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  • What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    What are we thinking? Reflections on Church and Society from Southern African Methodists.
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    Methodism in Southern Africa: A celebration of Wesleyan Mission
    by Dion A Forster, Wessel Bentley
  • Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    Christ at the centre - Discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths
    by Dion A Forster
  • An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    An uncommon spiritual path - the quest to find Jesus beyond conventional Christianity
    by Dion A Forster
Transform your work life: Turn your ordinary day into an extraordinary calling. by Dion Forster and Graham Power.
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Entries in brain (34)

Saturday
May012010

The science of getting happy and being happy

One of the best books I've read in the last year is Gretchen Rubin's book 'The Happiness Project'.  It was filed with great facts, it was written in a wonderfully personal style, and left me feeling happy!  

What more could you ask for!?

Today I saw from her facebook feed that she was interviewed on her book together with Dr Ian Smith (a medical doctor who wrote a book on the science of hapiness).

Watch the video below.  It is a great introduction to the topic.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

I wrote a post on the neuroscience of hapiness that you can read here - it comes from some research I did for PhD.

And, here's a previous post I wrote on Gretchen Rubin's book.

Thursday
Feb252010

Church decline and neuroscience... How people decide.

A few times a year I have the great opportunity of teaching some classes at Media Village (mainly in their school of video production and school of photography).  This is an incredible place, run by Graham and Diane Vermooten, two of the most gifted and passionate media specialists I have ever encountered.

I think it is safe to say that their yearly video are among the most effective mobilization tools that the Global Day of Prayer has!

So, today I started my two days of lectures with an incredible team of people - the classroom is abuzz with intellect, commitment and engagement.  It is one of the highlights of my month to be with such a diverse group of people (they always come from all over the world).

The title of today's session is: (A theology) of media, ministry and minds.

In this first session I cover some of the major shifts in Christianity (mainly drawing on the work of Jennings' 'The next Christendom', and my own research published in my recent book 'Christian and positive: Reflections on Christianity in an HIV+ world').  What is clear is that Christianity is moving from the West to the East and from the North to the South.  However, there are some other radical shifts in the 'Christian world'.  In parts of Europe (where Christianity was once strongest, and from where so many of the missionaries came) the faith is loosing ground at a rapid pace!

What is clear is that the traditional Church is in decline.  There are two pragmatic reasons for this decline (you'll be surprised at how simple they are!)

 

  • Fewer people are joining the Church.
  • More people are leaving Churches.

 

These are two simple facts!  The statistics are clear, and I will gladly share them with you - as a start you may wish to read the lecture that I presented in the UK in March last year which has some statistics on South Africa and England.

Simply stated, Church attendance is declining because people are no longer going to Church.  There are many complex reasons for that.  Central to my argument, however, is the thesis that the message of the Gospel, and the person and work of Jesus, have not lost their effectiveness.  However, the Christian faith's method of engagement, support, and community is no longer finding favour in many contexts.

My theory is that there is a neuroscientific explanation for this choice - let me explain.

Human persons choose to do certain things and not to do others.  At a very basic level choice is a function of the brain's operation.  The core purpose of all brains (including those of animals) is survival.  Basically the human brain is a complex survival mechanism (I have written about this elsewhere in detail).  It is designed to help you survive and to help the species survive.  Moreover, the human brain is not only a survival mechanism, it is an efficiency system!  The human brain is incredibly efficient at processing choices for survival!

Let share the following narrative to explain this point.  I'm sure you would have heard about the epic battle of minds between Gary Kasparov (the Chess Grand Master) and the Artificially Intelligent Super Computer, Big Blue (designed by IBM)?  Big Blue was the first computer ever to beat a human at the game of chess. What the programmers and engineers did was to design a machine that could massive linear processing that was both accurate and fast, and pitted all of that power against the Chess Master's years of experience and skill.  As the two opponents faced off against each other they would examine the chess pieces on the board and then each decide in turn what would be the best, or most effective, move or set of moves to make in order to defeat their opponent.  What Big Blue did was to study the chess board and then process every possible move that could be made working out the statistical probability of success for each series of moves (aggregating these statistics by considering a few moves into the future.  For example, if Big blue moved this piece and Kasparov moved that piece, then what set of choices would be presented and would that be good or bad).  You can see how complex that is!  However, the computer's power and speed allowed it to sift through all of the millions of options that had been programmed in each instance to decide what move would be best.  However, this processing is extremely energy intensive!  So much so that Big Blue had to be cooled in order to avoid the risk of fire!

Kasparov, on the other hand, made use of years of 'tacit' learning (basically neural pathways of experience, coupled with dopamine reactions and the input of the occipital frontal cortex) to simply glance at the chess board, see which 4 or 5 options were best (based on years of experience at chess) and so only had to process the probability of those 4 or 5 moves.  Kasparov hardly broke a sweat!  

The human brain is incredibly efficient!  It has been designed for survival and efficiency (which, as I argued in this post, is the reason why greed exists!  We know we need to survive, and so we hoard money and possessions in order to survive for longer with less effort - anyway, watch the little video as well, it gives a succinct explanation of my thoughts in this regard).

What makes all of this even more significant is that the decision-making centre of the brain resides predominantly in the 'old brain', an area of the brain that processes what is best for survival and efficiency without bringing every choice into the 'new brain' (the frontal cortex).  For example, your brain does not alert you of the need to breath, it just does that because you need oxygen to survive.  The same goes for metabolizing your food etc.  The choice to expend energy doing these things is a 'no brainer' as some have said.  It just happens because it is necessary for survival.

Now when you couple this to the way in which the Church operates, you can see why people sometimes choose (consciously or unconsciously) not to attend Church or adhere to the Christian faith. 

I have often asked Christian groups and Churches what tangible value we contribute to society - it is, perhaps, best phrased in a question that I first heard asked by Rev Dr Ross Olivier, "Would anyone in your community (other than your Church's members) notice if your Church shut down today?"  This is a challenging question!  I'm sure that there are many Churches that add little or no value to the communities in which they exist.  Yet, there is a hope that through these communities people will come to experience the Good News of salvation in Christ!

As such, I have come to think that the average person simply does not even consider the role of the Church in their lives.  Moreover, until we are able to effectively meet the 'felt needs' of our communities we cannot expect them to respond to propositional truths about our faith! I've quoted this before, but Ed Silvoso, an Argentian minister once said:

Preaching the good news without love is like giving someone a good kiss when you have bad breath.  No matter how good the kiss, all the recipient will remember is your bad breath!

I think that sometimes my faith, and the faith of Christians communities I am a part of suffers from this unfortunate situation.  Our intentions are pure.  We long to encounter people with the truth that God loves them, and that God loves all people.  Yet, as with the instance of Ecclesia de Lange and Bishop Paul Verryn, we do not show love.  Rather we show judgement and condemnation...

And, when we're 'hard-wired' for survivial and efficiency we will avoid all uncessary pain and all unecessary commitment that does not add value to our lives or the lives of those we care about.

What do you think?  Am I missing the mark?  Is there something that you can see that I've missed, or some point on which I have it completely wrong?

