The View from Outside (your body)

Question from Violeta:
I am currently an agnostic, and I do believe in evolution, the Big Bang, I am a big fan of Richard Dawkins, Laurence Krauss, Hawking, just to name a few atheists. I think that for the most part, science does its job when explaining the universe, and the world in general. However, the concept of Near Death Experiences and Out of Body Experiences causes me to scratch my head. Recently, Dr. Jeffrey Long published a book where he analyzed 1600 cases of NDEs and he claimed that they were all strikingly similar, regardless of cultural differences. For example, many people reported seeing a bright light, feeling a lot of love, meeting deceased relatives, having a life review. I am wondering if you have ever read the Dr. Jeffrey Long book Evidence of the Afterlife? In his book, he even debunks the ideas of the brain hallucinating, and the idea of chemicals being released in the brain to cause these experiences. About 95% of participants thought that these experiences felt more real than real life, and hallucinations cannot feel that real. Also, many claim to see A god, but without a particular title. If 1600 experiences are very similar, would you say that it could mean that these are in fact snapshots of an afterlife? I just don’t know how they can be so consistent, and how they can be so life changing if they are not real.
So, what is your opinion on Out of Body Experiences and Near Death Experiences in general?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve had very long discussions about NDEs in particular (here’s one of the tamer ones) and I remain entirely unconvinced of their authenticity. I haven’t read Jeffrey Long’s work though I’ve read a little about it, but I’ll respond to what you’ve put forward with a set of discrete points rather than mash it all together.

– The specific experiences that commonly form part of a supposed NDE are likely to be images, actions and sensations that the human brain falls back on in times of great mental and physical stress on itself. A light in the distance is a simple image to conjure, the feeling of love may be caused by a flood of adrenaline, endorphins or other hormones released as a coping mechanism, the ancestors may be a result of being preoccupied with thoughts of mortality before losing consciousness.

– The timing of the experiences is impossible to determine after the fact. There may be a period of near-total inactivity during which the brain is unable to render anything like a dream, but there are periods before and after that state (assuming the person eventually comes to) when the brain is unable to be conscious but still active. This is important to remember when reading arguments about what chemicals were present at any given time.

– That the experiences feel real is nothing out of the ordinary for a dream; who hasn’t been surprised at least once when waking up from one? As for more real than real life, this is dubious given that it can only be claimed in retrospect about an experience that the person cannot easily or safely reproduce. That may simply be what a dream or hallucination feels like in that state. One’s memory of the event can also be very clouded, but unfortunately this can cause a person to reconstruct the event in more detail than they remembered at the start, and assimilate certain additions as true memories.

– Stories of accurate observations of the world around the unconscious patient are plentiful but so far impossible to confirm. Most commonly the details of what was happening are not available separately from the subject’s description, or the subject describes something obvious (like doctors talking or parents praying), or it simply turns out to be wrong upon examination. James Randi, the famous skeptic, talks here about an apparent out of body experience which he might very well have believed he had, had certain facts not come to light. If you’d like to comment with a particular case, we can discuss it in detail.

– In Evidence of the Afterlife, more than one featured subject was 3 to 5 years old at the time of the supposed NDE. At this age memories are difficult to describe and all too easy to influence. As with Colton Burpo, the Heaven is for Real kid, if they are asked leading questions by the first people they tell what they saw (often parents, friends or even clergy before the researcher gets there) they will actually shape their experience around them in retrospect. In fiction this is referred to as retcon, but it’s disturbingly easy to apply to real life.

Sex Isn’t Gender Anymore

Question from Claire:
I am a college student taking a Philosophy of Gender class and need to interview people of different religions, including an atheist, on their opinions on sex and gender, and I realized I don’t know any atheists. I was wondering if you would be willing to give your answer to the following questions for me (and allow me to use them in a paper).

1. Please define what you think “biological sex” means. For example, when someone says that “Paul is biologically male” or “Jennifer biologically female,” what do you think that means?

2. What does “gender” mean? Is it different than biological sex or the same? If the same, why do you believe this? If different, how are they different?

3. What would you say is the basis for your answers? For example, science, religion, tradition/upbringing, etc.? Why do you trust that basis?

