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A Bible-based approach to consciousness research

May 19, 2014

Consider, for instance, the ongoing debate over the source and nature of consciousness. Is it brain-based or does it perhaps originate somewhere else?

“I would say the brain does not create consciousness,” said Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon and author of “Proof of Heaven“ during a recent Intelligence Squared debate. “In fact, no neuroscientist on earth can give the first sentence to explain the mechanism by which the physical brain creates consciousness.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson v. the Right: Cosmos, Christians and the Battle for American Science

June 23, 2014

Dinesh D'Souza, for instance, has taken to using science as proof of religion -- he argues, rather absurdly, that the Bible's explanation of the origins of the universe predates modern science. In his speech at Intelligence Squared, he claims: "When the discovery of the big bang came -- this, by the way, was at a time when most scientists believed the universe was eternal, the steady state universe was the prevailing doctrine of American and Western science -- so it came as a shock that the universe had a beginning..."

Is Death Final? Watch a Brainy Debate

May 18, 2014

What do near death experiences (NDEs) tell us about life after death? Do they tell us anything at all? At the last Intelligence Squared debate, a neurosurgeon, a neurologist, a doctor and a physicist debated the proposition “Death is not final.” The thrust of the debate was based on the experiences of Dr. Eben Alexander and his book Proof of Heaven. Arguing for the motion that death is not final, Dr. Alexander explained how he was hospitalized with a severe brain infection, went into a coma, woke up, and eventually reported that he had been to heaven. It’s a fantastic tale, but science says otherwise.

Debating Death: Is It Really the End?

May 14, 2014

Last week, four scientific big thinkers settled into their seats on stage at NYC's Kaufmann Center to debate this provocative proposition for NPR's Intelligence Squared. They would be discussing this proposition from a purely scientific, not a religious point of view, wrestling with the fundamental question of whether or not consciousness is totally contingent on a functioning human brain.

Near Death Experiences: Does the Brain Create Consciousness?

May 08, 2014

Does consciousness exist outside the brain, pointing to a less observable world than meets the eye? Or are near death and out-of-body experiences simply signs of oxygen deprivation, showcasing a plausible occurrence easily explained by science? Skeptics and believers met to discuss this question on Intelligence Squared, a series of live debates that have hosted over 85 controversial topics. They argued in favor of or against the ultimate question: Is death--or the end of consciousness-- final?

Afterlife Aftermath

May 09, 2014

You’ll be happy to hear that the good guys “won.” In scare quotes because helping the world’s population understand that naturalism is the right way to view the universe is a long-term project that won’t be settled with a single debate. But Intelligence Squared does a fun thing where they ask people to vote before the debate starts, and then again afterward. We started out the night slightly behind in the polls, and by the time we were done we were slightly ahead. Mostly by peeling away the undecideds, as any savvy politician strives to do. [Update: oops, not right. See below.] So that counts as a victory — especially when the topic is one where many people (not all!) have fairly fixed opinions.

After the Afterlife Debate

May 08, 2014

The debate hosted by Intelligence Squared on the proposition – Death is not Final, was a lot of fun. Of course, I am pleased with the outcome, as I think my partner, Sean Carroll, and I performed well, and in the end we won the final audience vote.

Post Debate Reflections: The Sound of One Hand Clapping

May 09, 2014

The current online voting for Wednesday (May 7, 2014) night’s debate shows Dr Moody and myself (Dr Eben Alexander) victorious (currently 68:32, from 50:50 before the debate). I suspect that is related to the listeners’ awareness that an audience of neuroscientists would have agreed with me, against Steven Novella, that no neuroscientist on earth can give the first sentence to explain a possible mechanism by which the physical brain creates consciousness (the Hard Problem of Consciousness – see below). The brain is obviously tightly linked to consciousness – the mistake is in believing, as I did before my coma (and the debate opponents Novella & Carroll still do), that the brain creates consciousness. He now knows otherwise.

