More woo and anti-science rants at TEDx

First we had Rupert “can-dogs-find-their-way-home” Sheldrake peddling woo and antiscience at TEDx Whitechapel, and now, at the very same venue, we see Graham Hancock decrying materialism and spouting woo and pseudoarchaeology. Here’s his 18-minute talk:

I actually agree with Hancock’s argument that we should be allowed to take whatever consciousness-altering drugs we want, but I totally reject as unsupported his arguments about our ancestors’ evolution being triggered by hallucinogenic substances and about ancient cave art clearly reflecting psychedelic trances. And I strongly decry his anti-science rant that begins at 9:50:

“That leads me to ask, ‘What is death?’ Our materialist science reduces everything to matter—materialist science in the West says that we are just meat: we’re just our bodies, so when the brain is dead, that’s the end of consciousness. There is no life after death; there is no soul—we just rot and are gone. But actually, many honest scientists should admit that consciousness is the greatest mystery of science, and we don’t know exactly how it works. The brain is involved in it in some way but we’re not sure how. Could be that the brain generates consciousness the way a generator makes electricity. If you hold to that paradigm then of course you can’t believe in life after death: when the generator is broken, consciousness is gone.

But it’s equally possible that the relationship—and nothing in neuroscience rules it out—is more like the relationship of the t.v. signal and the t.v. set. And in that case, when the t.v. set is broken, of course the t.v. signal continues. And this is the paradigm of all the spiritual traditions: that we are immortal souls, temporarily incarnated in these physical forms to learn and to grow and to develop. And really, if we want to know about this mystery, the last people we should ask are materialist, reductionist scientists. They have nothing to say on the matter at all! [Audience laughter.] Let’s go rather to the ancient Egyptians, who put their best minds to work for 3,000 years on the problem of death. . . “

Yep, consciousness is a mystery, but if anything will help us solve it, it will be reductionist science—certainly not woo or spirituality!

Hancock then argues that the best minds of the ancient Egyptians showed that our souls do live on after death and that we will be held accountable for our thoughts, actions, and deeds. (They divined this in part through “dream states” experienced from psychedelic plants.)  At the end, he argues that we may be denying ourselves the “next vital step” in our evolution—it’s not clear whether he means biological or cultural evolution—by refusing to sanction the use of psychedelic substances.

This, then, is Sheldrake-ian woo, and an unconscionable denigration of science in favor of  “insights” derived from ingesting drugs. It’s also the denigration of materialism: a criticism that, as the audience reaction shows, is favored by many.  Too many folks of a religious and spiritual bent resent the successes of science (as compared to faith) in understanding our cosmos, and often express this by hooting and jeering, as do Hancock and Sheldrake, at “scientific materialism.”  “There’s a lot more to the world!”, they cry.

That reminds me of a story that I may have told before.  When I was in college, a friend and I were—as was the custom in the Sixties—spending an evening under the influence of psychedelic substances. Suddenly I had a brilliant insight into the nature of the universe. Knowing I’d forget it, I wrote it down on a scrap of paper. After a while I went to bed, and when I awoke the next day I remembered the paper and reached eagerly into my pocket for it.  On it was scrawled my eternal truth, which turned out to be this:

“The walls are fucking BROWN.”

Many who grew up in the Sixties have a story like this.

I don’t deny that taking drugs can be a valuable way of expanding one’s consciousness. It was for me, for it reinforced my view that each of us is simply a small atom of animate matter in a very large universe, and helped me see the beauty around me that we often overlook. I think Sam Harris has made similar points. But taking drugs is not a substitute for science: it won’t help us understand whether we live on after death, or how consciousness arose, both physiologically and evolutionarily.

Here’s the TEDx blurb on Hancock:

Graham Hancock is the author of The Sign and the Seal, Fingerprints of the Gods, Keeper of Genesis, Heaven’s Mirror, Supernatural and other bestselling investigations of historical mysteries.

His books have been translated into twenty-seven languages and have sold over five million copies worldwide. His public lectures and broadcasts, including two major TV series, Quest for the Lost Civilisation, and Flooded Kingdoms of the Ice Age, have further established his reputation as an unconventional thinker who raises controversial questions about humanity’s past. Hancock’s first venture into fiction, Entangled, was published in 2010 and his second novel, War God, on the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, will be published on 30 May 2013. Hancock maintains an active Facebook presence:…. His website is:

Hancock believes that the Ark of the Covenant was real, and his book The Sign and the Seal (a bestseller, of course), is about his search for that Ark.

