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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.

 
 

Book News | Publishing | September 26, 2011

The Future of the Book

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(Photo by David Blackwell)

Writers, artists, and public intellectuals are nearing some sort of precipice: Their audiences increasingly expect digital content to be free. Jaron Lanier has written and spoken about this issue with great sagacity. You can purchase his book here, which most of you will not do, or you can watch him discuss these matters for free. The problem is thus revealed even in the act of stating it.  How can a person like Lanier get paid for being brilliant? This has become an increasingly difficult question to answer.

Where publishing is concerned, the Internet is both midwife and executioner. It has never been easier to reach large numbers of readers, but these readers have never felt more entitled to be informed and entertained for free. I have been very slow to appreciate these developments, and yet it is clear even to me that there are reasons to fear for the life of the printed book. Needless to say, many of the changes occurring in publishing are changes that neither publishers nor authors want. The market for books is continually shifting beneath our feet, and nobody knows what the business of publishing will look like a decade from now.

 
 

Announcements | Book News | Ethics | September 15, 2011

Is It Wrong to Lie?

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As an undergraduate at Stanford I took a course called “The Ethical Analyst” that profoundly changed my life. It was taught by an extraordinarily gifted professor, Ronald A. Howard, and focused on a single question of practical ethics:

Is it wrong to lie?

At first glance, this may seem a scant foundation for an entire college course. After all, most people already know that lying is generally wrong—and they also know that some situations seem to warrant it.

One of the most fascinating things about this course, however, was how difficult it was to find examples of virtuous lies that could withstand Professor Howard’s scrutiny. Even with Nazis at the door and Anne Frank in the attic, Howard always seemed to find truths worth telling and paths to even greater catastrophe that could be opened by lying.

 
 

Publishing | Meditation | The Self | September 12, 2011

The Silent Crowd

Overcoming Your Fear of Public Speaking

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It is widely believed that Thomas Jefferson was terrified of public speaking. John Adams once said of him, “During the whole time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three sentences together.” During his eight years in the White House, Jefferson seems to have limited his speechmaking to two inaugural addresses, which he simply read out loud “in so low a tone that few heard it.”

I remember how relieved I was to learn this. To know that it was possible to succeed in life while avoiding the podium was very consoling—for about five minutes. The truth is that not even Jefferson could follow in his own footsteps today. It is now inconceivable that a person could become president of the United States through the power of his writing alone. To refuse to speak in public is to refuse a career in politics—and many other careers as well.

In fact, Jefferson would be unlikely to succeed as an author today. It used to be that a person could just write books and, if he were lucky, people would read them. Now he must stand in front of crowds of varying sizes and say that he has written these books—otherwise, no one will know that they exist. Radio and television interviews offer new venues for stage fright: Some shows put one in front of a live audience of a few hundred people and an invisible audience of millions. You cannot appear on The Daily Show holding a piece of paper and begin reading your lines like Thomas Jefferson.

 
 

Atheism | Ethics | Politics | Religion | Terrorism | September 9, 2011

September 11, 2011

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(Photo by Sprengben)

Yesterday my daughter asked, “Where does gravity come from?” She is two and a half years old. I could say many things on this subject—most of which she could not possibly understand—but the deep and honest answer is “I don’t know.”

What if I had said, “Gravity comes from God”? That would be merely to stifle her intelligence—and to teach her to stifle it. What if I told her, “Gravity is God’s way of dragging people to hell, where they burn in fire. And you will burn there forever if you doubt that God exists”? No Christian or Muslim can offer a compelling reason why I shouldn’t say such a thing—or something morally equivalent—and yet this would be nothing less than the emotional and intellectual abuse of a child. In fact, I have heard from thousands of people who were oppressed this way, from the moment they could speak, by the terrifying ignorance and fanaticism of their parents.

Ten years have now passed since many of us first felt the jolt of history—when the second plane crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. We knew from that moment that things can go terribly wrong in our world—not because life is unfair, or moral progress impossible, but because we have failed, generation after generation, to abolish the delusions of our ignorant ancestors. The worst of these ideas continue to thrive—and are still imparted, in their purest form, to children.

 
 

Atheism | Debates | August 29, 2011

Whither Eagleman?

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(Photo by Giampaolo Macorig)

I recently posted a TEDx talk by the neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain and the subject of a recent profile in The New Yorker. While I admire much of what Eagleman has to say, I wrote that his espousal of “possibilianism,” in lieu of atheism, was intellectually dishonest. I then invited him to discuss the matter with me on this page.