Debate: Death is not Final – #AfterDeath

May 08, 2014

Now here is a really interesting (for me) debate from Intelligence squared.

Death Debate

May 09, 2014

If you’re the sort of person who finds discussions about science and religion entertaining, then you’re in luck because at 6:45 CST (I think that’s 5:45 here?) there will be an Intelligence Squared debate on the subject of “Death Is Not Final“. It will be streamed live at the Neurologica blog.

Is There Life After Death? Watch Scientists Debate Tonight Online

May 07, 2014

Is there life after death? This age-old question will be debated again tonight by a group of doctors and scientists, who will offer their take on the mystery of human consciousness, the meaning of near-death experiences and the possibility of life after death.

Intelligence Squared atheists vs. Christians debate: Does science refute the existence of God?

December 09, 2012

It's time for a good debate, and Intelligence Squared is giving us another one asking the question "Does science refute God?"  The debate's participants for the motion were Lawrence Krauss and Michael Shermer.  Krauss is a Canadian-American theoretical physicist who is a professor of physics, Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University.  Shermer is an American science writer, historian of science, founder of The Skeptics Society, and Editor in Chief of its magazine Skeptic, which is largely devoted to investigating pseudoscientific and supernatural claims.

Against the motion was Ian Hutchinson, professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, as well as Dinesh D'Souza, well known conservative , former president of the evangelical King's College in Manhattan, NY, and political commentator, and probably best known for his film 2016: Obama's America, which argues that Obama absorbed anticolonial hatred of America from his father.

The site states that "on the fundamental question–evolution or creation?–Americans are on the fence. According to one survey, while 61% of Americans believe we have evolved over time, 22% believe this evolution was guided by a higher power, with another 31% on the side of creationism. For some, modern science debunks many of religion's core beliefs, but for others, questions like "Why are we here?" and "How did it all come about?" can only be answered through a belief in the existence of God. Can science and religion co-exist?"

The debate sought to change people's minds.  Before the debate, 37% were for the motion, 34% were against, and 27% were undecided.  After the debate, Shermer and Krauss were declared the winners, with 50% for the motion, 38% against, and 12% undecided.  Online voting results showed 64% for the motion, 36% against, with no undecided votes. John Donovan served as moderator.

When the debate started, the chairman of IQ2 gave a reason behind why he was interested in this particular question:

So, Robert, why this debate? Why does this one intrigue you, in particular? Because I know it does.

Robert Rosenkranz: I kind of got interested in this topic by reading a book about science. It was by the astronomer royal of England, a man called Martin Rees, and the book was called "Just Six Numbers." And it was about six physical constants that were imprinted in the early universe, in the first 100 millionth of a second after the Big Bang. And these constants express ideas like the strength of gravity, the strength of the bond that keeps the nucleus of atoms together, the uniformity of that initial fireball. And if any of those six numbers was much larger or much smaller, we would really not have a universe; either stars and galaxies wouldn't have formed, or there'd be no elements as complicated as carbon and oxygen, or the Big Bang would've been succeeded by a big crunch into a black hole in which all matter would've disappeared.

    18:51:12

And when you think about this, or at least for me, I thought, could this be just chance or is there some uncanny intelligence at work in this early design?

John Donvan: And for the — what we're doing here tonight, why is this not — you know, this has been going on for a long time, this conversation, why is this not just the Scopes Monkey trial all over again?

Robert Rosenkranz: Well, because I think this conversation should be much more sophisticated than when dealing with the literal truth of something in the Old Testament. And, in addition, of course, science has moved on so much since that time. So I think this is going to be a very — a much more subtle and interesting debate than that one might have been.

