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is faith a virus? Hauerwas, Boghossian, and the ‘problem’ of natural theology

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A post I wrote some 18 months ago reflecting on the comments of an American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, while he was in Australia (I think) has raised some interest – more than I’m accustomed to – from people who obviously find theology more important than I do. My post was triggered by Hauerwas’s inane remark that atheism was ‘boring’, the kind of cheap remark that Christian apologists are apt to make. So it was with some bemusement that I was treated, in comments, to a defence of Hauerwas as a great Christian critic of standard US Christianity (which struck me as quite beside the point), and as a person whose throwaway lines shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Maybe so, but I can only go on the words I heard, which seemed to be spoken seriously enough, and I have little interest in researching Hauerwas’s whole oeuvre to get a better handle on particular utterances, as I do find theology quite boring (and that’s not a throwaway line).

Still, I’m prepared to give Hauerwas another go, within the broad context of faith. So I’m going to have a look at what he says in the first of his Gifford lectures on ‘natural theology’.

Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas

And what, you might ask, is natural theology? Well, apparently it’s the attempt to find solid reasons, beyond ‘divine revelation’, for the existence of – not gods, but God, the Judeo-Christian creation. I’m always amused by this usage – though actually the bloke’s an amalgam of various local gods including Yahweh the Canaanite war-god, Elohim, a name half dipped in obscurity but deriving from the plural of el, a Canaanite word for any god, and Adonai, a term of similarly obscure provenance. It’s as if a company like MacDonalds  had copyrighted the name Hamburger to disallow its usage by everyone else.

But at least it’s promising that these lectures are about giving reasons for believing in some supernatural entity or other, rather than relying on that notably slippery term, faith.

Unfortunately, though, Hauerwas doesn’t start well. Let me home in on a sentence from the very first paragraph:

The god that various Gifford lecturers have shown to exist or not to exist is a god that bears the burden of proof. In short, the god of the Gifford Lectures is usually a god with a problem.

This is an age-old trope, going back at least as far as Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), who put forward a piece of clever word-play as an ‘ontological argument’ for the existence of his god, all the time saying that the god didn’t  really need such an argument, implying that to suggest such a thing was tantamount to saying he was a god with a problem.

But Anselm’s god didn’t have a problem, any more than the god of Hauerwas, or the god of any other theist. These gods, I’m fairly convinced, are unlikely to exist outside of theists’ imaginations. It is the theists who have the problem. The burden of proof is borne by the believers, not by their gods. Hauerwas should know better than to employ such a cheap trick.

Further along the line Hauerwas provides his own very different definition of natural theology as ‘the attempt to witness to the nongodforsakenness of the world even under the conditions of sin’. He provides a link to an endnote after this, but I’ve been unable to find the note, so this statement remains largely gobbledygook to me, though I can comment on its key terms; ‘nongodforsakenness’ can only have meaning for those who think they know that their god exists, and ‘sin’ is a not very useful term arising from Judeo-Christian theism, a term I reject because I view morality as deriving from natural and social evolution. Just as we don’t describe our cats as ‘sinners’ or as ‘evil’, we shouldn’t, in my view, describe humans in that way. It would surely be more accurate, and far more fruitful, to describe them as socially or psychologically dysfunctional. This allows for the possibility of remedies.

However, I’m prepared to be patient (to a degree), as Hauerwas requests. I’ve managed to read through the first of his Gifford lectures, and that’s more than enough for me (and my understanding of it all is further undermined by some egregious typos in the text). A number of thinkers are referenced and sometimes discussed at some length – I’ve read a little Aquinas, and more of William James, but the others –  Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr and Alasdair MacIntyre, are only familiar to me as names. These intellectuals have no doubt great resonance in the (clearly shrinking) theological world Hauerwas has chosen to inhabit, and that’s probably the main reason they mean so little to me, as I inhabit the world of modernist nihilism that Hauerwas apparently inveighs against.

To be fair, Hauerwas takes care to claim that the modern era, like the middle ages, is far too complex for any brief laudatory or condemnatory summation. To this effect, he says:

It is important… that I make clear that I do not assume my account of modernity is necessarily one of declension. Though I admire and am attracted to many of the movements and figures we associate with what we call the Middle Ages, I do not assume the latter to be some golden age from which modernity names a fall.

However, I’m suspicious of this claim, as elsewhere in this lecture he speaks of modern nihilism as a given, and as a problem.

But before I go on, I’ll try to give a brief overview of this first lecture, which I’m sure will be seen as a travesty of his views. To some extent it’s a problematising of the stated purpose of the Gifford Lectures, which is apparently to argue for the existence of a god without resort to divine revelation (or perhaps argue about, since a number of previous lecturers, such as John Dewey, William James and A J Ayer, were secularists). It’s Hauerwas’s contention that natural theology is a modern, post-enlightenment phenomenon that wouldn’t have been recognised by earlier theologians such as Aquinas, and that to reduce the Christian god (‘the ground of everything’) to something to be explained or proven, like dinosaurs or black holes (not, unfortunately, Hauerwas’s examples) is more or less to already admit defeat. Of course, he’s right there, and it’s no wonder he inveighs against modernism!

Hauerwas claims Karl Barth in particular as a major influence in his thinking, which seems to involve just accepting the ‘truth’, particularly of the life of Jesus and his death on the cross, and being a ‘witness’ to this life, particularly in the way one lives one’s own life. In outlining this view, he expresses extreme confidence about the essentiality of Jesus and the manner of his death as an example and a message.

I can’t write about this in the way that theologians write, and I certainly don’t want to, so I’ll be much more blunt and say that the problem here is one of faith – a term nowhere mentioned in this lecture.


