The friendly atheist

In recent years, the tone of debate between theists and atheists has become decidedly unfriendly. UPEI professor of Philosophy Dr. Malcolm Murray attempts to restore some respect to the debate in his latest book: The Atheist’s Primer.

“The question of whether or not God exists is what brought me to philosophy in the first place,” says Murray. “I grew up in an atheist family, but I wanted to understand why it was that people I knew to be sensible believed in God.”

As a teen, Murray sought answers in the Bible. He studied Zen Buddhism. And then, in his first philosophy class, an incident helped put him on the path that would become this book.

“The teacher asked those who believed in God to stand on the left side of the class, those who didn’t on the right. I was one of two on the right,” says Murray. “Then he asked those of us who believed in love to go to the left, those who didn’t to the right. I believed in love, so I went to the left.”

The only person on the right side of the class was the other student who didn’t believe in God.

“And I thought that discredited him, because he didn’t believe in anything. But the class—even the teacher—turned on me. They said I was hypocritical in my beliefs. I was flabbergasted. I decided then to seek justification for what it was I believed in, and what I didn’t.”

The early result was a monthly column in a Waterloo, Ontario, paper in which he discussed the philosophy of religion. That experience made him realize there was a book to be written on the same subject.

“In the book, I lay out many of the arguments theists use to defend their belief, and then I break them apart. I try very hard not to be offensive; I really think theists would enjoy reading it. In fact, most of the people I asked to review early drafts of the book were theists.”

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Murray doesn’t blame religion for the world’s evils. He tries instead to use philosophical arguments to justify atheism.

“There’s an interesting debate about where suffering comes from, and why a god would allow it. One answer is that suffering exists to aid our moral development. God gave us free will. And if we use our free will to alleviate suffering, we have developed our moral character to make us fit for heaven.

“But the assumption there,” continues Murray, ”is that morality, itself, is good. Morality is just a tool humanity invented to reduce suffering. Without suffering, morality would be useless—similar to how a can opener would be useless in a world without cans.”

The Atheist’s Primer is published by Broadview Press, and is available at the UPEI bookstore. 

Publish AND perish

"There are plenty of stories of researchers who pop into their tech-transfer offices before flying to Europe to deliver a paper," says Robert Cowan, a partner who practices business and technology law with the firm McInnes Cooper, "and then are shocked when they find out they're about to blow any chance they ever had of profiting from their discovery or invention."

Cowan will be on campus Thursday, April 29, as a guest of Three Oaks Innovation for a special lunchandlearn session entitled “Publish OR Perish vs Publish AND Perish: How to Manage your Academic Responsibilities and your Commercialization Endeavours.”

“University researchers have a responsibility to publish their findings,” says Cowan. “But if their findings are something they could commercialize and profit from, how do they manage that responsibility with the need to protect their intellectual property?”

Cowan says patent rules differ from country to country. In Canada and the United States, the researcher has a year to file a patent after his or her first public disclosure, such as in a published paper.

“But other countries around the world don't give you that year,” explains Cowan. “So by publishing before filing a patent, you give up your rights outside of North America. And that's a significant market for many products — including pharmaceuticals.”

There are ways around the problem. The simplest solution would be to hold off on publication until after the patent is filed.

“But you run into a problem there,” says Cowan. “What if you have graduate students working on your project? They have to defend their theses, and that would count as a public disclosure. You can't stop them from presenting; that would break many universities’ policies of not delaying a student process.”

Cowan says the best bet is to contact your tech-transfer office. They can help navigate the tricky waters of intellectual property protection and commercialization.

“They can help you file something called a provisional patent application, which can be as simple as filing your research paper with the patent office in the US. Then you could publish freely, and retain your rights to a full patent anywhere in the world. It buys you another year, essentially.”

Cowan will have more tips at his lunch-and-learn session. For more information, contact Krista MacDonald at Three Oaks Innovation, Inc.  

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Beyond nature

“You and I, fortunately, are not being mauled at this moment by a ferocious tiger,” says Dr. Richard Raiswell, assistant professor of History and co-editor of the newly re-launched journal of the supernatural, Preternature.  “And so, by medieval reckoning, I could say this desk in front of me prevents tiger attacks."

