PVS patient regains consciousness after 15 years, thanks to nerve stimulation

From The Guardian (September 25, 2017): Nerve implant ‘restores consciousness’ to man in vegetative state by science correspondent Hannah Devlin:

A 35-year-old man who had been in a vegetative state for 15 years has shown signs of consciousness after receiving a pioneering therapy involving nerve stimulation.

The treatment challenges a widely-accepted view that there is no prospect of a patient recovering consciousness if they have been in a vegetative state for longer than 12 months.

Since sustaining severe brain injuries in a car accident, the man had been completely unaware of the world around him. But when fitted with an implant to stimulate the vagus nerve, which travels into the brain stem, the man appeared to flicker back into a state of consciousness.

He started to track objects with his eyes, began to stay awake while being read a story and his eyes opened wide in surprise when the examiner suddenly moved her face close to the patient’s. He could even respond to some simple requests, such as turning his head when asked – although this took about a minute…

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Would you call it murder?

SPECIAL UPDATE: The priest has answered my queries by email, and the story is even more horrifying than I had imagined. Readers can find out the latest news by scrolling to the end of my OP.

STOP PRESS: I have just been sent a copy (which I won’t be publishing, for privacy-related reasons) of the complaint filed by the wife. The priest’s story is true. Readers can find out more in the comments section.

People have various opinions about end-of-life decisions. The issues are complex, and reasonable-sounding arguments can be marshaled on both sides. However, few people would deny that a doctor who not only refuses to treat a patient with a life-threatening condition, despite his and his family’s explicit request for treatment, but administers a lethal dose of a drug to the patient, with the intention of hastening the patient’s death, is morally guilty of murder. Recently, I read of a case in Canada which might fit this description, if the account given is accurate. In this case, the account comes from the blog of a Catholic priest, Fr. X, a parish priest in Quebec. Catholic writer and social activist George Weigel, author of a best-selling biography of Pope John Paul II who also happens to be a member of Fr. X’s congregation during the summer months, has written an article in the religious journal First Things which discusses the case (It’s a Culture War, Stupid, August 22, 2017). Here’s an excerpt from Fr. X’s blog entry. I would invite readers to weigh in with their opinions on whether this case is morally equivalent to murder:

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Save them, smash them, relocate them or critique them?

I’m not going to write about the tragic events in Charlottesville in this post. I think the VICE News video says it all. It should be obvious that in this particular march, the violence that occurred came overwhelmingly from the alt-right, many of whom came to the march armed with pepper spray and hidden assault weapons (see the end of the video), although I note for the record that a few protesters on the Left did as well. I am frankly mystified by President Trump’s reluctance to condemn the white nationalist marchers en masse and by his bizarre assertion that there were some people “protesting very quietly” at the torchlight march on the night before the rally (which has been debunked by Paul Blake of the BBC), but I doubt whether racism is his underlying motivation: after all, the marchers shouted Nazi slogans against the Jews, and the President’s own daughter and son-in-law are Jewish. Perhaps the man is morally timid, and reluctant to condemn even bad people who might vote for him. Or perhaps the President views racism as self-evidently absurd, requiring no further comment in the 21st century. Or perhaps he fears that by demonizing the 500 or so marchers who took part in the alt-right rally in Charlottesville, he will only succeed in making them look more appealing to alienated juvenile delinquents, thereby consolidating their base of support. I don’t know. In any case, this is not a post about Trump, whose White House seems to be facing a meltdown of its own making.

Instead, what I’d like to write about in this post is the question of what Americans should do with the 718 monuments and statues (709, according to the BBC) situated on public property throughout the country, mostly in the South, although there are also a few in former Union States, including Iowa, Kansas and Pennyslvania, and there’s even one in Massachusetts. The Southern Poverty Law Center has published a paper calling for their removal, and a summary of their responses to counter-arguments can be found on pages 38 to 39.

