The Blog

 

The latest wave of Muslim hysteria and violence has now spread to over twenty countries. The walls of our embassies and consulates have been breached, their precincts abandoned to triumphant mobs, and many people have been murdered—all in response to an unwatchable Internet video titled Innocence of Muslims. Whether over a film, a cartoon, a novel, a beauty pageant, or an inauspiciously named teddy bear, the coming eruption of pious rage is now as predictable as the dawn. This is already an old and boring story about old, boring, and deadly ideas. And I fear it will be with us for the rest of our lives.

 
 

(Photo by h.koppdelaney)

One of the most common objections to my position on free will is that accepting it could have terrible consequences, psychologically or socially. This is a strange rejoinder, analogous to what many religious people allege against atheism: Without a belief in God, human beings will cease to be good to one another. Both responses abandon any pretense of caring about what is true and merely change the subject. But that does not mean we should never worry about the practical effects of holding specific beliefs.

I can well imagine that some people might use the nonexistence of free will as a pretext for doing whatever they want, assuming that it’s pointless to resist temptation or that there’s no difference between good and evil. This is a misunderstanding of the situation, but, I admit, a possible one. There is also the question of how we should raise children in light of what science tells us about the nature of the human mind. It seems doubtful that a lecture on the illusoriness of free will should be part of an elementary school curriculum.

 
 

troll

The Internet powerfully enables the spread of good ideas, but it works the same magic for bad ones—and it allows distortions of fact and opinion to become permanent features of our intellectual landscape. Consequently, the migration of our cultural discourse into cyberspace can injure a person’s reputation in ways that may be impossible to remedy.

Anyone familiar with my work knows that I have not shied away from controversy and that many of my views defy easy summary. However, I continue to learn the hard way that if an issue is controversial, and my position cannot be reduced to a simple sentence, my critics will do the work of simplification for me. Topics like torture, recreational drug use, and wealth inequality can provoke outrage and misunderstanding in many audiences. But discussing them online sets your reputation wandering like a child across a battlefield—perpetually. Anything can and will be said at your expense—or falsely attributed to you—today, tomorrow, and years hence. Needless to say, the urge to respond to this malevolence and obfuscation can become irresistible.

The problem, however, is that there is no effective way to respond. Here is a glimpse of what it is like for me to sit at my desk, attempting to write my next book, while persistent and misleading attacks on my work continue to surface on the Internet.

 
 

jonah lehrer

The science journalist and author Jonah Lehrer seems to have driven his career off a cliff by, of all things, putting words into the mouth of Bob Dylan. He has resigned his post at The New Yorker and copies of his most recent bestseller have been recalled by his publisher.

I don’t know Lehrer personally, and I have only read one of his books in part and a few of his articles. However, I had seen enough to worry that he could get carried away by his talent for giving a journalistic polish to the research of others. There is no sin in being a science journalist—the world needs more of them—and Lehrer’s fall from grace is a genuine shame. But I know many scientists who felt that his commitment to the truth was tenuous. Recent revelations–about his manipulating and even inventing quotations, and telling elaborate lies to conceal his misbehavior–would appear to justify these fears.

 
 

temple

(Photo by Stuck in Customs)

In writing my next book, I will have to confront the animosity that many people feel for the term “spiritual.” Whenever I use the word—as in referring to meditation as a “spiritual practice”—I inevitably hear from fellow skeptics and atheists who think that I have committed a grievous error.

The word “spirit” comes from the Latin spiritus, which in turn is a translation of the Greek pneuma, meaning “breath.” Around the 13th century, the term became bound up with notions of immaterial souls, supernatural beings, ghosts, etc. It acquired other connotations as well—we speak of the spirit of a thing as its most essential principle, or of certain volatile substances and liquors as spirits. Nevertheless, many atheists now consider “spiritual” thoroughly poisoned by its association with medieval superstition.

 
 

Meditation | The Self | June 23, 2012

Look Into My Eyes

osho

I am currently under a book deadline, so long blog posts will probably be few and far between until the end of the year. The working title of the book is Waking Up: Science, Skepticism, and Spirituality. This title could very well change, but this should give you some indication of what I’m up to. My goal is to write a “spiritual” book for smart, skeptical people—dealing with issues like the illusion of the self, the efficacy of practices like meditation, the cultivation of positive mental states, etc.

Writing this book has forced me to revisit the work of gurus and spiritual teachers at every point on the spectrum of wisdom and crackpottery—which has been a lot of fun.

 
 

Physics | June 7, 2012

Fundamental Science and the Big Machine

Annaka Harris interviews Lisa Randall

Lisa Randall

Lisa Randall is one of today’s most influential theoretical physicists and a Professor of Physics at Harvard University. Her work has been featured in Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vogue, the Economist, Scientific American, Discover, New Scientist, Science, Nature, and elsewhere. Randall is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Physical Society, and is the recipient of several honorary degrees.  When not solving the problems of the universe, she can be found rock climbing, skiing, or contributing to art-science connections. Hypermusic Prologue, a small opera for which she wrote the libretto, premiered in the Pompidou Center in 2009, and Measure for Measure, an art exhibit she co-curated, opened in Los Angeles in 2010.

Annaka Harris is a freelance editor of nonfiction books and a Co-founder of Project Reason.

 
 

Ethics | Debates | Religion | Islam | Self-Defense | Terrorism | May 25, 2012

To Profile or Not to Profile?

A Debate between Sam Harris and Bruce Schneier

Osama profiling

(Photo by Anxo Resúa)

I recently wrote two articles in defense of “profiling” in the context of airline security (1 & 2), arguing that the TSA should stop doing secondary screenings of people who stand no reasonable chance of being Muslim jihadists. I knew this proposal would be controversial, but I seriously underestimated how inflamed the response would be. Had I worked for a newspaper or a university, I could well have lost my job over it.

