Among the many quandaries a writer must face after publishing a controversial book is the question of how, or whether, to respond to criticism. At a minimum, it would seem wise to correct misunderstandings and distortions of one’s views wherever they appear, but one soon discovers that there is no good way of doing this. After my first book was published, the journalist Chris Hedges seemed to make a career out of misrepresenting its contents—asserting, among other calumnies, that somewhere in its pages I call for an immediate, nuclear first-strike on the entire Muslim world. Hedges spread this lie so sedulously that I could have spent the next year writing letters to the editor. Even if I had been willing to squander my time in this way, such letters are generally pointless, as few people read them. In the end, I decided to create a page on my website addressing controversies of this kind, so that I can then forget all about them. The result has been less than satisfying. Several years have passed, and I still meet people at public talks and in comment threads who believe that I support the outright murder of hundreds of millions of innocent people.
WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY’S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?
I invite you to pay attention to anything — the sight of this text, the sensation of breathing, the feeling of your body resting against your chair — for a mere sixty seconds without getting distracted by discursive thought. It sounds simple enough: Just pay attention. The truth, however, is that you will find the task impossible. If the lives of your children depended on it, you could not focus on anything — even the feeling of a knife at your throat — for more than a few seconds, before your awareness would be submerged again by the flow of thought. This forced plunge into unreality is a problem. In fact, it is the problem from which every other problem in human life appears to be made.
Last month, I had the privilege of speaking at the 2010 TED conference for exactly 18 minutes. The short format of these talks is a brilliant innovation and surely the reason for their potent half-life on the Internet. However, 18 minutes is not a lot of time in which to present a detailed argument. My intent was to begin a conversation about how we can understand morality in universal, scientific terms. Many people who loved my talk, misunderstood what I was saying, and loved it for the wrong reasons; and many of my critics were right to think that I had said something extremely controversial. I was not suggesting that science can give us an evolutionary or neurobiological account of what people do in the name of “morality.” Nor was I merely saying that science can help us get what we want out of life. Both of these would have been quite banal claims to make (unless one happens to doubt the truth of evolution or the mind’s dependency on the brain). Rather I was suggesting that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, perforce, what other people should do and want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind. As the response to my TED talk indicates, it is taboo for a scientist to think such things, much less say them public.
[Note: My recent op-ed in the New York Times, in which I questioned the appointment of Francis Collins as head of the NIH, inspired a fair amount of discussion in the media and on the Internet. As many of Collins’ defenders do not seem to be fully acquainted with his beliefs, or take it for granted that others won’t be, I have written a longer essay on the subject. While most of this material is new, a few passages were previously published.]
(This is an edited transcript of a talk given at the Atheist Alliance conference in Washington D.C. on September 28th, 2007)
To begin, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge just how strange it is that a meeting like this is even necessary. The year is 2007, and we have all taken time out of our busy lives, and many of us have traveled considerable distance, so that we can strategize about how best to live in a world in which most people believe in an imaginary God. America is now a nation of 300 million people, wielding more influence than any people in human history, and yet this influence is being steadily corrupted, and is surely waning, because 240 million of these people apparently believe that Jesus will return someday and orchestrate the end of the world with his magic powers. Of course, we may well wonder whether as many people believe these things as say they do. I know that Christopher [Hitchens] and Richard [Dawkins] are rather optimistic that our opinion polls are out of register with what people actually believe in the privacy of their own minds. But there is no question that most of our neighbors reliably profess that they believe these things, and such professions themselves have had a disastrous affect on our political discourse, on our public policy, on the teaching of science, and on our reputation in the world. And even if only a third or a quarter of our neighbors believe what most profess, it seems to me that we still have a problem worth worrying about.
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