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Science Salon Archives

In the tradition of the Enlightenment salons that helped drive the Age of Reason, Science Salon is a series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, scholars, and thinkers, about the most important issues of our time. Listen to Science Salon via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn, or using the audio or video players below.

SCIENCE SALON # 91

James Traub — What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present, and Promise of a Noble Idea

In this wide-ranging conversation James Traub and Michael Shermer discuss:

  • the changing meaning of “liberalism” over the centuries and decades
  • why the first liberals were deeply skeptical of majority rule
  • how, by the second half of the 20th century, liberalism become the national creed of the most powerful country in the world
  • why this consensus did not last
  • the giants of liberalism: James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Isiah Berlin
  • Karl Popper, the Open Society, and the paradox of tolerance (that tolerating intolerance is self-defeating)
  • Donald Trump as the first American president to regard liberal values with open contempt
  • illiberalism in the UK, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and Germany
  • why liberalism lost the support it once enjoyed
  • the intolerance of the illiberal left, identity politics, and political correctness
  • what a potential future for liberalism would look like.

James Traub has spent the last forty years as a journalist for American’s leading publications, including the New Yorker and the New York Times magazine. He now teaches foreign policy and intellectual history at New York University and at NYU Abu Dhabi, and is a columnist and contributor at Foreign Policy. He is the author of six previous books on foreign and domestic affairs. His most recent work is John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit. He lives in New York City.

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SCIENCE SALON # 90

Melvin Konner — Believers: Faith in Human Nature

World renowned biological anthropologist Mel Konner examines the nature of human nature, including and especially in his new book on the nature of religiosity. In Believers, Konner, who was raised in an orthodox Jewish home but has been an atheist his entire adult life, responds to attacks on faith by some well-meaning scientists and philosophers, most notably the “new atheists” Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens―known for writing about religion as something irrational and ultimately harmful. Konner explores the psychology, development, brain science, evolution, and even genetics of the varied religious impulses we experience as a species. Konner and Shermer discuss:

  • the nature of human nature
  • what is religion?
  • what is faith?
  • is religion and faith adaptive or the byproduct of some other evolved adaptation?
  • his experience living among hunter-gatherers
  • how hunter-gatherers conceive of religion vs. modern peoples
  • the “Big Gods” theory of religion
  • the “God Module” theory of religion
  • the group selection theory of religion
  • why faith is not for everyone
  • the rise of the nones, but why religion will never completely die out
  • the upside of religion … and the downside
  • were our paleolithic ancestors warlike or peaceful?
  • would you want to switch places and live in a hunter-gatherer society?
  • why for at least a large minority of humanity, the belief in things unseen neither can nor should go away.

Melvin Konner, MD, is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Program in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University. He is the author of Believers, Women After All, Becoming a Doctor, and The Tangled Wing, among other books.

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SCIENCE SALON # 89

Richard Dawkins — Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide

In 12 fiercely funny, mind-expanding chapters, Richard Dawkins explains how the natural world arose without a designer — the improbability and beauty of the “bottom-up programming” that engineers an embryo or a flock of starlings — and challenges head-on some of the most basic assumptions made by the world’s religions.

In this wide-ranging conversation Shermer and Dawkins discuss:

  • how Outgrowing God encapsulates his life’s work in two broad areas: (1) science, reason, and evolution theory; (2) God, Religion, and Faith. A “Dawkins 101” book and a perfect gift to friends and family.
  • his commitment to the truth, as best explained by science.
  • Is the Bible a “Good Book”?
  • Is adhering to a religion necessary, or even likely, to make people good to one another?
  • why religion is over-determined
  • separating religion from God beliefs
  • Is religion and belief in God an evolutionary adaptation or a byproduct (or both)?
  • Why we don’t need God in order to be good
  • How do we decide what is good?
  • human nature: selfish/selfless, violent/peaceful, better angels/inner demons
  • breaching the Is-Ought barrier
  • the future of atheism
  • career advice for young scientists and scholars
  • getting courage from science
  • the multiverse: “You Cannot be Serious!”

Richard Dawkins is a fellow of the Royal Society and was the inaugural holder of the Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. He is the acclaimed author of many books, including The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion, The Magic of Reality, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving the Rainbow, The Ancestor’s Tale, The Greatest Show on Earth, and Science in the Soul. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Royal Society of Literature Award, the Michael Faraday Prize of the Royal Society, the Kistler Prize, the Shakespeare Prize, the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science, the Galaxy British Book Awards Author of the Year Award, and the International Cosmos Prize of Japan.

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SCIENCE SALON # 88

Daniel Oberhaus — Extraterrestrial Languages

The endlessly fascinating question of whether we are alone in the universe has always been accompanied by another, more complicated one: if there is extraterrestrial life, how would we communicate with it? In his book Extraterrestrial Languages, Daniel Oberhaus leads readers on a quest for extraterrestrial communication. Exploring Earthlings’ various attempts to reach out to non-Earthlings over the centuries, he poses some not entirely answerable questions. If we send a message into space, will extraterrestrial beings receive it? Will they understand? What languages will they (and we) speak? If we can’t even communicate with dolphins and whales, which are mammals, or chimpanzees and gorillas, which are primates, how are we going to communicate with sentient beings that evolved on another planet? If we want to send a message to far-future humans to, say, warn them not to open a container of radioactive waste from a nuclear plant, what would we put on the container to communicate the danger within? Is there not only a universal grammar (as Noam Chomsky has posited), but also a grammar of the universe?

