Afterlives and Brainstorms

Personally, I choose to believe that the white light people sometimes see, visions this patient saw…  they’re all just chemical reactions that take place when the brain shuts down. There’s no conclusive science.  My choice has no practical relevance to my life, I choose the outcome I find more comforting.

That was Greg House, five years ago (:)), and his explanation of near-death experiences. Turns out, five years is long enough for medical science to have progressed a bit further towards a conclusive explanation for near-death experiences. The Sunday Times reports a finding by intensivists at the GWU medical centre that suggests a possible explanation for the phenomenon of near-death experiences that (roughly a fifth of the) people ‘brought back’ from cardiac arrests (and clinical death) report.

Contrary to what popular rhetoric about these matters would have one believe (a la ‘…this person was alive until a second ago, and now he’s dead. Since there’s been no physical change in his body, what caused the death must have been the departure of his soul’), death is not momentary, but is actually an elaborate process in which the body shuts down. The present findings suggest that one step of the process is that just before death, the brain fires up with neural activity, lasting from about 30 seconds to about 3 minutes.  The researchers say that this spike in brain activity immediately before death could explain near-death experiences.

People who have been oxygen-deprived – people who are being asphyxiated, for example – often feel euphoric when their breathing is restored to normal. Brains can also have surges in electrical activity leading to vivid mental sensations if the oxygen-deprivation isn’t corrected at all, evidently. In its last effort (presumably at recovery), the brain fires an electrical impulse that cascades out from one part of the brain to spike activity all over the brain, to levels similar to conscious people.

The study wasn’t extensive, having been conducted on only seven patients, all of whom died. The study isn’t conclusive either, but it is the first attempt at a specific explanation for this phenomenon. I should point out that the reporter who wrote this story is either pandering, or is a credulous cretin: he says this study might be proof that the explanation for near-death experiences is biological rather than metaphysical. You need proof that what happens physically might have a physical explanation?


An Atheist’s Creed

I’m often asked, being an atheist, what my motivation in life is. Okay, I’m kidding, nobody’s ever asked me that. But if someone were to ask me why, if I believe there is no purpose to life, I continue to be optimistic about (some) things, continue to believe that people are (basically) good, I would direct them to this wonderful passage-in-verse I found a while ago at Pharyngula:

I believe in time,
matter, and energy,
which make up the whole of the world.
I believe in reason, evidence and the human mind,
the only tools we have;
they are the product of natural forces
in a majestic but impersonal universe,
grander and richer than we can imagine,
a source of endless opportunities for discovery.

I believe in the power of doubt;
I do not seek out reassurances,
but embrace the question,
and strive to challenge my own beliefs.

I accept human mortality.

We have but one life,
brief and full of struggle,
leavened with love and community,
learning and exploration,
beauty and the creation of
new life, new art, and new ideas.

I rejoice in this life that I have,
and in the grandeur of a world that preceded me,
and an earth that will abide without me.

I would also point them to this comic at xkcd, and say I’m the guy in the hat.

I'm the guy in the hat, yo!

For most people, I suppose life is hard enough without the burden of knowing that everything they do is ultimately meaningless; that they are relatively simple collections of goo in an extraordinarily complex universe with nobody pulling the strings to favour them or their existence. I think this might explain why the religious among us get as upset as they do about blasphemy. I do, however, prefer knowing the truth, even if it isn’t entirely pleasant at first, to not knowing the truth and living in false hope. (I also don’t presume to be better at being able to handle the truth than anybody else, which is one reason I’m not averse to arguing with people about belief and non-belief).

She did what? Talk to a guy? The nerve of her!

I was told about this report of a student at a local engineering college (SMK Fomra Institute of Technology) in Chennai killing herself after she and some others were reprimanded for having company of the opposite sex. And no, I don’t mean ‘having company’; I only mean being in the presence of, and conversing with.

First off, to be fair, I don’t know that this is the whole story. I can’t, for example, understand how it is that a girl thinks her parents, who have been willing to send her to college 2000 km away, will object to her talking to guys. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what the story is being claimed to be – that she got a scolding, that she was told her parents would be informed that she was talking to, you know, boys, and that she was so distraught about even the possibility of this that she hanged herself. It doesn’t seem beyond possibility, to me, that there may have been other issues involved.

