Bringing Light Into Dark Places

My inaugural post on Big Think drew a wide range of opinions from commenters. (New site, new community! It takes some getting used to on both sides.) But this comment in particular struck me:


"As a born again agnostic, I don't have a problem with your having this take on reality, but must you sound so sure, smug and evangelical."

I'm used to fierce denunciation from religious believers. But this comment is remarkable because its author apparently agrees with everything I believe, yet even so, he implores me not to say it so openly or confidently: Ssshhh! Not so loud! Keep your voice down!

In response to this comment, I say thus: There's an important difference between willingness to change your mind if the appropriate evidence is provided, and hesitancy about your beliefs just because. I'm certainly fallible, as are all human beings. But if you think I'm wrong, prove it. Point out the facts that contradict me. Deploy your strongest arguments to persuade me. If you can't do this, then don't expect me to back down. When the facts are unclear or the choice is complex, then is the time for hesitancy and caution. But I don't think the existence of God is one of those cases, and I refuse to be moderate for the mere sake of moderation.

There's an immortal quote by the American anti-slavery activist William Lloyd Garrison. As he said in 1831, in the inaugural edition of his newspaper The Liberator:

"I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD."

In just the same way, why should atheists today not speak out forthrightly? Doesn't the state of the world merit it? Aren't there evils being committed right now in the name of faith that deserve our unflinching condemnation?

Right now, in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and other Islamic theocracies, women are treated as slaves and prisoners by sharia law, forbidden to get an education, forbidden to work, forbidden even to leave the home without their father's or husband's permission. And this theocratic slavery gives rise to the phenomenon of "honor killing" - a woman who disobeys her male owner may be brutally murdered by her own family members, to cleanse the shame of harboring a disobedient female. This isn't solely a Third World issue, a problem of primitive, backwater nations: it's increasingly happening in Europe and even in America.

Right now, in Africa, nations are struggling with the devastating fallout of the AIDS epidemic; and their problems are made worse by the Pope, who commands the faithful in AIDS-stricken countries to abstain from condom use, unconcerned for the millions who will become infected with HIV because they trusted him. Nor does the Roman Catholic church bear all the blame: in countries like Uganda, Pentecostal leaders burn condoms for Jesus, and religious believers throw away their antivirals in favor of holy water.

And the harm done by religious belief has the potential to be greater still. Global climate change is the most pressing moral crisis facing the human species and brings unprecedented threats: rising sea levels swamping coastal cities, mass extinctions of species, weather disruptions that will convulse economies and topple nations. Yet the largest single bloc of opposition to climate science comes from religious zealots who damn the evidence and say that the climate can't be changing because God promised in the Bible he wouldn't let that happen. Climate-change denialism has become a litmus test of orthodoxy for the American religious right; one of their own, Richard Cizik, was ejected from his position in part because he deviated from the party line.

Religious faith has been the consistent enemy of human progress and equality. The religious lobby is the single greatest force against marriage equality today, just as they once were the single greatest force against interracial marriage, just as they once were the single greatest force against female suffrage, just as they once were the single greatest force against abolishing slavery. In all the most profound and meaningful areas of human life, they want to wield dictatorial power: who we may love and who we may marry, how we're born and how we die.

What all these evils, and many more besides, have in common is that they all spring from faith - from the unexamined, unquestioned belief that there's a being called God whose will we should obey. (Since there's no such being speaking to humans and telling us what his will actually is, the role of "God" in practice is played by the religious traditions and authorities whose teachings the believer has absorbed.) Faith has nothing to do with human desires and human needs, and so when it produces good results, it does so only by coincidence. When religious texts tell believers to build hospitals and feed the hungry, they do so; when those same texts tell believers to stone rape victims or burn heretics in the town square, they do so just as gladly.

I may be leaving myself open to accusations of optimism, but I believe it's possible to keep the good while jettisoning the bad. What we need is for faith to have less power and reason to have more; we need a human-centered morality that will produce good results for people consistently and not just by chance. We need to dispel faith-based ignorance and bring the light of humanism into dark places. And with this site, that's just what I intend to do.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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