The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine


The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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A Conversation With UFOlogist Alan Steinfeld on How Believers and Skeptics Think About UFOs

Making Contact: Preparing for the New Realities of Extraterrestrial Existence (book cover)

Making Contact presents multiple perspectives on what the volume’s editor Alan Steinfeld claims can no longer be denied: UFOs and their occupants are visiting our world. The volume contains original writings by the leading experts of the phenomena such as: Linda Moulton Howe, Earthfiles reporter, Whitley Strieber best-selling author of Communion, Professor John E. Mack, former head of the Harvard Medical school of psychiatry and an alien abduction investigator, Darryl Anka internationally known for his communication with the extraterrestrial Bashar, Nick Pope, former UK Ministry of Defense UFO investigator, Grant Cameron expert on American presidents and UFOs, Drs. J.J. and Desiree Hurtak, globalists and founders of the worldwide organization, The Academy for Future Science, Caroline Cory, director of Superhuman and ET: Contact, Mary Rodwell, author of The New Human about star-seed children, Henrietta Weekes, actress and writer, expressing the poetic aspects of making contact.

Note: It is Dr. Shermer’s intention in his podcast to periodically talk to people with whom skeptics and scientists may disagree. In some episodes Dr. Shermer tries to “steel man” a position held by someone with differing views — that is, he says in his own words what he thinks the other person is arguing — but in this case the other person is in the conversation and can represent his own position clearly, which is what happens. As well, such conversations enable principles of skepticism to be employed in ways constructive to those who hold views not necessarily embraced by skeptics and scientists. Such principles should be embraced by all seekers of truth, and that is why we want to talk to people with whom we may disagree.

Alan Steinfeld is an explorer of consciousness. For over 30 years he has hosted and produced the weekly television series New Realities in New York City. Additionally, with 68,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel of the same name, there have been over 20 million viewers who have seen his programs. These include interviews with luminaries in the field of health, spirituality and UFOS — such as Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, Ram Dass and every major UFO researcher in the field. With his media appearances, lectures, and conferences he informs millions about human potential, remote viewing, and the nature of alien contact. For the over five years he has emceed the largest UFO event in the country, Contact in the Desert. He feels that only when the inner explorations of the soul are combined with the outer adventures of the mind can we achieve a harmonious understanding of our place in the cosmos.

Shermer and Steinfeld discuss:

  • Steinfeld’s personal experiences growing up and his UFO/abduction encounter,
  • the role of science fiction in the modern world,
  • UFOs, UAPs (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena), and whether the U represents just the unknown or also extraterrestrial,
  • the quality of evidence in evaluating UFO claims,
  • scientific truths vs. mythical and literary truths,
  • personal experiences vs. objective evidence,
  • the ECREE Principle: Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence,
  • the U.S. military UFO videos and what they really represent,
  • the Disclosure Project and the big announcement coming in June from the U.S. government about UFOs and UAPs,
  • why contributors to his book consider internal personal experiences with altered states of consciousness a form of evidence, and
  • why we should keep an open mind, but not so open that our brains fall out.

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David Buss — When Men Behave Badly: The Hidden Roots of Sexual Deception, Harassment, and Assault

When Men Behave Badly: The Hidden Roots of Sexual Deception, Harassment, and Assault (book cover)

Sexual conflict permeates ancient religions, from injunctions about thy neighbor’s wife to the permissible rape of infidels. It is etched in written laws that dictate who can and cannot have sex with whom. Its manifestations shape our sexual morality, evoking approving accolades or contemptuous condemnation. It produces sexual double standards that flourish even in the most sexually egalitarian cultures on earth. And although every person alive struggles with sexual conflict, most of us see only the tip of the iceberg: dating deception, a politician’s unsavory sexual grab, the slow crumbling of a once-happy marriage, a romantic breakup that turns nasty. When Men Behave Badly shows that this “battle of the sexes” is deeper and far more pervasive than anyone has recognized, revealing the hidden roots of sexual conflict — roots that originated over deep evolutionary time — which define the sexual psychology we currently carry around in our 3.5-pound brains. Providing novel insights into our minds and behaviors, When Men Behave Badly presents a unifying new theory of sexual conflict, and offers practical advice for men and women seeking to avoid it.

David Buss is professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and a past president of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society. He is the author of several books including The Evolution of Desire, The Dangerous Passion, The Murderer Next Door, and Why Women Have Sex (co-authored with Dr. Cindy Meston). He has written for publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Psychology Today, and he has made more than thirty television appearances on shows including CBS This Morning, ABC’s 20/20, and NBC’s Dateline and Today, among others. Buss has received numerous awards, which include the Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology by the American Psychological Association (APA), a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, and the G. Stanley Hall Award from the APA. Most recently, he received the Association for Psychological Science (APS) Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement (2017).

Shermer and Buss discuss:

  • AP breaking story May 9

    A man opened fire at a birthday party in Colorado, killing six people before killing himself. Police said the suspected shooter was the boyfriend of a female victim at t he party at a mobile home park in Colorado Springs.

  • Explanation disclaimer

    “For indignation is so easy and satisfying a mood that it is apt to prevent one from attending to any facts that oppose it. If the reader should object that I have abandoned ethics for the false doctrine that ‘to understand all is to forgive all,’ I can reply that it is only a temporary suspense of ethical judgment, made because ‘to condemn much is to understand little.’ ”
    —Lewis Fry Richardson

  • Proximate vs. Ultimate causal explanations
  • Even if you argue most causal explanations are “environmental,” e.g., “the patriarchy,” we still need to explain why patriarchy evolved in so many human societies.
  • Why is Evolutionary Psychology still politically charged?
  • How do EP researchers test hypotheses?
  • ”On average” disclaimer about sex differences
  • Sexual jealousy: men and women differ
  • Sexual deception

    Deception involves an understanding of what the opposite sex desires. For instance, on dating websites, men exaggerate their income by roughly 20 percent on average and round up their height by about two inches. Similarly, women on dating websites round their weight down by about 15 pounds.

  • Number of sexual partners preferred

    Even in the most egalitarian countries, men prefer more sexual partners compared to women. In Norway, researchers asked people how many sex partners they would prefer over the next 30 years. On average, women preferred five, men preferred 25.

  • Kissing before intercourse

    Even the desire to kiss before intercourse differs between the sexes. About 53 percent of men report that they would have sex without kissing, while only 14.6 percent of women would have sex without kissing.

