Thursday, October 04, 2007

Lennox-Dawkins debate - updates

Daniel James Devine live blogged the event last night. Here's how to get a copy of the debate.

Comments variously overheard:

Lennox was persuasive, and was devastating on the topic "Do you need religion to be good," demonstrating that you don't need religion to be good, but without religion it's a moot argument as to what is "good" or "bad" since there is no objective standard. Thus Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler, and Islamic terrorists have/could be doing the right thing in their own eyes with impunity in the afterlife.

Dawkins was stumped in several places but especially when Lennox questioned him on "how anyone could act in opposition to their genes?" Dawkins really eluded the question by saying that it was just true that humans do act in a way contrary to Darwinian evolution every time someone uses birth control measures. Dawkins never gave a reasoned basis for that action.

On the issue of the birth control. If Dawkins really understood natural selection he would now that birth control is most certainly NOT something that natural selection is not responsible for. After all natural selection gave us the cognitive faculties necessary to develop the pill, the sponge and so forth. It also gave us the desire to avoid all of the responsibilities that come with child rearing. Is Dawkins saying that natural selection isn't responsible for that?

It sounds to me as though Dawkins's key argument is unravelling. Of course, I was in the Lennox fans section of the stands, so to speak. Go here if you want to hear from Dawkins' supporters.

This comment just came in:

I was there last evening. My sense of the crowd was that there was no dramatic shift of opinion toward Lennox’s arguments, though I thought them all extremely powerful and I am certain that seeds of doubt in Dawkins’ atheistic faith were planted in the minds of many secular humanists in the audience. Lennox’s position was bold and unrelenting. I DID find it interesting that Dawkins’ seemed willing on a couple of occasions to smuggle in tacit acceptance of a deistic God, which is not I suppose too surprising since that would be God no one had to meaningfully deal with anyway. The long line of UAB students eager for Dawkins’ book after the event, however, shows that all of us have a great deal more work to do esp. on our campuses. Still, I thought the air at the following reception for John Lennox was justifiably jubilant.

Go here for the original announcement at the Hack.

Also: Naomi Schaefer Riley reflects on the Lennox-Dawkins debate:
Perhaps Mr. Dawkins was surprised by this reception. He recently referred to the Bible Belt states as "the reptilian brain of southern and middle America," in contrast to the "country's cerebral cortex to the north and down the coasts." This debate marks the first time Mr. Dawkins has appeared in the Old South. Maybe his publishers suggested it would be a good idea. After all, "The God Delusion" and similar atheist tracts have been selling like hotcakes (or buttered grits) down here.
But why? Are Christians staying up late on Saturday night to read these books and failing to show up at church on Sunday morning, as Mr. Dawkins might hope? So far, the answer is no, according to Bill Hay, senior pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church just outside of Birmingham. ...

Didn’t the same thing happen to H. L. Mencken? He persistently portrayed Dayton, Tennessee as a rural backwater - though he actually knew otherwise. Here is my view of why and how that happens, riffing off Leon Kass.

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The Pharyngulite really, honestly, sincerely struggles with The Spiritual Brain

A kind reader wanted to know if I was going to respond in detail to this hit piece against The Spiritual Brain. No. And why should I? The author acknowledges at the outset,
I tried. I really, honestly, sincerely tried. I've been struggling with this book, The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul, by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary, for the past week and a half, and I've finally decided it's not worth the effort. It's just about completely unreadable.

As he is the only person I have heard of who found The Spiritual Brain hard to read - it is widely praised for its clarity and usefulness, after all, by people coming from a variety of viewpoints - maybe he suffers from "alexia sine agraphia" (the rare "can write but can't read" syndrome). Good to know there's hope.

More likely, he is playing to a crowd of supporters. In that case, speaking of hope, I hope that monkey with the tin cup is still in good health.

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Canadian mystery novelist turns his brain disorder into book theme

One of my favourite mystery novelists is Howard Engel, with whose classic "hard up, not hard-boiled" detective Benny Cooperman I have passed many pleasant hours.

One morning in 2001, as Brian Bethune notes in Macleans, he woke up to discover that he could not read the morning newspaper:
When 70-year-old Howard Engel came back inside with his Globe and Mail that hot July day in 2001 and found he couldn't read his own books either, the bestselling mystery novelist headed for the hospital.

Engel had suffered a left rear stroke, resulting in the rare condition called alexia sine agraphia (can write but can't read).

Engel, then 70, set about methodically reteaching himself to read. But, in a development that astonished neurologist and author Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), Engel wrote an entire Benny Cooperman novel while struggling to bring his reading up to a Grade Three level:
The author is more modest; he had simply followed the age-old advice, "Write what you know," and subjected his character to the same brain insult. (Not exactly the same: "Detectives don't have strokes," Engel says dryly, "someone bashed him on the head.")

In the novel, Cooperman "has been in a coma for eight weeks after being found in a Dumpster near the university with a near-fatal blow to the head—next to the body of a young female professor, dead of a similar head trauma." And that's just the beginning ...

Cooperman undergoes the same therapies as Engel, intermingles with the same medical professionals and fellow patients, and, without ever leaving his ward, solves the mystery of who put him in the hospital and why.

Engel has stayed in form as a writer, with Benny continuing - as Engel himself does - to live with the results of his brain damage. As Bethune sums up: "Benny's no more recovered than I am," says Engel. "He can still give you four reasons for the Persian Wars, but he'll have forgotten who he's talking to."

Engel tells his story in The Man Who Forgot How to Read.

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Brain disease research not necessarily wise spending choice?

It's not every day that you will hear someone say in a publication aimed at scientists that spending a whole lot more money on research may
not be such a hot idea. But when the topic is brain diseases, some careful reflection is called for, says Glenn McGee is the director of the Alden March Bioethics Institute at Albany Medical College. He makes an interesting admission:
So-called targeted drug discovery, already highly complex and difficult, is made much more difficult in brain disorders by the fact that we rarely know what is actually "wrong" in a brain disorder. If you don't know the "target," your odds of hitting it diminish to the level of, well, predicting the stock market. This makes me wonder if spending more on brain research will lead to any more products, given that we already spend millions with little result. So even though research constitutes only a miniscule fraction of the social costs of brain research, making that fraction any bigger could be equivalent to throwing our research dollars in the trash, when we could spend them on dozens of diseases - such as those of the heart, kidneys, and liver - for which drug discovery has been fruitful.

Well, I bet the combox over there at the Scientist is filling fast ...


Mindfulness explored as aid in struggle against depression

Here's an interesting conference on Buddhist mindfulness and the treatment of depression. Mario and I devoted a fair amount of space in Chapter 6 of The Spiritual Brain to treatments for a number of mental disorders that depend on getting the mind to change the brain. Apparently,
... the Dalai Lama will meet in dialogue with neuroscientists, academic leaders and mental health professionals at a day-long conference at Emory University on October 20, 2007. Mind and Life XV: Mindfulness, Compassion and the Treatment of Depression is jointly presented by the Mind and Life Institute and Emory University at the Woodruff Physical Education Center on the Emory campus in Atlanta, Georgia.

This event is the fifteenth Mind and Life conference and the first to focus on depression. In the last two decades, these unique gatherings both in the United States and India with the Dalai Lama, neuroscientists, Buddhist scholars, and advanced meditation practitioners, have become the genesis of a new field of scientific research that investigates the effectiveness of techniques to enhance human development and alleviate mental suffering.

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