I’d like to begin by asking viewers how they feel about this video, showing a statue of a Confederate soldier being pulled down in Durham, North Carolina, on Monday (courtesy of World Viral Videos):

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Granville Sewell’s argument for Intelligent Design

Over at Evolution News, mathematician Granville Sewell has written an article titled, From Barren Planet to Civilization — Four Simple Steps (July 27, 2017). My intention in writing this post is not to critique Dr. Sewell’s latest argument, but to clarify its premises. Sewell’s own comments reveal that it is ultimately a philosophical argument, rather than a scientific one. Although I agree with Dr. Sewell’s key intuition, I contend that his argument hinges on two assumptions: that unguided processes have a snowball’s chance in hell of giving rise to factories, and that mental states do not supervene upon physical states.

The bulk of this post will be devoted to what Dr. Sewell has written in his latest Evolution News article. At the end of my post, I will briefly comment on the thermodynamic arguments in his accompanying video, which I see as peripheral to Sewell’s main point.

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How ENV muddies the waters on the evidence for human evolution

Recently, Evolution News and Views published an article titled, The Human-Ape Missing Link — Still Missing (July 18, 2017), which attempts to cast doubt on human evolution by quoting from a recent BBC article which highlighted the massive uncertainties that still remain over the identity, appearance and date of the last common ancestor (LCA) of human beings and chimpanzees, and which even questions whether the chimpanzee is our closest relative, after all. The Evolution News and Views (ENV) article also revives the myth of an unbridgeable gap between Australopithecus and Homo.

Here’s my two-sentence rebuttal: uncertainty as to who the last common ancestor of humans and chimps was, what it looked like, and when it lived, in no way diminishes scientists’ certainty that it existed. And while the fossil record of human ancestors is very meager and patchy until about 4.4 million years ago, from that time onward, we have a veritable hodgepodge of hominins – and no unbridgeable gaps.

Well, that was quick, wasn’t it? Now for a more detailed rebuttal.

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Suffer the children

During the past few days, there has been much discussion of philosophy professor Gary Comstock’s spirited defense of infanticide, in the case of a severely handicapped newborn baby who is likely to die (New York Times, July 12, 2017). Such an infant, argues Comstock, lacks “the things that make a life: thoughts, wants, desires, interests, memories, a future.” And if did have thoughts, its dominant thought about being kept alive on a respirator would surely be: “This hurts. Can’t someone help it stop?”

Bioethicist Wesley Smith has pointed out that the case described by Comstock (who is not a doctor), of an infant suffering excruciating pain as its life is needlessly prolonged, is totally fictitious: “When life support is removed, doctors do not just let patients twist choking in the wind. They palliate — as necessary to alleviate pain and agitation.” The testimony of palliative care physician Ira Byock (whom Smith mentions in his article) is well worth citing: “In more than 35 years of practice I have never once had to kill a patient to alleviate the person’s suffering. When other measures fail, palliative sedation for alleviation of physical suffering is reliably effective. Alleviating suffering is different than eliminating the sufferer.” (Maryland Medicine vol. 17, no. 4; January 2017.) And Dr. Michael Egnor, commenting on Comstock’s article for Evolution News and Views, writes: “The notion that handicapped children intractably suffer is a lie. I’ve treated thousands of these kids. Most of the conditions that cause severe neurological impairment aren’t painful and don’t inherently cause physical suffering. Spina bifida, holoprosencephaly, various trisomies and anencephaly don’t ‘hurt,’ and in fact the children afflicted are often quite content babies. They are loved by their families, and they can enjoy life in accordance with their physical limitations.”

Wesley Smith and Michael Egnor point out that infanticide is a crime against humanity, for which doctors were hanged at Nuremberg. Some of these doctors had euthanized handicapped children. Both authors make a telling point; nevertheless, the question needs to be addressed: exactly why is infanticide wrong?

