“There is much in the universe we will never know, and it is equally certain that we will never know all that we do not know.”–  Joseph Silk, Gresham Professor of Astrophysics, Oxford University


As a longtime academic scholar who has also written about being Type I bipolar, I was asked to write about how being bipolar has affected my academic work.

The short answer is very much.  My different way of thinking and perceiving has greatly influenced my work and has been a key element to my innovation and success.  Thinking and feeling differently means seeing different things, seeing things from a different viewpoint and not accepting orthodoxy that is naturally accepted by the majority.

This essay touches both on my mental illness in relation to my work, and my academic work itself.  They are related.

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My work is in cognitive science and epistemology.  I study and write about minds (human, non-human animal, artificial, group, theoretical), how they work and their limits, and the nature and limits of human knowledge. Areas of study have included art perception, mystical experiences, artificial intelligence, visual illusions, symbolic language, the nature and limits of science and logic, the psychology of religion and belief systems, and what humans can and cannot know. 


My cognitive science and philosophy textbooks

There are many different ways of thinking and organizing information, and all human conceptions, theories and belief systems are created by the mind. Psychology, as an academic discipline, should go hand in hand with philosophy, science, political science, theology and all academic areas.  A philosopher’s philosophy can no more escape his mind than he can escape being human. The same with a scientist, theologian and any other type of thinker.

Immanuel Kant wrote that there are things as they appear to humans, and these constitute the immanent world of common, personal experience. He said these appearances are illusions because they are translations by the human senses and mind, and that things in their true nature and forms are beyond empirical access. He said things in their true nature belong to reality and transcend human experience, knowledge and senses, and that humans cannot have true knowledge of reality.

Humans cannot step outside out of their own minds and senses, outside of themselves and the human species to see the blind spots, delusions and biases that they are unaware of. This is one of the essential limits of human thought, conceptions and knowledge, and of self-assessment.

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I am Type I bipolar. Type I bipolar is a mental illness, and I’ve exhibited symptoms since I was a little kid.  The illness and its causes are complex and, as with most areas, not fully understood or easily categorized. There often is a genetic and environmental component, with the brain cognitively, chemically and emotionally functioning differently than normal. 

I won’t go through my colorful personal history dealing with the mental illness other than to say that I’ve been on lithium or anti-seizure medications for more than half of my life and have had psychotic episodes and mystical experiences throughout my life at least since I was seven years old.  

While adapting to society’s norms and expectations has been a skill practiced and developed over time, I don’t say that I’ve succeeded in my work as a scholar despite my mental illness but because I think differently than others. I am an original and fiercely independent thinker, one looking at things from different and new viewpoints. Do I consider my thinking differently a curse?  Of course not. It’s a gift and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am proud of who I am.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I have what I call my “bipolar traits.”

  • I don’t think or naturally express myself linearly, or at least linearly by society’s conventions.  I aesthetically like disorder, complexity, ambiguity, and dislike neatness, order, simplicity and symmetry. I don’t like or participate in group ceremonies and dislike cliches, buzz words, crowd following and groupthink.  
  • I don’t have the same emotional reactions and sensibilities as others.  While social and gregarious, I don’t form close emotional connections as others do.
  •  I’m a well known as a contrarian who questions orthodoxy, and rejects dogma.
  •  I’m well known for my off-beat and provocative sense of humor

When I was young, my engineering professor father said to me, “You have a strange mind.”  He followed that up by saying that, as a professor, he meant that as a compliment in that I thought about subjects that never even entered most peoples’ minds and saw topics from unique viewpoints. It didn’t surprise him that I became a philosopher.

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My dad and I when I was four

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Humans are sensory information processors

Humans receive limited sensory information and use various complex internal methods to process, categorize and try to make sense of the information in order to make perception, judgments and pick courses of action.  That is what humans are about.  Much of my work has been studying how humans and non-humans process information.

There are countless real and theoretical ways for a brain to process sensory information.  Each method is limited and has its own set of biases, subjectivity and trade-offs. Humans cannot know which, if any, is the ”best” or  “correct” way, or even if there is a best or correct way.  Non-human animals and artificial intelligence process information differently and can do it better for their particular, narrow purposes.


Along with the limited sensory information received, this is one of the limitations of human knowledge.  We have no idea if our way of thinking is correct, and in fact knowing it has many problems, distortions and limitations.

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Visual illusions demonstrate that physical reality and human perception of reality are different things. Despite the appearance, the middle bar does not change in color or tone. If you cover up the image so only the bar is showing, you will see this.

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Simplifying and generalizing this greatly for this essay, humans normally use two competing and simultaneous forms of thinking to function. Think of them as offering two viewpoints and checks and balances on each other, or two heads are better than one.  Neither is correct, each gives a different limited view and different perspective, but working together they allow the human to function well in the world

Parts of the brain process and interpret the sensory information in an emotional, aesthetic, visceral, holistic way– and this forms much of our emotional, intuitive, aesthetic reactions to stimuli.  

Separately but simultaneously other parts of the brain order, categorize, label and “intellectually” processes information. The raw sensory information has to be given some structure, categories and labels to try to understand what to do with it.  To do this brain unconsciously creates an artificial imaginary structure to the information. To humans, their perceptions of physical geography, categories, identities and the way they mark and perceive time are artificial constructs created by their brains.

Human symbolic language is a distinctly human thing where the parts of the brain artificially order and label things for convenient use. Not unlike a computer, humans translate sensory information into symbols.  

Link: Numeral systems and psychology

In my area of epistemology (the study of the natue and limits of knowledge), a key to know is that human biology and thinking are primary about functioning and survival, and function involves and in fact requires the distortion and suppression of information, the use of unconscious biases and even lying to oneself.  Human perception and thinking is distorted and delusory in many ways.

Whether our mental methods used for function can also, as a side effect, prove or examine objective and metaphysica.truth is a question to ponder and one humans cannot actually answer. Though I am highly skeptical.


The impossible trident visual illusion demonstrates how humans form perceptions by focusing on some information while ignoring other. The viewer forms a perception about the whole from looking at just one end. When she looks at the other end, she realizes her perception was wrong. Unlike some visual illusions where part of the image is blocked and left to the viewer’s imagination, there is no missing information here. All of the information is there for the viewer see, but the viewer forms the initial perception as if information is hidden. She mentally hides, or ignores, the information herself. Part of the explanation is that the human brain doesn’t have the capacity to cognitively process the sensory information it receives all at once, and so focuses and ignores.

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Mental illnesses and processing information differently

People with mental illnesses process sensory information differently than normal. 

Schizophrenics, for example, perceive all the normal sensory information but lack the standard methods normal people have to cognitively structure, order and label the information as normal people do.  This is the reason they have trouble adapting to society’s norms.

