Friday, August 31, 2007

the moon does not emit light, but instead reflects the light of the sun?

reposted from:

Bill Nye, the Bible Deny(er)

August 30th, 2007

I’m just going to reprint this one in its entirety. It’s from

(which has some good comments eg 'are they lunartics')

Bill Nye, the harmless children’s edu-tainer known as “The Science Guy,” managed to offend a select group of adults in Waco, Texas at a presentation, when he suggested that the moon does not emit light, but instead reflects the light of the sun.

As even most elementary-school graduates know, the moon reflects the light of the sun but produces no light of its own.

But don’t tell that to the good people of Waco, who were “visibly angered by what some perceived as irreverence,” according to the Waco Tribune.

Nye was in town to participate in McLennan Community College’s Distinguished Lecture Series. He gave two lectures on such unfunny and adult topics as global warming, Mars exploration, and energy consumption.

But nothing got people as riled as when he brought up Genesis 1:16, which reads: “God made two great lights — the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars.”

The lesser light, he pointed out, is not a light at all, but only a reflector.

At this point, several people in the audience stormed out in fury. One woman yelled “We believe in God!” and left with three children, thus ensuring that people across America would read about the incident and conclude that Waco is as nutty as they’d always suspected.

This story originally appeared in the Waco Tribune, but the newspaper has mysteriously pulled its story from the online version, presumably to avoid further embarrassment.

This story is so crazy that I’d like a second reference. Nobody’s that crazy, are they?

Water pours on young star system

reposted from bbc
Water pours on young star system
Nasa's Spitzer Space Telescope detected large amounts of water in the disc

A torrent of water-ice cascading down on an embryonic star system may shed light on how a key ingredient for life makes its way into planets.

Writing in Nature journal, astronomers detected enough water vapour to fill Earth's oceans five times over in the collapsing nest of a young star system.

Ice pours down from the outer envelope of this forming star, vapourising as it hits the dusty disc where planets form.

The team based its findings on data from Nasa's Spitzer Space Telescope.

"For the first time, we are seeing water being delivered to the region where planets will most likely form," said lead author Dan Watson of the University of Rochester in New York, US.

The young star system, called NGC 1333-IRAS 4B, is still growing inside a cool cocoon of gas and dust.

Within this cocoon, a warm disc of planet-forming materials circles the embryonic star.

Supersonic travel

The data indicates that ice from the stellar embryo's outer cocoon falls towards the forming star at supersonic speeds and vaporises as it hits the proto-stellar disc.

"On Earth, water arrived in the form of icy asteroids and comets. Water also exists mostly as ice in the dense clouds that form stars," said Professor Watson.

NGC 1333   Image: Nasa/JPL-Caltech
The embryonic star is located in the planet forming region NGC 1333
"Now we've seen that water, falling as ice from a young star system's envelope to its disc, actually vaporises on arrival.

"This water vapour will later freeze again into asteroids and comets."

By analysing what is happening to the water in NGC 1333-IRAS 4B, the astronomers can learn more about its planet-forming disc.

The team calculated a density for the disc of at least 10 billion hydrogen molecules per cubic centimetre (160 billion hydrogen molecules per cubic inch).

Its dimensions could also be calculated - the disc has a radius bigger than the average distance between Earth and Pluto. The researchers also determined its temperature was -103C (-154F; 170 Kelvin).

Studying planet-forming discs at this early stage of development could determine which of two competing theories of planet formation is correct.

Nasa's Spitzer infrared telescope

In the core accretion model, planets form little by little, as material slowly congeals within the disc over millions of years.

The disc instability model suggests that turbulence in the disc can cause matter to collapse into planets extremely quickly, forming Jupiter-like planets in just thousands of years.

NGC 1333-IRAS 4B is located in a star-forming region about 1,000 light-years away in the constellation Perseus.

Its central stellar embryo is still "feeding" off the material collapsing around it and growing in size. Astronomers cannot yet tell how large the star will ultimately become.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Toxic cocktail

01 September 2007

TODAY, and every day, you can expect to be exposed to some 75,000 artificial chemicals.
All day long you will be breathing them in, absorbing them through your skin and swallowing them in your food. Throughout the night they will seep out of carpets, pillows and curtains, and drift into your lungs.
Living in this chemical soup is an inescapable side effect of 21st-century living. The question is: is it doing us any harm?

There are good reasons to think that it might be. Not because of the action of any one chemical but because of the way the effects of different components combine once they are inside the body.
As evidence stacks up that this "cocktail effect" is real, regulators around the world are rethinking the way we measure the effects of synthetic mixtures on health.

Environmentalists have long warned of this danger, but until recently there was no solid evidence to confirm their fears - nor any to allay them.

Most toxicity testing has been done on a chemical-by-chemical basis, often by exposing rats to a range of concentrations to find the maximum dose that causes no harm. It's a long way from gauging the effects of the complex mixtures we experience in everyday life, and that could be a dangerous omission.

"When you get a prescription the doctor will ask what else you are taking, because they are concerned about drug interactions, which everyone knows can be quite devastating," says Shanna Swan, director of the Center for Reproductive Epidemiology at the University of Rochester in New York. This also happens with chemicals like pesticides and endocrine disrupters, she adds. "You have to consider their interactions, and we are just starting to do that."

To assess the risk posed by such mixtures, a small number of scientists in Europe and the US are now testing chemical brews on yeast, fish and rats. The effects could be additive, or they might be synergistic - that is, greater than the sum of the parts. They could even cancel each other out. Finding out is important, because we don't have enough data on many compounds to anticipate how they will interact when mixed. Other researchers are probing for associations between disease in humans and past exposure to groups of chemicals.

Andreas Kortenkamp, an environmental toxicologist at the School of Pharmacy, University of London, and his colleagues developed an interest in these mixture effects after they noticed a rise in endocrine disorders, suggesting that the body's hormonal systems may have been disrupted. In men there were increases in congenital malformations like hypospadia - in which the urethra is on the wrong side of the penis - and cryptorchidism, a condition in which the testes fail to descend into the scrotum. There was also a rise in testicular cancer and lower sperm counts. In women there were more breast cancers and polycystic ovaries.

These increases posed a conundrum for the researchers. When they examined people who had these disorders, and their mothers, they found they had only very low levels of the chemicals that are known to cause the disorders; in the lab, only much higher concentrations of these individual compounds have be found to produce the same effects.

This led Kortenkamp to suspect that mixtures were the missing link. He wondered if the effects of different chemicals, acting through the same biochemical pathway, could add up.

Kortenkamp's group focused on groups of chemicals called xenoestrogens, compounds that disrupt the activity of the hormone oestrogen and induce the development of female sexual characteristics. High levels of xenoestrogens in the environment have been shown to feminise male fish, and have even driven one species in an isolated experimental lake in Canada almost to extinction.

