Atheist Brain

exploring the cognitive foundations of religious belief

May 24, 2013
by admin
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Nootropics experiment, drugs that improve focus and cognition

I recently began to experiment with various nootropic compounds including caffeine, choline, modafinil, and several different drugs which fall into the racetam family. Each of them is reasonably safe although modafinil is a scheduled drug in the United States and is probably the most aggressive nootropic substance on the list.

When deciding whether or not to try a nootropic substance I basically go through a risk reward analysis weighing the potential risks and benefits of the substance. The amount of time I spend researching a substance depends upon the risks posed by the substance. The higher the risk the more time I spend researching.

However most of the research has already been analyzed in meta-studies and compiled for laypersons like myself!

There are incredible resources out there for those interested in trying nootropics. Examine, Erowid, Gwern.net, and reddit.com/r/nootropics (specifically the FAQ), are all very well organized repositories of information on the various nootropic compounds. These resources contain scientifically rigorous information about each of the substances. Below I will give a brief overview of my personal (and very unscientific) experiences.

Full disclaimer: I have not performed placebo controlled studies. I also began taking other supplements in addition to the nootropics mentioned here around the same time (fish oil, vitamin D, vitamin B12).

However, I had at least a few days in each case to allow myself to establish a new baseline before adding a new drug to my stack. The one exception being choline as most (but not all) of the material I read suggested choline should be taken in conjunction with racetams as they are known to deplete choline in the brain (which can lead to a headache if you do not supplement choline). More on this in the section labeled choline below. Also, make sure you consult your doctor prior to taking anything mentioned on this site.

When it comes to optimizing brain function – nothing on this list comes close to a healthy diet, regular exercise, and 8 hours of sleep.

Caffeine

Caffeine is one of the most noticeably effective drugs on the list. It’s also one of my favorites. This should come as no surprise really since it’s a stimulant.

I have tried caffeine in a number of varieties including tea, coffee, and pills. Most recently I have been drinking either a cup of coffee or a cup of green tea in the morning. I’ve also been taking a 100mg tablet of caffeine every morning and often one more tablet in the middle of the day.

Caffeine does a wonderful job of perking me up at the start of the day allowing me to focus on what I want to accomplish. Caffeine improves my ability to focus and enhances my mood.

The /r/nootropics FAQ recommends complementing caffeine with L-Theanine in order to smooth over ‘caffeine jitters.’ I tried L-Theanine a few times (albeit at a relatively low dose of 100mg) and I didn’t feel any effects one way or the other. As I’ve never really experienced any jitters or agitation from caffeine I didn’t feel the need to continue taking L-Theanine. Your mileage may vary.

Choline

I have only taken choline in conjunction with a racetam. For that reason I haven’t been able to isolate the experiential effects of choline. I also started with choline bitartrate which is apparently worse at crossing the blood brain barrier than Alpha GPC choline and also less bioavailable. I haven’t taken Alpha GPC often enough to comment on it.

I have tried to isolate for choline by removing it from my regiment while continuing to take piracetam or oxiracetam. I did not experience a headache. It’s my understanding that some people naturally have extra choline in their brain and therefore experience no headaches when taking a racetam.

I will update this section as I continue to experiment with Alpha GPC with and without a racetam.

Racetams

This section contains a number of racetams in order of increasing potency. Piracetam is far and away the most researched racetam. The scientific consensus at the time of this writing is that Piracetam is completely safe.1 & 2 The remainder of the racetams still need to undergo further human study in order to determine if they are safe. However, none of the racetams mentioned below appear to be neurotoxic (unless administered at incredibly high doses) according to the studies which have been completed.1 & 2

Piracetam

I began with ~4800mg/d spread out across three equal doses. Each dose was combined with ~200mg of choline bitartrate.

There was no perceptible change in focus, attention, memory, or anything else for the first 4 days. This was expected as piracetam takes time to build up in the system. On the fifth day I took an extra 800mg and still experienced nothing during the day. That night however I had particularly vivid dreams. The next day I woke up and took 2400mg of piracetam and 300mg of choline bitartrate. I felt slightly more focus and energy. I also felt a noticeable improvement in my mood when I went grocery shopping. I just felt very good.

