Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Unsolved Mysteries of the World

Few stories have the power to captivate us more than those that remain unresolved. Codes, puzzles and cryptic public art tease us with their intrigue: Why is their message coded? What great secrets might they hide? Despite the efforts of our most learned historians, cleverest cryptographers and most determined treasure hunters, history is replete with riddles that continue to confound us today. Fictional tales like those featured in “The Da Vinci Code” and the movie “National Treasure” have got nothing on these real-life puzzles. Here's our list of 10 of the world's most cryptic unsolved mysteries and codes.

Voynich Manuscript

Named after the Polish-American antiquarian bookseller Wilfrid M. Voynich, who acquired it in 1912, the Voynich Manuscript is a detailed 240-page book written in a language or script that is completely unknown. Its pages are also filled with colorful drawings of strange diagrams, odd events and plants that do not seem to match any known species, adding to the intrigue of the document and the difficulty of deciphering it. The original author of the manuscript remains unknown, but carbon dating has revealed that its pages were made sometime between 1404 and 1438. It has been called "the world's most mysterious manuscript."

Theories abound about the origin and nature of the manuscript. Some believe it was meant to be a pharmacopoeia, to address topics in medieval or early modern medicine. Many of the pictures of herbs and plants hint that it many have been some kind of textbook for an alchemist. The fact that many diagrams appear to be of astronomical origin, combined with the unidentifiable biological drawings, has even led some fanciful theorists to propose that the book may have an alien origin.

One thing most theorists agree on is that the book is unlikely to be a hoax, given the amount of time, money and detail that would have been required to make it.


Kryptos is a mysterious encrypted sculpture designed by artist Jim Sanborn which sits right outside the headquarters of the CIA in Langley, Va. It's so mysterious, in fact, that not even the CIA has completely cracked the code.

The sculpture contains four inscriptions, and although three of them have been cracked, the fourth remains elusive (Read what the first three inscriptions say here). In 2006 Sanborn let slip that there are clues in the first inscriptions to the last one, and in 2010 he released another clue: the Letters 64-69 NYPVTT in part 4 encode the text BERLIN.

Think you have what it takes to solve it?

Beale Ciphers

The Beale Ciphers are a set of three ciphertexts that supposedly reveal the location of one of the grandest buried treasures in U.S. history: thousands of pounds of gold, silver and jewels. The treasure was originally obtained by a mysterious man named Thomas Jefferson Beale in 1818 while prospecting in Colorado.

Of the three ciphertexts, only the second one has been cracked. Interestingly, the U.S. Declaration of Independence turned out to be the key — a curious fact given that Beale shares his name with the author of the Declaration of Independence.

The cracked text does reveal the county where the treasure was buried: Bedford County, Va., but its exact location is likely encrypted in one of the other uncracked ciphers. To this day, treasure hunters scour the Bedford County hillsides digging (often illegally) for the loot.

Phaistos Disc

The mystery of the Phaistos Disc is a story that sounds like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Discovered by Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier in 1908 in the Minoan palace-site of Phaistos, the disc is made of fired clay and contains mysterious symbols that may represent an unknown form of hieroglyphics. It is believed that it was designed sometime in the second millennium BC.

Some scholars believe that the hieroglyphs resemble symbols of Linear A and Linear B, scripts once used in ancient Crete. The only problem? Linear A also eludes decipherment. 

Today the disc remains one of the most famous puzzles of archaeology.

Shugborough Inscription

Look from afar at the 18th-century Shepherd's Monument in Staffordshire, England, and you might take it as nothing more than a sculpted re-creation of Nicolas Poussin's famous painting, “Arcadian Shepherds.” Look closer, though, and you'll notice a curious sequence of letters: DOUOSVAVVM — a code that has eluded decipherment for over 250 years.

Though the identity of the code carver remains a mystery, some have speculated that the code could be a clue left behind by the Knights of Templar about the whereabouts of the Holy Grail.

Many of the world's greatest minds have tried to crack the code and failed, including Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin.

