Wednesday, August 4, 2010

On the Giving Pledge

What a very interesting set of news reached my eyes today.

To summarize: Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are rallying US billionaires to give half of their wealth (over time or at their deaths) to charity, and apparently many billionaires have already rallied up behind it.

That's 90 billion between Gates and Buffet alone (they're giving most of it I believe). I remember having these conversations with friends, where we would try to calculate the possibility of these guys actually spending their money in their lifetime, or in their families lifetimes. Turns out, it just isn't happening. Not even if they redid their kitchen as often as humanly possible. They could fund their own spacefaring program, but as Richard Garriot showed us, that isn't really necessary when you can just "hitch a ride with very deep pockets."

Now, I'm cautious as to how to interpret this. Recent figures of wealth distribution indicate what was true in 2006: the top 2% control most (>51%). Where the Giving Pledge to pull off even with a fifth US 400 billionaires, that would mean an immensely large amount of money going back to the "ordinary"" people, in strict terms of wealth redistribution.

Is this out of the goodness of their hearts? I would normally jump to say that there has to be an agenda... However, reading the letters from various individuals ( especially Warren Buffet's, I'm getting the feeling that it's just that, philanthropy. On hindsight, I shouldn't be surprised, either. I mean, take the Christmas Carol and Scrooge. People change, constantly, especially when age brings them a more mature look of the future: and right now, the future looks rather grim. And I don't mean that as a political statement: taking a look at world population, the environment, hunger, disease, that's enough to give anyone a downer. From the comments on the article, I think mostly everyone is rallying behind this effort. Then, a very simple analyis of a very simple billionaire psyche model predicts this as a no brainer: having secured my family's financial future, owned planes, awesome houses and cars, enjoyed life to its utter fullness, what would I do with such a vast amount of leftover money at death's door? I know my analysis is as scientific as intelligent design, but I think it has some sense behind it.

I think we can agree that, at least at the core, this is an enormous gift and terrific responability. Nevertheless, regardless of how large the gift becomes, the next question that should be raised is how it will be used. I'm not a finance expert, but I'm sure that the vastly differing ideologies that exist here in the United Stated would come up with as vastly differing opinions on the manner of how the redistribution into charities should actually proceed. I would argue, then, that when the time comes, let there be a smart debate about it, but understand that it ultimately falls into the giver's choice. Whether this is leaving it to whim and luck, I'm not sure. These people had the knowledge, foresight, and a little bit of luck to acquire all their wealth, I think we can trust them to make the right decisions when it's time for them to "give it away."

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

For the last time, we do not use "just" 10% of our brain

I have three posts I'm editing, but really, finding the time or the wish to finish them has been a pain in the butt, especially when the wife wants me to drive up and down the Eastern US coast.

This is a comment that I've heard more often in the past month, for some reason or another and so would like to redirect readers to a much more eloquently written blog post about this very subject:

However, if you would like the summary, here it is:

Brain injuries, however small, can cause gross loss of function. Even if they are dispersed, such as Alzhemier's, a significant decrease in neuron number and connectivity causes increasingly severe insult to our cognitive and autonomic brain functions, depending on the focus and rate of damage, of course. If we really only used 10%, we would have 90% of real estate that could be damaged, or could take over some functions. This has not been seen in any medical case. Ever.

We know to good detail the brain's "map", it's metabolic cost to the body (20% of glucose at rest!) and it's evolutionary antecedents. All of these swiftly debunk this 10% brain myth. It's astounding how many people regurgitate this myth when a simple cross-examination of even daily life disproves it. I shrug, it's not something that not knowing or knowing puts your life in danger, and its probably not going away either. But at least I feel like I've done my part.

Friday, May 14, 2010

On the Death of Intelligent Design.

It is nice to know that even religiously affiliated spokesmen, such as The Clergy Letter founder Michael Zimmerman, are or have already raised their voices against the absurdity that is intelligent design. In his latest blog post, that can be read here, Dr. Zimmerman not only discards the notion of ID, but stomps it into the ground. To summarize Dr. Zimmerman's points: a) ID is NOT a scientific theory, never was, never will be, and b) even if it was, its main arguments have been shown to be demonstrably false.

There is plenty of literature on how to smash Intelligent Design, but I haven't read such a prompt an decisive article in a while. Also, the fact that I've heard so many people say "Oh I saw Expelled, such a good movie" irritates me. For one, because I can recognize the lies, and it pisses me off that they got away with it, and two, that people think it's actually good because it takes that position of "going against authority, the rebel alliance vs the evil scientific empire". Rather than spend time arguing against the movie, or ID for that matter, I direct you to Expelled Exposed and SkepDic, since they are a much better sourced resource than I can ever be.

