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Friday, October 31, 2008

Do Persons Have Souls?

FROM NANCEY MURPHY, PROFESSOR OF CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY AT FULLER SEMINARY: In his day, early modern philosopher Rene Descartes used Latin and French terms for the “soul” that could also be translated as “mind,” and it was only later that philosophers adopted the second term, while the former predominated in religious circles. Descartes thought the mind was a nonphysical substance separate from the brain, a version of “substance dualism” influenced by fifth-century theologian Augustine and his Platonic predecessors. Thomas Hobbes, on the other hand, was among the first of the modern philosophers to deny the existence of a mind or soul, arguing instead that humans are entirely physical.
At the time, most Christian thinkers associated their theories of human nature with Descartes’ dualism, but in the 19th century, many adopted the popular philosophy of “absolute idealism,” meaning that all of reality (including humans) is essentially mental or spiritual. Meanwhile, Charles Darwin’s work on the continuity between humans and animals led some to conclude that if animals have no souls, then neither do humans. Others avoided this conclusion by arguing that while the human body may have evolved, God creates a soul for each individual at conception.
Throughout the 20th century, biblical scholars, historians of doctrine, and theologians increasingly concluded that the body-soul dualism is not inherent in biblical teaching, and many opted for physicalism. By mid-century, philosophers were divided between mind-body dualism and physicalism. And developments in neuroscience have put dualists more and more on the defensive. Among physicalists, the important debate today is between reductionists and anti-reductionists; that is, if we are purely physical, then must it not be the case that all thought and behavior are simply determined by physics, genetics, or neurobiology? Scholars engaged in the science-and-religion dialogue have joined with anti-reductionist philosophers of mind to explain how our higher human capacities, such as reason, morality, and even spirituality, arise out of our complex neural equipment but are not entirely determined by it.
Today, scientists, theologians, and philosophers have converged on a physicalist account of human beings: In other words, we do not have minds or souls. But informal polls show that the majority of people in this country are divided between body-soul dualism and a tri-part account of humans as body, soul, and spirit. It’s important that we keep this split between scholars and the general public in mind during political discussions of issues like abortion and stem cell research.

Nancey Murphy appears with J.P. Moreland, Richard Swinburne, Daniel Dennett, Peter van Inwagen, the Venerable Yifa, and Huston Smith in "Do Persons Have Souls?" the eighth 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, October 30, 2008

Paul Ehrlich Says Saving Creation Is Priority

"I don't like the idea of teaching religion in schools, and creation is not my thing, but that's a trivial point compared to saving the creation. I'd much rather have half of the people in the country be creationists and work really hard to save the creation than have everybody be evolutionists and be destroying the planet," Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich said in a Q&A in Mother Jones magazine. Ehrlich, the head of Stanford's Center for Conservation Biology, is the author of the best-selling 1968 book The Population Bomb and the co-author of a new book on human evolution and the environment called The Dominant Animal.

Does Religion Affect Our Values—or Politics?

Do political parties have different values, and does religion affect these values? These are the questions that Kennon Sheldon, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, set out to answer with a recent study that compared the "extrinsic" and "intrinsic" values of Democrats and Republicans. Extrinsic values include things like wealth, status, and appearance, while intrinsic values are things like growth, intimacy, and helping. Past research has shown that extrinsic values undermine personal satisfaction, as well as cooperation and congeniality among a group.
Only nonreligious Republicans, the study showed, favor the extrinsic value of financial success over the intrinsic value of helping others in need. Religious Republicans, religious Democrats, and nonreligion Democrats do not differ on the value of helping those in need, but religious Republicans seem to value financial success more than Democrats do. “The one thing that struck me the most was that the value differences were rather small—really, people were more alike than different, in that almost everybody favored intrinsic values more than extrinsic values,” says Sheldon. “It was just a small relative difference between the two parties.”
The study, “Comparing the Values of Republicans and Democrats,” will be published in the March issue of the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. —Michele Calandra

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Congratulations, India, on Your Moon Mission

FROM V.V. RAMAN, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS AND HUMANITIES AT THE ROCHESTER INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: Last Wednesday, India launched its first unmanned rocket whose destination is the moon, the celestial body that has been chanted in the Vedas, visualized in Hindu myths, and worshiped in rituals. It will forever be a memorable day in the history of India.
Without diluting the reverence and poetry associated with the moon, Indian scientists calculated its orbit and position relative to Earth, and basing themselves on the knowledge and information derived from modern science, they used today’s technology to shoot for the moon. This not only filled a billion Indian hearts with pride and a sense of achievement, but also showed the world that India is a complex and multifaceted country where astrologers evaluate the influence of the moon on human life and the stock market, while no-nonsense scientists set up projects to map the lunar surface.

India deserves to be congratulated on this spectacular accomplishment, not only by well-wishers, but also by those who respect the positive contributions of science and technology.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Some Hope in the Evolution-Creation Debate

FROM KARL GIBERSON: I vented yesterday about the comments that creationist critics were putting on Beliefnet in response to my debate with Ken Ham. If those comments were typical of evangelicals as a whole, things would seem discouraging. But I had a rather different experience yesterday that puts all this in perspective.
Yesterday, I was a guest in a sophomore biology class at Gordon College in Massachusetts. The students had read the Beliefnet debate, as well we the piece I wrote and the interview I gave to Salon.com, where I got vilified from the left. Some of them had read my book Saving Darwin. I spent an hour with this class and walked out elated at how intelligently these students were dealing with the topic of evolution and the Christian faith. Gordon College has a lot of conservative students and many of them come from Christian schools and home schools. Faculty report that evolution is almost impossible to discuss when they first arrive. But the students are very bright and Gordon is quite demanding. As a result, sophomores are ready to move beyond a knee-jerk rejection of evolution into a more serious engagement of what it means to think of evolution as God's creative process. They still had some of the same concerns as those who left comments on Beliefnet, but clearly saw these concerns as things with which to wrestle, not quickie refutations of theistic evolution. And all of them seemed very open.
So there is hope....

Monday, October 27, 2008

Statement From Northern Kentucky Biologists

As promised, the biology department at Northern Kentucky University has released a statement on evolution in response to the mock trial held last week at the school, which let local citizens vote on whether public school science teachers should be allowed to teach religious concepts like creationism and "intelligent design." The mock trial centered on a high school biology teacher who was fired for teaching creationist theories and is now trying to get her job back.
Here are the results from the audience (with the percentages rounded up):

–36 percent believed she shouldn't get her job back because she strayed from the accepted standards for a high school biology class.
–2 percent believed she shouldn't get her job back, but for other reasons.
–31 percent thought she should be given her job back unconditionally (meaning she could continue to present research by young earth scientists that challenges evolution).
–4 percent thought she should get her job back, if she agrees to stop including young earth science research as part of her teaching.
–28 percent thought she should keep her job, if she agrees to make it clear when teaching young earth research that most scientists reject that research and accept evolution as the explanation for the origins of the Earth and its plant and animal life.