In 2002 Kortenkamp and his colleagues tested a mix of eight xenoestrogens on yeast. These included chemicals used as plasticisers, sunscreen ingredients and others found in cooling and insulating fluids. In the mixture, each was below the level that toxicologists call the "no-observed-effect concentration" - the level that should be safe. Sure enough, the combination triggered unusual effects in the yeast. Kortenkamp and his colleagues dubbed the mixture effect "something from nothing" (see Diagram).

Kortenkamp and his colleagues found that if the doses of all eight chemicals were simply added together, after adjusting for the varying potencies, this new cumulative dose could be used to predict the effect - a principle called "dose addition". "This result was to be expected, but it had never been shown with endocrine disrupters until our work," says Kortenkamp. Intuitively this makes sense, he says: "Every mixture component contributes to the effect, no matter how small."

Since then the effect has been shown with other species, too. Kortenkamp and his colleagues now report that mixtures of xenoestrogens feminised males to varying degrees even though the individual components should have been harmless. In July this year the team showed that a blend of anti-androgens - chemicals that block the effect of male sex hormones - can work in the same way. They exposed pregnant rats to two common fungicides, vinclozolin and procymidone, and the prostate cancer drug flutamide, and then screened the male offspring for reproductive deformities. At higher doses, each of these three chemicals wreaks havoc with sex hormones, and they all do it via the same mechanism: they disrupt male development by blocking androgen receptors and so prevent natural hormones from binding. The researchers found that even when the chemicals were used in doses that had no effect when given individually to pregnant rats, a mixture of them disrupted the sexual development of male fetuses.

Earl Gray, an ecotoxicologist at the reproductive toxicology division of the US Environmental Protection Agency's Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory (HEERL) in Research Triangle, North Carolina, and his team also tried exposing pregnant rats to vinclozolin and procymidone.

When they exposed the animals to the compounds individually, they too saw no effect. But when they combined the two, half of the males were born with hypospadia. Gray calls this phenomenon "the new math - zero plus zero equals something".

Gray then tried the same experiment with phthalates - the ubiquitous compounds that are used to soften plastics and thicken lotions, and are found in everything from shampoo to vinyl flooring and flexible medical tubing. They also disrupt male development, in this case by stopping the fetus from making testosterone. The mix of two phthalates that Gray used caused many of the same effects on male rat fetuses as a mixture of vinclozolin and procymidone.

It makes sense that chemicals targeting the same pathway would have an additive effect. But what about mixtures of chemicals that work via different mechanisms? Surely the individual doses of such chemicals would not be additive in the same way.

The mixture of different chemicals shouldn't have had any effect. But it did

In 2004, Gray and his team put this to the test by mixing procymidone with a phthalate at levels that, on their own, would produce no effect. Because the chemicals work via different routes, he expected that the combination wouldn't have any effect either. But they did. Then the team mixed seven compounds - with four independent routes of action - each at a level that did not produce an effect. "We expected nothing to happen, but when we give all [the compounds] together, all the animals are malformed," Gray says. "We disrupted the androgen receptor signalling pathway by several different mechanisms. It seems the tissue can't tell the difference and is responding in an additive fashion."

All of this is throwing up problems for regulatory agencies around the world. Governments generally don't take into account the additive effects of different chemicals, with the exception of dioxins - which accumulate to dangerous levels and disrupt hormones in the body - and some pesticides.

For the most part, risk assessments are done one chemical at a time.

Even then, regulation is no simple issue. First you need to know a chemical's potency, identify which tissues it harms and determine whether a certain population might be exposed to other chemicals that might damage the same tissue. Add in the cocktail effect and it gets harder still. "It is a pretty difficult regulatory scenario," admits Gray. "At this point the science is easier than implementing the regulatory framework."

Mixed up inside

For one thing, with many mixtures it's almost impossible to work out how much we're getting. The endocrine disrupter diethyl phthalate, for example, easily escapes from plastics and is in so many different products - from toothbrushes to toys, and packaging to cosmetics and drugs - that it would be difficult to work out the aggregate exposure from all sources, says Gray. This also makes it tricky to investigate possible links between chemical mixtures and disease. "Everyone has exposure to chemicals, even people living in the Arctic," says John Sumpter, an ecotoxicologist at Brunel University in London. "We can't go to a group with a mixture of nasty chemicals and then go to another who have had no exposure and compare their rate of breast cancer risk or sperm count. We are doing a scientific experiment by letting these chemicals accumulate in our bodies, blood and wildlife."

That's why some researchers are suggesting new ways to gauge the effects of chemical mixtures on the body. For example,

rather than trying to identify levels of individual xenoestrogens in a patient's blood, it may be more efficient to take a serum sample and determine the "oestrogenic burden" being imposed on their body from a variety of different sources by testing the sample on oestrogen-sensitive cells in the lab.
"It might work well as a screening tool to identify people with potential problems," says Linda Birnbaum, director of the experimental toxicology division at HEERL. Then, for example, you could make cocktails of foods, water and other products from the person's life to try to identify the source of the chemicals.

Nicolás Olea, a doctor and oncologist at the University of Granada, Spain, is already trying this kind of approach. He is exploring whether exposure to chemicals with oestrogenic activity leads to genital malformations like cryptorchidism and hypospadia in men, and breast cancer in women. He and his colleagues took samples from various tissues and measured the ability of the environmental contaminants in them to trigger the proliferation of lab-cultured oestrogen-sensitive cells. Because it is difficult to predict from a compound's structure whether it might have oestrogenic effects, a cell-based assay like this is a cheap way to screen potentially harmful chemicals.

They found that the higher this "total effective xenoestrogen burden" the greater the chance the contaminants could disrupt oestrogen-dependent processes.

Others are cautiously optimistic about Olea's approach. "The concept is correct, I cannot comment on how well the cell effect tracks a cancer effect," says James Pirkle, deputy director of the US Centers for Disease Control's Environmental Health Laboratory in Atlanta, Georgia.

Shanna Swan is doing something similar. In a study published in 2005 she showed that boys whose mothers had had higher levels of five phthalates while their babies were in the womb had a shorter distance between the anus and genitals - a marker of feminising activity. They also had higher rates of cryptorchidism compared to sons of mothers with lower phthalate levels. Swan devised a cumulative score to reflect exposure levels to all five phthalates and found that score was "very predictive of ano-genital distance".

The method is still expensive, and a regular "phthalate scan" isn't on the cards just yet. A potentially less costly approach, says Pirkle, is regular biomonitoring of subsets of the population to measure the levels of dangerous chemicals in blood and urine, and link particular chemicals to specific health effects. Every two years since 2001, the US Centers for Disease Control has published data on the US population's exposure to a range of potentially harmful chemicals. In 2005 the agency released data for 148 chemicals; next year it plans to release a report covering 275. While that number falls far short of the number of new chemicals entering the fray each year, Pirkle says that technology is making it ever easier to monitor new substances. The reports do not consider specific mixtures but include exposure data for each individual chemical to make it easier to calculate the likely effects of mixtures.