Tamam Shud Case

Considered to be one of Australia's most profound mysteries, the Tamam Shud Case revolves around an unidentified man found dead in December 1948 on Somerton beach in Adelaide, Australia. Aside from the fact that the man could never be identified, the mystery deepened after a tiny piece of paper with the words "Tamam Shud" was found in a hidden pocket sewn within the dead man's trousers. (It is also referred to as "Taman Shud.")

The phrase translates as "ended" or "finished" and is a phrase used on the last page of a collection of poems called “The Rubaiyat” of Omar Khayyam. Adding to the mystery, a copy of Khayyam's collection was later found that contained a scribbled code in it believed to have been left by the dead man himself.

Due to the content of the Khayyam poem, many have come to believe that the message may represent a suicide note of sorts, but it remains uncracked, as does the case.

The Wow! Signal

One summer night in 1977, Jerry Ehman, a volunteer for SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, may have become the first man ever to receive an intentional message from an alien world. Ehman was scanning radio waves from deep space, hoping to randomly come across a signal that bore the hallmarks of one that might be sent by intelligent aliens, when he saw his measurements spike.

The signal lasted for 72 seconds, the longest period of time it could possibly be measured by the array that Ehman was using. It was loud and appeared to have been transmitted from a place no human has gone before: in the constellation Sagittarius near a star called Tau Sagittarii, 120 light-years away.

Ehman wrote the words "Wow!" on the original printout of the signal, thus its title as the "Wow! Signal."

All attempts to locate the signal again have failed, leading to much controversy and mystery about its origins and its meaning.

Zodiac Letters

The Zodiac letters are a series of four encrypted messages believed to have been written by the famous Zodiac Killer, a serial killer who terrorized residents of the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The letters were likely written as a way to taunt journalists and police, and though one of the messages has been deciphered, the three others remain uncracked.

The identity of the Zodiac Killer also remains a mystery, though no Zodiac murders have been identified since 1970.

Georgia Guidestones

The Georgia Guidestonessometimes referred to as the "American Stonehenge," is a granite monument erected in Elbert County, Ga., in 1979. The stones are engraved in eight languages — English, Spanish, Swahili, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese and Russian — each relaying 10 "new" commandments for "an Age of Reason." The stones also line up with certain astronomical features.

Though the monument contains no encrypted messages, its purpose and origin remain shrouded in mystery. They were commissioned by a man who has yet to be properly identified, who went by the pseudonym of R.C. Christian.

Of the 10 commandments, the first one is perhaps the most controversial: "Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature." Many have taken it to be a license to cull the human population down to the specified number, and critics of the stones have called for them to be destroyed. Some conspiracy theorists even believe they may have been designed by a "Luciferian secret society" calling for a new world order.


Rongorongo is a system of mysterious glyphs discovered written on various artifacts on Easter Island. Many believe they represent a lost system of writing or proto-writing and could be one of just three or four independent inventions of writing in human history.

The glyphs remain undecipherable, and their true messages — which some believe could offer hints about the perplexing collapse of the statue-building Easter Island civilization — may be lost forever.