Either way, It's about time. Yes, Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis, I'm talking to you.

You published books, you got a movie out (Expelled), you made noise. Thank you for your input; at best, it helped grind down how ridiculous creationism was in the first place. You had your fun, now it's time to cool down, admit defeat, and stick to religion, if you can at least do that correctly. The people who will believe creationism will stick to it, and science will continue to teach what should be taught to the rest of the world. Should science teaching be changed? Absolutely, there should be more involvement, more fascination, more inquiry, more critical thinking and less fact memorization. There should not, however, be movements to push religion into science. It just doesn't fit.

I sincerely hope this catches on and becomes less of an issue as time goes by. While I am not arguing that science and religion are incompatible, the fact that think tanks like the Discovery Institute actually spend time trying to force unfounded "facts" into education is unacceptable. Thus, that popular journals and blogsites are starting to spread the word that it's over comes as very happy news indeed.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

On Earth Day and our place in this World

Happy Earth Day. It is a fitting time for the topic I was thinking of today. Likely the international holiday influenced the decision for such a topic.

Have you ever taken a look at a world map, and just tried to visualize how you fit in it? It is a humbling experience. You take a look at the scaled representation of the world, and then you realize that you are not even a small spec on it. It is almost a depressing feeling.

I value my life, and the lives of everyone around me. If you think about that for a little while, you realize that all your experiences, thoughts and memories are comparable to those of your neighbor, your brother, your lover. An entire world-sized span of being in your mind, and yet, when compared to the size of the world, you and I, are insignificant. Even more, when the Earth is compared to the Sun, the earth itself is insignificant. This Youtube video of Carl Sagan’s pale blue dot, and this interactive Flash application of the Scale of the Universe, helps me drive this point home more than any spewing of facts, numbers and sizes, so I will refrain from overloading this post with math and let you experience it for yourself.

We humans, with all our egos and our dreams, desires and ambitions, all require a small dose of the humbling force that is the vastness of the Universe. We are bombarded from every direction with notions of greatness and importance (celebrities and politicians even more). This has been going on since the beginning of time. Weren’t kings and pharaohs those whose families self-proclaimed to be destined to rule by divine decision? It is my humble opinion that this idealized notion, that we can be more than others, or more than Nature, immortal and everlasting, has created more problems than the initial founders of these ideas intended. The total disregard for human life we humans are involved in (Rwanda, Sudan, the Jewish) is, in my mind, a vicious example of the destructive effects that can result from the lack of humility of one or a few. And while our technological advances have ensured us “dominion” over the resources of this world, this does not mean we are entitled to “take what’s ours” for simply the very reason of taking it. Do we really need to kill an animal for a fashion statement? Do we need to destroy an ecosystem for a golf course? I understand that we should look out for our own species, thus I believe we should support science-based medical research, the meat industry (to an extent) and the housing industry (to an extent), but at the same time, always critical when such efforts unreasonably overextend their reach.

This brings me to the final point. Science has given us the tools to exploit Nature, but it also gives us the tools to co-exist with it. In the end, this will be our decision and our decision only. However, the negative influences that could affect this decision must be removed. Then, all comes back to the main point: we humans are not the last word in the Universe. And unfortunately, one of the problems is religion, which makes it seem like we are. Didn’t the Judeochristian God Jehovah say "be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over ... every living thing that moveth upon the earth." (Genesis 1:28)? Wouldn’t an all-knowing entity know that populations are limited by their environment, and that the environment itself is finite? An all knowing entity would also know that not every living thing moves, at least not by itself, so maybe we shouldn’t be “dominating” plants, either.

Thus, must I really believe that an entity would create such a complicated and vast universe, only to put his favorite students in a tiny speck of it? I would say no, and go farther with the point. An entity that creates such a complicated system (the Earth) and puts it in an even more complicated environment has humans (defined as microscopic Earth specs) in the low priority scale of its to-do list. Thus, even under the existence of God, this feeling of uniqueness, of being special, the one’s favored by the creator of this universe… it’s time to lose it. We had our fun, but now, we have a couple of problems looming (overpopulation, climate change, poverty and hunger just to name a few). How will we solve them, I don’t know. Surely not by continuing with our current trend of thinking this Earth as a magical, limitless structure given to us by our creator because we’re special.

