Thank you for helping me Stenger!

Hello Victor Stenger! My name is Robert Matas and I’m from Las Vegas, Nevada. I felt that I should right to you to thank you for helping me return to atheism and reigniting my love for science. Carl Sagan was a great inspiration to me as well but it was you who made me take the plunge into the world of astro-physics and the realm of reason. I am a Visual Arts student and I am about to finish my associates degree in Art. I have chosen to get an associates because I am making the switch to Physics. I am determined to get a Masters and I dream of one day obtaining a Ph.D. I will always make art but science has always been a secret passion of mine that has been somewhat repressed by my past theological views. After reading your book, I have read and continue to read an enormous amount of scientific and atheist literature.

I want to tell you a little bit about my experience with faith and the way you’ve helped me. It’s a bit of a story but I’ll try not to take too much of your time. I know that it is very valuable to humanity!

Ever since I was young, I have been fascinated by science. As long as I remember, I have had a difficult time with believing in a divine entity or any sort of supernatural beliefs. This was largely because my parents never forced religion on me and they always encouraged me to learn about the natural world. I was surround by books on science. Me and my brother would constantly share information. I was fascinated by biology and he was fascinated by astronomy so we made a good team. My interest in biology and sci-fi would influence my interest in illustration. My parents were Roman Catholics but by no means fundamentalist. In fact, they were very liberal. I am very grateful for this because I know many Catholic children are raised to believe in god from the beginning. When I was in middle school, I first declared to friends and family that I did not believe in a God. This was met with an immense amount of disapproval and animosity. Later, in high school, my parents would encourage me to go to catechism with my siblings. It was at that time that I was very depressed because I had always been a bit of a social outcast. When I would write in my journals in church, I would write frequently about my depression and disapproval of religion. My sister at that time had been going through many psychological issues and quack doctors had been putting her on various medications. One was adderall which led her to become addicted to speed and eventually methamphetamine. This of course didn’t help knowing that she was going through this and I would try my best to assist her. At the same time I was still depressed and if I went to my parents for help, they would simply say something along the lines of “were already dealing with your sister, now we need to deal with your problems too?” I didn’t want to be a bother to anyone.

Entering high school I started to become increasingly reckless by drinking, smoking, and experimenting with drugs. I started to frequently have suicidal thoughts. I didn’t have many friends and I felt like the few I had didn’t want to listen to me either. So I learned to keep my emotions to myself and never express them to anyone. I do believe this helped strengthen me in some ways but overall I know there was most likely some psychological scaring. To this day I still sometimes have thoughts of suicide flash through my mind when I am really depressed. It was the clergy who saw my writing and responded to it. My parents received a phone call from my catechism teachers saying they wanted to speak with me. I was expecting them to attack my views and tell me that I was going to go to hell. Instead, they were incredibly kind and they were sincerely concerned with my emotional well being. For the first time I had someone to talk to about my problems and to this day I am grateful for their help. This relieved a lot of the negative views I had on faith and I started to pray for the first time. I began to find a great deal of comfort in it and it helped me get through that part of my life. Things got better for the most part. I would get depressed sometimes and occasionally have bad thoughts but I felt like I could get through my days much better than before. Me and my sister would go to mass and things even got a little better for her. For almost the next five years I accepted religion into my life. However, by no means did I fully accept it. I saw holes in the bible and there were many things I didn’t agree with. I also researched other faiths and felt that they were no more fallible than my own. I learned more about the theological approach to scripture and accepted it. I knew I couldn’t ever reject science. Theology at least tried to incorporate it. What I wouldn’t know until I read your book, was that the theological approach left me in a rut. I became blind to the fact that many questions theologians and religious people feel are unanswered actually were! Anyway, I went on to believe there must have been some sort of god.

