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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Message From the President of Israel

"Committed to our faith and to the value of tikkun olam, Israel must continue to play a role in meeting the global challenges of tomorrow. Being small in size and population, we must be greater in the field of science and serve as a world laboratory in a quest for alternative energy, mostly from the sun, so as to decrease pollution and dry the petro-dollar swamp that breeds terror," Israeli President Shimon Peres said in a Rosh Hashanah video message. "Humanity will have to generate water to meet growing human demand, prevent thirst and enable a harmonious and sustainable environment for man and nature. Israel has so far excelled in this domain and we have to continue investing our efforts into this pursuit."

The Sounding of the Shofar

For many who are celebrating the Jewish new year today, the most powerful experience is hearing the sound of the shofar (the ram's horn trumpet), which is blown during the Rosh Hashanah synagogue service. Why? "While the rabbis have many explanations for the meaning of the shofar, for me, it touches on what I don’t fully understand and what I can’t fully articulate," says Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston. "The sound of the shofar represents a truth beyond words, a hope for a new beginning, the deep mystery of life, and the opportunity for meaning and purpose." —Heather Wax

Monday, September 29, 2008

It Pays to Have Faith in Cooperation

Martin Nowak, a mathematician and biologist at Harvard University and director of its Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, has long studied cooperation among genes, cells, and humans, and recently, he's been working on mathematically modeling the origin of life. Now, he's started another new research project with Sarah Coakley, formerly at the Harvard Divinity School and now at the University of Cambridge. Together, they're studying the way religious people and nonbelievers think about and view cooperation, and early results show, says Coakley, that those who are religious have a stronger belief in cooperation's power. According to their previous research, which also combined evolutionary theory and theology, cooperation is the centerpiece of a winning game plan for life; the math demonstrates that it pays to be generous, forgiving, and hopeful. —Heather Wax

How We Live Is As Important As How Long

FROM RABBI RICHARD ADDRESS, UNION FOR REFORM JUDAISM: The end of the month of September brings an interesting confluence of major religious events. In the Islamic community, they observe the end of Ramadan, a month of introspection and focus on personal spiritual goals. Likewise, in my community, we greet a new year this evening. Rosh Hashanah calls us with the sound of the ram's horn (the shofar) to enter a 10-day period of reflection and transformation. There is much looking backward as we are called to take stock of the previous year.
This is a period of time in which we are given permission to change and create a new “self.” This may be a particular challenge for the exploding older adult population of our community. The aging of the baby boomers is changing how our society deals with aging and has sparked an increase in scientific studies on what it means to age and what may be essential components of “healthy aging.” This quest is not new; we have always harbored a desire to deny the inevitability of our own mortality. In mythologies of the past, we sought fountains of youth or made curious deals with supernatural powers to extend life. Now, in a curious marriage between science and religion, we have invested countless hours in the search for a modern magic bullet to try to unlock the secrets of life.
There are studies looking at the genetic links to aging in an attempt to one day restructure the genetic code that breaks down as we age. We could create an extensive bibliography of texts and studies that have emerged in the last decade that look at the links between lifestyle and positive aging. The MacArthur Study of Successful Aging of the 1990s showed us that how we choose to live may be of equal or more importance than how our genes are wired. The potential benefits of ongoing research into this new age of longevity are echoed in Robert Butler’s recently published book The Longevity Revolution, in which he writes that it “is also time for a nationwide private sector effort to mobilize the resources of the private nonprofit and corporate sectors as well as individual philanthropists to both support aging research and to push our government to continue and expand support of the NIH and NIA."
What so many of these studies have shown is that as important as pushing back the age barrier may be (and there is significant debate as to the value of expanding life spans), equal emphasis must be given to enhancing the quality of the life that is being lived now. Indeed, a key to that is social interaction, which is important for people no matter what their age, but especially as they grow older. Being with people, not being isolated and “alone,” can do much to enhance, extend, and add to one’s quality and quantity of life. This comes as no great scientific breakthrough. It is common sense. It speaks to the basic human need to be loved and to be needed and to count for something and to be with someone.
This is why, I think, Genesis instructs us that it is “not good” to be alone. The context of the verse introduces the need for Adam to be with another person, Eve. Yet, there is a deeper meaning than just companionship. I think the text is also reminding us that we cannot allow, as a family or a society, for people to be cut off from others, to live isolated, alone, unloved, and uncared for. One of our greatest challenges in the coming decades will be to ensure that our society does not allow people to age in isolation, to grow old in facilities that cut them off from social interaction and the basic need to be with people, to be needed, and to be loved.

Rabbi Richard Address, director of the Department of Jewish Family Concerns for the Union for Reform Judaism, will regularly share his work and thoughts on science, religion, and aging.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Many Would Allow Research on Extra Embryos

Most infertility patients would let their extra embryos be used for stem cell research, according to a recent survey published in this month's issue of the journal Fertility and Sterility. When they were asked if using leftover embryos for stem cell research should be allowed, 73 percent of those who gave a definitive opinion said yes, though blacks and Hispanics were less likely to approve the practice than were whites. Patients under 30, Protestants, those who were less wealthy, and those who were single were also less likely to support using the leftover embryos.
The patients were also asked if they would sell their extra embryos to other couples—something that both the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists consider ethically unacceptable. (For patients who can't conceive using their own eggs, it's more cost-effective to try using pre-existing embryos than an egg donor, according to the researchers.) When asked if selling their extra embryos to other couples should be allowed, 56 percent of those who gave a definitive opinion said yes.
These patients are the gatekeepers of the hundreds of thousands of embryos left over from in vitro fertilization that are now frozen and stored in fertility clinics, the researchers point out. "Infertility patients, in general, are altruistic," says Dr. Tarun Jain, clinical IVF director at the University of Illinois at Chicago and lead author of the study, "and it makes sense that they would try to advance medicine and help others." —Heather Wax

