From avatars to the Singularity

November 30, 2014

I first heard the term avatar in connection with computers. It was the time of Second Life, the online virtual world that became famous around a decade ago. Second Life users create virtual representations of themselves, called avatars, which are able to interact with other avatars, places or objects. Then in 2009 James Cameron’s film came out and the word had truly arrived. According to Wikipedia avatar also refers to a village in Qazvin Province, Iran, a guitar synthesizer and a Swedish melodic death metal band. I was vaguely aware of the terms Hindu origins, but it was not until I heard an episode of BBC Radio 4’s programme about religion Beyond Belief that I began to have a clearer understanding of what an avatar really is.

Derived from the Sanskrit avatra, meaning descent, an avatar is a deity takes human form in order to return to Earth. The purpose of the visit is to restore order. Krishna and Ram are both avatars. And, according to some beliefs schools, so are Jesus and Buddha.

These parallels with Christianity are interesting. The common translation of avatar as incarnation is rather misleading. Appearance or manifestation would be perhaps more accurate. In mainstream Christianity Jesus and God are one in the same. The concept of an avatar corresponds to versions of Christianity that fell by the wayside and which came to be regarded as heresies. Docetism is defined as “the doctrine according to which the phenomenon of Christ, his historical and bodily existence, and thus above all the human form of Jesus, was altogether mere semblance without any true reality.” The idea was that Jesus only seemed to be human, and that his human form was an illusion. Docetism was unequivocally rejected at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and is regarded as heretical by just about every branch of Christianity.

I am also interested in the use of avatars in our secular age. The programme features a company called They collect what you have created during lifetime, and using complex Artificial Intelligence algorithms, process this huge amount of information. With this they can generate an avatar that imitates your personality. This avatar will then be able to interact with family and friends once you have passed away. Here is what they say on their website:

But what if you could be remembered forever?


A legacy for your family


What if your children or grand children would know more about you and your life? What if they would be more like you, think more like you?


Everything you did


What if all the important events, adventures and thoughts in your life would be accessible to future generations, who never met the real you?


A living proof of you


And what if, more than that, they could really interact with your memories, as if they were talking to you in person?

Creepy is the word that most obviously comes to mind. But I do have curiosity about this idea. Of course in one sense it is not new. Photographs have been a source of comfort for years. The Victorians would even take photographs of the dead. Post-mortem photographs may strike us as morbid, but they were believed to help in the grieving process. Being the only visual remembrance of the deceased, they were among a family’s most precious possessions. Here is one of a deceased baby:

dead baby

More recently videos have performed a similar function. Séances were an attempt to interact with loved ones. Although as one wag said: Talking to the dead is easy. Getting the dead to talk back is the hard part. You would think that or most people interacting with this ersatz family member would not be satisfying, but who knows how future generations will react.

We may be living in a secular age, but utopian thinking is very much alive and plans to perpetuate itself for ever. The Singularity is the most famous example of this worldview.

Ray Kurzweil, its most famous evangeliser summed it up like this:

The Singularity is an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today — the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.”

By 2045, some futurists believe, humans will be able to achieve digital immortality by uploading their minds to computers. It is a fascinating possibility, but for critics it is a secular version of the hypothetical Christian Rapture. Philosopher John Gray says “the Singularity echoes apocalyptic myths in which history is about to be interrupted by a world-transforming event.” Like Gray I am sceptical that Kurzweil’s vision of immortality is something I would want. Would it not be just a cartoon version of us? But I suppose the Singularity and as a means of cheating death will have to be a topic for another post. I will leave you with Gray’s sceptical view on the subject.

Mark Dice, The Illuminati Plan to Fake the Return of Jesus

November 30, 2014

While researching this article I came across this video from Mark Dice, an American conspiracy theorist. I shall definitely be checking out his YouTube channel.

