Friday, December 05, 2008

Can ideas be reduced to purely material causes?

A friend wrote, wanting to know whether ideas could or could not be reduced to material causes.

I replied,
Ideas may have material correlates, but they are not in themselves material things.

Consider the placebo effect: A woman is enrolled in a clinical study of a drug that treats rheumatoid arthritis. She is informed that the medication she is about to receive will probably greatly reduce her pain, but could result in the side effect of nausea.

And the medication does indeed greatly reduce her pain, but unfortunately, she does have the side effect. She is offered another medication to treat the side effect, and it works too. So she is very sure that medication works.

One minor further piece of information: For the medication for rheumatoid arthritis, she was in the control group. The “medication” was sterile water. As it happens, the medication for the side effect was a demonstrated anti-nausea drug.

I made the example up, but this sort of thing happens every day in clinical research, and books have been written about it. It does not happen more often to designated “neurotic” people than to others.

The placebo effect simply demonstrates the power of ideas – which, by definition, are not material things – over people. Ideas have power because the minds that apprehend them are real. And the mind plays a role in instructing the brain and the body about what feelings to pay attention to, to focus on.

That is how the woman “knew” that her arthritis was better, but that she nonetheless felt nausea.

In The Spiritual Brain, we reported on a research study in which young men were persuaded not to feel painful jaw pressure because they had received an anaesthetic, but no anaesthetic drug was used in the study!

The researchers concluded that their study provides "strong refutation of the conjecture that placebo responses reflect nothing more than report bias."

It also demonstrates the importance of the mind in medicine.

One critical role that non-materialist neuroscience can play is in helping older people manage medications effectively. The fewer medications one really needs, the fewer the problems from conflict between the effects of medications (resulting in still more medications!).

If mental states - our ideas about what is happening, basically - play a role in the effectiveness of medications, doctors and patients need to access and use that information.

It would be unfortunate if ideology or commercial concerns interfered with serious study of this area because longevity is increasing worldwide, so awareness of how mental states affect health is important.

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New atheism: Widely read but mostly dead, commentator says

Here's Salvo Magazine's interview with Dinesh d'Souza on the "new atheist" movement:
You write that "God is the future, and atheism is on its way out." How can you be so sure?

It's a matter of demographics. For example, one could make the argument that democracy is the future, and totalitarianism is on the way out. This doesn't mean that there won't be totalitarian governments, but it does mean that the ratio of totalitarian governments to free governments has been declining. A hundred years ago, there were only a dozen or so democracies in the world. Most other societies were governed by monarchs, tyrants, or inherited rulers. But by the 1940s and 1950s, you began to see an expansion of democracy. Another huge wave of democracy came along in the 1980s, and today, if you look around the world, you'll see that over half of the governments in existence are democratic. Clearly, democracy is the future. It's a prediction rooted in data.
Go here for the rest.

See also:

Spirituality and the arts: High time someone said this

Spirituality: Is this a trend? Guy tries Judaism "on spec" - discovers 7-day no-refund policy, ends as famous pulpit rabbi

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Religion: Muslim clerics refuse to bury Mumbai attackers

Yes, they did refuse.

This refusal to bury the Mumbai attackers is different. It is an original and bold protest against Islamist violence by religious authorities who would normally make sure any Muslim got a proper burial. “This is symbolically very important,” Mustafa Akyol, a columnist for the Hürriyet Daily News in Istanbul and an active Muslim blogger. "I’ve heard of imams declining to lead a prayer for the deceased because he was an outright atheist, but never of people being denied burial."

My friend Mustafa has expressed his own grief over the Mumbai horror as well.

Now, obviously at a certain point, the bodies of the dead - however they died - must be returned to the Earth from whose elements they took their substance and from whose forms they took their shape. Their souls return to the One who created them, and we can only pray about that, as best we know how.

But I am glad to see Muslim clerics speaking out against allowing terrorists and their supporters to define their religion - and their relationship to the rest of the world.

From Tom Denaghan's December 3 Reuters story, we also learn

By the way, this decision did not come out of the blue. Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, one of India’s leading Islamic groups, endorsed a fatwa against terrorism in early November. More than 6,000 clerics signed the edict, which follows a similar one issued in February by India’s top Islamic seminary, Darul Uloom Deoband.

More by and/or about Mustafa Akyol here.

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Do animals have souls?

In this podcast, psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz and neurosurgeon Michael Egnor (pictured here) discuss the question:

On this episode of ID the Future, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and UCLA psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz join Casey Luskin for a discussion of materialism and its effect on modern science. Listen in to a conversation that begins with the question of whether animals have souls and turns to a lively discussion of Francis Crick and the way his materialist ideology blinded him to the implications of his own scientific discovery.
Christian apologist C. S. Lewis had an interesting take on the question of whether beloved pets would be found in heaven in The Great Divorce, wherein a lady who is great in heaven (though not on Earth) is surrounded by animals:

‘What are all these animals? A cat - two cats - dozens of cats. And all those dogs ... why, I can’t count them. And the birds. And the horses.’

‘They are her beasts.’

‘Did she keep a sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.’

‘Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.’
Lewis's basic idea was that animals who get caught up in the human experience follow the people who loved them.

I hope that is good theology, because I have sometimes made use of it to comfort people who are broken up by the death of a beloved animal.

See also:

When pop science TV wants to hear only one side ...

These podcasts with Jeff Schwartz and Mike Egnor, on whether the mind is an illusion (science fiction alert).

Adopting a dog better for your health than pills?

Animal minds: How well can we understand a cat or a bat?


Loss of civility can lead to loss of life

P.M. Forni co-founded the Johns Hopkins Civility Project in 1997, and has rung the alarm bells on the collapse of civility. While Americans still have manners, he says, we've lost "the manners of past generations."

Big deal, some will say - those "manners" are just outdated customs. No, Forni argues in his book "Choosing Civility": They're the glue that holds society together.

Civility, he notes, requires restraint and putting other people's needs before yours. His studies have found that people who view and treat their fellow citizens with respect are also more successful, have stronger social bonds and better mental health.

And they don't trample people on their way to buy a plasma TV.

The rest here.

Hat tip: Five Feet of Fury