Sunday, April 29, 2007

God and the Brain: Here comes "Neurotheology"

This article provides a nice summary of neuroscientific studies of religious experiences (such as meditation, religious ecstasy, etc): God is in the Dendrites: Can "neurotheology" bridge the gap between science & religion?

Here lies the answer:
Out of politeness, perhaps, or a hope for future Templeton grants, neurotheologists tend to play down the most direct implication of their research—that religious ecstasy is an illusion.
However, these studies are totally fascinating!

P.S. the cartoon of a praying brain is also very cool.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Richard Dawkins on the O'Reilly Factor

This is perfect PR for Dawkins. In front of the anti-intellectual pomposity of Bill O'Reilly, Dawkins looks great! Also check out that Dawkins is introduced as an "Atheist" and not as an evolutionary biologist.

And to really appreciate the genius of Stephen Colbert (and his regular parody of "Papa Bear" O'Reilly), check out Richard Dawkins interview on the Colbert Report.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Einstein's God

More appropriately, what kind of God did Einstein believe in? A new biography of Einstein has just come out. Its called Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. You can read an excerpt from the book about Einstein's faith here.

About his definition of God:
Einstein tried to express these feelings clearly, both for himself and all of those who wanted a simple answer from him about his faith. So in the summer of 1930, amid his sailing and ruminations in Caputh, he composed a credo, "What I Believe," that he recorded for a human-rights group and later published. It concluded with an explanation of what he meant when he called himself religious: "The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man."

People found the piece evocative, and it was reprinted repeatedly in a variety of translations. But not surprisingly, it did not satisfy those who wanted a simple answer to the question of whether or not he believed in God. "The outcome of this doubt and befogged speculation about time and space is a cloak beneath which hides the ghastly apparition of atheism," Boston's Cardinal William Henry O'Connell said. This public blast from a Cardinal prompted the noted Orthodox Jewish leader in New York, Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, to send a very direct telegram: "Do you believe in God? Stop. Answer paid. 50 words." Einstein used only about half his allotted number of words. It became the most famous version of an answer he gave often: "I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind."
Einstein on atheism:
But throughout his life, Einstein was consistent in rejecting the charge that he was an atheist. "There are people who say there is no God," he told a friend. "But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views." And unlike Sigmund Freud or Bertrand Russell or George Bernard Shaw, Einstein never felt the urge to denigrate those who believed in God; instead, he tended to denigrate atheists. "What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos," he explained.

In fact, Einstein tended to be more critical of debunkers, who seemed to lack humility or a sense of awe, than of the faithful. "The fanatical atheists," he wrote in a letter, "are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who--in their grudge against traditional religion as the 'opium of the masses'-- cannot hear the music of the spheres."
On the relationship between science & religion:
Einstein later explained his view of the relationship between science and religion at a conference at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. The realm of science, he said, was to ascertain what was the case, but not evaluate human thoughts and actions about what should be the case. Religion had the reverse mandate. Yet the endeavors worked together at times. "Science can be created only by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding," he said. "This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion." The talk got front-page news coverage, and his pithy conclusion became famous. "The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."
But he was very clear about his deistic views:
But there was one religious concept, Einstein went on to say, that science could not accept: a deity who could meddle at whim in the events of his creation. "The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God," he argued. Scientists aim to uncover the immutable laws that govern reality, and in doing so they must reject the notion that divine will, or for that matter human will, plays a role that would violate this cosmic causality.
Also check out Walter Isaacson's interview on Fresh Air about this new biography.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Lecture on April 12th: Natural and Supernatural - Miracles and the order of nature

This announcement is more or less for the local community here in western Massachusetts. We have Lawrence Principe from Johns Hopkins University for the third Hampshire College Science & Religion lecture this Thursday (April 12th). We are recording the lecture also and I will post it on the blog in the next couple of weeks. I have heard him talk as part of the Teaching Company's Great Courses on History of Science: Antiquity to 1700 and Science & Religion (yes, I'm completely addicted to courses by the Teaching Company) and he is fantastic! So I'm really looking forward to his talk.

Here is the full announcement:

Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion

Natural and Supernatural: Miracles and the Order of Nature
by Lawrence Principe

Thursday, April 12, 2007
5:30p.m., Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College

In the popular press and daily conversation we often hear events casually described as miracles. This abusive use of the term, however, leads us to forget that the word has a precise and highly-restricted theological meaning that was developed over centuries of scholarly investigation, particularly in the Latin Middle Ages. This lecture illustrates how precise discussions of miracles opened up crucial questions about the way the world works and the way in which human beings are able to study and understand it using the method we now call science. Indeed, several current science/religion issues are illuminated or resolved by a careful consideration of the miracles.

Lawrence Principe is Professor of the History of Science, Medicine & Technology and Professor of Chemistry at Johns Hopkins University. In 1999, the Carnegie Foundation chose him as the Maryland Professor of the Year, and in 2004 he was awarded the first Francis Bacon Prize by the California Institute of Technology, awarded to an outstanding scholar whose work has had substantial impact on the history of science, the history of technology, or historically-engaged philosophy of science. In addition to his academic papers, he is the author or co-author of three books including The Aspiring Adept: Robert Boyle & his Alchemical Quest.

