November 24, 2007
Taking Science on Faith
By PAUL DAVIES
SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.
The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.
The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?
When I was a student, the laws of physics were regarded as completely off limits. The job of the scientist, we were told, is to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their provenance. The laws were treated as “given” — imprinted on the universe like a maker’s mark at the moment of cosmic birth — and fixed forevermore. Therefore, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.
Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.
Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity? If so, then nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality.
Although scientists have long had an inclination to shrug aside such questions concerning the source of the laws of physics, the mood has now shifted considerably. Part of the reason is the growing acceptance that the emergence of life in the universe, and hence the existence of observers like ourselves, depends rather sensitively on the form of the laws. If the laws of physics were just any old ragbag of rules, life would almost certainly not exist.
A second reason that the laws of physics have now been brought within the scope of scientific inquiry is the realization that what we long regarded as absolute and universal laws might not be truly fundamental at all, but more like local bylaws. They could vary from place to place on a mega-cosmic scale. A God’s-eye view might reveal a vast patchwork quilt of universes, each with its own distinctive set of bylaws. In this “multiverse,” life will arise only in those patches with bio-friendly bylaws, so it is no surprise that we find ourselves in a Goldilocks universe — one that is just right for life. We have selected it by our very existence.
The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.
Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.
This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.
And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe.
It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.
In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.
Paul Davies is the director of Beyond, a research center at Arizona State University, and the author of “Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life.”
I would like to wish you all Salegrah GJ Mubarak with the following speech of MHI which highlights the role of the AKU in providing models of integrating modern scientific knowledge with the understanding of faith and culture and hence provide holistic solutions to the health problems in the decades ahead.
His Highness The Aga Khan's Talk To McMaster Convocation May 15, 1987
Mr. Chancellor, Your Honour, President Lee, Dr. Kergin, Members of the University, Distinguished Guests, Parents and Graduates of the Faculty of Health Sciences.
To be at McMaster University this evening, and to help launch the graduates of the Faculty of Health Sciences on this triumphant occasion, is the greatest of pleasures and I am sincerely and deeply honoured by the degree you have bestowed upon me. But I couldn't help reflecting on the incongruity of your invitation, since I spend a substantial part of my time and resources trying to keep as many people as possible outside the grips of the medical profession. Also, my only contact as a student in medicine was unexpected, unexplainable and unsuccessful: as a student of Astronomy at Harvard - they still teach medicine like in the middle ages, simultaneously with Astronomy. I did not enjoy learning about magnifying stethoscopes, which they called telescopes, nor about the dermatological ills of bodies in outer space such as lunar craters and sun spots.
My own graduation, as it happens, is still fresh in my memory. You may know that when Prince Charles addressed the 350th Anniversary of that institution, he speculated that for his university - Cambridge - he had-presented the task of educating an anachronism. I, perhaps, confronted Harvard with the problem of educating an enigma. And now this fine university is compounding that act of trust and imagination by honouring the enigma with one of its prized honorary degrees.
To Winston Churchill, you remember, Russia was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. I'm aware that, as the leader of the Ismaili Community, of the Shia Branch of Islam, I am part of a religion and a culture that much of the world - certainly much of North America - regards as an enigma, or at least as a set of contradictions. Is Islam lethargic, somnolent, irresolute? Or is it impatient and revolutionary? Is it intellectually vital, drawing on its brillant history in mathematics, science and philosophy? Or is it intellectually defensive and introverted? Like many generalities, none very usefully fits an Islamic world of 900 million people. There is, however, one major concern of Islamic societies and the developing world that I have thought to speak to you about. I do so because no theme more unites us this evening. This is the great and vexing human question: how do modern science and the search for knowledge touch man's understanding of his nature and fellow man?
Certainly no issue will be more important in the lives of you, the graduates, who will soon put your professional, scientific qualifications at the service of that complex and mysterious creation-the human being and the society he has made. No question concerns more practically the work of the Aga Khan Health Network.
Many of you know something of the design and aspirations of the Aga Khan University and Hospital in Karachi, Pakistan. McMaster University is a major intellectual force helping breathe life into one of that institution's most vital faculties: the School of Nursing. What we are jointly seeking to do in Karachi is something that has not been done well before in the developing world. And the international members of the board of trustees of the Aga Khan University tell me that North America is only "beginning to learn" about its own limitations in this realm.
First, we are seeking to establish a medical centre which yields to no institution in the world in the quality of its science and technology. We wish to be the conduit to Pakistan of the best that has been thought and known in modern medicine. No surmise and inherited lore, but empirical knowledge - obtained through patient histories, the X-ray, blood analysis, the CAT scanner -underpins the theory and practice of its medicine. The medical centre draws on the west's great scientific tradition - from those generations of scientists who, as C.P. Snow noted, "have the future in their bones". "They have", Snow said, "their own culture - intensive, rigorous, and constantly in action". But scientists are also, Snow admits, even "brash and boastful".
And that takes us to the other side of the coin - and to the reality that will, in the coming decades, define the character of the Aga Khan University and Hospital. The great bulk of the seven million people of Karachi, and the hundred million people of Pakistan, are not ruled by the assumptions of science. Their lives are bounded by family, tradition and belief. These are people who are our patients, who receive our community health services. We most earnestly hope that they are also the people who will provide our young nurses and doctors. To reach them, to have truly effective medical and health care, the Aga Khan University and Hospital must do things the west, and science, probably cannot teach us. Perhaps such joint efforts as those we conduct with McMaster may lead to innovations that we can share with the world. Think of our task on several levels: - the level of the individual, the critically ill, poor Pakistani patient, lying in the antiseptic environment of a ward, where he is tended by instruments and a crisp, educated nurse. But, we increasing ask ourselves, what combination of family members to serve and hearten him, food he recognizes, even music and TV in his Sindi or Urdu tradition will humanize his environment? Most importantly, what attitudes and cultural understandings of the nursing and medical staff will give him heart and hasten his recovery? Can such inputs even provide economies, and bring the cost of modern medical care more easily within his means? How do we build these understandings and attitudes in our systems and training and service?
- Second, let us take the level of the surrounding populace. Beyond the individual - the in-patient upon whom the hospital concentrates its resources -there lie vast communities of people whose lives are a cycle of poverty, unpredictability and ill health. For those In the dry dusty townships that surround Karachi, and those whose villages cling to the cold, stark slopes of Northern-Pakistan, there is no national programme of health cure. But the productivity of these beings, even their sense of belonging to a nation, will depend upon giving them the knowledge and means to improve the health of themselves and their children. Twenty percent of the Aga Khan University's medical curriculum is in community health: It introduces young student doctors and nurses to the Kutchlabadis - Karachi's urban slums - to the needs and ways and responses of people in conditions of poverty, uncertainty and suspicion. Can we help build In Pakistan a sense of professional obligation, of fellow feeling, for these people? Might we even begin to build a national structure that will motivate these young, modern doctors to spend a part of their professional fives in desperately low-tech environments?
- Third, at the national system level, we look at an aspect of the problem from the other side. Can a poor country, with many competing demands upon it, with a powerful sense of its own culture and languages, rejuvenate in its schools the teaching of the natural sciences? What series of wise policies and investments will knit developing societies more firmly into the international networks of scientific information and ways of thought, will enhance original research and enquiry? Unless this impalpable culture of the scientist begins to take root, our training of doctors and nurses will be gravely hampered. Still more troubling, their intellectual and professional growth will he stunted as they mature in their careers.
- Finally, there is perhaps no greater example of our need to grasp and bond the knowledge of science and the knowledge of humanity, culture, and human need, than the cooperative enterprise between McMaster and the A^a Khan School of Nursing. The modern curriculum and the professional theory of nursing are now firmly in place in the school. There still remains a gap between the scientifically based, acquired knowledge of our pupils and their actual practice. But time and creative supervision will close that gap. Our concerns now must range well beyond the training of nurses. We must now work also to create a profession, a sustaining environment of dignity and honour, for the nurses we train. If we do not, our young nurses will leave their vocation or become alienated and discouraged, If we do not grasp and meet their aspirations, we shall never develop and retain those senior nurse managers that give a nursing staff its sense of purpose and standards. If we do not counter cultural taboos, with understanding and tolerance and imagination, we shall find that, as in non-Christian India where a vast percentage of nurses are Christian so, in Pakistan, the nursing profession will be constrained by factors of low community regard and support.
What does all this mean for you, the graduating class? These examples come from a world and a nation you may not choose to enter. But their anger or optimism - their turning with fear and resentment to the past or their confident grasping of the future - will certainly influence your lives, the future of Canada, and the world in which we all live, 1 suspect that members of your faculty who have served in the developing world have suggested the relevance to you, of lessons from this ambivalent developing world. But perhaps I can lend force to these concepts because of my commitment to improving the lives of the members of my community and those around them in Asia and Africa.
First, we must not forget our poor populations beyond the reach of expensive, individual hospital-based care. If we are to touch their problems, we must grasp the personal and social systems of the people to whom we wish to give medical and public health service. We must help bond their systems of understanding to the scientific knowledge we possess. We have seen in the Northern Areas of Pakistan and the Kutchiabadi slums of Karachi that we can engage their energies and intelligence in meeting their own health needs through changed attitudes and behaviour. If poorer, less educated people help define their own health needs, they are more likely to mobilise the resources to satisfy them - thereby distributing cost and preempting the enormous economic burden that health services now impose upon the developing world.
Second, you are graduating with a professional qualification. The courses that led to your degree have their powerful internal logic; your profession has its assumptions about standards, and increasingly about its rights and privileges. But the world you enter will not be labelled physiology, cardiology and genetics; it is a world of unwell, fearful people. Professional standards and assumptions can provide a form of intolerance, pride and myopia as intractable as the rigidities of traditional societies. As you know far better than I, science alone will not give us much guidance on when to prolong human life and whether to intervene in its creation.
The industrialized world only rather recently has rediscovered that these questions engage not merely professional ethics and standards; they touch the deeply held convictions of a Judeo-Christian tradition, an idea of humanity that has challenged the prophets and philosophers for thousands of years. Nations cannot assign these issues to a priesthood of scientists; they require the resources of the human spirit as well as the mind. The Islamic world is dealing with these questions on two fronts simultaneously; first, in the reintroduction of science and its sceptical world view that it is not part of current tradition; second, Islamic societies are redicovering the importance of the modern, secular world of their Islamic ethical underpinning. Is it any surprise that there is soul-searching and social upheaval, but also intellectual vitality and tumult, among the people of the Islamic world?
My message to all graduating doctors, nurses and health workers, then, is that the world needs your professionalism. But it also needs your imagination, your energy, and an abiding humility and curiosity about the human beings you serve - and about those subtle, deep, non-material forces that motivate them. During its first hundred years McMaster has shown an exceptional ability to ask new questions about old issues, and to ask the old - ethical - questions about new issues. Is this restlessness, this continually renewed freshness of intellectual approach, not the sign of a great institution? Surely it is. Nowhere has this been clearer than in McMaster's health sciences.
Science is a wonderful, powerful tool and research budgets are essential. But science is only the beginning in the new age we are entering. My hope is that, in Islamic Pakistan, The Aga Khan University and Hospital can make progress in developing new models. Islam does not perceive the world as two separate domains of mind and spirit, science and belief. Science and the search for knowledge are an expression of man's designated role in the universe, but they do not define that role totally. Surely there is no more worthy area in which East and West can work, to bond these two aspects of man's understanding, than the field of health sciences that our graduates enter this evening. The world is an infinitely exciting place. You have been wonderfully trained. I congratulate you and urge you to move forward with all reason, imagination, and human understanding. Thank You.
“Gravity,” goes the slogan on posters and bumper stickers. “It isn’t just a good idea. It’s the law.”
And what a law. Unlike, say, traffic or drug laws, you don’t have a choice about obeying gravity or any of the other laws of physics. Jump and you will come back down. Faith or good intentions have nothing to do with it.
Existence didn’t have to be that way, as Einstein reminded us when he said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Against all the odds, we can send e-mail to Sri Lanka, thread spacecraft through the rings of Saturn, take a pill to chase the inky tendrils of depression, bake a turkey or a soufflé and bury a jump shot from the corner.
Yes, it’s a lawful universe. But what kind of laws are these, anyway, that might be inscribed on a T-shirt but apparently not on any stone tablet that we have ever been able to find?
Are they merely fancy bookkeeping, a way of organizing facts about the world? Do they govern nature or just describe it? And does it matter that we don’t know and that most scientists don’t seem to know or care where they come from?
Apparently it does matter, judging from the reaction to a recent article by Paul Davies, a cosmologist at Arizona State University and author of popular science books, on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times.
Dr. Davies asserted in the article that science, not unlike religion, rested on faith, not in God but in the idea of an orderly universe. Without that presumption a scientist could not function. His argument provoked an avalanche of blog commentary, articles on Edge.org and letters to The Times, pointing out that the order we perceive in nature has been explored and tested for more than 2,000 years by observation and experimentation. That order is precisely the hypothesis that the scientific enterprise is engaged in testing.
David J. Gross, director of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, Calif., and co-winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, told me in an e-mail message, “I have more confidence in the methods of science, based on the amazing record of science and its ability over the centuries to answer unanswerable questions, than I do in the methods of faith (what are they?).”
Reached by e-mail, Dr. Davies acknowledged that his mailbox was “overflowing with vitriol,” but said he had been misunderstood. What he had wanted to challenge, he said, was not the existence of laws, but the conventional thinking about their source.
There is in fact a kind of chicken-and-egg problem with the universe and its laws. Which “came” first — the laws or the universe?
If the laws of physics are to have any sticking power at all, to be real laws, one could argue, they have to be good anywhere and at any time, including the Big Bang, the putative Creation. Which gives them a kind of transcendent status outside of space and time.
On the other hand, many thinkers — all the way back to Augustine — suspect that space and time, being attributes of this existence, came into being along with the universe — in the Big Bang, in modern vernacular. So why not the laws themselves?
Dr. Davies complains that the traditional view of transcendent laws is just 17th-century monotheism without God. “Then God got killed off and the laws just free-floated in a conceptual vacuum but retained their theological properties,” he said in his e-mail message.
But the idea of rationality in the cosmos has long existed without monotheism. As far back as the fifth century B.C. the Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras and his followers proclaimed that nature was numbers. Plato envisioned a higher realm of ideal forms, of perfect chairs, circles or galaxies, of which the phenomena of the sensible world were just flawed reflections. Plato set a transcendent tone that has been popular, especially with mathematicians and theoretical physicists, ever since.
Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate from the University of Texas, Austin, described himself in an e-mail message as “pretty Platonist,” saying he thinks the laws of nature are as real as “the rocks in the field.” The laws seem to persist, he wrote, “whatever the circumstance of how I look at them, and they are things about which it is possible to be wrong, as when I stub my toe on a rock I had not noticed.”
The ultimate Platonist these days is Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In talks and papers recently he has speculated that mathematics does not describe the universe — it is the universe.
Dr. Tegmark maintains that we are part of a mathematical structure, albeit one gorgeously more complicated than a hexagon, a multiplication table or even the multidimensional symmetries that describe modern particle physics. Other mathematical structures, he predicts, exist as their own universes in a sort of cosmic Pythagorean democracy, although not all of them would necessarily prove to be as rich as our own.
“Everything in our world is purely mathematical — including you,” he wrote in New Scientist.
This would explain why math works so well in describing the cosmos. It also suggests an answer to the question that Stephen Hawking, the English cosmologist, asked in his book, “A Brief History of Time”: “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” Mathematics itself is on fire.
Not every physicist pledges allegiance to Plato. Pressed, these scientists will describe the laws more pragmatically as a kind of shorthand for nature’s regularity. Sean Carroll, a cosmologist at the California Institute of Technology, put it this way: “A law of physics is a pattern that nature obeys without exception.”
Plato and the whole idea of an independent reality, moreover, took a shot to the mouth in the 1920s with the advent of quantum mechanics. According to that weird theory, which, among other things, explains why our computers turn on every morning, there is an irreducible randomness at the microscopic heart of reality that leaves an elementary particle, an electron, say, in a sort of fog of being everywhere or anywhere, or being a wave or a particle, until some measurement fixes it in place.
In that case, according to the standard interpretation of the subject, physics is not about the world at all, but about only the outcomes of experiments, of our clumsy interactions with that world. But 75 years later, those are still fighting words. Einstein grumbled about God not playing dice.
Steven Weinstein, a philosopher of science at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, termed the phrase “law of nature” as “a kind of honorific” bestowed on principles that seem suitably general, useful and deep. How general and deep the laws really are, he said, is partly up to nature and partly up to us, since we are the ones who have to use them.
But perhaps, as Dr. Davies complains, Plato is really dead and there are no timeless laws or truths. A handful of poet-physicists harkening for more contingent nonabsolutist laws not engraved in stone have tried to come up with prescriptions for what John Wheeler, a physicist from Princeton and the University of Texas in Austin, called “law without law.”
As one example, Lee Smolin, a physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, has invented a theory in which the laws of nature change with time. It envisions universes nested like Russian dolls inside black holes, which are spawned with slightly different characteristics each time around. But his theory lacks a meta law that would prescribe how and why the laws change from generation to generation.
Holger Bech Nielsen, a Danish physicist at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and one of the early pioneers of string theory, has for a long time pursued a project he calls Random Dynamics, which tries to show how the laws of physics could evolve naturally from a more general notion he calls “world machinery.”
On his Web site, Random Dynamics, he writes, “The ambition of Random Dynamics is to ‘derive’ all the known physical laws as an almost unavoidable consequence of a random fundamental ‘world machinery.’”
Dr. Wheeler has suggested that the laws of nature could emerge “higgledy-piggledy” from primordial chaos, perhaps as a result of quantum uncertainty. It’s a notion known as “it from bit.” Following that logic, some physicists have suggested we should be looking not so much for the ultimate law as for the ultimate program..
Anton Zeilinger, a physicist and quantum trickster at the University of Vienna, and a fan of Dr. Wheeler’s idea, has speculated that reality is ultimately composed of information. He said recently that he suspected the universe was fundamentally unpredictable.
I love this idea of intrinsic randomness much for the same reason that I love the idea of natural selection in biology, because it and only it ensures that every possibility will be tried, every circumstance tested, every niche inhabited, every escape hatch explored. It’s a prescription for novelty, and what more could you ask for if you want to hatch a fecund universe?
But too much fecundity can be a problem. Einstein hoped that the universe was unique: given a few deep principles, there would be only one consistent theory. So far Einstein’s dream has not been fulfilled.Cosmologists and physicists have recently found themselves confronted by the idea of the multiverse, with zillions of universes, each with different laws, occupying a vast realm known in the trade as the landscape.
In this case there is meta law — one law or equation, perhaps printable on a T-shirt — to rule them all. This prospective lord of the laws would be string theory, the alleged theory of everything, which apparently has 10500 solutions. Call it Einstein’s nightmare.
But it is soon for any Einsteinian to throw in his or her hand. Since cosmologists don’t know how the universe came into being, or even have a convincing theory, they have no way of addressing the conundrum of where the laws of nature come from or whether those laws are unique and inevitable or flaky as a leaf in the wind.
These kinds of speculation are fun, but they are not science, yet. “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds,” goes the saying attributed to Richard Feynman, the late Caltech Nobelist, and repeated by Dr. Weinberg.
Maybe both alternatives — Plato’s eternal stone tablet and Dr. Wheeler’s higgledy-piggledy process — will somehow turn out to be true. The dichotomy between forever and emergent might turn out to be as false eventually as the dichotomy between waves and particles as a description of light. Who knows?
The law of no law, of course, is still a law.
When I was young and still had all my brain cells I was a bridge fan, and one hand I once read about in the newspaper bridge column has stuck with me as a good metaphor for the plight of the scientist, or of the citizen cosmologist. The winning bidder had overbid his hand. When the dummy cards were laid, he realized that his only chance of making his contract was if his opponents’ cards were distributed just so.
He could have played defensively, to minimize his losses. Instead he played as if the cards were where they had to be. And he won.
