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Friday, January 30, 2009

Galileo Won't Get Vatican Statue Anytime Soon

Back in March, we told you about the Vatican's plans to erect a statue of Galileo in its gardens—both to mark the 400th anniversary of his telescope and to help fully rehabilitate his image. (After the Catholic Church charged the astronomer with heresy, he was forced to recant his scientific view of heliocentrism—the idea that the Earth revolved around the sun—during his 1633 trial.)
Now, it seems the plan for the statue is on hold, indefinitely. Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, told The Times that the statue had "only been an idea," which is now "suspended"—though Galileo "deserves all our appreciation and gratitude."
Galileo, Ravasi said in a statement, can now be recognized "as a believer who, in the context of his time, sought to reconcile the results of his scientific researches with his Christian faith." And "the church wishes to honor the figure of Galileo—innovative genius and son of the church," with a number of initiatives this year.
But the statue is no longer one of them. According to Ravasi, the statue had been designed, and a mold had been made, but the Vatican asked the project's sponsor to divert the funds to projects in Nigeria and other places "to foster a better understanding of the relationship between science and religion." —Heather Wax

Can We Always Empathize With Others' Pain?

According to a new brain-imaging study, it's possible to feel empathy for another person's pain even if you've never actually experienced that pain yourself. The study, led by Nicolas Danziger of the department of clinical neurophysiology and the Pain Center at the Pitie-Salpetriere hospital in Paris, focused on patients who have congenital insensitivity to pain, a disorder that prevents them from feeling pain themselves. Previously, Danziger showed that these patients tend to underestimate the pain of others when they don't have emotional cues—"unless the observer is endowed with sufficient emphatic abilities to fully acknowledge the suffering experience of others in spite of his own insensitivity."
In this study, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at the brain activity of these patients when they were asked to imagine the feelings of a person in photo that showed the person's body parts in painful situations or facial expression of pain. They showed less activity than control subjects did in their brains' visual regions—indicating reduced emotional arousal to seeing another's pain—but, unlike the control subjects, they showed activation of brain regions involved in emotion. While they can't rely on past experiences of feeling pain, they seem to rely on their empathetic abilities to imagine the pain of others.
"Our findings," the researchers write, "underline the major role of midline structures in emotional perspective taking and in the ability to understand someone else's feelings despite the lack of any previous personal experience of it—an empathetic challenge frequently raised during human social interactions." —Heather Wax

Does Evil Disprove God?

FROM RICHARD SWINBURNE, EMERITUS NOLLOTH PROFESSOR OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION AT THE UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD: The existence of pain and suffering and other forms of evil is the strongest argument against the existence of God. God is supposed to be omnipotent and perfectly good. But, being omnipotent, he could remove all the evil from the world; and being perfectly good, he would surely seek to do so. So, the argument concludes, there is no God.
However, God's omnipotence is only supposed to be the power to do anything that is logically possible to do—so, for example, he cannot make me exist and not exist at the same time; he cannot do the logically impossible because it makes no sense to suppose he could. And a perfectly good being may well allow evil to occur if that is the only way this being could promote a great good. So God may well allow evil to occur if, without allowing the evil to occur, it is not logically possible for him to promote some great good.
Much of the evil in the world is caused by the actions of human beings, who cause it deliberately or allow it to occur through negligence. Given that humans have free will, it is not logically possible for God to allow humans to choose whether or not to cause or allow evil and yet ensure that they always choose not to. And it is a great good for human beings to be responsible for each other. You can only really be responsible for someone if it is within your power to give that person either a good life or a bad life; if God had given you only the power to determine what kind of good life came to somebody else, it wouldn't really matter what you did. But isn't it hard on the other person, who is thus dependent on you?
Not necessarily. Suffering provides a great opportunity in how one chooses to cope with it—either by feeling sorry for oneself or by showing patience and courage. Each good choice we make makes it easier to make a good choice the next time, and each bad choice makes it easier to make a bad choice next time. Therefore, our actions are not merely good or bad in virtue of their immediate effects on others but also in virtue of their effects on our own character. Obviously, not all evils are caused or allowed by humans; there are the evils caused by accidents and diseases that are currently unpreventable by humans. Yet without these, we could argue, humans would have relatively little opportunity for character formation.
So, the religious defense against the problem of evil is that evil provides great opportunities for free and responsible choice and character formation that would otherwise not be available to us. Of course, God would be mad to cause endless evils in order to give us endless such opportunities. And if there is a God, that’s not what happens. Only for the limited period of our earthly life are there such opportunities, but with them we can form a character suitable for another life.

Richard Swinburne appears with Quentin Smith, Michael Tooley, Alvin Plantinga, and Peter van Inwagen in "Does Evil Disprove God?" the 21st 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, January 29, 2009

Dalai Lama Funds Neurology Research

Stanford University has launched a Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education—and it comes with a 150,000 dollar donation from the Dalai Lama, "the largest sum he has ever given for a scientific venture," according to the school.
The center, which is co-directed by Dr. Jim Doty, a neurosurgeon, and Dr. William Mobley, a neurologist, both at the Stanford School of Medicine, has already raised more than 2 million dollars and begun a number of pilot studies looking at the neurological basis of feelings like compassion and suffering.
The researchers hope to use their findings to improve people's lives—increasing compassion among children, parents, clergy, and hospital personnel; decreasing violence and recidivism among prison inmates; and reducing depression and anxiety among corporate workers. "As a neurosurgeon, I can only affect a few patients each day," says Doty. "Through the activities of the center, we have the potential to impact thousands to millions of people to live fuller and more positive lives."

More Americans Report Being "Pretty Happy"

It looks like happiness levels are evening out across the American population. According to a new study by University of Pennsylvania economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, the gap between the happy and the unhappy—what researchers call "happiness inequality"—has become much smaller over the last few decades. "The U.S. population as a whole is not getting happier," Stevenson says. "For every unhappy person who became happier, there's someone on the other side coming down."
The researchers looked at data collected from 1972 to 2006 through the University of Chicago's General Social Survey and found that the happiness gap between white and nonwhites narrowed by two-thirds; whites are slightly less happy, and nonwhites are significantly happier. The gap between men and women narrowed, too. Men are a little happier, while women are less happy. There is one area, however—education level—where the gap continues to grow: People with a college degree are happier than they were in the early 1970s, while those without a college education have become less happy.
But overall, "Americans are becoming more similar to each other in terms of reported happiness," says Stevenson. "It's an interesting finding because other research shows increasing gaps in income, consumption, and leisure time." —Heather Wax

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Episode 12: Seen, Ghost in the Machine