Why Is Consciousness So Mysterious

FROM KEITH WARD, GRESHAM PROFESSOR OF DIVINITY AT GRESHAM COLLEGE : Consciousness is a major problem for materialists, who believe that everything that exists is composed of publicly observable material elements in this (or at least in some) space-time.
Yet consciousness is something that is most immediately known to each person who reads this post. It is immediate knowledge by acquaintance.
Empiricist philosophers may have been wrong about many things, but they were probably right in thinking that all knowledge begins with experience—with a direct apprehension of some state of affairs, which is then described and categorized using general concepts. If this is so, consciousness is the necessary basis of all theoretical knowledge, including knowledge of the human brain and its behavior. One problem philosophers have traditionally dealt with is whether and how such immediate acquaintance plus the conceptual interpretation can give rise to accurate theoretical knowledge of the world outside of conscious experience.
It is a strange inversion of this situation to say that the problem is how material brains can give rise to conscious experience. That inversion suggests that we know material brains exist, but consciousness may well be an illusion or a causally inert by-product of brains. Yet we only know that brains exist because we are conscious of them. If such consciousness is an illusion, then material brains are part of the illusion. There is no sensible way of saying that our consciousness is illusory but its contents are absolutely real. We have to trust that our consciousness provides genuine knowledge by acquaintance before we can trust that any of its contents provide clues to what is real.
But are brains not real? And does their functioning not govern the sorts of experiences, the sorts of consciousness, we have? Yes indeed, we learn—through experience and reflection upon it—that there are material causes of conscious states. But causes are logically distinct from their effects, and far from throwing doubt on the existence of those effects, a causal account presupposes that effects really exist.
Brain events do cause conscious states to exist. Is this a problem? Only if it is believed that material events can have only material effects. But that is a dogma that consciousness undermines. Consciousness seems to show that materialism is false, since consciousness does not consist of publicly observable material elements in space-time. There are material causes of immaterial states. Conscious states also usually involve an affective, evaluative element, and a tendency to seek or avoid their objects. So, in the absence of a conclusive rebuttal, it is reasonable to believe that conscious states influence behavior. It they did not, consciousness would have no evolutionary efficacy, and knowledge of a state of affairs would have no effect on behavior.
It is a basic datum of experience that our consciousness of a situation, of its pleasant or threatening character, will influence our behavior. Reading these words, for instance, will cause some responsive feeling and activity—if only an inclination to write a letter of protest or to think hard, which puts our brains into new physical states.
The major mystery of consciousness is just what the causal relationship between conscious and physical states is. There are six main possibilities: consciousness is an illusion (hard materialism), matter is an illusion (hard idealism), consciousness is dependent on matter (nonreductive physicalism), matter is dependent on consciousness (theism), the two exist independently (dualism), or they are different aspects of one underlying reality (monism). All have been tried, and none is wholly satisfactory. That is why consciousness is such a fascinating and important problem.
My own view, on strictly philosophical grounds, is that consciousness is an irreducible feature of reality and is probably the ontologically primary reality—which inclines me to views more like the last three on my list. The great majority of classical philosophers have taken this view. But to work it out fully, taking into account the recent findings of evolutionary biology, neurophysiology, and quantum physics, is a formidable undertaking, requiring both bold speculation and intellectual humility.
I agree with University of Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose in thinking that the future of science is closely bound up with somehow integrating consciousness and the material substratum of the cosmos in a coherent way. Neither of us, I think, suppose that it has yet been done.

Keith Ward appears with the Venerable Yifa, Susan Blackmore, Daniel Dennett, David Chalmers, John Searle, and Colin McGinn in "Why Is Consciousness So Mysterious?" the third 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. Coming up next week: series host and creator Robert Lawrence Kuhn on "Did Our Universe Have a Beginning?"

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Will Texas Strengthen its Science Standards?

The Texas Education Agency has released proposed drafts of the state's new science standards, adopting stronger scientific language. The new curriculum standards would remove language that requires students to critique the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories like evolution. Instead, students would be required to “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing.”
The draft also includes an addition adapted from the book Science, Evolution, and Creationism, published this year by the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine. It reads: "Science uses observational evidence to make predictions of natural phenomena and to construct testable explanations. If ideas are based upon purported forces outside of nature, they cannot be tested using scientific methods.” This new language would help keep supernatural and religious concepts, like creationism and "intelligent design," out of the science classroom.
It's expected there'll be an expert review of the proposed standards and that the agency will also solicit public comments. The draft will then be revised and submitted to the State Board of Education for approval. —Heather Wax

Get Your Application Ready

Next Wednesday, the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships in Science & Religion will begin accepting online applications for its 2009 summer program. For the fifth year, 10 journalists will gather at the University of Cambridge during June and July for independent research, seminars, and discussions led by some of the world's most prominent scholars, scientists, and theologians. The fellowship will give these journalists the "opportunity to examine the dynamic and creative interface of science and religion," according to the program's Web site.
Print, broadcast, and online journalists with at least three years of experience and an interest in science and religion are invited to apply, and fellows will be selected by an advisory committee made up of scientists, academics, and journalists. The deadline is December 15.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Episode 3: Many More Die & an MRI

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: We get just a little closer to a discussion of theology when this episode of Fringe opens in a church, where a priest tells a man that the "Lord speaks to all those who are willing to listen." The upset man responds back: "What about the devil, then? I see things.”
Quick flashes show us his current vision: A man boards a bus full of people, eyes a woman sitting by the window, dons a gas mask, takes the woman’s backpack, and then opens a canister of gas before making a hasty exit. As the vehicle swerves out of control, we come back to the church, where the prescient man bolts before the priest can stop him. “Roy, I know it’s you!” the priest calls after him, stooping to pick up a sketch Roy dropped—it’s of the bus disaster victims.
Meanwhile, we’re back to the vision… except it actually just happened and the bus is stopped in a tunnel. Gas Mask Man drives off in a getaway car. Curious cops approach the bus and find everyone inside dead and suspended in some sort of rock-hard material. It’s nowhere near as disgusting as the goo-filled flight, but no peaceful-passing-in-their-sleep, either.
Phillip Broyles takes Olivia to the bus scene. Peter and Walter show up later, just after Peter roughs up a man who’s been tailing him and taking photos. “You were supposed to check in before you came home,” the man admonishes Peter, who confiscates his camera’s memory card. Thank goodness there’s finally a bit of intrigue on this show that doesn’t involve liquefying body parts… yet. In the tunnel, Walter hypothesizes that the solid mass surrounding the bodies was released as a gas, while elsewhere, Gas Mask Man and a pal realize that what they’re looking for isn’t in the backpack.
Olivia surveys the dead bodies and their effects at a storage facility and realizes that the backpack is missing. She learns it belonged to Evalina Mendoza, who was an undercover agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Her handler, an agent named Graham Davidson, comes to ID her body and says that she’d asked for an extraction after getting spooked by something called “the pattern.” He asks for a moment alone with her body and, while Olivia watches, he strokes Evalina’s cold hand.
The priest alerts police to Roy’s odd behavior, which leads Olivia and FBI co-worker Charlie to his apartment. There they find sketches of several "pattern"-related incidents, including the ill-fated flight, all dated before the events took place. In custody, Roy tells the group that he has no idea where the drawings come from—like his most recent, which has a woman bleeding from her palms, they just come to him.
Walter thinks that Roy is psychically linked to someone involved with the case, and says he can prove it with an MRI. But when Roy is in the machine, his veins begin to bulge out of his skin: Because an MRI machine is basically a giant magnet, this reaction means Roy must have metal in his blood. And of course, this leads to some experiments Walter conducted back when Roy was a college sophomore volunteering in the psych lab. The metal in his blood multiplied, turning him into a receiver for the kind of “ghost net” transmissions that Walter and William Bell, the founder of Massive Dynamics, had been commissioned to create back in the day.
Olivia and Peter retrieve Walter’s “magnetic neural stimulator” so everyone can be privy to what Roy’s hearing… after a little light brain surgery. The gang knows the procedure is a success when Roy begins speaking in Latin, and they translate the phrase, “She had it the whole time.” Olivia races to the morgue to find Evalina’s palm sliced open like the bleeding woman in Roy’s drawing—turns out that instead of grieving, Graham was actually cutting a small disc out of her skin. Roy also clues the team in to an exchange that’s going to happen at Boston’s South Station. Olivia tracks Graham there, but he’s already been shot and the exchange has been made! And it’s to Gas Mask Man! Olivia and Charlie chase him down and retrieve the disc, but Gas Mask Man jumps in front of a bus before he can be taken in. At the office, Olivia bemoans their failure, but Broyles reminds her that they know the man was connected to "the pattern," and now they know how members of the pattern were communicating.
Broyles brings the disc to Nina, who takes it into a Massive Dynamics lab and instructs scientists to use it to break an encryption. We see a screen full of unintelligible code, and as the camera pans left… it’s hooked up to John’s body.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Faith is little more than set dressing in this episode, but the script does play with the question of whether the mind is little more than a glut of circuitry that can be manipulated at will. Also a nice touch: Peter takes Walter to task for his loose research ethics, of which Roy is a living, breathing reminder.

