Jennifer Michael Hecht – Doubt

November 28, 2008

Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of award-winning books of philosophy, history, and poetry, including The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism and Anthropology; Doubt: A History; The Happiness Myth, and her book of poetry, Funny, which Publisher’s Weekly called one of the most original and entertaining books of the year.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Hecht talks about the relationship of her book Doubt: A History to the books of the New Atheists, if media reception of the New Atheists was “gendered,” and in what sense her book is “less evangelical” than theirs. She explains what she means by the kind of doubt she believes in, how it is broader and deeper than mere disbelief, and the ways in which doubt can feed belief. She explores the implications of doubt for scientific inquiry, and how doubt should be applied to the questions and the certitude that some scientists and skeptics express. She talks about the importance of art, poetry and psychoanalysis for doubting, and how such forms of introspection and expression increase the benefits of doubt. And she reveals some her favorite doubters in history, and what she learns from them.

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I’m happy to have Jennifer Michael Hecht back on the show, she’s the author of The End of the Soul Scientific Modernity Eight Years Ago in Anthropology Doubt a History Funny, which won the University of Wisconsin’s 2005 Felix Pollock Poetry Prize and which Publisher’s Weekly called one of the most original and entertaining books of that year. She wrote the book of poetry, The Next Ancient World, which won the Poetry Society of Americas 2002. Norma Farber First Book Award. Her book, The Happiness Myth, has achieved wide critical praise. She’s joining me back on the show to talk about her book about a history. Welcome back to a point of Inquiry, Jennifer Michael Hecht. 

Thank you so much for having me, Jennifer. Before the New Atheists, couple of women, first you and then Susan Jacoby. Well, you each wrote these books on free thinking and doubt and Athie ism, skepticism, all this stuff. And both of these books were bestsellers. So before we talk about your book specifically, can we talk about why you aren’t considered one of the new atheists? 

It’s a good question, and I don’t know myself, but I do think that it’s something to ponder. 

I think that the books of the new ageism were definitely geared towards a very specific kind of evangelical Athie ism, which is a little less the case for my book. And I suppose a little less the case for Susan Jacoby’s book as well, because these were both really histories. But it’s still not clear and I guess it does seem a little gendered. It’s definitely something I would like to hear someone else’s insight about. 

So you think kind of big picture, you should have been considered one of the new atheists? 

Well, I guess that I was confused. I’ll say that when the new weightism began. 

And and here were two books already written on the topic by two women, but not really kind of considered in that group. Okay. 

Precisely. And people gave mentioned the brotherhood of its what did seem like it was gendered in that sense. I’ll also say that in many of the reviews of the New Atheists and they called for books that sounded like my book, but it’s not perhaps as much fun to to have the answer there as to sort of beat the dead horse. So they would say, you know, somebody should look at questions of of religion from the atheist side. 

But with more understanding for the religious side. And and that was what I believe I’ve done. 

And the reviews from my book said, write, the history lesson is less glamorous than the kind of angry and and polemical works that the new atheists are considered to be. 

Right. And a slightly more moderate voice that is not more moderate in terms of Athie is as much an atheist as anybody. You can’t out atheists, somebody who is a real atheist, but you can have different perspectives on what the relationship is. And for me, my research into the history of Athie ism and history of religious doubt showed me that there were a whole lot of people who call themselves believers who shared the basic world view of atheists. And so I began to be a little bit wary of the quick dismissal of anybody who has any sympathies in that direction. 

You just referred to your book Doubt as kind of less evangelical. It seems like most people out there, I think, don’t actually care about whether or not God exists, made this a controversial claim. But they’re not really fierce. They’re not really atheists either. They’re more like apathy is. They just don’t care. They’re just living their lives. Then they’re never really focusing on the God question of the people that do care, though. You know, the people who are always talking about God. You have atheists on the one side and been believers on the other side. So if your book was less evangelical, was it written for one of those two audiences, the atheists or the believers? Or was it more like this middle group, the APA theists? 