We don’t know, and might never know, if science has overbid its hand. When in doubt, confronted with the complexities of the world, scientists have no choice but to play their cards as if they can win, as if the universe is indeed comprehensible. That is what they have been doing for more than 2,000 years, and they are still winning.
In his address to McMaster Convocation May 15, 1987, MHI stated:
"But, we increasing ask ourselves, what combination of family members to serve and hearten him, food he recognizes, even music and TV in his Sindi or Urdu tradition will humanize his environment? Most importantly, what attitudes and cultural understandings of the nursing and medical staff will give him heart and hasten his recovery? Can such inputs even provide economies, and bring the cost of modern medical care more easily within his means? How do we build these understandings and attitudes in our systems and training and service?"
The following article echoes the above sentiments in relation to the treatment of cancer.
January 8, 2008
For Cancer Patients, Empathy Goes a Long Way
By DENISE GRADY
Four years ago, my sister found out she had two types of cancer at the same time. It was like being hit by lightning — twice.
She needed chemotherapy and radiation, a huge operation, more chemotherapy and then a smaller operation. All in all, the treatment took about a year. Thin to begin with, she lost 30 pounds. The chemo caused cracks in her fingers, dry eyes, anemia and mouth sores so painful they kept her awake at night. A lot of her hair fell out. The radiation burned her skin. Bony, red-eyed, weak and frightfully pale, she tied scarves on her head, plastered her fingers with Band-Aids and somehow toughed it out.
She saw two doctors quite often. The radiation oncologist would sling her arm around my sister’s frail shoulders and walk her down the corridor as if they were old friends. The medical oncologist kept a close watch on the side effects, suggested remedies, reminded my sister she had good odds of beating the cancer and reassured her that the hair would grow back. (It did.)
People in my family aren’t huggy-kissy types, but my sister greatly appreciated the warmth and concern of those two women. She trusted them completely, and their advice. Now healthy, she says their compassion played a big part in helping her get through a difficult and frightening time.
Research supports the idea that a few kind words from an oncologist — what used to be called bedside manner — can go a long way toward helping people with cancer understand their treatment, stick with it, cope better and maybe even fare better medically.
“It is absolutely the role of the oncologist” to provide a bit of emotional support, said Dr. James A. Tulsky, director of the Center for Palliative Care at Duke University Medical Center.
But in a study published last month in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, Dr. Tulsky and other researchers found that doctors and patients weren’t communicating all that well about emotions.
The researchers recorded 398 conversations between 51 oncologists and 270 patients with advanced cancer. They listened for moments when patients expressed negative emotions like fear, anger or sadness, and for the doctors’ replies.
A response like “I can imagine how scary this must be for you” was considered empathetic — a “continuer” that would allow patients to keep expressing their emotions. But a comment like “Give us time; we are getting there” was labeled a “terminator” that could shut the patient down.
The team found that doctors used continuers only 22 percent of the time. Male doctors were worse at it than female ones: 48 percent of the men never used continuers, as opposed to 20 percent of the women.
Surprisingly, Dr. Tulsky said, the patients didn’t bring up emotions that often — in only 37 percent of the conversations.
“That’s extraordinary,” he said. “These are advanced cancer patients.”
The reason is not clear, but he said the patients might not expect emotional support from doctors. Feelings were most often discussed when both doctor and patient were female, and younger doctors who considered themselves more “socioemotional” than “technical” gave empathetic replies more often.
One doctor who was especially good with patients, and who often consulted on very serious cases, opened discussions with new patients by saying, “Tell me what you understand about your illness,” Dr. Tulsky said. And when patients wept, this doctor would pause and wait until they were ready to continue the discussion.
By contrast, with other doctors, Dr. Tulsky said, “There were a number of times when patients brought up emotional content and it went right by the doctors.”
For instance, a patient would say, “I’m scared,” and the doctor would go off on a “scientific riff” about the disease, Dr. Tulsky said, adding, “We saw that a lot.”
The doctors don’t lack empathy, he said. They just have trouble expressing it.
“Oncologists care deeply for their patients,” said Kathryn I. Pollak, the first author of the study and a social psychologist at Duke. “It’s clear from listening to the tapes.”
Cancer patients and oncologists have unique, intense relationships, she said, because the patients are fighting for their lives.
Even so, oncologists sometimes miss signs of distress, particularly if those signs are indirect, she said. For example, a patient may ask how big the tumors are, and the doctor may answer in millimeters — when the patient really wants to know: “Is the cancer getting worse? Am I dying?”
The good news, she and Dr. Tulsky said, is that most doctors can be taught to respond in more helpful ways. Brief, empathetic responses will suffice, the researchers said; they are not recommending extensive counseling or endless dialogue.
Patients may benefit from some coaching, too. It’s perfectly reasonable, Dr. Tulsky said, to talk to an oncologist about sadness or fears about treatment, and to ask for help.
“You’re vulnerable when you express your emotions,” Dr. Pollak said. “But I would advise patients to be as direct as possible.”
Marjorie, a formerly vibrant woman aged thirty-two, was wheeled into our pain clinic on a stretcher. She had been in a crippling car accident two years earlier. Though her broken bones had healed, no medication had been able to overcome her debilitating pain, which was so great that she had not been able to walk at all — or even to sit up — since her accident. She feared she would be crippled for the rest of her life.
After an examination, our staff became certain that she could find healing — if she made up her mind to do so. Seeking to rouse her will power, I told her forcefully: "You will walk within fifteen days! Furthermore, you may not leave this room today until you sit up on your bed!"
She protested, but eventually she tried to follow my suggestions, and was able to put her pain out of mind long enough to sit up. She then embarked on a program of physical and psychological therapy, and within ten days she was walking.
Advanced research in medicine and health care is leading toward a revolutionary understanding of chronic pain and physical suffering. During my own clinical experience of nearly fifty years, I have witnessed how this new perspective confirms the immense value of the principles and methods taught by the illumined yogis of India.
The combined practice of these principles has enabled clinical results that medicine would call miraculous, which is exactly how Marjorie and her family viewed her recovery.
Best of all, these results entail a number of strategies that any person can apply in his or her daily life to overcome the challenge of distressing pain.
Why Man Is Susceptible to Chronic Pain
Nature devised pain as a signal to warn us when some bodily function or organ has been threatened. Indeed, the fact that pain is such a universal experience in the natural world is a testimonial to its worth as a survival mechanism. However, nature did not intend that pain should be a chronic source of distress. Among all creatures, only man seems capable of the kind of irrational behavior that produces persistent suffering.
It has been said that man pays with greater misery for his more advanced central nervous structure. Medical evidence is now showing, to the contrary, that man suffers more pain because he refuses to use properly his refined nervous system, keeping it unbalanced and out of control.
In human beings, response to the pain experience is never merely a nervous reflex, as in animals; but always, even in the most acute emergencies, the ultimate expression of an intricate, integrated brain process that includes our attitudes and emotional reactions. When injury or disease strikes, it is not simply the affected limb or inner organ that hurts; one's entire psychological makeup contributes to the experience.
Let me offer a little example to illustrate this point better. If you burn your hand while holding a hot paper cup of coffee in a campground, you are likely to simply drop it and shake your hand. But if you feel the same burning from hot coffee in an expensive china cup while standing on a very precious oriental rug in the home of your boss, you are not likely to simply drop tne orfending cup, but rather you will first put it down safely and then shake your hand.
In other words, you have quickly evaluated your unpleasant feeling not only in terms of damage to your hand, but also in connection with social and emotional factors — and modulated the painful sensory input accordingly.
Learning to Use the Brain to Manage Pain
My experience with thousands of patients has shown that successful pain management depends not solely on drugs, surgery, or other physical treatment — but on development of self-control. Without self-control no athlete can win an Olympic medal, no mystic can reach an elevated state of consciousness — nor can any human being learn to cease being a victim of pain.
Sri Gyanamata* wrote: "In education not enough stress is laid upon the need for courage in the character. We must learn to endure. And the only way to learn is by enduring. In courage one sees tne Driniant tnumpn or tne soui over the flesh."
In scientific terms, "endurance" can be thought of as the extent to which we can control our response to sensory input, so that the performance of body and mind can remain unimpaired despite pain.
If we learn to use the brain properly, we can govern our sensory input and respond in a positive way to suffering. This requires will power and training in right thinking, right attitudes, right activity — the very things one learns from following the disciplines of yoga.
A quick overview of how the brain and nervous system process pain signals will help in understanding how they can be consciously controlled.
On the surface of the body and on the inner linings of the hollow internal organs (the mucous membranes), there are billions of specific sensors called "nociceptors" (from the Latin nocere, to damage). These specific sensors pick up energy patterns of sufficient magnitude to cause damage to the fabric of the human body; and encode them into a particular "nociceptive" information (information about potential bodily harm), which is relayed to the spinal cord. Here the nociceptive information is filtered or "modulated." Neural modulation reduces the intensity of the signal in order to protect the human person — and probably the animals — from the shock of an overwhelming sensory experience.
From the spinal cord, via specific neural pathways, the information is relayed to the cortical brain areas, where it is perceived and cognized as a warning signal— called "pain" — that some area of the body is damaged or malfunctioning.
That same information is also relayed to the limbic brain areas, where it is categorized as unpleasant and threatening, leading to feelings of anxiety and fear. Until there is emotional response, "pain" is merely a complex process of electrochemical signals triggered by abnormal energy patterns somewhere in the body. The transformation of useful, protective information about possible bodily damage into the experience of suffering is a psychological and emotional, rather than physical, function. It is largely caused by fear — fear of a perceived loss of something toward which the ego feels a deep sense of attachment: health, well-being, the body itself.
Replacing the "Bad Habit" of Chronic Pain
The emotional responses to pain are much more far-reaching in their effects than the physical aspect of pain. In fact, present research depicts chronic pain as a complex "bad habit" programmed into the body and mind by our own attitudes and emotions.There are several distinct components to this "habit":
1) Nerve Stimulation and Brain Response. Physically, pain begins with the stimulation of specialized nerve endings, the nociceptors, as described above. When signals from these nerves reach the brain and are interpreted as a pain message, they trigger a cascade of emotional and cognitive responses — of which fear and depression are the most frequent — which in turn drastically alter the physical functioning of the body.
2) Emotional Response. Fear and depression both lead to arousal of the ympathetic nervous system, which activates the "fight or flight" mechanisms of the body. Powerful hormones are released into the system, bringing profound mental and physical stresses. In addition, the emotional arousal of the sympathetic nervous system alters blood flow to the afflicted body part, causing complex biochemical abnormalities that usually aggravate the original pain.
3) Programming of Spinal Neurons. The emotional stress associated with pain also causes the body to release a variety of pain-suppressing substances, such as endorphins, opiate-like chemicals produced by the body to prevent pain messages from being transmitted through the nerves to the brain. These play an important role in the normal functioning of the body's pain-defense system; however, prolonged emotional upset depletes the body's supply of these substances, depriving the individual of a natural defense against pain. Moreover, certain spinal neurons, after being exposed repeatedly to offending stimuli, are known to remain active even after the stimulation has been removed. In other words, these peculiar spinal neurons can be "programmed" to evoke pain, and thus cause chronic suffering that medicine has found very difficult to cure with conventional methods.
4) Cognitive Responses. In addition to the physical and emotional responses, one's mental attitudes may be deeply altered by one's perception of pain (especially chronic pain). This often leads to a state of constant negativism, robbing the individual sufferer of any joy of living and producing the tendency to "give up" and remain inactive. Some inactivity may be necessary to provide rest to an injured bodily part for healing to occur; but when it is prolonged past the time of healing, lack of balanced activity and poor physical fitness usually lead to serious and painful consequences — such as high degrees of unconscious muscular tension, which further magnifies the experience of pain.
Pain- Control Programs — Breaking the Vicious Circle
A relatively new form of therapy, known as pain-control medicine, attempts to break this "bad habit" of chronic pain by replacing it with "good habits" of emotional control, positive thinking, proper posture, visualization and affirmation, and conscious relaxation. (See end of article)
Of course, pain-killing drugs also have value, especially in cases of injury or temporary illness. However, present clinical experience demonstrates quite clearly that the prolonged use of drugs leads to serious complications, including physical dependence. In fact, unanimous reports from competent pain-management centers document the fact that improvement of physical and mental conditions in chronic-pain patients is often possible only after they have undergone a program of drug detoxification.
Clinical research has shown that physiological therapy — deep and vigorous massage, heat or ice packs, or electrical stimulation — helps to reduce pain. However, it has been found that no technique of external physiological treatment may be expected to provide a cure for chronic pain unless the patient commits himself or herself to systematic inner changes in thoughts and behavior.
By these principles, I have seen "miracles" of emotional and spiritual healing occur even when physical cure is not possible. One young woman came to our clinic with terminal melanoma that had spread to the bones. Treatment of her cancer was in the hands of her oncologist, but we were asked to help with the pain, which in this condition is usually extreme. We could see that it was aggravated by her deep fears about dying. Through a program of visualization and deep relaxation, she gradually learned to dissociate herself from the suffering of her body, and her pain became manageable. But even more wonderful was that in the process she realized that she was something far greater than the physical body. Her fear of death vanished, and she became radiant. Toward the end she told a colleague of mine that she actually welcomed pain because it forced her to remind herself that she could transcend the limitations of the body. She passed away in joy and saintliness — a profound inspiration to our entire staff.
Increasing Your Coping Skills
Each human being has some natural capability to endure and cope with suffering and maintain normal functioning. But each individual has also a "breaking point," past which competent coping is lost, spinal modulation of noci-ceptive information is altered, and the suffering experience becomes overwhelming and disabling. In this condition, mental depression, self-pity, alienation from others, and a paralyzing fear of death set in, leading to progressive, self-damaging inactivity. Inactivity brings about a variety of physical and psychological malfunctions, known to health professionals as "the inactivity syndrome" or "disuse syndrome." (This is what we observed in Marjorie, who was mentioned at the beginning.)
Being a Self-Realization Fellowship member as well as a doctor of pain medicine have deepened my understanding of these matters. From the yogic perspective, we learn that prana is the intelligent life-force that regulates the metabolism of the cells and the proper functioning of all bodily systems. And Paramahansa Yogananda tells us that will power is the dynamo that moves and circulates that vital force throughout the body. Therefore, the sequence of events leading to the "inactivity syndrome" can be described as follows:
• As the coping skills to endure the experience of suffering break down, will power is progressively weakened.
• The flow of life force is thereby reduced, the cellular metabolism is altered, all bodily systems start to malfunction.
• As a result, the sufferer feels increasingly fatigued and unwilling to meet his or her responsibilities.
• The less he or she is active, the weaker the life force becomes, in a progressive, harmful downward trend, until a helpless state of inactivity is reached.
Decades before neuroscience empirically recognized the mental nature of pain, Paramahansa Yogananda wrote about the physical unreality of pain (for example in Discourse 7 of his monumental work, The Second Coming of Christ). Remember, as mentioned earlier, that the transformation of the perception of pain as useful information about possible damage to bodily integrity into the experience of suffering is a function of one's fears, anxieties, depression — hallmarks of the body-bound ego. Therefore, it can be said that the more one spiritualizes the ego, mastering its paralyzing fears and ungoverned reactions, the higher one's individual "breaking point" becomes. Ultimately, in pure soul consciousness, competent coping to endure prolonged, unrelenting pain becomes unbreakable — as can be seen, for example, in Sri Gyanamata: a luminous example of a soul capable of functioning with total serenity in a human body tormented by years of a painful pathological condition.
Spiritual Methods of Managing Pain
Based on my medical experience, I can say that the Self-Realization Fellowship teachings offer invaluable knowledge and practices that can immensely benefit the individual sufferer. Some have already made their way into clinical practice, as mentioned above. Others become available to those who make these teachings not just a one-time therapy, but a way of life.
First of all, there is the sacred guru-disciple relationship. Once more, the life and the letters of Sri Gyanamata, published in the book God Alone, give an inspiring example — this time of a perfect relationship between guru and disciple. The crucial key of such a relationship is total trust in and unconditioned surrender to the guru, with the conviction that his omnipresent and omnipotent power can guide the disciple in all conditions and lead him or her safely to final liberation in divine consciousness. True surrender to a Christlike guru is followed immediately by feelings of poise and serenity. Faith and surrender to the will of God are practices common to all religions; but they are cast into a higher, personal dimension by the unique guru-disciple relationship, with its covenant of unconditioned love and guidance from the guru, life after life, in return for unconditioned loyalty from the chela..
Secondly, there is the knowledge of the law of karma, fully explained in the Master's writings, particularly in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita (God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita — Royal Science of God-Realization}. The first and most common reaction of a person when confronted with pain and suffering is anger, and denial of any personal responsibility. "Why me, O God?" asks the sufferer, as if the Lord were responsible for our human misfortunes. Knowledge of the karmic law forces the sufferer to face his or her own responsibility, and invites him or her to "learn to behave" — to quote the immortal words of Sri Yukteswar — in order to minimize the suffering.
Thirdly, and foremost, is prayer and meditation. We learn from the inspiring book by Sri Daya Mata, Enter the Quiet Heart, that prayer is a gentle demand to know and love God. In the perception of divine love, a sufferer may find strength and will power to keep going or to recover a lost will to be active and meet his or her responsibilities. Meditation, on the other hand, is a loving listening to the Voice of God, whispering to the devotee in the stillness of body and mind. The Divine Voice, saints tell us, responds to our prayers in feelings of soothing, positive peace, in thrills of joy and ever expanding universal love, in flashes of intuitive wisdom, all of which eventually merge in the experience of bliss, the joy-permeated perfect tranquility of Spirit.
As mentioned earlier, suffering is the emotional, fear-based reaction of the ego to the perception of the useful pain-signal of bodily malfunction. By spiritualizing the ego, Kriya Yoga meditation gradually transforms the emotional storm into the calm waters of clear perceptions and intuitions. Some residual pain, restored to its natural meaning of a warning signal, may still be perceived. But with the calming down of the emotional storm, spinal modulation of nociceptive information is restored and the painful experience becomes manageable. Management of chronic pain may include the prudent use of physical aids such as pain-relieving medication, massage, electrical stimulation, acupuncture, and so on. The use of such treatments in addition to spiritual and mental methods of healing is mentioned by Paramahansa Yogananda in his book Scientific Healing Affirmations.
Prayer and Personal Transformation
Over the past few decades, meditation and prayer have attracted the scrutiny of empirical research. Various techniques of meditation have been studied in their beneficial capability to influence different physiological parameters; at least 500 of these studies have been published in various, peer-reviewed, scientific journals since 1970. All these studies have focused on changes in the functioning of bodily systems, which can be precisely documented and measured. But they have largely ignored the measurement of suffering, because emotional changes cannot be easily documented objectively. Yet in my own professional experience as a physician with 47 years of medical practice, mostly spent trying to help people suffering with pain, I have seen that the most common and beneficial effects of prayer and meditation are likely to be found in the transformation — often dramatic — of attitudes and mental states, rather than in physiological changes. I have witnessed hundreds of sufferers who were able through sincere prayer to evolve from conditions of dark despair, hopelessness, and fear into the radiance of acceptance, hope, and faith.
One such case of inner transformation stands most vividly in my memory: the illness and passing away of my own firstborn son.
At the age of forty-six our son was found to have a progressive, disabling, and ultimately fatal brain disease; within two years he was first wheelchair-bound and then almost completely paralyzed. Throughout the course of the illness, my wife and I shared with him the teaching of Paramahansa Yogananda about the power of prayer and positive thinking; and the process of transition from life to life, and the beauty of the astral world, as described by Sri Yukteswar in Autobiography of a Yogi. Our son received this knowledge with sincere enthusiasm; he started to pray unceasingly in the depths of his soul, and was able to keep attitudes of cheerfulness and serenity until the end. At the very moment of transition from the body, he became radiant and a gentle smile appeared on his face. At the same time, an overwhelming divine Presence was perceived by all who were in the room; instead of grief, my wife and I felt a strange, sweet joy consoling our hearts. We knew we had been given a glimpse of the joy our son was experiencing at that very moment. Of course, sadness for our loss came soon enough, but it was peaceful and mellow, as we knew beyond any doubt that our son and ourselves were safe in the divine arms.
