We've moved!

Check out our new site at
www.scienceandreligiontoday.com
and be sure to update your bookmarks.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why Some Kids Who See Abuse Are Resilient

What makes some children who witness domestic violence more resilient than others? That question was the focus of a long-term study by researchers at Michigan State University, who looked at children who had seen acts of violence against their mothers. They discovered that kids with easy-going natures and mentally healthy mothers were less likely to develop emotional or behavioral problems than other kids who had who witnessed violence at home.
The reason, say researchers, is that easy-going kids may be less likely to react to stresses and more likely to get support from adults in their lives. And mothers with good mental health are likely better able to help their children cope.
The findings "highlight the importance of individual and family resources to face the challenges of growing up in a highly detrimental environment," says Cecilia Martinez-Torteya, a graduate student in clinical psychology at Michigan State and the study's lead author. "Intervention efforts may be improved by targeting mothers' symptoms of depression and considering children's temperaments." —Heather Wax

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Episode 18: Toll of Belief in the Soul

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: We open on a sketchy-looking, smooth-talking British guy getting ready to go out for the night. A TV news report in the background alerts us to a murder that seemed to have been committed with a knife. Just then, we see the Brit pick up a folding knife and put it in his pocket. So he’s the killer! He goes to a nightclub and calls his girlfriend, who’s traveling, before going in. He lies about spending a quiet night alone, then steals into the club and unsuccessfully puts the moves on one woman before hitting it big with another. They go back to his apartment … where she kisses him and then breaks his neck in one quick movement. Later we see him with his spinal column sliced open. So she’s the killer—nice fake-out, Fringe.
Charlie, Olivia, and the Bishops arrive on the scene the next morning. The murder method matches the one on the news the night before, but the stymied Boston police are handing it over to the FBI. Walter says the wound was made by human teeth and later deduces that the killer nabbed the victim’s spinal fluid. To rachet up the ick factor, lab tests from the wound show that the killer had traces of an extinct kind of syphilis in his or her saliva. The Centers for Disease Control are the only ones who have samples of the virus, and the CDC points Olivia in the direction of Luboff Pharmaceuticals: Luboff has received several samples that could be used in bioweapons. Olivia and a strike team storm the lab and find a wheelchair-bound man poking around a dead animal’s spinal column. They bring the man, Nicholas Boone, in for questioning and ask how long he’s been a follower of ZFT. Boone looks surprised for a minute, but then says he will help them if they will find his wife. He worked for the people they’re looking for, he continues, but when he realized what “they”—presumably those perpetrating the "pattern"—were up to, he tried to pull out. That’s when they kidnapped his wife, Valerie. Boone also lets Olivia and company know that he created the skin-growth virus that killed an FBI agent a few episodes back.
Boone sends Olivia and a team on a raid of another secret lab, where they don’t find his wife, but do locate some vials of a substance called XT43. “The person who’s killing has been dosed with this,” he says, adding that he needs it to make an antidote. Then he comes clean: “They didn’t kidnap my wife. They infected her.” Elsewhere, we see his wife making eyes at the bouncer at a club. They go back to his car, where he touches her face and notices that she’s burning up. She mutters, “I’m sorry,” before rearing back, baring rows of razor-like teeth and then launching herself at his neck.
Boone's wife is now feeding off spinal fluid; it’s why she kills, and his attempts to keep her satiated by drinking his left him paralyzed. He asks for a lab to synthesize the antidote and winds up at Walter’s. Boone eventually realizes that even more of his spinal fluid is necessary to make the cure, so he lies to Walter about having enough to spare. Meanwhile, ultraviolet stamps on several victims’ hands lead Olivia and Peter to the club where Valerie’s been hunting her prey. They tranquilize her and transport her back to the lab, where Boone is not doing well. They inject Valerie with the antidote just as her husband dies on the stretcher next to her.
Later, Walter hands Olivia a videotape Boone left for her. Making good on his promise, he leaves a message that says he doesn’t know much about ZFT except this: The man bankrolling the movement is Massive Dynamics chief—and Walter’s former lab partner—William Bell.
THE BOTTOM LINE: During a quiet moment in the lab, Walter and Nicholas Boone have this telling exchange, with echoes of one of science-and-religion’s central conflicts:

WALTER: A little memory loss is often kind to the soul.

NICHOLAS: A figure of speech, or do you believe there is such a thing? The soul?

WALTER: There are days when I wish I did. There are days when I wish I didn’t.

NICHOLAS: I often wake up at night, frightened, with the understanding that there are things man shouldn’t know. That the scientific trespasses I’ve committed —

WALTER: — will one day be judged. Bellie and I would often debate this kind of thing. William Bell. You’ve heard of him?

What Makes a Happy Marriage?

Marriage appears to change the kind of support we need from our partners, according to a new study from Northwestern University. It seems that when we're dating someone, happiness and satisfaction with the relationship depend on whether the other person supports our hopes and dreams. Once married, however, the focus seems to shift: While its still important for a person to support our aspirations, we now put a greater emphasis on commitment and whether a partner helps us fulfill our obligations and responsibilities.
This means "the feelings of being loved and supported that people use to judge who makes a good girlfriend or boyfriend may not be completely trustworthy in deciding who makes a good husband or wife. Those feelings may only partially capture the emotions that will determine your satisfaction with the person you marry,” says Daniel Molden, a psychologist at Northwestern and the study's lead author.
"People planning to get married should think about not only how their partners support what they hope to achieve but also about how their partners support what they feel obligated to accomplish. We could end up with both happier marriages and more satisfied people in general.”
The study will be published in the July issue of Psychological Science. —Heather Wax

Ken Miller Lectures on Creation & Evolution

Ken Miller, a biology professor at Brown University, will explore the question "Life—Creation or Evolution?" in the next James Gregory lecture, tomorrow at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Can't make it? Video and transcripts of each lecture are later made available on the program's Web site (click on the link for the lecture you want to see).
The James Gregory public lectures on science and religion focus on the many places where the two fields interact. The series was developed through the joint efforts of Eric Priest, a professor of theoretical solar physics, and Alan Torrance, a professor of systematic theology. —Heather Wax

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Why Americans Change Religions

About half of Americans today have switched their religious affiliation at least once, according to new survey findings from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. In fact, many Americans change religions more than once.
The survey was a follow-up to a major study of the U.S. religious landscape released last year, which found that 44 percent of Americans have switched or left religion. The new report raises that number to between 47 percent and 59 percent. The survey also found that the majority of those who switch faiths leave their childhood denomination by age 24, but by 36, most people have committed to one faith. But why, the researchers wondered, do people change denominations or give up religion altogether?
It turns out people switch faiths for all sort of reasons. According to the new findings, more than half of the Catholics and Protestants who switched faiths said they did so because their spiritual needs were not being met or they found another faith they liked more. Catholics are more likely to leave the religion because they stop believing in its teachings, while many Protestants switch religions because their life circumstances change (they move to a new community or marry someone with a different background).
Many of those who left a religion and are now "unaffiliated" said they left their faith in part because they see religious people as hypocritical or judgmental, because religious organizations focus too much on rules, or because religious leaders focus too much on power and money.
What's particularly interesting is that much fewer say they left religion because they think modern science proves religion is just superstition. —Heather Wax