About the Hampshire College Science & Religion Lecture Series:

This is the first year of a three-year lecture series that aims to bring together philosophers, theologians, historians and scientists to discuss topics in science & religion. The themes for the lecture series are as follows:

2006-2007: Nature, Belief & the Supernatural
Paul Bloom: "Bodies & Souls" October 26th, 2006
David Sloan Wilson: "Evolution & Religion: Two side-shows and the main event" March 8th, 2007
Lawrence Principe: "Natural & Supernatural: Historical Perspectives on Miracles and the Order of Nature" April 12th, 2007

2007-2008: A History of Conflict & Cooperation
2008-2009: A Matter of Origins & the Meaning of Life

For more information on the Lecture Series please visit

The Hampshire College Integrated Science & Humanities Initiative
Hampshire College Office of the President
Hampshire College Office of the Dean of Faculty
The Schools of Cognitive Science, Natural Science, and Humanities, Arts & Cultural Studies

Monday, April 09, 2007

Chimps can count (and The Pope of the Chimps)

Its slightly hard to justify this story here, but its very cool. This week's Science (April 6, 2007) reported on a conference titled, "The Mind of the Chimpanzee", held at Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo from March 23-25. While it had many fascinating discussions on chimpanzee culture, habits, tool-making, etc., one thing that stood out was about a chimp who was taught to remember sequence of numbers:
After the zoo's Elizabeth Lonsdorf, a conference co-organizer, kicked off the meeting by having the participants give each other a "proper chimp greeting," she introduced Kyoto University's Tetsuro Matsuzawa, one of the few researchers who studies both wild and captive chimpanzees. Matsuzawa's talk kept the audience participation level high, eliciting loud "oohs," "ahhs," and guffaws. Matsuzawa described the numerical skills of a chimpanzee named Ai and her son Ayumu, who live at the university's Primate Research Institute in Kyoto. Building on work he first reported in Nature 7 years ago, he showed videos of Ayumu using a touch-screen monitor to select the randomly displayed numbers 0 through 9, in ascending order.
Well this is quite amazing. But's the real kicker:

He then repeatedly performed a more difficult variation on this task, in which the numbers were masked with white blocks shortly after they were flashed on the screen. "No one can do this," he said, proving the point with a hilarious clip of his graduate students failing the exercise with only four masked numbers. "Our common ancestors might have had immediate memory, but in the course of evolution, they lost this and acquired languagelike skills," posited Matsuzawa.
This is great stuff! (here is a 36-second clip of Ayumu working with numbers)

And now to justify this post for science & religion, here is a link to a nice short story by Robert Silverberg called The Pope of the Chimps

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Belief in reincarnation and alien abductions - same type of memory errors

This is an interesting news story reporting on an article published in the March issue of Consciousness & Cognition:
People who believe they have lived past lives as, say, Indian princesses or battlefield commanders are more likely to make certain types of memory errors, according to a new study.

The propensity to make these mistakes could, in part, explain why people cling to implausible reincarnation claims in the first place.

Researchers recruited people who, after undergoing hypnotic therapy, had come to believe that they had past lives.

Subjects were asked to read aloud a list of 40 non-famous names, and then, after a two-hour wait, told that they were going to see a list consisting of three types of names: non-famous names they had already seen (from the earlier list), famous names, and names of non-famous people that they had not previously seen. Their task was to identify which names were famous.

The researchers found that, compared to control subjects who dismissed the idea of reincarnation, past-life believers were almost twice as likely to misidentify names. In particular, their tendency was to wrongly identify as famous the non-famous names they had seen in the first task. This kind of error, called a source-monitoring error, indicates that a person has difficulty recognizing where a memory came from.

and here is the connection with claims of alien abductions:

Past life memories are not the only type of implausible memories that have been studied in this manner. Richard McNally, a clinical psychologist at Harvard University, has found that self-proclaimed alien abductees are also twice as likely to commit source monitoring errors.

And why do some people make such errors:
As for what might make people more prone to committing such errors to begin with, McNally says that it could be the byproduct of especially vivid imagery skills. He has found that people who commonly make source-monitoring errors respond to and imagine experiences more strongly than the average person, and they also tend to be more creative.
Read the full story here

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The American Chemical Society (ACS) drops Iranian members

Not a very smart move from ACS. From Science (March 30, 2007):
The American Chemical Society (ACS) has reluctantly rescinded the membership of some 36 Iranian scientists after the society determined that having members in Iran violates U.S. law. The society hopes to reinstate them after obtaining a government license, a step that could set a precedent for other U.S. societies with Iranian members.

U.S. organizations are prohibited from doing business with individuals in Iran, Cuba, and North Korea, but an exemption permits the trade of informational materials. That provision allows U.S. scholarly societies, whose journals are a major benefit to its overseas members, to retain ties to members in those countries.

But ACS's stance changed after Assistant General Counsel David Smorodin reread the embargo rules and concluded that selling publications to members at discount rates, a common practice, represents a service above and beyond the trade of informational materials. He also believes that membership benefits such as "insurance, career counseling, invitation to meetings, and educational opportunities" are not exempt under the rules, although he acknowledges that overseas members typically do not use those privileges. "We had no choice as a federally chartered organization but to comply with the law," says Smorodin, adding that his interpretation of the regulations did not "win [me] any friends within the ACS."

Yes, Iranians were planning on side-stepping US embargo by buying ACS publications at a discount rate and by getting career counseling from them. Phew - ACS thwarted their efforts just in time.

In January, ACS's membership off ice informed the society's 36 Iranian members that their memberships were being discontinued, although they could still purchase materials from the society at the full rate. The move angered David Rahni, an Iranian-American chemist at Pace University in Pleasantville, New York, and an ACS member, who says ACS should "refrain from allowing politics" to get in the way of scientific openness. Smorodin says the society will soon apply for a license from the Department of Commerce's Office of Foreign Assets Control allowing it to serve its Iranian members.

However, there is still some hope:

Other associations are troubled by ACS's proposed solution. "We have no plans to do anything similar," says Judy Franz of the American Physical Society in College Park, Maryland, which also has members in Iran. "We would resist having to obtain a license to the extent we can."