Reaction to the Faith-Science Beliefnet Debate

FROM KARL GIBERSON: I just read the 12 responses to my last post in the Beliefnet debate with Ken Ham. Most discouraging. They all assaulted me for suggesting that science had its own integrity and might be a useful corrective in interpreting the Bible when it speaks of the natural world. Living in Boston and working at two colleges (Eastern Nazarene and Gordon) that are far from the fundamentalist fray, I have forgotten the intensity of the biblical inerrancy controversy.
The inerrancy controversy has developed its set of canonical responses, which are trotted out by very uninformed people who think they are saying something profound and unassailable:

–If you can't trust every sentence in the Bible then you can't trust any.
–If you can't be absolutely certain, then you can't have any confidence whatsoever
–Because an argument against absolute truth would have to be absolute to be valid, such an argument collapses under the weight of it own circularity. Therefore, we do have absolute truth.
–Conclusions are just extrapolations of starting points, so anyone who arrives at a belief in evolution must have started out with a total rejection of the Bible to get there.

And then there is the amazing but vacuous confidence that young-earth creationism has a lot of solid science behind it. This conversation is so self-contained and the debate partners so vilified that the position has become immune to correctives from outside. It seems there is nothing that can be said of any consequence to these true believers.
And, of course, there is the final arrow in their quiver: You aren't really a Christian if you think like this.
My guess is that every one of the posters is Protestant and evangelical, labels that I wear with increasing discomfort. The Protestant tradition has allowed the most fanciful and ungrounded
views of Scripture to take root and flourish and, absent a genuine magisterium to address them, they remain healthy and continue to do their work of making it hard to be a thinking Christian.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Why a Fine-Tuned Universe?

FROM ROBIN COLLINS, PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AT MESSIAH COLLEGE: Science is commonly thought to have undercut belief in God. As Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg famously remarked, “the more we find out about the universe, the more meaningless it all seems.” Yet, the discoveries of modern physics and cosmology in the last 50 years have shown that the structure of the universe is set in an extraordinarily precise way for the existence of life; if its structure were slightly different, even by an extraordinarily small degree, life would not be possible. In many people’s minds, the most straightforward explanation of this remarkable fine-tuning is some sort of divine purpose behind our universe.
This fine-tuning falls into three categories: the fine-tuning of the laws of nature, the fine-tuning of the constants of physics, and the fine-tuning of the initial conditions of the universe. “Fine-tuning of the laws of nature” refers to the fact that if the universe did not have precisely the right combination of laws, complex intelligent life would be impossible. If there were no universal attractive force (law of gravity), for example, matter would be dispersed throughout the universe and the energy sources (such as stars) needed for life would not exist. Without the strong nuclear force that binds protons and neutrons together in the nucleus, there would not be any atoms with an atomic number greater than hydrogen, and hence no complex molecules needed for life. And without the Pauli-exclusion principle, all electrons would fall to the lowest orbital of an atom, undercutting the kind of complex chemistry that life requires.
Some fundamental physical numbers governing the structure of the universe—called the constants of physics—also must fall into an exceedingly narrow range for life to exist. For example, many have estimated that the cosmological constant—a fundamental number that governs the expansion rate of empty space—must be precisely set to one part in 10120 in order for life to occur; if it were too large, the universe would have expanded too rapidly for galaxies and stars to form, and if it were too small, the universe would have collapsed back on itself. As Stephen Hawking wrote in his book A Brief History of Time, “The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers [i.e. the constants of physics] seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.” Finally, the initial distribution of mass energy at the time of the big bang must have an enormously special configuration for life to occur, which Cambridge University mathematical physicist Roger Penrose has calculated to be on the order of one part in 1010123. This is an unimaginably small number.
Are there alternatives to explaining this fine-tuning by divine creation? Perhaps the most widely advocated alternative is the so-called multiverse hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, there is an enormous number of universes with different initial conditions, values for the constants of physics, and even different laws of nature. Simply by chance, at least one universe will have the “winning combination” for life, and the beings that evolve in that universe will look back and be astonished at how lucky they are. We are thus merely the product of a “cosmic lottery.”
How did these universes come into existence? Typically, the answer is to postulate some kind of physical process, which I will call a “universe generator.” A problem with this hypothesis is that it seems that the universe generator itself must have just the right set of laws (and initial conditions) to produce even one life-sustaining universe. After all, even a mundane item such as a bread-making machine, which only produces loaves of bread instead of universes, must have the right set of mechanisms and programming, along with precisely the right ingredients (flour, yeast, gluten, and so on) in precisely the right proportions, to produce decent loaves of bread.
Indeed, if one carefully examines the most popular and well-developed universe-generator hypothesis—that arising out of inflationary cosmology combined with superstring theory—one finds that it must have precisely the right fields and laws to generate life-permitting universes. Eliminate one of the fields or laws, and no life-sustaining universes would be produced. This means that the hypothesis merely pushes the issue of fine-tuning up one level to that of the universe generator itself.
Finally, one could claim that the universe exists as an inexplicable fact, without any need for further explanation. According to this idea, our existence is just an extraordinarily “lucky accident,” and there is nothing more to be said. It is important to note that we cannot absolutely rule out this possibility; extraordinarily improbable things happen all the time, and our universe could be one of them. But I believe we can say that the fine-tuning of the universe provides significant evidence in support of divine creation over this hypothesis. The reason for this can be articulated in terms of what is often called the "likelihood principle," but which I call the “surprise principle.” Roughly, this principle states that whenever a body of evidence is much more surprising under one hypothesis than another, it counts as evidence in favor of the hypothesis under which it is least surprising. Imagine a murder trial in which the defendant’s fingerprints match those on the murder weapon. Under typical circumstances, the jury would take this as strong evidence of guilt. Why? The match would be judged unsurprising under the guilt hypothesis, but very surprising under the innocence hypothesis. Therefore, the surprise principle says it counts as strong evidence in favor of the guilt hypothesis. Of course, it does not absolutely prove guilt; the match could have happened by chance, even if the chance of that happening is judged to be very small.
Similarly, it could be argued, given the fine-tuning, that the existence of a life-permitting universe is very surprising under the brute fact hypothesis, but not under theism. Therefore, by the surprise principle, fine-tuning provides significant evidence in favor of theism over the brute fact hypothesis. Nonetheless, it does not prove theism is true, or even show it is the best explanation of the universe. So faith—understood as a special mode of knowing similar to our ethical intuitions—still plays an essential role in belief in God, but the fine-tuning offers significant confirming evidence for this belief. In any case, the fine-tuning evidence offers a significant challenge to those who claim that the findings of science undercut belief in God.