Donovan started the debate by discussing scientists who believed in God:  Isaac Newton, father of calculus, Max Planck, father of quantum physics, Copernicus, Galileo, Francis Bacon, and Pascal.  He made the point that today, 3 out of 5 scientists do not believe in God.  Yet 2 out of 5 scientist do.  What's that all about?  And then the debate began. Donovan introduced Shermer, who said he used to be a born again evangelical Christian who knocked on doors to get people to convert.  And later, when he became an atheist, he went back to knock on those same doors to tell people he was wrong.   Shermer and Krauss introduced their proposition for the motion by saying "Actually, evidence is just one type of reason for belief in God, and there is a loss of evidence for Christianity. But what the critics mean, I think, is — they're saying there's no scientific evidence for God. And that goes to the heart of this question and the myth that science has somehow refuted God. Actually, there are some things we've learned about the universe through science that are highly suggestive of a creator, but for the sake of argument, suppose that the scientific evidence for God were non-existent. Would that mean that science refutes God, or would it even mean and support the more modest claim that there's no evidence for God? Not at all."  They concluded by saying God is not a scientific question, so the evidence for God is not scientific.

D'Souza and Hutchinson took a different tack in arguing against the motion saying the questions for which God is the answer are fundamentally not scientific questions.

Here is what I mean. Here we are as human beings. We're thrown into the world. And we can't help if we're curious, if we're thoughtful to say, first of all, why is there a universe? Second, what's our purpose? What are we doing here? Third, what's going to come after? We're going to die, but what next? Now I ask you, what are the scientific answers to those questions? And in fact, the answers are, from science, don't have a clue, don't have a clue, and don't have a clue. Why? Because none of those questions is amenable to being decided empirically. Science can show how we got a universe but not why. On the question of what our purpose is here, science is completely silent. Moral issues are in a way outside the province of science. Why? Because science deals with what is, and morality is what ought to be.

    19:25:04

And finally, under the question of what comes after death, what possible empirical evidence can science provide on either side of that question? So because science is in no position to refute God, what we get from the other side is pop psychology. And we've been getting pop psychology from atheists for several hundred years. It's an effort to explain why people believe instead of providing any kind of a real refutation. You remember a few decades ago Freud basically said that God and religion could be dismissed as wishful thinking, "We wish for a better world and so we make one up." Well, that would kind of explain Heaven which satisfies wishful thinking, but it really wouldn't explain why major religions have invented Hell. Who would wish for that? Hell is a lot worse than diabetes or the suffering we have in this life.

    19:25:59

And then you've heard here people like Richard Dawkins say, "Well, belief in God depends on where you're born. If you're born in Afghanistan you're going to be a Muslim. If you're born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, you're likely to be a Christian." Michael Shermer alluded to that a little bit when he talked about multiple gods. But the sociology of the origin of belief says nothing about the truth of a belief. I'm sure that people who are born in Oxford, England, are most likely to believe in Darwin's theory of evolution than people who are born in Oxford, Mississippi. I'm sure people who are born in New York are more likely to believe in relativity than people who are born in New Guinea. What does that say about whether evolution or relativity is true? Nothing. The genesis of a belief, how you came to it, has nothing to do with whether or not that belief can be sustained as a matter of argument. The reality is, and we keep hearing a lot about Darwin because the last good argument against God came out in 1850 — in the 1850s, science has made a whole bunch of discoveries since then but they point in the opposite direction.

    19:27:06

And, therefore, what you find very often from atheists is now highly complicated defensive maneuvers to account for things that atheists resisted all the way. When the discovery of the big bang came — this, by the way, was at a time when most scientists believed the universe was eternal, the steady state universe was the prevailing doctrine of American and Western science — so it came as a shock that the universe had a beginning. Why? Because, in a way, it wasn't just that matter had a beginning, but space and time also had a beginning. In other words, this was something that the ancient Hebrews had said thousands of years ago and without conducting a single scientific experiment. By the way, this is not the same as other cosmologies. Other ancient cosmologies posited the universe being fashioned by a kind of carpenter god who made it out of some preexisting stuff, but the ancient Hebrews said, "No, first there was nothing, and then there was a universe."

