Friday, June 6, 2014

Intelligence Squared Debate on Nature of Death

I'm a regular listener of the Intelligence Squared podcast, and its American counterpart, Intelligence Squared US. The podcast is heavily edited, so sometimes it is worthwhile to look up the unabridged video version of the debate on their website.

Recently, they debated the proposition: "Death is Not Final". On the against team (arguing that death is final) were Sean Carroll, and Steven Novella. You can find the full video on YouTube here.

I was against the proposition to begin with, and ended on the same side, with a stronger level of conviction. Here is Carroll's take on the debate, and here is Steve Novella's.

Overall, the debate was somewhat one-sided (that is my bias speaking, perhaps), and the against side articulated their case much more clearly.

There were two salient light-hearted moments.

When Dr. Alexander confronted Dr. Carroll with the potential link between consciousness and quantum mechanics, and the attraction of some of the fathers of quantum mechanics with mysticism, Dr. Carroll quoted Scott Aronson:
“Quantum mechanics is confusing and consciousness is confusing, so maybe they’re the same.” 
The other moment was when Dr. Alexander suggested that Carl Sagan thought that the evidence for reincarnation was overwhelming, and even asked him to look up page 302 of Sagan's book "Demon Haunted World".

Within seconds, the Twitter world exploded.

The skeptical community, when stripped of its predominantly atheistic clothes, treats Carl Sagan as God.

Here's Steve Novella's response on his blog:
Alexander specifically referenced Demon Haunted World page 302. The relevant section has already been posted by many others, including in the comments here, but here it is: 
“Perhaps one percent of the time, someone who has an idea that smells, feels, and looks indistinguishable from the usual run of pseudoscience will turn out to be right. Maybe some undiscovered reptile left over from the Cretaceous period will indeed be found in Loch Ness or the Congo Republic; or we will find artifacts of an advanced, non-human species elsewhere in the Solar System. At the time of writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: 
(1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers;
(2) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation;
(3) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them. 
I pick these claims not because I think they’re likely to be valid (I don’t), but as examples of contentions that might be true. The last three have at least some, although still dubious, experimental support. Of course, I could be wrong.” 
To put this in context, Sagan is arguing that we have to be open to even unlikely possibilities, and sometimes it is not unreasonable to gamble on low-probability ideas. I tend to agree, within the limits of practicality and resources. But if someone wants to spend their time researching very unlikely ideas, more power to them. Just expect to be held to a very high standard of scientific rigor. 
In the full quote Sagan clearly states that he does not think these propositions are likely to be valid, and the evidence so far for them is “dubious.” But – further research might be interesting. That’s pretty thin gruel on which Alexander is hanging his hat.

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