This I believe

November 23, 2014

In the spring of 1951 distinguished American broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, who was portrayed by George Clooney in Good Night, and Good Luck,  launched the radio series This I Believe. Each episode featured someone, be it a Supreme Court Justice or a secretary — reading an essay expressing the core principles guiding their lives. This programme, in which anyone, from a Supreme Court judge to a judge to a butcher could enunciate their world view, would go on for five years. Here is Murrow presenting the idea. I just love that voice:

The show was later revived by Radio Luxembourg from 1956-58 and by NPR from 2005-2009, which is where I first came across it. I have often thought about doing my own version and today I am taking the plunge. I have done it my way. I wasn’t sure if to call it This I Don’t Believe, as this is a part of my weltanschauung. Anyway, here is my contribution:


This I believe  by Martin Oliva

I am a sceptic. That does not make me a knee-jerk naysayer, but I want to be shown evidence before I believe something. In fact, I am even a bit sceptical about scepticism itself. There are too many times when we are preaching to the converted. We need to engage in debates with people we disagree with. Perhaps it’s a losing battle anyway –people seem to want to believe. It’s like that game, Whack-a-mole – as soon as you knock down a dodgy idea, it will pop up somewhere else, in a new form, but sometimes not even that.

I believe in science. I think it is the greatest tool for understanding our world. It is the systematic application of scepticism. I love the lack of absoluteness the provisional nature of its conclusions. I have no desire for absolute knowledge. This scientific scepticism makes me reluctant to believe in creationism, paranormal phenomena, conspiracy theories, the New Age movement, postmodernism and alternative medicine. Science does have its limitations – there is no such thing as scientific morality.

I don’t do religion. I am an agnostic. I don’t need to believe in a creator to find meaning in the world. I believe the world is random. Life is not going in a direction. However, I am not one of those aggressive atheist types. If I could abolish religion tomorrow, I would not put an end to violence.

The lack of certainty and the complex nature of our world should instil humility in us. Beware of those offering easy solutions. They believe that they can solve everything with their masterplans. In this sense intellectuals can be particularly dangerous, as they tend to believe in the powers of their intellect to solve all the world’s problems. I believe that humans are fundamentally flawed, and any attempts to perfect us will end in failure. The millennia of human civilisation should make us aware that utopia is not an option.

I am passionate about history and I think we can learn a great deal from it, although extrapolating the right lessons is not always easy. I believe in the contingent nature of history. Things could very easily have turned out differently. Although it may be uncomfortable, we need to look at our country’s history warts and all. I am also a fan of Big History, whose starting point is the origins of the Universe some 13.5 billion years ago. This gives you a real perspective on the vast time scale of world history and the relative irrelevance of events like the French Revolution, or even the two world wars.

I love language; it is one of the things that makes us human. It is a wonderful example of an emergent phenomenon. Like evolution, it is design without a designer; nobody planned it top-down. I am sceptical of those who want to put language in a cage, as it is constantly evolving. I am a descriptivist; I take language as it is.

I think trade is a positive force. I think economic freedom is good, allowing us to capture innate human creativity. There may be some examples of successful government intervention in the economy, but these are surely outnumbered by the disasters. I think technology, though it may create disruption in the short term, does not destroy jobs in the long run. Inequality is a problem that does worry me. In the wake of the 2008 crisis it has become a hot topic. We will need to find solutions that balance economic freedom and the need to maintain legitimacy in the economic system

I think politics is everywhere, from the corridors of power to family dynamics. I take a sceptical view of democracy, but it is the best system known to us so far. I favour systems which protect freedoms. I am suspicious of people who think they know our interests. Prohibition was indeed a noble experiment, but its unintended consequences far outweighed any possible benefits. Policies should always be judged by their results, not the intentions behind them.