 "Since about the 17th century, our thinking has changed and we know this line of logic to be problematic," continues Raiswell. "We look for evidence of different sorts of connections between cause and effect.” 

Raiswell’s research areas include the history of the occult and demonic possession in early modern Europe—topics seemingly far away from our understanding of what’s ”normal.” But, Raiswell argues, these areas help us better understand and define normal.

“People don’t tend to discuss or record what they believe normal to be. So it’s very difficult for historians to understand how people in the 17th century viewed the world around them,” says Raiswell. “On the other hand, people write extensively about the things around them they consider to be odd, or abnormal. By studying this, we can indirectly understand what it was they actually viewed as normal.”

Raiswell says many accepted modern areas of study stemmed out of subjects that were once considered the occult. Alchemy became chemistry. Astrology fed into astronomy. The study of monsters—abnormal beings—were integral to the development of medicine, biology, and geography.

“And much of this evolution happened around the 17th century,” says Raiswell. “By this time, God’s powers had been elevated to such a high level, he ceased to be a meaningful explanation for the phenomena around us. God’s role was pushed so high above us, it gave us room to ask some new questions about our world, and how it works, free from a host of ancient assumptions and superstitions.”

That’s partially where Preternature comes from. The name literally means “beyond nature.” The journal will publish works that contribute to our understanding of how people in the past understood the supernatural, the strange, and even monsters.

“We all know about the journal Nature,” says Raiswell with a smile. “Well, we’ll look beyond that.”

The editorial collaboration behind Preternature began at a conference Raiswell co-hosted in 2008 at the University of Toronto, co-sponsored by UPEI and Penn State. Raiswell’s partner in that conference, Dr. Peter Dendle of Penn State, was approached to edit the Journal for the Academic Study of Magic. He accepted, and invited Raiswell and Dr. Kirsten Uszkalo at the University of Illinois to come along as co-editors. Together, they’re expanding the scope of the journal, and re-launching it as Preternature.

Raiswell expects the first issue to be published later this year. 

UPEI researchers in the news, part eleven

Pigs fly, French fries, and a new chair in fish health. Here’s the latest roundup of UPEI researchers in the news.

Monday after the Easter weekend, CBC Television’s Compass aired a report on the recent success the PEI swine industry has experienced as an exporter of breeding stock to Russia. The report quoted Dr. Dan Hurnik, the Atlantic Veterinary College’s Industry Chair for Swine Research.

"What PEI is able to offer is that we're an island, we're isolated, and both the Vet College and the industry are in the province," said Hurnik. "We've done work for the past 10 to 15 years quantifying our health status, being able to show there are fewer diseases here than in other regions. And it looks like the Russian buyers appreciate that."

Read the CBC.ca story, “PEI pigs fly to Russia,” here. Read a recent ORD Blog post on the same subject here.

In advance of the Tuesday, April 6, Research on Tap, Dr. Jennifer Taylor, associate professor of Family and Nutritional Sciences, spoke with CBC Radio’s Island Morning host Karen Mair about obesity rates in children and school food policies. Taylor spiced up the interview with audio clips, including this one—a commercial toting the “miracle” of broccoli.

The interview is featured on the front page of the CBC.ca/PEI site. Listen to the full interview here.

On Thursday, April 8, the Guardian ran a story welcoming Dr. Mark Fast—UPEI and AVC’s Novartis Chair in Fish Health. Fast is no stranger to the campus; he received his Master of Science from AVC before earning his PhD at Dalhousie. Fast, as Novartis Chair, will build on the Atlantic Veterinary College’s globally recognized expertise in aquatic species health.

The Guardian quoted AVC Dean, Dr. Don Reynolds: “Dr. Fast’s expertise in aquatic diseases and immunology will contribute greatly to advancing the science of fish health and aquaculture on both a regional and global scale. His experience and specialized skills are a tremendous asset and complement to the Atlantic Veterinary College’s existing strengths in aquatic species health.”

Read the full article here

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