And this is the ultimate SRF message to all who suffer: a message of hope, of life, of joy, to be realized through the practice of Kriya Yoga meditation. As we look into the magnetic, smiling eyes of the Guru, they seem to suggest: "Wake up, my chela, wake up, and rejoice; there is no suffering, no death, only changes in energy patterns, dreams within dreams."
Dr. Brena, a devoted practitioner ofPara-mahansa Yogananda's Kriya Yoga teachings for many years, is former Chairman of the Board of the Pain Control Institute of Georgia in Atlanta (now retired). He is the author of several books on fain control, including Chronic Pain: America's Hidden Epidemic, Pain and Religion, and Yoga and Medicine, and numerous scholarly articles. Dr. Brena has held professorships in several universities and is internationally respected as an authority in the field. (Publisher's Note)
Yoga Strategies for Dealing With Pain
Deep relaxation, which is one of the fundamental principles of yoga practice, has been found effective in helping to overcome pain by reducing muscular tension, a component of the vicious circle of chronic pain. Research has shown that relaxation also helps to free the patient from stress and anxiety, which aggravate pain by upsetting the body's hormone balance. One of the most widely used methods is a tense-and-relax procedure similar to the Energization Exercises formulated by Paramahansa Yoga-nanda in 1916 and taught in the Self-Realization Fellowship Lessons.
Other specific yogic techniques of mind-control that pain specialists are finding helpful include visualization and affirmation. For example, someone suffering from a headache might picture his or her head in a vise that is gradually being loosened. Mental reconstruction of a pain-relieving procedure, such as a thorough massage or a whirlpool treatment, is also effective. Repeating phrases that suggest feelings of warmth and heaviness in each body part, along with affirmations of peace and calmness, has been demonstrated to be valuable in pain control, particularly for vascular pain problems and migraine headaches.
Research has also shown that many cases of chronic pain formerly thought to require surgery can be corrected by a balanced program of physical conditioning. The resulting correction of postural and walking defects, as well as increased endurance, has been shown to contribute significantly to control of painful conditions.* Walking, and the postures taught in Ha-tha Yoga, can be especially helpful.
* Doctors at the University of Miami found that patients who prepared for back surgery by following a prescribed course of physical exercises often improved so much that surgery became unnecessary, according to U. S. News and World Report, June 29, 1987. By strengthening the muscles, tendons, and ligaments surrounding the painful back nerves, the exercise program gave these doctors an 86% success rate in treating more than 7,000 patients.
March 13, 2008
Priest-Cosmologist Wins $1.6 Million Templeton Prize
By BRENDA GOODMAN
The $1.6 million Templeton Prize, the richest award made to an individual by a philanthropic organization, was given Wednesday to Michael Heller, 72, a Roman Catholic priest, cosmologist and philosopher who has spent his life asking, and perhaps more impressively answering, questions like “Does the universe need to have a cause?”
The John Templeton Foundation, which awards grants to encourage scientific discovery on the “big questions” in science and philosophy, commended Professor Heller, who is from Poland, for his extensive writings that have “evoked new and important consideration of some of humankind’s most profound concepts.”
Much of Professor Heller’s career has been dedicated to reconciling the known scientific world with the unknowable dimensions of God.
In doing so, he has argued against a “God of the gaps” strategy for relating science and religion, a view that uses God to explain what science cannot.
Professor Heller said he believed, for example, that the religious objection to teaching evolution “is one of the greatest misunderstandings” because it “introduces a contradiction or opposition between God and chance.”
In a telephone interview, Professor Heller explained his affinity for the two fields: “I always wanted to do the most important things, and what can be more important than science and religion? Science gives us knowledge, and religion gives us meaning. Both are prerequisites of the decent existence.”
Professor Heller said he planned to use his prize to create a center for the study of science and theology at the Pontifical Academy of Theology, in Krakow, Poland, where he is a faculty member.
Professor Heller was born in 1936 in Tarnow, Poland, one of five children in a deeply religious family devoted to intellectual interests. His mother, a schoolteacher, and his father, a mechanical and electrical engineer, fled to Russia in 1939 before the Nazi occupation.
On returning years later to Poland, where Communist authorities sought to oppress intellectuals and priests, Professor Heller found shelter for his work in the Catholic Church. He was ordained at 23, but spent just one year ministering to a parish before he felt compelled to return to academia.
“It was one of the most difficult years of my life,” Professor Heller said. “This confrontation of this highly idealistic approach to life with everyday life is very painful.”
“When I was asked to attend to a dying person,” he said, “I was not prepared for life myself, so I had a difficult time to prepare someone to pass away. When you are confronted with such an immediate fact, you never think about the high goals of your life.”
The prize will be officially awarded in London by Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, in a private ceremony on May 7 at Buckingham Palace.
Scientist priest wins top prize
Herald News Services
Thursday, March 13, 2008
The world's richest annual prize has been won by a Polish physicist and Catholic priest whose research on the origins of the universe and the tension between religion and science was conducted for decades under intense Soviet-era repression.
Michal Heller will be awarded the $1.7-million Templeton Prize by Prince Philip at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace in May, the foundation that has been handing out the award since 1973 announced Wednesday.
"Michal Heller's quest for deeper understanding has led to pioneering breakthroughs in religious concepts and knowledge as well as expanding the horizons of science," said John Templeton, Jr., head of the foundation and son of the global investor and philanthropist who started the award for the study of what he considered life's biggest questions.
Templeton's father, knighted by the Queen in 1987, set the value of his award higher than the better-known Nobel prizes to underline his belief that the benefits of spiritual study outweigh those of other human endeavours.
In Heller, 72, the foundation found a winner whose religious and academic backgrounds allow him to comfortably move between the spiritual realm and many of those endeavours.
LONDON - Society is ill-prepared to handle scientific breakthroughs because it lacks understanding of human life, the Archbishop of Canterbury says.
Dr. Rowan Williams issued his warning as British MPs prepare to vote on proposed laws which will allow scientists to create hybrid human-animal embryos for research.
The head of the Anglican church says the planned reforms threaten to open the door to practices that conflict with religious belief, and said society does not have the "moral perspective" to cope with such advances.
While he welcomed the potential of science to find cures for diseases, he expressed concern at the failure to tackle implications of major discoveries.
"Man playing God is not a problem about science," he said. "It's a problem about our decisions about the results of science and we shouldn't be so much afraid of science as we should about our own inability to have a clear moral perspective on these matters."
In 30 years as a Harvard-trained brain surgeon, Dr. Allan Hamilton has not only seen disease and healing--he's also glimpsed the mystical side of medicine. After suffering a devastating back injury while serving in Desert Storm, Dr. Hamilton learned to be a patient. It infused his life with new purpose: While in a body cast, he invented a now widely-used method for treating tumors. As a medical professor at the University of Arizona, he teaches surgeons to avoid fatal mistakes. And he runs an equine-assisted therapy program for cancer patients and survivors at Rancho Bosque outside of Tucson.
Dr. Hamilton's new book is, "The Scalpel and the Soul: Encounters with Surgery, the Supernatural, and the Healing Power of Hope." He recently talked to Beliefnet about his most inspiring patients, how to stay positive in medical settings, and the spirituality they didn't teach in medical school.
What inspired you to write about your spiritual experiences as a surgeon?
I felt I had gone far enough in my career that I could say I was totally unprepared for the spiritual challenges that I encountered in taking care of my patients. When people are facing a severe illness or a major surgery, that may be may be one of the most significant opportunities for spiritual transformation that they will encounter.
So as a doctor, if you don't take that into account, you’re missing a big piece of the picture?
I tell residents, if you gave me two patients with identical problems and one of them had family at the bedside with a lot of laughter, plus photos and a quilt from home, and next door was another patient who was alone every time I came by—I’m going to be very nervous about the isolated patient's mental status.
Have you observed that affecting their physical outcome as well?
Well, there are plenty of studies that have shown that depression is associated with decreased immunity. So I want to harness all of the positive emotional energy I can in a patient to get better. If there’s not a lot of energy there, or if it's very negative, that’s going to make the task of getting them through surgery and having a good recovery much more difficult.
In the book you talk a lot about hope. There's one moving story about a patient named Donald.
That was one of the saddest experiences I have ever had as a physician, and probably one of the most insightful. This was a young man I got very close to. He was an avid fisherman. And he had a malignant brain tumor. He did very well with the surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. This was a kid with an irrepressible spirit--it was exactly the kind of shining emotion that you love to see.
And one day he took me aside and looked me square in the eye and said, “When it’s time for me to 'go fishing'--and you know what I mean--tell me.” I gave him my word that I would.
Over several more years there were problems, but we fought them off. But, finally, the tumor was really invading his brain. One morning I said, "I promised you that I would tell you when it was time to go fishing. It is now time.”
He went home, and the next morning his mother called and told me that he had died. You could say he died of his disease. He didn’t. He died because I cut his string of hope. It taught me how powerful that is, and that nobody, no physician, ever has the right to take away somebody’s hope. As well as intentioned as it might have been, I literally just snipped it, and it was a mortal snip.
But you also want to honor a request like that.
Yes, you do. In retrospect, he was saying, “You tell me when you’ve given up hope, and then I’ll give up mine.” If the conversation had been in those words, I would have said, “I’ll never give up hope.”
Can you talk about the patient whose brain had to be shut down so you could repair an aneurysm?
This is a technique that’s used on a handful of difficult cases. They put the patient on a heart pump, then cool down the blood. The heart flutters and stops. There’s no blood flow to the brain, and no electrical activity in the brain. Now you can operate on a very significant blood vessel while no blood is flowing through it.
Once the procedure is finished and you realize you’re within the time limit of 20 minutes or so, everybody breathes a sigh of relief. And then the team gets ready to slowly warm the patient up. Sometimes there’s some banter. One of the nurses said she was getting engaged, and that they had gone to this restaurant, and had gotten the ring at this particular store, etc.
When the patient woke, she reported the entire conversation. While her heart was stopped, while her brain had no activity, she somehow remembered that conversation.
And that is scientifically impossible. If the brain is essentially dead, then how can it make a memory? A case like that shakes you up. You’re getting very close to the Holy Grail: "Is this what we mean by a soul? Is this what we mean by an entity that can exist separate from the physical body and the brain?"
And what do you do with that, personally?
People think of science as rolling back the mystery of God. I look at science as slowly creeping toward the mystery of God.
Here I have an example of consciousness existing outside of the body and any physical parameters that we associate with somebody being conscious. That really changes how I look at what happens when the functions that we associate with life disappear.
How can patients preserve their spirituality in a traditional medical setting?
1) First, hospitals do not like individuality. They’re trying to turn you into a number. That’s the last thing I want. So lose the hospital gown. A gown that opens up in the back with your butt hanging out, and that is how you’re supposed to walk down the hallway to get exercise after surgery is ridiculous. Get your sweats. Get your T-shirt. Get your sneakers and start thinking like an athlete. Start thinking like somebody who’s getting better.
2) If you have your favorite quilt, sleep under that. Surround yourself with things that remind you of the positive influences in your life. I tell patients they have to take responsibility for surrounding themselves with positive energy. If you have a special picture or positive music, bring those in.
3) Create your own healing ceremonies. If prayer is important, use it. Have a family circle. Very often I’ll say, "Let’s circle up and have everybody tell the patient how important that person is to them and how they’re looking forward to them getting better."
4) Hospital food is terrible. They cook everything vital out of it. Have your family make meals and bring them in. Eat food that’s organic and in its natural, potent state, with all the minerals and vitamins.
5) Get out as soon as you can. Hospitals are bad for everybody, but they’re especially bad for people who are sick. They’re toxic. Go home where positive influences are concentrated.
How can patients coach a doctor who is not interested in any of this stuff?
One, you’ve got to have a doctor you feel comfortable with. I’m always amazed that patients are turning their lives over to somebody, and then they go, "I don’t feel comfortable with them."
The second thing is that the patient has the right to say, “Here are some things that are really important to me.” For example, many people want to have specific music played during surgery, and a lot of doctors may pooh-pooh that. I don’t. That’s the patient’s prerogative.
And last but not least, you’ve got to hire a tough guy. You appoint a guardian angel, and their job is to make sure that you are respected as an individual. If you want crystals organized on your bedside table and they’re supposed to stay that way, then you put somebody in charge of saying, “This is very important, and we are going to respect that, and so is the medical staff.”
In 2004 you had your own surgery, how did that change your view of medicine?
One of the most important experiences a physician can have is becoming a serious patient. In this case, I broke my back and had 10 hours of surgery. I lost half my blood volume during the surgery and I wasn’t sure I was going to walk again.
For so long, my identity had been wrapped up in being a surgeon, in trusting my physical strengths. Then all of a sudden, you’re just one of the people in the hallway shuffling along with a cane and you realize that the hospital staff and doctors are not looking at you anymore as a physician.
But patients began to look at me differently too. They’d give me this little secret smile, that said, “We know what we’re going through, don’t we?”
And it really changed my feelings about medical errors. I had a couple [mistakes] happen. Here I am, a surgeon in the hospital, and I still can’t stop a mistake here, a mistake there. If I can’t, how can an ordinary patient? I realized this was something that I'd to dedicate myself to.
You’re still teaching?
Yes, and I spend a lot of time working with surgeons, simulating mistakes, and asking, “How could we do this differently?” I study how jet pilots are trained. The amount of people dying in the United States due to hospital errors is the equivalent of a 747 falling out of the sky every single day, 365 days a year. [Medical error] is becoming the fourth leading cause of death. We would never set foot on a jet if that was happening every single day. And yet, we have no choice.
Is there anything you want to add?
At some point, we are all going to face a severe challenge to our mortality. And that is a very frightening moment, but it is also a moment in which there is tremendous potential to change our lives. I have not met one cancer patient who said, “I wish I could go back and not have cancer." Their values and what they wanted to do with their lives changed.
So, as terrible as a severe illness or major surgery may be, it may be the great opportunity to find your passion, figure out what is important to you, and what you're going to devote yourself to. Ultimately, that’s what we’re all looking for.
Share sacred space across traditions, author urges
"We need to evolve our sense of God once again*
CALGARY HERALD 2008/05/03
Human beings have defined the sacred in countless ways during our time on Earth.
Stuart Kauffman thinks it's high time we take our concept of what God is to a fresh understanding — one that speaks to a fractious, shrinking world where religious fundamentalists of various stripes are gaining sway.
Kauffman, a University of Calgary biologist, physicist and philosopher, has written Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason and Religion He calls it a radical shift in thinking that can bridge the gaps between the entrenched camps of reason and faith, science and religion.
"A global civilization is emerging and we need a new universal ethic of respect for all life that speaks to people across religious lines," says Kauffman, whose book will hit Canadian retailers on May 19.
"We don't have a shared sense of the sacred. We need to evolve our sense of God once again," he adds.
Kauffman, 68, describes himself as one of the billion people around the world who do not believe in a supernatural, creator God.
For Kauffman, the concept of "God" and of the "sacred" can be best described as a reverence for the infinite, ceaseless creativity found in the natural world, something that can't be reduced to hard and fast scientific laws.
He sees much more awe and reverence in the concept that the natural world has evolved in its breathtaking, sometimes chaotic complexity than in the idea that a God created it all in an orderly, six-day process.
"If I adopt this new mindset, when I look out my back door in Bragg Creek and see a beautiful hillside of trees or a stream running by, I better have a damn good reason for cutting down those trees or polluting that creek,"
"And to have this attitude, of a shared sacred space across our traditions, you don't have to give up being a Hindu, a Jew or a Christian."
Kauffman hopes Reinventing the Sacred creates a starting point for a vigorous global discussion, addressing the shortcomings he sees on both sides of the reason/faith gap.
"I don't want a religion that requires me to give up the truths of the world," says Kauffman. "We don't want a sense of a God that we will kill for, that I somehow worship the right God and you follow the wrong God."
Kauffman says the recent spate of bestsellers attacking religion, such as Christopher Kitchens' God is Not Great and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, were useful in bringing up issues, but were "profoundly inadequate."
On the other side of the equation, Kauffman says it's time humanity moves beyond the reductionism that has dominated science for centuries — that the universe is describable by natural laws . . . that we are ultimately nothing but particles in motion.
"I don't deduce my life, I live it," says Kauffman. "We are at a point in the evolution of mankind that we need to take conscious responsibility for what we deem as sacred."
As revolutionary as Kauffman believes his ideas are, he doesn't seek personal glory. He'd rather generate a "5O-year conversation" about how we view science, values, reason, economics, culture, spirituality and, yes, God.
"We need Shakespeare and Einstein in the same room," says Kauffman.
"This world view invites us all to membership, it invites us to stewardship. It's time we understand that we're part of nature. We too are God, but so is the worm, the tree and the butterfly."
May 13, 2008
The Neural Buddhists
By DAVID BROOKS
In 1996, Tom Wolfe wrote a brilliant essay called “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died,” in which he captured the militant materialism of some modern scientists.
To these self-confident researchers, the idea that the spirit might exist apart from the body is just ridiculous. Instead, everything arises from atoms. Genes shape temperament. Brain chemicals shape behavior. Assemblies of neurons create consciousness. Free will is an illusion. Human beings are “hard-wired” to do this or that. Religion is an accident.
In this materialist view, people perceive God’s existence because their brains have evolved to confabulate belief systems. You put a magnetic helmet around their heads and they will begin to think they are having a spiritual epiphany. If they suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, they will show signs of hyperreligiosity, an overexcitement of the brain tissue that leads sufferers to believe they are conversing with God.
Wolfe understood the central assertion contained in this kind of thinking: Everything is material and “the soul is dead.” He anticipated the way the genetic and neuroscience revolutions would affect public debate. They would kick off another fundamental argument over whether God exists.
Lo and behold, over the past decade, a new group of assertive atheists has done battle with defenders of faith. The two sides have argued about whether it is reasonable to conceive of a soul that survives the death of the body and about whether understanding the brain explains away or merely adds to our appreciation of the entity that created it.
The atheism debate is a textbook example of how a scientific revolution can change public culture. Just as “The Origin of Species” reshaped social thinking, just as Einstein’s theory of relativity affected art, so the revolution in neuroscience is having an effect on how people see the world.
And yet my guess is that the atheism debate is going to be a sideshow. The cognitive revolution is not going to end up undermining faith in God, it’s going end up challenging faith in the Bible.
Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.
Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.
Scientists have more respect for elevated spiritual states. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that transcendent experiences can actually be identified and measured in the brain (people experience a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, which orients us in space). The mind seems to have the ability to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real.
This new wave of research will not seep into the public realm in the form of militant atheism. Instead it will lead to what you might call neural Buddhism.
If you survey the literature (and I’d recommend books by Newberg, Daniel J. Siegel, Michael S. Gazzaniga, Jonathan Haidt, Antonio Damasio and Marc D. Hauser if you want to get up to speed), you can see that certain beliefs will spread into the wider discussion.
First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.
In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.
In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation. Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day. I’m not qualified to take sides, believe me. I’m just trying to anticipate which way the debate is headed. We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects.
"This notion of the capacity of human intellect to understand and to admire the creation of Allah will bring you happiness in your everyday lives. Of that I am certain." (GJ Darbar Irshad Mubarak, Dar es Salaam, 17th Aug, 2007)
June 1, 2008
Put a Little Science in Your Life
By BRIAN GREENE
A COUPLE of years ago I received a letter from an American soldier in Iraq. The letter began by saying that, as we’ve all become painfully aware, serving on the front lines is physically exhausting and emotionally debilitating. But the reason for his writing was to tell me that in that hostile and lonely environment, a book I’d written had become a kind of lifeline. As the book is about science — one that traces physicists’ search for nature’s deepest laws — the soldier’s letter might strike you as, well, odd.
But it’s not. Rather, it speaks to the powerful role science can play in giving life context and meaning. At the same time, the soldier’s letter emphasized something I’ve increasingly come to believe: our educational system fails to teach science in a way that allows students to integrate it into their lives.
Allow me a moment to explain.