Peter Boghossian

The atheist philosopher Peter Boghossian recently toured Australia to promote his book, A manual for creating atheists, and the general project behind it. The tour was partly supported by an organisation called Reason Road, of which I’m a member. It’s Boghossian view – and I think he’s right – that it’s faith rather than religion that atheists need to question and undermine, in order to promote a healthier view of the world, and his characterisation of faith is also something I like. He calls it ‘pretending to know what you don’t/can’t know.’ He also describes faith as a virus, which should be combatted with epistemological antibiotics. Bearing this in mind, it’s worth quoting a couple more of Hauerwas’s statements:

… the heart of the argument I develop in these lectures is that natural theology divorced from a full doctrine of God cannot help but distort the character of God and, accordingly, of the world in which we find ourselves.

That God is Trinity is, of course, a confession. The acknowledgment of God’s trinitarian character was made necessary by the Christian insistence that the God who had redeemed the world through the cross and resurrection of Jesus was not different from the God of Abraham, Moses, and the prophets. God has never not been Trinity, but only through the struggle to render its own existence intelligible did the church discover God’s trinitarian nature. Accordingly, Christians believe rightly that few claims are more rationally compelling than our confession that God is Trinity. Of course, our knowledge that God is Trinity, a knowledge rightly described as revelation, only intensifies the mystery of God’s trinitarian nature.

From these statements we learn that Hauerwas is not only a Christian but a trinitarian, and presumably – but not necessarily – a Catholic. His Catholicism seems further confirmed by remarks here and elsewhere about the essentiality of church to Christian living.

More importantly Hauerwas makes the bold claim that the triune nature of his god is ‘rationally compelling’ to Christians in general. This is quite clearly false. I don’t know too many Christians but few of them are Catholic and even fewer would consider themselves trinitarians. Of course most wouldn’t have given the matter the slightest thought, and so perhaps wouldn’t be Christians to Hauerwas’s mind, but Hauerwas makes the claim that ‘God as Trinity’ is a matter of knowledge – though knowledge as ‘revelation’, which to my modernist mind is no knowledge at all. This is another example of pretending to know things you can’t possibly know. All that Hauerwas adds to this is a degree of confidence, though whether this is false confidence – mere bravado – or not, only Hauerwas can say. We get this throughout the lecture – a ‘confident’ pretence that he knows things that he can’t possibly know.

The reason for this, of course, is that he rejects natural theology, a kind of adaptation of post-enlightenment scientific methodologies, often called methodological naturalism. By doing so he permits himself the luxury of knowing that his god is triune, and is the ground of all being, and had a son who died on the cross for our sins – all by revelation!

Is there any point in continuing? To allow knowledge by revelation, or some sort of automatic conviction, or faith, is indeed to give up on any fruitful theory of knowledge altogether. Everything is permitted.

Epistemology is another term nowhere mentioned in this lecture, but the fact is that our modern world has been largely built on an improved epistemology, one that separates knowledge from belief in a throughly rigorous, and enormously productive way. It is this renovated epistemology  that has allowed us, for example, to look at the Bible not as the work of Moses or other pseudo-characters, but of scores of nameless authors whose individualities and attitudes can be revealed by painstaking textual analysis. It allows us to question the character of Jesus, his motives, his provenance, his fate, and even his very existence. It allows us to distinguish the possibly true elements of Jesus’s story from the highly implausible; the virgin birth, the miracles, the chit-chat with the devil in the desert, the transfiguration and so forth.

Far more importantly, though, from my view, this brighter and tighter epistemology has brought us modern medicine and cosmology, and modern technology, from improved modes of travel to improved ways of feeding our growing population. And of course it has brought about a renovated and enhanced understanding of who and what we are.

I really get off on knowledge, and so I take a very dim view indeed of those who would seek to poison it with so-called knowledge by revelation or faith. Knowledge is a very hard-won thing and it’s very precious. It deserves far greater respect than Hauerwas allows it.

The belief of Hauerwas and others that their god cannot be relegated to the furniture of the universe is simply that: a belief. What they are asking is that their belief should be respected (and even accepted) presumably because it is all-consuming. It’s such a vast belief, such a vast claim, that it dwarfs modernity, it dwarfs methodological naturalism, it dwarfs boring and worthless atheism. And it dwarfs any insulting attempt to test it.

I don’t know whether to describe Hauerwas’s claim as an arrogant one. It might well be that Hauerwas is genuinely humbled by this revealed ‘knowledge’. Either way, it’s not remotely convincing to me.


I don’t much enjoy writing about this stuff, and I hope I never post on this subject again.


Written by stewart henderson

August 23, 2015 at 9:29 am

kinesiology, TCM and depression

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a kinesiology wheel - proof positive of profundity

a kinesiology wheel – proof positive of profundity

Jacinta: So, Canto, the new USSR hasn’t posted recently on old Wesley Smith and his wellness treatments. I think we should post on another one of those.

Canto: Oh god, do we have to? I’d rather talk about black holes or the edge of the universe…

Jacinta: I know I know, but, you could think of Wesley’s treatment centre as a black hole of sorts…

Canto; Yes, and like the other kind, the more you look for them the more you find them, and they all have similar properties…

Jacinta: Hopefully, though, they’re not as dangerous…

Canto: Well, that depends. The real black holes are light years away, whereas there’s a black hole of a wellness centre just around the corner from me.

Jacinta: Kinesiology. That’s the subject for today. Know anything about it?

Canto: No, except that, presumably, old Wesley offers it as a treatment. And kinetic energy is energy of motion, right? So, let me guess, kinesiology is the science of getting your energy system moving so fast that it flings your toxins out of every available orifice leaving you feeling not only light-headedly well, but thoroughly exercised, and of course exorcised.

Jacinta: Well I doubt if it’s as scientific as that, but you’re on the right track. Actually there are two meanings of kinesiology. It’s the scientific study of bodily movement, in humans and other animals, which means applying anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, neuroscience, and even robotics, to the understanding of  movement. And then there’s the naturopathically bullshittical meaning of kinesiology as deepily ancient chi-based treatment, much along the lines you just mentioned. And it’s this second meaning, as presented by the Australian Kinesiology Association (AKA), that we’ll be focusing on.

