Category Archives: Science

Book Notes: The Battle Against Cancer

Reading Dr. Mukherjee’s masterful biography of cancer titled The Emperor of All Maladies caused one reaction in my brain, one in my heart, and one in my soul.  My brain reacted in awe of how little I know about the physical world around me and in appreciation for those who have given their lives to fight this terrible disease.  The book would be best categorized as historical science, covering the human experience with cancer from the time of the Egyptians up to the modern era.  Of course, not much medical progress was made in the treatment or understanding of cancer until the last 150 years.  Until that time, medical practice tended to cause more problems that it solved – primarily from our inability to understand the microscopic world.  This fundamental misunderstanding of disease was not limited to cancer, but that is the emphasis of this book.  The Emperor reads quickly, even though it covers so much ground – both chronologically and medically.  Dr. Mukherjee takes us on a journey to hospitals and laboratories and symposiums around the world in his attempt to give a historical sketch of our understanding of cancer.  While he lost me in a few of the pages toward the end when he begins to discuss genetics and the frontier of cancer treatment, his book still reads remarkably well for a work on such a dense topic.

But The Emperor is not just an informational monologue.  The author also makes this journey personal, interspersing the stories of his patients and important patients in the history of cancer treatment.  This caused the reaction from my heart.  How can you not read the stories of those who have suffered so much at the hands of cancer itself and at some of the early primitive treatments without being deeply affected emotionally?  Dr. Mukherjee talks about his own journey on this front – facing death almost weekly in the cancer ward and learning how closely his own life would become intertwined with the patients that he treated.  His book doesn’t just move linearly from era to era; he also moves from one type of cancer to another.  And with each move in his book (from leukemia to breast cancer to brain cancer to lung cancer, etc.), a person would come into my mind.  Someone that I had know who fought this terrible disease and lost the battle.  And so my heart would sink with each chapter – knowing that while much progress has been made, cancer is still so deadly.

But this book also impacted me spiritually.  I don’t think this was necessarily Dr. Mukherjee’s intent, but it was significant for me.  I say often to friends that one of the reasons that I am a Christian is because the atheistic worldview leaves humanity with only despair in the face of suffering.  And that truth was brought home to me again in this book.  This was the reaction in my soul – the confrontation again with the reality of death.  This book is full of death – from the first chapter to the end – as any book about cancer would have to be.  But it is also a book full of various responses to death.  Some fighting death with tenacious energy, others surrendering to their fate, and even more trying to enjoy the last days of their lives with those they love.  But in the end, they all came to the same place.  Dr. Mukherjee’s writing skill is a gift, one of many reasons this book has sold so well and also won a Pulitzer Prize.  But in the last page, he struggles to give hope.  He gives some medical hope – that treatments will continue to advance and lifetimes will continue to be lengthened.  But he struggles to give human hope.  Because this is the end of medicine.  The medical field is a wonder to behold, and this book as much as any other gives the reader a great appreciation for the skill, hard work, and determination of so many doctors over so many years.  But the medical field runs out of answers at the end of every personal story in this book.  And this is what touched my soul – the limits of science and medicine. The human being is more than the sum of his biological parts and Dr. Mukherjee’s book reminds us all that we need not less, but definitely more than the medical profession can ultimately provide.

Religion as Human Construct?

This Monday’s LA Times carried an op-ed from two writers in the field of the science of religion articulating a position that has been argued for some time – that religion is a product of our natural evolutionary development.  In fact, I reviewed a book several years ago by Douglas Wilson on the same topic.  The position goes something like this: the facts that our brains are hard-wired for religious experiences and that we have a natural sense of morality are proof that religion was beneficial to the survival of our ancient parents, helping them survive the brutal process of natural selection and passing on religious systems to us today. In this naturalistic worldview, all religious dogma is seen as the result of human experience, not as the result of divine revelation.  In addition, all religious experiences are seen as evolutionary by-products that will eventually weed themselves out of our worldviews as unnecessary.

I won’t take the time in this post to review the science involved in examining the way the human body and brain relate to religious experiences.  I won’t even address the religious question of the man-made nature of theological systems – a position that Christians would agree with for most religions throughout history.  Instead, I want to critique the logic involved in the argument made by evolutionary philosophers.  The series of deductions goes something like this: 1) there are physiological explanations for our spiritual experiences, 2) these physiological explanations are evidence of the evolutionary source of religion, therefore 3) all religious systems are built on human experience, not divine revelation.

Let’s take this linear argument one at a time.  First, as a Christian theist, I would not argue point number 1.  What scientists are discovering is that the human body is hard-wired for religious experience.  Our brains, our emotions, our bodies all lend themselves to making spiritual conclusions about the world.  Some have always rejected these natural conclusions (there have always been atheists throughout history), but the majority of people have been religious in the sense of believing in a supernatural reality beyond the observable world.

My major problem is the leap from argument 1 to argument 2.  What conclusion should we draw from the fact that the human psyche seems to be wired for a religious experience?  The naturalist brings their evolutionary philosophy to bear on this question and concludes that it must be a product of natural selection.  But is that reading your presuppositions into the evidence as much as the Christian theist?  Why could that not also be evidence (like Romans 1 argues) that we are made in God’s image (built for interaction with our Creator) and that there is a spiritual reality beyond the natural senses.  Why is that conclusion wrong by the standard of evolutionary science?  Because it cannot be proved scientifically.  Therefore, the most natural conclusion (that our moral nature and religious desires are evidences of a supernatural reality) is immediately discarded because of a commitment to naturalism.  I would think most people (using common sense) would see our spiritual desires as evidence that we were designed for the spiritual, not that we created the spiritual.

Also, this argument cuts both ways.  If you use evolutionary philosophy to discount religion, then why would you not also need to use it to discount atheism?  If religion is only a human construct because the brain is built for it, then why wouldn’t you also say that atheism is only a human construct because the brain is built for independence from authority?  Atheism has always existed – does that mean it is simply an evolutionary construct?  You can’t have it both ways.  Atheist promoters want to say that my worldview is simply the product of my biological heritage, but that their worldview is the product of their superior reason.  Can you imagine a more arrogant position?  My theological position is exclusive (that Jesus Christ is the only God and the only means of salvation), but it is also honest.  I believe some choose to acknowledge God in creation and revelation, and some choose to ignore Him.  But I don’t believe somehow that my position is rational and other worldviews are crazy.  I believe all worldviews are essentially religious – some are right and some are wrong, but they are all in the end theological.  And they should be discussed in those terms – what is your theological philosophy and how did you get there?

This article shows you why the theology of scientific naturalism ends debate instead of furthering it – because it says to people who have a positive religious worldview that their views are deceptions of their own making while the naturalistic atheistic worldview is the enlightened position of reason.  Is it any wonder that you can’t even have a thoughtful, kind, humble discussion with someone who holds this position?  For those atheists who think that Christians are arrogant because they claim to believe that Jesus is the way, truth, and the life, make sure you take time to look at the exclusive claims of your own worldview.  Which position most leads to humble, kind, loving people?  My example is Jesus Christ who died for the world and calls His followers to deny themselves, serve others, and give their lives away for the sake of their fellow man.  Who is your model?