The 2017 FQXi essay contest is underway, with nearly 200 entries on the topic “Wandering Towards a Goal: How can mindless mathematical laws give rise to aims and intention?” George Gantz has submitted an essay, titled “The How and The Why of Intention,” that explores the questions of emergence, causation and intention. How one answers these questions depends on a metaphysical premise — is creation random or purposeful? Mr. Gantz argues that this question is logically undecidable and beyond empirical determination, but that there is strong evidence of a cosmic intentionality flowing through the universe. He concludes that this flow is love. The universe loves us, and we should love it back, with humility and gratitude for its many gifts, including the gift of our imperfect and necessarily limited empirical understanding. Mr. Gantz’s previous FQXi essays include The Tip of the Spear (which won 4th place) and The Hole at the Center of Creation.
In recent years, researchers have been exploring the genetic connections between modern humans (Homo Sapiens Sapiens) and other offshoots of the human evolutionary tree, including the Neanderthal and Denisovan lines, all of which are now extinct. Early speculations had presumed that modern humans had wiped out the inferior evolutionary lines. Yet studies confirmed that modern, non-African humans carry DNA unique to the Neanderthal genome, proving that inter-breeding occurred. A recent study shows that these Neanderthal genes continue to play significant roles in modern human biology and provide added diversity to the modern human genome. They are not simply lost remnants, but play important roles in the incredibly complex interplay of genes, gene expression and consequent biological functioning. While our species may have outcompeted other branches of the human evolutionary tree, it is now also clear that we also collaborated, at least to the extent of breeding children together. That inter-breeding has brought benefits to our species – something for which we should be grateful! As we reported previously, the myth of Neanderthal’s as brutish and cognitively deficient has been transformed in recent decades. They appear to have had art, ritual and religion. Any by some accounts, they may have been more honest and more benevolent than our own species today.
George Gantz, director of this Forum on the Integration of Science and Spirituality, has begun writing for Peace News, the online newsletter for Promoting Enduring Peace, headquartered in New Haven, Connecticut. The focus of his writing will be on the intersection of science and culture and the need to work for positive social change that facilitates human thriving in its broadest terms.
His first article is titled: Preparations for Nuclear War Mark the Beginning of the Anthropocene Epoch.
On Being, the NPR weekly program hosted by Krista Tippett, recently broadcast two interviews with leading secular thinkers, Leonard Mlodinow, an eminent physicist and writer, and Alain de Botton, an English Philosopher and founder of The School of Life. Mlodinow explicitly believes in physical determinism – that everything flows from past physical states in conformity with the laws of physics, and that the universe is fundamentally random. Yet he also finds a place for meaning and value in human life, and Tippett’s interview draws out the close parallels between secular and religious perspectives on living well. The conversation leaned in to what the Celts might call a “thin place” where the veil between the physical and the spiritual becomes translucent. De Botton was raised in an atheist household and has no religious beliefs, however he has concluded that religion and religious practice have much to offer. His vision for The School of Life is to create a religious-like community for non-believers. De Botton is explicitly committed to human ethical and moral development and credits religion, at its best, for its unique role in affirming and sustaining through ritual, tradition and community the very values to which the secular world should aspire.
A recent article in Nautilus explores some of the latest scientific findings on the benefits of silence. What’s interesting is that most of the findings were inadvertent – researchers were studying the effects and of sounds and music on behaviors and brain function, with “silence” being the control. But silence was found to offer significant benefits of its own including reduced stress, increased generation of neurons and improved self-knowledge. As author Daniel Gross puts it: “Freedom from noise and goal-directed tasks, it appears, unites the quiet without and within, allowing our conscious workspace <the brain> to do its thing, to weave ourselves into the world, to discover where we fit in. That’s the power of silence.”
Of course, this is hardly news to anyone familiar with meditation, prayer and other traditions embracing silence that trace back to the roots of human culture. One needs quiet to be able to hear “the still small voice” (1 Kings 19, verse 12) that guides our thoughts and actions in the right path.