However, as they perceive and experience information in a different way, schizophrenics have included original artists, thinkers and mystics.  A schizophrenic artist said being schizophrenics is great for painting and writing poetry, but horrible for driving because you are constantly immediately aware of every crack and leaf in the road.  Many famous ancient mystics, prophets and aboriginal societies, who processed sensory information in valid but different ways, would be cataloged today as schizophrenic.  

For me, there are two major aspects of my mental illness that are relevant: a different cognitive ordering of information, and having different emotional experiences and associations.  These are often closely tied together.


Cognitive ordering

All functional systems require assumptions, definitions, labels, categorization and rules to function.

Humans must translate things to understand and perceive them.  Thus, how humans translate things– what particular models, styles, narratives, perceptions of time and space and categories, language– is of great significance because it forms how humans perceive things. All human translations, including the socially standard ones, involve arbitrary and artificial rules and definitions, and unproven and often unprovable assumptions.  

Humans must translate things in order to understand them, but what they understand is the translation.

I have a different than normal ways of cognitively ordering things, and, when left to my own devices, a different way of expressing them.  This is particularly true in how I organize and make narratives about information.

Narrative is an integral part of how humans perceive, identify and judge information. A narrative is the conscious and non-conscious story people see and tell about their lives, used to describe observed situations and even still objects. Narrative includes perception of time, plotting, mood, point of view, emphasis (what is important. what is not), character motives, etc. When humans look at a still photo or painting or a distant stranger couple standing at the light we perceive a story in progress. 


Describe what going on above. Even though this is an absctract combination of dots and lines, most will say this shows two balls racing towards each other. Viewers can even describe what they see as happening before and after this image. However, unlike a movie still or snapshot photo, there neither is nor was any before or after. As I am the one who created this design, I can assure that thia is the only image, the one and only existense of these dots and lines. There is no narrative with this image other than as speculated by the viewer. That it shows balls on a line is itself a product of the viewer’s imagination.

Narrative is how we understand, assign meaning and communicate ideas.  In schoolroom lessons, religious allegories and daily conversation, stories are a method to explain ideas to others.  Though the stories are often false and misleading, humans are storytellers.

The following link explores the different and competing ways humans can and do narrate information.

Link: Narrative and the perception of still information

I tend to apply different narratives, ordering and aesthetic styles to information.  This is expressed in the ways I talk, and in the way I write.  Though I conform to standard writing styles in my academic books and here, I find the standard and academic narratives and styles to be arbitrary, artificial, stifling and thus false. Unlike my textbooks, my books Noise Music and Return Trip represent my natural non-linear way of thinking, writing and aesthetic sense.  They are also in part commentaries on how aesthetic and narrative biases affect knowledge.


Emotional meaning and associations

Emotions, emotional intuition and aesthetic biases are integral parts of human thinking and function.  They are integral parts of human intelligence and reason, including as used by scientists, mathematicians and logicians.  London School of Philosophy lecturer Rachel Paine compared emotions to sensory perception: 

“Emotions bear complex relationships to rationality. On one hand they are seen as arational or irrational, on the other they make our actions intelligible and arguably lift us above the purely mechanistic behaviours of machines. Much like human sensory perception, emotions perform an essential function: they inform us about the world.”

Much important human thinking, conceptions and beliefs– such as about metaphysical and emotional meaning, morality, aesthetics and ethics, art, social life, beauty, social intelligence, life decisions– are beyond objectivity and logic, and are based in subjective and emotional thinking. Having different emotional and aesthetic interpretations and emotions are thus of great significance.


The academic and abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky studied how colors, patterns and shapes conveyed emotional and spiritual meaning to viewers.

Being Type I bipolar, especially when one has it during one’s formative childhood years, involves having and developing different emotional and intuitive interpretations and associations. Considering the cognitive significance of emotions in making assumptions, forming world views and answering subjective metaphysical questions, this has profound significance.

Since I was young, I’ve also had a different general sense of the world and the things in it. I’ve felt things differently. 

Mystical experiences are a common symptom of bipolar mania, along with epilepsy and schizophrenia.  Mystical experiences happen when the normal cognitive structures that define time, space and categories are suppressed in the brain and the sensory information is processed emotionally.  This results in a radically different perception of the world and the things in it.

Link: Mystical Experiences: The Neverending Debate

These different emotional and aesthetic ways of perceiving the world and things in it forces one to question conventional assumptions and perceptions, and not rotely accept the views and subjective truths and assumptions that are widely held by others.  I’m noted for not being human-centric in my writing, and, as, an academic studying minds, I can more objectively observe how others think and perceive.


Some have suggested than Van Gogh was bipolar

My Oxford University medical scientist colleague and friend says, as with other bipolar people she knows, I’ve been trained to follow the social rules and norms but they do not come intuitively to me as I feel things differently.  Bipolar people and schizophrenics can have impaired theory of mind, meaning having less of an ability to identify mental states in others and themselves. My friends says, through repetition and habit as being part of society, I go through the motions without with intuitive feelings.

In peer reviewing my books, such as Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence, she and I can be at philosophical odds.  As a medical scientist, she views humanity from within, while, as a philosopher, I tend to it from outside. She wants me to refer to humans as ‘we’ instead of my usual ‘they.’    

Many bipolar people have a love-hate relationship with the medicine and treatments.  The medicine and treatments are about thinking and functioning according to society’s norms (which is important), but many bipolar people, often artists, do not like how it suppresses their different and creative ways of thinking.  Studies have pointed to creativity, intelligence and bipolar disorder having the same underlying genetic traits.

Link: Intelligence, creativity and bipolar disorder may share underlying genetics

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My being able to perceive and cognitive order things differently has shown the arbitrary, artificialness and dubiousness of the standard human way of thinking.  However, it has not shown that my way of thinking and perceiving is better, but that there are other ways.  I often point out that my way of thinking isn’t better or more correct, just different. 

The essential conclusions of my cognitive science and epistemological work are that there are different ways of perceiving, interpreting and categorizing sensory information, and that each way has its own subjectivity, biases, distortion, unprovable assumptions and limits.  In part due to this, humans cannot obtain certain knowledge and everything is opinion.

Though, while that humans cannot obtain certain knowledge is the answer to that philosophical question, the vast areas of subjectivity and opinion– speculation, imagination art, spiritually, political science, making choices in an ambiguous and unknowable envirnoment– is another philosophical area full of further study.



This post is an excerpt from the peer-reviewed textbook Cognitive Science of Religion and Belief Systems by David Cycleback.


There are many innate cognitive reasons and processes for people believing in and having particular conceptions of God or religious higher power. The belief in and description of god or higher power are byproducts, or extensions, of innate unconscious psychological tendencies humans use to function and survive as a species.

The human brain is a meaning-making machine. Humans constantly look for patterns, meaning, purpose, motives and cause-and-effect relationships wherever they go. These contribute to many religious and spiritual beliefs. Just as one tries to find motives, patterns and identifications in a room, photograph or abstract paintings, so do humans when contemplating the universe and unknowable. 

