Jul 072015

A recent local news story featuring a short video of a UFO caught my attention. “Hector Garcia, of North Philadelphia, went outside for a smoke Sunday, looked in the sky, and noticed something blowing in the wind above the corner of 7th and Tioga. He captured video of a nebulous flying blob with his phone and it is attracting attention.”

Garcia’s short cell phone video was also uploaded to YouTube. Being that local news stories, and sometimes YouTube videos, may not stay on the internet for very long, I’ve included two screen captures of his video to illustrate what he saw.



Garcia’s video seemed familiar to me, as on two occasions I’ve seen similar things in the sky. The first occasion was with my friend Alex. It was a beautiful, sunny day in Seattle, and we were standing in Kerry Park enjoying the view and taking photographs. Suddenly I saw a diaphanous blob in the sky, moving westward. I had my DSLR camera on a tripod, and I tried to grab it to take a photo. By the time I got my hands on the camera, the object was gone. My friend Alex had much less of a psychological reaction on seeing it, believing it to be a balloon. My memory was that it was clear, or translucent, which is unusual for balloons, which are often brightly colored. Ultimately, I don’t know what it was that I saw, and is thus (for me) a genuine UFO.

In May of 2014 I was in Missoula, Montana. One sunny afternoon I drove up to Miller Creek, not far outside of the city. I brought along a Canon DSLR camera with a good telephoto lens. It was a nice day, but a bit breezy. I saw a black plastic bag, or perhaps a very dirty plastic bag, tumbling along, just above the tall grasses of an open field. I know it was a plastic bag, because I was close enough to it to get a good look at it. I watched it gain altitude, and I began taking photographs. I probably watched it, intermittently, for perhaps 20 minutes. It’s hard to judge altitude, but I would guess it gained several hundred feet, as it floated aloft and drifted away. It was certainly not a helium balloon, as its shape was irregular. Click on the photos to view them in full resolution.



UFO Three

I strongly suspect that the object Garcia recently recorded was a plastic bag. It moved slowly, its shape was irregular, and it appeared to be either white or translucent. It may have been catching sunlight at different angles during its flight. Being that Garcia used a cell phone, and probably zoomed in, the object may have been slightly out of focus which would enhance the mysteriousness of the event.

Post Script: Mick West, curator of the excellent Metabunk website, has suggested the object is helium foam.

 Posted by on 07/07/2015 Personal History, Pseudoscience, Science Tagged with:  Comments Off on Plastic UFOs
Apr 062015

People concerned about the existence, or non-existence, of free will usually acquaint themselves with the issue by reading philosophical literature. The literature on the subject goes back hundreds of years, often intersecting with theological interpretations. There is a growing body of scientific literature on the subject, which can be categorized as the “neuroscience of free will.”

I should like to propose a self test for free will, that is an exercise that an individual can perform that may have the end result of convincing one that “free will” is ultimately an illusion. Unlike testing for things like exoplanets or novel viruses, this test requires no esoteric machinery, as the perception that one has “free will” is purely subjective. We don’t even need the sort of exotic devices used in the tests performed by Benjamin Libet and others.

First off, the exercise requires that one meditate. For those who already meditate, this should be no problem. For those that don’t simply sit comfortably in silence, in a chair or comfortably cross legged. Close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing. There is no need to modify how you breath; simply pay close attention to the rise and fall of the breath within the chest. Relax as many muscles as deeply as you can. The goal here is to try to pay close attention to the somatic sensations of breathing, in real time, instead of the thoughts, perceptions, words, and images that naturally enter our stream of consciousness. It’s an amazingly difficult exercise! To be free of words entering the mind for even a few seconds is hard. Nevertheless, with perseverance it becomes possible, at least for moments.

Now become aware of the ~nature~ of the thoughts entering the mind. Most will be associational in nature, that is they will be copies of thoughts you had earlier in the day. You may be considering the tasks you need to do today. You may be imagining a pleasant event that is scheduled to occur later, or mulling over an event that continues to preoccupy you. Mulling over is essentially creating modified copies of thoughts, an associational process. It’s a non-optimal sort of association. Imagine a word association exercise in which one repeatedly answers “cat” to the stimulus of the word “cat” instead of “dog” or “fur.” This is natural, and attests to the less than optimum software that runs our minds. This software was not designed by an “Intelligent Designer” but is a product of evolution. Why do we need to “tell ourselves” things we already know? Why do our minds repeat the same idea over and over again? At the very least this form of largely associational mental functioning, even during meditation, is familiar. It’s unlikely any productive insight will occur during this sort of habitual process.

