Andrew Sullivan interviews Steve Pinker

October 30, 2021 • 11:00 am

Here’s Andrew Sullivan’s 72-minute “Dishcast” conversation with Steve Pinker, who’s doing a lot of events related to his latest book on rationality. The video was advertised in an email to Sullivan’s subscribers, so it hasn’t yet gotten many views. Here are the YouTube notes:

Pinker’s new book is Rationality. It’s like taking a Harvard course on the tricks our minds play on us. We had a blast — and I pressed him on several points.

. . . If you’d [like to] watch the whole episode in living color — and see the most famous hair in academia — we videotaped the remote convo in the Dishcast studio. It even has the view from Pinker’s window in the background.

I don’t have the book yet, so I don’t know what Steve’s definition of “rationality” is, nor is it discussed very much in the video, so I’ll give the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of “rationality” and “reason” that seem to comport with this discussion:

RATIONALITY:

REASON:

I would amend the “reason” definition to add “and apprehension of truth” to “The power of the mind to think and form valid judgements by a process of logic.”

This is an excellent discussion between two smart people, one of whom (Sullivan) has a strong belief in the irrational tenets of religion (he admits they’re irrational), while Pinker is an atheistic rationalist. About 25 minutes in, this leads to a discussion that is conducted with such civility that you can almost miss it: “Can religion be rational?” Otherwise, the tenor and content of the discussion is at a very high level, and Sullivan does a terrific job of bringing out Steve’s ideas while challenging some of them.

Notice the big picture of Darwin behind Sullivan.

Some of the issues and questions covered:

Are we the only animals who are rational?

What might have been the selection pressures that gave rise to the evolution of rationality?

If we’re rational, why do so many people believe in paranormal phenomena, superstitions, and so on? Why do so many people reject vaccination when it seems the rational thing to do?

Re the above: how can rationality result in religious belief?

Since there are mathematical realists who believe that the structure of mathematics is “out there” somewhere, and that mathematical truths are in existence but waiting to be discovered, Sullivan wants to know if you can apply that same logic to God. (Pinker’s answer is “no”, but is very politely delivered.)

What does Pinker see as the most pervasive and problematic forms of irrationality in modern society? (#1: The “my side” bias.)

Can rational beliefs or action on the part of individual be irrational for their society?

Sullivan, speaking as a gay man, asks Pinker how to approach raising questions that could harm his community (i.e., the idea that homosexuality is produced by the behavior of one’s mother). Pinker raises two possibilities using the example of his own background, which is Jewish. (Pinker, by the way, mentions that his next book will involve the use of euphemisms, “genteel hypocrisy,” tact and taboo in producing a better society.)

A Kendi-inspired question: Is it rational to call people racists when they have no racist beliefs or intentions, but commit an act that some people see as racist (or, as Kendi might say, are not actively antiracist)? In other words, does intent matter?

Is it rational to ignore or oppose nuclear energy when it may be an important cure for global warming?

Why do iconic events like 9/11 or the murder of George Floyd lead to some irrational reactions?

How does Pinker maintain his composure in the face of continual attacks from the Left?

Have a listen!

John McWhorter talks to Sam Harris

September 19, 2020 • 1:15 pm

It’s supposed to be my day off, so I’ll save the braining for other days. But here’s a nice listen if you have an hour to spare.

If you click on the screenshot below, you’ll get to hear an hour and eleven minutes of linguist and writer John McWhorter chatting with Sam Harris on Harris’s podcast “Making Sense.”  McWhorter’s topic is, as the title indicates, “The New Religion of Anti-Racism,” which I believe is the subject of his next book. You don’t get to listen to the entire conversation (I’m not sure how long the whole thing is) unless you subscribe to Sam’s podcast series.

Here are Sam’s notes on the podcast:

In this episode of the podcast, Sam Harris speaks with John McWhorter about race, racism, and “anti-racism” in America.