For the next week I continued taking ~5600mg of piracetam and ~700mg of choline bitartrate daily and I experienced nothing whatsoever.

However it’s quite possible that I’m not supposed to feel anything. It’s possible that had I measured my cognitive performance before and after taking piracetam I would have outperformed my initial scores (despite the fact that I don’t feel any different).

A 1976 placebo-controlled study measured healthy participants’ performance on verbal memory; participants taking piracetam outperformed those taking a placebo.3

Additionally, piracetam has been shown to have a neuroprotective function. Studies show that piracetam appears to diminish the effects of age-related cognitive decline.1

For these reasons I have continued to take ~800mg of piracetam daily even though subjectively I don’t notice any difference in my cognitive performance.

One final note on piracetam: I took 4800mg/d of piracetam for about 2 weeks before I more or less abandoned it. This is in line with several recommendations I’ve heard. More recently however I read a few reports where people didn’t begin to experience positive effects for closer to 3 weeks or even a month. You may want to give piracetam 3 weeks before deciding to move on.

Oxiracetam

Unlike piracetam, or perhaps because I had already been taking piracetam, the effects of oxiracetam were immediately apparent.

Within an hour of taking an 800mg dose of oxiracetam I began to feel lazer-like focus. I also took ~650mg of choline bitartrate.

I was reading at my computer I noticed that I was instinctively skimming the material and filtering out the useless information and quickly absorbing key points. This pseudo-speed reading is something that I try to do regularly anyway, but I frequently find myself sub-vocalizing when I study or read for pleasure; I will notice that I am reading every single word on the page ‘aloud’ in my head (which is often a waste of time).

This time it was completely automatic. Speed-reading was my default setting.

I decided to test my increased focus on some tougher material, JavaScript, The Good Parts by Douglas Crockford. I completed a pair of Java courses in college and have looked at some JavaScript in the past so the material was not entirely alien to me.

I wish I could say that I effortlessly absorbed all of the information contained in the text, but that is not the case. I had no trouble following along and understanding the material, but unfortunately merely reading through a book about programming does not make one into a programmer.

Nevertheless I did feel an improved ability to process information.

I took another 800mg of oxiracetam a few hours later. The second dose seemed to have a similar but diminished effect (although the first dose was still having a strong effect at this point in time).

I continued to take 800mg of oxiracetam twice a day for about a week with nothing anywhere near the results described above. I felt no improvement to my focus or mood.

My one exceedingly positive experience with oxiracetam was interesting enough that I will continue to experiment with it. If I manage to figure out a regiment where I can overcome apparent tolerance problems then I will update this post.

Aniracetam & Pramiracetam

I have not yet had a chance to experiment with either of these racetams.

Modafinil

In my experience modafinil (with the exception of my one good experience with oxiracetam) is the strongest and most effective drug on this list. It seemed to greatly improve my focus and alertness even though I opted to take a 50% dose (100mg).

You can read my full modafinil experience report here (coming soon).

Sources:
Examine.com1
/r/nootropics FAQ (reddit.com)2
Wikipedia, Piracetam3

May 11, 2013
by admin
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What Monkeys can Teach us About the Psychology of Indoctrination and Confirmation Bias

I stumbled across this post on Reddit yesterday which I thought succinctly summarized my (relatively basic) understanding of mimetic theory (the original post contains only the image reproduced below).

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

Interesting for sure… I decided to dig up the original study.

Unfortunately, it appears the study described in the cartoon never took place!

The fabricated study described in the cartoon appears to have been inspired by a 1967 study titled “Cultural Acquisition of a Specific Learned Response Among Rhesus Monkeys.”1

The methodology of the original study is drastically different from that of the cartoon. In the 1967 study 8 rhesus monkeys were separated into pairs. One of the monkeys was presented with a novel object and each time the monkey attempted to handle the object he or she was blasted with air (punished). Over the course of just a few attempts to handle the object, the monkey learned to fear and avoid the object.

A conditioned response was learned.

In each case, another monkey was inserted into the room with the conditioned monkey. In several cases the new monkey was admonished by the conditioned monkey when he or she attempted to approach the novel object. It is important to point out that this did not occur in every case. In some cases the unconditioned monkey’s lack of fear towards the object allowed the conditioned monkey to overcome his fear. The conditioned monkey was then able to approach and handle the novel object.