Monday, April 27, 2009

TV "Friends" Can Make You Feel Less Lonely

Watching a favorite TV show—and forming illusory relationships with the characters in it—can give us a sense of belonging, according to psychologists at the University at Buffalo and Miami University in Ohio. They found evidence of what's called the "social surrogacy hypothesis," the idea that we can use technology—like TV, music, and video games—to "provide the experience of belonging when no real belongingness has been experienced," explains Shira Gabriel, a UB professor of psychology who worked on the study.
The findings show that we tend to tune in to our favorite TV shows when we feel lonely, and we feel less lonely when we watch these shows. But the effect occurs only with programs we really immerse ourselves in and follow week after week, getting to know and care about the characters. Thinking about these programs protects us from drops in self-esteem, bad moods, and feelings of rejection.
"Turning one's back on family and friends for the solace of television may be maladaptive and leave a person with fewer resources over time," says UB psychologist Jaye Derrick, who also worked on the study, "but for those who have difficulty experiencing social interaction because of physical or environmental constraints, technologically induced belongingness may offer comfort." —Heather Wax

Francis Collins Takes BioLogos Public

Exciting news: Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, will officially launch his newest project at a small dinner party tomorrow night at the Capital Hilton in downtown Washington, D.C. It’s called the BioLogos Foundation, and it’s a nonprofit organization designed to “help believers, skeptics, scientists, pastors, and lay leaders in the Church to better understand how science and faith can be friends and not combatants.”
Collins quietly started the organization last year, but he now has some major funding from the Templeton Foundation (which also funds this site) and a flashier new Web site that goes live tomorrow, too. The site will answer some of the most frequently asked questions about science and faith, and provide readers with plenty of other resources for further reading. —Heather Wax

Friday, April 24, 2009

Can Many Religions All Be True?

FROM V.V. RAMAN, EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS AND HUMANITIES AT THE ROCHESTER INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY: Someone was once asked: “How come there is only one science, but there are so many religions?” The answer that was given: Because there can be only one right answer to a question, but there can many wrong ones. This flippant reply may satisfy atheists and those who attach little importance to religions, but it cannot be taken seriously, given that religions have played such a major role in culture and civilization. It is difficult to accept, but over the centuries, hundreds of thousands of intelligent people have been persuaded by the truths of religion.
And yet, given that there are so many religions, it is legitimate to ask: “(How) can many religions all be true?” The answer to this question depends on the meaning of the word "true" in the context of religion.
Truth, as commonly understood, is an attribute one associates with facts and other elements that have tangible existence. With this meaning, it is logically impossible for different religions, adhering to different and often mutually contradicting doctrines and dogmas, to all be true. Not all the colors of the rainbow can be white.
However, it is important to realize that there are truths that touch the core of our being, that bring meaning and relevance to existence, that reveal hidden dimensions of the human condition. The truths of literature and art, in music and myths—and religion—belong to this category. These endopotent truths are not more true or less true than the facts and laws that undergird the physical universe (exopotent truths); they are truths of an altogether different category. Endopotent truths have greater value to individuals, communities, and cultures than the equations of quantum mechanics, the existence of quarks and leptons, or the big-bang origin of the physical universe.
Endopotent truths are multivalued; they can be manifest in multiple modes—as the Vedic hymns to ancient sage-poets in India, as the Commandments conveyed to Moses, as the enlightened utterances of the Buddha and Mahavira, as the sermon Jesus gave on the Mount, as the revelations to the Prophet Muhammad, as the syncretic insights of Guru Nanak. Indeed, there are many religions, and they can all be true in this sense, just as every interpretation of a great poem or work of art has validity for the keen student, just as every piece of music is equally music.
But it is important to realize that all truths have both positive and negative impact potentials, depending on the actions and attitudes they enable (exopotent) and inspire (endopotent) us to.
With both religion and science, then, what is important is not so much to inquire about their truth content in the conventional sense (which will invariably lead to confrontation and mutual disrespect, if not contempt and belligerence), but to be concerned about their potential impacts. Any religion that leads to positive actions and attitudes, such as caring, compassion, and ecstatic spiritual experience, is desirable, and any religion that engenders hate, hurt, and persecution is not. Likewise, any science that leads to an improvement in human health and the human condition is preferable to one that can be used for destruction and devastation.

V.V. Raman appears with Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Arthur Hyman, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and Ananda Guruge in "Can Many Religions All Be True?" the 33rd episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series. The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Friday, participants discuss a recent episode.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Texas Follow-Up

The Institute for Creation Research has sued the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which denied the institute's request for state certification that would allow it to offer an online master's degree in science education. In the lawsuit, the ICR claims the decision violates its civil rights and that it was discriminated against because its program would be based on "creation science" rather than evolution.
When the board denied the school's request last year, Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes said the institute's program wouldn't prepare graduates to teach the state's public school science standards, which include the study of evolution. —Heather Wax

Religious Groups Differ on Climate Change

Nearly half of all Americans—but only 34 of white evangelical Protestants—think human activity is responsible for global warming, according to a new findings from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. (Click on image for larger view.) Seventeen percent of white evangelical Protestants say natural patterns are the cause of global warming, while 31 percent do not believe the earth is warming at all.
According to the survey, black Protestants, white non-Hispanic Catholics, white mainline Protestants, and religiously unaffiliated Americans are all significantly more likely to believe the evidence for global warming—and all these groups are more likely than evangelical Christians to believe human activity is the cause of climate change. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Episode 17: Notion of Shared Emotion

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: A mother pushes her daughter’s stroller in a deserted subway station and just misses the train as it pulls away from the platform. The little girl’s balloon comes loose from her stroller and flies up toward the ceiling. The mom reaches for it as the next subway rolls in ... and then all of a sudden, Olivia’s behind her, pushing her into the path of the train! In Boston, Olivia wakes up from the nightmare and can’t get back to sleep. Imagine her surprise when she sees a news report of the young mom’s suicide on the morning news.
After asking permission to travel to New York, Olivia and the Bishops examine the crime scene and talk to the victim’s husband. She had no reason to kill herself, he asserts. But security camera videotape shows only the mom and her baby on the platform before she takes a header into the tracks. Still, when Peter, Walter and Olivia return to Cambridge, she’s still convinced that she responsible for the death. Walter posits that Olivia’s able to influence people with her mind, and when Peter objects, his dad says they’ll know for sure if it happens again.
Which, of course, it does. Olivia pops some caffeine pills and sits down at a restaurant, watching a loving couple a few tables away. All of a sudden, the woman accuses the man of flirting with the waitress and picks up a knife from the table. As he begs her to calm down, Olivia walks over. We think she’s going to intervene, but she grabs the woman’s wrist and helps her plunge the knife into the man’s stomach. Olivia wakes up with a shock on her couch in Boston and calls Charlie: There’s been another murder.
Olivia and Peter go back to New York, where they find out that the man didn’t die, though he’s not in good shape. His flummoxed wife tells them she has no idea why she sliced her husband up. The restaurant owner has never seen Olivia before, but he can describe the man who was sitting in “her” seat the night prior, and Olivia realizes that the man, who has a scar on his temple, was also in the subway security footage. Walter thinks maybe Olivia has some connection with the man, who Charlie identifies as former mental patient Nick Lane, that allows her to see things through his eyes.
The asylum director says that a solicitor showed up months before to tell Nick he’d inherited a windfall, prompting the voluntarily committed Nick to check himself out. Why was Nick there in the first place? He had a crazy story about being recruited as a child by a secret group and “being prepared to serve as a soldier in the coming war against a parallel universe,” the doctor relates, inadvertently quoting the ZFT Manifesto. Olivia realizes that Nick’s backstory is sickeningly close to hers, right down to his age and hometown of Jacksonville, Florida.
Olivia demands that Walter tell her what he knows about cortexiphan, the drug that Olivia learned she’d been dosed with as a kid. Walter confesses that his lab partner, William Bell, thought it might “enhance certain abilities in predisposed children.” It’s possible, he continues, that Olivia and Nick were paired during the experiments, giving them an intense bond that would allow her to read his emotions. It’s also possible that Nick is unable to control his emotions from affecting other people like a virus, leading the mom to jump and the wife to stab.
At Nick's apartment, Charlie, Olivia and the Bishops find his giant shrine to "pattern"-esque happenings; if you look closely, you can see an article mentioning a government shut-down of last episode’s Kelvin Genetics. A security guard calls the police to tell them that Nick and a band of people are poised to jump off the top of a downtown building. Olivia goes up, and Nick is happy to see her. He calls her Olive. “You heard me. You came,” he says, adding that the “man with the glasses” came to see him and told him “What was written will come to pass.” Though Olivia has no idea what he’s talking about, she snaps to it when he hands her a gun and begs her to kill him so he’ll stop hurting people. She hesitates, and a man falls from the roof to his death. She shoots Nick twice in the leg, making him—and everyone else—collapse on the roof. “You’ll wish you’d killed me,” he tells her sadly.
Later, in Cambridge, Walter finds an old videotape and watches it with a sinking feeling. We see a little girl crouched in a corner while William Bell’s voice asks if “the incident” has been contained. A younger-sounding Walter assures him it has, and, as the camera gets closer to the girl, he assures her that everything is fine. “It’s all right, Olive,” he says softly. “Everything is going to be OK.”
THE BOTTOM LINE: Before Walter cobbles together the made-for-TV reason that Olivia and Nick are bonded, he says astral projection may be responsible for Olivia’s nocturnal journeys. Though there’s little scientific backup for the idea, astral projection was popular with the ancient Egyptians, who saw it as the soul hovering outside the physical body.

