Thursday, December 11, 2008

Study Suggests Attending Religious Services Sharply Cuts Risk of Death - Albert Einstein College of Medicine

The following post provides a different slant on the interaction between science and spirituality/religion (see press release). Researchers Eliezer Schnall, Ph.D. and Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, Ph.D. at Yeshiva University and the affiliated Albert Einstein College of Medicine have found that women who attend religious services have 20% longer lifespans than those who do not. This research was a part of the Women's Health Initiative. The article was published in the journal PSYCHOLOGY AND HEALTH (p. 1-15 in the November, 2008 issue). A link to the full journal article can be accessed here, free until December 18, 2008. Although neither of us attends religious services on a regular basis, we found this of interest.

A study published by researchers at Yeshiva University and its medical school, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, strongly suggests that regular attendance at religious services reduces the risk of death by approximately 20 percent. The findings, published in Psychology and Health, were based on data drawn from participants who spanned numerous religious denominations.

The research was conducted by Eliezer Schnall, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor of psychology at Yeshiva College of Yeshiva University, and co-authored by Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and population health at Einstein, as an ancillary study of the Women's Health Initiative (WHI). The WHI is a national, long-term study aimed at addressing women's health issues and funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The researchers evaluated the religious practices of 92,395 post-menopausal women participating in the WHI. They examined the prospective association of religious affiliation, religious service attendance, and strength and comfort derived from religion with subsequent cardiovascular events and overall rates of mortality. Although the study showed as much as a 20 percent decrease in the overall risk of mortality for those attending religious services, it did not show any consistent change in rates of morbidity and death specifically related to cardiovascular disease, with no explanation readily evident.

The study adjusted for participation of individuals within communal organizations and group activities that promote a strong social life and enjoyable routines, behaviors known to lead to overall wellness. However, even after controlling for such behavior and other health-related factors, the improvements in morbidity and mortality rates exceeded expectations.

"Interestingly, the protection against mortality provided by religion cannot be entirely explained by expected factors that include enhanced social support of friends or family, lifestyle choices and reduced smoking and alcohol consumption," said Dr. Schnall, who was lead author of the study. "There is something here that we don't quite understand. It is always possible that some unknown or unmeasured factors confounded these results," he added.

During WHI enrollment, study participants, aged 50 to79, were recruited on a voluntary basis from a variety of sources, from all over the nation. The women answered questions about baseline health conditions and religiosity and were followed by WHI researchers for an average of 7.7 years, with potential study outcomes of cardiovascular events and mortality adjudicated by trained physicians.

To evaluate the impact of religiosity on mortality and morbidity, the investigators looked at variables including self-report of religious affiliation, frequency of religious service attendance, and religious strength as well as comfort, in relation to coronary heart disease (CHD) and death. It is important to note that the study did not attempt to measure spirituality; rather, it examined self-report religiosity measures (irrespective of the participant's religion). Participants answered three key questions at registration, regarding:

-- religious affiliation (yes or no);
-- how often services were attended (never, less than once per week, once per week, or more than once per week);
-- if religion provided strength and comfort (none, a little, a great deal).

Those attending religious services at least once per week showed a 20 percent mortality risk reduction mark compared with those not attending services at all. These findings corroborate prior studies that have shown up to a 25 percent reduction in such risk.

The study investigators concluded that although religious behavior (as defined by the study's criteria) is associated with a reduction in death rates among the study population, the physical relationships leading to that effect are not yet understood and require further investigation. "The next step is to figure out how the effect of religiosity is translated into biological mechanisms that affect rates of survival," said Dr. Smoller. "However, we do not infer causation even from a prospective study, as that can only be done through a clinical trial.

She added, "There may be confounding factors that we can't determine, such as a selection bias, which would lead people who are at reduced risk for an impending event to also be the ones who attend services."

The investigators are considering doing an analysis of psychological profiles of women in the study to determine if such profiles can help to explain the apparent protective effects of attending religious services.

Monday, April 28, 2008

In the Beginning, 13.73 Billion Years Ago - by Howard Smith

The following piece by Howard Smith hits a more mystical note than many of our recent posts. Like big bang theorists, it points out, the kabbalists, “…weave an intricate account of the universe created from [an] infinitesimal speck, describing how it expanded and evolved with light and substance into our world.” The article was originally featured in THE FORWARD, a weekly Jewish newspaper, on October 13, 2006. Dr. Smith is an active member of the Boston Jewish community. He is a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and was the chairman of the astronomy department at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. His recent book is LET THERE BE LIGHT: MODERN COSMOLOGY AND KABBALAH, A NEW CONVERSATION BETWEEN SCIENCE AND RELIGION (New World Library) — Several of his other recent articles on the topic of science and religion can be found in the Excerpts section of the site.

