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.