Robin Collins appears with John Leslie, Steven Weinberg, David Gross, the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, Michael Shermer, and Paul Davies in "Why a Fine-Tuned Universe?" the seventh 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, October 23, 2008

Busy Year Ahead for Francisco Ayala

Scientific American has a profile of evolutionary biologist and ordained Dominican priest Francisco Ayala, who sees no natural hostility between faith and evolution, and hopes to show religious believers how they can reconcile the two. Ayala plans to be especially busy in 2009, which marks the bicentennial of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. And, as expected, a new round of debate over state science standards and the teaching of evolution is already heating up in Texas.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Episode 6: A Cure & Ethics Blur

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: With all the bad stuff on this show that happens in and around diners, you know good things aren’t ahead when men in biohazard suits dump a young woman onto a Milford, Massachusetts, street and she dazedly wanders into a nearby eating establishment. The marks on her arms and her foggy memory cause a passing cop to ask her to come with him, and when she fights him, he cuffs her. Before he can take her to the car, though, other customers in the restaurant begin grabbing their heads in pain and bleeding from the eyes, ears, what have you. This would be bad enough, but the music’s still mounting—and you’ve seen worse on planes and in hospital delivery rooms—so you know that Fringe won’t stop until someone pops … which they all start to do in vivid fashion. The agitated woman is the last one left, but she’s not immune, and as she backs up to the door, her skull bursts against the glass like a jelly donut hitting a speeding car’s windshield.
The next morning, Olivia, Walter, and Peter are on the scene. Olivia, extra snippy for reasons yet unknown, listens as Phillip Broyles informs them that the upset woman’s name was Emily Kramer, and she’d been missing for two weeks. Olivia and the Bishops put on radiation suits and enter the sealed-off diner. In the first of many awesome moments this episode, Walter jabs a nearby meat thermometer in what’s left of the dead cop’s ear to determine that his temperature—and that of all the other corpses—is still very high: They died of radiation, and Emily’s levels are triple what everyone else’s are.
After learning that the dead woman was suffering from an incurable disease that inexplicably went into remission weeks ago, Olivia asks Dr. Patel, Emily’s physician, for her records. Meanwhile, back at Walter’s Harvard lab, an examination of Emily’s body reveals that she was being held against her will (restraint marks on her wrists) and drugged (track marks on her arms). Walter theorizes that Emily was released as a kind of “field trial” and that there are likely others in the trial who are in danger—and that’s when Olivia gets a call saying another woman’s gone missing.
This one is Claire Williams, who suffered from the same disease as Emily and also recently went into unexplained remission. Olivia and Charlie go to interrogate Claire’s husband, Ken, who says he doesn’t know Emily and only wants to find Claire … who wakes up strapped to a table in a nondescript lab. A woman in a radiation suit tells a man in the next room that Claire is ready. “Let’s get started, then,” he says.
In the Harvard lab, Walter aims radiation at a papaya until it blows up, illustrating how radio waves likely excited the victims’ molecules until the friction got to be too much and they blew. The traces of radioactive isotopes that Walter found in Emily’s blood were treatment for her disease—“like time-release chemotherapy,” Peter adds—and an additive likely whipped them into a frenzy, basically making her a human microwave. Peter and Olivia visit Emily’s house, where Mrs. Kramer reveals that Claire and Emily were friends, producing a photo of the two women together with Ken.
Confronted with the picture, Ken confesses that Claire and Emily met at the hospital and had bonded over how little modern medicine could do for their disease. So they pooled resources with other sufferers and began an off-the-books experimental treatment … and Patel knew about it all. Ken gives them a sample of Claire’s medicines, while in the secret lab, the woman in the radiation suit injects a red liquid into Claire’s IV. “This makes you better,” she tells the freaked-out patient. “This,” she says as she injects a blue liquid into another IV, “will make you special.”
Patel sings like a canary when pressed, telling Olivia that he was giving a drug company called Intrepus updates on the experimental medicine’s effects. He pulls a gun on her and gives her the name she’s looking for—David Esterbrook—before placing the muzzle under his own chin and firing. Charlie later informs Olivia that Esterbrook is into some pretty controversial science: animal-human hybridization, prenatal gene therapy, viral warfare. She attends a lecture given by Esterbrook—the man from the secret lab, as it turns out, who later makes some sweeping statements about our imaginations being limited only by pesky ethics laws. His words anger Olivia, who vows to take him down. Esterbrook doesn’t seem scared as he threatens her with an odd warning about starting a family: “It would be a shame if anything got in the way.”
Broyles isn’t happy that Olivia confronted Esterbrook in public and admonishes her for being too emotional. Someone else who’s a little emotional? Claire, who freaks when the woman in the radioactive suit introduces a hairless rat into the lab. As the rat makes its way under the sheets on Claire’s bed, it bursts and Esterbrook is pleased. His assistant assures him that Claire can be controlled remotely. “I’ll call the client and schedule delivery,” he says.
By this time, we've learned that it's Olivia's birthday, and when Peter finally calls her on her short temper, she explains that her stepfather used to get drunk and hit her mother. One night, when he did it, the 9-year-old Olivia shot him with his own gun. He didn’t die, but he eventually took off without a word. He sends a birthday card every year, she tells Peter, “just to let me know he’s still out there.”
Peter switches topics and suggests she ask Nina Sharp about where Esterbrook might be hiding his secret lab; Massive Dynamic’s pharmaceutical branches, of course, are Intrepus’ biggest competition. But Olivia says Sharp would never admit corporate espionage, so Peter tracks down Nina at her equestrian club. There, she reveals that she knew him as a child—“Your father and I were quite close,” she says as Peter squirms—but then offers a deal: The location of Esterbrook’s lab for a to-be-announced favor from Peter in the future, no questions asked.
Peter arrives back at the lab just as Walter figures out what was injected into Emily’s blood to make her a walking weapon. He synthesizes an antidote while Peter lies that a friend with access to satellite reconnaissance picked Claire’s radioactive signature out to give them her location. Cut to that location, where Charlie, Olivia and a team storm the building. Olivia finds the assistant just as she’s activated Claire’s radioactivity, so she passes Claire a syringe full of antidote through a slot in the door and walks her through injecting it, even though Claire is seriously losing her grip on life. Crisis averted, Olivia visits Esterbrook to inform him that his assistant, Elizabeth Sarnoff, has testified against him. She frog marches him in handcuffs past the press, a move that invokes more of Broyles’ wrath, but Liv gives it right back to him. Emotion, she says, is what drives her. “I think it makes me a better agent.”
Olivia knows Peter got the lab’s location from Nina, and she tells him so; he tells her not to worry. Back at home, I’m primed for another dead John sighting, but all Olivia finds is a card slipped under her door. “Thinking of you,” it says inside, unsigned.
THE BOTTOM LINE: We get another lesson in the "evil" of scientists who disregard medical ethics and the horrors it can wreak. But let’s not forget that the disease victims also circumvented scientifically approved trials by seeking the experimental treatment … and paid for it in the end. It would be interesting to see a two-sides-of-the-coin discussion on-air: The same drive to explore the real of possibility fuels both bad science and good in Fringe. How useful would Walter be if he didn’t push the ethical envelope on a regular basis?

