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What utter BS!


Ben, when we're talking about consciousness, we are referring both to the capacity for awareness and to the capacity for perception. Both of them are thoroughly dependent upon the proper functioning of the brain, according to every piece of good evidence we've got.

What is the energy that makes a tiny seed grow into a big tree?

The Sun (though perhaps indirectly).

What is the force that perfectly organises the growth of a few cells from an egg and sperm into a vast human organism?

It's not a force, it's a process called ontogeny.

Do you really think that you will ever be able to understand that force, that energy, by thinking about it?!

Yes, if that thinking is supplemented by evidence and experimentation. Do you think you'll be able to understand them by unquestioningly following vaguely defined feelings?

Bruce Gorton
What is the energy that makes a tiny seed grow into a big tree?

Photosynthesis. I learned about it when I was about ten.

And I am from a third world country.

You can feel embarrassed now.

Bruce Gorton
Do you really think that you will ever be able to understand that force, that energy, by thinking about it?!

Well it sure as heck beats spouting deepities and associated bullshit about how mysterious it all is.

Trying to figure things out put a man on the moon, wiped out polio and gave you the ability to type tripe online.

Sitting around spouting deepities and associated bullshit gave us the dark ages.

The more I look at it, the more I can't tell if Ben's post is a parody or real - Poe anyone?

Greta Christina
The emotional mind is not in the brain, it's in the heart.


You do understand that the heart is a muscle, don't you? That it pumps blood? That it is not capable of supporting or experiencing emotion or consciousness?

The only mind that is in the brain is the neo-cortex mind, which deals with language, analysis, and judgement.

This is simply and flatly not true. There is an OVERWHELMING body of evidence showing that emotional and creative experiences and such are generated in the brain. Changes in the brain affect people's emotional and creative lives -- often drastically. (Read some Oliver Sacks to find out more about this.) Changes to the brain can make people unable to emotionally connect with the people they once loved; it can make people more musically creative essentially overnight; etc. Using magnetic resonance imagery, we can see that brain functioning looks different when people are (for instance) listening to music or thinking about someone they love than when they're listening to something other than music or thinking about logical puzzles. (Brain functions even look different depending on which music people are listening to.)

What is the energy that makes a tiny seed grow into a big tree? What is the force that perfectly organises the growth of a few cells from an egg and sperm into a vast human organism? Do you really think that you will ever be able to understand that force, that energy, by thinking about it?!

Other people have handled this one beautifully, so I'm not going to, except to reiterate: Actually, we do understand these forces pretty well. We're understanding them more and more every day. And we are understanding them, not by making up stories that we find pleasant, but by rigorously testing our ideas to see if they correspond with reality.

Consciousness may USE the brain, but it certainly does not depend on the brain.

And I ask yet again: What evidence do you have for this?

There is, as I keep saying, an overwhelming body of good, solid, carefully- gathered, rigorously tested, replicated, peer-reviewed evidence to support the hypothesis that consciousness is a biological product of the brain. Do you have any solid evidence at all supporting your view that consciousness is not material? Or are you just going to keep asserting this belief over and over again, without any evidence to back it up?

You've written on your blog that you think truth is entirely subjective and that truth is only what you experience. You are certainly entitled to that opinion. But it is intellectually dishonest to conclude that truth is entirely subjective... and then accuse other people of not understanding it correctly. If you don't care whether the things you believe are true; if you're more interested in your personal experience of reality than you are in the vastness of reality itself -- and if you're not willing to discard your beliefs when an overwhelming body of evidence contradicts them -- then on what basis are you accusing atheists of "missing out" and being closed off to reality?


You say
“An overwhelming body of evidence from the fields of neurology and neuropsychology strongly suggest that, whatever consciousness is, it is a biological product of the brain.”

Once again I would distinguish between conscious awareness and the brain functions of thought perception personality etc. These references you cite are not describing consciousness or the cause of awareness, but the effects of consciousness within the brain.
In my first post I described the case of a young lady whos heart stopped in the operating theatre after an horrific car accident. Her consciousness left her body and floated out of the operating theatre. Eventually she saw her relatives in the waiting room in another area of the Hospital. She was able to describe a conversation which took place between her Mother and Grandnother, in which the Grandmother who was a non smoker, asked the Mother for a cigarette. The Mother confirmed this conversation did in fact take place just as her daughter described. She went on to say there was no way her daughter could have known this unless she was actually there . This was reported in an episode of the program “I Survived” called “Death and Back” which aired on the Biography channel. The reason I repeat this anecdote is because it shows that consciousness may exist independently of the brain. This story cannot be explained away by an hallucination caused by lack of oxygen. If you watch this episode you may judge for yourself. There are numerous other documented examples where consciousness existed independently of the physical body These stories cannot be refuted on the grounds that there is no scientifically acceptable explanation for them. I include a short extract from the website for your convenience. There is also a detailed Bibliography provided.