Over this weekend I’ve pondered whether talks like Sheldrake’s and Hancock’s should be taken down: would that be “censorship”? And then Carl Zimmer called my attention to this stipulation from the TEDx “rules” page:

Speakers must tell a story or argue for an idea. They may not use the TED stage to sell products, promote themselves or businesses. Every talk’s content must be original and give credit where appropriate. Speakers cannot plagiarize or impersonate other persons, living or dead.

Speakers must be able to confirm the claims presented in every talk — TED and TEDx are exceptional stages for showcasing advances in science, and we can only stay that way if the claims presented in our talks can stand up to scrutiny from the scientific community. TED is also not the right platform for talks with an inflammatory political or religious agenda, nor polarizing “us vs them” language. If Talks fail to meet the standards above, TED reserves the right to insist on their removal.

Sheldrake was not only selling his book, but making false claims about science. Hancock does the same thing by insisting that ancient Egyptians tell us things about our consciousness that science hasn’t—and can’t. TEDx has the right to remove talks that abrogate these rules (what is Hancock’s anti-science rant but “us versus them” stuff?), and it should remove Hancock’s and Sheldrake’s videos.  If they don’t, it will simply confirm a growing view that TED and its subsidiaries are moving away from good science and heading toward Deepak and Oprah.

The motto of TEDx is “ideas worth spreading.”  Well, so is manure.

h/t: Carl Zimmer


  1. Elyss
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    That TV analogy has to be the worst I’ve ever come across. It’s the exact opposite of analagous. The TV signal is not remotely like consciousness; it’s more like sound or light waves. When the TV dies, the signal continues but the TV stops processing it; when the brain dies, sound and light waves continue but the brain stops processing them.

    What idiocy. I’ve never been a fan of TEDx but I can see I’m going to have to be extra discriminating with TED talks now, just in case.

    • Posted March 10, 2013 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

      And more important, when the source that produces that TV signal “dies” (transmitter fails), the TV signal (and TV video image) terminates (even if the TV erceiver continues to function); the Analogy is a failure from start to finish, coming and going.

  2. SJ
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Oh noes not him again! Hancock is a well-known peddler of crack-pot archaeology (

    And it seems crack-pot biology, as here:

    “Why does the 97 per cent of DNA that scientists do not understand – so called “junk DNA” – contain chemical “sequences” arranged in patterns and frequencies that are otherwise only found in the deep coding of all human languages?

    Could the “supernaturals” first depicted in the painted caves and rock shelters – and still accessible to us today in altered states of consciousness – be the ancient teachers of mankind? Could it be they who first ushered us into the full birthright of our humanity? And could it be that human evolution is not just the “blind”, “meaningless” “natural” process that Darwin identified, but something else, more purposive and intelligent, that we have barely even begun to understand?”

    • Posted March 10, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      Beware of anyone who goes from one rhetorical question to another without waiting for answers. My mother used to say “Always answer a rhetorical question. Never answer an implied question (like Someone’s been eating the biscuits…?”)

      So my answers are
      Because the human mind is programmed to find patterns, whether they are there or not,
      Almost certainly not,
      This doesn’t seem to mean anything, and
      Well it could, but such an extraordinary claim would require extraordinary evidence.

    • Posted March 10, 2013 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

      The correct answer is: with 3 billion base pairs, you’re going to find pretty much anything you look for.

  3. will
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    The problem with these consciousness-transcends-death believers is that they bring no actual proof to the table to support their theory. There is obviously something within our evolved human consciousness that is uncomfortable (at odds) with a mindless, meaningless universe that has no “plan”. So we invent & invest all these meanings for the skies and planets and other rocks. When you look at ancient Mesopotamian culture, EVERYTHING is invested with supernatural meaning.

    The Institute for Creation Research has a website that derides evolutionists for a “lack of proof”, saying that if evolution is real, we should be able to observe “transitional forms” all around us, and that the fossil record should be “rife with transitional forms”. With all of man’s tinkering with breeding (dogs, cats, cows, etc) “no truly new speies has ever been produced”. Etcetera. So while these Creationists deride us for a supposed “lack of proof” they then go back to the comforfort of their Omnipotent God/Garden of Eden/talking snake story.

