Guests| John Horgan [Back]

Science Writer & Philosopher

John Horgan has been one of my favourite writers for almost ten years. I think I was 23 when I first read his book The End of Science, and it was the first time I can recall ever feeling as if the face of the science community (the collection of intellectual celebrities, each striving for the next revolutionary framework) had an almost surreal, dark, even circus-show aspect to it. Maybe I just read into things too much and seen what was not intended to be there, but reading his other books didn't help. Rational Mysticism and The Undiscovered Mind featured that same quirky, hyper-realistic, informative but absurd portrait of humanity that I haven't been able to find in other authors. I think it's the character sketches he captures that made the writing not only amusing and ironic, but insinuates a perennial existential malaise or perhaps an increasingly building pressure bounded by a potential zeitgeist. He might disagree with me, but I walk away from his books with an increased appreciation of science for its scope and scale, but I also see it as an enterprise increasingly vulnerable to absurdity and irony. Of course, he doesn't appear any more partial to spiritual types, providing some of the highest quality insights into guru psychology.

John has been a longtime writer for the Scientific American and a publisher of some award winning books you can view on the right panel. His latest book is titled The End of War. It has been the subject of much acclaim, and is available as an e-book published by McSweeney's.

In this exchange, John and I agreed to talk about the overlap of his latest interests with mine.

John Horgan

CWW: Hey there, John. Like I was telling you, the most formative years in my education involved reading your books, and so it was my pleasure to discover that not only have you published a new book, but it tackles a subject that fits nicely into the ideals of Core Webworks. In your latest book The End of War, you analyze the customs and changes of primitive tribes to shed light on human nature. I am familiar with the Yanomano (from a The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, but until seeing your video podcast The End of War?, I did not know about Napoleon Chagnon and his perspective on the relation between resource scarcity and violence. From Chagnon's perspective, resource scarcity is not necessarily the cause of violence, but it's arguably the opposite. You added at the end of your podcast that the large distance between tribes allows for greater resource abundance, and hence, the large quantity of protein available leads to high levels of energy. Since my interest is in the logical consequences of conceptual self-identity, I immediately couldn't help but wonder how deep this inquiry could go, beyond protein and high energy levels. Have I framed this issue optimally? Please feel free to clarify the issue before we consider deepening the inquiry.

John: Great meeting you, thanks for your interest in my work. I see that you're a Borges fan too! No wonder you like my writing. You ask me above about resource scarcity as a possible cause of war, which I talk about in my new book, The End of War. Let me provide a little background. Over the last couple of decades I've become increasingly concerned by scientists' fondness for reductionist explanations of human behavior, especially ones that seem to limit our freedom, our choices. Everything is explained in terms of genes, evolutionary adaptations, neural chemistry and so on. This trend can be seen in the popularity of claims that war is the inevitable byproduct of human nature. I wrote The End of War to rebut these claims, which simply don't hold up to scrutiny. I also examined the widespread belief that war stems from resource scarcity, overpopulation, poverty, inequality and other economic factors. These theories, which can be traced back to Malthus and Marx--and which to my alarm are extremely common among progressive greens--are also largely unsupported. I want people to see war not as the product of forces beyond their control--whether biological or economic--but as a choice, especially for those of us in a democracy. Scientists lately have been taking our choices--our free will--away from us. I'm trying to give them back.

CWW: I’m glad you brought up the issue of reductionism. There is clearly a divide between physical approaches to viewing reality, and psychological-conceptual approaches. Do you think there is enough evidence to warrant confidence that mind can affect matter? Do you think the mind is more powerful than the physical forces that conservative-science insists we’re controlled by? We’ve seen seemingly irrefutable evidence that there is a placebo effect, and even more significantly, I don’t think it should be controversial to suggest that you can program children with “stories about life” and depending on the story you program your child with, the decisions will vary quite a bit.

John: Of course mind affects matter! I'm proving that right now typing this message to you on my laptop. Yes, mind is an emergent property of matter, as are ideas, art, science itself. But too many scientists lately think causality runs only in one direction, from matter to mind. They don't see any room for genuine choice in their causal accounts, so they deny free will, which denies the reality of the choices that each of us face every day. And this denial of free will, far from being some purely academic philosophical position, can have adverse social and political consequences--for example, leading to despair about the possibility of ending war, poverty, injustice, etc. This despair and pessimism is empirically unjustified, given the enormous progress that humanity has made already in reducing violence, tyranny, injustice and poverty.

CWW: Based on what you just wrote about the mind affecting matter, let me ask you: are people in denial of something that really is quite simple and basic? You spoke earlier about certain demographics being at fault, such as the "progressive greens". I realize you get to interview and talk to a lot of different people. Do you have any kind of psychological account for why they are in denial of their capacity to cause change with their mind? Using the keyboard as an example, you make it sound as if it's easy for the mind to affect matter. So what is their problem, exactly? Is this a choice between optimism and pessimism?

John: Some things, like my typing this message, are easy to do. Other things, like ending militarism and changing the way we consume energy and other resources, are very hard. My point is that some scientists and, paradoxically, even some progressive activists, make social change seem even harder by adopting excessively deterministic perspectives. For example, many environmentalists--notably Bill McKibben--warn that if we don't cut fossil fuel consumption drastically, and immediately, we'll soon be waging wars over water. This pessimistic view is actually not supported by historical data. Also, I think it might be counterproductive, because it may lead people to support a strong military to protect us from imminent chaos and violence. Optimism is better supported empirically and is a better rhetorical strategy.

