimum living system; Günter von Kiedrowski in Germany was able to construct auto-catalytic chemical sets that show self-replicating abilities.

These experiments are not yet creating life in the laboratory. But they are certainly steps in the right direction. Even if we will not be able to explain exactly how life emerged on Earth, science still offers the only pathway toward understanding.

A Short Reading List On The Three Origins:

1. Cosmos

The Origin of the Universe, by John Barrow
Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe, by Simon Singh
A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, by Lawrence Krauss
The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe, by Steven Weinberg
The Dancing Universe: From Creation Myths to the Big Bang, by Marcelo Gleiser

2. Life

Origins of Life, by Freeman Dyson
Seven Clues to the Origin of Life: A Scientific Detective Story, by A. G. Cairns-Smith
The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life, by Paul Davies
Emergence of Life on Earth: A Historical and Scientific Overview, by Iris Fry
Life's Origin: The Beginnings of Biological Evolution, J. William Schopf, ed.

3. Mind

Origin of Mind: Evolution of Brain, Cognition, and General Intelligence, by David C. Geary
Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, by Francis Crick
The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present, by Eric Kandel
How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker
Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, by Antonio Damasio

* * * * * *

The Origin of The Universe: From Nothing Everything?

March 27, 2013

A computer simulation of the formation of large-scale structures in the Universe, showing a patch of 100 million light-years and the resulting coherent motions of galaxies flowing towards the highest mass concentration in the centre. The snapshot refers to an epoch about 10 billion years back in time. Klaus Dolag/VIMOS-VLT Deep Survey/ESO

Last week, I started a discussion of what I call "The Three Origins," focusing first on the origin of life. Although we are far from knowing how non-living matter became living organisms on primitive Earth some 3.5 billion years ago (or more), or how to repeat the feat in the laboratory, I consider this the "easiest" of the three questions.

Contrary to the origin of the Universe and the origin of mind, the origin of life is something we can study from the outside in, where we can have an external and objective view of what is going on. Even if, as I have argued, it seems impossible to know exactly how life originated on Earth (unless it could be proven that there is only one pathway from nonlife to life), we can still investigate the biochemical pathways leading to what we may call a living organism. In the case of the cosmos or the mind, things are subtler.

From what we know, all cultures have a creation narrative describing the origin of the world, of how everything came from nothing. As I explored in The Dancing Universe: From Creation Myths to the Big Bang, there are only a small number of possible answers to the origin of the cosmos. All creation myths presuppose the existence of some kind of divine or absolute power capable of creating the world. In the vast majority of cases, the Bible being one example, this absolute power is embodied in God, or a group of gods. In others, the Universe is eternal, without a starting moment in the distant past: it has existed forever and will exist forever. In others still, the cosmos emerges without any divine interference from a primal Nothingness, from an innate tendency to exist. This Nothing can be complete emptiness, a primal egg, or even a struggle between chaos and order. Not every creation myth uses divine intervention or supposes that time started in some moment in the past.

According to modern science, the origin of the universe is part of cosmology. In trying to describe a creation process through scientific language we encounter a serious challenge: if every effect results from a cause, we can follow the chain of causation backwards in time until we arrive at the First Cause. But what caused this cause? Aristotle, for one, used some kind of divine entity to solve this conundrum, the Unmoved Mover, the one that can cause without having been caused. Very convenient, but not scientifically satisfying.

As current astronomical observations resolutely point to a Universe with a beginning in the distant past (according to the latest measurements from the Planck satellite related here last week, at about 13.8 billion years ago), scientific models of the origin of the Universe must face the challenge of explaining or doing away with the problem of the First Cause.

The fundamental question is this: even if a scientific explanation exists, is it an acceptable answer to the question of the origin of the Universe? Defenders of scientism might argue that this is the best that we can do, that it is the only reasonable thing that we can do. Fair enough, if you believe that science should provide an answer to this question and if you are happy with the answers given.

The best answer we have at this point is that the Universe emerged spontaneously from a random quantum fluctuation in some sort of primordial quantum vacuum, the scientific equivalent of "nothing." However, this quantum vacuum is a very loaded nothing: it assumes the whole machinery of quantum field theory, the modern description of how elementary particles of matter interact with one another, was already in operation.

In the quantum realm, even the lowest energy state, the "vacuum," is not empty. Even if the energy of a quantum system is zero, it is never really zero due to the inherent quantum fluctuations about this state. A zero energy quantum state is as impossible as a perfectly still lake, with absolutely no disturbances on its surface. This quantum jitteriness amounts to fluctuations on the value of the energy; if one of these fluctuations is unstable it may grow big, like a soap bubble that blows itself up. The energy remains zero on average because of a clever interplay between the positive energy of matter and the negative energy of attractive gravity. This is the result that physicists like Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, Mikio Kaku and others speak of when they state that the "universe came out of quantum nothingness," or something to that extent.

The essential question, though, is whether this is indeed a satisfactory explanation to the question of cosmic origins, or simply part of one. The philosopher David Albert raised similar points in a recent review of Lawrence Krauss's book. Here is Krauss's response.