The cartoon is not backed up by the actual science.

The real lesson to be learned here (based on the articles more than 1400 upvotes) is that even atheist and skeptic communities are vulnerable to bad heuristics and biased thinking.

“[People] can be made to believe any lie because either they want to believe it’s true or because they are afraid it’s true.” – Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander — Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind

Sources:
Gordon R. Stephenson (Stephenson, G. R. (1967), Cultural Acquisition of a Specific Learned Response Among Rhesus Monkeys – In: Starek, D., Schneider, R., and Kuhn, H. J. (eds.), Progress in Primatology, Stuttgart: Fischer, pp. 279-288).1

An interesting article from psychology today about this same cartoon.

May 5, 2013
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Refuting the Ontological Argument

Technically speaking the ontological argument is a positive a priori argument for the existence of God. However, the ontological argument is good for nothing except providing comfort and assurance to those already convinced of God’s existence or better still confusing one’s opponent. In practice it is a defensive argument.

The ontological argument is nothing more than word-jitsu designed to move the argument onto a philosophical battleground where it is assumed the opponent will be unprepared.

It will win no converts.

When facing an opponent who is using an ontological approach to prove God’s existence, it is useful to keep the following questions in mind:

Are there any hidden presuppositions/ premises? If so what are they?

Do the hidden presuppositions/ premises hold up under scrutiny?

Is there any content to the claim being made or is it instead a tautology devoid of substance?

The ontological argument takes two main forms. The original version of the argument was originally proposed by Saint Anselm of Canterbury ~1000 years ago and looks like this:1

  1. Our understanding of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  2. The idea of God exists in the mind.
  3. A being which exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
  4. If God only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater being—that which exists in reality.
  5. We cannot be imagining something that is greater than God.
  6. Therefore, God exists.

There are several hidden premises that Anselm’s argument presupposes. These are the most fallacious and glaring examples (at least in my mind) but I am sure there are more:

  1. To exist in the mind is somehow the same as to exist in reality. Therefore these two kinds of existing are comparable.
  2. Existing is “greater” than not existing.

It should be obvious that there is something wrong with the first premise. The concept of a dragon which exists in the mind is nothing like a physical dragon which would exist in reality (if dragons existed). It is not a smaller or less perfect dragon, it is a mere thought. The imagined dragon does not, in any sense, exist in the way that an actual dragon exists.

The difference is a difference of kind not of degree.

Furthermore, a dragon does not spring into being just because I imagine that the greatest dragon of which I am able to conceive is one that actually exists.

We’ll turn to Kant’s critique of pure reason to try and understand why the 2nd earmarked premise fails momentarily, first let’s take a look at the 2nd form that the ontological argument commonly takes. This form of the argument, which takes advantage of modal logic, has been refined by philosopher Alvin Platinga; it looks something like this:1

  1. A maximally great being (God) is one whose greatness is unexcelled in every possible world.
  2. Such a being would, if it existed, be omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good.
  3. If such a being exists in some possible world, it must exist in all possible worlds (in order for maximal greatness to be achieved).
  4. It is at least possible that in some possible world God exists (even if the probability is no greater than that of a teapot orbiting our Sun in some possible universe).
  5. Unlike a teapot, God is maximally great. His maximal greatness means that his existence is stable across all possible worlds.
  6. Therefore, if God exists in some possible world, he must exist in every possible world—including the actual world.

Essentially this argument suggests that the possibility of God’s existence necessitates his existence. The notion of “maximal greatness” necessitates existence and so the argument’s conclusion, “God exists,” is stowing away in the first premise, which begs the question (this is also a tautology, a statement which cannot be false).

Jim Holt, the author of “Why Does the World Exist,” has this to say regarding the modal ontological argument, “Unhappily for partisans of the ontological argument, this logic cuts both ways. There is nothing inherently self-contradictory either in the supposition that a maximally great being does not exist… by parity of reasoning, there must be a possible world in which [God does not exist]. But if God is absent from any possible world, he is absent from all possible worlds—in particular, he is absent from the actual world.”2

Finally, let’s take a look at Immanuel Kant’s refutation of the ontological argument paraphrased from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Kant unpacks the premise “existing is greater than not existing,” or more precisely he unpacks what it is to “exist” at all.