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Credulous PLOS One publishes evidence for body trauma on the Turin Shroud image

Mystic Post is a Website which publishes articles on Catholic visions (especially Medjugorje). It would be an understatement to say that its coverage tends to be rather uncritical, but from time to time, I take a look at it anyway. One thing I like about visionaries is that they make prophecies which are falsifiable, and Mystic Post has been throwing out very broad hints that something big may happen this year. A few hours ago, I came across an article on Mystic Post, titled, Breaking News – New Prestigious Study on Shroud of Turin…”There is blood of a man tortured and killed” (July 11, 2017). The article quoted extensively from a story by Andrea Tornielli, published in the printed edition of the Italian daily newspaper, La Stampa (July 1, 2017). To my great surprise, the opening paragraph cited a study which recently appeared in PLOS One (emphases are in the original):

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Tamagotchi, J. K. Rowling and God: A Short Essay on the Problem of Evil

Catholic philosopher (and former atheist) Edward Feser might be many things, but he certainly isn’t dull. Nor is he afraid of grappling with the big questions. In the latest issue of First Things, he discusses the problem of evil in a wide-ranging interview with Connor Grubaugh, where he talks about his three favorite books in the field of contemporary analytic philosophy. Feser (who is Associate Professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College) is a Thomist, for whom the claim that the existence of evil and suffering constitutes evidence against God’s existence reflects a faulty conception of the relationship between creature and Creator. God is not just a Being who interacts with us on a personal level; rather, He is the very Author of our existence. And just as an author (such as J. K. Rowling) has no obligations to the characters in her stories, so too, God has no obligations towards us. Consequently there can be no question of Him ever doing us an injustice.

In today’s essay, I’d like to explain why I think Professor Feser’s solution is unsatisfactory, and why I think the problem of evil is much more serious than Feser supposes. I won’t be proposing my own solution, however. All I can do is briefly outline how I believe the problem can be defused, and why I don’t think it’s fatal for theism.

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Recycling bad arguments: ENV on the origin of life

During the past few days, Dr. Brian Miller (whose Ph.D. is in physics) has written a series of articles on the origin of life over at Evolution News and Views:

Thermodynamics of the Origin of Life (June 19, 2017)
The Origin of Life, Self-Organization, and Information (June 20, 2017)
Free Energy and the Origin of Life: Natural Engines to the Rescue (June 22, 2017)
Origin of Life and Information — Some Common Myths (June 26, 2017)

Dr. Miller’s aim is to convince his readers that intelligent agency was required to coordinate the steps leading to the origin of life. I think his conclusion may very well be correct, but that doesn’t make his arguments correct. In this post, I plan to subject Dr. Miller’s arguments to scientific scrutiny, in order to determine whether Dr. Miller has made a strong case for Intelligent Design.

While I commend Dr. Miller for his indefatigability, I find it disappointing that his articles recycle several Intelligent Design canards which have been refuted on previous occasions. Dr. Miller also seems to be unaware of recently published online articles which address some of his concerns.
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J. Warner Wallace’s eight attributes of design

Christian apologist (and former atheist) “Jim” Warner Wallace knows quite a lot about design, having earned a bachelor’s degree in design from California State University and a master’s degree in architecture from UCLA. Wallace also worked as a homicide detective for many years, in a job where he had to be able to distinguish deaths that were intentional from deaths that were not. Wallace writes well, and his Cold Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels (David C. Cook, 2013) is an apologetic masterpiece. So naturally, when I came across a post over at Evolution News and Views, featuring his views on Intelligent Design, I was very interested to hear what he had to say.

In his interview with Center for Science & Culture research coordinator Brian Miller, “Jim” Warner Wallace listed what he referred to as eight attributes of design. Wallace emphasized that a strong case could be made for saying that an object was designed, even on the basis of its possessing only a few of these attributes, but that when taken together, they constitute a case for design which is certain beyond all reasonable doubt. The cumulative nature of the case is what makes it so strong.

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Dale Tuggy’s Trinitarian challenge – and a survey

Dale Tuggy is a Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York. He is also a podcaster and an enthusiastic blogger. Tuggy’s intellectual odyssey is an interesting one. He grew up as an evangelical who never seriously questioned the doctrine of the Trinity (that there are three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – in one God), until he went to graduate school. After examining various rival Christian interpretations of the Trinitarian doctrine, he came to believe that it was profoundly unbiblical, and now calls himself a Christian unitarian, who identifies the one God of the Bible (YHWH) with the Father (and not the Son or the Holy Spirit).

