15 Aug 2009

Egypt Bans GM Food

CAIRO (Reuters) – Any agricultural imports to Egypt must have a certificate from the country of origin that the product is not genetically modified and the rule will also apply to Egyptian exports, the official news agency said on Wednesday.

The debate in Egypt over food quality has become politically heated after some Russian wheat was rejected over quality concerns. Members of parliament have been calling for stricter rules and greater agricultural self sufficiency.

from Aftermath News.

I suspect there will be a lot of lobbying against this move but I hope the Egyptians stand firm. The aim of the GM food companies is to control the world's food supply thereby holding both farmers and countries hostage to increasing prices for sterile seeds.

The Vision Thing and Brain Mapping

Knowledge about brain organization and development is rapidly evolving, partly due to new tools we have for research, such as various MRI techniques. One type of question being investigated is the degree to which brain organization is pre-programmed in the genes vs a result of the process of development.

Our current models of visual organization in the brain is that there are two streams of visual information: the ventral stream relates to object recognition (and lesions of which result in visual agnosia, or the inability to recognize objects), and the dorsal stream is for planning actions. Lesions of the dorsal stream result in what is called optic ataxia.

The dorsal stream of visual information is therefore related to seeing an object heading in your direction and getting out of the way, or to the act of catching a baseball. While the ventral stream will tell you that what you are catching is a baseball and not a rock.

However, the processing does not stop there and the ventral stream also separates living and non-living objects. The distinction is obviously vitally important to our survival. One recent piece of research looking at the brain activity of sighted people compared to those blind from birth shows that such categories are hard-wired into our visual cortex. In those blind from birth the visual input data is missing but the reaction algorithm still exists. The article doesn't explore whether this ventral stream is, in such cases, receiving inputs from other senses such as sound.

In our attempts to evolve into something more than irascible simians, it is worth knowing which of our reactions are due to hardware and which to software. But our brains are somewhat plastic so that the distinction is not as clear-cut as in silicon-based computers. We can be programmed, deprogrammed and reprogrammed, but some things are harder to change than others.

Have some ancient brain structures passed their usefulness? Or is our consciousness doomed to witness a mere fraction of what is really going on inside our minds?

full article at Neurologica blog.

14 Aug 2009

Our Future: Truth or Lies?

Is it possible that our future will consist of less religions and theism?
Or…

* Will we evolve into a non-superstitious society or will we continue to cling to these myths to justify our preferences and prejudices?

[...]

I hope that there will be a time when the majority of our population realizes that the answers lie within our physical means? We humans can find the answers that will not only aid in our existence, but will help us progress as an ongoing race and a better world.

from Proud Atheists.

I would just add that we must also retain a mental dimension and be able to look both inwards and outwards with the same scientific outlook of detached observation. Faith is ultimately a physiological state and we can deprogram, but in our society having power over others seems more important than having power over our own mind.


7 Aug 2009

Everything Happens for a Reason

This is a rather lightweight op-ed piece from the Friendly Atheist which, however, has generated a fair amount of comment. If a friend starts confiding in you about some tragedy in their life and then slips into,“This is all happening for a reason.” or “It’s part of God’s plan.”, how do you react?

If you believe in a god - any god - you may be able to sympathize. The search for some consoling meaning in the randomness of the universe is often natural. But to build up one's personal problems into some grand cosmic plan seems largely unhelpful, both practically and emotionally. Sure, shit happens! Why did lightning strike here and not there? Complex system. Why has my partner lost interest in me? Complex system.

The universe is a complex system; some parts behave in good old fashioned cause and effect whilst others appear random and unpredictable. We've known this for some 100 years - in just the last 40 years we've even come to understand how simple systems can exhibit complex structures. Perhaps it's just time for human psychology to catch up with human science.

Taking a drug may relieve the pain but it won't heal the wound. Would you rather your friend kept taking the drugs, or would you rather be genuinely helpful?

Natural Born Atheists

An interesting short article from the Proud Atheists blog. Not merely a rant about the lunacy of the Pentecostal church with its unwavering message of "you're going to hell!", but picks up on the idea that there are people just born unbelievers. Religious indoctrination starts at such an early age that it is very difficult to investigate how, or even whether, the average human goes through phases of religious thinking and development. From the comments, there are a few out there who do not recall lapsing from any religion but rather have always been faithless skeptics.

As some religions would dearly love to find some 'God spot' in the brain, thereby connecting us mere mortals to some alleged metaphysical eldorado, so they wish to claim that we are all 'wired for God', thereby adding yet another lame metaphysical proof of God's existence. I mean, if you find a door then it must lead somewhere - building a door on a brick wall is slightly surreal but does evolution include such aesthetic pranks? I'll come back to this door in a minute.

So are people born with a natural sense of religion or are they just indoctrinated into their parents' cult? There are some for whom belief is just not part of the program. I, for one, do not recall ever believing the stuff spoken by priests. Not only did the words not mean anything but I saw how people behaved in both church and outside it and, apart from the rampant hypocrisy, I was left bemused as to what exactly they were doing. Kneeling down in a gesture of prayer was easy to imitate but what was going on in their heads?

I suspect - or perhaps hope - that most young children go through a process of thinking through who they are as their brain goes beyond learning how to walk and starts to focus on where to walk to. I also think parents do their kids an injustice by not listening to what they try to tell them about life, the universe and their dreams. I do recall having an intense period in which it was very important for me to figure out who I was, what was it that made me conscious of being me, and so on. I had nothing that could be called 'faith' in any great gig in the sky. I was the doubting Thomas - show me! However, the revelation that eventually appeared was very interesting and best described in Buddhist terms as naked awareness - a kind of atomic consciousness. Unfortunately, I knew nothing of Buddhism at the age 6 or 7 but I did know that such experiences were not part of the Catholic canon. My natural born faithlessness grew into a conscious rejection of the whole racket. Not only was Christianity wrong (people are wrong about many things all the time, it's called learning) but it was actually a lie, which struck me as a more serious charge.

So coming back to that door. The attempt by some religions to distort neuroscience into locating some God-terminal in the brain has already started. The structure of our mind is a fascinating and important area of research, both from a scientific and personal point of view. The structure of our deepest and most basic part of the mind is normally left unconscious and yet in some individuals under some circumstances it does manifest. Such experiences are often life-changing and hence should be treated with respect. In my opinion, the delusion propagated by religions is not the delusion of such experiences but in the mind-map propagated to explain such experiences. The mental door is not a gateway to a metaphysical deity but the opening up of previously secret areas of our mind.

Are we, in the end natural born fideists or atheists? We are undoubtedly conscious. We can choose to open those doors and explore our consciousness - explore what it means to be human - or we can get faith and close all those doors, lock them up and throw away the keys. Thankfully, those keys can always be found again if one starts to wonder about those locked doors.

6 Aug 2009

The Secular Thinker

The Secular Thinker is a blog about many things, mainly politics, society, philosophy, and religion, written from the perspective of a secular atheist. My goal when creating the blog was for it to become a place of discussion, a source of information, and a small step in the very long journey towards truth. The internet brings many people together, and I think that though debate and argument, those people can come to a better understanding of the world. Alone, we can accomplish little, but together, the possibilities are boundless. We live in a society where so much of the world's population believe in some sort of supernatural being, and, knowingly or otherwise, these beliefs influence daily interaction. I believe the in the potential of humanity to achieve greatness, but this pursuit is so often hindered by the presence of religion. I would like The Secular Thinker to become a place of education, information, fact-finding, debate, argument, discussion, understanding, contemplation, and cooperation that will ultimately lead us in the right direction to creating a better world for ourselves and each other.

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