The European Union, meanwhile, is taking steps to control the number of chemicals being released in the first place. On 1 June its REACH (registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemical substances) regulations became law. The aim is to cut health risks associated with everyday chemicals by forcing chemical manufacturers and importers to register their compounds and provide safety information
to the new European Chemicals Agency, based in Helsinki, Finland. This information must be provided before the chemicals are sold. The new law shifts the burden of responsibility for the health effects of chemicals from government to industry and is also intended to encourage the use of less harmful alternatives for the more toxic chemicals.

Not everyone is so worried about the cocktail effect. Some researchers even find it reassuring - or at least not as bad as it could be. Kevin Crofton, a neurotoxicologist at the EPA, explored how a mixture of 18 polyhalogenated aromatic hydrocarbons found in electrical equipment, flame retardants and paints could disrupt thyroid hormone levels in rats. At the lowest doses of the mixture the effect on the levels of the thyroid T4 hormone was what you would expect from the principle of dose addition; at the highest doses the effect was twice that. "Some people would call that synergy," says Crofton, "but it is not a very big synergistic effect. It was a twofold difference."

He adds: "These results are quite reassuring because EPA's default to calculate the cumulative risk of mixtures is dose addition." Only recently, however, have scientists like Crofton been able to prove that this default is correct. "If it had been a 20-fold difference I would have said, 'Boy, the agency needs to look into how it is doing things.'"

Kortenkamp says that regulatory bodies seem to be starting to acknowledge that chemical-by-chemical risk assessment provides a false sense of security. In November last year around 100 scientists and EU policy-makers at the "Weybridge +10" workshop held in Helsinki concluded that mixture effects must be considered during risk assessment and regulation. The European Commission plans to spend more on probing the effects of environmental chemicals on human health.

For now, though, chemicals are an inescapable part of life. And while high-profile campaigns by pressure groups like WWF seek to alert us to what they see as the dangers of artificial chemicals,

some toxicologists warn that they may be overstating the case. "I think you need to be careful about hyping the risk," says Crofton, referring to stories in which individuals have been screened for several hundred chemicals. "When you say I have 145 chemicals in my body, that in itself does not translate into a hazard. You have to know something about the dose, the hazard and how all these chemicals can add up."
Olea, however, suggest that it is sensible to be cautious. "If you don't know it is good, assume it is bad," he says.

Like it or not, the chemicals are with us. "People can't keep phthalates [or other chemicals] out of their air, water or food," says Swan. "Most people don't have the information or money to do these things." A more productive approach might be to tell people how to limit exposure to harmful substances and request better labelling from manufacturers. "We need to put a lot of money into figuring out what these things do in real-world scenarios and take regulatory action," she says.

"Just like we limited cigarette smoke exposure, we'll have to limit other exposures."

Bijal Trivedi is a freelance science writer based in Washington DC

The Moral Sense Test

link via New Scientist

The Moral Sense Test is a Web-based study into the nature of human moral judgment. How do human beings decide what is right and wrong? To answer this question, we have designed a series of moral dilemmas to probe the psychological mechanisms underlying our moral judgments. By presenting these dilemmas on the Web, we hope to gain insight into the similarities and differences between the moral judgments of people of different ages, from different cultures, with different educational backgrounds and religious beliefs, involved in different occupations and exposed to very different circumstances. Participation in the study is easy, quick, and completely confidential. Click to learn more about our research, and to take the test.

NB. Chris Street score was 4.2/7 (average 3.9)

NewScientist "If morality is hard wired in the brain - What's the point of Religion?"

reposted from NewScientist 1st September 2007

my highlights formated like so

RELIGION occupies a strange position in the world today. Religious belief is as powerful as ever, yet religion is under attack, challenged by science and Enlightenment thought as never before.

Critics like Richard Dawkins would have us believe that it is a delusion, and a dangerous one at that. He is one of many thinkers who are challenging the traditional view of religion as a source of morality. Instead, they argue that it provides a means for justifying immoral acts.

Their views have recently been bolstered by evidence that morality appears to be hard-wired into our brains. It seems we are born with a sense of right and wrong, and that no amount of religious indoctrination will change our most basic moral instincts.

Many biologists are not convinced by such radical views, however.

Recent years have seen a flurry of activity by researchers who want to assess the effects of religion on human behaviour. It is a fiendishly difficult area for science, but they are starting to address the issue by looking at how religion might have evolved, what purpose it has served, and whether it really can make you a moral person - or an immoral one.

As a result of this work a new view is emerging that challenges simplistic ideas about the link between religion and morality.

Instead of religion being a source of morality or immorality, some researchers now believe that morality and religion are both deep-rooted aspects of human nature.
We do not need religion to live moral lives, but without it morality might never have evolved. This kind of thinking could explain the complex and apparently contradictory relationship between religious beliefs and moral behaviour that is being demonstrated. It could also make some sense of religion's remarkable staying power, as well as highlighting the futility of attempts to persuade believers to abandon their faith by rational argument.

There is no shortage of research supporting the case for religion as a force for good. In the late 1970s and 1980s sociologists Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, then at the University of Washington in Seattle, forcefully argued the line that religious beliefs correlated with moral behaviour. Their studies showed that church attendance and religiosity increase the collective understanding of moral norms and make people less likely to turn to crime. More recently, various surveys have suggested that moderate religious people are happier, more caring, just and compassionate, and give more money to charity. Other studies show that religion can help people quit smoking, drugs and alcohol. Religion can also affect people's sexual morality. Recent research by RAND Health, a US non-profit policy research group, has found that people with HIV who professed religious beliefs had fewer sexual partners than those who were not religious (Journal of Sex Research, vol 44, p 49).

However, religious belief is not the only moral guide, even for believers. The RAND study also found that HIV-positive Catholics were more likely to use condoms than other groups despite their church's prohibition on birth control. "Catholics increasingly are inclined to consider their individual consciences as sources of moral authority," says David Kanouse, one of the study's authors. The work certainly doesn't contradict the view that moral values come from within (see "Born to be moral"), suggesting instead that religion can provide an additional source of rationalisation to help us interpret our innate sense of right and wrong.

How does this square with claims that religion makes for bad people and bad societies?

Dawkins and others point to many examples of the use of religious beliefs to rationalise acts of hatred or war. They also cite morally reprehensible acts endorsed in religious scripture - stoning adulterers, heretics and homosexuals, beating or killing disobedient children, acceptance of slavery, even prostituting one's own daughter. They argue that religion is just a by-product of other cognitive processes and has nothing to do with our underlying morality.
Besides, many
atheists manage to be good without God
- and religious believers are not necessarily better at following their own moral codes than non-believers. Philosopher Dan Dennett from Tufts University in Boston points out that the prison population - at least in the US - has the same religious structure as the rest of society, and that divorce rates among Christians are if anything higher than among non-religious Americans.