Citizens Vote in Evolution-Creation Mock Trial

According to Inside Higher Ed, James Votruba, president of Northern Kentucky University, has received hundreds of emails from scientists calling on him to cancel tonight's interactive mock trial that will let local citizens vote on whether public school science teachers should be allowed to teach creationism. (The press release, which describes the trial and its participants, uses the term "creation science," which greatly upsets Debra Pearce, chair of biology at Northern Kentucky, who clarifies that creationism is in no way science).
Votruba says he would never promote the teaching of creationism as science, but it's a university's job to create a safe place for "free inquiry" and the discussion of difficult and polarizing topics. The problem as the critics see it, however, is that the mock trial gives the false impression that creationism and evolution are of equal scientific status. In the scientific community, there is no controversy—the consensus is that evolution only should be taught in the science classroom—and, "of course, science issues are not settled in a courtroom, ever," biologist PZ Myers writes on his blog.
On this point, we have to agree: While we support the open exchange of ideas—including conversations about the popularity of creationism and its challenges—the scientific merits of evolution and creationism should not be up for a public vote.
Stay tuned for the statement Northern Kentucky's biology department plans to release after the event. —Heather Wax

Book Is Best in Religion & (Almost) in Science

Congratulations to Dr. David Comings, a neuroscientist and geneticist at City of Hope Medical Center in California. His book Did Man Create God? has won the USA Book News' National "Best Books" 2008 Award in the religion category and was a finalist in the science category. The book's premise is that spirituality is hard-wired into a specific part of the brain and because it's pleasurable and critical to our evolution and survival, it will never disappear. —Heather Wax

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Atheist Bus Posters to Counter Religious Ads

It’s been just hours since the British Humanist Association launched its Atheist Bus Campaign, and already its raised enough money to plaster its posters on the side of two sets of 30 buses in Westminster, England, for four weeks in January. The posters, which read, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life,” are meant to be a reassuring response to previous bus advertising that quoted Scripture and publicized a religious Web site that tells nonbelievers they will spend “all eternity in torment in hell."
The goal of the campaign was to raise 5,500 pounds, which Richard Dawkins said he would match, but already, more than 27,000 pounds have been donated. The association says the extra money will go toward adding advertising inside the buses to strengthen the campaign’s impact. —Michele Calandra

Karl Giberson & Ken Ham Debate

Over on Beliefnet, Karl Giberson, the author of Saving Darwin (and editor-at-large for Science & Religion Today), and Ken Ham, president of Answers in Genesis ministry and founder of the Creation Museum, are beginning an online debate over whether Christianity is compatible with evolution and what Christians should believe about Genesis. The debate, which runs over the next few days, promises to be a lively discussion that gives voice to both sides of a controversial—and often explosive—topic.

Ethical Concerns Over Organ Donation Sites

During the last few years, there's been a good amount of ethical debate over the fairness of Web sites like MatchingDonors, which match living organ donors with patients who need organ transplants. Functioning much like online dating sites, these Web sites bypass the objective mathematical formula that allocates organs from deceased donors to those who need them most and instead allows patients to solicit living donors—often called "Good Samaritan" donors—through personal appeals posted online. As a result, some ethicists worry that a donor's decision to give an organ to a specific person may be based more on the strength of a certain appeal and less on information relevant to the outcome of the transplant. And they worry that when donors get to choose who they give an organ to, they're also, in a sense, able to decide who lives or dies based on particular preferences, including race or religion.
In a new study published in Clinical Transplantation, researchers looked at the profiles of patients soliciting living kidney donors on the largest organ matching Web site in the United States. They found that the proportion of patients who are white and employed is higher than among the general population of those waiting for organs. They also found that other than listing their blood type, the region where they live, and their gender, patients provided surprisingly few socio-demographic and medical details in their profiles. The assumption is that patients may omit certain personal and medical characteristics in their profiles for a variety of reasons—maybe they don't think their marital status is relevant or they worry that their age or race will contribute to bias or discrimination. "It is not surprising that patients will present themselves in the most favorable light while omitting characteristics that they perceive as undesirable, as to do otherwise might reduce their success in attracting a suitable living donor," says psychologist James Rodrigue, co-author of the study. "However, the transplant community has worked diligently for years to ensure that social worth and bias are removed or otherwise minimized from patient selection decisions, yet we passively accept such social worth judgments by Good Samaritan donors in the context of public solicitation."
While the online system does not violate existing national policies with regard to organ donation, many are concerned that organ matching Web sites favor those who have greater education and wealth. And in a 2003 telephone survey conducted by Transplantation magazine, two-thirds of respondents said that didn't like the idea of anonymous kidney donors directing their organs to a member of a specific religious or racial group, or to a specific person with whom the donors have no prior emotional connection.Heather Wax

Monday, October 20, 2008

New Religious Experiments Are a Real Trip

Thanks to Randall Stephens, a history professor at Eastern Nazarene College, for sending us his latest thoughts on psychiatric experiments with hallucinogens (which also appear on Religion in American History):

All things come back in style, given time. Ratt reminded us long ago, in the lyrics of their radio scorcher "Round and Round": "What comes around goes around." Look around your campus or local mall and you'll see undergrads wearing stove pipe jeans, skinny ties, checkered shoes, and ill-fitting jackets as if they're on their way to see Dwight Twilley, the Jam, XTC, the Squeeze, or the Romantics. (I'm waiting for a bollo tie revival.) Even the economy has been struck with retro fever. It's the 1970s all over again. Sit down on a shag carpet and enjoy some fondu next to a roaring fire.
So, too, the pharmacological religious experiments of yesteryear are again being sponsored by a major research university. Minus Tim Leary, and minus the religious compound for the young and hopeless.
In Baltimore's City Paper, Michael Hughes reports on an interesting study William "Bill" Richards, psychiatrist and scholar of comparative religion, is conducting on the Bayview campus of Johns Hopkins University:

[I]n a room affectionately referred to by both the scientists and the volunteers as the "psilocybin room, [a participant is] taking part in the first study of its kind since the early '70s—a rigorous, scientific attempt to determine if drugs like psilocybin and LSD, demonized and driven underground for more than three decades, can facilitate life-changing, transformative mystical experiences.
The study, which took place from 2001 to 2005, and was published in 2006 in the journal Psychopharmacology with a follow-up in 2008 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, made news around the globe and was greeted by nearly unanimous praise by both the scientific community and the mainstream press. Flying in the face of both government policy and conventional wisdom, its conclusion—that psychedelic drugs offer the potential for profound, transformative, and long-lasting positive changes in properly prepared individuals—may herald a revival in the study of altered states of consciousness.
The trippy religious narratives of participants would make for good fodder in a religious studies course. I can only imagine what sorts of conversations might occur around the seminar table after reading this:
"And then, immediately, I was in a parade [said a woman dosed for the study]. But this time it was Jesus. Coming down the street. And just wiped ... totally wiped ... dragging the cross. Beaten up badly. And the crowd had gathered." She pauses. "Now I don't have a religious background. I don't know the Bible stories. I don't know any of this stuff. And yet ... I was right in the crowd, right at the moment when he turns and says, 'Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.'"
Another remarked:
"It's so hard to put into words. It's like you truly understand oneness—that everything is one, everything is God. And you know that in your mind, and in your heart, but to feel it in your entire being, and to have no boundaries, to be part of everything that is beautiful and loving ... there are no adequate words to explain it."
Totally ...