The consistency of OBEs

Dr Dean Sheils analyzed over a thousand studies of OBEs in seventy non-Western cultures. His conclusive results showed that whereas it was expected that there would be significant variation in the experience there was absolute consistency. Dr Sheils claimed that the results were so universal that the phenomenon had to be genuine (Lazarus 1993: 167).

Many of the literary giants of this century publicly stated that they had an OBE: Ernest Hemingway; Tolstoy; Dostoevsky; Tennyson; Edgar Alan Poe; D H Lawrence; Virginia Woolf (Lazarus 1993:166).

Seven hundred cases

A most highly credible scientist, Dr Robert Crookall, analyzed over seven hundred reports of OBEs. He found that 81% of those who had experienced them had a firm conviction of life after death owing to their personal experience. What astounded Crookall, a meticulous scientist, was the consistency of the reports of OBEs coming from all over the world with near death experiences and with the communications coming from high level mediums (Crookall 1970).

Greta Christina
Her consciousness left her body and floated out of the operating theatre.


No, it didn't. She had an altered state of consciousness, in which it seemed as if her consciousness left her body and floated out of the operating theatre.

And the fact that the mother thought there was no way her daughter could have known about this supposed conversation with the dead grandmother unless she was actually there, doesn't mean this was actually the case. People are often not good at judging how probable events are -- especially when they're highly biased to believe something (as a person certainly would be biased towards thinking her mother's soul was still alive). It's entirely possible that the mother told her daughter about this conversation and forgot about it, or that her memory was otherwise faulty. Human memory is highly unreliable.

I am not disputing that many people have unusual states of altered consciousness when they're near death. I am simply disputing the interpretation that these experiences provide any sort of evidence of an immaterial consciousness. You can say all you want to that material explanations can't explain these phenomena... but the fact is that they can and do. Every single time supposedly supernatural experiences (such as NDEs and OBEs) have been subjected to careful, rigorous, double-blind, placebo- controlled testing to screen out bias and wishful thinking, they have fallen apart. Check out the Center for Skeptical Inquiry and the Skeptical Inquirer websites for more information.


Harold, a belief in an afterlife is a common theme among many cultures. A consistency of OBEs to reflect that common theme isn't an indication that an afterlife actually exists, any more than the fact that UFO sightings became more popular at around the time science fiction started getting popular indicates that aliens started visiting at around that time.


Greta, isn't it a little odd (and somewhat depressing) that this exact same discussion appears to be happening on Facebook, at the same time? I notice that you've even cut & pasted some of your response text; I don't blame you, when the questions are almost exactly the same.



I really enjoyed the comparison between modern day reports of UFO abductions and ancient reports of late-night demonic visits that, iirc Carl Sagan explored at some length in Demon Haunted World.

Anyone actually interested in learning about consciousness should check out Dennett's works on the subject: Consciousness Explained, Elbow Room, and Freedom Evolves. The latter is the most recent and so has the most up-to-date, but is technically more about "free will" and "determinism" and so on than it is about consciousness, but it still does an excellent job explaining the massive problems with dualism.


Ben Ralston | June 01, 2010 at 04:46 AM:

First of all, let's differentiate between two separate meanings of the one word: 'consciousness' - one is our own sense of consciousness (like being 'awake') and the other is consciousness as the underlying fabric of existence.

Re-defining "consciousness" to be "the underlying fabric of existence" is just disingenuous Humpty-Dumptyism. It may make you feel smart, but it damages your ability to communicate with others, and it damages your ability to analyze your own ideas. It's not good for you.

What is the energy that makes a tiny seed grow into a big tree?

WTF?? Have you never been outside? Get out, during the daytime, when it's not overcast, and look up, and tell me what you see in the sky. Eighty-seven thousand trillion - that's 87,000,000,000,000,000 watts, or 117,000,000,000,000 horsepower of solar power reaches the Earth's surface (not including what is reflected or absorbed by th atmosphere). That's a huge amount of power. Multiply that by time and you have energy. That's where the energy to turn a tiny seed into a big tree comes from.

What sort of horrible cube-farm slavery are you subject to that you do not know this?