"B'Resheit" - Hebrew for "in the beginning."

from The Hebrew Bible published by the Society of Jewish Bibliophiles in Germany, the Soncino Gesellschaft, 1933.

Since the start of the Hebrew month of Elul in late August, Jews have been examining the year past in search of lessons to apply to the year ahead. Now, as the holiday season winds to a close, the weekly cycle of Torah readings offers another opportunity to examine the past as we return to the study of the very beginning: Genesis and the story of creation. This year, modern science has something new to add.

The medieval commentator Rashi famously asks why the Torah, nominally a book of laws, begins with a seemingly incidental cosmology narrative. He answers, citing a midrash, that the account is included to demonstrate to all the nations that God created the Earth, and that the land of Israel can therefore be given to whomever God chooses. Land belongs not to people, but to the Lord.

Some 500 years after Rashi, the kabbalists of Safed developed their own perspective on the lessons of the Torah’s cosmology. They built on a different midrash on Genesis, one formulated by the first-century rabbi Yonah and cited in the “Beresheit Rabbah.”

Yonah asks, in the name of his teacher, why the Torah begins with the letter Bet — }}. His answer is that this letter is shaped like a bracket — ] — closed behind, above and beneath, so that “we have no permission to discuss what is above or below, in front or in back, only onwards from the moment of creation.”

The first mark in scripture then, after that signifying bracket, is the tiny dot inside the Bet that hardens its sound from “v” to “b.” This dot signifies the primal point of creation, the embryonic universe, what the kabbalists called the “Resheit.” “Beyond this point,” says the Zohar, “nothing is known, and so it is called the Resheit, the first word of all.” The Torah’s literal opening statement is thus, “With the Resheit God created the heavens and the Earth.”

Triangulum Galaxy

the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, N. Caldwell and B. McLeod.

The kabbalists weave an intricate account of the universe created from this infinitesimal speck, describing how it expanded and evolved with light and substance into our world. Like Rashi, the kabbalists derive a lesson from their cosmology: Humanity has a role in this drama. They explain that the work of creation has not been completed.

Tikkun olam is humanity’s task — to heal the breaches and injustices of our society, imperfections that were embedded in the very fabric of the newly formed cosmos. The import of these lessons remains as appropriate today as ever, as we educe new interpretations from these old teachings.

There are also new teachings in the cosmological story, and some other lessons to derive as well. This has been another remarkable year for astronomers investigating how the universe was actually created — yes, today we know how the creation really did proceed. Readers may perhaps recall the essence of those ideas; they are expressed in the big bang model.

About 13 billion years ago, the universe as we know it exploded from an infinitesimally small point, much smaller than even an atomic nucleus, in a creative event dubbed “the big bang.” The universe has been expanding from this point and evolving ever since, with its current dimension being approximately 46 billion light-years. The foundations for the big bang description were laid by decades of mathematical thinking and meticulous studies that culminated with Edwin Hubble’s unexpected 1929 observation: Other galaxies are moving away from us with velocities that indicate a systematic recession, but yet, in accord with Albert Einstein’s then recent theory of relativity, the Earth has no privileged position. Hubble’s results shocked people who only a few years earlier thought that our galaxy was the entire universe and that — as Einstein, too, had originally thought — the universe was static and eternal.

Hubble’s data made use of 46 nearby galaxies. This past year, several different teams of astronomers reported progress on their programs to measure the recession velocities of hundreds of thousands of galaxies. Their results — with evidence from galaxies hundreds of times farther away than Hubble’s sample — support Hubble’s conclusion that the universe is systematically expanding.

There was other news as well. The newborn universe was tiny and fantastically hot, and its light was scattered by the plasma of electrons like headlights in a fog. Three hundred and eighty thousand years after the big bang, once the universe had cooled down enough for neutral atoms to assemble, light was finally able to travel through space unimpeded. That light is seen today as the so-called “cosmic microwave background radiation,” and it permeates all of space. It is faint — but it is everywhere.