This I believe in quotes

November 23, 2014

Here are some of the quotes from my blog which reflect my world view:

Most institutions demand unqualified faith; but the institution of science makes scepticism a virtue.  Robert K. Merton

In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know, that’s a really good argument, my position is mistaken,” and then they actually change their minds, and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. Carl Sagan

They (the socialists) have criticized freely enough the economic structure of “free” society, but have consistently neglected to apply to the economics of the disputed socialist state the same caustic acumen, which they have revealed elsewhere, not always with success. Economics, as such, figures all too sparsely in the glamorous pictures painted by the Utopians. They invariably explain how, in the cloud-cuckoo lands of their fancy, roast pigeons will in some way fly into the mouths of the comrades, but they omit to show how this miracle is to take place. Ludwig von Mises

There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them. George Orwell

But these are just stories, and the plural of anecdote is not data. Ben Goldacre

It is easy for a well-fed metropolitan with time and money on his hands to talk about dealing with his chronic symptoms with Ayurvedic medicine or Chinese herbal remedies, but if you go those countries where they are all they have, you’ll find them crying out for goof old Western antibiotics, painkillers and all the rest of the modern and expensive pharmacopoeia. A Ugandan dying of AIDS-related tuberculosis doesn’t wanted to be treated with the natural remedies of his forefathers: he wants an aseptic syringe full of antibiotics… John Diamond

Alternative Medicine”, I continue

Has either not been proved to work,

Or been proved not to work.

You know what they call alternative medicine”

That’s been proved to work?

Medicine. Storm Tim Minchin”

Now, we must be careful to make a distinction between the intellectual and the person of intellectual achievement. The two are very very different animals. There are people of intellectual achievement, who increase the sum of human knowledge, the powers of human insight, and analysis. And then there are the intellectuals. An intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others. Starting in the early 20th century, for the first time an ordinary story teller, a novelist, a short story writer, a poet, a playwright, in certain cases a composer, an artist, or even an opera singer could achieve a tremendous eminence by becoming morally indignant about some public issue. It required no intellectual effort whatsoever. Suddenly he was elevated to a plane from which he could look down upon ordinary people. Conversely—this fascinates me—conversely, if you are merely a brilliant scholar, merely someone who has added immeasurably to the sum of human knowledge and the powers of human insight, that does not qualify you for the eminence of being an intellectual. Tom Wolfe

The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. F.A. Hayek

Once we realize that imperfect understanding is the human condition, there is no shame in being wrong, only in failing to correct our mistakes. George Soros

Languages deal with and describe the natural world, a world which is so complex that any individual attempt to describe it, and make sense of it, can only capture part of it. In order to survive, each individual must make some sense of his environment, most fundamentally by acquiring a language. But the language of each individual (his idiolect) only functions effectively if it forms part of a wider structure such as the language of a group, a region or a nation. So our languages are complex decentralised mechanisms for transmitting information. And we use them confidently without much explicit understanding of their structure or of how they develop Dr John Marks

We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further. Richard Dawkins

The rationalist imagines an imbecile-free society; the empiricist an imbecile-proof one, or, even better, a rationalist-proof one. Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Economists give their predictions to a digit after the decimal point to show that they have a sense of humour.  Anonymous

There are two classes of forecasters: those who don’t know and those who don’t know they don’t know. J K Galbraith

Study the past if you would divine the future. Confucius

 There are young men and women up and down the land who happily (or unhappily) tell anyone who will listen that they don’t have an academic turn of mind, or that they aren’t lucky enough to have been blessed with a good memory, and yet can recite hundreds of pop lyrics and reel off any amount of information about footballers, cars and celebrities. Why? Because they are interested in those things. They are curious. If you are hungry for food you are prepared to hunt high and low for it. If you are hungry for information it is the same. Information is all around us, now more than ever before in human history. You barely have to stir or incommode yourself to find things out. The only reason people do not know much is because they do not care to know. They are incurious. Incuriosity is the oddest and most foolish failing there is.

Picture the world as being a city whose pavements are covered a foot deep in gold coins. You have to wade through them to make progress. Their clinking and rattling fills the air. Imagine that you met a beggar in such a city.

 ‘Please, give me something. I am penniless.’

‘But look around you,’ you would shout. ‘There is gold enough to last you your whole life. All you have to do is to bend down and pick it up!’

