Religions Are Failed Sciences

Question: What is religion?

Sam Harris:  Well I think we are misled by this very term “religion”.  We use that word “religion” as though it meant a distinct thing . . . as though it meant one phenomenon in human discourse.  And there’s really a range of infatuations and practices that go by the name of religion.  And therefore many points on this continuum don’t have much in common with others.  So if you take a religion like “Jainism” – a religion in India – its core principle is non-violence.  Now there is where Gandhi got his conception of non-violence.  And the Jains are vegetarian.  They have no doctrine of holy war.  In fact, they don’t even have a doctrine – a proper doctrine of self-defense.  I mean they’re pacifists.  They don’t want to hurt a fly.  And then on the other end of the continuum, you have something like Islam where it has explicitly a doctrine of holy war, and a notion of . . .  Combat and death, in certain contexts, is actually the highest obligation a religious person can fulfill.  So these are both religions.  And so religion is a word like “sport”.  You have a sport like badminton, and you have a sport like, you know, boxing.  They’re not . . .  they’re both sports that, you know, one is much more dangerous.  So I’m concerned . . .  I’m obviously more concerned about religions like Islam that . . . wherein you have this marriage of a variety of spiritual and ethical concerns; but also certain kinds of metaphysical certainties that inspire people to not only die, but to kill others in the process.  And you don’t have that in other religions.  So I think that we have to be clear about how this term religion can mislead us. 

 Question: Why do we need religion?

I view religions as essentially failed sciences.  I mean religion was the discourse that we had when all causes in the universe were opaque.  We didn’t know . . .  We didn’t know the basis of anything.  We didn’t know why we were here.  We didn’t know how diseases spread, or what disease was.  We didn’t know how people . . . why people died early, and why others flourished.  We don’t know what’s causing thunderstorms, or what’s causing crops to fail.  And we very naturally . . .  As a cognitive and behavioral imperative, we formed descriptions of the world, and we tried to figure out what’s going on.  We tell ourselves stories about our origins, and about where we’re going, and about causes in the world.  And those stories, given our just pervasive ignorance and our disposition to see agency in the world . . . to see, you know . . . to feel ourselves in relationship to the world, these stories entail being in relation to invisible friends and enemies.  And so we have this parent figure in the sky who’s gonna take care of things if you live rightly.  And we have other demonic presences that we should be really worried about.  And gradually, what you see happening is that religion . . .  As rationality and dozens of specific sciences were birthed in the human conversation, you see religion on a hundred fronts losing the argument with science.  And then we see it on the front of human health and disease.  Religion . . .  You know, it used to be that you could get a diagnosis of demonic possession.  That was a, you know, a reasonable thing to believe you had if you were having seizures.  You know, but now we have a science of neurology, and we have a science of epilepsy.  And so when your kid has seizures, you know, you don’t go to the church to get him diagnosed and treated by exorcism.  And so that’s a good thing.  I’m saying that religion is losing the argument on every other front.  It’s losing the argument ethically.  It will lose the argument spiritually.  I mean we will understand spiritual experience so well at some point at the level of the brain; at the level of the way in which using attention in certain ways can change human experience.  We’ll understand it in a way that makes a mockery of this kind of denominational, religion talk about Jesus and grace; or about Buddha and magic powers.  And that will break down in the same way that it has broken down in medicine . . . in medicine.  That’s a process I think we just have to be honest about and let unfold.

Recorded on: July 4 2007

We are misled by the very term "religion," argues Sam Harris. Religion was simply the discourse humans used when all causes in the universe were opaque.

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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.
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  • 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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