It is not my intention in this post to argue either for or against the doctrine of the Trinity, or to explain precisely what it means. Rather, what I intend to do is evaluate a specific argument put forward by Professor Tuggy, which is deliberately targeted at certain evangelical apologists who have recently maintained that Jesus is God tout simple – in other words, that Jesus simply is God Himself, and that Jesus and the one God are therefore numerically identical. It should be noted that most Trinitarians do not say this: for them, the term “God” designates a being (or as some would prefer to say, Being Itself), whereas the name “Jesus” refers to an incarnate Divine person (God the Son). These Trinitarians would therefore agree with the conclusion of Tuggy’s argument, which is that Jesus is not divine in the same way that the one God is.

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Can prairie dogs talk?

Ferris Jabr has recently written a highly illuminating article for The New York Times Magazine titled, Can Prairie Dogs Talk? (May 12, 2017), on the pioneering work of Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, an emeritus professor of biology at Norther Arizona University. Professor Slobodchikoff has been analyzing the sounds of prairie dogs for more than 30 years, and he thinks that they possess a form of genuine language. Specifically, he claims that when they give alarm calls for different kinds of predators, they identify not only the type of predator, but also its size, shape, color and speed. In other words, their messages do not consist merely of nouns; instead, they are more akin to descriptive phrases. In a follow-up interview with Professor Marc Bekoff (Psychology Today, May 14, 2017), Slobodchikoff argues that since the rate at which the alarm calls are produced tends to correlate with the speed of travel of the approaching predator (hawks, for example, elicit only a single bark because they are so swift), prairie dog talk also contains something analogous to a verb in human language. Most surprising of all, prairie dogs are capable of coming up with new alarm calls for abstract objects which they have never seen before, such as an oval, a triangle, a circle, and a square. And if that were not enough, it turns out that prairie dog calls, like human language, are composed of phonemes. Indeed, Slobodchikoff even declares that prairie dogs have the most complex language of any non-human animal.

Professor Slobodchikoff contends that it is only pure prejudice on the part of “human exceptionalists” (many of whom are linguists and philosophers) that prevents scientists from describing prairie dog calls as true language, rather than mere “communication.” In addition, many people’s thinking is still influenced by Aristotle’s Scala Naturae, which ranks humans at the top, followed by “higher” mammals such as apes and then “lower” mammals such as mice (and of course, prairie dogs), with birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish lower down in the pecking order, and with insects, worms and one-celled animals at the very bottom. Such a view, argues Slobodchikoff, is speciesist and profoundly primatocentric. It is time for scientists to cast aside their prejudices and recognize that humans are not the only animals that can talk.

Is Slobodchikoff right? In today’s post, I’d like to explain why I’m inclined to be skeptical of the claim that prairie dogs are capable of anything like language.

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My thoughts on JohnnyB’s new view of Irreducible Complexity

Jonathan Bartlett, known here as JohnnyB, has written a very thought-provoking post titled, A New View of Irreducible Complexity. I was going to respond in a comment on his post, but I soon realized that I would be able to express my thoughts much more clearly if I composed a post of my own, discussing the points which he raises.

Before I continue, I would like to say that while I find JohnnyB’s argument problematic on several counts, I greatly appreciate the intellectual effort that went into the making of his slide presentation. I would also like to commend JohnnyB on his mathematical rigor, which has helped illuminate the key issues.

Without further ado, I’d like to focus on some of the key slides in JohnnyB’s talk (shown in blue), and offer my comments on each of them. By the time I’m done, readers will be able to form their own assessment of the merits of JohnnyB’s argument.

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Evidence for the Resurrection: Why reasonable people might differ, and why believers aren’t crazy

Easter is approaching, but skeptic John Loftus doesn’t believe in the Resurrection of Jesus. What’s more, he thinks you’re delusional if you do. I happen to believe in the Resurrection, but I freely admit that I might be mistaken. I think Loftus is wrong, and his case against the Resurrection is statistically flawed; however, I don’t think he’s delusional. In today’s post, I’d like to summarize the key issues at stake here, before going on to explain why I think reasonable people might disagree on the weight of the evidence for the Resurrection.

