Morality is a function of your brain

Scientists have published a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which they use a high-powered magnetic field to suppress brain activity in the right temporoparietal junction in their participants, using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, and discovered the participants exhibited impaired moral judgement abilities. The study involved reading a story about a woman who either accidentally poisoned her friend, or intended to poison her friend but failed, and found that the participants exposed to the magnetic stimulation considered the accidental poisoning to be more morally wrong than the intended but failed poisoning. In other words, our ability to empathize and to recognize other people’s mental states and intentions is entirely dependent on the function of a section of your brain.

Raise your hands if you’re surprised that morality comes from your brain.

The fact that scientists can adjust morality with a magnet may be disconcerting to people who view morality as a lofty and immutable human trait, says Joshua Greene, psychologist at Harvard University. But that view isn’t accurate, he says.

“Moral judgment is just a brain process,” he says. “That’s precisely why it’s possible for these researchers to influence it using electromagnetic pulses on the surface of the brain.”

It’s also disconcerting to people who think that morality is imposed by a higher power, I should think. That morality is a function of your brain is self-evident to anyone who has studied mental function. And anyone who’s heard of Phineas Gage probably already figured it, though this is the course of science — to suss out evidence for what is seemingly self-evident, so as to slap said evidence onto the window and mouth “whaddaya think of them apples?” to the creationists clinging to their fallacious beliefs on the other side.

Orbital pollution

Via io9, check out this disturbing video of Earth’s nearest space neighbors.

Yes, I realize each article of space garbage is many orders of magnitude smaller than the pixels used to represent it in the video, but we sure are good at cluttering up our aerospace. Consider the near-misses and close calls that the ISS has had over the past few months, and extrapolate that out — each one of those is a bullet zipping around the Earth at such high velocity that it could wreck any of our legitimate satellites or space missions.

We need to start taking better care of our space. If we’re ever going to get off this rock, in fact, we need to learn to stop wrecking every environment we dare to dip our big toes into.

Greek Gods

Was browsing Youtube and came across a grossly undersubscribed channel: Discovering Religion. It’s an attempt at exploring the evidence about reality and comparing with the Christian mythos, showing how creationists that take the Bible as literal are plainly wrong. You really should check it out.

However, I wanted to change things up for this blog post, because he also has a neat documentary (of unknown providence — kinda seems like something you’d have seen on PBS back in the day though),

httpvp://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=BFBC5520DC910FE1

I love Greek mythology. There’s something so much more epic about gods with human flaws that can be identified with, who have deeper and more complicated mythos than the monotheistic religions. Plus they make better strategy games — Age of Mythology is way, WAY better than Black And White.

Off That by Baba Brinkman

The so-called Rationalist’s Anthem. I could get behind it.

It’s a Jay-Z rap rip-off, but like the song says, it’s evolution, right?

Hat tip to Atheist Media Blog and, of course, Baba Brinkman. He also has a rap album about evolution that you can stream from his site, though I can’t get the blasted thing to play under Linux. Sigh.

A real-life supervillain-style plan

… for either immortality, or the demise of the human race. Well, almost. Sure as hell sounds insane enough to be one, anyway.

A Canadian poet by the name of Christian Bök has decided to write a poem, create a cypher to encode it in nucleotide triplets, then insert it into bacteria’s DNA. Not only that, but he intends on creating a second poem out of the proteins that his first poem codes for.

Since he only has four characters to work with – the nucleotides adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine – he first needs to create an alphabet that substitutes various triplets of nucleotides in the place of the twenty-six letters. In other words, AGT might correspond to “a”, while CTG could mean “b”, and so on. However, Bök can’t just choose the triplets at random, because for all the trillions of possible combinations, only a minuscule fraction will produce amino acids that also yields a workable vocabulary.

Bök is currently using specially designed software to find the optimal arrangement, and only once he’s figured that out will he actually write the poem. He has said that he will be somewhat limited in what sort of poetry he can write, and that most likely he will compose something with a “repetitive, incantatory quality.”

