I thought Beyond Belief II was an excellent, stimulating, provocative meeting, but I’m somewhat discouraged about writing it up in detail because everything was taped and will be available on the web very soon … so I don’t want to be entirely superfluous. I’ve already described the first day, though, so I’ll continue with the second and third days, trying to cue you in to what I thought was most interesting and what to look for in the videos.
Overall, let’s get some of the negatives of the meeting out of the way. There were a few things that could be improved for Beyond Belief 3:
Time management. The schedule was very general, with blocks of time marked off but no specific individuals or times listed—apparently, people were supposed to give 15 minute talks, but no one paid any attention to that except to wave cheerfully as the scheduled end of their talk flew by. It’s awfully hard to tell someone who is saying something stimulating to stop, but it really compromised the ability to ask questions and narrow discussions down to specific topics.
Format. Everything was centered around the one lecturer at the lectern, with questions afterwards. In one session, we got four people sitting at a table at the front of the room, but even there we didn’t get enough interaction between those people — they just answered questions individually. More discussion! More argument!
Focus. I don’t know how to improve this problem, if it is one at all: these were incredibly diverse topics. They were all interesting, but assembling them into a coherent whole is nearly impossible. I was entertained and enlightened, but I don’t know that I came out of the meeting with a sharper view of the future of the enlightenment.
Do not get the wrong impression, though: those little general complaints did not interfere with the fact that this was a most exhilarating meeting, and that I’d do it all over again (and maybe get more of an opportunity to participate myself). Now for a few things to look for when the videos become available:
Peter Atkins talked about science as culture, advocating both the power of reductionism and a kind of scientific imperialism that I rather liked but that others may find aggravating. He gave his vision of the history of knowledge: the pre-enlightenment was dominated by theology and philosophy, the first enlightenment toppled theology and was ruled by philosophy and science, and the next enlightenment (and here’s the part that will make some cringe) will dispose of the obstructionist rubbish of philosophy and allow science full dominion.
Harry Kroto offered us strategies to save us from a new dark age — he was promoting global educational outreach, an initiative to disseminate science, engineering and technology instruction to schools around the world. It’s a wonderfully positive approach. The questions afterwards got a little heated, though, because both Atkins and Kroto said disparaging things about the Templeton Foundation — Jonathan Haidt accused them of “moralistic tribalism” and defended the Templeton because they had funded some of his research on moral psychology, and Michael Shermer sounded absolutely furious that people weren’t appreciating the wonderful things the Templeton was doing. I think they’re both full of crap: the Templeton funds stealth religion, and the good work they support is a façade to conceal their aims…an effective shield, if Haidt’s and Shermer’s responses are any measure.
Scott Atran gave one of the more interesting talks of the meeting, I thought. It started off as an utterly awful mess: he was stating apologetics for religion, and stumbling incoherently through a series of powerpoint slides dense with text and often having nothing to do with his point. I was about ready to yell at him to shut off the damn distracting flurry of words on the screen and say something, and then he settled down into the meat of his talk, and it was fascinating. Unfortunately, he led in with a misrepresentation — ‘great scientists propose that the magic dust of atheism will produce peace’ — which is complete nonsense, and then gave a clear statement that I agree with, that there is absolutely no evidence for religion as an adaptation or for group selection. And then he was off with a detailed analysis of terrorist events and Al Qaeda.
Basically, he argued that Al Qaeda is a spent force with little power, and that recent terrorist attacks, in particular the Madrid bombing, are not driven by religion, but by moral outrage, and that the perpetrators of these attacks are not religious fanatics, but are instead disaffected losers. The strongest social correlation to forming a terrorist cell was not affiliation with some radical mosque, but rather that groups of young men bond on soccer fields. He made a very strong case, and I believe he is right. However, I disagree with him when he uses his data to give religion a free pass. These young men are lost, with little hope, and they are rightly outraged when they see Al Jazeera constantly dunning them with messages of murder and destruction by Western troops in places like Iraq, but then they do something that is only explained by religion: they cloister themselves together, recite the Koran repetitively, and eventually, in some cases, their outrage coalesces into a decision to go out and blow themselves up and kill civilians. I can understand how a violation of their sense of fairness and justice drives their initial impulses to band together, but it is their religion that then shapes those feelings into self- and cultural-destruction.
Lee Silver gave a talk about some of the complexities of getting rid of religion: people don’t just flop into a rationalist/naturalist position by default, but often fall prey to New Age/”Spiritual” beliefs.
Greg Epstein promoted humanism in a kind of sermon, and he ended it by singing us a song. He speaks well, but I am not enthusiastic; he’s basically advocating a new view of the enlightenment that adopts almost all of the apparatus of a religion except god-belief. Maybe that would work for a future post-theist generation, but for me, in a place where religion still has a strong hold and to which I react against, it’s a bit creepy. I don’t want to see the enlightenment coopted by a new religion, I want to see a cleaner break, with new institutions that owe little allegiance to the old.