I'd love to hear your views!  I long to discover, and help other discover, ways of bringing the unchanging, transforming, Gospel of Christ to the whole world!

Just on a final note, I am coming to understand the incredible value of shared narrative!  For this new generation 'conversation' is so much more important than 'content'!  They can learn most of what I can teach from books, google searches (and even from I've written on my blog and in books).  It is far more valuable to learn with each other and from each other by conversation and mutual discovery of some truths!

Tuesday
Jan192010

How do you cope with stress and pressure? (and remain productive)

Like many others I returned to work early in January after a break over Christmas and the new year.  It was great to get back into the swing of things.  I love what I do, and I like being engaged in multiple tasks; I even enjoy working with a bit of pressure!

However, 2010 is a massive year for me!  First, we have a large stadium prayer gathering in Cape Town (in the new Cape Town stadium on the 22nd of March 2010 - see http://www.gdop-sa.com for more details).

Next, we have an international conference for the Global Day of Prayer from the 17th - 23rd of May at the Cape Town international Convention Centre.  I am responsible for handling the programme at this conference, but I also play a central role in most of the other committees for the events.  You can see more about this conference at http://www.gdop2010.com - it is actually two events, a conference from the 18th to the 20th and then a stadium event at the Newlands Rugby stadium with a global television broadcast on the 23rd of May).  There is more work to be done for this conference than I have hours in my day!

Next, there is the Lausanne Congress on World evangelization which is taking place here in Cape Town in October this year.  I am a member of the arrangements team, as well as serving on the Theological working group, heading up the social media strategy, and I am also one of the officially invited delegates to participate in the congress (there are 50 persons from South Africa who were invited to participate in the congress, so it is a great honour to be among that number.  I am fairly certain that I must be among the most junior of the group, and that my practical involvement in the congress is what got me the spot!  There are certainly far more gifted theologians and leaders in our context!  However, I shall do my best). You can read more about the Lausanne Congress at http://www.capetown2010.com and follow Lausanne on Facebook and on Twitter.

Together with these big responsibilities I also have two new books coming out in 2010.  I had a very tight deadline to write a book on workplace spirituality and faith at work for Struik publishers (this book will be launched at our Global Day of Prayer conference in May - so, the content must be finished in the next week in order for it to be edited, proofed and sent to India or China for printing (I'm not sure where it is printed, but it is in the East, and then it is shipped back to South African in bulk).  Please do pray for me!  I have been waking VERY early and going to bed VERY late to try and finish the 12 chapters for the book!  I need both strength and inspiration to meet the deadline (I have done 7 chapters and have 5 more to go).

The other book that I am working on is a reworking of my doctoral research which Cambridge Scholars Press is publishing entitled 'Why you may not be who you think you are! Adventures in neuroscience, artificial intelligence and theology'.  I'm afraid that is on the back, back burner for a little while (until May at least).

Apart from these big projects I have my regular work to contend with.  I am a chaplain in a company that has 2000 employees, I am a chaplain to the Global Day of Prayer, serving on the regular working team of various ministries and boards, and then also still doing a bit of teaching and some post-graduate supervision at the University of Pretoria and the University of Stellenbosch where I hold academic posts.

Most importantly I have to take time for my family and my faith, and of course there is my health....

When I consider all of this I do get a little stressed at times!!!

SO, here's the question... What do you do to remain productive and cope with stress?  Please not that emphasis on remaining productive while coping with stress.  I love my work, and I like to be busy, but I want to find some tools to keep a 'handle' on it.

Here's a little video that explains what I am currently doing.

However, I'd love to hear your wisdom please!

Wednesday
Jan062010

More than just a bag of neurons, or, are we more than our brains?

 

My friend Phil Collier is posting some wonderful content on his Brain Science blog brain sparks

He posted an interesting question about whether we are merely the 'stuff of our brains' (i.e., if our neurons determine who we are, or if our identity and consciousness is more complex than that). 

Here's my response to Phil (please see his post here): 

Hi Phil, 

As I mentioned in our conversation this morning, I tend towards an inclusive approach that suggests that we are the stuff of our minds (of course 'the brain' extends into the body through the nervous system, and regulates and is informed through the endocrinatic system). As such we would have to say that in part we are our bodies (not just the cells of our brains, although those are important!) 

However, I have found Ken Wilber's all quadrant, all level (AQAL) approach to consciousness quite helpful in breaking down the false dualism between consciousness and matter. 

Thus, on an individual exterior level (my biology) the individual's brain has a great deal to do with their identity and consciousness. However on a collective exterior level (the human or mammalian brain) there is also an element of additional identity forming activity going on. Then of course you have the individual interior (what I think and believe about myself that forms me) and the collective interior (what 'our' culture, religion, socialization, has contributed towards my understand of myself in relation to others). 

You can read more about my understanding of Wilber here, and a few other Wilber posts here

Then, with regards to the idea of an objective mapping of the functions of the brain (i.e., how the electrical and chemical components function to create outputs of action or thought), you may be interested to read some of Ray Kurzweil's thoughts. 


He has done a great deal in trying to map and emulate brain function (his speciality has been speech synthesis and speech recognition), but more recently he has become knowing for his mathematical predictions of the exponential increase in computational capacity in machines. 

I discussed this at length (and also discussed Wilber and consciousness at length) in my doctoral thesis. See the following post for links and information about Kurzweil (discussed in chapter 2) and you can read about Wilber in chapter 4. 

I am currently under contract with Cambridge scholars press who will be publishing my Ph.D in a more 'popular' form as book in 2010 (the working title is 'Why you may not be who you think you are - adventures in neuroscience, strong artificial intelligence and philosophy'). So keep an eye on this space! I'll post updates on the progress as they come.

The original interview with Ray Kurzweil in h+ can be found here.

Blessings, 

Dion

 

Wednesday
Dec162009

MIT to revisit Artificial Intelligence research

This story from boingboing.

 Newsoffice  Images Article Images 20091204121447-1-1MIT has launched a new $5 million, 5-year project to build intelligent machines. To do it, the scientists are revisiting the fifty year history of the Artificial Intelligence field, including the shortfalls that led to the stigmas surrounding it, to find the threads that are still worth exploring. The star-studded roster of researchers includes AI pioneer Marvin Minsky, synthetic neurobiologist Ed Boyden, Neil "Things That Think" Gershenfeld, and David Dalrymple, who started grad school at MIT when he was just 14-years-old. Minsky is even proposing a new Turing test for machine intelligence: can the computer read, understand, and explain a children's book.


Fore more details please follow this link. And, for some posts that I've written about Artificial Intelligence, neuroscience, and consciousness please follow the links listed on the next page.

Friday
Nov062009

When the creators become the creation - our relationship with our technolgies

Some time ago I posted the following thoughts on technology and our relationship with it:

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French phenomenological philosopher, understood that human interaction upon the world is not a one way street... We don't simply act upon the world!  There is a reverse action from the world upon us...  For example, if you were to walk into an empty room that had nothing but an chair in it what would you do?  At some point the emptyness of the room and the presence of the chair would act upon you consciously, or subconsciously, and they will cause you to sit.  This illustrates how the space and the objects in the space have informed and transformed your thought processes.  However, the very act of sitting (as an act of physics, where the human body and the structure of the chair encounter one another) is a mutual interaction of material realities in which each has an effect upon the other.  When you sit on the chair the structure of the chair flexes and takes up strain in certain areas.  Conversely the structure of the chair exercises pressure upon your body (changing the shape of your body, supporting your back, lowering the pressure on your feet etc.)