Canto: Chi wizz, this could be fun. Are they really into chi?

Jacinta: Oh yes. Their website gushes with it. It’s teeth-gnashing stuff actually. Apparently it combines western science with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to promote your spiritual well-being, among other things.

Canto: Hey, I’ve got an idea. You’ve heard about James Randi’s million-dollar challenge?

Jacinta: The one to psychics, promising a million to anyone who can provide scientific proof of their psychic abilities?

Canto: That’s the one, and I don’t know the details, and of course they all argue that it’s rigged against them, but it’s a good kind of bad publicity for psychics at least, but what if we offered a million dollars to anyone who can provide solid, or liquid, or gaseous evidence of the existence of chi?

Jacinta: Canto, we don’t have a million dollars.

Canto: But we don’t need a million dollars, we know there’s no such thing, right?

Jacinta: Uhhh I don’t think it would work that way. We’d need a rich backer, but in any case we wouldn’t get any takers. Having looked at a few forums discussing chi, its supporters usually say that, though it’s undoubtedly real, it’s not detectable or measurable by western methods, because it’s part of a wholly different mindset, a different way of knowing, a spiritual understanding that takes years to develop. They say, for example, that only by believing in chi can you unlock its healing powers.

Canto: So it’s placebo energy?

Jacinta: Okay small-minded little-faith man, let’s move on to kinesiology. The practice clearly takes advantage of the scientific cachet of kinesiology as body movement studies. Here’s what the AKA has to say about it:


Kinesiology encompasses holistic health disciplines which use the gentle art of muscle monitoring to access information about a person’s well being. Originating in the 1970’s, it combines Western techniques and Eastern wisdom to promote physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. Kinesiology identifies the elements which inhibit the body’s natural internal energies and accessing the life enhancing potential within the individual.

Canto: aka bullshit.

Jacinta: Ha ha, but get what it has to say next:


The maturity of ‘Complementary Therapies’ is shown by some of Australia’s major health funds now paying rebates for many therapies, including Kinesiology. This acknowledges what is happening in the health sciences in the 21st Century. Australians spend over $1 billion annually on therapies not part of mainstream medicine. Kinesiology is one of the fastest growing of these and is now practised in over 100 countries.

Canto: Popularity as evidence. They’re really keen to show how legit they are.

Canto: Their choice, isn’t it? Survival of the brightest?

Jacinta: Maybe so, but I think the phenomenon’s worth pondering more deeply. How long does it take to become a qualified doctor in this country?

Canto: A GP? Well, for example, the University of Adelaide offers a six-year MBBS, that’s a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery, to start off, but in order to get into that you need really good year 12 results – what they call your ATAR score (Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank) plus you have to pass a UMAT test, that’s a 3 hour multiple choice thing. UMAT stands for Undergraduate Medicine and Health Sciences Admission Test. Oh, and then you have to do well in an interview before a medical panel. So once you’ve been accepted and done your 6-year MBBS, you can apply to do Australian General Practice Training (AGPT) – or maybe you can apply while you’re doing the MBBS and integrate it into your undergraduate degree, I’m not sure. Anyway the AGPT takes another 3 0r 4 years, so it’s a pretty long journey.

Jacinta: Well, thanks for that fulsome response, it well illustrates the gap between evidence-based medicine and naturopathy. I see they’re very much into four-letter acronyms (FLAs) in that field. TLAs aren’t good enough?

Canto: Yes they like to consider themselves more lettered than others. But I should also point out that once they’ve been accepted into the ranks of GPs, or any other medical specialisation, they’ll automatically be able to access the latest medical knowledge in their field. In fact they’ll be bombarded with it, and will be expected to keep up to date. Whereas naturopaths are usually relying on ‘traditional’ techniques and ‘ancient’ herbal treatments, none of this new-fangled invasive or big pharma stuff.

Jacinta: Well I suppose there are a few properly qualified doctors who are into naturopathy, but by and large you’re right. So why is it that so many people are choosing naturopaths over these highly-trained and knowledgable practitioners of the latest evidence-based medicine?

Canto: Well, isn’t it because they aren’t getting what they want from GPs or other specialists? Whatever that might be. Holistic treatment, as they like to call it. A sense of trust. Something psychological, I suspect.

Jacinta: Yes, there’s that – some doctors are still not getting the message about how to share information with their clients, and how to see the approach to health as an interactive process. But it could be that evidence-based medicine is the victim of its own success?

Canto: How so?

Jacinta: Well these days, and WHO figures bear this out, patients are increasingly presenting with chronic conditions. That’s to say, the ratio of chronic illness to acute illness is increasing, and I’d say that’s largely due to the success of evidence-based medicine in the treatment of acute illness. Now of course chronic conditions can be serious and life-threatening – 60% of the world’s population die of them, according to the WHO – but they represent a whole gamut of complaints, from degenerative diseases to niggling backaches, neuralgia and the more difficult to pin down stuff such as chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, or the chronic itching that some attribute to Morgellons disease. And then there’s depression…. So some of these ailments are met with skepticism or at least contradictory responses from trained medicos…

Canto: ‘Medical experts are baffled… ‘

Jacinta: Precisely, and many naturopaths see this area as their niche. They can get in and ‘listen’ to the client and treat her ‘holistically’ – that’s to say sympathetically. Much of it is feel-good treatment, so much more pleasant than what’s offered by hard-nosed, know-it-all, condescending doctors.

Canto: So it’s all perfectly harmless, then?

Jacinta: Well perhaps mostly, but there are obvious problems with giving too much legitimacy to these largely bogus treatments. An example of this is precisely what the AKA says on its website, that the ‘maturity’ of naturopathy is proven by the fact that many of their therapies are attracting health fund rebates. This is complete BS, it’s simply a populist move from the health funds, who know full well that naturopathy is here to stay, regardless of evidence. This of course gives the Wesley Smiths of the world more legitimacy and increases the chances of people with serious health issues being led to think that naturopathic shite can cure them.

Canto: Well, doesn’t that get back to survival of the brightest?

Jacinta: Maybe, but what about the scenario – and this has been played out – that a seriously sick child has been given a bogus treatment in lieu of real medicine, and has died of something perfectly curable, courtesy of her parents?

Canto: Mmm, couldn’t that be handled case by case? The parents could be up for gross neglect, and the associated naturopath could be had up for bogus claims leading to the death of a minor or something, and be barred from practising… or given some more serious penalty. Anyway we need to wind this up. Is there anything more specific about kinesiology we should be concerned about?

Jacinta: Kinesiology is generally associated with chiropractic, which is about as bad as it gets. As with naturopaths in general, some kinesiacs are more into woo than others, but the AKA website goes on about acupressure and meridians, and no credible evidence has ever been presented that acupressure points or meridional points actually exist. They’re of course part of TCM, along with vital energy and various other concepts and treatments that have no evidence or coherent mechanism of action to back them up.

Canto: You mean rhino horns and the penis bones of dogs don’t cure anything?

Jacinta: Sorry but rhinos are going extinct for an ignorant fantasy, not to mention the 12,000 or so asiatic black bears being kept on farms so that their bile can be extracted for ‘medicine’, which often drives them to suicidal frenzy. Other creatures being decimated by TCM include sharks, seahorses, tigers, turtles and saiga antelopes….

Canto: OK enough, I’m getting depressed. The final verdict on kinesiology?

Jacinta: Well it seems to be just a variant of chiropractic stuff, though probably even more unregulated, with a greater admixture of TCM woo. I have nothing more positive to say about it than that.

Canto: Whatever next…


Written by stewart henderson

August 20, 2015 at 10:17 pm

introducing canto and jacinta: solutions for the post-antibiotic era?

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Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale

Jacinta: Well hello Canto, let’s welcome each other to the Urbane Society of Skeptical Romantics, where we like to talk… and not much else.

Canto: Very productive and constructive talk Jacinta, but the proof will be in the pudding.

Jacinta: Well I hope it’s not a recipe for disaster. What shall we talk about today?

Canto: Well I’m thinking medicine today – the discipline, not the stuff you consume.

Jacinta: Well I don’t consume much medicine at the worst of times, being fit, positive, eternally youthful and beautiful.

Canto: That’s okay, I’ll take your share – so you know there’s a bit of a crisis with antibiotic resistance.

Jacinta: Yes, natural selection in action, or is that human-induced, unintended-consequence-style artificial selection?

Canto: Well I’m not intending to delve into the natural v artificial quagmire here, or even into the science of antibiotics. I’ve just been reading about a couple of alternative ways – one old and one new – of killing off nasty infecting bacteria in hospitals. Ever caught one of those secondary infections in hospital Jass? No of course you haven’t.

Jacinta: Last time I was in hospital I was the infection – had to be forcibly removed from the victim by a crack team of medicos and placed in isolation until deemed safe to take my chances at thriving and multiplying along with my fellow bugs.

Canto: Well I’m sure they made the right decision.

Jacinta: The jury’s still out. Tell me of the ways.

Canto: Remember Florence Nightingale?

Jacinta: One of my heroes, apart from her valetudinarianism. Though I suspect that might just have been her way of keeping everyone at a distance so she could get on with things in her way. She was a voluminous correspondent just like Darwin, another sufferer from mysterious ailments. So what about her?

Canto: She revolutionised nursing and hospital treatment, sanitation and such, right? One of her many insights was that patients convalescing from the Crimean battlefields benefitted enormously from throwing open the windows of the rather unhygienic field hospitals set up for them. Nightingale wards were built to her design, with high sash windows kept open to renew the air around the sick. This worked a treat, though it took more than a century to verify the effect experimentally, using E coli in an open rooftop environment. The bugs died within 2 hours in the open air, but in an enclosed environment they lived on.

Jacinta: Right, so this has obvious relevance to those horrible superbugs they talk about…

Canto: Like MRSA?

Jacinta: Yeah. What’s that?

Canto: Multi-resistant, or more accurately methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus.

Jacinta: Yeah, golden staph, just as I thought. So that’s interesting. I don’t see modern hospitals blowing in the wind really. Sounds far too hippy for the 21st century. Isn’t it all tightly controlled and air-conditioned these days? Recycled air and legionnaire’s disease? Okay, only kidding, I’ve not heard of any hospital outbreaks of that, but these hospital superbugs must surely be caused by a contaminated environment, yes? Should we bring back Nightingale wards? And why did they go out of fashion?

Canto: Well, not only did she get fresh air right, she had the windows faced to let in as much sunlight as possible, and it was only learned later that sunshine was a great germ-killer, especially in the case of tuberculosis, which ravaged all the crowded cities…

Jacinta: Yeah and picked off all those writers, like Chekhov, and the Brontës, and D H Lawrence, and Keats. Didn’t he write an ode to Florence Nightingale?

Canto: No no that was another nightingale, but at its height TB was killing one in five in the cities; but it’s probable that the sunlight was boosting levels of vitamin D, which in turn boosts the immune system. So by the turn of the century, fresh air and sunlight was all the go. TB patients were wheeled onto balconies, to be exposed to the bracing elements.

Jacinta: Ah, but of course all that changed with the discovery of antibiotics.

Canto: Right, and thanks to these miracles of modern medicine, rotten air and dark dankness came back into fashion, sort of. I mean, all sorts of infections were being vanquished by these pills and it seemed as if diseases would fall like ninepins.

Jacinta: I suspect you’re oversimplifying..

Canto: Well it must’ve seemed that way to the general public. And of course fresh air could turn into howling winds, and sunlight into clouds and rain. Controlled temperatures and conditions might’ve seemed safer, and the cleansing power of aircons was over-estimated.

Jacinta: Oh yes… Climat air-conditioning, Breezair, Bonaire – more than an air-conditioner, a tonic to the system.

Canto: But now of course the diseases are returning in resistant forms, and we’ve hit a wall in terms of antibiotic manufacture. There’s very little new stuff coming on-stream. And now, hospitals are being seen as a problem again, just as in Ms Nightingale’s day.

Jacinta: Yes, but there are new post-antibiotic treatments in the pipeline, such as phage therapies, in which bacteria are destroyed by genetically engineered viruses, and drugs that…

Canto: Okay Jass, that’s for another conversation, and these new treatments are a bit futuristic as yet. Meanwhile, we need to heed Ms Nightingale’s hygienic advice. Apparently, the recent emphasis on simple hand washing has been paying huge dividends, in reducing the incidence of MRSA and Clostridium difficile.

Jacinta: So we were getting complacent, forgetting the basics?

Canto: Well, we’d been lulled by the success of modern medicine into thinking the old precautions needn’t apply. And further studies have confirmed the cleansing power of even the mildest breezes, and hospitals have begun to open up in response.

Jacinta: But not only that, we now know more about good old-fashioned sunlight and its curative powers, don’t we?

Canto: Okay, the stage is yours.

Jacinta: Well, there was some breakthrough research done using standard UV lamps in a TB ward. Guinea pigs were used (I mean real guinea pigs), and their signs of infection were drastically reduced. Now, there are some regions of the world with high rates of TB, and of HIV, which of course weakens their immune system and makes them susceptible…

Canto: I thought TB was just about eradicated.

Jacinta: Well it’s now resurgent in some parts, so we’re back to looking at other modes of prevention. So UV lighting is proving very effective, but not applied directly, because direct exposure is quite dangerous – think of tanning beds and the like. But what is interesting is that they’ve experimented with different UV wavelengths – ultraviolet light covers the spectrum from 10 to 400 nanometres – and found a sweet spot at 207 nm. At that wavelength the UV light is absorbed by proteins and penetrates a little way into human cells but doesn’t reach any DNA to effect mutations. But it does affect bacteria, drastically. They absorb the light and die.

Canto: Very clever.


Jacinta: Quite. This sweet spot technology was first used in operating theatres, to kill airborne bacteria that could immediately settle in open incisions and the like. There’s a suggestion now that UV lamps at that wavelength should be deployed in all hospitals.

Canto: So that’s one solution, but getting back to fresh air, has anyone found a solution that eliminates the drawbacks? I mean, knocking equipment around, bringing in pollution and pathogens from outside, not to mention patients falling out of windows?

Jacinta: Well, some of those risks could easily be minimised, but there are more technological fixes. The production of hydroxyl radicals has been shown to kill bacteria…

Canto: Hydroxyl radicals? WTF?

Jacinta: Molecules with a short lifespan, produced in the atmosphere when ozone, the unstable allotrope of oxygen, reacts with water. This reaction is catalysed by organic molecules in the air, and a while back a company managed to build machines that produce these hydroxyls, for use in hospitals. They were quite effective, but the company went bust. So we’re back to good ventilation and getting patients out on balconies. And perhaps locating hospitals out of the way of cities.

Canto: Okay, so back to the future.

Jacinta: Or forward to the past.

Canto: Well thanks for this charming discussion and we look forward to many more.

Here’s an interesting commercial video about how a hydroxyl generator works
hat-tip to: Frank Swain, ‘A breath of fresh air’ in New Scientist Collection: Medical Frontiers.

Written by stewart henderson

August 9, 2015 at 9:02 am

the reveries of a solitary wa*ker: wa*k 4 (universal matters)

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could someone be spreading BS over the internet?

The universe is more turbulent than we imagined. It’s a quantum computer. It’s nothing but information. Where’s all the lithium? Is it really spinning, and are we anywhere near the axis? What was in the beginning? Pure energy? What does that mean? Energy without particles? The energy coalesced into particles, so I’ve read. Sounds a bit miraculous to me. The fundamental particles being quarks and electrons. Leptons? But quarks aren’t leptons, they’re fermions but leptons are also fermions but these are but names. Quarks came together in triplets via a strong force, but from whence this force? Something to do with electromagnetism, but that’s just a name. I’m guessing that physicists don’t know how these forces and particles emerged, they can only deduce and describe them mathematically. Quarks and leptons are elementary fermions, that’s to say particles with half-integer spin, according to the spin-statistics theorem. Only one fermion can occupy a particular quantumstate at one time, that’s according to the Pauli exclusion principle. Fermions include more than just quarks and leptons (electrons and neutrinos), they can be composite particles made up of an odd number of quarks and leptons, hence baryons made up of quark triplets. Fermions are often opposed to bosons in the sense that they’re associated with particles (matter) but bosons are more associated with force, but the intimate relation between matter and energy blurs this distinction. Anyway this strong force pulled quarks together to form protons and neutrons, while an electromagnetic force pulled together protons and electrons and voila, hydrogen atoms. All this in the turbulent immediate post-bang time. Hydrogen fused with hydrogen to form helium and so on all the way up to lithium, but that’s not far up because lithium comes after helium in the periodic table. The amount of hydrogen and helium in the universe fits precisely big bang expectations, and in fact is bestevidence for that theory but where’s all the lithium? There’s only a third as much lithium isotope 7 (with four neutrons) as there should be, but that’s okay cause there’s a superabundance of lithium-6. No, not okay. Some argue that it’s a big problem for the big bang theory, others not, surprise surprise. The period of creation of hydrogen and helium is called the primordial nucleosynthesis period, and it covers the time from a few seconds to 20 minutes or so after the bang. More precisely, the heavier isotopes of hydrogen, as well as helium and some lithium and beryllium, the next one in complexity, were created then and everything else was created much later, in stellar evolution and dissolution. Obviously the big bang released a serious amount of energy, and then things quickly cooled, permitting somehow the creation of elementary leptons such as electrons and electron neutrinos. During these first instances there was also a huge degree of inflation. The earliest instants of theuniverse are referred to as the Planck epoch, and it’s fair to say that what we know for certain about that minuscule epoch is equally minuscule, but it’s believed that the different fundamental forces posited today were then unified, and gravitation, the weakest of those forces in the present universe, was then much stronger, and maybe subject to quantum effects, which is interesting because though I know little of all this stuff largely due to mathematical ignorance, and of course inattention, I do know that gravity and the quantum world have proved irreconcilable since first theorised. Needless to say the Planck epoch is very different from ours, and it’s at this scale that quantum gravitational effects may be realised. We can’t test this though even with our best particle accelerators. It’s one for the future. Meanwhile, the renormalisation problem. Well actually renormalisation began as a provisional solution to the problem of infinities.