Born-Again Divide on Environmental Issues

Rural Americans are divided along religious lines when it comes to environmental issues, according to "Religion, Politics and the Environment in Rural America," a new report from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. Overall, 43 percent of rural Americans favor conserving natural resources for future generations rather than using natural resources to create jobs, while 29 percent favor job creation, and 28 percent think both priorities should be weighed equally. But only 40 percent of born-again Protestants favor resource conversation (compared with 49 percent of Catholics and 48 percent of unaffiliated rural Americans), and these Protestants were significantly more likely to say that urban sprawl and global warming have no effects on their communities.
Rural Americans, "who are more often evangelical, may see the effects of global warming and other environmental issues first-hand, given how central natural resources are to their livelihoods,” says sociologist and report co-author Michele Dillon. “Yet we found that born-again Protestants tend to be the least likely to perceive the effects of global warming.”
Research show that born-again Protestants are especially prominent in chronically poor communities and declining resource-dependent communities, which are found mainly in Appalachia and the Midwest. In these declining resource-dependent communities, 59 percent of born-again Protestants see no effects of global warming (compared with 50 percent of nonevangelical Protestants). “There seems to be a confluence of experiencing decline and being born again that is particularly antithetical to perceiving environmental threat,” Dillon says. —Heather Wax

Friday, October 17, 2008

More on "Religulous"

FROM V.V. RAMAN, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS AND HUMANITIES AT THE ROCHESTER INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: If you wish to see a caricature of the Abrahamic religions, its extreme versions, and the absurdities that some of their more ardent followers utter, their parochial persistence and historical vacuity exposed in scathing interviews and sarcastic snippets, and at the same time chuckle and cry at the human condition, then you should not miss Religulous.
Though there is nothing new in the movie that atheists and skeptics don’t already know and that people don’t casually discuss at parties now and again, by bringing together so many pathetic expressions of religiosity from the major Abrahamic faiths and by giving special exposure to the more extreme wings of Christianity and the mindless mobs in the Islamic world screaming, “Kill the infidel,” the movie paints it all as one horrible heap of anachronistic nonsense with hardly an iota of grace or goodness.
The most simple-minded spokespersons for various denominations were enticed to participate in the production of the movie, and they unwittingly serve its goal: to reveal religions as roaringly ridiculous.
This film fits well in our age of open warfare between religion and unreligion, faith and unbelief, tradition and modernity, theism and atheism, and many such opposites. We also live in an age in which stand-up comics can comment on theology, the simple-minded can be tricked into public exposure by clever journalists, and everyone can express every view in public forums and on Internet landscapes, a sort of globalization of Hyde-park oratory.
The presentation of the litany of awkward niches of Abrahamic religions is authentic though disdainful. The intent, I understand, is to make the institutions look ridiculous, but perhaps one can be humorous without being insulting—however, this would require a different approach. Then again, Bill Maher cannot refrain from sexual innuendos and once-considered vulgar language in his commentaries because that is part of today’s public joke repertoire.
The snapshots of religion we see on the screen are truthful but lopsided. They are truthful because they come from the mouths of the horses, if one may modify a metaphorical phrase. Maher cleverly makes them self-incriminate. We simply laugh in pity. They are lopsided because religions have many dimensions: First, there are the illogical beliefs and narrow bigotry to which the naively religious are fettered. Then, there are the records of and the capacity for hate and horror in the name of God, which have not abated in our own times. It is on these alone that Maher’s lens focuses.
But then religions have also inspired love and compassion, charity and hope. Maher takes us to small town churches, where he embarrasses simple-minded preachers, and to the outside of St. Peter’s Basilica, but he has no interest in showing us the cathedral in Chartres, the Raf’ai mosque in Cairo, or any of the hundreds of other magnificent places of worship where people gather in awe and humility, with reverence and peace. He does take us into the Al Aqsa in Jerusalem (formerly the Temple of Solomon), where a religious head says with a straight face that the prophet who arrived there from Mecca on a flying horse was bodily carried away to heaven from that very spot.
Maher’s documentary can surely jolt many non-book-reading people into rethinking their religious framework. It is not likely that many adults whose worldviews have been molded by years of upbringing will abandon their traditional adherence to basic beliefs, but the movie may goad them to separate the spiritually meaningful from the blatantly untenable elements within their belief systems.
My dissatisfaction with the movie is that Maher makes no reference to the great art, glorious music, or grand poetry that have been created by deep religious attitudes. Nor is there any mention of the solace and peace that religions have brought to countless millions in moments of despair and sorrow. But then, one may argue that this movie is intended to show the inanity of religious beliefs, not the genuineness of religious feelings, let alone the now-past capacity of religions to create some of the most beautiful aesthetic expressions of human culture.
It would have been a better movie for me if, after exposing the ridiculousness of some of the archaic beliefs and making every religious person look foolish, Maher recognized that if we all appreciate the positive contributions of religions, honor our ancestors for the cultural richness they have left behind, continue to enjoy and share the great art and music of various religions, and adhere to the core message of love and service implicit in all religions, we could hold hands together as members of the same human family to resolve the myriad problems we are facing as a planetary species.

Arguing God’s Existence

FROM ALVIN PLANTINGA, THE JOHN A. O'BRIEN PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME: People have been giving arguments for the existence of God ever since the ancient world. These arguments haven’t necessarily had the intended effect in all cases: As someone once said, no one doubted the existence of God until the theologians starting proving it. Probably the most convincing theistic arguments start from the design of the universe or parts of it; the most recent of these design arguments revolves around the “fine-tuning” of the universe—the fact that various physical constants and parameters have to take on values that lie in an enormously small range if the universe is to be the sort of place in which life and consciousness can find a home.
People have also tried to disprove the existence of God; perhaps the most popular of these arguments would have to do with the evil the universe displays. Why would a wholly good, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator permit so much evil in the universe?
These arguments are interesting and important, and in my opinion, the arguments for the existence of God are better than the arguments against it. Perhaps these arguments really do show that it is more likely than not that there is such a person as God. I doubt very much, however, that any of these arguments taken singly or all of them taken together are strong enough to underwrite the way in which most believers in God actually do believe. Most believers believe much more strongly than these arguments warrant. At best, their conclusion would be that it is probable that there is such a person.
Does that mean that religious belief—in particular, belief in God—is intellectually substandard or second rate or irrational or unjustified or without warrant, or in some other way deplorable? People who want to claim that belief in God is irrational often seem to think their job is done if they succeed in showing that the theistic arguments don’t work. But are they right? Why think a believer in God needs good arguments if she is to be rational? There aren’t any good arguments for the existence of the past. As philosopher Bertrand Russell once pointed out, it’s possible that the whole world, together with all its wrinkled faces, apparent memories, rusted cars, crumbling mountains—it’s possible that it all popped into existence just 10 seconds ago. But no one believes that. Everyone believes in the existence of the past and does so in perfect rationality, even though there aren’t any good (non-question-begging) arguments for the past. In fact, what would be irrational would be to refuse to believe in the existence of the past on the grounds that there aren’t any good arguments for it.
Maybe the same goes for belief in God. The vast majority—maybe 90 percent—of the world’s population believes in God or something like God, and the alleged experts (in the scientific study of religion) now tell us that we are hard-wired to believe that way, just as we are hard-wired to believe in a past and in other persons. Most people who believe do not believe on the basis of arguments. They believe because they think they have experienced God in one way or another, felt God's presence, or because the thought that there is such a person as God just seems natural, right, acceptable.
So if that’s right, what is the function of arguments here?