Incidentally, if you are craving silence, you might consider traveling to Finland, which has adopted a new branding campaign with silence at its heart. As the author notes: “In a loud world, silence sells. Finland saw that it was possible to quite literally make something out of nothing.
The Empirical Standard of Knowing – Faith Misplaced by George Gantz helped set the tone as the opening presentation for the 2016 Annual Conference of the Institute for Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS) on Star Island, New Hampshire. The topic of the conference was “How Can we Know? Co-Creating Knowledge in Perilous Times” and more than twenty papers, dialogues and workshops were presented during the week-long event. The key theme of the paper is that empirical science does not, and cannot, “know it all”. Faith is at the foundation of science as well as religion – and empirical and spiritual modes of knowing are both required for a full understanding of creation and life. The introduction discusses the broad arc of human civilization and offers an overview of the problem of knowing. Subsequent sections discuss the mysteries of space and time, entropy and emergence, quantum physics as well as math and logic. As stated in the conclusion: “There are levels of knowing that are inaccessible from within the physical and mathematical constructs of empirical science. The universe has awakened to itself… At the pinnacle of this awakening is our human consciousness – reflective observer of the world and self, the anchor for quantum physics and the purposeful end-state of evolutionary complexity.”
George Gantz to present “The Empirical Standard for Knowing – Faith Misplaced” at the 2016 IRAS Conference
The IRAS (Institute on Religion in an Age of Science) Conferences have been held at Star Island, New Hampshire, since 1954. The 2016 Conference title is “How Can We Know? Co-creating Knowledge in Perilous Times”, and George Gantz has been selected to present a paper on “The Empirical Standard for Knowing – Faith Misplaced.” His proposal has also been awarded the Booth-Shapley Fellowship as one of the best proposals to this year’s conference. IRAS is a society of natural scientists, social scientists, philosophers, religion scholars, theologians and others who seek to provide a forum for discussing issues of relevance to religion in an age of science. The 2016 Conference will be held June 25 to July 2, 2016. For information see IRAS Conference.
I read some shocking news recently about the rising epidemics of compulsive hoarding and obesity, and I wondered – are these related? It is hard to dispute the significant benefits of material and technological advancement and convenience. In much of the world today there is an abundant supply of relatively cheap and high quality food, housing, transportation and a vast array of goods and services. While there continue to be pockets of terrible deprivation and hardship (due more to political factors than technical ones), the world is, overall, a significantly easier and healthier place to live than in centuries past. Yet, there are negative side effects of material success – side effects that more “stuff” will not solve. (more…)
For virtually all of my adult life, I had heard that the human appendix is an evolutionary vestige that no longer served a useful purpose. When it gets infected, as sometimes happens, you just take it out. In addition, I had always heard that the purpose of fat cells was energy storage for the lean times. Other than that, fat is bad. Recent scientific discoveries have revealed how very wrong this conventional wisdom has been – a different kind of medical reversal.
In the past decade, research has confirmed that that the appendix plays a key role in the development of the human immune system, and in serving as a repository for good gut bacteria. When dysentery or flu depletes the micro biome of the human gut, the appendix can help re-establish it once the illness has run its course. Perhaps more significantly, lymph tissue accumulates in the appendix after birth and helps train the immune system and its systemic response to threats. It is remarkable to realize that these functions were undetected just a few years ago. References: What Does the Appendix Do?, Global Healing Center (2015); Gut – The Inside Story of our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Enders and Ender (2014)
As for fat tissue, it turns out that fat tissue is a complex human organ and is a rich source of stem cells – more so even than bone marrow. Stem cells have the ability to divide and grow into a wide variety of tissue types. Fat stem cells have been shown to grow into bone, cartilage or muscle tissue, and researchers are now exploring the opportunity to treat injuries or damage in these tissues with a patient’s own fat tissue. This is certainly a lot deeper story than the one reflected in conventional wisdom. See: Fat Cells Mend Bone, Cartilage and Muscle, Science News (2016).
These are good reminders that the truth is not always what we think it is.
