Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Miracle That Isn't

In November of last year, there was a big stir in the news about how a Belgian man who had been in a vegetative state for 23 years was able to communicate with the help of a speech therapist and a touchpad. The story was hailed as a breakthrough, a miracle, etc.

Only one problem: the man can't actually communicate using the methods people claimed he was using. At least the doctor who originally brought forth those claims in November had the decency to admit his own further study has shown the method doesn't work as claimed. His study results were presented yesterday in London. He still believes his patient is more conscious than such patients are generally thought to be. But of course, we don't have any way of proving that.

Back in November, many people expressed skepticism toward the original claims, but on most of the news sites, that skepticism was buried in the comments. Kudos to the BBC for putting the debunking front and center (Note: many sources incorrectly say that the patient was in a coma instead of a vegetative state). There's also an article in the New York Times, but I had to search to find it.

I completely sympathize with this man's family. It's often in the aftermath of something really terrible that people are most prone to being duped like this. Shame on those who promote their quackery by preying on grieving families.

(via BBC News)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Book review: The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality

As mentioned in the previous post, I've been reading The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by André Comte-Sponville, translated from the original French by Nancy Huston. Here's the review I promised.

It seems like a harmless enough book. At slightly over 200 pages, you'd think you would be able to breeze through reading it. Well, you'd be wrong. It's somewhat of a dense read. I don't necessarily mean that as a criticism, but I wanted to call attention to this. Don't let the size fool you.

The book has 3 chapters, plus the usual introduction and conclusion. The titles of the chapters are "Can We Do Without Religion?," "Does God Exist?," and "Can There Be an Atheist Spirituality?," respectively. Guess what they're about.

In the first chapter, Comte-Sponville discusses what is appealing about religion. Not surprisingly, he touts the communal benefits, especially support in times of adversity. He also talks a lot about fidelity, which he defines as a set of core values. He seems to think this fidelity can be achieved through a sort of cultural Christianity. You could certainly argue that this has actually become the de facto religion of much of Europe--showing up in church for weddings, funerals, and the occasional baptism, Easter, or Christmas service.

However, I think this is harder to pull off in the US for two reasons. First, there are way too many American Christians who not only take Biblical ideas very seriously, but they also insist that everyone else do the same in order to be a good Christian, or even to feel welcome in that church. Second, my experience with people who have left Christianity is that they have typically had some sort of significant negative experience that would prompt them to avoid anything remotely Christian (of course, the first reason partially plays into this one!). So, while I like the idea of shared values, I think even cultural Christianity might have too much baggage for a lot of people. I'm not opposed to the idea; I just don't know if it would catch on here. I'll probably elaborate on this in a future post.

I'm not going to get into the second chapter very deeply, because it mostly contains material that can easily found elsewhere. I'll briefly mention one of the arguments against God's existence that I hadn't seen before in detail: basically a "too good to be true" argument:
I would definitely prefer for such a thing to exist, but this is no reason to believe it does. [. . .] I would also prefer for war, poverty, injustice, and hatred to disappear completely. But if someone came up to me tomorrow and told me they had, I would say he was a dreamer, a victim of wishful thinking. . .

This ties in with Freud's stance on religion, but I'd never really heard it fleshed out like this before.

The third chapter is, to me, the heart of the book. I've already discussed whether there can be an atheist spirituality, so here I'd like to focus on what that might entail. Comte-Sponville proposes a variety of options. Throughout the book, he frequently refers to Spinoza and seems to consider pantheism a reasonable choice. Various Eastern thinkers come up as well, and Comte-Sponville's idea of the All or the Absolute could be a way of looking at the Tao or Brahman.

This is probably where hardline materialists and empiricists start to freak out. We have now entered the realm of the unprovable. It's very difficult to talk about something that is universal and intensely personal at the same time. Comte-Sponville talks about what Romain Rolland called the "oceanic feeling." It's worth noting that Rolland was strongly influenced by the writings of Swami Vivekananda.

Obviously, I can't speak for everyone, but it seems most people have experienced a feeling of unity at some point in their lives. I can definitely think of instances where I've felt like I disappeared into whatever I was doing. But everyone who's had such an experience probably reached it in slightly different ways than I did. They might describe their experiences a bit differently, too.

Getting back to the book, there is one major difference between Comte-Sponville and most Eastern religious beliefs, aside from possible supernatural beliefs. Many strains of Hinduism and Buddhism teach that the world is something to be renounced for spiritual gain. Comte-Sponville disagrees, saying that the highest good is actually to engage with the world as it is and do the best you can.

Whew! See how much we went through in my little review of this little book? If you're hungry for more, check it out. If I lost you three paragraphs ago, this may not be the book for you!