Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Paradigms of Revolution: Pt. 2.1 of The Scientific: Science & Morality


In part 1 of this series the issues of the Nuclear Accord took precedent in order to set the stage for discussions regarding morals, ethics, and science. To be fair Science has progressed well past 1952, and although the Nuclear Accord is quite important in the discussions of morals and science, there is much that can be discussed that is more relevant to today’s reality. For instance, in 2010 Sam Harris (a prominent neuroscientist, atheist and author), gave a TED talk entitled “Science can answer moral questions“, in which he progresses from the assumption that morality involves the improvement of the “well-being” of conscious beings, and that science can define this well-being. Historically the question of well-being, morality and ethics belonged to the realms of religion and philosophy, and is still vehemently debated over to this day. Some argue that questions of well-being cannot be answered by science, but that science only offers us “facts” based upon a preferred philosophy and that it is up to the subjective observer to use these facts with reasoning to make moral judgements. Some feel that science cannot answer the questions of what we ought to do, just the facts to the best of it’s ability so that we can make an “educated” and moral decision regarding the particular subjective situation.

Sam also says that psychology can help to answer these questions, but recently the DSM has been officially challenged and historically much of psychology has been at odds with the accepted western mind-body/quantum computer-machine model (the very model that is accepted in neuroscience and most medicine) as evidenced by Stanislav Grof and the growth of Transpersonal Psychology into a scientific and social movement with center for learning outside of “accepted” science called Esalen. It is doubtful that with the apparent growth of psychology in the direction away from the accepted model, that it will aid neuroscience or other branches in supporting that model. This is not to imply that these two branches can’t assist in answering moral questions, but rather to point out that these two branches are at philosophic odds with each other, and have been for quite some time. Sam also expresses other such divides later on by bringing up the renown string theorist Edward Witten, as a personal nemesis, showing that the scientific divide created by string theory is growing and that it is touted as both a dead-end and a savior depending on who you talk to. Science is far from seamless and the various branches seem more like telephone poles of theory rather than a cohesive tree of knowledge, but then again the same could be said for the different religions.

From the TED lecture

“Now, the irony from my perspective is that the only people who seem to generally agree with me, and who think that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, are religious demagogues of one form or another.  And of course they think they have right answers to moral questions because they got these answers from a voice in a whirlwind… not because they made an intelligent analysis of the causes and conditions of human and animal wellbeing.  In fact the endurance of religion as a lens through which most people view moral questions has separated most moral talk from real questions of human and animal suffering.  This is why we spend our time talking about things like gay marriage and not about genocide, or nuclear proliferation,  or poverty, or any other hugely consequential issue.  But The demagogues are right about one thing, we need a universal conception of human values… How have we convinced ourselves that there is no such thing as moral expertise…”

Its worthy of note that the slide shot he presents for the religious demagogues in question are only of three orthodox Abrahamic faiths.  There are Hindus, Buddhists, Chinese Folk Religionists, Ethno-religionists, New religionists, Sikhs, Spiritists, Daoists, Baha’is, Confucians, Jains, Shintoists, Zorastrians and not to mention many other forms of the Abrahamics besides the three orthodox varieties displayed, and lets not forget towns like Mt. Shasta in northern California, the birthplace of over 100 New Age religions such as the I AM Church.  Are we to put all of these people into one useless moral pot and say that they do not make “intelligent analysis of the causes and conditions of human and animal well-being”?  That is one very large overgeneralization that conveniently tries to create an archimedean point to limit the process of defining morality to the non-religious.  Statistics show that the non-religious make up about 12-24% of the world population, depending on who you ask, with atheists at around 2%, keeping in mind that statistics show the atheist population is mostly comprised of scientists as well as an estimated 70% of them being ex-Christians.  Even if Sam could ensure that only the “non-religious” were to make moral decisions, he could not ensure that 70% of these decisions would quite possibly be influenced by various religious ideas of morality, leaving the ex-theists behind that would reduce it to around 2% of the world population… and that’s just not very moral or democratic.