Alvin Plantinga appears with Keith Ward, Owen Gingerich, William Lane Craig, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, and Steven Weinberg in "Arguing God's Existence," the sixth 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, October 16, 2008

Women Find Altruism Especially Attractive

Both men and women look for altruism when choosing a mate, and women place significantly more importance on altruistic traits—represented by things like donating blood or volunteering in a hospital—than on anything else, according to a new study from a group of biologists and psychologists at The University of Nottingham in England.
“For many years the standard explanation for altruistic behavior toward nonrelatives has been based on reciprocity and reputation—a version of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,'" says biologist Tim Phillips, who led the study that appears in the British Journal of Psychology (and which seems to be based on his doctoral thesis). "I believe we need to look elsewhere to understand the roots of human altruism. The expansion of the human brain would have greatly increased the cost of raising children so it would have been important for our ancestors to choose mates both willing and able to be good, long-term parents. Displays of altruism could well have provided accurate clues to this and genes linked to altruism would have been favored as a result.”
In other words, the hypothesis is that human altruism evolved as a result of sexual selection. “Sexual selection," concludes Phillips, "could well come to be seen as exerting a major influence on what made humans human.” —Heather Wax

Clergy Often Dismiss Mental Illness

Christians are often being told by their clergy that their previously diagnosed mental illnesses—like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia—aren't real, according to a new study out of Baylor University in Texas. The researchers found that 32 percent of those who went to their local churches for help with their own or a family member's serious mental illness were told that the cause of their problems was completely spiritual, the result of such things as personal sin, lack of faith, or demonic involvement.
"Those whose mental illness is dismissed by clergy are not only being told they don't have a mental illness, they are also being told they need to stop taking their medication," says Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor, who led the study. "That can be a very dangerous thing." The results take on even more weight when we're reminded that research consistently shows that in time of psychological distress, people are more likely to seek help from clergy than from psychologists or other mental health experts.
Clergy were more likely to dismiss mental illness in women than in men, the researchers found, and overall, these denials occurred more often in conservative churches than liberal ones. The research also showed that church members who had their mental illness dismissed by their clergy were less likely to attend church afterward and the experience weakened their faith in God.
The results are published in the journal Mental Health, Religion and Culture. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Episode 5: Pigeons & Spooky Visions

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: After a week off, this week’s episode opens with a guy named Joseph being harangued by his unpleasant mother in their Worcester, Massachusetts, apartment. He goes to work at Bicoastal Parcel, a shipping company, where a hand-held scanning device shorts out and begins to smoke while he’s holding it. The boss is so mad that he sends Joe out on a delivery. This news perks up Joe because it means he’ll get to visit Bethany, a receptionist at a large office building and the object of his unvoiced affection. As he tries to make small talk, it becomes clear that Bethany’s spoken for. As Joe glares, Bethany’s computer crashes. He takes off, but she follows him to the elevator in search of some IT help. When the elevator car lurches, Joe’s phone falls on the ground, and she sees that he’s got photos of her on it. Before she can freak out, the elevator jerks again, then begins to fall to the garage level. It lands with a big boom and lots of blood, yet Joe is unhurt. Realizing everyone else is dead, he staggers into the garage. Each unattended car starts up as he passes. Amid the blazing lights and sounding alarms, Joe begs for it all just to stop.
At Harvard, Phillip Broyles and Olivia fill the Bishops in on the incident: The elevator didn’t fall, he tells them; it was “driven into the ground.” At the building, the Bishops realize that everyone in the car died from electrocution, not from the crash, which Walter illustrates by making Olivia’s gold pendant “float” on an electromagnetic current in the air. (Probably not actually possible, but it looked cool.)
The accident reminds Walter of a government project he worked on back in the day. (Is every single case going to have a direct link to work he performed decades ago? That just seems a little too easy.) Walter recalls that he was tasked to get carrier pigeons to recognize a person’s unique electromagnetic signature. Problem was, people don’t give off strong enough signals unless they’re “boosted,” and the enhancement made for uncontrollable surges in test subjects. But guess what? Walter theorizes that someone (like the someones in episodes one through four) kept up the work and has created a person who is essentially a loose electromagnetic cannon.
Olivia’s research, aided by Broyles, turns up a Dr. Jacob Fisher, who’s wanted all over the world for atrocities related to “human alteration.” He lures unwitting test subjects with ads in the back of magazines, promising to help them be more confident and tap into their unknown potential. Later that night, while Olivia’s scanning some of Fisher’s gruesome work, the lights go out. She takes a flashlight into the hallway and appears to be alone until the elevator dings and John (her dead, though recently reappearing, ex-partner) steps out. He advances as she backs away, but soon he’s very near. They go back and forth—he says he loved her, she counters that he tried to kill her—before he confirms that she’s on the right track and that she has to find the human electrode before Fisher does. “I will prove it, Liv, that I love you always,” he tells her as he turns to leave. “But not just yet. You’re gonna have to wait.” She races the elevator downstairs, but when it opens, it’s empty… save for a sign indicating its weight limit.
Olivia gets an idea that’s too good to wait until morning, so she wakes up the Bishops at their hotel and informs them, using a formula that doesn’t really matter, that a discrepancy in the weight of the elevator means someone walked away from the accident. When they compare the arm-crushing incident at Bicoastal Parcel to the sign-in sheet at Bethany’s office, they realize that Joe is the link. At his apartment, Joe is in a bad way. He upsets his mother, and himself, so much that her pacemaker malfunctions. When he tries to call an ambulance, his energy field interferes with the cordless phone’s reception. He runs out, leaving mom on the ground, and nearly collides with Jacob Fisher and a goon.
Olivia arrives later to find Joe’s mom dead. A call to the lab nets a suggestion from Walter: One of Joe’s audiocassettes could have his electromagnetic signature imprinted on it. Olivia brings back his tape of REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” so Walter can extrapolate a signal that can be followed by — you guessed it — carrier pigeons. Olivia buys a soda from a machine in the lab’s hallway and finds herself face-to-face with John once more. He seems very real as he kisses her and vows that he didn’t betray her. “I wasn’t the one,” he asserts. So if there is a “one,” and it’s likely someone we know by now, who? (For the record, at the moment, my money’s on FBI co-worker Charlie.)
The birds are primed and tagged with GPS transponders, then off they go to find Joe. Charlie, Peter, and Olivia follow in their cars. The pigeons lead them to Fisher’s evil operating room, where the bad doc has fitted Joe with subcutaneous electrodes at his temples. Fisher’s henchman interrupts to say that Olivia and crew are there, but as he tries to load Joe into a car, Joe uses his powers to start the vehicle and mow down the bad guy. Charlie collars Fisher while Olivia chases Joe, who’s eventually felled by a crowbar to the head, courtesy of Peter.
Fisher’s taken to solitary confinement. Joe’s taken to be observed. All seems neatly wrapped when Walter notices Olivia looked peaked and asks, “Have you been seeing him? Your friend, John Scott?” When she admits she has, Walter theorizes that their mind-meld from episode one means part of John’s subconscious took up a little real estate in Olivia’s brain. “Your mind is expelling him, exorcising his thoughts,” Walter reassures her. But as she drives home, she sees John on a side street and gets out to follow him to a basement apartment. He’s gone, but she sees boxes of files that Broyles later tells her are all related to John’s own investigation of “the pattern.” Turns out John knew more about Fisher than Broyles’ taskforce did, and through the files, they were able to save seven other test subjects whose powers hadn’t gotten out of control. Even more interesting: A box of John’s personal effects contains a velvet box holding a diamond engagement ring with “Always” engraved on the inside of the band.
And Walter, in his lab notes, wonders whether Joe "understands how special he has become. Does he reject his newfound power as alien? Or does he heed the words of my poetic namesake and embrace it as part of his being:
I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul."
THE BOTTOM LINE: The bits with John are still spooky and worth watching, but the cases are becoming so formulaic that it’s difficult to stay engaged. More information on “the pattern,” however—especially the why behind it—might still be a nice entry point for a wider and meaningful science-and-religion discussion.