  • Choosiness vs. less discerning

    Studies of online dating, for example, find that most men find most women to be at least somewhat attractive. In contrast, women, on average, view 80% of men as below average in attractiveness. Another study found that on the dating app Tinder, men “liked” more than 60% of the female profiles they viewed, while women “liked” only 4.5% of male profiles.

  • Perceived cues of sexual interest

    Sexual mistakes are viewed differently. Research indicates that when asked to reflect on their sexual history, women are more likely to regret having had sex with someone, while men are more likely to regret having missed out on sexual opportunities.

  • What men and women look for in a mate

    For same-sex friends, men and women prioritized personality and social intelligence. For opposite-sex friends, though, men assigned greater value on attractiveness, whereas women placed greater value on economic resources and physical prowess.

  • Back-up mates and cheating

    Why do people cheat on their romantic partners? For men, it appears that the main reason they stray is the desire for sexual variety. In fact, men who cheat are just as happy in their marriages as men who are faithful. In contrast, women who stray are often unhappy. Women who have affairs often want to detach themselves from relationships in which they are unsatisfied and seek a better partner. In fact, only 30 percent of men report falling in love with their affair partners, while for women it is 79 percent.

    “Many men are burdened by lust for a variety of different women, constant cravings that cannot ever be fully satisfied … It explains why a handsome movie star such as Hugh Grant would have sex with a prostitute, despite having Elizabeth Hurley, a gorgeous model and actress, as his then steady girlfriend.”

  • Attractiveness mismatch and cheating
  • The evolution of sex differences: physical and psychological
  • Sex, as defined by biologists, is indicated by the size of our gametes.
  • Mother’s baby, father’s maybe
  • Jealousy

    Although both men and women philander, get jealous, mate guard and mate poach, in the context of expanding women’s reproductive rights and men’s attempt to restrict them, male jealousy and mate guarding — whether through vigilance or violence — are strong causal factors. (Studies show, for example, that in the U.S. more than twice as many women were shot and killed by their husband or intimate acquaintance than were murdered by strangers using guns, knives, or any other means, and that women make up the majority of victims of intimate partner/family-related homicides.) From stalking to chastity belts to female genital mutilation, throughout history men have tried to control women’s sexuality and reproductive choices. And women have developed several strategies in response: contraception, abortion, clandestine affairs, mariticide (killing one’s husband), and infanticide.

  • Long-term vs. short term mating strategies
  • Moral progress in rape and sexual assault
  • The Dark Triad that leads to violence

    Narcissism (entitled self-importance), Machiavellianism (strategic exploitation and duplicity) and Psychopathy (callousness and cynicism)

  • Sexual harassment perceptions

    Unsurprisingly, men and women react to sexual harassment in ways that accord with evolutionary psychology. When men were asked how they would feel if their co-worker of the opposite sex asked them to have sex, 67 percent of men said they would be flattered and only 15 percent said they would be insulted. In contrast, 63 percent of women said they would be insulted and only 17 percent said they would be flattered.

From The Moral Arc: As an example of the long history of sexual violence, which was sanctioned in the Bible, recall the story of what happened when Moses assembled an army of 12,000 troops as recorded in Numbers, 31:7–12:

They warred against Mid′ian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and slew every male. They slew the kings of Mid′ian … And the people of Israel took captive the women of Mid′ian and their little ones; and they took as booty all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods. All their cities in the places where they dwelt, and all their encampments, they burned with fire, and took all the spoil and all the booty, both of man and of beast. Then they brought the captives and the booty and the spoil to Moses.

That sounds like a good days pillaging, but when the troops got back, Moses was furious. “What do you mean you didn’t kill the women?” he asked, exasperated, since it was apparently the women who had enticed the Israelites to be unfaithful with another God. Moses then ordered them to kill all the women who had slept with a man, and the boys. “But save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man,” he commanded, predictably, at which point one can imagine the thirty-two thousand virgins who’d been taken captive rolling their eyes and saying, “Oh, God told you to do that, did he? Right.” Was the instruction to “keep the virgins for yourselves” what God had in mind by the word “love” in the “love thy neighbor” command? I think not. Of course, the Israelites knew exactly what God meant (this is the advantage of writing scripture yourself — you get to say what God meant) and they acted accordingly, fighting for the survival of their people. With a vengeance.

Consider the morality of the biblical warlords who had no qualms about taking multiple wives, adultery, keeping concubines, and fathering countless children from their many polygamous arrangements. The anthropologist Laura Betzig has put these stories into an evolutionary context by analyzing the Old Testament. She found no less than 41 named polygamists, not one of which was a powerless man. “In the Old Testament, powerful men — patriarchs, judges, and kings — have sex with more wives; they have more sex with other men’s women; they have sex with more concubines, servants, and slaves; and they father many children.” And not just the big names. According to Betzig’s analysis, “men with bigger herds of sheep and goats tend to have sex with more women, then to father more children.” Most of the polygynous patriarchs, judges, and kings had two, three, or four wives with a corresponding number of children, although King David had more than eight wives and twenty children, King Abijah had 14 wives and 38 children, and King Rehoboam had 18 wives (and 60 other women) who bore him no fewer than 88 offspring. But they were all lightweights compared to King Solomon, who married at least 700 women. There were Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women he married, then for good measure added 300 concubines, which he called “man’s delight.” (What Solomon’s concubines called him was never recorded.)

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Andy Norman — Mental Immunity: Infectious Ideas, Mind Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think

Mental Immunity: Infectious Ideas, Mind Parasites, and the Search for a Better Way to Think (book cover)

Astonishingly irrational ideas are spreading. COVID-19 denial persists in the face of overwhelming evidence. Anti-vaxxers compromise public health. Conspiracy thinking hijacks minds and incites mob violence, and toxic partisanship is cleaving nations. Meanwhile, American Nazis march openly in the streets, and Flat Earth theory is back. What the heck is going on? Why is all this happening, and why now? More important, what can we do about it? In Mental Immunity, Andy Norman shows that these phenomena share a root cause. We live in a time when the so-called “right to your opinion” is thought to trump our responsibilities. The resulting ethos effectively compromises mental immune systems, allowing “mind parasites” to overrun them. Conspiracy theories, evidence-defying ideologies, garden-variety bad ideas: these are all species of mind parasite, and each of them employs clever strategies to circumvent mental immune systems. In fact, some of them compromise cultural immune systems — the things societies do to prevent bad ideas from spreading. Minds and cultures have immune systems, and they really can break down. Fortunately, they can also be built up: strengthened against ideological corruption. He calls for a rigorous science of mental immune health — what he calls “cognitive immunology” — and explains how it could revolutionize our capacity for critical thinking.