Originally posted on: Teluu Dailies

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Egg

By: jstnbokor
You were on your way home when you died.
It was a car accident. Nothing particularly remarkable, but fatal nonetheless. You left behind a wife and two children. It was a painless death. The EMTs tried their best to save you, but to no avail. Your body was so utterly shattered you were better off, trust me.
And that’s when you met me.
“What… what happened?” You asked. “Where am I?”
“You died,” I said, matter-of-factly. No point in mincing words.
“There was a… a truck and it was skidding…”
“Yup,” I said.
“I… I died?”
“Yup. But don’t feel bad about it. Everyone dies,” I said.
You looked around. There was nothingness. Just you and me. “What is this place?” You asked. “Is this the afterlife?”
“More or less,” I said.
“Are you god?” You asked.
“Yup,” I replied. “I’m God.”
“My kids… my wife,” you said.
“What about them?”
“Will they be all right?”
“That’s what I like to see,” I said. “You just died and your main concern is for your family. That’s good stuff right there.”
You looked at me with fascination. To you, I didn’t look like God. I just looked like some man. Or possibly a woman. Some vague authority figure, maybe. More of a grammar school teacher than the almighty.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “They’ll be fine. Your kids will remember you as perfect in every way. They didn’t have time to grow contempt for you. Your wife will cry on the outside, but will be secretly relieved. To be fair, your marriage was falling apart. If it’s any consolation, she’ll feel very guilty for feeling relieved.”
“Oh,” you said. “So what happens now? Do I go to heaven or hell or something?”
“Neither,” I said. “You’ll be reincarnated.”
“Ah,” you said. “So the Hindus were right,”
“All religions are right in their own way,” I said. “Walk with me.”
You followed along as we strode through the void. “Where are we going?”
“Nowhere in particular,” I said. “It’s just nice to walk while we talk.”
“So what’s the point, then?” You asked. “When I get reborn, I’ll just be a blank slate, right? A baby. So all my experiences and everything I did in this life won’t matter.”
“Not so!” I said. “You have within you all the knowledge and experiences of all your past lives. You just don’t remember them right now.”
I stopped walking and took you by the shoulders. “Your soul is more magnificent, beautiful, and gigantic than you can possibly imagine. A human mind can only contain a tiny fraction of what you are. It’s like sticking your finger in a glass of water to see if it’s hot or cold. You put a tiny part of yourself into the vessel, and when you bring it back out, you’ve gained all the experiences it had.
“You’ve been in a human for the last 48 years, so you haven’t stretched out yet and felt the rest of your immense consciousness. If we hung out here for long enough, you’d start remembering everything. But there’s no point to doing that between each life.”
“How many times have I been reincarnated, then?”
“Oh lots. Lots and lots. An in to lots of different lives.” I said. “This time around, you’ll be a Chinese peasant girl in 540 AD.”
“Wait, what?” You stammered. “You’re sending me back in time?”
“Well, I guess technically. Time, as you know it, only exists in your universe. Things are different where I come from.”
“Where you come from?” You said.
“Oh sure,” I explained “I come from somewhere. Somewhere else. And there are others like me. I know you’ll want to know what it’s like there, but honestly you wouldn’t understand.”
“Oh,” you said, a little let down. “But wait. If I get reincarnated to other places in time, I could have interacted with myself at some point.”
“Sure. Happens all the time. And with both lives only aware of their own lifespan you don’t even know it’s happening.”
“So what’s the point of it all?”
“Seriously?” I asked. “Seriously? You’re asking me for the meaning of life? Isn’t that a little stereotypical?”
“Well it’s a reasonable question,” you persisted.
I looked you in the eye. “The meaning of life, the reason I made this whole universe, is for you to mature.”
“You mean mankind? You want us to mature?”
“No, just you. I made this whole universe for you. With each new life you grow and mature and become a larger and greater intellect.”
“Just me? What about everyone else?”
“There is no one else,” I said. “In this universe, there’s just you and me.”
You stared blankly at me. “But all the people on earth…”
“All you. Different incarnations of you.”
“Wait. I’m everyone!?”
“Now you’re getting it,” I said, with a congratulatory slap on the back.
“I’m every human being who ever lived?”
“Or who will ever live, yes.”
“I’m Abraham Lincoln?”
“And you’re John Wilkes Booth, too,” I added.
“I’m Hitler?” You said, appalled.
“And you’re the millions he killed.”
“I’m Jesus?”
“And you’re everyone who followed him.”
You fell silent.
“Every time you victimized someone,” I said, “you were victimizing yourself. Every act of kindness you’ve done, you’ve done to yourself. Every happy and sad moment ever experienced by any human was, or will be, experienced by you.”
You thought for a long time.
“Why?” You asked me. “Why do all this?”
“Because someday, you will become like me. Because that’s what you are. You’re one of my kind. You’re my child.”
“Whoa,” you said, incredulous. “You mean I’m a god?”
“No. Not yet. You’re a fetus. You’re still growing. Once you’ve lived every human life throughout all time, you will have grown enough to be born.”
“So the whole universe,” you said, “it’s just…”
“An egg.” I answered. “Now it’s time for you to move on to your next life.”
And I sent you on your way.

