Category Archives: science

book review: my stroke of insight

This is a quick and easy read (I finished it in two days), but don’t let that fool you. It’s full of fascinating insights into our brains from the unique perspective of a neuroscientist who temporarily lost half of hers to a stroke. Her story is invaluable for stroke victims and their friends and families. But it can also help the rest of us understand what we are, how our brains process information to form our day to day personalities, and how to take ownership of that process to live a better life. For a preview of the topics covered in this book, you can see the author give a short presentation on it here.

what i believe

I wrote this as part of a discussion with my friend Zach a little while ago. I am posting it here because I like how it turned out, and hey, I’m not using this blog for much else recently anyway. (Also I don’t want this place to become all YouTubes.)

I think asking if religion is a force for good or bad in the world is the wrong question. It’s like asking if politics is a force for good in the world. Religion is such a huge and diverse part of human experience that any overall assessment of it would have to be so general that it becomes meaningless.

If I had to put a label on my own beliefs, I guess it would be agnostic, but one much more drawn to spirituality than atheism. I don’t claim to know where the universe comes from, and I don’t buy the idea that it is necessary to believe anything on faith. But for as much as science explains about the universe, it also continues to affirm how mysterious and unfathomable it all is. We can’t look before the Big Bang or outside the edges of the universe. From a human perspective, we can’t even begin to comprehend what being outside the edges of the universe would mean. But we know it does have edges.

Science also tells us that in the scale of all space and time, humanity is an insignificant speck. But as tiny as we are, we also represent something that our explorations of the universe show to be incredibly rare and precious: intelligent life. I think there might be something more to consciousness than its component atoms. The existence of a soul is another thing that we can neither prove nor disprove, and past that barrier might be so many other things beyond our comprehension.

Obviously that doesn’t translate directly into Judaism, Christianity or any other theology. In fact, as far as literal readings of theology go, it is an argument against an anthropomorphized god. I can’t look at the universe and think that any entity capable of being outside it, much less creating it, would have a human personality or care about being worshipped. But that doesn’t mean religion in those terms doesn’t have anything to tell us about ourselves. We make sense of the world in many ways, and one of the oldest and most effective is by telling stories. I think the biggest mistake of both Biblical literalists and atheists is to think that something being “just a story” in any way diminishes its power. Stories are how we pass on our culture, create our identities, and reveal things about ourselves that other methods of communication are simply not capable of. That is why I think religion without mythology would be deeply unsatisfying. The experience of reading great literature, which the Bible unquestionably is, I think is an equal companion to science and reason in understanding both the universe and ourselves.

Perspective is probably the most important concept to me for distinguishing between these areas. Our emotions might be explained as a chain of neurological reactions, as functions of evolution and sociology, or as characters brought to life in a story. The different explanations are all true, because we exist on all these levels. Put another way, even if a God was imagined entirely by humans, that God does exist and does act in the world through the stories that people tell about God and the actions that the idea of God inspires. For humanity, the idea of God is one of the most powerful that we have. From a non-human perspective, that God may not exist, but we are humans, so it doesn’t matter.

So that’s the long answer to your question. The short answer is yes, I do consider myself in many ways religious and spiritual. In another life I would have been a rabbi or priest, though probably one that ended up being excommunicated.

cat blogging

The New York Times reports on a study which finds that cats need to physically move around an obstacle, not just see it, to build long term memories that it is there. Which is interesting, but I’m really only mentioning it because of this:

They had cats step their forelegs over a three-inch barrier, then distracted the animal while the barrier was lowered. When the cat moved again, it raised its rear legs as if the barrier were still there.

“’That memory of that obstacle lasts for as long as that cat stands there,’” Mr. McVea said, though because of the difficulties of herding cats, the longest they were able to distract one was 10 minutes.”

So somewhere out there is a lowly lab assistant whose job is to distract cats. I am jealous of the person who can now put “cat distracter” on a resume.