Candles in the Dark?

By Namit Arora | Dec 2008 | Comments

Bb3 Beyond Belief, an annual symposium that seeks to promote the constituency of reason in society, was held this year from October 3-6 in La Jolla, CA. One weekend recently, I watched all 44 of its talks and panel discussions now available online (each about 25-30 mins). The theme this year was Candles in the Dark. Participants were asked "to propose a Candle — a potential solution to a problem that they have identified in their area of expertise or informed passion." The symposium was organized around sessions that focused on science's contribution to five human preoccupations: politics, morality, happiness, money, and law.

If the anthropologists stole the show in 2006, this year belonged to the lawyers, or rather law academics who actively seek to incorporate science in their methods. By far the smartest group of people in the room, they evinced the most nuanced understanding of the difference between science and metaphysics in general, and the limits and ethical implications of neuroscience research on criminal law, in particular. Other presentations I enjoyed came from Jonathan Haidt, Beatrice Golomb (her animated talk on how money is corrupting medical research was also the scariest), Philip Zimbardo, and Jonathan Glover. Strategies for promoting science in the public sphere—via Washington lobbies, media outreach—were presented and debated but only peripherally mentioned was the one I think can make a more fundamental impact: a "next-generation Carl Sagan" to seduce young minds by showing them the wonder and power of science, using the best available multimedia and teaching aids.

The least inspiring session was the opening one on Human Flourishing/Eudaimonia. Disquisitions on happiness somehow managed to neither define happiness, nor how to measure it. Individual speakers who irked me the most included Patricia Churchland, a snake oil seller at the crossroads of neuroscience and philosophy, and whose thesis was effectively destroyed by a sharp observation from Nita Farahany, a lawyer; Sam Harris, the Dick Cheney of the symposium, who understands neither science nor religion but is wholly unaware of it. Why does he get invited every year? For the tawdry drama he adds to the proceedings? Peter Atkins, a textbook example of what a scientist without humility can become. Last year he fatuously proclaimed the impending demise of philosophy and the coming reign of science, adding that "We've got to get rid of philosophy because it is really such a ball and chain on progress ... a philosopher is really just a nuisance." Choosing Atkins to end the symposium with his talk was a real downer.

The first two symposiums (2006, 2007) were dominated by scientists taking cheap potshots at religion and sparring over it. This year's format made that difficult but the symposium's lack of diversity remains a serious problem—nearly all of the participants continue to be white Anglo-American atheists to whom religion means Abrahamic rule books. Excluding a handful of multidisciplinary researchers, intellectual breadth also remained a problem—many scientists demonstrated yet again that outside their narrow specialties, they aren't necessarily smarter than their hairdressers. Some new faces I'd like to propose for the symposium next year include H. Allen Orr, Mark Lilla, Reza Aslan, Ashis Nandy, Nicholas Maxwell, Jill Bolte Taylor, Michael Sandel, Amartya Sen, Meera Nanda, Jonathan Spence, Sudhir Kakar, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, and Hubert Dreyfus.

The 2008 Shunya's Notes Best Speaker Award at the Beyond Belief Symposium goes to Amanda Pustilnik, a brilliant woman who conducts research and teaches in the area of law and neuroscience at Harvard Law School. She spoke about where neuroscience can make a contribution to legal doctrine (video below, 17 mins).

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