It is obvious that this quantum nothingness is very different from an absolute nothingness. Physicists may shrug this away stating that concepts like absolute nothingness are not scientific and hence have no explanatory value. It is indeed true that there is no such thing as absolute nothingness in science, since the vacuum is pregnant with all sorts of stuff. Any scientific explanation presupposes a whole conceptual structure that is absolutely essential for science to function: energy, space, time, the equations we use, the laws of Nature. Science can't exist without this scaffolding. So, a scientific explanation of the origin of the universe needs to use such concepts to make sense. It necessarily starts from something, which is the best that science can ever hope to do.

Even if we move on to the multiverse, things still need to be formulated in terms of fields, energy, spacetime, derivatives, etc. Furthermore, scientific hypotheses need to be testable and falsifiable, and we don't yet know how to do this with a quantum fluctuation that generates a universe. We can't set this experiment in the laboratory and examine the right conditions for universes to emerge from the quantum vacuum. Contrary to the origin of life question, we can't step out of the Universe to examine it from the outside in. At best, and this should be quite enough for a scientific explanation of cosmic origins, a model for the quantum origin of the Universe should lead to a cosmos compatible with current observations. Stepping out into the abstract multiverse may provide us with different plausible cosmoids and help us understand why our own Universe is so special. But unless there is a very clear selection principle that doesn't predicate our existence, the question as to why this Universe and not another will remain open.

And this is not at all bad. The fact that science answers so many questions doesn't mean it should answer all; or that some questions should only be answered through science. Before I am accused of advocating obscurantism, let me be clear. What I mean is that a scientific explanation to the origin of the Universe, at least one based in the current way we do science, cannot be self-contained. Sometimes we must have the humility to accept that our modes of explanation have limits and make peace with what we can do; and marvel at how much we can do without the pretense of knowing how to do everything.

* * * * * *

Mind and Matter: Confessions Of A Perplexed Soul

April 03, 2013

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

After a week on the origin of life and another on the origin of the universe, we now turn to the third installment of this series, a digression on the origin(s) of mind. The plural expresses the many ways in which we can think of mind and its origin. I shall touch on some of these without any hope or intention of being either exhaustive or coherent. For when it comes to mind, I confess my perplexity. And I am sure I am not alone.

First some definitions, just to start the controversy. Since I am not a cognitive psychologist or a philosopher of mind, I hope my co-bloggers Tania Lombrozo and Alva Noë will come to the rescue in due course. We play with three words, "brain," "mind" and "consciousness," and possibly a fourth, "intelligence."

Brain is easy. All vertebrate animals have it in their skull; it's the central organ of the nervous system. An interesting but tangential question is which is the simplest brain, or what animal has the simplest brain. Jellyfish, for example, have diffuse nerve nets but no central nervous system. The winners are worms, who have small bundles of neurons arranged as nerve cords running along the length of their bodies.

Mind, consciousness and intelligence are hard. From a scientific perspective, all three are products of the brain. There is matter and nothing else. The question then is to figure out how the brain does it: how we can ask profound questions and write essays about them while dogs and chimps can't, even though they are arguably intelligent. There are levels of intelligence, levels of consciousness and levels of mindfulness. So, one of the questions about origin of mind is how it evolved to the level we see today.

In this connection, I note the recent New York Review of Books essay by John Searle on Christof Koch's book, Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. Searle criticizes Koch for his attempt to indiscriminately use information theory to explain consciousness, starting with attributing it to devices such as thermostats or cellphones. Koch claims that even a photodiode is conscious: It turns on when the light is on and off when the light is off. So, its consciousness has two states (on and off) and minimal information.

Perhaps Koch is paving the road to conscious machines, but I must agree with Searle that unless there is some level of subjective understanding of the action that is undertaken, there is no consciousness to speak of. When cellphones start chatting with one another, we should be duly impressed.

Consciousness needs a conscious observer. And that's the rub.

To facilitate things, let's say that mind is a faculty that conscious, intelligent beings have, the ability to think, feel and reflect about the world and the subjective experiences it presents. It is then legitimate to ask whether other animals have minds or whether machines can one day have them too. This is a key aspect of the debate, since the mind-body problem has traditionally split the line between two sides: Mind is a property of brains that reach a certain level of cognitive complexity and hence a state of matter; or mind is not matter — it is something that can't be reduced to how the brain works.

Of course, this kind of mind-matter dualism dates back at least to Descartes, something that nowadays is mostly not seriously considered, at least by cognitive neuroscientists. (See, for example, the very heated debate surrounding philosopher Thomas Nagel's latest book, Mind and Cosmos. For a good review with many references, see the contribution by Jennifer Schuessler to the New York Times. See also the powerful essay on Nagel's book by Adam Frank in these pages. Nagel goes against scientific reductionism and proposes that mind is a property of the universe, something beyond the merely quantifiable. He is not alone, even among scientists.)

Attributing some sort of teleology to the universe in order to explain mind is merely an updated version of the biblical aspirations that we are special creatures because we were created with a purpose. Instead, I would argue that we can be special without having been created, that what makes us special is precisely the opposite — the fact that we evolved in a universe that is pretty hostile to life, especially complex multicellular life. If you don't believe life is rare, take a look around our planetary neighbors. (Yes, there should be life elsewhere in the universe; but no, it doesn't follow that this life would have evolved to the level of intelligence we see here.)