When we consider the ubiquity of cellphones, iPods, personal computers and the Internet, it’s easy to see how science (and the technology to which it leads) is woven into the fabric of our day-to-day activities. When we benefit from CT scanners, M.R.I. devices, pacemakers and arterial stents, we can immediately appreciate how science affects the quality of our lives. When we assess the state of the world, and identify looming challenges like climate change, global pandemics, security threats and diminishing resources, we don’t hesitate in turning to science to gauge the problems and find solutions.
And when we look at the wealth of opportunities hovering on the horizon — stem cells, genomic sequencing, personalized medicine, longevity research, nanoscience, brain-machine interface, quantum computers, space technology — we realize how crucial it is to cultivate a general public that can engage with scientific issues; there’s simply no other way that as a society we will be prepared to make informed decisions on a range of issues that will shape the future.
These are the standard — and enormously important — reasons many would give in explaining why science matters.
But here’s the thing. The reason science really matters runs deeper still. Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.
As a practicing scientist, I know this from my own work and study. But I also know that you don’t have to be a scientist for science to be transformative. I’ve seen children’s eyes light up as I’ve told them about black holes and the Big Bang. I’ve spoken with high school dropouts who’ve stumbled on popular science books about the human genome project, and then returned to school with newfound purpose. And in that letter from Iraq, the soldier told me how learning about relativity and quantum physics in the dusty and dangerous environs of greater Baghdad kept him going because it revealed a deeper reality of which we’re all a part.
It’s striking that science is still widely viewed as merely a subject one studies in the classroom or an isolated body of largely esoteric knowledge that sometimes shows up in the “real” world in the form of technological or medical advances. In reality, science is a language of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination and instill a sense of connection to our lives and our world.
If science isn’t your strong suit — and for many it’s not — this side of science is something you may have rarely if ever experienced. I’ve spoken with so many people over the years whose encounters with science in school left them thinking of it as cold, distant and intimidating. They happily use the innovations that science makes possible, but feel that the science itself is just not relevant to their lives. What a shame.
Like a life without music, art or literature, a life without science is bereft of something that gives experience a rich and otherwise inaccessible dimension.
It’s one thing to go outside on a crisp, clear night and marvel at a sky full of stars. It’s another to marvel not only at the spectacle but to recognize that those stars are the result of exceedingly ordered conditions 13.7 billion years ago at the moment of the Big Bang. It’s another still to understand how those stars act as nuclear furnaces that supply the universe with carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, the raw material of life as we know it.
And it’s yet another level of experience to realize that those stars account for less than 4 percent of what’s out there — the rest being of an unknown composition, so-called dark matter and energy, which researchers are now vigorously trying to divine.
As every parent knows, children begin life as uninhibited, unabashed explorers of the unknown. From the time we can walk and talk, we want to know what things are and how they work — we begin life as little scientists. But most of us quickly lose our intrinsic scientific passion. And it’s a profound loss.
A great many studies have focused on this problem, identifying important opportunities for improving science education. Recommendations have ranged from increasing the level of training for science teachers to curriculum reforms.
But most of these studies (and their suggestions) avoid an overarching systemic issue: in teaching our students, we continually fail to activate rich opportunities for revealing the breathtaking vistas opened up by science, and instead focus on the need to gain competency with science’s underlying technical details.
In fact, many students I’ve spoken to have little sense of the big questions those technical details collectively try to answer: Where did the universe come from? How did life originate? How does the brain give rise to consciousness? Like a music curriculum that requires its students to practice scales while rarely if ever inspiring them by playing the great masterpieces, this way of teaching science squanders the chance to make students sit up in their chairs and say, “Wow, that’s science?”
In physics, just to give a sense of the raw material that’s available to be leveraged, the most revolutionary of advances have happened in the last 100 years — special relativity, general relativity, quantum mechanics — a symphony of discoveries that changed our conception of reality. More recently, the last 10 years have witnessed an upheaval in our understanding of the universe’s composition, yielding a wholly new prediction for what the cosmos will be like in the far future.
These are paradigm-shaking developments. But rare is the high school class, and rarer still is the middle school class, in which these breakthroughs are introduced. It’s much the same story in classes for biology, chemistry and mathematics.
At the root of this pedagogical approach is a firm belief in the vertical nature of science: you must master A before moving on to B. When A happened a few hundred years ago, it’s a long climb to the modern era. Certainly, when it comes to teaching the technicalities — solving this equation, balancing that reaction, grasping the discrete parts of the cell — the verticality of science is unassailable.
But science is so much more than its technical details. And with careful attention to presentation, cutting-edge insights and discoveries can be clearly and faithfully communicated to students independent of those details; in fact, those insights and discoveries are precisely the ones that can drive a young student to want to learn the details. We rob science education of life when we focus solely on results and seek to train students to solve problems and recite facts without a commensurate emphasis on transporting them out beyond the stars.
Science is the greatest of all adventure stories, one that’s been unfolding for thousands of years as we have sought to understand ourselves and our surroundings. Science needs to be taught to the young and communicated to the mature in a manner that captures this drama. We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living.
It’s the birthright of every child, it’s a necessity for every adult, to look out on the world, as the soldier in Iraq did, and see that the wonder of the cosmos transcends everything that divides us.
Brian Greene, a professor of physics at Columbia, is the author of “The Elegant Universe” and “The Fabric of the Cosmos.”
June 3, 2008
An Overflowing Five-Day Banquet of Science and Its Meanings
By DENNIS OVERBYE
It was on Friday evening, about 7 o’clock, that I began to wonder whether I would wind up hating Brian Greene and Tracy Day.
I was in a theater at the Metropolitan Museum of Art listening to Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist, author and intellectual omnivore, describe contracting cancer in an eyeball. Dr. Sacks being Dr. Sacks, he was turning the decline of his vision into insights about his brain, showing sketches of the new world he sees — the Empire State Building, for example, no longer tapering but splaying outward like a mushroom.
But just as Dr. Sacks was getting rolling, I had to go, stepping on toes, banging knees and rushing up the street to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum if I wanted to find out the answer to the burning question of what happens when you teach a dancer string theory.
Now, I could have stayed with Dr. Sacks and gone to the Guggenheim the next night, when the Armitage Gone! dance company would repeat its performance. But then I wouldn’t be able to see the debate that night by a stageful of biologists, philosophers, physicists, neuroscientists and computer scientists about what it means to be human.
Of course, seeing that show meant that I could not go to an alternative-energy forum full of visionary schemes for powering the planet.
That was the World Science Festival in New York City this past weekend: 46 shows, debates, demonstrations and parties spread over five days and 22 sites between Harlem and Greenwich Village, organized by Dr. Greene, the Columbia physicist and author, and his wife, Ms. Day, a former ABC-TV producer. Jugglers and philosophers, magicians and biologists, musicians and dancers — a feast one couldn’t hope to sample fairly.
Of course, I cannot fault Dr. Greene and Ms. Day for doing such a good job that I wanted to see much more than space and time permitted. In fact, you cannot help loving them. They are the first couple of New York science. And by their boldness and energy, they seem to have created a new cultural institution.
On Friday night, the line stretched out of the Skirball Center at New York University all the way down the block and around the corner, not for “Sex and the City” but for a scientific discussion of quantum weirdness. Most people had to be turned away. Counting a crowd estimated at 100,000 for the science street fair on Saturday, an eighth of a million people attended the festival. Every event sold out — confirmation, as Dr. Greene said, of “the public’s desire to connect with science.”
It hardly came off without a hitch. Tales were rampant in the weeks leading up to the festival of disorganization, programs planned, canceled and resurrected. The ticket lines were confusing. But the organizers got a lot of things right. The panel discussions, many of them guided by pros like Charlie Rose and Alan Alda, were for the most part actual discussions, or, better, arguments, and not a series of lectures.
There were flashy graphics everywhere.
I knew it was all working when my 6-year-old daughter, Mira, grabbed my notebook at a magic and “brain tricks” show and started taking notes.
What follows is a hop, skip and jump through that notebook, vivid impressions that leap out of a blur of 13 very different events. Detailed reports have been posted by colleagues on the blogs TierneyLab, Dot Earth and ArtsBeat.
I didn’t know quite what to expect at the Moth, an organization devoted to live storytelling, where scientists and others bravely volunteered to tell tales of experiments gone wrong. But there was James Gates, an imposing string theorist from the University of Maryland with a silvered Afro who folded his entire life as a black man and a physicist into a 10-minute tale of almost falling to his death on a mountain in Iceland. Falling off a mountain, he recalled thinking with some dismay, would be a stereotypical death for a physicist, just as being shot by the police would be for a young black, something that almost happened to him on a stroll one night through Pasadena, Calif.
“Make your own trail,” came the voice over the Icelandic mountainside when he called for help. Dr. Gates said he still doesn’t know whose voice it was.
As it happens, Dr. Gates was at the Guggenheim the next night in a more familiar role, offering physics commentary as Karole Armitage’s beautiful black-clad dancers bounced and spun off one another or melted like shadows or reflections in and out of the wings of the stage. Ms. Armitage said her dance, based on Dr. Greene’s book “Elegant Universe,” was trying to show how string theory could reconcile the quantum randomness of particles in the world with the warped space-time of Einsteinian gravity.
Which helped, a little.
At the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, organ music and the voices of the crimson-robed choir bounced off the stained-glass windows as physicists and science fans stood and swayed and clapped. Getting into the spirit, Dr. Greene took the pulpit for his introduction. “I may be a Jewish scientist,” he said, “but I would be tickled silly if one day I were reincarnated as a Baptist preacher.”
Another impression was the realization that scientists are just as confused as the rest of us with the Big Questions, like free will, God or whether we will ever solve our way out of this mess.
This came out clearly at the big Saturday night conference on what it means to be human. Dr. Greene said this was the panel that everyone wanted to be on, and it showed. It had 11 panelists, as well as the moderator, Mr. Rose.
They began by locating our humanity outside of our biological selves, in language, culture and science. But the conversation devolved back inward to ourselves as biological machines. After dismissing the threat or promise of genetically tinkering with our progeny — we do not know enough yet to know what is an improvement and what is not — the panelists turned combative about free will and morality.
If we are the product of our genes and our environment, asked Paul Nurse, a Nobel Prize-winning biologist who is president of the Rockefeller University, what becomes of free will and the sense of personal responsibility on which society and the criminal justice system are based?
Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts, argued that humans are free, which he defined as the capacity to be moved by reasons. But weren’t those reasons just part of the environment? Dr. Dennett responded that we have to build the environment so that people will do the right thing.
Morality is the elephant in the room, said Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project at the National Institutes of Health, suggesting that humans seem to have an inbred sense of right and wrong from God.
The day before, he had won huge applause for maintaining that he did not have to choose between Darwin and God. A scientist could be religious. But this time he was hammered for failing to consider that evolution could instill such values if they proved adaptive.
“Why do you prefer God to me?” asked Marvin Minsky, a computer science professor at M.I.T. and a founder of the field of artificial intelligence.
“Do you really want to know?” Dr. Collins responded.
Before long, Mr. Rose waved his arms, saying time was up. But the panelists were having too much fun. Dr. Minsky folded his arms defiantly and said, “We should just stay here and see what they do.”
The whole audience would have stayed with him. I look forward to the arguments continuing next year.
IN THE NAME OF ALLAH THE MOST COMPASSIONATE THE MOST MERCIFUL
The 2nd Conference of the International Association Muslim Psychologists
Under the patronage of his Highness Seikh Dr Sultan bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, member of the Higher Council, Governor of Sharjah, Supreme Chancellor of the University of Sharjah, the International Association Muslim Psychologists (IAOMP) is to convene its 2nd international scientific conference on the theme:
Authenticating and Indigenizing Psychological Knowledge for Consolidation of Self-Identity and Acceptance of Cultural Otherness
1. Contribute, scientifically, towards undoing the grossly stereotypical image of Muslims made by cultural others, the West in particular.
2. Indigenize and better adapt, to suit Muslim cultural and social environment.
3. Enhance awareness, among Muslim psychology scholars and students, of the need to nurturing psychological scholarship and practice within Muslim divine guidance.
4. Better network, and unite efforts of, Muslim psychologists to assist provide advanced solutions to diverse contemporary individual and societal problems and challenges.
5. Broaden the base of moderation (Wasatiya) through authentication and Islamization of psychological scholarship.
6. Engage (Muslim Psychology scholars) in dialogue within a wider international psychological scholarship environment.
1. Research conducted by contemporary Muslim psychologists: achievements, aspirations and guiding principles.
2. Muslim psychologists in practice in a globalized age.
3. Muslim psychological practice: paradigm and methods.
4. Vision(s) for future psychological research.
5. Psychological concepts between the Muslim psychological heritage and contemporary psychology.
6. Institutions of psychological scholarship and practice: An evaluation..
7. Strength and weaknesses of contemporary psychology: A scientific and civilizational perspective.
8. Evaluating psychological methods in Muslim universities: a Muslim civilizational perspective.
9. Muslim contribution for the advancement of humanity..
10. Human resource development in the Muslim world.
11. Adapting and indigenizing psychometric in a Muslim environment.
12. Islam and psychological health.
13. Phenomena of violence and extremism.
14. Giftedness in Islam.
15. Brain draining the Muslim world in the West and inter-Muslim state migration.
16. The role of Muslim psychologists in addressing societal conflicts in the Muslim world.
17. Family issues in the Muslim world.
18. Vision(s) on the identity of the modern Muslim.
19. Cross cultural psychology in the Muslim world.
1. Skills for the authentication of historical scientific manuscripts.
2. Operational adaptation of psychometrics in a Muslim environment.
1. The psychology of stereotyping religious figures.
1. Restructuring IAOMP.
Round Table Debates:
1. Ways and means to advance networking of Muslim psychologists across the countries of the Muslim world and beyond.
2. State of translation of psychological knowledge in the Muslim world.
Conference Date & Venue:
Venue: Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.
Papers are accepted in either Arabic or English. Simultaneous translation is available.
1- Departments of psychology.
2- Societies for psychological studies.
3. Psychiatric units and counseling centers in the Muslim world.
4- Related regional and international institutions.
5- Individual psychologists.
1. Papers will be presented either in the form of oral presentations or as posters. Conference Organizational Committee (COC) will determine how this later.
2. Participants are required to comply, strictly, with scientific method and tradition in writing scientific papers.
3. Only abstracts delivered to the COC on time will be published in the conference book. Those handed over after the deadline might be presented orally.
4. Abstracts shall not exceed 250 words. Abstracts exceeding this word limit will not be accepted. Participant’s full address, telephone number and email are to be stated clearly in the abstract.
5. Abstracts shall be delivered both in a hard and soft copy.
6. Papers are to focus on theoretical and applied psychological issues. Priority will be given to papers dealing with contemporary challenges in relation to psychological scholarship.
7. Conferences Scientific Committee (CSC) will inform authors whose abstracts are accepted to deliver full papers. Abstracts will be sorted out in accordance of a topical order.
8. Oral presentations shall be made in transparent slides or other multimedia to enable audience follow presentations conveniently.
9. Lecture room will be equipped with overhead projectors and relevant multimedia.
10. Time allowed for oral presentations is a maximum of 15 minutes only. Five more minutes are reserved for discussion.
1. Poster size should not exceed 180×120 cms.
2. Poster is to be designed in clear handwriting or typewritten.
3. Poster must be readable, conveniently, from a distance of one meter.
4. The author of poster is to be present at the time of poster display.
Important dates :
Delivering abstracts.20 July 2008
Revision of abstracts, and notification of authors of abstract acceptance.31 August 2008
Delivering papers full text16 November 2008
Final date for payment of registration fees and delivering completed registration forms1 December 2008
Sending out abstracts booklet and conference jacket15 December 2008
How to Contact Us?
All correspondences related to the conference both from inside and Sudan and abroad shall be addressed to:
The 2nd Conference of the International Association Muslim Psychologists,
Department of psychology, faculty of Arts, University of Khartoum
Tel/Fax : 00249 183 741893
E-mail : email@example.com
Skeptics aside, evolution and faith are compatible
Sunday, June 22, 2008
"The Bible tells you how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go," said the late Pope John Paul II, in support of the evolutionary explanation for man's origins. The late Pontiff's views should be recalled by those tempted to see evolution as inherently unfriendly to faith.
Also of help here is a new exhibit at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, which I visited back in May. The exhibit, Darwin, the Evolution Revolution, gives examples of how evolution works, whether over millions of years or in minutes under a microscope. The exhibit also addresses persistent objections to evolution from young-Earth creationists (who say the Earth is only 6,000 years old), and more subtle attacks from the Intelligent Design movement, whose proponents argue direct, divine intervention was part of the evolutionary process,, if not integral to it.
The Catholic Church, the present pontiff, and the Royal Ontario Museum have much work to do. The Intelligent Design assertion recently gained mainstream visibility thanks to a new documentary. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, opened on 1,100 American screens in April. The documentary was financed by an evangelical software millionaire from Vancouver. It stars Ben Stein, who most people will remember as the economics teacher in the 1986 film Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
Expelled opens in Canada at the end of this month, so I've not yet seen it. But reviews from scientists savage it. Ronald Bailey, writing in Reason magazine (www.reason.com/news/show/125988.html), argues the documentary gives no scientific evidence against biological evolution or for intelligent design.
Bailey points out why: "Because biological evolution is amply supported by evidence from the fossil record, molecular biology, and morphology." He gives an example from rocks: "The younger the rocks in which fossils are found, the more closely they resemble species alive today, and the older the rocks, the less resemblance there is."
Expelled attempts to argue that critics of Darwinism are discriminated against in academia. Michael Shermer disagrees. The president of the Skeptics Society appeared in Stein's documentary, albeit without initially knowing its angle. Shermer writes that "anyone who thinks that scientists do not question Darwinism has never been to an evolutionary conference" ( www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/08-04-17.html).
Shermer gives examples of scientific debate on some Darwinian notions, including from Joan Roughgarden and Cornell University evolutionary theorist William Provine (who also appears in Expelled). Shermer paraphrases Roughgarden's dissent: "Darwin's theory of sexual selection (a specific type of natural selection) is wrong in its claim that females choose mates who are more attractive and well-armed." Provine argues "Natural selection does not shape an adaptation or cause a gene to spread over a population or really do anything at all. It is instead the result of specific causes: hereditary changes, developmental causes, ecological causes, and demography. Natural selection is the result of these causes, not a cause that is by itself. It is not a mechanism."
Shermer notes those scientists object to aspects of Darwin's theory, but do so scientifically. That's not the same as a scientific objection to evolution itself, or Intelligent Design, which asserts divine design in the details, but offers no testable hypotheses. In his 2007 book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, Donald Prothero explains the difference: "Even if Darwin's mechanism, the theory of natural selection, were to be rejected by scientists, it would not change the fact that life has evolved." Evolution, writes Prothero, is "comparable to the theory of gravitation. We still do not have a full understanding of the mechanism by which gravity works, but that does not change the fact that objects still fall to the ground."
Some people feel evolution conflicts with their faith. Kenneth Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University, author of Finding Darwin's God, and who appears in a video in the Toronto exhibit, is also a devout Catholic. He argues evolution is as scientifically proven as any "theory" can be.
Then there is another, more famous Catholic whose writings are of use in such controversies. More than 16 centuries ago, St. Augustine stated in De Genesi ad Litteram that God did not create the universe as we see it now. Instead, God created all the elements in a confused and "nebulous" mass. From the mysterious seeds present in this mass, later creatures originated.
Those who object to evolution must not only ignore the scientific record; they must also object to the musings of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and St. Augustine.
Author Mark Milke's column appears every Sunday on the Herald's editorial page.
I would like to greet you Imamat Day Mubarak with the following message on love and it's enrichment of life.
"Thus from the most worldly point of view and with no comprehension of the higher life of the spirit, the lower, more terrestrial spirit makes us aware that all the treasures of this life, all that fame, wealth and health can bring are nothing beside the happiness which is created and sustained by the love of one human being for another. This great grace we can see in ordinary life as we look about us, among our acquaintances and friends."(Mowlana Sultan Muhammad Shah)
Verse from the Ginan Hu(n) re peeaassee peeaa tere darasan kee by Meeraa - Sayyid Khan
ejee parem ta(n)tav jesaa na dekhu(n) koee,
saaheb reejhe karee-e bee soee.
pareme moheaa je muvaa, teno bhalo jeeveo sa(n)saar re;
karatap aachhaa keejee-e, to saaheb la(n)ghaave paar jee.........11
I see no reality to match that of love. Do that which pleases the Master. Those who die in devotion to love live their existence well. If you perform good deeds, the Master will deliver you.