The following quotes convey the tenor of Loftus’ views on the evidence for the Resurrection:

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Is it easy to get a new protein? A reply to Ann Gauger

In a podcast on the show, ID the Future (March 14, 2017), Dr. Ann Gauger criticized a popular argument that purports to show how easy it is to get new proteins: namely, the evolution, over a relatively short 40-year period, of nylonase. (Nylonase is an enzyme that utilizes waste chemicals derived from the manufacture of nylon, a man-made substance that was not invented until 1935.) While Dr. Gauger made some factual observations that were mostly correct, her interpretation of these observations fails to support the claim made by Intelligent Design proponents, that the odds of getting a new functional protein fold are astronomically low, and that it’s actually very, very hard for new proteins to evolve. Let’s call this claim the “Hard-to-Get-a-Protein” hypothesis (HGP for short).

To help readers see what’s wrong with Dr. Gauger’s argument, I would like to begin by pointing out that for HGP to be true, two underlying claims also need to be correct:

1. Functional sequences are RARE.
2. New functions are ISOLATED in sequence space.

In her podcast, Dr. Gauger cites the work of Dr. Douglas Axe to support claim #1, when she declares that the odds of getting a new functional protein fold are on the order of 1 in 10^77 (an assertion debunked here). Dr. Gauger says little about claim #2; nevertheless, it is vital to her argument. For even if functional sequences are rare, they may be clustered together – in which case, getting from one functional protein to the next won’t be so hard, after all.

If claims #1 and #2 are both correct, then getting new functions should not be possible by step-wise changes. Remarkably, however, this is precisely what Dr. Gauger concedes, in her podcast, as we’ll see below.

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Why we probably don’t live in a computer simulation

Over at her blog, BackReAction, physicist Sabine Hossenfelder has written a cogently argued article titled, No, we probably don’t live in a computer simulation (March 15, 2017). I’ll quote the most relevant excerpts:

According to Nick Bostrom of the Future of Humanity Institute, it is likely that we live in a computer simulation

Among physicists, the simulation hypothesis is not popular and that’s for a good reason – we know that it is difficult to find consistent explanations for our observations…

If you try to build the universe from classical bits, you won’t get quantum effects, so forget about this – it doesn’t work. This might be somebody’s universe, maybe, but not ours. You either have to overthrow quantum mechanics (good luck), or you have to use qubits. [Note added for clarity: You might be able to get quantum mechanics from a classical, nonlocal approach, but nobody knows how to get quantum field theory from that.]

Even from qubits, however, nobody’s been able to recover the presently accepted fundamental theories – general relativity and the standard model of particle physics…

Indeed, there are good reasons to believe it’s not possible. The idea that our universe is discretized clashes with observations because it runs into conflict with special relativity. The effects of violating the symmetries of special relativity aren’t necessarily small and have been looked for – and nothing’s been found.

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Do we have a duty not to procreate?

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald recently, Australian journalist Ruby Hamad explained her decision not to have any children. Ecological considerations proved to be a “very compelling factor” influencing her decision, leading her to conclude that for her and her partner, having a child would be “the more selfish decision.” Ms. Hamad details her reasons in a passage that makes for disturbing reading:

Our planet is in trouble. We all know this. The Amazon is depleting so rapidly, we have already lost 20 per cent of it and will lose another 20 in the next two decades – just as children born today are coming of age. Lucky them!

The Great Barrier Reef is as good as dead, as everyone who is not Pauline Hanson will admit, but deforestation is also happening in the oceans, thanks to the rise in global temperatures. Meanwhile, the oceans will be commercially extinct by the middle of the century, and the entire Arctic is living on borrowed time…

For lay people, the knowledge that one child born today will add 9,441 metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere is enough to turn them off procreation. “You can never take it back,” said one American woman. “That stopped me in my tracks.”

So, is Ruby Hamad right? In today’s post, I’d like to explain why I believe her logic is profoundly mistaken.

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Why David Madison’s Slam Dunk Isn’t One

David Madison is a minister-turned-atheist, who has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. Madison was raised a liberal Protestant, but he gradually lost his faith while serving as the pastor of two Methodist parishes in Massachusetts. He went on to pursue a business career, but he’s recently written a book titled, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (see here for one critic’s review and here for a more favorable review).