However, I think a good start would be to lose this sense of grandeur, of trying to reach the top, when really the top is absolutely out of any human’s reach. This “nothing is impossible” is absolute nonsense; we aren’t capable of everything (try reaching Mars by jumping). Thus, to lose our enlarged sense of importance (but not lose it altogether) should put us in the path to understanding that we are unique, yes, in the sense that we share this world, it’s a very small and limited one, and it’s the only one we have. Maybe, some years later, we will be able to celebrate a Happy Earth Day without needing to buy something, just a Happy Earth Day where every single person on this planet appreciates what “Mother Earth” really means.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

On Childhood's End

How do I define this? Well, it is slightly complicated to put in a single word, or a single term for that matter, but it has to do with the painful but necessary process freethinkers undergo when they break free from tradition, dogma and their rooted beliefs. This term was coined by Arthur C. Clarke for his novel treating human transcendence, and has since been adopted by non-religious philosophers to mean the dismissal of religion. This also has other names, but I believe the most appropriate term is the “deconversion” from religion.

It’s curious how I, in this process, independently identified the “symptoms” with little exterior intervention. Specifically, websites like Exreligious and godisimaginary are pretty good at aiding people through this process, but like anything you read, they can play the role of a strong external influence. People with easily influenced minds could force themselves into hasty decisions, and this is something that you have to take with a certain stride, and profound thought. Thus, the fact that I recognized the problems I was having by mostly my own accord, and independently reached my own conclusions, suggests I was on the right track and on the right time. It tells me I was making a decision based on sound logic and careful thought rather than the romantic notion of “freedom of oppression” some rebel-minded fellows might feel identified with (but that is ok too). Even so, this is likely due to the fact that every time my mind wandered, it would wander to these subjects and thus I would spend more time thinking on these issues than the average person. Basically, I want this to mean that I wasn't told to undergo through this, but I naturally phased into it.

As for what these subjects, issues, or “symptoms” are, well, again, they are hard to pin down. I’ve decided I will explain them one by one in different posts, and in much more detail. However, there is room here to mention the basic issues I took on in the past years. This will set the stage for what I will develop in time.

In summary: It started around my third year of college, when I began having problems with the fact that much of the Christian belief system is placed on the idea of a book, the Bible, which just oozed contradictions. On hindsight, this was actually a mild issue for me. A book written by humans, flawed and contradictory? Not such a big problem, maybe even an understandable one. My big problems came when I began attempting to understand my religion (Catholicism) in parallel to my growing understanding of the human brain and science in general. When I began to ponder on what we know about the Universe, how God or a god fits in it according to traditional definitions, what an afterlife really meant, I began to see, quite clearly, how the ideas so many people take for granted are erratic, in an almost simple manner. It seemed bizarre, the idea of a loving personal God that is always there to help us except when it “is in his divine plan”. Then the fact that we are supposedly judged by our actions due to our “free will”, when this is as flawed a concept as any. Then that our reward for behaving well in this life (define good behavior) is to build ties with loved ones only to have to let go forever. Then the small point that so far, we’re explaining everything that was previously determined as supernatural, and there seems to be no need for one now and maybe, there never was. I would tell myself, should’ve thought of these things earlier, since they hold an important meaning for me and my future.

Admittedly, these statements are crude, hasty mentions that really require more detail and thought put behind them. What I want with this is not to argue (much), nor to convert anyone (no need to), but to put my thoughts out there. In all honesty, these are the meanderings of a young thinker that would like to put his thoughts into words, and maybe, find some tranquility. Egocentric as that may sound, there’s more to it. I’m pretty sure that hundreds of people are undergoing a similar change of mind. I hope this serves as something they can relate to. I don’t want to be an influence, thus the disclaimer, even if it is bound to happen at some point. And while I expect little agreement, that is ok. You are a free consciousness; you decide what you think is right. Remember, in the end, it should be YOUR mind that’s making the decisions. However, know that once you establish this, the rest will follow through.

Why a blog

There's things I rarely talk about or express in some other way to others. On one hand, this is good. I'm seen as a cheery, well-natured guy who tries to smile as often as possible, joke and not be at odds with anyone. On the other hand, they accumulate. What once was a small, weird discomfort gnawing at the back of my brain has become a constant downer, a weight clamped at my feet. Any mention of the concept is enough to put my mood down for a couple of minutes.

Thus, I decided to put this on paper, so to speak. It doesn't really matter that nobody reads it, but at least I'll know that it’s out there, I've said it, it's there and done and maybe then I can rest easy for the time being. This is not to say I've made this blog JUST for that purpose. I am a neuroscientist at heart, a technology enthusiast, a computer geek, and an avid video game player. Philosophical questions lie at the heart of every humans, but if it's just philosophy we discuss, a fate similar to Nietzsche's will await us.