RESEARCH SHOWS EXPRESSING LOVE Is CRUCIAL TO YOUR HEALTH
Imagine getting a prescription that reads: "100 milligrams of love, twice daily, unlimited renewals." Caring, of course, can't be put in a capsule, but it can heal as powerfully as medicine. "Love is a basic human need," says Dean Ornish, M.D., author of Love and Survival: 8 Pathways to Intimacy and Health. "When we don't get it, we pay a price in how long we live and how likely we are to get sick." We may also pay a price if we don't give love. According to Stephen Post, Ph.D., professor of bioethics and religion at Ohio's Case Western University, research shows that loving acts neutralize the kind of negative emotions that adversely affect immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular function. Studies published over the past five years show that loving and helping others has health benefits, says Post. There may even be a physiological response or "helper's high" that makes people feel stronger and more energetic and counters some of the harmful effects of stress.
But beyond our need to get and give it, what is love? How do we define something as essential and invisible as air? Researchers often look at human connection as the cardinal signal of love.
Fifty years ago at the University of Wisconsin, psychologist Harry Harlow believed that affection and connection were the foundations of life. In a landmark experiment, Harlow took baby monkeys from their real mothers, giving them wire "moms" devised to deliver milk. But the youngsters would only cuddle when their surrogates were covered in a furry cloth. These monkeys thrived, while those with the bare-wire models didn't.
In the ensuing decades, scientists have taken the study of love in new directions, examining everything from the impact of a mother's smile on her baby to the healing power of hugs. An interesting discovery has been how many kinds of connections count. Ties to friends, family, work, neighbors, and community can all bolster health and happiness. One example: After hundreds of students at Carnegie Mellon University were exposed to a cold virus, those who had one to three types of social bonds were four times more likely to develop a cold than those with six or more types. Disruptions to connections also affect health, as shown by research in primate bonding, which remains a template for its human counterpart. Sally Mendoza, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, found that isolating one squirrel monkey from its group caused a sudden spike not only in that animal's stress hormones, but in the stress hormones of its fellows as well.
Meanwhile, social support appears to prolong life. A Duke University study of 1,400 people with heart disease found that those with a spouse or confidant died at one-third the rate of those who felt isolated. And Dartmouth Medical School researchers noted that participation in church or civic activities extended the lives of open-heart surgery patients.
"Other studies have since confirmed that social isolation increases the risk of early death up to five times," Ornish says. "Connection is the foundation of health. You can be sure that if a drug or a new surgical technique came out that increased survival that much, every doctor in the country would be using it."
A powerful shift is occurring in the understanding of love, declares Deborah Blum, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and author of Love at Goon Parle: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection. "The science of today puts kindness ahead of romance," she says. "The field of psychology has shifted away from Freud and sexuality to an adult view of love as responsibility and caring. The message is very clear: Taking care of each other is the nature of love."
Post couldn't agree more. His Institute for Research on Unlimited Love awards grants to study altruism in action. "My hypothesis is that voluntary, generous, helping behavior enhances health, self-esteem and happiness," he says.
Giving love allows you to ascertain who you are. "I define love as the unsought-for discovery of self through giving," Post says. He sees love as our indestructible core, an insight he confirmed when he began to work with Alzheimer's sufferers. "People with cognitive deficits are incredibly sensitive to affection. Any person can respond profoundly to love."
Post recalls one Alzheimer's patient who handed him a twig with a big smile. "If love was wind, you'd have been blown off your chair by the love in his eyes," he says. "I learned that when he was a little boy he adored his father, and his morning chore was to bring in kindling for the fireplace."
Extend and Connect
So how do we "self-medicate" with love? You can begin with a simple exercise in awareness: Choose a neutral person in your world, perhaps someone who sells you a morning coffee, and think of that person with compassion. "This practice awakens feelings of resonance and joy, which actually changes your biology [by releasing the chemical dopamine in the brain]," says Sally Severino, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico.
Move on to visualizing those closest to you with compassion. "The key is to cultivate a feeling of joy when you connect with others," says University of California at Los Angeles psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D. His brain-imaging studies have shown that compassionate practices stabilize and balance brain function, sometimes as effectively as medications such as antidepressants.
Finally, remember that love takes many forms, and that connection is more than romantic love. Expand your circle of love into a friendship toward all living things.
"I used to feel loved because I thought I was special," says Ornish. "Now I feel special because I am loved and because I can love."
Your Rx For Love
Here are some simple actions to bring more love into your life.
Do small things with great kindness. To get started in a more generous life, be a sincerely attentive presence and a good and em-pathetic listener wherever you are,
says bioethicist Stephen Post.
Volunteer. Anything that will help us freely transcend the boundaries of separateness is joyful, according to cardiologist and author Dean Ornish. Studies of volunteers have determined that not only do they tend to live longer, they often feel better, sometimes reporting a burst of feel-good endorphins as they're helping others.
Touch and be touched. "Touching is intimate," says Ornish. "Lack of human contact can lead to profound isolation and illness. Give someone a pat on the back or a hug when they've done a good job — or even when they haven't.
Avoid rudeness. Realize that when you are rude to people, they feel as if they don't matter. It reverberates down to the very core of their being, says Post. "Instead, be courteous to others, affirming that their existence is meaningful and worthy of attention."
Love, and do what you will.
Echoing the philosophy of St. Augustine, psychiatrist Sally Severino says, "If you can get yourself into a state of love, no matter what you do, it's going to be good."
July 15, 2008
The Luxurious Growth
By DAVID BROOKS
We all know the story of Dr. Frankenstein, the scientist so caught up in his own research that he arrogantly tried to create new life and a new man. Today, if you look at people who study how genetics shape human behavior, you find a collection of anti-Frankensteins. As the research moves along, the scientists grow more modest about what we are close to knowing and achieving.
It wasn’t long ago that headlines were blaring about the discovery of an aggression gene, a happiness gene or a depression gene. The implication was obvious: We’re beginning to understand the wellsprings of human behavior, and it won’t be long before we can begin to intervene to enhance or transform human life.
Few talk that way now. There seems to be a general feeling, as a Hastings Center working group put it, that “behavioral genetics will never explain as much of human behavior as was once promised.”
Studies designed to link specific genes to behavior have failed to find anything larger than very small associations. It’s now clear that one gene almost never leads to one trait. Instead, a specific trait may be the result of the interplay of hundreds of different genes interacting with an infinitude of environmental factors.
First, there is the complexity of the genetic process. As Jim J. Manzi pointed out in a recent essay in National Review, if a trait like aggressiveness is influenced by just 100 genes, and each of those genes can be turned on or off, then there are a trillion trillion possible combinations of these gene states.
Second, because genes respond to environmental signals, there’s the complexity of the world around. Prof. Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia, conducted research showing that growing up in an impoverished environment harms I.Q. He was asked what specific interventions would help children realize their potential. But, he noted, that he had no good reply. Poverty as a whole has this important impact on people, but when you try to dissect poverty and find out which specific elements have the biggest impact, you find that no single factor really explains very much. It’s possible to detect the total outcome of a general situation. It’s harder to draw a linear relationship showing cause and effect.
Third, there is the fuzziness of the words we use to describe ourselves. We talk about depression, anxiety and happiness, but it’s not clear how the words that we use to describe what we feel correspond to biological processes. It could be that we use one word, depression, to describe many different things, or perhaps depression is merely a symptom of deeper processes that we’re not aware of. In the current issue of Nature, there is an essay about the arguments between geneticists and neuroscientists as they try to figure out exactly what it is that they are talking about.
The bottom line is this: For a time, it seemed as if we were about to use the bright beam of science to illuminate the murky world of human action. Instead, as Turkheimer writes in his chapter in the book, “Wrestling With Behavioral Genetics,” science finds itself enmeshed with social science and the humanities in what researchers call the Gloomy Prospect, the ineffable mystery of why people do what they do.
The prospect may be gloomy for those who seek to understand human behavior, but the flip side is the reminder that each of us is a Luxurious Growth. Our lives are not determined by uniform processes. Instead, human behavior is complex, nonlinear and unpredictable. The Brave New World is far away. Novels and history can still produce insights into human behavior that science can’t match.
Just as important is the implication for politics. Starting in the late 19th century, eugenicists used primitive ideas about genetics to try to re-engineer the human race. In the 20th century, communists used primitive ideas about “scientific materialism” to try to re-engineer a New Soviet Man.
Today, we have access to our own genetic recipe. But we seem not to be falling into the arrogant temptation — to try to re-engineer society on the basis of what we think we know. Saying farewell to the sort of horrible social engineering projects that dominated the 20th century is a major example of human progress.
We can strive to eliminate that multivariate thing we call poverty. We can take people out of environments that (somehow) produce bad outcomes and try to immerse them into environments that (somehow) produce better ones. But we’re not close to understanding how A leads to B, and probably never will be.
This age of tremendous scientific achievement has underlined an ancient philosophic truth — that there are severe limits to what we know and can know; that the best political actions are incremental, respectful toward accumulated practice and more attuned to particular circumstances than universal laws.
Doctors must always have right to follow conscience
Friday, August 22, 2008
Some 2,500 years ago, doctors were both healers and killers. Abortion and euthanasia were commonplace, and the type of medical service rendered depended on who was paying the bill or how the 'payee' asked the 'doctor' to take care of the patient. That ended in 400 BC, when a Greek physician named Hippocrates decided that patients deserved better and wrote an oath to affirm the sanctity of life and the doctor's duty to protect it.
Doctors who took the Hippocratic oath could then offer patients an element of trust and care that was previously non-existent and, for obvious reasons, Hippocratic physicians became the physicians of choice.
Well-known anthropologist Margaret Mead commented on this marked shift in the physician's role by saying, "For the first time in our tradition there was a complete separation between killing and curing. Throughout the primitive world, the doctor and sorcerer tended to be the same person. He with the power to kill had power to cure . . . (but now) One profession . . . (would) be dedicated completely to life under all circumstances . . .
"This is a priceless possession which we cannot afford to tarnish, but society is always attempting to make the physician into a killer -- to kill the defective child at birth, to leave the sleeping pills beside the bed of the cancer patient . . . it is the duty of society to protect the physician from such requests."
This oath became an important symbol of a doctor's integrity and commitment to protect life at all stages. But as with most traditions, it has increasingly fallen out of favour with medical schools. So, too, society seems to have come full circle in terms of its expectations of physicians -- the sanctity of life is no longer as important as our own convenience and demands.
The proof of this is in a draft proposal put forth by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario that will severely compromise the ethical integrity of physicians by limiting their ability to practice according to their own freedom of conscience and moral/religious beliefs. It would force physicians to set aside their moral consciences to fulfil all demands by all patients -- including providing or assisting patients in obtaining morally controversial services such as abortion, birth control and reproductive technologies for same-sex couples.
If physicians ignore the guidelines, they would be considered to have contravened the human rights code and their licences could be suspended; not because of incompetence or inappropriate activities -- but because of their religious beliefs.
Such tolerance is coming to Ontario physicians, courtesy of their government and its plan to expand the scope of the Ontario Human Rights Commission and increase the number of cases it hears from 150 to 3,000 per year. Sadly, this has motivated the commission to insert its misguided, Orwellian human rights policies into the realm of the physician-patient relationship.
Of course, a 2,000 per cent increase in cases doesn't equal a 2,000 per cent increase in human rights. Rights remain a very circular concept in that there are only so many to go around. Giving more rights to one group inevitably means taking rights from another. That means the commission will be taking away a whole bunch of rights from unsuspecting Ontarians. In this case, it's the physicians who lose.
All of this is disturbing on many levels. The college knew this would be controversial. A 2006 guest editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that called for all physicians to be forced to make referrals for abortion generated such a firestorm that the CMA's director of ethics had to publish a statement saying CMA policy would not require this, since it would violate the conscientious or religious beliefs of many physicians.
Yet, in an indication of how much tolerance and freedom this new era of rights will bring, the college developed this proposal behind closed doors. There were no press releases and, despite placing an Aug. 15 deadline on consultations with physicians, no attempt was made to inform physician groups that will be most affected by/and want to comment on the policy. Since this proposal only came to light on Aug. 14, the college has now graciously responded to outraged demands by extending the consultation deadline to Sept. 12.
Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of conscience to all Canadians. Yet, for some reason, the college (that should be defending the rights of its members) is eager to prematurely cede these rights at the mere suggestion of a human rights complaint. This willingness to give up suggests that college leaders may be moonlighting as motivational speakers for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The fact is that every physician operates on some sort of moral framework, whether it be religious or secular or adamantly anti-religious. Just as one physician might encourage a patient to consider other options than abortion, another physician may withhold such information and suggest abortion is the only option. If we discriminate against one doctor's framework for practising medicine, we will inevitably discriminate against others. No doctor will be safe to practise or offer any human interpretation of, or context to, the medical facts.
It's no wonder evangelical atheists need to shout so loud Every faith, the dogmatic atheists say, contains a seed of violence and torment
For The Calgary Herald
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
The shining example of free thinking said to characterize the French Enlightenment was Voltaire. In the face of dogmatic clerics, both Protestant and Catholic, he urged reasonable people everywhere to "crush the infamous thing."
His argument was as obvious then as it is today: organized religion not only divides humanity into believers and infidels, it authorizes the former, with a beatific smile, to extinguish the latter. Often religion claims to be doing so for the good of the infidel.
That Voltaire had Christianity in mind is indicated by a rather more vulgar expression from his pen: "the people will not be free until the last king is strangled in the guts of the last priest."
Modern would-be Voltaires such as Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins are just as strident in their hatred of religion in general and revealed religion in particular.
For my money, their arguments don't amount to a hill of beans. They simply oppose one dogma with another. Truth to tell, such analysis as they advance has little to do with serious and existentially commanding descriptions of religious experience. Their questions like those of the village atheist are just plain silly: can an omnipotent God make a rock bigger than he can lift?
So the question that comes to mind is: why are they shouting so loudly?
The two most obvious explanations are, first, that they think their opponents are so powerful that they must amplify their own arguments just to get a hearing.
Second, they know full well that their own arguments are so weak that they have to obscure this fact with a high-decibel diversion.
True, these "evangelical atheists," as Roger Scruton called them, do think religion is both powerful and malign. They can point to Islamists for contemporary proof, but add that the current crop of fanatics has hordes of angelic predecessors, stretching back to antiquity.
Every faith, the dogmatic atheists say, contains a seed of violence and torment, even (or especially) among those who see in their religion a command to love their neighbours, including neighbours as obnoxious as these atheist critics.
In short, the atheists' dogmatism is as much an expression of the weakness of their position as is the dogmatism of the believers.
We can see it all on a daily basis, played out in the letters pages of this and many other newspapers, with the heated and mutual denunciations of the atheist Darwinians versus the Creationists of the supporters of Intelligent Design.
To use Dawkins' formula, we are machines that ensure the survival of our genes, which are nothing but complicated molecules that obey the laws of organic chemistry. They emerged one fine day, the story goes, from the primordial soup. How that actually happened in detail is so far unknown, but science, not religion, will one day explain.
What Dawkins and his pals don't seem to get is that religious people are quite happy to think of themselves, for purposes of genetic biology, as survival machines for genes. But they have a few other questions to ask.
They wonder, for example, where the first gene, selfish or not, came from. Or, if it came from the soup, where did the soup come from? Or the universe as a whole?
When the atheists reply, "The Big Bang," the curious have one more question: what caused the Big Bang?
The answer of physicists is clear: close to the "time" of the Big Bang, the number of unknowns in our matrix of mathematical equations is greater than the number of knowns. This means there is no unique mathematical solution. Which is to say: if there is an answer, physics cannot provide it.
Karl Marx, who was equally dogmatic regarding such questions, said that even raising such questions was a waste of time. They were, he said, "abstract."
And then he told his inquirer to shut up. "Socialist man," he famously declared, "does not ask such questions." That is probably true. Socialist man does not wonder about where it all came from.
The problem, however, is that some people find raising the question, even if they don't know the answer, a meaningful act. They are going to wonder about such things whether Marx or Christopher Hitchens approves.
Wondering means tolerating mysteries. Interestingly enough, it was Socrates, not some religious fanatic so pilloried by the evangelical atheists, who said that philosophy begins in wonder.
Wonder is something enlightened atheists never could abide. No wonder they shout so much.
Barry Cooper, PhD, is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario has issued a draft policy entitled "Physicians and the Ontario Human Rights Code." It deals with physicians' obligations with respect to engaging in medical acts to which they may have a conscientious objection and referring patients for such procedures.
Now, it seems, this matter is also under consideration in Alberta. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta began a consultation process Sept. 2, which ends Nov. 3, and, it's reported, physicians' freedom of conscience will be considered. What happens in Ontario is of more than usual importance to all of us.
The Ontario policy states "physicians should be aware that decisions to restrict medical services offered, to accept individuals as patients or to end physician-patient relationships that are based on moral or religious belief may contravene the code, and/or constitute professional misconduct."
The Ontario Human Rights Commission elaborated on the policy by pointing out that a refusal to provide a service requested by the patient can only be justified if the physician does not have the "clinical competence" to perform it and that a duty to refer exists in such cases. The commission also warns that "physicians should not express personal judgments about the beliefs, lifestyle, identity or characteristics of the patient or potential patient."
The College also puts physicians on notice that if their conduct constitutes discrimination under the human rights code, there is no defence based on moral or religious belief: A "physician's refusal . . . on the basis of a prohibited ground is prima facie discrimination, even if the refusal is based on the physician's moral or religious belief. This means that the physician could be subject to a human rights complaint."
If the physician's refusal is also professional misconduct, it would result in disciplinary proceedings and penalties ranging from reprimands to fines and loss of a licence.
The Ontario Medical Association has spoken out against the policy, which is scheduled to be voted on by the college today. The college says they have modified the policy to take account of the association's concerns, but are reported to be refusing to release the modified document before it is voted on.
What led to this approach and what might be the consequences of adopting it?
First, it reflects a recently emerging view that physicians are mere technicians able to provide services that patients want and have a right to access. Physicians have a duty to provide these services and no right to bring their moral or ethical reservations into play. To do so is discrimination.
Think of having your car repaired: For a mechanic to refuse to service your car just because you were a woman would be discrimination and a human rights offence. Some say physicians' refusal of medical services for moral or ethical reasons is the same thing.
Unlike the mechanic, however, a physician who refuses to be involved in abortion is not providing the service to one patient but not another, or basing his refusal on any characteristic of the patient. He is refusing the service to all patients because he believes it is morally and ethically wrong.
Unlike medicine, usually car repairs don't raise moral and ethical issues. But what if you were a bank robber preparing a getaway car and told the mechanic that? Suddenly, automotive repair would become an ethical and moral issue. Would a refusal still be wrong or might it even be required? And referring the bank robber to another mechanic would make you complicit in the wrongdoing.
The practice of medicine always and unavoidably involves ethical and moral issues. It's only when something goes wrong or there is a conflict of values that the ethical issues flash up on the big screen. Treating physicians as mere technicians fails completely to take that omnipresent ethical aspect into account.
It is also the antithesis of the traditional concept of a physician, as a professional with ethical and legal obligations to exercise good judgment. Most notable among those obligations is to first do no harm, which means that a physician may not simply fulfil a patient's request, but must make an independent judgment as to its acceptability.
Treating physicians as technicians can result in an argument that bizarre requests be fulfilled: For instance, some people argue that if a person wants a healthy right leg amputated, he or she has a right to do so. On a more everyday level, patients' lifestyle choices -- the commission warns failure to honour them could be discrimination -- can be a problem. Some women who rejected physicians' advice to change their diet if they wanted to lose weight and instead demanded Phenphen, a weight-loss drug, died as a result.
