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Sam Drops the Ball
Posted: 04 October 2006 12:50 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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Sam Harris has been giving quite a few interviews as part of his book launch. His thinking has evolved since his first book, but, unfortunately, in the wrong direction.

He now admits that it is the blind following of ideology that is the real problem, with religion just being the most common (and long-lasting) type. When asked about the Soviet and Nazi regimes he tries to shoehorn them into a religious framework. It is true that the Nazis incorporated various religious symbols into their ideology and also co-opted the Catholic and Protestant churches, but it is a reach to apply this to the Soviets.

The real issue is that many people have the need to be followers. This is called an "authoritarian" personality in the literature these days. John Dean has just written a book about it based upon the work of Robert Altemeyer and many others. These people crave the security and "closure" that comes from following leaders who claim to have all the answers. Religion is especially useful in this regard, because the leaders claim some sort of supernatural ability to understand the universe which is denied to the rest of us. Thus debates over interpretation can always be squelched by appeals to this special knowledge.

When ideologies are based upon economics or social organization (usually with an overlay of assumptions about human nature) there is always the possibility for rival interpretations. Witness the continual need for purges during the Soviet era as different factions claimed that their viewpoints were the true versions of Marxism. Without the ability to claim divine guidance the debates quickly became factional wars.

When Sam gets into a debate with someone with a religious (i.e. Christian) outlook as he did with Andrew Sullivan, it slips into theology. Sullivan quotes the Bible and Sam skirts the real issue, since he doesn't want to appear rude.

Let's see what happens if we take as a given that there are no supernatural beings or powers in the universe. First the key books that are the foundation of western religion become, at best, a collection of stories and advice by people from the past. These people may have been wise or insightful, but no more so than many who have come since. There is no reason to spend time on their discussions of supernaturalism or to heed advice based upon this.

Similarly, the religious leaders lose all their special authority. I can just as easily go to a psychologist or economist or philosopher for ideas on how society should be organized. They speak with as much or as little authority. Without the supernatural the entire religious hierarchy can be seen as the same as any large organization and its purpose much the same. It collects money, disburses it to maintain the organization and provides whatever services it feels appropriate. In return the members get a series of entertainment/psychological paybacks in the form of ceremonies and group support. This dynamic can be found just as easily in fraternal groups or other voluntary associations. There is no need for a supernatural component.

Sam seems to crave some sort of transcendent experience which he is trying to reach via a quasi-Buddhist meditative state. This weakens his arguments since he wants to ban the supernatural while seeking an experience associated with a religious state. As a scientist he should realize that this state is nothing more than a special condition of the brain. It has been explained as far back as 1905 by William James in "The Varieties of Religious Experience". It can be brought on by many techniques including meditation, prayer, fasting and various drugs or chemicals. James, himself, was able to induce such a state in himself by use of Nitrous Oxide. Modern brain studies have gone much further than James was able to pinpoint the areas in the brain affected and even some knowledge of brain chemistry.

To conflate this state with mysticism or religion does a disservice to science and weakens Sam Harris's arguments against organized religion. Rather than deal with religion as an organization designed to control people he tries to replace the organizational aspects with some sort of personal quasi-religious experience. Science is science and mysticism has no place in rational discussions. Too bad he has lost his way and has given the religious communities the opening they need to defuse his criticisms.

The simple truth is that all societies exist to exert some sort of social control. Many people are willing to adapt to the roles assigned to them by the leadership. But, the bottom line is that it is all about who has the power and how they use it. Invoking the supernatural just makes the job of control easier.

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Posted: 04 October 2006 01:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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I just tried to start a topic related to this, didn’t go too far.

Anyways, I think what Sam is trying to say is that by practicing techniques that usually fall under the realm of mysticism, our perception of the world can radically change. If we an practice these techniques and experience the change for ourselves, as he claims he has, then there is science there.

His researching is in brain imaging, he is attempting to study how the brain affects belief and mental states (having admitted that brain imaging may fail to offer any really useful results).

Yes I agree, its a bit poorly timed to come out with this kind of talk after slamming irrational beliefs, but i don’t think the “mysticism” he talks about is without evidence.