The following are some of the cognitive processes that lead to religious beliefs.



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1496 diagram of the cosmos. Symmetrical, neat and orderly

Humans tend to desire and strive to find order in situations, both in their daily lives and in ambiguous and chaotic information and situations. This is a natural part of identification, and an essential aspect of function and survival. Chapter 4 demonstrated how humans make up artificial identifications in ambiguous designs, such as seeing animals in clouds and faces in tree bark.

This extends to people’s perceptions about the unknowable universe and reality. Not only do many people want order and structure in the universe, they imagine it exists and artificially create it. This desire for order, structure and identity influences people in believing in God, a higher power and orderly universe. While not believing in God, many non-theists and scientists imagine that there are order and structure to the universe, even though it is impossible to know there is order. Even if there is order, it may be in a different form than humans can conceive of or sense. 

In some religions, God brings order out of chaos, and religion is a fight for order in the face of chaos. The ancient Egyptians believed that the god Atum created earth and its order and principles out of chaos and darkness. It was the Egyptians’ duty to live moral and ethical lives to keep the chaos at bay. 

It is a common religious belief that moral order comes from God or higher power, and some religious thus believe that an atheist cannot have morals.


Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s ‘The Triumph of Death,’ showing chaos and disorder



It is an innate tendency for humans to perceive and try to find meaning and purpose behind things. As with finding patterns and identification, this has been essential for human survival and function. 

Knowing what is the purpose and meaning of a scene event, groups of people or non-human animals is part of social function and survival. If a group of people or dogs approach you, you want to know and do guess what is their purpose. If you hear a bang in the dead of night in your house, you want to know what is behind it and assume something is. Safety and self preservation are about erring on assuming the worst, which is why many people get out of bed to check for intruder. Humans would not have survived as a species if they did not err on the side of safety. 

In her paper Why Are Rocks Pointy? Children’s Preference for Teleological Explanations of the Natural World (source), psychology professor Deborah Keleman wrote that if you ask children why a group of rocks is pointy, many theorize that it is so animals don’t sit on them and break them. She said if you ask children why a river exists, they will often say so humans can fish in it. The children assign a meaning and purpose where they don’t exist, and ones that match their expectations, biases and human logic. Also note that they perceive the rivers to exist to serve humans.

Because of this bias, Kelemen says that children are able to come to the idea of a being that created the universe and earth with a purpose and meaning. This bias or tendency extends to many adults.

It takes training and education for one to overcome or be able to question these rote beliefs.

“Romanian Roma adults with little formal schooling (less than six years on average) were more than twice as likely to endorse purposeful answers than highly educated Roma adults (averaging approximately 12 years of schooling). They also more closely resembled American schoolchildren (first through fourth grades) than either highly educated Romanian adults or American adults. These results suggest that the tendency toward extending teleological reasoning from living to non-living natural things may recur across cultures, and that it is not merely outgrown but must be out-educated for it to go away.” — Justin L. Barrett Thrive Professor of Developmental Science, and Professor of Psychology at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology (reference )



Humans are able to perceive others having minds. This is a part of function and survival of the species. Humans are social animals and need to guess the thoughts and intentions of human and non-human animals.

What is telling is that humans not only imagine minds in humans and other animals, but they imagine or project minds and thinking on inanimate objects. These include teddy bears, figures, artworks, dolls, toys, cars, movie projections. Humans easily accept cartoon characters that talk and think, even when the characters are cars, toasters and trees. Humans talk to paintings on their walls, and what the subject is thinking and doing.

Many either figuratively or literally imagine nature and the universe having minds, and this can lead to conceptions of God or higher power. Even non-religious scientists and philosophers talk about plants, the planet and the universe having consciousness, which, some could argue, is coming very close to believing in God. 




Humans have an innate tendency to perceive non-humans as thinking and feeling as humans do. Humans often incorrectly believe or imagine that a non-human animal thinks like a human and feels the same way about a happening as humans. Humans make non-human animal and non-animal cartoon characters that act like humans, see human faces in abstract information, and describe inanimate objects and nature in human terms: mother earth, father time. It should not surprise that humans can imagine the unseen universal reality as a being, that deities and Gods are depicted in human-like forms and having human-like thoughts, motives and ideas.


Similarly, humans often depict non-animal forms as having animal qualities. Howl of the wind, the hound of love. Many deities and gods are depicted in non-human animal forms.

Anthropomorphism is not always meant literally, but often as a symbolic translation. However, this all shows how humans see things and translate things in human terms, even nature, random information and the unknowable.


Depiction of God in a 15th century German prayer book

Article by Psychology professor Rick Naert : Why Do We Anthropomorphize?



Emotions and aesthetics are an integral and constant part of human perception, judging and thinking. Humans innately and automatically make emotional judgments and perceptions. How new scenes are perceived, how to judge a stranger, how a foreign object is perceived, whether a new fact is true or false, are in part done on the intuitive, emotional, aesthetic level. Our descriptions of non-human things are steeped in human emotional and aesthetic terms and imagery: universal love, the angry sea, cruel fate, happy sun.

As people imagine the universe and unknowable in emotional terms, it is natural for people to see the transcendent reality not only in human terms but as human-like. All humans perceive and define the universe and ideas using their emotions and in human emotional terms. And a universe and reality that is believed to made up of human emotions is a step away from seeing it as a living being.

To humans, the meaning of life, of everything, is a matter of mood.



Just as humans interpret meaning, motive and identifications in ambiguous information, humans automatically interpret things– an object, a painting scene, a snapshot of a person– as part of an ongoing story and narrative. This is an expression of cause and effect, and human perception of time, meaning and purpose. Humans even apply narratives and stories to abstract information. 

Humans apply such narrative and stories to the universe and the unknown, which means they interpret it in human ways. Religious scriptures are in the forms of stories and narratives. The Christian Bible has been referred to as “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”



What and the way people think, at both the conscious and unconscious levels, is greatly influenced by their education, culture, family, when and where they grew up. Many people believe in God, and a particular condition of God, because they were raised in a theist family and culture. It is not coincidence that most Christians were born in Christian countries and families and Muslims in Muslim countries and families. Read the below two short pieces to see how much human geography and culture affect their perception at even the unconscious levels:

Piece #1:

The BaMbuti Pygmies of Congo traditionally live their entire lives in the dense rainforest, where the furthest away anyone can see is feet. They learned, loved, played and hunted in this environment.

British born Anthropologist Colin Turnbull wrote how he took one of these Pygmies, named Kenge, for his first time to a wide open plain. As the two stood on a hill overlooking the land, a group of water buffalo was seen a few miles away. Having no experience of how things appear smaller over long distance, Kenge asked what kind of insects they were. Turnbull told him they were water buffalo and Kenge laughed loudly at the “stupid story.” Turnbull drove Kenge towards the water buffalo. Watching the animals growing visually larger, Kenge became scared and said it was witchcraft.