A few people chastised me for issuing insults along with my invitations (point taken), but Eagleman graciously accepted the challenge. And readers expressed considerable enthusiasm for the ensuing exchange.

I sent my opening volley to Eagleman over a month ago, however, and he has yet to respond. He has apologized for this, but no other reply seems forthcoming. As many people have now written to me wondering what became of the promised exchange, I’ve decided to post my opening remarks, knowing that they might be met only by silence. Needless to say, if Eagleman ever offers a response, I will be happy to publish it.

 
 

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(Photo by Francisco Diez)

Do you have too many readers of your books and articles? Want to reduce traffic on your blog? It turns out, there is a foolproof way to alienate many of your fans, quickly and at almost no cost.

It took me years to discover this publishing secret, but I’ll pass it along to you for free:

Simply write an article suggesting that taxes should be raised on billionaires.

Really, it’s that simple!

You can declare the world’s religions to be cesspools of confusion and bigotry, you can argue that all drugs should be made legal and that free will is an illusion. You can even write in defense of torture. But I assure you that nothing will rile and winnow your audience like the suggestion that billionaires should contribute more of their wealth to the good of society.

This is not to say that everyone hated my last article (“How Rich is Too Rich?”), but the backlash has been ferocious. For candor and concision this was hard to beat:

You are scum sam. unsubscribed.

Unlike many of the emails I received, this one made me laugh out loud—for rarely does one see the pendulum of human affection swing so freely. Note that this response came, not from a mere visitor to my blog, but from someone who had once admired me enough to subscribe to my email newsletter. All it took was a single article about the problem of wealth inequality to provoke, not just criticism, but loathing.

 
 

Economics | Ethics | Politics | August 17, 2011

How Rich is Too Rich?

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(Photo by Stuck in Customs)


I’ve written before about the crisis of inequality in the United States and about the quasi-religious abhorrence of “wealth redistribution” that causes many Americans to oppose tax increases, even on the ultra rich. The conviction that taxation is intrinsically evil has achieved a sadomasochistic fervor in conservative circles—producing the Tea Party, their Republican zombies, and increasingly terrifying failures of governance.

Happily, not all billionaires are content to hoard their money in silence. Earlier this week, Warren Buffett published an op-ed in the New York Times in which he criticized our current approach to raising revenue. As he has lamented many times before, he is taxed at a lower rate than his secretary is. Many conservatives pretend not to find this embarrassing.

Conservatives view taxation as a species of theft—and to raise taxes, on anyone for any reason, is simply to steal more. Conservatives also believe that people become rich by creating value for others. Once rich, they cannot help but create more value by investing their wealth and spawning new jobs in the process. We should not punish our best and brightest for their success, and stealing their money is a form of punishment.

 
 

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(Cover by David Drummond)

 

 
 

The full video is an hour long. Links to specific topics/questions are provided below:

1. Eternity and the meaning of life 0:42
2. Do we have free will?  4:43
3. How can we convince religious people to abandon their beliefs? 14:52
4. How can atheists live among the faithful? 19:09
5. How should we talk to children about death? 21:52
6. Does human life have intrinsic value? 26:01
7. Why should we be confident in the authority of science? 30:36 
8. How can one criticize Islam after the terrorism in Norway? 35:43
9. Should atheists join with Christians against Islam? 41:50
10. What does it mean to speak about the human mind objectively? 45:17
11. How can spiritual claims be scientifically justified? 50:14
12. Why can’t religion remain a private matter? 54:52 
13. What do you like to speak about at public events? 58:09

 
 

Finally, a government official speaks the truth about the Vatican. This is a wonderfully honest speech by Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.

For those who missed my previous essay on the crimes of the Catholic Church:

Bringing the Vatican to Justice

 

 
 

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(Photo by H.koppdelaney)


Over at Truthdig, the celebrated journalist Chris Hedges has discovered that Christopher Hitchens and I are actually racists with a fondness for genocide. He has broken this story before—many times, in fact—but in his most recent essay he blames “secular fundamentalists” like me and Hitch for the recent terrorist atrocities in Norway.

Very nice.

