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News | December 18, 2011

Hitch

Christopher Hitchens

The moment it was announced that Christopher Hitchens was sick with cancer, eulogies began spilling into print and from the podium. No one wanted to deny the possibility that he would recover, of course, but neither could we let the admiration we felt for him go unexpressed. It is a cliché to say that he was one of a kind and none can fill his shoes—but Hitch was and none can. In his case not even the most effusive tributes ring hollow. There was simply no one like him.

One of the joys of living in a world filled with stupidity and hypocrisy was to see Hitch respond. That pleasure is now denied us. The problems that drew his attention remain—and so does the record of his brilliance, courage, erudition, and good humor in the face of outrage. But his absence will leave an enormous void in the years to come. Hitch lived an extraordinarily large life. (Read his memoir, Hitch-22, and marvel.) It was too short, to be sure—and one can only imagine what another two decades might have brought out of him—but Hitch produced more fine work, read more books, met more interesting people, and won more arguments than most of us could in several centuries.

 
 

free will book cover sam harris

(Cover by David Drummond)

 

 
 

Book News | Publishing | Economics | Neuroscience | November 29, 2011

Thinking about Thinking

An Interview with Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman is an extraordinarily interesting thinker. As a psychologist, he received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work with Amos Tversky on decision-making. Here is what Steven Pinker, my previous interview subject, recently wrote about him:

Daniel Kahneman is among the most influential psychologists in history and certainly the most important psychologist alive today. He has a gift for uncovering remarkable features of the human mind, many of which have become textbook classics and part of the conventional wisdom. His work has reshaped social psychology, cognitive science, the study of reason and of happiness, and behavioral economics, a field that he and his collaborator Amos Tversky helped to launch. The appearance of Thinking, Fast and Slow is a major event.

Kahneman was kind enough to take time out of a very busy book tour to answer a few of my questions.

 
 

Self-Defense | Violence | November 5, 2011

The Truth about Violence

3 Principles of Self-Defense

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(Photo by Pensiero)

As a teenager, I once had an opportunity to fly in a police helicopter over a major American city. Naively, I thought the experience might be uneventful. Perhaps there would be no crime between 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night. However, from the moment we were airborne, there was a fresh emergency every fifteen seconds: Shots fired… rape in progress… victim stabbed…It was a deluge. Of course, the impression this left on me was, in part, the result of a sampling bias: I was hearing nothing but incident reports from a city of 4 million people, most of whom would never encounter violence directly. (No one calls the police to say “Everything is still okay!”) Yet it was uncanny to discover the chaos that lurked at the margins of my daily routine. A few minutes from where I might otherwise have been eating dinner, rapes, robberies, and murders were in progress.

 
 

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(Photo by h.koppdelaney)

The universe is filled with physical phenomena that appear devoid of consciousness. From the birth of stars and planets, to the early stages of cell division in a human embryo, the structures and processes we find in Nature seem to lack an inner life. At some point in the development of certain complex organisms, however, consciousness emerges. This miracle does not depend on a change of materials—for you and I are built of the same atoms as a fern or a ham sandwich. Rather, it must be a matter of organization. Arranging atoms in a certain way appears to bring consciousness into being. And this fact is among the deepest mysteries given to us to contemplate.

Many readers of my previous essay did not understand why the emergence of consciousness should pose a special problem to science. Every feature of the human mind and body emerges over the course development: Why is consciousness more perplexing than language or digestion? The problem, however, is that the distance between unconsciousness and consciousness must be traversed in a single stride, if traversed at all. Just as the appearance of something out of nothing cannot be explained by our saying that the first something was “very small,” the birth of consciousness is rendered no less mysterious by saying that the simplest minds have only a glimmer of it.

 
 

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(Photo by AlicePopkorn)

You are not aware of the electrochemical events occurring at each of the trillion synapses in your brain at this moment. But you are aware, however dimly, of sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, and moods. At the level of your experience, you are not a body of cells, organelles, and atoms; you are consciousness and its ever-changing contents, passing through various stages of wakefulness and sleep, and from cradle to grave.

The term “consciousness” is notoriously difficult to define. Consequently, many a debate about its character has been waged without the participants’ finding even a common topic as common ground. By “consciousness,” I mean simply “sentience,” in the most unadorned sense. To use the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s construction: A creature is conscious if there is “something that it is like” to be this creature; an event is consciously perceived if there is “something that it is like” to perceive it. ⁠Whatever else consciousness may or may not be in physical terms, the difference between it and unconsciousness is first and foremost a matter of subjective experience. Either the lights are on, or they are not.[1]

 
 

Announcements | Book News | Ethics | Politics | War | October 3, 2011

Twilight of Violence

An Interview with Steven Pinker

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Steven Pinker is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, the author of several magnificent books about the human mind, and one of the most influential scientists on earth. He is also my friend, an occasional mentor, and an advisor to my nonprofit foundation, Project Reason.

Steve’s new book is The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Reviewing it for the New York Times Book Review, the philosopher Peter Singer called it “a supremely important book.” I have no doubt that it is, and I very much look forward to reading it. In the meantime, Steve was kind enough to help produce a written interview for this blog.

 
 

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