Skip to content


Yad Vashem and the Pope

Today I just want to put a question. 

Pope Benedict is in Israel.  When a visiting VIP is in Israel – and they don’t get more VI than the Pope – he or she is invariably taken to the Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem.  Walking around Yad Vashem is an overwhelming experience.  As a museum it’s more raw, less professional, more gut-wrenching, than the vast and stunning Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Read More »Yad Vashem and the Pope

Ecclesiastical gaydar: should churches be allowed to discriminate priests?

Melbourne's Catholic Churches have decided to test potential priests for sexual orientation, banning those that appear to be gay. This is in accordance with the Vatican recommendation that even celibate gays should not be allowed in the priesthood. Needless to say, both people within and outside the church have reacted negatively to it. But to what extent can a church declare who is fit to hold positions in it? And would the testing be fair?

Read More »Ecclesiastical gaydar: should churches be allowed to discriminate priests?

Is Reality Just a State of Mind?

In a recent article in the Guardian entitled ‘Quantum Weirdness: What we call ‘reality’ is just a state of mind’, quantum physicist and winner of the 2009 Templeton prize Bernard d’Espagnat argues against the commonsense view, championed by realist philosophers, that reality is objective and importantly independent of our thinking about it. ( See: Like many before him d’Espagnat appeals to some of the findings of quantum mechanics, which appear to defy commonsense, to support his case. In particular, he appeals to the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, under which particles that have interacted with one another remain importantly connected to one another even when far apart. D’Espagnat points out that this phenomenon has important consequences for our conception of space and time. Somehow he seems to think that it is also important for debates about realism in general and not just to debates about the nature of space and time, although he does not explain why this is the case. According to him:


This reality is something that, while not a purely mind-made construct as radical idealism would have it, can be but the picture our mind forces us to form of … Of what ? The only answer I am able to provide is that underlying this empirical reality is a mysterious, non-conceptualisable "ultimate reality", not embedded in space and (presumably) not in time either.


Read More »Is Reality Just a State of Mind?

Born believers?

The latest issue of New Scientist features an article by Michael Brooks on the evolutionary origins of religious belief. Brookes spends most of the article considering the relative merits of the two main contending hypotheses. On one view, religion is an adaptation selected for its role in promoting cooperation; on the other, it is a by-product of other mental modules which are themselves evolutionarily advantageous. Towards the end of his piece, however, Brookes briefly addresses the implications of this research for the epistemic status of theism. As Brookes writes,

if religion is a natural consequence of how our brains work, where does that leave god? All the researchers involved stress that none of this says anything about the existence or otherwise of gods: as Barratt points out, whether or not a belief is true is independent of why people believe it.

Barring non-realist interpretations of religious discourse, it is undoubtedly the case that these studies do not impinge on the truth of religious claims. (It is not clear to me what would non-realist theologians, such as like Don Culpitt, say about this research.)  Yet the interesting question concerns, not the truth, but the warrant of theism in light of scientific findings about why people believe in God.

Such findings can, I believe, undermine theism, in at least two different ways. First, they may provide a rival, superior explanation for a belief which was previously thought to be best explained by a supernatural hypothesis. Secondly, they may show that belief in God arises not as a result of attention to arguments or evidence, but as a contingent accident of our evolutionary past. Let us consider these in turn.

Read More »Born believers?

The point of death

The Guardian yesterday reported the death of the man who had been so tragically shot in Antigua, with his wife, three weeks after their wedding. It began like this:

"Ben Mullany, the newlywed who was shot on honeymoon in Antigua in an attack that killed his wife, Catherine, died in hospital in Wales yesterday after his life support machine was switched off.  The 31-year-old trainee physiotherapist, who had suffered a fractured skull and had a bullet lodged in the back of his head, was flown back to Britain while in a coma on Saturday. Tests carried out when his condition stabilised after the 24-hour journey established he was brain dead." 

This is a familiar way of describing such happenings, even among clinical professionals.   Brain death is pronounced, so the life support machine is switched off, and the patient dies.   The clear implication is that brain death is not death.  The machine is still keeping the patient alive, and it is switching off the machine that causes real death. 

Read More »The point of death

HFEA and Regulating Reproduction:Triumph for Rationality and Victory for Secular Ethics

MPs voted on Tuesday on two of the most controversial issues surrounding reproduction- the provision of IVF treatment, and the availability of legal abortion. Under the new laws, IVF clinics will no longer have a legal requirement to consider the need for a father, but will instead be asked to ensure provision of ‘supportive parenting’, removing any barrier to single women and lesbian couples conceiving through the treatment. In a separate amendment, MPs were asked to consider the legal time limit on abortion, which currently stands at 24 weeks. Given the option to reduce this limit to 22, 20 or even just 12 weeks, MPs voted by a comfortable majority to stick with the status quo. 

The UK is now at the forefront of rational reform to legislation governing reproduction and research. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill has now approved the creation of human admixed embryos, with important implications for scientific advance.

Blog on Admixed Embryos
Savulescu, J., The Case for Creating Human -Non Human Cell Lines, Bioethics Forum
Human Enhancement papers, media and other resources for free download

It has also reformed the regulation of reproduction in a thoroughly sensible manner.

Read More »HFEA and Regulating Reproduction:Triumph for Rationality and Victory for Secular Ethics

The Choice to Have Artificial Blood: Less than the Best?

Controversy has erupted around whether experiments to test artificial blood should stop. Experimental blood substitutes raised the risk of heart attack and death, yet U.S. regulators allowed human testing to continue despite warning signs, says a scathing new report.

Blood substitutes, or artificial blood, could be stored for years without refrigeration, and be used in battlefield situations. It would carry no risk risk of infection with hepatitis or HIV. It would be an acceptable alternative to Jehovah’s Witnesses who refuse life saving blood transfusions.
In a new report, researchers pooled data from 16 separate studies of five different blood substitutes, involving over 3,700 patients. Researchers found a 30 percent higher risk of death overall for patients who received transfusions using the blood substitutes. The risk of heart attack was nearly tripled in the groups receiving blood substitutes.

“Experts speculate that hemoglobin in the blood substitutes scavenges nitric oxide from the blood, causing blood vessels to constrict and sticky platelets to build up. That increases the risk of heart attacks.”

Read More »The Choice to Have Artificial Blood: Less than the Best?

Do we own our bodies? Should we?

There was a sad story last week about a young woman who died unexpectedly at the age of 19.   She was on the organ donor register, and her own mother was on the waiting list for a kidney donation, but the mother was refused one of the kidneys.  Even the transplant coordinator was ‘crying her eyes out’, but there was apparently no escape.  Rules were rules.  Cadaveric donations must go impartially and anonymously to the most compatible people at the top of the waiting list, and the authorities decreed that these organs must go to three strangers – whose identity the mother will never even know.

Read More »Do we own our bodies? Should we?