Brian Nosek is a professor of psychology and Executive Director of the Open Science Project dedicated to improving the transparency and credibility of science. Earlier this year he and his team reported the results of a project seeking to reproduce 100 psychology studies published in top journals. The results, reported in Science, Nature and this Econtalk podcast, indicated that less than half the findings could be reproduced. According to Nosek, the point is not to critique individual papers but to gauge just how much bias drives publication in psychology. He believes that other scientific fields have the same problem – one analysis found that only 6 of 53 high-profile papers in cancer biology could be reproduced – and new reproducibility efforts are getting underway. Hopefully, the critical self-reflection represented by this effort will spark debate on science research and publication, and greater humility among scientists. For additional posts dealing with the problems of bias, see:
Nathaniel Comfort, in Better Babies – Aeon Magazine, offers an interesting take on the history and current trends in human genetic engineering. The idea has a very long history – back to Plato, even. It took a nasty turn in the 20th century – did you know California had a very active Eugenics (forced sterilization) program well before Hitler? Thankfully neither are in place today, but in the last few decades, new promises are being hyped for designer babies and genetic cures for disease – these are supposed to be just around the corner. As the article points out, this is very unlikely. Genes encode proteins, not human traits; Genes (and proteins) play multiple roles; The same gene will have both upside and downside effects; Genes act in clusters and cascades; Genes express differently and at different times for different reasons. Notwithstanding the moral questions of human genetic engineering, the technical barriers are profound. The author concludes: “The qualities we want in a child or in society can’t be had by tweaking a few nucleotides. There are no short cuts. To think otherwise is to conflate power with knowledge, to overestimate our understanding of biology, and to overestimate the role of genes in determining who we are.”
EconTalk this week hosted physician Robert Aronowitz to discuss his newest book, Risky Medicine, which deals with the risk/reward tradeoffs we struggle with in addressing health risks. Specifically, he notes the dilemma in routine PSA screening for men and routine mammograms for women: randomized trials suggest minimal benefits in terms of documented life extension but significant consequences in terms of heightened anxiety, high numbers of false positives and unnecessary follow-up procedures and surgery. These are difficult questions with inadequate answers – the dialogue is timely. As noted in an earlier post in this forum, (More Data is Not Enough), in the face of uncertainty, more data does not solve the problem – ultimately we have to take a leap of faith in making a decision. The best we can do in the case of decisions about health is to explore and be informed about both the science and the psycho-social dynamics of the issues, while accepting that most of what happens is beyond our control. This is exactly the advice found in Reinhold Neibuhr’s serenity prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
The winning essays in the 2014 FQXi contest, including The Tip of The Spear, have been published in a compendium “How Should Humanity Steer the Future?”. The volume, edited by Anthony Aguirre, Brendan Foster and Zeeya Merali, has been published by Springer, a leading science publisher. Thanks to those of you who read and commented on this essay.
Congratulations this year go to an distinguished list of writers: Sylvia Wenmackers • Matthew Saul Leifer • Marc Séguin • Tommaso Bolognesi • Kevin H Knuth • Tim Maudlin • Lee Smolin • Cristinel Stoica • Ken Wharton • Derek K Wise • Alexey Burov, Lev Burov • Sophia Magnusdottir • Noson S. Yanofsky • Nicolas Fillion • David Garfinkle • Christine Cordula Dantas • Philip Gibbs • Ian Durham • Anshu Gupta Mujumdar, Tejinder Singh • Sara Imari Walker for the winning and placing essays. All are well-written and interesting, but none answer the foundational questions raised in The Hole at the Center of Creation. This essay unfortunately did not make the finals. We will do better next year!
Dr. Lisa Miller, in a new book, The Spiritual Child, The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving, reports on recent psychological research that documents an affirmative link between spirituality and health. She defines spirituality as “an inner sense of relationship to a higher power that is loving and guiding”. The research shows that children who have a positive, active spirituality are: 40% less likely to use and abuse substances; 60% less likely to be depressed as teenagers; and 80% less likely to have dangerous or unprotected sex. They also have significantly more positive markers for thriving including an increased sense of meaning and purpose, and high levels of academic success. For a review, see David Brooks in the NYT: “Building Spiritual Capital”.
