The Fool’s Gold of Genetic Engineering: Better Babies

November 20th, 2015

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.”

The Challenge of Uncertainty in Medicine

November 13th, 2015

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 Tip of The Spear essay published by Springer

October 28th, 2015

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.


The American Prairie Reserve

October 20th, 2015

Russ Roberts of Econ Talk has a particular interest in the complex processes by which economic and cultural institutions emerge. He often refers to this process as analogous to building a prairie. While we may know all the component plants and animals that live in the prairie and be able to assemble them in a plot of land, we cannot duplicate the complex dynamic interactions by which a living prairie emerges over time. In a recent episode, Russ interviewed Pete Geddes, Managing Director of the American Prairie Reserve, an ambitious non-profit dedicated to the long term goal of re-establishing a 3.3 million acre prairie in northeastern Montana. The interview provides some fascinating insights on the ecological and institutional challenges of building a prairie, and highlights the many correspondences between the natural biological and the human cultural dynamics.  Many of the challenges rest on “getting the incentives right”  — a challenge we discussed in a broader context in the 2014 FQXi essay The Tip of The Spear.

Brain Science Update

August 13th, 2015

In a wonderful and very readable article in this month’s Nautilus Magazine, Ferris Jabr reviews some of the most recent discoveries about the human brain, particularly the previously unknown roles of glial cells as “the neurons’ secret partner.”

We have come a long way since the time when 90% of brain electrical activity was deemed “noise” and glial tissue (named after “glue”) was thought to be just a kind of “putty”.  There is such beauty and wonder in the complexity, sophistication and elegance of the human brain, perhaps the most intricate and complex object in the universe (see our prior post: Knowledge and Freedom. This experience should teach us all to be more humble and avoid concluding that we really understand the physical (or the non-physical) world – there is so much yet to discover among the “unknown unknowns.”

Success and Religion – The Importance of Social Competence in Children

August 11th, 2015

A recent article in the Washington Post caught my eye: “If you want your children to succeed, teach them to share in kindergarten.” The article reports on research (tracking 753 students) validating the strong relationship between social competence in kindergarten and future wellness in adults (Damon E. Jones et all, American Journal of Public Health in July 16, 2015). This is wonderful, but it is hardly news. Missing, however, is any discussion of what leads to social competence (including sharing behaviors) among young children.

For that we need to dig a bit deeper. Jee Young Noh of Harvard reported in 2010 (International Journal of Arts and Sciences) on research involving 17,500 subjects that reaffirmed the significance of both religious environment and parental warmth on children’s social competence. According to Noh, “As many previous studies have pointed out, religious people, overall, have a greater ability to self-control and fewer externalizing and internalizing problem behaviors because they learn religious values and engage in religious services, which creates stronger social competence.”

Religious practice leads to increased social competence in children and more success for them as adults.  This is news!

Final Results: FQXi 2015 Essay Contest

July 30th, 2015

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!

Spirituality is Innate – and Good for You!

May 30th, 2015

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.

Do You Believe in Life After Death? – National Conference June 4-7.

May 20th, 2015

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!

FQXi 2015 Essay Contest Update

April 5th, 2015

The rating process for the 2015 FQXi Essay Contest: Trick or Truth? – on the puzzling relationship between math and physics – is well underway. Over 200 essays were submitted this year, and the quality has vastly improved over last year. As a result the community rating process (the essayists evaluating each other) is highly competitive. My essay “The Hole at the Center of Creation” is currently rated in the top quartile, and the posted comments have been very favorable, but it is facing headwinds as I discuss below.

After having at least scanned all of the essays, my informal assessment is that more than half, including all the highly rated ones, reflect a strongly “physicalist” perspective. They grapple with specific issues in mathematics and physics, many at a quite deeply technical level, while avoiding or even disavowing concepts that fall into what they categorize as “metaphysics” or “mysticism.” However, many discuss, and are committed to, the “many worlds” or similar hypotheses that intend to resolve the measurement paradox in quantum physics by postulating that anything that could happen at the quantum level, does happen — in an alternate universe. One extension of many worlds that is getting a lot of attention extends the realm of existence to include the range of all possible mathematical configurations — any math that can be imagined is displayed in a world somewhere. Arguably, these hypotheses are all metaphysical – but they are a-theistic and, therefore, comfortable to this audience. The corresponding dichotomy between randomness and purpose runs through the contest as a whole – those eschewing God also reject purposeful fine-tuning or selection and seek explanations that preserve the perfect neutrality of a random world that only follows mathematical laws and not intentional ones.