The Observation Problem

We are born into this world knowing only pure love and compassion. We have a intimate connection with the planet and we want to maintain a perfect balance with nature. True love is the oldest power known to man. At the peak of personal development extreme love is felt; extremely love for the planet and for mankind. Everything anyone ever does is driven by love, while it may not seem like it on the surface, even the most heinous of crimes are driven by love; a love of one's self, a love of money, or a love of power.  The battle between the Ego and Compassion are repeated throughout the history of man and in almost all of our literature. The video below, the first of a 3 part series, elaborates on the what it is that prevents us from experiencing and practicing this very same love we are born with.

Dimitri Halley, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Aruba, explains The Observation Problem in psychological terms of projection and Jungian psychology (Carl Jung). Dimitri uses a comparative approach between Eastern and Western scientific and spiritual traditions as well as modern psycho-therapeutic and social traditions in order to explain The Observation problem in his short 3 part video series. The core-concepts in his videos are love and compassion, consciousness, and critical and paradoxical thinking.

Part 1: Observation is Creation

Part 2: Thinking About Thinking

Part 3: Down the Rabbit Hole

You Are Not "Chemically Imbalanced"!

I just read such a depressing book that it would make just about anyone need an antidepressant if it wasn’t for the fact that the book itself debunks the entire psychopharmacological industry in such a convincing way that it would be maddening if it weren’t so saddening. Especially for those of us who got taken in by what can arguably be called a conscious and intentional conspiracy on the part of Eli Lilly and other big pharmaceutical companies to seduce an unwitting public into a medication merry-go-round, with the aid and paid help of the psychiatric establishment.

Robert Whitaker's Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America is a must-read it if you are currently seeing a psychiatrist for meds consultations. I would also highly recommend that you request your doctor read it as well, because many physicians have been duped along with the rest of us, sold on a biochemical model of psychiatry that has now been demonstrated to have no scientific basis.

How many of us, back in the late 80s, remember the glossy photo of the single, green and white pill plastered on the cover of Newsweek—Prozac—touted as the “A Breakthrough Drug For Depression,” and how many of us immediately ran out to ask our doctors or psychiatrists for a prescription? Well, about 650,000 of us per month, at that time; that’s how many. A multi-billion dollar industry kicked into gear practically overnight.

Yet what was not reported in Newsweek or in the countless other articles and books that began appearing at that time, was that most of those very articles and books were funded by the pharmaceutical companies themselves, in a massive branding effort to sell the public and psychiatrists alike on a bio-pharmacological model of mental health: the idea that psychological difficulties were the result of chemical imbalances in the brain which could be corrected by medication. It was time for us to get off the couch, quit our bellyaching, and head to the pharmacy for the “magic bullet.” 

Countless patients seeking help were informed at that time that, “Your depression is a disease like any other, and you need medicine.” The most popular refrain many of us heard was, “If you had diabetes, you would take insulin, wouldn’t you? And you’d recognize that you needed to take it FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. Well this is no different.”

But the plain facts of the matter were, and are, that it is different. Muchdifferent. But it seems psychiatry as a profession had been falling into disrepute, and was also facing increasing competition for patients with non-medically trained psychotherapists, counselors, and alternative practitioners. It desperately needed to up-level its reputation to something that more closely resembled medical science, which, as it turns out, it did not. Not if by science you mean demonstrable and repeatable results in a lab with clear causes and effects.

The psychiatric world recognized that its edge lay in the fact that psychiatrists had medical training, and they therefore simply needed to have the same “scientific” tools of diagnostic assessment and prescriptive cures as the rest of medicine. The pharmaceutical companies began using psychiatrists and physicians as their spokespersons, training and paying them—handsomely—to speak to both the public and the media in order to sell the world on the bio-pharmacological model of mental illness—that it is a physically-based, chemical problem in the brain for which their products were the cure—even if it meant distorting the empirical data in order to back up their claims, for time and again the research and laboratory evidence flew in the face of their purported “scientific” conclusions. (My own psychiatrist confessed to me recently that based on current statistics, he would need to prescribe Paxil to nine patients in order to hope that possibly one of them would be helped, and even then, only minimally more than a placebo.)

