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RS14 - Jennifer Michael Hecht on Science, Religion, Happiness, and Other Myths

Release date: August 1, 2010

Author, science historian, philosopher, and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht discusses her views on science, religion, and skepticism.  She talks about her book "The Happiness Myth", showing how the very concept of happiness has changed dramatically both in time and across cultures, to the point that it may make little sense to simply ask “are you happy”? Also she makes her skeptical comments on the findings of science, for instance concerning eating and exercise habits, and how the skeptic community's reliance on science borders on religion.

Jennifer teaches at the New School in New York City. She is the author of "Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson" and of "The Happiness Myth: The Historical Antidote to What Isn't Working Today", among other books.

Comment on the episode teaser.

Jennifers's pick: The websites "HiLoBrow" and Best American Poetry

Reader Comments (14)

Pretty disappointing interview. The author struggled to make her points clear, which made me think that she was attempting to convey a gut perspective about science rather than any logical point (particularly early in the interview). Even when Julia or Massimo stepped in to clarify what she was trying to convey, what followed was even less clear. I kept thinking: so... what is your point and how does it follow?

Her position about America's obsession for living longer was a bit off too. She was comparing the writings of famous people in history to current popular culture obsessions with longevity. Is this even a valid comparison? What famous philosopher, poets, or thinkers now are writing about these things and is this excessive? Does she know that the average person in the past was not thinking about these things? Not to mention throughout history there were always some famous people obsessed with mortality and seeking a fountain of youth (or analogous). In addition she seems to be limiting her representation of modern times with people of the United States, but allowing a very broad represntation of the past.

"The amount of time you spend alive with eternity on either side is relatively not important." Really? Well thats all we have, so from my perspective it is 'relatively everything.'

Throughout the entire interview she attempts to criticize science by commenting on the media protrayal (or public understanding) of science. These are not the same things. Scientists have some responsibility, but from my perspective it is a cultural failure... the media and public are largely at fault here. People are not fullfilling their duties to educate themselves properly, and that is not the same as science is not progressing properly.

I do have sympathy for her arguments about suicide. I think it is an underappreciated perspective that there are social reasons and personal obligations that conflict with a person's right to suicide, and that the religious argument against suicide is only one of many. I still think that ultimately people should be able to make that choice, but there is an ethical obligation of the person to pursue every other option, and if they make that choice ensure that it is done in a way that minimizes its harm to others.

August 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChrisB

I'm not sure what I think about Jennifer Michael Hecht. One minute she sounds very astute, the next she's so vague and confused sounding that I'm not sure what she's even trying to say. She seems to be attacking straw men quite often but, since she doesn't address exactly what it is she's discussing, it's really hard to tell. I've decided to put her into the "ignore" category.

August 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVictor

Love the show as always.. Although I think some of Hecht's points could have been challenged more strongly.

One inconsistency (apparent to me at least) was she at one point implied that it was nonsensical to try to stay alive as long as you can, and then the next explained her next book is about the obligation to stay alive for others (as long as you can).

August 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVince

An interesting tack that we have an obligation to not commit suicide for the sake of others. I wonder where that obligation derives since none of us chose to be brought into this life and were instead the result of the conscious decisions of others. Are we then obligated to keep living in order to validate those decisions in which we had no part? Personally I don't think so and considering the negative impact that we westerners are having on the ecosphere an equal case could be made that we have an obligation to die both childless and soon.

August 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThameron

"I wonder where that obligation derives since none of us chose to be brought into this life and were instead the result of the conscious decisions of others."

I don't see the connection between not choosing the start of our individual lives, and therefore not having obligations to the people we have personal relationships with. By this rationale we wouldnt have any obligations to anyone for anything. The obligation arises (at least in part) from the decisions we make in forming personal relationships: getting married, developing friendships, having childern, etc. The more people who are emotionally, financially, etc dependent upon us, then more obligation we have. If an individual feels that he/she doesn't want his/her life, then he/she should at least choose not to develop those relationships in order to minimize the harm to others. If that decision is made later in life it should be done in a way that minizes harm to others. Why is this at all controversial?