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: In the suburb of Springfield, Massachusetts, a teenager is on the phone while sitting in front of his computer. A pop-up window appears on screen with the headline, “What was that noise?” and prompts him to click on a button. He does, and as he ends his phone conversation, a series of blurry videos begin streaming on his screen. They look like the lost reel of The Blair Witch Project, and they sound like it, too—lots of screaming and spooky noises. His mom ducks her head in to tell him she and his father are going out, and because she’s used to the uncommunicative nature of teen boys, she doesn’t think it’s weird when he doesn’t respond. His back is to her, so she can’t see that he’s transfixed by the video, tears streaming down his face, mouth agape. She leaves. A hand morphs out from the screen reaches toward the boy and eventually grabs on to his skull. That'll teach him to install Pop-Up Blocker.
At Walter’s Harvard lab, we hear him loudly denounce Darwin’s theory of evolution while Peter opens an envelope addressed to his dad. Astrid notices him read it and toss it in the garbage as Olivia calls to say the computer boy—Greg—is dead and his body will arrive at the lab shortly. While the Bishops go out to meet it, Astrid sneakily retrieves the balled-up letter from the trash. After Greg is laid out for an autopsy, Walter announces that the teen’s brain has completely liquefied … and Peter barely hides his disgust as he drains the gray matter into a beaker. Astrid, who we learn has a background in computer science, examines the hard drive that Greg’s parents gave Olivia and deems it fried. While she gives it another look, Olivia travels to an auto repair shop to talk to Luke, who was chatting with Greg the night before. Luke is surprised by the news of Greg’s death and tells Olivia that they’d been friends since their dads worked together years before. Just then, Peter calls. There’s been another victim.
The second guy died at the car dealership where he worked and exhibits the same symptoms as Greg: brains leaking from the ears, nose, and mouth. Ew. The dead man, Anton, died in front of his computer, too. Astrid looks at Anton’s hard drive, which is corrupted in the same way that Greg’s is, and realizes that both downloaded a gigantic file before the drives crashed. Peter takes both pieces of hardware to one of his unsavory contacts, leaving Astrid to share the trashed note with Olivia, who looks shocked.
Peter’s contact, Hakim, isn’t happy to see him. But when Peter produces a gold coin that seems to have meaning to both of them, Hakim warms up. He locks on to the file that both victims downloaded and is amazed at the complicated way it’s been bounced around the world. He can’t tell where it originates, but he can tell that it’s being downloaded right now … in Olivia’s apartment! Cut to Olivia’s place, where her niece, Ella, is playing on a laptop. Peter calls Olivia and both race to her apartment, where Ella clicks on the pop-up and the bizarre video begins to play. Her mom, Rachel, is cooking and isn’t aware that Olivia’s frantically calling or that a digitized hand is reaching out of the laptop screen toward her daughter’s head. Olivia busts in, guns blazing, and the video abruptly shuts down. Peter’s close behind. Ella is catatonic for a moment, then comes around and asks when Olivia got home. Later, Peter plays with Ella and flirts with Rachel. Suddenly, Ella remembers the hand, prompting Olivia to take a closer look at the laptop. She notices the built-in camera is activated … and we cut to a dank basement where a man stares at a computer screen that’s receiving the signal from Olivia’s laptop. He mocks her inability to comprehend what’s going on—but then quickly shuts down the screen when someone approaches his workshop. Turns out, it’s his son … who’s also Greg’s friend, Luke. It becomes clear that Luke has no idea what his dad is up to, but he’s wary about why anyone not in The Matrix would need that many computers in one place. All he’ll say is that he’s working on a new program.
In Evanston, Illinois, a woman comes home to find her day trader husband dead at his computer, soupy brains all over the place. At Harvard, Walter’s figured out what’s going on but Astrid puts it in plain language: “It’s like a computer virus that infects people.” Outside, Peter has a tense conversation with an older woman who wants to see Walter. He won’t allow it. Olivia later confronts him about the letter, which was from the woman, and exposits that she’s the mother of the lab assistant that died in a fire at Walter’s lab 20 years before. (Her death, by the way, was the crime for which Walter was found guilty and imprisoned.) Peter doesn’t think Walter can handle talking with the grieving mom; Olivia does. Astrid interrupts to say that the newest victim married Miriam Dempsey, Luke’s mom, a year ago. Olivia and the gang eventually figure out that Luke’s dad, Brian, worked as an advanced computer programmer for Greg’s dad until he was fired. They bring Luke in for questioning, but after Sanford Harris forces Olivia to come down hard on the teen, the boy demands a lawyer and clams up. When he’s released, however, he runs right to his dad’s workshop, where Olivia finds Brian watching his own program and slowly losing what’s left of his mind. He holds a gun under his chin and, after a few moments, kills himself.
At the FBI, Phillip Broyles sticks up for Olivia and tells Harris that if he wants to take her down, he’s going to have to go through him. At Harvard, Peter brings the lab assistant’s mom to see Walter, who handles the situation with compassion and empathy. And later that night at Olivia’s apartment, the doorbell rings: It’s a slightly tipsy Peter, who apologizes to Olivia and says she was right about Walter after all.
THE BOTTOM LINE: The “ghost in the machine” concept—illustrated here by the computer virus that’s too effective for mankind’s own good—originated with Gilbert Ryle’s take on Descartes mind-body concept and gained even wider notoriety with Arthur Koestler’s book of the same title. Koestler argued that humans have a propensity for self-destruction. The virus in this episode, had it gotten out of control (like most viruses do), might’ve given humanity a little push in Koestler’s direction.

John Updike, Prize-Winning Novelist, Dies

"Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds. The power of materialist science to explain everything—from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms, and their sub-microscopic components—seems to be inarguable and the principal glory of the modern mind. On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires and—may we even say—illusions, composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize and placate these. I believe, then, that religious faith will continue to be an essential part of being human, as it has been for me," wrote American author John Updike in his 2005 "This I Believe" essay for NPR.
Updike, who twice won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (for his novels Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest) and explored the relationship between science and theology in his 1986 book Roger's Version, died of lung cancer yesterday at a hospice outside of Boston. He was 76.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Congratulations, Father Coyne

Father George Coyne, an astronomer, Jesuit priest, and former director of the Vatican Observatory, has won the American Astronomical Society's George Van Biesbroeck Prize for 2009, awarded every two years for "long-term extraordinary or unselfish service to astronomy." The prize, says the AAS, recognizes "the diversity and scientific richness he has brought to the astronomical community through his visionary leadership of the Vatican Observatory Summer School and its long-term mentoring program, and for the unique role he has played at the juncture of science and religion."