MacArthur Fellow Plans to Write S&R Book

David Montgomery, one of the 25 winners of the MacArthur Foundation's 2008 "genius awards," says he will use some of the $500,000 he receives to write a book on the relationship between geology and religious thought. Montgomery is a geomorphologist at the University of Washington, studying the Earth's surface and how it changes, and he's already written two books, King of Fish and Dirt. The working title of his new book is Phantom Deluge, and it will be about the interaction of science and theology in accounts of massive floods (like the story of Noah's ark).

Are Women More Vengeful Than Men?

Thanks to Mike McCullough, a professor of psychology and religious studies at the University of Miami, for sending us his latest thoughts on sex differences in revenge (which also appear on his own blog and The Huffington Post):

A lipstick-adorned pit bull who hunts big game and shoots wolves from an airplane.
Unless you've been in a coma for the past month, you've probably noticed that the McCain campaign has put quite a bit of effort into portraying Senator John McCain's running mate as, umm, comfortable with the tools of aggression.
The evident appeal of the "Palin the Hunter" meme resonates with something else I've heard quite a bit recently: the claim that women are much more vengeful than men are. As you might know, I recently wrote a book about revenge, so I've gotten to hear a lot of different people's opinions on the subject, but until the past couple of months, I'd never heard so many people—mostly women, in fact—make this particular pronouncement with such conviction. In light of all the attention that the "guns and ammo" section of Gov. Sarah Palin's CV has received in the past few weeks, I just had to figure out where the "women are more vengeful than men" meme originated.
It turns out that it came from Patricia Cohen's New York Times piece, "Calculating Economics of an Eye for an Eye." Cohen was reporting on a recent research paper by Louisiana State University economist Naci Mocan which seemed to show that this is the case. At first glance, it seemed like a reasonable thing to conclude from Mocan's clever study, but honestly, women more vengeful than men? I had my doubts. Now that I've read Mocan's study myself, I'm even more skeptical. So before this becomes the next great urban myth about women (remember when we learned that single women over 40 stood a greater chance of being killed by a terrorist than finding a husband?), I thought I'd set the record straight.
In Mocan's massive survey of almost 90,000 people from 53 different countries, respondents were asked to recommend an appropriate sentence for a young man who has been convicted of burglary for the second time. (This time around, he has stolen a TV.) Respondents who recommended jail time were then asked to recommend how much time he should serve (from a month or less to life).
Mocan reasoned that the desire for revenge would show up as the excess amount of punishment recommended by respondents who had recently been burglarized themselves (about 7 percent of the sample) in comparison to people who had not been burglarized: Revenge, as Mocan observed, can only be executed by someone who has been wronged. He went on to discover that recent experience with being burglarized was linked to an 85 percent larger increase in the amount of punishment that women recommended than in the amount of punishment that men recommended. In other words, recent victimization changed women's judgments more dramatically than it changed men's judgments. And it was on this basis that Mocan concluded that females are the more vengeful sex.
But hang on: Why interpret this excess preference for stern punishment among burglarized women as the desire for revenge? Why not interpret it as the fear of revictimization? Which sex, do you suppose, would be more fearful of having a man break into their homes (remember, our hypothetical villain has stolen a television)? If it's the fairer sex, as I'd surmise, then the previously victimized women's elevated responses here may reflect not an elevated desire to return harm for harm, but rather, an elevated desire to keep criminals behind bars so that they're less likely to invade people's homes. We just can't be sure from the facts at hand.
A second problem: This study looked at people's guesses about how they would act in a hypothetical situation (prescribing a sentence for a hypothetical crime)—not how they actually responded to a choice with real consequences (as when a jury has to impose a sentence on a real criminal). Researchers have made careers out of showing how bad people are at these sorts of conjectures about their own behavior. If you're interested in people's surmises about their revenge behavior, then by all means, study their professed responses to hypothetical victimization scenarios. But if you're interested in what people actually do when they're wronged, ignore the conjecture and watch real behavior instead.
Speaking of behavior, the third reason to doubt that women are more vengeful than men is the mountain of behavioral research contradicting it. Consider this study from a couple of years ago—also reported in The New York Times—which showed that men had higher activation in brain areas associated with the anticipation of reward than women did when they watched someone who had previously harmed them experience physical pain. Conversely, women experienced higher activation in areas associated with empathy than men did in this situation. These sex differences suggest that men find enjoyment in seeing their provocateurs suffer, whereas women are pained by it.
Consider also this research on retaliatory homicides in St. Louis, Missouri. The researchers found that women committed about 10 percent of the nonretaliatory homicides, but only 4 percent of the retaliatory homicides. Sure, men do almost all of the killing in this world, but when it comes to revenge murders, they've practically got a monopoly.
Or how about this extensive review of laboratory experiments, which shows that men respond with more aggressive retaliation than women do when someone has done something nasty to them?
And what about anthropologists' studies of revenge around the world, such as Christopher Boehm's descriptions of the strong sexual division of labor in the blood feuds of tribal Montenegro, or Roger Gould's historical work on vendettas in 19th-century Corsica? Most of these studies show that it's quite rare for women to become actively involved in seeking revenge, although they often play important roles as goads to men who might otherwise lose their resolve to go forward with their bloody plans. Revenge, the anthropologists tell us, is (mostly) man's work.
Don't get me wrong—I liked Mocan's study in many ways and I'm glad to get my hands on it. But women more vengeful than men (i.e., pit bull plus lipstick = hockey mom)? Sure; it's one of those annoying little ideas that sticks in your head, and that can get your presidential ticket a little more attention, too, but as a legitimate statement about human nature and real behavioral differences between the sexes? Thanks but no thanks.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Evangelical College Opens New Science Center

