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Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Soul Question

First of all, let me define the word 'soul' in the context of this blog post:
By 'soul' I mean the eternal supernatural entity that supposedly resides in a physical body and continues to live on even after the physical body is dead. The soul is also supposed to be able to exist independent of the physical body and even take up residence in a different body when its current home crumbles to dust. This entity is also supposedly responsible for our sense of morals, our conscience and self-awareness.

Now the question is, “Does the soul really exist?

At this point, it is necessary to state that there is no scientific evidence for the soul. The supposed experiment, where some dude weighed a person on their deathbed and noticed half a pound of weight-loss when they died, has been debunked as a fraud. Moreover the soul is not a physical entity and hence cannot be expected to show physical evidence of its existence.

Now to prove that the soul exists, we must resort to the non-physical evidence. For example, the human body is known to continually replace old cells with new ones. This means that after a few years, our bodies are almost completely different from the ones that we were born with as almost all the cells in our previous body have been replaced with new ones. Yet, we do still retain the same identity. We still feel like the same person. Is this because our soul has not been replaced like the rest of us?

The key word here is 'almost'. Our bodies are 'almost' completely new. You see, most of the neurons in the brain are not replaced. These cells cannot be regenerated and hence remain with us throughout our lives. Coincidentally, it is these neurons that store our memories and are responsible for our decision making and other brain functions. And our identities are nothing but complex functions of our memories and our DNA. In fact, when we do lose these neurons, we also lose memory and we are said to suffer from Alzheimer’s. It is common for Alzheimer’s patients to lose their identities. They continue to remain alive, but no longer recognize themselves. Have they lost their souls?

If not our identities, perhaps our morals come from our souls. If so, souls being eternal entities, must have absolute morals. Our morals should not be subject to change, but they are. As humanity as a species ages, the moral values of entire cultures have changed and evolved. Even our personal morals change as we age and experience different events. This leads me to conclude that our moral values are nothing but a function of our experiences. In fact, if we look at it objectively, our moral values tend to maximize survival and happiness and minimize suffering. This is nothing but the most basic survival instinct that every animal in the wild has. We may have added many abstract layers to the animal instinct in us, but it continues to be the core of our moral system. It is a byproduct of evolution and not derived by any supernatural means. Hence, our morals are not evidence for the existence of a soul.

Now that we cannot find any logical evidence, let us entertain the possibility that we might not have souls, that we are nothing but physical bodies with no immortal components. Does this pose any problems? Other than a small dent in our egos that would like to live on forever, this does not cause any problems as we don't need souls for maintaining our identities or moral values.

Now just as a thought experiment, let us disregard evidence and assume that we have souls. Does this pose any problems? This throws up a lot of confusing and contradictory questions. Do all living things have souls? Even bacteria? Are their souls inferior to ours? Does every cell in our body have a separate soul? When does the soul start living in a body? Is it once the child is born or is it at the moment of conception? What about viruses? They are alive when inside a host cell, but dead when outside. When they get inside another host, they come alive again. Do they have souls? Do their souls take vacations?

Assuming that a soul exists causes a lot of unnecessary confusion.

So here are the salient points:
  1. No physical evidence for the soul.
  2. No logical reason or evidence for the soul as it is not necessary for identity or morals.
  3. Assuming the existence of the soul causes more problems than it solves.

The first and second points should be enough for any rational person to conclude that the soul does not exist. The third point shows that there is no benefit even if one decides to be irrational about it.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Real Truth.

No, this is not a post about the answer to life, the universe and everything. We already know that is 42. This is a post about reality and how real ones reality really is; or isn't. Interested? Read on...

One of the most popular ways of thinking about reality is : "Seeing is believing." 
We now know that this is not enough. The human eye can only see a certain range of electromagnetic frequencies that we call the visible(how appropriate) spectrum. On either side of these frequencies we have the infra-red and the ultra-violet frequencies. Similarly, we can only hear a limited range of sound, taste a limited range of tastes and smell a limited range of smells. Our sense of touch and temperature is also extremely limited. We can only broaden these ranges of perception using instruments and scientific techniques. We will never be able to sense or perceive the entire universe in all its unfiltered glory. This may be a bleak prospect, but we have no choice in the matter.

Spiritual gurus, religions and some philosophically oriented individuals might urge you to look inwards as they believe that the brain/soul itself is a sensory organ which has no such filters on reality. They say that if one meditates strong enough and/or denies external stimuli one will be able to "KNOW" the whole of reality. Unfortunately, what a brain perceives when devoid of senses can just as well be a fanciful composition made from random sparks between the neurons. As for the soul, there is no such thing.

