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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Robert Nylen, Co-Founder of Beliefnet, Dies

Robert Nylen, the magazine entrepreneur who co-founded the spirituality Web site Beliefnet with Steven Waldman in 1999, died of cancer on December 23 at his home in Ashfield, Massachusetts. He was 64.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Religion Can Promote Self-Control

Mike McCullough has posted a prepublication copy of the article that he and fellow University of Miami psychologist Brian Willoughby wrote for the Psychological Bulletin. After reviewing years of empirical evidence (including many replicated research findings in neuroscience, psychology, and sociology), McCullough and Willoughby conclude that certain aspects of religious belief and behavior foster self-control. Prayer and meditation affect the parts of the brain that are most important for self-regulation and self-control, the authors find, and religion often gives people clear standards for their behavior and the sense that God is watching what they do.
As a result, those who are religious might be better at achieving long-term goals, they say, because self-control allows them to forgo small rewards in the short term. And when people see their goals as valued and "sacred," they put more energy and effort into pursuing them. The findings also might explain why religious people tend to have lower rates of substance abuse and delinquency.
"The importance of self-control and self-regulation for understanding human behavior are well known to social scientists, but the possibility that the links of religiosity to self-control might explain the links of religiosity to health and behavior has not received much explicit attention," says McCullough. Yet, he adds, "the same social force that motivates acts of charity and generosity can also motivate people to strap bomb belts around their waists and then blow themselves up in crowded city buses. By thinking of religion as a social force that provides people with resources for controlling their impulses (including the impulse for self-preservation, in some cases) in the service of higher goals, religion can motivate people to do just about anything." —Heather Wax

Monday, December 29, 2008

Fear (and Respect) in Faith & Science

FROM RABBI RICHARD ADDRESS, UNION FOR REFORM JUDAISM: In our lifetimes, we have been blessed by the benefits of science and technology. Our life spans have been lengthened, and our conveniences have been multiplied. Yet, as powerful as these advances have been in providing a new type of security, the randomness of life always seems to present us with age-old questions for which there seems to be too few answers. There is no doubt that these are “challenging” times.
When everything is going well, we hardly seem to take into consideration the powerful and fear-inducing reality that randomness can create. The fear of the unknown, the fear of what will come next, is a powerful force.
One of the strengths of religion is to provide a balance in life, a sense of being rooted, especially when life throws us off course. This is not religion as a “crutch.” It is religion as a reminder that in difficult times, it is important to remind ourselves that we are part of something greater than ourselves. This is not religion as “fear” in the sense of a belief in a punishing, vengeful God that demands obedience through terror. This is the “fear” of God in the sense of the Hebrew root of the word, which reflects a sense of awe and respect (as in the commandment to “fear" one’s parents—to respect them). People do need to sense that they count for something, are part of something, and that life has meaning. In these difficult times of economic and political uncertainty, a sense of this respect for a greater meaning in life is especially relevant.
Rabbi Shalom Carmy is the editor of the Modern Orthodox journal Tradition. In the recent issue, he writes about the role of fear (as respect) in relation to science. He asks if “modern science” has actually made us feel more secure. “Can we honestly claim,” he asks, “that our lives are free of uncertainty in the areas that count?” He cites the changes now taking place in the employment field and the reality of uncertainty that pervades so many workplaces. He cites the uncertainties of contemporary family life. “Because sheer physical survival is not your primary problem in life, these anxieties and tribulations are more important to you than they would have been in another era," he writes. "No, science certainly doesn’t bestow upon you an easy mastery over your life.”
Mastery of our lives rests within our own hands and choices. Faith in oneself to make those choices sacred is supported by and enriched through faith. But faith in what? A blind faith is appealing because it may provide answers to everything. However, the operative word may be “blind.” Real faith, the kind that sustains, I feel, is faith that is open to possibilities. Doubt, questioning, and change may be the glue that binds true belief.
And at the heart of the matter may be the understanding that life is rarely a “black and white” situation. Indeed, navigating life’s challenges (be they good or less than good) requires the ability to deal with shades of gray. In all of this is the basic religious concept that we are not alone; we, as Ecclesiastes 1 reminds us, are part of an eternal flow of history. In that flow, we strive to seek our own sense of mission and meaning. Science can help us make sense of and understand the world around us, even the world within us. Yet, it will be the role of religion to help give meaning to those understandings. In the end, science and religion help create the kind of world and person that we become.

Do Men & Women Give to Charity Differently?

According to Texas A&M University marketing professor Karen Winterich, which charitable groups a person decides to donate money to is based on two factors: gender and moral identity (how important it is to that person to be caring, kind, fair, and honest).
American women with low moral identities are more likely to give charitably to an "ingroup"—with which they share an obvious connection, such as physical proximity or ethnicity (like the victims of Hurricane Katrina). Women with higher moral identities are more likely to give equally to both ingroups and "outgroups," which may have nothing more than humanity in common with the donor (victims of the India Ocean tsunami, for example). On the other hand, men with low moral identities are likely not to give at all, while men with higher moral identities give charitably to ingroups but seldom to outgroups. The study, which will appear in the Journal of Consumer Research, builds on previous research that shows those will low moral identity focus more on themselves, while those with high moral identity focus more on others. —Heather Wax

Friday, December 26, 2008

How Many Universes Exist?

