Peter Watson is an intellectual historian, journalist, and the author of thirteen books, including The German Genius, The Medici Conspiracy, and The Great Divide. He has written for The Sunday Times, The New York Times, the Observer, and the Spectator. He lives in London.
He was kind enough to answer a few question about his new book The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God.
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.
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.
My next book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, will be published by Simon & Schuster in September. This is the third cover that David Drummond has created for me (along with those for Lying and Free Will). Great job, David!
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.
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?
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.
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