Something to Tweet About

The constant, quick updates we get from news feeds and social networking sites like Twitter might be affecting our sense of morality, according to a new study from a group of neuroscientists at the University of Southern California.
The scientists looked at how people respond to real-life stories meant to make them feel admiration for a skill or virtue, or compassion for another person's pain and suffering. Brain scans showed that humans respond to signs of physical pain in just a few seconds, but it takes longer—about six to eight seconds—to react to others' psychological pain with emotions like compassion.
It's an important finding: It means that when we watch the news or receive streams of information online, we often don't have enough time to fully process the human suffering before we get the next story or update.
"For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection," says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, who led the study. "If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality."
Because the emotional systems tied to our moral sense are "inherently slow, perhaps all we can say is, not so fast" when it comes to how information is delivered, says Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, who also worked on the study. “We actually separate the good from the bad in great part thanks to the feeling of admiration. It’s a deep physiological reaction that’s very important to define our humanity.”
The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online. —Heather Wax

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"The Da Vinci Code" Sequel Coming Soon

Dan Brown's new book, a follow-up to The Da Vinci Code, will finally be released on September 15. Will the new book also deal with science and religion themes? Here's what we know: According to Brown's editor, Jason Kaufman, vice president and executive editor at Doubleday, "the book's narrative takes place in a twelve-hour period, and from the first page, Dan's readers will feel the thrill of discovery as they follow Robert Langdon through a masterful and unexpected new landscape."
The movie version of Angels & Demons (the prequel to The Da Vinci Code) will hit theaters on May 15. —Heather Wax

Friday, April 17, 2009

What Things Really Exist?