FROM ROBERT LAWRENCE KUHN, HOST AND CREATOR OF CLOSER TO TRUTH: It’s one of humanity’s ultimate questions—and until recently, we didn’t know enough to even ask it! How many universes exist?
What? Many universes? As in more than one? Is this a trick question? Well, if we define “universe” as “all there is” or “all that exists,” then sure, by definition there can be only one.
But if we define “universe” as “all we can ever see,” no matter how large our telescopes, then many universes may indeed exist. Talk about expanding our horizons! There is nothing in science more awesome, more majestic. To discern what’s ultimately real, it is here, with multiple universes, that one must start.
We begin with basics: How could multiple universes be generated? The person most responsible for conceiving how multiple universes might come about is theoretical physicist Alan Guth at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose theory of “cosmic inflation” revolutionized cosmology. (If ultimately proven to be correct—a difficult task—cosmic inflation may come to be recognized as one of the most fundamental realizations that humanity has ever had). According to Guth, inflation proposes that our universe commenced with a startlingly brief period of enormous exponential expansion empowered by a gravitational repulsion that was generated by a particular state of matter that has a high energy density that cannot be rapidly lowered. Such a state is called a "false vacuum," where the word "vacuum" indicates a state of lowest possible energy density, and the word "false" is used to mean temporary. In this inflationary scenario, the exponential expansion ends because the stuff that’s driving the repulsive gravity is unstable, so it decays, much like a radioactive element decays. The end of inflation is the traditional hot big bang, where the vast energy that had been locked in the false vacuum driving the exponential expansion is released and converted into the energy and matter of the early universe. This energy is what produces the hot, uniform soup of particles, which is exactly the assumed starting point of the traditional big bang theory.
Granting the one inflation-generated big bang, how could decaying inflation generate other big bangs? Decay means that in the time period of its “half-life,” half of the stuff will disappear and half will remain, and in the subsequent half-life, another half will disappear (so that only one-quarter of the original stuff remains), and so on. Thus, it would seem that inflation would become progressively weaker and soon die out. But Guth has a catch.
The catch is that at the same time that this strange stuff generating repulsive gravity is decaying, it is undergoing exponential expansion. And this exponential expansion is faster, actually much faster, than the exponential decay. That is the key!
Note two counterintuitive corollary issues. First, there is no dilution of the driving force of the exponential expansion in the expanding space because the energy density of the expanding space remains the same (because the false vacuum cannot rapidly lower its energy density); this is why the energy density remains constant, and the total energy increases as the space expands. The negative pressure of the false vacuum, therefore, continues to create a repulsive gravitational field, which is the driving force behind the exponential expansion of inflation. Second, while it seems that energy is being created out of nothing, therefore violating the law of conservation of energy, the net energy is in fact zero because the positive energy of all the matter that is created is balanced by the negative energy of the gravitation. Guth calls the latter the “ultimate free lunch.”
If this picture is right, Guth says, “we see no end to it.” It appears that inflation is going to produce literally an infinite number of “pocket universes”—which is Guth’s term for a connected region of space-time. Note that, on average, each one of Guth’s “pocket universes” is vastly larger than our observable universe, hugely larger than all we can ever see (which is only our local part of one pocket universe). And new pocket universes form so rapidly that there may be infinite numbers of them.
Guth offers that it is “rather wild extrapolation to talk about these infinity of pocket universes,” adding that “maybe it’s all nonsense.” But when the theory works as well as it does to describe the observed part of the universe, he continues, “I think it makes sense to at least explore the implications that the theory suggests for the part of the universe that we don’t see.”
If multiple universes do exist, the person who has shown them likely to be without number or end is physicist Andrei Linde, originally from Russia, now at Stanford University. In the early days of proposing inflation theory (the early 1980s), Linde showed how inflation could be expanding “chaotically and eternally.” In some models, inflation must be expanding chaotically and eternally.
The entire ensemble of perhaps infinite regions of disconnected space-time, these innumerable pocket universes, has been affixed with a new term—“multiverse.” Linde says that each of these extremely large regions within the multiverse may have different laws of physics. But since we live in one of these “universes” and because it is so large, we can only make measurements in our one universe—the others are too far away for us to ever receive any information—so all these laws seem unchanging and immutable.
Linde portrays “universes” as painted balloons on canvas. Each of his balloons is a separate universe, each with different laws of physics. The whole collection of universes, the multiverse, is incomprehensively vast. And growing ever more so.
Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at MIT, goes further still, seeing real possibilities for generating multiple universes through quantum parallel universes, where, with every tick of time (whether Planck time at 10-44 seconds or every observational instant), the universe branches into different realities. Tegmark says that “one of the most beautiful ideas in all of science is that the structure of the universe on a large scale actually originates from the microscopic quantum world” and that multiple universes by quantum branching would take this idea to its ultimate conclusion. Not yet satisfied, he conceives that multiple universes may also be generated by any coherent system of mathematics.
Multiple universes by quantum branching? By mathematics? Have we gone nuts? Or perhaps, our eyes are just starting to squint open.
Theoretical cosmologist George Ellis at the University of Cape Town does not like the term “multiverse.” He prefers to talk about an “expanding universe” because to him, the “universe,” by definition, is everything that exists. He stresses that the problem with other domains of space-time is that “because we cannot see them, we can’t prove anything about them.” He suggests a radical alternative that he finds “a rather nice option”: Ellis posits that the vast universe picture may be wrong, that “maybe we are seeing the same patch of space-time over and over again.”
Einstein’s theory, he says, allows for this to happen because space-time is not only curved, it can also have a different connectivity structure. So maybe after several hundred million light-years, suddenly we return from the other side, just like Pac-Man did in those early computer games. In that case, there actually would be many fewer galaxies then we appear to see. We would be seeing many images, maybe hundreds of images, of the same galaxy. This is what Ellis calls a “small universe,” which he finds “philosophically attractive.” He says “it could be the case,” but admits “it probably isn’t.”
At the University of Cambridge, Sir Martin Rees, the United Kingdom’s Astronomer Royal, calls the multiverse “speculative science, not just metaphysics,” and he compares the conceptual leap needed to comprehend it with humanity’s intellectual leaps of the past—from the earth-centered Ptolemaic universe to the sun-centered Copernican universe; to the discovery that we are in a Milky Way galaxy with billions of suns; and then to the realization, since the 1920s, that our galaxy is one of untold billions of galaxies. Rees is confident that there’s far more to physical reality then the vast domain that we can see through our telescopes, and he’d be amazed, he says, “if the universe didn’t extend thousands of times beyond what we can see.”
The “fascinating option,” says Rees, is whether these other universes are governed by different physical laws—space may be different, gravity may be different, atoms may be different. This would mean that reality would consist of all these universes, governed by different laws, and only some tiny subset of them would be governed by laws that would allow complexity to evolve. Most universes would be sterile because, for example, gravity would be too strong to allow complex structures or atoms would not be stable. The most fascinating option Rees sees is the idea that many big bangs generate an immense variety of physical laws because, then, only science fiction can describe all that might happen.
Rees’ two questions are profound: Was our big bang the only one? And if our big bang was not the only one, do the others have different laws?
I asked physicist Steven Weinberg at the University of Texas at Austin whether he has an aesthetic of multiple universes. “I suppose the word ‘universe’ should mean the whole thing, everything,” he said. “But we tend to use ‘universe’ just to mean our big bang, the things we can see out to more than 10 billion light-years in all directions. And in that sense, it’s a reasonable question to ask: Is this unique or are there other such domains? And there could be other domains in different senses. It could be as simple as the fact that the universe is bigger than we think; perhaps it’s vastly bigger than 10 or so billion light-years across, and there are big bangs going off in different places.
“There’s another possibility, which is also fairly simple to imagine: Our big bang is one episode and may be followed [and/or may have been preceded] by a series of other bangs, and our universe will make a transition into a different kind of expanding universe so that we are just living through a particular age.
“There are other possibilities which are more recondite,” he continued. “Quantum mechanics can be applied to the whole shebang. Because the fundamental quanta in quantum mechanics is not the individual particle or billiard ball but is something called the ‘wave function,’ which describes all possibilities, it may be that the universe, the comprehensive universe, the whole thing, is some kind of quantum mechanical superposition of different possibilities. Then, there are even more exotic possibilities: The philosopher Robert Nozick introduced the so-called ‘principle of fecundity,’ according to which everything imaginable exists someplace—not in our same space-time but entirely separate.” (The philosopher David Lewis proposed a similar theory of “modal realism” in which all possible worlds are actual worlds, somewhere ....)
Weinberg notes that the principle of fecundity avoids the question of why things are the way they are because whatever is possible does exist.
But to achieve such immensity and diversity, there has to be, at some deeper level, some rock-bottom, fundamental “universe-generating laws” to create all the multiple universes, each of which has different laws. Does that make sense?
Arizona State University physicist, cosmologist, and astrobiologist Paul Davies says “two cheers for the multiverse” because “although there are good reasons for supposing that what we see may not be all that exists, the hypothesis falls far short of being a complete theory of existence.” A multiverse, Davies says, is often presented as solving the mysteries of existence by assuming that if there are an infinite number of universes, then “everything is out there somewhere, so that’s the end of the story.”
This is simply not true, says Davies, because to get a multiverse, you need a universe-generating mechanism, “something that’s going to make all those big bangs go bang.” You’re going to need some laws of physics. All theories of the multiverse assume quantum mechanics to provide the element of spontaneity, to make the bangs happen. They assume pre-existing space and time. They assume the normal notion of causality, a whole host of pre-existing conditions—Davies claims that about 10 different basic assumptions of physical laws are required to get the multiverse theory to work. And he then says, “OK, where did those all come from? What about these meta-laws that generate all the universes in the first place? Where do those rules come from? Then what about the laws or rules which impose diverse local laws upon each individual universe? How does that work? What is the distribution mechanism?” Davies says that the only thing the multiverse does is shift the problem of existence up from the level of one universe to the level of multiple universes, “but you haven’t explained it.”
How do I conclude? If multiple universes exist, our worldview changes. That’s for sure. I like to categorize things, to discern the scope of what we’re dealing with. So here are six potential mechanisms that could generate multiple universes, at least in theory:

1. Different regions of our ordinary space-time, so far away that even their light, traveling with enormous speed, will never have time enough to reach us.
2. Different domains of ordinary space-time, “squeezed off” to become forever separate.
3. Different dimensions of space and time, where, in some higher dimensions, entirely separate realities may be very close, but forever apart.
4. Different universal histories through the strangeness of quantum mechanics, where at each observation (or at every fleeting moment of Planck time), all reality splits into many worlds.
5. Whatever can be expressed by consistent mathematical systems and models exists in reality.
6. The principle of fecundity: Whatever can be imagined does exist. Somewhere.

Multiple universes may be forever untestable, but when we consider their possibility, we come closer to truth.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with Andrei Linde, Alan Guth, Sir Martin Rees, Leonard Susskind, Max Tegmark, and Steven Weinberg in "How Many Universes Exist?" the 16th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series, which airs Thursdays on the PBS HD network and many other PBS stations. Every Friday, participants in the series will share their views on the previous day's episode.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Vatican's Extreme Galileo Makeover

It looks like the Vatican is really pushing the transformation of Galileo's image—from a symbol of the conflict between science and religion to a symbol of their collaboration and compatibility. Over the weekend, according to the Associated Press, Pope Benedict XVI said that Galileo helped believers "contemplate with gratitude the Lord's work." (Back in June, the pope canceled a visit to La Sapienza, Rome's oldest and largest university, after students and academics protested his views on science and said they believed he condones the trial and conviction of Galileo for heresy.)
At a Vatican conference last month, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said Galileo was an astronomer who “lovingly cultivated his faith and his profound religious conviction," and Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture, told Vatican Radio that Galileo “could become for some the ideal patron for a dialogue between science and faith." —Heather Wax

Do Philosophical Arguments for God Matter?

"If a persuasive argument for the existence of God is wanted, then philosophy has come up empty," Alex Byrne, who teaches philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes in a piece for Boston Review that looks at how creationists, "intelligent design" proponents, and the "new atheists" use and abuse what philosophers say about the existence of a deity. "The traditional arguments have much to teach us, but concentrating on them can disguise a simple but important point," Byrne concludes. "As Anselm and Paley both recognized, the devout are not exactly holding their collective breath. For the most part, they do not believe that God exists on the basis of any argument. How they know that God exists, if they do, is itself unknown—the devout do not know that God exists in the way it is known that dinosaurs existed, or that there exist infinitely many prime numbers. The funny thing about arguments for the existence of God is that, if they succeed, they were never needed in the first place."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Selflessness Linked to Brain Function

Regardless of cultural background or religion, our brains function in a certain, similar way during spiritual experiences, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Missouri's Center on Religion & the Professions. Specifically, the findings suggest that spiritual experiences associated with selflessness—like transcendence (feelings of universal unity)—are related to decreased activity in the right parietal lobe, an area in the back of the brain.
The research team, led by Brick Johnstone, a professor of health psychology and head of CORP's spirituality and health research team, found that people with injuries to the right parietal lobe of the brain reported higher levels of spiritual experiences. This means, the researchers say, that we can potentially teach ourselves to achieve selflessness and spiritual transcendence by learning to decrease activity in that part of the brain through meditation and prayer.
The study, published in the journal Zygon, "suggests that ‘selflessness’ is a neuropsychological foundation of spiritual experiences," says Johnstone, but it "does not in any way minimize the importance of religion or personal beliefs, nor does it suggest that spiritual experience are related only to neuropsychological activity in the brain. It is important to note that individuals experience their God or higher power in many different ways, but that all people from all religions and beliefs appear to experience these connections in a similar way.” —Heather Wax

Michigan Follow-Up ("Academic Freedom Act")

Michigan's "academic freedom" bills are dead.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Obama Says He'll Favor Facts Over Ideology

"The truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth, and a greater understanding of the world around us. That will be my goal as president of the United States—and I could not have a better team to guide me in this work," President-elect Barack Obama said Saturday during his weekly radio address, in which he introduced key members of his science and technology team.
John Holdren, a Harvard University physicist and energy and climate specialist (as well as a former president of AAAS), will be Obama's top science adviser, and biomedical researchers Harold Varmus and Eric Lander will serve with Holdren as co-chairs of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. (Varmus is a former director of the National Institutes of Health, and Lander, who was a principal leader of the Human Genome Project, is founding director of the Broad Institute.) Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist and zoologist at Oregon State University, will run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“I am confident," Obama said, "that if we recommit ourselves to discovery; if we support science education to create the next generation of scientists and engineers right here in America; if we have the vision to believe and invest in things unseen, then we can lead the world into a new future of peace and prosperity.”

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" Movie Review

FROM TED PETERS, PROFESSOR OF SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY AT THE PACIFIC LUTHERAN THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY AND THE GRADUATE THEOLOGICAL UNION: I recall having seen the original 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still ,with Michael Rennie as Klaatu, at Clara Bryant Junior High School in Dearborn, Michigan, when I was a seventh-grader. Each day at lunch hour, we'd watch 20 minutes of this film, beginning on Monday and concluding on Friday with Klaatu's memorable exhortation to us Earthlings. The impression this film made on me was deep and profound. It has lasted a lifetime. The impression of the 2008 remake (starring Keanu Reeves as Klaatu; Jennifer Connelly as Helen Benson, an astrobiologist at Princeton University; and Jaden Smith as her stepson Jacob) will be as shallow as the water in a finger bowl. It will last until I can find a hand towel to wipe it off.

The Nuclear Arms Race and the UFO Phenomenon
Let's return for a moment to the cultural context in which the original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still appeared on silver screens. World War II had ended in 1945 with the dropping of atomic bombs on two cities in Japan. The age of nuclear terror had begun. Efforts to establish a global authority to maintain a peace secure from nuclear weapons had failed. The Cold War was heating up.
In addition, what we now know as the UFO phenomenon had begun in earnest with Kenneth Arnold's sighting of what he dubbed "flying saucers" near Mount Ranier in June 1947. This was the same month as the alleged crash landing of an alien spaceship in Roswell, New Mexico. And in 1950, we saw the first of a new genre of books—flying saucer books—with the publication of Behind the Flying Saucers by Donald Keyhoe. In this book, we see not only a report on UFO sightings, but also the fear of conspiracy, the fear that the U.S. government is engaged in a cover-up of important interplanetary information. Like two hot wires coming together, the Cold War and the UFO phenomenon were coming together, and the cultural sparks were flying. These sparks lit a fire in the secular mind, the fire of hope that we on Earth could be saved from our self-induced threat of nuclear annihilation. We could be saved by a science and a technology superior to ours, by an extraterrestrial science and technology. Aliens could save us from self-destruction!