In this incredibly fascinating conversation Shermer and Oberhaus also discuss:

  • the late-19th-century idea to communicate with Martians via Morse code and mirrors
  • the emergence in the 20th century of SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), CETI (communication with extraterrestrial intelligence), and finally METI (messaging extraterrestrial intelligence)
  • the one-way space voyage of Ella, an artificial intelligence agent that can play cards, tell fortunes, and recite poetry
  • different media used in attempts at extraterrestrial communication, from microwave systems to plaques on spacecrafts to formal logic, and our attempts to formulate a language for our message, including the Astraglossa and two generations of Lincos (lingua cosmica)
  • how philosophy, linguistics, mathematics, science, and art have informed the design or limited the effectiveness of our interstellar messaging.

Daniel Oberhaus is a science and technology journalist whose work has appeared in Wired, the Atlantic, Popular Mechanics, Slate, the Baffler, Nautilus, Vice, the Awl, and other publications.

Listen to Science Salon via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

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SCIENCE SALON # 87

Douglas Murray — The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity

The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity (book cover)

In his devastating new book The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray examines the 21st century’s most divisive issues: sexuality, gender, technology and race. He reveals the astonishing new culture wars playing out in our workplaces, universities, schools and homes in the names of social justice, identity politics and intersectionality. We are living through a postmodern era in which the grand narratives of religion and political ideology have collapsed. In their place have emerged a crusading desire to right perceived wrongs and a weaponization of identity, both accelerated by the new forms of social and news media. Narrow sets of interests now dominate the agenda as society becomes more and more tribal — and, as Murray shows, the casualties are mounting. Readers of all political persuasions cannot afford to ignore Murray’s masterfully argued and fiercely provocative book, in which he seeks to inject some sense into the discussion around this generation’s most complicated issues. He ends with an impassioned call for free speech, shared common values and sanity in an age of mass hysteria. Shermer and Murray discuss:

  • gay: born this way?
  • race: why current attitudes are an inversion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream
  • gender: is it really all about power? Men and women in the workplace
  • trans: how big an issue is this and how many trans people are there? Reversing trans surgeries
  • the problem of intersectionality, or the oppression olympics
  • campus craziness: how big a problem is it really?
  • political correctness and free speech
  • the problem of “overcorrection” in moral progress, and
  • the way forward.

Douglas Murray is an author and journalist based in Britain. His previous book, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, was a No. 1 bestseller in non-fiction. Murray has been a contributor to the Spectator since 2000 and has been Associate Editor at the magazine since 2012. He has also written regularly for numerous other outlets including the Wall Street Journal, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Sun, Evening Standard and the New Criterion. He is a regular contributor to National Review and has been a columnist for Standpoint magazine since its founding.

Listen to Science Salon via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

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SCIENCE SALON # 86

Neil deGrasse Tyson — Letters from an Astrophysicist

Letter (book cover)

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has attracted one of the world’s largest online followings with his fascinating, widely accessible insights into science and our universe. Now, Tyson invites us to go behind the scenes of his public fame by revealing his correspondence with people across the globe who have sought him out in search of answers. In this hand-picked collection of 101 letters, Tyson draws upon cosmic perspectives to address a vast array of questions about science, faith, philosophy, life, and of course, Pluto. His succinct, opinionated, passionate, and often funny responses reflect his popularity and standing as a leading educator. Tyson’s 2017 bestseller Astrophysics for People in a Hurry offered more than one million readers an insightful and accessible understanding of the universe. Tyson’s most candid and heartfelt writing yet, Letters from an Astrophysicist introduces us to a newly personal dimension of Tyson’s quest to explore our place in the cosmos. Shermer and Tyson discuss:

  • killing Pluto
  • killing God
  • science and religion
  • why he takes a relatively conciliatory approach to religion
  • why he takes a hard-line against science deniers in religion (and elsewhere)
  • progress in science
  • how vs. why questions
  • race and racial progress
  • why the arc of the moral universe still bends toward justice
  • race and IQ and the curious letter he received about how to address this sensitive subject
  • his middle name and why one correspondent objected to it
  • Neil’s father and why he ends the book with a eulogy.

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SCIENCE SALON # 85

Deepak Chopra — Metahuman: Unleashing Your Infinite Potential

Metahuman: Unleashing Your Infinite Potential (book cover)

In this conversation long-time adversaries and now friends Michael Shermer and Deepak Chopra make an attempt at mutual understanding through the careful unpacking of what Deepak means when he talks about the subject-object split, the impermanence of the self, nondualism, the mind-body problem, the nature of consciousness, and the nature of reality. Shermer also pushes Deepak to translate these deep philosophical, metaphysical, and psychological concepts into actionable take-home ideas that can be put to use to reduce human suffering and help people lead lives that are more meaningful and purposeful.