Technology thus has both 'subtle' and 'gross' interactions with its human creators - by this I mean that technology interacts both with what is unseen (thoughts, choices, dreams, hopes, aspirations, desires, fears etc.) and what is seen (our physical being, our environment, our proximity to self and others...)

When one comes to consider this complex relationship between consumers of technology, creators of technologies, and the technologies themselves one can begin to understand that the ethical considerations of what we do (and do not do) with our technologies is even MORE complex!  For example, how far do we go in manipulating the human genetic code to do away with certain pathological conditions (mental illness, disease etc.)?  When have we taken our use of technology too far, and when have we not taken it far enough!?

 Today I came across another very interesting post on the relationship between persons and the technologies we create.  Once again, I was interested by the naive view that the author had concerning our existing (and historical) relationship with the technologies we create in order to make our lives more comfortable.  The author's assumption is that we are only just beginning to see a shift in power from being creators of technology to being 'recreated' by our own technologies!

 

The reality is of course that our technologies have impacted, and changed, us since the very first time we used them!  The development of farming changed nomadic tribes to static people groups.  The ability to harness the energy of animals or aspects of nature (such as wind and water) made production possible that introduced surpluses into the economy that moved societies from an agrarian economy to a trading economy...  I could go on forever citing historical examples of such shifts in our behaviour as a result of the impact of our 'created technologies' upon us, their creators!

I would simply state two points once more.  The first is that this affirms, for me at least, the fact that all of reality is interconnected.  We act upon reality and there is always a reaction as a result.  This fact should cause us to be mindful of our relationship with creation, and of course also with God our creation, with whom we are in relationship.  It is not by accident that the fundamental expression of the mystery of God is the concept of 'Trinity', three persons in a relationship identity and life forming interaction (called perichoresis by the Greek philosophers who influenced and formed early Christian Confessing (Creed based) theology).

Second, I would affirm once again that the central aspect of human identity - the human brain, is a simplistic system geared towards survival.

Remember the 3 questions that every human brain asks:

 

  • Can I eat it?  Will it eat me?  (Survival through avoiding threat, or through gaining sustenance - which is why action movies and food advertising work so well!  They reach straight to our primal brain).
  • Can I mate with it?  Will it mate with me?  (The preservation of the species in general, the furtherance of our gene pool in particular - which is of course why sex advertising works so well, and also why we find ourselves more readily attacted to persons who personify the best qualities of people like 'us' (e.g., Caucasian people tend to be more attracted to Caucasians, Hispanics to Hispanics, Orientals to Orientals... This is not always a race based bias (in the negative racial sense), it is to some extend a social and genetic predisposition that is 'hard wired' into our makeup in order to protect our gene pool within the species!)
  • And then of course the 'efficiency' question, have I seen this before (or do I recognize what I see, hear smell or taste?)  This final question forms a recursive loop into the two questions above.  If I have seen it, is it a threat or a help, will it harm me or help me?

Your response to people, situations, and just above every stimulus you encounter will result from these questions.  Interestingly enough the largest portion of our decision-making competency comes from visual stimulus (I have written about this elsewhere and here on visual stimulus) - this makes sense in a survival and efficiency system!  The eye is almost directly connected to the hind-brain (or old brain), which is the decision-making centre.  You brain receives visual stimulus and reacts upon it many times faster than smell or sound.  For example if you're walking down a pathway in the forest and see what looks like a snake you will jump without thinking!  Before you even have a chance to process what you're seeing your brain tells your muscles to react...

 

OK, so how does this relate to technology?  Well, our use of technology causes the development of new neural pathways (and the strengthening of existing neural pathways).  For example, I can type on my computer keyboard without having to look at my fingers on the keys.  Or, I can drive my car without having to think about exerting pressure on the clutch when I change gears.  I have done it so frequently that my mind can manage these tasks without having to interrupt my regular thought processes - that efficiency!

In some sense the technology of driving a car has had a radical effect on my life!  Because I can cover large distances at speed without exerting much energy I have had to devise other ways to generate fitness and maintain muscle tone (so, in my case I go to the gym for spinning classes and I cycle two or three times a week)...

But there are also other technologies that have changed my life - for example because of an inbalanced diet I have to take vitamins and supliments.  Because I work more hours than I sleep I have had to learn to manage my mood and state of mind (manage stress etc.) through prayer and meditation...

In short, the technologies we have created are recreating our lives!  I'd love to hear what you think!

Anyway, here's the article that got me thinking along these lines:


We make technology, but our technology also makes us. At the online science/culture journal Edge, BB pal John Brockman went deep -- very deep -- into this concept. Frank Schirrmacher is co-publisher of the national German newspaper FAZ and a very, very big thinker. Schirrmacher has raised public awareness and discussion about some of the most controversial topics in science research today, from genetic engineering to the aging population to the impacts of neuroscience. At Edge, Schirrmacher riffs on the notion of the "informavore," an organism that devours information like it's food. After posting Schirrmacher's thoughts, Brockman invited other bright folks to respond, including the likes of George Dyson, Steven Pinker, John Perry Barlow, Doug Rushkoff, and Nick Bilton. Here's a taste of Schirrmacher, from "The Age of the Infomavore":
We are apparently now in a situation where modern technology is changing the way people behave, people talk, people react, people think, and people remember. And you encounter this not only in a theoretical way, but when you meet people, when suddenly people start forgetting things, when suddenly people depend on their gadgets, and other stuff, to remember certain things. This is the beginning, its just an experience. But if you think about it and you think about your own behavior, you suddenly realize that something fundamental is going on. There is one comment on Edge which I love, which is in Daniel Dennett's response to the 2007 annual question, in which he said that we have a population explosion of ideas, but not enough brains to cover them. As we know, information is fed by attention, so we have not enough attention, not enough food for all this information. And, as we know -- this is the old Darwinian thought, the moment when Darwin started reading Malthus -- when you have a conflict between a population explosion and not enough food, then Darwinian selection starts. And Darwinian systems start to change situations. And so what interests me is that we are, because we have the Internet, now entering a phase where Darwinian structures, where Darwinian dynamics, Darwinian selection, apparently attacks ideas themselves: what to remember, what not to remember, which idea is stronger, which idea is weaker...
It's the question: what is important, what is not important, what is important to know? Is this information important? Can we still decide what is important? And it starts with this absolutely normal, everyday news. But now you encounter, at least in Europe, a lot of people who think, what in my life is important, what isn't important, what is the information of my life. And some of them say, well, it's in Facebook. And others say, well, it's on my blog. And, apparently, for many people it's very hard to say it's somewhere in my life, in my lived life.
The Age of the Informavore

 

Wednesday
Oct282009

Do Chimpanzees grieve? And can we exist outside of God?