When people complain that they don’t know any literature because it was badly taught at school, or that they missed out on history because on the timetable it was either that or biology, or some such ludicrous excuse, it is hard not to react in the same way.

‘But it’s all around you!’ I want to scream. ‘All you have to do it bend down and pick it up!’ What on earth people think their lack of knowledge of the Hundred Years War, or Socrates, or the colonization of Batavia has to do with school I have no idea. As one who was expelled from any number of educational establishments and never did any work at any of them, I know perfectly well that the fault lay not in the staff but in my self that I was ignorant. Then one day, or over the course of time, I got greedy. Greedy to know things, greedy for understanding, greedy for information. Stephen Fry

Martin’s quirky movies #4 High Anxiety

November 16, 2014

My choice for my fourth quirky movie is High Anxiety, Mel Brooks’ loving parody of suspense movies, most obviously the oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock. The film was dedicated to the master of suspense, who actually worked with Brooks on the screenplay and later sent Brooks a case containing six magnums of 1961 Château Haut-Brion wine to show his appreciation.

Melvin James Kaminsky (Mel Brooks) was born on June 28, 1926. He is best known as a creator of film parodies. His most well known films include Blazing Saddles, The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie, History of the World, Part I, Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

This is Brooks’s first film as a producer and first speaking lead role. He had previously taken the lead role in Silent Movie. One of the joys of the film is the appearance of the veteran Brooks ensemble members Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman and Madeline Kahn. Particular kudos should go to Leachman for her wonderfully over the top portrayal of Nurse Diesel. Leachman specialised in playing variations of a neo-Nazi sadists. In “Young Frankenstein,” she had played Frau Blucher, whose very name would make the horses whinny with fright.

High Anxiety opens with Dr. Richard Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) arriving at Los Angeles airport. Unfortunately Thorndyke, like John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, does not like heights. He is terrified of flying, but the doctor has to be in Los Angeles to take up a new post as administrator at the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, VERY Nervous. On arrival he is introduced to the rest of the staff, including Nurse Diesel and Dr Charles Montague (Harvey Korman). All is not well at the institute. Montague appears resentful that he was not given the appointment and Nurse Diesel inspires terror wherever she goes. Montague and Diesel appear to be in a sado-masochistic relationship. Thorndyke also meets some of the patients, including a millionaire, Arthur Brisbane, who behaves himself as though he were a dog. One of the members of staff, Doctor Wentworth (Dick van Patten) wants to blow the whistle on the mistreatment of the patients, but is killed when he tries to leave.

The action then shifts to San Francisco, where Thorndyke has gone to attend a psychiatric conference. At the hotel Thorndyke discovers that he has been given a room on the 17th floor, hardly ideal for someone suffering from Vertigo. In San Francisco Thorndyke is contacted by Victoria Brisbane (Madeline Kahn), who believes her father is completely sane. Vicky shows him a photograph of his father, and Thorndyke realises that this man is not the man who was behaving like a dog. Unfortunately Thorndyke is being followed by a professional killer, who disguises himself as the doctor and kills a man. Thorndyke is now on the run. The finale of the film involves a tower. There the baddies, Nurse Diesel and Montague plan to fake Arthur Brisbane’s suicide. Will Thorndyke be able to conquer his high anxiety? You will have to find out for yourself.

There is no point in describing the gags in great detail. You are better off watching for yourself. There are all the classic Brooks gags such as the moment Thorndyke and his chauffeur are driving down a Los Angeles freeway and we hear dramatic music. We wonder what is going on until we see the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra performing in a bus in the next lane. There are homages to a number of classic Hitchcockian scenes including one from The Birds. Brooks hired Ray Berwick, the bird handler from the Hitchcock film The bird droppings were actually mayonnaise and chopped spinach. However, according to Brooks, the helicopter spraying the fake bird droppings scared the pigeons so much that half of the bird droppings were real. There is also a great Sinatra parody as Brooks sings the title song of the film.

