Pain medication scandal

One of the biggest drug problems today is addiction to prescription pain medication like OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet.  These are “opioids,” derived from natural or synthetic opium. They used to be prescribed for specific cases of acute pain, but back in the 1990s they began to be prescribed longer-term for chronic pain such as back problems.  Most people who get addicted–from celebrities like Rush Limbaugh to untold numbers of coal miners and other physical laborers–got their start from legitimate medical prescriptions for chronic pain.

Doctors started prescribing the opioids for chronic conditions because of research published in the New England Journal of Medicine and other key medical journals that said the drugs posted only “a minimal risk of addiction.”

But it’s coming out now that those scientific studies were not only sponsored by the pharmaceutical companies that sold the drug, but they also systematically failed to consider withdrawal symptoms in the patients they studied.  One participant in the studies now confesses that they were  “trying to create a narrative so that the primary care audience would . . . feel more comfortable about opioids.”

Investigative reporter Peter Whoriskey is digging out the details: Read Rising painkiller addiction shows damage from drugmakers’ role in shaping medical opinion – The Washington Post.

Opium is addictive!  Who knew?  Only 19th century literature fans who know their de Quincy and their Coleridge.  Scientific studies that maintain the contrary should have provoked suspicion.

I think pharmaceutical companies have been unfairly demonized–they are even showing up as stock villains in television and films–since their products do great good.  New drugs require huge investments and the federal approval process demands expensive testing.  Who else can pay for that?  That drug companies paid for a study does not necessarily invalidate it.  Still, scientific research is not always as objective as it appears.  The appearance of commercial bias here, though, in drugs that have become so widely prescribed and that can do so much harm is disturbing.

Plantinga on Science, Naturalism, and Faith

Alvin Plantinga is a highly-respected philosopher, respected even by those who disagree with him.  An evangelical, Reformed Christian, Plantinga has written a new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism.

It has received a glowing review from Thomas Nagel, an atheist–in the New York Review of Books, no less–in which he says that Plantinga’s arguments help him to realize that Christians are, in fact, rational.  And that his own side has some explaining to do.

The gulf in outlook between atheists and adherents of the monotheistic religions is profound. We are fortunate to live under a constitutional system and a code of manners that by and large keep it from disturbing the social peace; usually the parties ignore each other. But sometimes the conflict surfaces and heats up into a public debate. The present is such a time.

One of the things atheists tend to believe is that modern science is on their side, whereas theism is in conflict with science: that, for example, belief in miracles is inconsistent with the scientific conception of natural law; faith as a basis of belief is inconsistent with the scientific conception of knowledge; belief that God created man in his own image is inconsistent with scientific explanations provided by the theory of evolution. In his absorbing new book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, Alvin Plantinga, a distinguished analytic philosopher known for his contributions to metaphysics and theory of knowledge as well as to the philosophy of religion, turns this alleged opposition on its head. His overall claim is that “there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism.” By naturalism he means the view that the world describable by the natural sciences is all that exists, and that there is no such person as God, or anything like God.

Plantinga’s religion is the real thing, not just an intellectual deism that gives God nothing to do in the world. He himself is an evangelical Protestant, but he conducts his argument with respect to a version of Christianity that is the “rough intersection of the great Christian creeds”—ranging from the Apostle’s Creed to the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles—according to which God is a person who not only created and maintains the universe and its laws, but also intervenes specially in the world, with the miracles related in the Bible and in other ways. It is of great interest to be presented with a lucid and sophisticated account of how someone who holds these beliefs understands them to harmonize with and indeed to provide crucial support for the methods and results of the natural sciences.

Plantinga discusses many topics in the course of the book, but his most important claims are epistemological. He holds, first, that the theistic conception of the relation between God, the natural world, and ourselves makes it reasonable for us to regard our perceptual and rational faculties as reliable. It is therefore reasonable to believe that the scientific theories they allow us to create do describe reality. He holds, second, that the naturalistic conception of the world, and of ourselves as products of unguided Darwinian evolution, makes it unreasonable for us to believe that our cognitive faculties are reliable, and therefore unreasonable to believe any theories they may lead us to form, including the theory of evolution. In other words, belief in naturalism combined with belief in evolution is self-defeating. However, Plantinga thinks we can reasonably believe that we are the products of evolution provided that we also believe, contrary to naturalism, that the process was in some way guided by God.

Nagel gives a very clear summary of Plantinga’s epistemology, which emphasizes that there are different kinds of “warrants” for  beliefs.  Faith itself, Plantinga argues, is such a warrant:

Faith, according to Plantinga, is another basic way of forming beliefs, distinct from but not in competition with reason, perception, memory, and the others. However, it is a wholly different kettle of fish: according to the Christian tradition (including both Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin), faith is a special gift from God, not part of our ordinary epistemic equipment. Faith is a source of belief, a source that goes beyond the faculties included in reason.God endows human beings with a sensus divinitatis that ordinarily leads them to believe in him. (In atheists the sensus divinitatis is either blocked or not functioning properly.)2 In addition, God acts in the world more selectively by “enabling Christians to see the truth of the central teachings of the Gospel.”

If all this is true, then by Plantinga’s standard of reliability and proper function, faith is a kind of cause that provides a warrant for theistic belief, even though it is a gift, and not a universal human faculty. (Plantinga recognizes that rational arguments have also been offered for the existence of God, but he thinks it is not necessary to rely on these, any more than it is necessary to rely on rational proofs of the existence of the external world to know just by looking that there is beer in the refrigerator.)

It is illuminating to have the starkness of the opposition between Plantinga’s theism and the secular outlook so clearly explained. My instinctively atheistic perspective implies that if I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true, the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith. From Plantinga’s point of view, by contrast, I suffer from a kind of spiritual blindness from which I am unwilling to be cured. This is a huge epistemological gulf, and it cannot be overcome by the cooperative employment of the cognitive faculties that we share, as is the hope with scientific disagreements.

Faith adds beliefs to the theist’s base of available evidence that are absent from the atheist’s, and unavailable to him without God’s special action. These differences make different beliefs reasonable given the same shared evidence. An atheist familiar with biology and medicine has no reason to believe the biblical story of the resurrection. But a Christian who believes it by faith should not, according to Plantinga, be dissuaded by general biological evidence. Plantinga compares the difference in justified beliefs to a case where you are accused of a crime on the basis of very convincing evidence, but you know that you didn’t do it. For you, the immediate evidence of your memory is not defeated by the public evidence against you, even though your memory is not available to others. Likewise, the Christian’s faith in the truth of the gospels, though unavailable to the atheist, is not defeated by the secular evidence against the possibility of resurrection.

via A Philosopher Defends Religion by Thomas Nagel | The New York Review of Books.

Read the whole review.

For the purposes of our discussion, could we make some topics off-limits?  First, please do not dismiss Plantinga as a “theistic evolutionist”; he may be one, but I think that’s too simplistic, and he is also giving some “warrants” for creationism.  Second, let’s not get into the debate here between “evidentialist”  and “presuppositionalist” apologetics.  There is actually some of both here, as Plantinga is supporting the reality of objective evidence as well as the fact–which Lutherans, at least, must not deny–that faith is a gift.  The ultimate cause of atheism, as Plantinga says and as the atheist Nagel admits, is “spiritual blindness.”  Finally, let’s not have any attacks on Plantinga as a Calvinist.  (Comments that violate these terms may be deleted.)

The faith of infants

A key Lutheran teaching is that infants can have faith.  This is why Lutherans see no contradiction between infant baptism and justification by faith.  Lutherans see faith not just in terms of intellectual knowledge or conscious volition, but as trust, dependence, and relationship with a Person.  Infants can trust, depend on, and have a relationship with their parents and also with their Heavenly Father.  The faith that begins with baptism then grows and matures, fed by the “milk” of God’s Word, as the child grows into adulthood, and continuing thereafter.  (That faith can also die if it is not nourished, which is why someone can have been baptized as an infant but then reject the faith and become an unbeliever in need of conversion.)

Anyway, a new book explores, from the vantage point of scientific research, the way infants and extremely young children seemed to be wired for religious belief.

Wheaton provost Stanton L. Jones reviews Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief by psychologist Justin L. Barrett:

He summarizes creative, sophisticated research establishing that in infancy, babies understand distinctions between mere objects and agents (human and non-human, visible and invisible) which initiate actions that are not predictable and yet are goal-directed or purposeful. Only agents act to bring order out of disorder.

Children over three begin to discern and attribute purpose to much of what happens around them, which they in turn are inclined to attribute to human and superhuman agents. When children are old enough to actually discuss their intuitive concepts of god(s), they seem normatively disposed to believe in a (or many) divine agent(s) possessing “superknowledge, superperception, creative power, and immortality,” as well as to believe in a purposeful design to creation, in some sort of basic universal morality, and in the persistence of human identity after death.

Roughly the first 40 percent of Born Believers summarizes this research, while the remaining portion fleshes out its implications. Barrett’s view of religious development is that “children are naturally drawn to some basic religious ideas and related practices (natural religion), and then the meat of a religious and theological tradition as taught by parents grows on this skeleton.” He discusses trends in the research that might foster effective religious education.

via Born Believers, Part 1 | Books and Culture.

Bringing woolly mammoths back from extinction

As you may know, frozen woolly mammoths have been discovered in ice formations, more or less intact, since the 18th century.  So why not clone some, bringing them back from extinction?

A Russian university says scientists have discovered frozen woolly mammoth fragments that may contain living cells deep in Siberia, bringing closer the possibility of cloning the extinct animal.

The North-Eastern Federal University said in a statement on Tuesday that an international team had discovered mammoth hair, soft tissues and bone marrow at a depth of 328ft (100m) during a summer expedition.

Expedition chief Semyon Grigoryev said a group of Korean scientists with the team had set a goal of finding living cells in the hope of cloning a mammoth. Scientists have previously found bodies and fragments, but not living cells.

Grigoryev told online newspaper Vzglyad it would take months of lab research to determine whether they have indeed found the cells.

Woolly mammoths are thought to have died out 10,000 years ago.

via Woolly mammoth remains may contain living cells | Science | The Guardian.

Bringing back the mammoths.  Would that not be cool?

What “junk DNA” does

A major discovery:

It turns out that “junk DNA”, once thought to comprise most of the genetic material packed into our cells, isn’t junk. Instead, it plays a complicated — and still shadowy — role in regulating our genes.

That’s the essential insight of a five-year project to study the 98 percent of the human genome that is not, strictly speaking, genes. It now appears that more than three-quarters of our DNA is active at some point in our lives.

“This concept of ‘junk DNA’ is really not accurate. It is an outdated metaphor to explain our genome,” said Richard Myers, one of the leaders of the 400-scientist Encyclopedia of DNA Elements Project, nicknamed Encode.

“The genome is just alive with stuff. We just really didn’t realize that before,” said Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute in England.

The new insights are contained in six papers published Wednesday in the journal Nature. More than 20 related papers from Encode are appearing elsewhere.

The human genome consists of about 3 billion DNA “letters” strung one to another in 46 chains called chromosomes. Specific stretches of those letters (whose formal name is “nucleotides”) carry the instructions for making specific proteins. Those proteins, in turn, build the cells and tissues of living organisms.

The Human Genome Project, which identified the correct linear sequence of those letters, revealed that human cells contain only about 21,000 genes — far fewer than most biologists predicted. Furthermore, those genes took up only 2 percent of the cell’s DNA. The new research helps explain how so few genes can create an organism as complex as a human being.

The answer is that regulating genes — turning them on and off, adjusting their output, manipulating their timing, coordinating their activity with other genes — is where most of the action is.

The importance and subtlety of gene regulation is not a new idea. Nor is the idea that parts of the genome once thought to be “junk” may have some use. What the Encode findings reveal is the magnitude of the regulation.

It now appears that at least 4 million sections of the genome are involved in manipulating the activity of genes. Those sections act like switches in a wiring diagram, creating an almost infinite number of circuits.

“There is a modest number of genes and an immense number of elements that choreograph how those genes are used,” said Eric D. Green, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, the federal agency that paid for the research.

via ‘Junk DNA’ concept debunked by new analysis of human genome – The Washington Post.

So every cell of every living organism contains not just genetic information but a whole system for activating, directing, timing, and animating that information.

We sure are lucky that millions of years of random mutations and natural selection evolved into something so infinitely complex.

Oh, wait.  All of that had to be in place in order to make reproduction possible; that is, before natural selection could happen.

How Quantum Physics refutes materialism

Physics professor Stephen M. Barr explains how quantum physics makes the world view of materialism–the assumption of most of today’s atheists–scientifically impossible.

Materialism is an atheistic philosophy that says that all of reality is reducible to matter and its interactions. It has gained ground because many people think that it’s supported by science. They think that physics has shown the material world to be a closed system of cause and effect, sealed off from the influence of any non-physical realities — if any there be. Since our minds and thoughts obviously do affect the physical world, it would follow that they are themselves merely physical phenomena. No room for a spiritual soul or free will: for materialists we are just “machines made of meat.”

Quantum mechanics, however, throws a monkey wrench into this simple mechanical view of things.  No less a figure than Eugene Wigner, a Nobel Prize winner in physics, claimed that materialism — at least with regard to the human mind — is not “logically consistent with present quantum mechanics.” And on the basis of quantum mechanics, Sir Rudolf Peierls, another great 20th-century physicist, said, “the premise that you can describe in terms of physics the whole function of a human being … including [his] knowledge, and [his] consciousness, is untenable. There is still something missing.”

Barr goes on to explain in a technical but pretty lucid manner why this is the case, going into the mathematics of probability and why the observer has an intrinsic impact on the system being observed.   I can’t summarize it.  Read it yourself.  Here is his conclusion:

If the mathematics of quantum mechanics is right (as most fundamental physicists believe), and if materialism is right, one is forced to accept the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. And that is awfully heavy baggage for materialism to carry.

If, on the other hand, we accept the more traditional understanding of quantum mechanics that goes back to von Neumann, one is led by its logic (as Wigner and Peierls were) to the conclusion that not everything is just matter in motion, and that in particular there is something about the human mind that transcends matter and its laws. It then becomes possible to take seriously certain questions that materialism had ruled out of court: If the human mind transcends matter to some extent, could there not exist minds that transcend the physical universe altogether? And might there not even exist an ultimate Mind?

via Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God? | Big Questions Online.

HT:  Anna Williams