Some years ago I got quite caught up on reading some of the esoteric 'new scientists', such as Fritjof Capra, Rupert Sheldrake, and of course the quantum physicist David Bohm.  Their understanding of the structure of reality is that everything is ultimately interconnected - some of them even when as far as saying, as Colossians 1:(16)17 says "He [Jesus / God] is before all things, and in Him all things hold together", that all of reality comes out of God's divine nature.

I certainly agree that there must be a binding reality, some may call it a binding creative force, in all of the cosmos.  This is entirely in keeping with the teaching on creation that comes from both the Old Testament and the New Testament.  The Old Testament is much less 'dualistic' than the New Testament.  The Hebrew world view differentiates between God and God's creation (i.e., God is supreme and wholy 'other' or different from creation), yet it does not separate God from God's creation.  There is a continuum of being between the God who creates and existing things that exist because of and through God's ongoing creative action (cretio ex nihilo  and of course creatio continiuum).  The New Testament suffers a little more from the influence of Platonic dualism (well more precisely neo-Platonic dualism.  Plato believed that physical reality was an imperfect representation of a perfection spiritual reality that existed elsewhere.  Of course one reads this very clearly in Hebrews (see particularly Hebrews 10), where there is a clear distinction between earthly priests and the True Priest, the earthly tabernacle and earthly sacrifice, and the True Tabernacle and True Sacrifice.  This dualism, however, must not be mistaken for a break in the continuum between God and creation.

What is certain in both the monism of the Old Testament, and the dualism of the New Testament is that nothing can exist outside of God!  Think about that for a moment!  God is God, everything that is created by God exists within the God who gives it the ability to exist - it can be no other way!  I used to confound my first year systematic theology students with this question.  Many would say that you have God and then you have creation.  But, if that were the case it would mean that there is something that has a seperate existance from the One God who is the source of everything that exists.  I would draw a large circle (and name it 'God') and then ask where creation is in relation to that large circle... Of course everything that exists has to exist within and because of the God who creates it and is its source of ongoing existence.

So, if you take the next logical step from that point you will have to agree that the Bible teaches us that there is a fundamental common ground for all existence - that fundamental common ground is God (the one who makes existence possible)!

I have often pondered this mystery... Of course it means (as I said some 20 years ago in an oral exam) that when I abuse another person, I am ultimately abusing God, and of course even abusing myself...  The same goes for creation... When I abuse creation, I am abusing God, and abusing myself (read Psalm 24:1-2)...

It is for this reason that I am always amused, and blessed, when I read stories like the one below.  I am amused because it astounds me how arrogant humans have become to think that we are the only part of God's creation that feels emotion, experiences pain, and suffers loss.  But, it also blesses me when I see a few people who come to discover that we have a responsibility (I would say a Christian responsibility in accordance with 'The Great Commandment' expressed so clearly in Luke 10:27) to care for animals, the planet, and all of God's creation as we would care for ourselves.
 
This was such a powerful image, and a lovely article (taken from here)

 

chimp.jpg
Look at this photograph and just try to tell me the answer is no.
This incredible image was shot for National Geographic by Monica Szczupider, and shows chimpanzees at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center in Cameroon. They're observing as the body of an elder troop member named Dorothy is taken to burial. She died at 40 years of age, which is pretty old for a chimpanzee.
The photo appears in the November issue of National Geographic Magazine, in the "Visions of Earth" section. [ Thanks, Marilyn Terrell ]

 

Thursday
Sep242009

A man posts an interactive browser of his brain (scan).

I spent quite a lot of time working with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans during my doctoral research.  In my case I looked at two specific things.  The MRI is very helpful when one wishes to establish the location of some form of damage to the brain (a tumor, cyst, or lesion).  I used this to help me understand how persons processed meaning (and of course how pathology impacted the processing of meaning in the human brain - it is a common occurrence that persons manifest heightened religious or spiritual consciousness when they have some form of abnormality in their brain).  Just as an aside, note that I say abnormality in this instance and not pathology! Of course this is because being different from the norm is not only a neurological phenomenon.  There are many persons who are different from the norm (whatever the 'norm' is!) because, for example, they may be an immigrant in a new country (sociology), taller than the average population (physical attributes), have extra abilities (such as exceptional sports skills) etc.  Abnormality must not be confused with pathology - just because someone, or something, is not 'normal' it does not make it wrong.

Nelson Mandela is an 'abnormal' being - after 27 years in prison the average person (normal) would seek some form of retribution or revenge for their suffering.  He, however, sought reconciliation!  Abnormality can give us a great deal of insight into how things should be!

Other than MRI scans I also made use of magnetoencephalography - this is different from MRI scanning (well slightly different) in that it gives one the ability to view the whole brain (rather than just 'slices' of the brain) to be able to see where the electrical pulses and 'hotspots' of certain cognitive processes are located.  So, for example, one could ask a person to imagine a certain event, or stimulate an emotion through showing them a picture, inducing the sense of smell, or playing a piece of music, and then see where in the brain there is electrical activity (neural activity).  I am STILL working on a rewrite of my doctoral thesis - when that project is done it will present some of my research on how the brain processes religious consciousness (particularly as it relates to identity).  The working title of the book is "Why you're not who you think you are:  Adventures in neuroscience and theology".

Of course the human brain is only one part of the complex array of interconnected elements that makes up who we truly are - however, it is a rather important part of that complex reality!  I found the following post quite interesting (if not amusing!).  If you're interested to see what an MRI looks like in relation to the person who's brain was scanned then follow this link.  Here's the original story from Boing Boing.

 

Mribrainnnn
In September 2009 my doctor recommended an MRI to rule-out a couple of potential conditions. The scan came back completely normal, which was a great relief! As a kind of cathartic exercise, and inspired by Dustin Curtis's brain tour I decided to do something with the images. I spent most of a fun weekend writing this MRI explorer. I hope you enjoy playing with it! Inside Bill Moorier's Brain


For more of my posts on the brain and neuroscience please follow this link, or simply search for 'brain' or 'neuroscience' in the search box on this blog.

 

Tuesday
Aug112009

Turing machines, one kind of stuff and artificial consciousness.

This is an older post (dating back to the 20th of April 2004!). Someone sent me a note about it and asked me to repost it here... So here it is!
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Computers seem to be so good at so many things. They are able to calculate with accuracy and efficiency
that very few humans could ever hope to match. They foster communication and connection in a manner which even some of the most complex social structures find difficult to attain. This has set me wondering whether there will ever come a time when computers are able to outperform humans in that third type of knowledge, spiritual intelligence.