Treating physicians as technicians denies that respect is required for physicians' freedom of conscience. Such an understanding of the physician-patient relationship would do a great disservice to patients because maintaining respect in any encounter requires that respect be mutual.
In stark contrast to fostering such respect, here's the commission's startling view of a physician's obligation: "It is the commission's position that doctors, as providers of services that are not religious in nature, must essentially 'check their personal views at the door' in providing medical care." The commission makes clear that physicians' "personal views" include their ethical and moral beliefs and values. That raises serious problems for physicians, but also for patients: Would we want to be treated by a physician who complied with a directive to "park your ethics and values with your car outside the surgery?"
The problem lies in classifying as discrimination a refusal to provide or refer for a service, such as abortion, euthanasia or artificial reproduction, that the physician -- and many other Canadians -- believe is wrong.
In Canada, pro-choice advocates are not content with having the freedom to act according to their values; they want to make others act likewise. And they want their beliefs publicly affirmed. These people claim freedom of values for themselves, but refuse to respect others' freedom. That's why they will not tolerate a respect-for-freedom-of-conscience exception. No matter what our values or views, we should all be concerned by such totalitarianism.
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Prof. Margaret Somerville holds professorships in the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University and was the founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law.
ANCIENT MYTH AND MODERN SCIENCE
John David Ebert
Published in the Parabola magazine, Fall 2008
HISTORICALLY, THE CONFLICT BETWEEN MYTH AND SCIENCE, according to Joseph Campbell, involved a discrediting of visionary cosmologies in favor of one based upon "fact." In his essay "The Symbol Without Meaning," Campbell described how science gradually disentangled itself from the mythological projections of the medieval imagination through the discoveries of men like Columbus and Copernicus, which amounted to the "drawing of a distinct dividing plane between the world of dream consciousness and that of waking." As a result, "mythological cosmologies... do not correspond to the world of gross facts but are functions of dream and vision," which means, for Campbell, that myths are projections of the human psyche onto the canvas of the universe. Their validity, consequently, is restricted to the psyche, and all myths are to be regarded as metaphors symbolic of, on the one hand, the mysteries of Being, and on the other, transformations of human consciousness.
Suppose, however, we discard Campbell's insistence that myths have been cosmologically disqualified by science, and actually read them, instead, in terms of scientific narratives. Is it possible that we may find visions of cosmological knowledge once stored by archaic societies but now rediscovered by modern science?
In the BRIHADHARANYAKA UPANISHAD, we find the myth of the Great Self whose cosmic loneliness is so immense that it splits into two beings, the first man and first woman. The woman changes herself into a cow, the man transforms into a bull, and together they produce all the cattle. Then she turns into a mare, he into a stallion, and so on. Finally, the man has a revelation when he realizes that all the phenomena of the world have come forth from himself. "Verily," he concludes, "I am all this that I have poured forth!"
The Hindu image of the cosmos as the body of a single living Being is a vision sprung from the depths of thousands of years of yogic practice, going back as far as Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. Indeed, the entire civilization, in contrast with the West, has been inward-turned all along, as a comparison of the eye-motifs of Hindu sculpture with those of the Greeks reveals, for the eyes of the gods and heroes of Indian art are always closed, whereas those of the West are wide open. I would like to suggest that this particular creation myth—and there are thousands of them in Hindu sacred literature—may be rooted in a visionary transformation of cellular mitosis that came to some rishi while in trance. Mitosis is the process whereby living forms grow, as one cell splits into two, two into four, and so on. This organic movement from center to periphery, and from less form to more, would then be a deep structure1 shared by the Hindu creation myth with Western scientific knowledge.
In his book THE BODY OF MYTH: MYTHOLOGY, SACRED TRANCE, AND THE SACRED GEOGRAPHY OF THE BODY (1994), physicist J. Nigro Sansonese develops his thesis that all "myth describes a systematic exploration of the human body by the privileged members of archaic cultures." Myths, according to Sansonese, are encoded descriptions of physiological processes envisioned by yogis and shamans in trance states. He describes, for example, how the myth of Perseus slaying the Kraken by showing it the head of Medusa and turning it to stone is actually a description of the stopping of the heart along the vagus nerve that connects it to the visual centers at the back of the brain. The monster with all its tentacles is the vagus nerve itself, while the head of the Medusa with its snakes is "a description of the brain and its twelve cranial nerves." And the entire story, then, describes how the yogi stops the beating of his own heart while in samadhi.
If Sansonese's theory is correct, then a deep structure shared by the Hindu creation myth with the process of cellular mitosis might in fact exist. If it is possible that visualizations of interior physiological processes can manifest to yogis in trance states, then it is certainly worth considering that the Hindu creation myth is, on one level anyway, a visualization of a somatic process.
The same goes for shamanic trance states, as Jeremy Narby describes in his elegant book, THE COSMIC SERPENT: DNA AND THE ORIGINS OF KNOWLEDGE (1998). Narby is an eth-nobotanist who wondered whether it could be true, as Amazonian tribesmen claimed, that their extensive botanical knowledge originated in trance states induced by ayabauscci, a psychoactive infusion derived from an Amazonian vine. The more he thought about the structural isomorphism shared by the double helix of DNA with the images of snakes and ladders universal to shamanism, the more he began to suspect that the serpents and geometrical patterns of shamanic iconography might actually be proprioceptions of DNA and intracellular activity. In the book, Narby details a series of paintings inspired by ayahuasca visions that he showed to a friend conversant with molecular biology. His friend identified the geometric patterns as unravelled DNA, chromosomes during specific phases of mitosis, triple helix collagen structures, and so on. In other words, Narby discerned the deep structures shared by shamanic trance visions with scientific knowledge of the soma.2 Thus, perhaps, Western civilization has arrived at knowledge by way of technological extensions of sensory organs that tribal peoples have long ago arrived at through proprioceptions during meditation and trance.
It is important to point out that the metaphysical and spiritual implications of myth are in no way reduced to a biological function in these examples. Whereas a Jungian reading, for example, might offer a cross-cultural comparison, the point of this exercise is rather to develop new organs of perception with which to view ancient myths in a way that compares to, or enhances, a Jungian approach. If Narby and Sansonese are right, then the realization of these mythic images as micromyths of cellular processes should induce us to study myths in a new way, for it will be seen that science does not render myth obsolete, and that the tribal wisdom of indigenous societies whose scientific systems are rooted in myth can be taken seriously, rather than disparaged.
One of the primary functions of mythology—what Joseph Campbell called its "cosmological function"—is to project a world picture onto the universe that is consistent with the knowledge of the time. The Christian cosmographer Cosmas, for example, in the sixth century imagined that the universe was a sort of gigantic chest in which the sun and moon revolved around a single enormous mountain that stood up like a monolith from out of a flat earth surrounded by water. Of course the Greeks had long since deduced the rotundity of the earth, and had even drawn up rough draft sketches of the theory of evolution and the heliocentric hypothesis, both of which were discarded, just as the Christians discarded the world image of the Greeks since, in both cases, the images clashed with the respective spiritual dispositions of each culture.
Today we turn to science for our knowledge of what the universe looks like, and when we turn to examine certain scientific narratives of the origins of things with an eye for the deep structures that these narratives might have in common with ancient myths, we find surprising parallels. An example is the current scientific story of the creation of the universe. The idea of what has come to be known as the Big Bang was first put forth by a Catholic priest, the Abbe Georges Lemaitre, who in 1927 suggested that the universe might have arisen from a sort of "primal atom" of matter and energy. The idea of the emergence of the universe from a cosmic egg is, however, a mythological one as well, found all over the world. Here is another creation myth from the UPANISHADS:
In the beginning, this world was nonbeing. This nonbeing became being. It developed. It turned into an egg. It lay there for a year. It burst asunder. One part of the eggshell was of silver, the other part was of gold.
The silver part is the earth, the golden part is the sky...3
Here is a Tibetan creation myth:
From the essence of the five primordial elements a great egg came forth... Eighteen eggs came forth from the yolk of that great egg. The egg in the middle of the eighteen eggs, a conch egg, separated from the others. From this conch egg, limbs grew, and then the five senses, all perfect, and it became a boy of such extraordinary beauty that he seemed the fulfillment of every wish.. .4
And an Orphic creation myth from Greece:
.. .black-winged Night, a goddess of whom even Zeus stands in awe, was courted by the Wind and laid a silver egg in the womb of Darkness; and... Eros, whom some call Phanes, was hatched from this egg and set the universe in motion.5
THUS LEMAITRE, when describing his theory of the origin of the universe from a cosmic egg, may have been subconsciously evoking a mythological image. Then there is the deep structure shared by ancient creation myths with current narratives of the origins of life on this planet. On the first page of his THE FIFTH MIRACLE: THE SEARCH FOR THE ORIGIN AND MEANING OF LIFE, physicist Paul Davies describes two theories about the origins of the first microbes. The old idea of cells emerging on the surface of the ocean in the presence of sunlight, he insists, is made obsolete by new evidence, for "it now appears lat the first terrestrial organisms lived deep underground, entombed within geothermally heated rocks in pressure-cooker conditions. Only later did they migrate to the surface." Several pages later, he says that "our oldest ancestors did not crawl out of the slime so much as ascend from the sulfurous underworld."6
As anyone familiar with Native American myth knows, the common
narrative for the origins of life involves the myth of emergence from the underworld. It is particularly widespread amongst the tribes of the Southwest— for example among the Hopi, whose famous kivas are miniaturizations of this underworld. In a Navaho myth, the first people are in danger of being drowned by a flood, and as the waters rise, they and all the other animals climb onto a gigantic reed that grows up to the world ceiling, from whence the First Man digs his way through to this, the upper world, in which we are presently dwelling.
On the same page, Davies suggests an exactly opposed theory for the origins of life, and, along with it, invokes an equally opposite mythological cosmogony when he says that life may have been brought to the earth from the heavens by meteorites from Mars that may have crashed into its Hadean oceans. The deep structure here is isomorphic with the creation myth of the sky father, one example of which is on the first page of the BOOK OF GENESIS, in which God infuses the watery abyss with the Spirit. That image, in turn, was embedded in an older Mesopotamian cosmology that associated the heavens with the realm of the gods and the earth with clay that required an external agency from above to give it form.
In NARRATIVES OF HUMAN EVOLUTION (1991), bioanthropologist Misia Landau examines a series of accounts of hominization from Darwin to Leakey and discovers that they all share in common the hidden narrative pattern of the hero myth. Using Vladimir Propp's MORPHOLOGY OF THE FOLKTALE (1928) as a stencil, she makes visible within these so-called "objective" narratives the presence of the hero myth as described in folk tales. According to Propp, the formula is of a humble hero who departs on a journey, receives magical aid from a donor figure, survives a series of tests and trials, and arrives at some sort of an apotheosis. Landau shows how, in scientific narratives of human evolution, the hero is the nonhu-man primate who departs from his arboreal habitat with the aid of natural selection and who is tried and tested by competition from other animals, harsh climate, and predation, but eventually arrives at an apotheosis in the achievement of the upright posture of humanity.
Upon examining scientific narratives of three key points in the quest for the origins of things—of the cosmos, of life upon the earth, and of the human from the animal—we discover structural isomorphisms with the ancient myths of the cosmic egg, emergence from the underworld, creation from the heavens, and the hero myth. Apparently, scientists are mythologizing more often than they realize when telling their accounts of the origin and evolution of things.
It is probable that we will never know precisely what "happened" at these key points in the evolution of the cosmos, because they involve knowledge of something that transcends the capacity of the human intellect to grasp. For whenever we pose such questions as "Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?" we are postulating eternal questions that can be answered only in terms of the complex language of myth. When the human mind goes in quest of origins, it strains its limits and begins to crack, while myth comes rushing along to fill in the gap. Perhaps Immanuel Kant was right: we cannot know the world as it is in itself, but only through the human mind's mythological schemata, for between ourselves and "reality" the screen of myth always structures our perceptions.
I have borrowed the term "deep structure" from a footnote in William Irwin Thompson's IMAGINARY LANDSCAPE: MAKING WORLDS OF MYTH AND SCIENCE (1989), p. 49. I subsequently discovered that the term was invented by Noam Chomsky, and is nor mally polarized against "surface structure" in his linguistic theory. But the term is also used in a different sense by Ken Wilber in his SEX. ECOLOGY.SPIRITUALITY in reference to the form or morphogenetic field of a holon. See p. 60 for his discussion.
2 The visionary artwork of Australian aborigines, likewise, is filled with such proprioceptions of subcellular microstructures, and should be especially studied along with the artwork of South American shamans in connection with the theory of deep structures.
3 Cited in Erich Neumann, THE ORIGINS AND HISTORY OF CONSCIOUSNESS, p. 107 (Princeton-Bollingen, 1970).
4 Cited in Mircea Eliade, MYTH AND REALITY, p. 22 (Harper Torchbooks 1975).
5 Robert Graves, THE GREEK MYTHS (Penguin Books,1955) p. 30.
6 Paul Davies, THE FIFTH MIRACLE: THE SEARCH FOR THE ORIGIN AND MEANING OF LIFE (Simon & Schuster,2000), pp. 11; 26.
YOGA AND MODERN SCIENCE
Published in the Fall 2008 SRF Magazine
Can Meditation Affect Your Health at the Genetic Level?
"It really is time to stop thinking of our DNA as immutable. Even thinking can change it."
It turns out peaceful thoughts really can influence our bodies, right down to the instructions we receive from our DNA, according to a new study," reported ABC News recently. And The Washington Post reports that researchers involved in the study "say they've taken a significant stride forward in understanding how relaxation techniques such as meditation, prayer, and yoga improve health: by changing patterns of gene activity that affect how the body responds to stress."*
The collaborative investigation by members of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/ Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Genomics Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center was published in the journal of the Public Library of Science, PLoS ONE.!
Scientists have long known that there are particular genes that predispose a person to specific diseases and health disorders — but that merely carrying a breast-cancer gene, for example, does not guarantee the onset of that condition. Genes can be turned on or off by various factors, which means they may or may not express the instructions carried in their DNA.
"Now we've found how changing the activity of the mind can alter the way basic genetic instructions are implemented," states Harvard Medical School professor Herbert Benson, M.D., co-senior author of the PloS ONE report. "The mind can actively turn on and turn off genes."
Towia Libermann, Ph.D., director of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Genomics Center and the report's co-senior author, adds, "This is the first comprehensive study of how the mind can affect gene expression, linking what has been looked on as a 'soft' science with the 'hard' science of genomics."
"Mind-body practices that elicit the relaxation response (such as meditation, repetitive prayer, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, etc.) have been used worldwide for millennia to prevent and treat disease," the research report said. "This study provides the first compelling evidence that the relaxation response elicits specific gene expression changes in short-term and long-term practitioners."
The study indicated that the relaxation response alters the expression of genes involved with processes such as inflammation, programmed cell death (which can keep genetically impaired cells from turning into cancers), and how the body handles free radicals — molecules produced by normal metabolism that, if not appropriately neutralized, can damage cells and tissues.
According to the ABC News summary: "Researchers for the study took blood samples from a group of nineteen people who habitually meditated or prayed for years, and nineteen others who never meditated. The researchers ran genomic analyses of the blood and found that the meditating group suppressed more than twice the number of stress-related genes—about 1,000 of them—than the non-meditating group. The more these stress-related genes are expressed, the more the body will have a stress response like high blood pressure or inflammation. Over long periods of time, these stress responses can worsen high blood pressure, pain syndromes, and other conditions.
"The nonmeditating group then spent ten minutes a day for eight weeks training in relaxation techniques that involved repeating a prayer, thought, sound, phrase, or movement. By the end of the training, the novice meditating group was also suppressing stress-related genes, although at lower levels than those of the long-term meditating people."
In their Public Library of Science report, the researchers stated: "It is becoming increasingly clear that psycho-social stress can manifest as system-wide perturbations of cellular processes....Chronic psychosocial stress has been associated with accelerated aging at the cellular level....and with increased vulnerability to a variety of disease states. Our results suggest that consistent and constitutive changes in gene expression resulting from the relaxation response may relate to long-term physiological effects."
Commenting on these results, the noted science columnist Sharon Begley of Newsweek observed: "The genes in our cells don't matter one iota if they're not turned on, and there are many things in life that can turn off bad genes such as those that raise the risk of disease such as breast cancer....It really is time to stop thinking of our DNA as immutable. Even think ing can change it."
*"Say Om: Doctors Find Meditation Affects Your Body," by Lauren Cox, ABC News, July 2, 2008. "Meditation, Yoga Might Switch Off Stress Genes," by Amanda Gardner, The Washington Post, July 2, 2008.
!Dusek, J.A., Otu, H.H., Wohlhueter, A.L., Bhasin, M., Zerbini, L.F., et al. (2008) "Ge-nomic Counter-Stress Changes Induced by the Relaxation Response." PLoS ONE 3(7).
ISLAM AND SCIENCE
NOTES ON AN ONGOING DEBATE
Published in Parabola magazine, Fall 2008
IN HIS PREFACE TO HEISENBERG'S PHYSICS AND PHILOSOPHY. F. S. C. Northop made the following observation on the spread of modern science to non-Western societies:
.. .modern ways are going to alter and in part destroy traditional customs and values. It is frequently assumed by native leaders of non-Western societies, and also often by their Western advisers, that the problem of introducing modern scientific instruments and ways into Asia, the Middle East and Africa is merely that of giving the native people their political independence and then providing them with the funds and the practical instruments...one cannot bring in the instruments of modern physics without sooner or later introducing its philosophical mentality, and this mentality, as it captures the scientifically trained youth, upsets the old familial and tribal moral loyalties.1
Northop, who made these remarks more than four decades ago, did not have to wait too long to see his predictions come true. The changes brought about by modern science in the minds and lives of people in the non-Western world have been no less profound than they are for people living in the Western hemisphere. The crisis of legitimacy and the dissolution of traditional certainties, closely related to the scientistic
worldview of modern natural sciences, have a deep impact on how people in the Islamic world relate to the question of science on the one hand, and their intellectual and scientific tradition on the other. From Muslim scientists and professionals who take science to be a pure and disengaged study of natural phenomena with no hidden ideological assumptions to those who consider modern science essentially physicalist,
reductionist, and in conflict with the ethos of the religious view of the universe, there is a wide range of views on where exactly science stands in the overall order of things. Regardless of what particular position one takes, the urgency of addressing the question of (modern) science is as fresh and challenging today as it was more than a century ago for Jamal al-Din Afghani, the father of Islamic modernism in the nineteenth century, and his generation.
There are two important components to the debate. The first pertains to the practical needs and concerns of Muslim countries. Keeping up with modern science and technology is the number one priority of governments in the Muslim world, as it is everywhere else, and every year billions of dollars are allocated for science education, research, and transfer of technology. From Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, to Mahathir Muhammad, the prime minister of Malaysia, the goal has remained the same: to fill the gap between Western and Islamic societies by empowering Muslim countries with the blessings of modern science. Not only the ruling elites but also the populace at large are convinced of the intrinsic power and necessity of science and technology, for this is where the superiority of the West lies. Contrary to the claims of "Oriental sleep," Muslim countries are no less pragmatic and utilitarian in their quest for power-through-technology than their European and American counterparts.
The second component concerns the intellectual domain and links the discussion both to modern science and its philosophical foundations and to the Islamic scientific tradition as an alternative way of studying the order of narure; The philosophical foundations and, by derivation, built-in presuppositions of modern science and its historical rise in Europe have long been debated and well analyzed. Long before the Kuhnian and post-modernist criticisms of modern science as a cultural product embedded in socio-historical necessities, a number of important studies sought to show how philosophical, cosmological, religious, and metaphysical ideas played instrumental roles in the shaping of the modern scientific worldview from Galileo to Newton. Edmund Burtt's THE FOUNDATIONS OF MODERN PHYSICAL SCIENCES and Frances A. Yates's GIORDANO BRUNO AND THE HERMETIC TRADITION, inter alia, were major challenges to the nineteenth-century view of science as studying natural phenomena from a standpoint that Thomas Nagel has aptly described as "view from owhere," viz., seeing the world not from a particular point in it but rather over it, hence assuming an ahistorical position. In what follows, I shall focus on how the Muslim world has responded to this debate and what possible positions we may expect to arise from these responses.