They discuss:

    • how conceptions of racism have changed
    • the ubiquitous threat of being branded a “racist”
    • the contradictions within identity politics
    • recent echoes of the OJ verdict
    • willingness among progressives to lose the 2020 election
    • racism as the all-purpose explanation of racial disparities in the U.S.
    • double standards for the black community
    • the war on drugs
    • the lure of identity politics
    • police violence
    • the enduring riddle of affirmative action
    • the politics of “black face” and other topics

I’ve listened to all but the last ten minutes or so, as I fell asleep—not because it was boring, but because I was exhausted from lack of sleep.

If you’ve read or hear McWhorter, or read about him on this site, you’ll know he doesn’t take the Black Lives Matter party line, even though he’s black. In fact, he’s highly critical of that line, which he calls “the Critical Race Theory-infused way of looking at things”, assuming a “nation of identities”.  McWhorter’s call is a strong one: telling us that the whole dialogue with BLM/CRT advocates “is something that enlightened people have to learn to stand down” (he loves that last phrase). In other words, don’t engage with these people; just “work around them.”

Normally I’m not an “ignore the other side” person, but, as McWhorter says, “don’t engage the woke,” as “they can’t be reasoned with”: something that we’ve all learned through experience. It’s like trying to engage any zealot convinced that they’ve got the absolute truth. Although Sam tends to bang on a bit too long in a conversation that should highlight the guest, it’s not too obtrusive, and McWhorter does get his say in.

I’m also not a podcast kind of guy, as I can read much faster than I can listen, but I think you’ll enjoy this 71 minutes. Click just below (not on the photo):

McWhorter:

Ricky Gervais chats with Richard Dawkins

May 18, 2020 • 2:00 pm

This video was posted a week ago, but shows a conversation that took place last fall. On 3 September 2019, Ricky Gervais was given the 2019 Richard Dawkins Award. The award recognizes individuals who proclaim “the values of secularism and rationalism, upholding scientific truths wherever it may lead.” Gervais received the award during a Center for Inquiry-sponsored ceremony at London’s Troxy Theatre. Dawkins praised Gervais for being a “witty hero of atheism and reason.” And I have to add, in a mixture of both solipsism and humility, that I received that award in 2015, and now, what with other awardees like Gervais, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Stephen Pinker, and Stephen Fry, I feel like I don’t deserve to be in this club. But I’m not giving my cat back (see below)!

Here are the YouTube notes:

Multi-award-winning stand-up comedian, screenwriter, and actor Ricky Gervais was presented with this year’s Richard Dawkins Award, from the Center for Inquiry. CFI campaigns to remove the influence of religion in science education and public policy, and to eliminate the stigma that surrounds atheism and non-belief.

The Richard Dawkins Award has been presented annually since 2003. Past winners have included philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, activist and feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and actor and writer Stephen Fry.

This event was an unscripted conversation between Gervais and Dawkins, in which everything is on the table and nothing is sacred. They were joined by host, best-selling author and professor of psychology, Richard Wiseman.

It’s worth listening to the conversation, but the best part is the last half. (Wiseman’s presence seems to detract a bit from the flow of conversation.) Robyn Blumner, CEO of CFI, introduces the event and Richard until 7:45, and then at 8:38 in Richard speaks, laying out the reasons why Gervais got the award. The award this year seems to be a glass double helix; mine was a small replica of a skull of a saber-tooth tiger (honoring my love of cats).

At 18:50 Gervais comes onstage for the conversation, and in fact has a gulp of beer as he begins.

I found the most enlightening part of the conversation to be Gervais’s defense of his in-your-face “offensive” comedy style, which starts at 48:00. Richard names his favorite book (you might be surprised), they discuss why comedians tend to be atheists rather than believers, and then Gervais talks about his new Netflix show After Life, which I am still very keen to see.

h/t: BJ

My talk with Andrew Seidel about his book on America’s secular origins

July 23, 2019 • 9:15 am

As I wrote a while back, in June I had a 45-minute public discussion with Andrew Seidel, a constitutional attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation and its Director of Strategic Response. The topic was Andrew’s new book, The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American. It took place at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Hemant Mehta (“the Friendly Atheist”) was the moderator.