I think that this film is underrated. Brooks was often criticised for being unsubtle. The critics may be right, but compared to what has come since Brooks appears to be a master of understatement. Now I compare his films to more modern films, like Meet the Spartans. Is it just me or are modern comedy films just plain awful? The rest of this post will be a rant about the decline of Hollywood comedies. I do have a soft spot for movie comedies. It could be Charles Chaplin, screwball comedies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Billy Wilder, the early Woody Allen or Monty Python. Where are these types of films now? When I referred to this phenomenon I was thinking of quality. But apparently there is now a fall in quantity; Hollywood is increasingly reluctant to make comedies, due to the decreasing returns on their investment. But that’s not what I’m complaining about. What I hate is the tawdry vulgarity. I do like a bit of bad taste, but many modern comedies seem to have no taste at all.

My favourite spoof movies

November 16, 2014

Here is a list of 21 of my favourite spoof movies in alphabetical order:

  • Airplane!
  • Austin Powers : International Man of Mystery
  • Blazing Saddles
  • Bowfinger
  • Carry On Spying
  • CSA: The Confederate States of America
  • Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid
  • Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex…
  • High Anxiety
  • Hot Fuzz
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  • Play It Again, Sam
  • Shaun of the Dead
  • Take the Money and Run
  • Team America: World Police
  • The Man With Two Brains
  • The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad
  • The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash
  • This Is Spinal Tap
  • Top Secret
  • Young Frankenstein

Meet Mr Slang

November 9, 2014

Slang is a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands, and goes to work.  Carl Sandburg

Slang is the language that says no. Born in the street, it resists the niceties of the respectable. It is impertinent, mocking, unconvinced by rules, regulations and ideologies. It remains something apart. And for many, that is where it should stay. Jonathon Green, Lexicographer


 Jonathon Green is a man on a mission. His quest is to track English slang from all the corners of the world, taking in Britain, Ireland, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the Caribbean. The product of this magnificent obsession is Green’s Dictionary of Slang. This three-volume 6,000-page magnum opus, which came out in 2010, was conceived and produced by one man. Actually, that is an oversimplification – he was helped by a number of paid collaborators. All this effort does not come cheap; buying the three volumes will set you back $500 on Amazon. When it was commissioned by Hodder & Stoughton in 1997 print was still typical for reference works. It is difficult to imagine such a project being financed now.

This is not Green’s only work. He has recently published a memoir, Odd Job Man: Some Confessions of a Slang Lexicographer, and a history of slang, Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue. It is this prodigious output that led Martin Amis to dub him Mr Slang. He is undoubtedly the premier English slang lexicographer of his generation, the heir to Eric Partridge, who was born in 1894 in New Zealand.

Before I continue it is necessary to establish what slang is. Merriam-Webster defines it as “words that are not considered part of the standard vocabulary of a language and that are used very informally in speech especially by a particular group of people.” Slang comes from, criminal language. Criminals wanted to be able to communicate in secrecy – they didn’t want the public, or more importantly the authorities to know what they were talking about. It was their language which was the first slang to be collected. Slang’s etymology is somewhat confused. Different sources have been attributed. The Online Etymology Dictionary mentions Norwegian slengenamn “nickname”, slengja kjeften “to abuse with words” and an old slang word meaning “narrow piece of land”, itself of obscure origin.

Green is a 67-year old writing about slang, which he describes as a perpetual 16-year old boy. And this 16-year old is definitely not respectable. He likes talking about crime, race, drink, drugs and of course sex. There is no room for niceties here. Women are sex objects. The words for sexual intercourse are highly physical – screw, shag, bang, shaft, etc. are most definitely not taking a sophisticated view of sex. On Green’s website you can find a Timeline for Slang terms for Sexual Intercourse: part 1 The Basics, created from his dictionary. It really is a wonderful tool.