 

In their superb book SQ Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall suggest that there are three types of intelligence. Firstly, there is IQ (Intellectual Quotient). This is the kind of intelligence that has to do with logic and reason. It applies certain rules in a very linear way to come to particular conclusions. In fact they suggest that this kind of intelligence operates within the human brain through a series of neural connections (neurons are the cells in the brain that fire the electric charges, or currents, that make the brain work) that are connected in a linear fashion. People who posses a high degree of this kind of intelligence can do calculations quickly, the operate well with rules, and are able to make fairly concrete, black and white, decisions. Of course computers can do this very well. They operate according to preset (or preprogrammed) rules e.g. if this happens then do that, if that happens then do this, if neither happens then do this or that (this process has become known as the Turing process, after it's designer Alan Turing). Because of the fact that this kind of intelligence works well with rules it did not take too long for computers to be programmed that could do things, which required an ability to operate within the constraints of certain rules, very well. For example the chess playing super-computer developed by IBM, Big Blue, which beat Gary Kasparov, the world champion chess master at Chess. Give a computer enough accurate programming and it will be able to adequately figure out what response makes the most sense. Add to that the processing power to perform these calculations with great speed and you have a machine that will outperform a human, within the ambit of it's programming, every time! However, change just one variable and the computer will be stumped. You see it can only operate within the limited confines of the program that has been fed into it.

The second kind of knowledge that Marshall and Zohar identify is EQ (Emotional Quotient). Of course, anybody who has read recent works in corporate culture and personal development should be familiar with this kind of the knowledge. This is a kind of knowledge that allows one flexibility to make creative and diverse choices within the confines of certain preset rules and conditions. Whereas linear, IQ, only allows one to make the choices of the program, EQ allows one to make choices within the scope of the program. So, if this isn't so, and that isn't so, it doesn't mean that I crash and stop working. Rather it means that I find another answer that works in order to solve the problem. This kind of knowledge is not linear, it is parallel. Within the brain it is suggested that humans have the capacity for this kind of knowledge because of extremely complex parallel neural connections. For example, I am learning to ride a bicycle and fall off. A logical thought process would say "you cannot ride a bicycle so you should not climb on one, since because you cannot ride, you will fall each time you climb on the bicycle". However, a complex, or parallel, thought would ask "are there any other instances that I can draw on, from other experiences that I have had, where I have learned how to do something that I could not do before? Yes there are, here is how I learnt these skills and abilities, so apply something similar from another context to this context [e.g. trial and error, perseverance, drawing on the knowledge and skill of others etc.] and I will learn how to do the thing that I cannot do know." Thus, even though it is logical and reasonable that I may fall off the bike again, because I cannot ride, my mind tells me that through processes that I already have some experience of I can learn how to ride. So I climb on the bike again. Computers are able to do this task well. They have two things in their favor. Firstly, they are able to store, or remember, things well. If information is stored it remains usable as long as it is made available to use, and of course as long as nothing goes wrong with the machine and wipes out all the data (a.k.a use a Mac, not Windows!) Neural networks and Artificially Intelligent (AI) machines that are programmed with the ability to alter their own code, or programming, in response to certain circumstances, are examples of this. For example, some companies use AI machines such as those mentioned previously to manage trades on the stock market. A machine may be programmed to automatically sell all stocks, or buy on more stock, if the stock level reaches a certain level. However, the machine also stores 'experiences' of the outcomes of previous trades. For example, the machine may store that three out of four times when the stock price suddenly dropped below a level when it had been programmed to sell off all stocks, it suddenly rebounded to a much higher level than it held before the fall. Thus, because of this 'memory', the machine alters it's programming to say something along the lines of "don't immediately sell when the stock reaches this level, first wait a day to see whether it rebounds, if it does not then sell, if it does start to rebound then buy". You can see that it is issuing itself and instruction which may be contrary to the initial instruction that the human programmer has given. But, at the end of the day the computer's new, or changed, instruction makes more fiscal sense. Where as a human trader may panic or grow impatient and make the wrong decision, an AI machine should become more and more accurate in it's decisions to sell or buy, the more experience and data it has to store. Again, add to this process increased speed and you have a very accurate, highly efficient, machine that could outstrip a human being in EQ.

The third kind of knowledge that Zohar and Marshall speak about is an integrative knowledge, which they call SQ (Spiritual Quotient). This is a knowledge that works not only with the rules (like IQ does), and not only within the rules (like EQ does), it works the rules themselves! Let's use another hypothetical, and very simplistic, example. A person lives in an oppressive society. If such a person only had IQ, they would either have to obey, or not obey the rules of the country. If the person had EQ as well, they would have to try and find ways of living within the rules (finding exceptions and flaws in the rules which to exploit). However, a person with high SQ would seek to live outside of the rules, maybe even creating a new set of rules. IQ asks, "How can I do it?" EQ asks, "What can I do with it?" SQ asks, "Is this what I want?"

Now clearly, this kind of 'transcendent' knowledge is not yet a capability of the computers that I use (although, I must confess that my MAC does seem to defy many rules!) However, the question that one needs to ask is why is it not possible, and just because it is not possible today, does it mean that it is impossible? Think about it, just 150 years ago it was not possible to phone another person, to fly, to drive a car, and a myriad of other things which are commonplace today.

One of the strongest set of arguments that are given for why this kind of intelligence will not be possible for machines are arguments which are based upon variations of the understanding of human consciousness. Many argue that machines will not be able to do this kind of thinking since they are not conscious. They are not creative, they are created. Many argue that the reason why we can apply SQ within our lives is because we are conscious beings, we can think, but more importantly we can think about ourselves. In other words, I can ask myself, "how do I feel about this, can I do anything about it, do I have to live this way..." More importantly I have something which is known as 'metacogition', the ability to think about my thoughts. A computer can only 'think' this, or 'think' that. It may even be able to alter it's 'thoughts' in some way (as mentioned above). However it cannot think whether the thoughts themselves are valid or not valid.

This is where the theorists fall into two camps. In his book God and the mindmachine John Puddefoot speaks of the monists and the dualists. Let's first talk about the dualists. These are people who say that mind and matter are two different and distinct things. Like the philosopher, Descartes, they say that mind is something separate and distinct from the physical works (res cogitans versus res extensia). Plato, of course, was one of the earliest recorded thinkers along this line. He believed that people were souls that were trapped in physical bodies. Within the Christian tradition we have many such neo-Platonic ideas (particularly those of the Gnostics). I have also noticed that forms of neo-Gnosticism are prevalent in many modern Charismatic Churches that emphasis the importance of the spirit over, and against, 'the flesh' (which is regarded as weak and sinfull). Anyway, the dualist argument holds that machines, which are matter, could never become truly conscious since they are a completely different 'stuff' to mind. They are physical and not spiritual.

The other camp are known as the monists. They are people who believe that everything is one and the same 'stuff' (see some of the papers that I have written on this website at http://www.spirituality.org.za which refers to such thinkers as the Quantum Physicist, David Bohm, and the monk Dom Bede Griffiths). There is a fare amount of current scientific theory that suggests that mind and matter come from the same common spiritual source. Of course as Christians we should hold to such a view if we take texts such as Ephesians 1:10 and Collosians 1:16-17 seriously. In short, the proponents of this view, whether Christian or from other faith traditions (particularly faith traditions that are not dualistic - such as Hinduism and Buddhism) hold to the notion that since all reality is of the same 'stuff' there is no reason why consciousness is not possible for something that is material. After all, we as human beings are matter and we are conscious. Thus, some theorists have applied variations of this view to suggest that machines (whether electronic, mechanical or biological) have the same capacity for consciousness, and thus transcendent or spiritual existence, as we do. Sure, this is a very strong view of Artificial Intelligence, it borders on manic optimism, but it is logical if one agrees with the underlying principles and thought processes.

