PZ Myers Interview – Prominent People Project

Posted by on November 8, 2010 in Thoughts | 7 comments

This is the fourth in a series of interviews with  people who are prominent in the worlds of atheism, science, skepticism and rational thought.

This interview is with the prominent biologist and outspoken atheist Professor Paul Zachary (PZ) Myers. PZ is well known for his defence of science against the misleading claims of religion and mysticism, and is a professor of biology at University of Minnesota Morris (UMM). He spoke earlier this year at the International Atheist Convention in Melbourne, where I was lucky enough to meet the man in person, if only briefly.

PZ also runs the very popular blog Pharyngula where PZ posts about everything from the craziness of creationist claims, to his particular love of cephalopods.

PZ took some time out of his schedule to answer some questions for me. This interview was conducted via email in November 2010.

PZ Myers

PZ Myers

MSP: PZ, your role at University of Minnesota is predominantly as a Professor of Biology, yet you are better known for your blog Pharyngula. To readers of your blog you are known to be a champion of science, rationality and atheism, as well as a lover of cephalopods. Some would even say you are an activist. What is it that drives you to write your blog on a daily basis?

PZ: It’s stuff I care about. Isn’t that enough of a reason?

Also, I live in the US, one of the more religious countries in the world, with a truly screwed up political system, and with a serious death wish…or at least a desire to join the third world. There’s a lot to be angry about, and a lot to fight for.

MSP: I was brought up by parents with a college educations in the sciences (biology and heath sciences) who were both secular. Have you always been of a scientific mind, or is it something that you learned? Were you brought up by parents with a scientific background?

PZ: No, my parents had high school educations, and my father was a diesel mechanic. They were both appreciative of the power of education, though, and were in that lovely group that Susan Jacoby has called “middle brow” — people who may not have had much education, but had aspirations for their kids.

MSP: For me being a sceptic and atheist is more of a result of a certain understanding of the universe and the way things work than an assertion of denial of the existence of God. After thinking about all the science and philosophical writings I have read and thought about, it seems to be the only rational solution. Can you please tell me a little about your how your scientific background informs your understanding of the universe? Is atheism even something you think about, or is it merely part of having an informed knowledge of the universe and its workings?

PZ: I’ve had a fairly conventional scientific background — if there were such a thing as working class scientist, where we just labor away at the basics of data collection, I’d be in it. I’m definitely not one of the scientific elite.

Atheism is a natural conclusion of rational and scientific thinking. I only think about it because I have to think about it; I’m in a culture where science and religion are constantly rasping against one another. In my perfect world, atheism wouldn’t be an issue simply because most people would take it for granted.

MSP: Religion as we know it has held sway in the world for several hundreds of years in various forms. Some of the Christian religiosity was worn down by The Enlightenment, and the advances in science which came about during this period were world changing. This “wearing down” of religiosity seems to come in the form of reinterpretation of the bible than a discarding of the doctrine and dogma itself. With science advancing at such a huge rate and having such a large influence on us in medicine, technology and everyday life, do you think there is a possibility for a new Re-Enlightenment in this day and age? If so, what do you think will come from it? If not, then why not?

PZ: I disagree with your premise a little bit. I think there really has been a qualitative change in society’s attitude toward religion — it’s more than just reinterpreting holy books, but is actually a deeper loss of faith. I’m with Nietsche on this one: god is dead, in the sense that religion is no longer an intellectual force. Religion is brain dead, and what we’re in right now is the unpleasant stage of twitches and spasms from a dying corpse, a state made nastier still by the fact that the believers are desperate to keep going through the motions.

We don’t need a re-Enlightenment, the old one is still going strong. Look at science and technology — they’re still accelerating. It’s just that it’s only a small part of society that benefits from and expands upon Enlightenment ideals, while a larger part is screaming to go back to feudalism.

The question is whether the forces of darkness will manage to reanimate the zombie of religion enough to drag all of us back, not whether we need to reignite the Enlightenment.

MSP: I’ve often seen religion as an extension of the parental figure of comfort and reassurance as manifested in adulthood. In this way, I’ve thought that humanity needs to grow up, and discard our apparent need for gods in order for us to truly mature. What do you think? Do you think there is any currency for religion in today’s life?

PZ: No. Some people think religion is essential for their mental well-being, but it’s not. Cast off your crutches, everyone, you really can walk without them.

