Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Back at last: Three recent columns of interest below

For a number of reasons, I was not able to write much here lately. The main reasons include an unfortunate data loss whle attempting to renovate at the Post-Darwinist blog and a replacement of my computer system. The need to earning a living is, of course, an ongoing constraint. Always remember, when tempted to trash the blogosphere, most bloggers are volunteers, blogging in their spare time, and if you are offended by what you see ... move onto another blog or pay for print media. It is NOT like this is a one-paper town and I run the paper. Below, I have posted three recent columns, related to the interests of the Mindful Hack.

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.

A recent ChristianWeek column: Faith@Science: The God gene? Spot? Circuit? Okay, maybe a Module?

(Note: This is the column I wrote shortly after dragging myself up from finishing my work on The Spiritual Brain. It explains why notions of a God spot, gene, module, or circuit in the brain are completely ridiculous.)

Faith@Science: The God gene? Spot? Circuit? Okay, maybe a Module?

by Denyse O'Leary

Well, it's great to be back on my old coffee stool. As kind regular readers may recall, I was away coauthoring a book on the neuroscience evidence for the spiritual nature of the human, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard. Some may wonder what that is all about, so I should perhaps say a bit about it.

If you listen to the popular science media, scientists have discovered that there is no self, no soul, no spirit and no free will. The mind itself is an illusion. Neuroscientists have also discovered that there is a God spot, God circuit, God gene, or God module in the brain. They have also discovered that, by putting on a special helmet, you can have mystical visions, and that Darwinian evolution selected cavemen who believed in religion. That is why you can't help but believe (even though, for as yet undetermined reasons, the theorist himself and his buddies apparently can help it quite easily).

Not only that, but religion can be traced to defects in the temporal lobe. Paul the Apostle, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avila, and Th‚rŠse of Lisieux were all epileptics, and that explains their careers. Every other month, a great new discovery of this type is said to revolutionize the relationship between science and religion. Mainly by showing that there is nothing much to religion.

You think it's all nonsense, do you? Or do you worry in your heart of hearts that one or another of these concoctions might be true? Well, I spent a year examining all of them in detail (or anyway, as many as we could spot flying above the radar). It was the hardest year of my life, considering the piles of stuff I had to get through dating from 1902 through 2006 and discovered that it is indeed all nonsense.

I came away astonished by the gullibility of the popular science media in this area. There were times I howled with laughter. The only explanation for the tendency to offer credibility to any "we've found God in the genes/brain" announcement, however poorly supported, is reflexive materialism.

In a way, it makes sense. If we start out with the axiom that materialism is true and that therefore the explanation for religious or philosophical belief must be found in Darwinian evolution, we have only two choices: Either evolution selected people who believe in religion because it confers a survival advantage or it permitted their survival even though it does not confer a survival advantage. Either way, we would be predisposed to expect that research will sooner or later probably sooner uncover the evidence. As a result, if we are journalists, we may stampede to cover the flimsiest nonsense as if it were an important discovery. And then on to the next nonsense.

Meanwhile, there is good evidence for the independent existence of a mind, apart from the brain. Based on evidence, it is also reasonable to believe that people who have deep religious experiences contact something beyond themselves. That, of course, is the core of the book, which will be published in spring 2007. I'll say more closer to the time.

By the way, in my last column (January 2006), I wrote about the Catholic Church taking on Darwinism. Recently, Fr. Martin Hilbert of the Toronto Oratory wrote an excellent article in Touchstone Magazine (available online at Touchstonemag) setting out the details of how and why that happened. It has come to my attention that the Vatican is now selling holy cards in many languages at souvenir stands throughout Rome, featuring a key portion from Benedict XVI's first homily, including the sentence: "We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is a thought of God." Hundreds of thousands of visitors take them home. Anyone who thinks that the intelligent design controversy is merely a dismissible product of American fundamentalism is whistling down the wind.