Human beings develop an idiosyncratic logic and sensibility distinct to the environment where they were brought up. The environment one grows up in is seemingly the world. A kid born and raised in the inner city versus the country, rich versus poor, in Cairo versus Chicago, conservative family versus liberal, woods versus desert. The person who has lived her whole life in Portland or Cairo may get a chuckle at that story about the Pygmy then dismiss the idea that a similar incongruity could exist with her native logic.


For example, in this picture, which yellow line looks longer?

The yellow lines are the same length. Measure them yourself. It is your lifelong experience with diminishing scales in open spaces that caused you to perceive the upper line as larger.

Kenge would not have been fooled by this illusion and would have correctly said the lines are the same length.

Piece #2

Screenshot 2019-10-21 at 11.33.29 AM

Give an objective identification of what is in the three pictures. Answer one picture at a time, by saying the answer aloud or to yourself. 

The images are not digital tricks or manipulations. They were picked because of their straightforward, familiar subjects. I am just looking for quick objective identifications.

One or more of your answers likely was (at least if you are an American) on the order of ‘George Washington crossing the Delaware,’ ‘a bald eagle’ and/or ‘a watch.’ 

These answers are not objective, being formed in part by value judgments, aesthetic views and other personal biases.

In the lower left picture there is much more than a bald eagle. There is sky, trees. The ‘eagle’ answer subjectively singles out one thing. Part of this is due to a personal and cultural value judgment that a bald eagle is more important than the other objects. Another reason is because the eagle is pictured large, clear and centered. If the picture showed a tree close up and in focus and a small out of focus eagle flying in the distant background, your answer likely would have differed. Change in arrangement, size and focus affect the viewer’s labeling, even when the identical objects are pictured.

Similarly, if your answer to the lower right picture was ‘a watch,’ you made an aesthetic and value judgment about what is and is not important. Placement and focus affected your judgment, along with your feeling that a potentially expensive watch is the center of attention.

In the top image there are quite a few people pictured. If you answered “George Washington crossing the Delaware” you singled out one as being the identity. This is in part due to a higher value placed on George Washington, a famous figure in United States history. This is also due to your knowledge, as Washington is likely the only person you know by name. Again, it is common to focus on the known and ignore the unknown.

If you said “This pictures a bunch of people, one whose name is George Washington” you would have given a broader answer, while acknowledging the extent of your knowledge.

Also, notice that your answer was not ‘sky, water and ice,’ even though sky, water and ice takes up more space than the men, boat and flag. This was due to your bias that the human is the natural center of attention.

The initial request of this chapter was to give objective identifications, but your answers were subjective. I didn’t ask for your moral judgment of George Washington versus other men, whether a bald eagle is more significant than out of focus background trees or the relative financial value of a watch.

These and other types of subjective judgments are both natural and essential to humans. Quick interpretations of scenes, including judging what is and is not important, is essential to getting through our day to day lives. You wouldn’t have lasted long on this earth if you placed equal visual significance on a twig on the pavement and a car speeding in your path. If someone unexpectedly tosses you a ball, you catch the ball by focusing on it. If you focus on the thrower’s shoes or what’s on TV, it is probable you will drop the ball.

The problem is that, while essential, this type of subjective identification helps make it impossible to make objective identification. One’s identification is always shaped by one’s knowledge level, past experience, aesthetic view, pattern biases and value judgments. As shown with the identification of the three pictures, the human is often not aware of this influence. To many people, biases are what others have.



Depictions of gods and transcendent reality, religious stories and ceremonies are human translations of abstract ideas for understanding, teaching and communication. The learned religious know that they are just translations of ideas that are beyond human understanding. 

Teaching must be done in languages the students understand. Jesus taught in parables, Buddha in en riddles. The Christian ‘Kingdom of God,’ doesn’t mean a physical building, but a state of enlightenment. Hindus use deities to represent transcendent reality, because a literal depiction would be beyond normal human comprehension and understanding. As the Hindu student becomes more and more learned the depictions of transcendent reality becomes more and more intricate and complex. Jesus himself, or at least as he is portrayed and symbolized, is a metaphor.

Some anti-theists and atheists make straw man arguments against theism, mocking their beliefs in deities and myths. However, they do not realize that the deities and stories are not taken literally by the learned religious. Learned Christians do not literally believe God is an old man with a white beard and robe sitting on a throne in heaven, and learned Hindus do not believe in thousands of Gods. 



The Ancient Egyptian depictions of the gods were not intended as literal representations, as the Egyptians believed the gods’ true forms and natures were mysterious and beyond human comprehension. The depictions were in forms or symbols recognizable to humans and represented each god’s role in nature.



Those who come to conclusions emotionally and intuitively, or ‘from the gut,’ are more likely to believe in God or religious higher power. Those who have had their gut reactions proven correct, are more likely to trust the natural cognitive tendencies described in this chapter, and believe in magic, the paranormal and God. 

Those who think logically and in the past had their intuition proven wrong are less likely to believe in God or a religious higher power. They have learned to question, or double check, their normal cognitive biases and innate tendencies. They think of other possibilities. 

“It is the standard skeptical narrative that people are biased in numerous ways. The “default mode” of human behavior is to drift along with the currents of our cognitive biases, unless we have critical thinking skills as a rudder or paddle (choose your nautical metaphor). Metacognition – thinking about thinking – is the only way for our higher cognitive function (evidence, analysis, logic) to take control of our beliefs from our baser instincts”– Steve Novella MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Yale University (reference )

Link: What Kind of Thinker Believes in God?



Humans often choose to believe in a god and higher powers for conscious and calculated reasons. These include if they so greatly dislike chaos that they choose an artificial answer, they want purpose in their life, they fear death, like the idea of universal justice, want a way to deal with loss or suffering. Some do it because it makes them feel better.

Many are theists in order to fit in with a theistic culture or community. Many religious beliefs are an integral part of culture. Major reasons people belong to a church for the social aspects and community. Believing in a religion and following its practices is as natural as being a part of the community and culture.



Shared beliefs, purpose and meaning are important for any social group, and many societies and groups have used God or higher power to keep societies together and functioning. Games require rules, often arbitrary ones. This is a standard reason for the belief in God, even today. Of course many leaders have called themselves deities or gods or said they had a special connection to higher power. 

“Dogmatic religion stems from a psychological need for group identity and belonging, together with a need for certainty and meaning. There is a strong impulse in human beings to define ourselves, whether it’s as a Christian, a Muslim, a socialist, an American, a Republican, or as a fan of a sports club. This urge is closely connected to the impulse to be part of a group, to feel that you belong, and share the same beliefs and principles as others. And these impulses work together with the need for certainty—the feeling that you “know,” that you possess the truth, that you are right and others are wrong.”– Leeds Beckett University psychology lecturer Steve Taylor (Reference )

In the beginning and end, humans can only perceive, think about and conceptualize things in human ways– their biases, logic, biology, intuition senses and logic. Thus, the perception of the universe and abstract is seen and described in human ways and with human qualities and concepts. It should be of no surprise that many think of and describe the universe in human-like imagery and with human-like stories and motives. The non-religious do as well, if not invoking a deity. 