    The consciousness-transcends-death people should be required to bring some kind of evidence to their argument.

    • Posted March 10, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      First, “proof” is for closed systems. You can examine the law and determine what is ‘proof’, depending on the legal system. At one time, if a woman was cast into a pond and floated, that was “proof” she was a witch. If she sank (and began to drown…quick!!) then that was “proof” she was not a witch.

      Algebra begins with a series of proofs, such as a+b=b+a.

      The real world cannot give anything by high certainty,extremely high certainty.

      Consciousness after death? Not unless your memories are somehow unlocked from your brain. Memory has been studied for its physical manifestations very intently for the last thirty years. Calcium and sodium ions are known to be required for memory to work, along with many many enzymes. Memory simply does not exist without material to create it.

      Think of an aircraft carrier. We all recognize its basic shape, and many of its basic functions. You don’t have to thoroughly understand it (e.g. how many sailors are left-handed, what is the size of the mess hall, u.s.w.) to known it that aircraft carriers don’t fly through the air, and that an uncontained hole in the hull will sink the ship. Memory dies when you die. End of story.

      Are ants, spiders, and beetles conscious? Yeah, they run away from fire, stuff like that. So what? Do they go to a church and pray?

      “Consciousness” is a misname for awareness.

      • will
        Posted March 10, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

        If memory means nothing when unlinked from materialism (the body), then what possible use could a Heaven be for Christians who put so much stock on reuniting with loved ones? I really think most Believers would no use for a Paradise without memory. It would be conceived as an empty experience. I’ve never read about a material link (your sodium!) needed to maintain memory – and therefore, I suppose, our human consciousness — but it sounds fascinating.

        • Posted March 10, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

          Read “101 Theory Drive” by Terry McDermott (2010). The book is about Gary Lynch, 25 years at UC Irvine trying to evaluate the idea of Long Term Potentiation as the mechanism for memory. Here’s from pages 251-252:

          “….Indeed, a tally of the proteins, enzymes, and other molecular actors involved in memory offered a powerful counterargument….Seth Grant, a neuroscientist at the Sanger Institute outside London, has counted more than one thousand proteins present at the average synapse. If only half that number were actually doing something, isolating and understanding the behavior of each of them would be a herculean undertaking. Lynch was prosaic about the complexity. “It’s a bitch and two-thirds, ” he said. “And stupid too.””

          “Even within this convoluted, multivariant world, Long Term Potentiation is a preposterous idea. It is a fabulously complicated process involving hundreds of individual proteins interacting within a space far, far smaller than the head of a pin every time it occurs, which is to say, hundreds of proteins are engaged by the second. To think that the whole point of that whirlwind of activity is to slightly alter the shape of a tiny portion of a tiny cell, to relax its surface and thus allow room for more molecules of a very particular type to emerge from with the cell–and that’s how memory occurs? If you were not a biologist, the who notion might seem a seriously crackpot idea. Ingenious, yes, but crackpot. It is actually more evidence of the degree to which human biology is the result of millions of years of evolution and random mutations, some of which have served useful purposes and some of which haven’t. Evolution has a direction, Lynch like to say, and it isn’t toward perfection. Over time the useful mutations have survived. The process is far from elegant, and the resulting organism is a magnificent contraption, a sackful of accidents stuffed with extra parts and sometimes contradictory actions that nonetheless work. Well, much of the time.
          Brain scientists, better than almost anyone, see in their experiments the routine evidence of biological complications. The mammalian brain is very much not how you would have designed the thing if you had started out with a clean slate. If you could, it is highly unlikely you would use the molecules that heal scratches on your arm to secure your memories, but no one was in charge of this process.”

          • Mary Canada
            Posted March 10, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

            McDermott gave a lecture about this on Fora tv.

  4. gbjames
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Seems to me that nothing argues for consciousness being a property of the material universe more than that one can ingest physical material for the purposes of altering it.

    But… brown? The walls were BROWN?

    • Posted March 10, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      What an excellent point!

      And maybe they just looked brown, because they were lit only by candles. And there was incense. And sitar music. Ooo, wow!

      • Uncle Ebeneezer
        Posted March 10, 2013 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

        Musta been the Brown acid at woodstock!

  5. Mary Canada
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    The constant theme with fatheist: look to the ancients for answers and evidence to explain or solve present day problems. Materialism is bunk UNTIL they’re having serious medical problems that only present day science can rectify. It’s all pandering to the ignorant to increase profit margins.