Well, it’s an interesting question and I hope I can answer it in a straightforward way. But the first thing is, I guess I want to say maybe my book wasn’t less evangelical. It was less evangelical. In content, in intent. It was evangelical. I wanted very much to convince people of what I believe to be the best thinking about these questions. On the other hand, there was content there that was being relayed. And in some of the new atheist books, the only content was the argument to give up your your God, right. Just the pullout. 

It’s that in that sense that I said mine was less evangelical in content. It had a history to tell, and that was its content. But in terms of who I was writing it for, I suppose that the first people that I was writing it for were like minded people. The first people were people who I believe were atheists and who knew that there was a history out there but didn’t know what it was or wanted a good treatment of it. Then there’s a much larger group of atheists who didn’t know there was a history out there and who who you know, I hear from a. A lot of people by e-mail, it’s an incredible thing to be a writer in this age, and then people tell me that the book either gave them much solace and made them feel that they were no longer alone, that they were part of a glorious tradition or other people who wrote and said that they were agnostic until they read the book and then became atheist or in fact, believers and were brought all the way around atheists and from from the book. So I think I was talking to a lot of different people. And I will say that when my book came out in 2003, my publishers were the ones who thought it shouldn’t be called a history of atheists. And that was my that was my original idea. 

So you started out wanting to write a history of atheists, not just this broader concept of correct. Religious doubt. 

Correct. And indeed, that’s what I did. I wrote a history of Athie ism, but because they wanted the title to be something else. And when I pitched doubt, they liked it. It encouraged me to follow a little bit more the philosophical history of doubt. That is the history of philosophical doubt, doubting, knowing anything, epistemological doubt. How do we frame a skeptical approach that still allows us to function, that still has enough probability in it so that we can we can think usefully. And that story is really pretty delicious. And I’m really glad that they pushed me to it by accepting my idea of doubt instead of conservatism. But yes, I set out to write a history of AP ism and for a large part, that’s what I did. 

So let’s flesh out this definition of doubt, as you were just talking about. Is it for you just being open minded that a given claim could be wrong, or is it stronger than that? Is it actually a kind of active skepticism that something is wrong? Something is incorrect? I mean. 

Yeah, I guess the answer is it’s bigger than just open minded, my experience. You know, I got a Peach D in history of science from Columbia in 1995 and the education that one got there at that time. And that subject was intensely critical of the kind of assumptions that go along with science and scientific speech. 

What some in the skeptics movement might consider postmodernist critique of kind of the received wisdom of the science and say, yeah, that’s the phrase people give it these days. 

But luckily, people have been asking these kinds of questions for a long time. Several thousand years. Yeah. And and the questions are always, look, our senses lie to us. We all know that you can see a spoon breaking a glass of water that isn’t broken. And when you’re hungry, you may not like the movie as much as if you weren’t hungry. And when you feel less are straight from Montana, the Renaissance philosopher, when it when you feel lustful, you can lie to yourself in all sorts of ways that become obviously wrong the moment your lust is satisfied. The notion that our senses and our minds are flawed is something we entirely accept. 

But we tend to come back to each time we are corrected by the world. We come back to a feeling of satisfaction with the ability of our minds to know what’s going on. And in a straightforward way, I am profoundly skeptical of what we can know and what we know. I see the world as just a tremendous amount of information. I see us as evolved little bowls of protoplasm that have senses that evolved by accident and because they were useful to get food and to mate and to bring those children up. That’s that’s the only evolutionary you know, that’s the pressure. And so the idea that our senses or our minds were set up to gather truth is so obviously not so. So I come with a great deal of skepticism, which I then look at the way that culture has changed what we thought studying. As a historian, we’ll make anybody’s eyes open to the truth, to the vast array of ways we can make value and meaning, the ways, the different ways we can sleep, eat it, love everything. And if you can feel differently about what the world is by simply going over a state border, by simply waiting one hundred years. The only thing that can convince you under those circumstances that you have more knowledge than anybody else, that you are right in a way that they weren’t is a kind of temporal prejudice, which we have to the nines and we have some good reason for it. We have an empirical science that is based on techniques. 

Well, and it is cumulative. 