The task of following all the new coinages is a quixotic one. You will always be behind the times. It is like chasing the sun, the title of another of Green’s books, which dealt with the craft of the lexicographer. Green likens it to scooping out a granite mountain with a plastic spoon The impossibility of the task was satirised in the Blackadder the Third episode about Dr Johnson’s dictionary:

Green can be seen on TV debating a ban on slang in a London school – the Harris Academy of Croydon. This crackdown is part of a recurring moral panic. The school in question wanted words such as coz, innit and ain’t banned, both in the classroom and in the corridors. As a descriptivist I find the ban absurd. What children do need is to be able to switch codes. It is necessary to know what kind of language can be spoken where. We do need to improve the way English is taught in schools. But banning slang, which most definitely is English, is not the way.

The worst opening lines

November 9, 2014

I often mention prizes on my blog. Until now I had not mentioned the Bulwer-Lytton Prize. This award, inspired by novelist and playwright Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s famous “it was a dark and stormy night” opening line, asks writers to submit an opening sentence for an imaginary “worst of all possible novels”. Bulwer-Lytton’s full opening from his 1830 novel Paul Clifford line was:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

This year’s winner was:

When the dead moose floated into view the famished crew cheered – this had to mean land! – but Captain Walgrove, flinty-eyed and clear headed thanks to the starvation cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose. — Elizabeth (Betsy) Dorfman,

Here are some others I found online:

Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories. Sue Fondrie

Hard-boiled private dick Harrison Bogart couldn’t tell if it was the third big glass of cheap whiskey he’d just finished, or the way the rain-moistened blouse clung so tightly to the perfect figure of the dame who just appeared panting in his office doorway, but he was certain of one thing … he had the hottest mother-in-law in the world. Carl Turney

The Mushroom Men of Knarf were silently advancing on the unsuspecting earthlings, and their thin milky blood ran colder when they smelled spores from fungal toenail infections rising from many of the invaders’ feet, for to them it was a wondrous and shocking scent of kinship, homeland, and asexual reproduction. David S. Nelson

She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination. Chris Wieloch

As he strolled among the Kenthellians, through the wide parndamets along the River Elinionenin, thrimbening his tometoria and his Almagister’s scrollix, he thought to himself, “Wow, it is sure convenient there’s a glossary for made-up fantasy words on page 1048.” Stephen Young

Betty had eyes that said come here, lips that said kiss me, arms and torso that said hold me all night long, but the rest of her body said, “Fillet me, cover me in cornmeal, and fry me in peanut oil”; romance wasn’t easy for a mermaid. Jordan Kaderli

For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity’s affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss — a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity’s mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world’s thirstiest gerbil. Molly Ringle

On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky, not quite a roller-coaster ride but more like when the toilet-paper roll gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained. Rephah Berg

As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are truly the windows of the soul; and, if so, his soul needed regrouting. Cathy Bryant

His ex-wife’s personality was like chocolate – not the smoky, tangy, exquisitely rich and full-bodied type, but the over-sweet, tooth-cracking, factory-processed, made-with-vegetable-oil kind that leaves one with diabetes and an aneurysm the size of a grape. Shalom Chung

Near-Death Experiences

November 2, 2014

Over the Summer I saw the film Heaven Is For Real:

Here is an alternative trailer:

It has to be said that the film is not exactly a masterpiece, but I am interested in the phenomenon described in the movie – the Near-Death Experience, a sensation or vision of the afterlife reported by a person who has come close to death One of the earliest accounts of an NDE is the Myth of Er, featured by Plato in The Republic. A soldier revives on his funeral-pyre and describes his journey in the afterlife.

What is an NDE? They typically occur when a patient has either been close to clinical death or has recovered after having been declared dead. There are some common experiences that characterise them. You typically hear about bright lights, dark tunnels and celestial music. The subjects’ lives flash before them. It is frequently an out of body experience with subjects reporting hovering above the operating table. Without physical bodies, they are able to travel through walls and doors and project themselves wherever they want. Ultimately they are told that it is not their time yet and that they have to go back to the land of the living.