In the book Deepak includes a survey called Nondual Embodiment Thematic Inventory (NETI), final scores of which range from 20 to 100, on “how people rank themselves on qualities long considered spiritual, psychological, or moral.” Shermer scored a 62, which Chopra said is “not bad”. Take the test yourself in the book or Google it online to read more about it.

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SCIENCE SALON # 84

Christof Koch — The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness is Widespread but Can’t Be Computed

The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Widespread but Can’t Be Computed (book cover)

In this fascinating discussion of one of the hardest problems in all of science — the hard problem of consciousness, that is, explaining how the feeling or experience of something can arise from neural activity — one of the world’s leading neuroscientists Christof Koch argues that consciousness, more widespread than previously assumed, is the feeling of being alive, not a type of computation or a clever hack. Consciousness is experience. Consciousness is, as his book title states, The Feeling of Life Itself — the feeling of being alive. Shermer and Koch discuss:

  • the Neural Correlates of Consciousness (NCC)
  • where consciousness is located in the brain (or, more precisely, where it is not located)
  • what comas and vegetative states teach us about consciousness
  • what brain injuries and diseases teach us about consciousness
  • what hallucinogens teach us about consciousness
  • what split-brain surgeries teach us about the nature of the self and identity
  • Koch’s experience with psilocybin and what he learned about consciousness
  • Koch’s experience in a flotation tank and what he learned about consciousness
  • why computers as they are currently configured can never create consciousness
  • why mind-uploading cannot copy or continue consciousness
  • Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness
  • Global Workspace Theory of Consciousness
  • why consciousness is not an illusion, and
  • mysterian mysteries.

Christof Koch is President and Chief Scientist of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, following twenty-seven years as a Professor at the California Institute of Technology. He is the author of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press), The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach, and other books.

Listen to Science Salon via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

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SCIENCE SALON # 83

Peter Boghossian — How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide

How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide (book cover)

In our current political climate, it seems impossible to have a reasonable conversation with anyone who has a different opinion. Whether you’re online, in a classroom, an office, a town hall — or just hoping to get through a family dinner with a stubborn relative — dialogue shuts down when perspectives clash. Heated debates often lead to insults and shaming, blocking any possibility of productive discourse. Everyone seems to be on a hair trigger.

In How to Have Impossible Conversations, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay guide you through the straightforward, practical, conversational techniques necessary for every successful conversation — whether the issue is climate change, religious faith, gender identity, race, poverty, immigration, or gun control. Boghossian and Lindsay teach the subtle art of instilling doubts and opening minds. They cover everything from learning the fundamentals for good conversations to achieving expert-level techniques to deal with hardliners and extremists.

Shermer and Boghossian discuss:

  • the growing political divide in American over the past quarter century
  • why politicians no longer reach across the aisle
  • when is the right time to have a difficult conversation
  • the best strategies to use to diffuse anger and keep a conversation productive
  • why the atheist movement splintered over disagreements
  • strategies used by hostage negotiators that you can employ in your conversations, and
  • negotiating the intractable social media.

Peter Boghossian is a full time faculty member in the philosophy department at Portland State University and an affiliated faculty member at Oregon Health Science University in the Division of General Internal Medicine. He is a national speaker for the Center of Inquiry and an international speaker for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and the author of A Manual for Creating Atheists. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Listen to Science Salon via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

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SCIENCE SALON # 82

Phil Zuckerman — What it Means to be Moral: Why Religion is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life

What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life (book cover)

In What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life, Phil Zuckerman argues that morality does not come from God. Rather, it comes from us: our brains, our evolutionary past, our ongoing cultural development, our social experiences, and our ability to reason, reflect, and be sensitive to the suffering of others. By deconstructing religious arguments for God-based morality and guiding readers through the premises and promises of secular morality, Zuckerman argues that the major challenges facing the world today―from global warming and growing inequality to religious support for unethical political policies to gun violence and terrorism―are best approached from a nonreligious ethical framework. In short, we need to look to our fellow humans and within ourselves for moral progress and ethical action. Shermer and Zuckerman discus:

  • what is morality and what does it mean to be good?
  • the evolutionary origins of morality
  • the “naturalistic fallacy,” or the “is-ought fallacy” and why it need not always apply
  • how we’ve made moral progress over the centuries thanks to secular forces
  • why religion is always behind the wave of moral progress (but takes credit for it later)
  • the origin of good and evil
  • how to solve crime, homelessness, and other social problems through science, reason, and secular forces, and
  • the seven secular virtues.

Dr. Phil Zuckerman is the author of several books, including The Nonreligious, Living the Secular Life, Society without God, and his latest book, What it Means to be Moral. He is a professor of sociology at Pitzer College and the founding chair of the nation’s first secular studies program. He lives in Claremont, California, with his wife and three children.

Listen to Science Salon via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

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