So, it could be possible that machines could one day be better than human beings in all three spheres of intelligence, IQ, EQ and most importantly SQ. Popular films such 'The Matrix', 'Dark City' and of course the Stanley Kubrick classic '2001 a space odyssey' have all speculated to the outcome of such an eventuality. If evolution continues to operate, even at the level of consciousness, then it could be possible that humanity would become the inferior species. Thus, at worst we could face extinction, or at best be harnessed (ala The Matrix and Dark City) by machines for some menial task to sustain their life.

There is of course a far more optimistic approach to this possibility. This approach is based, in large, upon a variation of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's notion of evolutionary cosmology (I have written something on that which you can find on my website at http://www.spirituality.org.za). de Chardin suggested that the whole of the cosmos is in a process of complexification, this evolutionary move can be traced from the dawn of time right into the future. In essence he postulated that the cosmos is evolving from the less complex, gross or material levels of reality (biogenesis) to the more complex and subtle spiritual levels of reality (noogenesis) to a point of ultimate consciousness which he called the Christ Omega or Christ consciousness.

Within such a model it is possible to assume that any move in complexification is a positive evolutionary move. Thus, any increase in consciousness is of benefit to the cosmos as a whole. Of course this view is non dualist, in that it supposes that everything (persons and the rest of creation) are all of one and the same stuff. Hence, it may be plausible, if one supports a notion such as this, to suggest that even if humanity does become extinct, or the lesser species in creation, this may be part of the evolutionary plan of the cosmos as it moves to a higher plane of consciousness.

I'm not so sure about all this. However, the one thing that we cannot deny is that the boundary between technology and human persons is quickly diminishing. Not only are we becoming more dependent upon technology for our very survival (and here I am thinking both of life saving technologies such a biomedical, mechanical lifesaving devices such as pacemakers etc. and simple technologies like computer that control currencies, electricity, and other day to day functions).

The one other question that is prominent in my thoughts is the question of when the crossover takes place between machine and person. The movie 'Bicentennial man' clearly illustrates the difficulty of judging this from the machine side. It asks the question, because a machine looks like, behaves like and has emotions like a human person does that make it human? The question is also asked very pointedly by Ray Kruzweil in his book The Age of spiritual machines, when he asks how far must a human person go before he or she is classified as a machine. For example, a person who has a Cochlear implant to assist them to hear would be regarded as human. A person with artificial limbs would be regarded as human, even a person with an artificial heart and vital organs is regarded as human. However, if we were able to take this technology to its extreme (which of course is not yet possible, but could at some time be a possibility) and do something along the lines of what some theorists suggest could become possible, i.e. downloading our brain and all it's thoughts, ideas, memories, feelings etc. into a computer, would that mean that the computer becomes human? Or does it mean that even though 'I' may still be the conscious element of the machine, because I am not biological, or largely so, that I am no longer human? What then if one uses a computer that is biologically based, using enzymes to process the code of 1' and 0's, rather than a silicon based machine? Does this make a difference?

These are some of the thoughts that occupy my mind in the wee small hours of the morning. I suppose I won't mind too much, as long as I don't become a Windows box!! ;-)
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What are your thoughts and ideas!?

By the way, I eventually completed my Doctorate in a subject not to different from this. You can download a copy of my Doctoral Thesis here.

For more posts on Artificial intelligence go here, and for some of my posts on neuroscience please go here. And, for a few of my posts on the 'New Science' please go here.

 

Friday
May222009

Why you're unhappy, and what you can do about it!

Here's another post on the brain... Please don't give up reading this as soon as you see that it's about the brain!! In this post I have attempted to share some explanation for why you do some of the things you do, and why you feel some of the things you feel. And, I hope that when you understand how powerful your brain is in shaping your conscious mind that you will begin to take deliberate measures to manage your mind. It is possible, and it will make your life a lot better!

The inspiration for this post came from a hilarious skit by Bob Newhart... In the video Bob Newhart acts something like a Rogerian Gestalt therapist with a woman who suffers from claustrophobia. Each time she expresses her fear he simply yells at her to 'STOP IT' (i.e., stop being afraid). Of course that is not good psychotherapy practise! But, it did stimulate some thought about whether one is able to understand and control one's reactions to experiences and internal struggles that one may face?

I think you can (to some extent at least!)

The human brain is the most complex of all of the organs of the human person. We understand very little about its actual functioning, although we are able to understand some of the more basic electrical and chemical processes that can be related to certain actions and feelings. In some senses we're able to understand the processes of the brain without truly have a handle on the brain itself.

The simplest explanation for explaining how the brain functions is to say that it is an organ that is designed to ensure survival. The brain is a in fact a fairly primitive organ that has evolved in complexity throughout the ages - yet at its very base it has the same basic purpose - ensuring that you (and we as a species) continue to survive. In order to to this the brain has three basic functions.

1) The brain receives input from the senses (we see things, hear things, feel things, smell things and taste things).
2) The brain processes the input that it gets from the senses and then decides what to do with it.
3) The brain sends messages and instructions to different parts of the body to respond to the exogenous and endogenous inputs it has received.

The receptive part of the brain is a complex science all of its own. Each of the senses is routed primarily to a certain area of the brain where it fires up the dendrites and we can measure electromagnetic activity in that particular area (or at least we can measure a dominance of magnetic activity in a particular area). For example sight is directly connected to the lower brain - interestingly the eyes are the only part of the brain that is visible to other persons! The nerves in the eyes are directly connected to the brain and in fact form a direct primitive function of the brain. The right eye is connected to the left hemisphere and vice versa. I chose vision as the example for input stimuli since vision takes up to 1/3 to 1/2 of brain function. When I share the few points about the primal functioning of the brain it will become clear why this is the case. However, it will suffice to say at this point that vision is not a function of the eyes, rather it is fundamentally a function of the brain!

The simplest way to explain this is to say that we don't 'see' everything that our eyes take in. There is common experiment that brain science lecturers us to show this to their students. It is known as the pictorial superiority effect. The students are shown a video of a group of persons standing in a circle throwing a ball to one another. They are then asked to count the number of times the ball is passed between two (or more) of the participants. What happens in the brain of the observer is that their reticular activation sensor is activated to only process the persons they're watching and the movement of the ball. In the video a person dressed in a guerilla suit walks into frame, walks between the persons and then moves out of frame. When one asks the viewers what they saw almost none of them will report seeing the guerilla! Surely a guerilla among a group of people playing with a ball should be something noticeable? Well, in this case it is not. The brain has 'tuned out' that particular stimulus input because it either does not fit the frame of reference for what the brain expects to see, or simply because it is not necessary to complete the task that was set (counting how many times particular persons pass the ball to one another).

So, how does vision work?

  1. Stimulus received through the retina and is transduced (i.e., turned into an electrical pulse so that it can pass along the nerves into the brain)
  2. From the retina it is sent to the Lateral Gerniculate nuclease in the middle brain, there it is sorted before it is processed.
  3. Next the signal is passed on to an area that is known as Broadman 17 version 1 (in the back of the brain in the occipital lobe to be precise) where it is parsed out (i.e. sent to shapes, faces, objects area of the brain…) There is, for example, a section in the brain that detects horizontal lines, a section that detects colours, another that detects faces and so on…
  4. Finally it is sent to the area of the brain where it is judged, edited and sent as a response for action or emotion.