Gordon College, an evangelical liberal arts college in Massachusetts, is beginning a weeklong celebration to affirm its commitment to the sciences, all leading up to the dedication of the its new, environmentally friendly Ken Olsen Science Center. Following the ribbon-cutting ceremony on September 27, Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, will speak at a free public lecture titled "Genomics and the Human Condition." Other events that will explore the relationship between science and faith include art exhibits, performances of the play A Number (about cloning) and the comedic opera The Doctor in Spite of Himself, and panel discussions with scientists and scholars.
"It has been evident that Gordon strives to graduate students who feel at ease with science, economics, and the humanities while holding on to their faith," says Ken Olsen, the computer science pioneer who founded Digital Equipment Corporation and a member of the college's board of trustees.
"With the Ken Olsen Science Center, all of us ... are challenged to consider how a community of faith could contribute to a more robust future for the relationship between science and democracy," says Gordon Provost Mark Sargent. "Our hope is to forge greater understanding among those who might disagree, but at the same time to understand more fully how the rich heritage of Christian bioethical philosophy and thought can contribute to the public discourse." —Michele Calandra

Twitter Gets Religious

There's now a Christian version of Twitter, the microblogging site that lets people stay in touch by posting short updates (no longer than 140 characters) on what they're doing and thinking. It's called Gospelr, and it's for "ministry microblogging." The purpose, according to the site, "is to provide an effective communication medium for sharing thoughts, ideas, words of encouragement, prayer requests, daily scripture readings/devotionals, and more to friends, staff, ministries, family, and others"—though it will be interesting to see how it ultimately gets used. —Heather Wax

Monday, September 22, 2008

Steven Weinberg Tracks S&R's Tensions

"I'm not going to say that it's easy to live without God, that science is all you need. For a physicist, it is indeed a great joy to learn how we can use beautiful mathematics to understand the real world. We struggle to understand nature, building a great chain of research institutes, from the Museum of Alexandria and the House of Wisdom of Baghdad to today's CERN and Fermilab. But we know that we will never get to the bottom of things, because whatever theory unifies all observed particles and forces, we will never know why it is that that theory describes the real world and not some other theory," writes Steven Weinberg, a physicist at the University of Texas at Austin, in a thoughtful essay on the tensions between science and religion (and what he thinks their relationship will mean for the future of belief) in The New York Review of Books.
"Worse, the worldview of science is rather chilling. Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature, of the sort imagined by philosophers from Anaximander and Plato to Emerson. We even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. And yet we must not sink into nihilism or stifle our emotions. At our best we live on a knife-edge, between wishful thinking on one hand and, on the other, despair."

Most Americans Believe Angels Helped Them

More than half of Americans—55 percent—say they have been protected from harm by a guardian angel, a finding that stunned researchers at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Texas. The high percentage of people who hold this belief, which seems to reach across religious, regional, and educational lines, is "a complete surprise because this is not a question, do you believe in guardian angels or do you believe in angels. This is a very specific question: Do you believe you have been protected from harm by a guardian angel? Do you believe you avoided an accident through the agency of a guardian angel?" says Christopher Bader, a sociologist at Baylor and an ISR researcher. "To find out that more than half of the American public believes this was shocking to me. I did not expect that."
The question was part of a broad survey of the nation's religious beliefs and practices that the institute conducted in 2007 with help from the Gallup Organization. According to the poll, which surveyed nearly 1,700 Americans, 45 percent of people say they've had at least two religious encounters—and while conservative Protestants are more likely to report religious or mystical encounters than are liberal Protestants, Catholics, or Jews, the researchers found such experiences occur with considerable frequency in nearly all religious groups.
As in the first wave of the survey in 2005, 11 percent of respondents said they had "no religion," yet two-thirds of the people in this group still expressed some belief in God and many were found to be merely "unchurched" rather than "irreligious." A majority of Americans who say they're irreligious still pray (with 32 percent praying often), and about a third of them say they believe in Satan, hell, and demons. About half believe in angels and ghosts.
These and other results from the survey have been released in a new book called What Americans Really Believe, written by Rodney Stark, a social sciences professor and co-director of the ISR. —Heather Wax

Should Scientists Challenge Religious Beliefs?

Alex Bentley, an anthropologist at Durham University in England, sent us a note about a new book he edited called The Edge of Reason?, which asks whether scientists should challenge religious beliefs in modern society. The collection of essays, he says, "gives voice to social scientists, natural scientists, and theologians whose experience encourages a new, more forgiving dialogue on this crucial societal issue, even as they still disagree." There are pieces by developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert, evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, historian of science John Hedley Brooke, Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer, and philosopher Mary Midgley, among others.
"The Edge of Reason? persuasively argues that religious faith and scientific knowledge need not be in contradiction," says biologist Francisco Ayala. "Rather, scientific insights about the wonders of nature may be a source of religious inspiration, and religious faith can motivate scientific discovery. A wonderful contribution to the science/religion dialogue."