Forget the comfortable encomiums that we so often hear from Christian academics that there is "no conflict between faith and science." How weary I used to get listening to that! Of course there is no conflict between faith and science. But my research for By Design or by Chance? showed clearly that there is an irreconcilable conflict between Christianity and Darwinism. And this current book has deepened my awareness. Stay tuned.

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy. My most recent published book is By Design or by Chance?, an overview of the intelligent design controversy.

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Another recent ChristianWeek column:"Made in the image of God"? What does that mean?

"Made in the image of God"? What does that mean?

by Denyse O'Leary

Ever hear of a "humanzee"? Some would hail the hybrid of a human and a chimpanzee as a crowning achievement.

Because chimpanzees are our closest genetic relatives, hybrids have been attempted. According to recently unearthed documents, Joseph Stalin hoped to produce half-man, half-ape super-warriors, but the project came to nothing. The disgraced chief scientist died in the vast Soviet prison system.

But just as often, anti-religious motives fuel the wish for a humanzee. Zoologist Richard Dawkins, who promotes atheism from his chair at Oxford University, has proclaimed that such a hybrid would shake up all our value systems. He argues that differences between the human mind and the chimpanzee mind are only a matter of degree, not kind. Indeed, Spain has been considering giving great apes human rights, and some have argued seriously for reclassifying chimpanzees in the same genus as humans.

University of Washington psychology professor David P. Barash recently looked forward to the day when "there will be hybrids, or some other mixed human-animal genetic composite, in our future." Why? He thinks that would put a stop to the idea that " the human species, unlike all others, possesses a spark of the divine and that we therefore stand outside nature." (Los Angeles Times, July 17, 2006) Motives aside, hybridization faces problems. Chimpanzees have 48 chromosomes and humans only 46. And chromosome organization differs too. At any rate, so far, no enthusiast has succeeded.

But what makes us humans different from chimpanzees anyway? Higher intelligence? French science fiction writer Paul Vercors attempted to answer that question in his prescient novel You Shall Know Them (1953).

When police are called to the London home of science journalist Douglas Templemore in the mid-1950s they hear a tale so bizarre that only the tiny corpse of a small questionably human male infant forces them to pay attention.

Templemore is the father, but the mother is "Derry," a newly discovered type of primate (tropi) housed at the London zoo. Born by artificial insemination, the questionable infant is baptized as Garry Ralph Templemore. Then, shortly afterward, his father kills him.

Journalist Templemore wants to be tried for murder, to protect the tropis from slavery. That is, if killing his hybrid son is indeed murder. As he tells the inspector, "It may well be that Derry is a woman after all. It's up to you to prove the contrary, if you can. In the meantime her child is my son, before God and the law."

The British government, of course, strikes a committee to decide what to do.
The committee learns that tropis are not much more complex in their behavior than chimpanzees, except for one curious fact: Wild tropis hate cooked meat but nonetheless insist on hanging their raw meat over a fire to purify it, apparently as a ritual. As one tropi expert explains, it is done "less as instinct or preference, than as a very primitive fire worship, a homage paid to [fire's] magic power of purification and exorcism."

Then another peculiar fact comes to light: Papuan cannibals consider only the wild tropis the ones who ritually hang their meat human enough to serve as an entr‚e. Indeed, cannibals disdain the "tame" tropis who linger around the anthropologists' settlement, because they have abandoned the worship of fire.

The implications of this savage implicit judgement dawn on one committee member: "In this people on the borderline between man and beast, all have not equally crossed the line. But it is enough, to our mind, that some of them have crossed it for the entire species to be received within the human community." So the tropis, "having shown signs of a spirit of religion by a ritual practice of fire worship" are admitted to the legal protections of the human community. Nonetheless, Templemore is acquitted of murder because he acted prior to the committee's decision.