"Religulous" Movie Review

The main idea of Religulous seems to be pretty well encapsulated in the title's portmanteau: Religion is ridiculous. But a film that seems like it might just be a lighthearted—if slightly mean—romp through a cascade of religious idiosyncrasies takes a left turn down a dark path in its final five minutes.
In a lot of ways, this isn’t so much a documentary about religion as it is about Bill Maher, or, rather, about Bill Maher’s views of religion. And, to Maher’s credit, he does not zero in exclusively on one religion. The film has him talking to (to name just a few) Christian truckers, Jewish scientists, a Muslim singer, and ex-Mormons. He takes shots at Scientology, the Creation Museum, and at the religion of Jose Luis De Jesus Miranda—a man with followers in about 35 countries who calls himself both the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and the Antichrist.
Of course, this scattershot approach means Maher really can’t go any more than ankle deep in any of these discussions. But that’s really his point: You don’t need to go beyond ankle deep. To Maher, religion is just that shallow.
This helps explain why he doesn’t spend more than a minute or so with genome researcher (and Christian) Francis Collins: It’s not as easy to make him look ridiculous (though Maher and director Larry Charles—who also directed Borat—do their best). Father George Coyne, former director of the Vatican Observatory and another proponent of the compatibility of science and religion, comes off significantly better; Maher’s purpose with Coyne is simply to undercut the creationist Ken Ham.
In the end, two things really bothered me about Religulous. The first was pretty predictable: The interviews were somewhat akin to bullying, just intellectual rather than physical. While Maher was certainly able to mine some comedic moments, my response as an audience member was caught in that uncomfortable place between wanting to laugh and wanting to shout “Hey! Pick on someone your own size!”
The other troublesome aspect was the film’s jarring and somewhat unexpected final moment. Bill Maher delivers a rousing monologue—intercut with images of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks—that essentially boils down to this: Religion has been used to violent ends in the past, and it will be again, only now we have nuclear weapons. He calls upon his allies—atheists, agnostics, even the religiously uncommitted—to come out of hiding, to break the polite code that we don’t talk about religion, and to challenge religious people’s beliefs.
Certainly, certainly, certainly, Maher means well. His intentions, by all means, seem completely pacifistic and idealistic. The problem is this: We’ve seen calls to convert the unconverted in this way before, and—even when they’re delivered by the most well-intentioned, non-violent messengers imaginable—they frequently do devolve into hatred, resentment, and violence against those not in the group with the “truth.” He’s not really speaking to religious believers in this film (as the R rating will ensure); he’s rallying his base.
In the end, one of the most prescient lines in the film comes from the unlikely source of Tal Bachman (the musician famous for his 1999 hit “She’s So High,” but interviewed by Maher because of his credentials as an ex-Mormon). Bachman, answering a question from Maher about why more people don’t leave Mormonism, explains that once you call into question the teachings of founder Joseph Smith, you’ve severed a tie with your family and friends.
Unfortunately, the moment passes with no follow-up comment. Which makes sense: There’s no reason for Maher to explore the idea of religion as a social adhesive. His goal in this film was to splash around in the puddles of religion, not to plunge into the ocean. Dan Messier

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Science's Most Influential Ideas on Display

"Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changes the World," a new permanent exhibit at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, will open on November 1. The exhibit of books, manuscripts, illustrations, and scientific instruments will be divided into four galleries assembled by theme—astronomy, natural history, medicine, and light—and will showcase some of science's greatest achievements from such famous figures as Ptolemy, Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein. The focus of the Dibner Hall of the History of Science will be on the changing role of science over time and its influence on culture (the exhibit displays 250 copies of On the Origin of Species, for example, to convey the influence of Darwin's famous book), and it will highlight many of the discoveries that broadened our imaginations (such as those that caused us to rethink Earth's place in the heavens or how to understand the evolution of species). According to senior curator Daniel Lewis, the goal is to get people to think about "the beauty of science in an historical context—the elegant breakthroughs, the remarkable discoveries, and the amazing people and stories behind them." —Michele Calandra

Charles Darwin Biopic Project Now Filming

The first pictures of Paul Bettany playing Charles Darwin in the upcoming movie Creation have been released. (Bettany's real-life wife Jennifer Connelly will play his on-screen wife Emma.) The movie is based on the book Annie's Box by Randal Keynes (Darwin's great-great grandson), and the script, producer Jeremy Thomas told the Hollywood Reporter, "tells the remarkable story behind Darwin's revolutionary theory and the foundation of a book that changed the world. We think of Darwin as an old man with a gray beard. The reality of our story is very different."