Andy Norman directs the Humanism Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University. He studies how ideologies short-circuit minds and corrupt moral understanding, and develops tools that help people think together in more fruitful ways. He’s done research on the evolutionary origins of human reasoning and the norms that make dialogue fruitful. He works to clarify the foundations of responsible thinking about what matters and likes to engage audiences on topics related to science and human values.

Shermer and Norman discuss:

  • the plague of ideologies (Tree of Life synagogue attack; Jews will not replace us),
  • memes and viruses (replicate),
  • bad ideas as parasites,
  • cognitive immunology,
  • cultural immune systems,
  • science and philosophy as ways of thinking (philosophical idea testing),
  • epistemology and how we know what is true: of course we should be immune to bad ideas, but how do we know which ideas are bad vs. good?
  • Are humans by nature gullible or skeptical?
  • why “some minds are comparatively susceptible to ideological fixation, and others are comparatively immune”,
  • personal identity and ideas important to it: Dan Kahan’s identity-protective cognition,
  • Rebecca Goldstein’s hypothesis that we have a deep need to matter, the “mattering instinct”,
  • God loves you; we are God’s chosen people, God sacrificed his only son for you…
  • Norman’s Law: It is difficult to reason well when you need to reason poorly to feel like a decent human being,
  • What would it take to change your mind?
  • six Immune-Disruptive Ideas:

    1. Beliefs are private and no one else’s concern.
    2. We have a right to believe what we like.
    3. Values are subjective.
    4. We have no standing to criticize other people’s values.
    5. Basic value commitments are not subject to rational assessment.
    6. Questioning a person’s core commitments is fundamentally intolerant.
  • NOMA: should religion be given an epistemological pass?
  • belief in belief, religious truths, religion for the “little people”,
  • William K. Clifford vs. William James: evidence, faith, & the will to believe,
  • Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmatism and the method of tenacity,
  • how to regulate beliefs,
  • impediments to curiosity (conceit, lack of imagination, incomprehension, relativism, moral cowardice).
12-Step Program
  1. Play with ideas.
  2. Minds are not passive knowledge receptacles.
  3. We are not entitled to our opinions.
  4. Distinguish between good and bad faith.
  5. Learning is more than adding to the mind’s knowledge stockpile.
  6. New information is like a puzzle piece; you must find where it fits.
  7. Don’t use “who’s to say?”
  8. Let go of the idea that value judgments can’t be objective.
  9. Treat challenges to your beliefs as opportunities rather than threats.
  10. Satisfy your need for belonging with a community of inquiry rather than belief.
  11. Upgrade your understanding of reasonable belief.
  12. Don’t underestimate the value of ideas that have survived scrutiny.

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Niall Ferguson — Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe

Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe (book cover)

Setting the annus horribilis of 2020 in historical perspective, Niall Ferguson explains why we are getting worse, not better, at handling disasters. Disasters are inherently hard to predict. Pandemics, like earthquakes, wildfires, financial crises, and wars, are not normally distributed; there is no cycle of history to help us anticipate the next catastrophe. But when disaster strikes, we ought to be better prepared than the Romans were when Vesuvius erupted, or medieval Italians when the Black Death struck. We have science on our side, after all.

Yet in 2020 the responses of many developed countries, including the United States, to a new virus from China were badly bungled. Why? Why did only a few Asian countries learn the right lessons from SARS and MERS? While populist leaders certainly performed poorly in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Niall Ferguson argues that more profound pathologies were at work — pathologies already visible in our responses to earlier disasters. Drawing from multiple disciplines, including economics, cliodynamics, and network science, Ferguson offers not just a history but a general theory of disasters, showing why our ever more bureaucratic and complex systems are getting worse at handing them. Doom is the lesson of history that this country — indeed the West as a whole — urgently needs to learn, if we want to handle the next crisis better, and to avoid the ultimate doom of irreversible decline.

Niall Ferguson is one of the world’s most renowned historians. He is the author of 16 books, including Civilization, Empire, The Great Degeneration, Kissinger 1923–1968: The Idealist, The Ascent of Money, The Square and the Tower, The Pity of War, and The War of the World. He is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the managing director of Greenmantle LLC. His many prizes include the International Emmy for Best Documentary (2009), the Benjamin Franklin Award for Public Service (2010), and the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Book Award (2016).

Shermer and Ferguson discuss:

  • comparing 2020/2021 to 1968/1972, the 1918 Spanish Flu, and The Black Death,
  • catastrophes vs. general background noise of entropy,
  • doomsday vs. disaster: plagues and wars,
  • covering laws of history and why predictions are so hard to make,
  • Cassandras vs. Pollyannas: who should we listen to? (Cassandras have predicted 9 of the past 5 recessions, and 100 of the past 0 doomsdays),
  • Gray Rhinos (disasters foreseen), Black Swans (unexpected), Dragon Kings (excessive disasters beyond excess mortality),
  • disasters natural vs. man-made, or political and economic,
  • social networks and disasters,
  • counterfactual history for assessing causality,
  • Titanic, Challenger, and Chernobyl disasters and what we can learn from them,
  • fundamental attribution bias applied to disasters: we attribute too much of the responsibility for political disasters and military tragedies to incompetent leaders instead of circumstances,
  • impediments to forecasting: availability heuristic, negativity bias, and contingency,
  • what masks and guns really represent,
  • political polarization,
  • tight and loose cultures in a time of pandemic,
  • what it means to be a conservative or a Republican post-Trump,
  • conspiracy theories and how the world really works,
  • Henry Kissinger in perspective,
  • WWI in perspective (should the UK and US have stayed out of it?),
  • tech companies, Section 230 (platforms or publishers), trust bust them all?
  • modern monetary theory,
  • cryptocurrency.

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James Hunter & Paul Nedelisky on Religious vs. Secular Morality — Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality

Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality (book cover)

In their book Science and the Good, professional philosophers James Hunter and Paul Nedelisky trace the origins and development of the centuries-long, passionate, but ultimately failed quest to discover a scientific foundation for morality. The “new moral science” led by such figures as E. O. Wilson, Patricia Churchland, Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene, Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, and Michael Shermer is only the newest manifestation of that quest. Though claims for its accomplishments are often wildly exaggerated, Hunter and Nedelisky argue that this new iteration has been no more successful than its predecessors, and that the science of morality becomes, at best, a feeble program to achieve arbitrary societal goals.