From Evolution to Progress to Salvation

If one pays close attention to the words of Klaatu in the 2008 film, one will hear the word "evolution" frequently. In this context, "evolution" means progress, moral progress. Unfortunately, according to the movie, we humans on Earth are underevolved and therefore deserve destruction so that our planet—not us members of the human race, only the other life forms on our planet—can be saved from ecological disaster. What is worth pointing out here is that a close relationship exists between the UFO phenomenon and the theory of evolution. Whether a flying saucer report is a simple sighting of a daylight flying disc or a close encounter with an alleged alien being from an extraterrestrial world, the witness tries to explain the experience in terms of a terrestrial worldview that makes sense, and, curiously, the resulting explanation incorporates the theory of evolution combined with subtle religious symbolism.
UFO explanations go like this: Life has developed on a distant Earthlike planet and followed a path of evolution similar to our own here on Earth. However, this alien life began earlier, allegedly, and it has had more time to evolve. Inherent in such evolution is progress. This means that the alien civilization in question has progressed further than we have. It is more advanced than ours. This is demonstrated by the fact that aliens have developed the technology for space communication or even space travel that we have not yet developed. In a sense, the space visitors are our own future coming back to visit us. And if the space visitors bring their more advanced technology and perhaps even their more advanced spirituality, they can help us on Earth heal our maladies. Extraterrestrials piloting flying saucers become celestial saviors.
What we find here is a subtle amalgam of religious symbolism and modern science mixed with belief in the doctrine of evolutionary progress. Even though our word "evolution" refers technically to speciation in biology, it becomes applied to progress in both technological and moral development. UFO experiencers routinely speculate: If aliens have developed space travel technology, perhaps they have developed a higher form of morality and politics. Evolutionary advance has become moral advance.
Like a hot electrical wire, this speculation creates sparks when coming in contact with the post-World War II nuclear arms race. This was the theme of the 1951 movie. The theme of the 2008 movies adds terrestrial eco-catastrophe. The logic of the 1951 movie goes like this: If our visiting aliens themselves went through a period of developing nuclear power and successfully avoided self-destruction, perhaps they can teach us on Earth how to establish peace and avoid the threat of nuclear self-annihilation. What the space voyagers can bring to us is peace on Earth, a victory to be won through the advances of extraterrestrial science. Science, in its extraterrestrial and futuristic form, will become our savior. (For more on this point, see my book UFOs—God's Chariots? Flying Saucers in Politics, Science, and Religion.)
The logic of the 2008 version of the movie goes like this: Because we Earthlings have failed to evolve to a higher level of morality so that we take responsibility for the ecological health of our planet, we deserve judgment and condemnation from our alien observers. Because of our failure to evolve quickly enough, the 2008 extraterrestrials have decided to let humanity go extinct, actually to hasten our distinction through destruction. The aliens will become eco-Earth's saviors, not ours. The salvation of our planet will require the elimination of one mis-evolved species, humankind.

The Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life Myth and the UFO Myth
This combination of flying saucer sightings and the hope of Earth's salvation—both explained in terms of extraterrestrial evolution—I refer to as the "UFO myth." The UFO myth is incorporated into a more comprehensive myth, the "ETI myth," which is believed by many scientists, especially astrobiologists. The key doctrine is that extraterrestrial evolution is progressive, and some aliens are more highly evolved than we on Earth are. This is widely believed despite the lack of any empirical evidence.
As I have suggested, this myth arose within a specific historical context, namely, the immediate period following World War II when the world was trembling in fear over the nuclear arms race. This Cold War anxiety included fear that political leaders were too inept to deal with the magnitude of the problem. Blinded by nationalism and jingoism, people in nearly every nation feared that one or another leader would hastily drop a bomb that would result in an uncontrollable retaliatory exchange. The result would be global self-destruction.

Can Science Save Us?
In the decades of the Cold War, scientists were viewed as the only ones who could save the planet. We were proud of the genius of the scientists who invented the atomic bomb, who put an end to World War II. "Since the bomb exploded over Hiroshima, the prestige of science in the United States has mushroomed like an atomic cloud," wrote Martin Gardner in his 1952 book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Science represented power.
Science could also claim another virtue. The scientific community crossed national boundaries. Scientists communicated with one another regardless of national loyalties. Could a confederacy of scientists representing different nations do what political leaders could not by themselves do, namely, provide an institution for arms control? Could these broad-minded geniuses overcome their narrow-minded political leaders and provide a single planetary policy that would maintain world peace?
So, our culture posed the existential question: Could terrestrial scientists save us? No. Why? Although the world's scientists represented many nations, they still vacillated too much between nationalism and internationalism. Even if a select group of high-minded scientists could dedicate themselves to world peace, there would always be that minority of Frankensteinian mad scientists who would sell their souls to the interests of their well-paying governments. On the one hand, the scientific community seemed to hold the power to save. On the other hand, scientists were feared because they, like other mortals, could be swayed and bribed by national interests to perpetuate the spiraling competition for nuclear superiority.
This love-fear tension in the relationship between science and culture is aptly reflected in the career of atomic bomb maker, J. Robert Oppenheimer. "The physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose," Oppenheimer wrote in 1948 in Technology Review and Time magazine (cited by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin in their book American Prometheus.) Once Pandora's box had been opened and nuclear weapons knowledge began spreading, Oppenheimer sought to slam the lid down again through internationalizing atomic oversight. According to Bird and Sherwin, he proposed in The New York Times Magazine "that in the field of atomic energy there be set up a world government. That in this field there be a renunciation of sovereignty ... to protect the world against the use of atomic weapons and provide it with the benefits of atomic energy." He pressed his case in the White House and the United Nations. His efforts failed. Then President Harry Truman led America into the dizzying arms race of the Cold War. Science, despite its knowledge and power, could not save us.
In American Prometheus, Bird and Sherwin comment, "After Einstein, Oppenheimer was undoubtedly the most renowned scientist in the country—and this at a time when scientists were suddenly regarded as paragons of wisdom. His advice was eagerly sought in and out of government." Oppenehimer's advice was sought, but not taken. Citing Freeman Dyson, Bird and Sherwin aver that Oppenheimer tried to become "the savior of humanity." However, this attempt at terrestrial salvation through science failed. Could an extraterrestrial science accomplish it? Enter: the UFO myth.