  6. SLPage
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    I remember watching Hancock on one of those ‘Atlantis’ shows on, of all things, the History Channel many years ago. Not that I had any doubts, but I knew Hancock was a crank when, in an attempt to explain how his “theory” on what happened to Atlantis, he claimed that the entire crust of the earth shifted, that it was pulled “down” toward the south pole. Yes, he claimed that ‘south’ is down.

  7. Posted March 10, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    My favorite #TEDfail is Elaine Morgan:

    “Elaine Morgan Says We Evolved From Aquatic Apes”

    Idea spread to 500,000 views and counting…

    • Posted March 10, 2013 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

      I love the aquatic ape hypothesis

      I am fairly sure that it’s rubbish
      But I still want it to be true because it’s a lovely story

      One of the elements coming into play in my mind is our love of the oceans & seas [and particularly sea views]
      Of the 20 people alive I can think of who have moved from Birmingham UK upon retirement 17 of them now reside by the sea or near huge lakes/lochs

      It’s just my fancy

      • Posted March 10, 2013 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

        The aquatic ape hypothesis might be taken more seriously, if you read “aquatic” broadly in the sense that otters are aquatic, meaning we spent a lot of time standing in rivers and tides, catching fish by hand. We obviously didn’t go very far in adapting to a watery life.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted March 10, 2013 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

          I thought the aquatic ape hypothesis was exactly that ~ we as a shoreline mammal just as you describe it

          I remember Morgan writing about birth in water & I thought that was too far…

        • microraptor
          Posted March 10, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

          Aren’t river otters fairly well adapted to an aquatic lifestyle? To the point that most species get most if not all of their food from the water? Way more than just wading into the shallows for opportunistic hunting.

          A human ancestor species that had members that occasionally ate fish or aquatic invertebrates really couldn’t be considered an aquatic ape any more than modern chimpanzees, bonobos, or baboons, which have all been observed catching and eating things like mussels or freshwater shrimp from time to time.

  8. Bobbie James
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    I saw a TED Talks a few months ago that had something to do with a fetus growing in the womb and showed wonderful close ups of the intracies of nerves, veins and arteries. But whoever it was talking (I guess I didn’t pay much attention) kept talking about how “it was designed” and claimed there had to be a designer in his otherwise good talk. Seems to me he was from some university. Right then, I worried about the qualifications to give a TED Talk.

  9. Posted March 10, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink


    …and it’s a big, wide world and a bigger, wider universe. Life is a staircase we use for forward and backward motion, complete with landings we use for contemplation. We can take along tools and use them, or we can toss them over the railing. Time is a system based on fog and mirrors, fun and despair, light, air and water. Some see it all as a test or a puzzle to be completed with 100 percent accuracy; some see it as a playground where poetry comes to life like flowers in the spring.

    What EVER…! I love this blog!

    • gbjames
      Posted March 10, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink


  10. Posted March 10, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Ok, I can admit this: “But it’s equally possible that the relationship—and nothing in neuroscience rules it out—is more like the relationship of the t.v. signal and the t.v. set. And in that case, when the t.v. set is broken, of course the t.v. signal continues”

    But keeping the analogy some other generator sends the signal, and when it is broken, no TV anymore! How is possible that they cannot see that this just complicates all endelessly? And it does not makes sense from a biological perspective. Can you imagine if someone hacks the signal, or if it gets interrupted because solar flares. Let´s research the most plausible and logical first. My brain generates my “I” (we do not have the full picture yet, but this line of research is moving ahead clearly)

    • Posted March 10, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      The best definition of “I” is, “the remembered present”. As soon as you are ‘conscious’ of any instant in time, that instant is in the past…the immediate past, but it is still in what is called “working memory”. Look at Paul Allen’s Brain Institute for the latest information, papers, etc. about the mind and physical brain.

      • Posted March 10, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

        It is Nobel laureate biologist Gerald Edelman who coined the term “remembered present” back (IIRC) in 1992.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted March 10, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      But it’s equally possible that…

      What does that even mean? I would understand “equally probable” (which clearly does not apply in this case) but “equally possible” doesn’t even mean anything.

