Christer Sturmark | The Flame of Reason

Photo: © Peter Knutson
This interview was conducted in February 2022 and has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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About Christer Sturmark
Christer Sturmark has a background in computer science and became known as an IT entrepreneur during the 1990s. He later on decided to completely change course in life and founded the publishing house Fri Tanke (Free Thought, t/n). Today, he operates as the CEO of the company as well as editor in chief for the quarterly magazine Sans. He has recently written the book To Light the Flame of Reason: Clear Thinking for the Twenty-First Century (2021), in collaboration with the American author Douglas Hofstadter, who also translated the Swedish manuscript into English. Sturmark has been a public debater for many years and he is engaged in questions concerning philosophy, science and religion, such as euthanasia and the importance of separating religion from politics. He often raises the problems of pseudoscience and he advocates for a secular society. Between 2008 and 2015, Sturmark was the chairman of Humanists Sweden.

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Five example books published by Fri Tanke. Their books are mainly non-fiction, focused on philosophy, existential science and current affairs. The spirit of Enlightenment run through the publishing house, promoting science and reason.

Fri Tanke and cancel culture

What kind of publishing house is Fri Tanke? What principles and philosophy is it based on?
– Fri Tanke is solely focused on non-fiction literature. We do not publish fiction, even if we have made a few exceptions to that rule. We have published a series of children’s books written by austronaut Christer Fuglesang. They are adventure books but with a strong science theme. We have also published two science-fiction books by American rising star Ted Chiang. The reason we decided to publish his books was that they are clearly permeated by scientific and philosophical ideas. But apart from these exceptions, we only publish non-fiction.

– Our foundation is to publish literature in the spirit of the Enlightenment. We publish many books in philosophy and science, especially what we call existential science, meaning the type of science that says something about what it means to be human, where we come from and where we are heading. It can for example be neuroscience, consciousness, cosmology, evolution or psychological research. The third genre we focus on, which has increased during the last couple of years, is current affairs. That is the burning societal questions of today, and preferably the more uncomfortable ones. I want to emphasize that we as a publishing house do not take any position in these questions. We do not have a political stance, neither right nor left. The only stance we take is to promote the ideas of the Enlightenment about reason and science. We will never publish a book based on pseudoscience, for example how to read horoscopes.

“We don’t take side in a question like this, and I’m not sure Ayaan Hirsi Ali is right in everything she says, but the conversation has to be allowed to take place.”

When you publish books in current affairs you most certainly meet strong reactions. Have you experienced any hard criticism or signs of cancel culture as a response to publishing controversial books?
– Oh yes. A comic example was when we published two books a couple of years back, about the feminist movement; Genusdoktrinen by Ivar Arpi and Anna-Karin Wyndhamn, and Kate Manne’s book Duktig Flicka (Down Girl). These two books are complete opposites of each other, and that wide span of perspectives is what we want. Many left-oriented feminists definitely see Ivar Arpi as an anti-feminist right-winger, while I’m sure many on the right consider Kate Manne to be a radical, feminist lunatic. I’ve been told by critics that we are a “right-wing publishing house” because we published Genusdoktrinen, but these critics do not mention the fact that we also published Kate Manne’s views. I consider this a dangerous trend.

Authors Anna-Karin Wyndhamn, Ivar Arpi who wrote Genusdoktrinen and Kate Manne who wrote Duktig Flicka (Down Girl). Both books have been published by Fri Tanke.
Authors Anna-Karin Wyndhamn, Ivar Arpi and Kate Manne.

– Last year, we published the book Villebråd (Prey) by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, which is about sexual violence connected to immigration, and that was of course seen as controversial. We had booked a big event with her where she would be part of a panel discussion, together with for example Bi Puranen who is one of the most prominent experts we have when it comes to values among immigrants. Unfortunately, the event was cancelled due to the Covid pandemic, but during the planning we had to have the Swedish Security Service involved since Ayaan needs constant protection. Again, we don’t take side in a question like this, and I’m not sure Ayaan Hirsi Ali is right in everything she says, but the conversation has to be allowed to take place.