We must remember that the brain does not deal with reality! It deals with survival as I said earlier. It will take an input, edit it and then rework it to cause the rest of the brain and body to process it towards survival.

 

So, what are these 'survival' instincts in the brain that I have been referring to?

Well, once again as with all aspects of the brain they are fairly complex, but they can be roughly explained using some analogous examples. In this case the example refers to primitive life - in days of yore (and here I'm not talking about before the advent of cell phones or microwaves... I'm talking even before the advent of the wheel!) the primary concern of very human person was mere survival.

Sometimes my daughter, who is 9, is rather surprised to discover things such as the fact that eggs don't come from grocery stores, and that there is a direct genetic link between the hamburger she's eating and the cows we saw grazing in the fields... Survival was tough! And so the brain was designed (if one could use that word without causing too much of a storm) to help humans survive.

The three basic survival instincts (that are a link between the functioning of the brain and primitive human life) are:

 

  1. Can what I am sensing eat me? OR can I eat what I am sensing? This has to do with short term survival of the individual or family unit and naturally has to do with sustenance and safety.
  2. Can I mate with what I am sensing? OR does what I am sensing want to mate with me? Don't start laughing (or blushing) now! The brain is hard wired to find a mate in order to procreate to sustain the species in the longer term.
  3. Do I recognize what I am sensing? This is a slightly more complex phenomenon, but it has to do with learning. For example, if I have been burned by fire I my brain will recognize it and make the link with pain and so caution me to stay away from it. But, this is also just a basic function of spatial recognition (i.e., I can remember where I live, I know where to find water and food, and I know the difference between humans and other life forms...)


Now amazingly these simplistic analogies can help us to understand quite a lot about human behavior. These primal urges are hard wired into the very primitive parts of our brain (over which we have very little conscious control) and so a great deal of joy and pain can be associated with trying to work out these simple things in a much more complex contemporary world. For example, the loss of one's job can be directly related to the need to survive through having the means to gain sustenance (even if it is a McDonalds burger that you're buying at the Mall!) Or, it explains why contemporary advertising and action movies always seems to have three common elements... Fear of death (survival), beautiful people (the intrinsic urge to mate), and simplistic repetition of concepts to enforce behaviour (i.e., a catchy slogan or jingle that the brain can recognize and process without much conscious effort).

 

So, if you took some time to consider what some of the elements of your life are that are making you unhappy I'm sure you would find that they stem either of an external (exogenous) circumstance or event that enters through your senses, or some endogenous (internal) struggle within yourself that gets sent to the brain (such as a 'hunger' for something, or the 'fear' of something, or the inability to recognize meaning or a discernible direction or pattern to your life).

The simple answer to most of these struggles is to begin by changing either the context or the content of your life.

If you live in a threatening relationship, find yourself under unmanageable stress, or are not having your most basic needs adequately met it is probably an indicator that you should plan to find some other context in which to exist. That's context stuff.

If that is not possible then you need to get more of what I have devoted my life to, spirituality and faith, the content of one's life (what regulates and consciously engages our senses and shapes our minds, thus managing our responses) is a valid and necessary aspect of every human life! I don't know a single person who is free from fear, hunger (even in it's subtler forms), the need for survival and a longing for some sense of higher order and purpose. Do you? This is the content stuff.

What do you think? Can spiritual exercises like meditation, prayer, regulated disciplines like exercise, fasting, service of others, etc., help to overcome the 'primal' struggles that we face in our brains? If you have an example to share that would be wonderful!

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Saturday
Nov012008

Create multiple Universes for just US $20!

I have always been intrigued by the possibility of the existence of multiple Universes (is that even marginally correct grammar!?) A large portion of my Masters degree research in Systematic Theology considered the influence of 'the new science' (mainly quantum theory, but also microbiology) on our vision of reality. I read persons such as Einstein, Rosen, Podolsky, Talbot, Bohm, Russel, Heisenberg, Sharpe, Capra, Schroedinger, Tipler, Zukav and Keepin; oh, and of course the converging point was Ken Wilber...

Perhaps, however, in this regard David Deutsch was one of the most influential contributors to my understanding of the possibility of the existence of a 'multiverse' (as opposed to a 'universe'). See Deutsch, D 1985. Quantum theory, the Clark-Turing Principle and the universal quantum computer. Proceedings of the Royal society of London A400. You can take a peak at my Bibliography from my research proposal here: Bibliography science religion.rtf.

Simply stated, in a quantum universe, is it feasible to think that we are the only true existence (and here I'm not talking about aliens!) that operates in a linear fashion filling all of reality? Is it not possible, even plausible, to consider that the EPR paradox operates on a vastly more complex and real manner, allowing for the existence of an infinite number of parallel Universes where each decision made by each person causes a split in reality that allows that set of events to run their course to their conclusion? It is a little like streams branching of the primary tributary of a river, with each split an infinite number of new possibilities come into being - the radical complexity of these splits may appear chaotic, but when one traces them recursively one is able to observe some sense of order.

Of course there are some astute theologians who have considered similar possibilities. Take for example Teilhard de Chardin (who wrote in the early part of the last century about such reailities, even before the EPR paradox was even considered in the mainstream scientific community).

Creation, incarnation, and redemption constitute the one movement, which Teilhard calls 'pleromization'. It is a movement towards the 'pleroma', the fullness of being, in which God and his completed world exist united together (Lyons commenting on Teilhard in Lyons 1982:156).

The notion of increasing complexity, of 'collapse' in order and a movement towards the radical complexity of Christ (what Teilhard calls the 'Christ omega'), is in keeping with Christian scripture and Christian tradition (see for example Col 1.16-20 (see esp. v.20), Eph 1.10 - which is, of course, the verse that inspired the 'Father of the Church' Tertullian to formulate his doctrine of recapitulation of creation in Christ and Christ in salvation (anakephalaiosis about which I'm sure Steve Hayes could tell us a whole lot).

 

Anyway, I had two thoughts about this whole thing of 'alternate' Universes. First, I was thinking, if this is true, which one of the multiple Dion's am I? And, in relation to this, I wonder if the other Dion's experience as much blessing and joy as I do? Of course, in relation to God, I was also thinking how incredibly wide and deep the love of God would need to be in order to incorporate not only the complexity and potential of this universe, but the complexity and potential of an infinite number of Universes! A great mystery of love indeed!

Well, here's something to think about - with just US $ 20 you can emulate a multitude of universes! Of course this is just an illustration of the concept (and not a creation of it). But, I thought it was quite interesting regardless! From boingboing.

 

200810311417

Are you willing to take on the responsibility that comes with bringing trillions of universes into existence, each teeming with sentient life? That's something to ponder before plunking down $20 for this make-your-own-universe kit, created by artist Jonathon Keats.