Most likely, a truly novel word, image, or impression will eventually present itself in your stream of consciousness. It may take several attempts at meditation for this to occur, if one is not already practicing. I still remember the specific image that occurred to me that produced the insight I’m trying to share: During meditation, a memory, tempered by imagination, entered my mind. I saw the shoreline of the Bitterroot River in Missoula, but from the perspective of being in the middle of the river. I had been on the shoreline before, but not in the water. The image was a hybrid of true memory plus imagination.

At this moment my meditation was completely disrupted by the insight that free will is an illusion. For “I” simply did not “chose” this unique visual image at all, it simply entered my mind. The image of the river was striking because of its utter uniqueness. There was no preceding cogitation of rivers, rafting, water, shorelines, or any sort of similar thought. At this moment it was crystal clear to me that there was simply no act of “choice” that occurred in my mind. The notion of choice is integral to the concept of free will, as if we do not choose what thoughts enter our minds or choose what actions to perform we concede that we are, in an ultimate sense, deterministic. If one counters that “free will” is the ability to choose amongst multiple behavioral or cognitive pathways, then indeed we have that ability. Yet the choice to act is yet another impression that simply enters the mind, just like a visual impression of the Bitterroot river. The choice itself has deterministic antecedents, albeit highly complex ones. This is the ultimate sense in which “free will” is illusory.

Why must this exercise occur during meditation? Because meditation is a very effective way of reducing the barrage of stimuli that enter our minds. Meditation is a way of reducing that barrage so the insight of how the contents of our minds simply ~enters~ the stream of consciousness, and is not “chosen” can occur.

Consider that most of our daily thoughts are associative or repetitive in nature. Isn’t this more or less a concession that those thoughts are essentially habitual and mechanical, and thus far less “chosen” than truly unique impressions? Once one becomes more perceptually attuned to “where” ideas come from that enter our streams of consciousness, it becomes easier to notice this process happening in our prosaic day-to-day lives, not just during meditation. I should like to propose that the FAMILIARITY of our habitual associational thoughts is largely responsible for producing the illusion of “free will.”

For those wishing to research this novel, and admittedly counterintuitive, idea further, I would highly recommend the work of Sam Harris. He is the author of a small book on the issue, as well as a 12 minute video now on YouTube that explains the idea very clearly.

UPDATE 4/25/2015:

In Sam Harris’ latest podcast, a more direct statement of this notion is given at about an hour and 5 minutes into the presentation:

Q: How often should we be aware of the illusion of free will? Should it serve a more reflective function, rather than happen in real time?

A: Well, for me a direct awareness of the illusoriness of free will, the very clear sense that the notion of free will doesn’t name anything in my experience this is more or less coincident with a moment of mindfulness or a moment of meditation where I’m clearly aware of how thoughts and intentions and desires and their subsequent actions arise spontaneously. Something is not there a moment ago, and then suddenly it’s there. And all of one’s mental life, even the most voluntary behavior has this character when you look at it in a fine-grained way. But I think the most important understanding of it is reflective, certainly the most important ethical implications are born of reflecting on this truth about us. It is just an understanding that people are operating on the basis of everything that has made them who they are, and that they are not agents in the deepest possible sense.

 Posted by on 04/06/2015 Opinion, Science Tagged with:  Comments Off on A Self Test for Free Will
Nov 212014

Why should rationalists meditate? There are a number of good reasons, but the one I’d like to address is how it impacts our conception of free will.

For many, the question of free will is both a complex philosophical question and a religious doctrine. It can be intimidating for an individual to make sense of the arcane philosophical debates. I know I did. When I was in college I was rather fixated on the notion of free will to an unhealthy degree.

Eventually I discovered the weirdly counter-intuitive idea that both “free will” and the “self” are illusions. I can’t recall clearly where I first encountered this notion; perhaps it was reading Krishnamurti, or advocates of psychedelic drugs.

I began meditating with a reasonable degree of habitual regularity only a few months ago. I am by every metric a beginner at this practice. Nevertheless, during meditation it becomes MUCH easier to perceive the appearance of individual thoughts arising in the stream of consciousness. Because of this, it becomes a trivial matter to directly perceive the truth of the claim that “free will” and the “self” are illusions. They are certainly strong illusions, as our normal waking consciousness creates a veritable flood of images, words, perceptions, and somatic sensations in our stream of consciousness.

When one perceives a single thought arising during meditation, it becomes easy to see that the thought was not “chosen” in any way; it simply appears. There’s also a logical paradox in the notion of “free will” in that it assumes a mind chooses from a range of thoughts and picks one to enter consciousness. If this were so, we would know a thought before we actually know it.