Later however, I would become diagnosed with tinnitus. In case you don’t know, tinnitus is an incessant ringing in the ears that never ever stops. For some it’s more quiet and tolerable. For others it can be loud enough to interfere with sleep and daily activities. I fell into the latter category. Once again, I fell into a deep depression. More so than I had ever been in my life. I knew my tinnitus was entirely my fault and could have been prevented. I couldn’t sleep and I gained an incredible sensitivity to loud noises. I couldn’t stand noise which has made my life unbelievably difficult since everywhere you go, there are loud noises. Especially in Las Vegas! I started to ask god, why? Why me? How can I live the rest of my life with this? Am I being punished? I would go to church and pray for strength, hoping to find the same old comfort I received before. It helped a little but as the weeks went by, it helped less and less. I started to wonder if god was listening anymore. I was so sure there was a god and I was so sure he would listen. I realized, prayer did nothing. The ringing was always there and gradually it kept getting worse. It got so much worse, I told my girlfriend (who was religious herself at the time) that I felt like god had abandoned me. I felt that if god was there, our prayers meant nothing to him. She would try to get me to believe and go to mass but it didn’t help. In fact, the loud church music just pushed me further away. I started to ask myself, maybe I need a change in religion. To keep my mind off the ringing I learned how to speed read and one of the first books I read in this manner was Cosmos by Carl Sagan. This book made me question whether I need religion at all. I saw the possibility of a beautiful universe without a god. My childlike curiosity about the universe was brought back to life. I began to say openly what I didn’t like about religion and stated seeking answers to the big questions. What if evolution wasn’t god-guided? What if the universe didn’t need a creator? If there is a god, does he/she have any impact on our personal lives? And who the hell is this god person anyway? This is when I wrote an essay in which I would argue that religion and science do not mix. I said at the beginning that the essay would not be an argument against religion. It would only be against the mixing of science and religion. I sincerely did not want to stop believing that there was some sort of god. The essay started out as a defense for theory of evolution. Immediately I knew I needed to explore the cosmological side of the argument. This is when I went and bought your book, God and the Folly of Faith. From the first chapter (not the introduction), I was engrossed. I could not put the book down. You systematically shattered every theological argument for the proof of god that I held. Almost every question I thought was unanswered, you answered. The ones that weren’t, you made me realize that we can answer them if we just put our minds to it. The essay I was writing did become an argument against religion.

You made me want to know how the universe works. I was flabbergasted that I had been blind to all of the scientific knowledge we now possess. You made me go beyond the Discovery Channel and Nova documentaries on astronomy. I now read constantly. I read books on cosmology, physics, evolution, atheism, psychology, mathematics, and world history. I am very much looking forward to reading The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning. I was thinking about writing to Richard Dawkins but it was really you who helped me abandon my faith in favor of reason. Every since I have done this, I have been filled with a great desire to live and learn. My passion for life and knowledge grows by the day. The ringing in my ears is getting worse but it no longer makes brings me down like it did before. Religion filled me with guilt and made me feel like I had been abandoned by god. Suicide was an option because I felt like at least in another life, things might be better. Now I know I don’t have to feel this way. My mother was greatly disappointed with my decision but she is becoming more accepting as I tell her more about what I’ve learned. My girlfriend was at first saddened by decision. She herself has now abandoned her faith after hearing the things I’ve learned but I do wish she would read more to know why she has made the right decision. My father is accepting because he sees what a great thing it has been for me. He sees how much more seriously I take my education and we have good debates with eachother. I learned my brother was an atheist this whole time but he didn’t ever talk about it with me or my family. As for my sister, shes now going to be a mother and I will be the godfather of the child which should prove to be interesting!

Thank you Victor Stenger for helping me so much. I will be joining the fight against irrationality. Thanks to you, I am equipping myself with the knowledge I need to tear apart the religious institutions that plague our societies. I am looking forward to writing and teaching others about the universe and why faith is not a virtue. I think you deserve to know that you are one of my heroes and I can’t express my gratitude enough. I will be reading much more of what you have to teach. Thank you for taking the time to read this and I wish you the very best.

-Robert (Bobby) Matas

It seems to me that all thought systems, all models, if you like, conform to a basic model: the cosmos [or whatever] comes in two aspects – one is the ‘whole’, which contains both ‘nothing’ and, in some way ‘everything’ in potential, and the other is ‘things’ which come and go; Plato’s Being and Becoming, the ‘Tao’ and the ‘thousand things’, Eternity and Time, Nature and Culture, the Void and Particles. I think it’s worth pondering why this should be. Personally I think it’s the inevitable consequence of how the human brain works, and thus thinks. I think Aristotle said something about the function of mind being ‘discretion’, which implies that ‘perception’ – ‘being in the world’ – is essentially ‘continuous’ and the brain has evolved to create the ‘discreet’ – hence models are bound to take on this form, whatever it is that’s being modelled. Discretion however, has the consequence of separation, leaving the Continuous somehow tantalisingly desirable and unavailable; religion is one attempt to ‘re-bind’ the two. Similarly, meditation is a process of escaping the ‘discretion’ process. I’m not sure whether the goal of a TOE is another example.

