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How much does it matter whether God exists?
What are we really talking about when we debate the existence of God?
Two rooms, in two different cities, but pretty much the same scene: one man stands before a few dozen supporters, many of them middle-aged white males, plus a smaller, precocious cohort in early adulthood. As the man speaks, they interrupt him with good, earnest, detailed questions, which he ably answers more or less to their satisfaction. These crowds crave the intricacies of arguments and the upshots of science. The only thing that seems beyond their ken is how their counterparts in the other room could be convinced of something so wrong.
One of those rooms was in New York City, high in an office building overlooking the ruins that then still remained of the World Trade Center; the man was Richard Dawkins, the Oxford zoologist and ‘New Atheist’ polemicist. The man in the other room was his arch-rival, the evangelical Christian philosopher and debater William Lane Craig, speaking in a classroom on the sprawling campus of his megachurch in Marietta, Georgia. If one were to attend both events without understanding English, it would be hard to know the difference.
Whether such a thing as God exists is one of those questions that we use to mark our identities, choose our friends, and divide our families. But there are also moments when the question starts to seem suspect, or only partly useful. Once, backstage before a sold-out debate at the University of Notre Dame between Craig and Sam Harris, Dawkins’s fellow New Atheist, I heard an elderly Catholic theologian approach Harris and spit out: ‘I agree with you more than I do with that guy!’
During the heyday of the New Atheist movement, a few years after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, I was in the wake of a teenage conversion to Catholicism. One might think that my converts’ zeal would pit me squarely against the New Atheist camp. But it didn’t. Really, neither side of the does-God-exist debates seemed to represent me, and the arguments in question had little to do with my embrace of my new-found faith. I had been drawn by the loosey-goosey proposition that love can conquer hate and death, expressed concretely in the lives of monks I had briefly lived among and members of the Catholic Worker Movement who shared their homes with the homeless and abandoned. I actually agreed with most of what the New Atheists wrote about science and free enquiry; what I disagreed most sorely with them about was their hawkish support for military invasions in Muslim-majority countries.
Still, I became fascinated with the question of God as I tried to wrap my head around it for myself. I travelled around the world to meet God debaters, and studied the historical thinkers from whom their arguments derive. I found that I wasn’t alone in doubting the pertinence of the question.
The thinkers who crafted the classic proofs for the existence of God – from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas, for instance – were writing to audiences for whom the existence of divine beings was uncontroversial. The purposes of these proofs had more to do with contentions about what we mean by God, and how far into such matters human reason can really take us.
Consider, for instance, Anselm of Canterbury, an 11th-century monk who devised his proof in a fit of early morning ecstasy. His claim, which has been debated strenuously from its first publication until now, was that the very concept of God contained in it the proof of God’s existence – which, to Anselm, was a testament to God’s omnipresence and love. For centuries, his fiercest critics objected not to Anselm’s God, but to his reasoning. Centuries later, the Jewish apostate Baruch Spinoza employed a very similar argument in 17th-century Holland: he took the reasoning but mostly put aside the God.
Today, Spinoza stands as a progenitor of the modern, scientific worldview. The atheist philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein considers him ‘the renegade Jew who gave us modernity’. Yet at the centre of his system is a proof for God, one very much akin to that of the Christian monk Anselm. Where Anselm saw the Christian God, Spinoza saw the totality of the universe. He insisted that this was indeed God, that he was not an atheist. In his devotion to reason, Spinoza became famous for his piety; the German Romantic poet Novalis would later call him the ‘God-intoxicated man’.
Spinoza and Anselm both passionately believed in God, and adopted a similar way of thinking; the difference was in the kind of God they had in mind.
In the 20th century, the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch would take up their basic argument again. She saw in it neither Anselm’s God the Father nor Spinoza’s God of Nature, but the Good – the underpinning of morality and beauty in a post-religious world. When we compare her to Anselm and Spinoza, the question of God-or-no-God seems far less interesting than the argument they shared and the ways in which they tweaked its meaning. I wonder what Anselm and Murdoch would say to each other if they were to somehow meet.
What are we really talking about when we debate the existence of God? I think it can become a shortcut, a way of side-stepping more necessary and more difficult questions. Denouncing others as atheists, or as believers in a false God, can become an excuse to treat them as less than human, as undeserving of real consideration. When terrorists attack in the name of a certain God, it can seem easier to blame their religion than to consider their stated grievances about foreign military bases in their countries and foreigners backing their corrupt leaders. When religious communities reject scientific theories for bad reasons, it can seem easier to blame the fact that they believe in God, rather than to notice that other believers might accept the same theories for good reasons. Good ideas and bad ideas, good actions and bad actions – they’re all on either side of the God divide.