In the case of Prozac, for only one example, Eli Lilly had to do somersaults around the research in order to get the new wonder drug even approved by the FDA in the first place, let alone demonstrate that it had any positive impact, meanwhile burying all the studies that showed no “clinically significant” advantage over placebos, as well as hiding the reports of “increased incidence” of violence and suicide in study subjects. (Much of this didn’t come out until Irving Kirsch, researching his equally astonishing book, The Emperor’s New Drugs invoked the Freedom of Information Act in order to demand that the FDA release the results of all the failed studies.)

But Whitaker’s central point is that despite all of the “revolutionary” new psychiatric drugs discovered in the last decades, the numbers of people officially diagnosed and medicated for various forms of mental illness has skyrocketed to epidemic proportions, and now also includes millions and millions of children. (Remember that kid in kindergarten who used to keep getting up during naptime? Apparently he had A.D.D. And the goofy kid who would throw crayons at the girls? Bipolar. They’ve started diagnosing two-year-olds for Bipolar now, effectively dooming them to a lifetime on medications that are not only ineffective, but actually cause further difficulties as well as dependence.)  

It wasn’t very long ago that the people we might have considered to be “shy” were suddenly revealed to be suffering from “Social Anxiety Disorder,” and Paxil was the ready made answer, especially since it had stopped selling well as an antidepressant alone. The pharmaceutical companies, in collusion with the psychiatric establishment, literally found new disorders for which they could provide the latest cure. Whitaker makes the case for the drugs themselves literally creating the epidemic of mental illness, rather than the other way around. The tail wagging the dog.

Meanwhile, the epidemic of mental illness continued to rise as more and more people were prescribed drugs for their imbalanced brains which not only didn’t truly correct the imaginary imbalance, but in most cases, actually caused imbalances in brain chemistry that would then be addressed by the introduction of additional drugs so that many people wound up with a drug cocktail, taking anti-anxiety agents to counteract the side effects of antidepressants, mood stabilizers to even out the ill effects of the previous two medications, a sleeping pill to help with the drug-induced insomnia, and on and on, often resulting in a life-long dependence on one or more meds, meanwhile ignoring the most glaring and startling fact of all: Statistics revealed that those who never started on any of the drugs in the first place fared better over the long haul than those who had been exposed to the drugs. 

Mental illness in America, says Whitaker, can thus be seen largely as an iatrogenic phenomenon; that is, a disease caused by the cure itself, a drug-induced epidemic, the solution to which has been to prescribe more drugs and have patients remain on them for longer periods of time, often beginning in childhood and lasting a lifetime. And meanwhile, investors in Eli Lilly and the rest have been laughing all the way to the bank, not to mention their hired-hand psychiatrists on their way to their latest all-expenses paid junket to sell their wares to their colleagues.

During Prozac's "hey-day," before it went generic, Eli Lilly's value on Wall Street, says Whitaker, went from  $10 billion to $90 billion, and its employees and executives, in addition to their salaries and bonuses, took home $3.1 billion in stock options. And for one of the more over-the-top examples of a physician being paid to push the drugs, Dr. Charles Nemeroff, chair of the psychiatry department at Emory University, "earned at least $2.8 million as a speaker and consultant for drug firms." He also happens to be the coauthor of the American Psychiatric Association's best-selling Textbook of Psychopharmacology. These are just the tip of the iceberg of all the corruption Whitaker details in his book. (Nemeroff was dismissed by Emory for failure to disclose his kickbacks.)

Now, what if you are someone who is certain that these medications have helped you, possibly even a great deal? Then count yourself as one of the lucky ones, and I wouldn't suggest rocking the boat. But it would still be useful to be informed by Whitaker's book, and to just know that you're in the fortunate minority.