FROM JOHN LESLIE, AN EMERITUS PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF GUELPH: As well as such things as stones, the real world contains qualities of things: For instance, a particular stone is red. Now, many philosophers insist that though qualities REALLY EXIST, they aren’t themselves REAL THINGS. To be a real thing, they declare, a whatnot has to be able to exist all by itself, at least in theory. The redness of the stone couldn’t exist all by itself, without the stone, could it? To call it a real thing is misuse of the English language.
However, such verbal hairsplitting doesn’t interest ordinary folk. Ordinary language, therefore, takes no firm stand on the real-thing-ness of qualities. Mr. Dunce, for example, is foolish, really foolish. Question: Is his foolishness a REAL THING, or is it instead just A REALITY? Please yourself! How to use English here is entirely up to you. That’s the only answer the question ought to get.
Here, though, is a more interesting question: Was Plato right? In addition to the world of things like stones, is there a realm of abstract realities? Are there real whatnots that don’t depend for their reality on the existence of concrete objects such as galaxies, stones, atoms, or you and me?
Answer: Plato was right. There are infinitely many abstract realities. There is, for example, the reality that two and two make four. I take this to mean that—genuinely, which of course makes it A REALITY—IF there were to exist any two sets of two things (for instance, galaxies), THEN there would exist four things. This IFFY-THENNY affair doesn’t derive its reality from the existence of any concrete objects such as galaxies or humans who count them. What if all such objects suddenly vanished? In the resulting emptiness, it would still be a reality that IF any two sets of two galaxies ever were to exist, THEN there would be four galaxies. This reality inhabits the Platonic realm.
The Platonic realm contains infinitely many mathematical realities. Also, infinitely many realities of being possible, where this means being what might, without contradiction, enter into an actual, concrete situation. A trillion apples, for example, would involve no contradiction. Those apples wouldn’t be as absurd as round squares. The Platonic realm contains infinitely many possible apples. Infinitely many possible dragons, too, if they’d not be like round squares either.
Further, the Platonic realm contains infinitely many IFFY-THENNY realities of good and evil. For instance, it’s presumably real that IF there were to exist a trillion intelligent and happy beings, THEN this would be a good state of affairs.
Shouldn’t we say, though, that being a Platonic reality doesn’t make a whatnot into AN EXISTING THING? Despite the vagueness of the word “thing,” this could be wise. It could help make the point that the contents of the Platonic realm are in a way none too important. Breaking a vase could be cause for weeping. The Platonic realm contains infinitely many broken vases, but no tears need be shed over them. Almost all of them will forever remain merely possible vases, “unactualized” Platonic realities, whatnots that are non-things or at least shouldn’t be called existing things.
Maybe Plato’s writings aren’t very clear or very right on these matters. They can give the impression that the actual vases in our universe are in part illusory because they lack the eternal, unconditional reality of mathematical facts or of The Perfect Vase, which, inhabiting the Platonic realm, is a far more valuable component of Reality than any actual vase. Maybe Plato turns in his grave when I describe the Platonic realm as filled just with possibilities plus consequences that would accompany any actualization of those possibilities.
Consider the reality that red is nearer to orange than to yellow. I take this to be the reality that IF any red objects, orange objects, and yellow objects were to exist, THEN the red ones would be nearer in color to the orange ones than to the yellow ones. A reincarnated Plato might shrink from such IFs and THENs. He might yearn for non-IFFY whatnots called The Form of Redness and The Form of Yellowness, with The Form of Orangeness situated somehow in between them. However, that looks a mistake.
I like to say, though, that I’m a follower of Plato. Above all, I think Book Six of his Republic right in suggesting that the reason why our universe exists is simply that its existence is good. You could express the point as follows: As an eternal and unconditional reality, the existence of any universe like ours would be a good affair, the satisfaction of a requirement that can be called “ethical.” Now, this may well be why our universe exists.
Dealing with all goods and evils, Ethics extends well beyond Morality, which deals only with good and evil actions. An eternal, unconditional, universe-creating requirement couldn’t possibly be a MORAL requirement. Moral requirements are merely needs for people to behave in various ways. Their reality isn’t unconditional since they could exist only when at least one concrete object—at least one person—had already arrived on the scene. In contrast, the ETHICAL requirement that there exist a good universe doesn’t depend on the arrival of any person or thing. It’s simply a requirement that’s fortunately satisfied if a good universe exists, and that unfortunately fails to be satisfied if there’s no such universe. Call it an “axiological” requirement if you want, but it can be preferable to avoid such philosophically coined words. So long as you don’t treat “ethical” as always only another way of saying “moral,” “ethical” can do the job nicely.
In many places, but in most detail in my book Infinite Minds, I’ve argued that there’s no absurdity in the idea that an ethical requirement is responsible for the existence of our universe. It would make no sense to say that the reality that two and two make four, or redness, or loathsomeness, had created a universe. In contrast, the ethical requiredness of that universe could be in the right ballpark because ethical requirements are requirements for things to exist.
All the same, it can be difficult to sell the idea that one such requirement did create our universe. For a start, there’s the knee-jerk objection, “Only concrete objects ever create anything. An omnipotent divine Person could create everything apart from himself, but first he’d have to exist for some reason unknown. Some reason, anyway, having nothing to do with the abstraction that his existence would be something good. We all know that abstract realities exert no power!”
“Sez who?” could be the best reply to this objection. It’s a thoroughly question-begging objection, isn’t it? And don’t many theologians write that God is an abstract creative principle, not any kind of person? IF a universe of a certain type existed, THEN a requirement would be satisfied—now, why couldn’t this be a reality that created a universe? Why would it be obviously preferable to suppose that the big bang simply happened to happen? How could it be more than just question-begging to protest that the requirement in question would be “only ethical”?
More forceful is the following objection: Many reasonable folk consider our universe rather an unpleasant affair, perhaps actually worse than a blank. How could “being ethically required” explain anything so disappointing?
The answer, I suggest, lies in picturing our universe as immensely interesting, tremendously complex, yet at the same time unified in its existence. Its parts simply couldn’t exist each in isolation from the others. In that respect, they are in the same boat as the redness of the stone. Unity despite complexity characterizes minds, and our universe is mental through and through. The patterns of its events are simply patterns in an infinite mind, a mind that contemplates everything that’s worth contemplating. It contemplates not only those patterns, but the patterns of many other universes as well: perhaps infinitely many. It contemplates them eternally.
This may strike you as a strange picture. Still, it can seem compatible with what physicists say.
First, physicists say they investigate the patterns into which events fall. They aren’t trying to discover whether those patterns exist inside some super-gigantic computer or in an infinite mind that contemplates them. No possible physical experiment could settle such questions.
Second, quantum physicists often suggest that the events of our universe are so much tangled up with one another that they couldn’t exist each in isolation from the rest. They seem to occur inside a single Existent that stretches across billions of light-years.
Third, relativity theory suggests that all the successive events in our universe exist side by side and eternally in an interesting sense. As Einstein put it, the universe would seem to have “a four-dimensional existence” so that the distant past and the far future are just as much existent as the present. True, they aren’t existing in our NOW. But neither, when a man’s in California, is New York existing in his HERE.
Fourth, many physicists have concluded that our universe is only one among countless universes, all of them equally real. Here are patterns that an infinite mind could find worth contemplating.
According to my world-picture, what things really exist? Please remember that ordinary talk about “things” commits us to very little. Do I say that our universe consists of hugely many real things? Or, since I’m picturing an infinite but unified mind as generating all of the universe’s patterns just by thinking about them, must I instead be declaring that the whole shebang involves only a single real thing, the mind in question? Please yourself, for all that’s at stake is how you personally want to use the words “single real thing.” Just don’t accuse me of denying that individual stones, trees, birds, humans, can be real things! They could be worth calling real things, say I and says Ordinary Language, even if they are simply patterns in an infinite mind. The idea that every real thing must in theory be able to exist all by itself isn’t forced on us by Standard English.
Have I joined the pantheists? Do I think that our universe is, if not God, then at least part of God? Talk of an infinite mind that carries the universe’s patterns could certainly sound like God-talk. And the suggestion that this mind exists for a Platonic reason, namely, that its existence is good, could sound like God-talk also. The theory that why God exists is that God’s existence is supremely worthwhile—mayn’t that even be fairly standard theology? Still, the word “God” tends to carry a great deal of religious baggage that I reject. Do I believe in God? Unclear question!
Does only one infinite mind exist? No, there are infinitely many. You can never have too many good things, not even when each of them is infinitely good.
Could immortal souls exist? That depends on what you mean. An infinite mind inside which your mind existed might well not stop thinking about your experiences at the point where your life on Earth ended. It might think of them as continuing onward, no longer controlled by Earth’s physical laws. This would give your mind one of the three kinds of immortality discussed in my most recent book, Immortality Defended.

John Leslie appears with Roger Penrose, Peter van Inwagen, John Searle, Huston Smith, and William Lane Craig in "What Things Really Exist?" the 32nd episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series. The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Friday, participants discuss a recent episode.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Is the "Wonder" of Science Like Worship?

"A word that is commonly used among scientists is wonder, though you won’t often see that word used in their scientific papers," the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne tells the Religion News Service. "Doing research is laborious, and often the reward for all that is the sense of wonder that people get from time to time. Scientists’ experience of wonder is, in a sense, an act of worship."

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Episode 16: Mixing Genes & the Unseen

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: A group of college students trash Swift Research, an animal testing facility, and then all but one makes a run for it. A girl implores the straggler, Jonathan, to hurry up, but he heads for a big metal vault with a red light flashing over it. Opening the door triggers a silent alarm that registers on the Blackberry of a man sleeping in his home; he panics and jumps in his car, speeding to the research facility. Shortly after reaching Swift, the man—and Jonathan—are killed in hideous fashion by something large, powerful, and unseen in the vault. The other protesters get out as quickly as they can, but their car comes under attack by what seems to be the same thing that killed Jonathan and the man. We don’t see it, but from the look of horror on the girl’s face the moment before she dies, it seems pretty horrible.
Phillip Broyles, Peter and Walter Bishop, Charlie, and Olivia survey the crash scene the next morning. Charlie notices that there’s fast food in the car: four drinks, but only three clawed-up bodies—someone’s missing. Peter IDs the food as coming from a dive near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Because none of the victims are carrying identification, Olivia says she’ll start with the MIT student database. While she learns that one of the victims was part of an animal rights group called Animals First, Astrid and the Bishops examine one of the bodies at the lab and find that, in addition to giant claws, the deadly creature had massive fangs. Walter looks troubled.
After another big animal attack in Newton, Charlie arrives on the scene first and finds two animal control officers dead with the same kind of wounds as the protesters ... then a giant tentacle-looking tail drops down behind him from the tree above. Olivia and the Bishops arrive just in time to hear gunshots from the woods. When they find Charlie, he’s hurt, but alive. He gets patched up by EMTs and released. A troubled Walter theorizes that the animal is made up of the genes of multiple species—“the best of the best, as it were,” he says. “Accelerated Darwinism.” Just then, Astrid calls: Her research shows that the Swift lab was the closest to the original crime scene.
At the facility, Dr. Swift stonewalls Olivia’s questions, so she returns to Walter’s lab. Walter is agitated and finally admits that he thinks that he created the giant hybrid creature 20 years before. But he’s confused: His experiments, done in concert with Kelvin Genetics, didn’t work. Astrid then notices one of the victims is moving in its body bag. Thinking the victim is still alive, they rush to unzip the bag ... and find larvae crawling around on the dead guy’s chest. Then, just when you thought it couldn’t get more gross, the man’s chest cavity bursts open and hundreds of larvae spill out. Walter deduces that the creature’s eggs are in its stinger. Olivia looks slightly ill. “Charlie,” she whispers.
At home, Charlie and his wife watch news reports of more animal attacks while they get ready for bed. (Geek note: If you look really closely, you can see The Observer in the background of the news report. Apparently, he’s in every episode!) Olivia shows up to tell him he’s not OK and accompany him to Walter’s lab, where an ultrasound shows that he has larvae swimming around inside him. Walter is going to try a poison to kill the larvae. He hopes it won’t kill Charlie. When it almost does, he says he needs some of the mother’s blood; he’ll inject it into Charlie’s blood in an attempt to fool the wee beasties into thinking he’s one of their own and not a source of food.
Olivia gets word that one of the MIT students’ last name was Swift. She confronts Dr. Swift about his missing son, Jonathan, and he breaks down while admitting everything. The creature came from his lab, a collaboration between him and a geneticist named Cameron Dagelman—the man killed alongside Jonathan. Dagelman was a pioneer in hybridization who inspired Walter’s work, but the beast had nothing to do with Walter’s former experiments. Oh, and by the way, the beast is part gila monster, part parasitic wasp, and part bat. Pretty.
After realizing that the creature is using the sewers to get around, Olivia and the Bishops go down to lure it out and procure its blood. Walter, still racked with guilt over being an "evil" scientist all those years ago, takes it upon himself to be live bait. It works; though the creature gets a good swipe at him, he shoots it dead. Back at the lab, the team gives Charlie the antidote and restores him to health in time to return him safely home without his wife any wiser. As Walter admits to Peter that he rarely considers consequences, Olivia goes home and sleeps with the lights on to keep the monsters away.
THE BOTTOM LINE: For the first time, Walter seems to realize that his playing God back in the day has really hurt people—so it’s ironic that this time, the mistake wasn’t his. In his lab notes, though, he seems, at turns, to hold himself responsible, writing:

I knew what I wanted. To turn Greek myth into modern reality. To create life like no one had seen before. To play at God.
As though that were a crime. God created more than a few monsters himself. Without men playing at God, we would still be huddled in caves with only skins to cover us. We have always bred beasts to make them useful to us—wild dogs into loyal pets, nomadic ungulates into dairy cows. Modern transgenics differs only in degree, not in kind, and
And in purpose? I didn't seek medical cures or better food or safer energy. I sought only to prove that I could, to find the limits of the possible—
To gain knowledge. The pursuit of truth, as noble a goal as any.

"Percontations" on Bloggingheads.tv


Check out the first installment of a cool new project that the Templeton Foundation has launched with philosopher and journalist Robert Wright and Bloggingheads.tv. It's called "Percontations" (an inquiry that requires more than a yes or no answer), and it will be a weekly video exchange on life's "big questions." Here, Jesse Bering, a psychologist and director of the Institute of Cognition & Culture at Queen's University Belfast, and Joshua Knobe, a philosopher at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, engage in a smart, fascinating conversation about why we're religious.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

How Darwin Changed Science's Boundaries

On Friday and Saturday, New York University will host Darwin and the Boundaries of Science, a two-day conference that will "examine how Darwin's ideas have changed the boundaries of knowledge: between science and religion, between speculation and theory, between the past and the present, and between humans and the world around us."
Regular readers of this blog will recognize a number of the speakers, including Ron Numbers, Ed Larson, and Carl Zimmer, who "will discuss not just the content of Darwin's discoveries, but also the way these discoveries forever altered what counted as knowledge and what could be ultimately understood."

Stuart Kauffman Says "God" Must Evolve

"Do we use the “God” word? I believe we must. We have been largely stripped of our spirituality, we have become commoditized. We buy and sell plastic purple penguins for the poolside, in a gyre of material economic growth sustained by our current value system as we despoil the planet, and reach its bounds. Surely, in the midst of this terrible economic collapse, we can recognize that persistent economic growth is not sustainable ecologically on a finite planet. We have much to rethink about what is truly of value to our lives and how to orient ourselves," Stuart Kauffman, director of the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics at the University of Calgary and Watson Visiting Professor of Science and Religion at Harvard Divinity School, wrote in the Ottawa Citizen over the weekend.
"Are we mature enough to begin to give up the Creator God and keep the creativity? I think just maybe we verge on being ready to do so: Let God be our name, our chosen invented symbol, for the fully natural creativity in the universe. We are not made in this God’s image; we too are this God, along with butterflies, lichen, and streams. All of life and the planet are sacred."

Monday, April 13, 2009

Forgiveness & Empathy Connected in the Brain


Our friend Mike McCullough, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami and the author of Beyond Revenge, appeared on CBS Sunday Morning yesterday to talk about the neuroscience of forgiveness. "Revenge and forgiveness are like two sides of the coin," he says. "We know absolutely that revenge is this universal feature of human nature, but we also know now that there is a natural, evolved capacity to forgive that also exists in every human mind on the planet."
Forgiveness, scientists have discovered, involves the anterior cingulate cortices, an area of the brain that's also associated with empathy—which means "forgiveness is born in part of the experience of somebody else's pain," McCullough says."It doesn't feel very good to people to seek revenge against people they feel sorry for." —Heather Wax

Friday, April 10, 2009

Is There A Final Theory of Everything?

FROM FRANK WILCZEK, NOBEL LAUREATE AND A PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS AT THE MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY’S CENTER FOR THEORETICAL PHYSICS: Is there a final theory of everything? The answer depends on what you mean by “final” and “everything.” And, for that matter, “is.” Let’s consider.
What could we mean by a “final theory”? A theory is final if it is perfectly adapted to its subject matter, so that there is no point in trying to improve it. What was a frontier outpost of knowledge becomes a settled bastion. Unfortunately, experience teaches us that what appear to be “final” theories have a disconcerting tendency to unravel. Euclidean geometry, which seemed to Kant so firmly established that he took it to be an a priori precondition for perception, turned out to be a special, limiting case of possible geometries. And not the one chosen by Nature! Newtonian mechanics went from triumph to triumph, deriving amazing consequences (Neptune!—the original “dark matter”) from simple, well-tested hypotheses. Yet in the 20th century, first special relativity rocked, then quantum theory mocked, Newtonian principles. Today, classical thermodynamics, quantum electrodynamics (QED), and quantum chromodynamics (QCD) appear to be final theories. So too, in a different way, do the big-bang theory of cosmology and the evolution theory of biology. Professionals work to apply, develop, or add to them—but change them? Not so much.
What could we mean by a “theory of everything”? The literal meaning is silly: There will never be a theory that covers everything, or even that shared part of everything we call the natural world. The instabilities of mathematical chaos and the indeterminism of quantum mechanics would inject big elements of contingency and accident into the description of the actual world, even if we were to have a perfect understanding of its equations and starting principles. In practice, our ability to formulate questions far outstrips our ability to solve equations. No combination of theory and pure thought will encompass everything: The future will always bring surprises (e.g., weather!); historiography will always require archives and relics.
A more realistic, rigorous interpretation of “theory of everything” involves the idea of completeness. A theory that derives everything true (and nothing false) in a sharply defined domain of discourse is complete for that domain. Competent experts think that classical thermodynamics, QED, and QCD are complete theories for governing conditions for equilibrium among macroscopic phases of matter, chemistry, and nuclear physics, respectively. In all these cases, the theories do not cover historical questions: For example, QED does not tell us what substances we actually find on Earth, but rather what the possible substances are and how they will behave. Thus, we have good models for what complete theories of parts of reality look like. They are reductionist theories, in the sense that they supply precise mathematical laws for the behavior of underlying building blocks, from which the behavior of larger, more complex objects can be derived (in principle; as a practical matter, especially in QED and QCD, we can only “solve” the equations—i.e., determine their consequences by direct calculation—approximately and in very simple cases. Physicists have not put experimental chemists out of business!) Is there a complete theory, in the same reductionist sense, whose domain is everything?
At this point, we have to face the question Bill Clinton made famous: What do we mean by “is”? Any good dictionary suggests several alternative meanings. For us, the important distinction is between "is" as “presently existing” and "is" as “existing in principle.”
If we use “is” in the first sense, then the answer to our question is very easy: No, there is not a final theory of everything. The established laws of physics, while extremely impressive and successful across a very broad range, are widely perceived to be imperfect and incomplete. They postulate four distinct basic forces (gravity, electromagnetism, strong, and weak) and several distinct kinds of matter (quarks and leptons in a dozen varieties, gluons, photons, W and Z particles, gravitons, Higgs bosons …); we yearn for more unity and coherence. They do not account for the astronomers’ dark matter and dark energy. They break down in the earliest moments of the big bang, and at the centers of black holes. We have some brilliant, promising-looking ideas for improving the situation (e.g., extended gauge symmetry, supersymmetry, axions). The Large Hadron Collider will (I hope!) confirm some of those ideas and suggest new ones. But I don’t foresee that physicists will come close to answering all these basic questions anytime soon. So there won’t be a theory of everything, even in the narrow sense. And we won’t stop trying to do better, so there won’t be a final theory, either.
If we use “is” in the second sense, the answer is less easy, and reasonable people might differ. Is there a "final theory of everything" out there in some idealized world of ideas, waiting to be discovered? My own opinion is that there is such a theory, but that it won’t live up to its billing. Our successes so far give us every reason to think that there are basic, precise mathematical laws governing the elementary processes of Nature, and that, in principle, they cover everything—no physical phenomenon eludes their grip. And people will construct ever more comprehensive reductionist theories, which realize more and more of that ideal. Eventually, however, they will stop making progress, and (implicitly or explicitly) establish an existing theory as "final." But that “final theory of everything” won’t help to predict the weather, or the possible species of beetles, or much of anything interesting about human beings. For better or worse, the theories of physics we have today already contain everything that fundamental physics has to offer on those topics.