Many atheists manage to be good without God

In 2005, Greg Paul, an independent researcher from Baltimore, Maryland, published a study that attempted to quantify negative effects of religion (Journal of Religion and Society, vol 7, p 1). He compared levels of religiosity with various indicators of social dysfunction in 18 developed nations. He concluded that

countries with higher rates of belief and worship had higher rates of homicide, death among children and young adults, sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy and abortion. Paul now believes that morality does not stem from religion, and that religion arises from insecurity within society.
"Mass belief in gods is primarily a fear and anxiety-based response to insufficiently secure financial circumstances, and does not have a deep neurobiological, genetic or other basis,"
he says.

His study has not been without critics, however. Some researchers have argued that his choice of nations and indicators of moral health were selective. In an attempt to provide a more rigorous test, sociologist Gary Jensen from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, conducted a more detailed analysis of just one of Paul's indicators, homicide, to see how it correlated with various religious beliefs. He found that homicide rates were indeed linked with passionate beliefs, though the strongest correlation occurred in societies with prominent dualist beliefs in good and evil, God and the devil. The highest rates were seen in the US - where as many as 96 per cent of the population claim to believe in God and 76 per cent in the devil - along with the Philippines, the Dominican Republic and South Africa. The correlation was much weaker in societies with a belief in God, but no strong beliefs in the devil, such as Sweden, where only 18 per cent claim to believe in both. "Gods do matter," Jensen says, "but in a far more complex manner than proposed." (Journal of Religion and Society, vol 8, p 1).

A similarly complex picture has emerged about the role of religion as a force for good. Daniel Batson, a social psychologist from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, looked at two categories: "intrinsic" religiosity - belief in God and a motivation to attend church as an end in itself - and "extrinsic" religiosity - where religion and churchgoing are seen primarily as social activities, often undertaken for personal gain. He found some correlation between intrinsic religious beliefs and compassion or reduced prejudice. By contrast, extrinsic religiosity is linked to increased prejudice - people in this group tend to be less helpful to others, and when they do assist it is only for people they see as the "right" sort.

Batson also identifies a third category he calls "quest" religiosity - a more questioning form of spirituality. His experiments reveal that while people in this category show intolerance of behaviour that violates their own values, they are nevertheless the most tolerant and helpful towards people who exhibit such behaviour.

Such studies lend some support to the idea that religion influences moral behaviour. Yet they also raise the question of whether it does this primarily within a believer's own social group, or whether it engenders a more universal compassion and altruism.
Peter Richerson, a specialist in cultural evolution, and human ecologist Brian Paciotti, both from the University of California, Davis, used economic games to examine this distinction.

The dictator game tests people's altruism and sense of fair play. One person gets $10 and is told to offer some of it to another, anonymous player - the amount offered is due to the first player. The recipient can either accept the offered amount, in which case both parties keep their share, or punish perceived unfairness by rejecting the offer so that nobody gets a payout. In the trust game, a person is given $10 and can hand any amount to another unknown person, but this time the sum they give is doubled, and the recipient then chooses how much to return. Here the best strategy is to hand over all the money - provided that the recipient reciprocates your trust. Finally, in the public goods game, people contribute to a public fund that is then doubled by the organisers and shared out equally. The game is played anonymously and tests all kinds of morality, including the amount of altruism and cheating. The group does best if everyone donates the maximum, but generally lots of people cheat.

Richerson and Paciotti conducted all three games both in a secular university and with churchgoers who had just attended a service. They found that secular and religious people did behave differently. "There are weak and subtle effects where people who [say they are] highly religious give more," Paciotti says. This might suggest that religion fosters universal cooperation. However, like Batson, the team found that only people with intrinsic or questing religiosity were more generous and trusting, and less likely to punish unfairly. Extrinsically religious people were actually less altruistic than the non-religious. These results will please no one, says Richerson, as they show that religion is neither vital for morality nor always has a negative effect. Paciotti believes the findings support the idea that humans are hard-wired to be moral and cooperative, with religion serving to define the nature and scope of that moral behaviour and influence with whom we cooperate.

Another reason that the effects of religiosity on morality have been hard to tease apart is highlighted by a new study that also uses the dictator game. Psychologists Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, found that by presenting people first with a word game unscrambling either religious or non-religious phrases, even atheists could be primed to be more generous to an anonymous partner by exposure to the religious words (Psychological Science, in press). People did not notice when the game had a particularly religious theme, say the researchers, suggesting that the priming effect is unconscious. Likewise, psychologist Brad Bushman from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, found that both Christian and non-religious people were more aggressive towards an anonymous person after reading a religious text describing how a husband took revenge for the torture and murder of his wife - but only if they had been told that the story came from the Bible or if it contained an additional verse in which God seemed to sanction the husband's violence (Psychological Science, vol 18, p 204).

You are being watched

So why do religious concepts provoke moral behaviour even in non-believers? It's because both religion and morality are evolutionary adaptations,
says Jesse Bering, who heads the Institute of Cognition and Culture at Queen's University, Belfast, UK.
Morality does not stem from religion, as is often argued, he suggests: they evolved separately, albeit in response to the same forces in our social environment. Once our ancestors acquired language and theory of mind - the ability to understand what others are thinking - news of any individual's reputation could spread far beyond their immediate group. Anyone with tendencies to behave pro-socially would then have been at an advantage, Bering says: "What we're concerned about in terms of our moral behaviour is what other people think about us." So morality became adaptive.

At the same time the capacity for religious belief would also have emerged. Our reputation-conscious ancestors would have experienced a pervasive feeling of being watched and judged, he says, which they would readily have attributed to supernatural sources since the cognitive system underlying theory of mind also seeks to attribute intentionality and meaning, even where there is none. So the same adaptations that led to morality could also have driven the evolution of religion.

Meanwhile, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson of the State University of New York argues that

religious practices are also important for group cohesion and are therefore subject to group selection. As humans have become ever more social over the past 100,000 years, and especially from 10,000 years ago, when agriculture led to huge division of labour in societies, religion and morality would have co-evolved as ways to promote social cohesion. "
Religion did play a crucial role in giving us our moral nature, at least evolutionarily speaking," says psychologist Jonathan Haidt from the University of Virginia.

Nowadays, adds Bering,

whether we believe in a God or not, the brain architecture that causes us to behave as though we might get caught behaving badly is still present. As a result, atheists are no more likely to be immoral than believers.
Indeed, his own experiments show that, regardless of whether people believe in supernatural beings, both adults and children cheat less when performing a task in private if Bering has first primed them with the idea that there may be a "god" or a "ghost" watching.

Cultural and technological advances have also changed the way we live, making western liberal societies poor models for understanding the link between religion and morality, according to Haidt. He argues that we are now far more individualistic than our ancestors.

"Technology has changed our lives so we can live in new ways. We can now be moral without religion. We have developed other means of social control," he says, such as laws, police forces and CCTV cameras.