To organize such a panel discussion without agreeing with everything that is being said – would you say a fair comparison is to be able to have any book, for example Mein Kampf, in your bookshelf without necessarily sympathize with its content?
– Yes and I actually have that one! I bought it at a second-hand bookshop and it’s the first printed edition in Swedish, from 1933 if I remember correctly. It even says on the cover page “Authorized translation by the German state.” In my new book, I actually use a quote from Mein Kampf to show that Hitler used Christian arguments in his propaganda against the Jews. It is a common understanding that Hitler was an atheist, and we can of course not know what he was deep down inside, but it is totally clear that he used arguments from Christianity in his anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Are we able to think clearly?

Your new book, To Light the Flame of Reason, encourages people to think rationally, clearly and with reason. Considering how radically news media has changed over the last decade and how we are constantly finding ourselves in a tornado of different information flows, it has become more and more difficult to achieve what you call on – to think clearly and draw rational conclusions. How should we think, for example when there is a legitimate expert on a news show who says the exact opposite of another expert in a different news show? How can we navigate when searching for truth in today’s climate?
– I think we need to admit that there are areas in which we can’t know what is true, simply because the amount of knowledge we have isn’t enough yet. Take Covid-19 as an example, and the fact that doctors have different opinions about how the pandemic should be managed. We don’t know exactly what is true with that, and I think we have to be humble about it. Nevertheless, there are many questions with scientific consensus where you can find countless alternative sources that claim a bunch of nonsense. It is in those cases you need to be able to tell the difference of what is reasonable to believe and not. Social media and new technology make it easy to present information in a very attractive way, even if it’s bullshit. That makes it difficult.

To Light the Flame of reason (2021) in English (UK and USA), Swedish and Russian.
To Light the Flame of Reason (2021) in English (UK and USA), Swedish and Russian.

Do you also think that with the rise of alternative news and information sources, the general public’s trust in mainstream media is decreasing?
– Sure, but I think it is mainly because social media gives people the chance of having crazy opinions confirmed. People can easily find an online community where they get support and love. I think there is a radicalization process embedded that is connected to cancel culture. Let’s say we have a rational and respected journalist who starts to test thoughts and ideas that are a bit outside of the mainstream. If this person gets ostracized because of this, I think there is a real risk of radicalization. This person could quickly get approached by communities who love when someone steps out from the mainstream.

– Everybody needs confirmation and if it ceases to come from one community, you will start to look for it from others. An appalling example of this is Inger Carlqvist, who was once a well-respected journalist but is now a notorious Holocaust denier. This is a pure psychological mechanism and has nothing to do with cognitive deficits. Because of this, I think it’s dangerous to exclude and ostracize people too quickly. By the way, this radicalization process is probably the same kind of process young boys in the suburbs go through when they end up joining radical Islamist groups. They feel excluded from society.

“I suspect that many of those who take a stand against euthanasia and who say that it is not for religious reasons, yet on an unconscious level think so precisely for religious reasons.”

– I also believe that public service in Sweden needs to become much better at not creating false balances. Public service journalists sometimes seem to think that because they are supposed to be impartial, they must always give the same media space to two opposing views. They even apply this in cases where there is a scientific consensus on one position and the other comes from a tin foil hat. In such situations, it is a mistake to think that both sides must be allowed to participate and express themselves. The problem with this is that you give the viewer the impression that both sides are legitimate and that they are equal views to hold. Recently, for example, Swedish Radio organized a discussion between a scientist specialized in vaccines and an anti-vaccine blogger. That was not very successful.