The article makes several references to his poem lasting billions of years. Knowing what we know about evolution and mutation, I seriously doubt that. Especially if the bacteria either dies out because the specific protein sequences are totally useless and take up too much energy, or if it has some other detrimental effect to the bacteria’s life cycle. Or worse, it could be a particularly infectious strain, and we have to wipe it out with antibiotics. One way or another, it’s unlikely anyone involved will have any intention of releasing it into the wild. So, how would it naturally outlast anything, if it’s frozen in a petri dish til human civilization collapses, then gets naturally selected out of the environment by hardier, less foolishly maladapted (e.g., NOT intelligently-designed) creatures?

Still, though. Gotta admire his supervillain moxy. It’s a totally pointless and egotistical endeavour, so I wish him the best of luck!

Hat tip to Miranda for sending me the io9 link, though I was totally going to post about it already, via this shorter Wired article. Honest.

Sam Harris v Rabbi David Wolpe

I’ve been listening to this debate through the morning while working remotely, and I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and thought this was probably one of the best examples of someone clearly and concisely arguing the merits of their religion — a rarity in most debates where you get rhetoricians like William Lane Craig who never argue for their religion but rather against science and rationality.

The only instance in which I was at all annoyed with, was the repeated attempt to saddle atheism – the lack of belief in any god – with the crimes of the secularly dogmatic institutions of Stalin and Pol Pot, etc. Just because you feel your religion would have prevented such genocides, doesn’t mean that your feelings on the matter have any merit. Genocides are being carried out in religion’s name to this very day. You trying to blame atheism for genocide is the height of incivility when Harris made no such “first shot” salvo with regard to, say, the ethnic cleansing in Burma or the sectarian violence in the Middle East or that whole episode of human history known as the Dark Ages or the Spanish Inquisition.

The commonality between all of these events, was human beings. Human beings are capable of despicable acts, regardless of what they believe. For instance, Hitler was a God-fearing Christian, not an atheist that believed in science and rational thought. The point is, humans in power who have psychotic tendencies will perform acts of great objective evil, when objective morality is accepted as what is best for the continuation and well-being of the human species as a whole.

The stupid embed code auto-plays, so I’m putting it below the fold.

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Honesty and emotions and pain and joy

I have some very honest friends, it seems. Both Jenny Wadley and Tim Iwan have written some evidently very difficult-to-write posts very recently. I’m still chewing on whether I can contribute anything to this dialog on honesty and emotions, but in the meantime, you’d do well to read their posts yourself.

From Jenny’s Truth Hurts:

I learned that my life isn’t always easy, but it’s always an interesting adventure. I learned that the real me didn’t need any embellishment. I learned that if you let people see you as you truly are, and they still like you, it is much more rewarding and amazing and humbling than if they like you for some false self. And, most importantly, I learned that there is freedom in being honest.

I struggled for a long time to fully embrace honesty. That’s why I say my honesty was hard-won, and why I’m not willing to give it up.

Over the last year, I’ve brought honesty to a whole new level within myself. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I truly don’t believe in a god. That I put my faith in people, and in love, but not in god. I’ve come to accept that I really want everyone to get along and for there to be no conflict, but that isn’t realistic. I’ve realized that the pseudo-science I grew up accepting is false and often dangerous, and that I’ve made mistakes in accepting the heartfelt convictions of others over the evidence of science. I’ve embraced that the fairy tales I grew up believing aren’t quite true, and that love isn’t as easy as one rescuer knight on a white horse taking me away from all of my problems.

And from Tim’s Strip Away the Labels and See Me As Me:

Flash forward to now, I am more confident and more assertive of myself, seeing the world with my own eyes and allowing it to overwhelm me with it’s seemingly-endless ideas and beauty. And yet I am still strangely feeling like a shell. To some, it feels as though I am nothing more than “The Sweet Skeptic Guy”, full of sincerity and genuine love. Which is entirely true, I never say anything I don’t mean. But it also can make me feel as though I am taken as, just like the title to that Douglas Adams book, “Mostly Harmless”. I am much more than just a sweet word or two that tells you that I hope your day is the best it can be, I am more than a word or two that tells you that you are beautiful, and I am more than a word or two that will do everything in his power to make sure that you are cheered up when your day is shitty or stressful. That is just a part of me, and not all of me.

I generally only put my favorite posts in the Introspection category. I like introspection, as much as I might curse it now and then. This may not be my own introspection, but it’s notable and laudable that my friends have such experiences on the intertubes as well. And I’m proud to be able to call both of them friends.