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Archive for the 'Book of the Week' Category

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

Sheldon Krimsky on What’s at Stake in Our Use of Stem Cells

Stem Cell Dialogues

“Regenerative medicine is … where science and technology can surpass the limits of natural human evolution … in the process, it is breaking new ground in dealing with the moral issues raised by medical science and technology.”—Sheldon Krimsky

We conclude our week-long feature on Stem Cell Dialogues: A Philosophical and Scientific Inquiry Into Medical Frontiers, by Sheldon Krimsky, with an excerpt from the epilogue. In the epilogue Krimsky discusses what’s at stake in our future discussions about and application of stem cell research:

While I was researching the ethical and scientific debates on stem cells for Stem Cell Dialogues, I was acutely aware of the polarized positions. However, I became more interested in the middle ground of controversy, where honest, nuanced discussion and disagreement take place. The Dia­logues were created to illustrate how evolving science can reframe the debate and create a realignment of positions.

The stem cell controversies represented in this book exhibit some uniquely American ideas about the role of the state, the right to engage in research, and the cultural divide between science supported by public funds and science supported by private funds. It was certainly not the first time that the public and private sectors were allowed to resolve ethi­cal issues on their own terms. During the recombinant DNA controversy in 1975, the NIH established guidelines for transplanting genes from one organism to another that applied exclusively to federal grant recipients. Scientists in the private sector were ostensibly unregulated. The issues at stake were the potential risks of broadening the range of an infectious agent or introducing animal cancer genes into the human gut bacteria. Congress did not see fit to create a single system of regulation or oversight.

A similar situation occurred with human gene therapy, for which a federal oversight committee reviewed research protocols funded by the NIH. The private sector was under no legal obligation to follow the same procedures. This bifurcated model was repeated with respect to stem cells. George Bush’s stem cell policy applied exclusively to federal grant­ees. Others funded by states or the private sector could use any available embryonic stem cell lines.

I have tried to capture in the Dialogues the excitement and optimism within the scientific community about the role stem cells would someday play in treating human disease. Whether it was through embryonic stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells, or nuclear transfer, the enthusiasm among cell biologists was palpable. For example, in 2009 Amabile and Meissner wrote, “Recent developments provide optimism that safe, viral free human iPS cells could be derived routinely in the near future. . . . The approach of generating patient-specific pluripotent cells will undoubtedly transform regenerative medicine in many ways.” Their only caveat is that it may take years before all the obstacles to applying stem cells safely and effectively for therapeutic uses are addressed. One of the leading stem cell scientists, Shinya Yamanaka, wrote in 2012, “I believe that iPSC technol­ogy is now ready for many applications including stem cell therapies.”

Scientists know the stakes are high. Consider just one area—end-stage liver disease, which can be caused by cancer (heptacellular carcinoma) or cirrhosis (most commonly caused by alcoholism, hepatitis B, and hepati­tis C). Other than liver transplants, most treatments are not very effective. There are about 18,000 patients in the United States on the waiting list for a liver transplant and only about 4,000 donated cadaver livers avail­able for transplant per year. If part of the damaged liver is removed and replaced by stem cell-derived liver cells (hepatocytes), the liver can be regenerated and victims of end-stage liver disease will have a chance to survive without transplants.

(more…)

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

The President’s Stem Cells — A Dialogue from the “Stem Cell Dialogues”

Stem Cell Dialogues

“You put your finger on one of the peculiarities of the bifurcated sys­tem of ethics in our country—one set of principles for public funding and another for private funding. Embryo ethics straddles two moral universes, and scientists have had to navigate through that thorny divide. They must establish a firewall between publicly funded and privately funded laboratories.”

In the following dialogue from Stem Cell Dialogues: A Philosophical and Scientific Inquiry Into Medical Frontiers, the book’s central character Dr. Franklin talks with Bernard Stein about different president’s policies regarding stem cells:

Scene: The White House. Bernard Stein, M.D., is an ethics advisor to Presi­dent George W. Bush, head of a national bioethics think tank, and a lead­ing scholar on reproductive ethics. Dr. Franklin obtained an appointment with Dr. Stein to discuss President Bush’s policies on human embryonic stem cells.

FRANKLIN: [To Dr. Stein] Thank you for inviting me to your office. As you know from our correspondence, I am an editor of the Journal of Bioethics and Medicine, and we are preparing a special issue on stem cells. Dr. Stein, can we begin by you helping me understand how U.S. policy on stem cells evolved? Did it arise in the Bush administration?