The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951
Enter the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. In this first of a new genre of movies, a flying saucer lands on the grassy mall near the White House in Washington, D.C. Its pilot is an extraterrestrial, Klaatu. He has come to earth to negotiate with the heads of state of every nation. This issue is serious and urgent. Unless Earth ceases and desists its development of rocket propelled atomic weapons, Klaatu's confederacy will have to eliminate us before we can become a threat to them.
Klaatu fails to convince our political leaders. In fact, myopic political leaders will not even give him a hearing. Only scientists take the celestial diplomat seriously. Klaatu explains to an aging physicist, Professor Barnhart, that the aliens fear further development on Earth of what is now only a "rudimentary" form of atomic weaponry. Up until this point, the interplanetary confederation had not concerned itself with wars on Earth because Earth's inhabitants had not yet evolved to the point of being able to affect the extraterrestrials. Killing one another on Earth with primitive guns and tanks would elicit no extraterrestrial notice. But now that atomic weapons could be tied to rockets and shot into outer space, human violence could spill into the extraterrestrial domain. Klaatu's mission is to warn Earthlings of the dire consequences. And only Earth's scientists, not its politicians, could understand this warning and take the appropriate preventative action.
The final exhortation is the climax of this film. In the concluding scene, on the site of the flying saucer, the space visitor, Klaatu, makes a speech. "The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group anywhere can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all or no one is secure. Now this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly. Your ancestors knew this when they made laws to govern themselves and hired policemen to enforce them. We of the other planets have long accepted this principle We have an organization for the mutual protection of all planets and for the complete elimination of aggression. The result is we live in peace, without arms or armies, secure in the knowledge that we are free from aggression and war, free to pursue more profitable enterprises." Note how this extraterrestrial confederacy has evolved beyond where we have. They have progressed to a stage in evolution where war is no more. Peace prevails. The extraterrestrials bring peace as an option for planet Earth; we terrestrials can choose either peace or obliteration. What the extraterrestrials bring is scientific advance combined with moral advance. This is the foundation of the UFO myth.
I am not alone among scholars who try to piece together cultural anxiety over science and technology with the development of the ETI myth and its partner, the UFO myth. In her essay "From Rumor to Postmodern Myth" in the Encyclopedic Sourcebook of UFO Religions, Diana Tumminia describes the UFO myth as a postmodern phenomenon: "Postmodern myths, such as flying saucers, extraterrestrial deities, and alien abductions, express pluralistic collage-like symbolism of relatively recent origin. With the dawning of the rational technological age, social scientists expected secularization and science to wipe out superstition and magical religions. This has not happened. Instead, a magical enchanted worldview subverted the scientific paradigm into an animistic account of space being that was readily available for our mass consumption. That condition now pervades in our popular culture." Note that in her description, Tumminia suggests that the UFO myth subverts the scientific paradigm by reintroducing magic. This is debatable; yet, I do not want to debate this issue here. Rather, I would like to point out that when we look at the ETI myth as believed by SETI scientists, we see no obvious magic. We see only science in a very speculative form. It is not the return of magic that defines the ETI myth or even its UFO variant; rather, it is the belief that salvation comes to Earth from the heavens, from outer space.
What is reflected in the 1951 version of the film is the UFO myth. The UFO myth begins with the assumption that science is savior. But because earthly science has "known sin" by letting loose the nuclear arms race and putting the entire planet at risk, only a terrestrial science augmented by an extraterrestrial science can accomplish salvation. Salvation will come in the form of world peace. Extraterrestrials are able to do for us what we almost—but not quite—can do for ourselves, namely, establish security through a system of global arms control. Perhaps the more highly evolved UFOnauts can save us from destroying ourselves.

The Day the Earth Stood Still in 2008
Much of the punch of the original film is lost in the 2008 variant. The pitting of politics against science—where politics emphasizes nationalism and science emphasizes internationalism—is so muted, it passes by without the viewer's notice. No longer is the threat of nuclear war the source of our anxiety; it is now eco-catastrophe. The health of our planet is a noble cause, to be sure, but the new film disregards with abandon the concern for peace so prominent in the earlier one. The 2008 version exploits guns firing and bombs exploding and military macho, as if the message of the first version had not been heard. The 2008 version looks like an IMAX video game without viewer controls.
Even with these changes, the 2008 film could have been rescued had it maintained the logic of the first version. In both cases, we find humanity locked into near hopeless patterns of self-destruction—what theologians would call "original sin"—and both versions leave the human race with one more Pelagian chance to make the right decisions and to choose a healing future. Yet, the 2008 version leaves us without the equivalent of a church—that is, without a prophetic fraternity of scientists within terrestrial society to carry on the mission of advocating ecological health, let alone global peace. In 1951, the worldwide fraternity of scientists was ordained with this mission. In 2008, no one was so commissioned. In sum, we have less hope in 2008 than we did before. Poor Earth!
Klaatu berata nicto.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Expanding the Search for Extraterrestrials

This week came news from the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco that scientists are broadening their search for extraterrestrial life to "super-Earths"—giant, cold, icy planets (very little like Earth, in fact) that are seen on the outskirts of about one-third of solar systems. In most cases, the search for life has involved looking for planets in another solar system's "habitable zone," the distance from a star that provides temperatures at which water stays liquid. But the scientists believe super-Earths, which are in the farther reaches of these solar systems, might have an internal heat source that allows liquid water to form under the ice.
"It turns out that if super-Earths are young enough, massive enough, or have a thick atmosphere, they could have liquid water under the ice or even on the surface," says Scott Gaudi, a professor of astronomy at Ohio State University. "And we will almost certainly be able to detect these habitable planets if they exist."
It's too early to speculate on what kind of life (biologically simple? intelligent?) might be found on these super-Earths or other planets, but over on Counterbalance, systematic theologian Ted Peters (who, earlier this year, released the "Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey of 2008") speculates on the theological implications of possible contact with these different types of extraterrestrials, a branch of theology he calls "astrotheology" or "exotheology." —Heather Wax

Arguing God From Morality

FROM RICHARD SWINBURNE, EMERITUS NOLLOTH PROFESSOR OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION AT THE UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD: Almost all of us think that there are objective moral truths—about what is good or obligatory to do, or bad or wrong to do. For example, it is obligatory to feed one's children and wrong to commit genocide. It is (perhaps barring exceptional circumstances) wrong to tell lies and obligatory to keep a promise. We do disagree to some extent about what the moral truths are, but (apart from a few hardened skeptics) we all think that there are such truths. Many religious thinkers have claimed that unless there is a God, there can be no objective right or wrong. In this view, only the commands of God make actions morally obligatory or wrong; without God, it wouldn't be obligatory to keep a promise or wrong to tell a lie, but God's commandments make these things obligatory or wrong (as the case may be).
There are several difficulties with this view. First, of course, many other religious believers think that there are moral truths whether or not there is a God; for example, it would be wrong to break a promise whether or not God exists. Secondly, there is this problem: If breaking a promise wouldn't be wrong in a Godless world, why does God's command make any difference? And finally, religious believers claim it is good news that the God in charge of the universe is a good God. But if being good were just a matter of conforming to the will of God, it would be a trivial matter that God is good instead of great good news.
For these reasons, many religious thinkers (including Kant) as well as atheists have claimed that even if there is a God, God's commands cannot make any difference when it comes to what is right and wrong. But that, too, seems implausible because authorities other than God can impose obligations. When a caring parent tells a child to do something useful to help in the house, something that wouldn't otherwise be obligatory—to do the washing up, for example—it would normally be thought that the parent's command makes it obligatory for the child to do the washing up. And most people think that when the state issues a reasonable command—for example, to pay taxes of a certain amount— that imposes an obligation on citizens to pay those taxes. For these reasons, many thinkers have preferred an intermediate position. This position holds that some actions are good or obligatory whether or not God commands them, and among the principles of morality that hold independently of the will of God is the principle that we have an obligation to please our benefactors. Clearly, one obvious way to do this is to do what our benefactors tell us to do. God, being so much more the source of good to us than are our parents or the state, would have the right to impose far greater obligations on us than our parents or the state do. God can’t command us not to do what we are obliged to do for some other reason (for example, feed our children), but God can command us to do much else, and God's command would make these things obligatory.
So I suggest that although the commands of God can make actions right or wrong that would otherwise not be so, there cannot be a good argument for the existence of God from the mere fact of morality (that certain actions are objectively right or wrong). There may, however, be an argument of moderate strength for the existence of God from the fact that humans are aware of some of the moral truths that hold independently of God or anything else. Humans, the argument goes, have got beliefs about what is morally right or wrong, and at least some of these beliefs are true.
It can be argued that evolution by natural selection of random variations is unlikely to produce moral beliefs in humans. The fact that members of some society behave in an altruistic way (that is, care for each other) might give that society an advantage in the struggle for survival, but behaving in an altruistic way is not at all the same thing as having the moral belief that it is obligatory to do so. You can have moral beliefs without acting on them, and you can behave altruistically simply because you feel like it. But God has reason to give humans beliefs of this all-important nature: so they can choose whether to do right or wrong. So perhaps from the human awareness of moral truths there is an argument that (together with more powerful arguments) supports the case for the existence of God.