The notion of “self” is another powerful illusion. Again, when one meditates, it becomes apparent that there is no “self” that chooses which thoughts to enter consciousness. Thoughts simply appear in consciousness.

Nothing I’ve said so far is really novel. What I’d like to suggest that might really be novel is that one of the specific virtues of meditation for skeptics, atheists, and rationalists is that enables a direct and simple way to understand why “free will” is an illusion. Why is this valuable? For a number of reasons, but one being that the doctrine of “free will” is a sort of moral Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card for theists in the Abrahamic traditions. When confronted with the uncomfortable notion that God allows evil to occur even though he’s omnipotent, we are told that God gave man “free will” which puts the responsibility on mankind, not God.

Free will also factors into the doctrine of punishment, both human and divine. Curing immoral behavior is itself a more moral act than simply punishing it. For example, if it were KNOWN that a sociopath had a brain tumor that caused his sociopathy, the moral act would be to treat the tumor, not punish the sociopath. As fallible humans it’s largely beyond our ability, at present, to “cure” most sociopathy.

Once the notion of “free will” is abandoned, the notion of hell becomes all the more morally barbaric and gratuitous. It supposes a super-being capable of re-arranging the determinate causes of sociopathy, which is ultimately a victim state, yet chooses to punish the victim. Eternally.

Again, these ideas are not novel to me. I would refer anyone interested in the issue to read Sam Harris’ book on the subject or to watch this lecture of his:

I encourage skeptics, atheists, and rationalists to meditate. Discover for yourself how “free will” is an illusion.

 Posted by on 11/21/2014 Personal History, Science Tagged with:  Comments Off on Meditation and Free Will
Nov 112013

We commonly believe that “testing” is an intentional process. In fact, we think of the most carefully designed tests as “scientific” tests. Within the commonplace notion of “scientific testing” there is a tacit assumption that it’s intentional. Consider the spectacular success of finding a predicted subatomic particle, the Higgs boson. A giant machine had to be built, the Large Hadron Collider, and it had to be operated by educated people with highly specialized technical knowledge. The intention of the tests at the LHC is to find subatomic particles.

The kind of testing that Mythbusters does is also scientific testing, but with a much lower budget. There again, it’s intentional testing, as unique devices are often built to test the claims that they often erroneously refer to as “myths.”

There are tests that occur which are unintentional, which is why they are non-obvious. Consider Russian dashboard cameras, or “dash-cams.” Their designed function, their intention, is to capture traffic events such as collisions, to guard against fraudulent insurance claims. In a surprising turn of events, Russian dash cams videos were used to help calculate the trajectory of the Chelyabinsk meteor. The unintentional data was valid and scientifically useful. In addition, seismic sensors designed to detect nuclear detonations also provided data that was used to assess the Chelyabinsk event. Again, these seismic sensors were unintentionally testing for events besides nuclear blasts.

There are other “tests” which are as non-obvious and unintentional as dash-cam videos. Consider the question “is there a population of panthers in Florida?” The answer is yes. How do we know this? Well, a variety of reasons, one of them is the sad reality that some members of this population are hit and killed by cars. Roadkill is an unintentional sort of “test” for the presence of animals in an area.

How might this notion apply to skepticism? Consider the central claim of young earth creationism, that the planet is no more than 10,000 years old, and that all species on earth were created spontaneously at one time. If this was the case, there would be tangible evidence of this. This question was settled decades ago, but consider that even now the claim is unintentionally tested on a daily basis. Science learns novel things within branches of science relevant to evolution on a daily basis. If creationism were real, “normal science” as Thomas Kuhn calls it, would be encountering anomalies that suggest creationism EVERY DAY. This does not happen. It does not happen because creationism is false.

The culture of skepticism is often “reactive” in the sense that those who assert extraordinary claims act first and skeptics follow by analyzing or testing those claims. I’ve personally done this in the somewhat reviled area known as “Bigfoot skepticism.” Extraordinary claims were made that certain textures on a putative Bigfoot footprint cast represented “dermal ridges.” I involved myself with testing this claim.

Bigfootery is not seen by most skeptics as being as socially corrosive as creationism, and I would agree with this. Yet even most “Bigfoot skeptics” don’t conceive of Bigfootery as being as intellectually bankrupt as creationism.

I no longer think this way about the subject, and I now conceive of Bigfootery as being as intellectually bankrupt as creationism. Why? Because the Bigfoot proposition, like creationism, is tested on a daily basis. It has failed on a daily basis, and has failed on a daily failed for decades.