Yet religion does still have the power to galvanise individuals in any society. Brain-imaging experiments by Andrew Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania indicate that

people in religious or meditative states show a transient decrease in brain activity in regions representing our map of the body and our sense of self. Religious feelings do seem to be quite literally self-less, which may be one of religion's biggest draws. Many human activities - from music festivals to military service - tap into our powerful urge for group bonding. Haidt believes that we also have an evolved desire to elevate ourselves beyond our own selfish interests to a more helpful, group-oriented and selfless plane.

Haidt says

this sense of elevation is mediated through a physiological response in the release of a hormone called oxytocin, which makes us feel happy and good about ourselves. Elevation can come in many forms: we might get it from pursuing a noble goal, doing good, reading great prose, witnessing something skilful, experiencing awe or empathising with someone else who is feeling good.
Still, religious people have an extra source of elevation that many atheists lack - and scientists like Dawkins may do well to realise that even the most logical and articulate argument against religion will never eradicate this evolutionary sense of meaning.

Even if many no longer need religion for social cohesion or moral guidance, and think that atheism is the only rational route, we should nevertheless recognise that religion has had a pivotal role in our evolutionary history. It can still reinforce moral values and work with our innate moral sense. It can also be used to justify immoral behaviour towards those who do not embrace our beliefs. Like it or not, religion remains an important part of what we are.

From issue 2619 of New Scientist magazine, 01 September 2007, page 32-36
Born to be moral

The idea that we have an innate sense of right and wrong
has been brought to prominence again by the Harvard University cognitive psychologist Marc Hauser, with the publication of his book Moral Minds.
He likens morality to language and its innate core to our innate sense of grammar. In other words, at the heart of human moral codes lie common rules and features that come hard-wired at birth.

Hauser suggests that

each culture and generation learns to interpret the moral grammar slightly differently, but the rules, fixed in the biology of the brain, remain the same.

One reason he believes this is that

the origins of morality, altruism and fair play can be seen in our group-living primate cousins, in behaviours such as loyalty to kin, intolerance of theft and punishment of cheats.

Another reason is that

moral decisions are made intuitively, rather than consciously or rationally. People come up with similar answers when faced with a particular moral dilemma, yet Hauser and his colleagues have shown that their reasoning to justify their answers is variable and inconsistent, suggesting it is done after the choice has already been made.

They also

find no difference in fundamental moral choices made by thousands of people of different faiths and none in answer to questionnaires posing moral dilemmas. This suggests that inbuilt morality is independent of learned religious codes.


there are differences over time and cultures in attitudes towards issues such as slavery, racism, capital punishment and abortion. Even so, Hauser argues, the innate sense remains the same; it is the interpretation that changes.

So how is morality hard-wired into our brains? The consensus among brain scientists is that emotions such as fear, guilt and pride are vitally important.

Jonathan Haidt from the University of Virginia used a hypnosis experiment to show how important emotions are. Under hypnosis, he induced people to feel disgust when they heard a couple of arbitrary words. When these words later came up in connection with moral dilemmas, the subjects judged certain scenarios to be wrong when people who had not been hypnotised did not. When asked to justify their choices, they could not do so to the researchers' satisfaction. Without knowing how or why, their emotions had altered their sense of right and wrong.

Brain-scanning studies have shown a link between damage to the brain regions that house the social emotions and a tendency to make aberrant moral choices. Still, there is more to morality than emotion. Most researchers now think that

emotions influence the way our moral decisions are turned into actions or choices, rather than how the decisions are made in the first place. Other brain regions involved in empathy and attributing beliefs about intentions are important too.

Astrology by Carl Sagan

reposted via http://evolutionspace

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Christopher Hitchens on the Essential Stupidity of Religion

reposted from LA Weekly

Christopher Hitchens on the Essential Stupidity of Religion

"Many people have been motivated to do grand, good things by faith, but why is that necessary?"

Tuesday, May 29, 2007 - 6:00 pm
(Illustration by Mr. Fish)
He appears equally capable of pissing into your grandmother’s fish tank and beating you at chess: the quasi-omniscient Johnny Rotten of political journo-intellectualism, looking as if he were assembled hastily by sausage makers hoping to fill a suit with all the succulent impropriety of vitriolic yet delectable meats. A man well aware that the shortest distance (and least interesting path) between birth and death is a very straight line, he has the reputation of someone prone to the rich experiences offered by staggering. But contrary to the corroborating promises all but guaranteed by the YouTube versions of himself, Christopher Hitchens was not an as-advertised fucking dickhead asshole bully, much to my dismay.

It was like meeting a clown without his makeup, away from the hysteria of his profession, who appears lovely and handsome and noble, if only because he isn’t trapped in a spotlight at the center of a ludicrous pie fight.

In fact, having recently won the National Magazine Award for his Vanity Fair work, and with the surprising popularity of his new book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, at No. 4 on Amazon even before its official release date, Hitchens was cheerful and elegant and, dare I say, sober when I met him at his Beverly Hills hotel.

In his rumpled trademark suit the color of Caucasian neutrality, a camouflage for anything but, he had just arrived in town to do the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Much to the shock of everybody in attendance and in sharp contradiction to the premise of his book — that there is no deistic magic in the universe — he performed the jaw-dropping miracle of receiving more applause than anybody else included on his panel, the equivalent of walking on whiskey at a venue that might typically boo him.

One felt, quite palpably, that the air he drew through his ever-present Rothmans Blue cigarette while he walked from the crowded ballroom was the lightest it had been in quite some time. It was as if the braying liberal Democrats, a half decade following 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq by the Freedom-Fry-loving golf buddies of the Bush administration, had pardoned him for the buffoonery of his neocon cheerleading, deeming his one-man rah-rah squad too puny and pitiable to revile. Christopher Hitchens, crucified more times by old friends and new enemies than all the velvetized Jesusi in Tijuana combined, had been born again.

What follows are some of the more cogent, or at least more cohesive, excerpts culled from a three-hour discussion made musically uneven by a great deal of Coppola Merlot that was enjoyed by both the interviewer and interviewee, despite a personal promise made by the interviewer that he would never again ingest any more celebrity-named foodstuff following the summer of ’75, when, under questionable adult supervision, he ate enough Bobby Clarke Peanut Butter to caulk a chimney.

L.A. WEEKLY: There’s nothing obtuse about the title of your new book, is there? I can’t imagine anybody buying it and then being offended because they didn’t know what they were getting.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: No, which is the point. A lot of people have been waiting for something like this for a long time, this push back to religious bullying and stupidity. The title came to me in the shower, which is where most of my ideas come to me. That’s why I’m so clean.

Do you care that such a blatant title might limit its readership to mostly those who need no convincing of your argument? Is it really going to change anybody’s mind?