I realize this is a lot to answer but if you had the time I would really appreciate it and if not I understand. Thank you,

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s not so much to answer. You may use my responses in your paper. So, let’s get to it.

1. “Biological sex” is the sex of your body’s anatomy, including hormones and chromosomes as well as genitals and other obvious features. If someone is biologically male, either he lives as a man and their body suits the role or she feels she’s a woman and may need to explore the possibility of transitioning.

2. Gender is imposed by culture and society. It’s what a man or a woman should be, do, and want. “Biological gender” is sometimes used to mean the same as “biological sex” above, but only because “sex” and “gender” are so often treated as interchangeable when people aren’t thinking about gender issues. “Gender” is not the same as “sex” or “biological sex” because, and this is what blows people’s minds, it has nothing to do with the state of one’s body. This is why people with one sex essentially belong in the other gender, or somewhere in between.

3. As trans people and others in related situations (e.g. intersex, bigender) are allowed and encouraged to tell their stories and be open about their circumstances (including a good friend of mine), it’s becoming increasingly clear that traditional and most or all religious positions on these issues apply very poorly to reality. in these worldviews a person should not grow up as an unhappy man and suddenly begin to flourish as a woman or vice versa because sex is equivalent to gender, but it happens and it gets sillier and sillier to deny it. So I try to keep up with the biological science but I mostly go by academic positions based on large-scale survey data. These are based on what people say about their own situations and what their doctors say about them, but they have sufficient sample sizes and statistical analysis to go beyond the anecdotal. It’s the best kind of source to tell you what’s really going on.

What Nightmares May Come

Question from Chelsea:
Besides disrespect for the planet and a willingness (or even eagerness) to die for a religious cause, what are other negative consequences of maintaining belief in an afterlife?

Answer by SmartLX:
Well, don’t belittle those two points for a start, because they can cause a whole lot of damage all by themselves. But we’ll cover a few more things.

Most people don’t go as far as being eager or even willing to die, but the idea that there’s another life can make people more accepting of death – usually not very much their own, but the deaths of others. When we hear of tragedies and atrocities, the religious may comfort themselves with the idea that the victims are now in heaven, and in some cases that can sabotage the public will to prevent these events from recurring. Famine in Africa is a good example; some may think all those poor kids are better off dead, which isn’t conducive to donations. 9/11 was a bad example, as the mad rush to fight the perceived Islamist threat sprang from the American people’s fear that they were now personally at risk.

If you think someone you love is just the other side of the proverbial veil, you may start thinking you can reach them somehow. Self-proclaimed mediums all over the world can make a good living by exploiting people desperate for one more chance to hear from their late parents, or their late children. Some people have seriously hurt themselves financially by essentially becoming addicted to the faint hope of restoring a lost connection or mending a broken heart, when in fact this pursuit can poison and prolong the grieving process.

The most commonly and directly harmful aspect of belief in an afterlife, though, is the fear that it may not be a good one. Children are evidently and routinely traumatised by direct and indirect threats of hellfire and God’s permanent disapproval, in some cases to an extent comparable with sexual abuse. Several people have written to ATA about the fear they continue to feel for months or years after they stop believing in God, so deep has it burrowed into their psyche. (I call this “faithdrawal”, and it fades but very slowly.) Anytime I can spare a child from this potentially lifelong ordeal, I will regard as among my best deeds in life.

Nothing, Something, Everything

Question from Niki:
Hi, it’s me again, with my ORIGIN OF MATTER IN EMPTY SPACE question. Or not so empty, even before the big-bang.

I tried again googling the question with some other words, like what caused the big-bang, why then and not sooner or later, and how did the matter in whatever is called singularity, or is it the event of big-bang that is called so, or both, how did the material got there and where it came from.

So, having read this time what Stephen Hawking says on the issue, as well as many other relevant articles, I got to realize that science has no idea where that matter, that later big-banged, came from and how it got there. So much for the answer about the origin of matter, cos big-bang only explains what happened to the matter in singularity, after it had been there for no one knows how long, but not the origin of that matter there.

But, here I have another question. It has to do with the notion that if THAT matter came out of nowhere and that in the moment of singularity time was created, it’s totally unfathomable for my earthen brain, dumb or smart, relevantly educated or not, then what is the difference from that with the divine creation. So, the matter we now see and know is out there, and we ourselves are part of it, came from nothing, say the scientists and it satisfies the scientists who say so, however it does not satisfy the lay people who believe in divine creation of matter. And now I wonder, what is the difference between the origin of matter being from nothing, scientifically, and from a divine entity, again from nothing.