The conversation took a decidedly interesting turn when Drs. Hunter and Nedelisky revealed, unbeknownst to Dr. Shermer, that they are both theists and that their Christian worldview informs their thinking on moral issues. The three then got into the weeds of the difference between religious and secular moral systems, the nature of God and morality, why a purely naturalistic approach to morality does not negate religion or even the existence of God (natural law could be God’s way of creating moral values), natural rights and rights theory, consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics, progress in philosophy, why philosophers never seem to reach consensus on important subjects like morality, how to think about issues like abortion, why they believe in God and follow the Christian religion and yet reject Divine Command Theory, and much more.

James Davison Hunter is LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia.

Paul Nedelisky is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

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Angus Fletcher — 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature

Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature (book cover)

A brilliant examination of literary inventions through the ages, from ancient Mesopotamia to Elena Ferrante, that shows how writers have created technical breakthroughs rivaling scientific inventions and engineering enhancements to the human heart and mind. Literature is a technology like any other. And the writers we revere—Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, and others—each made a unique technical breakthrough that can be viewed as both a narrative and neuroscientific advancement. Literature’s great invention was to address problems we could not solve: not how to start a fire or build a boat, but how to live and love; how to maintain courage in the face of death; how to account for the fact that we exist at all. Neuroscientist and literature professor Dr. Angus Fletcher reviews the 25 most powerful developments in the history of literature. These inventions can be scientifically shown to alleviate grief, trauma, loneliness, anxiety, numbness, depression, pessimism, and ennui—all while sparking creativity, courage, love, empathy, hope, joy, and positive change. They can be found all throughout literature—from ancient Chinese lyrics to Shakespeare’s plays, poetry to nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and crime novels to slave narratives.

Dr. Angus Fletcher is a professor of story science at Ohio State’s Project Narrative, the world’s leading academic think-tank for the study of stories. He has dual degrees in neuroscience and literature, received his Ph.D. from Yale, taught Shakespeare at Stanford, and has published two books and dozens of peer-reviewed academic articles on the scientific workings of novels, poetry, film, and theater. His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He has done story-consulting for projects for Sony, Disney, the BBC, Amazon, PBS, and Universal, and is the author/presenter of the Audible/Great Courses Guide to Screenwriting.

Shermer and Fletcher discuss:

  • How does one become a literary neuroscientist
  • Scientific truths and literary truths
  • Truthiness in literature: lived experiences? A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
  • What is a memoir but a lived experience? Is factual accuracy required?
  • Humans as storytelling animals
  • What are myths and stories, and what role do they play in human life and culture?
  • Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Star Wars?)
  • Epic of Gilgamesh, Noah’s Flood Story, Virgin Birth myths, Resurrection myths
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still: a Christ allegory?
  • How literature can increase creativity, alleviate trauma, boost intelligence, and elevate happiness
  • Literature and meaningfulness and purposefulness
  • Reading and Theory of Mind: how literature makes us more empathetic, or at least better able to interchange perspectives with others
  • Enheduanna: the world’s first recorded literary inventor, a poet-priestess who lived 5000 years ago in what is now Southern Iraq: her innovation stimulates a self-transcendent experience in our brain’s parietal lobe, measurably increasing our life-purpose and generosity.
  • Sappho: literary invention for increasing love by stimulating our brain’s nucleus accumbens
  • Literary inventions that deal with PTSD: veterans to heal from the psychological damage of battle, and survivors of chronic domestic abuse
  • After Shakespeare lost his son Hamnet he forged a literary breakthrough that has been clinically proven to alleviate grief by acting on the emotional circuitry of our brain’s amygdala, which he presented in Hamlet and revised in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking
  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, in which the monster cries out, “Remember, I have power…. I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you. You are my creator, but I am your master…obey!”
  • Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz
  • Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon.
From Dr. Shermer’s book How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science

Miraculous flood myths were also not uncommon in the ancient world. Predating the biblical Noachian flood story by centuries, the Epic of Gilgamesh was written around 1800 B.C. Warned by the Babylonian Earth-god Ea that other gods were about to destroy all life with a flood, Utnapishtim was instructed to build an ark in the form of a cube 120 cubits (180 feet) in length, breadth, and depth, with seven floors, each divided into nine compartments, and to take aboard one pair of each living creature. In point of fact, most cultures located on large bodies of water that flood have similar flood myths.

Virgin birth myths are not unique either. Among those who were allegedly conceived without the usual assistance from the male lineage are Dionysus, Perseus, Buddha, Attis, Krishna, Horus, Mercury, Romulus and, of course, Jesus. Consider the parallels between Dionysus, the ancient Greek God of wine, and Jesus of Nazareth. Both were said to have been born from a virgin mother, who was a mortal woman, but were fathered by the king of heaven; both allegedly returned from the dead, transformed water into wine, introduced the idea of eating and drinking the flesh and blood of the creator, and were liberators of humanity.

Even the miracle of the resurrection is not unique to Christianity. Osiris is the Egyptian god of life, death, and fertility, and is one of the oldest Gods for whom records have survived. Osiris first appears in the pyramid texts of around 2400 B.C., at which time his following was already well established. Widely worshipped until the forced repression of pagan religions in the early Christian era, Osiris was not only the redeemer and merciful judge of the dead in the afterlife, but also linked to fertility, most notably (and appropriate to the geography) the flooding of the Nile, and the growth of crops. The kings of Egypt themselves were inextricably connected with Osiris in death, such that it was believed that when Osiris rose from the dead so would they in union with him. By the time the New Kingdom arose, not only Pharaohs but also mortal men believed that they could be resurrected by and with Osiris at death if, of course, they practiced the correct religious rituals. Sound familiar? This story of Osiris predates the Jesus messiah story by at least two and a half millennia.

—Jesus, Wovoka, the Messiah Myth, and the Oppression-Redemption Myth anthropologist James Mooney in his 1896 book The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890:

And when the race lies crushed and groaning beneath an alien yoke, how natural is the dream of a redeemer, an Arthur, who shall return from exile or awake from some long sleep to drive out the usurper and win back for his people what they have lost. The hope becomes a faith and the faith becomes the creed of priests and prophets, until the hero is a god and the dream a religion, looking to some great miracle of nature for its culmination and accomplishment. The doctrines of the Hindu avatar, the Hebrew Messiah, the Christian millennium, and the Hesunanin of the Indian Ghost dance are essentially the same, and have their origin in a hope and longing common to all humanity.

I call such stories Oppression-Redemption myths, and there are many such examples.