Friday, September 19, 2008

John Polkinghorne Says Scripture Is Abused

"When we read any kind of deep literature, if we are to give it the respect that it deserves we must make sure we understand the genre of what is written. Mistaking poetry for prose can lead to false conclusions. When Robert Burns tell us his love “is like a red, red rose”, we know that we are not meant to think that his girlfriend has green leaves and prickles. Reading Genesis 1 as if it were a divinely dictated scientific text, intended to save us the trouble of actually doing science, is to make a similar kind of error. We miss the point of the chapter if we do not see that it is actually a piece of deep theological writing whose purpose ... is to assert that everything that exists does so because of the will of the Creator. Thus literal creationists actually abuse scripture by the mistaken interpretation that they impose upon it," the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne writes in The Times today in a piece that expresses dismay over creationists who interpret Genesis literally and regret over Michael Reiss' recent resignation from the Royal Society.

New Religious Policy for Ontario Doctors

The College of Physicians & Surgeons of Ontario, a regulatory body in Canada, is backing off its threat to sanction doctors who refuse to perform treatments and procedures based on religious or moral grounds. As we reported back in August, the college had released new draft guidelines that said doctors who opted out of things like prescribing birth control or the morning-after pill, performing abortions, or helping same-sex couples conceive because such treatments went against their conscience would face disciplinary action. A number of religious organizations spoke out against the proposed policy, as did the Ontario Medical Association, saying it believes "it should never be professional misconduct for an Ontario physician to act in accordance with his or her religious beliefs."
But a revised draft, released Wednesday and voted on yesterday, is watered down—and, many feel, an improvement. Doctors will no longer face misconduct charges from the college for refusing to perform treatments that go against their religious or moral beliefs. Instead, the patient who is refused treatment can seek redress by filing a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. —Heather Wax

How Vast Is the Cosmos?

FROM ROBERT LAWRENCE KUHN, HOST AND CREATOR OF CLOSER TO TRUTH: Since childhood, I’ve wondered about existence—what is it all about? Now, having explored many things but being no surer (and feeling no smarter), I start anew. Is there anything of transcendental knowledge, I ask myself, which I can know for sure?
For me, it’s the enormity of the cosmos. It stops my breath.
Everyone knows that the universe is huge, but no one could have imagined how incomprehensively immense the universe, or multiple universes, may actually be. Physicist Alan Guth, who revolutionized cosmology with inflation theory—which describes how space expanded exponentially in a fleeting fraction of a second and culminated in the big bang—believes that our universe is at least 1023 times larger than our observable universe (because inflation requires at least 100 doublings). This means that our universe, which Guth calls a “pocket universe” (defined as an entity whose space all inflated together), is 100 billion trillion times larger than everything we can see with our largest telescopes.
All the vast expanse of our visible universe is but an insignificant speck in Guth’s inflating universe, which itself is only one pocket universe among an innumerable or even infinite number of other pocket universes. In almost all theoretical models, once inflation starts, it never seems to stop because the inflation-driven expansion of space is always faster and greater than the local decays into pocket universes.
If, indeed, the cosmos is unimaginably immense, the person who has given us new eyes to see it is physicist Andrei Linde, who dramatically expanded the power and significance of inflation theory. Linde’s universe grows chaotically and eternally. When he was first studying inflationary theory, he came up with numbers like 10800 or 101,000 for estimating the degree to which the real size of the universe is larger than its apparent size (i.e., the observable universe), and he was always apologizing (in those early days) for the seemingly absurd scales. Then, his continuing work led inexorably to the wild and putatively outrageous idea that the size may be 101,000,000 or 101,000,000,000 larger than we can see. That’s a billion zeros to define the extent of our universe, a billion orders of magnitude larger than our observable universe, a number that is so large it has no name. (Remember, the number “1 billion” has only nine zeros; this number has a billion zeros.)
Here’s how the enormity of the cosmos really hit me. When, some years ago, I first read Linde’s papers, I was frustrated because he never seemed to use units of measure when giving these numbers. It wasn’t 101,000,000 “meters” or “centimeters”; it was just a naked 101,000,000. Finally it hit me—with a wallop. Units don’t matter!
What, units don’t matter? That sounds ridiculous, but that’s right, and here’s why. What’s the largest possible unit of measure that we can use? How about the radius of the observable universe, which is approximately 1028 centimeters? What’s the smallest possible unit? How about the Planck length, which is approximately 10-33 centimeters? Now, what’s the order of magnitude of the difference between the largest possible and smallest possible units? The answer is obvious: about 1061. That’s 10 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. This means the observable universe is about 1061 Planck lengths.
How does this number match up? No matter its obvious immensity, 1061 isn’t even a rounding error, not even a micro-speck, when compared to 101,000. When compared with 101,000,000 or 101,000,000,000, 1061 (or 61 orders of magnitude), the unit extremes of our universe, are utterly insignificant. Far, far, far less than a single grain of sand compared to all the sand on all the lands on all the planets in all the (observable) universe. Whether the units are radii of the universe or Planck lengths will have no impact on these colossal numbers. It was when I got this point—that human kinds of units are immaterial when contemplating cosmic vastness—that I began to realize how really vast the cosmos may be.
This is only the beginning of cosmic immensity. Linde began to realize that inflation may be “eternal,” meaning that inflation will forever create new universes of immense size. If so, this would mean that our universe, whether 101,000 or 101,000,000,000 times larger than we can see, is still only our own “balloon universe,” the one in which we find ourselves, the one among many. The entire cosmos would be an infinite collection of such balloons, an infinite number of gigantic universes.
It is enormity beyond comprehension. I am overwhelmed. But still it doesn’t end. Physicist Max Tegmark suggests there may be other ways reality has become unimaginably larger and that truly “parallel universes” may really exist. The most famous mechanism is “quantum branching” in the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, where at every observation or at every tick of Planck time (approximately 10-44 seconds), all reality splits into parallel worlds. The permutations become staggering. Not yet content, Tegmark goes further still and suggests that perhaps every kind of consistent mathematical structure, which forms the fundamental laws of physics, may actually exist and generate complete worlds (even if most are empty or simple).
Put simply, whatever can exist, does exist. Harvard University philosopher Robert Nozick called it “the principle of fecundity” and Princeton University philosopher David Lewis called it “modal realism.” Going all the way out, Lewis said: “I advocate a thesis of plurality of worlds, or modal realism, which holds that our world is but one world among many. There are countless other worlds…so many other worlds, in fact, that absolutely every way that a world could possibly be is a way that some world is.”
Now note this carefully: All of Guth’s infinite “pocket universes” and all of Linde’s infinite “balloon universes” are, taken all together, but one of Tegmark’s vast number of “mathematical worlds” and but one of Lewis’ “plurality of worlds.”
Do unlimited worlds make sense? I’d probably go with physicist Paul Davies who says, “two cheers for the multiverse.” He is prepared to accept that the cosmos is significantly larger than the totality of what we see, that there may be other regions of space and time different from what we observe, “other universes if you like.” But he does not believe that “all possible universes are out there,” which he says would be “contradictory and absurd.”
So, how vast is the cosmos? Whenever we’ve set its limits, it was always too small. The cosmos didn’t change, of course, but our feeble vision of it surely did. The more we learn about the cosmos, the larger it becomes, and the smaller we seem. But, perhaps, for one thing: We understand it and we marvel at it.
Anyone contemplating the big questions of existence must confront the staggering size of our universe and the real possibility of multiple universes without number or limit. This is not science fiction; this is our cosmic home. Simply appreciating the ineffable enormity of the cosmos is already closer to truth.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with Martin Rees, Max Tegmark, Alan Guth, Andrei Linde, and Paul Davies in "How Vast Is the Cosmos?" the second episode in the
Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series, which airs Thursdays on the PBS HD network and many other PBS stations. (Also check out Kuhn’s piece for Skeptic magazine called “Why This Universe: Toward a Taxonomy of Possible Explanations.”) Every Friday, participants in the series will share their views on the previous day's episode. Coming up next week: theologian Keith Ward on "Why Is Consciousness So Mysterious?”