STEIN: The federal policy on human embryos was catalyzed largely after two events: first, the Supreme Court decision on abortion in 1973 and the first baby (Louise Brown in England) born after in vitro fertiliza­tion in 1978. After the Roe v. Wade decision, which made early stage abortions legal, a moratorium was placed on government funding for embryo research. Then in 1979 an Ethics Advisory Board to the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare issued a report on the ethics of research involving human embryos. This advisory board said it was ethically acceptable to do research on embryos used for IVF pur­poses but postponed any recommendations on research involving the collection and culture of early human embryos fertilized naturally— not used for IVF. But they had one major caveat: the embryos could not be sustained in vitro beyond fourteen days after fertilization.2

FRANKLIN: Why did they set the boundary at fourteen days? That sounds quite arbitrary. stein: At the fourteenth day of its development, an embryo exhibits a “primitive streak”—a faint white trace that is the first evidence of the embryonic axis. It is a precursor of the neural tube and the nervous system. Without a neural tube, there is no spinal cord, and the embryo cannot have feelings or exhibit any level of consciousness.

FRANKLIN: So the primitive streak is some kind of Maginot Line for bio­ethicists and shouldn’t be crossed.

STEIN: In 1979 the hope was that establishing a moral boundary would allow scientists to continue with their embryo research, as long as they stayed within that limit.

FRANKLIN: Between 1979 and 1980 there was a change in administration. Jimmy Carter had lost the election to Ronald Reagan. Were the advi­sory board’s recommendations adopted?

STEIN: Hardly. By 1980, the charter of the advisory board ran out and was not renewed. As you point out, Ronald Reagan was elected president. He and his administration opposed any research on embryos of any age. Republicans were, on the whole, more critical of research involv­ing embryos than Democrats. But there were many Democrats who supported the moratorium.

FRANKLIN: Dr. Stein, let me see if I get this. The Supreme Court ruled that embryos are not persons, and therefore abortion was not murder, and established a fundamental right of women over their bodies, at least for the first trimester of pregnancy. And then a president opposed any federal funding for embryo research on the grounds that embryos could not be harmed. Why didn’t Congress get into the act?

STEIN: Well, Congress did act, but not until another advisory committee was convened. In 1994, during the administration of President Bill Clinton, a federally appointed nineteen-member Human Embryo Research Panel issued its report. The panel concluded that embryos do deserve some moral consideration, but do not have the same moral status as persons because they lack specific capacities such as con­sciousness, reasoning, and sentience—at least, early embryos. The panel approved the use of federal funds for research on early embryos under specific guidelines.

FRANKLIN: Did that clinch it for President Clinton? After all, he is a Demo­crat and not doctrinaire on the issue. So he must have been receptive.

STEIN: No, it didn’t work out that way. In 1994 NIH convened a Human Embryo Research Panel to draft guidelines on the use of federal funding for research on human embryos. The panel recommended that funding for creating embryos for research be permitted.3 Clinton disagreed, but he was personally in favor of funding for scientific studies of embryos left over from IVF procedures. Nevertheless, responding to the political climate, Clinton wanted more deliberation and chose not to allocate federal funds to support research on leftover embryos until he could get a recommendation from a presidential ethics advisory committee. Perhaps he was anticipating congressional action.

FRANKLIN: Well, did Congress act then?

STEIN: Soon after the president made his preliminary decision to withhold funds, Congress closed the door on any research involving the destruc­tion of a human embryo. The Dickey-Wicker Amendment (sponsored by Representative Jay Dickey, House Republican from Arkansas, and Roger Wicker, Senate Republican from Mississippi), which Clinton signed into law, has been attached to appropriations bills every year, starting in 1996. It essentially prohibits the Department of Health and Human Services from using appropriated funds for the creation of human embryos for research purposes or for research in which human embryos are destroyed.

FRANKLIN: It seems to me there could be ways around the amendment. Suppose private money is used to create and destroy embryos and public funds are used to experiment on the cells removed from them. In many countries, like Germany, when a moral decision on embryo research is reached, it applies to everyone, not only those receiving funds from the government.

STEIN: You put your finger on one of the peculiarities of the bifurcated sys­tem of ethics in our country—one set of principles for public funding and another for private funding. Embryo ethics straddles two moral universes, and scientists have had to navigate through that thorny divide. They must establish a firewall between publicly funded and privately funded laboratories.

(more…)

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

Sheldon Krimsky on the Use of Dialogue in “Stem Cell Dialogues”

Stem Cell Dialogues, Sheldon Krimsky

The following post is by Sheldon Krimsky, author of Stem Cell Dialogues: A Philosophical and Scientific Inquiry Into Medical Frontiers

In 1998 cell biology and medical research had entered a new stage of development. James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin isolated and cultured the first human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) from donated early stage human embryos. These cells have the potentiality of becoming differentiated into any other cells in the human body. The implications of this discovery are profound. ESCs could be harvested to regenerate damaged tissue, which cannot repair itself. Strokes, heart attacks, spinal cord damage, brain injury, and Alzheimer’s are but a few medical conditions that could potentially be treated with ESCs.

