Saturday, February 10, 2007

Getting Genetic Treatment for My God Problem

{ Audio of this essay @ 11min @ 1.3MB } There is a controversial position about religion, which runs as follows:

“[S]ome human beings bear a gene which gives them a predisposition to episodes interpreted by some as religious revelation.... the God gene (Vmat2), is not an encoding for the belief in God itself but a physiological arrangement that produces the sensations associated, by some, with the presence of God or other mystic experiences, or more specifically spirituality as a state of mind.”[1]

The main proponent of this view is none other than geneticist Dr. Dean Hamer, the director of the Gene Structure and Regulation Unit at the U.S. National Cancer Institute.[2] Hamer has multiple publications in heavyweight scientific journals,[3] and a full pedigree as a well-trained scientist making claims within his field of expertise; thus, his studies correlating human behavior – in this case religious behavior – with genetic profiles cannot be easily dismissed as uninformed quackery.

I would like to give a quick over-view of two positions which share similarities to Hamer's claim -- namely, from Sigmund Freud and from Ludwig Feuerbach. After this, I would like to develop a thought experiment that builds on the assumption that Dr. Hamer got it right.


Note well that a position like Hamer's is not exactly a new take on explaining religion, but merely the latest instance of a more general program which says that religion is sufficiently explained by some other naturalistic phenomena. A couple of examples can be adduced from history.

1. In Sigmund Freud's time religion was explained in terms of his (now passe, if not outright dismissed) theory of psychology:

“When the growing individual finds that he is destined to remain a child for ever, that he can never do without protection against strange superior powers, he lends those powers the features belonging to the figure of his father.” [4]

God is an idealized father figure for humans, providing psychological security against the travails of life's troubles. Indeed, God is constructed in man’s own image, inversely from what orthodox Christian theology teaches; and, stands as the “ultimate wish-fulfillment”[4] of human desire for a loving father.

2. A more interesting variety of naturalistic explanation can be found in Ludwig Feuerbach. On his view, God is an idealization of that singularly special trait of humans: consciousness. As he writes, “God is the idea of the species as an individual…freed from all limits which exist in the consciousness and feeling of the individual … . (GW V:268f; EC 153)”[5] So God is less seen as a simple abstraction from a family father to a heavenly father, but as a more erudite abstraction from an attribute shared by all humans to some singular entity having the attribute unto perfection -- again, the magic attribute in question is consciousness. (I should add that since what consciousness comes to is anything but clear, it is hardly surprising that it is likewise anything but clear what Feuerbach 's position comes to.)

Typically, advocates of religion have claimed that positions like Freud's, Feuerbach's and other so-called naturalistic reformulations of religion are merely consistent with God's subtle revelations of God's self to humanity, and are hardly threatening arguments: Yes -- God is indeed like a father, and this would be one way of seeing (understanding) his role (by analogy) in human affairs; thus, Freud has merely identified this particular aspect of God's revelation. Likewise, Yes -- God is indeed a perfect exemplar of consciousness, hence Feuerbach has merely deduced this attribute of God from careful philosophical speculation. In God's prevenient grace at the design and creation of the world, God has built-in, so to speak, evidence of himself.

The same kind of deflective reasoning can be applied to the God-gene hypothesis. On the assumption that God has designed the world such that natural biological processes bring about self-aware agents, it need be no surprise that the very gene-design which allows consciousness has the advantage of “pointing toward” the existence of God. Or so religious advocates could claim.

So the Freud, Feuerbach , and Hamer cases can indeed be explained away with the handy theologizing, but the convenience of such theologizing also makes the pious view indefeasible – which is to say amassing further information would not be able to falsify or verify such theologizing:

“Falsifiability is “the most fundamental rule of evidential reasoning” and requires that “it must be possible to conceive of evidence that would prove the claim false.”[6] If nothing conceivable could disprove a claim, evidence wouldn’t matter and the claim is meaningless, logically impossible. Such claims are devoid of content, useless; emotional, but not factual.”[7]

In this instance, all that earlier deflective theologizing ends up taking any such evidence as supportive, for one can always posit that God subtly pre-designed the system such that our genes bear witness to our brains that we are children of God.


Defeasibility issues aside, stipulate for purposes of philosophizing that Hamer got it right: that my genome is structured such that I cannot help but to interpret my first-person experiences as God experiences. Perhaps when I hear gospel music[8] on the radio, I immediately want to contemplate what the nature of a superbly loving, universal mind would be like. Again, when I'm at work, in the pharmaceutical laboratory, I see the intricacy of cells and viri, and I cannot but help my believing that some grand designer has put this world together. Gothic Cathedrals[9] make me ponder the esoteric beauty of the Roman tradition. Amish carriages allure me towards the basic truths of living a simple life when deeply embedded in a tight-knit community.[10] On and on it goes.

One day, I decide that such religious motifs in my consciousness are taking time away from the practical affairs of life. Over the course of my day, I've noted two, sometimes even three hours (when I try to total them) are spent thinking along purely religious lines; and never, of course, as a pre-planned part of my daily routine. It's just happening. I need help. I need genetic therapy.

Genetic therapy obtains when

a 'normal' gene is inserted into the genome to replace an 'abnormal,' disease-causing gene. A carrier molecule called a vector must be used to deliver the therapeutic gene to the patient's target cells. Currently, the most common vector is a virus that has been genetically altered to carry normal human DNA. Viruses have evolved a way of encapsulating and delivering their genes to human cells in a pathogenic manner. Scientists have tried to take advantage of this capability and manipulate the virus genome to remove disease-causing genes and insert therapeutic genes.[11]

Having heard about the big money the US government spent on sequencing the human genome, I immediately take advantage of online information, and learn the following particulars about the process:

Target cells such as the patient's liver or lung cells are infected with the viral vector. The vector then unloads its genetic material containing the therapeutic human gene into the target cell. The generation of a functional protein product from the therapeutic gene restores the target cell to a normal state.[11]

Yes, that's the treatment for me! Ultimately, I decide to retain one Dr. William French Anderson, former director of the Gene Therapy Laboratories at the University of Southern California (USC) -- a man with a very shady past, a terribly tarnished reputation,[12] and an extraordinary amount of technical know-how. He needs the money; I need the procedure.

We reach an agreement.

In and out of his secret lab, after a few days of the flu (from the viral vector), and with a large transfer from Guinea's West Africa Conakry Bank to a private account in Mexico, I'm duly on my way.

Admittedly, there were a few days of worrying afterwards. I was not sure whether I was thinking about God (which meant all my money and time was wasted), or whether I was, in good second-order fashion, thinking about my thinking about God (which meant I was merely pondering memories, not having new on-going religious thoughts as a result of my consciousness doing its normal routine).

There came a moment, however, went I noted two full days without any religious thoughts at all. (We had a big government audit at the lab.) But then, suddenly, I found myself back at worrying on religious topics; but, this time I realized it was just me obsessing. In time, this re-dwelling of my own thoughts would pass, not unlike what a state trooper experiences after viewing a nasty carweck scene.

I'm cured.

At a very conservative estimate of two-and-a-half hours a day, at 35 more years of life (to assume an average life expectancy of 72 years for good-ol' American me), I've been given an extra 31, 937 hours to live my own life – and those are waking hours. Those are hours to think my own thoughts, to have true autonomy of choice, to live the victorious life free of that horrid malady.

Quite of my own will and with the full backing of modern genetics, to this very day, I can voluntarily praise God for His grace, for giving us science and technology so that I no longer suffer from that terrible religious malady which forced me to involuntarily praise Him in the past.


[photo] “The God Gene” Neil Hague Gallery

[1] “God Gene” Wikipedia

[2] “Staff Pages, Scientists, Dean H. Hamer, Ph.D.” Center for Cancer Research

[3] “Scientists, Dean H. Hamer, Ph.D., Selected Publications” Center for Cancer Research

[4] Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. Trans. Peter Gay (New York: Norton, 1961), p. 30.

[5] “Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[6] Lett, James. 1990. “A field guide to critical thinking.” Skeptical Inquirer 14(2):153 (winter).

[7] Paul Nickel “Reasoning, Writing and Rare Resources: The Independent Thinker’s Toolbox” Oregonians for Rationality]

[8] “So - #1 Online source for Southern Gospel, Gospel Music, News & Christian Resouces ”

[9] “Gothic Medieval Cathedrals Virtual Tours” New York Carver

[10] “The Amish & The Plain People”

[11] “Gene Therapy” Human Genome Project Information (US Government Site)

[12] “Gene therapy scientist sentenced to 14 years on sexual abuse charges” People's Daily Online (English Version)


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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Pondering two American essayists: Vidal & Buckley

"[T]here is not one human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise". -- Gore Vidal

The quote is from Gore Vidal, though intellectuals from Plato onward have shared this attitude, especially when dealing with political subjects. Vidal would have classicists as kings, while Plato would have philosophers. (Naturally, I'd prefer the latter, thank you.)

This Vidal character strikes me as someone whom I would despise when within eight feet of him, but whom I actually appreciate when he's located a few states away. Here's another quote:
"[T]here is only one party in the United States, the Property Party . . . and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt — until recently... and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties."[1; Vidal]

I know the French tend to make celebrities out of their cultural commentators. If America were to do so -- and I'm mostly glad we don't -- Vidal would probably be ours.

Every good intellectual has a nemesis, and I was surprised to learn that Vidal's was none other than William F. Buckley, another of my favorite American commentators. On my view, Buckley's two choice quotes are these:
"The purpose of an open mind is to close it, on particular subjects. If you never do — you've simply abdicated the responsibility to think." [And:] "Government can't do anything for you except in proportion as it can do something to you."[1; Buckley]

The latter is reminiscent of the late Gerald Ford's view: " "A government big enough to give you everything you need is also big enough to take it all away."

Once, a long time ago, in an America far, far away, Yoda briefly tangled with a Sith. Wikipedia gives a nice summary of what happened:
"In 1968, ABC News hired Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. as political analysts of the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions, predicting that television viewers would enjoy seeing two men of letters — famous for their acerbic wit and sarcasm — engage in on-air battle; as it turned out, verbal and nearly physical combat were joined. After days of mutual bickering that devolved to childish, ad hominem attacks, Vidal called Buckley a 'pro-crypto Nazi', to which the visibly livid Buckley replied: 'Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto Nazi, or I'll sock you in the goddamn face and you'll stay plastered.'" [1; Vidal]

So much for the measured response of two rational scholars towards one another. Afterwards, they apparently both acquired the hobby of suing each other for libel over the next few years as they wrestled to become king commentator of the American essayist galaxy. They were both born the same year, so perhaps their sole victory conditions lie in seeing who can outlive the other.


[photo] Composite
Vidal: "Palästina: Zerrissenes ,Heiliges Land’" Zeiten Schrift (Accessed 2/3/07)
Buckley: "William F. Buckley II on today's Republican Party" Politics Archives

[1] All quotes from Wikipedia articles on "Gore Vidal" and "William F. Buckley, Jr." (Accessed 2/3/2007)


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Friday, February 02, 2007

Iraq, and Why We Fight

Today I was thinking about Iraq. I don't like to think about Iraq, because it is not a problem I can solve, nor a public policy that I can influence. So why was I thinking about Iraq?

I just want to know why we fight in Iraq. Perhaps it is the philosopher in me, always wanting to know the truth about some state of affairs. It's a bad habit that I maintain, this ever searching for the truth of things.

I was clicking around on the Internet, wasting time while my two-year-old was napping, and I came across a Google video title that seemed to call out for investigation -- "Why We Fight." And so I proceeded to invest one hour and thirty-nine minutes of my life watching this video. Here's a summary:

"The film describes the rise and maintenance of the purported United States military-industrial complex while concentrating on wars led by the United States of the last fifty years and in particular on the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. It alleges that every decade since World War II, the American public has been told a lie to bring it into war to fuel the military-economic machine, which in turn maintains American dominance in the world. It includes interviews with John McCain, Chalmers Johnson, Richard Perle, William Kristol, Gore Vidal and Joseph Cirincione. The film also incorporates the stories of a Vietnam War veteran whose son died in the September 11, 2001 attacks and then had his son's name written on a bomb dropped on Iraq, a 23-year old New York man who enlists in the United States Army citing his financial troubles after his only family member died, and a former Vietnamese refugee who now develops explosives for the American military."[1]

Apparently, the title of the film was drawn from World War II-era propaganda newsreels titled "Why We Fight," which had been commissioned by the US government.

The film indeed gives an almost hypnotic, yet carefully developed explanation for why America fights, with special attention given to the Iraq conflict.

Along the way, one of the more interesting insights comes from a speech that President Eisenhower gave back in 1961, cautioning the country about just how much domestic infrastructure gets sacrificed when one maintains (contrary to Pres. Washington's warnings) a standing military. Hospitals, medical research, space exploration, educational scholarships, community school programs -- who knows what else gets put to the side or stands long-delayed because of priority of military funds. Perhaps this especially struck me because, as is well known, Bush has "a plan" to send even more troops to Iraq, and which may cost taxpayers up to an additional $27 billion during *the first year*. (Figures are from the Congressional Budget Office.)

I remember when when I was a kid, we had a black and white TV that sat in the kitchen, and occasionally there would be evening news footage of the Vietnam war. (Ironically, therefore, Vietnam is a black-and-white issue for me, at least in terms of memory perception.) Now it's not like I was paying lots of attention, being perhaps only nine years of age. But it had to be on TV enough that I saw such coverage now and then. What is strange of today's media is the complete lack of television coverage of the more tactical engagements of our soldiers. This "Why We Fight"[2] video has a very convincing explanation of that lack.

Today I was thinking about Iraq. I don't like to think about Iraq, because it is not a problem I can solve, nor a public policy that I can influence. So why was I thinking about Iraq?

Maybe so that you might.


[1] Why We Fight (film)" Wikipedia (Accessed 2/2/2007).

[2] "Why We Fight (film)" Google Video 1hr, 39min. (Accessed 2/2/2007)


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