Penn Jillette: Reconciling Atheism with Libertarianism

Penn Jillette:  This is one of the places that I seem to disagree with Richard Dawkins.  Whenever you disagree with Richard Dawkins, the chances are, you’re wrong.  Dawkins seems to think that the state can come in and have the authority to decide truth or not truth.  He seems to think that the teaching of evolution is really, really important and that the state should do it.  I think historically, we see them replace religion with the state; things go way, way badly.  

I believe, and I may be wrong on this, but I think that individuals care desperately about education.  I think there’s a condescending quality that has to do with we have to educate the masses because we know better.  And I believe that all the tools are in place for people to learn on their own. 

I think that the whole idea that the state has to bestow upon children enlightenment maybe outdated.  I think that Moore’s Law and the way WiFi is proliferating and how cheap things are getting.  And how far the level of poverty is coming up.  I mean, people are considered to be in a poverty level in the U.S. have cell phones and I’m not saying that in any sort of, they’re not really poor.  They really are wicked poor, and terribly poor, but they do have cell phones.  And information is there and education is there.  And I think that education is going to come from the web. 

I mean, my children go to a fancy-ass, expensive private school, but I see them going on the internet and learning more than they do in that environment.  I would like to think that people are overwhelmingly good and that charity works and that we will help each other.  And I think that the image that’s portrayed in that question of a Libertarian state being a huge disparity of income doesn’t seem completely accurate.  The disparity that we have not is not coming… they pretend that the Bush years were years of no regulation and freedom and kind of Libertarian, but there’s no evidence of that.  

What we have now is not rich people who are working outside the law, but rich people who are gaming the system.  You know, all the problems we’ve had have not been that they’re not regulated, but that they’re working the regulation in their benefit.  We’ve had people that have made huge mistakes and then are rewarded for it.  We’ve done huge bailouts of people that should have crashed and burned.  And they make this deal with you.  And I don’t think it’s ever stated this way, although it may be… it may actually be stated this way, where they kind of say - if you play into the system and if you let us regulate you and if we let you do what you… if you do what we want, we will guarantee you won’t go out of business.  We will buoy you up, we will help you, we’ll give you tax breaks; we’ll do all of this.  

And there’s a view of Libertarianism that it is somehow everybody wants what happened during the Bush Administration to continue and more so.  Every Libertarian I know hated the Bush Administration.  It did not seem fair; it did not seem small government.  It was not small government.  It was people getting in bed with the government to do this phony, crony capitalism.  

Without the government watching over, holding on to things and “too big to fail,” thinks just go up and down and rich people take more of a roller coaster ride than poor people.  

My point of view on Libertarianism is, first, let’s stop the things we all agree need to be stopped.  Let’s stop, as my partner Teller says, “Let’s stop spending money we don’t have to kill people we don’t know for reasons we don’t understand.”  Let’s just stop killing people, that’s really expensive.  And Bush and Obama did a lot of that.  

Then let’s stop… let’s stop all the bailing out of rich people.  Let’s stop all the, ‘we’ve got to help people get jobs by giving money to these rich people,’ planning on trickle down from the government.  Let’s stop that, you know, as Harry Brown, the Libertarian candidate from 20 years ago used to say, “We spend all this money on tobacco subsidies and all this money educating people not to smoke.”  Let’s just stop one of them.  We don’t care to begin with, just stop one of them.  And I think then, we whittle it down and then, you know, you can make your argument that we still need education, that we still need libraries, that we still need infrastructure.  And you’ll probably win with me.  

The mistake we make with Libertarianism is, I think, is that we start by saying, “Let’s stop the government from doing really stupid stuff.”  And people come back with the argument and say, “So you don’t want bridges?”  And you go, “Oh, okay.”  Can we argue about bridges after we’re out of Afghanistan?  Can we argue about bridges after we’ve stopped killing people in Texas for crimes?  Can we argue about bridges after there’s no one in prison for marijuana possession and use?  Nobody in prison for prostitution.  Can we… once we get all that done, can we then have the argument about bridges?  

Can we just stop the stuff that big government’s doing that we really know is bad?   

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd



 

Penn Jillette answers Big Thinker Adam Lee's question about how he reconciles two world views: his atheism with his libertarianism.

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Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

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At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


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