Hedges begins, measured as always:

The gravest threat we face from terrorism, as the killings in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik underscore, comes not from the Islamic world but the radical Christian right and the secular fundamentalists who propagate the bigoted, hateful caricatures of observant Muslims and those defined as our internal enemies. The caricature and fear are spread as diligently by the Christian right as they are by atheists such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Our religious and secular fundamentalists all peddle the same racist filth and intolerance that infected Breivik. This filth has poisoned and degraded our civil discourse. The looming economic and environmental collapse will provide sparks and tinder to transform this coarse language of fundamentalist hatred into, I fear, the murderous rampages experienced by Norway. I worry more about the Anders Breiviks than the Mohammed Attas.

The editors at Truthdig have invited me to respond to this phantasmagoria. There is, however, almost no charge worth answering in Hedges’ writing—there never is. Which is more absurd, the idea of “secular fundamentalism” or the notion that its edicts pose a greater threat of terrorism than the doctrine of Islam? Do such assertions even require sentences to refute?

However, Hedges’ latest attack is so vicious and gratuitous that some reply seemed necessary. To minimize the amount of time I would need to spend today cleaning this man’s vomit, I decided to adapt a few pieces I had already written. But then I just got angry…

 
 

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At certain points near the extremity of human evil it becomes difficult, and perhaps pointless, to make ethical distinctions. However, I cannot shake the feeling that detonating a large bomb in the center of a peaceful city with the intent of killing vast numbers of innocent people was the lesser of Anders Behring Breivik’s transgressions last week. It seems to me that it required greater malice, and even less humanity, to have intended this atrocity to be a mere diversion, so that he could then commit nearly one hundred separate murders on the tiny Island of Utoya later in the day.

And just when one thought the human mind could grow no more depraved, one learns details like the following:

After killing several people on one part of the island, he went to the other, and, dressed in his police uniform, calmly convinced the children huddled there that he meant to save them. When they emerged into the open, he fired again and again. (“For Young Campers, Island Turned Into Fatal Trap.” The New York Times, July 23, 2011)

Other unsettling facts will surely surface in the coming weeks. Some might even be vaguely exculpatory. Is Breivik mentally ill? Judging from his behavior, it is difficult to imagine a definition of “sanity” that could contain him.

 
 



The above talk was sent to me by a reader and is well worth watching. In it, the neuroscientist David Eagleman says many very reasonable things and says them well. Unfortunately, on the subject of religion he appears to make a conscious effort to play the good cop to the bad cop of “the new atheism.” This posture will win him many friends, but it is intellectually dishonest. When one reads between the lines—or even when one just reads the lines—it becomes clear that what Eagleman is saying is every bit as deflationary as anything Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens or I say about the cherished doctrines of the faithful.

I don’t know Eagleman, but I’ve invited him to discuss these and other issues with me on this blog. He also has a book out on the brain that looks very interesting and which I intend to read:

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

 

 
 

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(Photo by JB Banks)

Everything we do is for the purpose of altering consciousness. We form friendships so that we can feel certain emotions, like love, and avoid others, like loneliness. We eat specific foods to enjoy their fleeting presence on our tongues. We read for the pleasure of thinking another person’s thoughts. Every waking moment—and even in our dreams—we struggle to direct the flow of sensation, emotion, and cognition toward states of consciousness that we value.

Drugs are another means toward this end. Some are illegal; some are stigmatized; some are dangerous—though, perversely, these sets only partially intersect. There are drugs of extraordinary power and utility, like psilocybin (the active compound in “magic mushrooms”) and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), which pose no apparent risk of addiction and are physically well-tolerated, and yet one can still be sent to prison for their use—while drugs like tobacco and alcohol, which have ruined countless lives, are enjoyed ad libitum in almost every society on earth. There are other points on this continuum—3,4-methylene-dioxy-N-methylamphetamine (MDMA or “Ecstasy”) has remarkable therapeutic potential, but it is also susceptible to abuse, and there is some evidence that it can be neurotoxic.[1]

One of the great responsibilities we have as a society is to educate ourselves, along with the next generation, about which substances are worth ingesting, and for what purpose, and which are not. The problem, however, is that we refer to all biologically active compounds by a single term—“drugs”—and this makes it nearly impossible to have an intelligent discussion about the psychological, medical, ethical, and legal issues surrounding their use. The poverty of our language has been only slightly eased by the introduction of terms like “psychedelics” to differentiate certain visionary compounds, which can produce extraordinary states of ecstasy and insight, from “narcotics” and other classic agents of stupefaction and abuse.

 
 

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