The Royal Society's Zeal—and its Aftermath

FROM V.V. RAMAN, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS AND HUMANITIES AT THE ROCHESTER INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: This week, the Royal Society, the United Kingdom's national academy of science, forced Michael Reiss to resign from his position as director of education because of a speech he made in which he reportedly said that “creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a worldview,” and therefore students must be allowed to discuss it in class. He also stated that a “student who believes in creationism has a nonscientific way of seeing the world, and one very rarely changes one's worldview as a result of a 50-minute lesson.”
In the eyes of the prestigious Royal Society these are blasphemous utterances. According to a statement released by the venerable society, “Professor Michael Reiss' recent comments ... were open to misinterpretation ... .While it was not his intention, this has led to damage to the society's reputation. As a result, Professor Reiss and the Royal Society have agreed that, in the best interests of the society, he will step down immediately.” Whoever wrote this lofty condemnation of Reiss, a biologist and ordained Church of England minister, obviously does not realize that this move has probably led to even greater damage to the society’s reputation. One would have expected the society to clarify Reiss’ comments and avert any misinterpretation of them instead of summarily relieving him of his position.
If this reminds some of us of the treatment that Galileo received at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church, it should. In the one case, it was a fear of scientific knowledge, and in the other case, it is a fear of respect for religious visions.
An unexpected long-range effect of the Enlightenment has been to develop in rationalist thinkers and movements a veritable phobia for anything smacking of religion. After all, Voltaire’s injunction “Ecrasez l’infâme”—Wipe out religion!—has still not been fulfilled after more than two centuries.
This is quite irritating to many. In their enthusiasm to eradicate God from the hearts and religions from the minds of millions of people, those addicted to ratioaltry (the worship of reason alone), like all who are constrained by mono-visions, can’t brook any expression of a different view. When a devotee of Darwin (like Reiss) so much as suggests that we should allow other perspectives to be expressed in a classroom, he is pounced upon as a dangerous supporter of the forces of superstition and anti-science.
What such rationalist zeal fails to see is that by its intolerance it is not only stifling free thought—stooping to a level that science is supposed to condemn—but is also engendering sympathy and support for the forces that regard science as a dangerous element in society. It alienates millions by creating the impression that science is out to destroy everything that they hold to be uplifting, fulfilling, and meaningful.
Those who fear an idea usually silence those who express it. If you are not against my enemy, say people who are insecure, then you are not my friend. You don’t have to be a religious fanatic to behave this way.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Doctor-Patient Story of Spirituality & Cancer

September is ovarian cancer awareness month, and Dr. Lois Ramondetta, a gynecologic oncologist working at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, sent us a copy of the special book she wrote with her patient Deborah Sills, a professor of religion at California Lutheran University. They met in 1998, and The Light Within, a dual memoir, tells the story of their relationship—in their own words and with photos of their growing families and friendship. The book, says Ramondetta, "adds understanding to the many perspectives caregivers and patients may have while experiencing a shared presence at the end of life." Together and with sincerity, the two women write about the doctor-patient relationship and explore the intersection of spirituality and medicine (which they also did in a number of journal articles, including "Spirituality and Religion in the 'Art of Dying,'" published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.)
Ramondetta, who studied both biology and religion at Emory University, "seemed sure of a connection between healing the body and healing the spirit," writes Sills. And Sills taught Ramondetta that she "should always fight for closeness" with her patients and get to know them each as individuals. "Every conversation was a chance to grow and to redefine myself, not only as a doctor, but also as a human being," Ramondetta writes.
Sills died from ovarian cancer in the spring of 2006, finishing the book while in a hospice, and her husband Giles Gunn and daughter Abby helped Ramondetta publish it. Looking back on it all, "the story is about wresting new life from mortal instruments," Gunn writes in the book's afterword. "But new life, as most cancer patients and their caregivers know, is not to be confused with physical health; it is rather to be identified with the courage to extract wisdom from the hardest things." —Heather Wax

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Episode 2: Screaming & Bioengineering