MSP: Sam Harris has said variously that science is incompatible with religion, and that science must destroy religion. Richard Dawkins says (as do I) that the universe has no purpose, no right or wrong, no good or evil, and that religion and science are discrepant. While some theists claim the same, many religious apologists claim that there is no reason for them to be at odds with each other. What is your take on this?

PZ: The apologists who claim there is no conflict are deluding themselves. As long as religion tries to make any claims about the real world, including claims about morality, truth, and the nature of humanity, they are clashing with reality. And a religion that confined itself to speculation about an ethereal supernatural world with no contact with our natural existence would be so gutted of relevance that it would die.

MSP: The earth is in some strife at the moment, with pollution, overpopulation, atmospheric change, over-consumption, water shortages etc. all being major concerns for the survival of the planet. We are at the same time making some startling realisations and are making some headway toward fixing these problems. Do you think we have it in us to make the difference we need to make? Are you optimistic for the future of humanity? If so, what do you see as a possible way forward?

PZ: Note my remarks about US culture above. I see great hordes of ignorant people trying to hold us back; I’m not optimistic. Or maybe I am. I give us a 50:50 chance of proceeding onward as an advanced technological species, which are pretty good odds.

In the long run, though, let’s be realistic: species may have a life span of 5-10 million years, and fragile species teetering way out there at the extremes of specialization, like us, are almost certainly shorter lived. We will go extinct someday, just as we as individuals will die someday. The only questions are 1) how soon? and 2) will we leave a legacy?

MSP: There has certainly been a lot of publicity around atheists and religion lately. As well as the growing “Atheism” section in local bookstores, more people are publicly denouncing their faith, and more public figures are emerging as atheists or agnostics. Australia has its first ever democratically elected “out” atheist Prime Minister, and a female also. At the same time The Pope is denouncing atheists as the reason for the greatest atrocities of the 20th century, and countries like France, Belgium and Switzerland are publicly banning religious symbols. In your opinion, can the current outspokenness of atheists and agnostics make a change in the religious fabric of the world? In your opinion is this just a passing trend, or is this something that will become more of a permanent fixture in human culture?

PZ: Of course it can change the world. It must. A world of 6 billion+ people cannot revert to medievalism or worse, the kind of world we’d have with a theocracy, without chaos and death. We are on a path towards ever-increasing technological interdependence which is essential for our survival; we’re locked in and cannot change without global trauma and destruction.

I hope it’s not a passing trend. The alternative is decline and retreat for humanity.

MSP: Thank you for your time PZ, I hope this interview has been interesting for you. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

PZ: Anything? Are you kidding? I’ve got a blog, it’s nothing but anything I feel like saying.

MSP: One final question. For me, nothing makes me more happy and at ease than sitting in my backyard with a glass of wine on a Spring day with my partner, watching the insects buzz around and just thinking about things. What makes you happy?

PZ: To crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and to hear the lamentation of their women, of course!

Nah, seriously, there’s no simple answer to that. I like a diversity of experiences; I grew up in a poor household, we moved to new houses once or twice a year, and as an academic, I’ve been peripatetic and unsettled. My current position has lasted about ten years, and it’s weird — I’ve never lived in one place for so long. Your Spring day in the backyard sounds lovely, but I think it would be boring without an occasional blizzard in Winter or rainstorm in the Fall.

Stability is great, and I’ve been lucky to have a few reliable anchors in my life, but setting sail on the blustery winds of chance is an essential part of a good life, I think.

Thank you PZ for your contribution to my blog, it really is appreciated. You can visit PZ’s blog Pharyngula here.

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  1. Nice interview!

    Just one minor detail: Prime Minister Gillard wasn’t actually elected. A couple of months before the last federal election, Gillard deposed sitting PM Kevin Rudd as leader of the Labor party, putting her in the role of PM. The following election then saw an almost 50/50 split vote between the two major parties; this saw a hng parliament and a lot of wheeling & dealing between Gillard’s Labor incumbents, the opposition (Liberal/National coalition) and a handful of key independents & Greens. Eventually Labor, Greens and the Indies formed a minority government.