Adam

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Posted: 05 October 2006 05:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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Well spoken, many fine points.

But you obviously have never had a “mystical” or “spiritual” experience. Even scientists speak of these moments, they call it the “Aha!” moment - when you are working on a theory and the answer finally comes to you. “Eureka!”

So, your attack on the relation to Buddhism is unmerited. You might want to read “The Tao of Physics” by Fritjof Capra. It talks about the way the spirtiual or mystical experiences happen and the way the underlying laws of nature are wrapped into consciousness.

There is no dogma assoicated with Buddhism. For any idea that has been around as long as Confucius and Lao Tzu, of course people will “attach” things to it - but Buddhism in and of itself is just a way of focusing consciousness and constantly being in the present moment. (For a take on the subject, check out: “Buddhism - Plain and Simple” by Steve Hagen.

So, while you have made many nice observations on Sam’s argument, I think he’s going about it the right way. He’s setting his message up for something bigger, I guarantee it.

...Consciousness is the ground of all being…

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Posted: 05 October 2006 09:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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Well done ROIscience!  smile

I think a lot of people jump into what Sam is talking about without really reading or listening to the full context of what he’s talking about.

Sam’s message isn’t one-dimensional like most people quickly label it as. He’s doing about the best job at bringing all the truths of experience into the collective.

Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Joseph Campbell… have all layed the groundwork for the deconstruction of faith. The tools are out there now to reconstruct religious dogmatism and faith in a way that is more suitable to each of their respective causes: mythology.

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Posted: 05 October 2006 09:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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Wallace and Science:

I have no idea what you are trying to say. That the human mind is able to experience various states which some people label as religious, transcendent or whatever just means that we don’t have a suitable vocabulary.

All states of the mind are just that: states of the mind. When we know enough about the functioning of the brain we will understand them better. For Sam to need to meditate to bring on one of these states says more about his dissatisfactions with his present life than it does anything about religion. Other people use drugs or alcohol to try to achieve the same aim.

Timothy Leary tried to do something similar with LSD and eventually made himself into a laughingstock as he moved away from science to mumbo jumbo. I’m hoping Sam isn’t on the same track.

Organized relgion and other all-encompassing ideologies require that people stop thinking for themselves and gathering the facts and instead rely on various leaders or authority figures. That this is not a good idea can be seen from the harsh way anyone questioning the dogmas are treated. The last thing mass movements want is people doing their own evaluations.

Perhaps many people feel something is lacking and try to achieve a transcendent state. Personally I prefer to remain totally aware so that I can experience the real world in all its glory and ugliness.

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Posted: 05 October 2006 10:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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Again, well spoken. But you’ve disconnected too much.

There is an intricate layer of transcendent consciousness that is a part of everything in the universe. To explain before the forum blows up:

I’m talking about nature and existence. What are instincts? Where do they come from? We are now getting to the point where we understand the collective unconscious (Carl Jung).

Instincts are memories from previous generations of a species, passed on to the most present generation in order to aid survival of the species. It’s inter-woven with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. (sea turtles, salmon, apes)

This sounds like a crazy idea, but Carl Jung openly talked about it. Michio Kaku talks about it in his latest book, “Parallel Worlds”. If you read “The Tao of Physics” by Fritjof Capra - you will see that science is just now beginning to unravel and “identify” what the eastern mystics were talking about 4000 years ago.

Just like Sam talks about the fruitful dialogue going on between Eastern Mystics and Western Neurologists - there really is something to the collective and science is now approaching the task of explaining it - without any crutch of dogma.

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Posted: 05 October 2006 11:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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Sam Harris has addressed the subject about mysticism and science in pretty good detail in the following interview:

 

It starts out as follows:

[quote author=“Interviewer”]
RAVING ATHEIST: Many hardcore atheists like myself are wary of meditation, viewing it as religious or spiritual practice akin to prayer. How is what you’re proposing different?

Decide for yourself if it sounds like Timothy Leary.

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Posted: 05 October 2006 11:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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Meditation is essentially introspection and there’s nothing dogmatic about that. Just quietly sitting and contemplating…whatever - through focused in-attention.