Vercors wanted to his readers to see that intelligence as such is not the key human characteristic, but rather the recognition of a cosmic reality beyond our narrow interests. The fictional tropis signaled that they were crossing over into humanity when they preferred spirituality to mere gratification.

For my part, I think he is right. So, apparently, did American abortionist Bernard Nathanson. Reading Vercors decades ago was one of many steps he took away from doing abortions.

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy. My most recently published book is By Design or by Chance?, an overview of the intelligent design controversy.

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A third recent ChristianWeek column: Faith as one of the healing arts

Faith as one of the healing arts

by Denyse O'Leary

According to an article in Jewish World Review (October 3, 2006) hospitals in the United States have finally begun to pay attention to patients' religious beliefs. "The last thing you want to worry about while somebody is sick is that they might have to transgress on something they believe in," says Zahava Cohen, Englewood Hospital's patient care director (New Jersey). Cohen is surely right; and we can only hope that this trend spreads.

Yes, yes, illness and death come to us all. And serious illness may require abrupt actions and intimidating technology. But, especially among older people, many illnesses are chronic. There is no "pill for every ill." We adapt our lives to illnesses and illnesses to our lives, and go on from there. We instinctively resist being packaged as "the pancreas in # 209" or ultimately the "corpse" to be disposed of, with no acknowledgement that this is or once was part of a person who was in turn part of a community. After all, even in death, the silenced corporal reality is still "Nana" or "Unkie Joe." Acknowledging the community to which the sick, dying, or deceased belong, in which they will be remembered at least by a few for decades to come, is good medicine.

The way in which we receive health care makes a huge difference to its ultimate effect. This reality has long been disguised under the misnamed and misunderstood "placebo" effect. Literally, the word means "I will please." Originally, it referred to sugar pills given to a patient who believes that they are potent. Over one third of patients get better simply because they think the placebo is a powerful medicine. The placebo effect probably underlies traditional shamanism. The reason so many tribal Christians continue to surreptitiously visit shamans is not that they are deluded into believing that shamanism works but because it so often does work. Unfortunately, the shaman typically attributes the healing to specific bizarre practices rather than to the power of belief to trigger healing processes.

Indeed, since the 1970s, a proposed new medication is expected to perform about five percent better than a placebo, if it is to be licensed for use by physicians. Now, let's stop and think about what that means for a moment: We may be taking medications that are only a small percentage more effective than our own belief in them! The placebo effect is thus an interesting demonstration of the power of the mind over the brain and body. It might better be called the cognosco or "I am aware (of healing)" effect.

The placebo effect is not a cure-all; a recent study suggests that it is ineffectual against cancer. However, a 2004 study compared thirty Parkinson's patients who received controversial embryonic stem cell implants with patients who thought they were receiving them (but were actually undergoing a sham surgery). Those who thought they had received stem cells reported a better quality of life a year later than those who thought they had received the sham surgery, regardless of which surgery the patients had actually received. And the medical personnel's assessments of patients tended to concur with the patients' own views.

Doctors use the placebo effect automatically in their work. For example, they behave confidently and reassuringly even when completely stumped by the patient's symptoms or faced suddenly with a life-threatening disorder. They are right to behave this way. A doctor's anxiety would trigger the placebo effect's evil twin, the nocebo effect. "Nocebo" means "I will harm," and nocebos really do harm. Patients may be ill for longer periods and suffer worse symptoms if nocebo effects convince them that they are doomed.

Some consider the placebo effect a mystery. In March 2005, British science magazine New Scientist listed thirteen "Things That Don't Make Sense", and the placebo effect was number one on their list. Of course, the placebo effect doesn't "make sense" if you assume, as they do, that the mind either does not exist or is powerless. The traditional Christian view is that the mind is grounded in the brain so long as we live in this world. Therefore, what the patient's mind perceives expresses itself in the brain and body. Both the placebo and nocebo effects are strong support for the traditional view.

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy. My most recently published book is By Design or by Chance?, an overview of the intelligent design controversy.

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