What we know about the universe, you know, and some of its key, but most of it is physics is more cumulative than any of the rest of it. Chemistry. But the basic framework for how we’re going to think about things changes so vastly that it doesn’t matter how exact the details are. So in the 19th century, everybody measured heads. Yeah, phrenology and phrenology was sort of disbelieved by mid 19th century, the end of the 19th, early 20th century all over the Western world. The universities were collecting skulls and measuring them and measuring their capacity. There’s a great story behind that which I was involved in, in fleshing out in my first book, The End of the Soul. But the point is that they felt they were being so exact in their measurements that they couldn’t go wrong. But the point is, once your mind changes the overall program and says, look, I don’t I don’t believe that skulls have anything to tell us about human beings, intelligence or or anything fundamental, then all the measurements and there are reams and reams go to an annex of any any great library and you will find shelves and shelves and shelves of this data of the relationship that indices of the relationship between the long part of the face and width of the face, all of it nonsense so that those measurements, while they may have been exact. 

Are useless anyway, because the questions shifted because the questions shift to that degree. So whether or not a tomato or a kiwi will prolong your life is a reasonable question. Even though it may come with tremendous flaws that we can’t see and and lots of people who talk about the way statistics and studies can be shifted will explain how these kinds of mistakes can be made so that some aspect of eating this is good for you. But some other is bad, even perhaps that it that it pollutes the world. 

And so you end up dying fast. Because because transporting Kiwis from the other side of the world becomes more unhealthy. 

There’s a million ways that we can ask whether these studies make sense. But what’s more extraordinary is whoever said longevity should be what our scientists should be spending so much of their time digging out. 

Of course, I’m speaking in terms of my year later, Simbo happiness myth, which I loved so much. Thank you. So I don’t like us too much. I’ll get emails about how I’m not being critical in the interview, but. 

Thank you. Yeah, I, I find that, that even science is open to all sorts of this kind of questioning of the cultural setup and not always in the silly ways that people think, oh, you know, a gendered physics. Well, you know, we did find some things by asking certain kinds of gendered questions. But for the most part, that’s not what I’m really speaking. 

The Dow. You’re talking about you said it’s it’s bigger than just being open minded that a claim could be wrong. It reminds me of Adrienne’s line that the universe in this cosmic sense, you look at cosmic time and kind of our place in the universe, the universe is saying, hey, you’re really new at this. This knowledge thing, you may be mistaken. You’ve been wrong before. In other words, everything for you. It sounds like you’re saying most everything should be up for grabs. That that we have these biases. You talked about temporal biases. It’s. Yeah. 

Well, yeah. I mean, there’s always there are ways to proceed. You can compare centuries and say, oh, look, the physics holds up pretty well and you can then put put more of your your bet on certain types of things. You know, we have a great deal of historical record and can look back and say what types of things are consistent. There’s been a lot of other tries, but monogamy tends to be one that just keeps coming back. You know, even though people always think that one sounds really cultural, but you can look across the historical record and and ask questions. Now, the funny thing with that, I mean, in terms of religion, is that religion never stays the same for a decade. The things they believe certainly don’t don’t hold still for for over a century. 

And religion itself is evolving. 

Yeah, religion is always evolving. Each individual religion is evolving and revolving in response to the doubters questions. You find another way to it to talk so that they can get you on. 

But the basic problem with religion is so much more fundamental than with most of the other attempts to get understanding that it really is in a category all by itself that’s bad and good for it, mostly bad in terms of truth seeking. We can say mostly this is hogwash. On the other hand, for me, the best way to get to truth is poetry. And by poetry I mean art and psychoanalysis and and meditation and a lot of different ways that human beings have learned to try to take themselves out of the equation. We tend to see things only from our perspective. But there are different methods of training yourself to get a bird’s eye view of things, to see a bigger picture, to take your own desires out. A little bit of the question that can be tremendously useful just that way. 

Now, I can buy into that. But you threw so much out there just now that the hardcore skeptics are going to say, oh, my gosh, she’s advancing psychoanalysis and poetry and all this kind of ethereal feel good type stuff. And the hard nosed skeptic wants to hear. That’s bunk. That’s bunk. And the other things bunk. And I’m right. And here’s why. So your skepticism is the kind of doubt you’re talking about. It seems to me at the same time, a corrective of that kind of knee-jerk doubting on the one hand and also a response to a kind of hyper credulity on the other hand. 