      • BillyJoe
        Posted March 10, 2013 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

        Well, he means “equally likely”. The question is: How does he know that? Just because there are two possibilities doesn’t mean they are equally likely (btw, that’s where he gets his “equally possible” from)

  11. Posted March 10, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Agreed, it’s very frustrating to see people broadcasting crackpot ideologies under the guise of science. Worse, though, is that people believe it. Keep up the good work!

  12. Occam
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Hancock believes that the Ark of the Covenant was real…

    Damn right, the Ark is real: it lies in a crate numbered ARMY INTEL 9906753 in Hangar 51!

    Crate 9906573, on the other hand, contained the remains of the Roswell alien. The Roswell alien was in reality an Egyptian, their best mind, who had managed to solve the problem of death. Or so he thought.

    The similarity in numbers induced dyslexic KGB thugs to steal the wrong crate. The Kremlin got the mashed bones of an over-ripe Egyptian pilot. The Templeton Foundation got the Ark. They peddled the exclusive rights to Google and are squandering the proceeds right now.

  13. microraptor
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Hang on, I need to put on some Led Zeppelin before I read this post.

    • Posted March 10, 2013 at 4:36 pm | Permalink



      • microraptor
        Posted March 10, 2013 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

        I heard that if you listen to Bob Dylan backwards, you can understand what he’s singing…

  14. Posted March 10, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    “nothing in neuroscience rules it out”

    There’s also nothing in neuroscience that rules out that we are really living in the Matrix and all experience is actually an illusion generated by sentient machines.

    • Posted March 10, 2013 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      yes there is:



    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted March 10, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      nothing in neuroscience rules it out

      My view is that Occam’s razor is part of science, and is therefore part of neuroscience. Occam’s razor does not strictly “rule out” such tomfoolery, but it does advise us not to take it seriously – until evidence is presented in its favour.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 10, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      Depends on if you allow physics. Look at quantum phenomena and you can tell. (Since hidden variables are forbidden.)

  15. Posted March 10, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    On naturalist approaches to explaining consciousness, there’s a nice recent exchange between Owen Flanagan (physicalist) and Evan Thompson (neutral monist) at They agree that Cartesian dualism doesn’t cut it, but disagree on what would.

  16. Posted March 10, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    “The walls are fucking BROWN.”

    Man, that’s heavy! 🙂

  17. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Hey, why wouldn’t we look to the ancient Egyptians for answers? After all, they cured smallpox and put a man on the moon, didn’t they?

  18. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Woo. Boo!

    But it’s equally possible that the relationship—and nothing in neuroscience rules it out—is more like the relationship of the t.v. signal and the t.v. set. And in that case, when the t.v. set is broken, of course the t.v. signal continues. And this is the paradigm of all the spiritual traditions: that we are immortal souls, temporarily incarnated in these physical forms to learn and to grow and to develop. And really, if we want to know about this mystery, the last people we should ask are materialist, reductionist scientists. They have nothing to say on the matter at all!

    Of course we can tell, now.

    It turns out that the vacuum is a wonderful system. Everything that isn’t explicitly forbidden by physics law will happen. (Cf Strassler’s “Of Particular Significance” particle physics lessons.)

    So since the 70s, with the advent of the Standard Model for particles, physicists have started to rule out other forces that interact with daily physics energy scales.

    Quantum field theory of the electromagnetic field is the most precise physics theory we have. Physicists can routinely predict observations to 11 (!) significant digits.

    Therefore we know there is nothing extraordinary that would fundamentally disturb a chemical model. In fact, with the observation of the Higgs field we know there is no new physics (unfortunately) up to 100’s of GeV energies.

    Which makes the chemo-electric body and brain system at a few eV very safe guarded. When the chemistry tends towards massive cellular death, the consciousness goes with it. The same happens in Jerry’s favorite example, anesthesia, but for more interesting reasons.*

    Really, if Hancock would like to know something mysterious, the first people he should ask is the materialist, reductionist scientists. They may already have the answer!

    * I read this week (somewhere, so sue me) that it looks like these chemicals breaks the long range communication in the brain.

    They can now see a signal where only localized activity starts and where it stops (two different waves changes, but I can’t remember if its amplitude and/or phase) and have tied it to the exact moment anesthesia starts and stops. (Which will help surgery with ensuring patients are anesthetized the whole time.)

    • Peter Ozzie Jones
      Posted March 10, 2013 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

      Torbjörn, your contributions are always worth reading. Call off your lawyer, you may have read this at Nature?