I first became aware of the promise of stem cell research in a class I co-taught with a colleague from the Tufts medical school who had been using stem cells to produce healthy skin. The class focused on the possibilities of human enhancement—covering the science as well as the social and ethical implications. The more I read about the science, the more I realized that medical research and therapy had embarked on a new voyage with new signposts of moral cautions. I did not have to wait very long before stem cells became an issue for presidential politics, feminist politics, right to life politics and even gender politics.

By the first decade of the millennium there were already dozens of books on the market. I could of course have taken a standard approach to combining a scientific narrative with ethical questions and bringing the issues up to date, that is, to 2015. By that point my wife had been immersed in playwriting. I also had been attending some of the plays performed in Cambridge at the Central Square Theater—a collaboration between MIT and two theater companies—that addressed scientific themes. I began thinking of an alternative way to investigate ideas in science and ethics for general readers. The works of Plato and Galileo, which I had read as a student of philosophy of science, came to mind. Could I present the complex issues of stem cell research and therapeutic applications as a set of dialogues?

(more…)

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Stem Cell Dialogues, by Sheldon Krimsky

This week our featured book is Stem Cell Dialogues: A Philosophical and Scientific Inquiry Into Medical Frontiers by Sheldon Krimsky.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Stem Cell Dialogues to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, July 3 at 1:00 pm.

Here’s what Jonathan Garlick at Tufts University says about Stem Cell Dialogues: “This book presents a wonderful new approach to learning about stem cells and thinking about their broader impact at the interface of society, policy, religion, and ethics. Stem Cell Dialogues is highly novel, very engaging, and will open readers to new ways of thinking about the public stem cell debate.”

For more on the book you can read the chapter “Why Is This Cell Different From All Other Cells”:

Friday, June 26th, 2015

Be Good and Enjoy

Happiness and Goodness

“Whether one decides, in essence, to be a beaver like Pat or a bear like Lee is a personal choice. After all, a life devoted to simple pursuits may yield as much satisfaction as one given to complex undertakings. That insight doesn’t imply that arduous tasks are to be avoided, only that those who engage in them may not live better than those who don’t.” — Steven Cahn and Christine Vitrano

This week our featured book is Happiness and Goodness: Philosophical Reflections on Living Well, by Steven M. Cahn and Christine Vitrano, with a foreword by Robert B. Talisse. In this final post of the week’s feature, we have an excerpt from the concluding chapter of the book, “Concluding Questions.”

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for Happiness and Goodness!

Be Good and Enjoy

Let us now return to the two fictional cases with which our discussion began: Pat and Lee. Pat, you may recall, is a successful philosopher who is happily married and enjoys playing bridge and the cello. Lee did not attend college, is single and financially independent, makes philanthropic gifts, and enjoys sunbathing, swimming, and surfing, along with freely spending money on a variety of luxurious items, including homes, cars, and golfing holidays. Both treat others with respect and are satisfied with their lives.

Here are the questions we asked about Pat and Lee: Are both living well? Are both pursuing equally successful lives? Is either life wasted? We can answer now that both are living well, both are finding equal success in living, and the life of neither is wasted. We might admire one more than the other, but such a judgment would reflect our own preferences or purposes and not serve as an appropriate basis for determining whose life is well-lived.

We recognize, however, that others may not agree with us. Hence we shall raise and respond to their most likely questions.

First, do we claim that Pat and Lee are contributing equally to the welfare of society? No. Pat’s teaching, research, and service are unmatched by any activity of Lee, although Lee’s contributing money for worthy causes should be applauded. Thus if the question to be answered is which of the two is a more valuable member of society, the probable answer is Pat. The question, however, is not whose life is more useful to others but whose life is going better, viewing happiness from the perspective of the person being assessed. Because both individuals are acting morally and finding satisfaction, both lives are going well. (more…)

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

Religion and Morality

Happiness and Goodness

“The lesson here is that might does not make right, even if the might is the infinite might of God. To act morally is not to act out of fear of punishment, nor to act as one is commanded. Rather, it is to act as one ought to act, and how one ought to act is not dependent on anyone’s power, even if the power be divine.” — Steven Cahn and Christine Vitrano

This week our featured book is Happiness and Goodness: Philosophical Reflections on Living Well, by Steven M. Cahn and Christine Vitrano, with a foreword by Robert B. Talisse. In today’s post, we have excerpted two chapters from Happiness and Goodness: “God and Morality” and “Heaven and Hell.”