There is a well known and recorded history of many religions (both revealed or indigenous) and how they have shared in the act of developing the ongoing definitions of right and wrong and much like the branches of Science, they don’t all agree with one another.  Any body of knowledge whether scientific, religious, political, philosophical or other bodies of knowledge is but a tool for understanding and as tools they can be used for good and ill.  One of the well known tools of many religions and belief systems is commonly referred to as the “mystical” state, and although there are many unique varieties of this state, many studies show universal similarities, as well.  Harris attempts to drive the classification of the word “mystical” into a two-faced polyseme by reducing it to “they got these answers from a voice in a whirlwind”, while his earlier comments regarding a mostly unavailable state of well being that may aide in moral acquisitions reflect mystical experiences under a different light.

“I think of this as a kind of moral landscape, with peaks and valleys that correspond to differences in the wellbeing of conscious creatures, both personal and collective… and one thing to notice is that perhaps there are states of human wellbeing that we rarely access, that few people access, and these await our discovery.  Perhaps some of these states could be appropriately called mystical or spiritual.  Perhaps there are other states that we can’t access because of how our minds our structured, but other minds possibly could access them… I’m not saying that science is guaranteed to map this space, or that we will have scientific answers to every conceivable moral question.  I don’t think… that one day you will consult a super computer to learn whether you should have a second child, or whether we should bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities…”

On the one hand, peaks of well-being on the moral landscape may include elevated and perhaps rare mystical states or “states of human well-being” that are to a degree universal, both in content and values of well-being (not just human well-being)… then on the other hand these same mystical states are nothing more than a “voice in a whirlwind” to be disregarded as irrelevant. Either deep mystical states aid in the development, understanding, acceptance and application of the various values of well-being, morals and ethics and are to be respected as valuable resources, or they are not to be valued, but to be righteously excluded from moral decisions.  It may not be clear to some that actually having one of these deeper mystical experiences may be different from just reading, interpreting and possibly misunderstanding or even abusing those experiences of others (such as the prophets and/or anyone living or dead); as weapons of bigotry rather than as useful tools in the age old search for universal morality.

Keep in mind that consciousness is still yet undefined by science to a large degree and that other states of consciousness like NREM, REM, meditation, lucid dreaming/secondary-consciousness, OBEs, prenatal-consciousness, hypnosis and more are even less defined.  The definition is further stretched and blurred by disputes amongst scientists as to what non-human forms of “life” can be classified as conscious; e.g. animal, insect, plant, protists, saprophytes, viruses, single-celled, the theoretical shadow biosphere life forms, probable alien life forms, universal and possibly other unknown forms.  At this point it may prove useful to bring up the points that Harris had studied meditation before becoming a neuroscientist, went to vipassana, has spoken regarding meditation and that he has given guided meditations, so that we might be able to limit the discussion to deep states of meditation and whether they are of value… a field he claims to be familiar with… “perhaps”.

It could easily be argued scientifically that those who meditate may be more apt to make moral judgements than those that don’t, research and studies are showing that it has an accumulative effect on various parts of the brain that may affect moral judgement as well as the growth of these areas.  For instance, the spatial & time center of the brain, commonly referred to as the parietal-lobe, shows a decreased amount of activity during meditation.  This could have a profound effect upon the development of one’s morality by repeatedly and biochemically “dissolving” the familiar dimensional aspects of one’s identity into the external universe, turning one’s consciousness inside out so to speak.  If through this a person is able to identify themselves with all of earthly humanity, then it follows that their levels of empathy and compassion for all of humanity may very well be increased with repetition.  Both empathy and compassion are invaluable tools in defining morality by giving one the ability to see things from other perspectives, as well as valuing the wellbeing of others as much, or even somehow more than one’s own, as say a parent might for their child.  Also noted in the link above, the frontal-lobe shows an increase in activity during and possibly after meditation.  This area of the brain is commonly thought to be involved in focusing attention and concentration, both of these are useful tools when applied to moral problem resolution by assisting in keeping at the task at hand as well multiple focus.   Another area of the brain affected by meditation is the emotional center, also known as the amygdala.  During and after meditation, the response to various emotional stimuli by the amygdala has shown to be reduced, resulting in the potential for process specific learning as opposed to stimulus or tasks specific learning.  This implies not only that meditation may have enduring effects upon emotional wellbeing, but that it may also aid in clearing the mind of emotions that may cloud one’s ability to make rational judgements in times of moral need.  I’d like to mention two more areas of the brain that may aid in moral acquisition and is affected by meditation, the hippocampus is an area that is assumed to be responsible for transitioning short term to long term memory, behavior inhibition, as well as spatial coding or cognitive mapmaking.  A study from UCLA  in 2012 has shown that the hippocampus volume is larger in long-term meditators (up to 15% larger than in those who don’t), with more volume going to the left hippocampal head.  If meditation does have long term affects upon the “cognitive skills”, “mental capacities” and other traits associated with the hippocampus, it is quite easy to see how meditation may have a profound and long term affect upon one’s ability to resolve moral issues, and perhaps to the degree of universality that Harris claims science may achieve.  Lastly, MIT recently discovered that the right temporo-parietal junction (rTMJ) can be affected by magnetics, this area is thought to be our moral center.  An experiment in 2008 showed that the rTMJ has increased activity with mediation, and that this state may very well increase empathy.  Due to recent science, Sam’s “perhaps” has grown into scientific facts, these very spiritual states may indeed lead to a place universal morality, and that this moral journey is in fact a very spiritual one.  If the two are indeed intrinsically intwined in some way (quite possibly beyond our chemical biology as many would have us believe).

