On Monday, "New Atheist" author Sam Harris spoke in Vancouver about Free Will, here's Ian's report from the evening event at the Bon Mot Book Club.
Sam Harris gained notoriety after 9/11 for his New York Times Bestseller, The End of Faith, the first of the "New Atheist" books. He followed it with three more bestsellers, Letter to a Christian Nation, The Moral Landscape, and the latest Free Will, which was the subject of Monday's lectures.
I wasn't able to attend the Sauder School of Business-sponsored free talk at UBC in the afternoon, but I did indulge and spent the $250 (which was half off the regular price) to attend the Bon Mot Book Club with former BCHA president Pat O'Brien.
The event began with a wine reception in the prestigious Vancouver Club. We were then shepherded to the banquet room for salad during the talk. We were then invited to discuss the talk with our table during the main course of pan-fried halibut. After, questions were asked while we ate dessert. Finally, a champagne and cheese reception closed the evening and guests were encouraged to mingle.
The event was well attended by Vancouver's business community. Ryan Beedie, president of the Beedie Development Group, gave an enthusiastic introduction to Harris, discussing how when The End of Faith came out, he bought copies for all of his friends. Peter Brown, of Canaccord investment, also got a question in about how to get more people to come out as atheists. Leah Costello, the host of the evening, made sure to thank us for coming out as she wanted to make sure her fellow atheists had a chance to attend.
Harris' talk focused on how he sees free will as an illusion. His view is that science determines our actions. He cited neuroscience studies (his own field) that show that our brain makes decisions up to several seconds before we become aware of them.
He argued that this view should liberate us from naive notions of hate and a desire for vengeance allowing us to focus our feelings on compassion and to shape our justice system toward effective deterrence and rehabilitation.
I will note that many philosophers take exception to Harris' deterministic view, arguing instead for a compatabilist view that melds a weak form of free will with scientific determinism.
Finally, while the Club attracted some criticism on our mailing list, it has previously hosted controversial (and arguably anti-Humanist) speakers like Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, and Ezra Levant, I think there was some value in my attendance. We should always seek to challenge our own beliefs and those of others. More pragmatically, the networking opportunity allowed me to promote the idea of Humanism in a unique setting. Finally, to Leah's credit, she has also brought in speakers like Kofi Annan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Overall, the event was very well organized and quite the unique experience.