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Interview with Richard Carrier

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RC: The internet is already radically changing the game. It is now no longer possible for any evangelist or preacher to make any claim without the hearer being able to check it almost immediately against worldwide knowledge and opinion. Those who have comfortable and steady access to the internet now, are being exposed to numerous diverse points of view and debate of every claim and issue, which has two beneficial effects. First, it eliminates all parochialism. Gone for them are the days of hearing and knowing only one religion, sect, or point of view. Second, it leaves them no choice but to learn ways to check and weigh different arguments and claims and decide whom to believe. This increases the spread of critical thinking skills, because in the face of the chaos of competing claims on the internet those skills become essential tools you can't do without. And both those developments are bad for religion, because religion never fares well against an informed, critical audience. Within fifty years internet access will not be the privilege of 20% of the public any more (or whatever that percentage is now), it will be readily available to 80% or more of U.S. citizens. Within a hundred years, it will be 100%.

But a lot more will happen technologically in the interim. For example:

Within a hundred years we will have working telepathy machines. Sounds crazy, but the technology is already conceivable, and all the components are already tracking development on a trajectory to that inevitable outcome. We can only quibble about when. The ramifications are huge, most of them no doubt beyond our present imagining. Some I can predict already: the mind-brain problem will have been solved, and we will know the physical explanation for every component of consciousness, including religious experience, and every form of insanity and mental disorder. We will even be able to track the brain processes involved in real time all the way to their sensory inputs and mechanical causes. All religious doctrines depending on a soul or religious feelings will by then be antiscientific fringe beliefs as hilarious as young earth creationism today. The "internet" will then become many times more effective, as our minds will replace search engines directly. Education will be enhanced enormously. A college education will essentially be available to anyone. A single teacher will be able to talk to a classroom of millions at once, and be able to communicate with them on levels far beyond mere speech. We will also have 100% reliable lie detectors and insanity detectors, so anyone who wants to try and get away with any claim can be called out: either take the test or walk. That will impair the ability of most religious nuts to evangelize: when they refuse to prove they are honest and sane, that will stigmatize them as unreliable, while for those who volunteer for the tests, to prove what they are saying is on the up and up, whatever they say will be trusted in a way we were never able to sort out before.

Within two hundred years we will probably be able to download our minds entirely into computer simulated universes, at which point we will literally get to vote for God. God in this case being whichever individual or consortium designs a given simverse you can join. Effectively acting as Creator, they can create any rules and resources in that universe they want. Religion will then be irrelevant. You will get to have eternal life in any universe you choose. And if you tire of the one you choose, you can hop to another. Everything religion has to offer now, will be supplied by these networks. And it's a basic rule of economics: when people can get a better product for just as cheap, your product will go the way of the urban gas lamp or the phonograph.

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BD: When it comes to downloading our minds into computer simulated universes, and life extension in general, it kind of sucks for those of us who didn't or won't make the cutoff. How do you, as an individual, face the prospect of death, and how do you recommend that others face it? Stoically?

RC: I answer this question, of course, in Sense and Goodness without God. But I ran across a brilliant quote from Mark Twain recently that really just says it all: "I do not fear death, in view of the fact that I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it."

BD: What are potential challenges humanity may be facing in regards to the changes in the "religious/philosophy" sphere, and what would you like to see happening?

