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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.
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT tomorrow.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.