Several reports about scientific advances or discoveries with implications for spirituality or ethics have caught my attention recently.
First, an anti-malaria vaccine that utilizes irradiated parasites has achieved, in preliminary lab tests, 100% success in preventing malaria (Declan Butler, "Zapped malaria parasite raises vaccine hopes," Nature News, 8 August 2013). The experiment offers hope for a practical means of preventing a life-threatening disease that is a leading cause of death among sub-Saharan children. The tests results are poignant reminders that many scientific discoveries are morally neutral; the moral consequences depend upon the use to which we put the discovery, e.g., nuclear weapons or ending malaria.
Second, MIT neuroscientists have implanted ideas into mouse brains, causing the mice to fear receiving an electric shock if they were to step in certain places within the cage even though the mouse has never received a shock in that spot (Helen Shen, "US brain project puts focus on ethics," Nature News, 14 August 2013). Although the scientists who performed the experiment disclaim any thought of conducting similar experiments with humans, the research raises the specter of remotely programmed or controlled humans. What limits, if any, should society seek to impose on neuro-research for ethical reasons?
Third, researchers at the University of Michigan found that shortly after clinical death, rat brains exhibit "activity patterns characteristic of conscious perception." Their widely reported work raises questions about the nature of near-death experiences that religious people often cite as evidence for life continuing after death and sometimes as validation of specific religious claims. If further research supports the findings and shows them to be applicable to humans, what are the theological and spiritual ramifications? One aspect of the religious claims that has long troubled me is that the near-death experiences seem to fit the culture of the person who has them, e.g., a Christian's near-death experience often involve approaching a light shrouded figure whom the person identifies as Jesus.
Fourth, a newly released study suggests that drinking more than four cups of coffee per day, if one is under age 55, may increase the odds of a premature death. Conversely, coffee, like many foods and beverages, consumed in moderation improves probable health outcomes. Perhaps one lesson of this research is a reinforcing of the Confucian doctrine of the Golden Mean (other great religions include echoes of it): do all – or at least most – things in moderation. In any case, Yale seminarian Kelsey Dallas has written a thoughtful essay based on a paraphrase of the Lord's Prayer that is worth reading, "Give us this day our daily latte" (Huffington Post, August 12, 2013).