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for Happiness and Goodness!

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Robert Talisse’s Foreword to “Happiness and Goodness”

Happiness and Goodness

“[Cahn and Vitrano's] critical maneuvers often cut deeply, and their positive view is a formidable one. Their central thesis can be put succinctly: Morality is not necessary for happiness. The immoral person might be a completely happy person, and the moral saint might nonetheless be absolutely miserable.” — Robert Talisse

This week our featured book is Happiness and Goodness: Philosophical Reflections on Living Well, by Steven M. Cahn and Christine Vitrano, with a foreword by Robert B. Talisse. In today’s post, we have excerpted Talisse’s foreword, in which he discusses the value of Cahn and Vitrano’s project, and engages with the literature of happiness and morality.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for Happiness and Goodness!

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

Wasted Lives?

Happiness and Goodness

“[Most philosophers] maintain that certain activities are more worthy than others, so lives spent engaged in those more worthy activities are more worthy lives. But which activities have more worth and which less? And on what bases should we decide such matters?” — Steven Cahn and Christine Vitrano

This week our featured book is Happiness and Goodness: Philosophical Reflections on Living Well, by Steven M. Cahn and Christine Vitrano, with a foreword by Robert B. Talisse. In today’s post, we have an excerpt from the second chapter of the book, “Wasted Lives.”

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for Happiness and Goodness!

Wasted Lives

In [Ronald] Dworkin’s posthumously published Religion Without God, he argues that an atheist can be religious. While this claim would come as no surprise to adherents of Jainism, Theravada Buddhism, or Mimamsa Hinduism, he has in mind not these Asian religious traditions but a viewpoint common to many Western thinkers who deny theism yet recognize “nature’s intrinsic beauty” and the “inescapable responsibility” of people to “live their lives well.” Dworkin considers such an outlook religious.

Leaving aside his curious line of thought that finds support for religious belief in such disparate phenomena as the Grand Canyon, prowling jaguars, and the discovery by physicists of the Higgs boson, let us concentrate on his view that we should all seek to live well so as to achieve “successful” lives and avoid “wasted” ones.

Does one model fit all? On this important point Dworkin wavers. He maintains that “there is, independently and objectively, a right way to live.” Yet he also recognizes “a responsibility of each person to decide for himself ethical questions about which kinds of lives are appropriate and which would be degrading for him.”

What sort of life did Dworkin himself find degrading? We are not told but suspect that for such a successful academic, a “degrading life” might have been one without intellectual striving, just as a famed athlete might find degrading life as a couch potato.

But of all possible lives, which are well-lived? To help answer this question, consider the following two fictional, though realistic, cases. (more…)

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

Book Giveaway! Happiness and Goodness: Philosophical Reflections on Living Well

Happiness and Goodness

“I can’t remember the last time I read a book about ethics that was so fascinating.” — Ed Lake, Deputy Editor, Aeon

This week our featured book is Happiness and Goodness: Philosophical Reflections on Living Well, by Steven M. Cahn and Christine Vitrano, with a foreword by Robert B. Talisse. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Excellent Beauty. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, June 26th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Friday, June 19th, 2015

American Radicalism, Progressivism, and the Legacy of Henry George

Henry George

We conclude our week-long focus on Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age, by Edward T. O’Donnell, with O’Donnell’s examination discussion of George’s legacy. In particular, O’Donnell focuses on the profound impact George had on progressive thought, labor activism, and American political culture.

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

Henry George Runs for Mayor of New York City

Henry George, New York City Mayor

127 years before Bill de Blasio’s run for mayor of New York City as a progressive candidate, Henry George was the choice of the United Labor Party to fight for the working class and defeat the corruption in New York City (see cartoon above). George ended up losing but his winning of more than 30% of the vote beat out Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican candidate and shocked the city and its power brokers. George’s campaign focused on the effort to revitalize citizenship and re-empower the working class. In the following passage, from Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality
Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age
, Edward T. O’Donnell describes George’s agenda which called for radical political, economic, and social change.

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

Was Henry George the 19th-Century Thomas Piketty?

Henry George   Thomas Piketty

The success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First invited comparisons to Henry George and his own surprise, runaway bestseller Progress and Poverty, which was published in 1879 and sold more than 3 million copies. Aside from their shared status of becoming unlikely bestselling authors, Piketty and George’s work focuses, in part, on the relationship between capitalism and inequality. Moreover, both are advocates of the market but worry that a concentration of wealth corrupts it and is a threat to democracy. George’s life and writings are, of course, the subject of Edward T. O’Donnell’s new intellectual biography, Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age.

