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Interview with Richard Carrier

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RC: Be vocal. Talk about your values and beliefs with as many people as you can safely do, online and off, especially plugging the books or other resources you think really help people see the light. And support the engines of freethought outreach. Donate time or money to local and national atheist groups that you think are getting the word out, and most of all help support The Secular Web ( But above all, be reasonable, rational, kind, and honest, and cultivate a good life. The best advertisement for rational thought is for people to see that those who support it are good people, passionately devoted to their principles, and happy with their lives. My book Sense and Goodness without God talks about living the self-examined life, building your beliefs and plans on the actual facts of the world, and making yourself a better person, and the world a better place.

BD: Does social welfare contribute to this, or is it a side issue?

RC: Education and a quality learning environment contribute. So, insofar as social welfare of any sort improves or increases access to those two things, then yes. Otherwise, it's a "side issue" in the sense that the more that the state meets people's needs, the less people will have any use for religion. That's what's happened in Europe.

BD: Sam Harris has argued that atheism/freethought/science is not fundamentally the enemy of spirituality (either natural or even potentially supernatural), but rather allows us to transcend the cultural artifacts of our various traditions for an open and honest investigation of such questions and experiences. I know that you've written about defining "natural" and "supernatural" coherently. What are your thoughts on the matter?

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RC: I have a whole chapter advocating naturalist spirituality in Sense and Goodness without God. So I definitely agree. I don't think religion or irreligion should be the standard to decide what's credible or worth inquiry. But when we look at what standards we should have, from the professions of history and science for example, the supernatural doesn't fare too well. But that's only because it's false, so after a few hundred years of exploring the facts reliably, it's natural the old supernatural notions should start to look ridiculous by now. But as for religion, we can have a perfectly acceptable and credible religion without the supernatural, just so long as it is based on reality, which entails it must be malleable and changeable, not dogmatic, and it must serve the public good, not generate strife and attacks on human liberty.

BD: Pretend that you're trying to mount a defense of supernaturalism, for a moment. What areas of investigation would you be looking into? In other words, even though in reality, having studied the issue, you think the data is squarely on the side of naturalism as a worldview, what experiment(s) might you be interested in seeing done for potential falsification?

RC: I would like to see more quality research done on Near Death Experiences, mostly because there is a lot of natural science we could learn there, and there's a lot that needs teasing out (and a lot of really bad research being done that needs correcting). I'd like to see a reproduction of a well-controlled Ganzfeld experiment protocol on a wide scale, just as was recently done on medical prayer, designed (as that was) to conclusively settle the matter, and with a particular follow-up stage in an effort to continue "re-testing" heavy hitters, to finally test out the claim that some people are more psychic than others. Naturalism predicts regression to the mean will wash out the anomalous successes of heavy hitters once you keep testing them. It would be nice to see that conclusively. There is also a rise recently in wild claims about supernatural phenomena attending exorcisms. I'd like to see a proper, well-funded, ghost-buster team investigating those, on-call to go anywhere in the world to immediately start documenting cases as soon as they appear, if only to lay to rest the overblown claims, which only succeed because no one shines a light on the actual facts and witnesses. We've done the UFO thing to death. It once commanded the attention of thousands of investigators and enthusiasts and still has national databases collecting case reports. I'd like to see the same enthusiasm nationwide for the skeptical and scientific investigation of miracle claims in general. Not least because I think a lot could be learned about how these claims gain such traction, despite the facts always turning out so very differently than portrayed.

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But none of this is all that necessary, which is why no one foots the bill for any of this. We already have a pretty good handle on what's really going on when such claims go around, and those who care the most, are the least interested in actually being disappointed by what a real scientific inquiry will find. By contrast, the areas that are most in need of further inquiry on the border of the naturalism-supernaturalism debate, actually are at the forefront of research investment--just none of that funding is coming from believers. The three frontiers now are the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the physics of consciousness. The religious make tons of supernatural claims about these things, but spend no money in the effort to get the real answers. Instead, scientists and their supporters are investing billions in these fields, making huge progress, and yet they already know the results will not support supernaturalism. They just want the answers. So do I. But I would also like to see those frontiers completed just to ring the death knell for supernaturalism and confirm naturalism once and for all, moving it from philosophy to scientific fact. Then we could finally get down to the business of working out a naturalistically sound ethics and politics that increasing numbers would then have to agree is correct.

The Congress of the Future:

BD: I'm going to diverge from the "religion/philosophy" topic to ask you a political question. You propose an idea in your book that you mention in one of the comments of your blog post:

"I propose in my book not even having elections but a lottery among citizen college graduates who volunteer to run for congress. Then congress would have a statistical representation of the actual citizen body (roughly half would be women, hardly any would be Yale lawyers, etc.). They would then simply hire a president, who would be an employee (more like the English system). But even if we wanted to maintain elections for that office, in such a model this citizen congress could select four candidates to run for President and provide them with budgets suitable to get all the press they need (until the law of diminishing returns takes hold, such that more money won't help them)."

That's a very interesting idea, obviously inspired by the scientific/statistical practice of sampling. It would almost seem to reflect a scientific worldview in the same way that monarchy reflects a monotheistic one. Would such a thing be logistically possible?

RC: Yes. More now than ever, in fact. We have all the tools and knowledge necessary. The only vulnerability is manipulation of the randomizer. But scientists could easily come up with solutions to that problem (there are several I could think of just off the top of my head).

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BD: How large do you think the congress should be to be reasonably representative of a population of size x? (1000? 400?)

RC: Its current size is ample. 1000 is a standard sample size, but that's largely an arbitrary benchmark. Most studies do fine with only 400 or 500, and we have more: 535 in the current congress. In fact, we could talk specifically about how much margin of error in representation we are willing to accept, and from that a size would automatically follow from mathematical laws. But since turnover would be constant, everyone would have representation who wasn't in the rarest of minorities, who have no voice in the current system anyway, so would lose nothing in the new one. In fact, they'd have a better chance in that one than they do now. Otherwise, most variation around the mean with 535 members would cancel out over twenty four years (one generation), in which the total who will have sat for one term will number over 2000, even if we give them six year terms; over 3000 if they have four year terms. As sample sizes go, that's better representation by far than our present system could ever produce. There are even more elaborate, multi-tiered systems you could design. But I'm thinking of a transitional government that would be a hybrid of the new approach and what we have now, making as few changes as necessary to produce the intended benefit. It could be tweaked further after that, if anyone was still dissatisfied with it.

BD: Won't the fact that it is volunteer throw off how representative the group is of the actual population?

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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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