I believe the following excerpt from a speech given by Douglas Adams (Writer of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, atheist) in 1998 sums up a fairly straightforward and plausible mechanism to how human beings started developing the notions of gods/deities
"Where does the idea of God come from? Well, I think we have a very skewed point of view on an awful lot of things, but let's try and see where our point of view comes from. Imagine early man. Early man is, like everything else, an evolved creature and he finds himself in a world that he's begun to take a little charge of; he's begun to be a tool-maker, a changer of his environment with the tools that he's made and he makes tools, when he does, in order to make changes in his environment. To give an example of the way man operates compared to other animals, consider speciation, which, as we know, tends to occur when a small group of animals gets separated from the rest of the herd by some geological upheaval, population pressure, food shortage or whatever and finds itself in a new environment with maybe something different going on. Take a very simple example; maybe a bunch of animals suddenly finds itself in a place where the weather is rather colder. We know that in a few generations those genes which favour a thicker coat will have come to the fore and we'll come and we'll find that the animals have now got thicker coats. Early man, who's a tool maker, doesn't have to do this: he can inhabit an extraordinarily wide range of habitats on earth, from tundra to the Gobi Desert - he even manages to live in New York for heaven's sake - and the reason is that when he arrives in a new environment he doesn't have to wait for several generations; if he arrives in a colder environment and sees an animal that has those genes which favour a thicker coat, he says "I'll have it off him". Tools have enabled us to think intentionally, to make things and to do things to create a world that fits us better. Now imagine an early man surveying his surroundings at the end of a happy day's tool making. He looks around and he sees a world which pleases him mightily: behind him are mountains with caves in - mountains are great because you can go and hide in the caves and you are out of the rain and the bears can't get you; in front of him there's the forest - it's got nuts and berries and delicious food; there's a stream going by, which is full of water - water's delicious to drink, you can float your boats in it and do all sorts of stuff with it; here's cousin Ug and he's caught a mammoth - mammoth's are great, you can eat them, you can wear their coats, you can use their bones to create weapons to catch other mammoths. I mean this is a great world, it's fantastic. But our early man has a moment to reflect and he thinks to himself, 'well, this is an interesting world that I find myself in' and then he asks himself a very treacherous question, a question which is totally meaningless and fallacious, but only comes about because of the nature of the sort of person he is, the sort of person he has evolved into and the sort of person who has thrived because he thinks this particular way. Man the maker looks at his world and says 'So who made this then?' Who made this? - you can see why it's a treacherous question. Early man thinks, 'Well, because there's only one sort of being I know about who makes things, whoever made all this must therefore be a much bigger, much more powerful and necessarily invisible, one of me and because I tend to be the strong one who does all the stuff, he's probably male'. And so we have the idea of a god. Then, because when we make things we do it with the intention of doing something with them, early man asks himself , 'If he made it, what did he make it for?' Now the real trap springs, because early man is thinking, 'This world fits me very well. Here are all these things that support me and feed me and look after me; yes, this world fits me nicely' and he reaches the inescapable conclusion that whoever made it, made it for him.
This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in - an interesting hole I find myself in - fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for. We all know that at some point in the future the Universe will come to an end and at some other point, considerably in advance from that but still not immediately pressing, the sun will explode. We feel there's plenty of time to worry about that, but on the other hand that's a very dangerous thing to say. Look at what's supposed to be going to happen on the 1st of January 2000 - let's not pretend that we didn't have a warning that the century was going to end! I think that we need to take a larger perspective on who we are and what we are doing here if we are going to survive in the long term."
A transcript of the speech can be found here and since I find the other sections of it to be rather interesting as well, I figure that ya'll might want to read the whole thing.
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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- 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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