To conclude, just consider this for a moment: If any normal, sane human being truly listened to a television commercial for, say, Abilify, would they not conclude that either the vast majority of the viewing audience was completely wacko or more likely, that they were witnessing a Saturday Night Live skit? You know the ad I’m talking about (I’m paraphrasing):

“Ask your Doctor if Abilify might be for you. Side effects may include life-threatening increases or decreases in blood pressure; liver, renal or pancreatic failure; thoughts of violence or suicide; dizziness, nausea and the inability to breathe; severe insomnia, loss of appetite or unusual weight gain; sexual dysfunction, stroke, cardiac arrest or sudden death. Abilify, it could SAVE YOUR LIFE!”

I mean, is it me? Seriously? It has to be a joke, right? No, it isn’t, and that’s what is frightening. As for me, in the interest of full disclosure, since 1985, for periods ranging from one night to several years, I have experimented with Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Effexor, Wellbutrin, Buspar, Trazadone, Seroquel, Abilify, Lamictal, Sinaquan, Pamelor, Serzone, Xanax, Valium, Ativan, Klonopin, Ambien, Ritalin, and Adderall. I'm probably forgetting some. I currently have prescriptions for Adderall, Valium, and Ambien, all of which are indicated on an "as-needed" basis.But as my psychiatrist shared with me in a moment of candor last time we talked about all this, “Over and over again, through the years, I have been heartbroken by pills.” 

Originally Posted on: Psychology Today

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Indian Man Single Handedly Plants a 1,360-acre Forest

Jadav Payeng turned a barren sandbar in northern India into a lush new forest ecosystem.

The forest, called the Molai woods, is a safe haven for numerous birds, deer, rhinos, tigers and elephants — species increasingly at risk from habitat loss. (Photo: PhBasumata/flickr)

By: Stephen Messenger

A little more than 30 years ago, a teenager named Jadav "Molai" Payeng began burying seeds along a barren sandbar near his birthplace in northern India's Assam region to grow a refuge for wildlife. Not long after, he decided to dedicate his life to this endeavor, so he moved to the site where he could work full-time creating a lush new forest ecosystem. Incredibly, the spot today hosts a sprawling 1,360 acres of jungle that Payeng planted — single-handedly.

The Times of India recently caught up with Payeng in his remote forest lodge to learn more about how he came to leave such an indelible mark on the landscape.

It all started way back in 1979, when floods washed a large number of snakes ashore on the sandbar. One day, after the waters had receded, Payeng, only 16 then, found the place dotted with the dead reptiles. That was the turning point of his life.

"The snakes died in the heat, without any tree cover. I sat down and wept over their lifeless forms. It was carnage. I alerted the forest department and asked them if they could grow trees there. They said nothing would grow there. Instead, they asked me to try growing bamboo. It was painful, but I did it. There was nobody to help me. Nobody was interested," says Payeng, now 47.

While it's taken years for Payeng's remarkable dedication to planting to receive some well-deserved recognition internationally, it didn't take long for wildlife in the region to benefit from the manufactured forest. Demonstrating a keen understanding of ecological balance, Payeng even transplanted ants to his burgeoning ecosystem to bolster its natural harmony. Soon the shadeless sandbar was transformed into a self-functioning environment where a menagerie of creatures could dwell. The forest, called the Molai woods, now serves as a safe haven for numerous birds, deer, rhinos, tigers and elephants — species increasingly at risk from habitat loss.

Despite the conspicuousness of Payeng's project, forestry officials in the region first learned of this new forest in 2008 — and since then they've come to recognize his efforts as truly remarkable, but perhaps not enough.

"We're amazed at Payeng," says Gunin Saikia, assistant conservator of Forests. "He has been at it for 30 years. Had he been in any other country, he would have been made a hero."

Copyright Treehugger 2012

From - Mother Nature Network

8 Great Philosophical Questions That We'll Never Solve

Philosophy goes where hard science can't, or won't. Philosophers have a license to speculate about everything from metaphysics to morality, and this means they can shed light on some of the basic questions of existence. The bad news? These are questions that may always lay just beyond the limits of our comprehension.