August 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChrisB

It seems to me that being born with a social obligation to live for others is similar to being born into original sin. Human being need social ties to make their lives both possible and more comfortable since we are so poorly adapted to survive individually in most of the areas in which we live. Once you have decided that you no longer wish to live none of those social bonds apply and for the person who succeeds there will be no consequence beyond what nature has decreed from the start. i.e. death and accompanying oblivion. Underlying this all of course is the presumption that human life has some inherent value, which as far as I can tell is just an unfounded opinion.

August 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThameron

"It seems to me that being born with a social obligation to live for others is similar to being born into original sin."

I see no relationship between the two.

"Underlying this all of course is the presumption that human life has some inherent value, which as far as I can tell is just an unfounded opinion."

The fact that you are still alive and communicating with others on a website indicates that you must feel otherwise. I'm am also fairly certain that if you walked by a two year old in the process of drowning in a shallow pool that you would put the little effort it took to save the child's life. I don't think that you can be consistant with the persepctive you put forth and not be a psychopath... not that you are one, but more likely that you are putting forth a perspective that you don't truly believe.

The facts that our births are not asked for and that our deaths are inevitable and permanent does not make the in-between meaningless. You can choose this perspective, but what is the point of that? It is not any more true that the alternative and is a lot more miserable.

August 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChrisB

"I see no relationship between the two. "

The relationship is that in each of those cases you come out of the womb burdened by obligations that you did not choose. You start the game of life already behind.

"The fact that you are still alive and communicating with others on a website indicates that you must feel otherwise. "

There are actually some things that one might rationally conclude from that scant evidence. One could conclude that either I like living or I am afraid of dying or some mixture of those two. You also might conclude that I have some urge to communicate in written form. That would be pretty straightforward and logical, but to conclude that I think that human life has inherent value? That would be a bit of a stretch. There are approximately 6.7 billion of us on the planet. Do I think that each of those lives has inherent value? No. I do not. In fact I think a large percentage of them are oxygen to carbon dioxide converters and that the planet would be a happier (more biologically diverse, less polluted, less climatically changed) place without them. Would I save a drowning child? Yes probably because I don't lack those social instincts and it is more visceral when it's personal, but do I care about the large numbers of dead from the worldwide floods? No. Because I see that as just the first notes of a choir of misery about to begin.

Meanwhile back at suicide. I fully support those who choose that path, because it is one of the few choices that you actually get and all you are doing is erasing a minuscule amount of time between now and your inevitable death. In the same way killers are merely time thieves.

And I will have to disagree with you. Our inevitable personal end, the inevitable end of our race. The end of our star and of all the other stars makes pretty much anything we do meaningless. Just because the face of truth is hideous doesn't make it any less true. Even the best that we might aspire to will come to nothing in the ocean of time. All of our acting is for an epitaph that no one will read. The misery isn't in those cold facts though. The misery is in the fact that we know it.

August 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThameron

"The relationship is that in each of those cases you come out of the womb burdened by obligations that you did not choose. You start the game of life already behind."

So what if you don't choose it? You don't get to choose a lot of things. And you are not "behind" ... its not an absolute obligation, and its not a one way obligation. We are social animals and we have responsibilities to eachother (I don't really think obligation is the correct word). It is not a burden because we are interdependent, and no one can survive on their own from birth (this alone shows that we benefit from mutual reponsibilties to eachother).

"the planet would be a happier (more biologically diverse, less polluted, less climatically changed) place without them"

Its strange that you place value of the happiness of a planet (which is meaningless since planets do not experience emotions) over the value of human beings as a whole or individually. Apparently you value biodiversity (with the expeption of the loss of human biodiversity) and a reduction of climate change (which the earth itself could care less about). I agree that these things are important to some degree, but only if you acknowledge that there is inherent value in life. YOU shouldnt care about this things at all. This is entirely inconsistent with your perspective that "the end of our star and other stars make everything we do meaningless." If it is all meaningless then so are the "bad things" we do. It it all irrelevant because all things will come to an end.