My answer, and I believe all scientists who claim it came out of nothing, but not from divine entity, is that the difference is really MAJOR, that in case of origin of matter from the universe, or its state before the big-bang occurred, there was no intelligent and intentional agency that created matter out of nothing, whilst in case of so called ‘god’, this entity is intelligent and intentionally created matter, no one of them can tell us the reason, motif for ‘god’ doing so, again out of thin air, as is the case of what scientists claim. No intelligent or any other intention. Just an accident, for scientists, and intelligence and intention for the believers. Or, the universe, let’s call it so, before the big bang, was such a place, that it had in it the ‘pre-matter’, and it once happened to get into this little spot (or was forever in the past, before, in it), and then blew up. Why, what is the cause of it in both solutions, according to the law of causality, or we are asked to believe Einstein who told us time began then, so there is no sense in asking what happened before, thou there is very much the question of the origin of the matter in the little ball, what caused the scientific explanation, and divine one too, it is interesting to know, but even more interesting, in my humble opinion, cos my knowledge of physics is from the secondary grammar school…well, I was listening to the teacher and reading my physics text book. But, still, very modest knowledge. However, I now have ample time and internet, together with great curiosity and kinda master English, so I think, think, think. And, what I finally realized is that even Stephen Hawking does not know, so I am OK with not knowing the first question of the thinking brain: the origin of matter. So, what is YOUR take of it?

I, of course, don’t ask about the purpose of humanity or whatever happens and is felt and thought of, decided by our brains, our consciousness, cos I firmly believe in the causality law, that says everything is a consequence of previous causes, a chain of them, and going backwards in time I came to the beginning of the universe, where the first question was awaiting me and every thinking human, well not everybody, cos MOZART thought of better things than I do, how to move my feelings. And believed in ‘god’ firmly, my darling Wolfgang… So, no purpose in anything, and thus not even in humanity. But, since life is kinda nice, then we want to live it, thou we will die one day, just as we go to a holiday knowing it will be over soon. Well, holidays will repeat themselves, but there are nice things we do, thou knowing they will be over once and forever, just as is human life. But while we are here, why not enjoy the journey?! And, as for unhappy, sad lives, people normally don’t end them themselves, evolution took care of that, for good or for bad in their cases…

Answer by SmartLX:
You’ve certainly given this a lot of thought Niki. My thoughts on these matters are similar in many ways.

The scientific hypothesis that the universe came from nothing uses a nuanced definition of “nothing”, because it can refer to the “quantum foam” or some other ground state. The simplest explanation I’ve read is that it counted as nothing because its total energy was zero. It was unstable, so from the zeroed-out state emerged a positive quantity and a negative quantity at the same time: matter and antimatter, which then acted out the Big Bang and everything that followed. When you added it all up it was still zero, so rather than something from nothing it was technically a case of nothing from nothing. The entire universe may be a zero sum game, and one of many at that, since there’s no indication that the quantum foam went anywhere.

The theistic alternative to this is that a god existed before the universe, made the universe, and still influences it to this day. It’s impossible to prove that this didn’t happen, but that doesn’t mean there’s any good evidence that it did, or particularly that there’s good reason to believe that it did. There are reasons mind you, and Christians will happily tell you theirs, but it must be asked whether those reasons are good ones.

One point I haven’t seen many people raise is that we’ve never seen anything come out of absolutely nothing. New objects, new lifeforms and even new thoughts consist of the matter and energy that came before. When the Kalam Cosmological Argument claims as a premise that everything that began to exist has a cause, it has no basis to extend it to something that may have come from nothing, except for an assertion about the universe that pre-empts the conclusion of the argument. We don’t know what it takes for something to emerge from nothing in a void without time or space, if anything is required at all.

Material for a Paper on Atheism

Question from Cherish:
Hi, I am doing a research paper on atheism and was wondering if I could ask you some questions so that I can get an atheist’s view on it.