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: This episode’s title is “The Same Old Story,” which makes me think that even the writers know how derivative the premise of their new show is. The hour begins as an underwear-clad stripper lays in a Boston motel room and tries a little awkward pillow talk with the man she’s just bedded. While she babbles, he rises, takes a very scary-looking medical kit—including scalpels—into the bedroom, and prepares a syringe of orange liquid. But before Dr. Creepy can stick her, she screams and clutches her stomach. Her cries get worse as he drives her to the hospital and dumps her there, her abdomen grotesquely distended. She’s wheeled into a delivery room as doctors ask when her baby is due, but in between shrieks she claims she’s not pregnant. Just then, there is the most horrifying sound (like a wet sheet ripping in two) and she dies moments before the ER team cuts the baby out of her. But this is no normal child, as the docs’ sickened faces indicate.
When the team—Phillip Broyles, along with Olivia, Walter, and Peter—arrive at the hospital, they learn the baby grew rapidly after birth and died half an hour later “of natural causes”—the kid grew into an 80-year-old adult in less time than it takes to roast a turkey. As the elderly infant lays dead on the floor, umbilical cord still attached (nice touch, make-up department!), Olivia notes that this is likely part of “the pattern” of unexplained events referenced in episode one.
She and Peter track the dead stripper back to the motel, where it appears she was the victim of a serial killer that Olivia and former partner John nearly nabbed years before: He paralyzes female victims, then extracts their pituitary glands and kills them. Charlie, Olivia’s FBI co-worker and pal, reopens the case while Dr. Creepy picks up another unwitting victim at a southern Massachusetts strip club, brings her to a furniture workshop, and does his thing. Back at his Harvard University lab, Walter remembers that he worked on rapid aging with a Dr. Claus Penrose years before. Penrose later says he abandoned the research decades ago, but Peter is sure he’s hiding something.
Walter has another flash of lucidity when he recalls that his Vietnam War-era work was designed to “cultivate” soldiers who would mature from birth to 21 years old in 36 months. Problem was, though, the scientists didn’t know how to turn off the rapid aging process; Walter posits that the killer is a product of the program who needs pituitary glands to keep himself young and that the baby was an unforeseen circumstance of Dr. Creepy having unprotected sex with the stripper before getting down to extracting her gland. Cut to the workshop, where Dr. Creepy and Penrose meet up. Penrose calls him Christopher and embraces him in a fatherly hug. One more, Penrose says, and then his “son” will start feeling better.
In the bowels of Harvard, Walter suggests that the second victim’s optic nerve might still contain the last image she saw. Pushing aside all the reasons that this is ridiculous, Olivia fetches a special optical nerve camera from, you guessed it, Massive Dynamics HQ in New York. She barely has time for a bit of bonding with Peter—she feels guilty for not knowing John was a dirty agent, he feels guilty that his father’s work produced such horrors—before the camera yields the image of a bridge in Stoughton. Satellite images then lead Olivia and Peter to the furniture warehouse, where Christopher and Penrose are just about to extract their final gland. Penrose escapes as Peter rigs a makeshift defibrillator and shocks the final victim back to life. Olivia chases Christopher outside where, deprived of his last pituitary gland, he ages before her eyes and dies.
It’s only in the final scenes, after Olivia turns down an offer to work for Massive Dynamics, that we get even a hint of the science-and-religion dilemma. “It’s one of the inherent pitfalls of being a scientist, trying to maintain that distinction between God’s domain and our own,” Walter muses. But before he can elaborate, he turns the topic to Peter’s medical history, which he assumes Olivia read in his files. He asks her to keep it to herself, but when she reveals that she knows nothing, he smiles and says no more.
Just before the end credits, we get a shot of three Christophers sleeping in pods in an undisclosed location. Why do I have the feeling that we haven’t seen the last of Penrose?
THE BOTTOM LINE: It would be nice to see science and faith as the centerpiece of an episode instead of a postscript—but in this outing, Fringe does play off some of the issues (and fears) surrounding genetic engineering, and sets up the age-old dichotomy of good v. evil.

Vatican Says Evolution & Faith Are Compatible

"One thing is sure. Evolution is not incompatible with faith," Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican's culture minister, said yesterday at a press conference to announce a large international meeting on evolution and the relationship between biological science and religion to be held in Rome in March. "Creationism from a strictly theological view makes sense," he said, "but when it is used in scientific fields it becomes useless."
Earlier this week, the Rev. Malcolm Brown, an Anglican cleric, made headlines for his remarks on evolution, saying that the Church of England owes Darwin an apology for the "wrong" way it first reacted to his theories and for misunderstanding him. While the church never officially condemned Darwin's theories, many senior officials were hostile—quite publicly—to the idea that humans evolved through natural selection rather than being created in their present form by God. "People, and institutions, make mistakes and Christian people and churches are no exception," writes Brown, director of mission and public affairs for the church, in his essay "Good Religion Needs Good Science," which appears on a new section of the church's Web site devoted to Darwin. (The church calls Brown's essay a "personal view," not an official apology, though it says it generally agrees with his position.)
"Subsequent generations have built on Darwin’s work but have not significantly undermined his fundamental theory of natural selection. There is nothing here that contradicts Christian teaching. Jesus himself invited people to observe the world around them and to reason from what they saw to an understanding of the nature of God (Matthew 6: 25–33)," Brown says, adding that it "is hard to avoid the thought that the reaction against Darwin was largely based on what we would now call the 'yuk factor' (an emotional not an intellectual response) when he proposed a lineage from apes to humans."
Brown realizes his view "will remain contentious in some circles. Some Christian movements still make opposition to evolutionary theories a litmus test of faithfulness and—the other side of the coin—many believe Darwin’s theories to have fatally undermined religious belief and therefore reject any accommodation of one by the other," he says, but for "the sake of human integrity—and thus for the sake of good Christian living—some rapprochement between Darwin and Christian faith is essential." —Heather Wax

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Science, the Soul, and Einstein's Rabbi(s)

Rabbi Michael Cohen of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel has written a unique novella called Einstein's Rabbi. The book is written as a series of conversations between the fictional Rabbi Ternfka—a character created from conversations Einstein had throughout this life with several real rabbis—and his young student Joseph. The dialogues, which are based on Einstein's actual words as they've been recorded, guide Joseph's own spiritual journey.
"While Einstein was not a religious person in the sense of ritual and a personal God, he was what we would call today spiritual in the sense of awe at the mystery of the power and order of the universe,” Cohen says. “His tool was not prayer or ritual, but science.”
Cohen began the book 28 years ago as a class assignment and has since used his personal experience as a rabbi to help shape and structure the work and give it what he hopes is an “authentic voice.” The novel is a fast read for “anyone interested in the question of science and religion,” he says. “Science and religion have different approaches at their core in many ways they are trying to figure out how the world operates.” —Michele Calandra

Moms of Dying Newborns Tune Out Doctors

Most new mothers who give birth to terminally ill or severely premature babies tend to tune out their discussions with doctors about what treatment options are available, as well as the predictions of morbidity and death, and let their decisions about life support be guided by things like hope, religion, and spirituality, according to a new study published in this month's issue of the journal Pediatrics. The researchers, from Johns Hopkins Children's Center, interviewed 26 mothers whose babies died shortly after birth and found that what these mothers remembered doctors telling them was often very different from what the doctors recorded in the medical charts.
Few of the moms remembered discussing options for delivery room resuscitation with doctors, and even fewer remembered being offered comfort care as an option—even though doctors documented that these options were discussed. According to the study, some of the moms "felt that they had not made any decisions regarding resuscitation and instead 'left things in God's hands.' These parents typically were documented by staff members to 'want everything done.'"
One problem, it's believed, is that these complex discussions and decisions take place during a time of emotional and physical stress. Another problem is the technical language doctors often use, which many new moms find confusing. "We found that the parents of gravely ill newborns, who are understandably overwhelmed, are quite confused by the often technical and vague 'doctor speak.' We, as physicians and caregivers, really need to come up with a clearer way of talking with parents during this incredibly hard time," Dr. Renee Boss, a neonatologist at the center and the study's lead researcher (pictured above), said in a news release.
The mothers who were interviewed also said they felt a deeper sense of trust toward doctors who showed emotion during their discussions, regardless of the prognosis they had for the baby. "What this study tells us is doctors should become better at delivering grim prognoses unequivocally, yet compassionately, but many doctors are uncomfortable expressing emotion during such intense moments," says Dr. Nancy Hutton, head of the pediatric palliative care program at the center, who also worked on the study. "Some doctors might think showing empathy and being positive could give parents a false sense of hope, but there are ways to be hopeful and realistic at the same time, we just need to train doctors to do it better." —Heather Wax