The cosmic microwave background radiation was discovered in the 1960s, and like the recession of galaxies, it has become one of the essential diagnostic features used to investigate the details of exactly what happened in the beginning. In 1989, NASA launched a small satellite, the Cosmic Background Explorer, to measure this radiation more precisely. Just last month, the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to two astronomers who, with their teams, designed the explorer. NASA now has a newer cosmology satellite in orbit, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. Last month this satellite team announced the results of the first three years of nonstop surveying of the cosmic microwave background radiation.

The universe, the probe satellite team reports, is 13.73 billion years old, with a formal statistical uncertainty in that number of only about 1%, or about 150 million years — less time than it took for the dinosaurs to come and go. (The team also measured another half-dozen fundamental properties of the universe with similar precision.) Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe and the various galaxy studies have bolstered our confidence in our understanding of the early universe, and solidified ideas that would have seemed completely ludicrous a century ago — ludicrous to scientists, that is, though not to kabbalists.

The same remarkable astronomical research, however, has simultaneously uncovered stunning new mysteries. The universe is not simply expanding, it appears to be accelerating outward into endless oblivion. Astronomers can account for only a paltry 10% of cosmic matter as being in known forms like planets, stars, galaxies or gaseous nebulae. The other 90% of substance is “dark matter,” almost certainly some kind of unknown material.

Einstein’s hoped-for theory to unite gravity and the other three forces of nature remains unrealized. The rigor with which the cosmic age has been determined only lends credence to the profundity of these three mysteries and other ones still remaining.

Like the cosmology of Rashi and the Safed kabbalists, modern cosmology also lends itself to a message and a lesson. The message is that our basic concepts about the universe are well-founded: The universe is not eternal and static; it was born, has evolved and is expanding. Yes, there are deep puzzles remaining, but we have increasing confidence in the scientific methods needed to resolve them.

The lesson comes when applying these realizations to the current political debates that have regrettably presented science and religion as antagonists — evolution, intelligent design, stem-cell research and human behaviors, to name a few. In the case of astronomy, and more generally as well, both science and religion are speaking to the same mysteries. In the arena of cosmology they offer perspectives that, though different, are consonant, not contradictory — as I hope the example of the Kabbalah illustrates.

Science and religion should therefore be partners, not adversaries, in the effort to fashion sensible and fair political solutions. In this coming year of 5767 we owe it to ourselves to be more tolerant of divergent opinions, to abandon defensive and bitter rhetoric in favor of open inquiry and respectful listening, and to become better informed about the marvelous nature of the world which, as per Genesis 1, was created with language, and judged to be “very good.”

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Terrence Deacon's "Emergence: The Hole at the Wheel's Hub" - summary by Lois Isenman

Terrence Deacon’s article, “Emergence: The Hole at the Wheel’s Hub,” helps bring some clarity to the compelling but poorly defined concept of emergence, which is often used to describe the spontaneous production of order. Deacon describes three hierarchical levels of emergence, and in so doing he provides important scientific context for the Eastern concept of co-dependent arising.The article echoes the previous piece by physicist Paul Davies, which places the origin of the laws of nature within the universe itself.

Emergence: The Hole at the Wheel’s Hub” appears in THE RE-EMERGENCE OF EMERGENCE: THE EMERGENTIST HYPOTHESIS FROM SCIENCE TO RELIGION, a book edited by Philip Clayton (see The Emergence of Spirit) and Paul Davies (Taking Science on Faith). Terrence Deacon is a professor of Biological Anthropology and Linguistics at UC Berkeley and is also the author of THE SYMBOLIC SPECIES: CO-EVOLUTION OF LANGUAGE AND THE BRAIN.

Causality used to be a much more complex issue than it is today. Aristotle recognized four distinct kinds of causes—material, efficient, formal, and final. Deacon writes, “If we use the example of carpentry, material cause is what determines the structural stability of a house, efficient cause is the carpenter’s modification of materials to create the structure, formal cause is the plan followed in this construction process, and final cause is the aim of the process, that is, producing a space protected from the elements. A final cause is that 'for the sake of which' something is done.”

This rich panoply of causes has been reduced to only one, efficient cause, in our scientific age. Renaissance thinkers such as Descartes and Spinoza took particular offense at the notion of final cause.Deacon says, “As exemplified by the early explanations of the power of vacuums and buoyancy, only 'pushes' [not pulls] seemed allowable as determinants of the efficacy and direction of physical changes."