1. First off I would like to ask you a little bit about yourself, age now and age you were when you first became an atheist.
2. What things do you support that a religion such as Christianity would not?
3. Do you have any sort of belief other than atheism?
4. And also, why is it that you find the big bang theory more believable than thinking someone of greater power created it?

Answer by SmartLX:
Hi Cherish. The answers to most or all of these are probably available in my other writings, so feel free to search for some keywords, but I’m happy to recap it all. I’ve added numbers to your questions above for easy reference.

1. 36 now, 26-27 when I realised I was an atheist. It was probably a few years earlier that my belief faded and I actually became an atheist but I was too preoccupied with other things to notice. The media attention for “New Atheism” made me think about it again.

2. I support secularism in government and society, which some Christians do and others do not. I support legal marriage between any two consenting adults (this is still a battlefield here in Australia), which some Christians do and others do not. I support reproductive rights for women such as abortion and surrogacy, which again some Christians do and others do not. In all three cases, the reason why people do not support these things is almost invariably their religion and the “values” their religious upbringings have instilled.

3. I believe all sorts of things. I believe hard work pays off better with planning, I believe Colin Baker wasn’t as bad in Doctor Who in the 1980s as people make out, I believe I left a bag of toiletries in York on my way to Edinburgh. I don’t believe in anything supernatural though, so nothing like ghosts or ESP or astrology.

4. There’s evidence that the Big Bang happened, whatever caused it or whether or not it needed a cause. There’s no available substantive evidence for the kind of “greater power” that could deliberately trigger the birth of a universe, so to entertain the idea of this happening you basically have to make up this entity and ascribe arbitrary qualities to it, and to the universe. And there’s something I’ve tweeted before: whatever constraints you apply to the universe in order to necessitate God, you immediately have to break in order to allow God.

Cherish, I’d appreciate it very much if you could comment and tell us what kind of course or other academic pursuit this research paper is for. I like to know who’s doing this kind of work.

Adam and Eve, not Ug and Eev!

Question from Dontay:
Evidence of dinosaurs has been found…museums show that cavemen existed…. But… How can cavemen be real if Adam and Eve are supposedly the first people on earth?

Answer by SmartLX:
If by “cavemen” you simply mean people who lived in caves and hunted and gathered for a living, then perhaps Adam and Eve’s immediate descendants did that once the garden of Eden was closed to them. The timing doesn’t work out at all when you count the supposed 34 generations from the Biblical Adam to the Biblical and historical King David and compare them to the scientifically estimated dates of the cavemen’s remains, but people who are motivated to prop up the story of Genesis will accept it anyway.

If on the other hand you mean Neanderthals and other departed species within the genus Homo, there you have a conflict which is less easily dismissed. The story goes that God not only made Man more or less in his present form (or a super-version that was huge and could live for centuries) but He made Man in his own image, which is poorly defined but usually taken to mean an image of perfection. “Lesser” or more primitive versions of Man don’t jibe with this idea at all. That’s why creationist explanations of the evidence simply assert that they were all just modern-type humans with primitive lifestyles.

As for dinosaurs, all evidence points to the fact that the last ones were dead millions of years before the first humans were born. Not so for most creationists; rather than deny they existed, many of them say dinosaurs were present on the Ark, and they’re depicted as such at the new Ark Encounter park in Kentucky. Any evidence or argument that so much as requires the expression “millions of years” is explicitly demonised.

The Irreducibly Complex Everything

Question from Robert:
Hi! I’ve recently had a Christian professor of mine talk about the creation of the universe, and say the spontaneous creation of life was impossible due to irreducible complexity. As an atheist, how would you refute that?

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve covered irreducible complexity before, so I’ll let you read that piece for a primer. It’s often claimed to be the case with biological features like the eye, the immune system and the blood-clotting cascade. In every one of these cases, there’s a great deal of scholarship that’s produced feasible evolutionary paths that work up to these mechanisms that supposedly can’t get any simpler without being useless, because in most cases they simply did something else first. As I pointed out in the other piece, most of the research happened well before the claims of irreducible complexity were made, if they’d cared to look. If you want to respond to any such claim, just Google “evolution of” the subject.