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Minouche Shafik — What We Owe Each Other: A New Social Contract for a Better Society

What We Owe Each Other: A New Social Contract for a Better Society (book cover)

From one of the leading policy experts of our time, an urgent rethinking of how we can better support each other to thrive. Whether we realize it or not, all of us participate in the social contract every day through mutual obligations among our family, community, place of work, and fellow citizens. Caring for others, paying taxes, and benefiting from public services define the social contract that supports and binds us together as a society. Today, however, our social contract has been broken by changing gender roles, technology, new models of work, aging, and the perils of climate change.

Minouche Shafik takes us through stages of life we all experience — raising children, getting educated, falling ill, working, growing old — and shows how a reordering of our societies is possible. Drawing on evidence and examples from around the world, she shows how every country can provide citizens with the basics to have a decent life and be able to contribute to society. But we owe each other more than this. A more generous and inclusive society would also share more risks collectively and ask everyone to contribute for as long as they can so that everyone can fulfill their potential. What We Owe Each Other identifies the key elements of a better social contract that recognizes our interdependencies, supports and invests more in each other, and expects more of individuals in return.

Nemat Talaat Shafik, Baroness Shafik DBE, known as Minouche Shafik, is an Egyptian-born British-American economist who served as the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England from August 2014 to February 2017 and has served as the Director of the London School of Economics since September 2017. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Shafik studied at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the London School of Economics before receiving her doctorate from St. Antony’s College, Oxford. Shafik served as the Permanent Secretary of the Department for International Development from March 2008 to March 2011, when she went on to serve as the Deputy Managing Director of the IMF — International Monetary Fund. She joined the Bank of England as its first Deputy Governor on Markets and Banking responsible for the Bank’s £500 billion balance sheet and served as a Member of the bank’s Monetary Policy Committee, Financial Policy Committee and the Board of the Prudential Regulatory Authority. She led the Bank’s Fair and Effective Markets review to tackle misconduct in financial markets.

Shermer and Shafik discuss:

  • her personal life story born in Egypt and growing up in the American south,
  • the relative role of genes, environment, and luck in how her life turned out,
  • what it’s like directing the London School of Economics and working at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Bank of England and what they do to help developing and failing countries,
  • What about free riders, cheats, exploiters and fraud?
  • libertarian paternalism and the architecture of choice,
  • Who is the “we” in the question “What do we owe each other?”
  • modern monetary theory,
  • income inequality,
  • UBI & automation,
  • reparations,
  • private vs. public charity/welfare,
  • post-scarcity/post-poverty world
  • how she explains this observation (from her book):

    Humans really have never had it so good. And yet in so many parts of the world, citizens are disappointed, and this has revealed itself in politics, the media, and public discourse.

  • What is a social contract? From Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau to the modern nation-state:

    When I refer to the social contract I mean the partnership between individuals, businesses, civil society and the state to contribute to a system in which there are collective benefits.

  • What is a welfare state? From Otto von Bismarck and William Beveridge to the modern welfare state (the insurer of last resort):

    When I refer to the welfare state, I mean the mechanisms for pooling risks and investing in social benefits mediated through the political process and subsequent state action.

    (The welfare state is ¾ piggy bank and ¼ Robin Hood.)

  • The impact of the Thatcher/Reagan era.

    “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, to look after our neighbours.” —Thatcher

    “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.’”

Minouche’s New Social Contract

First, that everyone should be guaranteed the minimum required to live a decent life. This minimum should include basic health care, education, benefits associated with work and a pension that protects against poverty in old age, with the level depending on how much society can afford. Second, everyone should be expected to contribute as much as they can and be given the maximum opportunities to do so with training throughout life, later retirement ages and public support for childcare so women can work. Third, the provision of minimum protections around some risks, such as sickness, unemployment and old age, are better shared by society, rather than asking individuals, families or employers to carry them.

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Brian Keating — How it All Began: Cosmic Inflation, the Multiverse, and the Nature of Scientific Proof

Brian Keating is a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego; a Fellow of the American Physical Society; a commercially rated pilot; and the director of the Simons Observatory. He received the 2007 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers for his work on BICEP. He is the author of Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science’s Highest Honor, and the host of Into the Impossible, a podcast about how we imagine, and how what we imagine shapes what we do. Each conversation brings together visionaries from the worlds of arts, sciences, humanities, and technology discussing the nature of imagination and how we collaborate to create the future.

In this episode, Shermer and Keating discuss:

  • cosmology and Intelligent Design,
  • the fine-tuning of the universe,
  • the multiverse and theism: many worlds or one God?
  • How does the Intelligent Designer or God as a disembodied mind interact with the physical universe?
  • If the origin of the universe and its fine-tuned nature points to an intelligence or mind behind it, why don’t most cosmologists, physicists, and astronomers accept that conclusion?
  • What are laws of nature?
  • Can you explain the origin of the universe by laws and rules of things in the universe?
  • What came before the Big Bang?
  • What caused the bang that gave rise to our universe?
  • Why there is something rather than nothing?
  • inflationary cosmology,
  • What is gravity? What is quantum gravity?
  • How did the Big Bang theory win out over the Steady State theory?
  • the difference between Popperian falsification, Kuhnian paradigm, and consensus science,
  • Is string theory physics, metaphysics, or mathematics?
  • What shape is the universe? Open, closed, or flat?
  • What is dark energy and dark matter?
  • What is time?
  • What is infinity?
  • cyclic universes and the multiverse.

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Jordan Peterson & Michael Shermer on Science, Myth, Truth, and the Architecture of Archetypes

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Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life (book cover)

Jordan Peterson is the bestselling author of 12 Rules for Life, which has sold more than five million copies worldwide. After working for decades as a clinical psychologist and a professor at Harvard and the University of Toronto, Peterson has become one of the world’s most influential public intellectuals. His YouTube videos and podcasts have gathered a worldwide audience of hundreds of millions, and his global book tour reached more than 250,000 people in major cities across the globe. With his students and colleagues, he has published more than one hundred scientific papers, and his 1999 book Maps of Meaning revolutionized the psychology of religion. He lives in Toronto, Ontario with his family.

Shermer and Peterson discuss:

  • the balance between chaos and order,
  • the nature of good and evil,
  • the banality of evil and the evil of banality,
  • the meaning of Maps of Meaning,
  • objective truths, subjective truths, historical truths, political truths, religious truths, literary truths,
  • what great stories teach us about human nature and society,
  • Why aren’t all countries on earth democracies?
  • the appeal of populist and authoritarian leaders,
  • the appeal of Hitler and the Nazis, then and now,
  • the danger of assessing according to race, sex, class and power,
  • how to think about the resurrection of Jesus as mythic truths,
  • heaven as not a place to go but a state of mind and society,
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces: Joseph Campbell’s hero myth/hero’s journey,
  • oppression-redemption myths,
  • The Native American Ghost Dance of 1890: Wovoka as Jesus,
  • how Peterson’s dark dreams, physical and mental health issues, and his clinical practice inform his worldview as tilting toward the darker side of humanity,
  • Peterson’s critics and their motivation, and
  • the mass appeal of Peterson’s message.
Quotes read by Shermer during the podcast

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859):

A party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life.

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (1945):

From 600 B.C. to the present day, philosophers have been divided into those who wished to tighten social bonds and those who wished to relax them. … It is clear that each party to this dispute is partly right and partly wrong. Social cohesion is a necessity, and mankind has never yet succeeded in enforcing cohesion by merely rational arguments. Every community is exposed to two opposite dangers: ossification through too much discipline and reverence for tradition, on the one hand; on the other hand, dissolution, or subjection to foreign conquest, through the growth of an individualism and personal independence that makes cooperation impossible.

Michael Shermer on the resurrection, from Heavens on Earth (Henry Holt, 2018):

But what if this story was never meant to be considered as literally true? What if it was meant to be a metaphorical or mythic truth, through which readers might be inspired to “bear your own cross” or admonished not to be “crucified” by your enemies, or warned not to “resurrect” bad habits, or encouraged to be “born again” by starting their life anew after a troubling past?

Or perhaps it was meant to be a literary truth, as famously pronounced by U.S. Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, a deeply religious man, in his 1896 Democratic National Convention “Cross of Gold” speech:

we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.

Such mythic, metaphorical, and literary truths play a central role in human culture through the arts, literature, religion, and even politics. Recall that Jesus suggested to his oppressed peoples that redemption was coming, that the Kingdom “has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). Especially in Luke 17:20–21, Jesus seems to infer that heaven is a state of mind:

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, ‘The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you’.

What if the greatest religious truth in all of Western Christendom—that if you accept Jesus as your savior, you go to heaven where you will spend an eternity with God—was never meant to be taken literally? This is illuminated in the tantalizing passage in Matthew 16:26 in which Jesus tells his disciples:

Verily I say unto you, ‘There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom’.

Maybe Christians have been misreading passages like this for centuries. Maybe the “kingdom” to which Jesus refers is the heaven within ourselves, or the heavenly communities we build here on Earth. As I wrote in my 2018 book Heavens on Earth:

Heaven is not a paradisiacal state in the next world, but a better life in this world. Heaven is not a place to go to but a way to be. Here. Now. Since no one—not even the devoutly religious—knows for certain what happens after we die, Jews, Christians, and Muslims might as well work toward creating Heavens on Earth.

Let’s reconsider the 1890 Native American Ghost Dance I recounted in an earlier chapter. Naturally, modern readers do not accept the account of the resurrection of dead Native American ancestors as literally true, but what if it was never intended to be treated as such? Consider this interpretation of the Ghost Dance by the anthropologist James Mooney in his 1896 book The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890:

And when the race lies crushed and groaning beneath an alien yoke, how natural is the dream of a redeemer, an Arthur, who shall return from exile or awake from some long sleep to drive out the usurper and win back for his people what they have lost. The hope becomes a faith and the faith becomes the creed of priests and prophets, until the hero is a god and the dream a religion, looking to some great miracle of nature for its culmination and accomplishment. The doctrines of the Hindu avatar, the Hebrew Messiah, the Christian millennium, and the Hesunanin of the Indian Ghost dance are essentially the same, and have their origin in a hope and longing common to all humanity.

The utopian quest for perfect happiness was exposed as the flawed goal that it is by George Orwell in his 1940 review of Mein Kampf (Orwell, George. 1940. Review of Mein Kampf (Unabridged Translation). New English Weekly, March 21. In: Orwell, Sonia and Ian Angus (Eds.) 1968. Orwell: My Country Right or Left 1940–1943. Boston: Nonpareil Books, 12–14.):

Hitler…has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. Hitler…knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice.

On the broader appeal of Fascism and Socialism, Orwell added:

However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarized version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them, “I offer you struggle, danger, and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet…we ought not to underrate its emotional appeal.

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Naomi Oreskes — Why Trust Science?

Why Trust Science? (book cover)
Why the social character of scientific knowledge makes it trustworthy

Do doctors really know what they are talking about when they tell us vaccines are safe? Should we take climate experts at their word when they warn us about the perils of global warming? Why should we trust science when our own politicians don’t? In this landmark book, Naomi Oreskes offers a bold and compelling defense of science, revealing why the social character of scientific knowledge is its greatest strength — and the greatest reason we can trust it.

Tracing the history and philosophy of science from the late nineteenth century to today, Oreskes explains that, contrary to popular belief, there is no single scientific method. Rather, the trustworthiness of scientific claims derives from the social process by which they are rigorously vetted. This process is not perfect — nothing ever is when humans are involved — but she draws vital lessons from cases where scientists got it wrong. Oreskes shows how consensus is a crucial indicator of when a scientific matter has been settled, and when the knowledge produced is likely to be trustworthy.

Naomi Oreskes is an American historian of science. She became Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University in 2013, after 15 years as Professor of History and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Oreskes is author or co-author of 7 books, and over 150 articles, essays and opinion pieces, including Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury, 2010), The Collapse of Western Civilization (Columbia University Press, 2014), Discerning Experts (University Chicago Press, 2019), Why Trust Science? (Princeton University Press, 2019), and Science on a Mission: American Oceanography from the Cold War to Climate Change, (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming). Merchants of Doubt, co-authored with Erik Conway, was the subject of a documentary film of the same name produced by participant Media and distributed by SONY Pictures Classics, and has been translated into nine languages.

Shermer and Oreskes discuss:

  • the replication crisis in the social sciences,
  • the demarcation problem: science vs. pseudoscience,
  • verification vs. falsification: From Francis Bacon to Karl Popper,
  • Eddington’s eclipse experiments that verified (or failed to falsify) Einstein,
  • Bayesian reasoning vs. falsification,
  • climate skeptics and evolution skeptics,
  • scientific method: (1) consensus (2) method (3) evidence (4) values (5) humility,
  • model dependent realism,
  • facts and values: when facts conflict with values,
  • eugenics, birth control, flossing,
  • perspectival / viewpoint diversity,
  • how to talk to a climate denier, anti-vaxxer, creationist, Holocaust denier, GMO denier, nuclear power denier, etc.,
  • science and moral values,
  • theistic arguments for: God, origin of life, morality, consciousness,
  • known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.

