The Blog

 

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I am often asked what will replace organized religion. The answer, I believe, is nothing and everything. Nothing need replace its ludicrous and divisive doctrines—such as the idea that Jesus will return to earth and hurl unbelievers into a lake of fire, or that death in defense of Islam is the highest good. These are terrifying and debasing fictions. But what about love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence? Many people still imagine that religion is the true repository of these virtues. To change this, we must begin to think about the full range of human experience in a way that is as free of dogma, cultural prejudice, and wishful thinking as the best science already is. That is the subject of my next book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.

 
 

change

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My recent collision with Daniel Dennett on the topic of free will has caused me to reflect on how best to publicly resolve differences of opinion. In fact, this has been a recurring theme of late. In August, I launched the Moral Landscape Challenge, an essay contest in which I invited readers to attack my conception of moral truth. I received more than 400 entries, and I look forward to publishing the winning essay later this year. Not everyone gets the opportunity to put his views on the line like this, and it is an experience that I greatly value. I spend a lot of time trying to change people’s beliefs, but I’m also in the business of changing my own. And I don’t want to be wrong for a moment longer than I have to be.

 
 

Free Will | Consciousness | Neuroscience | Ethics | Philosophy | The Self | February 12, 2014

The Marionette’s Lament

A Response to Daniel Dennett

free will

(Photo via Max Boschini)

Dear Dan—

I’d like to thank you for taking the time to review Free Will at such length. Publicly engaging me on this topic is certainly preferable to grumbling in private. Your writing is admirably clear, as always, which worries me in this case, because we appear to disagree about a great many things, including the very nature of our disagreement.

I want to begin by reminding our readers—and myself—that exchanges like this aren’t necessarily pointless. Perhaps you need no encouragement on that front, but I’m afraid I do. In recent years, I have spent so much time debating scientists, philosophers, and other scholars that I’ve begun to doubt whether any smart person retains the ability to change his mind. This is one of the great scandals of intellectual life: The virtues of rational discourse are everywhere espoused, and yet witnessing someone relinquish a cherished opinion in real time is about as common as seeing a supernova explode overhead. The perpetual stalemate one encounters in public debates is annoying because it is so clearly the product of motivated reasoning, self-deception, and other failures of rationality—and yet we’ve grown to expect it on every topic, no matter how intelligent and well-intentioned the participants. I hope you and I don’t give our readers further cause for cynicism on this front.

Unfortunately, your review of my book doesn’t offer many reasons for optimism. It is a strange document—avuncular in places, but more generally sneering. I think it fair to say that one could watch an entire season of Downton Abbey on Ritalin and not detect a finer note of condescension than you manage for twenty pages running.

 
 

Free Will | Publishing | Neuroscience | Ethics | Philosophy | The Self | January 26, 2014

Reflections on FREE WILL

A Review by Daniel C. Dennett

(Photo via Steven Kersting)

Daniel Dennett and I agree about many things, but we do not agree about free will. Dan has been threatening to set me straight on this topic for several years now, and I have always encouraged him to do so, preferably in public and in writing. He has finally produced a review of my book Free Will that is nearly as long as the book itself. I am grateful to Dan for taking the time to engage me this fully, and I will respond in the coming weeks.—SH

Daniel C. Dennett is the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He is the author of Breaking the Spell, Freedom Evolves, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Consciousness Explained, and many other books. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987. His latest book, written with Linda LaScola, Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind.

This essay was first published at Naturalism.org and has been crossposted here with permission.

 
 

Consciousness | Neuroscience | Philosophy | Religion | January 14, 2014

Our Narrow Definition of “Science”

My Response to the 2014 Edge Question

Katinka

(Photo via Katinka Matson)


From Edge.org:

Science advances by discovering new things and developing new ideas. Few truly new ideas are developed without abandoning old ones first. As theoretical physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) noted, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” In other words, science advances by a series of funerals. Why wait that long?

WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?


Ideas change, and the times we live in change. Perhaps the biggest change today is the rate of change. What established scientific idea is ready to be moved aside so that science can advance?

 
 

In 2010, John Brockman and the Edge Foundation held a conference entitled “The New Science of Morality.” I attended along with Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloom, Joshua D. Greene, Jonathan Haidt, Marc Hauser, Joshua Knobe, Elizabeth Phelps, and David Pizarro. Some of our conversations have now been published in a book (along with many interesting essays) entitled Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction

John Brockman and Harper Collins have given me permission to reprint my edited remarks here.

 
 

deception

(Photo via Shutterstock)


Last Christmas, my friends Mark and Jessica spent the morning opening presents with their daughter, Rachel, who had just turned four. After a few hours of excitement, feelings of holiday lethargy and boredom descended on the family—until Mark suddenly had a brilliant idea for how they could have a lot more fun.

Jessica was reading on the couch while Rachel played with her new dolls on the living room carpet.

“Rachel,” Mark said, “I need to tell you something very important… You can’t keep any of these toys. Mommy and I have decided to give them away to the other kids at your school.”