Ronald de Sousa gave a rousing paean to the promotion of the romance of science, calling religion an obligatory delusion, distinguishing it from art, which is the enjoyment of known illusions.
Pat Churchland talked about neuroethics, in a talk that combined neuroscience and philosophy (it was a nice unstated rebuttal to Atkins’ claim that philosophy will wither away — rather, I think it will transform itself in novel ways). One particularly interesting part was the discussion of unconscious mimicry, where people assume the mannerisms of those they’re talking to…she argued that this is an evolutionarily advantageous feature because it is a marker of the possession of a normal social brain in those who do it.
We got a book reading from Rebecca Goldstein (I’d give you a link to the book, but it doesn’t seem to be on Amazon yet), and John Allen Paulos rambled a bit with some fun anecdotes, and he has a book coming out soon, too: Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). It sounds good, and I’ll be getting a copy as soon as I can.
V.S. Ramachandran gave one of the best talks of the meeting, but maybe I’m biased — it was straight neuroscience, with no concern about the ramifications of the biology into religion. Look it up when it’s available: it was all about synesthesia and what it tells us about the organization of the brain and how it plays into artistic talent and metaphor. I was inspired enough to tell my students in neurobiology that they have to go dig up papers on the topic and present them in class, so you may be hearing more about it in the student posts coming up.
Adam Kolber (he has a blog!) talked about neuroethics and the law…my first thought was that there couldn’t possibly be anything interesting in that subject, but he twisted my brain around a few times. I’ll say no more, maybe he’ll put a summary on the Neuroethics & Law Blog.
Jonathan Gottschall depressed us all with the state of literature and the humanities. He rather thoroughly trashed the whole field, not in its importance, but in the corrupt state of its methodology, and advocated a more objective and science-based approach. I thought he made some strong arguments; maybe someone more versed in literature studies will want to burn him in effigy.
I should not try to encapsulate David Brin‘s talk in a paragraph. It was performance art. But OK, I will disagree with his claim that the resolution of the Fermi Paradox is that something must be culling the numbers — I say the numbers weren’t there in the first place, and that maybe we shouldn’t be assuming that our brains are at all common in the universe. I was also thinking back to Pat Churchland’s talk, and our use of unconscious mimicry: most of the first contact science-fiction stories I’ve read assume that our first steps to communication with an alien intelligence will be along the lines of that mimicry…but if our responses have been selected by evolution as indicators of a well-socialized human brain, there is no reason to suppose that the alien will share our social cues.
Robert Winter ended the second day with a spectacular talk about music, Beethoven, and the nature of genius. We got to hear the early drafts of the themes in the 9th symphony (which sounded awful…the question was whether their awfulness was a consequence of their difference from the familiar Ode to Joy or whether they truly were simply bad). At any rate, it made very clear that that work of genius was not the product of some kind of abrupt ecstatic illumination, but long periods of very hard work.
Thus ended the second day, at about 7pm, about 2 hours over schedule. Then we were off to a fine dinner at the Scripps aquarium.
The final day began with Sam Harris. He still expresses misgivings about the word “atheism”, but that wasn’t the major point of his talk, which emphasized the positive values of reason and rationality. I think that’s exactly right; the label is a minor issue, one that shouldn’t distract us. Unfortunately, he also ended his talk with a brutal attack on Scott Atran’s interpretation of his data, which was just plain mean. I disagree with Atran’s final interpretation, too, but I also respect the work put into it, and that it is an important observation that the roots of the conflict lie in wider cultural and economic disparities, rather than just that their religion makes them do bad things. Atran took it well, but his reply was terse and pretty much closed off further discussion. That’s too bad; I think Atran’s work is a solid foundation in empirical analysis that we can’t afford to neglect.
Dan Smail gave the last full talk of the session, discussing the importance of history: to get the enlightenment right, we need to get the history right. This would have been a better talk near the beginning of the meeting, if only because my brain was fried by this point and I didn’t give it the attention it deserved. It’s one I’ll have to look up and review in a fresher state of mind.
There was one last very short talk, more of a comment on previous talks, by Jeff Hawkins, the guy behind Palm. He objected to the term “atheist” most strongly, arguing that it was equivalent to painting a target on yourself. Eh. I disliked the whole premise; it’s the kind of self-loathing nonsense that encourages a failure of will.
The final part of the day was spent in more formal one-on-one interviews, at length, between Roger Bingham and others. I only caught part of one, though, his interview with Dan Dennett, before I had to head out the door and go give a talk of my own at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. If you want to know more about Dennett, it sounded good.
And that was it. It was a grueling, thought-provoking, wide-ranging meeting, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it, even in those long minutes that were keeping me away from lunch and dinner. Next year, though, they’ve got to reduce the time spent on one-to-many lectures and put more time into the one-to-one and panel debates — we need more arguments!