One thing that united many of my critics was their admiration for Bruce Schneier. Bruce is an expert on security who has written for The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, Forbes, Wired, Nature, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, and other major publications. His most recent book is Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive. Bruce very generously agreed to write a response to my first essay. He also agreed to participate in a follow-up discussion that has now occupied us, off and on, for two weeks. The resulting exchange runs over 13,000 words.

 
 

Free Will | Book News | Neuroscience | The Self | May 22, 2012

The Illusion of the Self

An Interview with Bruce Hood

bruce hood


Bruce Hood is currently the Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre at the University of Bristol. He has been a research fellow at Cambridge University and University College London, a visiting scientist at MIT, and a faculty professor at Harvard. He has been awarded an Alfred Sloan Fellowship in neuroscience, the Young Investigator Award from the International Society of Infancy Researchers, the Robert Fantz Memorial Award and voted a Fellow by the Association for Psychological Science. He is the author of several books, including SuperSense: Why We Believe the Unbelievable. This year he was selected as the 2011 Royal Institution Christmas Lecturer—to give three lectures broadcast by the BBC—the most prestigious appointment for the public engagement of science in the UK. Bruce was kind enough to answer a few questions about his new book,The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity.

 
 

Debates | Religion | Islam | Terrorism | War | May 8, 2012

The Trouble with Profiling

A guest post by Bruce Schneier

stormtroopers

(Photo by JD Hancock)

Bruce Schneier is a highly-respected expert on security who has written for The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, Forbes, Wired, Nature, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, and other major publications. His most recent book is Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive.

At the suggestion of many readers, I invited Bruce to set me straight about airline security on this page. The following is his response to my controversial article, “In Defense of Profiling.” Bruce and I will discuss these issues in greater depth in a subsequent post.—SH

 
 

911 terrorism

(Photo by Slagheap)

I recently wrote a short essay about airline security (“In Defense of Profiling”) that provoked a ferocious backlash from readers. In publishing this piece, I’m afraid that I broke one of my cardinal rules of time (and sanity) management: Not everything worth saying is worth saying oneself. I learned this the hard way once before, in discussing the ethics of torture and collateral damage, but this time the backlash has been even more unpleasant and less rational.

 
 

Book News | Consciousness | Publishing | Neuroscience | Meditation | May 2, 2012

Training the Emotional Brain

An Interview with Richard J. Davidson

Davidson Ricard meditation

(Photo by Jeff Miller)

Richard J. Davidson is the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, Director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior and the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, and Founder and Chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in Psychology and has published more than 275 scientific papers, many chapters and reviews, and edited 13 books. He is the author of the new book (with Sharon Begley) The Emotional Life of Your Brain. Richie (as he is known to his friends) has done more to bring the study of mental well-being into the 21st century than anyone I can think of. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his work.

 
 

TSA

Much has been written about how insulting and depressing it is, more than a decade after the events of 9/11, to be met by “security theater” at our nation’s airports. The current system appears so inane that one hopes it really is a sham, concealing more-ingenious intrusions into our privacy. The spirit of political correctness hangs over the whole enterprise like the Angel of Death—indeed, more closely than death, or than the actual fear of terrorism. And political correctness requires that TSA employees direct the spotlight of their attention at random—or appear to do so—while making rote use of irrational procedures and dubious technology.

 
 

Free Will | Consciousness | Neuroscience | Philosophy | The Self | April 5, 2012

Free Will and “Free Will”

How my view differs from Daniel Dennett's

free will

(Photo by h.koppdelaney)

I have noticed that some readers continue to find my argument about the illusoriness of free will difficult to accept. Apart from religious believers who simply “know” that they have free will and that life would be meaningless without it, my most energetic critics seem to be fans of my friend Dan Dennett’s account of the subject, as laid out in his books Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves and in his public talks. As I mention in Free Will, I don’t happen to agree with Dan’s approach, but rather than argue with him at length in a very short book, I decided to simply present my own view. I am hopeful that Dan and I will have a public discussion about these matters at some point in the future.

 
 

burkas

(Photo by Basetrack )

I recently had a very enjoyable three-hour conversation with Joe Rogan on his podcast, where the topics ranged from jihad to probability theory to psychedelics. But I subsequently received a fair amount of abuse online for a few things I said about Islam and our adventures in the war on terror. For instance, I appear to have left many viewers with the impression that I believe we invaded Afghanistan for the purpose of rescuing its women from the Taliban. However, the points I was actually making were rather different: I think that abandoning these women to the Taliban is one of the things that make our inevitable retreat from Afghanistan ethically problematic. I also believe that wherever we can feasibly stop the abuse of women and girls, we should. An ability to do this in places like Afghanistan, and throughout the world, would be one of the benefits of having a global civil society and a genuine regime of international law. Needless to say, this is not the world we are living in (yet).

The ferocious response to my discussion with Rogan about the war on terror has, once again, caused me to worry about the future of liberalism. It is one thing to think that the war in Afghanistan has been an excruciating failure (which I believe), but it is another to think that we had no moral right to attack al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the first place. A significant percentage of liberals seem to hold the latter view, and consider President Obama to be nothing more than a neocon stooge and Islam to be an unfairly maligned religion of peace. I regularly hear from such people, and their beliefs genuinely trouble me. It doesn’t take many emails containing sentences like “The United States and Israel are the greatest terrorist states on earth” to make me feel that liberalism is simply doomed.

 
 

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