Pope Francis’s provocations in recent years have been palpable reminders of this. When Francis released his recent encyclical on ecology, many non-religious environmentalists received it more warmly than some of my fellow Catholics. Francis himself addressed the document not merely to Catholics, but to ‘all people’, and he has welcomed secular activists to the Vatican to discuss it. (The journalist Naomi Klein was so enthusiastic upon returning, she told me, that she had to remind herself ‘not to drink too much Kool-Aid’.) Meanwhile, the conservative Catholic blogger Maureen Mullarkey dismissed it as an ‘extravagant rant’. Catholic friends of mine found it depressing, while I read it by a lake with tears of joy. The fact that we share a belief in the God that Francis calls upon was, for better or worse, beside the point.
I believe in God, but I often find more common cause with those who say they don’t than those who say they do. I’ve come to care less whether anyone says they believe in God or not, and to care more about what they mean by that, and what they do about it.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Welcome to the world's newest motorsport: manned multicopter races that exceed speeds of 100 mph.
- Airspeeder is a company that aims to put on high-speed races featuring electric flying vehicles.
- The so-called Speeders are able to fly at speeds of up to 120 mph.
- The motorsport aims to help advance the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) sector, which could usher in the age of air taxis.
Airspeeder, the world's newest motorsport, is set to debut its first race in 2021.
What can you expect to see? Something like a mix between Red Bull's air racing and the pod-racing scenes from "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" — manned electric cars flying close together in the desert at 120 mph, nose-diving off cliffs, and racing over lakes, all while hopefully avoiding collisions.
Airspeeder calls its vehicles flying electric cars, but it's probably easier to think of the wheelless multicopters as car-sized drones. Powered by electric batteries, the carbon-fiber craft use eight propellers to fly, and the tiltable motors are designed to allow pilots to navigate through the course's pylons at high speeds.
To prevent crashes, Airspeeder is working with the companies Acronis and Teknov8 to develop "high-speed collision avoidance" systems for its Speeders.
"As they compete, Speeders will utilise cutting-edge LiDAR and Machine Vision technology to ensure close but safe racing, with defined and digitally governed no-fly areas surrounding spectators and officials," Airspeeder wrote in a blog post.
Beyond motorsports, Airspeeder hopes to help advance the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) sector. This sector is where companies like Uber, Hyundai, and Airbus are working to develop air taxis, which could someday take the ridesharing industry into the skies. By 2040, the autonomous urban aircraft industry could be worth $1.5 trillion, according to a 2019 report from Morgan Stanley.
Still, many technical and regulatory hurdles remain. Matt Pearson, Airspeeder's founder and CEO, thinks the futuristic motorsport will help to not only speed up that process, but also pave the way for self-driving cars.
"Even with autonomous vehicles on the ground, it's a difficult thing to get right because computers have to make decisions very fast," Airspeeder's founder and CEO, Matt Pearson, told GQ." But in a racing environment, you have a pretty controlled course and you have the ability to make all the vehicles cooperate with each other. You have a whole load of vehicles talking to each other, so if there's an incident or a pilot slows down or there's a traffic jam on the course they're all aware of each other. This is something we think will revolutionise autonomous vehicles on the ground. It's technology that will make flying cars a reality in our cities in the future."
Airspeeder has yet to announce a date for the first race, but Pearson said he hopes to put on three races over the first season. The company is developing two courses: one in California's Mojave Desert, and one near Coober Pedy in South Australia.
Who needs steroids when you have the placebo effect?
The "placebo effect" is real. It's the name for a strange phenomenon that most notably occurs during clinical trials. People who are given an inactive substance, like a sugar pill, often experience the same therapeutic benefit as those who are given actual medicine. It's not their imagination — it really happens. (Even better, recent research suggests that therapeutic benefits occur even when the person knows that they were given a placebo.)
Now, a new study from the University of Westminster (UOW) Centre for Nutraceuticals in London and published in Frontiers in Nutrition suggests that the placebo effect may explain yet another phenomenon: Athletic performance.
The research showed that treadmill runners who rinsed their mouths with a pink liquid increased their performance over runners who swished with exactly the same liquid but without the coloring. Why pink? The color is generally linked to sweetness, and the researchers wondered if that association would subconsciously trick the runners into an expectation of more carbohydrates and thus energy.
Author Sanjoy Deb explains:
"The influence of color on athletic performance has received interest previously, from its effect on a sportsperson's kit to its impact on testosterone and muscular power. Similarly, the role of color in gastronomy has received widespread interest, with research published on how visual cues or color can affect subsequent flavor perception when eating and drinking."