Monday, January 26, 2009

First Embryonic Stem Cell Trial Approved

The Federal Drug Administration has approved the first human clinical trial of a therapy using embryonic stem cells. Beginning this summer, Geron, a biotech company in Menlo Park, California, will work with a handful of medical centers to inject neural stem cells into eight to 10 patients who have recently suffered an acute spinal cord injury—paraplegics who can still control their arms but are no longer able to walk. "For us, it marks the dawn of a new era in medical therapeutics. This approach is one that reaches beyond pills and scalpels to achieve a new level of healing," Dr. Thomas Okarma, Geron's president and chief executive officer, said in a teleconference.
The phase-one study will focus on the safety of the treatment, but researchers say they will also keep an eye out for signs that the therapy works to restore spinal cord function; previous studies with rats suggest that the treatment is safe and that the stem cells will repair damaged neurons and release a substance that will help nerves function and grow. Since the cells need to be injected within two weeks of the injury, before any scar tissue forms, the patients for the trial have not yet been chosen.
Geron says the embryonic stem cell line used for the treatment is one of the oldest, so the research was eligible for federal funding under Bush administration regulations (which restricted eligible stem cell lines to those created before an August 2001 executive order), though the company did not use any federal money to develop the treatment or fund the study. This week, Barack Obama is expected to end the restrictions and expand support for research on embryonic stem cells (while ensuring "that all research on stem cells is conducted ethically and with rigorous oversight," he says).
A number of other companies are currently developing embryonic stem cell therapies, and if the trial proves safe, expanded trials that focus on the efficacy of the treatment could soon be on the horizon. —Heather Wax

Pope Broadcasts Himself

The Vatican has launched its own YouTube channel. For now, the site, which is updated daily, will feature Pope Benedict XVI as well as Vatican news items and events in short video and audio clips (in Italian, English, Spanish, and German). The channel is designed to help the Church expand Check Spellingits reach and to give the pope greater control over his Internet image and reputation, Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, head of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Social Communications, told the Associated Press. In his welcome message to viewers, the pope said he hoped the channel would be put to "the service of the truth."
In a separate message written for the Church's World Day of Communications on Saturday, the pope addressed what he sees as both the potential and pitfalls of digital technologies. Social networking sites (like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter) are a "gift to humanity," he said, because of their ability to foster friendship, connectedness, and understanding. "This desire for communication and friendship is rooted in our very nature as human beings and cannot be adequately understood as a response to technical innovations," he continued. "The desire for connectedness and the instinct for communication that are so obvious in contemporary culture are best understood as modern manifestations of the basic and enduring propensity of humans to reach beyond themselves and to seek communion with others. In reality, when we open ourselves to others, we are fulfilling our deepest need and becoming more fully human."
But there's always the danger that these sorts of sites could isolate us from real-life relationships and further broaden the digital divide, he added. "It would be sad if our desire to sustain and develop online friendships were to be at the cost of our availability to engage with our families, our neighbors and those we meet in the daily reality of our places of work, education and recreation," he said. "If the desire for virtual connectedness becomes obsessive, it may in fact function to isolate individuals from real social interaction while also disrupting the patterns of rest, silence and reflection that are necessary for healthy human development." —Heather Wax

Friday, January 23, 2009

What Is the Mind-Body Problem?

FROM ROBERT LAWRENCE KUHN, HOST AND CREATOR OF CLOSER TO TRUTH: What are we? What’s the relationship between the thoughts in our minds and the brains in our heads? Is mind stuff different from brain stuff? Or is there something special about mental activity that’s not crammed into craniums? Something special that makes us human? Something non-brain? Something nonphysical?
These questions compose the “mind-body problem,” which has enticed philosophers for centuries (and beguiled me for decades) and touches all we know and do as human beings. I thought that getting a doctorate in brain research would help me figure it out. I’m not sure it did.
To frame the mind-body problem, I start with John Searle, a renowned philosopher of mind at the University of California, Berkeley. Searle critiques both standard solutions—materialism (all thought is reduced to brain) and dualism (mind is totally different from brain). He says both materialism and dualism are “trying to say something true—it’s just that they both end up saying something false. And the trick is to try to preserve the true part .... The materialist says, ‘Reality is ultimately physical particles and fields of force.’ That’s right. But then the materialist denies the irreducibility and existence of the mental. The dualist grants the irreducibility and existence of the mental, but then says it’s ‘not part of the physical world.’ That’s wrong. Most philosophers are materialists of some kind or another because they just think dualism fails.”
Searle’s position is clear: Consciousness is real and based entirely on the brain, and once we learn enough about the brain, we will know everything about consciousness. I know something about the brain, but I cannot yet imagine how knowing even a whole lot more would explain our inner sense of consciousness.
Ned Block, formerly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, now at New York University, draws an analogy: “Consciousness is like water. It has a biological essence. So the mind-body problem for consciousness is one where the question is: What is the biological nature of the mind? The mind-body problem for thought and other aspects of cognition likely turns out to be mainly functional; it’s a matter of how thought, how representations in the mind, function so as to produce thinking.” As to what happened to the postulation of the “Identity” solution—that is, that the mind is wholly equal to the brain—Block states, “The problem is the explanatory gap: how it could be that the neuro basis of a given phenomenal state is the neuro basis of that state as opposed to some other phenomenal state or no state at all. We don’t understand that, and furthermore, we don’t even see how we could understand it.”
With all I know about the brain, I can imagine explaining expressions or outputs of consciousness but never its inner sense or feeling.
Some would say that I’m looking in the wrong direction. Traditionally, almost everyone assumed that human beings had a nonphysical soul. The soul was the real you, a position most philosophers now reject.
Not J.P. Moreland, a Christian philosopher, who claims that the “fundamental questions about the nature of consciousness and whether there is a soul are just not scientific questions; they’re questions like, what is a thought? What is a semantic meaning? There has never been a single discovery in neuroscience or any other branch of science that a dualist—that is, one who believes in a soul—could not easily accommodate within his or her theory.”
Moreland goes on to argue, “There are things true of conscious states that aren’t true of physical states, so they can’t be the same thing. Thoughts are either true or false, but no brain state is either true or false. A thought can’t be located close to my left ear, but the brain state that’s going on while I’m having a thought is located in a region of the brain. The brain state has a shape and a size, but the thought itself doesn’t. Thoughts have internationality—they are about things—but no material state of the brain is about anything. One more example: There is a what-it’s-like to be conscious. There is a what-it’s-like to feel pain, a what-it’s-like to see red. What-it’s-like is not something that can be captured in the language of physics, chemistry, or neuroscience.”
As for the neural correlates of consciousness, Moreland gives this analogy: “Suppose that I were in an automobile and I was trapped in the driver’s seat with a seat belt and I couldn’t get out. My ability to drive around town would depend on whether the car was working; if the car broke down, I wouldn’t be able to move. That wouldn’t prove I was the car. That would simply prove that I am functionally dependent upon the car when I’m in the car. So I think that neural scientific correlations are exactly what the dualists would expect.” Correlation and identity are not the same.
I’d love to see the soul exist, solve the mind-body problem—and get a shot at immortality as a kind of bonus. But if it’s that simple, and that important, why doesn’t everyone get it?
Marvin Minsky certainly doesn’t get it. He’s a pioneer of artificial intelligence and argues quite the opposite: that what we call the mind is entirely the output of the biological machine we call the brain. When I tell Minsky that many believe that there’s something extra, some soul, that we need to introduce or inject to make human consciousness—that we need to marry some sort of a nonphysical thing with a physical thing—he responds with indignation: “That sounds just plain silly because how does a soul help? Unless you tell me what are a soul’s parts and how they work, you haven’t answered anything. All you’ve done is provided a word to keep you from thinking about a hard question. When you think you see ‘redness,’ there isn’t any redness. There’s a very complicated process that goes on in many different parts of the brain when you see red. People who talk about a soul are just people who are too ignorant or unambitious or lazy or faith-ridden—I don’t know what insults to hurl at them ....”
To Colin McGinn, a University of Oxford philosopher teaching in the United States, the mind-body problem is a profound mystery. McGinn is so passionate about the depth of this mystery, he is called a “mysterian.” He claims that consciousness “has a nature which makes it really different from the brain .... What is it about the brain which explains why the brain and only the brain gives rise to this phenomenal experience that we call consciousness?”
McGinn rejects brain complexity as a solution for two reasons. “First,” he says, “lots of things are very complex, and yet those things don’t have lower degrees of consciousness. The kidneys are less complex than the brain; do kidneys have a degraded or lower form of consciousness? There’s no reason to think that. So why should the mere number of connections between neurons generate consciousness? We’re moving from one kind of thing to another kind of thing, and complexity doesn’t seem to breach the gap at all .... As far as we can see, within the conceptual scheme that we have now, which has worked so well with the empirical world, nothing removes the mystery.”
Lest there be misunderstanding, McGinn adds quickly, “But that doesn’t lead me to any position which postulates a purpose of the universe or anything of the kind because my explanation for why consciousness is so baffling to us is a resolute naturalistic explanation. It arises from the fact that our own intelligence has been evolved, has evolved as an adaptation, and has the kind of limits that any intelligence or any species on the planet has.”
To me, here’s what’s odd: all these distinguished philosophers, each with a different solution to the mind-body problem. Not just “different.” Radically different! To some, our mind is just our brain. To others, we need a soul. To others still, we don’t even need a brain—any good machine could do. Finally, some say consciousness is such a mystery that it may remain forever so.
Such divergence is not the way of science, especially with increasing knowledge about the brain. What’s going on?
Perhaps this paradox is a type of clue? Perhaps the answer is of a different kind?
The mind-body problem, ages old but perennially new, leads us … closer to truth.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with John Searle, Ned Block, J.P. Moreland, Marvin Minsky, Alva Noë, and Colin McGinn in "What Is the Mind-Body Problem?" the 20th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series, which airs Thursdays on the PBS HD network and many other PBS stations. Every Friday, participants in the series will share their views on the previous day's episode.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Jerry Coyne Reviews Efforts to Reconcile S&R