In the 1980s, NDEs gained a certain degree of “credibility” through the work of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, an American psychiatrist. Incidentally, she was also the one who pioneered the theory of the five stages of grief. Kübler-Ross provided this classic example of an NDE:

Mrs. Schwartz came into the hospital and told us how she had had a near-death experience. She was a housewife from Indiana, a very simple and unsophisticated woman. She had advanced cancer, had haemorrhaged and was put into a private hospital, very close to death. The doctors attempted for 45 minutes to revive her, after which she had no vital signs and was declared dead. She told me later that while they were working on her, she had an experience of simply floating out of her physical body and hovering a few feet above the bed, watching the resuscitation team work very frantically. She described to me the designs of the doctors’ ties, she repeated a joke one of the young doctors told, she remembered absolutely everything. And all she wanted to tell them was relax, take it easy, it is all right, don’t struggle so hard. The more she tried to tell them, the more frantically they worked to revive her. Then, in her own language, she “gave up” on them and lost consciousness. After they declared her dead, she made a comeback and lived for another year and a half.

I have to say that I am underwhelmed by the claims about NDEs. They are not as the neurosurgeon Eben Alexander has claimed in a best selling “non-fiction” book, proof of God’s existence. I am sure they feel real to those who experience them, but that doesn’t mean they actually happened. In some cases it may be down to drugs that have been administered to the patient. Lack of oxygen to the brain can interfere with the normal rate of firing by nerve cells in the visual cortex. This may trigger the images that subjects see. I have already mentioned in another post the fallible nature of memory. Memory does not work like a VCR. You don’t just record the event and play it back later. What happens is that every time we recall them we reconstructing them anew. This can explain why eyewitness testimony can be so unreliable. When recovering from an NDE, the brain has absolutely no problem inventing a continuous narrative to fill in the blanks. This is exactly how our minds work; we want a coherent story. Confirmation bias is also at work here. We hear these stories about subjects remembering things that they could not have possibly known. But when they get something wrong nobody notices. This is why they say that the plural of anecdote is not data. NDEs remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of psychology. We do not have all the answers yet. But we need to apply Occam’s Razor. Which is more likely, that an NDE is a phenomenon that science has been unable to explain completely up until now or that it is proof of an afterlife?

An interview with the Burpos

November 2, 2014

The film Heaven Is For Real is about the Burpo family.  In the book, Burpo relates what his four year-old son Colton told him about what he remembered of his alleged trip to heaven. I haven’t read the book but I found this summary on a sceptical website:

 John the Baptist is “nice.”

Jesus has a rainbow-coloured horse

There are lots of colours in heaven, because heaven is where all the rainbow colours are.

Jesus has “markers” (red-coloured wounds in his hands and feet). He has brown hair and a beard. His eyes are very pretty. He wears white clothes with a purple sash, and he is the only one in heaven who wears purple. He has a circular “gold thing” on his head with a pink-coloured “diamond thing” in the centre.

Jesus teaches children in heaven, and gives them homework.

Everybody has wings in heaven, and everybody flies. But not Jesus. Jesus is the only one in heaven who does not have wings. He just goes up and down “like an elevator.”

People in heaven look like angels and have lights above their head. They all wear white with yellow sashes. They wear different colours than the angels do.

The angel Gabriel sits on the left side of God’s throne. He is “really nice.”

In heaven, Colton sat in a little chair next to the Holy Spirit, who was “kind of blue.”

No one is old in heaven, and no one wears glasses.

Jesus “shoots down power” to pastors when they are about to preach.

Angels carry swords in heaven to keep Satan out.

Besides Jesus’ rainbow horse, there are other animals in heaven, including dogs, birds, and a friendly lion.

Colton met Mary, the mother of Jesus. She “still loves him like a mom.”

And here you can see them being interviewed by the notorious Pat Robertson. You may remember that Robertson and      Jerry Falwell appeared to suggest homosexuals, abortion-rights supporters and liberal civil-rights activists were partly to blame for the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Anyway, enjoy the interview: