Why Tolerance Is Condescending

Question: Is religion responsible for a lot of the world’s \r\nproblems?

\r\nPenn Jillette:
What you've said, "a lot," sure. If you want to go to\r\n "most" or "all," then no but there is certainly people...  there's a \r\ngreat quote by the physicist... What's his name? Weinberg. Steve \r\nWeinberg. The quote of with or without religion good people do good \r\nthings and bad people do bad things but for good people to do bad things\r\n that takes religion. I'm not sure that's word-for-word, almost certain \r\nit isn't, but it's important. I think it's not religion. It's much \r\ndeeper than that. My beef is not with religion per se; my difference of \r\nopinion is with objective and subjective reality.

Einstein said \r\nthe big question is when you turn away is the tree still there? And I \r\ntalk to Richard Feynman about this and Murray Goodman, there's a feeling\r\n that in particle physics the "experimenter effect," a lot of that stuff\r\n is distorted. I believe very strongly that there is a physical reality \r\nthat my perception does not change. Now you can make the argument that \r\nwe're all just brains in jars, the Matrix, and all of this is an \r\nillusion and that is an airtight argument. You can't refute it but let's\r\n just say it's not that. I think there's a real reality out there and \r\nthe people who say "I believe in God because I feel that there's some \r\nhigher power in the universe"—the problem I have with that is that once \r\nyou've said you believe something that you can't prove to someone else \r\nyou have completely walled yourself off from the world.

And \r\nyou've essentially said no one can talk to you and you can talk to no \r\none. You've also given license to everybody else who feels that. If you \r\nsay to me "I can't prove it Penn, but I have a feeling in my heart that \r\nthere is a power over everything that connects us," why can't Charlie \r\nManson say "I can't prove it but I can have a feeling that the Beatles \r\nare telling us to kill Sharon Tate and that the race riots are coming?" \r\nWhy can't Al Qaeda say "I have a feeling in my heart that we need to \r\nkill these particular infidels?" Why can't the men who tortured and \r\ndisfigured Ayaan Hirsi Ali—why isn't what they feel in their heart \r\nvalid?

The problem is if you have a sense of fairness simply by \r\nsaying you believe in a higher power because you believe in it, you've \r\nautomatically given license to anyone else that wants to say that. So I \r\nwould rather be busted on everything I say and I am, you know, when \r\nyou've put yourself out on television and on radio as someone who really\r\n does believe in objective truth there is not a sentence that I will say\r\n in this interview that won't get three or four tweets of somebody with \r\ninformation busting me on it. And they're right, you know, very rarely \r\nam I busted on something where I'm right. If someone is taking the \r\ntrouble to let me know I've said something wrong, chances are I'm wrong.

But\r\n that's the world I live in. I want to live in a world of a marketplace \r\nof ideas where everybody is busted on their bullshit all the time \r\nbecause I think that's the way we get to truth. That is also what \r\nrespect is. What we call tolerance nowadays, maybe always—I'm always \r\nskeptical about the "nowadays" thing. I don't think things get that much\r\n different. What we call "tolerance" is often just condescending. It's \r\noften just saying, "Okay, you believe what you want to believe that's \r\nfine with me." I think true respect... it's one of the reasons I get \r\nalong so much better with fundamentalist Christians than I do with \r\nliberal Christians because fundamentalist Christians I can look them in \r\nthe eye and say, "You are wrong." They also know that I will always \r\nfight for their right to say that.

And I will celebrate their \r\nright to say that but I will look them in the eye and say, "You're \r\nwrong." And fundamentalists will look me in the eye and say, "You're \r\nwrong." And that to me is respect. The more liberal religious people who\r\n go "There are many paths to truth you just go on and maybe you'll find \r\nyour way"... is the way you talk to a child. And I bristle at that, so I\r\n do very well with proselytizing hardcore fundamentalists and in a very \r\ndeep level I respect them and at a very deep level i think I share a big\r\n part of their heart. I think in a certain sense I'm a preacher. My \r\nheart is there.

Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman

Religion can cause "good people to do bad things," but Penn Jillette gets along better with fundamentalists than with liberal Christians who preach easy tolerance.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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  • 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. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. 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.