Calling All High Schoolers

High school students are invited to enter the third annual essay contest organized by the Alliance for Science, whose mission is to "heighten public understanding and support for science and to preserve the distinctions between science and religion in the public sphere," as well as to "bring together scientists, teachers, and science-related companies with the many religious bodies that have found no conflict between religion and science." The contest theme this year is "In Darwin's Footsteps," meaning students should write a 1,000-word original essay about "a modern-day scientist, group of scientists, or even a scientific organization that is carrying forward the magnificent tradition of discovery so well represented by Charles Darwin." Register, download a copy of the official rules, and check out the prizes (as well as the tips for writing a winning essay). The contest deadline is February 12.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Martin Nowak & the Math of Evolution's Origin

Scientific American has just published my piece on Martin Nowak, who directs the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard University. Nowak can predict the future. He can predict, for instance, the rate at which English verbs evolve and where a cancerous tumor might grow. He can tell whether people will succeed by working together, or whether it pays to be selfish. Now, he’s turned his attention to the past, using math to explain the origin of evolution and what he calls "prelife." His model of life's origin was published on Friday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
After years studying replication—how HIV and cancer cells replicate in people’s bodies, how genes are passed to offspring—Nowak wanted to know whether there can be some degree of evolution without replication: Can there still be selection and mutation? And how does replication emerge? In other words, asks Nowak, “what leads from no life to life? We’re trying to describe that system mathematically." For answers to these questions, check out the story online at SciAm. —Heather Wax

McCain Opposes Creating Embryos for Research

With lots of specifics, John McCain has answered what Science Debate 2008 has determined to be "the 14 top science questions facing America." The questions, which cover a broad range of topics, including genetics, climate change, space exploration, and scientific integrity, were also sent to Barack Obama, who responded earlier this month.
On the topic of stem cell research, McCain says:

"While I support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, I believe clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress. Moreover, I believe that recent scientific breakthroughs raise the hope that one day this debate will be rendered academic. I also support funding for other research programs, including amniotic fluid and adult stem cell research which hold much scientific promise and do not involve the use of embryos. I oppose the intentional creation of human embryos for research purposes and I voted to ban the practice of “fetal farming,” making it a federal crime for researchers to use cells or fetal tissue from an embryo created for research purposes."

McCain also said that he believes policy should be based on sound science, he'll work quickly the fill the role of White House science adviser, and he'll make space exploration a "top priority" with an "agenda that will combine the discoveries of our unmanned probes with new technologies to take Americans to the Moon, Mars, and beyond."
The biggest question ScienceDebate2008 asks: Who will be the best president for America in a science-dominated world? Check out a side-by-side comparison of McCain's and Obama's answers and decide for yourself. —Heather Wax

Friday, September 12, 2008

Can We Change Our Brains for the Better?

Psychologist Richard Davidson, director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has received a 2.5 million dollar grant from the Fetzer Institute to study the neuroscience of compassion, love, and forgiveness, and how we might cultivate and nurture these virtues in our daily lives. “This is totally uncharted territory,” Davidson said in a news release. “This grant is really meant to launch a new field where the wisdom of the contemplative traditions can intersect with hard-nosed mainstream science to understand how the brain can be transformed, through certain exercises, to strengthen these kinds of positive qualities.”
Davidson will be a familiar name to those who have followed the development of positive psychology. For years, he's studied the brains and meditation practices of Tibetan monks, finding good evidence of "neuroplasticity," the idea that our brains can change in response to experience and mental training exercises throughout our lives. We may even be able to train our brains to be more compassionate and empathetic, according to a study he published in March in the journal PLoS ONE.
The new project, says Davidson, is part of a larger center in development at the Waisman Laboratory called the Center for Creating a Healthy Mind, which is scheduled to open in about a year. —Heather Wax

Does (the Idea of) God Make Sense?

FROM V.V. RAMAN, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS AND HUMANITIES AT THE ROCHESTER INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: If by "making sense" we mean the harboring of a conviction that resonates with our understanding and worldview, then the idea of God does make a lot of sense to millions of people who go to church, synagogue, temple, mosque, gurudwara, and such. It makes no sense whatsoever to countless others who dissect sacred books, study history, and are wedded to ratioaltry (the worship of reason) in every context.
Historical visions of God in religions and God's injunctions may not stand careful scrutiny. But many reflecting humans who are awed by the grandeur and splendor of the universe, and are touched by a sense of gratitude for conscious life, have felt that there must be something subtle and intangible undergirding all that is measurable, meaningful, and marvelous.

It is certainly possible to simply exclaim ah! and oh! at nature’s magnificence and let it go at that. But for many sensitive humans a transcendent cause of it all is more fulfilling and meaningful. That something is what the historical religions have been representing through the sound of Aum, the Star of David, the cross of Christ, the proclamation that God is great, or simply through the personal pronoun God. To some physicists, special unitary symmetry or the psi function are abstract expressions of that cause of all causes.

What is important is not how we envisage that worldly stuff, but what we do to our fellow beings and to that world given our view of ultimate reality. That has been the perennial challenge for the world, and it is there that human history reveals an appalling lack of wisdom.

From the perspective of the theist:

God is in the lepton’s core

In galactic stretches too.

The cosmic birth: He’s been long before

Yet, for ever fresh and new.

Some prove a God, some disprove,

With logic as their art.

But no one can ever move

God from the faithful’s heart.

Let mockers mock, and scholars say

Whatever they decide.

The God to whom most people pray,

Isn’t proved, but felt inside

V.V. Raman appears with Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, Daniel Dennett, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Huston Smith, and Michael Shermer in "Does God Make Sense?" the first 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. Coming up next week: series host and creator Robert Lawrence Kuhn on "How Vast is the Cosmos?"