Let me get my bag firmly against religion and tell you no to religion. However, I think that the social functions of religion are very nice, and I think that the new Athie ism has been has been inconsistent. Most of these new atheists will happily go to their sister’s wedding in a church and we have to ask ourselves questions. So what function is that providing it in the family? Should we try to keep the ritual? Should we try to keep some of these things and and yet make it so we don’t lie when we go there? And there are there are humanist groups that do that kind of. And there are religious groups who have excised God. Of course, they’re a rather extreme, but but that’s what I’m speaking to. 

And they’re also just kind of moderate, secular Jews who still go to temple because they like the community or something. 

Yeah. But I guess I’m speaking a little farther. I’m saying that that what I would propose would be to not go someplace and say things you don’t believe to to find a way to go and say things you do believe. And if if if you can’t, then to change the community you’re in to say that you want a service that that doesn’t go in that direction. And if you can’t get it, then. Yes. To move on. 

Just real quick, Jennifer, to get back to kind of your take on doubt for you, it doesn’t seem like it’s something that leaves you hungry. It’s, in fact, kind of a nourishing, a satisfying way to live a, you know, a poetical way to live. There’s a surprising amount of joy that comes from the doubt that you’re pushing. 

Yeah, absolutely. I see the life of someone who is able to see the mystery of life, but not fill it in with known answers and not to see mystery as something which is a puzzle that needs an answer. But to understand that, given our position in this world, it’s the most philosophically attuned way to go forward. But it doesn’t have to feel in the least bit like there’s something that you’re missing, because a real understanding of the world around us shows us that that that it’s logically impossible to have at all to understand everything. So to be in a comfortable state of wondering and and learning, it seems to me a more glorious position. And yes, absolutely more ecstatic, joy filled position. 

So knowing is a good thing, but also not knowing is OK, too. 

Yeah, absolutely. 

I think that we all believe that our parents know everything when we’re at a certain age and we move on not to believe that some other guru or God knows everything, but to understand that life is not one of those things you get to know the answers to all the time. And and we all learn how to play with that and enjoy that. And it seems there’s no reason not to extend that to the heavens. Mm hmm. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Doubt the great doubters and their legacy of innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson through our Web site. Point of inquiry or Jennifer, something you said earlier, you used the phrase, the kind of doubt that I believe in. I love that it’s, you know, paradoxical there, but. Right. One thing that struck me in your book, something I got out of it, is that that doubt and belief actually kind of feed each other. You sometimes doubt in order to believe, not cogie, to go soon, but something like Duby to Urgo credo, I doubt. Therefore, I believe absolutely. 

Well, the ways that doubt and belief have fed off of each other are really quite extraordinary. That’s when when I wrote out, I wanted to tell some great stories that I knew and I wanted some of the wonderful, innovative, exciting, colorful doubter’s that I knew about in history to be available to other people. And I also wanted to line them up so we could see how they interacted with each other. That actually surprised me a great deal. I didn’t realize how much each each doubter in each century looks back to that, to those before, so that it’s really a coherent history. But the extent to it also that that each generation of doubters forced the believers to come to new ways of talking about their beliefs so that they could get it past the doubters. And because of the new things that the believers would throw up, the doubters would then find new and sophisticated ways of of asking questions about that. You know, finally getting to a position where you can say, look, I have certain rules for evidence and this doesn’t fit in with that at all. But then, of course, there’s the other side of of coming to love doubt and coming to say, you know, I believe in this approach to the universe. I believe that knowing in a certain classical way of knowing doesn’t make sense to me. And having looked in other directions, I see other ways of getting to truth. And that’s you know, I find that I’m a slightly alternative voice within the skeptics or atheist movement in that I love science. I’ve studied science deeply. My I come from scientists. My father’s a physicist. I I’m entirely on the side of scientists against religion. But once that said, my my approach to what the universe is about to the most that human beings can know. I believe that poetry, art and indeed psychoanalysis, which is another one of these things that people can be very skeptical about. But I think that’s the wrong way. I think. 