    19:28:05

 By the way, that's almost identical to what Lawrence Krauss said, "First, there was nothing, no particles, no energy, no laws, and then there was the universe," completely consistent to what — with what Christians believe, and exactly said by the ancient Hebrews thousands of years ago without doing a single experiment but solely on the basis of, "God told us." And the astounding fact is that 2,000 years later, modern science, after climbing round and round the mountain, has arrived at the top only to find a bunch of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.  [there was laughter here].

The transcript is here, and the video below is for your viewing pleasure.  Intelligence Squared debates are formatted in the Oxford style, with one side proposing and the other side opposing a framed motion.  Before the debate, the audience registers via computer their pre-debate opinions on the subject, then re-submits their opinion after the debate so that changes in opinion can be tracked.  Questions are also taken from the audience after a 7 minute opening statement.

Does Science Refute God? Christians, Atheists Debate

December 08, 2012

Christians and atheists went head to head Wednesday to debate one of the most frequently raised questions today: Does science refute God?


Christian apologist Dinesh D'Souza and Origins Project Director Lawrence Krauss were among the panelists at Kaufman Center in New York who spent 90 minutes trying to convince the audience that science does not refute or does refute God, respectively.

Based on results from the live audience as well as an online poll, the atheists won the debate. Fifty percent of the in-person audience agreed that science refutes God, up from 37 percent before the debate. The opposing side, arguing against the motion, only gained four percent of the vote after the debate (from 34 percent to 38 percent).

"We have evidence, reason, logic, rationality and empirical methods on our side whereas our opponents have vague hopes and fears," said Krauss, an atheist, during the Intelligence Squared debate. "I've learned to force my beliefs to conform to the evidence of reality. That's where science differs from religion.

"What's better about science is ... our faith is shakable," he added, noting that he would throw out a belief if new evidence contradicts it.

What science has taught, the best-selling author (A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing) argued, is that God is not necessary to create a universe.

"It looked like everything was designed for the environment which it lived but what Darwin showed us was that a simple proposition, namely that there's genetic variation among a population combined with natural selection, meant that you didn't need supernatural shenanigans, that in fact all the diversity of life on earth could arise from a single life form by natural law," Krauss asserted.

Michael Shermer, an evangelical turned atheist and founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, accused many believers of "confirmation bias," where one arrives at their beliefs for nonrational reasons and then goes back into it after the fact with rational reasons to justify it.

For the Christian panelists, however, science has only pointed more to God and does not conflict with their beliefs.

"We are living at a time when religious believers do not need to be afraid of science. They should, as I do, embrace science and welcome science because correctly understood, far from pointing away from God, science thrillingly points to God," D'Souza, author of What's So Great About Christianity and former president of The King's College, contended.

Addressing the Big Bang theory, D'Souza agreed with Krauss that there was nothing in the beginning – no energy, no particles, no time or space. And that is "completely consistent with what Christians believe and exactly said by the ancient Hebrews thousands of years ago without doing a single experiment but solely on the basis of 'God told us.'"

"And the astounding fact is that 2,000 years later, modern science after climbing round and round the mountain has arrived at the top only to find a bunch of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries," said D'Souza to laughter from the audience.

On evolution, the Christian apologist stated that the theory is not about the origin of life but simply about the transition between life forms.

"The fact is that there have to be certain conditions – self-replicating cells, an old universe, an old earth, that are necessary for evolution to take place. The fine-tuned universe is a precondition of Darwinian evolution itself."

D'Souza and Ian Hutchinson, professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT and a Christian, were also challenged on the notion of miracles and how they are consistent with science.

Krauss believes miracles require the suspension of the laws of physics. But D'Souza countered, "No. Miracles simply say that the laws of physics are incomplete. The laws of physics are generalizations that reflect the limits of human knowledge. These aren't nature's laws; they're Newton's laws and it took an Einstein to modify them."

Both a good scientist and a Christian?

Can those who believe in God be good scientists?

According to Krauss, there can be functioning scientists who believe in God. But, he added, such scientists tend to leave their beliefs at the door of the lab. He asserted that the minute scientists bring God into the lab, they stop being good scientists.