Check out Jerry Coyne's robust review of Karl Giberson's book Saving Darwin and Ken Miller's book Only a Theory in The New Republic. Coyne, a professor in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, looks at the ways in which the religious scientists attempt to reconcile science (namely, evolution) and religion, and show others of faith how their beliefs can be compatible with scientific truths. A "proper solution," writes Coyne, "must harmonize science with theism: the concept of a transcendent and eternal god who nonetheless engages the world directly and pays special attention to the real object of divine creation, Homo sapiens. And so we have Karl Giberson and Kenneth Miller, theistic scientists and engaging writers, both demolishing what they see as a false reconciliation—the theory of intelligent design—and offering their own solutions."
Regular readers of this blog will recognize many of the topics Coyne touches on, such as evolutionary inevitability and convergence, the anthropic principle, and multiverse theories. His conclusion: In the end, the authors "fail to achieve their longed-for union between faith and evolution. And they fail for the same reason that people always fail: a true harmony between science and religion requires either doing away with most people's religion and replacing it with a watered-down deism, or polluting science with unnecessary, untestable, and unreasonable spiritual claims."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Small Research Teams Win Large Grants

The Science and Transcendence Advanced Research Series, a program of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, has awarded grants worth 200,000 dollars to two interdisciplinary research groups (which earlier received grants of 120,000 dollars). "Their continuing research is at the center of a wide range of scientific area spanned by the 27 STARS grants: from fundamental physics and evolutionary biology to the neurosciences and mathematics," says Robert Russell, STARS principal investigator, founder and director of CTNS, and the Ian G. Barbour Professor of Theology and Science in residence at the Graduate Theological Union. "The implications for our understanding of human spirituality, virtue ethics, the scientific question of the origin of life, and the meaning of 'ultimate reality' are very promising."
One research team will study "The Rationality of Ultimate Value: Emotion, Awareness, and Causality in Virtue Ethics and Decision Neuroscience." According to the researchers, led by Warren Brown, a professor of psychology at the Fuller Theological Seminary, and Gregory Peterson, a professor of philosophy and religion at South Dakota State University, the project "has created exciting new approaches to research on moral action and virtue. Most remarkably, the project has yielded a novel approach to neuroscience and psychological study of virtuous exemplars within a laboratory context."
The other team, led by Andrew Robinson, an honorary university fellow at the University of Exeter, and Christopher Southgate, a research fellow at the school, will study "Information and the Origin of Life." The researchers say their "new philosophical definition of 'interpretation' is providing a novel approach to the scientific question of the origin of life. We have begun to generate models and proposals that are already starting to demonstrate the advantage that even very simple entities gain by interpreting their environment. The theological part of our proposal is that these three-fold patterns in the world also provide ways of talking about the Christian understanding of the life of God and God's interaction with the world."