I think psychoanalysis, art, poetry, these are the ways to get to the kind of truth that’s very difficult to put into a straightforward, rational. Terms. And I want to say two things about that. One is that human beings know in a certain knowing way. Their experience of being alive. 

And it is exceedingly difficult to put that into words or to in any way reproduce that for another person. Which is why there are six billion of us and we’re all lonely. It’s very difficult to communicate. And that’s wonderful because it means art will never go away. It’s very difficult. Even communicate with yourself, you know, because you don’t always know why you’re angry at certain things. It seems absurd to be angry. But but the the kind of ways that we can use these sort of loose intellectual and artistic forms to try to approach what it is that we know inside our own minds and inside our own hearts, that that experience for me is closer to the truth than the kind of the kind of measuring and comparing that is the empirical world of science, which has its place. But it isn’t the grandest. The grandest place for me is the these these techniques for understanding the deeper aspect of human knowing. 

To introspect and then also to express ourselves to people that you don’t get with scientists and their lab coats with their beakers and test tubes. 

That’s right. And and know that the inner human life is as big as the whole universe. It’s it’s an extraordinary thing. And it’s inside each one of us there to be explored. And I should add that this goes against a little bit the modern skeptic movement, but the classic definition of skeptics, skeptics with a capital s from pure of of Ellis in the 300 B.C. to the present, that the history of skepticism has been a deeper skepticism than just doubting the nonsense that hucksters try to try to pull the wool over fools eyes. The meaning of skepticism throughout history has been the skepticism of science to skepticism, a philosophy to skepticism of anything that doesn’t have appropriate all for the for the part that we don’t know. 

The context of science is is often problematic, even if the inner details are perfectly measured. 

You just touched a little on the history. Your book is so expansive in in its scope. You know, you’re covering all this history. You cover Greek doubt, Jewish doubt, doubt in Buddhism, doubt among our founders in literature, contemporary doubt. Looking back at all that history, Jennifer, who’s your favorite doubter? Who’s the one that you find yourself going back to time and again? 

Well, I. I guess one of my all time favorites is Montand, the renaissance skeptic, Montana. I guess he’s he he’s really my favorite because of just what you say. I cannot stop going back to him. 

He’s always opening my eyes. He’s always giving me problems I can’t solve. To think through and come back. It just had a brilliant, witty way of looking at himself and trying to understand his own mind and working outwards from there towards different aspects of culture or truth. Just the way he he describes the way wherever we’re born, we learn lessons about what the whole universe is and what we’re supposed to do. 

And even if right over across the street they teach different things. We cling as if we’re at sea and we found a rock. We cling to the one that we were taught as children and how hard that is, how that we could think that truth is different over the fence and his approach to then dealing with that, which was not to throw everything out, but to live with a kind of a kind of tension between what you pretend to know and what you know him I love. He’s funny and he’s sexy and strange. 

And he also you know, you’re talking about psychoanalysis and art. He kind of engages in those projects. You won’t call him psychoanalytical, obviously. But, you know, he looked inward and examined his own motivations in his own background. And all that said, he wasn’t just focused out there precisely. 

But, you know, he’s also a guy, I’ll tell you. Look, in my lifetime, England has changed its religion three times. We found a part of the world which is larger than the part we had when I was born because they found the new world. He came to understand that there was the new world during his lifetime. And and he says and also the Copernican revolution. He said it during my lifetime, instead of going around the earth, we go around the sun. And his conclusion was not now we know, but. So we’ll never know. Maybe all of this will be overturned. Maybe we’ll find even more land, you know, to a point where it’s funny. But it’s a wonderful perspective to see how the human mind accepts and rejects the notion of doubt and and get used to to some aspects of it. But there’s so many different figures that I either learn more about when I wrote out or learned up for the first time sometimes. Any little anecdotes that are just my favorite people or these beautiful stories, Ecclesiastes in the Bible is one of the greatest doubters of all time. And he’s probably in everyone’s home already. And it’s just, you know, he he’ll tell you why. Why should we believe a man dies differently than a dog? They both go to dust, right. 