Hutchinson responded, "What got modern science going in the first place is a belief in the faithfulness of God, of a Creator who made a rational creation. The reason why science as we know it grew up in the West was in part because Christianity in its philosophical and theological viewpoints, including the belief in God, served as a kind of hospitable environment in which that science could grow up."

D'Souza made clear that the Bible is not a science manual and doesn't try to prove God.

But it does make certain claims about the world and about man – it says God made the universe out of nothing but not man out of nothing, he noted. It just doesn't say how. And that's where science comes in. Science attempts to give explanations "that actually don't refute the Bible," he argued.

He noted that only 3 percent of Christians subscribe to a fundamentalist reading of the Bible and that creation science is "nonsense."

"If science refutes God, you'd expect that one person who would know that would be Charles Darwin ... What caused him to lose his own faith had nothing to do with evolution but because he lost one of his daughters ... It was the issue of suffering, not science, that turned Darwin against God."

Intelligence Squared debates are based on the debate program in London by the same name. Intelligence Squared U.S., largely supported by The Rosenkranz Foundation, has presented more than 60 debates on such topics as legalizing drugs, the financial crisis, the Middle East and the death of mainstream media.

Islam Is Dominated By Radicals

April 23, 2008

By the end of a spirited and high-level debate held here last week, many in the audience of about 400 dramatically shifted their opinions and agreed with the proposition that “Islam is dominated by radicals.”

Debaters Square Off on Religion

May 03, 2011

Intelligence Squared hosted its last debate of the semester last night, tackling the subject of immigration. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, who sought the Republican nomination for president in 2008, called for more stringent immigration measures. Meanwhile, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and former renowned journalist and current CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA Tamar Jacoby took the pro-immigration stance.

Intelligence Squared Debate Takes on Questions of Islam

September 23, 2010

Is Islam a religion of peace? That's the complex question at the center of the latest edition of the Itelligence Squared Debate series. Speaking for the motion will be Muslim-American leader Zeba Khan, who launched the organization Muslim-Americans for Obama in 2008, and Maajid Nawaz, a former leading member of the Islamic Liberation Party, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and now director of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank. The opposition will be made up of active critic of Islamic fundamentalism and women's rights advocate Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and founder of the Centre for Social Cohesion, Douglas Murray.

Audience Rejects the Motion Islam is a Religion of Peace

October 07, 2010

Four passionate debaters had the large crowd completely energized from the evening’s first moment as they took on the motion, Islam is a religion of peace.

My Take: Islam is a religion of peace, or it isn't

October 11, 2010

Last week, New York University hosted the Intelligence Squared Debates at its Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. Four panelists, two for and two against, presented arguments on the motion of "Islam Is a Religion of Peace." About 800 showed up to learn the answer. Problem is, there is no one answer.

Blaming Islam Itself for Militancy

October 11, 2011

I recommend that you listen to the full debate on NPR or watch it on Bloomberg television this week. For now, trust me that each of the four debaters has a fascinating biography. On the For side, young Zeba Khan is a religious Muslim from Toledo, Ohio who attended a Jewish day school for nine years and speaks Hebrew, and Maajid Nawaz, a former Muslim radical, spent 12 years in an Egyptian jail before having a change of heart. He now spends his time in counter-Islamist social activism...

Public Debate Questions Peace Within Islam

October 07, 2010

Hundreds of people poured into the Skirball Center last night to take part in a debate on one of the more controversial issues facing the country today — the growing militarism of Islam. The motion for the debate: "Is Islam a religion of peace?"

Islam: Religion of Peace or Violence?

November 10, 2010

Just a day after Faisal Shahzad was sentenced to life imprisonment, coincidentally, the Intelligence Squared U.S. organized a debate on Islam as a religion of peace. One of the two women on the panel, Zeba Khan, arguing in favor of the motion, referred to her upbringing: how her parents raised her Muslim; yet, enrolled her and her siblings in a Hebrew day school for nine years so that they could also learn about other faiths besides their own.