What is the force that perfectly organises the growth of a few cells from an egg and sperm into a vast human organism?

It's not a force. It's the result of billions of years of evolution. And it's a long, long way from perfect. In the first place, many sperm are so flawed they cannot possibly form a healthy zygote when combined with a healthy egg. In the next place, close to 80% of zygotes are aborted and flushed out during the first month of gestation, usually due to developmental defects. Finally - most living people have a few minor developmental defects, and a minority have serious developmental defects.

Please get a good book on evolutionary development - say, Sean Carroll's Endless Forms Most Beautiful, or Freaks by Mark S. Blumberg, and read it.

Consciousness may USE the brain, but it certainly does not depend on the brain.

Stroke, brain trauma, toxins, and other sources of damge to brain tissue are known to alter (or even eliminate) consciousness. Therefor, consciousness does depend on the brain.

The emotional mind is not in the brain, it's in the heart. The sexual mind is not in the brain, it's in the pelvis. The body-mind is not in the brain, it's in the abdomen
Take out the brain and all those other minds stop working. Everyone one of them depends on the brain. (And, of course, the brain depends on other organs.)
Consciousness is the fuel that drives all of them, and it is UNIVERSAL.
There's no evidence that a rock is conscious.
What is the energy that makes a tiny seed grow into a big tree?
Hah, this reminded me of this FSTDT classic:
One of the most basic laws in the universe is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states that as time goes by, entropy in an environment will increase. Evolution argues differently against a law that is accepted EVERYWHERE BY EVERYONE. Evolution says that we started out simple, and over time became more complex. That just isn't possible: UNLESS there is a giant outside source of energy supplying the Earth with huge amounts of energy. If there were such a source, scientists would certainly know about it.

*LOL*, themann :-D

Not to mention the classic from Atheist Experience. Why don't people die when the sun go down...


Great blog and thread.


New-agers seem awfully fond of the trope "The Wisdom of the Ancients." That millenia ago, tribal primitives in loincloths were more knowledgeable than us about consciousness, cosmology, and the human condition.

And that precious wisdom is lost to all but a very few today, and those few usually appear on Oprah to hawk their books.

It is almost like new-agers believe that human knowledge works backwards; that we were really smart and over the milenia have become less wise, less knowledgeable.

Okay, after watching Fox news, I'm thinking maybe they are on to something.


Locutus, I know exactly what you mean. I think the reason might be a little less crazy though; first, it's a very common idea, across cultures, to believe in degeneration of society. You read stuff from like, any historical period in any civilization, and you are always bombarded with crap about how good things USED to be. The Greco-Roman civilizations and ancient Chinese were both particularly bad about it. Also, conversely, the true men (and women, but unfortunately we mostly know the men) of genius in antquity were really incredible. We simply don't have anyone today who can make the profound leaps of intuitition and world-shaking discoveries that occured in the ancient world, or people with really advanced moral vision that become household names. Anyone with a three digit IQ and a High School Education understands the world better than Epicurus ever could have, but holy shit, what an amazing mind!


I agree, DA. My point would be that, Yes, there were some geniuses such as Aristotle and Epicurus, etc., but we know about them and their thinking, AND it has been incorporated into our corpus of knowledge (unfortunately, even the flawed parts).

The thrust of the new age movement, however, seems to be that there are ancients with knowledge that is both profound and unknown to society, and for rather large sums of money you, too, can join the Rosicrucians or mind-meld with the Atlanteans and gain this secret wisdom.


Hmmm... interesting. I guess I see things a little different, as a person of faith. I'm a Christian, maybe even a progressive one, but:

1: Evolution guided by God.
I don't believe this.

2: An immaterial soul that animates human consciousness.
I don't believe this.

3: A sentient universe.
I don't believe this.

I realize I'm a minority of sorts: a non-theistic Christian. But, with 2.1 billion Christians, it's too easy to reduce them all to a set list of propositions.


"if it wasn't reasonable of me to insist that I was right if someone else claimed that 2 + 2 = 5 and I know it's 4? She thought it would be wrong of me to do that, because no matter how right I am (and she admitted I was) it's TRUE FOR THEM!"

Heh. My response to THAT one would be "I'd sure be able to get a lot of money out of them if they believed that. If I cared about them wouldn't I want them to stop being a sucker?"

That often sidetracks the conversation into whether insane religious beliefs make you a sucker, which I never was any good at, but Greta Christina has an entire post about how they *do*.


Great post, Greta! It was a pleasure to read.

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