The ontological argument wrongly claims that “existing” is a predicate or attribute possessed by the subject God. Kant says “Existence is evidently not a real predicate … The small word is, is not an additional predicate, but only serves to put the predicate in relation to the subject.” Kant is claiming that “existence” is nothing more than the infinitive of the connecting verb “is.” It is a verb and not a predicate. Existence is not an attribute (like the color red) which something may or may not possess.3

If a thing exists then it necessarily exists, if not then not. Essentially Kant is claiming that the fact of a thing’s existence cannot be resolved a priori (from pure reason), but must be resolved a posteriori (with evidence).

Also, it’s worth pointing out that every religion can avail itself of pure reason in attempting to prove the existence of its respective deity.

If a Christian or a Muslim wants to prove that his religion is the one true religion, he is going to have to open us his holy book and start digging through the historical record. In short, as Christopher Hitchens frequently said, “even if I grant you the existence of God, you still have all your work ahead of you.”

Sources:
Wikipedia, The Ontological Argument1
Jim Holt, “Why Does the World Exist?”2
Wikipedia, Immanuel Kant Critique of Pure Reason3

April 24, 2013
by admin
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Top 5 Reasons Morality Does NOT Come from God

God is a lunatic

God hates homosexuals (Leviticus 20:13)1 and women (1 Corinthians 14:34). God condones polygamy (Samuel 12:8) and slavery (Exodus 21:20).

God is a mass murderer. With the exception of Noah and his family, God drowns everyone and everything on earth in a worldwide flood (including the dinosaurs apparently). He orders Abraham to murder Isaac. He commands Moses to slay the Midianites including the women and children, except the virgins, those he tells Moses to save for himself. Thanks God! The death toll grows ever larger and more violent with the turning of each blood-soaked page.

But… that all changed with Jesus didn’t it?! There is a “new covenant with Christ” which is established the moment Jesus sacrifices himself.

Did the covenant with God (and the Old Testament laws) change with Jesus’ sacrifice? Does it matter either way?

Jesus says in Matthew 5:17 that “he came to fulfill the law, not destroy it.” This seems to suggest that Jesus is not in fact abolishing the prejudicial Old Testament law.

Furthermore Jesus would have been very well versed in Old Testament scripture. He would have read and understood all of the misogynistic and genocidal passages earmarked above. Therefore, Jesus is giving tacit approval of all of the monstrosities committed by God in the Old Testament and of all of the abhorrent Old Testament laws (whether or not they remain in effect post-Jesus).

Additionally, Jesus was not the “great moral teacher” that many think he was. This article from atheism.about.com argues that Jesus was hypocritical (Matthew 5:22 and Matthew 23:17) and praise-hungry (Matthew 22:37-38).

Vicarious redemption via blood sacrifice, a.k.a. scapegoating, is barbaric

Jesus (allegedly) allowed himself to be tortured and executed to pay for the sins of humanity, this is the central tenet of Christianity and it is cruel and barbaric.

The fact that this sacrifice is even necessary is based upon another barbaric doctrine, original sin. The notion that all human beings are born sinners because Adam and Eve merely disobeyed God, is both ludicrous and evil.

Here is Christopher Hitchens on vicarious redemption:

The golden rule is an inherent part of being human and realizing what it is to be human

I experience pain and pleasure. I have very good evidence that almost every other human being I encounter is capable of having painful and pleasurable experiences much like my own. Pleasure is preferable to pain. Therefore I am compelled whenever possible to do no harm to my fellow human beings.

Because we all intrinsically know what it is to be human, and because we all want to be treated with respect and compassion, the “golden rule” is essentially a given. It’s not exactly inborn, but it’s so obvious that cultures the world over teach it to their children when they’re very young. I imagine some people come to realize and obey the golden rule on their own, without being taught.

This is the reason that most religious people DON’T obey the bible in its entirety.

In a civilized society, morality based on ethical principles supersedes (and historically precedes) religious morality. Christianity has long since jettisoned the misogynistic and slavery-condoning principles of its youth.