How then can we so arrogantly assume that what we can perceive with our senses and our gadgets is reality? This in essence is similar to believing in the geocentric model (the one where earth is at the center) of the universe. We now know that the geocentric model is incorrect and scientists are now working on the cosmological model. 

At this point, we must agree that what a person believes to be reality is just a model (a very limited one) of the universe that they experience through their senses. Also, every person can and does have their own unique model of the universe. A very common example of this discord is the various religious beliefs held by people in the world. A christian has a model of the universe where god created it in seven days, a muslim's model includes allah and the prophet, an atheist's model leaves no room for god in it and worst of all, every single one of these people will argue vehemently that their model is the right one. So, how do we decide which model of reality to accept?

In his book, "The Grand Design", Stephen Hawking presents this concept in a beautiful and elegant manner. He calls it "Model-Dependent Realism." 

So if we cannot by means of all our senses and technology perceive the absolute reality of the universe, we have but one choice: choose a model that best describes the reality. There is a very simple way to see how well a model describes reality, just check if it agrees with all the observations that we can make. If there is more than one model that agrees with all the observations, then they are both equally true. What if the model we have of reality agrees with all the observations that we can make, but not with reality itself? Well, do we really need bother ourselves with those aspects of reality that we can never hope to perceive? The very fact that we cannot perceive them means that they have no way of affecting us, so as far as we are concerned, they might just as well be fiction.

Now we have clear and logical method on how to choose the right model of reality. Unfortunately, the only system of beliefs (yes, in this context everything is a belief) that actually applies this method is Science. When  CopernicusGalileo and Kepler made observations that did not agree with the geocentric model, science scrapped the model (and the christian church tried to silence them.)

String theory is a model of the universe that is so different from the currently accepted model of universe that it turns our understanding of Physics on its head, but if it were to be proved, all the current models would be thrown out. 

The same cannot be said for the models offered by religions or spiritual leaders. All these models require some amount of faith. They either require us to disregard the observations that contradict them or make no observable claims. For instance, if I were to propose that we are all a mere figment of some supernatural being's imagination, there would be no evidence for or against this theory. Also, this theory of Juju-Fantasy is absolutely useless as it does not further our understanding of reality in any way.

tl;dr : If you want to understand reality, throw in your lot with science, they are the only ones who are actually working towards it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The strings that make us dance...

"One often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it."
-Master Oogway (The Turtle in Kung Fu Panda)

Are we part of some bigger plan that we cannot perceive with our limited faculties?
Are we really in control of our lives?
Do we all have a pre-determined destiny?
Is there some higher agency controlling and coordinating our every move, choreographing life as we know it?

These questions creep up on you like the stalker wearing rubber soles, who sent you thirteen of her eyelashes last week and has been following you around and pretending to be talking on the phone when you turn around. They seem mostly harmless, but are always at the back of your mind, just sulking around like cultist kids in the dark corners, making everybody uncomfortable. So I've decided to call them out into the light and confront them head on.

I would like to assure everyone concerned that I have not gone off my rocker, at least not any further than I previously was. Which means that I am looking for possible scientific and logical answers to these seemingly unanswerable questions.

Some lives, when taken individually, seem to have been scripted like a blockbuster movie. Be it a story of impossible luck or of unthinkable tragedy, there are always examples that make you want to think that there is actually some mighty being pulling the strings. This is where statistics come in though. If we look at the whole of humanity in general, it is inevitable that a few in almost 7 billion lives should have such a choreographed quality.

Still, is it possible for forces beyond our control to influence our day-to-day activities? Well, obviously a large meteor crashing into the earth and wiping out all human life would be out of our control, but I don't think that qualifies as influencing day-to-day life as there would be no such thing left afterwards. 

Let us explore now the not-so-obvious forces, like temperature. We have all felt cranky or happy depending on whether the room temperature is within our comfort zone or not. I distinctly remember instances where I yelled at everyone in a room for no apparent reason and then realized that it was just because the air was too hot. Clearly, climate can affect our moods and hence the way we behave and consequently our actions and hence our destiny. Come to think of it, I'd probably be a Nobel laureate by now if not for global warming. Don't look at me like that! We can blame global warming for everything nowadays. She just takes it like the little bitch that she is.

What about celestial objects? Like planets and stars and constellations? We can clearly see the influence of the Sun and Moon on the tides. Is it not possible that all the celestial entities have a similar influence on our blood streams? Biological science believes that small changes in the status of our blood can have drastic effects on our mind. So is it not possible that astrology does indeed have some basis? Yes, it is very much possible that our moods and hence our destiny is indeed influenced by everything in the universe that has mass. (Thank you Sir Isaac Newton.) But to think that we can actually predict the effect of these forces by looking at star charts is utter nonsense. I have no doubt that as science grows, so will our understanding and control of these forces. At least we will be able to find some way to shield ourselves from them if not manipulate them. Till then we are at their mercy, and at the mercy of innumerable other similar forces. In fact, there is a very good chance such forces when combined actually cancel each other out thereby letting us be masters of our own destinies.

