Past times

A quote I dug up in my notes from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Complete Sherlock Holmes He walked past the couch to the open window, and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, for I… Continue reading Past times

The Fireplace Delusion by Sam Harris

Sam Harris posted an article on his blog that I feel the need to share. He rightly begins: “It seems to me that many nonbelievers have forgotten—or never knew—what it is like to suffer an unhappy collision with scientific rationality. We are open to good evidence and sound argument as a matter of principle, and are generally willing to follow wherever they may lead.”

Harris goes on to describe the detrimental effects of burning a fireplace, claiming that doing so is more harmful that smoking cigarettes for everyone around you, and causes so much pollution that “even libertarians should be willing to pass a law prohibiting the recreational burning of wood in favor of cleaner alternatives (like gas).” This claim, at least to me, is extraordinary, and thus requires extraordinary evidence. His claim seems to be supported by at least three published journal articles:

The toxicology of inhaled woodsmoke. “…exposure to woodsmoke, particularly for children, represents a potential health hazard.”

Woodsmoke health effects: a review. “It is now well established, however, that wood-burning stoves and fireplaces as well as wildland and agricultural fires emit significant quantities of known health-damaging pollutants, including several carcinogenic compounds. Two of the principal gaseous pollutants in woodsmoke, CO and NOx, add to the atmospheric levels of these regulated gases emitted by other combustion sources. Health impacts of exposures to these gases and some of the other woodsmoke constituents (e.g., benzene) are well characterized in thousands of publications.”

Respiratory health effects associated with exposure to indoor wood burning in developing countries. “Inhalation of these pollutants may have serious consequences, which are highlighted in this paper, for the respiratory health of the people who have been exposed.”

I find a certain romanticism in the project of hauling a felled tree from a friend’s yard, chopping and stacking it in neat rows, and then building a warm air of sentimentality during the winter. Yet, regardless of the health implications, the point of Harris’ article is to highlight the visceral reaction to a hard-truth of science when it flies in the face of our long-held and sentimental beliefs:

“Of course, if you are anything like my friends, you will refuse to believe this. And that should give you some sense of what we are up against whenever we confront religion.”

A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean

Every once in a while you find a book that speaks to you in a way you don’t understand. The story in itself ebbs and flows like the tide of water on a beach of characters that teach you more about yourself than you can consciously comprehend. The elegant prose so enraptures you in its… Continue reading A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean

“—Christianity, alcohol, the two great means of corruption.”
The Portable Nietzsche, page 652

“Every kind of faith is itself an expression of self-abnegation, of self-alienation.”
The Portable Nietzsche, page 639

The analogy of Christianity to alcohol is interesting to me. The chemistry of alcohol: ethanol is a carbohydrate, the metabolism of which leads to the inhibition of the enzyme phosphofructokinase (slowing and directing cell metabolism to store instead of burn fat) and is converted to triglycerides in the liver (storing more fat); ethanol binds to the GABA-A receptor which increases effects of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA (effectively slowing nervous system reactions), and of course increases liver cirrhosis. (A bit oversimplified, and disregarding the hormetic effect of alcohol, but the point remains.)

The chemistry of Christianity: faith rests on convictions, convictions inhibit the believer from independence so that he “cannot posit himself as an end” and in fact requires someone else—a priest or deity—to posit any end at all, and so he becomes a means to others’ end—a slave—in which case his freedom and sense of self continually deteriorate. Just like alcohol, this pathway dulls the senses and robs men of the vivid sense of life that accompanies self-overcoming or self-actualization.

I’m not sure how much Nietzsche knew about biochemistry, but in any case he has here a deeply accurate analogy.