"Meanwhile back at suicide. I fully support those who choose that path, because it is one of the few choices that you actually get and all you are doing is erasing a minuscule amount of time between now and your inevitable death. In the same way killers are merely time thieves."

I think that people have a right to suicide, but only under certain conditions. Why is it conditional? The same reasons discussed before. You have resonsibilites to the people you have personal realtionships with. I think that dealing with a loved-ones suicide is one of the worst experiences someone can have (much worse than most acts we would consider as wrong). This damage can be minimized if the decision is well thought out in order to make sure the decision was not made in haste or in desperation. I someone has thought it through, explored all other options, and decides that this life is not for them then they should be able to make that choice.

"Just because the face of truth is hideous doesn't make it any less true."

Except that it is not a "truth." It is true in a macro and detached perspective, but we live micro and attached lives. It can't all be meaningless because it is all the meaning that we have. You just don't value and appreciate it. I value and appreciate human interactions (admittedly this statement is only occasionally true), and while I have an awe about the universe as a whole, I feel that this is a secondary intellectual interest.

It seems to me you are approaching these topics with an intentionally pessimistic slant, focusing on the negative and calling all of the positives meaningless. I keep thinking that from your perspective psychopaths have everything in the correct perspective, and everyone else is deluded. I think this is mostly but not entirely untrue.

August 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChrisB

I place a great deal of store by the making of decisions. Our decisions are the only thing which is truly ours. Not even the molecules that presently compose my body are in any sense mine since they are being constantly interchanged with different ones from the environment but my decisions are. Not even time can erase them (although enough time can erode them into nothingness). I did not decide to live but I, and anyone else who is cognizant and capable, can make the decision to die. While I don't think you should maximize the pain of others in making that decision I don't think you owe it to them to keep living if it is no longer worth it.

I don't actually hate people to the extent that I want to see them all disappear as some do, but nor do I love them to the extent that I want all the plants to be food crops, and all the animals to be domestic ones to serve an ever growing population of people. In my opinion beauty without an audience is a waste as is an audience without beauty to witness. There should be enough people to study, learn from and appreciate the beauty of the natural world, but not so many that they destroy it because they have to to eat or desire to to satisfy some shortsighted need. The world we live in is obviously a long way from that ideal and getting further from it each day. I think about 2 billion people would be a good sustainable number.

I am also a fan of complexity. Life and consciousness both emerged from it, but right now (and for the foreseeable future) our species is a force of homogenization. We don't know what other gifts complexity might have waiting for us, and the way we are going we may never know. So it is not exactly the happiness of the planet I am advocating. It is the complexity.

You are right though in that I should not really care, but certainly I am not alone in inconsistency. I care for an instinctual reason. We humans are born story tellers and appreciators and I would like the human story to read 'They did the best they could and ended well' rather than 'they screwed up royally and died at each other's throats'. It's an aesthetic thing really. Even the coldest logic cannot free me of all the bonds of my nature.

The psychopaths? No, I think David Ludden said it best in his review of The Matrix of the Brain

"Some people have markedly more balanced self-perceptions than normal people -- they know clearly what their
limitations are and how little control they actually have over their lives. They are also clinically depressed, and seeing reality for what it is, they become overwhelmed and lose the desire to go on living."

I suppose that meaning depends almost entirely on how you want to adjust your focus. Adjust it wide enough and there is no meaning. Adjust it narrow enough and cutting your fingernails becomes an act of the most profound significance. Blessed indeed are those who can hold their focus in a balanced place where happiness is possible. Sadly due to some combination of evolution, gestation, genetics, or environment I am not one of those people. I look at the horizon and it looks pretty damned bleak.

August 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThameron

I guess I was never trying to "convince" you of anything here, but point to some inconsistencies in your various views. You acknowledged some inconsistencies, which we are all guilty of to some extent. I think it is important to explore and reconcile inconsistencies. I actually think I understand where you are coming from but feel that it is a matter of perspective... two people can look at the same painting, see a very different image, and be both equally 'correct.' Personally I think it is best if a person can see the same picture in many different ways, and therefore can appreciate the complexities of various perspectives. "Wide focus" is not any more valid than "narrow focus" they are both equally valid, and we all have to adjust our focus much like we literally do when we focus our eyes... adjust them to each situation: wide, narrow, and inbetween.