What I have said above does not support the existence of god. Yes, there may be forces beyond our control or understanding that can influence us, but this does not mean they are intelligent forces. It also does not mean that these forces will forever be uncontrollable. As long as these forces follow the laws of physics (the only system of laws that applies to our universe), we will eventually understand and tame them. This effectively takes care of god, as god does not follow the laws of physics, or any known system of laws, and hence is an impossibility in our universe.

In conclusion, although it may seem on the surface that we are indeed being controlled, it is just an illusion we use to abstract out the otherwise maddening complexity of interrelated agents that effect each others.

Translation: We are fooling ourselves.

Please feel free to air your thoughts in the comments.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The chains we bind ourselves in

Prejudice: A preconceived opinion or feeling, usually unfavourable.

Every human being is prejudiced. Yes, even Jesus. Yes, he was a human being. No, virgin births are not possible and this particular one was definitely faked. Now that I have taken my usual stab at religion, I can peacefully proceed with my post.

Most of us have experienced being on the receiving end of prejudice. Some common ones follow:

1. Religious prejudice: All Muslims are terrorists; all Jews are crazy about money; all Christians have an IQ less than 50; all Hindus are tree-hugging hippies... the list is never ending.

2. Economic prejudice: All poor people are criminals/thieves/good for nothing; all rich people are cold-hearted; all middle-class people are suck-ups... once again, a long and tedious list.

3. Prejudice based on Jobs: Lawyers have no souls, undertakers are damned for eternity, butchers like murder, candlestick makers enjoy stuffing candles in body cavities... It's starting to get ridiculous now.

4. Prejudice based on body weight: All fat people are lazy. Oh yea, this is a prejudice too! As Eric Cartman will tell you with no lack of profanity, "I am not fat, I have big bones!"

5. Prejudice based on age: All kids are stupid; all old people are senile; all grown-ups have obsolete knowledge... I once met a 10 year old who challenged me to a game of chess and proceeded to swiftly hand me my ass.

The list goes on and on. Most prejudices have no basis in fact and are just ways people use to try and hold on to their irrational beliefs. Quite a few of these prejudices are even harmless, although a lot are harmful and hinder the smooth function of our world; but some, a select few, are actually useful.

Consider this one: All cannibals will eat you if they get the chance.
An unsuspecting adventurer who, by some chance, is not aware of this would happily unzip his pants for a beautiful woman who offers him lip-service in the jungle and be deprived of a vital extremity in the process.

Although I have now forgotten the point I was originally trying to make, I'll make one anyway. It is that although prejudices may seem to be mostly harmful, it is not so. Indeed, many prejudices are based in some facts and help people to be prepared while going into unknown and possibly hostile environments. The fact that some prejudices have stood the test of time does to some extent show that they are useful, if not in a productive way, at least in a fun way. 

I am prejudiced too. My favourite prejudice is religious in nature. I absolutely believe that every single person that believes in god is stupid. They may hide it behind layers of apparent intelligence and pseudo-rational thought processes but at the core, every single theist is cuckoo, stark raving man. Why? Now that's a topic for another post which is currently clogging up my metal pipeline.

Until next time then,
Stay happy, stay prejudiced. 

Thursday, April 22, 2010

To play or not to play...

I once read something in the editorial of a gaming magazine. It was something many of us would like our mothers to say to us.
"Beta, game khelo, (Son, play games) we need money for a new car."

I began dreaming that day of a life where all you needed to do was play games. In fact, my juvenile self had even planned on making gaming a lucrative career. Ah, the naivety of an ignorant mind. Even though it's been ages since that day, I still cannot completely abandon my dream. Hence, in opposition to all those articles titled "Gaming is bad for your kid", I am going to enumerate some reasons why gaming is good. 

The physiological benefits:
1. It is a known fact that games improve your reflexes and multitasking skills.
2. They also get your adrenaline pumping and your blood flowing. (Just like sex does, and we all know sex rocks.)
3. A gaming addiction can help you to gain weight. (As long as you order pizza 3 times a day.)
4. Gaming is an amazing cardiovascular workout, especially for your index finger. 

The social benefits:
1. Most games today have a multi-player component. This encourages social interaction with like-minded people.
2. Games like 'World of Warcraft' have players from all over the world. Playing them makes you broad-minded and civil.
3. Many people have even met their soul-mates in game worlds. Some even multiple times.

