Daniel Menaker

Prosaic

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

(This question references my recent New York Times book review of Free Will by Sam Harris, found here.)

You wrote that the book “is generally prosaic, As most such intellectual treatises perforce tend to be.”

In what sense are you using “prosaic”?

And if these types of treaties have a proclivity to be so, are being critical of Harris for being true to the form he chose to present his argument?

Duane Skelton

Dear Mr. Skelton,

I was using “prosaic” in what I think of as being one of its most common meanings, when applied to writing–ordinary, undistinguished.  I didn’t mean to be critical of Harris for his “prosaic” style–though I do believe such treatises can occasionally have a more stylish presentation–see Milton’s “Areopagitica,” any of George Orwell’s essays. (But both of those  examples are almost as exhortative as they are logical arguments.)  I was just trying to let the reader know what general kind of writing he or she would encounter in “Free Will.”

“Free Will” is, for the most part, closely reasoned and, to me, persuasive.  That it isn’t thrilling writing may be in some ways a good thing. Harris is trying to make his case in a straightforward, no-frills way.  When he does attempt to be “literary,” or ironic, or rhetorical,  the effort often falls a little flat.

Thank you for writing–your question is a good one.  It’s true that we shouldn’t  criticize, say, a grocery list for being nothing more than a grocery list.

Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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More About Free Will

Monday, July 16, 2012

(This question references my recent New York Times book review of Free Will by Sam Harris, found here.)

If the physics of the universe is deterministic–as people used to believe prior to the advent of quantum mechanics–then the absence of free will is a corollary.

But how does Sam Harris address the–apparently–non-deterministic physics that quantum mechanics implies? (Or does he avoid that issue altogether?)

Michael Pace

Dear Mr. Pace,

This blog is supposedly about ordinary conversation, but it’s great to widen the definition of “conversation” in this way–heaven knows that the subject of free will has produced a huge amount of written and spoken conversation, a lot of it heated and angry.  So let’s have at it, peacefully:

Mr. Pace, your question, insofar as I understand quantum mechanics–which is, sadly, for my car, about as far as I understand auto mechanics–is a good and prevalent one. The short answer is that Harris says very little if anything about the role of quantum mechanics in the functioning of the human brain/mind. The slightly longer answer is, according to what I’ve read, that if somehow the randomness of quantum mechanics underlies human brain function and thus decision-making, then our decisions are even less the products of our “will” than they would be if they were neurologically caused by activity that overrides quantum randomness.  Do you see what I mean? Do I? I think so but am not sure. I’m not a professional philosopher or neuroscientist–or physicist–but it does seem sensible to say that if our brain functions and choice-making result from random, or at least unpredictable, subatomic processes, then the amount of our minds’ agency in such matters appears to be reduced to zero.

Best,
Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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Ridiculous?

(This question references my recent New York Times book review of Free Will by Sam Harris, found here.)

Dear Dan,

In response to your ridiculous review of a ridiculous book by Sam Harris:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/13/is-neuroscience-the-death-of-free-will/?hp

Just turn your head slightly and you’ll see.

Michael Fox

Dear Professor Fox,

I don’t actually like Harris’s book much, especially not as any sort of literature, even though I agree with its basic position on this matter.  The Opinionator piece you link to is excellent, but it seems to me to beg a lot of questions.  It might be interesting for us to discuss that piece and this whole issue further, but if possible with a little more civility than your comment displays. Still, I appreciate your response to the review.  Hackles-raising is not the worst thing that can happen to a writer.

Best,
Dan Menaker

“Ask Dan” was a public online Q&A series that ran on this site from 2010 to 2012.

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Questions of Gender

Saturday, July 07, 2012

A friend of mine told me that she had recently noticed what she thinks is an important conversational difference between men and women.  She said that she had always been semi-aware of it but that it had come to her full, conscious notice only when a man said to her, “Do you want to know the main difference between the ways men and women talk?” She found herself responding, without even thinking about it, “Well, that’s one of the differences right there.”

SHE (according to her account of the conversation): Do you really want to know if I want to know the main difference between the ways men and women talk?
HE: What?
SHE: You said to me, “Do you want to know the main difference between the ways men and women talk?” Did you really want me to answer, “Yes, I want to know” or “No, I don’t want to know”?
HE: Well, I just wanted to tell you what I’d noticed.
SHE: Exactly. It wasn’t a real question. It sounded like a question.  Men do this all the time–they ask these questions like “Do you want to hear what the Higgs boson is?” or  “Do you understand what happens when money is transferred from your bank account to someone else’s?” or “Do you want to know why Nadal is going to lose to Federer at Wimbledon?” The question form is a kind of lure to get the other person, man or woman,  interested in what the man is going to say anyway.
HE: What’s wrong with that?
SHE: Nothing, It’s just funny–that’s all.
HE:  You think women don’t do that?
SHE: In my experience, much less often than men. Like, I might say now, if I were a man, “Do you want to know why I think men do this more than women?”
HE: Why?
SHE: No–I mean, I was just giving you another example. I don’t know why. But I have some ideas. But anyway, go ahead and tell me what you think the main conversational difference is between men and women.
HE: Never mind.

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