The wonder lies not in some sort of unknowable property of the cosmos but in the fact that we do have a mind to ponder such things. The answer is within our heads, and the challenge is to find it without being able to step outside and take an objective look.

Recently, Brazilian neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, showed that the often-quoted figure that the human brain has about 100 billion neurons is off by some 14 billion. The proper number is around 86 billion, connected through trillions of synapses, all packed in about 2.8 pounds. How perplexing that this little bundle of nerve cells can do what it can! Noninvasive probes such as fMRIs provide amazing activity maps of what goes on whereas different stimuli are teased. Without getting lost in the immense maze of cognitive experiments being performed today, it is clear that the brain integrates sensorial stimuli from the outside and re-creates our sense of reality from within.

The only reality we can perceive is the one our brain allows us to. This thought has all sorts of implications to the nature of reality, and to how we define what is real, something Adam touched on in his essay and that I hope to come back to sometime in the near future.

What we call the world happens inside our brains, teased from the outside or from the inside. (Dreams are worlds within, with arbitrary physical laws and narrative rules.) A key question to be answered is whether consciousness needs organic matter to sustain it or whether it can exist merely through electronic circuits. Of course, we all like to think that circuits will do it, that it is a matter of time before we build an intelligent, conscious machine. But we don't really know whether that's even possible, do we?

NOTE: I'd like to add one more book to the reading list from the first week:

Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness, by Alva Noe.

Susan Piver - Start Here Now: Beginning a Meditation Practice — A Free Webinar

On April 10 (Wednesday) from 1 pm to 2:15 pm EDT (Show in my Time Zone), Buddhist teacher and author Susan Piver is offering a FREE introduction to Beginning a Meditation Practice. Susan is the author of How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life: Opening Your Heart to Confidence, Intimacy, and Joy, The Wisdom of a Broken Heart: How to Turn the Pain of a Breakup into Healing, Insight, and New Love, and many other books.

She is a wonderful, compassionate teacher - if this is a class you can use, sign up now.


I became a Buddhist and started practicing meditation in 1995. 10 years later, I became a meditation teacher. First as a student and now as a teacher, I have seen over and over again how helpful, important, and profound this simple practice is. I feel so strongly about this that in 2011 I started The Open Heart Project, an online meditation community. Currently, around ten thousand people sit down to meditate with me every day. Throughout all of these experiences, I’ve learned what the most common questions are and about the obstacles we all encounter–and their antidotes. I want to share some of this with you during this 75-minute free webinar. I hope to hear your questions and offer helpful answers!

  • What is meditation?
  • What is it not?
  • The most common misconceptions
  • The obstacles we all encounter and how to overcome them
  • A review of the various styles and how to choose the one that is right for you
  • How to begin–where, what, how long, how often?
  • Where to go for support
  • And whatever you’d like to bring up.
Attendance is actually limited (seriously!) so please sign up now. Many people are interested in meditation but don’t know where to begin, so I expect this will fill up fast. It will be recorded. I hope to see you there!


Thursday, April 04, 2013

Government Should Have Nothing to Do with Marriage

It's been my opinion for many years that the government has no business regulating marriage. To do so is the violate the Separation Clause in the Bill of Rights, the point being that marriage is a religious institution.

The solution is the return marriage to the various religions that sanction it, and for the government to simply provide the legal foundation of the civil union. Under this plan, civil unions are required for anyone who wants legal recognition of their relationship, and without the religious element, civil unions cannot be denied to any loving couple over the age of majority.

Others are coming to this view, finally.

Why Not Separate Marriage and State?

Cultural civil war can be avoided by getting government out of marriage.

By John Fund
MARCH 29, 2013

There is no question that the media, political, and cultural push for gay marriage has made impressive gains. As recently as 1989, voters in avant-garde San Francisco repealed a law that had established only domestic partnerships.

But judging by the questions posed by Supreme Court justices this week in oral arguments for two gay-marriage cases, most observers do not expect sweeping rulings that would settle the issue and avoid protracted political combat. A total of 41 states currently do not allow gay marriage, and most of those laws are likely to remain in place for some time. Even should the Court declare unconstitutional the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman for federal purposes, we can expect many pitched battles in Congress. The word “spouse” appears in federal laws and regulations a total of 1,138 times, and many of those references would have to be untangled by Congress absent DOMA.

No wonder Wisconsin’s GOP governor Scott Walker sees public desire for a Third Way. On Meet the Press this month he remarked on how many young people have asked him why the debate is over whether the definition of marriage should be expanded. They think the question is rather “why the government is sanctioning it in the first place.” The alterative would be to “not have the government sanction marriage period, and leave that up to the churches and the synagogues and others to define that.”

Governor Walker made clear these thoughts weren’t “anything I’m advocating for,” but he gave voice to many people who don’t think the gay-marriage debate should tear the country apart in a battle over who controls the culture and wins the government’s seal of approval. Gay-marriage proponents argue that their struggle is the civil-rights issue of our time, although many gays privately question that idea. Opponents who bear no animus toward gays lament that ancient traditions are being swept aside before the evidence is in on how gay marriage would affect the culture.

