The Jeff Wise Blog

Interview: Fear, Death and The Psychology of Fight Club

I recently did a fun interview with Joshua Chaplinsky over at The Cult, the Chuck Palahniuk web site. Our conversation ranged over the mechanisms of fear, the meaning of death, how I wound up writing about adventure science. Chaplinsky begins by writing:

Fear is the mind-killer; it is the little-death that brings total obliteration. Whether you are a soldier on the battlefield or a housewife cornered by a cockroach, it is a formidable foe. It can heighten your senses, providing a performance enhancing jolt of adrenaline, yet it can also cause your body to completely shut down on itself. They say only the strong survive, but the many x-factors associated with the fear response pose a danger to even the most well prepared individual. Despite this, good old fashioned knowledge is still your best defense in a dangerous situation. And nobody is more aware of that fact than science writer/outdoor adventurer Jeff Wise.

You can read the whole piece here.

Filed under: Books

Has Psychology Killed Philosophy? A Chat with Sean D. Kelly, Co-author of All Things Shining

How can we lead meaningful lives in an age when the broad culture no longer embraces a single vision of religious truth? In a remarkable new book, All Things Shining, philosophy professors Sean D. Kelly of Harvard and Hubert Dreyfus of UC Berkeley undertake a rollicking survey of three millennia of Western thought, contrasting the ways that Homer, Aeschylus, Dante, Melville, and others found meaning in their worlds. The main challenge we face today, they write, is to find a convincing response to nihilism, a position that they identifying particularly in the writings of David Foster Wallace.

What’s particularly fascinating about Kelly is that he began his academic career not in philosophy but in computer science and artificial intelligence.The deep problems that arose in trying to understand the nature of consciousness led him to philosophy. But he remains deeply steeped in the scientific perspective, and I was curious to ask him about how the practice of philosophy – mankind’s attempts to understand what it means to exist – has been affected by, or perhaps even superseded by, rapid scientific progress in understanding how our brains work.

What is nihilism?

It’s the feeling that nothing in the world matters any more than anything else.  Nietzsche’s analysis was that people once found meaning in their belief in the Judeo-Christian God, but that in the post-medieval world belief wasn’t sufficient anymore to give people the sense that things really mattered.  The basic philosophical issue underlying the book, then, is: how are you supposed to live your life in order to make it possible that things matter again?

Is nihilism an intellectual problem, or an emotional one?

Some people really suffer from the feeling that nothing seems to matter any more than anything else. David Foster Wallace called it a ‘stomach-level sadness.’ I think that’s  a pretty good description of it.

Jared Lee Loughner, who shot Arizona congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others, seems to have been obsessed with philosophy, and had some strange ideas about meaning. Was he a nihilist? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Books

Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

Also by Jeff Wise