Richard Swinburne appears with J.P. Moreland, Francis Collins, Michael Tooley, Alan Leshner, and Michael Shermer in "Arguing God From Morality," the 15th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series, hosted and created by Robert Lawrence Kuhn. The series airs Thursdays on the PBS HD network and many other PBS stations. Every Friday, participants will share their views on the previous day's episode.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Religion Affects View of Scientific Decisions

A majority of the public, 53 percent, believes scientific decisions should be based primarily on the risks and benefits involved rather than on the moral and ethical issues involved, while 32 percent thinks moral and ethical concerns should be the top priority, according to the 2008 Virginia Commonwealth University Life Sciences Survey. (Click on image for larger view.) At the same time, however, 56 percent of the public feels that "scientific research these days doesn’t pay enough attention to the moral values of society."
Religiosity, the survey found, "tends to correlate with views about scientific decision making. Those who are more religious tend to say that decisions should be based on the moral and ethical issues involved (44 percent); 39 percent of this group say the risk-benefit analysis should be primary. Those who are less religious clearly side in the opposite direction; 69 percent of those for whom religion is not important say decisions should be based on a risk and benefit analysis."
The survey also shows that about 80 percent of people believe genetic testing should be readily available to anyone who wants it, with only 28 saying their main concern about genetic research is that it will be used in ways that violate moral principles. According to 54 percent of the public, the benefits of conducting genetic research outweigh the risks.
Stem cell research that does not involve human embryos is acceptable to 70 percent of those surveyed, while 57 percent are in favor of embryonic stem research (36 percent oppose it). When it comes to therapeutic cloning, 52 percent think it's OK to use the technology to develop new medical treatments, while 45 percent do not. On the other hand, 78 percent oppose the use of cloning in humans when it is not restricted to therapeutic purposes.
Overall, 83 percent of Americans say that new developments in science have helped make society better, and 61 percent agree that scientific research is essential for improving the quality of human lives. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Watch an Atheist & a Jesuit Astronomer Chat

Biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins has released the full, uncut version of his interview with Father George Coyne, former director of the Vatican Observatory and a proponent of the compatibility of science and religion. The interview was filmed for Dawkins' TV miniseries, The Genius of Charles Darwin, but didn't make it into the program. Enjoy: The conversation is open, honest, civil, thoughtful, and interesting.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Battling Islamic Creationism

"In the Muslim world there is tremendous respect for science itself. The general thinking is that Islam and science are compatible, or that Islam is a scientific religion. If evolution can be shown as a sound science, then the general belief that Islam and science are compatible may lead people to accept evolution within Islamic framework, especially if it is presented with good evidence," Salman Hameed, who teaches courses on science and religion at Hampshire College, tells New Scientist. "I think it's not a doomed situation. This is the time when people are starting to inquire more about evolution, so I think the next five to 10 years are crucial in solidifying people's opinions." The Quran, he says, "does not provide a single clear-cut verse that contradicts evolution," and young-earth creationism doesn't exist in Muslim countries, but the problem is the "misperception that evolution equals atheism" and the sense that evolution is "a symbol of the West and everything that is bad about the West—usually translated as material culture or materialism."
According to Hameed, who recently wrote a piece on Islamic creationism for the the journal Science, "the next major battle over evolution is likely to take place in the Muslim world (i.e., predominantly Islamic countries, as well as in countries where there are large Muslim populations). Relatively poor education standards, in combination with frequent misinformation about evolutionary ideas, make the Muslim world a fertile ground for rejection of the theory." (Click on image for larger view.)

Are Science and God Opposing Belief Systems?

According to new research by Jesse Preston, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, our unconscious attitudes toward science and God can be manipulated, and these attitudes appear to be in automatic opposition to each other when it comes to answering the ultimate questions of reality (like the origin of life or how the universe began). In other words, when science is shown to provide valuable explanations of various phenomena, most people show a preference for science and a neutral or negative attitude toward God; when people use God as an ultimate explanation, they display more positive associations with God and a more negative attitude toward science.
"What is really intriguing is that the larger effect happens on the opposite belief," says Preston. "When God isn't being used to explain much, people have a positive attitude toward science. But when God is being used to account for many events—especially ... life, the universe, free will, these big questions—then somehow science loses its value." On the other hand, she adds, "people may have a generally positive view of science until it fails to explain the important questions. Then belief in God may be boosted to fill in the gap."
The study, which Preston conducted with Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, appears in the January 2009 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. —Heather Wax

Monday, December 15, 2008

Medieval Mural Finally Restored, Digitally

After 20 years of research and work, Conrad Rudolph, a professor of medieval art history at the University of California, Riverside, has finished a digital reconstruction of "The Mystic Ark," a mural painted by 12th-century theologian Hugh of Saint Victor. The mural, probably painted on a cloister wall, was likely used by Hugh to teach his most promising students his conception of the history of salvation.
Using a variety of computer-based programs and a 42-page description written by one of these pupils—all that remains of the original work—Rudolph was able to combine designs and pieces from similar works of the time to create a close approximation of the mural. Among the symbols used in the painting are zodiac signs, a map of the world during the Exodus, and the image of Jesus flanked by angels. The mural is said to depict all time, all space, all matter, all of human history, all of human learning, and all of human spiritual endeavor from the beginning of time until the Last Judgment.
“Hugh painted this as the basis of an advanced seminar that dealt with religious issues of a politically sensitive nature,” Rudolph says. “This was that moment in Western culture when secular learning was just beginning to be taken up for its own sake rather than necessarily being directed specifically toward salvation and the study of the Bible.”
A life-size version of the re-created mural, standing 13 feet by 15 feet, will be displayed throughout the month at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. —Stephen Mapes

Psychology of Religion Journal Coming Soon

In February, the American Psychological Association will launch Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, a new quarterly journal that will publish peer-reviewed articles that scientifically explore the psychological aspects of religion and spirituality. Topics will include the biological foundations of trait and attitude formation, the effects of spirituality and religiousness on well-being, the application of religious and spiritual constructs in psychotherapeutic contexts, the developmental processes associated with spiritual maturation, and the psychopharmacological and neuropsychological bases of spirituality. The journal will be edited by Ralph Piedmont, a professor of pastoral counseling at Loyola College in Maryland and president of the APA's psychology of religion division.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Is There Life After Death?