Both sides operate from the shaky premise that government must be the arbiter of this dispute. Columnist Andrew Sullivan, a crusader for gay marriage, has written that “marriage is a formal, public institution that only the government can grant.” But that’s not so. Marriage predates government. Marriage scholar Lawrence Stone has noted that in the Middle Ages it was “treated as a private contract between two families . . . For those without property, it was a private contract between two individuals enforced by the community sense of what was right.” Indeed, marriage wasn’t even regulated by law in Britain until the Marriage Acts of 1754 and 1835. Common-law unions in early America were long recognized before each state imposed a one-size-fits-all set of marriage laws.

The Founding Fathers avoided creating government-approved religions so as to avoid Europe’s history of church-based wars. Depoliticizing religion has mostly proven to be a good template for defusing conflict by keeping it largely in the private sphere.

Turning marriage into fundamentally a private right wouldn’t be an easy task. Courts and government would still be called on to recognize and enforce contracts that a couple would enter into, and clearly some contracts — such as in a slave-master relationship — would be invalid. But instead of fighting over which marriages gain its approval, government would end the business of making distinctions for the purpose of social engineering based on whether someone was married. A flatter tax code would go a long way toward ending marriage penalties or bonuses. We would need a more sensible system of legal immigration so that fewer people would enter the country solely on the basis of spousal rights.

The current debate pits those demanding “marriage equality” against supporters of “traditional marriage.” But many Americans believe it would be better if we left matters to individuals and religious bodies. The cherished principle of separating church and state should be extended as much as possible into separating marriage and state. Ron Paul won many cheers during his 2012 presidential campaign when he declared, “I’d like to see all governments out of the marriage question. I don’t think it’s a state decision. I think it’s a religious function. I am supportive of all voluntary associations and people can call it whatever they want.”

Supporters of traditional marriage know the political winds are blowing against them. A new Fox News poll finds 49 percent of voters favoring gay marriage, up from just 32 percent a decade ago. And among self-described conservatives under 35, Fox found support for gay marriage is now at 44 percent. Even if the Supreme Court leaves the battle for gay marriage to trench warfare in the states, the balance of power is shifting. Rush Limbaugh, a powerful social conservative, told his listeners this week: “I don’t care what this court does with this particular ruling. . . . I think the inertia is clearly moving in the direction that there is going to be gay marriage at some point nationwide.”

But a majority of Americans still believe the issue of gay marriage should be settled by the states and not with Roe v. Wade–style central planning. It might still be possible to assemble a coalition of people who want to avoid a civil war over the culture and who favor getting government out of the business of marriage.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.

Howard Bloom - The God Problem (UTNE Reader)

From the current issue of the UTNE Reader (March/April 2013), this is a lengthy excerpt from Howard Bloom's newest book, The God Problem: How A Godless Cosmos Creates. This is another book I have purchased and have yet to read. So many books, so little time.

The God Problem

By Howard Bloom
March 2013

"The God Problem: How A Godless Cosmos Creates" attempts to reshape thinking on science and form conclusions about the existential question of how a godless cosmos creates itself.
Cover Courtesy Prometheus Books

God's war crimes, Aristotle's sneaky tricks, Galileo's creationism, Newton's intelligent design, entropy's errors, Einstein's pajamas, John Conway's game of loneliness, Information Theory's blind spot, Stephen Wolfram's New Kind Of Science, and six monkeys at six typewriters getting it wrong. What do these have to do with the birth of a universe and with your need for meaning? Everything, as Howard Bloom tries to explain in The God Problem (Prometheus Books, 2012).

Bloom leads a scientific expedition into the secret heart of a cosmos you've never seen: An electrifyingly inventive, obsessive-compulsive cosmos. A cosmos of screaming, stunning surprise. A cosmos that's the biggest invention engine — the biggest breakthrough maker, the biggest creator — of all time. The following excerpt sets up the journey by posing the ultimate question: How does the cosmos create?

Imagine this. You are a twelve-year-old in a godforsaken steel town that once helped suture the Great Lakes to the Atlantic coast of North America and Europe. A city that, for you, is a desert—a wasteland without other minds that welcome you. Buffalo, New York.

Your bar mitzvah is coming up. (Congratulations—you are Jewish for a day.) And you are avoiding a huge confession. One that will utterly change your life. A confession about one of the biggest superstars of human history. God.

You are not a popular kid. In fact, other kids either ignore you or try with all their might to keep you from getting anywhere near their backyard play sessions, their baseball diamonds, their clubs, and their parties. When they do pay attention to you, it’s to take aim. They kick soccer balls in your face. They grab your hat and play toss with it over your head while you run back and forth trying to yank it out of the heights above your reach. Or they pry your textbooks from your arms and throw them on a lawn covered with dog droppings.

No one your age wants you in Buffalo, New York.

But at the age of ten you discover a clique that does welcome you. Why? It’s a clique of dead men. And dead men have no choice. The two heroes you glue yourself to, two heroes not in a position to object if you tag along and join them in their games, are Galileo and Anton van Leeuwenhoek. These are men who shuffled off this mortal coil roughly three hundred years ago. But they put you on a quest, a mission, an adventure that will last you a lifetime.

Your task? To pursue the truth at any price, including the price of your life. To find things right under your nose, things that you, your parents, and all the kids who shun you take for granted. To look at these everyday things as if you’ve never seen them before. To look for hidden assumptions and to overturn them. To look for really big questions then to zero in on them. Even if the answers will not arrive in your lifetime.

