Worshipping the Holy Hair Dryer

My previous post, "The Blinding Fog of Religious Moderation", drew some criticism from people who felt that I was unjustly lumping moderate believers together with fundamentalists. So, in this post, I'm going to try (again) to illustrate why I find even moderate religious beliefs to be wrong-headed, by means of an analogy. I'd like to take credit for this analogy, but it isn't mine: the concept originally came from Sam Harris in his book Letter to a Christian Nation, though the proximate source is from my friend Greta Christina, by way of the commenter Brownian on Pharyngula.


Let's say that you meet a person who says to you, "Every morning, I hear messages for me coming out of my hair dryer. They tell me to picket the funerals of AIDS victims and to demand that it be made illegal for gay people to buy health insurance."

Now let's say a second person cuts in with, "That's not true! Every morning, I hear messages from my hair dryer, and they tell me to donate money to the poor and volunteer at my local soup kitchen! That first guy has just misinterpreted the message of the Holy Hair Dryer."

Is the second viewpoint an improvement over the first? Sure. Would I rather live in a world with people who profess the second viewpoint rather than the first? Of course. But at the same time, isn't it obvious that there's still a problem with it?

If we want assurance that someone's personal moral philosophy will produce good results for human beings, it has to be based on something real - on facts and reasons that exist in the real world, things that anyone can examine for themselves. If two people disagree about, say, whether starting a food bank would do more or less good in a community than a job-training clinic, then that's an empirical question that can be resolved by studying people's needs and comparing the relative costs and benefits of each plan. But if two people claim to hear different and incompatible messages from their hair dryers, it's unlikely that there will ever be a way of settling that debate. At best, it will be a deadlock; at worst, it will be a holy war.

Listening to household appliances just isn't a trustworthy or reliable way of making ethical decisions, and that's still true even if some people sometimes use this method to come up with good choices, because it can produce evil just as easily as good. If the commands you hear from your hair dryer can't be overridden or disproved by evidence, then if those beliefs are producing bad results for people, you have no way of knowing it; you have no means of self-correction.

But when I point all this out, the second guy says, "You shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater just because of a few misguided individuals. Making decisions based on the will of the Holy Hair Dryer is a sacred and venerable tradition that should be respected!"

Replace "hair dryer" with "God", and you see the position that atheists are in. We see people treating others with callousness and cruelty, because they base their morality on a strange and unsettling fantasy - and we see other people, even good people, defending this way of thinking as legitimate in spite of the harm it causes.

We believe that attacking only faith's worst manifestations, while giving faith itself a pass from criticism, would be like treating a sick person's symptoms without curing the underlying disease. As long as people are using the presumed will of imaginary supernatural beings as the basis for their decisions, there will be those who use this method to justify doing evil. And as long as that's the case, we atheists will keep pointing out the fundamental flaws of this method - and arguing for a better alternative, a morality based on reason and concerned with this world.

Image credit: Holger.Ellgaard, released under CC BY-SA 3.0 license

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In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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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.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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