Pete

Left brain – analytic, right brain – holistic. Both orientations seem to be necessary for survival. Tomas
It aint’ that easy.  There are some lateralized differences but there is no such strict dichotomy.  Strict localization is going the way of religion.  We’re finding that it is really vast distributed network.
But yes, we need analytic capabilities and the ability to analyze at the right level, and above all levels (holistic, but not in any mystical sense)
Brian
Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist has written a whole book on the differences between the two brain hemispheres. Here is a short Youtube presentation based on a lecture he has given:
The analytic or fragmenting style of the left hemisphere, and the holistic or broad, merging style of the right hemisphere, seems to be a fundamental difference between the two hemispheres. Tomas
If only it were so simple… but it’s just not.  Yes there are differences but to sum it up into these basic categories is misleading.  What matters is the connections, not the localization.  If Broca’s area is lesioned it is typical to observe deficits in speech production.  The erroneous conclusion is that Broca’s area = speech production area.  It’s not bad first hypothesis, until it is realized that if we sever certain connections into and out of Broca’s area but leave Broca’s area pristine, we get the same deficits.  What we can say is that Broca’s area is an important part of speech production.  In the same way, we look at connections to modules in the left hemisphere, or right hemisphere and make some inferences about them.  The starting nodes for many of such connections may originate in the opposite hemisphere and cross at the corpus callosum, or in the midbrain, or lower brain areas.  
 
A few weeks ago I ran some subjects in an EEG paradigm, in which ERPs are measured.  After all kinds of data gymnastics we claim that these potentials come from region x and others from region y.  It’s a claim based upon assumptions that could simply be wrong, for each dipole could be the result of a different set of potentials than we believed (the problem of multiple realizability when we try to reverse engineer the summed dipole).  We must be careful in making claims and speak of them in probabilistic terms.  The same goes for fMRI.  The BOLD signal indicates metabolic activity in a region, and is not a direct measure of firing of action potentials, so what we see is a delayed signal after some event has taken place.  fMRI basically using a magnetic field to align the dipole moment of protons using a radiofrequency pulse to disturb molecules in the brain and measuring their relaxation times (after they ‘recover’ from being disturbed) – different tissue types have different relaxation times.  Also, oxygen is transported by haemoglobin.  Deoxygenated haemoglobin is paramagnetic (as its proportion decreases the MR signal increases and generates the BOLD signal), and while oxygenated is diamagnetic.  We get faster dephasing with deoxygenated than oxygenated and use this to reconstruct what we believe happened in the brain.  Then we make an assumption that increased blood flow –> due to increased energy requirements of the tissue –> that part of the brain is doing something more than the surrounding parts.  Most of this energy is assumed to be spent on action potentials and maintaining post-synaptic signals.
 
If you are not convinced yet to be cautious when reading into these things, consider the fact that inhibitory synapses consume LESS energy than excitatory ones.  What if these synapses do not generate a BOLD signal?  Then we are completely missing out on what is going on with respect to inhibitory activity and hence have a very incomplete picture of what is happening.
 
Further, energy use and changes in blood flow are parallel processes and not causally related.  And these BOLD signals correspond to inputs, not outputs.
 
So why do we do it?  Thanks to the pioneers that ran these studies we can accumulate data over time and it turns out that we can reproduce effects or activation, which is rather remarkable when you think about it, and presumably this agreement is providing evidence for some theories.  
 
Point being – there are some measures that correlate with certain behaviors, and some of these measures appear to be localized.  But the brain is a highly distributed interconnected network, and to think of it any other way is going to lead to erroneous conclusions.
 Brian

 

 

About basicrulesoflife

Year 1935. Interests: Contemporary society problems, quality of life, happiness, understanding and changing ourselves - everything based on scientific evidence. Artificial Intelligence Foundation Latvia, http://www.artificialintelligence.lv Editor.
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