In this context, “The Hole at the Center of Creation” is an uncomfortable and perhaps unwelcome reminder of the emptiness of existence without intention and purpose. It’s call for a mythology that encompasses the physicality of the world, the abstraction of mathematics and the teleological basis of creation and life is quite unique. While many essays touch on the same technical issues of mathematical and quantum paradox, they do not reach the same conclusions.

The community rating procedure closes on April 22, and the final selection of essays ends on June 6. Public ratings are also welcomed at any time – and could have a result on the final outcome.

The Metaphysics of Math and Physics – a Contest Between Physicalism, Idealism, and Platonism.

March 10th, 2015

The 2015 FQXi contest is titled: Trick or Truth: the Mysterious Connection Between Physics and Mathematics, and the 150+ essays submitted provide a deep and rich sampling of the key arguments for and against physicalism (the physical world is all there is), idealism (the world is what our minds create) and Platonism (the world is dualist and mathematical order is the highest reality). These are three key threads in western philosophy since the Greeks. It is an eye-opening and mind-numbing collection of essays, some dealing with highly technical issues in quantum physics and cosmology, others delving into the heady frontiers of esoteric mathematics.

My essay is titled “The Hole at the Center of Creation” and is hopefully a readable discussion of key issues in both physics and math. As I noted: “The Truth is that there is a hole at the center of creation, afflicting both mathematics and physics – an infinite void made visible to us in the form of ineluctable paradoxes….   The Trick is that in pursuing fundamental questions on the nature of creation, of logical order, and of consciousness, we are led inexorably to the infinite void, a barrier to our ability to know, one that we cannot cross without reaching for a transcendent metaphysical explanation.”  You are welcome to read the essay to find out my conclusion!

As a reminder, last year’s essay The Tip of the Spear garnered a fourth place.

A Call for Spirituality – Marking the Transition to a Post-Secular Society

December 31st, 2014

The RSA[1] 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.

[1] The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (, 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.

The Golden Ratio and Its Special Qualities

December 4th, 2014

This post (Golden Ratio Also Relates To Space-Time And Biology) from 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!

Changing the Name of this Forum

November 13th, 2014

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.

The Road to Science – Paved by a Saint

November 12th, 2014

A short, insightful article on Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) appeared in The Philosopher’s Mail (a publication of the School of Life in England) last week.  Aquinas integrated Greek notions of reason with Catholic theology, establishing the concept that “natural law is a subsection of eternal law, and it can be discovered through the faculty of independent reason.”  This “broke a logjam in Christian thinking… and opened the Christian mind to the insights of all of humanity from across the ages…”   Through his works, Aquinas helped open the doors to natural philosophy (at a time when they were being closed in the Islamic world), leading ultimately to the scientific revolution in subsequent centuries.

The Human Race – and The Technology Race: November 4, 2014.

October 29th, 2014

George Gantz is the featured speaker for the Wayland Great Presenter’s Series on Tuesday November 4, 7:30PM at the Wayland MA Public Library:

Has technology advanced beyond our ability to control it? Some believe this is a good thing and will lead to a marvelous “Singularity”, a point where self-replicating machinery will largely replace human labor, freeing humans to pursue whatever they want. Others are less sanguine about the impacts of technology – warning that the earth and the human race itself may be headed for disaster. George Gantz will lead a discussion on these profound questions, starting with our own experiences with digital technologies and recent research on the human – digital interface.

Pope Francis Endorses Science

October 29th, 2014

As reported in The Independent, the leader of the Catholic Church has declared that evolution and the Big Bang Theory are real and do not conflict with faith in God. This is a remarkable statement from the world’s largest religious organization and perhaps may soften the rhetoric in the science-religion debate. This is the same Pope who, several months ago, revealed his Top Ten Secrets for happiness, the 9th of which is to respect others’ beliefs. “We can inspire others through witness so that one grows together in communicating. But the worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyzes.” Good advice for theists and atheists alike.