In an essay on the two Charles Lane, writing in The Washington Post, comments:

To Piketty, like George an admirer of market efficiency and opponent of protectionism, the resulting accumulation of wealth in relatively few hands threatens economic fairness, economic dynamism — and democracy. “Extreme inequality makes it impossible to have proper working of democratic institutions,” Piketty told a recent meeting at Washington’s Urban Institute.

And so, updating Henry George’s single tax, Piketty proposes a global wealth tax, making similar claims about its benefits for both equality and growth.

For Piketty and George, the bottom line, both moral and economic, is to socialize “rent” — rent, that is, not in the colloquial sense but in the economic sense of income disconnected from productivity.

It’s an attractive vision: an egalitarian, productive society, purged of parasitical rent-seeking through the expedient of well-aimed taxes.

(more…)

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

Why Henry George Matters in This Second Gilded Age — Edward T. O’Donnell

Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality

The following post is by Edward T. O’Donnell, author of Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age:

What value does the story of Henry George, a self-taught economist from the late nineteenth century, hold for Americans living in the early 21st century? Quite a lot, if we stop to consider the ways in which contemporary American society has come to resemble America in the late-nineteenth century, a period popularly known as the Gilded Age. As in our times, that era was marked by a dramatic increase in income inequality. It also witnessed a sharp and disturbing rise in the numbers of Americans living in poverty, even as Wall Street boomed and overall productivity soared. The Gilded Age was also marked by a surge in the size and power—and political influence—of large corporations and banks. And the politics of late-nineteenth century American society were characterized by extreme partisanship and paralysis. Indeed, the parallels between then and now are so striking that many contemporary progressive reformers, activists, and commentators have taken to referring to the era in which we now live as the Second Gilded Age.

If we are indeed living in a Second Gilded Age, then we can gain important insights into potential solutions to our economic, social, and political problems by taking a close look at the first Gilded Age. In particular, it is instructive to examine the people who emerged in this period to demand reforms—many of which were enacted in the subsequent Progressive Era. Henry George was one of these figures and he gained an enormous following among a wide cross section of American society.

George was a little-known journalist living in California in the 1870s when, moved by the aforementioned troubling trends of the Gilded Age, he began to study economics and history with an eye toward writing a book. The result of this effort was a book published in 1879 titled Progress and Poverty. The book is still in print and available in many languages. As its title suggests, George focused on a vexing question: why amidst so much material and technological progress was poverty increasing? This was, George warned, “the riddle which the Sphinx of Fate puts to our civilization, and which not to answer is to be destroyed.”

The book became a best seller and launched George as one of the era’s best-known and most influential reformers. The solution George proposed—a “single-tax” on land values—appealed to some of his followers. But far more were drawn to and inspired by the broad claims he made regarding American’s republican heritage and values. And here we see where George speaks to the concerns of our age.

(more…)

Monday, June 15th, 2015

Book of the Week: Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality

This week our featured book is Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age by Edward T. O’Donnell.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, June 19th at 1:00 pm.

For more on the book you can read the introduction:

Friday, June 12th, 2015

The Personal Mystery and the Impersonal God

Excellent Beauty

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. In the final post of the week’s feature, we have excerpted the twelfth chapter of Excellent Beauty: “The Personal Mystery and the Impersonal God.”

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

The Beauty of Seeing More Than We Can Understand

Excellent Beauty

“Religions are completely natural illusions. All their alleged depth and mystery are chimerical. We can finally set them aside as sources of mysteries not worth taking seriously. We are now free to embrace the real mysteries, the ones worth taking seriously, the ones science reveals, the ones that have excellent beauty.” — Eric Dietrich

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from the eleventh chapter of Excellent Beauty, in which Dietrich explains why “[t]he most exciting phrase to hear in science … is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny….”

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

On the Mystery of Consciousness

Excellent Beauty

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. In today’s excerpt, Dietrich introduces and discusses the hard problem of consciousness.

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 2

Excellent Beauty

“Over the years, I’ve talk to many psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers about consciousness, and almost none of them think that consciousness is beyond explaining, none regard it as an enduring mystery. Pressed for why they should think such a thing in the face of our abject ignorance, they shrug and fall back on what is clearly faith—faith that our science will be one day explain everything.” — Eric Dietrich

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. In today’s post, Dietrich discusses the continuing existence of “excellent beauties” (currently unsolved and possibly unsolvable mysteries).

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 2
By Eric Dietrich

In yesterday’s post, we saw what happens when science confronts religion, now we will what happens when science confronts the cosmos.