Vanity, vanity, all is vanities and J. 

So your nurse actually from the Bible in your doubt. 

That’s right. And from Jobe, also, Jobe is a wonderful critique of the idea of a fair world. And it is not resolved. It’s it’s it’s what poetry and art are supposed to be. They they explore the problem, but they don’t necessarily have to come to a conclusion. 

Okay. Last question, Jennifer, about the real point of doubt. Do you think that doubt is enough or is it is it like only the first step in a skeptic’s 12 step program? I mean, once you’ve started doubting, do you stop there or where do you go? 

It’s a good question. And again, it’s exactly what history can teach you. I feel like reading through that, the historical figures, you can get to a point where you start to be able to see a new scale for looking at what you can know and what you can’t know. I think the question of whether there is a God is one of those things that you actually can know. We have no evidence for it other than a certain amount of widespread belief. But even that widespread belief is absolutely minimized by how many people throughout history have not believed in a single creator God or in any God at all. So that, you know, I mean all of Confucianism or all of Theravada Buddhism. And then, of course, all the Greeks where you had God, but not a creator God and not a single God that Kabaka movement in India. 

It’s exactly right. Yeah. 600 B.C., they doubt it all the way to the to where Hume got. You know, I mean, it’s incredible. 

But nonetheless, that that’s the only argument people seem to have left, is that that there’s a God because so many people have believed it, which is no evidence at all, especially when so many people haven’t. So for me, I don’t have to believe there’s the blue giraffe in the closet because I, I can’t know for sure unless I’m always checking. I can trust that there’s things for which I have some evidence need to be investigated, things which I have no evidence I can dismiss. And I am certain that the universe is a place and not a brain. Brains are gray. And we and I’m certain that the that the the notion of God as a creature out there that made us that knows about us, that care all of that is is is is bunk. And so I’m saying that doubt is where I like to be. 

Doesn’t mean that I stay in uncertainty about all questions at all. 

And it also seems like doubt of the deity is not enough for you. You don’t stop there. It’s like that. You did that long ago. And now now you’ve moved on. 

That’s right. To doubt. More and further. But somehow that does throw off some certainties. So that by having profound doubt about all sorts of questions, it forced me to come to grips with some things like. Like the question of suicide, for instance. A lot of doubters throughout history have thought that we should be allowed to end life and our own life because look at your own life and there’s no God watching. I’ve done a lot of thinking about it, and I’ve come to the conclusion that we are not allowed to kill ourselves, even though there is no God and no one is watching. We simply owe it to each other because it does too much damage to the group. When? When, when you kill yourself. 

I love how at the end of our conversation here, you bring up such a doozy. Open up such a can of worms. So sorry. Just. Well, we had Peter Singer on a couple weeks ago. He gives persuasive arguments for euthanasia. You’re not talking about that. You’re just saying, hey, I’m in the doldrums. I want to kill myself. That kind of suicide, right? 

That’s right. And and what I want is for the culture to become more appreciative of those people who stay for the group for the sake of the group. There needs to be a thank you out there. I’ve written poetry and in an attempt to sort of say, look, I know that some people out there are not killing themselves for the sake of others. 

And I would like to just be someone out there acknowledging and saying thank you. Mm hmm. Thank you for staying. I know. I know how hard it is. Go crazy. You don’t have to be good. You don’t have to be normal. You can break everyone’s hearts, but it’s better to not kill yourself. But these are the kinds of things, you know, you can go deep into doubt and come out with some moral notions of which you are thoroughly persuaded. Nevertheless, the the action of. Questioning. To the point where you disrupt yourself. I think that is the secret behavior in the day. 

Thank you so much for this conversation, Jennifer Michael Hecht. 

Thank you. I love the show. I’m really glad they’re taking part again. Thank you. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about today’s episode. Go to our online discussion forums at Center for Inquiry dot net slash forums. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiries. Music is composed for Spight Emmy Award winning Michael Quailed. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.