A look of confusion came over his daughter’s face. Mark caught Jessica’s eye. She recognized his intentions at once and was now struggling to contain her glee. She reached for their new video camera.

 
 

Announcements | Publishing | Ethics | Philosophy | November 12, 2013

The Roots of Good and Evil

An Interview with Paul Bloom

Paul Bloom is the Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Psychology at Yale University. His research explores how children and adults understand the physical and social world, with special focus on morality, religion, fiction, and art. He has won numerous awards for his research and teaching. He is a past president of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology and a co-editor of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, one of the major journals in the field. Dr. Bloom has written for scientific journals such as Nature and Science and for popular outlets such as The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. He is the author or editor of six books, including Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil.

Paul was kind enough to answer a few questions about his new book.

 
 

Announcements | Publishing | Philosophy | Religion | September 24, 2013

Courage and Reason

An Interview with Sean B. Carroll


Sean B. Carroll is the author of Remarkable Creatures, a finalist for the National Book Award; The Making of the Fittest, winner of the Phi Beta Kappa Science Book Award; and Endless Forms Most Beautiful. Carroll also writes a monthly feature, “Remarkable Creatures,” for the New York Times’ Science Times. An internationally known scientist and leading educator, Dr. Carroll currently heads the Department of Science Education of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and is Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the University of Wisconsin. His new book is Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize.

From the Publisher:

“I have known only one true genius: Jacques Monod,” claimed Albert Camus. Known to biologists for his Nobel Prize–winning, pioneering genetic research, Monod is credited with some of the most creative and influential ideas in modern biology. But while a few texts mention in passing that Monod was “in the Resistance” and “friends with Albert Camus,” none have examined the impact of the chaos of war on his work, nor the camaraderie between these two extraordinary men—until now. In Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize, leading evolutionary biologist and National Book Award finalist Sean B. Carroll draws on a wealth of previously unknown and unpublished material to tell the dramatic and inspiring story of the lives of two men who triumphed over overwhelming adversity to pursue the meaning of existence on every level from the molecular to the philosophical.

Sean was kind enough to answer a few questions about his new book.

***

 
 

moral landscape cover

It has been nearly three years since The Moral Landscape was first published in English, and in that time it has been attacked by readers and nonreaders alike. Many seem to have judged from the resulting cacophony that the book’s central thesis was easily refuted. However, I have yet to encounter a substantial criticism that I feel was not adequately answered in the book itself (and in subsequent talks).

So I would like to issue a public challenge. Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in under 1,000 words. (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $20,000,* and I will publicly recant my view.

Submissions will be accepted here the week of February 2-9, 2014.


*Note 9/1/13: The original prize was $1,000 for the winning essay and $10,000 for changing my view, but a generous reader has made a matching pledge.

 
 

free will

(Photo by h.koppdelaney)

Many readers continue to express confusion—even outrage and anguish—over my position on free will. Some are convinced that my view is self-contradictory. Others are persuaded of its truth but find the truth upsetting. They say that if cutting through the illusion of free will undermines hatred, it must undermine love as well. They worry about a world in which we view ourselves and other people as robots. I have heard from readers struggling with clinical depression who find that reading my book Free Will, or my blog articles on the topic, has only added to their troubles. Perhaps there is more to say…

 
 

field

(Photo by Sprengben)

I will take your questions from 6-7pm (Eastern), Monday 4/29. Please use the Twitter hashtag #AskSamAnything to participate.

Possible topics include: the mind/brain, science v. religion, free will, moral truth, meditation, terrorism, consciousness, gurus and cults, publishing, lying, etc.

Note: If you are following the conversation live, you will need to keep refreshing your browser to watch it develop.

 
 

Ethics | Philosophy | April 20, 2013

The Straight Path

A Conversation with Ronald A. Howard

straight

(Photo by PhillipC)

As I wrote in the introduction to Lying, Ronald A. Howard was one of my favorite professors in college, and his courses on ethics, social systems, and decision making did much to shape my views on these topics. Last week, he was kind enough to speak with me at length about the ethics of lying. The following post is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Ronald A. Howard directs teaching and research in the Decision Analysis Program of the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University.  He is also the Director of the Department’s Decisions and Ethics Center, which examines the efficacy and ethics of social arrangements.  He defined the profession of decision analysis in 1964 and has since supervised several doctoral theses in decision analysis every year.  His experience includes dozens of decision analysis projects that range over virtually all fields of application, from investment planning to research strategy, and from hurricane seeding to nuclear waste isolation.  He was a founding Director and Chairman of Strategic Decisions Group and is President of the Decision Education Foundation, an organization dedicated to bringing decision skills to youth.  He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a Fellow of INFORMS and IEEE, and the 1986 Ramsey medalist of the Decision Analysis Society.  He is the author, with Clint Korver, of Ethics for the Real World: Creating a Personal Code to Guide Decisions in Work and Life.

 
 

(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.

 
 

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.

 
 

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