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Andrew Doyle — Free Speech: And Why It Matters

Free Speech: And Why it Matters  (book cover)

Towards the end of the twentieth century, those who advocated what became known as “Political Correctness” rightly identified the ways in which marginalized groups were often disparaged in everyday speech. Casual expressions of homophobia, racism and sexism went from being commonplace to being rejected by the vast majority of the public over the course of just two decades.

Since then, the victories of Political Correctness have formed the basis for a new intolerant mindset, one that seeks to move beyond simply reassessing the social contract of shared discourse to actively policing speech that is deemed offensive or controversial. Rather than confront bad ideas through discussion, it has now become common to intimidate one’s detractors into silence through “cancel culture”, a ritual of public humiliation and boycotting which can often lead to the target losing his or her means of income.

Free Speech is a defense of our right to express ourselves as we see fit and takes the form of a letter to those who are unpersuaded. Taking on board legitimate concerns about how speech can be harmful, Andrew Doyle argues that the alternative — an authoritarian world in which our freedoms are surrendered to those in power — has far worse consequences.

Andrew Doyle is a writer, satirist and political commentator. He regularly appears on television to discuss current affairs, is a panelist on the BBC’s Moral Maze, and was recently interviewed on The Joe Rogan Experience, the most downloaded podcast in the world. He has written for a number of publications, including the Telegraph, Sun, Daily Mail, Spectator, Standpoint, and Sunday Times. He is the creator of satirical character Titania McGrath, under whose name he has written two books — Woke: A Guide to Social Justice and My First Little Book of Intersectional Activism, both published by Little, Brown. Titania McGrath has over half a million followers on Twitter. He was formerly a Visiting Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast, and a lecturer at Oxford University where he completed his doctorate.

Shermer and Doyle discuss:

  • Titania McGrath,
  • “We need to check your thinking.”
  • hate speech as violence,
  • Liberal and Conservative attitudes toward free speech and how they shifted,
  • private vs. public speech, government censorship vs. cancel culture,
  • history of free speech from the Greeks to today,
  • social media companies: platforms or publishers?
  • enabling speech and why not inviting someone like Milo Yannapolis to speak is not censorship,
  • why claims like “you can’t say anything anymore” is self-refuting,
  • What about fraud, libel, perjury, blackmail, espionage?: “speech is to perjury what fire is to arson.”
  • Frank Zappa on CNN’s Crossfire vs. Conservatives,
  • comedy and satire.

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“He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” —Thomas Paine

“Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter.” —Milton

“Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.” —Marcus Aurelius

Recent postings by Andrew Doyle as @TitaniaMcgrath on Twitter (read on the podcast)
Tweet by Titania McGrath
Tweet by Titania McGrath
Tweet by Titania McGrath
Tweet by Titania McGrath
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John Mueller — The Stupidity of War: American Foreign Policy and the Case for Complacency

The Stupidity of War: American Foreign Policy and the Case for Complacency (book cover)

In this conversation based on his new book, The Stupidity of War, political scientist John Mueller argues that American foreign policy since 1945 has been one long miscue; most international threats — including during the Cold War — have been substantially exaggerated. The result has been agony and bloviation, unnecessary and costly military interventions that have mostly failed. A policy of complacency and appeasement likely would have worked better. There has seldom been significant danger of major war. Nuclear weapons, international institutions, and America’s super power role have been substantially irrelevant; post-Cold War policy has been animated more by vast proclamation and half-vast execution than by the appeals of liberal hegemony; and post-9/11 concerns about international terrorism and nuclear proliferation have been overwrought and often destructive. Meanwhile, threats from Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, or from cyber technology are limited and manageable. With international war in decline, complacency and appeasement become viable diplomatic devices and a large military is scarcely required.

Shermer and Mueller discuss:

  • why war in general is stupid,
  • America’s bad wars: Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan,
  • America’s good wars: The Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II,
  • no Hitler, no Holocaust … no World War II,
  • exogenous triggers of the decline of war (you can’t just say war declined because states became less warlike),
  • democracy and trade as factors in the decline of war,
  • rise of war aversion and the decline of international war,
  • Aren’t proxy wars between great powers just international wars by other names?
  • counterfactual: what if the US became isolated after WWII?
  • why the USSR was never as serious a threat as believed,
  • why terrorism is not an existential threat … or much of a threat at all,
  • arms race between US armed forces: Navy, Army, Airforce (nuclear triad: subs, missiles, bombers),
  • deterrence is not needed between France/Germany, etc.,
  • the game-theoretic logic of deterrence, conflict and resolution,
  • how appeasement got a bad name and why we should resurrect it,
  • nuclear weapons and the Cuban Missile Crisis,
  • appeasement as a viable strategy for resolving conflict, but what about Hitler and Munich?
  • the domino theory of containment: Korea, Vietnam, and other proxy wars,
  • current hot spots: China, Russia, North Korea, Syria, the Middle East,
  • why there is no need for vast military spending and such a large military, and
  • why the United States should be patient and wait for the worst regimes to collapse from their own inherent weaknesses rather than getting entangled in costly and deadly conflicts.

Dr. John Mueller is a political scientist at Ohio State University, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, and member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is also the author of Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War, Policy and Opinion in the Gulf War, The Remnants of War, and Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them.

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Michio Kaku — The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything

The God Equation: The Quest for a Theory of Everything (book cover)

When Newton discovered the law of gravity, he unified the rules governing the heavens and the Earth. Since then, physicists have been placing new forces into ever-grander theories. But perhaps the ultimate challenge is achieving a monumental synthesis of the two remaining theories — relativity and the quantum theory. This would be the crowning achievement of science, a profound merging of all the forces of nature into one beautiful, magnificent equation to unlock the deepest mysteries in science. Shermer and Kaku discuss:

  • What happened before the Big Bang?
  • What lies on the other side of a black hole?
  • Are there other universes and dimensions?
  • the multiverse and its multi-configurations,
  • black holes, worm holes, and portals to other universes,
  • time travel,
  • dark energy and dark matter,
  • What is gravity, anyway?
  • Does science progress through falsification, confirmation, consensus, or Bayesian reasoning?
  • string theory: how can it be tested?
  • proofs for God’s existence: cosmological, teleological, ontological, fine-tuning,
  • Did God have a choice in creating the universe?
  • Is God just the laws of nature or a personal being?
  • What is the meaning of life in a meaningless universe?
  • ETI and AGI: any sufficiently advanced ETI or AGI would be indistinguishable from God.