The grandest example of an excellent beauty is consciousness. I don’t mean anything unusual or strange by the word “consciousness”. Consciousness—or being conscious—is the most ordinary thing in your life . . . so ordinary, you rarely note it or think of it. Consciousness is the way the world seems to you, the way you experience it, feel it. Taste an apple, see a sunset, smell a rose or an angry skunk, stub your toe on the foot of the bed frame at 4:00 am, hear your dog breathe or a baby gurgle and coo. Introspect and consider your belief that there are an infinite number of numbers. These are all conscious experiences. We have experiences because we are conscious. Or, rather, our having them constitutes our being conscious. Being conscious is what makes it fun or horrible or merely boring to be a human (or anything else that is conscious). Using a phrase that the philosopher Thomas Nagel made famous (apparently only among philosophers), we can say that a being is conscious when there is something it is like to be that being. (See Nagel’s oft-cited paper, “What is it like to be a bat?”).

Consciousness has so thoroughly eluded scientific explanation that we have no idea what an explanatory theory of consciousness would even look like. This runs deep. Given an explanatory theory of conscious by, say, friendly, advanced, visiting space aliens, we couldn’t even begin to tell if it was correct or not. Consciousness somehow exists only inside our minds (not, note, inside our brains), while science can only tackle what is on the outside, what is public and measurable. But why should this be the case? Why should there be anything it is like to be a dog or an octopus or a lobster? Why should there be “insides” to our minds, beyond the reach of public, measuring science? A famous quote (apparently only among consciousness researchers) by Stuart Sutherland is apropos here: “Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon; it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it,” (from the International Dictionary of Psychology).

The denialism here is thick. Over the years, I’ve talk to many psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers about consciousness, and almost none of them think that consciousness is beyond explaining, none regard it as an enduring mystery. Pressed for why they should think such a thing in the face of our abject ignorance, they shrug and fall back on what is clearly faith—faith that our science will be one day explain everything.

Here, briefly, and minus explanations, is a short list of other excellent beauties. We begin with the most well-known: Basically all of quantum mechanics. Next, the infinity of numbers comes in sizes—that’s right: some infinities are bigger than others, by rather a lot, it turns out. No one knows why, yet the proof for this fact is relatively easy to follow. Logic contains some of the strangest mysteries. First, classical logic is completely unable to represent its fundamental notion, the inference from one sentence to another, say from “X is a prime number bigger than 2”, to “X is an odd number.” Second, there exist logics that allow some statements to be both true and false at the same time. More shockingly, some philosophers argue that such “true contradictions” are required to correctly describe completely ordinary things like walking into a room or blinking your eyes. Thirdly, any logical system that contains numbers and operations like addition produces truths that are obviously true, but which cannot be proven; here truth extends beyond proof. There are more logic mysteries, but let’s move on.

Here is a mystery involving something more ordinary: Did you know that there is a very old, currently undecipherable text complete with detailed colored drawings sitting in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library? The author, purpose, and meaning of the text are unknown. Attempts to decode it or translate it defy all modern techniques used by linguists and cryptologists (going clear back to World War I). It’s called the Voynich Manuscript. Most scholars believe it was written sometime in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, but no one is sure (recent carbon-14 dating does put the date of the vellum in the fifteenth century). The language the manuscript is written in, if indeed it is a language, is completely baffling. Detailed statistical analysis of the symbols making up the manuscript, however, leads most scholars to believe that it is in fact written in some language, just not one used by any known culture or people. Here’s a final example. Recently it has been discovered that science itself, in its quest to find and explain all that can be found and explained, produces paradoxes that completely undo all the assumptions science has to make to be science. Science, it turns out, must assume what it wants to prove. (All the references to the above mysteries can be found in Excellent Beauty, except the last one; that one can be found in the paper “Science generates limit paradoxes.”)

What does the existence of enduring mysteries, of excellent beauties, mean? We have seen that in a sense, religion and science are co-conspirators—they conspire to create a world that is flatly natural. The supernatural bits of religions are not real, being only the products of our over-active imaginations fixed by group membership. But the excellent beauties are real, they are waiting there for any one to find and marvel at, and they are not the products of over-active imaginations. What are they the products of? That is itself the final excellent beauty: how is it that we inhabit a world that contains so many foundational paradoxes, so many enduring mysteries? How is it that some of our science and knowledge-seeking provides us with fulfilling and affirming explanations, while other parts of it shock us with strange enigmas that cause us to question the very core of what we think we know? It appears that what our science is telling us, with increasing urgency, is that the universe is not fully open to our comprehension. But it is fully open to our sense of beauty. And in the end, that’s better.