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RC: In general, I would like to see increasing universal improvements in education. In particular, I want our education system to shift from a memory-based to a skills-based model. For example, now we ask students to memorize lists and facts (as in science and history), and mechanically reproduce procedures (as in math and language), without actually teaching them any skills. Instead of teaching history as long lists of names and dates, history should be taught as cause and effect, with an emphasis on historical method: how do we know what we know about history, how do we test and challenge claims about history, when should we be humble or cautious about historical claims and why. Science should be taught in terms of method: how did ancient scientists figure out what they did, how do we test scientific claims today, what sorts of general and specific methods work, how can they be adapted to other things, what lessons have we learned about assumptions or methods that misled us in the past. Mathematics should be about why math is useful, it should be about application, what is it for, how can we use it, and to that end statistics should replace algebra as the primary focus of required course work, so students know how to evaluate statistical claims made in the media and elsewhere, and algebra and other maths should focus less on memorizing procedures and more about how those maths can be used in the real world to accomplish things, and what the equations and symbols represent in the real world. For example, calculus makes a great deal more sense, and teaches us a great deal more of use, when we understand that it's not just a complicated calculation procedure, but that equations in calculus are literally sentences describing physical, often three dimensional shapes, and that we can use those descriptions to predict things about those shapes, such as in the very way Newton designed the calculus for. And philosophy should be a required subject at all grade levels beginning at least at middle school, again not as a history of philosophy or survey of philosophical positions and ideas, but as a skill, an actual practice and procedure, a set of questions and a method, an understanding of why those questions are important, how their answers affect everything up to and including the moral and political decisions we make, how to find and test those answers on our own, and how using the tools of self-examination and critical thinking about life can make us happier, better people.

I think if every American had an education like that, an education that didn't infantilize them but challenged them and truly taught them how to think and gave them skills for questioning and getting at the truth and arming themselves against deception and manipulation, from the media, from marketing, from government, and yes, from religion, the future course of this nation would be far brighter for it.

Problems with Academic Philosophy:

BD: Speaking of the history of philosophy, throughout its history there have been many "proofs" of the existence of God. I was under the impression that since Hume and Kant, it was generally understood that they were all fallacious. Would you agree with that statement?

RC: I'm not sure if they are all, strictly speaking, "fallacious," since some could be (in principle) merely unsound (i.e. logically valid but depending on one or more premises that are factually false or undemonstrated). But most of them are certainly fallacious. Paulos's book Irreligion really nails that point.

BD: And yet, William Lane Craig, who you recently debated about the resurrection of Jesus, argues in "God Is Not Dead Yet" that there has been a "renaissance of Christian philosophy" in academia.

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RC: That's perhaps a bit misleading. There has been a rise in fundamentalists trying to act like serious philosophers (e.g. Swinburne, Plantinga, even Craig himself), not any actual evangelization of traditional philosophy departments. This is actually a sign of their doom. They used to be so confident that they would denounce even the idea of trying to play at being elitist intellectuals, and damn philosophers and scientists alike as fiddling on the Titanic. Remember Young Earth Creationism? Or Biblical literalism for that matter? They are still around. Craig probably believes in both (certainly the latter). But he won't ever admit it in a debate, or will downplay it with every effort he can muster, because he (like most fundamentalists) knows it's a losing argument--which is to say, it's an argument they've lost. They won't admit this. They like to pretend they can coax us all back into those views using the "wedges" created by new Christian scholarship and philosophy, and such pseudoscientific idols as Intelligent Design and Old Earth Creationism, but they are fooling themselves. Biblical literalism is, like Young Earth Creationism, no longer a respectable position among growing numbers of Americans (and already a majority among Canadians, Europeans, Australians, Japanese, and so on), but especially in academia. You can't do theology the old way, arguing from an exegesis of the Bible, claiming to have spirit communications from God, or appealing to worldly authorities like sectarian creeds or the Pope. Only science and academic philosophy are respectable, moving forward, dominating social opinion, and have any chance of surviving the long haul. Fundamentalists have given in to this reality. So just as Creationists tried to survive by jumping on the bandwagon, re-dressing their views as Creation Science, and now Intelligent Design, theologians and apologists are trying to survive by jumping on the bandwagon, and re-dressing their views as "philosophy," learning and following all the academic conventions that that entails (strict logic and citation methodologies, reliance on secular academic history and science for factual premises, the more academic use of the footnote, you name it). That's the "renaissance" Craig is talking about. It won't work. Indeed, by the numbers, we can already tell it isn't working.


BD: He lists a number of modern philosophers who defend each of these old arguments.

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Ben Dench graduated valedictorian of his class from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in the Spring Semester of 2007 with a B.A. in philosophy (his graduation speech, which received high praise, is available on YouTube). He is currently (more...)

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