Frank Wilczek appears with Steven Weinberg, David Gross, Leonard Susskind, Lawrence Krauss, Robert Laughlin, Lee Smolin, and Stephen Wolfram in "Is There a Final Theory of Everything?" the 31st episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series. The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Friday, participants discuss a recent episode.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Discovery Linked to Biblical Stone Structures

In the Jordan valley, researchers from the University of Haifa have found five structures, each designed in the shape of a giant human "foot." The structures, says archaeologist Adam Zertal, who led the team, "are the first sites that the People of Israel built upon entering Canaan and they testify to the biblical concept of ownership of the land with the foot." The foot, he says, was a symbol used to mark ownership of a territory, control over an enemy, and a link between people and the land.
The stone structures, it's believed, could be connected with what's known in the Bible as"gilgal" (in Hebrew), sites that were used for ceremonial assemblies and rituals. The excavated "feet" seem to have been built at the right time, and are the right shape and size to have been used for human gatherings. "I am an archaeologist and only deal with the scientific findings," Zertal says, "so I do not go into the additional meanings of the discovery, if there are any."
Here's what's neat: The Hebrew word for "foot"—regel—is also used to refer to a festival, holiday, and ascending to see the face of God. The Hebrew term "aliya la-regel," which literally means "ascending to the foot," has come to be known as a "pilgrimage" in English. Eventually, "aliya la-regel" became associated with Jerusalem—which became Israel's religious center—but it seems the "foot" structures in the Jordan valley could be the source of the term. "Now, following these discoveries," Zertal says, "the meanings of the terms become clear. Identifying the 'foot' enclosures as ancient Israeli ceremonial sites leads us to a series of new possibilities to explain the beginnings of Israel, of the People of Israel's festivals and holidays." —Heather Wax

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Episode 15: Empathy & Neurology

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS: Two construction workers are leaving a building about to be demolished and talking about lunch plans when one suddenly stops and looks back at the structure. Telling his pal he has a “weird feeling,” he insists that they sweep the place one more time. Inside, he accidentally puts his foot through a hollow floor and finds a huge series of tunnels that weren’t on the building’s blueprints. As the team searches the tunnels by flashlight, they find a bald, naked young boy crouching in the corner and panting like a feral cat. I’m guessing that wasn’t on the blueprints, either.
At the Boston FBI headquarters, Charlie receives a fax featuring a disturbing photo of dismembered doll parts. “You are invited to the showing of a brand new work. Time: Today. Place: Boston,” it reads. He calls Olivia, who’s hanging out with her sister and niece at home. “The Artist is back,” he informs her. She starts to tell Rachel and Ella that she has to go into work, but then the phone rings again and it’s Phillip Broyles, who tells her to collect the Bishops and meet him at Children’s Hospital—The Artist can wait.
At the hospital, Broyles informs the group about the tunnels and the boy. The tunnels had been sealed for 70 years, Broyles says, and no one has any idea how the boy got down there. Dr. Winick, the boy’s pediatrician, says the super-pale kid hasn’t eaten or spoken since he arrived, but they’re fairly sure he can hear because he responds to sound.
The boy seems to like Olivia, though he doesn’t smile or react like a normal kid would. She pulls out a pad to write down some info when Charlie calls again, and the kid grabs her pen and writes “Sam Gilmore” upside down.
Olivia meets Charlie at a crime scene, where The Artist has killed a girl, dressed her in a gown, bleached off her tattoos, dyed her hair, and arranged her like a mannequin. Her name is Samantha Gilmore, Charlie says, which startles Olivia. At the FBI, Broyles tells Olivia that none of Samantha’s family or friends know who the boy is, so what’s the connection?
Back at the hospital, Olivia introduces the boy to M&Ms but is interrupted when a social services rep who identifies himself as Eliot Michaels enters the room. He tells Olivia that he’s planning to have the boy moved the next day. Then Michaels steps into the hallway and makes a call. “I’m at the hospital. I think we may have found another one,” he says ominously. Back in the room, the boy writes “547 Marlborough” upside down on Olivia’s pad.
Turns out that The Artist is holding his latest victim in a van very near that address, but Olivia and Charlie don’t find him when they poke around the neighborhood. Later, they find the woman dead and trussed up outside a church, and Charlie says her dog was tied up outside 547 Marlborough. Upset that The Artist slipped through their hands, Olivia visits the Bishops at their hotel. Walter posits that years in isolation have made the boy hypersensitive to people’s emotions the same way that he’s hypersensitive to light and sound. The good news? Walter thinks he knows how to hear the kid’s thoughts.
The next morning, Olivia enters the boy’s room to see that he’s arranged the yellow M&Ms in a tree formation. Strange. She signs his discharge papers and brings him to the lab, where Walter plans to use his neural stimulator on the boy. They put the wired-up helmet on his head—but then Michaels (who, it turns out, is from the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology) enters the lab, Broyles in tow, demanding that they hand the boy over to him. When Astrid says Charlie called and there’s been another invite from The Artist, Olivia gets Michaels to agree to one more day before she has to turn the boy over to him.
The boy helps Olivia one more time by writing “York/Glenway” on her pad. She and Charlie set up a checkpoint at that intersection, and when The Artist happens by, Olivia’s tipped off by the yellow pine tree air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror—it’s what the boy made out of M&Ms at the hospital. The killer knows the gig is up, so he guns it out of the checkpoint and then takes off on foot after crashing his van. As Charlie finds the latest victim alive in the back, Olivia gets into a fight with The Artist in a graveyard and eventually winds up stabbing him with his own knife.
But she just doesn’t feel right about leaving the boy with Michaels, so she enlists Broyles’ and Winick’s help to place him with a foster family. As Broyles tells a disbelieving Michaels that the boy just went missing, we see a much healthier-looking boy happily riding in the backseat of a car on his way to his new home. But all of a sudden his face falls as he sees The Observer, bald and menacing, watching him from the sidewalk. The Observer continues to watch as the car speeds by.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Nothing here about Walter’s seeming link to the manuscript uncovered in the previous episode, nor is it discussed how the boy understands language if he’s been sequestered for his entire life. "Perhaps," writes Walter in his lab notes, "his empathetic ability enabled him to be exposed to language at a distance: learning via clairaudience." It might’ve been nice for the show to allude to Heidegger’s idea of language as central to an understanding of being.