In contrast, the concept of final causality, or purpose, suggests that ends come first and determine means. This gives the impression that time is running backwards, as does the spontaneous production of order that characterizes many natural processes. By exploring various levels of the spontaneous emergence of order, Deacon aims to recontextualize our sense of final causality, especially as it relates to the evolution of life and to mind.He asks, “Is there someway to identify a real and substantial sense of the 'pull' of future possibilities in terms of 'pushes' from the past?" Such a perspective allows the future, which is an absence from the point of view of the present, to become pregnant with possibility and thus to cause. He quotes from the Tao Te Ching:

“Thirty spokes converged at the wheel's hub to an empty space that makes it useful. Clay is shaped into a vessel, to take advantage of the emptiness it surrounds.Doors and windows are cut into walls of a room so that it can serve some function. Though we must work with what is there, use comes from what is not there.”

Deacon elaborates, "Here we are confronted with a different sense of causality, in the form of an 'affordance': a specifically constrained range of possibilities, a potential that is created by virtue of something missing." Deacon uses this notion of absence, of something being shaped by what is missing, to help unify three different progressively more complex levels of emergence. He calls them non-recurrent, simple recurrent and hyper recurrent, or alternatively, first, second, and third order emergence, or thermodynamic, morphodynamic and teleodynamic emergence.

He defines emergence as "unprecedented global regularity generated within a composite system by virtue of higher-order consequences of the interaction of composite parts." Certain non-canceling regularities of relationship of lower-level constituents reinforce and amplify each other at higher levels. “…[H]igher order properties then can be created that effectively 'drag along' component constituent dynamics, even though these higher order regularities are constituted by lower-order interactions....By means of these circles, nature tangles its causal chains into complex knots in such a way that the global effects can come to resemble a reversal of time.”

With first order, or thermodynamic emergence, higher-order properties emerge from aggregates, for example liquid phenomena—such as surface tension and laminar or turbulent flow—characteristic of water molecules. Numbers matter to emergent properties, in contrast to other molecular properties, such as atomic composition and mass, which are invariant across scale.A single water molecule is not a liquid; liquid properties are due to the relationships between molecules. In repeated interactions, the characteristics of individual water molecules, for example their charge or internal vibration, distribute so as to cancel each other.This leaves only relational properties, or how molecules fit together, which are non-canceling, to characterize the aggregate. Liquid properties are new properties that emerge from the aggregate, even though they can be described in reductive terms.

Many different types of molecules can amass into liquids. There are "... many possible ways that different micro-details of structure and interaction can converge to produce the same higher-order properties. A given higher-order liquid property 'supervenes' on specific lower-order interactions to the extent that the former always entails the latter, but the vast iterative dynamics of these interactions also has a variety-canceling effect that converges to similar results across a wide range of substrates and modes of interaction."

In thermodynamic emergence, the uniformity of the higher order properties leaves no way for biases—or non-canceling regularities—to reinforce complementary biases at lower levels. In contrast in self-organizing, or morphodynamic systems, “…interaction dynamics at lower levels becomes strongly affected by regularities emerging at higher levels of organization.” Thermodynamic emergence becomes unstable; with continuing perturbations, these biases at higher levels can come to overwhelm cancellation. In Bernard cells, for example, water of uniform depth heated from below, under certain conditions, forms regular hexagonal cells of rising hot and falling cool liquid. This bias or higher-level regularity comes about because various other “unstable patterns of convection cancel each other out.” Regular hexagonal cells allow for the most efficient dissipation of heat.

Figure 5.2 from original article: reprinted with permission

Benard cell dynamics. Left: A tracing of a photo of Benard cells forming in a heated dish, showing their approximate hexagonal symmetry (though distorted by the constraints of the circular edge of the dish). Right: A diagram of the convection current pattern for a single Benard cell in stable dynamical configuration.

Snow crystal growth also reflects a self organizing system. Instability here comes about by the continuous addition of similar units. Three factors converge: 1) the hexagonal micro-structural lattice derived from the symmetry of the water molecule, 2) the radial symmetry of heat dissipation, and 3) the complex history of the changing temperature, pressure, and humidity of the developing crystal, as new units are added, as well as the subsequent history of the aggregate.Each prior stage of growth biases the subsequent ones, what Deacon frames as 'compound interest.'

In contrast to a snow crystal’s growth, in which all units added are similar, in autocatalytic reactions different types of molecules interact with each other. In a chemical soup, sometimes one molecule can catalyze another and so on until a closed loop forms. As long as sufficient energy and raw material are available, such an autocatalytic set can strongly influence how the soup is constituted. The potential interaction of the different specific molecules with each other as well as the potential relational properties of the whole have a strong influence on the organization that develops. Cellular metabolism is constituted around many autocatalytic cycles. Together, they "constitute a system dynamics that is 'autopoietic' (literally, 'self-making').”

In each of these examples of second-order emergent phenomena, "we find a tangled hierarchy of causality, where micro-configurational particularities can be amplified to determine macro-configurational regularities and where these in turn further constrain and/or amplify subsequent micro-configurational regularities. … As material and energy flows in, through and out again, form also re-circulates and becomes amplified. In one sense this form is nothing more than a set of restrictions upon and biases towards possible future material and energetic events; in another sense, it is what defines and bounds the higher-order unity that we identify as the system."

In third order emergent systems, in addition to the above, some sort of informational memory is present. "...[N]ot only is there an amplification of the global influences on parts, but also a redundant 'sampling' of these influences which reintroduces them into different realizations of the system over time.” Memory, in the form of genetic material, for example, allows third order emergent systems to enclose morphodynamic systems in another causal loop. This memory or historical encoding means that new forms can now be maintained across chasms of time, space, and energy. Such systems are inherently developmental and/or evolutionary. "…[N]atural selection can be seen as a random or stochastic 'exploration' of variant morphodynamic relationships of reciprocity with respect to environmental regularities."

"...[B]ecause there is a remembered trace of each prior 'self' state contributing to the dynamics of future states, such systems develop not merely with respect to the immediate prior state of the whole, but also with respect to their own remembered past states. This contributes to the characteristic differentiation and divergence from, and the convergence back towards, some 'reference' state, which organisms standardly exhibit."

With third order emergence, purpose emerges. Third order emergent systems and the atoms that compose them "do something for something." Their purpose is forged by their emergent history. The hemoglobin molecule, for example, cannot be completely described by its physics, chemistry or even its biology. Its "... existence must be seen against a backdrop of vastly more numerous molecular forms that were eliminated via natural selection, leaving hemoglobin as the one representative of the set. …Hemoglobin occupies the space of possibilities that was left". Deacon suggests that life is synonymous with third order emergent phenomenon. “It's embedded circular architecture of circular architectures definitely marks the boundary of a unit of causal self-reference that is extended in both space and time.”

This purpose at the center of third order emergence—movement towards some target state by competitive reproductive success—justifies calling these “teleodynamic systems.” Yet this purpose is also a specific absence, just as the void that forms the vessel in the Taoist verse earlier. It echoes and builds on the specific absence in the other two kinds of emergence as well. Each develops around what Deacon calls the least-discordant remainder. Future events are shaped less by determinism than by "what was not cancelled or eliminated.” This leads to an apparent time reversal in the sense that what is not there, the "pull of yet unrealized possibility," becomes efficacious. This pull of unrealized possibility comes to determine "function in biology and purposeful action in psychology.” It is also “the essence of representation, or intentionality: something whose existence is conditional upon something that is not. It is this feature of mental phenomena that has most mystified scholars for millennia: their 'aboutness.’"

Each of the three types of emergence represents a causal topology that is circular or closed. Thus “... while it is technically correct to say that life and mind supervene on chemical processes, it is misleading to say that they are 'merely' or 'nothing but' chemical processes… This collapses the complex levels of emergent relationships that stand in between.”

These causal topologies also help redefine three of Aristotle's causes and interconnect them. Teleodynamic emergence roughly corresponds to final causality. It encircles morphodynamics emergence, which in some sense corresponds to formal causality, which in turn encircles thermodynamic or efficient causality.

At the pinnacle of these causalities rests human consciousness and the subjective experience of self. Deacon writes, “A symbolizing mind has perhaps the widest possible locus of causal influence of anything on earth. …Human consciousness—with its features of autonomous causal locus, self-origination, and implicit 'aboutness’—epitomizes the logic of emergence in its very form. Like something coming out of nothing, the subjective self is, in effect, a constitutive absence for the sake of which new constitutive absence is being incessantly evolved. In this sense, there is some legitimacy to the eliminativist claim that there is no 'thing' that it is. Indeed this must be so. The locus of self is, effectively, a negative mode of existence that can act as an unmoved mover of sorts, a non-thing that nonetheless is the locus of a form of inertia—a resistance to change—with respect to which other physical processes can be recruited and organize."