Here are eight mysteries of philosophy that we'll probably never resolve.

1. Why is there something rather than nothing?

Our presence in the universe is something too bizarre for words. The mundaneness of our daily lives cause us take our existence for granted — but every once in awhile we're cajoled out of that complacency and enter into a profound state of existential awareness, and we ask: Why is there all this stuff in the universe, and why is it governed by such exquisitely precise laws? And why should anything exist at all? We inhabit a universe with such things as spiral galaxies, the aurora borealis, and SpongeBob Squarepants. And as Sean Carroll notes, "Nothing about modern physics explains why we have these laws rather than some totally different laws, although physicists sometimes talk that way — a mistake they might be able to avoid if they took philosophers more seriously." And as for the philosophers, the best that they can come up with is the anthropic principle — the notion that our particular universe appears the way it does by virtue of our presence as observers within it — a suggestion that has an uncomfortably tautological ring to it.

2. Is our universe real?

This the classic Cartesian question. It essentially asks, how do we know that what we see around us is the real deal, and not some grand illusion perpetuated by an unseen force (who RenĂ© Descartes referred to as the hypothesized ‘evil demon')? More recently, the question has been reframed as the "brain in a vat" problem, or the Simulation Argument. And it could very well be that we're the products of an elaborate simulation. A deeper question to ask, therefore, is whether the civilization running the simulation is also in a simulation — a kind of supercomputer regression (or simulationception). Moreover, we may not be who we think we are. Assuming that the people running the simulation are also taking part in it, our true identities may be temporarily suppressed, to heighten the realness of the experience. This philosophical conundrum also forces us to re-evaluate what we mean by "real." Modal realists argue that if the universe around us seems rational (as opposed to it being dreamy, incoherent, or lawless), then we have no choice but to declare it as being real and genuine. Or maybe, as Cipher said after eating a piece of "simulated" steak in The Matrix, "Ignorance is bliss."

3. Do we have free will?

Also called the dilemma of determinism, we do not know if our actions are controlled by a causal chain of preceding events (or by some other external influence), or if we're truly free agents making decisions of our own volition. Philosophers (and now some scientists) have been debating this for millennia, and with no apparent end in sight. If our decision making is influenced by an endless chain of causality, then determinism is true and we don't have free will. But if the opposite is true, what's called indeterminism, then our actions must be random — what some argue is still not free will. Conversely, libertarians (no, not political libertarians, those are other people), make the case for compatibilism — the idea that free will is logically compatible with deterministic views of the universe. Compounding the problem are advances in neuroscience showing that our brains make decisions before we're even conscious of them. But if we don't have free will, then why did we evolve consciousness instead of zombie-minds? Quantum mechanics makes this problem even more complicated by suggesting that we live in a universe of probability, and that determinism of any sort is impossible. And as Linas Vepstas has said, "Consciousness seems to be intimately and inescapably tied to the perception of the passage of time, and indeed, the idea that the past is fixed and perfectly deterministic, and that the future is unknowable. This fits well, because if the future were predetermined, then there'd be no free will, and no point in the participation of the passage of time."

4. Does God exist?

Simply put, we cannot know if God exists or not. Both the atheists and believers are wrong in their proclamations, and the agnostics are right. True agnostics are simply being Cartesian about it, recognizing the epistemological issues involved and the limitations of human inquiry. We do not know enough about the inner workings of the universe to make any sort of grand claim about the nature of reality and whether or not a Prime Mover exists somewhere in the background. Many people defer to naturalism — the suggestion that the universe runs according to autonomous processes — but that doesn't preclude the existence of a grand designer who set the whole thing in motion (what's called deism). And as mentioned earlier, we may live in a simulation where the hacker gods control all the variables. Or perhaps the gnostics are right and powerful beings exist in some deeper reality that we're unaware of. These aren't necessarily the omniscient, omnipotent gods of the Abrahamic traditions — but they're (hypothetically) powerful beings nonetheless. Again, these aren't scientific questions per se — they're more Platonic thought experiments that force us to confront the limits of human experience and inquiry.