Vote for the "Weirdest Science Experiment"

Reto Schneider is the author of The Mad Science Book, in which he describes 100 of the most unusual science experiments conducted over the past 700 years. Now, he's holding a public vote to find the weirdest experiment ever. Read summaries of the top 10 finalists and then vote for your favorite.
In one 1959 experiment, American psychologist Milton Rokeach brought three men who all thought they were Jesus to the State Psychiatric Clinic at Ypsilanti near Detroit, where they lived together for two years. Rokeach thought that if they met each other and lived together, they'd be cured (they weren't).
In another experiment, this one on Good Friday in 1962, researcher Walter Pahnke gave mind-altering drugs to 10 seminary students before a church service; many of the test subjects became priests and, even 25 years later, described the service as one of the most mystical spiritual experiences of their lives. And in 1984, pathologist Frederick Zugibe built a cross and hung volunteers from it in order to find out how Jesus died.
"Right now three men think they are Jesus: what happens when they meet is leading," Schneider tells us, "followed by diagnosing schizophrenics with spider webs and brilliantly saying nothing. In fourth place is forensic scientist Nicolas Minovici, who hung himself 12 times." —Heather Wax

Can Wisdom Be Found in the Brain?

A couple of researchers from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have put together what they say is the first review of the literature on the neurobiology of wisdom. But here's the catch: The researchers, Dr. Dilip Jeste and Dr. Thomas Meeks, could find no studies that used the word "wisdom" and also used the word "neurobiology," "neuroimaging," or "neurotransmitters."
So they looked for empirical studies on the traits that are most commonly thought to be components of wisdom—like empathy, compassion, emotional stability, self-understanding, pro-social attitudes, tolerance, and the ability to deal with uncertainty—and the brain circuits associated with these traits.
The doctors found that in the 1970s, there were only 20 peer-reviewed studies on wisdom, but since 2000, there have been more than 250 articles on the topic.
And the research, says Jeste, "suggests that there may be a basis in neurobiology for wisdom’s most universal traits.” Specifically, they looked at neuroimaging studies, which seem to show that many of the same brain areas are involved in the different attributes associated with wisdom. According to the researchers, it looks like the neurobiology of wisdom involves a balance between the limbic system (a primitive brain region) and the prefrontal cortex (a highly advanced brain region). "Understanding the neurobiology of wisdom," Jeste says, "may have considerable clinical significance, for example, in studying how certain disorders or traumatic brain injuries can affect traits related to wisdom."
The overview is published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. —Heather Wax

Benedictine Priest Stanley Jaki Dies

Rev. Stanley Jaki, a Hungarian physicist and theologian known for exploring the relationship between modern science and orthodox Christianity (and who won the Templeton Prize in 1987), died yesterday in Madrid, Spain, following a heart attack the day before. He was 84.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Diverse Additions to Faith-Based Council

President Barack Obama has announced nine new members of the President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (which now has a total of 25 members, each appointed to a one-year term). They are:

Does Personality Influence Longevity?

Studying the children of those who have lived to 100 or older, scientists believe they've found certain personality traits that are associated with healthy aging and a longer life. (Longevity and personality traits have been shown to run in families.) As part of the New England Centenarian Study, researchers gave personality tests to nearly 250 children of centenarians. The results showed that both males and females scored low in neuroticism and high for extroversion—which might affect their health, says Dr. Thomas Perls, director of the study. "Interestingly, whereas men and women generally differ substantially in their personality characteristics, the male and female offspring tended to be similar, which speaks to the importance of these traits, irrespective of gender, for health aging and longevity," he says. “For example, people who are lower in neuroticism are able to manage or regulate stressful situations more effectively than those with higher neuroticism levels. Similarly, high extroversion levels have been associated with establishing friendships and looking after yourself.”
The findings appear in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society online. —Heather Wax

Cell Phone App Calls Muslims to Prayer

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed a new cell phone application that lets Muslims know when it's time for one of their five daily prayers. It's called Sun Dial, and unlike other commercial "call to prayer" applications, it uses images and audio rather than text.
On the screen, the sun moves through the sky toward green circles, each representing a prayer time. When the sun and a circle overlap, it's time to pray.
"Users drove this choice by telling us that tracking the sun was the most religiously valued method to determine prayer times,” says Susan Wyche, a doctoral candidate at Georgia Tech who studies how religious groups adopt and use technology. In a focus group, many Muslims said that things like smog, bad weather, tall buildings, and working in windowless rooms often restrict their view of the real sun.
Another interesting finding: Testing showed that “Sun Dial provided more than functionality or a prompt to the prayer times; it also contributed to users’ religious experience by reminding them they were part of a larger community," according to Wyche.
The researchers are now working to make the application available for download on the Internet. —Heather Wax

Monday, April 6, 2009

Holmes Rolston Celebrates "Resurgent Life"

In the Times Union over the weekend, philosopher Holmes Rolston III asks us to go back and read his essay on the pasqueflower. "When I first find this earliest spring flower in the Rocky Mountains, my faith lives again," he writes. "Maybe finding trilliums in New York woods will do the same for you."

Science Cartoon Contest

Test your creativity in the Florida Citizens for Science's "Stick Science Contest." The challenge is to draw a cartoon or comic strip that educates the public about a misconception the average person has about science or—if you're under 12—to create a cartoon about "why understanding science is important." Here's what's neat: All entries must be drawn using stick figures.
A panel of judges will pick the winners and award some great prizes. The deadline is May 31.

Friday, April 3, 2009

How Could God Interact With the World?