If two events are possible, quantum theory assumes that both occur simultaneously - until an observer determines the outcome. For example, in Schrodinger's famous thought experiment, in which his cat may have been killed with a 50 per cent probability, the cat is both alive and dead until someone checks. When the observation is made, the universe splits into two, one for each possible outcome. For example, Schrodinger's cat would be alive in one universe and dead in the other universe.

According to the theory, any kind of measurement causes the universe to split and this is the basis of Keats' new device. His universe creator uses a piece of uranium-doped glass to create a steam of alpha particles, which are then detected using a thin sliver of scintillating crystal. Each detection causes the creation of a new universe.

The make-your-own-universe kit

 

 

 

Friday
Aug152008

Is radical unity between God and creation (and created beings) New Age, or is it in fact a Biblical view of reality?

A friend emailed me a few days ago to ask a question about some research he is doing. I hope to be able to chat with him in person when he comes down to Cape Town. However, one aspect of our email conversation struck with me.

I have often been confronted (because of the nature and content of my own research) with the question about the quantum theoretical view of reality and fundamentally interconnected and interrelated and some elements of new age spirituality. In particular persons have asked me whether what I propose is not some form of new age spirituality - my response is quite simply NO! I believe that a view of reality in which everything lives, and moves, and has its being in Christ is the only truly Biblical view that one could hold with any Christian integrity (Acts 17:28)! Whilst God is wholly 'other' from creation (in the sense that God is creator whilst we are creation) does not suppose that we are separate from God! There is great unity in distinction! The mystery of the Christian Trinity is a testimony to 'otherness' in radical unity....
Anyway, here's a version of the email that I sent to my friend explaining some of my reasoning, and pointing to some things that I've written about this radical unity between God and God's beloved creation.
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This is a very interesting topic indeed! I have written a few things in this area, and done some research on identity, consciousness and the new science. Here are a few documents that you can download to see some of what I've written on this subject. I prefer to speak of quantum theory and integrative theory rather than pure quantum mechanics (which is a sub-field of quantum science, which in turn is a sub field of quantum theory - one of the things that we learn in the 'new science' is that the boundaries between science and spirituality, or for that matter identity and being, are quite thin, and often don't exist).
A) You can download a copy of my doctoral thesis here: http://www.spirituality.org.za/files/D%20Forster%20doctorate.pdf This has the most detailed discussions I've yet written on some of these ideas (quantum theory, identity, relationship and consciousness). In particular you may find the following of interest:
1. Simply search for 'quantum', 'tunneling effect', 'EPR', 'implicate' or 'Bohm' in the PDF and see what I've written about quantum theory.
2. There is a chapter devoted to your subject (Chapter 3 that is entitled 'Consciousness and the functioning of the human brain: A discussion of biological, physical and philosophical theories relating to individual human consciousness and the brain'. In particular section 3.4.3 is worth considering, the first part talks about computational models of the brain from the perspective of classical physics (i.e., Newtonian physics and Euclidian mathematics), and section two in that same subsection discusses quantum theories of the brain and consciousness in relation to identity - it is entitled 'A holographic model of the conscious brain: A perspective from quantum physics'.
3. Chapter 4 of the thesis is, in my opinion, much more radical than quantum physical (or quantum spiritual) theories of identity and conscious. In this chapter I present and discuss the incredible work of Ken Wilber the integrative theorist who is a brilliant scientist, philosopher, and a deeply spiritual person (Buddhist, not Christian... But we pray!) Section 4.3 is of particular interest, it is entitled 'Holistic consciousness in relation to Ken Wilber's four quadrants of reality'. In summary all of quantum theory would fit into the upper right and lower right of Wilber's four quadrants, then there are the upper left, and lower left which are largely not considered by even the most enlightened of quantum theorists!
4. I also do some work in chapters 5 and 6 on the relationship between all of this 'stuff' and African models of relationship and identity which are much more balanced than those of the dualistic 'West'....
So, that's enough for the thesis.... By the way, it is soon to be published as a book. The working title is 'Why you're not who you think you are: Adventures in neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and theology'
B) I have also done some work on the quantum stuff in one of my recent books entitled 'Christ at the centre - discovering the Cosmic Christ in the spirituality of Bede Griffiths' You can download PDF copies of the book here: http://www.spirituality.org.za/2008/04/copies-of-my-three-most-recent-books.html In this book I devote just short of a chapter to quantum physics (and micro biology in relation to the 'new science'), you'll find it at around pp. 34-52.
C) In my recent little book 'An uncommon spiritual path - finding Jesus beyond conventional Christianity.' you'll find a similar discussion around pp. 79 ff. You can also download a copy of that book in PDF format here: http://www.spirituality.org.za/2008/04/copies-of-my-three-most-recent-books.html
D) Finally, I wrote his paper which gives some insight into the relationship between quantum theory and the evolution of the cosmos from the 'gross' material level to the 'subtler' spiritual levels. This is quite a controversial paper in and of itself... Here I argue that the extinction of humanity may well be part of God's evolutionary plan for the perfection of creation... The problem with us humans is that we tend to centre all of reality upon ourselves (even God)! So, this may be one possible way of placing God at the centre of creation once again.... Anyway, it was more tongue in cheek than serious, plus it got published because it was so contentious! You can download the paper here: http://www.spirituality.org.za/files/Post%20human%20evolutionary%20cosmology%20Teilhard%20de%20Chardin.pdf

Well, there you have it... Since my understanding is clearly that quantum theory is one possible explanation of the breakdown of duality between spirit and matter, and so a measure of identity in which we come to discover the mystery of the person of Christ who draws all creation truly into himself (Ephesians 1:10), and the Holy Spirit who holds all things in constant, present, existence (Colossians 1:16-17), I do believe that there is value in appropriating and understand this new 'language' for the purposes of expressing and grasping the mystery of being fully alive in Christ. I do not think this is 'new age' in any way. I think is fundamentally biblical and scriptural! One of the HUGE problems with the characterization of such spirituality as 'new age' is that it is based more on Western dualism than scriptural unity. Most of the Bible (the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures) does not have the radical dualism between spiritual and profane, between religion and ordinary life, and between divine reality and the created order. This dualism was introduced INTO the New Testament through neo Platonists (of which the Apostle Paul was primary), and the Gnostics - Hebrew is the clearest neo-platonic dualism in scripture.... That is interesting in and off itself since it is supposedly the most 'Hebrew' of the New Testament books, yet it has the most impeccable Greek of all the New Testmanet writtings and displays a clear textual vorlage to the Septuagint and the Greek philosophical schools of the time... But. of you read the chapter listed under B) above you'll get quite a detailed discussion on how we went from Old Testament harmony between God and creation, interior life and exterior life, through the Greek philosophers, to Descartes, Netwon, Francis Bacon, and ultimately Western metaphysics. The point is quite simply that most of the Old Testament, and some of the most 'lucid' elements of the New Testament (which is the majority of the teaching in Christian scripture) proposed an integrated view of reality (which has sadly been lugged in with the 'new age movement' when in fact it is simply Biblical!), not the dualistic view of reality that conservative evangelicals have labeled as orthodox...
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Well, let me know what you think (if you have the mirth to wade your way through my scattered A.D.D thoughts!)