The Atheism – Theism Debate: Report from the Field

October 14th, 2014

An opinion piece posted by Gary Gutting October 13 on the NYTimes website summarizes his series of interviews with philosophers on religion.   Some of his findings echo themes we have touched on previously (see Miracles for example). While the author is “agnostic” and finds that to be the most defensible ground, he identifies areas of weakness for both atheists and theists (outnumbered almost 5 to 1 in his interviews), in the debate.

There have also been some interesting posts recently about what might be called the sociology of alternative beliefs. In recent weeks, I participated in a Linked-In exchange with the provocative title: Is there a lack of civility and empathy in the atheist community? Do you find many atheists come across as arrogant/ haughty/ belittling/ ostentatious/ offensive?

Last winter, Big Questions Online also carried an extensive exchange with the somewhat tongue-in-cheek title: “Is Atheism Irrational?

Along a corollary line, research was reported that those who believe in God are happier and healthier.

And a sharp controversy recently flared up on the question of why atheism may be male oriented:

There is nothing definitive about any of this material, as it is dealing not with truth claims per se, but with the demeanor of the combatants. Nevertheless, there may be lessons to be learned. Who would you like to spend more time with? Who would you trust most in a pinch? What is the better pathway to a better and happier life?

“Tip of the Spear” earns a 4th place in FQXi Essay Contest

September 5th, 2014

Last April, George Gantz submitted  The Tip of The Spear in the FQXi essay contest titled “How Should Humanity Steer the Future?”  A total of 155 essays were submitted and were rated by other essayists during an extended community comment period.  The Tip of the Spear earned a 4th place rank, joining the 40 top-ranked essays in the final judging by a panel of experts, and was subsequently awarded a fourth prize at the announcement held on August 21.

The Tip of the Spear traces the latest findings of empirical science in the fields of mathematics, physics, biology and evolution to determine what the guiding principles are for the evolution of the physical universe and how they can help us in steering the future of humanity. The conclusion is that, while empirical science is the driving force to the advance of human civilization, the tip of the spear should be armed with our highest human empathic qualities – in a word, with love.

The winning essay, “How to Save the World” by Sabine Hossenfelder, challenges humanity to convert ideas into action:  ” We fail to act in the face of global problems because we do not have an intuitive grasp on the consequences of collective human behavior, are prone to cognitive biases, and easily overwhelmed by data. We are also lazy and if intuition fails us, inertia takes over.”  Her answer is to make the necessary information accessible to individuals.  “To steer the future, information about our dynamical and multi-layered networks has to become cheap and almost effortless to use. Only then, when we can make informed decisions by feeling rather than thinking, will we be able to act and respond to the challenges we face.”

New Technology Changing the World for the Better?

July 16th, 2014

Last year I raised some concerns about the impact of technology on humans (see: Busted). These concerns remain, but in the interest of equal time, it is worth highlighting some of the potentially positive impacts of new technology. In a recent episode of EconTalk on The Sharing Economy, Russ Roberts, in a conversation with Mike Munger, highlights some potentially transformative impacts of technology. They conversation centered on AirBnB, Uber and ParkingMonkey. All three applications connect, through mobile devices, users with needs for lodging, ground transport or parking with potential suppliers, in simple, automated transaction platforms. The applications are potentially transformative in two ways – one economic and one social. On the economic front, the applications make it simple and nearly cost-free to connect under-utilized capital assets (e.g. vacant rooms in your house) with potential buyers – this has potentially immense economic benefits to consumers and suppliers but will be highly disruptive to incumbent businesses that will have to evolve to survive. On the social front, the three applications are also completely outside of the systems devised by government regulation to protect consumers, such as taxi cab licenses (“medallions”), local and state health regulations on lodging, and public access to parking spaces. As peer-to-peer applications, the “policing” is done by reviews by users and the private actions of the application operator (for example, Uber kicks out any driver that gets less than a “4.7” rating by its users), with no government involvement. All three applications depend on the trust of users and the trustworthiness of providers – achieved through transparency and consumer ratings rather than government oversight and regulation. In one sense, these applications are tangible demonstrations of the “democratizing” effect of technology – giving power to people to make prudent choices rather than relying on regulatory compliance. Moreover, the system rewards honesty, credibility and service – virtues that may need reinforcing after decades of self-preoccupation by members of Gen Me, Gen X, and Gen Y …