Recently I read a Huffington Post article posted by Deepak Chopra regarding his ongoing battle with the “Enemies of Reason” headed by Richard Dawkins, in it were some very interesting tidbits of scientific information.  A scientist working in Japan in the nanotechnology industry by the name of Anirban Bandyopadhyay, had this to say…

“The project that we planned to do in MIT is that: We have discovered “frequency fractal” in microtubules and “negative resonance”, these two terms we have coined very recently, let me explain. It means apart from the fundamental frequencies (8MHz, 12MHz, 18MHz, 22MHz, 95MHz, 128MHz, 184MHz, 228MHz etc) it follows anharmonic and harmonic overtones. To explain simply, in normal musical instruments, you have one fundamental frequency say 8MHz and their integral multiples, right? So it will be 16, 32, 48…. and so on. But in microtubule it is 1.3 times, then 1.8 times then 2.3 times etc. This is remarkable in musical instruments. You can vibrate at some frequencies and communication will occur through a different overtones, this has been demonstrated theoretically and experimentally. Now, negative resonance means, some frequencies do not send signal in the forward direction, rather, in the reverse way. What is the outcome? You get x and y parts (positive and negative resonance) which constructs basic overtones (pixels) so you get a fractal.
Now communication operating at astronomically large number of frequencies simultaneously (at real and imaginary space, by basic definition of fractal), cannot remain confined inside a microtubule, we have checked these vibrations controls neurotransmitter motions, then “firing” patterns and as you know fractal never dies if there is a fractal like hardware. We have it all over the body. That means frequency fractal will be everywhere in every single rhythm, from neuron firing to circadian rhythm. We want to map the entire fractal frequency architecture of entire human brain and body in one year by collaborating with an MIT professor Chi-Sang Poon who works for large scale rhythms in the brain and the body.
If we find a generic rule, it will be a new kind of biology operating in parallel with the existing chemical only biology. And it will also be proved that all brain building projects will fail, we require a completely new kind of science, materials and engineering technology to understand basic biology more completely before even we think of replicating brain.”

If this is true and there is a parallel system to the chemical only biology, this winter all of science could be turned inside out. Further, if meditation is proven to affect this parallel system of biology as well as the other brain areas that do affect moral judgement, should we not take the stance much like David Lynch and demand that meditation be taught in schools? In fact, there are those that feel that meditation might have very well made us human in the first place, and the question as to whether morals are just a function of one’s brain matter is still very much up for debate.

In closing I’d like to mention that although I don’t in any way support Sam’s very anti-Islamic stance which is quite apparent in the TED talk he gave (there are many occasions), nor his faith in the computer/mechanical model of the mind/body, or his faith that science can truly find moral truths instead of simply gathering evidence of how an ancient spiritual practice may actually hold the key to the future of wellbeing and how it may help humanity find a potential path to universal morality through the concrete jungle of moral relativism. ENRON, once a giant in the business world used Richard Dawkins’ book ‘The Selfish Gene‘ as its “bible“, I wish that they had given as much importance to meditation, maybe the world would be a different place today. What Sam and I do agree on is that science is a very useful tool for discovery, that there is such a thing as universal morality, that finding this should be our highest of personal goals and that lying is essentially bad. In the next section of Science and Morality I will discuss Monsanto, Myriad, Microsoft and more, until then I’d suggest some meditation.