ABOVE (IN CALLIGRAPHY): THE HOLY PROPHET HAS SAID: "SEEK KNOWLEDGE FROM THE CRADLE TO THE GRAVE."
SCIENTIFIC UNIVERSALISM VERSUS CULTURAL PARTICULARISM
The participation of Muslim philosophers and scholars in the debate over the historicity of modern science has added a new dimension to the debate in that the defenders of a scientific tradition rooted in Islamic metaphysics and cosmology have clearly argued for the cultural specificity and differentiation of scientific traditions. Such advocates of Islamic science as Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Naquib al-Attas, Osman Bakar, and Muzaffar Iqbal, to name but a few, have defended a kind of cultural particularism against scientific universalism whereby the ahistorical claims
of modern scientism (and not science as such) to universal truth and validity are rejected and alternative ways of studying the order of nature are maintained. This is best illustrated in the sharp contrast between the religious-sacred view of nature and the secular outlook of modern science. While the great religious traditions have developed a complex cosmology and approached the world of nature as imbued with intrinsic intelligibility and order, modern scientism regards metaphysical and aesthetic considerations about the world of nature as philosophically unfounded and scientifically inconsequential.
Bertrand Russell's celebrated essay called "A Free Man's Worship," for instance, was written as a testimonial to this view of science. If we accept, according to Russell, the scientific view of the universe as a theory of everything, we will be saved from the "confusions" of both philosophy and religion at once:
Such in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.2
Russell's radical scientism has lost much of its elan today. But it remains the unwritten code of the popular perceptions of science. Furthermore, the stark contrast that we see between Russell's view of science and traditional cosmologies is also to be found within the Western intellectual tradition and especially in regards to such controversies as evolution versus creationism. The contrast is sharper in the case of Islamic thought and the reason lies in the different ways the Western and Islamic worlds have experienced secular modernity: while the secularization of the Western view of nature was part and parcel of early and middle modernity, the Muslim world has largely avoided radical secularization until recently. Even today, secularization remains a top-down movement in most Muslim countries, imposed through Western education and state apparatus.
It is obvious that construing modern science as a particular and not the only way of studying natural phenomena poses a serious challenge to the exclusivist and absolutist claims of modern natural sciences that reduce reality to what can be measured empirically. To better understand this point about modern Western science, we may remember the distinction between the context of discovery and the context of justification. While the context of discovery refers to what the scientist actually does in her lab, the context of justification refers to how the scientist's work is interpreted and articulated in different frameworks of analysis. Insofar as the context of discovery is concerned, we may be justified in assuming a linear historical line that connects Ptolemy, Abu Bakr al-Razi, or Nasir al-Din al-Tusi to Newton or Max Planck: the successes or failures of these scientists of different historical periods and cultural settings can be explained in terms of the accumulation of scientific knowledge, refinement of measurement, exactitude in prediction, advancement in taxonomy, etc. What they all have in common is the continuity of the context of discovery whereby religious and cultural elements, the "soft realities" of science, have a relatively small role to play.
The issue takes on a substantially different form when we move to the next level, i.e., the context of justification in which we attempt to understand and interpret the meaning of the empirical work of the scientist on the ground. Here, we are no longer in the world of the "bare facts" of science, a set of primary qualities that constitute the physical reality of substances without any suppositions and interpretive domains. As much as the scientist would like to envision a "pure science" untainted by socio-cultural, historical, mythological, or religious ideas, the very concept of "bare facts" as the building blocks of scientific procedures is highly questionable. Science is not a mirror juxtaposed against the world and the scientist the incorrigible interpreter of the reality of things. Rather, every interpretation, extrapolation, deduction, induction, and even prediction is screened through a set of philosophical assumptions whether they are articulated explicitly or remain tacit. It is at this level of analysis that science becomes a cultural artifact bound by particular traditions, postulations, and needs. The basic tenets of modern science, which make it a secular enterprise, are all produced in the context of justification and can be accepted, questioned, and/or rejected primarily on philosophical grounds.
The multiplicity of scientific world-views is part and parcel of every scientific tradition in that the findings of a particular scientist or in a particular field of science are interpreted in a variety of ways that may or may not agree with other interpretations. In fact, this was the case in traditional societies where we always have multiple cosmologies both across and within specific traditions. Take the case of Islamic and Christian cosmologies. Both traditions produced elaborate
ABOVE (IN CALLIGRAPHY): THE HOLY PROPHET HAS SAID: "VERILY THE MEN OF KNOWLEDGE ARE THE INHERITORS OF THE PROPHETS."
cosmological schemes tightly linked to the astronomy and physics of their times, i.e., the Ptolemaic-Aristotelian astronomy. Naturally, the osmology of Dante's DIVINE COMEDY was structured along the lines of biblical and Christian thought whereas Islamic cosmology was the result of a deliberate attempt to reconcile Greek-Aristotelian cosmology with Qur'anic theology and eschatology. Yet, we still find more cases of plurality within each of these traditions. The scholastic-Thomistic view of nature is not the same as St. Francis of Assisi's mystical and
poetical deliberations of nature. In the same way, certain parts of Ibn Sina's Neoplatonic cosmology or that of the Brethren of Purity are considerably different from Ibn al-'Arabi's "Five Divine Presences" and Mulla Sadra's mundus imaginalis.
FIGURE OF MOON ECLIPSES
SCIENTIFIC MANUSCRIPT, c. NINTH CENTUM
The case for particularism and the multiplicity of interpretations within and across cultural traditions does not lead to parochialism. It is possible to draw many conclusions from the same data both in science and philosophy, and as such plurality does not invalidate the veracity and relevance of divergent readings. The apparent diversity of traditional cosmologies is rooted in an underlying unity in that such postulates as the universe as a sign of God (ay at Allah in Arabic and vestigia Dei in Latin), teleology, intrinsic intelligibility of the world, order, and harmony are all shared by various schools of thought. Tradition is not monolithic, and the same applies to the science(s) practiced within its bosom.
At this point, the concept of Islamic science has a lot to offer to the current religion-science debate. But this is true only if the term is understood in a broader sense to include the reassertion of the religious view of the universe as an alternative vision to the profane and secular worldview of modern scientism. Considering the eroding impact of scientism on traditional beliefs and practices and the disastrous consequences of scientific and technological development without
boundaries, the Islamic world can make a strong case for a new vision of science that will both cater to the vital needs of modern society and preserve the spiritual and ethical significance of the world of nature—a case for which people of other religious traditions have to collaborate to foster a common ground for a science that is in peace and harmony with both heaven and earth at the same time.
THE ISLAMIC WORLD AND SCIENCE TODAY
The Islamic intellectual and scientific tradition, going back to the rise of Islam as a world civilization in the ninth and tenth centuries, remains a major source of pride and inspiration for the contemporary Muslim world in its quest for self-identity and self-esteem. The glory of Islamic civilization stretching from Andalusia and the Balkans to Persia and India and the historic contributions of such Muslim scientists as Ibn al-Haytham, labir ibn Hayyan, Khwarazmi, Ibn Sina, al-Majriti, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, and others to the development of science are remembered throughout the Islamic world as more than a mere grandeur of the past. Rather, this tradition of remarkable scientific achievement and philosophical articulation is a witness to the study of the world of nature within a religious and sacred framework that delivered to both the spiritual and practical needs of human society.
The big challenge is to show the relevance of this tradition today without slipping into romanticism and without succumbing to the temptations of secular scientism. There is a world of difference between Ibn Sina's Neoplatonic cosmology and modern science not only in terms of cumulative knowledge and heuristic advancement but also in the philosophical outlook of the two systems of the universe. For a devout follower of modern science like John Searle, "there is really nothing in the universe but physical particles and fields of force acting on physical particles,"3 and this makes matters supposedly easier once we rest our case for a spiritual vision of the universe. The question for the Islamic world, however, is this: after four centuries of not practicing science in full scale and for the last century and a half trying to transfer science and technology from the West, will the Islamic world ever be in a position where it will put its own "paradigm" in place and redevelop a scientific tradition that will be in harmony with its religious tenets and aspirations on the one hand, and cater to its practical needs on the other?
The confusion that plagues the minds of countless scientists in the Muslim world and across the globe arises from the lack of a balance between the discourse and practice of science in an Islamic context. For some, the question of religion or any other philosophical consideration is simply not there. The scientist goes about her own work and fulfills her function in her scientific community without bothering herself with any "big questions." In most cases, however, the Muslim scientist is split between her profession as a scientist and her value system as a believer. The scientist works as part of a global scientific community and remains mostly indifferent to questions of ethics, cosmology, religion, etc. The believer practices her religion but brings very little from her devotion to bear on her scientific work. We thus end up with split identities and with very little ground to integrate the two in an intelligible and cogent manner.4
Part of the problem has to do with the resistance of the scientistically minded Muslim professionals to accept any alternative to modern science except, perhaps, when it comes to the ethical and environmental misdeeds of modern science. This is a common phenomenon in spite of the fact that the groundwork for an Islamic concept of science and its conceptual scheme has already been laid by a long list of Muslim scholars that include S. H. Nasr, Rene Guenon, O. Bakar, Alparslan Acikgenc, Muzaffar Iqbal, Mahdi Golshani, Ziauddin Sardar, Zaki Kirmani, and others with important differences among them.'The task at hand, however, is rendered more difficult by the simple nonexistence of a strong scientific tradition in the Muslim world. The possibility of applying an Islamic framework of science to actual scientific work is alarmingly limited in the sense that the level of scientific infrastructure in Muslim countries from physics and engineering to medicine and astronomy is simply not comparable with that of the West, which controls the pace and direction of scientific research and technological innovation. Furthermore, the global network of scientific programs and technological novelties, funded by governments and powerful transnational corporations, makes it nearly impossible for any scientist to go against the grain and open up new venues for an alternative vision of the universe.
Until the Islamic world recovers its intellectual and scientific tradition on the one hand, and comes to terms with the challenges of modern science on the other, we will either join the camp of scientific universalism and reduce reality to what the natural sciences can measure, or join the camp of radical anti-realism of the postmodernists, as has often been the case among the Muslim critics of secular science, and deny any validity to science. The Islamic intellectual and scientific tradition can provide a comprehensive framework that will address the challenge of studying the universe in a non-reductionist way and preserve the sacred meaning of nature—a framework shared by other religious traditions from Judaism and Christianity to traditional Hinduism and Buddhism.
1 Werner Heisenberg, PHYSICS AND PHILOSOPHY: THE REVOLUTION IN MODERN SCIENCE (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1958), p. 2.
2 MYSTICISM AND LOGIC (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957), p. 45.
3 John Searle, THE REDISCOVERY OF MIND (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1994), p. 30.
4 Seyyed Hossein Nasr has dealt with this issue in many of his writings. Sec my "The Sacred versus the Secular: Nasr on Science," LIBRARY OF LIVING PHILOSOPHERS: SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR, ed. L. E. Hahn, R. E. Auxier, and L. W. Stone (Chicago: Open Court Press, 2001), pp. 445-62. See also Muzaffar Iqbal, ISLAM AND SCIENCE (Ashgate, 2002).
5 For a detailed analysis of the three major views of science represented by these figures in the Islamic world, see my "Three Views of Science in die Islamic World" in GOD, LIFE AND THE COSMOS: CHRISTIAN AND ISLAMIC PERSPECTIVES, eds. Ted Peters, Muzaffar Iqbal, Syed Nomanul Haq (Ashgate, 2002), pp. 43-75.
Ever since early astronomers yanked Earth from center stage in the solar system some 500 years ago, scientists have been pulling the rug out from under people's basic beliefs.
"The history of physics," says Harvard physicist Andrew Strominger, "is the history of giving up cherished ideas."
No idea has been harder to give up, however—for physicists and laypeople alike—than everyday notions of space and time, the fundamental "where" and "when" of the universe and everything in it.
Einstein's unsettling insights more than 80 years ago showed that static space and fixed time were flimsy facades, thinly veiling a cosmos where seconds and meters ooze like mud and the rubbery fabric of space-time warps into an unseen fourth dimension. About the same time, the new "quantum mechanical" understanding of the atom revealed that space and time are inherently jittery and uncertain.
Now, some physicists are taking this revolutionary line of thinking one step further: If their theories are right, in the words of Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, space and time may be "doomed".
Concurs physicist Nathan Seiberg, also of the institute: I am almost certain that space and time are illusions. These are primitive notions that will be replaced by something more sophisticated."
That conclusion may not affect anyone's morning commute. But it is rocking the foundations of physics—as well as causing metaphysical reverberations that inevitably follow major changes in our fundamental understanding of how the universe works.
The impetus behind this tumult is an idea that has become increasingly dominant in modern physics: string theory. According to string theory, the most basic ingredients in the universe are no longer point-like particles, the familiar electrons and quarks. Instead, they are unimaginably small vibrating strings of some unknown fundamental stuff.
String theory suggests that different configurations of strings produce different harmonic chords—just as a piano produces a sound different from that of a flute. The vibrating string gives rise to the particles, and the way the string vibrates determines each particle's properties. This all takes place in a convoluted landscape of 11-dimensional space.
It is a concept so strange that even theoretical physicists struggle to understand it....
Which practical fruits will flow from the new view of the universe remain unknown. But in the past, fundamental revolutions in physics have—against everyone's wildest expectations — flowered into everything from cell phones to brain scans....
Perhaps most revolutionary of all, it appears that space and time aren't essential ingredients of a universe ruled by strings....Certain approaches to string theory dispense with the notion of space-time completely. Yet, they seem to produce the same set of results as string theories with normal space and time. To some theorists, this strongly suggests that space and time are superfluous. Space and time as fundamental concepts may be about to disappear altogether— literally pulling the floor out from under physics.
"The notion of space-time is something we've cherished for thousands of years, and it's clearly something we're going to have to give up," said Strominger.—Los Angeles Times, November 16,1999. Copyright, 1999, Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with permission,
Illusions of Time and Space: The Vedic View
Time and its corollary, space, as observed in the world of relativity are "man-made" categories, suggested by Nature's power of illusion and applied to a series of changes happening in God....God is the Eternal Consciousness, unchanging and indivisible, in which the illusions of time (change) and space (division) present an infinite variety of forms interacting in a progressive mode of past, present, and future. When a dreamer travels around the world in his dream, he does so, not in space and time, but in his consciousness only. Similarly, the cosmic dream is occurring neither in vast space nor in a series of past, present, and future time, but in the Eternal Now of God's dream consciousness. Because Jesus was attuned to this eternal consciousness, he could say: "Before Abraham was, I am." He knew his everlastingness was in no manner interrupted by the illusory changes called birth, existence, and death.
God has no respect for "history," man's limited and erroneous measuring conceptions of time and space, for He can produce any past being, object, or event instantaneously in His ever present dream consciousness. Likewise, in a second, He can dissolve this world and its beings—or the entire cosmos—and then bring them back at will, just as they were. All He has to do is to stop dreaming this world and it ceases to be; or He can dream it back again by materializing it in His consciousness. These capricious categories of time and space are offshoots of the Cosmic Dreamer's fancy. By Divine Imaginings, dream pictures of universes can be made to appear and disappear in the tiniest space and minutest moment in a single frozen thought of the Cosmic Dreamer.
Devotees who realize the dream nature of this cosmos and the dreaming power of God no longer rely on the misleading illusions of Nature's measurers, the conclusions from which make creation seem often harsh and unjust. They look to the Eternal Consciousness, the Sole Time, that knows no distress of change.
in God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita
MSMS in his memoir states:
"There is a fundamental difference between the Jewish idea of creation and that of Islam. The creation according to Islam is not a unique act in a given time but a perpetual and constant event; and God supports and sustains all existence at every moment by His will and His thought. Outside His will, outside His thought, all is nothing, even the things which seem to us absolutely self-evident such as space and time. Allah alone wishes: the Universe exists; and all manifestations are as a witness of the Divine will. I think that I have sufficiently explained the difference between the Islamic doctrine of the unity of God and, on one side, the theistic ideas, founded upon the Old Testament, and on the other, the patheistic and dualistic ideas of the Indian religion and that of Zoroaster. But having known the real, the Absolute, having understood the Universe as an infinite succession of events, intended by God, we need an ethic, a code of conduct in order to be able to elevate ourselves toward the ideal demanded by God."
Who am I?
Whence is this widespread cosmic flux?
These, the wise should inquire into diligently,
And the Psalmist asks (PSALM :
"When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, The moon and the stars which thou hast ordained, What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?"
A study of the cosmos and of oneself—mystery inside and mystery outside—are deeply related, both aspects of the Great Mystery.
2. Both scientific research and spiritual search are perennial. These activities have existed as long as human beings have existed. Hardly a person exists who does not sometimes wonder about the universe—the stars, the plants, the flowers,the birds and everything else around us.There is an amazing variety in the world,and there is also always the yearning for finding unifying principles in this multiplicity. So, we may not do science in a systematic fashion, or be knowledgeable about the latest findings of the scientific community, but at least at the amateur and dilettante level we are all interested in the sort of things that scientists study.
Similarly, everyone, even the person wholly driven by the contingent necessities of survival or of the game of outmaneuvering one's fellow human beings, sometimes wonders about the meaning and purpose of life. Where did I come from? What will happen to me when I die? What is my true nature? Am I only the body? Or am I something else who has a body?
"Who am I?" is the fundamental, primordial, and essential question of all human beings in all cultures. We may not ask these questions frequently, or in a disciplined manner, with the whole of our being, but we all ask them occasionally.
3. So in some general fashion we are all concerned with scientific as well as spiritual questions. Both of these human enterprises have existed forever and will continue to do so. Therefore, the question is not whether one of them is right or wrong, or whether we have to prove the validity of one with the help of the other. The question is more how we individually or as a society are related with both science and spirituality. "It is no exaggeration to say," remarked the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, "that the future course of history depends on the decision of this generation as to the relations between religion and science."
4. To free us from an association with any particular religious dogma or creed, it is better for us to use the phrase "spiritual search" rather than "religion" or even "spirituality."
5. In addition to the basic survival and reproduction needs of human beings, there are two main necessities, more of our soul than of the body. These are knowledge and meaning. If we speak inclusively and genetically, these two needs are what scientific research and spiritual search attempt to satisfy.
6. Science is the paradigm of knowledge for us moderns. Why do scientists engage in scientific research? It seems logical to address this question first of all to scientists, and among them the greatest. What motivates them in their searches? Albert Einstein, in an address given in honor of Max Planck, said:
In the temple of Science are many mansions, and various indeed are they that dwell therein and the motives that have led them thither. Many take to science out of a joyful sense of superior intellectual power; science is their own special sport to which they look for vivid experience and the satisfaction of ambition; many others are to be found in the temple who have offered the products of their brains on this altar for purely utilitarian purposes. Were an angel of the Lord to come and drive all the people belonging to these two categories out of the temple, it would be noticeably emptier, but there would still be some men, of both present and past times, left inside....If the types we have just expelled were the only types there were, the temple would never have existed, any more than one can have a wood consisting of nothing but creepers. Now let us have another look at those who found favor with the angel. What has brought them to the temple? That is a difficult question, and no single answer will cover it. To begin with, I believe with Schopenhauer that one of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one's own ever-shifting desires. A finely tempered nature longs to escape from personal life into the world of objective perception and thought; this desire may be compared with the townsman's irresistible longing to escape from his noisy, cramped surroundings into the silence of high mountains, where the eye ranges freely through the still, pure air and fondly traces out the restful contours apparently built for eternity. ESSAYS IN SCIENCE 1-2
DIAGRAM USED IN COMPUTING ASTRONOMICAL PERIODS, WHICH ALSO SERVES FOR MEDITATION. KANGRA, HIMACHAL PRADESH, INDIA, EIGHTEENTH CENTURY. INK AND COLOR(photo)
In these remarks about Planck, Einstein is of course also revealing his own motives for pursuing science: a longing for freedom from merely personal life and a search for the world of objective perception and thought.