Why do this? Because your dead companions have lured you into science. And the first two rules of science are:

1. The truth at any price including the price of your life.
2. Look at things right under your nose as if you’ve never seen them before, then proceed from there.

What’s more, in science the next big question can be more important than the next big answer. New questions can produce new scientific leaps. They can tiddlywink new flips of insight and understanding. Big ones. Paradigm shifts.

New questions can even show the people who’ve rejected you how to think in whole new ways. And that is your mission. Finding the questions that will produce the next big perception shift. Finding the unseen vantage points that will allow others to radically reperceive.

So how does God get into the picture? Remember, you are twelve. Your bar mitzvah is coming up. Your dad is going to throw a party for all the kids you know—for all the kids who humiliate you at Public School 64. And this time you are invited. Yes, your bar mitzvah is the very first time that you will be allowed to attend a celebration with your peers. And it gets better. The center of attention will be, guess who? You.

But something is rumbling through your mind. Something you refuse to register. Something that could cancel your bar mitzvah. You’ve read the arguments that Bertrand Russell has made about God. These arguments hit home with you. God, in Russell’s opinion, is a silly idea. If it took a God to create a universe, then a thing as complex and as powerful as a God would need a creator, too. And who or what created God?

In other words, the notion of a God doesn’t make sense. And it doesn’t appeal to your emotions, either. So the confession that you are dodging is this: You are about to become a stone-cold atheist. But if you admit that to yourself right now, you will blow your bar mitzvah.

The result? The question of whether there is a God stays safely hidden in your subconscious. You never put it in words, even to yourself. But that’s just the beginning.

The party happens—a bowling party. It isn’t what you expected. The other kids show up. But they do what they’ve always done. They ignore you. You are left out even at your own shindig. Thank God the dead guys of science still welcome you. But the heap of presents is extraordinary.

Then it’s confession time. There is no God. You are as certain of that as you are that a bus slamming into you and your bicycle at thirty miles per hour at the corner of Colvin Avenue and Amherst Street could do you serious damage. And if there were a deity hanging around in the skies, what kind of God could he be? A monster, a pervert, and a serial killer? A demented and addicted murderer of plants, animals, and entire species? A torturer and slayer of creatures made in his own image, a mass murderer of human beings?

You’ve read the Bible from cover to cover, and one story in particular bothers you. The story of Job. Job is a good man, a man whom God has made successful and rich. And a man who believes profoundly in his maker. But God is sitting around heaven one Saturday afternoon with the Accuser—God’s chief prosecutor: a combination of security chief, head of Earth’s domestic spy agency, and district attorney. There is no Super Bowl and no TV. So what do two very macho guys, two guys on a power trip, do when they are forced to amuse themselves? They compete over who can do the best job of guessing the future. They make bets. (Why we humans and the gods that we imagine get a kick out of testing our prediction powers—and competing over them—is a subject for another time.)

Here’s how your twelve-year-old mind recalls the tale. The Accuser bets God that humans only believe in the Deity-in-Chief so long as he delivers the goods. God, the divine attorney implies, suckers humans into belief by paying them off, by putting them on the payroll. Cancel the flow of bribes, says the quibbling public prosecutor of the heavens, make life miserable enough for the greatest believer, and even the most pious human will turn on God and curse his very name. You’re on, says God. I’ll take that bet.

To prove his point, God puts Job in the crosshairs of a demonstration project. Wealth, in these biblical times, is based on the number of four-legged animals you own. And because God has been generous to Job, his flocks of animals are abundant—seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, a thousand oxen, and five hundred “she-asses” to be precise. So God kills the sheep, the camels, the oxen, and the asses. He wipes out Job’s savings. He turns Job from a rich man to a poor man overnight.

Does this make Job turn on God? Not a bit. Strip Job of his fortune and he still swears his belief in his creator. So God takes the demonstration a step further. God has been good to Job in the fertility department, and Job and his wife have ten kids—three daughters and a whopping seven sons. So God kills the children. All ten of them. Does Job curse God? Not one bit. He hangs on tight to his belief.

God takes things even further. He takes aim at the one thing Job has left, his body. He turns Job’s very skin into a torture chamber. He gives Job boils whose pains produce an infinite hell minute by minute and second by second. Job sits in a pile of ashes and covers himself with them, trying to stop the agony. But does Job say screw you to the big guy in the sky? Does he curse God? Not one bit. He prays to God, he begs for God’s aid, and he sticks to God through thick and thin.

The bet is over. God wins. Then God, who is praised for his compassion but should be condemned for his mean streak, gives Job ten new children and a slew of new sheep.

In other words, God is a mass murderer. He has no compunctions about killing Job’s children. And he acts as if a new family will make amends for the kids whose lives he has snuffed. Why does God kill so casually? In this case, just to win a bet. What’s worse, God makes mass murder ordinary. He makes massacre an everyday reality. How? When you and I were born, only one thing was certain about the rest of our lives: that you and I would someday die. Just as billions of humans and over a trillion, trillion, trillion (1036) microorganisms, animals, and plants have died before us. Yes, God kills creatures by the trillions of trillions of trillions. In fact, trillions of tril­lions of trillions is an undercount.

