HAI e-Newsletter March 2014

e-Newsletter March 2014
In this issue:

First Sunday Meeting Report, February 2nd
Kevin Mitchell of Genetics & Neuroscience, Trinity College, Dublin  was our speaker and he gave a talk entitled On discovering you’re an android: neuroscientific materialism and the mind-brain relationship.
Neuroscientists accept as a given that mind (soul, consciousness etc) is an emergent property of brain and no vitalist, supernatural explanation is required. The idea that they are somehow separate is usually attributed to Descartes and is probably assumed by most non-scientists and in popular culture. Prof. Mitchell looked at various possible ways of examining this question before focusing on the scientific method of observation, hypothesis, testing and confirmation. A range of experimental approaches is possible from drugs or surgery to genetic studies and artificial intelligence. A most rewarding area has been stimulation of specific areas of the brain while examining the responses of the brain and the perceptions or movements of the subject. (These perceptions may be of any kind from memories, sounds or visual effects.) This shows that the response is specific: a given stimulus produces a reproducible response. The effects of drugs or surgery can be linked to the biochemistry of the brain or to the site of damage.
Kevin Mitchell also discussed the question of joining and separation of mind and brain. There are cases of twins joined at the thalamus and they have shared sensations and emotions. Contrariwise, severing the connexions between the left and right brains, allows the two halves to operate separately. As all good scientists must, Prof. Mitchell examined possible refutations of the materialist hypothesis, such as out-of body or near-death experiences. The low oxygen in the brain in a subject near death induces virtually all of the perceptions described in such circumstances and they may occur in other pathological conditions or from drugs. (The interpretation of the sensations is a function of the subject’s culture; so a devout Christian might say that he sees a heavenly light or hear a celestial choir.) From all this it can be concluded that the ‘immaterial‘ idea of brain function is not supported and, indeed, is not necessary to explain the observations.
The final section of the presentation looked at possible mechanisms for consciousness, decision-making and free will. This involved moving from a simple ‘reductionist’ view of the brain, where ‘bottom-up’ explanations are based on molecular mechanisms, to a more modern view of ‘emergent’ properties from a hierarchical system. This a difficult idea, but essentially it means that one layer of operation can communicate with a different level and influence its behaviour (see Sperry link below). Simply put, it is the connexions or organisation of a complex system that gives the outcome and not the ‘nuts and bolts’. Such a system has the possibility of being adaptable, as the brain clearly is. Add in memory and it is not a large step to thinking in terms of normative behaviour — or thinking about aims — and reflection.
It was a most stimulating presentation and the questions during and afterwards were wide-ranging, including déja vu and dreaming. Neuroscience, young as it is, is providing valuable insights into the most important parts of our nature, namely our abilities to reflect and decide on ethical behaviour. For those who want to explore these ideas further, Kevin Mitchell has a blog at www.wiringthebrain.com. Or you may want to read Sperry’s 1965 lecture ‘Mind, brain and humanist values’
Report: Alan Tuffery
Correction: The January Sunday meeting report in last month’s e-Newsletter about the presentation to Ann James incorrectly credited the starting of Darwin Day to Ann – in fact it was former Board member, former Chair and current celebrant Billy Hutchinson, who was responsible for starting Darwin Day. He was also instrumental in getting the annual All Ireland Summer School off the ground. Thanks Billy!

Next First Sunday Meeting, April 6th
The next First Sunday Meeting is on April 6th, 2014 from 4 – 6 pm in Buswells Hotel, Molesworth Street, Dublin 2.
The meeting will focus on how the HAI Chaplaincy can develop further. There will be discussion on the role of Humanist Chaplains in meeting the needs of our members as well as the work of the Chaplaincy to change the state-supported chaplaincy system in Ireland.
Nic Johnson, HAI Director of Chaplaincy Services, will lead the meeting which is called, ‘The Humanist Chaplaincy: The Way Forward’. Members will be invited and encouraged to express their views and suggestions to assure the Chaplaincy responds to their wishes and needs.
All are welcome.
For further information on our chaplains’ contact details and HAI chaplaincy in general, check out the Chaplaincy  page on the HAI website.