The girl, Anithra, was rebuked by the chairman of the college, S Fomra who also happened to be related to her. My beef about this episode is this: Even if one ignores the fact that the college was enforcing policy that wouldn’t pass a laugh test, and ignores that in order to better enforce their policies of sexual repression that would seem borderline strict in the 17th Century Mughal empire of Aurangazeb, the college was snooping on its own students with CCTV cameras installed all over campus, I still can’t imagine how it is that the Chairman of an engineering college has enough time, or motivation, or less sensibility and sensitivity than a dry turd to watch the feed from the CCTVs, discover infractions of ‘college policy’ and reprimand the ‘offenders’ himself. How does this happen? Is this what Chairpersons of colleges do, these days?

As it happens, I am in no mood to ignore the fact that there are co-ed colleges that would try or even want to enforce a policy that forbids students talking to people of the opposite sex. What the hell does the administration of this college think it is running? A high school in Khomeini’s Iran? A madrasa for the Taliban? The girl was an adult, for crying out loud. If she were caught fucking somebody in her hostel room, it still would be nothing more than an impressive feat of sneaking past the (presumably many) guards and cameras. It certainly would be none of the college’s goddamn business.

When will colleges learn to stop treating students like convicts? Or like sex-addicts who are just waiting for the people in charge to turn around for coffee to start fornicating?

I thought colleges were places which instil in you values of good judgement and sensibility, places that are the first periods of extended social life outside family, places that trained you for your life ahead. Contrast that with the utter idiocy on display here. If this is how our colleges are run, is it any surprise that this society reeks of sexual repression?

* On an unrelated note, the Times reporter says the fact that the girl was related to the chairman is ironic. Why? How is a relative of a college administrator any less likely to have personal issues? Or is it perhaps unworthy of attention if non-relatives of college administrators to kill themselves? Ironic! The idiocy.


Marine biologists now have video of what is the rarest fish alive, from off the coast of California. It’s only ‘rare’ because we’ve never been able to film one in its natural habitat before this – we’ve known about the existence of this fish since 1939!

In any case, it’s called the barreleye, and no, the eyes are not where you’d expect them to be – because where you’d expect the eyes to be, there are pits that help sharpen the fish’s olfactory system. As in most fish that live at great depths underwater, the eyes of the barreleye point toward the only direction from which there’s likely to be any light – up. (Those green barrel-like things, in the barreleye). The barreleye, it turns out, can rotate its eyes to focus on food that’s in front of it.

Another fish that’s been known about for some time – a decade – but only now classified as its own species is the pink handfish (there are other handfish types, 14 in all, all critically endangered); this particular type were last seen in 1999 off the coast of Tasmania. These fish use their modified fins to ‘walk’ along the sea floor rather than swim – the beginnings of terrestrial life, as far as we can tell. One point, though – these things walk the sea-floor, ya-say, so why aren’t their eyes pointing upwards? Turns out, they only inhabit the shallow waters of the continental shelf. Neat.

PS: I was told I was flogging (and kicking and pissing on and in sundry other ways mutilating) a dead horse (eh, KNR?) by attacking the reprehensible institutionalisation of misogyny that is today’s organised Islam and that I should be writing about more useful stuff. I don’t think the horse is anywhere near dead yet – certainly not as dead as I would like patriarchal religions from the Dark Ages to be – but that is for some other time.

What Fatwa?

Vir Sanghvi writes, on his website, about the seeming propensity the media has to report stories that make Islam seem reactionary. Is it the case that the media reports every medieval statement made by a Muslim cleric? There have to be, for instance, equally mental loons or ‘protectors of culture’ in other groups too. Why aren’t the media running stories of silly pronouncements by the ‘leaders’ of other faiths? Or perhaps not running these stories at all?

I’m sure there is some truth to what is being said here. People usually stereotype other people, other groups, other religions around them, and almost never question a story that reinforces their preconceptions. I’m not sure that this is the entirety of what has happened here, however.