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 1

Excellent Beauty

“Every time a virus is found, a particle is discovered, an element is produced, some DNA is sequenced, or a planet’s unusual orbit is explained, our deeply held enlightenment ideal is affirmed: Yes! We inhabit an understandable world.” — Eric Dietrich

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. In today’s post, Dietrich delves into our innate attraction to mystery, our nature as metaphysical realists, and the war between science and religion.

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 1
By Eric Dietrich

Everybody loves a good mystery . . . as long as it gets solved. But if a mystery persists in spite of our best efforts to solve it, our love wanes. In fact, very few among us can tolerate an enduring mystery. Why is that? Why are enduring mysteries so upsetting? The answer cuts to the heart of what it means to be a human being and explains the enormous impact dodging enduring mysteries has played in human history. Science and religion owe their existence to such dodging. Excellent Beauty is the story of these three, science, religion, and enduring mysteries. The title of the book comes from a quote by Francis Bacon, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” The book also closely examines several such mysteries, revealing their excellent beauty, why they are enduring, and what this upsetting fact means.

Of course, most of the mysteries we encounter in our daily lives are upsetting not because they are mysteries, but rather because of what they are about. If someone you love has fainting spells, but six months of medical tests have revealed nothing, then you are confronted with an upsetting mystery. It is upsetting because someone you love is suffering, and experts cannot tell you why and so cannot fix the problem.

The mysteries we love are not like this. They occur at some remove from us. Murder mystery novels are a billion dollar a year industry for precisely this reason. Sir Charles Baskerville has died, apparently of natural causes, yet the footprints of an unknown and enormous hound were found near where he perished. This fact has a pressing and dark relevance because the Baskerville family has been living under an old curse, apparently involving a hound from Hell. . . . All good fun. And in the end, Sherlock Holmes solves this mystery nicely. Of course, mysteries such as these are at such a remove from us that they aren’t real. Consider a real mystery that is nevertheless something we can love: Why did the dinosaurs go extinct? We now know the answer to this mystery, or at least there is wide agreement on what the answer is: Earth was hit by a massive asteroid or comet, the smoking gun of which is the Chicxulub crater off the Yucatan Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico. (For a recent definitive treatment, see “The Chicxulub Asteroid Impact and Mass Extinction at the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary” in Science, 5 March 2010: 1214-1218.) Before this explanation was discovered, the mystery of the missing dinosaurs was compelling and intensely investigated. (It is still being investigated since there is only “wide agreement” among scientists on the asteroid theory.)

There is a great affirmation for humankind in solving any deep, real mystery. This affirmation extends beyond the utility of any solution. The discovery of the virus responsible for AIDS was a tremendous advance in human health care and in the treatment of the disease itself. But the discovery of HIV goes deeper than human health. Two human properties explain this going-beyond aspect of the affirmation. Humans are, quite naturally, realists, in the metaphysical sense: we all think that there is a mind-independent world out there. We don’t know, except roughly, how many dogs there are in the world now, but we all think there is some definite number of them. And we think this number is what it is independently of our minds, independently of what we want it to be or what we wish it was. We are also all children of the Enlightenment at least in the sense that we carry around with us an Enlightenment ideal: we think we live in a rational universe, and we think that problems can be solved, at least in principle, by rational discourse or by some application of rationality. Putting these two together, we all think that there are answers out there and rationality can in principle reveal them. Every time a virus is found, a particle is discovered, an element is produced, some DNA is sequenced, or a planet’s unusual orbit is explained, our deeply held enlightenment ideal is affirmed: Yes! We inhabit an understandable world.

Religion is a great participator in this affirmation. And in this important sense, religion and science are compatible. Religious mysteries run deep. How can Jesus’s death redeem sinners today? How can their faith in him activate that redemption? Why is there evil if God is all-good and all-powerful? Why are there so many religions? (This bears a short digression. Conservative estimates put the number of religions today well into the tens of thousands. This estimate includes sects or denominations of the twenty or so major religions, which can be defined as religions with at least half a million adherents. Often, these sects or sub-religions differ almost as much from each other as the major religions differ from each other. So, for example, some experts estimate that there are over 30,000 versions of Christianity (see, for example the World Christian Encyclopedia or this list). Arguably all these versions worship some version of Jesus Christ, but beyond that, they differ significantly. For example, some see Jesus Christ as a sort of warrior against sin; some see the Christ as a god of love, unconcerned about sin; still others regard Jesus as a male human being who managed to live the perfect life and should therefore be emulated.)

