A Prayer for the World

April 27th, 2016

My wife and I have a dear friend who was traveling recently to Jerusalem.  She asked if we might have a prayer for her to put on the wailing wall. This seemed a great opportunity to express our feelings about the state of the world and our hopes for it:

A Prayer for the World

Oh God, Oh God, why have we forsaken you?

We fill the earth with enmity and make waste of creation, often in your name’s sake, for the love of self, of power, and of dominion.

Please lead us, instead, to a state of right thinking, where all of us, Christian, Muslin, Jew, followers of all faiths, or no faith, realize that we are all your children, interconnected and interdependent, living on such a very small planet for such a very short time.

Help us learn to stop committing violence against one another and against nature, and to become fully human in the image of your love and beauty, that we may each and all thrive in blessedness and peace, now and forever more.

In your name we pray, eternal and everlasting God, Lord of life and love, Amen.

(image of the wailing wall)


The Quagmire of Moral Development

April 3rd, 2016

Parents, philosophers, theologians and educators for millennia have grappled with the challenge of teaching morality to young people. Many great thinkers have proposed theories, models, practices and programs designed to instill virtue, yet people young and old consistently fail to live up to the morals their elders promote. Microsoft recently experienced this phenomenon in relation to artificial intelligence. As reported in the New York Times, Microsoft launched a self-learning chatbot program named Tay, designed to emulate a 19-year old female, into the Twitter-sphere. Within 24 hours, the program had to be removed as it had been quickly corrupted by exposure to anti-moral attacks that turned Tay into a “sexist, Holacaust-denying supremacist” (according to The Week, April 8 at p.18). It turns out that the company your chatbot keeps is important to its moral development. True, the program is not really a sentient human and has no morals per se, but the social learning the incident demonstrates is a reminder of how powerful social influences can be on the impressionable. Moreover, while the influence of social networks, e.g. family and communities, on human moral development has always been apparent, modern technology powerfully amplifies these influences in ways that we may not appreciate.

“Junk Food” Takes on New Meaning

April 1st, 2016

We’ve known for decades that junk food containing lots of palate-pleasing calories and little nutritional value is bad for human health. It turns out the same is true for plants! Applied fertilizers and pesticides promote vigorous plant growth, but undermine plant health and nutrition, further depleting the nutritional content of our food supply. (see: Junk Food is Bad for Plants Too). There is a universal life lesson here as well: Our modern world is awash with interesting and captivating amusements and entertainments – the equivalent of junk food for the mind. If we cede too much of our time and attention to the easy gratifications they afford, we gain very little nutritional content for our hungry and troubled souls.


Conventional Wisdom Can Be Quite Wrong

March 9th, 2016

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.

Prescription Strength Nature

February 19th, 2016

In January, we reported on research at Stanford and Berkeley that verifies what we already know – there are physiological and psychological benefits from spending time in nature. This topic has gotten excellent humorous treatment in the youtube series Nature Rx. With more than 2.5 million viewers, Nature Rx offers brilliant and effective satire directed at the omnipresent medical ads with hyper-sentimental messages in staged nature settings. Yet its message is fundamentally positive – experience in nature is an excellent remedy for what some commenters refer to as “nature deficit disorder” – the stress and anxiety we experience in out modern, human, and largely artificial world.

The idea of actually prescribing nature may now be taking hold, as reported in Children and Nature. With inspiration from The Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, medical centers in northern Oregon will soon give prescriptions, known as Rx: 4 Play. With a doctor’s permission, people will get an Oregon Coast Pass good for one year of free parking at state and national parks on the North Coast.

Imagine the long term health benefits and reduced medical costs that would result from a nationwide movement to increase our collective experience of nature.

Experiences in Nature Bring Health Benefits!

January 4th, 2016

This may not come as a surprise, since most of us appreciate the good feelings we experience when enjoying nature, but scientific research is now validating physiological benefits correlated with these good feelings. In a series of studies at Stanford University (reported in the NY Times and elsewhere), Gregory Bratman and his Team found that volunteers who walked briefly through a lush, green portion of the Stanford campus were more attentive and happier than volunteers who strolled for the same amount of time near heavy traffic. More specifically, walking along the highway resulted in higher blood flow to their subgenual prefrontal cortex (a key part of the brain involved in mood) and a greater broodiness. Volunteers who strolled along quiet, tree-lined paths showed slight but meaningful improvements in their mental health, reduced dwelling on negative thoughts and less blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex.  A study at UC Berkeley led by Jennifer Stellar, has also found that the awe we feel when touched by the beauty of nature, art and spirituality generate positive emotions and lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, proteins that signal the immune system to work harder. Sustained high levels of cytokines are associated with poorer health and disorders such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s and depression.

Enjoying nature is not just a self-indulgence – it is a healing experience.

Further Controversy – Should We Regulate Addictive Technology?

November 30th, 2015

This week AEON magazine published a provocative article by Michael Schulson suggesting (half-heartedly) that we might consider government regulations in responding to websites and apps that are designed to promote compulsion or addiction, just as we do drugs or casinos. Schulson traces the manipulative tricks of Internet designers to the experiments of B.F.Skinner, who found that pigeons facing variable timing of rewards “went nuts… One pigeon hit the Plexiglas 2.5 times per second for 16 hours.” He suggests that our individual battles with legions of savvy, well-funded Internet companies is “not a fair fight”, and yet, as we do in gambling or drugs, we blame the addicts and not the purveyors. Can we rely on industry auto-regulation to help us, or do we need government regulations? In our series on The Human Race and the Technology Race, we focused on the only realistic option —personal self-regulation, and we offered the four “A’ tips: AVOID; ADOPT; ADAPT; ADEPT.

Scientific Reproducibility – Self-Reflection is a Good Thing

November 24th, 2015

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:






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 (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.