FROM ROBERT LAWRENCE KUHN, HOST AND CREATOR OF CLOSER TO TRUTH: When my second son was five years old, we held a garage sale. In a halting, squeaky voice, Adam begged me not to sell his beloved tricycle.
“But you’ve grown too big for it,” I said, appealing to logic.
“But I’ll grow up, get old, and die,” he responded cheerily, “and when I’m little again, I’ll have my bike.”
My worldly wisdom collapsed. How did he know about death? We hadn’t discussed death in his presence; no relative had died. Perhaps television, friends? Somehow, death had entered his world. But why was he so sure he’d be back? That was more puzzling. I could detect no antecedent. Perhaps the permanent cessation of life seemed so inconceivable, so discordant with childhood sentience, that coming back just seemed self-evident.
I’d like to live forever ... wouldn’t everyone? I really mean it. Could we survive bodily death? Could our personal awareness transcend physical decay?
It seems absurd. It seems obvious.
Whether there is, or is not, life after death is the most singularly personal question we can ask, and the only two possible answers are in radical conflict. Everything we know about third-person science argues that life after death is impossible, absurd. Should we not follow the evidence of our senses? Yet, everything we feel about first-person consciousness argues that life after death is self-evident, obvious. Should a being who perceives eternity and desires it deeply be denied it?
No mere intellectual inquiry, this. The answer affects us. All of us. Forever. (Although what we conclude, either way, has no relationship to what is real.)
I fear "no life after death," but there is one thing I fear even more: fooling myself into believing that there is life after death when there is not. I struggle to differentiate what I know from what I believe and both from what I hope. Hope can fog belief, and both can distort knowledge.
I step back. How can the question of life after death be assessed?
I start with two general ways of thinking: evidentialism and fideism, the former requiring sensory inputs or logical analysis (consistent with the scientific method), the latter relying on a belief system or (apparent) revelation.
As for the evidentiary approach to life after death, everything we know about the physical brain indicates that when it dies, the person dies. Scientifically, there is absolutely nothing in all of brain research to suggest otherwise.
However, there are two areas of inquiry that could be considered evidentiary or amenable to scientific study that some claim do provide support, if not absolute proof, of life after death: the putative communication with the dead through mediums, séances, and the like, and the ostensible visions of “near death experiences” (NDEs). Each area has given rise to vast literature, libraries actually, that I cannot here summarize. But I can offer personal opinion.
On communications with the dead, I should find it odd in the extreme if (i) human beings really do survive death, and (ii) if the deceased really can and do interact with the living, why their apparent communications should be, at best, well, so fringy. How could such a monumental part of reality—the immortal nature of human consciousness—express itself so infrequently, so inconsequentially, and through such flaky intermediaries? Why, too, after so many serious researchers have pursued survival for so long, is its legitimacy so poorly accepted? Oh, I’ve certainly heard reasons or rationalizations why this might be so, but they all strain credulity.
As for NDEs, I’ve never given the claims credence. They seem little more than stress-induced brain physiology caused by lack of oxygen—or other such chemical insults or trauma brought about as a corollary or epiphenomenon of whatever was causing the near death in the first place. I do not consider NDEs as differing in principle from “seeing stars” if hit over the head or visualizing colors when poked or pushed in the eye.
Arguments for imbuing NDEs with larger meaning call attention to the similar visions among diverse cultures (i.e., seeing lights, tunnels, meeting angelic-like beings) and the idea that through these visions people learn special things that would be difficult to explain by conventional means. As for the similar visions, well, all humans in all cultures have similar brains, and they are affected in similar ways by trauma. Furthermore, it is not clear that the cross-cultural visions are similar: Non-Christians, to my knowledge, do not readily see figures reminiscent of Jesus or Mary. As for knowledge of special things, I’ve never seen any evidence. There is another counterargument against the evidentiary claim of life after death made by those people who supposedly communicate with the dead, generally through mediums of one kind of another, and who learn information that apparently could not be known without the “dead-person transmission.” Follow this: Even if careful investigation would prove the veracity of the information and even if the information could not have been known through common or subtle sensory mechanisms—admissions I am not prepared to make—such information would still not prove survival beyond death.
Such “impossible-to-know information,” as philosopher Stephen Braude has shown, could have been apprehended through various “super-psi” mechanisms—higher-levels or complex combinations of extrasensory perception (ESP) that can masquerade as coming from dead people. In other words, paranormal knowledge gleaned through telepathy (mind-to-mind transfer), clairvoyance (perceptions beyond the ordinary senses), or precognition (knowing the future) can manifest itself as if coming from deceased beings, and it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish among the various possible originating sources. [Note: One does not have to believe in the reality of ESP to appreciate that its possibility alone presents a major stumbling block to those who seek to corroborate life after death by the special information supposedly imparted by communications from the dead.]
For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus is the most powerful proof for life after death. Many believers claim that, in addition to confirmation by faith, Jesus’ resurrection is confirmable by history, by the kinds of evidence that would pass the test of historical scholarship. Obviously, this claim is not universally acceptable nor is its historicity the unanimous declaration of Christian scholars.
As for the fideistic approach to life after death, it is certainly true that virtually all cultures and religions have a strong and enduring tradition of survival beyond death. Although such traditions, whether based on written scriptures or oral transmissions, can be dismissed as pre-scientific and superstitious, something like ancient animism, the ubiquity of such beliefs horizontally across disparate human societies and vertically through diverse human histories does call for, in my opinion, some consideration.
But congruence among religions—say, among the Abrahamic religions (i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam)—offers scant support for the veracity of an afterlife. The reason is that doctrinal beliefs are often derived from similar scriptures and interconnected philosophers.
So how to discern and dissect out what, if anything, is real? How to categorize the fideism approach? I suggest two broad categories: the existence of a traditional-like God and the primacy of consciousness.
The first category posits a Creator God and probably requires such a God to be personal, which is to say one who can and does take interest in individual human beings. The monotheistic God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is the prime example. If one believes in this kind of Personal Creator God, it seems a small step for such a God, assuming such a God created the entire universe and all that is, to assure life after death for any or all of the beings that God created. The mechanism that God might use to bring about life after death can vary: Creating an immortal soul is one way; resurrecting the dead is another. (Note that a God-induced resurrection works even with a purely physicalist understanding of personhood, without any immortal soul). If I believed that a Personal God created the universe, I’d find little problem in accepting that such a God could assure continuance of conscious life after bodily death.
The second approach to life after death is founded on the primacy of consciousness. This can be expressed in multiple formats and styles: the mainstreams of Eastern religions (e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, etc.); philosophical belief in the immortality of the soul (e.g., Plato and others); or a conviction that consciousness is fundamental in the structure of reality (e.g., panpsychism) and perhaps is more fundamental than even the physical world (e.g., idealism). Each of these belief systems can exist independent of the kind of Creator God as is commonly assumed in the Abrahamic religions.
Specific descriptions of the alleged afterlife, as one might expect, reflect individual cultures. But life after death, even if real, cannot be settled by culture. Because, as philosopher Daniel Dennett’s work shows, even in the absence of God, there would still be very good reasons why humans believe in god.
So here’s the question: Given the complete and utter absence of credible evidence for life after death, why would I give any credence at all to the claims of religion or consciousness? It cannot be based on science because, ipso facto, science shows the opposite, that there is no possibility of life after death. So such a belief would have to be, yes, in spite of science.
This possibility I do not exclude because, by definition, the essence or nature of religion and consciousness is nonphysical; therefore, by definition, religion and consciousness are not in thrall to the evidentiary imperative, the scientific standard of truth. If this sounds like rationalization, it is because it is rationalization. The question is whether it may also be something more.
How do I conclude? As a scientist, any afterlife seems impossible, ludicrous. As a person, no afterlife seems inconceivable, absurd. I summarize four options.
First, I will have no life after death. I have no soul. When I become dead, I stay dead.
Second, I have a soul, and my soul is immortal. My post-death journey features heaven or hell or some state in between.
Third, I have no soul. When I die, I’m dead, out of existence. But God, at some future moment, “in the twinkling of an eye” (as the New Testament’s 1 Corinthians states), will resurrect my body and bring back my person.
Fourth, my soul, not God, is preeminent. My soul is nonphysical and immortal and perhaps journeys through cycles of reincarnation.
Four options. Only one can be true.
As for so-called evidence of an afterlife, I cannot imagine why, if we do survive death, the evidence is so weak.
As I see it, for any hope of an afterlife, the only argument that can work, if any can work at all, is that God exists and God is personal. So only if I would believe that there really is a God, a God who has concern for me (and everyone), would I hold out hope for an afterlife.
Even then, in my opinion, not an afterlife by means of an immortal soul. And not right after death. But only by some kind of, well, reconstitution of mind and body. At some unknown time. In some mysterious way. And for a purpose beyond anything we can ever know.
I think that’s correct, and closer to truth.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with Stephen Braude, Michael Tooley, J.P. Moreland, Nancey Murphy, Mahmoud Ayoub, David Shatz, and Master Hsing Yun in "Is There Life After Death?" the 14th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series, which airs Thursdays on the PBS HD network and many other PBS stations. Every Friday, participants in the series will share their views on the previous day's episode.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Faith Leads to Guilt & Solace in Abuse Victims