      General anaesthetic disrupts brain communication

      Scientific American covered it too.

      It is dawning on me that old age has similar effects . . .

      • el_slapper
        Posted March 11, 2013 at 4:40 am | Permalink

        Made me think of a better analogy than TV : computers. The body being the hardware, & the soul being the software.

        When the hardware is turned off(anesthesia) of broken(death), software is still there. Yet, it’s no more relevant, or useful, or active, or whatever. It’s like if it did never exist.

        Software can be thought of outside of hardware, but only makes sense, gets real within a functionning hardware. So is cousciousness/soul/whatever we think with : when the hardware(body) is no more active, it does not make sense anymore. Wether it survives the body/Whether the software is erased is irrelevant. There is no more use for it. Period.

        • Jake Hamby
          Posted March 16, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

          Where it gets really trippy (and Daniel Dennett goes into detail about this in his 1991 book “Consciousness Explained”) is when you realize that humans invented computers (hardware and software) as a projection of our own consciousness into an external form.

          Dennett makes the point that consciousness is a generally serial activity that our brains implement on top of a massively parallel biological system, just like we’ve designed computers to execute sets of instructions in serial order on top of millions of transistors running in parallel. We designed computers to work that way because it’s the best mapping between our own consciousness and machine logic.

          So any analogies between our brains and computers (or any other technology) are probably due to the fact that we created them in our own image (or at least to serve our needs), and not because those technologies somehow represent any sort of consciousness other than what we’ve projected into them.

          In operating systems terminology, the term “process” is used to represent a program that is currently executing (or waiting for an event, or temporarily paused while another process is running) on a running system. Modern OS’s generally support multi-CPU systems that allow multiple processes to run concurrently, as well as allowing processes to contain multiple threads of execution that can run concurrently but share the same memory space which is protected from that of the other processes (so one process can’t trash another process’s memory), but those are elaborations to the basic point that a “program” is a bunch of code and data sitting on disk and the “process” is the program actually executing on the running system.

          Excluding psychiatric conditions like Dissociative Identity Disorder, humans generally have a single consciousness “process” that runs or doesn’t run. That’s a big part of the reason why it’s quite difficult for programmers (and takes a lot of experience to get good at) to reason about parallel and multithreaded programs, because we’re so used to thinking about one thing at a time, despite how our brain “hardware” is actually implementing our consciousness.

  19. horrabin
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    “Let’s go rather to the ancient Egyptians, who put their best minds to work for 3,000 years on the problem of death. . .”

    …and came up with a hippo-lion-crocodile that eats souls. Yeah, lets listen to them…

  20. Jeff Johnson
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    The TV signal analogy for consciousness is incredibly annoying, and I think this idea is highly falsifiable. Ignoring many of the technical problems, such as that transmission would have to provide unique signals for each individual always arriving continuously without interference wherever in space we happen to be, the simple fact that this signal is able to affect the physical nervous system of our bodies and stimulate detectable electrical activity in our brains provides a clue as to how we could build a detector to sense the presence or absence of such a signal at any point in space. Nobody with any brains is wasting their time on this though.

    I don’t doubt, and would be willing to bet, such signals would never be discovered outside of the interior of the human brain.

    This antenna idea also fails to provide what the woo people would like, which is an explanation for supposed out-of-body and after death consciousness. The hypothetical consciousness signal requires a brain-like material structure as a receiver and perceiver. So this hypothesis ends up being functionally equivalent to the hypothesis that the material brain generates consciousness internally, except that it would also require a gargantuan byzantine centralized communications infrastructure that the materialist model can do without. In order to get your spiritual supernatural conscious universe you have to invent the ultimate in Stalinist mind control.

    The idea that some element of consciousness inheres in all matter, ala Sheldrake, and that more complex material structures are capable of greater consciousness has more to recommended it because it has the right properties of being decentralized and distributed in space. But still it has many problems, such as the fact that if a rock or piece of wood is supposed to have some basic level of consciousness, why does our extremely complex brain lose all its consciousness during sleep or when infiltrated by a general anesthetic? It makes no sense. Certainly we should still have at least as much awareness as a stone when under the influence of altered mind states.

    The wishful thinkers aren’t able to do even this very minimal amount of critical and logical thinking.

  21. BillyJoe
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand that enthusiastic clapping at the end of this talk. Is the audience selected. My own reaction would have been complete and utter silence out of pity for someone so self deluded.