Ethics-based morality prevents Christians from enforcing the terrible laws described in Leviticus. In fact, religious and secular people alike agree that Christians who attempt to live by Levitical law are monsters, ex: The Westboro Baptist church.

Divine command theory is paradoxical

The “Euthyphro dilemma” proposed by Plato (originally by Socrates) can be stated as follows, “Is an act good because it is good, or is it good because it is commanded by God?”

If divine command is what makes an act pious, then if God were to command us to rape and murder acts of rape and murder would be pious.

If an act is good because it is inherently good, then God is not necessary to determine the morality of an action; furthermore if God is constrained by an external morality, then he is not omnipotent.

Morality is Common in Animals

If you have about 15 minutes, this is an excellent video from TED which makes the case for complex animal morality. Frans de Waal, Do Animals Have Morals?

Sources:
Online Bible1

April 9, 2013
by admin
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Does prayer work?

Does prayer work? I imagine people have prayed for things and had their prayers answered millions of times throughout history. Is a prayer to the Christian god more likely to be answered than a prayer to the Jewish god, Mohammad, or Krishna? Is an answered prayer the result of God interceding on the petitioner’s behalf or is it random chance?

We need to ask, ‘What is the chance the event would have come to pass anyway?’ Assuming we had not prayed for a rain cloud to come and water our crops, what are the chances it would have rained anyway?

It is important to note that all Christians learn very early on to pray for things that might actually happen. I remember being a child and praying for god to give my teenage mutant ninja turtle action figure the ability to fly (Raphael because he was the angriest ninja turtle so I figured if he fell to his death… ehh, no big deal). Then I chucked him off the deck and watched him fall helplessly to the ground. Splat!

I even prayed for god to give me the ability to fly! Of course I jumped off one of the lower steps rather than throw myself off the top of the deck.

It’s a good thing I didn’t have more faith or else I might be dead.

Even at a young age children are able to intuitively recognize the inefficacy of prayer. We learn to pray for things like “please let my mom be nicer to me,” or “make the girl in my homeroom like me,” rather than “fly me to the moon God.” We learn to temper our expectations for the success of our prayers according to probability and reality. In a debate with Pastor Rick Warren, Sam Harris makes this idea abundantly clear,

“Get a billion Christians to pray for a single amputee. Get them to pray that God regrow that missing limb. This happens to salamanders every day, presumably without prayer; this is within the capacity of God. I find it interesting that people of faith only tend to pray for conditions that are self-limiting.” 1

Also, consider the following demonstration which shows why prayer occasionally appears to produce positive results via random chance, even in very unlikely scenarios:

Scientific studies on prayer have been done repeatedly and in each case they have returned a null result, that is to say they have reached the conclusion that prayer has no impact. A few studies have actually shown that prayer can have a negative impact on patients recovering after surgery when they are told they are being prayed for.2 It appears there is added ‘pressure to perform’ (i.e. pressure to show improvements in health) when patients are told they are being prayed for, and the additional stress appears to cause a slightly higher rate of post-op complications in patients who are told people are praying for their health (when compared with patients who aren’t being prayed for, or patients who don’t know they are being prayed for).

Some apologists object to the notion that prayer can be examined within a scientific framework, for example it says in Deuteronomy 6:16 “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” And in the words of C.S. Lewis,

“The trouble is that I do not see how any real prayer could go on under such conditions (i.e. while under the microscope of scientific examination)…Simply to say prayers is not to pray; otherwise a team of properly trained parrots would serve as well as men for our experiment.” 3

Richard Dawkins responds to objections of this variety in The God Delusion,

“A double-blind experiment can be done and was done. It could have yielded a positive result. And if it had, can you imagine that a single religious apologist would have dismissed it on the grounds that scientific research has no bearing on religious matters? Of course not.” 4

And another refutation of this common objection, this time by Sam Harris from the Beyond Belief conference in 2006:

So to answer our original question, does prayer work? The answer is clearly no.

Sources:
The God Debate, http://old.richarddawkins.net/articles/825 1
Prayer meta-study, David R. Hodge 2007 2
C.S. Lewis, “The Efficacy of Prayer,” from The Essential C.S. Lewis p. 379-380.3
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion p. 65.4
Wikipedia, Efficacy of Prayer