21st Birthday Event – Save the Date!
Members of Humanists West are busy planning the 21st Birthday Event for the HAI, so be sure to mark the date in your diary and think about booking accommodation.
There will be more information as things are confirmed, but this is what you can look forward to so far:
Date: October 10th – 12th
Venue: Salthill Hotel, Galway
FRIDAY October 10th Delegates arrive
SATURDAY October 11th
9.30am: Registration
10am: Welcome / Introduction
10.10am: First session – all speakers on for 15 minute slots
·         1st Speaker – Sinead Kennedy NUI Maynooth but speaking from a parent’s perspective
·         2nd speaker – Paul Rowe or Deirdre O’Donoghue – Educate Together
·         3rd speaker – Sean McMahon INTO
All 3 speakers will then take questions from the floor in a discussion panel format.
11.15: Coffee
11.30: Second session – all speakers on for 15 minute slots
·         4th speaker – TBC
·         5th speaker Deirdre Kenny
·         6th speaker – TBC
·         7th speaker Grace Robinson
Again questions in a panel format
1- 2 pm: Lunch
2pm: Return to main hall for group workshops
Introduction to 12 group facilitators / objectives of the afternoon session
4pm: Guest speaker’s talk (15 – 20 mins)
Questions from the floor
Aim to finish at 4.30/ 5pm
Dinner 7.30pm
SUNDAY October 12th
10am: Group facilitators will present a draft document based on previous day’s proceedings Questions/comments will be taken from the floor.
11.30 Coffee
11.45 David McConnell closing talk.
Aim to finish by 12.30
Thanks to Bridget Carlin & the organising committee for organising and for the update.

“Drab as a Humanist funeral”
As part of the RTE series A Living Word, a talk was broadcast by Dr. Patrick Nolan on 10th February, in which he referred to sciatica as being as “drab as a Humanist funeral”. Brian Whiteside, who has conducted many Humanist funerals, wrote to RTE to complain about this offensive and insensitive remark. Roger Childs, Head of RTE Religious Programmes, responded with an unqualified apology, stating that “It should not have been broadcast” and said that the remark had been removed from the RTE Radio Player and Radio 1 website. Roger Childs also invited Brian to submit a series of five two minute talks on the humanist approach to rites of passage. Brian is going to do that, and while there is no guarantee that the talks will be broadcast, they will be given fair consideration. Watch this space…
Report: Kilda Taylor

New Local Group in Cork?
As you may know the Cork Humanists group meetings are currently suspended. Following inquiries from some HAI members in Cork, directors Philip Byers and Brian Whiteside are meeting with some interested humanists about setting up a new group.
If you’re in the Cork area and would like to find out more you can join them at the Imperial Hotel (coffee shop) this coming Tuesday, March 11th, at 12.45. If you can’t make a lunchtime meeting, Brian will still be in Cork that evening and would be happy to meet with anyone later on. His phone number is 086 384 8940.

Darwin Day Lecture 2014 – a great success!
Dr Nicola Marples, Department of Zoology and Fellow of Trinity College gave a fascinating talk entitled : Altruism and the Oddity of Humans at Trinity on Darwin Day itself, February 12th.
There was a very good attendance in spite of gale force winds and lashing rain on the streets outside.
Thanks to Eithne Dempsey and Alan Tuffery for organising another engaging lecture for this annual HAI event.
Hi! Magazine
The March/April issue of Humanism Ireland will be coming through your letterbox shortly.
Here’s a sneak preview:
THE POPE AND GAY RIGHTS       Andrew Devine-Rattigan
ETHICS, DRUGS AND SPORT       Martin O’Reilly
THE IRISH CONSTITUTION           Nicolas Johnson
DYING IN DIGNITY                         Sam Martin
KARL MARX                                   Brian McClinton
RELIGION IN SCHOOLS               Alison Henderson
WHAT IS AGE?                             Ronnie Carser
CLINGING TO A ROCK                 Stuart Hartill
ETERNAL LIFE                             Ann James
THE SIZE OF EARTH                   Nick Emmett
TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE           Brian McClinton

Local Humanist Groups
The Mid-West Humanists group includes people from Limerick, Clare, and Tipperary who meet on the third Wednesday of each month at 20:00 in Limerick – the Absolute Hotel, Sir Harrys Mall, Limerick. Meeting notice at www.midwesthumanists.com. For more information contact Peter O’Hara on 086 8155102 or email [email protected].
Serving Humanists in Galway and surrounding areas, Humanists West meet in Galway city on the last Sunday of each month. The venue from Sunday 23 February 2014 will be the OSLO Gastro Bar- Micro Brewery, 226 Upper Salthill. The meetings start at 12 noon. For more information contact Garry O’Lochlainn on [email protected] or 087 2222726. 
Humanist Association of Ireland  •  34B Royal Terrace West  •  Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin Ireland