Episode 11: Behold, the Common Cold

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: When we last left Olivia, she’d been hauled away by Robert Jones and his band of thugs—including turncoat FBI agent Mitchell Loeb. She’s still MIA at the beginning of this episode. Astrid brings news of the disappearance to Peter and Walter at the lab, while Phillip Broyles and Charlie have their entire division, as well as any other law enforcement teams they can commandeer, try to find her. Sanford Harris, the pal of Broyles’ that Olivia put away for sexual assault years before, calls his friend out of the blue to tell him he’ll be conducting a review of Broyles’ division. That can’t be good …
Cut to a nondescript, sterile facility where Olivia’s strapped to a gurney, flipped over, and given an involuntary spinal tap by men wearing rubber masks. While facing the floor, she notices one of the men is wearing tasseled loafers. When he leaves the room, we see that man is actually Loeb, which also can’t be good. When a junior staffer is the only one left watching Olivia, she meekly asks for water and to be unstrapped so she can drink it. He takes pity on her and gets the glass smashed into his face in return. She jumps off the table, fights him a bit, and runs off, grabbing some keys, a random cell phone, and a metal cylinder from the laboratory on her way out. Away from the building, she calls Broyles and asks for a team to meet her to storm the lab. While she’s waiting, she stops at a vacant lot and buries the cylinder for safekeeping. Good thinking, too—when the FBI agents find her, they shoot her with a tranquilizer dart, which knocks her out.
She wakes handcuffed to a bed in Boston Hospital, where Harris informs her that his sexual assault charges were overturned and he’s now a consultant who’s been tasked with looking into her division—“Which gives me the prerogative to question your sanity, your loyalty, your willingness to serve,” he tells her. “It seems to me the people you surround yourself with have failed those tests at every turn.” Though Harris seems like a big jerk, he does a nice thing for the audience by reviewing the basic setup of the show: what happened to John Scott, who the Bishops are, how they all came to work together, etc. He uncuffs her and leaves, and she scurries to the FBI, where Charlie tells her that the building she was held in is completely empty. No clues, no fingerprints, no nothing—same holds true for the phone and car she stole. She barely has time to absorb this not-so-great news when he adds that a woman named Rachel is waiting for her in the lobby. Olivia looks uneasy. “She’s my sister,” she says. But she pastes on a smile and meets Rachel and her daughter, Ella, who gives her aunt a Magic 8 ball. Everything’s all smiles and hugs and cheery fun times, and they make a plan to meet at Olivia’s apartment— where they’re staying—later. Olivia takes the Bishops to the site where she buried the cylinder, and Walter tests the test tubes inside right there on the spot. Yes, he tells Olivia, he knows what her captors were up to.
Meanwhile, a Boston College professor lectures his students on viruses. He takes a sip of water, looks a little green, and then starts choking. He collapses, his teaching assistant tries CPR, and there’s general bedlam as he dies. An all-out panic erupts when a giant slug pokes its head out of his mouth, slithers out of his body, and starts careening around the room. There’s much screaming and oozing.
The Bishops trap the giant slug at BC and take it to Harvard for examination as Olivia meets with the TA. They stroll on what is supposed to be the BC campus but what real Bostonians will recognize as Boston University. The TA confesses that she was having an affair with Prof. Kinberg and that he had just accepted an immunology post with the Centers For Disease Control. Prof. Simon, from another school, was hired too, Olivia learns. She posits that the people behind Kinberg’s death were responsible for taking her and that they’re probably gunning for Simon. Broyles gives her the unofficial OK to take Simon into protective custody. As she and Charlie leave to get Simon, Loeb tells her he’s taking charge of the investigation about her disappearance. Grrrrreat.
Simon’s in custody and being questioned when Peter calls: Walter deduced that one of the test tubes contained slug eggs, which need both stomach acid and water to be activated. Loeb picks that moment to deliver a glass of water to Simon, who takes a sip and begins having a slug attack moments later. He dies violently as Charlie re-enters the room; another giant slug pops out of his mouth, and a freaked-out Charlie shoots it. At Harvard, Walter finally identifies the slithering beasts: a virus called nasal pharyngitis. Peter seems grudgingly impressed. “They super-sized the common cold,” he says, noting the irony of using the virus to murder epidemiologists. But why did they want Olivia?
Olivia has a quick dinner with her family, during which we learn that Rachel and her husband, Greg, are having problems and that she’s staying with Olivia until she figures things out. The next day at work, Loeb tosses Ella’s Magic 8 ball, and it falls on the ground … where Olivia reaches down to get it and notices his tasseled loafers. Gotcha! For help, she goes to Charlie, who then turns to Peter for a little illegal wiretapping that Harris won’t notice. Peter happily helps, and they listen in on Loeb’s phone while Olivia goes to his house. She’s about to break in when his wife, Samantha, catches her. Suspicious, Samantha invites her in for tea, and when Olivia asks to use the bathroom, Samantha calls Loeb and tells him the jig is up. He has only one suggestion, which Peter and Charlie overhear: “You need to kill her. Right now.”
Olivia sneaks around Loeb’s study and finds pictures of the giant slug while Samantha retrieves a gun and goes on the hunt. But Olivia gets the jump on her. A girlfight ensues, ending when both women take a shot at each other; Samantha misses, Olivia hits her target right between the eyes.
In the meantime, Loeb has left the FBI with all of his things, and there’s no way to track him. The team texts him from Samantha’s phone and tells him to meet “her” at a phone booth. Unaware that she’s dead, he does, and is captured. But he refuses to say who he’s working for ... until Olivia shows him pictures of Samantha’s corpse and says she’s responsible for the woman’s death. “Did you kill them?” she asks, and he’s so angry that he admits to killing the professors. “Did you not understand the rules, who we’re up against? Who the two sides are? Tell me you at least know that!” he rages. “We didn’t kidnap you, idiot! We saved you.”
THE BOTTOM LINE: As Walter reminds us in his lab notes (regarding what he calls the "mammoth virus grown in the belly"): "How difficult it proves to separate myth from fact, and fact from myth!"

Thoughts on the New President

"From all that we have seen and heard and read, Obama is a man of unusual intelligence, insight, and vision. He is a rare combination of idealism and activism, a politician and citizen who considers himself an American first and foremost, rather than an individual with a hyphenated nationality and subgroup loyalties. He is, in the tradition of the country, a man of faith, but also enlightened enough to respect those who find fulfillment beyond his own pews, or in no traditional religion at all. He has his own convictions about traditional morality, but respects those of others in so far as they don't perturb the personal lives of their fellow citizens. Most of all, he feels deep in his heart that our problems can never be solved, let alone to the full satisfaction of all, by harping on our acute differences and rubbing in ad nauseam our past mutual hurts, but only by looking into the future, holding hands together as dedicated citizens of the nation and of the world," says V.V. Raman, an emeritus professor of physics and humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in a note to Science & Religion Today.
"Obama is acutely aware of the dangers lurking in the environment as a result of unbridled industrial excesses, and he trusts scientifically informed advisers to recommend steps to curb and eliminate these dangers. He respects science and science education in our schools, relegating visions of a Creator God to places of worship and tradition rather than to biology classes."

Barack Obama Puts Faith in Virtues of Science

"We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its costs. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age," President Barack Obama pledged yesterday during his inaugural address.
“Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism—these things are old. These things are true," he said. "They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths.”

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Catholic Bishops Write to Barack Obama

The president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Francis George, has sent a letter to Barack Obama urging him not to overturn a series policies, including the "conscience protection" rule for health-care workers and regulations regarding embryonic stem cell research.
The letter reads:

Dear Mr. President-elect: I recently wrote to assure you of the prayers of the Catholic bishops of the United States for your service to our nation, and to outline issues of special concern to us as we seek to work with your Administration and the new Congress to serve the common good. I am writing today on a matter that could introduce significant negative and divisive factors into our national life, at a time when we need to come together to address the serious challenges facing our people. I expect that some want you to take executive action soon to reverse current policies against government-sponsored destruction of unborn human life. I urge you to consider that this could be a terrible mistake—morally, politically, and in terms of advancing the solidarity and well-being of our nation’s people.
During the campaign, you promised as President to represent all the people and respect everyone’s moral and religious viewpoints. You also made several statements about abortion. On one occasion, when asked at what point a baby has human rights, you answered in effect that you do not have a definite answer. And you spoke often about a need to reduce abortions. The Catholic Church teaches that each human being, at every moment of biological development from conception to natural death, has an inherent and fundamental right to life. We are committed not only to reducing abortion, but to making it unthinkable as an answer to unintended pregnancy. At the same time, I think your remarks provide a basis for common ground. Uncertainty as to when human rights begin provides no basis for compelling others to violate their conviction that these rights exist from the beginning. After all, those people may be right. And if the goal is to reduce abortions, that will not be achieved by involving the government in expanding and promoting abortions.
The regulation to protect conscience rights in health care issued last month by the Bush administration is the subject of false and misleading criticisms. It does not reach out to expand the rights of pro-life health professionals, but is a long-overdue measure for implementing three statutes enacted by Congress over the last 35 years. Many criticizing the new rule have done so without being aware of this legal foundation—but widespread ignorance of a longstanding federal law protecting basic civil rights is among the good reasons for more visibly implementing it. An Administration committed to faithfully implementing and enforcing the laws of the United States will want to retain this common-sense regulation, which explicitly protects the right of health professionals who favor or oppose abortion to serve the basic health needs of their communities. Suggestions that government involvement in health care will be aimed at denying conscience, or excluding Catholic and other health care providers from participation in serving the public good, could threaten much-needed health care reform at the outset.
The Mexico City Policy, first established in 1984, has wrongly been attacked as a restriction on foreign aid for family planning. In fact, it has not reduced such aid at all, but has ensured that family planning funds are not diverted to organizations dedicated to performing and promoting abortions instead of reducing them. Once the clear line between family planning and abortion is erased, the idea of using family planning to reduce abortions becomes meaningless, and abortion tends to replace contraception as the means for reducing family size. A shift toward promoting abortion in developing nations would also increase distrust of the United States in these nations, whose values and culture often reject abortion, at a time when we need their trust and respect.
The embryonic stem cell policy initiated by President Bush has at times been criticized from both ends of the pro-life debate, but some criticisms are based on false premises. The policy did not ban embryonic stem cell research, or funding of such research. By restricting federally funded research to cell lines in existence at the time he issued his policy, he was trying to ensure that Americans are not forced to use their tax dollars to encourage expanded destruction of embryonic human beings for their stem cells. Such destruction is especially pointless at the present time, for several reasons. First, basic research in the capabilities of embryonic stem cells can be and is being pursued using the currently eligible cell lines as well as the hundreds of lines produced with nonfederal funds since 2001. Second, recent startling advances in reprogramming adult cells into embryonic-like stem cells—hailed by the journal Science as the scientific breakthrough of the year—are said by many scientists to be making embryonic stem cells irrelevant to medical progress. Third, adult and cord blood stem cells are now known to have great versatility, and are increasingly being used to reverse serious illnesses and even help rebuild damaged organs. To divert scarce funds away from these promising avenues for research and treatment toward the avenue that is most morally controversial as well as most medically speculative would be a sad victory of politics over science.
I hope you will consider these comments in the spirit in which they are intended, as an invitation to set aside political pressures and ideologies and focus on the priorities and challenges that will unite us as a nation. Again I want to express our hopes for your Administration, and our offer to cooperate in advancing the common good and protecting the poor and vulnerable in these challenging times.
As we approach the first days of your new responsibilities as President of the United States, I will offer my prayers for you and for your family. May God bless your efforts in fostering justice and peace for all, Mr. President, as you begin your term.

Nontheists Write to Barack Obama

Last week, a group of atheist and agnostic organizations, led by the American Humanist Association, sent a letter to Barack Obama urging him to decline the invitation to become honorary president of the Boy Scouts of America, a role accepted by every American president beginning with William Taft in 1910 (when the organization was founded).
The letter reads:

Dear President-Elect Barack Obama:
In light of your campaign promise to bring the nation together in a spirit of change we need, we, the undersigned nontheist organizations, urge you to take this opportunity to signify that discrimination against atheists, agnostics, humanists, and other nontheists will not be condoned.
Thus we write to urge you to decline the title and role of honorary president of the Boy Scouts of America. The BSA has acted vigorously in recent years to expel atheist and agnostic members and employees. This policy expresses the Declaration of Religious Principle, Bylaws of Boy Scouts of America, part. IX, § 1, cl. 1:
The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. In the first part of the Scout Oath or Promise the member declares, "On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law." The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members.
The BSA has elected to set itself apart as a private organization that may discriminate in ways contrary to the laws and practices required of local, state, and federal authorities. Accepting the title and role of honorary president of the Boy Scouts of America would thus send the message that institutional discrimination against people who don’t happen to believe in a god is acceptable.
Many presidents of the United States have taken on the title of honorary president of the Boy Scouts of America. However, this tradition was established when discrimination against nontheists was, unfortunately, socially acceptable. Given that nontheists now make up a sizeable minority of the American population-­having more numbers than Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews combined-­the BSA is clearly out of touch with the spirit of pluralism, tolerance, and inclusiveness that compose today’s American values. By contrast, in 1993 the Girl Scouts of the United States of America adopted more inclusive policies.
Therefore, please decline the title and role of honorary president of the Boy Scouts of America until such time as the organization reforms its bylaws and practices to be non-discriminatory.

Yours in Unity,
American Atheists
American Ethical Union
American Humanist Association
Atheist Alliance International
Atheist Nexus
Camp Quest
Center for Atheism
Center for Inquiry
Center for Naturalism
Council for Secular Humanism
Freedom From Religion Foundation
Institute for Humanist Studies
International Federation for Secular & Humanistic Judaism Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers Secular Coalition for America Secular Student Alliance Society for Humanistic Judaism

Friday, January 16, 2009

Is Time Travel Possible?

FROM J. RICHARD GOTT, COSMOLOGIST AND PROFESSOR OF ASTROPHYSICAL SCIENCES AT PRINCETON UNIVERSITY: In 1905, Einstein showed that moving clocks tick slowly, and this makes time travel to the future possible. The greatest time traveler to date is Sergei Krikalev, a cosmonaut who spent more than 803 days in low-Earth orbit, traveling at high speed, and thus has aged 1/48th of a second less than he would have if he had stayed home. When he returned to Earth, he found the Earth to be 1/48th of a second to the future of where he expected it to be. So he has time-traveled 1/48th of a second into the future.
If you were to fly out to the star Betelgeuse, 500 light-years away, at 99.995 percent of the speed of light and then return at the same speed, the Earth would be 1,000 years older when you got back, but you would only have aged 10 years.
What about time travel to the past? In 1915, Einstein developed his theory of general relativity, which explains gravity as a result of curved space-time. This theory has been tested many times. It predicted light bending around the sun, a phenomenon famously confirmed in a 1919 experiment. If space-time is sufficiently twisted, a time traveler can, while traveling toward the future all the time, circle back and visit an event in his own past. In much the same way, Magellan’s crew kept traveling westward and yet returned to Europe, having completely circled the globe.
In 1949, mathematician Kurt Gödel discovered a solution to Einstein’s equations of general relativity that allows time travel to the past. Gödel’s solution represents a rotating universe. Our universe is not rotating, so this solution does not apply to us; however, Gödel’s solution shows that space-times allowing time travel to the past are possible in principle, and, therefore, other time-travel solutions might exist as well.
In 1988, theoretical physicist Kip Thorne and his colleagues discovered a wormhole solution that allows time travel to the past, and in 1991, I discovered another solution involving two moving cosmic strings. Cosmic strings are thin threads of energy left over after the big bang, predicted in about half the theories of the early universe—we have not found them yet, but we are looking for them. The time machines proposed by Thorne and by me have the property that you can’t use the time machine to go back to a time before the time machine was created. If a time machine is created by twisting space-time in the year 3000, you might use it to go from 3002 back to 3001, but you can’t use it to go back to 2009 because that was before the time loop was created.
To understand whether such time machines can actually be constructed, we may need to understand quantum gravity—how gravity behaves at very small scales. That is one of the reasons the study of time-travel solutions is so interesting. Time-travel paradoxes—such as the danger of killing your grandmother—can be avoided simply by noting that space-time must be self-consistent: Time travelers don’t change the past; they were always part of it. Alternatively, using the many-worlds theory of quantum mechanics, University of Oxford physicist David Deutsch has proposed that if you change the past, it causes a new universe to branch off, such that you now have two histories (the original and the changed one), and paradoxes are likewise avoided.