    Certainly, it’s nice to have our first female and openly godless PM, but we didn’t elect her. The good thing about the situation is this: neither of those attributes are really a big deal down here; a lot more attention is paid to how the PM and her government are performing than to her gender and private beliefs. The bad thing: Gillard seems as happy to pander to the Christian Lobby on their pet talking points (like most political Christians worldwide, they assume a monopoly on any issue to do with morality or sex) as former PMs and open Christians Kevin Rudd and John Howard.

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    • OK fair point, but the Australian public did vote, and the way the voting system works means she was voted by the people to be in a position where the independents made the final decision. In any case, it’s an interesting turn of events to end with her as PM. And you’re right, she does pander to the Christian lobby a bit too much. Mostly brought it up because in the USA they would NEVER elect a godless person to the highest office in the country.

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  2. I met him when he came to Sac-Town last year on his world domination tour (aka If it’s ( ), then it must be ( ). It was a great lecture in a packed auditorium. Awesomeness.


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  3. I’m interested that Paul (never knew his full name) mentions Nietzsche’s “God is Dead”. Intriguingly to me, N never gives an argument for God’s non-existence, merely assumes it. (I studied him in my final year in philosophy.)

    Furthermore, Nietzsche is well known for seeing the terror of a world without God, for castigating other atheists for not “seeing” the consequences of their belief, and for trying to go “beyond” Nihilism, which he saw as the logical outcome of atheism.

    On a Nietzchean/nihilist viewpoint, as you put it, “the universe has no purpose, no right or wrong, no good or evil”.

    If there is no evil, then war, rape and hatred are not wrong. They just are. And why should we feel they are wrong?

    How we actually live believing those things, is an incredible challenge many atheists pass over too lightly, imho.

    Jonathan from Spritzophrenia

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    • Jonathan, please remember that war, rape and hatred are human constructs, vices that only concern humanity, and therefore we make a value judgement based ON humanity when looking at these things. When we see ants “going to war” with each other, do we see this as wrong? No we don’t, we simply call it nature. When humans do it, because we are self-aware, sentient and complex decision making creatures, we call it “wrong”. We call what Hitler did “evil” because it is something we would never wish upon others, would never like to experience, and would like to prevent in the future. That and the fact it cause untold suffering for so many, our empathetic selves tell us “this is abhorrent”.

      On a cosmological scale, there is no right nor wrong, there is only right and wrong based on our own value judgements of what is “right” when dealing with others of our own species, or of dealing with the world around us.

      I never “passed over them”, I just failed to mention them because it had nothing to do with my point.

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      • You didn’t “pass over” the issued because it wasn’t the main point of the interview, so I’m not accusing you of anything here. I was responding to PZ Myer’s use of Nietzsche which seemed a little selective, and I realise this takes things a little off topic.

        If, “On a cosmological scale, there is no right nor wrong”, then how can there be right and wrong on a local scale either? Right and wrong are only our feelings, as you indicated. I don’t think many of us really live consistently with that.

        As you know I’m an agnostic, but I think this is one of the “sticky points” of atheism. If I hurt you in some way, and then responded that it wasn’t wrong of me, it was only your feelings saying that – how would you respond?

        Now that we are self-aware, we can choose to cast off any sense of duty to our own species. Why is it “right” to look after our own species, or anything for that matter?

        To really face that question is what Nietzsche was writing about.

        I’ll stop here, I don’t want to hog your blog ;)

        Jonathan from Spritzophrenia

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        • As I said, “right and wrong” are human constructs. We are empathic beings, we have mirror neurons, which make us “feel” what we see, this gives rise to our empathic selves. Our “right and wrong” judgments are directly related to the sensations we feel when we see things happen to others. We then make our value judgment based on our own ability to “know what this might be like” and find that we would either like or dislike this to happen to us. it is “right” to look after our own species, because well, we ARE our own species, so we have the best insight into ourselves. It’s not just our “feelings” but also an extension of the one thing that makes us empathic and sympathetically able beings. Nietzsche’s nihilism was, in my opinion, an overreaction to a personal fear that there, as he suggested, that without a God, that humanity spirals downward into a sense of purposelessness. I disagree with Neitzche on that point. I always feel uncomfortable with his view on atheism and nihilism. His nihilism is so extreme as to seem absurd in my opinion. And in a lot of ways I think his extremism is more harmful to the idea of atheism than it is helpful.

          Only makes sense really.

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