An Interview with Guy Harrison
November 10, 2017
Guy P. Harrison is an American author. He is known for his written works on skepticism and atheism. Harrison has degrees in history and anthropology at the University of South Florida. From 1992 to 2010 Harrison wrote for Cayman Free Press in the Cayman Islands as a journalist, editor and photographer. As a journalist he has interviewed people such as Jane Goodall, Chuck Yeager, Edward Teller, Paul Tibbets and Armin Lehmann. From 2014–2015 he did medical writing for Kaiser Permanente. He has a blog at Psychology Today named About Thinking. Starting with 50 reasons people give for believing in a god in 2008, Harrison has written five books on skeptical and philosophical issues. The books are well known in skeptical circles and he has been widely interviewed in relation to his books by many different podcasts and websites. His books have received positive feedback from prominent scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Seth Shostak, and Donald Johanson. Harrison was a recipient of the World Health Organization Award for Health Reporting in 1997 and the Commonwealth Media Award for Excellence in Journalism in 1994. (Source: Wikipedia)
Alejandro Borgo: Do you think that freedom is important? If so, in what sense?
Guy Harrison: Freedom is the great goal. Physical and mental freedom is life. Humankind is in a constant state of struggle to be freer. We are chained and held back in many ways by our evolutionary past. Our minds and bodies carry the legacy of millions of years. We cannot fully break free from the limitations of perception, cognition, and imagination because we are still, in many ways, prehistoric animals better suited for life in the African wilderness rather than the modern urban environment. I am confident that we will continue to move toward greater political and legal freedoms, but with many ups and downs along the way. However, we may find that total freedom or something close to it is a difficult challenge, too. Winning freedom of thought and action is one thing, deciding what to do with it will be quite another.
Borgo:The investigation about the brain ... Why it is so important?
Harrison: The brain is you. The brain is at the center of every human life. Heart, lungs, bones—that’s all just parts and plumbing. The brain is everything. Sadly, very few people throughout human existence have understood much if anything about how the brain evolved, how it is structured, and how it functions. One does not have to be a neuroscientist to know the brain. I write about much of the practical and easy-to-understand aspects of the human brain in my book Good Thinking. The brain is staggeringly complex, powerful, and beautiful. The brain’s output determines the quality of our lives. So why would anyone go through life without learning everything possible about it? We all should be informed about what current science says regarding thinking, subconscious activity, as well as the nutritional requirements and physical activity necessary to keep our brains sharp and healthy.
Borgo:Do you agree with the approach of Richard Dawkins and other hard atheists?
Harrison: Yes, but it’s not my way. I tend to be more gentle and respectful because that’s just my personality and I find it is effective in my interactions with irrational believers. But Dawkins and those who often mock believers and use harsh language are effective too. I believe it takes multiple approaches to reach and move large groups because people are different. Some will respond to ridicule and rudeness, others respond better to polite words and gentle nudging. Both ways work because people are diverse.
Borgo:What can you tell about the proper form to deal with skepticism? I feel that some skeptics are so rude.
Harrison: Humility is the key. If you are an arrogant, condescending skeptic then you are doing it wrong. Science and critical thinking rest upon a premise that says anyone can be wrong about anything. A good thinker is humble. We also must be mindful of the fact that very intelligent people can hold very dumb beliefs. It’s a human condition. Irrational believers are not inferior people; they simply made a misstep somewhere along the way in their thinking.
Borgo:What is your opinion about Bertrand Russell?
Harrison: A great mind! Bertrand Russell was not only an amazing thinker but a courageous person as well. We all can find inspiration from people like him who were brave enough to defy the herd and take unpopular positions. So much of his work remains relevant today. I often bring up Russell's teapot analogy to help people understand why it's not the skeptic's responsibility to disprove extraordinary claims. The burden is on those who make the claims to prove the claims. It still works.
Borgo:Who was, or is, the best scientist of all times? And why?
Harrison: Isaac Newton would be the easy answer. But I’ll go with the first hominin, probably two million years or so ago, who confronted fire like a scientist. He or she observed the flames, thought about it, formulated an hypothesis, experimented perhaps, and then came up with a theory of fire. That person, so long ago, was doing science. That person approached fire, a dangerous phenomenon, and dared to control it. That was science in action. And it changed us forever. With fire in our minds and torches in our hands, we were no longer prey, no longer lost in the darkness of every night. If we one day spread our intelligence throughout the universe, it will all trace back to that hominin and that moment.
Borgo:Tell me about your opinion: Which is the best way of making a better world to live?
Harrison: Good thinking and science are the fundamental prerequisites to building a better world for ourselves and the life we share it with. So much that harms us, so much of our pain is self-inflicted and unnecessary, the result of irrational fears and misperceptions. Most people on Earth right now do not know who we are, how we got here, how we depend on countless lifeforms all around us, how the universe works, and so on. All of our wars, racism, hate, fear, destruction and neglect are exactly what one would expect from an intelligent species with no self-awareness. We must find a way to teach our children, all children, the fundamental knowledge of who we are and what the universe is. Only then, can we finally wake up, grow up, and be our best.