Some will say these innate psychological processes prove that God does not exist and is merely the product of the human mind. This is not true. They certainly are evidence that religious and other conceptions are in part human creations, but they are not proof against or for the existence of God or higher power. 


Further Reading

Cognitive Science of Religion and Belief Systems



The numeral zero, a symbol and concept, has been called one of the most important inventions of human history. 

While the early numeral systems were fine for rudimentary counting, they were cumbersome, messy and sometimes impossible for multiplication, division and more complex arithmetic. Modern math, such as calculus, could not be done or conceived of with them.  

It was the invention and development of zero that allowed for complex calculations, advanced algebra, calculus, exponential numbers and more. Computers, nuclear physics, modern statistics, space travel, modern science and the couples inventions and knowledge from complex mathematics require the numeral zero. 

The history of the numeral zero is long and winding, with different versions of it being invented in different places, and its provenance certain.  `

Our 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 Hindu-Arabic decimal system uses a symbol for zero and a placement system for counting. A numeral is defined by where a symbol is in the number, and zero is used as a place marker.: 10, 100, 203.   This zero and place marker helps us make big numbers without the need for more symbols.

The Hindu-Arabic system adds a zero to get 100.  Add another zero and you get 1000. This makes for division by ten, and exponential numbers, simple.  We take for granted this use of zero and placement to make big numerals, but this wasn’t always the case. 


Before Zero

Early numeral systems had no symbol or sometimes even idea for zero. Without a zero, some systems needed a different symbol 10, 20, 30, 40, 500 and so on. This not only made for messy numbers but made division and calculation difficult. 

Imagine division in, say, the Egyptians or Romans system that had no such decimal placement or zero.  1,504 – 103 is a simple calculation. The equivalent in Roman numerals (MDIV – CIII) is messy.

The earliest numeral system by the Summarians had no marker for zeroes numbers, which made for reading numbers sometimes impossible,

Say we have no zero in our numeration system and I give you the numeral ‘11’.  You can’t know if that means eleven, one hundred one, one thousand one, one million, ten million or other.  The use of a zero symbol allows us to say 11 (eleven) 101 (one hundred one), 1001 (one thousand one).

The Babylonians, who inherited and developed their system from the Sumerians, added a space as a marker between numbers to indicate the equivalent of a zero.

If we add a space instead of a zero  we can differentiate between those 11 numbers

11 = eleven

1 1 (one space between 1’s) = one hundred one

1   1 (two spaces between ones) = one thousand one.

The problem with the Babylonian system is you can’t always tell how many spaces are between symbols.

1       1 = how many spaces are between those 1’s? Even I don’t know, as I didn’t count.  

Duly note that Babylonian numerals were used in a context of what was being counted. It was applied to daily events not used abstractly.  If you know the context (sheep in a herd, plates at the dinner table) you could deduce the number. There might be 10 plates at an average Babylonian dinner table, but not 100 and certainly not 10000.  But this space system still caused ambiguity to the Babylonians. 

To counter this the Babylonians invented a placeholder symbol to clearly mark the spaces between numerals.  For reading a numeral, this worked as the equivalent of our zero.


The top Mayan number 104 has a space for the tens ‘column’, while the bottom has little titted wedges.

A few other early systems independently invented their own placeholder symbols. The Mayans used a shell-like symbol, while the Khmer used a dot.  

image1 (1)

The number 605 in Khmer numerals, from AD 683). The earliest known material the use of zero as a decimal figure.`



Mayan shell-shaped  zero

A problem with the Babylonian and other early systems is they didn’t use their separation marker or zero symbol after numerals.  Thus, you can’t tell if 11 means eleven, one hundred ten (110 if a zero were used), one thousand one hundred (11000) or other.

Early counting devices– the Inca Quipu, Asian rod counting board and abacus,  had spaces, or blank spots to denote nothing in a digit column.  


The middle chord on the Inca Quipu has a space for -0 in the tens ‘column’


The spaces in the Asian rod counting board indicate there is nothing in ones and thousands columns,


The invention of zero as a symbol and a numerical concept

While the zero or equivalent as a marker made for easier reading of numbers and doing simple addition and subtraction, zero had to be conceived of and used as an actual concept and numeral/number in and of itself before it could be used for advanced calculations

Though people have always understood the concept of nothing or having nothing. However, nothing as a “thing,” not only a symbol but a concept, took a long while to develop in math.  

“How can anything be something?” was often pondered.   Yet, space is full of nothing. The empty space in an empty box is nothing yet something.  The empty space on the Asian counting board, between the knots on an Inca Quipu, or between the ones and hundreds is something.  In mathematics, nothing is something and is called and symbolized as nothing.   

It was the Indians who began to understand zero both as a symbol and as an idea, and fully developed it in the 5 century AD.   It is believed that they were able to do this because emptiness is a major concept and goal in Buddhism and Hinduism. Thus, the concept of a numerical nothingness or emptiness was something they could more readily understand. The English word zero is derived from the Hindu word “sunyata” which means nothingness. 

Brahmagupta was an Indian mathematician and astronomer, who further developed zero and arithmetic.  He wrote standard rules for reaching zero through addition and subtraction as well as the results of operations with zero.   Brahmagupta was the first to give rules to compute with zero, and wrote the first book that had rules for arithmetic manipulations that apply to zero and negative numbers.  You need a zero before you can have negative numbers. His arithmetic rules were in alignment with today’s except for division by zero.  That would be corrected years later by Isaac Newton and G.W. Leibniz to solve.

It would be a few centuries for zero to reach Europe.

Arabian sailors brought Brahmagupta’s book back from India. Zero reached Baghdad by 773 AD where it was developed by Arabian mathematicians who would base their numbers on the Indian system. In the ninth century, Persian Mohammed Ibn-Musa al-Khowarizmi was the first to work on equations that equal zero. By 879 AD, zero was written almost as a small oval. 

Zero reached Europe by the twelfth century. The Italian mathematician Fibonacci further develop algorithms with the abacus, which until that time had been the most common tool to do arithmetic.  His arithmetic using zero spread with German accountants and bankers. Merchants knew their books were balanced when the positive and negative amounts of their assets and liabilities equaled zero. 

Some Medieval European religious leaders were against the use of the symbol. They felt that if God was everything and in everything, then nothing must be the devil. They sometimes forbid the use of zeros,. However merchants often still used zero if on the sky 

French philosopher, mathematician and scientist Rene Descartes advanced the use and concept of zero.  He introduced the Cartesian coordinate system, which uses the origin of (0,0) to make graphs still commonly used in math and science.