New York Audience Weighs in on Propriety of Racial & Religious Profiling at Airports

November 23, 2010

Intelligence Squared U.S., the Oxford-style debate series, an initiative of The Rosenkranz Foundation, hosted a debate last night on the motion, U.S. Airports Should Use Racial & Religious Profiling. Given the recent news of stepped up TSA security procedures at airports, the debate was well-timed and shed light on the complications around keeping America’s skies safe. At the debate’s conclusion, the side arguing in favor of using racial and religious profiling in airport screenings won the debate, though the crowd at NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts was closely divided.

With TSA Under Fire, is Racial Profiling on the Table?

November 23, 2011

At a debate last night hosted by Intelligence Squared US, syndicated columnist Deroy Murdock argued that "we want the TSA and others to recognize that the current threat to passengers and airliners comes almost exclusively from one source..." Countered former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff: "The problem with using racial and religious profiling is it takes you down a road to looking at people who you don't need to look at and avoiding looking at people that you should look at..."

Murdock: It's Time to Profile Terrorists at U.S. Airports

November 24, 2010

As Americans fly this Thanksgiving holiday, critics of new security measures are arriving at airports in kilts. Subsequent pat downs will be quite enhanced, indeed. Pre-flight screening has moved from safety to comedy. Before it devolves into tragedy, airline employees and government officials should start profiling terrorists. America must focus its finite capabilities on those who crave the destruction of planes and the people who ride them.

The TSA is Keeping the Skies Safe

November 26, 2010

Since 9/11, al Qaeda has not succeeded in launching another terrorist spectacular in the United States. But it has succeeded in provoking a spectacular debate about aviation security. Several weeks ago—and even earlier at some airports—the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) initiated full-body scans and enhanced pat-downs, including inspections of private parts, that in some quarters are fueling outrage.

Airport Security: Let's Profile Muslims

November 29, 2010

As an American Muslim, I’ve come to recognize, sadly, that there is one common denominator defining those who’ve got their eyes trained on U.S. targets: MANY of them are Muslim—like the Somali-born teenager arrested Friday night for a reported plot to detonate a car bomb at a packed Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in downtown Portland, Oregon.

Two Muslims, Playing Against Stereotype

November 30, 2010

Zeba Khan was born and raised in a middle-class home in Toledo, Ohio, and for nine years attended the local Jewish day school, The Hebrew Academy, going to morning minyan every day. She graduated in 1993. She says she would have continued on with her Jewish education but the school only went through sixth grade. “I knew Hebrew better than most of my classmates,” she recalled in a recent interview, “and I wanted a bat mitzvah.”

Victory for the Motion, "The World Would Be Better Off Without Religion"

November 15, 2011

Last night's Intelligence Squared U.S. debate ended with a narrow victory for the controversial motion, “The World Would Be Better Off Without Religion,” and a record setting number of viewers of the live webcast. Matthew Chapman and A.C. Grayling won the Oxford style debate by changing the minds of 7% of the audience to agree with the resolution- 2% more than their opponents, Rabbi David Wolpe and Dinesh D'Souza.

Have a Little Faith? At NYU, the Debate Rages On

November 15, 2011

Pascal’s wager met “American Idol” Tuesday night when a capacity crowd gathered at a New York University auditorium to vote on the resolution: “The World Would Be Better Off Without Religion.”

Let's Abolish Religion

November 15, 2011

According to Chapter 25 of Deuteronomy, if you’re in a fight and your wife attempts to help you by grabbing your adversary’s testicles, you should chop her hand off. That’s just one piece of evidence that religion does not make us better people, joked Charles Darwin descendent Matthew Chapman at last night’s Slate/Intelligence Squared U.S. debate. “I know it’s kind of cheap to poke fun at the Bible because it’s so easy,” Chapman said to laughter during his opening remarks for the debate motion “The World Would Be Better Off Without Religion.”