We describe space-time as a continuum. So there are three dimensions of space, what we call Euclidean space, and a dimension of time. But how does that actually work? Perhaps not very well. I’m talking about a classic-mechanical picture, but in relativistic contexts time is enmeshed with space and velocity and gravity. Cosmologists combine the lot into a single manifold called a Minkowski space. All I know of this is that it involves an independent notion of spacetime intervals and is mathematically more complicated than I can begin to comprehend, though supposedly it’s a relatively simple special case of a Lorentzian manifold, which itself is a special case of a pseudo-Riemannian manifold. I’m engaging in mathematics, not humour. Or vice versa. All this is beside the point, it’s just that trying to reconcile quantum theory and relativity is impossible without the creation of infinities, and infinities are much disliked by many cosmologists, being far too messy, and time is out of fashion too, the quantum world simply ignores it. And we still don’t know what happened to the lithium.

Mathematics has so far been absolutely central to our understanding of the universe. So is the universe or multiverse no more than a mathematical construct? If it is, it’s one that we’ve not yet figured out, and it’s unlikely that we ever will, it just gets more complicated as we develop more sophisticated tools to examine it. I’ve always suspected that the universe/multiverse is as complex as we are capable, with our increasingly ‘precise’ tools and increasingly sophisticated maths, of making it, and so will continue to get more complex, but that’s a sort of sacrilegious solipsism, isn’t it? The universe as increasingly complex projection of an increasingly complex collective consciousness? Is that what they mean when they say it’s a hologram? Probably not.

One more point about infinity. Max Tegmark says that the idea of a finite universe never made sense to him. How could the universe have a boundary, and if so, what’s on the other side? Another way of thinking about this is, if the big bang involved an explosion or, more accurately, a massive, near-instantaneous expansion, what did it expand into? Did this expansion involve a contraction on the other side of the boundary? It’s said that space-time began with the big bang, so there’s no outside. How can we really know that though? Of course if you believe that absolutely everything began with the big bang, then you’ll believe in a finite universe, as the bang began with a particular mass-energy point-bundle, which would have to be finite, and could not be added to or subtracted from, according to what I know about conservation laws. Anyway, enough of all this paddling in the shallows. It’s funny, though, I’ve recently encountered people who are extremely reluctant to talk about such matters, even in my shallow way. They actually suffer from ‘cosmological fear’ (my invention). Something to do with existential lostness, and mortality.

Written by stewart henderson

August 1, 2015 at 9:58 am

distributed consciousness – another nail in the coffin of human specialness

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for more on this, the whole conference is available online

I wrote a piece here called ‘Animals R Us’ a few years ago because I was annoyed at certain contemptuous remarks directed at animals – a rather large set to be contemptuous of – and also because I’ve always disliked the idea of human specialness so beloved of some of our religious co-habitants. I was also thinking of the remarks of Marilyn Robinson on consciousness, which I critiqued even more years ago. Atheists, she argued (wrongly) don’t take enough account of consciousness (with the inference that if they did, they’d be more accepting of a supernatural being, presumably). So I’m happy to briefly revisit the complexities and the consciousness of non-humans here.

The latest research reveals more and more the distributed nature of consciousness, and some of this research is summarised in ‘Triumph of the zombie killers’, chapter 1 of Michael Brooks’s book At the edge of uncertainty: 11 discoveries taking science by surprise. He brings up philosopher David Chalmers’s 20-year-old claim about the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, that it doesn’t appear to be reducible to material processes. In fact, Chalmers went further, saying ‘No explanation given wholly in physical terms can ever account for the emergence of conscious experience.’ Well, forever is a long long time and I wonder what Chalmers would have to say now (I’ll have to check out his more recent pronouncements). In 1994 he used a zombie analogy, suggesting that you couldn’t know whether we were surrounded by zombies, or ‘pretend’ humans, since the sense of self-awareness essential to consciousness cannot be identified or described by methodological naturalism. It’s been difficult to provide a coherent theory to account for this subjective feeling, and Daniel Dennett took the view a couple of decades ago that consciousness is essentially an illusion, or rather an evolved way of dealing with the world which captures the elements of reality we need to get by, and then some. That’s why we can so often be fooled by our brains. We have perceptual glitches and blind spots. An obvious example is the human eye, which only focuses sharply on a tiny area, using the fovea centralis, a patch of densely packed photoreceptor cells only a millimetre in diameter. The rest of our visual field is seen in much lower resolution, and without colour. But we’re not aware of this because of the eye’s movements, or saccades, which average 3 per second. The time between one sharp focus and the next is ‘blacked-out’ of consciousness, creating an illusion of seamlessly moving vision. The analogy with film is obvious.