I do think it will change minds, precisely that, because I think there are a lot of minds that are not so much in a solid form of dogma. The book isn’t just about saying to hell with you and your foolish faith. I think it’s probably useful to have at least some knowledge of the other side, empathy even.

Can a person be spiritual without being religious?

I suppose so. Everybody, whether they’re laying a brick wall with a trowel or shearing a sheep, has experienced the transcendent, that’s one thing. It’s quite another to believe that the universe is directed toward you. The holy texts do actually say what they say and they do mandate a lot of incredible stupidity. I’m rather proud of the chapter [I wrote] about Dr. King. Many people, at least ostensibly, have been motivated to do grand, good things by faith, but why is that necessary? You don’t need the supernatural to be in favor of abolishing the condition of slavery, for instance, whereas you do need the Bible to keep slavery going so long.

It could be argued that the threat to humanity posed by religion pales in comparison to the threat posed by science and technology — napalm didn’t come out of the Vatican, it came out of the chemistry department at Harvard. At least God doesn’t require 30 billion barrels of oil a year to keep his halo glowing.

No, but then if you look at what could be very frightening, you would have scientific knowledge plagiarized by unscientific people who have contempt for both science and reason — apocalyptic technique in the hands of messianic forces. Let’s be honest about it, there is an advantage to the rational mind as opposed to the fanatical one. The fanatical one is not very good at science, and so far, this advantage has played out in our favor.

Still, does science bear no responsibility when it creates, essentially, a doomsday machine and then says it should only be used for peaceful purposes?

I would think it was a bad thing if the species was destroyed by an apocalyptic weapon, but I can’t see how any religious believer would think it was such a bad thing. To them it’s not a tragedy — it can’t be. They’ve repeatedly said so. And, sure, a secular power with a nuclear weapon could make the mistake [of ending the world] and several times nearly has. Nothing stops that. The idea that we could die as a species is obviously very high. And the fact that we’ve survived this very brief time is rather surprising. It would be ironic if it were something that arose from our intelligence that got rid of us.

Maybe intelligence is the wrong word.

Collage by Mr. Fish
Well, our tenure on this planet is very fragile — we’ve [known] that ever since nuclear physics was discovered. In my view, in case I didn’t make this clear enough in the book — which, actually, I think I didn’t — outgrowing the supernatural and the superstitious is not sufficient for emancipating the human race. It’s only the beginning. All our big discoveries and big arguments are ahead of us, but the one that has to be subtracted is the fanatical one that prays for the end of time.

Most of the religious people I know don’t adhere to some ancient, antiquated text, nor are they afraid of spending eternity burning in hell if they misbehave. Don’t you think that religion, for some people, simply fulfills the same purpose that literature might for others, as a way to quantify ideas of right and wrong?

That’s why I say, in many ways, that [religious inquiry] is a literary question; it’s about ethics and the origin of ethics, and the best way in which they’re expressed is a dilemma — ethical dilemmas are in literature and myth.

There’s a basic question that I seldom see included in this discussion, and that is the question of the viability of human consciousness itself, and whether or not it perceives reality or just perceives itself perceiving reality. In other words, can consciousness even perceive the truth or does it only interpret a version of the truth relative to a person’s mood, opinion, ideology?

No school of philosophy has ever solved this question of whether being determines consciousness or the other way around. It may be a false antithesis. Here’s what I do know: Those who claim that they do know this are bound to be wrong. The argument is not equal between us and the supernaturalists. They don’t just claim to know there is a supernatural that can be miraculous as a designer; they don’t just claim to know that, which is more than they can know. They say, “No, no, you can! Not only that, you can know God’s mind. Not only that, you can know what he wants you to do about food and sex.” If we start by excluding those who say there’s no point in the argument, who say they already know the truth, if we drop them, then we may get some progress. Then we’re left with an argument among grown-ups.

Do you find that an argument against the existence of God is not unlike an argument against the existence of obscenity? We’ve developed this habit of using the incontrovertibility of physical reality to give incontrovertibility to our imaginations, therefore we’re capable of making our imaginations seem real, so God can seem real. You can see it when you look at the words cuntand vagina. Both words refer to the same exact thing, yet one is considered obscene. The difference between the wordscuntandvagina is imaginary.

I know what you mean. However, cunt is a hate word —

But it was invented to be such.

It’s true that obscenity is a matter of taste and in the eye of the beholder. The real objection to obscenity, in my opinion, is the result of our makeup, specifically that the urinary/genitary/excretory is mixed up. That’s what makes children laugh and whistle and grin. If that were not the case, we’d be a lot better off, perhaps. Obscenity comes from grime. “Free education is a gift to the poor, it raises them out of the gutter. It teaches the girls to write cock on the door and the boys to write cunt on the shutter.” It’s the relationship between the spiritual and urinary, that’s where obscenity comes from.

That’s my point: Is obscenity — or God — something we can even have a rational conversation about if we’ve only been conditioned to react to it? Is consciousness an evolutionary flaw?

The situation is, we’re mammals, we leak and we excrete and then we’re told to forget about that or to deny it. Religion is totalitarian because it demands the impossible. [Like religion], obscenity shuts you down. The secular argument, or the liberal argument, is to as much as possible remove taboos so things do not become unmentionable; to let some air into the discussion.

That reminds me of my favorite Lenny Bruce quote: Knowledge of syphilis is not instruction to get it.

[Chuckles.] It was easy to argue this kind of thing in the ’60s, against censorship, against bans on homosexuality, et cetera. Now you do run into people who say, “Then why would you forbid pedophilia? Would the same standards hold for this? Or snuff movies? Or third-trimester abortions?” This argument takes place among rationalists and humanists and sociologists. We don’t say that if you allow [these things] we would be comfortable with obscenity. I do think there are lots of things you don’t have to be taught. Most people don’t have to be taught not to eat dead human beings, let alone to kill them in order to eat them. You don’t have to drill this into children. You don’t have to drill it into children that if one of their parents wants to go to bed with them that they should go and stay at the neighbor’s for the night. You could say that that’s an argument for a Creator with a benevolent view, but then you’d have a huge rational argument about why we are programmed to kill and torture and so on. It does show that morality precedes religion, that ethics precedes religion, not the other way around.

Still, I wonder if our survival as a species is something we can will, given a consciousness that is able to make its imagination seem real?

We can’t stand far enough outside of our dilemma to think it completely through. It’s like the mind/body distinction. There may not be a distinction. The mind is clever enough to consider the distinction, but it’s not clever enough to get far enough outside the body to arbitrate it.

And that’s the rub.

We don’t know that we’re not dreaming. Look, we can’t resolve these things today. We are having quite a high-level discussion, about things that are fairly imponderable to combat, ??>?up against a phalanx of people who say, “What’s the point in having this discussion? We already know the answer. What’s the point of struggling and arguing and researching?” This is what I find hateful.

Some people might accuse you of asking everybody to be comfortable living in a Godless universe that is completely indifferent to them. How do you imagine people will go about satisfying their own sense of purpose?