Running for science
Credit: Ryan De Hamer / Unsplash
For the study, the researchers recruited ten healthy adults — six men, four women. All were regular exercisers, with an average age of 30. The participants were told that they would be testing the relative benefits of two commercial sports drinks after watching a brief video explaining the value of such beverages. Previous research found that mid-exercise rinsing with such drinks can reduce the perceived intensity of exercise.
The drinks consisted of 0.12 grams of sucralose dissolved in 500 mL of plain water — an artificially sweetened rinse low in calories. The liquids contained no other additives common to sports drinks such as caffeine. The pink version had non-caloric coloring added but was otherwise identical.
After a 12-minute warmup phase of jogging followed by running, the athletes ran at a difficult pace for 30 minutes, rinsing with their drinks as they ran. Following a brief cool-down, they were interviewed to capture their impressions of the exercise session. (Each runner tested both drinks.)
The researchers found that when the volunteers used the pink rinse, they ran an average of 212 meters farther and 4.4 percent faster. They also enjoyed the exercise more.
Deb said, "The findings from our study combine the art of gastronomy with performance nutrition, as adding a pink colorant to an artificially sweetened solution not only enhanced the perception of sweetness, but also enhanced feelings of pleasure, self-selected running speed, and distance covered during a run."
The researchers also plan to dig deeper into the phenomenon by investigating the possibility that the pinkness of the beverage is somehow directly activating the brain's reward areas.
Like autism, ADHD lies on a spectrum, and some children should not be treated.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has long been a controversial topic. While the term "mental restlessness" dates back to 1798, English pediatrician George Still described the disorder in front of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1902. The condition is attributed to both nature and nurture, with a recent study suggesting the disorder is 75 percent genetic.
According to DSM-IV criteria, ADHD affects five to seven percent of children; but according to ICD-10, only between one and two percent are afflicted. Global estimates state that nearly 85 million people suffer from ADHD, which, like autism, exists on a spectrum.
Treatment is perhaps the most contentious issue. While a holistic approach includes counseling, lifestyle changes, and medication, due to insurance requirements and other factors, many children only receive the latter. And now a new systematic scoping review published in the journal JAMA Network Open that investigated 334 studies conducted between 1979 and 2020 found that ADHD is being both overdiagnosed and overtreated in children and adolescents.
ADHD: An epidemic of overdiagnosis
Researchers from the University of Sydney and the Institute for Evidence-Based Healthcare in Australia initially retrieved 12,267 relevant studies before using a set of criteria that whittled the list down to 334. Only five studies critically investigated the costs and benefits of treating milder cases of ADHD, prompting the team to focus on knowledge gaps in side effects.
The team writes that public scrutiny has increased along with the increase in diagnoses. The numbers are startling: between 1997 and 2016, the number of children reported to be suffering from ADHD doubled. While the symptoms of ADHD include fidgeting, inattention, and impulsivity, Dr. Stephen Hinshaw compared this disorder to depression, as neither condition has "unequivocal biological markers." He continues, "It's probably not a true epidemic of ADHD. It might be an epidemic of diagnosing it."
The Australian researchers write that ambiguous or mild symptoms might contribute to diagnostic inflation and the subsequent rise in the prevalence of ADHD. They compare this to cancer, a field that has established protocols for overdiagnosis. ADHD is still understudied in this regard.
Photo: fizkes / Adobe Stock
Overdiagnosis is harmful
This has contributed to an increase in potential harm, not just to children's health (such as the long-term pharmacological impact on developing brains) but to parents' finances. As of 2018, ADHD is a $16.4 billion global industry, with continued revenue growth predicted — ensured by future ADHD diagnoses.
The costs and benefits of ADHD treatment are mixed. The authors write:
"We found evidence of benefits for academic outcomes, injuries, hospital admissions, criminal behavior, and quality of life. In addition, harmful outcomes were evident for heart rate and cardiovascular events, growth and weight, risk for psychosis and tics, and stimulant misuse or poisoning."
For most of these studies, the benefits outweighed the risks in children suffering from more severe ADHD. But this is not true for children with milder symptoms.
Across the studies, the team noticed that four themes emerged. The first two were positive, and the second two were negative:
- For some people, an ADHD diagnosis was shown to create a sense of empowerment because a biological explanation provided a sense of legitimacy.
- Feelings of empowerment enabled help-seeking behavior.
- For others, a biomedical explanation led to disempowerment because it served as an excuse and provided a way to shirk responsibility.
- An ADHD diagnosis was linked to stigmatization and social isolation.
The unfortunate reality is that ADHD is a real condition that should be treated in some children. But for many, the harm of treatment outweighs the benefits.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Since 1957, the world's space agencies have been polluting the space above us with countless pieces of junk, threatening our technological infrastructure and ability to venture deeper into space.