Saturday, February 14, 2009

Graham and Zimbardo

I am rather a TED Conference junkie, and I'm slowly working my way backwards through their archives. I listened recently to two speeches. The first was Zimbardo, on the scientific nature of evil (his so-called "Lucifer Effect"). The second was Rev. Billy Graham.

Now, Billy Graham is not a person I like very much. But I do have to grant that he's a very charming person--his speech begins with several jokes about himself. Then he focuses on the subject of his lecture: three questions that cannot be answered by science. I didn't listen all the way through, because the first supposedly unanswerable question, "Where does evil come from?"

It's unfortunate for the Reverend that I had just listened to Zimbardo. Because Zimbardo asks the question "Where does evil come from?" And he puts forward a very plausible answer: through systems that incentivize evil and deincentivize good.

I could use this to make a point about how religion asks us to stop short from answering the big questions--it asks us just to look to God. That's certainly Billy Graham's take on religion. But that would be a facile lesson to take from the situation. Because Zimbardo is clearly a religious man, in his own way. After all, he dubs it the Lucifer Effect--and his explanation is about how Lucifer was good but turned to evil. And Zimbardo's experiment is, at its core, a desire to understand that. A desire to understand what turns good into evil, and evil into good.

It became, for me, an interesting rumination on Billy Graham's model of knowledge (with certain bounded 'unknowables') and Zimbardo's model of knowledge (science pushing those boundaries as hard as it can). It is odd to me that the TED Conference would ask Billy Graham to preach a sermon on the limits of knowledge. But I can understand why he's welcome.

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