However, what put me off Madison’s book is what he’s written on his own Web page. His recommended reading list of 200 books, put together for people who want to “find out how Jesus, Christianity and theism have all been so convincingly slam dunked,” includes dozens of books by authors defending the kooky view that Jesus never even existed (a view not shared by any reputable historian – and no, Dr. Richard Carrier doesn’t count as one; nor does Dr. Robert Price, who got trounced when he debated Dr. Bart Ehrman last year on the historicity of Jesus, as Carrier himself admits), and only a handful of books addressing the traditional philosophical arguments for the existence of God, of which Raymond Bradley’s God’s Gravediggers: Why No Deity Exists (Ockham Publishing, 2016) and Michael Martin’s The Cambridge Companion to Atheism appear to be the most substantive. (There are other books attacking Intelligent Design on Madison’s list, but these are beside the point, as ID proponents don’t maintain that their arguments, taken by themselves, prove the existence of any Deity.) And believe it or not, H. L. Mencken, whose credibility on religious and moral issues I have demolished here, here, here and here, makes the list, too. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion is on the list (has Madison ever read John Lennox’s response, I wonder?), as well as Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, which has been refuted ably by David Snoke.

For the benefit of his readers, Madison has also kindly provided chapter summaries for his book, which (I am sorry to say) do not inspire confidence. A few excerpts:

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Worse than Watergate? Bias in the mainstream media

With the mainstream media mocking what they describe as President Trump’s delusional claim that former President Obama ordered Trump Tower’s phones to be tapped, I thought it would only be fair to invite readers to look at the other side. In a 12-minute video, Mark Levin, a lawyer who was a chief of staff for Attorney General Edwin Meese during the Reagan administration, has laid out what appears to be overwhelming evidence that backs up Trump’s wiretapping claims. Newt Gingrich offers his take here. Matthew Vadum’s article, Obama’s Wiretaps?, in FrontPage magazine, makes for very disturbing reading. Vadum doesn’t pull any punches:

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The Christian God and the Problem of Evil

Both Mung and KeithS have asked me to weigh in on the question of whether the existence of evil counts as a good argument against Christianity, as KeithS has maintained in a recent post, so I shall oblige.

It is important to understand that the problem of evil is not an argument against the existence of God or gods, but against what KeithS calls the Christian God (actually, the God of classical theism), Who is supposed to be omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent. KeithS succinctly formulates the problem as follows:

Let’s say I claim that an omniGod named Frank exists — omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. Suppose I also claim that Frank regards seahorses as the absolute height of evil. The world contains a lot of seahorses, and Frank, being omnipotent, has the power to wipe them off the face of the earth. Why doesn’t he? Why does he countenance a world full of seahorses?

KeithS emphasizes that it is not enough for the Christian to show that God is on balance benevolent. Rather, the Christian needs to defend the claim that God is omnibenevolent:

The Christian claim is that God is omnibenevolent — as benevolent as it is logically possible to be. Finding that the items on the “good” side of the ledger outweigh those on the “bad” side — if that were the case — would not establish God’s omnibenevolence at all.

Finally, KeithS provides his own take on the problem of evil:

The problem of evil remains as much of a problem as ever for Christians. Yet there are obvious solutions to the problem that fit the evidence and are perfectly reasonable: a) accept that God doesn’t exist, or b) accept that God isn’t omnipotent, or c) accept that God isn’t perfectly benevolent. Despite the availability of these obvious solutions, most Christians will choose to cling to a view of God that has long since been falsified.

He even suggests how he would resolve the problem if he were a theist (emphasis mine – VJT):

Suppose God hates evil and suffering but is too weak to defeat them, at least at the moment. Then any such instances can be explained by God’s weakness.

It addresses the problem of evil without sacrificing theism. I’m amazed that more theists don’t seize on this sort of resolution. They’re too greedy in their theology, too reluctant to give up the omnis.

I think KeithS is onto something here. In fact, I’d like to ditch the conventional Christian views of God’s omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence. It’s time for an overhaul.

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