Obviously, it’s not possible for people to do that all of the time, but it is possible for them not to draw any conclusions from their belief that the universe is all about them. If a huge rusted fridge fell through the ceiling and obliterated you without warning, I would think, well, that was lucky. Presuming that the fridge was directed at neither of us, it’s not lucky at all. But I would not be human if I didn’t think it was a bit of luck. This is why religion can’t be beaten, because it does derive from all these forms of selfishness, self-centeredness, fantasy and so on. Fine, I concede to that, but then why do people keep saying that I have to respect it? I don’t have to respect any belief, nor do you, that a rusted fridge that killed you and didn’t kill me was a piece of luck. You do not have to respect that. You can recognize it and see where it comes from. You can analyze it, you can even sympathize with it. You can’t really say that I insist also that you respect it.

There is in religion, however, some practical application. Take, for instance, the very radical notion that the meek have some intrinsic value. African-Americans, just to take an obvious example, were told for centuries that they were something much less than human, so for them to have access to a Bible that tells them that they are significant, that white society doesn’t determine their worth is, well, significant. For them it was a belief system that acknowledged, and still does in large part, that they were mistreated human beings. Respecting that aspect of religion doesn’t demand that you also kowtow to superstition.

Of course, of course; since there’s no justice in this world there better be some justice on offer in the next. Again, you can see where it comes from, fine. It’s the same when Karen Armstrong [author of The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions] writes about Islam. Arabs were being teased by Jews and Christians, “You haven’t had a prophet yet.” Well, they were going to get one, weren’t they? Then you have the Archangel Gabriel appear to some fucking peasant merchant who can’t read, exactly borrowed from the [Judeo-Christian] faith. Yes, of course I understand that, but it’s too much to ask me to believe it. It’s too much to ask me to respect it. It’s too much like I would be, too much like myself. I can’t respect something that follows my own wish fulfillment. I don’t. The last time I prayed was for an erection. Don’t ask me if I got it or not.

Having had just enough Sunday school to know the story of Lot’s wife and how to recognize an unhealthy temptation when I heard one, I struggled hard to keep my eyes above c-level and asked Hitchens a final question about whose existence was easier to disprove, Henry Kissinger’s or God’s. He laughed and said that it was the same process for eviscerating each high-profile Jew in print and that, essentially, the quantitative differences between nonexistent entities was not measurable, the difference between the hole in a very old bagel and the hole in a relatively recent one.

When he stood to say goodbye, I did not stand to shake his hand, not because I was trying to be disrespectful, but rather because I figured a greater disrespect might’ve been expressed had I fallen down on him clumsily while vomiting out my eye sockets. (Remember the Merlot.) Waiting until I was sure he was a safe distance away, I stood slowly, stacking my vertebrae like hermit crabs beneath a bowling ball, and zigzagged to the men’s room, the whole way thinking how much shorter Hitchens’ book could’ve been given its basic premise that stupid people — whose stupidity manifested itself in theism — had no right to implicate other people in their stupidity. With the right editor, I told myself, the new version of the book would be small enough to fit comfortably into the palm of one’s hand, specifically as a coiled middle finger ready to spring upward in an instant at the first sign of an approaching beatific expression, circumcised penis or Osmond.

In fact, his refusal to expand his hatred of stupidity to include even the most glaring and uncontroversial secular examples made his middle-finger assault on religious idiocy seem at times as pandering as the worst sort of prejudice; you either assume that everybody has a right to a different opinion, just as everybody has a right to a different favorite color, or you recognize the ludicrousness of such a charitable notion and you say that nobody’s opinion is any more or less useful to the comprehension of life than anybody else’s and, therefore, everybody is supremely fucked.

Turkey: A president at the junction of secularism and Islam

reposted from The Independent

Leading article: A president at the junction of secularism and Islam

Published: 29 August 2007

The election of Abdullah Gul as President of Turkey closes a stormy chapter in Turkish politics in the most satisfactory possible way. An accomplished diplomat who as foreign minister negotiated the terms of Turkey's accession into the European Union, Mr Gul was by far the strongest candidate. He won the parliamentary vote by a convincing majority in the third and final round.

That Mr Gul faced obstacles to his election, and nonetheless prevailed, testifies not only to the strength of his determination, but to the robustness of Turkey's institutions. In April, at the first time of asking, Mr Gul was blocked by the secular opposition parties which saw his Islamic background as a threat to the state. The stalemate, which was reinforced by street demonstrations, was broken by the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who called an early general election. His Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has Islamic roots, won a new mandate with an increased majority. Mr Gul renewed his candidacy, and has now won.

This was a textbook example of how Turkey's political system is supposed to function – through democratic elections and parliamentary votes. Yet there were fears, inside and outside the country, that it might not prove equal to the task. The particular concern was that Turkey's influential military might be tempted to intervene, mounting a coup in the name of saving the secular state. While the shadowy hand of the military might be discerned behind the protests against Mr Gul, the top brass kept their distance as the election campaign took its course.

Why the military declined to intervene is a matter for speculation. Certainly, it would have spelt the end, in the medium-term at least, of Turkey's EU ambitions. But the military is no supporter of EU membership and is widely believed to use its influence to thwart progress. So has Turkey's democracy reached the point at which civilian rule is secure? Or did Mr Gul's assurances that he would defend the secular constitution win the day? Whatever the truth, the result makes history. For the first time since Kemal Ataturk created the secular republic in 1923, Turkey has elected a politician from an Islamic background as its head of state.

That Mr Gul secured his majority only after the third round of voting shows how carefully he must still tread. But this result should exert a salutary constraint. There will be many in Turkey who still harbour misgivings about Mr Gul's credentials. He has to prove that he is as good as his word. Most of the signs at this early stage, though, are positive. Mr Gul is a cosmopolitan figure with a solid track record in politics. He will represent Turkey convincingly at home and abroad. That his wife wears an Islamic headscarf is neither here nor there; as he says, such matters should be left to personal choice. There is no risk to the modern Turkish state from the headscarf; the risk develops when choice is politicised.

The election of Mr Gul, who so demonstratively spans the country's Islamic and secular sides, could be the best possible guarantee of Turkey's future as a secular state. That a practising Muslim can attain the highest office should persuade religious Turks that they have a place in this society. If Mr Gul also manages to be punctilious about preserving the secular nature of state institutions, he will reassure the military and those many Turks who equate secularism with modernity.

But success or failure will dictate not only the future of Turkey. As President, Mr Gul will have the chance to show that Islam can co-exist with democracy and modern statehood. This will be a prerequisite for eventual Turkish membership of the EU. But it will offer a model for other countries facing one of the great challenges of this century.

Great Site - Check it Out!!

I stumbled upon this today. LMAO!
clipped from


Religion is a mental illness.