This is good news – and reinforces the importance of providing children with spiritual nourishment and encouragement. As noted in an earlier post on Why Do Children Believe in God, children are born with a natural propensity to believe in God. If that belief is not grounded in the language, tradition or culture of parents and communities, it can whither and die.
This is a loaded question for most people. Some people deride the notion of life after death as irrational superstition – others have deep convictions and even personal experience that vividly confirms the truth of a transcendent spiritual world for them. Many of us, perhaps most of us, have a mixture of belief and doubt. Lacking a personal transcendent revelation, we sort through the claims and counterclaims with questions, perhaps with hope, and maybe even with faith.
There is, however, a substantial body of testimony that strongly supports the claim even in the modern, scientific era, from credible sources such as Emmanuel Swedenborg, Dr Raymond Moody, Dr. Eben Alexander, and many others. While the debunkers continue to claim fraud or hallucination, a dispassionate assessment has to admit that there is credibility and consistency to the personal stories and experiences offered by these individuals. They are worth a listen
On June 4-7, the Fifth Annual Afterlife Awareness Conference will be held in Norfolk, VA. Those with an open mind may wish to check it out!
The RSA has released its final report on a two-year research initiative on revitalizing spirituality to address 21st century challenges. The report provides a serious critique of secular materialism and a passionate appeal for a new, shared commitment to a universal spirituality – the existential ground which all humans share. A few interesting quotes:
- It’s not so much that a marketised spirituality has hijacked religion, but that, while religion was looking the other way, capitalism hijacked spirituality.
- Spirituality is not so much a unitary concept as a signpost for a range of touchstones; Our search for meaning, our sense of the sacred, the value of compassion, the experience of transcendence, the hunger for transformation.
- It seems fair to argue that religions are the particular cultural, doctrinal and institutional expressions of human spiritual needs, which are universal.
 The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (http://www.thersa.org), a 260 year old non-profit organization headquartered in England, is dedicated to enriching society through ideas and action. One of their initiatives, The Social Brain, is targeted to understanding humans as a fundamentally social species and to changing the rational individual construct that helped us plan our economies and organize our societies but fails to appreciate the social context that is the defining feature of how we think, learn and behave.
This is the second installment of a four-part series on the Human Race and The Technology Race. Chapter I has been published: The Human – Technology Interface. Chapter III and Chapter IV will follow.
This link provides a full PDF copy of Chapter II (which in my opinion is much easier to read).
This post (Golden Ratio Also Relates To Space-Time And Biology) from redOrbit.com on new theories about the role of The Golden Ratio, the “cosmic constant” in various scientific disciplines, caught my eye today. There is something magical in the properties of this very special “transcendental” number. It seems to provide a foundation for understanding movement and growth across the complete range of scientific inquiries.
The topic brought to mind this article (Is there a Spiritual Significance to the number Phi), which I wrote for The New Philosophy, The Journal of the Swedenborg Scientific Association, in 2005. In the article I speculated on the spiritual meaning of the Golden Ratio as an infinite unfolding of finite creation. The concepts are quite surprising and far-reaching!
The original concept of the ISAS name for this forum came from its goal – Integrating Science and Spirituality – and from a mental wordplay that came from sounding out “is as.” Part of what the forum does is to explore life and the world, from the premise that there is an objective world that we can access to and learn to know. The world “is as it is”, but we have been given the gifts of perception, rationality and insight as well as motivations for exploring and understanding that world.
Unfortunately, a very similar acronym, “ISIS, ” representing an entity that seems to have quite different goals than knowledge and understanding, is getting considerable and quite negative attention on a daily basis. Several wise people have suggested I change the name of the forum, and I am going to do so.
If you have any thoughts on a new name and acronym, I would welcome hearing about it. For the time being, we will continue to use “Integrating Science and Spirituality” but will no longer use the acronym.