I think that it is probably true that depressed people, on average, see the world more accurately than people who are not (I think that you indirectly implied that), but I don't think that you need to be deluded to be happy in your individual life or have a generally optimistic outlook.

I think some of what you think of the human race is based upon a pessimistic view of modern times. In almost every measurable way, things are much better for humans. As a whole, we live longer, have more food available, have less disease, less war, etc. now than we have had in the past. Of course our population growth is a partial consequence of all of this, and we will struggle to deal with this. It is debatable how much technology will help with this, but we are where we are. The truth is that we have little say... many of these decisions are in the hands of people who don't or can't see the big picture perspective. Its hard to worry about this when your daily life is a struggle for food and safety.

I don't think it is very productive to worry about these "big picture" problems on a daily basis unless you are attempting to do something about it (enter politics, raise awareness through activism, journalism etc). For the rest of us, we just need to make a positive impact in our individual lives and those around us, and if enough people do that we will be moving in the right direction.

August 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChrisB

I think you have covered everything pretty well so I will just make a few short points. The first is that I don't really know what 'happiness' means. It seems to me that for most people happiness would be a momentary improvement in whatever state they normally exist in unless they normally exist in nearly constant happy state (and I don't know too many people who live up there in the emotional stratosphere). One of the real big problems with human beings is also one of our greatest strengths. i.e. our adaptability. Human beings can get used to almost anything whether it be grinding misery or overwhelming abundance and soon whatever situation that is it will become the norm and in those circumstances you will settle into whatever your nature decrees. i.e. if you have a depressed disposition moving into a mansion will serve to boost your mood only temporarily and you will eventually settle back into being depressed despite the presence of opulence.

The second issue is the problem of just tending one's own garden and focusing only on your immediate circle. Some recent (and large) problems have become global in scale and will keep getting worse even if you choose not to focus on them. It might not seem that having more than two children is a problem but if everyone does that then the population will expand geometrically and overwhelm the resources of the planet. I do agree with you that focusing on them while not being able to do anything about them is not conducive to good mental health. However I think only the most mentally disciplined people are actually able to decide what they are going to think about and not think about anything extraneous. Sadly I am not among their number.

I would like to add though that it is refreshing to have a reasoned, rational discussion on the internet without any resorting to ad hominem attacks or invective. So many forums turn caustic so quickly these days one is almost tempted to go back to books.

August 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThameron

I agree and would like to thank you for a thought provoking and enjoyable discussion. The internet is too often a place in which, through the 'bravery' of anonymity, people can spew their venom.

I agree that mood is much like a stretched-out rubberband... you move up (happiness) or down on a moment to moment basis but there is a baseline for everyone and a "memory" to this baseline. People can shift this a bit (through a fundamental change in thinking, life event, etc.) but for the most part you are correct that most change in mood is temporary, since these are fairly infrequent occurances.

As far as the big picture versus small picture discussion... don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating for putting on the blinders and staring at our navels. I consider myself a big picture thinker much of the time. Its just that the importance of big picture issues in no way diminishes the small stuff in our lives, in my view. They can inform us about how we want to live our lives to some degree, but doing this too much misses many of the 'small' things in life- which can be some of the more enjoyable and important things we have. Think of your strongest and fondest memories... they are likely fairly mundane events by many standards.

Perhaps you are reacting to the prevailing attitude of willful ignorance or indifference to the big picture problems in the world, but this (at least initially) came across like you were attempting to overcompensate for this. I think there is a middle ground that can be satisfactory from both ends.

August 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChrisB

wow, yes, you guys did very well. and i agree with your conclusion chris, the way i put it is: The feeling of meaning is sufficient to the definition of meaning.

funny that you were disappointed but had such a good chat and ended up discussing the only great truth worth coming to in all the universe.

remember also, just because something is hideous doesn't mean it isn't also beautiful. and even funny. and once you're at funny it's just a jump to bliss.

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