5. Is there life after death?

Before everyone gets excited, this is not a suggestion that we'll all end up strumming harps on some fluffy white cloud, or find ourselves shoveling coal in the depths of Hell for eternity. Because we cannot ask the dead if there's anything on the other side, we're left guessing as to what happens next. Materialists assume that there's no life after death, but it's just that — an assumption that cannot necessarily be proven. Looking closer at the machinations of the universe (or multiverse), whether it be through a classical Newtonian/Einsteinian lens, or through the spooky filter of quantum mechanics, there's no reason to believe that we only have one shot at this thing called life. It's a question of metaphysics and the possibility that the cosmos (what Carl Sagan described as "all that is or ever was or ever will be") cycles and percolates in such a way that lives are infinitely recycled. Hans Moravec put it best when, speaking in relation to the quantum Many Worlds Interpretation, said that non-observance of the universe is impossible; we must always find ourselves alive and observing the universe in some form or another. This is highly speculative stuff, but like the God problem, is one that science cannot yet tackle, leaving it to the philosophers.

6. Can you really experience anything objectively?

There's a difference between understanding the world objectively (or at least trying to, anyway) and experiencing it through an exclusively objective framework. This is essentially the problem of qualia — the notion that our surroundings can only be observed through the filter of our senses and the cogitations of our minds. Everything you know, everything you've touched, seen, and smelled, has been filtered through any number of physiological and cognitive processes. Subsequently, your subjective experience of the world is unique. In the classic example, the subjective appreciation of the color red may vary from person to person. The only way you could possibly know is if you were to somehow observe the universe from the "conscious lens" of another person in a sort of Being John Malkovich kind of way — not anything we're likely going to be able to accomplish at any stage of our scientific or technological development. Another way of saying all this is that the universe can only be observed through a brain (or potentially a machine mind), and by virtue of that, can only be interpreted subjectively. But given that the universe appears to be coherent and (somewhat) knowable, should we continue to assume that its true objective quality can never be observed or known? It's worth noting that much of Buddhist philosophy is predicated on this fundamental limitation (what they call emptiness), and a complete antithesis to Plato's idealism.

7. What is the best moral system?

Essentially, we'll never truly be able to distinguish between "right" and "wrong" actions. At any given time in history, however, philosophers, theologians, and politicians will claim to have discovered the best way to evaluate human actions and establish the most righteous code of conduct. But it's never that easy. Life is far too messy and complicated for there to be anything like a universal morality or an absolutist ethics. The Golden Rule is great (the idea that you should treat others as you would like them to treat you), but it disregards moral autonomy and leaves no room for the imposition of justice (such as jailing criminals), and can even be used to justify oppression (Immanuel Kant was among its most staunchest critics). Moreover, it's a highly simplified rule of thumb that doesn't provision for more complex scenarios. For example, should the few be spared to save the many? Who has more moral worth: a human baby or a full-grown great ape? And as neuroscientists have shown, morality is not only a culturally-ingrained thing, it's also a part of our psychologies (the Trolly Problem is the best demonstration of this). At best, we can only say that morality is normative, while acknowledging that our sense of right and wrong will change over time.

8. What are numbers?

We use numbers every day, but taking a step back, what are they, really — and why do they do such a damn good job of helping us explain the universe (such as Newtonian laws)? Mathematical structures can consist of numbers, sets, groups, and points — but are they real objects, or do they simply describe relationships that necessarily exist in all structures? Plato argued that numbers were real (it doesn't matter that you can't "see" them), but formalists insisted that they were merely formal systems (well-defined constructions of abstract thought based on math). This is essentially an ontological problem, where we're left baffled about the true nature of the universe and which aspects of it are human constructs and which are truly tangible.
Images: Banner: Luc Perrot | 1 | 2 Lightspring/shutterstock | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 Jeffrey Collingwood/shutterstock | 7 | 8
Originally posted on: io9.com