Monday, January 14, 2008

We Have All Experienced Death

We know what death is like. We have all experienced it. Well, maybe that is the wrong way of putting it, because death is lack of experience. It is a period of time that goes by in the physical world when our consciousness does not exist. Such a period occurred up until the time we were born. Such a period recurs every night when we go to sleep, although it is interrupted by periods of limited consciousness called dreams. If we have ever experienced general anesthesia for a surgical operation, then we have experienced death. At one moment, we are conscious of our surroundings. In the next, our consciousness comes back in the recovery room.

Almost all religions give us hope that we will not die--that our periodically interrupted consciousness will go on forever. Christians and Muslims believe that their consciousness will continue in the afterlife, perhaps in eternal bliss, perhaps in eternal pain. Whether interrupted or not--do people sleep in heaven?--it will continue beyond the death of the sun and beyond the death of the universe. To give up religion is to give up so much, but it is especially to give up that illusion of perpetual survival.

It is a conceit of religious faith that minds, like bodies, are a kind of persistent substance. Spiritualists used to characterize the former as protoplasm and the latter as ectoplasm. In so many religions, it is what we refer to as the soul. If the soul is anything different from a mind, I don't know what it is. Souls appear to have consciousness or self-awareness, and consciousness is made up of experiences--emotions, moods, perceptions, memories, reasoning. Yet a part of us knows that this isn't really true. Minds are fully dependent on functioning brains for their existence. As long as our brains remain healthy and functional, our minds will continue to experience periods of lucidity and awareness. When the brain dies, the physical machine that continually generates the mind goes away.

So, can brainless minds exist? We know that consciousness itself goes in and out during our lives, and the condition of our brain seems to control it. If we drink alcohol, our state of consciousness is altered. Our sense of judgment changes. We may even lose consciousness. Nowadays, we can take pills to deaden pain, put us to sleep, wake us up, suppress our illnesses, control our moods, and even turn madness into sanity. Diseases such as alzheimers and dementia eat away at the physical substance of the brain and, with it, the immaterial quality of thought. We see living people lose their memories and their grip on reality. Is it restored by God when we go to heaven?

They say that no one knows what happens when we die. Nobody has ever come back to talk about it. Or maybe you are one who believes that Jesus came back to talk about it. Maybe you believe that ghosts come back. I do not. We all know what happens when our brain is destroyed. We have all experienced death.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Dawkins vs McGrath Uncut

The preeminent atheist in the world today is Richard Dawkins. The media and his critics tend to depict him as an angry polemicist, and that is an easy impression to get from the sound bytes that have come to be associated with him. But it is also possible to see a very different side of him under more relaxed circumstances.

Dawkins has been featured in a TV documentary entitled "The Root of All Evil?" He has publicly criticized the title, which he did not want, but the producers would only consent to the addition of the question mark. And this is precisely the problem. He is not as radical or as polemical as the side that gets filtered through to the public. The media want him to be an extremist. He has insisted that it is just plain stupid to think that anything, let alone religion, is the root of all evil.

What I want to do here is call your attention to an online interview between Dawkins and Alister McGrath, an evangelical theologian who had criticized Dawkin's The God Delusion in Dawkin's God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life. The video of the interview is long and uncut. It lasts well over an hour. However, if you have ever seen one of my favorite movies, Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre, then you will definitely be interested in this conversation. I would recommend Louis Malle's film over this, obviously, but the Dawkins-McGrath exchange is well worth it for anyone who has been in dialogs and debates between Christians and atheists on the internet. This video covers many of the same themes and arguments, but it is done with style, grace, and intelligence. For me, Dawkins was the clear winner in the discussion, but I suspect that my Christian friends will have the opposite impression. It is an excellent example of how the dialogue between Christians and atheists ought to be carried out.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Barack Obama and Religion

I don't normally like to hear candidates talk about religion, and that includes Democrats, whom I usually much prefer over Republicans. Of all the Republican candidates, Huckabee strikes me as the most likable, but I feel very uncomfortable about his strong religious views. And his policy positions, of course, turn me off completely. Still, I think that he would probably be the strongest candidate that Republicans could field in the general election.

On the Democratic side, I've been leaning to Edwards because of his stands on big business and government. I don't oppose Clinton, but she tends to be more polarizing than her competitors. So I think that she would have a tougher time gaining public support for her programs. I see Obama as the one with the greatest skills as an orator among all candidates, including Republicans. I like him a lot, but I'm not yet certain what kind of policies he would try to implement as President.

