Saturday, September 27, 2008

Stump the Atheists

A slightly different format- the theists moderate and ask questions of the atheists, with the goal of stumping them.


Blogger Mriana said...

As a person with a psych degree with an emphisis on neurochemistry, I would have liked to have seen more of that discussed, esp concerning the soul and alike. Of course, this could have gone over some of the listeners' heads, who knows, but I do think for those who understand they would get it. I also think it would have gone in favour of the atheist (if he had a fairly good grasp of the subject that is).

9/26/08, 2:54 PM  
Blogger Dan Sawyer said...

I have a strong interest in neurochem and neurobio, but I regret that my understanding has its limits. I know where to look for answers far more than I know answers themselves, but if you're so inclined I'd love to read your thoughts on the matter in more depth.

9/26/08, 10:22 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

Dan referred in this podcast (and a couple of previous ones) to research indicating that we "decide" to do something before we are consciously aware of the decision. I've tried unsuccessfully to find studies to that effect by searching Pubmed. Dan, could you please provide a reference? Thanks.

9/26/08, 10:22 PM  
Blogger Jean-Michel Abrassart said...


About the question "Why is there something instead of nothing?", I simply think that nobody knows. It's a meaningless question, beyond rational inquiry.

But... that doesn't mean that theist have an answer to that very question either. They may think they have, but I find myself the answer "because God created it" not at all satisfactory.

So what? I don't think it an atheist stump at all.


9/27/08, 4:05 AM  
Blogger Mriana said...

I thought of neuroscience with at least two things- the idea of a soul/afterlife and the second I'll have to listen again to remember exactly what it was. I could write a book, but I'll try to be simple and brief as possible.

The idea of the soul is an arguable one, which many of us already know. However, I can give two examples in which it doesn't appear to be anymore possible than we can separate the mind/brain from the body or vise versa. Alzheimers (which has been given before as a response by others) and death in the most natural and preferable form- sleep. I'll use natural death since Alzheimer's is used often.

Fantasy wise one could argue that my grandmother and her mother's souls went to heaven via sleep. Actually, as well as scientifically provable as opposed to a soul going to heaven, the neurochemicals ceased to work thus their (grandmother and ggmother) brains ceased to function which caused the rest of the body to shut down. That's the simple uncomplicated explanation of the chemicals in the brain ceasing thus the body ceases. There wasn't anything to go anywhere in that explanation for it is the neurochemicals that make everything work in the brain and the body. It is one big computer so to speak, only it's natural electrochemicals making it all go, instead of an outlet in the wall.

I'm simplifying it somewhat, but if the brainstem isn't getting any neurochemicals, it can't make the heart and lungs function. Of course, there are other parts of the brain involved, but if the brain stem doesn't function or the third vertabrae is broke, thus stopping all chemistry to the body from the brain, that's it.

Now maybe belief is a choice and maybe it is not. Some of us get a real jolt when we realize there was no historical Jesus (bare with me, for this is not the debate), because it is so well engrained into most of us. As we read about a subject and interact with others about a subject, we create new neuro pathways in our brains. Those created when we are children are more reinforced than others and once new information breaks through, and maybe creates new neuroconnections, it can be a real shocker. It is in essences like busting a meme, even exploding one. When we learn new things, we actually create new neuro-connections in our brains with the new info. Belief/disbelief might not be a choice, but reading and researching a topic and finding new information that could lead to disbelief is a choice. For me, disbelief wasn't a choice, but research etc was. Disbelief was the end conclusion of all the information I researched but it was not without a sudden jolt to my system concerning what I learned verses what I learned as a child from others.

Now here's another thing- the idea of how superstition develop. Early man (humans) found it better to believe something as a matter of survival (see Valerie Tarico's book The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth and Scientific America's podcast and site concerning Superstition being a survival mechanism and making "evolutionary sense"for starters). If you don't believe there is a lion out there and you go to sleep, you and your family could be dead come morning, BUT if you believe there is one and there is not, you are out of nothing except sleep. (Valerie's example) So, here, humans don't know or are scared that death is final. They believe in an afterlife, and God too, because it seems to be a safer and more comfortable position than not believing. Psychologically, it is for many people. To disabuse some people, like the elderly, would probably be detrimental to their mental health. It's too much for them to handle mentally and they really do feel psychological comfort with their beliefs.

Now one last thing in brief due to the length of this already for I'm starting on a bare bones rough draft of a book. Various external stimili triggers neurotransmitters in our brains causing various emotional reactions, including feelings of transcendence. These feelings, esp peak experiences, caused by neurochemistry are quite often attribute to God or a god. Now that would be fine if people didn't try to attribute humanoid like features and play "my God is better than your god games". Sometimes the idea of "god" (lower case intended) is not a bad thing. Sagan's "god" and Einstein's "god", which is not a god at all but rather the feelings the universe itself gave them- which was awe, wonder, even transcendent feelings. They knew and understood that it was their mind's reaction to their surroundings and observations. Music, smells (ie incense in churches), visual stimuli, etc can trigger neurochemicals that cause these peak experiences, not just nature itself. Fasting also alters the neurochemicals in the brain sometimes, if one fasts long enough or under certain conditions can stimulate visual or auditory regions in the brain, causing what some consider "a vision". In reality it is the body's lack of food (and sometimes water) affecting the mind, instead of the mind affecting the body in the other examples. Mind and body work together and we cannot separate the two.

Does this contradict a deity? For me it does contradict any god in religious texts, but there might be something that interacts chemically withint nature and alike that could be considered a god, yet completely undescribable with any words in the human language. Science might discover it one day, but it won't be that of any religious text. Which probably makes me an agnostic atheist, but the thing is, what humans attribute to a deity is often chemistry.

9/28/08, 4:39 PM  
Blogger Zachary Moore said...


A couple prominent papers that I've read:

on the neural "free won't" mechanism: PMID#17715350

on the delayed perception of intention: PMID#17466580

9/29/08, 3:35 PM  
Blogger Mriana said...

Can we find those papers on the net or where can we find them?

9/29/08, 9:04 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

Thanks for the references.

Mrliana, you can access the papers by going here:

Then, copy a PubMed id number to the search line and hit enter. To the right of the next page, there will be links to free versions of the paper on the web.

9/30/08, 7:47 AM  
Blogger Mriana said...


9/30/08, 7:49 AM  
Blogger Mriana said...

OK I'm still not finding the article and those listed on the right aren't the same article as the ones you listed. I think I'm confused about something.

9/30/08, 7:53 AM  
Blogger Anthony said...


Look above the "related articles" on the right. There's a button that says something like, "Final Version, J Neurosci" (for the first reference, for example). Click on the button, and it takes you here:

Similar for the second reference.

9/30/08, 4:02 PM  
Blogger Dan Sawyer said...

Anthony -

Here is a link to the one of the articles that discusses intentionality and the illusion that intention preceeds action


10/1/08, 3:13 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

A generous (and simplified) interpretation of the studies is that will and self perception of will are distinct. That's fascinating, but it doesn't prove the nonexistence of free will. Designing gedanken experiments to demonstrate the existence or nonexistence of free will might be instructive. What's often missing from discussions about free will is an operational definition of it.

A more parsimonious interpretation of the studies is that some relatively simple motor activities are not micromanaged by a conscious agent. This shouldn't come as much of a revelation. When we walk, we don't consciously plan the raising and lowering of our feet; when we eat, we don't consciously plan each movement of the jaw and tongue; when we talk, we don't consciously plan each movement of the tongue and lips; etc.

10/5/08, 7:44 AM  

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