Michio Kaku is a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York, co-founder of string field theory, and the author of several widely acclaimed science books, including Beyond Einstein, The Future of Humanity, The Future of the Mind, Hyperspace, Physics of the Future, and Physics of the Impossible. He is the science correspondent for CBS This Morning, the host of the radio programs Science Fantastic and Exploration, and a host of several science TV specials for the BBC and the Discovery and Science Channels.

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Jeff Hawkins — A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence

Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence (book cover)

For all of neuroscience’s advances, we’ve made little progress on its biggest question: How do simple cells in the brain create intelligence? Jeff Hawkins and his team discovered that the brain uses maplike structures to build a model of the world — not just one model, but hundreds of thousands of models of everything we know. This discovery allows Hawkins to answer important questions about how we perceive the world, why we have a sense of self, and the origin of high-level thought.

Jeff Hawkins is the cofounder of Numenta, a neuroscience research company; founder of the Redwood Neuroscience Institute; and one of the founders of the field of handheld computing. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and author of On Intelligence: How a New Understanding of the Brain Will Lead to the Creation of Truly Intelligent Machines.

Shermer and Hawkins discuss:

  • What is intelligence?
  • What is consciousness?
  • All thoughts, ideas, and perceptions are the activity of neurons.
  • Everything we know is stored in the connections between neurons.
  • the neocortex as the key to higher intelligence,
  • cortical columns as the key to reference frames that lead to intelligence,
  • motor cortex, sensory cortex, and sensory-motor learning,
  • Vernon Mountcastle’s Big Idea,
  • why the old reptilian brain is heterogenous whereas the new brain is homogeneous,
  • Jeff Hawkins Big Idea: There is no central control room in our brains; instead, our perception is a consensus which the columns reach by voting. Within the columns — even within neurons — predictions are made, and depending how successful their predictions are, the neurons will vote for their version of events,
  • maps and models in your head,
  • predictive models of the world,
  • dendritic spikes as predictions,
  • species specific perception,
  • veridical perception vs. survival perception,
  • metaphors of how the brain works: a clockwork machine, pneumatic or hydraulic devices, cavities through which animal spirits flowed, electrical device, nerves as telegraph wires, cybernetics, computers, etc.,
  • Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 (Thinking, Fast and Slow),
  • Can immortality be achieved through mind uploading?
  • AI/AGI: Does Big Blue know it beat Gary Kasparov in Chess? Does Watson know it won Jeopardy?
  • SETI and the nature of alien intelligence, and
  • colonizing the galaxy with our intelligence.

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Daniel Dennett & Gregg Caruso — Just Deserts: Debating Free Will (moderated by Michael Shermer)

The Case for Keto: Rethinking Weight Control and the Science and Practice of Low-Carb, High-Fat Eating (book cover)

The concept of free will is profoundly important to our self-understanding, our interpersonal relationships, and our moral and legal practices. If it turns out that no one is ever free and morally responsible, what would that mean for society, morality, meaning, and the law?

Just Deserts brings together two philosophers — Daniel C. Dennett and Gregg D. Caruso — to debate their respective views on free will, moral responsibility, and legal punishment. In this conversation Dennett and Caruso present their arguments for and against the existence of free will and debate their implications. Dennett argues that the kind of free will required for moral responsibility is compatible with determinism — for him, self-control is key; we are not responsible for becoming responsible, but are responsible for staying responsible, for keeping would-be puppeteers at bay. Caruso takes the opposite view, arguing that who we are and what we do is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control, and because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions in the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward.

Just Deserts introduces the concepts central to the debate about free will and moral responsibility by way of an entertaining, rigorous, and sometimes heated philosophical dialogue between two leading thinkers.

Dr. Daniel C. Dennett is Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Science and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. His books include Content and Consciousness (1969), Brainstorms (1978), Elbow Room (1984), The Intentional Stance (1987), Consciousness Explained (1991), Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), Kinds of Minds (1996), Freedom Evolves (2003), Breaking the Spell (2006), and From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2017). He is a leading defender of compatibilism, the view that determinism can be reconciled with free will, and is perhaps best known in cognitive science for his concept of intentional systems and his multiple drafts model of human consciousness.

Dr. Gregg D. Caruso is Professor of Philosophy at SUNY, Corning and Honorary Professor of Philosophy at Macquarie University. He is also the Co-Director of the Justice Without Retribution Network at the University of Aberdeen School of Law. His books include Free Will and Consciousness (2012), Rejecting Retributivism: Free Will, Punishment, and Criminal Justice (2021), Exploring the Illusion of Free Will and Moral Responsibility (ed. 2013), Neuroexistentialism: Meaning, Morals, and Purpose in the Age of Neuroscience (co-ed. with Owen Flanagan, 2018), and Free Will Skepticism in Law and Society: Challenging Retributive Justice (co-ed. with Elizabeth Shaw and Derk Pereboom, 2019). He is a leading proponent of free will skepticism, which maintains that who we are and what we do is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control, and because of this we are never morally responsible for our actions in the basic desert sense — i.e., the sense that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward.

Survey discussed at the beginning of the podcast

At the beginning of the podcast Dr. Shermer discussed the results of a 2009 survey that asked 3,226 philosophy professors and graduate students to weigh in on 30 different subjects of concern in their field, from a priori knowledge, aesthetic value, and God to knowledge, mind, and moral realism. On the topic of “free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will,” the survey found the following results:

Accept or lean toward
Compatibilism 59.1%
Other 14.9%
Libertarianism 13.7%
No free will 12.2%

By far, the majority of professional philosophers hold the position that free will and determinism are compatible.

Now, from a scientific perspective it shouldn’t matter how many people support one or another position. Only the quality of the evidence and arguments should matter. As Einstein said in response to a 1931 book skeptical of relativity theory titled A Hundred Authors Against Einstein, “Why one hundred? If I were wrong, one would have been enough.”

But there is something revealing about these figures, and that is this: if the most qualified people to assess a problem are not in agreement on an answer — and the free-will/determinism problem has been around for thousands of years — it may be that it is an insoluble one. For example, is it really reasonable for the 12.2 percent of philosophers who are determinists to conclude that 59.1 percent of their professional colleagues are simply wrong in taking the compatibilist position? Isn’t it more likely that the issue comes down to language and what is meant by the terms “free will” and “determinism”?

Dr. Shermer asks Dr. Dennett and Dr. Caruso their response to these findings.

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