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?
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.
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).
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?