    • pulseteresa
      Posted March 12, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      I’d say they’re self selected. TED talks aren’t free to attend so what sane, science minded person would bother to pay to listen to such nonsense? If I had so-called expendable income I might attend such a talk if only to ask, during the Q&A, why anyone should take his nonsense seriously.

  22. Suri
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Permalink


  23. Posted March 10, 2013 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    I kind of want to know: were the walls actually brown? (I mean, the next morning?)

  24. Cremnomaniac
    Posted March 10, 2013 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    Hancock says,

    But actually, many honest scientists should admit that consciousness is the greatest mystery of science, and we don’t know exactly how it works.

    Isaac Asimov replies,

    To surrender to ignorance and call it God has always been premature, and it remains premature today.

    This single quote by Asimov seems to summarize all arguments against religion and woo. I don’t know how many times now, we have some idiot attributing super-woo to something just because its “such a mystery.” Ignorant and intellectually lazy, thats all they are.

  25. Chris
    Posted March 11, 2013 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    I’ve read one of Hancock’s books – it was part interesting-read-on-shamanism, part cosmic-transcendent-lsd-snake hippy bullshit…

    I quite enjoyed the book it but took it with a massive bucket of salt. He seemed to see that patterns in ancient art and more modern beliefs had a transcendent explanation, not that maybe our brains evolved to recognise and therefore create those patterns.

  26. squidmaster
    Posted March 11, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Is consciousness all that mysterious? Brains have evolved the capacity to perceive the world and create a representation of it, the better to act on it to get those needs fulfilled. One of the things it perceives is what it just did (ate a salad) and what it considered doing (eat a big plate of fries) but did not. It reports this perception to other inquisitive brains by saying, “I ate a salad, but passed on the fries”. I might add elaborations about why it thinks it did that (“I’m on a diet” or “I hate the French”) and sometimes, it might be right about its motivation.

    I don’t find this very mysterious and I find philosophical nattering (e.g., qualia) about the supposed conundrums of consciousness rather misleading.

    Consciousness exists on a continuum. Non-humans have behaviors that clearly derive from a rather complex representation of the world and, in the most sophisticated cases (apes and some birds), something that looks like self-consciousness. One can debate the exact nature of self representation chimps or crows exhibit, but these two species (whose last common ancestor lived 340 MYA) clearly share some characteristic behaviors with humans.

    If phylogenetically earlier humans were not extinct, we might have more examples of self consciousness to study that would shed light on what seems to be a qualitatively different way of perceiving oneself in modern humans.

    And, as long as I’m in the middle of a rant, I’ll just say that the conflation of quantum phenomena with consciousness is nonsense of the highest order.

    Re: stoned insights. I came to the conclusion that drugs were really good at getting me high, but not so good at leading to real insights. But getting high is a fine end in itself. I’m OK with having to come by the insights the hard way. My favorite tripping room had one wall painted with a huge american flag. Not brown.

    • Sam
      Posted March 14, 2013 at 8:39 am | Permalink

      well Crick’s insight on LSD re structure of DNA was pretty accurate…

  27. pulseteresa
    Posted March 12, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    And here I thought Terence McKenna was dead. Perhaps his consciousness was transferred to Graham Hancock upon McKenna’s death. Yeah, that makes perfect sense.

  28. Posted March 15, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    The video of Hancock’s speech only really starts to get anti-science around the 10-11 minute mark.

  29. Posted March 22, 2013 at 1:54 am | Permalink

    TEDx has a quantum woo event coming up on April 14.
    Some of the speakers are card-carrying pseudo-scientists every bit as bad as Sheldrake. The rest seem to be woo-peddlers with perhaps 2 or 3 exceptions.

  30. Posted July 22, 2013 at 2:57 am | Permalink

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3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] highly regarded in the Skeptic community who also complained about Sheldrake, notes that they also invite Graham Hancock along to have an anti-materialist and pseudo-archeology based […]

  2. […] few days later, Coyne warned about more woo and anti-science at TEDx due to the Graham Hancock‘s speech decrying materialism and spouting woo and […]

  3. […] down (it’s not, and by definition it can’t). Also a short time later, there was a talk by pseudo-archaeologist Graham Hancock, famous for claiming there was a great Atlantis-like civilization 12,500 years ago (whose research […]

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