John Polkinghorne Lectures on S&R

"Theology in the Context of Science," a five-part lecture series with the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, begins today and runs through the next two weeks at the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Here's a detailed descriptions of his lectures, which will later be published and available through the university's book store:

Contextual Theology: The aim of the series is to develop theology in the specific context of science, in a manner concerned not only with specific problematic issues (evolution, big bang, etc.), but also with the style and orientation of an intellectual perspective. This requires an openness to surprising new concepts, coupled with a demand for evidential support for such concepts. A critical realist stance together with the technique of “bottom-up” thinking will also be necessary in the move from evidential experience to theological understanding.

Discourse: Scientists do not ask “Is it reasonable?”, for the world has often proved stranger than prior thought would have supposed, but rather, “What makes you think that might be the case?” The thought of Michael Polanyi, with its emphasis on the importance of commitment and of intellectual daring in the quest for scientific understanding, can be readily extended beyond science to embrace the search for religious truth. These ideas will be illustrated through a consideration of the perplexing question of the nature of time.

Persons: Science approaches reality in an impersonal mode, bracketing out questions of meaning and value from its discourse. Nevertheless, the contemporary scientific imagination is being extended by the discovery of the astonishing powers of spontaneous self-organization possessed by complex systems, encouraging a metascientific evaluation of science’s remarkable achievements. This development offers the prospect of a concept of “holistic information” playing as fundamental a role in science as that played by constituent exchanges of energy. The relevance of this to the understanding of psychosomatic personhood will be explored.

Consonance: The differing descriptions of science and theology about the nature of reality must bear some complementary relationship to each other. There must, therefore, be a degree of mutual consonance in what they have to say on certain matters. This is illustrated in considerations of how physical cosmology relates to a doctrine of creation; how science’s account of the causal nexus of the world relates to claims of divine providential action; and how the deep-seated inter-relationality of the physical world, evident in such phenomena as quantum entanglement, might be viewed in the light of Trinitarian theology.

Motivated Belief: Theology trades in motivated belief as much as science does, though the kinds of beliefs, and consequently the kinds of appropriate motivation, are different in the two cases. This claim is supported by considering how a bottom-up thinker can defend Christian theological belief. Some discussion is also given of how one may seek to understand the varying insights of the world faith traditions into the nature of sacred reality.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Meditation Linked to Health Benefits, Again

A new study suggests that cultivating compassion through meditation can lead to reductions in the body's inflammatory and emotional responses to stress, which are linked to a variety of mental and physical illnesses. The study, led by Dr. Charles Raison, clinical director of Emory University's Mind-Body Program, divided 61 college students into two groups: one participated in compassion meditation classes based on a Tibetan Buddhist mind-training practice, while the other took part in health discussions. While little difference was found between the stress responses of the two groups, the researchers did find that the more hours students in the training group spent meditating, the less severe were their bodies' inflammatory and emotional reactions to psychological stress.
"It will require conducting stress tests before and after meditation training in order to conclusively show it was the practice of compassion meditation that resulted in reduced stress responses," says Thaddeus Pace, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory. "But these initial results are quite exciting. If practicing compassion meditation does reduce inflammatory responses to stress it might offer real promise as a means of preventing many conditions associated with stress and with inflammation including major depression, heart disease, and diabetes." Based on these findings, Pace and his colleagues will offer compassion meditation classes to patients at Emory Winship Cancer Institute, and the researchers are teaming with the Emory Predictive Health Institute for a series of studies on the potential long-term health benefits of compassion meditation. —Stephen Mapes

Friday, October 10, 2008

How Are Brains Structured?

FROM ROBERT LAWRENCE KUHN, HOST AND CREATOR OF CLOSER TO TRUTH: My inner self, my private sense of “I”—of this I am more sure than I am of anything else. How to understand this consciousness, this internal mental experience of an external physical world? What possibly could generate, create, cause it?
We know to begin with the brain. Biological brains are the most complex form of matter in the universe (as far as we know), and the human brain, three pounds, 75 percent water, is the pinnacle. How brains make their magic is just astonishing.
How to understand the brain? I start with brain structure, and to do so, I return to my roots, the Brain Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, where more than 40 years ago I did my doctorate in brain research. Although my career went off in other directions, I’ve always followed advances in the brain sciences, and in my personal self-conception, if this means anything, I’ve always considered myself more as a lapsed brain scientist than an investment banker or writer.
I recently visited three of my former professors at UCLA, to whom I owe much: Carmine Clemente, a distinguished neuroanatomist whose research focused on central brain mechanisms related to sleep and wakefulness and behaviors like sexuality and feeding (he is also the editor of Gray’s Anatomy); Arnold Scheibel, a professor of neurobiology and psychiatry, and an expert in relating function and malfunction to the organization and structure of brain cells; and John Schlag, a neurophysiologist who has shown clear relationships between various motor behaviors and detailed electrophysiology of specific brain areas. It was wonderful seeing them again, and it made me realize once more how tightly brain and behavior are connected.
What is it about brain structure, I reflected, that can make all this consciousness and self and stuff happen? To oversimplify:

At the macro level of brain systems, it’s:
• symmetry and subtle asymmetries between sides—left and right brains are both similar and different
• specificity in function—different brain areas do different things
• plasticity in development—brains remodel and revise continuously.

At the micro level of brain cells, it’s:
• dozens of billions of neurons (nerve cells)
• trillions of connections between them
• incalculable permutations of electrochemical communications.

Christof Koch, a professor of biology and engineering at the California Institute of Technology, and a pioneer in investigating the “neural correlates of consciousness,” explains why the analogy of a brain to a computer falls off. In a computer’s central processing unit, the transistor equivalents are pretty much alike, whereas in a biological brain, there are many different kinds of nerve cells and different kinds of macro brain areas. This structure is a fundamentally distinguishing characteristic of biological brains.
And brain structure is not as rigid and inflexible as was once the accepted wisdom. New nerve cells are being created constantly in adults, and there is tremendous brain plasticity, as the fascinating work of Michael Merzenich of the University of California, San Francisco has shown, particularly in developing the basic science for cochlear implants, which enable deaf people to hear. (That the brain can learn to process input from artificial electronic signals and make them into meaningful sounds is remarkable evidence of the brain’s plasticity and adaptability.)
But our internal sense of “I,” believes Rodolfo Llinas, chairman of the department of physiology and neuroscience at New York University, is created by the cyclical waves of recursive feedback between the cerebral cortex (that covers the brain and accounts for the conscious registration of our senses, movements, and thoughts) and the thalamus (a kind of central relay deep in the center of the brain). Llinas calls this system the “I of the Vortex,” and he makes the claim that this is consciousness.
To understand consciousness, we know to begin with brain. The next question, to me, is as difficult to answer as it is easy to ask: Do we end with the brain? Most scientists, but not all, think surely so. Most theologians, but not all, think surely no. There is no compromise here.
I chose to study the brain because only by means of the brain can we know anything at all. Understanding the brain certainly brings us closer to truth. But, I wonder, will it ever bring us all the way to truth?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with
Carmine Clemente, Arnold Scheibel, John Schlag, Christof Koch, Michael Merzenich, and Rodolfo Llinas in "How Are Brains Structured?" the fifth 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.