The cartesian coordinate system with (0,0) at the center

Adding, subtracting, and multiplying by zero are relatively simple operations. However, division by zero long confused even great minds. How many times does zero go into one? How many nothings exist in something? The answer is indeterminate, but using the concept of dividing by infinity and nearing zero is the key to calculus. 

In the 1600’s, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz independently studied and solved the issue of dividing by zero.  Working with numbers as they approach zero, they invented calculus. Fully called calculus of the infinitesimal, calculus works to find information about time, space, motion at infinitesimal points nearing zero. The calculus formulas are functions of time, and so one can think of calculus as studying functions of time. Among the physical concepts that use concepts of calculus include motion, electricity, heat, light, harmonics, acoustics, astronomy, and dynamics.  It has been essential for everything from physics to economics to statistics to computers.

Attribution substitution, art perception, and why you can’t affirmatively or negatively say that you believe in god


In this picture, which cyclist is going fastest? Most will say the cyclist on our left is going the fastest and the one on the right the slowest.

There are, however, unanswered and unanswerable questions that make it impossible to know. Did they start at the same place? Did they start at the same time? Are they moving forward or backward? Are they moving? I’ve seen sprint cyclists stand still during a race. Even if it’s a normal 1-2-3-Go! race, it’s possible the guy on the right is going the fastest and the guy on the left the slowest at the moment the image was shot. Catching up, slowing down and switching positions are normal parts of all races.

The initial guess was made on a made-up simplified explanation to a complex and unanswerable image.

* * * *

In cognitive psychology, “attribution substitution” is an automatic subconscious process that the mind uses to make speedy decisions needed to function, but that contributes to many cognitive biases, misperceptions and visual illusions. It is a heuristic, or mental shortcut, used when someone has to make a make a judgment about a complex, ambiguous situation and substitutes a more easily solved situation.

The substitution is done at the automatic subconscious level and the person does not realize he or she is actually answering a related but different question. This helps explain why many individuals can be unaware of their own biases and even persist in the bias when they are made aware of them.

An example is when you judge the intelligence or beliefs of a stranger by his or her looks, fashion, age, race, sex, accent or nationality. Determining a person’s intelligence and beliefs is a complex question and must be done at the closely examined person-by-person level. However, even those who claim they don’t, make automatic judgments from their stereotypes (simplified generalizations) before they’ve talked to the person or even when shown a picture. As said, this is an innate automatic process.

* * * *


People judge a work of art by deciding what they think it is– how the pieces fit together, what is its intended meaning, genre, etc– then judging that. When someone says a work of art is trite and silly, what he is saying is his interpretation of what is the art is trite and silly.

I didn’t say the work can’t also be trite and silly.

* * * *


Answering this question “Yes” or “No” is an example of attribution substitution.

God (and I’m not making a statement there about whether or not God exists or my personal sentiments) is impossible to define. Even theologian know and say that ‘God’ itself is just a human-made word, and God is beyond human definition, language and conception. Asking if someone ‘believes in God’ is, as my professor dad would phrase it, is a non-question. One hundred different people have 100 different incomplete and subjective definitions and conceptions. Thus, all the person is actually answering is if he believes in the existence of his personal definition or conception of God which isn’t and cannot be the true or accurate depiction of God. You can’t believe in what you don’t know. Two of those people may say Yes to the question, but, as their definitions and conceptions differ, they do not believe in the same thing.

An anti-theist, or someone who answers “No,” is using the same attribution substitution process. She is making up a personal definition and conception of God, or using someone else’s definition and conception of God, then saying that that does not exist.

In short, belief in God (as a real thing, rather than an artificial conception) or belief that God doe not exist is a question that is impossible for a human to answer. The question itself is nonsensical or a “non-question,” as it’s asking for an answer as to the existence of something that question doesn’t and cannot define.

Or, as I respond when someone asks me if I believe in God, “I cannot answer that. However, if you give me your definition of God I’ll tell you if I believe in that.”


From the ebook Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence

So long as there are humans, there will be religions. Artificial intelligence, especially sentient artificial general intelligence, will challenge and change religions.

Religions come in a wide variety of beliefs and systems. They are human centric, about human relations and connections with higher powers or transcendent realities. They are attempts to answer the big human questions: “What is the meaning and nature of the universe?”, “What is a human’s purpose and place on earth?”, “Where did humans come from and what happens after they die?”, “How should humans act?”, etc.

There are two basics aspects of religions. One is the structure, dogma, texts and spelled-out belief. These often give the specifics of the beliefs, rules of conduct, the required ceremonies, social and community order. Even if a religion involves insight into a transcendent reality, its structure is in part formed by its culture, language, time and place, politics and circumstance.

The major second aspect is the mystical mental attempt to become closer to God, the universe, transcendent reality or whatever is their belief is the ultimate power and being. Often in the form of an altered state mystical experience, this was usually the genesis of the religion, while the dogma is constructed in response to that.

Not all religions are theistic. While Abrahamic religions believe in a single god, Buddhism is atheist and believes in higher, transcendent reality. Similarly, Hinduism believes in a greater reality or intelligence (Brahman), and many ancient aboriginal religions worshiped not a god but a greater life force (such as American Indians’ ‘Great Spirit’) or a mystical, enlightened sense of reality.

Whatever is the perceived higher power or transcendent reality, all religious people try in some fashion to become closer to it. Catholics try to have a personal relationship with Jesus and their God, while Buddhists and Hindus try to gain enlightenment. All religious have their mystical traditions and subgroups, and some religions, such as Buddhism and the mentioned aboriginal religions, are seen as essentially mystical.

Artificial general intelligence, computers with sentience, superintelligent cyborgs and transhumanism would upset the order and beliefs of religions that have strict dogma and ancient scripture that says humans are the ‘highest’ being on earth and the only one with sentience and souls. Many religions are against humans ‘playing God.’ Many religious people will be against AGI, and may be one of the influences that slow it and affect its nature. Many government policy-makers, industry leaders and people who vote are religious or are influenced by traditional religious cultures and beliefs.

Artificial intelligence will find new information, perspectives and insight that will contradict or conflict with religious sacred texts and dogma, just as Darwin’s and Copernicus’ findings contradicted centuries old Christian scripture and beliefs. There will remain the hardcore believers no matter what the new facts and insights. However, the new facts and perspectives will cause shifts in these religions and prompt many people to leave these religions. In the modern age of scientific discovery and reason, many have left the Abrahamic religions or, as with the Jews, become secular, while the religions and the believers have been been changed by science and new views. Many Abrahamic believers follow science and believe the world is round and the sun in the center of the galaxy, while many denominations have changed their views and practices surrounding women, race and the environment. Some Christian and Jewish denominations have ordained women as ministers and rabbis, something that was unthinkable just decades before.

Artificial intelligence is not incompatible with some ancient religions. Hinduism and Buddhism are about methods to expand the mind and reach mental enlightenment in order to know about the self and transcendent reality. The ultimate goal of these religions is to gain complete knowledge and transcendental intelligence. If artificial intelligence aids in expanding the mind and consciousness, this would go hand in hand with these religions and should be accepted.