CWW: It's been my view for some time that the desire for determinism is the desire for peace. For instance, if you're a farmer, you need some measure of prediction. If you plant a type of seed, you know the type of crop it will yield to. So if you want to survive, not worry, and live in peace, you must know what’s going to happen. The downside of determinism is you deny what is possible. But possibility is quite exciting. It's "on the edge living" that so many people want. And this is where I’m tempted to coin a phrase like “the politics of possibility” (just googled it, already coined). My point is that we all want security and peace through determinism to some degree, but we’re all also pushing for possibilities. Possibilities have always been offensive and controversial, haven’t they?.

John: I disagree with you that "the desire for determinism is the desire for peace." Deterministic theories of human nature, when we live in a militarized world, threaten to lock us into that world, and deny us a more peaceful world. I like "the politics of possibility," although a world without war to my mind is a probability, not just a possibility. The vast majority of human relations are already nonviolent. In fact, a world without war won't be a lot different from our world. It will still be quite fractious, lots of conflict between people of different ethnicities, religions, ideologies, economic classes. We'll still have divorces, hostile takeovers, class clashes. We just won't resolve our conflicts with large-scale organized killing. Think NYC on a global scale.

CWW: I was talking with someone about this yesterday, and her doubtful response was that organized war is very context sensitive. Let’s assume there are roughly 16 wars happening right now. Is there some underlying, general principle that not only acts as a solution to end war, but is also a principle that can be applied to all contexts? In your own work, you bring up the Yanomamo and the factors driving their lust for fighting and conquest. Mentioned was the factor of high resources (creating too much restless energy) and large distances between tribes. Is this the seed of a model that you are serious about using as at least a lens to help diffuse war in general? There is clearly an empirical dimension to solving war, so thinking in terms of probability and application is helpful. But this is about individual choices in contexts, and people struggle with priorities, I think. If ending a war is a choice, something to “will”, then clearly priorities have to be reprogrammed. Are we getting closer to the same page?

John: There ain't no secret formula for ending war. It doesn't require ending poverty, abolishing capitalism or religion, creating a perfect democracy, giving women equal power (although all these things are worth seeking in themselves). Ending war requires nothing more than the collective will to end war. Obviously this is easier to achieve in a democracy, where rulers are (more or less) answerable to voters. But many societies have accomplished this feat, from the Yanomamo, who have turned away from war over the past few decades, at the urging of Christian missionaries and out of their own recognition of the irrationality of their endless feuds, to Sweden and Switzerland and Costa Rica. The US is the major warmonger in the world today, both in terms of its gigantic swollen military and hawkish foreign policies and arms sales and its fondness for using force to get its way. Americans could lead the world to permanent peace if we insist that our leaders make this goal a priority.

CWW: I can get on board with a global New York City, and I am sure leaving large pockets of natural resources is probable as well. However (although I agree that there is no absolute, unambiguous secret formula to ending war) it’s hard for me to accept that there isn’t some unchanging, underlying foundation (a set of analytic concepts) that will make it easier for people to change their minds.

In the instance of the Yanomamo, is that not an example of a reprogramming of narrative? Narratives (the stories we tell ourselves individually and culturally) seem very powerful to me.

I think it comes down to either a pessimistic narrative, or an optimistic narrative, and I think your journalism on the Yanomamo can help change the story that someone like McKibben (or at least a reader of McKibben) is telling himself.

However, you’ve done a lions share of work in keeping up to date on the progress in psychology, and you often go contrary to opinion, so perhaps you’d like to cap this interview off with some final thoughts?

John: Free will man! I keep coming back to that ancient metaphysical concept, which is under assault by scientists and philosophers. Our pasts do not determine us! We can create new bright realities for ourselves that were not predictable from the dismal past. We have done that over and over, so why lose hope that we can do it now? We don't have to succumb to global warming, pollution, violence, class divisions, tyranny. We are smart enough, and morally aware enough, to confront and solve or at least ameliorate our problems. I'm not talking about passive Pollyanna-ish smiley-face optimism but tough, intelligent can-do optimism. A much better world is within our grasp, as long as we don't despair, or succumb to sci-fi fantasies in which we escape to other planets or engineer ourselves into super humans. That's the narrative I'm trying to convey. Thanks for giving me this platform to express it.

CWW: Thank you for giving me your time and energy - your work has been a valuable service to myself and many others! In your final comment, you left a contrast (at least in my mind) between an Earthy person like McKibben and an engineering-centric person like Ray Kurzweil (sci-fi fantasy of space-travelling superhumans). These are very polarized personalities, but I suppose what they both have in common is a pessimism about what our will power is capable of.

For those reading this interview, John's books have very opinionated and in-depth analysis of the transhumanism trend started by Ray Kurzweil. If it is eccentric, on the edge or anomalous, John usually has a helpful perspective that you should consider before making any life altering choices.

John, thank you again! Perhaps we'll have another discussion in the not-so-distant future.

"There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite."

- Jorge Luis Borges "The Avatars of the Tortoise"

"Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belabored by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should not have missed, or are about to say something; this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon."

- Jorge Luis Borges "The Wall and the Books"

John Horgan

On Amazon

The Undiscovered Mind: How the Human Brain Defies Replication, Medication, and Explanation
How the Human Brain Defies Replication, Medication, and Explanation

Rational Mysticism
Spirituality Meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment

The End of Science
Facing The Limits Of Knowledge In The Twilight Of The Scientific Age


The End of War
John argues: war is our creation. It's our choice whether to unmake it or not.

John's Blog: Scientific American, Cross-Check
Critical views of science in the news

John Horgan | Online Writings
Invaluable writings on the nature of consciousness, gurus, mysticism, science and more.

John Horgan | Video podcast @ BigThink
An introduction to War from the perspective of human nature.

End of Science Interview
Allan Gregg interviews John Horgan (Video)

John Horgan | Rutgers Conference
questions from students about culture and war