The answers to all religious mysteries are commonly believed to be out there and fixed (realism), the understanding of which awaits our final fate. If our fate is good enough, the answers will be revealed to us, and such revelation will, at that time, finally make perfect sense (the Enlightenment ideal).
From this perspective, there is no war between science and religion, not really, and the world we live in, while troubled and dangerous, is, at least in principle, law-like and understandable.

Excellent Beauty argues that the above view of us and the universe we inhabit is Panglossian. There is a fierce war between science and religion. Science is winning—by a lot (this war is examined in detail in Excellent Beauty). Realism is at best an ineluctable metaphysical position. And most importantly, holding the Enlightenment ideal depends crucially on self-deception. Soberly considered, our universe contains only islands of understandability, islands where rationality is the dominant force, islands where our explanations work. Beyond these islands there is a vast, bizarre world consisting almost exclusively of enduring mysteries at which we can marvel, but can never explain or explain away.

Let’s take these points in turn.

Stephen Jay Gould is the avatar of the view that science and religion are not at war. He proposed what he called nonoverlapping magisteria for the proper relationship between science and religion (see his Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life). Gould said that science and religion are in fact so different that they can easily coexist, respecting each other’s dominion (i.e., magisterium; a magisterium is “a domain of authority in teaching” (p. 5)). Gould says:

I do not see how science and religion could be unified, or even synthesized, under any common scheme of explanation or analysis; but I also do not understand why the two enterprises should experience any conflict. Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different realm of human purposes, meanings, and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve. (p. 4)

If anyone other than Gould had written that, I would have thought that person irremediably naïve. But Gould is not naïve. So, I can only assume this suggestion of his results from some level of desperation. He so wanted to halt the war between science and religion that he fabricated this idea of separate but equal domains. A moment’s reflection, however, reveals that religion and science are not separate magisteria at all—they are profoundly overlapping magisteria. All religions make factual claims about the world: Jehovah created it in six days, Changing Woman created it and the Navajo who live on it, ghosts roam the world, magic can heal the sick, prayer is talking to Yahweh (or Jesus or Allah or Zeus, etc.), living beings reincarnate, and on and on. In fact, it is because all religions make factual claims that they are able to supply purpose, meaning, and values. Going the other direction, religion is not the sole provider of purposes, meanings, and values. There are plenty of atheists and agnostics whose lives hum with meaning. They get meaning from the traditional places: their families, their jobs, their hobbies—from doing science, making art and music, climbing mountains, learning to juggle, raising children, working on their marriage, and so forth. Oddly, and disturbingly, in flatly denying the obvious truth that religions make factual claims, and in denying that religion and science are at war, Gould is behaving exquisitely religiously: he is changing the “evidence” to fit his beliefs, rather than letting the evidence change his beliefs. The nonoverlapping magisteria idea is simply false. Science and religion are at war.

Science has arguably already won this war, and in the best way possible: by explaining why we are religious. Evolutionary theory explains both why we humans are religious and why there are tens of thousands of religions. Being religious, or having the propensity to be religious is an evolutionary adaptation. What advantage do religions bestow? They help knit groups together, among other things. The details of such an evolutionary explanation are complex and still being worked out by anthropologists, biologists, philosophers, and psychologists. In broad outline, most of these nascent theories are similar, and contribute to a large emerging explanation. In Excellent Beauty, I combine two of the most well-known and well-received theories, David Wilson’s group selection theory and Daniel Dennett’s hyperactive agent detection device (see, respectively, Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral, and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell). In brief, I argue that religions help bind groups together via shared magical thinking. We like being in a group that shares our beliefs about the weird, disturbing stuff we’ve experienced. And we like belonging to a group that offers and promotes compelling explanations of the stuff we experience. Both Wilson and Dennett’s theories are needed: Only Dennett’s theory can explain the universal existence of belief in the supernatural in the world’s religions, and only Wilson’s theory can explain why there are thousands of religions instead of billions of them.

Tomorrow we turn to the excellent beauties themselves.

Monday, June 8th, 2015

Beyond Atheism: The Religion Illusion

Excellent Beauty

“Atheism doesn’t really get at the heart of the matter. It is not that there are no gods or goddesses, but rather that there are no religions. What we call religion is people engaged in various rituals at various times of the year and at various stages of their lives, wearing various ritualistic clothing, and uttering various words and phrases. But this is all a kind of vast pretending, a pretending so complete that most of us cannot even see the pretense, a pretense fueled solely by our genetic makeup and our group membership.” — Eric Dietrich

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. To kick the feature off, we are happy to present an excerpt from the eighth chapter of Excellent Beauty: “Beyond Atheism: The Religion Illusion.”

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!