J. Richard Gott appears with Kip Thorne, Seth Lloyd, Fred Alan Wolf, and Michio Kaku in "Is Time Travel Possible?" the 19th 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, January 15, 2009

Dover 2.0: Louisiana's Science Education Act

The Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to adopt new policy today that will determine how public schools implement the state's "academic freedom" bill, known officially as the Louisiana Science Education Act. The act lets teachers supplement state-approved science textbooks with other materials about evolution, human cloning, and global warming, and many people see it as an attempt to undercut the teaching of evolution and sneak religious ideas like creationism and "intelligent design" into public school science classrooms (even though supporters claim the bill hopes only to promote an environment of "critical thinking").
That the bill itself claims not to promote any religious doctrine turned out to be a problem for those hoping for a stricture that would specifically exclude material that promotes "creationism or intelligent design or that advances the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind." During a Tuesday hearing in which proponents and opponents of the bill shared their views with a committee of the BESE, State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek said the language of the bill makes such a ban unnecessary and is enough to leave him "satisfied that you cannot teach creationism or intelligent design." (In August, Pastorek wrote a letter to local school boards and superintendents stating: "Religious theories cannot be advanced under the guise of encouraging critical thinking.") Barbara Forrest, on the other hand, a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and the leading member of a group advocating for sound science education, has said the disclaimer is a "dead giveaway of the creationist (hence religious) agenda that the law advances." The disclaimer is included "precisely because the legislation is intended to advance religion," she says, and if "the LSEA were truly intended to improve science education in public schools, no religion disclaimer would be necessary." The board agreed with Pastorek, however, and deleted the stricture.
According to Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, no teacher in the organization has complained about science materials, and the issue, he told TV channel WAFB, has created "a stage for what unfortunately seems to be an embedded political movement. We're going to find ourselves getting tied into knots over issues people are invested in by faith, emotion, and miss the big picture."
Even though the BESE is allowed to veto any supplemental material it feels is inappropriate, many worry that religious material will still find its way into the science classroom—and believe it is only a matter of time before legal action results. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Moral Values of Lebanese Society

As part of the World Values Survey conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, sociologist Mansoor Moaddel and his colleagues from Lebanon and Sweden asked a nationally representative sample of Lebanese adults—which included Shiites, Sunnis, Druze, and Christian groups—which behavior is the most immoral: stealing someone's property, violence against others, or premarital sex. In total, 48 percent said stealing is the worst moral offense, 31 percent picked violence as the worst, and 21 percent chose premarital sex as the most immoral behavior.
"I've used this test with my students in large introductory sociology class recently. And at least 90 percent of my students agree that violence against other human beings is the most immoral," said Moaddel. "But in Lebanon and in Iran, which I surveyed in 2005, stealing is seen as the most immoral. It's hard to say why. It may be that all the violence has desensitized people to it, or it might be that the reason there is so much violence is that people don't view it as that bad. Or it could be that the attitude toward violence is fall-out from a patriarchal culture in which brute strength and physical force are seen as natural, normal ways to obtain your rights." —Heather Wax

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mississippi's "Textbook Disclaimer" Act

A new bill introduced in the Mississippi House of Representatives by Republican Representative Gary Chism would require the state board of education to include a disclaimer saying that evolution is a "theory" on the inside front cover of every public school textbook that discusses evolution. The proposed disclaimer reads:

The word "theory" has many meanings, including: systematically organized knowledge; abstract reasoning; a speculative idea or plan; or a systematic statement of principles. Scientific theories are based on both observations of the natural world and assumptions about the natural world. They are always subject to change in view of new and confirmed observations.
This textbook discusses evolution, a controversial theory some scientists present as a scientific explanation for the origin of living things. No one was present when life first appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins should be considered a theory.
Evolution refers to the unproven belief that random, undirected forces produced living things. There are many topics with unanswered questions about the origin of life which are not mentioned in your textbook, including: the sudden appearance of the major groups of animals in the fossil record (known as the Cambrian Explosion); the lack of new major groups of other living things appearing in the fossil record; the lack of transitional forms of major groups of plants and animals in the fossil record; and the complete and complex set of instructions for building a living body possessed by all living things.
Study hard and keep an open mind.
Keep in mind that that evolution is not a point of controversy or debate in the scientific community, and according to the National Center for Science Education, Alabama is the only state that currently requires a disclaimer (adopted in 2005) on textbooks that include information about evolution. That disclaimer reads: "The theory of evolution by natural selection, a theory included in this document, states that natural selection provides the basis for the modern scientific explanation for the diversity of living things."
The disclaimer, which previously called evolution a "controversial theory" was watered down after a legal challenge was brought against a similar disclaimer used in the Cobb County School District in Georgia. A sticker placed on the inside front cover of science textbooks there stated: "Evolution is a theory, not a fact, concerning the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered." The sticker was found to be unconstitutional, a decision that was later vacated by a court of appeals, and the parties settled out of court, with Cobb County school officials agreeing to remove the stickers and to not seek the inclusion of similar disclaimers or undermine the teaching of evolution in the future. —Heather Wax

Spirituality May Help Teens Cope With Illness

Spirituality—defined as a sense of meaning and purpose in life and a connectedness with the divine—can help teens cope with chronic illness, according to new research led by Dr. Michael Yi, a professor of medicine, and Sian Cotton, a clinical psychologist and research scientist, at the University of Cincinnati. In two studies, they looked at how adolescents deal with inflammatory bowel disease, which causes chronic inflammation of the intestines and can lead to poorer quality of life with regard to health. "On average, when compared to their healthy peers, patients with IBD were willing to trade more years of their life expectancy or risk a greater chance of death in order to achieve a better state of health,” Yi says. One of the strongest predictors of poorer overall quality of life, the researchers found, is a lower level of spiritual well-being.
It also seems that spirituality might play a significant role in teens with IBD when it comes to emotional well-being—helping them to cope with their illness. While "both healthy adolescents and those with IBD had relatively high levels of spiritual well-being," Cotton says, "the positive association between spiritual well-being and mental health outcomes was stronger in the adolescents with IBD as compared to their healthy peers."
Currently, researchers are studying spiritual coping in teens with IBD, asthma, and sickle cell disease, with plans to extend their investigations to other chronic illnesses. “While adolescents with IBD have specific issues that are unique to that group, we feel that these studies help to create a systematic approach to better understanding spirituality and religious coping in pediatric populations,” Cotton says. “We felt it was best to examine these issues first in a homogeneous population and then determine whether these findings can be generalized in adolescents with other chronic conditions or how they might be different across different illness groups.”
The studies appear in online editions of the Journal of Pediatrics and the Journal of Adolescent Health. —Heather Wax