The psychological benefits:
1. The media says gaming fuels anger and violence in kids. That's why games have a rating on them If you let your six year old play brutal games, what kind of parent are you?
2. If used properly, games can be an amazing and harmless sink to channel negative energy. Got shouted at by your boss? Come home and shoot some zombies.
3. Feeling sexually frustrated? Come home and ...err... yes, there are games for that too.

In fact, I see no reason why one should stay away from games other than the nonsensical statement old people make, "too much awesome is not good."

So play games. It's always good to escape reality once in a while. At least until we find a way to escape it once and for all.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

On Human Evolution...

Warning: This post is not for those who believe in the ridiculous theory of biblical genesis. Earth and the diversity on it was not created in 7 days by the holy wave of a divine hand, regardless of what the best-selling fictional book says. Those who do not agree can leave, now. Thank you.

"We know that," that's how one of our professors always begins a boring lecture. So I won't begin that way. Instead, I will begin as follows:

Chemicals ---> biochemicals ---> single-cellular life ---> multicellular life ---> fish ---> mammals ---> monkeys ---> man.

The above may not be exactly right, but let's say I took artistic liberties with it. Now the question arises, is man the end of this chain? Are we the absolute pinnacle of evolution? A body that lives for a maximum of 120 years (only if you don't have sex), and a mind that can only imagine 3 dimensions. Just because we have opposable thumbs and the ability to ask "why" does not mean we cannot be improved. In fact, there is a huge scope for physical, mental and cultural evolution.

If we leave it to nature to evolve us at it's own pace, our species will not last. What with nuclear weapons and the universal disregard for human life, we just might wipe ourselves out within the next decade. Instead of accepting it as the retribution for our sins, we must look at it as a hostile environment to which we must adapt. Let us examine these hostile conditions in further detail.

1. High risk of exposure to nuclear radiation.
2. Biological epidemics on the rise.
3. Declining resources such as food and water.

Clearly, our delicate bodies are not built to survive in such conditions. It is time we took evolution into our own hands. How do we do this? There are a couple of paths I can think of right now.

1. Genetic Engineering and Cloning.
This path is fraught with moral and ethical concerns and will not make much progress in the near future. Thank you, religious fanatics that enjoy shackling science. We have not forgotten what you did to Galileo.   

2. Robotics and Cybernetics.
This is the path that looks promising to me.

It might be easier to accept Cybernetics as a form of evolution. We replace critical body parts with machines, augment our brains and senses with synthetic interfaces and thereby increase our lifespan and resilience. This will do as a temporary measure.

Robotics on the other hand sounds more like creation than evolution, but according to me, it is evolution. If we do manage to create true Artificial Intelligence(AI), will it not be based on our own logical rules and thought processes? Imagine a synthetic body that never dies, does not contract diseases, is immune to nuclear radiation, does not require food or water, just solar energy, and can repair itself. Now imagine putting a self-aware artificial intelligence in it. For kicks, maybe we can even make it look human. Now that is truly an improvement on the human race. Hence, evolution.

Now these sentient machines might start a war and wipe us out and rule the earth for all eternity, but that's evolution isn't it? Survival of the fittest. 

One last thing, I call dibs on the personality imprint that will be given to the first self-aware computer.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The demon of depression.

It starts subtly. So minor, it's much easier to neglect rather than confront it. Some say it is caused by shocking events. Others claim that messed up brain chemicals are the main reason. Either ways, once it grips you, it's really tough to get it off. Depression is real.

I used to be of the opinion that people will depression upon themselves, that it is the weak of mind that suffer from this pseudo-illness. I was wrong.

The symptoms for depression are many. Unfortunately, most depressed people do not know that they are depressed. They try to will the illness away, pretending that it is just a passing phase. Fortunately, it is very easy to know if you are suffering from depression, if you know what to look for.

The basic symptoms include:
1. Persistant sadness. It lasts for months. Even when people around you move on, you just can't.
2. Lack of appetite. Many people stop eating all together and lose a lot of weight in a couple of weeks.
3. No interest in pleasureable activities.
4. The most important though, is the complete lack of will to live. Many become suicidal.

The worst part about being depressed is that people who have not gone through the experience cannot understand you. They simply cannot comprehend the draining, sapping feeling that kills you slowly on the inside. The complete and unshakeable sadness that assails your very soul cannot be understood by a person standing outside.

The good news though, is that you are not alone. Depression is more common than you think, and best of all, it is very treatable.

So if you somehow find that you are depressed, there is only one thing you can and should do. Seek help. Now.