7. There is something deeply objective about scientific knowledge. The ideal is to look for laws of nature that are completely independent of the scientists, totally invariant with respect to any feature or quality of the scientists. The law should be independent of whether the scientist is tall or short, in China or in Arizona, running or standing still, loving or hateful, good or bad. We may not always succeed in attaining this complete objectivity, but that is the ideal— a thorough removal of the nature of the person from the formulation of scientific laws. Spiritual search, on the other hand, is deeply subjective, not idiosyncratic but existential, relating to the quality of being of the person.
It is the demand of objectivity that leads to impersonal knowledge, and separation of knowing from quality of being. We could have very good human beings or quite bad; the quality of their science is independent of their quality as persons.
There is no meaning to spirituality except the transformation of the quality of the person. We can have, and have had, great and famous scientists who were vengeful, fearful, small-hearted, arrogant, and generally quite awful human beings. But the very meaning and purpose of greatness in spiritual matters is an enhancement of love and compassion, and progressive freedom from fear and self-importance. To say that the Buddha was enlightened but not compassionate is an oxymoron. But Newton, perhaps the greatest scientist in history and about whom Alexander Pope said that closer to the gods no mortal had come, would not be accused of compassion or generous heartedness.
8. Science is all about finding relationships among natural processes, events, and states. To find generalities, commonalities, and laws, as few as possible, governing as many events as possible. Science discovers order in nature, and finds expressions of that order more and more succinctly, precisely, and generally. Spirituality on the other hand is about creating order that does not already exist, order in being and in our perceptions. Whenever we look at ourselves impartially, from above as it were, we discover disorder—fears, ambitions, jealousies, contradictory desires. This has been the discovery of all the great searchers. Freedom from this disorder in the psyche allows a deeper order to prevail. This is the contact with the sacred. And with truth, love, and beauty. Spiritual search has always to do with transformation of our being. Not the way it is but the way it could be. All religious masters say that we do not live the way we should, and we could. Then they teach ways of living rightly, not in sin but in Grace, not in dukkha but in the felicity of Nirvana, not in illusion but in Reality, not in bondage but in Freedom. Idioms vary from culture to culture, but the basic reality persists.
9. Scientific knowledge is public; spiritual search is individual. A discovery by Einstein can benefit even those who do not understand that e=mc2. But the Noble Truths of the Buddha need to be realized—to be made real—by an individual through more and more direct perception. It is the transformation of one person's being that can lead to his/her transformation and thus to Freedom or Nirvana or Grace.
10. Both science and spiritual search proceed from a recognition of mystery, but differently. Scientific research has to do with trying to know the unknown, but this unknown is knowable (mystery). Spiritual search, or search for the Sacred, has to do with the cultivation of a relationship with the Unknowable (Mystery). They both deal with mystery and with the unknown.
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.... To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the centre of true religiousness. ALBERT EINSTEIN
Science deals with the mystery that can be solved, the unknown that can be known. "Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality or the intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order," Einstein wrote.
Also, in scientific knowledge there is always a tendency towards control and prediction.
The Sacred always remains unknown, because it is Unknowable. The Mystery here cannot be solved; but it can be dissolved. This requires a radical transformation of being, body, mind, and heart. The relationship with the Sacred Mystery calls for a total response. It can be of denial (depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, vehement scientism, etc., all in the service of great forgetting), fear (projecting the known on the unknown, wanting to extend life beyond death, everlasting life, quantitative extension, etc.), or wonder (awe, worship, joy, relishing the Mystery, ananda, awareness, accompanied by a sense of the vastness, beauty, compassion, etc.).
11. One can come to the Sacred only at the end of knowledge—vedanta. Knowledge is always not only in time and space, it is of time and space. The Sacred manifests in great vision that cannot be formulated or codified. Also, the Sacred is felt or sensed only when one is freed of knowledge, and of the knower, and also from the need to know—which is to say freedom from the past (in which knowledge resides), freedom from being somebody (which the knower is), freedom from any wish to control. Thus arise love, beauty, and celebration.
12. Now with developments in relativity theory and in quantum mechanics, and also in molecular biology and cosmology and ecology and everywhere else in science, there is more and more recognition of our connection with the whole—with other beings, with the whole niverse.What affects the other, anywhere in the cosmos, affects me. There can hardly be a need for a sense of isolation or of fear, or a wish to control. The other is not only like myself, he/she/it is myself.
13. There can in principle be no opposition between scientific research and spiritual search. It is easy to forget what Einstein said, echoing the insight of all the great spiritual sages of the world: "The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self." This freedom from the self—and certainly therefore also from mind and knowledge—is what can make some scientific research itself a sacred or a spiritual path. This was certainly so for Einstein and perhaps for all of the greatest scientists in history. For them the Sacred manifests itself in cosmological order, in the harmony of the laws and their beauty.
Over the next several months, the Vatican will sponsor academic conferences dedicated to the work of biologist Charles Darwin and astronomer Galileo Galilei, two thinkers whose ideas have posed revolutionary challenges to religious belief.
Featuring distinguished international panels of scientists and theologians, these events are the latest efforts by the Catholic Church under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to affirm that Christian faith and modern science are not at odds, but entirely compatible.
Yet some critics inside and outside the Church insist that such gestures do not satisfy the Vatican's duty to admit its historical role as an obstacle to scientific progress.
Unlike some conservative Protestant churches, which have rejected Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection as contradicting the biblical account of creation, the Catholic Church has a record of guarded tolerance of Darwin's ideas.
Pope Pius XII permitted "research and discussions . . . with regard to the doctrine of evolution" in 1950, nearly a century after Darwin's theory was published; and John Paul II recognized evolution as "more than a hypothesis" nearly half a century later.
The church has won praise from scientists and religious believers in various traditions.
"The ongoing and vigorous engagement of the Catholic Church with evolutionary theory reflects, in my opinion, a fluid and dynamic pathway that combines a profound sense of continuity with its historical past and a living and open, experiential response to . . . the discoveries of science," said Robert J. Russell, founder of the Center for Theology and Natural Sciences in Berkeley, Calif.
Russell, a physicist and minister in the United Church of Christ, will be one of the speakers next month at a Vatican-sponsored conference marking the 150th anniversary of Darwin's book, "The Origin of Species."
In recent years, however, with the growing prominence of "creationism" and "intelligent design" as alternative explanations for the existence of humanity and the universe, Catholics have increasingly voiced doubts about Darwin's acceptability.
Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, a friend and former student of Pope Benedict's, provoked controversy with a 2005 article arguing that "neo-Darwinian dogma" is not "compatible with Christian faith" and insisting that the "human intellect can readily discern purpose and design in the natural world."
That the cardinal published his article with the encouragement and assistance of proponents of intelligent design gave the impression that a high church official was endorsing ideas that most scholars reject as unscientific.
Schoenborn has since attempted to clarify his position, insisting that he rejects not the theory of evolution, but arguments that use Darwin's ideas to disprove the existence of a creator-God.
The Rev. Marc Leclerc made the same distinction recently in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's newspaper. "Evolution and creation do not present the least opposition between them," he wrote, "on the contrary, they reveal themselves as entirely complementary."
Leclerc, lead organizer of the upcoming Darwin conference, said last year that no proponents of creationism or intelligent design had been invited to the event.
Yet the Vatican's embrace of Darwin remains a qualified one. The conference is "not, even minimally, a 'celebration' in honor of the English scientist," Leclerc said. "It is simply a matter of taking stock of the event that has forever marked the history of science and has influenced how we understand our own humanity."
By contrast, an official Vatican statement recently declared that the "Church desires to honor the figure of Galileo, innovator of genius and son of the church."
Those words introduced a series of Vatican-sponsored or -supported events to take place this year, which the United Nations has designated as the International Year of Astronomy, marking the 400th anniversary of the first use of an astronomical telescope by Galileo.
One of the most prominent of these events will be a May conference in Florence, Italy, devoted to the astronomer's conflicts with the Vatican, which silenced and imprisoned him for teaching that the Earth revolves around the sun.
The Church has been trying for centuries to put this embarrassing episode behind it. In 1981, John Paul II established a commission to reevaluate the case, and in 1992 he concluded that Galileo had fallen victim to a "tragic mutual incomprehension." That misunderstanding, the pope said, had given rise to a "myth" that the Church opposed free scientific inquiry.
John Paul's statement failed to satisfy prominent critics, including the Rev. George V. Coyne, former head of the Vatican Observatory, who has called for a fuller recognition that church authorities unfairly prevented Galileo from pursuing his research.
In January 2008, Pope Benedict canceled an appearance at a Rome university after faculty members and students protested his presence as an offense to the "secularity of science and of culture," citing words from a 1990 lecture in which he seemed to justify Galileo's condemnation.
Vatican officials are clearly hoping that this year's observances will clarify once and for all that the church now regards Galileo as not only a great scientist but an exemplary Catholic. Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, has even spoken in terms that evoke sainthood, suggesting that Galileo "could become for some the ideal patron for a dialogue between science and faith."
Yet there is at least one honor for which Galileo will have to wait a little longer. Plans to put up a statue of the astronomer in the Vatican gardens this year have been "suspended," Ravasi said, voicing hopes that the money would be spent instead for educational projects on the "relationship between science and religion."
Scientists searching for brain's 'God spot' find belief circuits Scientists searching for the so-called "God spot" have identified parts of the brain which control religious belief.
By John Bingham
Last Updated: 1:00PM GMT 10 Mar 2009
A study involving practising Christians, Muslims and Jews found that some areas of the cortex "light up" in response to religious statements.
Scans carried out on volunteers as they processed a series of remarks about God showed how areas of the brain which evolved more recently and not present in other animals were often more heavily involved – suggesting that faith is uniquely human.
"We're interested to find where in the brain belief systems are represented, particularly those that appear uniquely human," said Prof Jordan Grafman of the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland, who led the research.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, undermined the idea that a single area of the brain – nicknamed the God spot – controlled religious belief.
Instead, the scientists found that several different pieces of cerebral circuitry are used to process different aspects of religion.
A group of 40 volunteers, drawn from the main monotheistic religions, were asked to listen to a series of statements about God and asked to say whether they agreed or disagreed while having their brain scanned.
When statements about God being involved in the world were read, the lateral frontal lobe areas – one of the part of the brain which enables us to empathise with other people – were engaged.
But when it came to comments such as "God is wrathful", activity was centred on the medial temporal and frontal gyri.
And when more abstract or doctrinal questions were raised, it was the right inferior temporal gyrus – the circuitry which helps us understand metaphor – which was most engaged.
"Our results are unique in demonstrating that specific components of religious belief are mediated by well-known brain networks, and support contemporary psychological theories that ground religious belief within evolutionary adaptive cognitive functions," said Prof Grafman.
By Kyle Jantzen, For the Calgary HeraldMarch 22, 2009
Gary Goodyear, Conservative member of Parliament for Cambridge, Ont., and secretary of state for science and technology, finds himself in the middle of a public controversy over his religious convictions and the extent to which he may or may not believe in creation, evolution or some combination of the two.
On the one hand, Goodyear's defenders assert that asking a government minister about his Christian beliefs amounts to an attack on religious faith (a "witch-hunt"?), even while admitting that Goodyear's response was
somewhat confusing and that his attempts to clarify have only muddied the waters. They have also pointed out that Goodyear would not likely have been asked that question if he were a Jew or liberal Protestant rather than a conservative Christian. On the other hand, Goodyear's opponents have argued that the personal scientific opinions of the secretary of state for science and technology are entirely relevant to the manner in which he manages his portfolio, and that Goodyear should be expected to wholeheartedly endorse an evolutionary perspective on science.
Goodyear might have learned from Galileo Galilei, the 17th-century Italian astronomer who ran afoul of the Roman Catholic Church on account of his heliocentric view of the universe. (The Church subscribed to an Aristotelian geocentric view.) Accused of heresy, Galileo was placed under house arrest. His writings were then banned, including the Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, which had originally been published with the support of the pope. Since that famous trial, Galileo has grown into one of the primary witnesses trotted out in the ongoing debate between creationists and evolutionists, cited as proof positive that Christian faith and scientific truth are mutually exclusive, even contradictory notions.
History, however, tells a different story -- one which Goodyear would do well to read. Galileo was neither a raving atheist nor even an agnostic who had no use for God in the midst of his relentless scientific quest to explain the physical universe. Rather, he was a loyal son of the Church who respected not only science and reason, but also faith and revelation.
In a 1615 letter to Christiana, the grand duchess of Tuscany, Galileo explained his views on the relationship between science and the Bible. His starting point was the problem of explaining the biblical passages that seem to suggest that the Earth does not move -- a key point to be overcome if the geocentric view of the universe was to be displaced by a heliocentric view. Galileo asserted that both the Bible and Nature (understood according to scientific methods) were sources of truth given by God. As such, they could never contradict each other, since God was consistent and would not speak out two different versions of truth.
The problem, according to Galileo, was that the Bible was frequently hard to understand and necessitated interpretations which appeared at times to differ from the "bare meaning of the words." Nature, on the other hand, was "inexorable and immutable," never deviating from its laws. Thus, whenever dealing with questions relating to the physical universe, Galileo advocated looking first to science ("sense experiences and necessary demonstrations") and only afterward to Holy Scripture.
That said, the famous astronomer still held the Bible in high esteem, pointing out that science could not explain many mysteries of life. In these matters, he asserted, our only hope for understanding was the direct revelation of divine truth through the Holy Spirit in the form of Scripture.
"But," as Galileo concluded, "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them."
Such an intellectual approach might help Goodyear and other religiously minded leaders tasked with engaging the world of science and technology. Indeed, there are distinct advantages for someone in Goodyear's role to combine religious faith and scientific reason. As Canadians, we're probably better off with a secretary for science and technology who does not subscribe to an unchecked faith in the powers of science. All too often, the wonderful improvements in human life produced by scientific research and applied technology have come with partially hidden costs left unconsidered by an excited public or its government regulators. We need only to remind ourselves of the negative environmental impact produced by our uninhibited adoption of 19th-century industrial technologies to remember that all scientific progress comes with a price attached.
People with strong religious convictions, who regularly consider their lives in relation to an external moral code, are the most likely to recognize the need for careful debate about the many ethical quandaries generated by the current state and future potential of scientific discovery. From genetic manipulation to the increasing control we posses over the beginning and end of human life, our society is in greater need than ever of an open discussion about the limits within which science should work on behalf of our legitimate human needs (though not, perhaps, in support of our wildest utopian dreams). Political leaders with religious faith and a willingness to participate in democratic debate are a tremendous asset in navigating these ethical minefields, so that we can make decisions about science that are good for all Canadians. As secretary of state for science and technology, Gary Goodyear the Christian should both champion scientific research and facilitate public debate about its potential impact for good and ill.
Science and religion are not opposed to one another, and it is perfectly acceptable to hold strong convictions about the creative role of a God who brings order out of chaos and the functional role of natural selection within an evolutionary understanding of the natural world. It's just too bad Goodyear couldn't explain that as well as Galileo.
KYLE JANTZEN, PHD, IS ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF HISTORY AT AMBROSE UNIVERSITY COLLEGE IN CALGARY
By Nigel Hannaford, Calgary HeraldMarch 24, 2009 10:02 AM
Liberal MP Marc Garneau got it right. Commenting on the controversy swirling around Science and Technology Minister of State Gary Goodyear's reluctant affirmation of his belief in evolution, he said the minister's beliefs wouldn't necessarily affect how he did his job. Garneau, who as a former astronaut has impeccable scientific credentials, always was a class act.
It's a pity his nuanced opinion isn't more widely shared in scientific circles. Science is a wonderful tool for observing and understanding the universe.
However, in the wrong hands it makes a grim master. That is, you can be a fool for God: you can also be a fool for science.
The problem is not that science sometimes gets it wrong. Scientists themselves expect that. Once, the best of the best thought that light could only move in straight lines. Then, it was demonstrated that very dense objects--black holes --exerted enough gravitational pull to bend or even capture light. Theorize, test, observe, move on with the best results.
Where things go wrong is where the label "science" is slapped on to a concept to place it beyond discussion. Fifty years ago, for instance, anybody talking about bending light would have been dismissed as an irredeemable doorknob, fit only to sit with flat-earthers.
The consequences of that might be no more than parking lot fist fights at an astrophysicists' conference. But when the latest conclusions of mankind's ongoing penetration of nature's secrets are held with unbending fervour, and above all, when people who don't agree are told they're morally inferior --when science becomes "true religion"--great harm has followed.
Take, for instance, the now-discredited science of eugenics. Culling the weak from the human herd once seemed like a modern, progressive and above all scientifically sound approach. After centuries of the selective breeding of domestic animals, it also had intuitive appeal. Hence, for several decades in the world's most advanced countries, the mentally deficient, the congenitally damaged and various other demographics reckoned by scientists to be a drag on the gene pool and conceded by the society they had deceived to be a waste of skin, were sterilized, lobotomized and in some cases euthanized by men in white coats.
The latter proceeded with evangelical confidence, convinced what they were doing was in humanity's best interests. (Incidentally, though eugenics has now lost its mainstream constituency, the same mentality lingers on in abortion clinics, where ending pregnancies thought likely to result in the birth of an imperfect child is warmly approved.)
A further example would be the controversy swirling around global warming.
In 1975, the best advice about the climate was that another ice age was on the way. Twenty-five years later, the exact opposite was predicted, and attributed to human activity. Reasonable people disagree about human causality, but there is within the global-warming constituency an activist phalanx so utterly assured of its opinions that it labels those who disagree as "climate-change deniers," a none-too-subtle attempt to win the argument by black-guarding the other side.
When scientists call something closed, wrap it in morality and take further inquiry as treason against truth, they have crossed the line from science into the territory of religious dogma. Would the same voices who say a creationist politician shouldn't be a science minister also say an environment minister must sign on the global-warming dotted line?
Time will tell who has the next word on that dilemma. (No last words in science, remember?) But for now, some kind of loyalty oath to the theory-du-jour would be the way to bet.
Yet, as Garneau says, it shouldn't be so. What faith Goodyear subscribes to --divine creation or creation by who knows what? --doesn't affect the man's judgment on whether the National Research Council should have $200 million to fund research in small and medium-sized businesses. Nor did it prevent Genome Canada receiving stable, long-term funding. And if any of the $2-billion investment in research facilities at colleges and universities across Canada has intentionally bypassed evolutionists in public institutions, they have yet to mention it. That suggests to me that it hasn't happened.
Only place it might make a difference what politicians think is where the application of science could hurt somebody.
Eugenics, after all, took aid and comfort from natural selection, and the whole idea of the survival of the fittest.
Canadians who, like the scientists picking on Goodyear, think policy is best left to atheists might want to ask themselves this: If it's your Down's syndrome child whose future is on the line, or your senile grandmother who's become a net loss to society, wouldn't you really rather have somebody in charge whose faith obliges them to treat human life as valuable?
The issue with this are people who make a hypothesis that either can't be tested or they just make a statement. For example, if I said I could move the Earth, you wouldn't believe me. Now if I said I could move the Earth as a result of Newton's 3rd law and provide an experiment to justify it, then you'd be more likely to believe me. The main issue with creationism or intelligent design is that it has directly references some form of creator (Allah), now this is fine for all of us who already believe in God, however, you cannot scientifically prove the presence of Allah. And the flaw with creationism or 'creation science' is that they're trying to disprove evolution, and you can't directly disprove something with science, you do it by proving another theory works better, which isn't happening. There is a fear sometimes that science is out to get religion but science can't prove an absence of a God, but there seems to be an intimidation in my opinion as scientific explanations of the dawn of the universe unfolds.
There is a fear sometimes that science is out to get religion but science can't prove an absence of a God, but there seems to be an intimidation in my opinion as scientific explanations of the dawn of the universe unfolds.
Just a thought.
I think the latest developments in science particularly in the domain of subatomic particles have demonstrated that the rigid assumptions or dogmas of science – that all knowledge is objective, demonstrable and tested, rational and logically deductible, have been shattered. There is more mystery beyond the capacity of the human mind to grasp the consequences of the developments in science.
If science has not proven the existence of God because it does not have the means to do so, it has at least admitted the inherent mystery of life, that there is more to existence than what our intellects can grasp.
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