Sam is on the right path.  :D

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Posted: 05 October 2006 03:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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Eventually, however, there does come a point when a person gains extraordinary powers of concentration, and then he can actually see some things of real interest about the nature of his mind.

It has taken years of meditation practice for me to even approach a feeling that the above might be possible, ‘cause I see glimpses of it.  Brief shadows that quickly pass like half-awake dreams.

Trouble is, I’m getting older and the powers of concentration just simply are not there most of the time.  The main benefit I get from the practice is the ability to stay in the moment for large chunks of time.  I can really be there when I want to be, centered and engaged, as Dennett calls it.

It is a simple practice, as SeanK describes, nothing magical or mystical about it.  I did go on a Zen retreat once a few years ago where we spent large chunks of the day in different forms of meditation, and that was a very revealing experience.

I certainly have not found god through meditation, or even myself, what I do discover is my place in the scheme of things.  Put another way, I become “right sized” if that makes any sense at all.  Makes it easier to do the next right thing.  Hell of a lot better than having “god in my life” anyway.

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Posted: 09 October 2006 05:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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[quote author=“3n7r0py”]
There is an intricate layer of transcendent consciousness that is a part of everything in the universe.

What are you talking about?  What is your evidence for it?

To explain before the forum blows up:

I’m talking about nature and existence. What are instincts? Where do they come from? We are now getting to the point where we understand the collective unconscious (Carl Jung).

Um.  No, actually, we aren’t.  There is no need to call on a collective unconscious to explain why various cultures have similar ideas or explanations or dreams or whatever.  And let’s define “instincts” before we speculate on where they come from. 

Instincts are memories from previous generations of a species, passed on to the most present generation in order to aid survival of the species. It’s inter-woven with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. (sea turtles, salmon, apes)

Sorry, that’s nonsense.  Please describe how the mindless reactions of a one-celled organism to its environment can involve “memories” without torturing the word out of its meaning.  Also, where are you getting the notion that species memories are even necessary for, let alone “interwoven” with adaptive evolution to explain behavior?  Are we only talking about vertebrates or what?

This sounds like a crazy idea, but Carl Jung openly talked about it.

And… ?  Carl Jung didn’t have any wacky ideas du jour?  How about Freud? 

Michio Kaku talks about it in his latest book, “Parallel Worlds”. If you read “The Tao of Physics” by Fritjof Capra - you will see that science is just now beginning to unravel and “identify” what the eastern mystics were talking about 4000 years ago.

You are quoting crackpots.  Michio Kaku regularly appears on the ART BELL show, fertheluvapete.  He is a proponent of string theory (“not even wrong”).  Fritjof Capra doesn’t get his Eastern mysticism right, let alone his physics, and the book was published over 30 years ago (still being re-issued regularly with crankier and crankier updates, I believe).  Concepts described in everyday language by particle physicists and Eastern mystics may occasionally randomly sound alike here and there, but that’s like noting that a stopped clock is right once or twice a day.

I think it was Carl Sagan who said that while charlatans like Deepak Chopra continue to claim that discoveries in quantum physics prove we can alter or even reverse macro physical events like aging by manipulating our observing minds, each new book he publishes has an author photo that shows him getting ever older, just like the rest of us.  (I’m sure Chopra has said or will say that he chooses to go through the cycles of life or something like that.  Sure.)  Capra goes into more detail, physics-wise, than Chopra would probably ever do, but it’s all the same.

Just like Sam talks about the fruitful dialogue going on between Eastern Mystics and Western Neurologists - there really is something to the collective and science is now approaching the task of explaining it - without any crutch of dogma.

Sam also thinks there is plausible evidence for reincarnation.  (Paging the Amazing Randi…)  What “fruitful dialogue”’ is going on between mystics and neurologists - who are in danger of becoming as irrelevant as string theorists, by the way, if they can’t come up with a reductionist theory of consciousness soon - about “the collective”, whatever that is?

Some serious woo-woo here, kiddo.  I’m disappointed.

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Posted: 10 October 2006 04:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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Well spoken! That’s quite the refute there.