This evolved use of sight to be ‘good enough’ helps explain our ‘change blindness’, which has been highlighted by a number of recent experiments, and which has been exploited for decades by professional magicians. It also helps explain why we don’t notice mistakes in editorial continuity in films, which are even overlooked by editors, because they involve ‘irrelevant’ background details. This evolved use of eyesight to help us to make enough sense of the world as we need to, as economically as possible, is something shared by many other creatures, as researchers have declared. Consciousness researchers gathered together at Cambridge in July 2012 and issued a ‘declaration on consciousness’, summarising recent findings on consciousness in non-human animals and in infant humans:

Non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours… humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates

It’s a vitally important point that’s being made here. Even to call consciousness an emergent property is misleading, as it suggests that we’re still hung up on the consciousness label, and on detecting the point at which this phenomenon has ‘emerged’. Previous tests for consciousness are gradually being found wanting, as what they test has little to do with the more expansive understanding of consciousness that our research is contributing to, more and more. What’s more, serious damage to, and indeed the complete loss of, such areas of the human brain as the insular cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the medial prefrontal cortex, all vital to our self-awareness according to previous research, haven’t prevented subjects from articulating clear signs of consciousness and self-reflection. There’s no ‘place’ of consciousness in the human or mammalian brain, and signs of intentionality and individual personality are cropping up in a whole range of species.

Early researchers on chimpanzees and other highly developed animals were often dismissive of claims that they were being cruel, citing ‘anthropomorphism’ as a barrier to scientific progress. We can now see that we don’t have to think of animals as ‘human-like’ to recognise their capacity for suffering and a whole range of other negative and positive experiences and emotions. And we’re only at the beginning of this journey, which, like the journey initiated by Copernicus, Kepler and others, will take us far from the hubristic sense of ourselves as singular and central.

Written by stewart henderson

July 29, 2015 at 10:05 am

some thoughts on urbanisation, language and culture

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Australian language families. From west to east:

Mindi (2 areas)
Daly (4 families)
Tiwi (offshore)

Pama–Nyungan (3 areas)

The trend is massively towards urbanisation, though it varies massively between nations. The big urbanising country now is China of course. Citification leads to homogenisation, as everyone strives to be original. Anthropologist Wade Davis says that of the 7,000 or so extant languages, more than half are not being taught to the next generation. Cities are about communication, requiring a common language. It’s unlikely to be Wajarri or Pitjantjatjara. How about English? Language groups, it has been argued, constitute the most natural nations, rather than states with their artificial boundaries. There’s a whole theory based around this but I say, whenever you hear the word natural you should be skeptical. Why did a diversity of languages arise? A very very complex question. Or rather a simple question but the answer…

It presumably wasn’t the case that each language was invented from scratch. My speculation – somewhere, sometime, a human or proto-human population developed a language (a bit like saying ‘here, a miracle happens’, but we know more than that about the earliest abstract sign systems). That population grew, split up and separated to such distances that the languages followed separate developments, just like, say, chimps and bonobos followed separate lines of development after being separated by the Congo River, if that’s what happened. But then it could have been invented from scratch more than once, as is supposed to have been the case with writing.

Surely though the emergence of all these languages is primarily due to migration and isolation. Surely this is neither natural or unnatural. It happens. The loss of many of these languages will be due to their being surplus to requirements, due to a modern process that has reversed the ‘tyranny of distance’. The need to communicate effectively across distances, between nations, has meant that a lingua franca has been a high priority, and the more such a language dominates, economically and culturally, the more small, local languages will die of neglect, or be rendered redundant. Is this tragic? I’m not entirely sure.

Wade Davis is quoted (in issue 63 of Cosmos magazine) as saying:

The central revelation of anthropology is that other peoples of the world are not failed attempts at being you, at being modern. On the contrary they are unique answers to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive? And when the peoples of the world answer that question they do so in 7000 different voices, and those voices and answers collectively become our human repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us all. When we lose a culture we lose a part of ourselves. And it doesn’t have to happen.

This is all stirring stuff, and it would seem bad form to demur, even slightly. But I would like to reflect a bit more on this. First, note that Davis is equating language with culture, which is fair enough to a degree, but some people may be separated by language but have more cultural similarities than differences. After all, this is part of the raison d’être of the European Union, that the French, the Italians, the English etc have enough in common that they should work together rather than separately. And I would dispute the claim that there are 7000 different voices answering the basic questions of human existence and purpose. Surely there are no less than 7.2 billion? On my street, I know there are at least a couple of people who speak a different first language from me. It’s highly likely, though, that I would share more with them in terms of outlook or interest than with others who share my language. But I wouldn’t share every interest or preoccupation with anyone, and nor would anyone else.

And to look at the first part of the quote: I’ve never seen other cultures, such as Australian Aboriginal cultures, as failed attempts at being modern. I see them as generally quite successful attempts at surviving and multiplying in a fairly inhospitable but obviously not uninhabitable environment, in which they’ve had to adapt to a world of resources, opportunities and threats that has remained relatively static, and certainly far far more static than was the situation in Europe over the same time period. And then, 200-odd years ago, Europeans arrived here, with (always in hindsight!) predictable consequences. The very concept of modernity would not have occurred to humans who had lived in a pretty well completely unchanging environment for more than 40,000 years, whereas for the Europeans who arrived here the concept of modernity was very much a living thing, as they were constantly aware of their changes and development, in technology, in politics, in lifestyle. They naturally believed in the progress which had, after all brought them to this great southern land and enabled them, they felt, to lay claim to it.

So, many of us are well aware of the situation. Just keeping to our Australian circumstances (though I’m actually a Brit, if it comes to strict definitions), one culture or set of cultures was long habituated to stasis, the other set of cultures was long habituated to dynamics, and, as a result of having survived all those dynamic processes, to ‘progress’. So, in an important sense these two different groups aren’t answering the one fundamental question, they’re answering two quite different questions. The Aborigines had answers to ‘what is it like to be a human in a world which for 40,000 years has been unchallenged by other humans, and which has enough resources to survive on if you know how to read the signs, and if you pass knowledge and skills on down the generations’, whereas the Europeans had answers to ‘what is it like to be a human whose ancestors have fought and defeated invaders, conquered other lands and enslaved or exploited their peoples, cultivated soils and experimented with plants and animals to provide a variety of foodstuffs, exploited mineral resources for construction and technological purposes, etc etc’.

