Cutting Edge
Cutting Edge

Cutting Edge

FAITH Magazine November – December 2010

Science and Religion News

Hawking's 'Grand Design'

The latest book by Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design, published on 9th September, just before the Pope's visit to Britain, launched another wave of media frenzy over the religion vs. science debate. Unlike his best-selling A Brief History of Time, at the end of which he referred enigmatically to the ultimate conclusion of science's quest for a 'theory of everything' to be a step towards 'knowing the mind of God,' in this latest book he now decides to throw his weight behind an atheistic standpoint instead. Hawking is reported to have said, "The question is: is the way the universe began chosen by God for reasons we can't understand, or was it determined by a law of science? I believe the second. If you like, you can call the laws of science 'God,' but it wouldn't be apersonal God that you could meet, and ask questions." But Hawking has thereby implicitly affirmed an ontological precedence of the laws of the universe, in as much as they explain the universe's emergence, over that emergence. He says again: "Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist." What he seems to fail to grasp is that the existence of the physical laws themselves needs explaining. A personal God indeed is not simply equivalent to those explanatory laws. Indeed in as much as the laws are descriptive, they are clearly part and parcel of the created order. It is the necessary lawgiver, the Mind behind those laws,which gives them explanatory power. His latest foray into the science-faith forum, therefore, adds nothing whatever to the debate, notwithstanding the many column-inches of the press that have been devoted to his utterances.

Proof of Brain Life In PVS Patients

Dr Adrian Owen of the Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University - but soon to move to the University of Western Ontario in Canada - hit the news in February of this year when his research team showed that there were incontrovertible signs of intelligent activity in the brains of patients in a so-called 'permanent vegetative state' (PVS). In that study - reported in the 18th February issue of The New England Journal of Medicine - they showed that some PVS patients were clearly able to interpret spoken instructions and respond to them meaningfully. They devised a code for 'yes' and 'no': for 'yes' the person had to think about playing tennis, whilst for 'no' the person had to think about moving around their home. The brain activity for these two tasks is sufficiently differentfor the researchers to be able easily to distinguish the responses in the functional-magnetic-resonance (fMRI) images of the patients' brains. In some of the PVS patients studied, there was clear evidence of a perfectly intelligent and consistent response to the questions being asked. For the first time, therefore, since the patient's physical activity and normal means of communication were severed, the patient had the opportunity to communicate meaningfully with the outside world, whilst still displaying no ordinary signs of awareness.

In September, a further news story was reported about this research, because the group has now shown that it is possible to detect the same responses not only using the hugely expensive and static FMRI scanner, as before, but also with a simpler and smaller electro-encephalography (EEG) device. In some cases, such a machine could even be made portable, so that the patient could wear one semi-continuously. Dr Owen is reported to have said that it is "inevitable [that] in the very near future" a means would be found of enabling people in a vegetative state to answer questions about their condition and express their needs. One might speculate that in due course and with the right technology they may even be able to operate a voice synthesiser and entirely break their consciousness free ofthe 'prison' of their present physical condition. According to reports, up to 1,000 patients in Britain are afflicted with a PVS condition, though the EEG technology might only work for some 1 in 5 such patients. As Dr Owen says, "It would only be 'yes' and 'no' questions but you can get a long way with just 'yes' and 'no' questions." is the personal website for Dr Owen.

Embryonic Stem-Cell Halt

A temporary halt in the funding of U.S. research using stem cells harvested from human embryos occurred in August/September when a lawsuit came before a U.S. district judge in Columbia on 23rd August. He decreed that the case brought by researchers Drs James Sherley and Theresa Deisher, along with a number of Christian groups including the Christian Medical Association, should be heard; and ordered an injunction temporarily blocking federal funding allocated for human-embryonic-stem-cell research. Under the Obama administration, there has been big money available for such research, and the injunction came as a shock to the research world, but a delight to those who abhor the constant destruction of human life in experiments. The argument of Sherley et al. is that such research using humanembryos directly violates another principle of U.S. law, the Dickey-Wicker amendment of 1995, which prohibits the destruction of human embryos. President Obama sidestepped that piece of legislation when he opened up more embryo-stem-cell research, but the legislation remains on the statute book, and as such the judge in August ruled as he did. For the time being, however, the injunction has been lifted again - as of 9th September -by a higher court, not in order to pre-judge the case, but simply deciding that the ban was premature and disproportionate. The case still has to reach its judgment, but it has highlighted the ongoing debate and strong arguments that are still being promoted by pro-life groups and researchers keen to exploit instead the exciting possibilities of adultstem-cells, the use of which is not unethical.

Faith Magazine

November - December 2010