FROM ROBERT LAWRENCE KUHN, HOST AND CREATOR OF CLOSER TO TRUTH: Most people believe that God exists and intervenes actively in the world—answering prayers, making miracles, even ordaining history. But if God does exist, this intervening-kind of God, how does this God intervene? What possibly could be God’s mechanism for making things happen? Fiddle with each and every atomic particle? Adjust each and every nuclear force? Command all particles and forces en masse? The physical universe seems closed and complete, so how could something not part of it—God by definition is nonphysical—affect it? How could God interact with the world?
Robert John Russell, founder of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, states that there are at least four ways in which God interacts with the world: (i) creating and sustaining the world (“T [time] equals 0”); (ii) through natural processes (“The regular laws of physics and biology are God’s action… one can call this ‘general providence.’”); (iii) special events of significance (“where God acts to make a difference but which scientists see as part of the flow of nature,” which can be “special providence”); (iv) miracles (“where God’s action goes beyond the ordinary routines of nature”).
Russell, who is an ordained minister with a doctorate in physics, likes to explore the third way and tease out meaning. In the past, he says, the dichotomy “between objective and subjective divine action was forced because we thought we lived in a world which was governed by deterministic laws, a lock-step, billiard-ball, clockwork world.” Quantum mechanics, Russell suggests, “at least re-opens the question of whether or not we’re forced to continue with that split in our theological choices. … And that’s a genuine research question.”
How to progress? Russell states, “The first step is to say God is acting through all the laws of nature. So whatever happens, God is involved in it. Now because there is no sufficient natural cause [when choices are made in quantum mechanics], so God’s action could be thought of as special because God is acting on those events in special ways; that is, God is determining, because nature doesn’t, whether a photon bounces off the surface of water or goes through it.”
Would that not be God’s active intervention? No, Russell argues, “It’s an act. It’s not ‘intervention,’” because he uses the term “intervention” in a technical sense to mean “God violates the laws of nature.” And thus he stresses that “God was clever enough to create a universe which is quantum mechanical, which allows God to be acting all the time.” Following the consequences of this line of thinking, Russell observes that “the distinction between general providence, category two, and special providence, category three, kind of breaks down because God is truly acting all the time at the level of quantum mechanics.“ In this way, Russell claims to eliminate the “artificial distinction” between God’s overall purposes going on continuously and God’s special purposes, which are occasional events. God is acting all the time.
This strange land is home for John Polkinghorne, who was a quantum physicist at Cambridge University, when, in the middle of his scientific career, he decided to study for the priesthood. Today, he is recognized worldwide as a thought leader in science and religion. He too speaks about “the intrinsic unpredictabilities present in physical process … discovered first through quantum theory and then later on through chaos theory.”
But in contemplating God’s action in the world, Polkinghorne begins from a different perspective. He references something familiar, perhaps so very much familiar that we miss its deep significance—what he calls “the fundamental human experience of agency.”
“I, as a whole person, decide to raise my arm,” he says. “I believe that we interact with the world in this sort of top-down way.”
Polkinghorne then draws his analogy. “Now if we interact with the world in a top-down way, it seems to be entirely credible that the world’s Creator also can interact with the world and bring about events in a similar top-down way. So I have a picture in which God interacts with unfolding process, allowing creatures to explore the range of possibilities, but also preserving some providential room so that he as Creator can maneuver in bringing about the future.”
Polkinghorne admits that “it’s a complicated picture,” and “we can’t disentangle it because if things are unpredictable, you can’t parallel park and say: Nature did this, humans will did that, God did those other things—but nevertheless all these influences are at work in the world. That’s a perfectly coherent and believable picture and it’s the one I hold.”
Ernan McMullin, a well-known philosopher of science (a Catholic priest trained in physics and former chair of philosophy at Notre Dame), believes in the same Judeo-Christian God as do Russell and Polkinghorne, but as for explaining how God interacts with the world, he differs sharply. “I don't see quantum theory as answering it, chaos theory even less so,” McMullin asserts. “Of the available menu of theories we have at the present, I don't see any of them as very promising for giving us a way in which God inserts special action in the world. It's as though God is moving behind the scenes and has to find a way of influencing what is his very creation.”
To McMullin the answer is stunningly simple: “God affects the universe by making it be! If one accepts the postulate of creation, then in fact the universe is the product of a single act of creation—and that's how God influences the universe. My goodness, what a powerful influence that is! The point here is not a matter of asking how could God sort of work within this universe and not, so to speak, upset the laws of physics. The point is that God has in fact produced the universe and that simple act of creation is the most powerful influence you could have.”
Thus McMullin says he has “no difficulty with miracles at all because if in fact we have a universe which is the product of God, and in which the mere continuance of the law of gravity is God's choice, the fact that at some point the law of gravity could be suspended, well, of course a creator can do that!” According to McMullin, a sophisticated thinker, “It's simple! The way by which God works in the world is by being the creator of that world in the first place. It's not a matter of intervening. It's a matter of making that kind of world to begin with, a universe within which at a certain point this or that would happen.” (McMullin takes pains to emphasize that “what I do find difficult is to discern when and where miracles actually did occur—that’s the tough one.”)
Russell, Polkinghorne, and McMullin are traditionally and proudly Christian, which no doubt affects their views. Not so cosmologist Paul Davies, who has iconoclastic ideas about “purpose” in the universe (in his view, “the universe is ‘about’ something”). Davies accomplishes the neat trick of opposing both theists and materialists.
“I’ve always had a problem about a God who’s a miracle-working super-being, a cosmic magician,” Davies states. “I often say that there are no miracles except the miracle of nature itself. And so if I use the word ‘God’—which I’m always very careful about because it carries so many different meanings—it is in terms of the meaningfulness of the whole package, not in terms of a being who is sort of meddling from time to time.”
Speaking as a scientist, Davies says, “the idea of a God who intervenes actively in history—through prayer, working occasional miracles—is really pretty horrible and I wouldn’t want that.”
Davies has a better idea, he says, a “challenge” for “God,” as it were. “Come up with some deep mathematical principles, something of that sort, and then let it go. Let the universe generate its own life, its own self-awareness, so that the whole thing self-organizes and self-complexifies. No meddling, tinkering, making things happen by fiat. That’s much, much harder.”
To Davies, the universe as a self-generating, self-observing, self-organizing and self-complexifying thing “looks really deeply ingenious, really clever.” On the other hand, “a cosmic magician looks like just a conjurer,” he emphasizes, “so I can’t have much respect for such a being.”
But the traditional personal God who knows and cares for us is appealing.
Can that kind of God be saved?
Alvin Plantinga, one of the world’s leading Christian philosophers, is not at all embarrassed by God’s interventions. “People argue that special divine action can't happen because it conflicts with the laws of conservation of energy [and mass],” Plantinga says. “If God, say, were to create a full-blown horse in the middle of the Notre Dame campus, this would violate all these conservation laws. But this is not in fact correct. The conservation laws are stated for closed systems, where there is no energy input from outside the system. But, of course, if God were to create a horse right here, then no system that includes that horse would be a closed system because such a system would, by definition, have this influx of energy from the outside, which is God creating the horse.”
But isn’t the universe in totality a closed system? “The material universe as a whole is a closed system,” Plantinga responds, “but if God acts in it, then it's no longer a closed system. And it's not part of physics to assert that God doesn't act in it. That's not a physics truth or a physics claim. That's a theological truth or claim.”
Plantinga’s argument may sound simplistic or circular, but it strikes me as possibly profound. If God intervenes in the universe, then that very act causes the universe not to be a closed system, thus voiding any violation of the laws of conservation of energy and mass.
Where then with God’s interaction? For the sake of the argument, I’ll assume God exists. So I then ask, in what way could a nonphysical being intervene in the physical world? Because if there is no way that such intervention can make coherent sense, then I must question the initial assumption that God exists.
One view is that God just suspends his own laws. I guess that’s possible. But then wouldn’t God be distorting the natural functioning of God’s own world?
What about the contemporary idea that God’s place of action lies in the scientific “gaps” of unalterable uncertainty—quantum mechanics and chaos theory—where clockwork determinism does not hold?
I pause and wonder … but quantum uncertainties seem truly random and chaos theory seems more a lack of knowledge, so neither seems ideal as that super-special place for God to work his wonders.
For me, for now, I can come to only one conclusion: If a nonphysical supreme being, “God,” does exist, and if God does intervene in the world, I’d be surprised if we could ever figure out how.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn speaks with Nancey Murphy, John Polkinghorne, Robert Russell, William Dembski, Paul Davies, Alvin Plantinga, and Ernan McMullin in "How Could God Interact With the World?" the 30th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series. The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Friday, participants discuss a recent episode.