I thought it appropriate to bring up the issue of Obama's views on religion, which I think most Americans are ignorant of. I was pointed to this speech from his web site. It is a long speech--maybe 40 minutes--so I only intended to listen to a little of it. I ended up listening to the whole thing. There is one big difference between his speech on religion and the things (mostly sound bytes) that I have heard from all other candidates. He is the only speaker who seems to be able to talk about religion and not make me feel uncomfortable. Like his African-Americanism, he doesn't flaunt his religious faith, but he doesn't run away from it.

I'm an atheist, and I know that there is a religious test for public office in the minds of most Americans. I see many candidates on the right and the left as exploiting religious faith for political gain. I hate it when religion comes up in political debates and we see candidates (mostly Democrats) squirming and trying to come up with coded language that won't displease anybody. It was refreshing to listen to Obama, because he seems to have genuine feelings about religion, but he also seems to get what America is about.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Mr. Darwin's Reluctant Bombshell

Most people do not understand precisely what it was that Darwin did when he published his famous The Origin of Species. He was working against the established scientific "theory" of the time, which was known as "Natural Theology". Natural Theology assumed that species had been specially created by God and were immutable. Although they could hover around a kind of idealized form, two different species were assumed not to have had a common ancestor.

Darwin did not come up with the idea of common descent, transmutation of the species, or inheritance. All of that had been "discovered" by others and was already in the public record as hypothetical challenges to "Natural Theology". He did not discover genetics, the mechanism by which animals inherit characteristics. He did not rely primarily on the fossil record, which was nowhere near as complete in the mid-19th century as it is now. Natural Theology had its critics and competitors, but it represented the standard theory of most scientists of that time. Darwin was only one of the challengers, and he laid low for most of his life, preferring to delay publication of what he knew would be a scientific bombshell. But what was his bombshell? His conclusions of transmutation of species and common descent were already out there.

The single greatest insight of Darwin's work was the mechanism of natural selection, which was not itself a totally new idea. Humans had known about artificial selection since almost the beginning of recorded history. The Bible even explained how it worked. People took advantage of natural variation within a species and heritability of traits to create desirable enhancements in animals and plants. It could have been possible to mount a religious theory of transmutation and common descent by taking "natural selection" as God's artificial breeding program. And this seems to be what most people today actually believe evolution is about today--God's special breeding program to evolve humans from the "lower animals".

Darwin's bombshell was his argument that evolution was unguided by intelligent design. His mode of discovery was not just to examine the fossil record, which most people nowadays see as definitive proof of evolution. Rather, Darwin looked at biogeological diversity. He looked at living species that were closely related, and he noticed coincidental patterns in the diversity. Like species tended to cluster together geographically and temporally. Their differences tended to take advantage of the differences in climate and other external factors. The idea of common descent explained this skewed pattern of diversity, and natural selection explained why the differences took the shape that they did.

It was Thomas Malthus who really inspired Darwin. Malthus had pointed out that all species tended to produce more members of a species than could possibly survive in an environmental niche, and population pressure acted like a "wedge" to drive out competing species. Darwin put Malthus's insight together with natural biogeological diversity, and he had his "eureka" epiphany. And he sat on the idea for many years before publishing. He made his real reputation studying natural diversity in barnacles, of all things. For 9 years, Darwin did nothing but study barnacles. He made is initial reputation as the Barnacle Bill of biology. And it was the intraspecies variation that fueled his insight and his interest, because he knew that this was behind the Malthusian mechanism.

Evolution theory exploded into controversy, but it was not universally accepted overnight. Scientists, especially devoutly religious scientists, fought it bitterly for decades afterwards. The opposition still rears up in the so-called "scientific theory" of Intelligent Design. But the clinchers for evolution theory came after Darwin introduced natural selection. The fossil record continued to confirm the expectations that Darwin set scientists up with, and the completely independent discovery of genetics clinched the deal beyond all reasonable doubt. When DNA was discovered, evolution theory was no longer strictly in need of corroboration, but the corroboration has never stopped in well over a century of denial and opposition by very passionate, intelligent deniers. It is a tribute to Darwin's intellect that so many people still find it so difficult to accept the truth of his discovery. Natural selection has no goal and no direction. It just acts as a filter to pass through traits that allow the descendants of living organisms to adjust to environmental change.

Source: David Quammen. The Reluctant Mr. Darwin.