The most common infection in the world, with over 90% of the populace infected with one or another strain. Religion is usually brought on by infection by the group VI Fatal Anginal-Infective Transcribing Hepatitis virus more often known by the acronym FAITH. Symptoms involve believing something that is not only unproven but also outrageously illogical simply because someone (or occasionally a book), somewhere, says it's true. In this respect, faith can be considered the chronic form of the lesser mental disorder gullibility. For synonyms, see How To Make a Million Dollars. The official catch phrase of religion is "Give us your money, and you will have a good afterlife!", known to critics as the "Pie In The Sky" allegory.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bugs repair own DNA to survive eons in ice

clipped from
Scientists say they can at last explain how bacteria stay alive in ice for hundreds of thousands of years.
Bacteria slow down their metabolism to the point where they produce just enough energy to repair their ageing DNA, say Australian researcher Dr Mike Bunce of Murdoch University in Perth and his international colleagues.
The researchers publish their findings today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"We're looking at bacteria that have survived in the permafrost for hundreds of thousands of years. These aren't dead; these are viable cells," says Bunce, a molecular biologist.
"If the DNA wasn't being repaired the bacteria would accumulate too much damage to their genome and the cells just would not be viable."
"The longest ancient DNA study that's ever been produced got 1000 base pairs of DNA from a dead specimen," says Bunce. "We're getting 4000 base pairs."
"That's really the key to the survival mechanism for thousands of years in ice."
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Mind over matter? by Sue Blackmore

reposted from Guardian

Many philosophers and scientists have argued that free will is an illusion. Unlike all of them, Benjamin Libet found a way to test it.

August 28, 2007 4:30 PM |

Ben Libet, author of the most famous experiment ever done on consciousness, has died at the age of 91.

Not long before his death he wrote me a letter about my book Conversations on Consciousness. Polite and kind though his words were, his real reason for writing was, I think, to ask why he wasn't one of the interviewees. I was stung into replying immediately to tell him how much I wished he had been. The truth was that I had no resources for writing the book: I just interviewed the people I met at conferences or when giving lectures, or those near to home. Sadly, our paths never crossed while I was writing the book and there was no way I could travel to UC San Francisco especially to talk him, much as I would have loved to.

So I must be content with my happy memories of the one time we did meet, back in 1991. After a conference in Berkeley he invited me for lunch in a little Chinese restaurant and then we walked around Golden Gate Park, talking nineteen to the dozen about consciousness, mind, life, free will and the meaning of death.

And of course we talked about his famous experiment. He had, in fact, carried out lots of experiments on consciousness since the early 1970s. First there was a series of studies of the timing of neural events, showing that when you directly stimulate the brain with tiny pulses of electricity it requires about half a second of continuous stimulation of the sensory cortex for a conscious sensation to be felt.

Note the way I have worded this. It is not true to say that you need half a second of stimulation and then the sensation is felt; that would mean our experience of the world would be delayed by half a second and we'd all be dead. Instead, he proposed (and provided plenty of evidence for) the idea that sensations are subjectively antedated to the time of the initial brain effect, but are only consciously experienced if half a second of activity follows. This is the origin of what is often called "Libet's half-second delay".

This may be weird enough, but it is for his experiment on free will that he will mostly be remembered. In this experiment he wanted to find the cause of our spontaneous, deliberate actions. Certainly we feel as though we consciously decide to act and then do so. Yet philosophers and scientists for hundreds of years have argued that the brain does not need a magical conscious self to start actions off, and free will must be an illusion. Unlike all the thousands of people who have argued around this point, Libet actually found a way to test it.

He asked subjects in the laboratory to hold out their arm and, whenever they felt like it and of their own free will, to flex their wrist. He then measured three things - the time at which the movement began, the time at which the "readiness potential" in the brain began (signalling the brain starting to organise the coming movement) and then, most tricky of all, the time at which the subject made the decision to move.

This really is tricky because there is, by definition, no physical activity in the brain or anywhere else that corresponds to this. He was trying to measure something purely mental - the free decision, or thought, of wanting to act. Finding a way to do this is probably why the experiment became so famous. What he did was this. He had a spot revolving on a screen, like a clock face, and he asked the subjects to call out where the spot was at the exact moment that they decided to act. In other words, they were, after the fact, making a judgement about where the spot was at the time, and that could be used to accurately time the decision to act.

And his results? They were quite consistent and have since been repeated many times. The brain activity comes first, then the decision to act, and then finally the action itself. Not only does the decision to act happen after the brain is already getting ready to set off the action, but it comes nearly half a second later. It looks as though our conscious decision to act cannot, however strongly it feels that way, be the cause of our actions.

Oh dear! Free will seems to be disproved. But it's not that simple. Libet himself did further experiments that seemed to show that we may not be able to start actions consciously, but we can veto them once they have begun - saving at least some role for free will. But even that does not end the issue. Literally hundreds of academic articles, and several whole books, have been written about this experiment and how to interpret it. This is why I say it is the most famous experiment on consciousness ever done.

In a way the whole furore is bizarre. Most scientists claim to be materialists. That is, they don't believe that mind is separate from body, and firmly reject Cartesian dualism. This means they should not be in the least surprised by the results. Of course the brain must start the action off, of course the conscious feeling of having made it happen must be illusory. Yet the results created uproar. I can only think that their materialism is only skin deep, and that even avowed materialists still can't quite accept the consequences of being a biological machine.

Libet, unlike so many others, was wonderfully open about this. He really did believe that mind can affect body, that consciousness is some kind of power of the "non-physical subjective mind" or "conscious mental field", and even that we might consciously survive death. Indeed, this was what inspired his experiments in the first place.

What I so much enjoyed and admired, on that walk all those years ago, was his willingness to bring his science right into his everyday life, and his life into his science. As we walked along the street he explained how important free will was to him, that without it our lives would be meaningless and there would be no point in being good, because we would have no true freedom to choose between good and evil. He pointed towards a little girl up ahead of us on the pavement. His results, he said, showed that we cannot be held responsible for thinking of murdering, raping or stealing from people because initiating such actions begins in the unconscious brain, but we can and must be held responsible for stopping ourselves from doing those things. In this way his own results made moral sense.

I disagree fundamentally with him. I think, and thought then, that free will is entirely illusory. So our discussion was lively and exciting and full of the most wonderful mixture of science, philosophy and the anguish of everyday life. I would have loved to have interviewed him for Conversations on Consciousness. One of the themes I tried to bring out in those interviews was how consciousness researchers fit their work into their ordinary lives, and he was one of those rare scientists whose life and work were completely intertwined.

Sadly, I don't believe he ever read my letter, telling him how very much I would have liked to meet him again. A few days later I received an email from his daughter, Moreen, telling me that he had died peacefully on July 23, aware but weak, and with his family around him. She said "Your comments on his relating life to his work also crystallises something typical of him which was good to see described the way you did. I think that he experienced death in that way also. He was very curious about what that experience might reveal about the mind and brain issue. Perhaps he knows now."