Similarly, mysticism across religions uses various methods to expand the mind and learn more about transcendent reality. These methods include ceremonies, meditation, dance, art, music, prayer, fasting, lifestyles and drugs. Artificial intelligence and transhumanism would be used as methods to expand the mind.

Whether you call them religions or belief systems, world pantheism and secular humanism are atheistic belief systems (or religions) that believe in science and human reason. As a method of scientific and fact discovering, artificial intelligence would influence these belief systems. Alternately, these belief systems are as human centric as theistic religions, at least in the sense that they have human created dogmas, and a differently-thinking artificial general intelligence would by its existence challenge the dogmas.

New religions will be formed, based on or influenced by artificial intelligence. Interspiritual religions incorporate aspects of various religions, along with secular and scientific views. Some new religions will envision creating an artificial god. However, really, at their best they will use artificial intelligence as means for spiritual and intellectual exploration.

Download for free the book Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence

Thermoluminescence Testing in Ancient Artifacts Authentication and Fake Detection


Ancient Greek ceramic

Thermoluminescence Testing (TL) is an advanced scientific method used to help date ceramics, clay, lava and some bronzes. It measures the accumulation of natural radiation in the item since it was last fired at high temperature, such as when ceramics were originally made or during a volcano eruption.

Depending on the conditions, it has a margin of error of about 7% to 50%. However, even at the high margin of error, it is still useful in determining if a vase or ceramic figure is really ancient or a modern fake.

The science of thermoluminescence testing
Most natural minerals, such as the quartz and felspar contained in clay and ceramics, have the property of thermoluminescence where they retain energy from natural radioactive decay in and around the mineral. The retained energy is in the form of trapped electrons. The energy naturally increases at a steady rate over time. Raw (unfired) clay in the ground has had an accumulation of this radiation energy from millions of years.

When a high amount of heat– such as when firing clay to make a ceramic bowl, a big fire or a volcanic eruption–, this energy is released from the material as thermoluminescence. Thermoluminescence literally translates to ‘heat light’, and it is given off in the form of a faint blue light. The more energy in the material, the brighter the light. This heating that releases all the thermoluminescence sets the material’s “thermoluminescence clock” to zero. The material then again slowly accumulates the radiation from that zero point.


ancient lava stone formed at extreme heat

The second heating– the thermoluminescence test done in a laboratory– releases the thermoluminescence that the material has gained since the first firing, and this thermoluminescence is measured.

Knowing the annual rate of thermoluminescence accumulation in the material, the time since the original heating can be calculated.  This means that, with the margin of error, it can be determined how long ago the ceramic was made, or the lava was formed by the volcanic eruption.

The simple equation for this is:
Age = accumulated themrolominence / rate of themoluinensce gain per year

Though this sounds straightforward, there are the mentioned margins of error.

In the ideal situation– such as when the item is taken directly from the site of an archaeological dig or where there is original dirt still affixed to the object– other objects and surrounding dirt and clay can be taken for testing comparison. In these cases, the margin of error is at the low end: say 7-10 percent.

However, some items are tested without any original material for comparison, and this raises the margin of error.

Further, there are environmental and other causes that make the equation’s rate of accumulation time line less than linear, raising the margin of error. Exposure to heat, light and x-rays (such as at airports or during conservation) can make the line less linear.

In extreme cases, the margin of error can be 50%. However, even with a margin of error of 50%, this is usually enough to determine if the material is really ancient or modern. The object has usually already been examined and judged by historians and other experts for stylistic, material and other related evidence of age and authenticity, and the thermoluminescence test is the final piece to the authentication puzzle. Even at the high margin of error range, it determines if the material is “old or new.”

The experts at the thermoluminescence labs will take all these and other issues that can affect the margin of error, and discuss the issues with you.


thermoluminescence testing equipment

Other problems and issues in thermoluminescence dating
There are a number of issues that must be taken into consideration, including attempts by forgers to trick the system.

The test requires that small samples are taken from the item, though they are usually taken from inconspicuous areas and the spots can be neatly restored afterwards. 

Some forgeries involve putting together separate pieces.  A piece can be made from different ancient parts, or a combination of ancient and modern parts.  A commonplace forgery involves putting a modern fake on top of an ancient base from a broken piece.  This is problematic, because the testing samples are often taken from the inconspicuous places, such as the bottom.  

Some forgeries are modern carvings made out of old material, such such as carving a figure out of ancient Chinese brick.  Even though it is a forgery, the thermoluminescence test will say the carving is old, because the material is old.

This is why it is ideal to take samples from different parts of the object, and thermoluminescence testing should be used in conjunction with other tests and examination including a historian’s stylistic analysis and historical knowledge, x-ray/uv/ir examination to identify any restoration or alterations, looking for alterations to patina, and looking for glue or adhesive where parts are affixed together.

Spectroscopy can identify modern added materials, alterations to patina, and has been demonstrated to be useful in identifying items recently reworked from old material.  Spectroscopy identifies chemicals and compounds at the molecular level.  With an unaltered ancient item, the outer surface should spectroscopically test different thant inner parts, as the outer layer is altered by years of exposure to the elements, often gaining a patina.  If the outer layer and inner parts measure identically by a spectroscope, that suggests the material was carved recently.


Tang Dynasty pottery horse

Since the test is destructive, porcelain, should not be thermoluminescence tested except for very special reasons.  This test is usually only done for porcelain in cases such as court dispute or insurance valuation for a broken piece.

Some have wondered if forgers will try to beat the test by artificially adding thermoluminescence by their own heating. However, experts consider this type of deception far fetched because getting the right “date” would take great technical expertise and expensive equipment that only advance laboratories have.

Getting an object thermoluminescence tested

These tests are done in a laboratory with expensive equipment and trained scientists. There are numerous places around the world that do this testing, often universities, but also a number of private institutions. Amongst the most prominent testing sites are:

Oxford Authentication in Oxford England: http://www.oxfordauthentication.com/

Daybreach Aecaemoetric Lab in Connecticut USA: http://daybreaknuclear.us/bortolot_daybreak_frameset.html

Spectroscopy in Art and Artifacts Authentication

In its most general sense, spectroscopy (often called spectrometry) is the science of examining and measuring light as it interacts with or is emitted by matter, and includes such basic things as measuring light passing through a prism and observing with our eyes the colors of objects.  When you shine a blacklight on an object to see the color and brightness of the fluorescence, that is a basic form of spectroscopy.

In art and artifacts authentication and forgrery detection, however, spectroscopy involves various highly advanced methods of analyzing the molecular structure of material and objects by shining infrared, x-rays, gamma rays and lasers at the material and analyzing the electromagnetic radiation that is returned.  


mass spectrometer

Whether reflected, fluoresced or scattered, the returned light is determined by the molecular makeup of the material, and the advanced forms of spectroscopy can be used to not only identify the material, but identify the material’s exact chemicals and compounds and their concentrations.  