So, it comes to this. We Europeans, sharpened by our historical experience, have come to Australia and transformed it. We – some of us – tried to make peace with the Aborigines while taking the best land to cultivate ourselves. We brought in our sheep and cattle, we took over the rich coastlines, we built our industries, and we made an assumption of ‘Terra nullius’ because it was so obviously in our interest to do so. We had no idea, of course, of the history of the Aborigines – being all ‘young earth creationists’ at the time. The Aborigines had no more chance than, say, a tasty flightless bird would have if feral cats were introduced onto an island that the birds had comfortably and skilfully survived on for a million years. Of course we didn’t eat any Aborigines (as far as I’m aware) but we transformed their environment almost beyond recognition and made a continuation of their habitual way of life well-nigh impossible.

I make that comparison to suggest that humans are nothing special. Cultures, like species, go extinct, or adapt. That’s a harsh reality, but somehow, in our sophistication, we know, at least some of us do, that diversity, of species and cultures, is a good thing, not just intrinsically but for our own selfish benefit. It’s a balance maybe – we strive to preserve, but also encourage to adapt.

Written by stewart henderson

July 18, 2015 at 3:44 pm

something to send you to sleep

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sleep apnoea mask – looks great, feels even worse?

I went to a Science in the Pub talk last night, not knowing what to expect. The three speakers were all researching sleep, and the focus was mainly on insomnia and sleep apnoea. How fortunate, for I’m having a problem with insomnia at the moment. I may well have a problem with apnoea too, but because I sleep alone I can’t monitor it. Sleep apnoea is about blocked airways that reduce the intake of oxygen, causing sleep disturbance. Here’s an extract from the Better Health Channel on the subject:

In most cases, the person suffering from sleep apnoea doesn’t even realise they are waking up. This pattern can repeat itself hundreds of times every night, causing fragmented sleep. This leaves the person feeling unrefreshed in the morning, with excessive daytime sleepiness, poor daytime concentration and work performance, and fatigue. It’s estimated that about five per cent of Australians suffer from this sleep disorder, with around one in four men over the age of 30 years affected.

So it’s much more common among older males, and it correlates with excessive weight and obesity. Some years ago, when I had a sleeping partner, she expressed a concern about what she thought might be my sleep apnoea, but since then I’ve lost a lot of weight, and my overall health – apart from my bronchiectasis – has improved, so I don’t intend to worry needlessly over that, but it was interesting to hear about the CPAP mask and other treatments being offered, including the possibility of surgery to the uvula and tongue. Also that the evidence is mounting about the long-term effects of sleep apnoea, upon the heart particularly, though not surprisingly with obesity, confounding factors are hard to control for. The problem I’m having at the moment, though, is ‘advanced circadian rhythm’ insomnia, which has only been happening over the past few weeks and which I’m hoping will sort itself out. Our roughly 24-hour circadian rhythms, our body clock, when running at its best, gives us at least eight hours sleep, optimally between 11pm and 7am, though there is enormous individual variation, and huge variation in tolerance of sleep deprivation, possibly due to genetic factors. Amongst the many varieties of body clock-related sleep disorder, two were focused on last night; delayed-phase and advanced-phase circadian rhythms. The terms are largely self-explanatory. In the delayed-phase type, you stay up late and find it hard to get up in the morning, a common teenage problem (or habit). In the advanced-phase type, which I’m now experiencing for the first time in my life, you find yourself falling asleep alarmingly early, and then waking up – and being alarmingly wide awake, at 4am or sometimes even earlier.

The Circadian Sleep Disorders Network is a great place to learn about the problems, and possible solutions for having a body clock that’s out of synch with the day-night cycle or with your work or other commitments. These problems can lead to all sorts of stresses, but what I took from last night’s session, though it was never explicitly stated, was that your attitude to wonky sleep patterns might be causing more stress than the patterns themselves. In my case, though it’s irritating, I tell myself I needn’t stress over it as I have to get up around 6am for work anyway, and as long as I’m awake and fully operational until 5pm, or 7pm for cooking and eating dinner, it’s no big problem. I’ve not noticed excessive daytime sleepiness or poor concentration (but maybe I’m not concentrating enough). Though I do hope it will right itself, just because being abnormal feels – abnormal. Then again, I’m abnormal in so many other ways that are far more stressful.

Advanced-phase sleep disorder is apparently much less common than delayed phase, though that might just be that it’s less often reported precisely because it doesn’t disrupt work routines. The main treatment is the use of bright light, though I’ve found myself falling asleep in the bright light of the lounge room, or in my bedroom with a bright reading lamp left on. But there’s more to it than just leaving the light on. Here’s a summary from the Sleep Health Foundation:

Bright light visual stimulation should occur in the evening before you go to bed. The light should be brighter than normal indoor lighting. You can obtain it from specialized light boxes, or portable devices that you can wear, e.g. eye glasses. A few examples can be found by a web search for “bright light therapy”. You may need an hour or two of bright light therapy before bed. Some will benefit from nightly use for a week. Others will need longer, sometimes several weeks, to get maximum benefit. It is best used late in the evening, perhaps turning the bright light device off half an hour before bed.

Something to think about if this keeps up. Another treatment is with melatonin, the ’sleep hormone’:

One option is to take a 2mg slow release melatonin tablet (Circadin™) as close to your new (later) bedtime as possible. A second option is to take a small dose of melatonin (0.5 mg), about half way through your sleep period. This could be at a time when you wake up on your own. To change your hours of sleep, you should gradually delay your bed time (e.g. 20 minutes later each night) until you get it to the time that you want. As you delay your bedtime, you will also be delaying the time of your bright light exposure and melatonin intake.

Obviously, neither of these treatments are simple or guaranteed to be effective. Cognitive behaviour therapy was suggested by the experts, if these approaches were unsuccessful, but I know next to nothing about that. For now I’m not too worried, I just hope the problem goes away without my noticing.

Written by stewart henderson

July 5, 2015 at 10:12 am


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