Religious beliefs produce various reactions in childhood sexual abuse victims, according to Jean-Guy Nadeau, a professor of theology and religious sciences at the Université de Montréal. Nadeau interviewed women who were abused as children and found that those who had a strong religious upringing often felt terrible guilt about their abuse and believed they'd go to hell if they didn't forgive their abusers. “A child’s God can be kidnapped and exploited by an adult, often by the very adult who taught the child about God in the first place,” says Nadeau. “It’s the victims, not the aggressors, who find themselves silenced and overwhelmed by guilt, pain, and isolation.”
Some kids, says Nadeau, stop believing in a God that doesn't protect children, others pray their abuse will end, and others recite prayers to fortify themselves during the ordeal and foster resilience. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dan Dennett Says Science Informs Humanities

"I applaud the convergence by naturalistic philosophers, psychologists and other researchers in the life sciences on the physical and biological foundations of the phenomena which compose the humanities: ethics, art and music, humor, and of course religion, to name a few," philosopher Daniel Dennett writes in an autobiographical piece in Philosophy Now magazine. "The shrill defensive cries of those in the humanities who view their topics as off-limits to science, as somehow transcending all gross considerations of how their favorite phenomena can be located within the creative swirl of the physical world, are, in a word, embarrassing. I view myself as a defender of the humanities, not a traitor. I have been trying to show how our understanding and our appreciation of consciousness, free will and ethics, religion, and the arts grows when it is grounded in a detailed understanding of the relevant science. It is possible, of course, to contribute to our understanding of these beloved phenomena without paying any heed to the questions scientists raise about them; but when an unscientific perspective drifts into an anti-scientific perspective (as it frequently does), the result tends to be either obscurantism or mythmaking. Each of the topics I just mentioned has bulwarks apparently designed to deflect the probes of science: qualia and ‘intrinsic intentionality’; agent causation and other forms of frankly mysterious indeterminism; the systematic incomprehensibility of religious doctrines and practice (only those with ‘faith’ are qualified to investigate); and the ‘ineffability’ of artistic meaning and genius. Some philosophers brandish these doctrines like crucifixes in the face of a vampire, but those who reject such dodges are making genuine advances in understanding, typically by clarifying, refining, extending, and when it is called for, rebutting the analyses and theories of other scientists who now dare to approach these hallowed precincts."

Popular Reasons for Belief in God Scrutinized

In his new book, 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God, Guy Harrison presents the most popular justifications for belief in God—from people of various religious faiths—and then responds to each reason in order to reveal its weaknesses. “So long as people hate, kill, and fight against science in the name of gods, there will be an urgent need for more discussion about whether or not these gods are likely to even be real in the first place,” says Harrison, a journalist and science teacher. “Although the book is thorough and forceful," he says, "I never let it drift into an attack on believers or take on a tone of arrogance.”

Some of the most popular reasons given for believing in a god:

  • “Anything is better than being an atheist.”
  • “I don’t want to go to hell.”
  • “My god answers prayers,”
  • “Science doesn’t explain everything.”
  • “Our world is too beautiful to be an accident.”
While some of the reasons may seem simplistic, says Harrison, they continue to work for billions of people around the world, making it important to address them seriously and skeptically even when they seem superficial. He also hopes to show that such beliefs aren’t necessary to live a moral and satisfying life. While he acknowledges that much good can come from religion, the intent of the book, Harrison says, is to show that there is an absence of good evidence for believing in any god and that “there is plenty of reason for doubt, certainly enough doubt to lead people to think twice before strapping bombs around their torsos, rejecting science, hating someone, or other such destructive behavior that may be tied to belief in gods.” —Michele Calandra

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Is President Bush a Theistic Evolutionist?

In an interview on ABC's Nightline last night, co-anchor Cynthia McFadden asked President George W. Bush about evolution and creation:

Cynthia McFadden: So you can read the Bible and not take it literally. I mean you can—it's not inconsistent to love the Bible and believe in evolution, say.
George W. Bush: Yeah, I mean, I do. I mean, evolution is an interesting subject. I happen to believe that evolution doesn't fully explain the mystery of life and ...

McFadden: But do you believe in it?
Bush: That God created the world, I do, yeah.

McFadden: But what about ...
Bush: Well, I think you can have both. I think evolution can—you're getting me way out of my lane here. I'm just a simple president. But it's, I think that God created the earth, created the world; I think the creation of the world is so mysterious it requires something as large as an almighty and I don't think it's incompatible with the scientific proof that there is evolution.

Stephen Johnson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and a devout Christian, expressed a similar view in an in-depth profile published in The Philadelphia Inquirer this past weekend. Asked about evolution and creation, Johnson, who majored in biology at Taylor University, an evangelical college, said, "It's not a clean-cut division. If you have studied at all creationism vs. evolution, there's theistic or God-controlled evolution and there's variations on all those themes." —Heather Wax

Judge Jones "Confident" He Got Opinion Right

"I am a person of faith. I'm certainly not an atheist or an agnostic and I see some divine force somewhere," Judge John E. Jones III, who presided over the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, says in a new Q&A with Jane Gitschier in the journal PLoS Genetics. "That said, having had a pretty good education, a great liberal arts education at Dickinson College, I must say that I never had any substantial doubts about evolution generally. I had forgotten, admittedly, a lot of what I had learned about evolution back in college. Moreover, a lot had happened since the '70s, so my understanding was rudimentary. But I never had a crisis of confidence about evolution or a reason to doubt that it constituted a valid theory and good science."