Knowing the material, chemicals and compounds is invaluable in authentication and forgery detection, and has identified some of the most sophisticated and famous forgeries. Many sophisticated forgeries have been identified because the chemicals and compounds identify the material as being from the wrong time and even originating from the wrong place.  Spectroscopic analysis can go as far as identifying the geographical origins of pigments, ivory and gems.


Colorimetery: the scientific measuring visual light

While spectroscopy gets highly advanced and technical, a basic method of it is called colorimetry.  Colorimetry measures the visual color of materials and objects.  

The most basic form of colorimetery, and spectroscopy, is when we judge the color of something with our own eyes.  Under white light, we see a ball as red or a coffee mug as blue.  We identify different kinds of wood in part by their different shades of brown.  The color of the light we see is determined by the atomic makeup of the material.


The visual colors of everyday objects are determined by the atomic makeup of the materials.

However, human vision is inexact and subjective.  As demonstrated by color vision tests at the optometrist, it varies from person to person, and even a person’s eye to eye.  

Colorimetry uses a scientific instrument called a colorimeter to measure color at a precise and objective level.

Identifying color at such a precise level is important in numerous areas and for many reasons, including when examining inks, paints, dyes and gems.  In cases of court contested documents, such as wills and contracts, alterations to the writing are often  discovered because a colorimeter identities by the color that different inks were used.  The colorimeter identifies very slight differences in color of the inks that are unnoticeable by the naked eye.


Chinese Purple, sometimes known as Han Purple, was a manufactured pigment used by ancient Chinese.  Made from the metals barium and copper, along with the elemnet silicon, their most famous use was on the Terracotta Army. Being able to identify colors and knowing when they were introduced and used is important in dating items.



Precisely identifying the colors of printing inks is an important part of dating printing. Shown at the microscopic level, the magenta in this lithograph print identifies the printing as modern.


Colorimetry is commonly used in the examination and identification of pen inks on questioned documents.


Infrared, Raman, Mass and X-Ray Spectroscopy

As mentioned, advanced spectroscopy shines different ranges of electromagnetic radiation on the material and examines the light that is return.  These methods use an expensive device called a spectrometer, which can be a stand alone, but is often hooked up to a computer and sometimes a microscope.  They range in size from handheld to large complex-looking systems.

While there are many different kinds and variations of advanced spectroscopy used for many purposes and in many areas, the ones most commonly used to examine art and artifacts are infrared spectroscopy, Raman spectroscopy, X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and mass spectrometry.

Infrared spectroscopy shines infrared light and measures the inter-atomic bond vibrations.  It is based on that molecules absorb frequencies depended on their chemical structures.

Named after the 1930 Physics Nobel Prize winner C. V. Raman, Raman spectroscopy shines a laser beam of light, and measures slight energy changes to some of the scattered back light that is caused by material’s molecular vibrations.  C. V. Raman was the first to publish a paper on this vibrational scattering, which is called Raman scattering or the Raman effect.  

X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy measures the x-ray fluorescence given off from a material when shortwave x-rays or gamma rays are shined on the material.  The shined x-rays or gamma rays add energy to the atoms.  The atoms can hold this energy only for a short time before having to give it off.  The atoms give off the energy in a different form than received– a longer wavelength of x-rays that is the fluorescence.  You can see how this is related to ultraviolet or blacklight fluorescence, where the black light causes the material to give of a visible light fluorescence.

Done in a vacuum, mass spectrometry ionizes the atoms of the material and measures the mass-to-energy ratio.  Francis Aston and J. J. Thompson won Physics Nobel Prizes for their work in this area.

These different types of spectroscopy examine and measure different aspects of the materials and create different spectrum charts.  Shown on a computer screen, each spectrum is based on the molecular makeup of the material and and serves as a fingerprint for identifying the chemicals or compounds in the material.  Each chemical or compound will have its own, unique spectrum.


Infrared spectroscopy spectrum for d-glucose. This spectrum is unique to the sugar, and serves as a fingerprint for identification.

The spectrometer has software that contains a library of the spectrums that will match up the tested material’s spectrum and tell you what what is the compound or chemical.  

The process can be as simple as shining the spectrometer on the material, and the software telling you on the screen that the material is iodine, aspirin, gold or whatever it is.  Handheld spectrometers are used at recycling centers to immediately identify the scrap metal compositions, and at airports to quickly identify mysterious substances, such as pills and powders.  

Further, the height of the peaks of the on the spectrum tells you the concentration of the chemicals in the material.

Certain ranges of light interacts better with certain chemicals ,so the different types of spectroscopy are often used complementarily with each otherwhen examining a material. For example, infrared spectroscopy is better at reading a certain range of chemicals, while Raman spectroscopy a slightly different range.  Thus, an old painting may be examined by both infrared and Raman spectrometers.

This analysis can be non-destructive— meaning no sample has to be removed from the object– and can often be be done on sight.  The scientist can bring the Raman, infrared or x-ray fluorescence spectrometer to the huge painting on the wall of the museum, rather than the painting having to be brought to the lab.

The exception is with the mass spectrometer that requires a sample, in part because the process takes place in a vacuum.


handheld x-ray fluorescence spectrometer


Why being able to identify the chemicals and compounds is important to authentication and forgery detection

Knowledge of the materials and their chemical makeups in an artwork or artifact is important to authentication and forgery detection in many ways.  There is much known, and continuous research, about the invention, chemical makeup and historical use and making of materials.  It is sometimes even known where artists and cultures obtained the materials to make their objects– such as the imported minerals used to make paint or local stone to make artifacts.  Thus, spectroscopic analysis of a questioned object can identify materials, chemicals and compounds in it that are consistent with the item being genuine and of the correct age, and conversely compounds or materials inconsistent if not impossible with the item being genuine.  The following are examples:

  • Hans van Meegeren’s forgery of a 1600s Jan Vermeer painting was in part verified as fake because the paint contained Bakelite, a synthetic resin invented in the 20th century.

Han van Meegeren forgery of a Vermeer

  • A painting forger used the correct type of lead white for an Old Master’s painting, but the specific compounds used to make the paint came from a geographical source unavailable to the original painter.
  • Forgeries of Man Ray’s photographs were identified due to too modern of chemicals in the photopaper.
  • Spectroscopy can tell the difference between natural and synthetic diamonds as it can identify the source chemicals the gems were produced from.
  • It has identified sophisticated forgeries of ancient precious metal relics, because, while the correct metal was used in the forgeries, the specific compounds of the metals were different than used by the original peoples.
  • Spectroscopy identified the crystal anatase in the ink used on the Vinland Maps, with anatase being unknown in use that early.

the long disputed Vinland Map

  • The Hitler Diaries were identified as forgeries in part because the binding material was identified as a modern synthetic and the paper contained chemicals that were introduced after World War II.