As always, I can’t bear to listen to myself talk, so I didn’t go through this. But I recall that Andrew was very eloquent and enlightening (as interlocutor, my role was just to ask questions, so the floor was his).  I think you’ll learn a lot about Andrew’s twin theses: the U.S. was not founded as a Christian nation, nor was it founded on Christian principles. (Also, as you probably already know the founders weren’t very religious. In fact, some of them were quite randy and, by evangelical Christian lights, immoral!)

I did listen near the end just so I can tell you that the audience questions begin about 48½ minutes in. And I can assure you that you will enjoy Andrew’s conversational style and will learn a lot, including what a liberal constitutional lawyer thinks of today’s Supreme Court, and where the law is heading.

A discussion between Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins

February 5, 2019 • 1:15 pm

Here’s a conversation between Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins at last year’s CSIcon meeting in Las Vegas. Curiously, none of these CSIcon videos have gotten many views; this one has only 337 views, and two of them are mine.

The moderator, Nick Little, a Center for Inquiry attorney, goes on a bit long in his introduction, but the rest is fine, though completely dominated by Stephen Fry. That’s okay by me, as I’ve listened to Richard many times but not so often to Fry. And Fry is a good raconteur, talking about mythology, the ancient Greeks, and the role that religion played in their lives. (About a year ago Fry published a book called Mythos: A Retelling of the Myths of Ancient Greece.) I could listen to that guy for hours. But here you only have to listen for 17 minutes.

There may be a further part to this discussion, but I can’t find it on YouTube.

Free chinwag featuring two atheists this Wednesday in Madison, and other FFRF events

March 12, 2018 • 1:45 pm

On Wednesday I’m doing three gigs in Madison, two viewable in real time, one of those attendable in person, and one for later.

  1. First, there will be a free event at the FFRF’s new headquarters in Madison, Wisconsin: a conversation between Dan Barker and me. We had a great chat in Texas not that long ago, and I expect this one will be fun, too. The FFRF’s notice:

Jerry Coyne, professor of evolution & ecology at the University of Chicago, will discuss his books Faith vs. Fact and Why Evolution is True at 7:00 PM, Wednesday, March 14th at Freethought Hall in downtown Madison. Coyne was the recipient of FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes award for plain speaking on religion in 2011. He will be joined by FFRF’s co-president Dan Barker as they explore science and the incompatibility of fact and faith. Books from both authors will be available for purchase and signing at this event. Hot beverages and light snacks will be furnished. This event is free and open to FFRF members, family and friends.

Dan has a new book out on free will, which is both determinist and compatibilist, and I hope we have some back and forth on that, too.  At any rate, if you’re in the area, do stop by. And if you want a book signed and make a cat noise (like ‘meow’ or ‘hiss’), I’ll draw a cat in your book. I will be wearing cowboy boots.

2. On Wednesday at noon you can see me, Dan, and Annie Laurie on the FFRF’s “Ask An Atheist” show, broadcast live on their Facebook page. You can submit questions during the show, or email them to the FFRF. It will also be put up later on YouTube.

3. I’ll be taping a video show, also with Dan and Annie Laurie, for the new “Freethought Matters” series. That isn’t open to the public, but will also be on YouTube later.

Sam Harris chats with Russell Brand

February 4, 2018 • 2:30 pm

I heard from Grania that this conversation took place, and could only imagine how it went down, especially given the difference in demeanor between these two guys.  Russell Brand can be quite funny and articulate, but he can also be gonzo. Sam is never gonzo.  I haven’t yet watched this two-hour video, but I’m putting it here in case you want some brain food instead of watching the Superbowl.

Apropos, here’s how readers predict the Superbowl outcome as of 2:30. (Not much of a vote, I have to say.) I voted for the Patriots, though all I know about this contest is that Tom Brady is a great quarterback. Kickoff is at 5:30 Chicago time, which is the same as Minneapolis time, where the game will be played. Yes, it will be played in the dark and in bitter cold; it’s insane that they’re not having it in, say, Florida.

 

On to the main event, which I’ll watch in pieces:

h/t: Vera