Debate: Is There An Afterlife? With Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, David Wolpe, and Bradley Artson, moderated by Rob Eshman
On 2011-02-17 in Los Angeles, California, there was a debate entitled “Is There An Afterlife?” featuring such prominent figures as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, David Wolpe, and Bradley Artson.
I attended this debate in person and it was very enjoyable. The topic of discussion may seem a bit silly, and in fact Sam Harris joked about this at the beginning of the debate saying, “I’ve been very worried about this, that all of you [in attendance] have given up a perfectly serviceable Tuesday evening only to hear the four of us tell you every which way that we have no idea what happens after death.” Despite this, it turned out to be very interesting. I found each of the panelists to be articulate, entertaining, concise, and witty. The only exception in my opinion was Artson, who was rambling, boring, and just kept droning on and on, talking in circles as well as going off on tangents rather than addressing the issues put forth to him by the others. It seemed to me Artson did not belong up there with the others who are the top dogs in their field and masters of their craft. But like I said, overall the event was great. The moderator Rob Eshman did an admirable job as well, and he wrote a good summary of the whole event which you can read here: http://www.jewishjournal.com/bloggish/item/hitchens_wolpe_harris_artsen_and_the_afterlife_excerpts_20110222/ In fact, if you watched the debate and didn’t know anything about Eshman, you would have a very difficult time determining which side of the issue he agreed with, and that is definitely the mark of a good debate moderator so I laud him for that.
At one point the conversation turned to the idea of dualism, the notion that the mind exists separately from the body and that a person is more than just the “sum of their parts.” Obviously this is closely tied in with the notion of an afterlife. One (or both) of the rabbis brought up the phenomenon of near-death experiences inducing a spiritual feeling in the person going through the experience, and used this as an argument for making their case for the existence of dualism. I was surprised and disappointed that Harris (who has a doctorate in neuroscience) did not refute this argument as many have done already. There is a growing body of evidence showing that the spiritual or religious feel of a near-death experience is a manifestation of biochemical processes going on in the brain. For example, researchers have been able to artificially induce this spiritual/religious feel of a near-death experience by stimulating the brain of a person in a certain way. There’s much more to be said about that topic but I will save it for another time; I merely brought it up to express my disappointment that Harris didn’t talk more about that, for whatever reason.
One other minor thing to note is that some of the audience was having trouble hearing Hitchens who had fairly recently undergone treatment for esophageal cancer (i.e. throat cancer). This was remedied when someone finally gave him a better microphone.
Feel free to watch the debate below. For the most part the entire discussion is fascinating and entertaining, regardless of your own personal beliefs on the issues. If you are interested in the topics of religion, death, afterlife, god, or a lack thereof, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the debate as much as I did.
Many people these days are aware of problems with schools. It’s an extremely complex issue with no easy answer. So I’m not proposing anything or trying to make any kind of grand sweeping generalization, or claiming I know how to fix the problems. But I want to share with you a personal example of a deficiency in my education (through no fault of my own).
I always paid attention in history class (or at the very least read all the assigned reading and did all the assigned work). So while I may not be a history whiz, I should at least know some of the basics, right?
Today I was on wikipedia reading about the Industrial Revolution. I’ve heard the term before, but we never covered it in school. Someone may have mentioned it in passing, but I really knew nothing about it until I started reading about it today. In the opening paragraph, it states “Economic historians are in agreement that the onset of the Industrial Revolution is the most important event in the history of humanity since the domestication of animals and plants.”
As I learned more about the Industrial Revolution, I began to see that this statement about the importance of the Industrial Revolution is not an exaggeration. Every single one of us lives the way we do because of what happened during the Industrial Revolution. I learned about economic growth. Mechanization. Worker exploitation. Labor unions. Collective bargaining. These things are huge. They matter, in a very direct and real sense. I’ve only skimmed the surface but now I at least have a foundation of knowledge about that subject. So many things in our every day lives are a direct result of global changes that took place during the Industrial Revolution, and having now learned the basics of it, I have a much better understanding of the world.
So what’s my point? Well, we’ve already talked about how we’re autodidacts. I just want to continue the conversation. There is so much to learn out there about the universe we live in. The more you learn, the more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that comprises our reality fit into place. Let your curiosity guide you. And know that there’s always so much more to be learned. You just have to teach it to yourself. It’s empowering.
EDIT 2011-10-16: The following videos about the future of education and how it can be changed for the better are both inspiring and jarring:
Both videos are TED talks regarding the current state of and the future of the educational system. In the first video, Salman Kahn (of Kahn Academy fame) talks about how he has begun working with schools to revolutionize teaching. The second video, which is a bit more bleak, has Bill Gates (of Microsoft fame) talking about the consequences of the budget cuts to education as well as the possibilities for fixing the problems.
I was compelled to share a noteworthy excerpt from the podcast The Skeptics’ Guide To The Universe, which if you’ve never heard of it before, I highly recommend you give it a listen because it’s one of the best podcasts out there, especially in the areas of skepticism and science. I want to bring to your attention an excerpt from episode #292 – Feb 16 2011. Steven Novella is host of the podcast and in my opinion is one of the most intelligent, cogent, and savvy experts in the skeptical community. In this excerpt he responds to someone espousing an anti-science viewpoint.
The most substantive and powerful part is when Steven Novella says that in responding to people who say things like “We don’t need science to tell us what to believe,” Steven Novella says to them “What do you think science is? There is nothing magical about science. It is simply a systematic way for carefully and thoroughly observing nature and using consistent logic to evaluate results. So which part of that exactly do you disagree with? Do you disagree with being thorough? Using careful observation? Being systematic? Or using consistent logic?”
Of course, there is no way someone can respond to that in any kind of intelligent way while still maintaining their anti-science viewpoint. Thank you, Steven Novella, for fighting the good fight, and being so on point. Definitely quote-worthy material here.