A God who slaughters is no God at all. Or if he is, he is a God who has to be opposed. He is a God whose cruelty cannot be allowed to continue. He is a God who must be stopped.

Or, to put it in the words of the mid-twentieth-century American poet Archibald MacLeish, “If God is God, he is not good. If God is good, he is not God.” If God is all powerful, if God is omnipotent, then his brutality is outrageous. And if God is not the creator and the controller of violence, then God is not omnipotent. He is not all powerful. He is not God.

Your bar mitzvah takes place on your birthday, so you are now a grown-up thirteen. And you’ve finally confessed your atheism. But you see the dilemma of deity—the problem of Job, the problem of good and evil—in terms of another biblical story, the tale of Jacob. Jacob wants to climb to the heavens and palaver with God, to negotiate with him face to face. God plays this scene as if he were Al Pacino in The Godfather. He has a thug, an angel, guarding the ladder to heaven. You imagine this as a ladder about eight feet high leading to a heaven that hovers over the earth at roughly the height of a low-hanging tree house. When Jacob reaches the foot of the tree house ladder, the holy bouncer refuses to let him touch even the first rung. Jacob objects. Strenuously. The two—Jacob and the angel—get into a nasty fight, wrestling their biceps off. Jacob loses.

As you see it, it’s your job to do what Jacob failed to accomplish. It’s your job to toss the bouncer aside as if he were a crumpled candy wrapper. It’s your job to climb that ladder, to barge into God’s living room, to grab the little sucker by the collar of his robe, and to tell him that either he shape up or we humans will have to take over. Why? Because it’s your job to do some­thing we still have not learned how to do—to stop the massacre, to stop the new Holocausts and the new Rwanda’s. To stop death in its tracks. To stop the vicious little bastard we call God.

The first rule of science is the truth at any price including the price of your life. That rule also applies to morality. You have to stop torture, pain, and death even if doing so endangers you. Which means if mass murder is taking place, you and I have to stop it. Even if we risk losing our lives.

But the nonexistence of god and the cruelty of the cosmos is not the really big revelation. It is not the insight that leads you to a massive challenge for science—and to a massive challenge for you and me. The crucial bolt of lightning that hits you is this. You are still thirteen. A mere ten weeks after your bar mitzvah and your confession of atheism, the Jewish High Holidays arrive. Your parents believe in God so deeply that they literally try to outdo God’s bouncer—they wrestle you into a car to take you to Temple Beth El on Richmond Avenue. Why? Because High Holiday services are the most important services in the Jewish year. But when it’s time to leave the car, you refuse. So your mom and dad literally grab you by the ankles and try to drag you from their blue, four-door Frazer while you hold on to the rear right doorframe for all you’re worth. Or at least that’s the way you remember it.

What’s more, by then you’ve been in science for a whopping 23 percent of your life. Since the age of ten. So you’ve read a considerable amount of anthropology. And every tribe you’ve ever read about agrees with your parents. Every tribe believes that there is some sort of god, some sort of supernatural power. Yes, the gods of each of these strange clans scattered across the face of the earth and sprinkled through history have been dif­ferent—gods who create, gods who keep things running, gods who destroy, gods with faces on the fronts and backs of their heads, gods with a third eye, gods who hold lightning bolts in their hands, gods who hold fistfuls of snakes, dog goddesses, gods of civilization, gods of music, Earth goddesses, gods and goddesses of death, goddesses of light, monkey gods, emperor gods, gods of jade, gods who handle heaven’s paperwork, gods who file reports on your behavior, gods with elephant trunks, goddesses with eight arms, gods with the heads of jackals, goddesses with the heads of cats, and gods with the heads of hawks. Nearly every tribe and nearly every human being has gods. Belief in gods is all over the place. It’s universal. It squeaks and squoozes from every pore of humanity.

So if there are no gods in the sky, on the mountaintops, or in rivers, rocks, and underworlds, where are they? The second rule of science tells you to look at things right under your nose as if you’ve never seen them before, then to proceed from there. The most obvious thing right under your nose turns out not to be under your nose at all. It turns out to be behind your nose. The gods are in our imaginations. The gods are in our emotions and in our passions. The gods are in our hearts and minds.

But take God out of the skies, put him in the minds, guts, and gonads of human beings, and you’re left with a massive question. How does a Godless cosmos pull off the tricks that every genesis myth tries to grasp? Back to your café table in the nothing before the birth of the universe. If you believe the big bang theory—and the story of what the big bang theory means for you and me is about to come—then once upon a time there was a nothing. From that no thing came the first some thing, the big bang. And it wasn’t just any something. It wasn’t just an undifferentiated mass like a black hole. It was a speed rush of time and space that had within it the seeds of an entire universe. The seeds of atoms, suns, planets, and galactic superclusters. The seeds of algae, cabbages, flamingos, termites, and trees. The seeds of you and me.

That’s a colossal act of creativity, a stupendous act of genesis and inven­tion. How did it happen? Why did it happen? If there is no creator, no engi­neer, no omniscient and omnipotent consciousness presiding over the start of everything, no sleazy little bastard in the sky making bets with his buddy the public prosecutor, then how did this rush of time and space come to be? How did the universe create something so unlikely, something so surprising, something that broke every previous rule? Something that made brand new rules of its own? How did the cosmos create time and space? And why?

But there’s more. In the first 10-12 seconds of this cosmos’s existence, as you and I saw from our café table at the beginning of the universe, the space-time sheet popped forth the very first things—quarks. Then it show­ered protons and neutrons. But that was just the opening act. The cosmos shaped the flickers and flits of photons and electrons. It crafted the lumpy nanoballs called atoms, the giant sweepings of dust and gas called galaxies, the massive clench and screaming crunch of stars. The cosmos birthed giant ropes of molecules able to seduce each other into dances beyond the dreams of human choreographers into the most peculiar molecule dance of them all, life.

How in the world did the cosmos pull this off?

How does a godless cosmos make a heaven and an earth? How does she make crocodiles, crusaders, continents, and Milky Ways? How does a godless cosmos cough up insight and emotion? How does it burp forth you and me?

That becomes the quest of a lifetime for you. It’s the quest you will begin in 1956. It’s the mission that you will pursue for over half a century. It’s the question whose answer can change the way that hundreds of millions of others see. It’s the question that can help us utterly reperceive.

How does the cosmos create?

That’s not just any question, it’s THE question.

It’s the God Problem.

~ Reprinted with permission from The God Problem: How A Godless Cosmos Creates by Howard Bloom and published by Prometheus Books, 2012.

Authors@Google: Marc Schoen - Your Survival Instinct is Killing You

Dr. Marc Schoen discusses his new book Your Survival Instinct is Killing You: Retrain Your Brain to Conquer Fear, Make Better Decisions, and Thrive in the 21st Century. I just picked up a copy of this book, so this was a good preview of the book for those of you who get a copy.

This book seems useful for anyone has experienced trauma or PTSD in their lives. The limbic system (also sometimes known as the paleomammalian brain) is the part of the brain that deals with fear, threats, and survival (the amygdalae). However, the limbic system is also the seat of long-term memory and emotions (the hippocampus). Those with PTSD often have an over-active amygdala (responsible for processing and encoding emotional memories) and therefore live with highly-charged emotional memories (thanks to the amygdalae) that often have a physiological component as well.

Anyway, this is good stuff.

Book Description
Release date: March 21, 2013

Thanks to technology, we live in a world that’s much more comfortable than ever before. But here’s the paradox: our tolerance for discomfort is at an all-time low. And as we wrestle with a sinking “discomfort threshold,” we increasingly find ourselves at the mercy of our primitive instincts and reactions that can perpetuate disease, dysfunction, and impair performance and decision making.

Designed to keep us out of danger, our limbic brain’s Survival Instinct controls what we intuitively do to avert injury or death, such as running out of a burning building. Rarely are we required to recruit this instinct today because seldom do we find ourselves in situations that are truly life-threatening. However, this part of our brain is programmed to naturally and automatically react to even the most benign forms of discomfort and stress as serious threats to our survival.

In this seminal book we learn how the Survival Instinct is the culprit that triggers a person to overeat, prevents the insomniac from sleeping, causes the executive to unravel under pressure, leads travelers to avoid planes or freeways, inflames pain, and due to past heartache, closes down an individual to love. In all of these cases, their overly-sensitive Survival Instinct is being called into action at the slightest hint of discomfort. In short, their Survival Instinct is stuck in the “ON” position…with grave consequences.

Your Survival Is Killing You can transform the way you live. Provocative, eye-opening, and surprisingly practical with its gallery of strategies and ideas, this book will show you how to build up your “instinctual muscles” for successfully managing discomfort while taming your overly reactive Survival Instinct. You will learn that the management of discomfort is the single most important skill for the twenty-first century. This book is, at its heart, a modern guide to survival.
Here is the video.

Authors@Google: Marc Schoen - Your Survival Instinct is Killing You

Published on Apr 2, 2013

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

John Jeremiah Sullivan - One of Us (Humanity and Animal Consciousness)

From the always excellent Lapham's Quarterly, John J Sullivan examines the human relationship with our fellow animals, and how recent research into animal consciousness is changing the way we see our fellow animals, and hopefully, how we treat them as well.
Animal consciousness occurs, [Thomas] Nagel wrote, when “there is something that it is to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.” The strangeness of his syntax carries the genuine texture of the problem. We’ll probably never be able to step far enough outside of our species-reality to say much about what is going on with them, beyond saying how like or unlike us they are. Many things are conscious on the earth, and we are one, and our consciousness feels like this; one of the things it causes us to do is doubt the existence of the consciousness of the other millions of species. But it also allows us to imagine a time when we might stop doing that.
~ John Jeremiah Sullivan is the author of Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son and, most recently, Pulphead: Essays. He is the recipient of two National Magazine Awards, a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, the Southern editor of The Paris Review, and a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine.

One of Us

These are stimulating times for anyone interested in questions of animal consciousness. On what seems like a monthly basis, scientific teams announce the results of new experiments, adding to a preponderance of evidence that we’ve been underestimating animal minds, even those of us who have rated them fairly highly. New animal behaviors and capacities are observed in the wild, often involving tool use—or at least object manipulation—the very kinds of activity that led the distinguished zoologist Donald R. Griffin to found the field of cognitive ethology (animal thinking) in 1978: octopuses piling stones in front of their hideyholes, to name one recent example; or dolphins fitting marine sponges to their beaks in order to dig for food on the seabed; or wasps using small stones to smooth the sand around their egg chambers, concealing them from predators. At the same time neurobiologists have been finding that the physical structures in our own brains most commonly held responsible for consciousness are not as rare in the animal kingdom as had been assumed. Indeed they are common. All of this work and discovery appeared to reach a kind of crescendo last summer, when an international group of prominent neuroscientists meeting at the University of Cambridge issued “The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals,” a document stating that “humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.” It goes further to conclude that numerous documented animal behaviors must be considered “consistent with experienced feeling states.”

That is technical language, but it speaks to a riddle age-old and instinctive. These thoughts begin, for most of us, typically, in childhood, when we are making eye contact with a pet or wild animal. I go back to our first family dog, a preternaturally intelligent-seeming Labrador mix, the kind of dog who herds playing children away from the street at birthday parties, an animal who could sense if you were down and would nuzzle against you for hours, as if actually sharing your pain. I can still hear people, guests and relatives, talking about how smart she was. “Smarter than some people I know!” But when you looked into her eyes—mahogany discs set back in the grizzled black of her face—what was there? I remember the question forming in my mind: can she think? The way my own brain felt to me, the sensation of existing inside a consciousness, was it like that in there?

For most of the history of our species, we seem to have assumed it was. Trying to recapture the thought life of prehistoric peoples is a game wise heads tend to leave alone, but if there’s a consistent motif in the artwork made between four thousand and forty thousand years ago, it’s animal-human hybrids, drawings and carvings and statuettes showing part man or woman and part something else—lion or bird or bear. Animals knew things, possessed their forms of wisdom. They were beings in a world of countless beings. Taking their lives was a meaningful act, to be prayed for beforehand and atoned for afterward, suggesting that beasts were allowed some kind of right. We used our power over them constantly and violently, but stopped short of telling ourselves that creatures of alien biology could not be sentient or that they were incapable oftrue suffering and pleasure. Needing their bodies, we killed them in spite of those things.

Only with the Greeks does there enter the notion of a formal divide between our species, our animal, and every other on earth. Today in Greece you can walk by a field and hear two farmers talking about an alogo, a horse. An a-logos. No logos, no language. That’s where one of their words for horse comes from. The animal has no speech; it has no reason. It has no reason because it has no speech. Plato and Aristotle were clear on that. Admire animals aesthetically, perhaps, or sentimentally; otherwise they’re here to be used. Mute equaled brute. As time went by, the word for speech became the very word for rationality, the logos, an identification taken up by the early Christians, with fateful results. For them the matter was even simpler. The animals lack souls. They are all animal, whereas we are part divine.

And yet, if you put aside church dogma, and lean in to look at the Bible itself, or at the Christian tradition, the picture is more complicated. In the Book of Isaiah, God says that the day will come when the beasts of the field will “honor” Him. If there’s a characteristic of personal identity more defining than the capacity to honor, it’s hard to come up with. We remember St. Francis, going aside to preach to the little birds, his “sisters.” Needless to say he represented a radical extreme, conclusions of which regarding the right way of being in the world would not seem reasonable to most of the people who have his statue in their gardens. In one of his salutations, that of virtues, he goes as far as to say that human beings desiring true holiness should make themselves “subject” to the animals, “and not to men alone, but also to all beasts.” If God grants that wild animals eat you, lie down, let them do “whatsoever they will,” it’s what He wanted.

Deeper than that, though, in the New Testament, in the Gospel According to Luke, there’s that exquisite verse, one of the most beautiful in the Bible, the one that says if God cares deeply about sparrows, don’t you think He cares about you? One is so accustomed to dwelling on the second, human, half of the equation, the comforting part, but when you put your hand over that and consider only the first, it’s a little startling: God cares deeply about the sparrows. Not just that, He cares about them individually. “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?” Jesus says. “Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.” Sparrows are an important animal for Jesus. In the so-calledInfancy Gospel of Thomas, a boy Jesus, playing in mud by the river, fashions twelve sparrows out of clay—again the number is mentioned—until a fellow Jew, happening to pass, rebukes him for breaking the Sabbath laws (against “smoothing,” perhaps), at which point Jesus claps and says, “Go!”, and the sparrows fly away chirping. They are not, He says, forgotten. So Godremembers them, bears them in mind. Stranger still, He cares about their deaths. In the Gospel According to Matthew we’re told, “Not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Think about that. If the bird dies on the branch, and the bird has no immortal soul, and is from that moment only inanimate matter, already basically dust, how can it be “with” God as it’s falling? And not in some abstract all-of-creation sense but in the very way that we are with Him, the explicit point of the verse: the line right before it is “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul.” If sparrows lack souls, if the logos liveth not in them, Jesus isn’t making any sense in Matthew 10:28-29. The passage may make no sense anyway. The sparrow population shows little sign of divine ministrations: two years ago the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds placed house sparrows on its “Red List” of globally threatened species. Charles Darwin supposedly said that the suffering of the lower animals throughout time was more than he could bear to think of. That feels, if slightly neurotic, more scrupulously observed.
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