Monday, January 12, 2009

Spirituality (Not Religion) Makes Kids Happy

Spirituality—defined as an inner belief system that provides strength and comfort—is key to how happy a child is, according to a new study by psychologist Mark Holder at the University of British Columbia and his colleagues Judi Wallace and Ben Coleman.
In adults and adolescents, both spirituality and religiousness have been linked to increased happiness, but in children 8 to 12, the researchers found, two aspects of spirituality—feeling one's life has meaning and value (the personal aspect) and deep, quality interpersonal relationships (the communal aspect)—are strong predictors of happiness. "Enhancing personal meaning may be a key factor in the relationship between spirituality and happiness," the researchers say, and to that end, encouraging children to express kindness toward others, perform altruistic acts, and volunteer might help make them happier.
Organized religious practices and rituals, on the other hand—like going to church, praying, or meditating—seem to have little effect on children's happiness.
The study appears in the Journal of Happiness Studies. —Heather Wax

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus Dies

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a theologian and writer who founded the journal First Things and an influential Catholic conservative (who occasionally advised President Bush and is said to have helped guide the administration's policy on embryonic stem cell research and other issues), died from side effects of cancer treatment yesterday in New York. He was 72.

Arguments for Atheism?

FROM V.V. RAMAN, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS AND HUMANITIES AT THE ROCHESTER INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: Since time immemorial, visionaries, poets, and philosophers have spoken with conviction about entities beyond the natural world that play a role in the functioning of the universe and human affairs. The most sophisticated and meaningful expression of that belief is God: an overseeing supernatural being who embodies the loftiest and noblest of qualities and potencies conceivable. So, in every major religion of the world, there is a God of one kind or form or another. God, most often, is a cosmic personage deserving of every reverence and respect. Over the ages, the idea of God has played a powerful role in all cultural frameworks, breathing value, meaning, and peace in millions of human hearts, as also a sense of security and solace in times of fear or sorrow. Even so-called atheistic and nontheistic religions refer to insubstantial invisible beings of a supernatural kind.
Yet, in every culture and at all times, there have also been thinkers who have rejected the notion of God in no uncertain terms, regarding God as no more than a human fantasy, a creation beautiful perhaps but totally imaginary, with no more ground in reality than the face of a mouse on the moon or a character in a Shakespearean play.
To convince atheists, theologians have erected arguments after arguments. So have come about various proofs for the existence of God, some even mathematical. Such proofs have done little to convert unbelievers, and are not likely to do so.
There are at least three reasons for this. First, every vision of God is deeply anchored to a religion and is therefore related to a historical and cultural framework. Absolute truths about the world have to transcend local creeds and comforts. Secondly, God is invariably linked to the presence and propensities of human beings here below. Science has shown beyond a reasonable doubt that human beings are but one of myriad creatures and that earthlings have no more importance in the vast expanse than dolphins in the deep blue sea. Finally, and most importantly, God is not so much an entity hiding somewhere like an Easter egg, to be uncovered by an eager searcher, but rather a deeply felt experience that humans are capable of. God, like music, is to be experienced, and no analysis of musical notes can prove or disprove the joy and ecstasy that comes from listening. Like the colors of the rainbow, God is a resonance in the conscious soul to an aspect of the world that instruments and theorems, syllogisms and scrutiny, can never unravel.
So, in debates on the existence of God, the atheist will always win, for belief in God is not subject to logical categories, just as no amount of reasoning can dissuade a lover away from the beloved. But in adherence to practices and beliefs regarding God and the hereafter, religionists will always be in the majority, irrespective of what conclusions Aristotelian logic and Euclidean proofs may lead us to.
There need be no debate between theists and atheists, at least at the philosophical and practical levels, as long as we grant every individual the right to regard unperceived aspects of the world in ways that one finds most satisfying and meaningful. Indeed, if we also share with one another the positive elements of different worldviews with no claims of absolute truth, we can only enrich ourselves.

V.V. Raman appears with Michael Tooley, Daniel Dennett, Richard Swinburne, Nancey Murphy, and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong in "Arguments for Atheism?" the 18th 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.

Engaging Science & Religion

This year's Brown Symposium at Southwestern University in Texas will focus on "Science and Religion: Conflict or Convergence?" Developed by Ben Pierce, a professor of biology at the school, the symposium will focus on the "engagement model" of science and religion—the idea that, by acting as partners, both fields can benefit from understanding the thinking and findings of the other field.
The two-day event, February 5 and 6, is free and open to the public, and regular readers of this blog will recognize many of the participating scholars, which include Dr. Andrew Newberg, director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania; paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris of the University of Cambridge; Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-founder and co-director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology; and David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University. —Heather Wax

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Connecting Scientific & Religious Revolution

Check out Steven Johnson's latest book, The Invention of Air, which is now on the shelves. The book tells the story of Joseph Priestly, the British chemist who discovered oxygen and, in 1771, the fact that it is created by plants and used up by animals. But Priestly, a pioneer in science, was a radical when it came to religion. A "heretic" of "unshakable faith," writes Johnson, Priestly, who staunchly believed in God yet rejected the divinity of Jesus, helped establish the first Unitarian Church in England and "considered half of modern Christianity to be a bunch of Pagan hocus-pocus." Persecuted for his beliefs—after he wrote a treatise on the "corrupts of Christianity," a mob torched his house—he fled to America, where he impacted both theological and political thinking. In essence, says Johnson, the theme of the book is "how innovative ideas emerge and spread in a society."

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Costly Punishment Is Not a Winning Strategy

Costly punishment—in which one person punishes another at a cost to himself—rarely pays off, according to a new study by Harvard University mathematician and biologist Martin Nowak and his colleagues Hisashi Ohtsuki and Yoh Iwasa that appears in last week's edition of the journal Nature. In fact, Nowak says, "efficient cooperation cannot be based on punishment. This is a very positive result."
To study cooperation and punishment, the scientists created a computer simulation of a population in which each interaction leads to either a good or bad reputation; cooperation leads to a good reputation, while not cooperating leads to a bad one. Players could then choose whether to cooperate, punish, or opt out of interactions with another player—based on their observations of the other person and information about the person's past decisions with other players. "Our behavior toward other people depends not only on what they have done to us but also on what they have done to others. Indirect reciprocity works through reputation," the researchers write.
When asked if they want to donate money to another person, for example, the "experiment shows that people base their decisions on what the recipient has done before. Generous people are more likely to receive donations," writes Nowak in an essay that appeared in an earlier edition of Nature. Because we spend most of our lives in a relatively small population in which we interact with the same people over and over again, we continually monitor and interpret how others act toward us and others. "When deciding how to act, we take into account—often subconsciously—the possible consequences for our own reputation," Nowak says. "Moreover, our own observations are often not enough; we want to learn from the experiences of others."
Punishment, the researchers found, is only a successful strategy when our assessment of other people's reputations—and what others say about them—is reliable; in real life, however, perception and gossip can often lead to errors. In most cases, then, a population does better by not using punishment; instead, the best strategy is to withhold help from someone you think has a poor reputation or has made unfavorable decisions in the past. —Heather Wax