To apply the same principle to the origin of life itself is a naked argument from ignorance, though at least it’s one where there isn’t already an answer. If you don’t know how the first life could have come together from non-living components, to presume that there’s no possible way is to assert that your knowledge on the subject of biology is not just vast but absolute and all-encompassing, beyond the reach of any human biologist. If it wasn’t life if it got any simpler, then okay, it wasn’t life before. That’s the point, it was something else. It could still have been a set of components in a membrane with some autonomous functions, from movement (optional, since tides or winds could have moved it instead) up to and including reproduction using the material around it. There are compounds like that around right now, as this TED Talk explains.

If your professor is also trying to apply the idea of irreducible complexity to the whole universe, he’s stretched it way too far. Irreducible complexity is only a barrier to natural development in something which has to develop or emerge gradually, and supposedly couldn’t get over some hurdle without divine help. All evidence points to a very sudden origin of the universe as we know it, inasmuch as our concept of time applies to the event. It probably wasn’t a half-universe first.

What About Magic?

Question from Chinx:
If there’s nothing supernatural, what’s magic and how does it break every known law?

Answer by SmartLX:
What’s magic? What magic? If there actually is some magic around that isn’t simply an illusion, that would be big points for the supernatural, but it still has to be there. So do comment and let us know what you’re referring to, would you kindly?

Blood Covenants And You

Question from Chinx:
Should blood covenants ever matter to atheists?

Answer by SmartLX:
If they’re real, yeah.

A blood covenant, as far as I can gather from articles like this, is a mutual obligation between two parties to serve each other in every way needed on pain of a horrible death, not just for the covenant-breakers but possibly for their loved ones.

If one thinks one is a blood covenant, and that the penalty can be enforced, it makes sense to honour it for one’s own safety even if one did not enter the covenant by choice. If a man with a gun is holding you to a supposed blood covenant you should probably do what he says, at least until you can call the police. And if you do enter a blood covenant by choice then you probably have good reason to want to help the other party.

None of this is exclusively in the realm of religious belief or non-belief. Where religion comes into the picture is that Christians, Jews and others think that everyone, not just those groups, is in a blood covenant with God. Whatever God is meant to be doing for us, apparently we are bound to do everything for Him, and we will be punished for not obeying God’s commands.

If you don’t think that’s true, it makes no sense to obey. If there’s only a chance that it’s true, again in the vein of Pascal’s Wager you have to consider all the other possible commitments that might have been made for you by gods and ancestors without your input. By honouring the supposed covenant you’re aware of, you might be breaking the real one. Doing so is by no means the safest move.

So in the end, threatening atheists with the blood covenant is like threatening them with Hell, or demons, or the boogeyman. You have to believe in something at least to some extent to be afraid of it. A lot of Christians think atheists secretly believe in God so these kinds of threats (often phrased as warnings on behalf of God, which is a thin distinction if you don’t believe in God) can be justified internally, but that doesn’t make them work any better.

Looking For That 100%

Question from Josie:
Hello this is a college student who is pretty much confused. I do have a fact in mind God doesn’t exist. But, the other part of me doesn’t. Is there any steps to pretty much make me fully sure he doesn’t exist. My mind 85% tells me he isn’t real but some odd reason my mind won’t agree with it. Any suggestion?

Answer by SmartLX:
No one said you had to be sure. I’m not. 85% confidence in God’s absence isn’t bad at all really.

You can’t prove a negative, as they say. To be 100% confident there’s no god you’d need the knowledge of a god yourself, to be aware of all the possible ways a god could influence the universe and know that they’re not happening. If you’re being realistic you have to accept some uncertainty, even if you think the concept of a god doesn’t make sense. (There might conceivably be a way it does make sense that you haven’t learned yet.) But if your opinion is that there isn’t a god because you lack positive belief that there is one, that’s as good as most atheists have it.

So what do you do with that uncertainty, the perceived 15% chance (or whatever you estimate) that there’s a god of some kind? Not much really. You keep an open mind and consider any evidence or arguments for gods that you’re exposed to, if you have the time. But do you behave as if there’s a god, just in case? That’s what people who cite Pascal’s Wager would suggest, because even if there’s no god there’s no harm done, right? Unfortunately if there’s a god it might not be the one you think it is, or demand from its worshipers what you think it does, so praying on the off chance might just piss it off. Not worth the trouble, I say. Better just to try to be a good person, which any god worth worshiping would respect but more importantly is its own reward.