How specifically is the Bigfoot proposition tested on a daily basis? First off, as mentioned earlier, roadkill. Bigfoot is asserted to be a real animal, whose range is the entire North American continent. For decades now, drivers travel literally billions of miles on those roads each year. Traffic is constant. Animals of all kinds both common and rare, like Florida panthers, are killed. Not a single Sasquatch. Hikers traverse the wilderness daily, including the alleged habitation areas of Bigfoot. Humans by nature are curious, and anomalous details stand out. A human shaped skull the size of a basketball would stand out, as would virtually ANY part of a humanoid carcass. The natural curiosity of hikers is an unintentional test for all sorts of anomalies, such as aircraft debris occasionally found in the wilderness. No Bigfoot carcass has ever been found in North America. Geologists, road engineers, paleontologists, and others dig and move earth on a daily basis in North America. Though most are not intentionally looking for Bigfoot fossils, anomalous fossils would be noticed, as would all sorts of anomalies. Wildlife photographers capture high resolution, unambiguous photographs of all sorts of animals, including very rare ones, on a daily basis. In 50 years of Bigfootery, the number of clear and unambiguous photographs or motion pictures of Sasquatch produced by non-Bigfoot advocates is zero.

The claim by Bigfoot advocates that Bigfootery is a legitimate scientific question continues to function as effective propaganda because the notion of unintentional testing is non-obvious.

For many years now, creationists have tried to argue that creationism is a legitimate scientific question. “Teach the Controversy” they argue. It’s a subtle form of propaganda. Creationists attempt to stage public “debates” with top scientists. In this way, creationists are subtly attempting to persuade by suggesting the issue is a legitimate controversy, and that the creationist’s argument and evidence is equivalent to that offered by legitimate scientists. Bigfoot advocates engage in a similar form of propaganda, though I suspect that they do so unconsciously.

By causing “Bigfoot skeptics” to continually respond to putative evidence, Bigfoot advocates tacitly position the Bigfoot proposition as a valid scientific question. Furthermore, this obscures the damning flaw of Bigfootery, which is that the Bigfoot proposition is unintentionally tested daily, and fails daily.

 Posted by on 11/11/2013 Bigfoot, Pseudoscience, Science Comments Off on The Notion of Unintentional Testing
Feb 262012

Have you ever wondered how sweetness equivalence is measured? When we read that aspartame is “200 times as sweet as sucrose” what does that actually mean? Does that mean that 100mg of aspartame on the tongue will produce a sensation that is 200 times as intense as 100mg of sucrose?

I’ve wondered about this for YEARS. Consider other bodily sensations, like sound. If you sit quietly in a perfectly quiet place, you will begin to hear internal “noise” like your own breathing and probably some level of tinnitus. Consider that a baseline. Now compare that with the LOUDEST sound you have ever heard. In my case it would probably be my first rock concert, Van Halen. The range of internal sensation for sound is enormous.

Unfortunately for humans, the range of sensation for physical pain is also vast. Our other senses have ranges much greater than that of the sensation of sweetness. But even with taste, the range of sensation is great. Consider hot sauces, and what an enormous physical sensation that capsaicin and other capsaicinoids can produce. But perception of sweetness is different. The range from barely detectable to pure-sucrose-on-the-tongue is not very great. Why is that? Why does the human body have such a disparity in the ranges of sensation that we can perceive? Why do hearing and pain have ranges of sensation so vastly greater than the perception of sweetness? How did evolution “work” to create this situation?

When aspartame was first released as Equal brand by Searle, an advertizing campaign was run which claimed that Equal “tastes great straight.” I seem to recall Cher pouring the contents of a blue paper packet of Equal onto her tongue. Indeed, a similar test with a pink packet of saccharine produced a miserable and bitter result. From there I began to wonder what putting PURE aspartame on the tongue would be like. If you notice, you can’t buy PURE artificial sweeteners.

I long suspected that what it actually MEANS when the statement is made that an artificial sweetener is X times as sweet as sucrose is that a solution of the sweetener diluted X times is EQUIVALENT IN TASTE to a solution of sucrose. Indeed, a bit of Google-fu gives the result. In fact this is similar to the “Scoville scale” of heat in chili peppers. The Scoville scale is not a measurement of PPM of capsaicin but a dilution equivalence.

I do wonder though, if our tongues and brains were wired so that our sweetness range was like that of hearing or chili heat. Would chemicals like aspartame or sucralose become controlled substances? Consider how “abused” sweetened food is right now; what if your chocolate bar or pancake syrup was two hundred times as intense as it is now? Would we have pre-employment screening for sucralose?

 Posted by on 02/26/2012 Opinion, Science Comments Off on How Sweet is Too Sweet?