Regarding instincts, I was talking about the way newborn species like salmon know to swim upstream or how sea turtles know to go out to sea, etc. And the nurturing instincts Sam talks about in “Letter…” how that type of behavior is there the moment we are.

But, you’ve probably never had a mystical experience - drug induced or not. There seems to be another layer of experience that is found through introspection. I can’t dismiss it right away like you do, because I have had “a moment of clarity”. There are no words to describe nirvana or enlightenment because you can’t come back with any words - certain meditative states transcend categories of human thought.

Just like Sam talked about getting grief from atheists for talking about spiritual or mystical experiences, the doubt lingers - but we’re making progress towards defining these experiences and opening the window to the mind, in the hopes of understanding what is really going on in our heads. Just give it time.  :wink:

Also, Fritjof and Michio are well respected authors and scientists. They aren’t making crackpot claims - if there’s evidence for something, especially contemplative, why not search for it? It’s like like they are bringing about dogma or some wacky new religion like Scientology… A lot of scientists (whether they are string theorists or not) ARE asking questions that might be considered realms for philosophers - but they are doing this using the same sense of doubt and method as scientists.

There is nothing wrong with asking questions. Especially contemplative.

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Posted: 10 October 2006 12:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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And the nurturing instincts Sam talks about in “Letter…” how that type of behavior is there the moment we are.

Speaking as a mother, I did not observe any nurturing instincts in my baby, quite the opposite.  And if I had thought he would develop nurturing instincts without input from me, I would have gotten a lot more sleep that first year.

But, you’ve probably never had a mystical experience - drug induced or not. There seems to be another layer of experience that is found through introspection.

How do you define “mystical experience”?  I have certainly had “A-ha!” moments and “in the zone” moments but am not sure those qualify.  “Another layer of experience that is found through introspection.”  I don’t understand what you are getting at there.  I am well aware of the benefits of meditation.  I have had amazing “insights” (shall we say) that resulted from introspection (one of them being the “I am me” realization that stunned me early on in life and a couple of times later, which has also been described by many autobiographers, particularly well in the case of Anthony Powell, though nobody can ever convey the particular mind-blowing quality of that experience - words simply fail). 

I just don’t see any of these as mystical or “another layer of experience”.  They seem like any other experience to me.  If someone stabs me with a knife I know (or could look up) what neurotransmitters and brain areas are at work. I understand the adaptive benefit of being able to react to noxious stimuli.  But nobody has explained “pain” as part of a theory of consciousness.  To me, that doesn’t make being stabbed a mystical experience.  Neither consciousness nor mysticism nor anything supernatural are required for organisms to react to external stimuli, noxious or otherwise, because such reactions can occur in organisms that cannot be conscious (or have mystical or paranormal experiences).  I hope we can agree that a lawn does not suffer physically or existentially when it is mowed.  Why some vertebrates (and maybe other animals) do “feel pain” is not known.  Not knowing does not mean that we need to jump to mystical, supernatural, or metaphysical explanations.  Maybe we will know someday, maybe we won’t.

we’re making progress towards defining these experiences and opening the window to the mind, in the hopes of understanding what is really going on in our heads. Just give it time.

How much time and for what, exactly?  What is the difference between mystical and supernatural experience?  Sam certainly hasn’t told me yet; observation is not explanation.  I am a skeptic, obviously, and was very disappointed to see Sam quoting known charlatans on paranormal “research”, which leads me to fear that he conflates “mystical” with “paranormal”, which shows excessive credulity.  He is not the first; William James joined/founded the Society for Psychical Research well over 100 years ago, but we still don’t have any evidence for the paranormal.  Harry Houdini was far more effective than all those scientists at showing how the mediums who baffled them produced their tricks.  Same with the Amazing Randi today.  Scientists can fall in love with their own (or others’) ideas and lose their ability to criticize them, or can be duped outside their own field - just look at the perfectly competent PhD engineers who defend Intelligent Design, for example.  Those who are blinded by faith may never recover, but how long should the rest of us wait?  How many more years for string physics? 

Certainly theology and the supernatural will not depart any time soon, but for scientists and skeptics, how much time must we give before we give up?  Scientists have given up on alchemy and perpetual motion (the latter to the point that the US Patent Office will not even entertain claims for patents of machines that purport to evade the 2nd law of thermodynamics) because after centuries of trying such endeavors never succeeded and science has recently showed convincing reasons why they never will, at which point both were immediately discarded as pseudoscience and not worthy of further investigation - is that a mistake? 

Also, Fritjof and Michio are well respected authors and scientists. They aren’t making crackpot claims

Fritjof is no longer respected among physicists.  As for Kaku (who has clasped string theory to his heart to the point where I doubt he will ever be able to give it up), if you listen to him on the Art Bell show you might disagree about the crackpot claims.  I have absolutely heard him endorse paranormal claims on that program.  Perhaps other “respected scientists” don’t listen to Art Bell.  The growing doubts about string theory, parallel universes, etc. are growing precisely because string theory doesn’t make useful testable claims and the idea of parallel universes is not reductionist enough.  Maybe there are millions of parallel universes, but if we can only speculate about them, what is the point?  I am not interested in metaphysics or theology. 

The genius of science has been that it takes lots of observations, speculations, etc. and reduces them to a useful theory.  It may be that there is no Grand Unified Theory; it may be that there is one but our minds are not able to understand it, any more than a cat can understand calculus.  Or maybe just not yet.  Michio Kaku says that we “were never supposed to see this [string] theory in the 20th century” (a statement I find suspicious in itself - is there someone in charge of doling out scientific discoveries bit by bit?) because the “mathematics necessary to solve the theory have not yet been discovered” and “nobody on the planet is smart enough to solve the theory”.  Actually, the problem is that there is still no consistent theory to solve, and even mathematicians are starting to complain about the math in string theory - Peter Woit, the Not Even Wrong guy, is one.  Show me the money is all I’m saying.  If the Large Hadron Collider does, I can be convinced to change my mind about string physics.  If someone comes up with a convincing theory of consciousness, I can be convinced.  If somebody wins the Amazing Randi’s million-dollar challenge, I can change my mind about the paranormal.

Allow me to quote from Burton Richter in the latest Physics Today (which I got from the Not Even Wrong blog; I don’t pretend to be anything more than a somewhat educated [some physics at Berkeley in the early 1970s; I heard Heisenberg at a guest lecture then and OMG, was he ever derisive about the wrongheadedness and misinterpretation of the Uncertainty Principle and quantum mechanics that were beginning to crop up as New Age theories] and interested observer as far as physics goes):

I have a very hard time accepting the fact that some of our distinguished theorists do not understand the difference between observation and explanation, but it seems to be so…

Do you understand the difference and can you explain it and why it is important?  Since this is the foundational principle of science itself, if you don’t understand the difference you are not going to “get” science.  Not to worry: there are plenty of theologian physicists who have studied all their lives, have successful careers, and still don’t (or have forgotten).  And maybe they are not wrong.  “Maybe” doesn’t go very far with me or for very long, though.  Show me the money.  Give me a good reason-based explanation for why Karl Popper was wrong.

Also in the same issue of Physics Today is this sentence from an editorial defending string physics:

Critical-mindedness is integral to all scientific endeavour, but the pursuit of string power deserves undaunted encouragement.

This just shows how powerful our ability to self-delude can become.  This guy is making a statement that is incompatible with itself and publishing it in the leading journal of physics!  There is certainly good reason to try and figure out why human beings are so horribly prone to drag metaphysics slash theology slash “meaning” into all our endeavors, even to their utter ruination if need be.  (And maybe they are right and I am wrong - just show me why.  I could be convinced to believe in God himself if he could figure out a way to convince me that he exists - and it wouldn’t be that hard.)

I recommend the Not Even Wrong blog (can’t give an URL because it is no longer letting me in through Typepad and I have to get to it cached on Google - just type in “not even wrong blog”).  It is readable by the nonphysicist and if you approach it with an open, skeptical, critical mind (that is, you are willing to discover that you might be wrong) you could find yourself agreeing with an increasing number of scientists that this stuff is just not science. 

It is true that some of the turning points in science have been discoveries about science itself - and perhaps it is silly to go on thinking that you are onto something good when a theory is simple, elegant, reductionist, useful, falsifiable - and onto the wrong track when the reverse is true.  But in the last 200+  years, no major scientific theory has been proposed which has not been confirmed within 10 years.  Good science gets grabbed and triumphs quickly.  Yet string theory has just been getting more and more arty and complicated and theological for 35 years.  The anthropic principle?  The Landscape?  C’mon.  Show me the money.

By the way, in case you think I am harping on string physics, it is because the popularization slash misunderstanding of slash disingenuity about that and similar theories is why we have the New Age crap around.  Michio Kaku is a great popularist and indeed people would be delighted to “read the mind of God” as he puts it.  Fine - show me the science or show me why all previous science has been wrong.  I am open to being wrong.  The LHC could prove me wrong.  If it doesn’t, Michio Kaku and all the others should leave the stage in disgrace.  They probably won’t, but the history of science is unrelenting in its final decisions.  Kaku challenged the bet that nobody would win a Nobel prize by 2020 for string theory or any other “theory of everything” in 2002 - add four more years and we are still waiting.  Like the physicist who proposed the bet I would be delighted to be proved wrong… but also like him, I doubt that I will be.  In other words, I take the bet.

A lot of scientists (whether they are string theorists or not) ARE asking questions that might be considered realms for philosophers - but they are doing this using the same sense of doubt and method as scientists.

Unfortunately it seems more and more clear that string theorists are not doing this.  But tell me who else is and show me the data, the theory, the explanation.  (Or tell me why science itself has been wrong.)  Just some citations would be fine.

Sorry to be rude, but I just can’t believe anyone is bringing up Fritjof Capra in 2006 as someone to be taken seriously.  This just shows me you have not done enough reading on the subject of physics.  And physics is unfortunately essential to all of this, including the problem of consciousness.

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Posted: 10 October 2006 01:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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[quote author=“made_maka”]. . . I heard Heisenberg at a guest lecture then and OMG, was he ever derisive about the wrongheadedness and misinterpretation of the Uncertainty Principle and quantum mechanics that were beginning to crop up as New Age theories. . . .

If you can find the time, please tell us more about what you remember from this giant of 20th-century philosophy.

And just to add a note to the topic at hand, Rupert Sheldrake has been working for decades on validating Jungian-style epistemology. Sheldrake’s term for “collective unconscious” is “morphic resonance,” which he apparently still thinks applies to many if not all species (and something similar even to rocks, if I remember right). I wish him the best of luck, but until he can publish statistically significant results, he’s on my ignore list.

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Posted: 10 October 2006 01:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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made_maka. . . that was a stupendous post. You slapped me silly with all that good sense. An unknown quantity of credulity still remains in me, but little by little. . . wink

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Posted: 10 October 2006 03:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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Well done Made_Maka,
I just don’t seem to have the energy any more to tackle these New Agers. Methodological naturalism just hasn’t seemed to sink in entirely for some of these folks. And then we’re the crackpots…because we just don’t want to get what they’re claiming.

3n7r0py, you don’t even know what you don’t know…about instincts for one. Try Matt Ridley’s book The Agile Gene. I can assure you instincts are derived from the way genes build brains and affect behavior…and these behaviors are selected for by natural means. NO collective consciousness needed. By the way, what are your thoughts on Atlantis and UFOs. Same as the 9/11 cover-up?

Rod

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Posted: 10 October 2006 04:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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[quote author=“made_maka”]Sorry to be rude, but I just can’t believe anyone is bringing up Fritjof Capra in 2006 as someone to be taken seriously.  This just shows me you have not done enough reading on the subject of physics.  And physics is unfortunately essential to all of this, including the problem of consciousness.

At last. Somebody blows the whistle on the WhatTheBleep parade, exposing pre-digested speculative physics for the carnival sideshow that it is. I’d like to see a miracle too, but not enough to believe I’ve seen one yet. Show me the money. Or at least the physics.

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