The ruling that drew flak from the media and hence from everybody else was one issued by the Darul Ifta, the section of the Darul Uloom Deoband that answers questions from people. In their own words:

Darul Ifta It is one of the most significant departments of Darul Uloom from which people all across the world question in their religious and social matters. Darul Uloom has issued fatwas from its inception but when questions started coming in bulks and it was hard for the teachers to reply them in their part time, Darul Uloom set up this department in 1310 H (1892). Darul Ifta has always been centre of attraction and held great respect and trust in public and court circles. So far more than 7 Lakh fatwas have been issued from this department. The present Darul Ifta was built in 1368 H (1949) while the adjoining hall has been recently added.

Darul Ifta has always been centre of attraction and held great respect and trust in public and court circles. Darul Ifta, besides guiding in religio-social matters is also a very forceful means of rapport between Darul Uloom Deoband, and the common run of Muslims. The Fatwas of Darul Uloom have been highly esteemed in and outside the country; besides, the masses the law court in the country also honour them and consider them decisive. [Emphasis mine]

Sounds important, does it not? “More than 7 lakh fatwas have been issued so far”, they say. Vir Sanghvi asks indignantly why people choose to believe that an answer on a website constitutes a fatwa. Maybe this is why, hmm?

The particular answer that was taken to task was this:

Question: 21031. 4 April, 2010

Asalamu-Alikum: Can Muslim women in India do Govt. or Pvt. Jobs? Shall their salary be Halal or Haram or Prohibited?

Answer: 21031

(Fatwa: 577/381/L=1431)

It is unlawful for Muslim women to do job in government or private institutions where men and women work together and women have to talk with men frankly and without veil.

Allah (Subhana Wa Ta’ala) Knows Best

Vir Sanghvi quotes Syeda Hameed from the Indian Express, who says that the person answering the question was saying that the ruling he gave was his opinion, but Allah knows best. A look at the website would show that the line ‘Allah knows best’ goes at the bottom under every question answered and every fatwa issued. It’s as if it’s all right for the people answering the questions to say whatever they want, and end the answer with ‘AKB’ and all’s forgiven. I call, to borrow a phrase from Rachel Maddow, bull-puckey.

Sanghvi and Hameed may also be entirely right that this was some publicity-seeking junior cleric who wants to take Islam back to the Middle Ages. My problem with the whole matter is this: even people who criticised the inanity of the fatwa did so because they thought the Darul Uloom was declaring a woman’s salary to be Haram. Nobody even notices, let alone objects, that the idiot who was answering the question had matter-of-factly condemned women to the confines of their kitchens. Nobody objects that Muslim women who want to be outside their houses have to walk around in mobile tarpaulins, wear elbow-length gloves, and cover their faces. And this is what passes for liberalism and being moderate.

Sharia ‘Law’ – A poem by Nessrriinn

There has never been a worse scourge against human rights, especially those of women, than the currently widespread versions of radical-Islam in the Arab-Muslim world, and that ‘Code of Law’ called Sharia.

Arundhati Roy writes, of the power of poetry,

[Does] the attempt to always be precise, to try and get it all factually right somehow [reduce] the epic scale of what is really going on? Does it mask a larger truth? […] [Am I] allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry [?]. Something about the cunning, Brahminical, intricate, bureaucratic, file-bound, ‘apply-through-proper-channels’ nature of governance and subjugation in India seems to have made a clerk out of me. My only excuse is to say that it takes odd tools to uncover the maze of subterfuge and hypocrisy that cloaks the callousness and the cold, calculated violence of the world’s favourite new Superpower. Repression ‘through proper channels’ sometimes engenders resistance ‘through proper channels’. As resistance goes this isn’t enough, I know. But for now, it’s all I have. Perhaps someday it will become the underpinning for poetry and for the feral howl.

So, while  I could write about the patent misogyny in Islam, the denial of the most basic of freedoms to its women, and the worst sort of punishment for what are deemed to be crimes – always ‘in the eyes of’ a (presumably feckless) god – by thugs in robes, it would hardly do justice to the gravity of the injustice meted out to the women.

I found this rendition of a poem about Sharia Law on YouTube:


I have plenty of people I admire and people whose opinions I value. I don’t, therefore, subscribe to the mealy-mouthed inanity that is today’s self-help genre of literature, nor to the ever so many and ever-growing number of people willing and eager to dish out advice to any and all takers, through any medium that will tolerate them. Like this dumb-ass:

I’d like to ask the stupid git – couldn’t you have picked something made of, you know, steel?

From Greg Laden