– On the topic of false balances, I actually found myself in a dilemma when SVT (Swedish Public Service TV) invited me to the program Mötet (the Meeting t/n). They wanted me to debate Terry Evans, who calls himself a medium but is actually a fraudster. By doing this, SVT created a false balance. The program should never have been made because there is a scientific consensus that there are no ghosts or spirits we can talk to. In the same way, they should not have a debate about whether the Holocaust has taken place or not. The issue of nuclear power is more appropriate because it is a reasonable topic to have different opinions on. So why did I join the program then? SVT explained that if I wouldn’t do it, they would still record the program, but with someone else than me. Being a bit overconfident maybe, I thought that I can probably argue better than many others on that topic and therefore I agreed to participate.

Christer Sturmark in a debate with Terry Evans in SVT's program Mötet from 2021.
Christer Sturmark debates Terry Evans in SVT’s show Mötet from 2021. Photo: SVT

Ethics and morality in a naturalistic world

You have been a secular humanist for many years. What does that mean and how are you guided in moral questions by this worldview?
– I’ve been engaged in life stance questions for a long time and I was previously chairman of Humanists Sweden. Secular humanism can be defined by two pillars. The first is a descriptive view of the nature of the world. It is naturalistic, that is, the world is natural rather than supernatural. This leads to me also being an atheist. The second part is a normative view. We try to build a secular ethical framework that has nothing to do with religious dogmas, scriptures or principles. Coming to a moral position is always about making a number of considerations, but we believe that those considerations should be free from theological arguments and instead rest on secular ideas.

– If we take euthanasia as an example, I believe that it’s a question that every person should have the right to decide on. It is about the individual’s own life, which is the most fundamental a human being has. I find it very difficult to come to terms with the crypto-religious claim that we humans are not allowed to make decisions about our own life and death. I call it a crypto-religious stance because I suspect that many of those who take a stand against euthanasia and say that it is not because of religious reasons, do it precisely for religious reasons, although subconsciously. It may be that the subject feels a bit taboo and that you have a view of life as sacred.

Humanists Sweden's campaign "God probably doesn't exist" from 2009.
Humanists Sweden’s campaign “God probably doesn’t exist” from 2009.

– Another example is abortion, for which I think that we should have a liberal legislation. The question is not ethically unproblematic and it is not at all obvious where the limit should be for abortion. There must be a highly sophisticated, medical-ethical discussion about this. But that the limit is not at the moment of conception is completely clear to me, because becoming a human is a gradual process and the same is true for human value. With the same reasoning as a basis, I believe that it should be allowed to do research on embryonic stem cells. These positions come as a consequence of my secular humanist life stance.

Some people with a less liberal attitude on abortion may agree with you that the limit should not be at the moment of conception, but due to the lack of obvious limits after that, they conclude that it is better to use the only clear limit that seems to exist, i.e. the moment of conception. At the same time, there are those on the other side of the opinion spectrum who believe that men have no right to speak on the issue at all, and that all those who argue against them are religious fanatics. What do you say about these opinions?
– I am not necessarily against the idea that perhaps the limit for abortion should be changed, especially since the possibilities of rescuing premature babies are constantly shifting. When it comes to the question of which exact pregnancy week the limit should be at, I must be humble enough to not have an opinion because I am not medical-ethically educated.

“If someone argues against same-sex marriage, people immediately shout homophobe! But it is not at all certain that a person who with that opinion is homophobic.”

– To characterize people with a different opinion as you describe, is a vulgarization of the debate. Same-sex marriage is another example where the debate often becomes vulgar. If someone argues against same-sex marriage, people immediately shout homophobe! But it is not at all certain that a person with that opinion is homophobic. For some reason they just think it is wrong for two people of the same sex to be able to marry. For example, they might believe that God is against it, which is an argument that I reject because I don’t believe that God exists. But they do not necessarily have to be homophobic! They may be, but it does not follow from being against same-sex marriage.

What is the guiding ethical core of secular humanism that you lean towards when forming an opinion on a moral issue?
– If I were to try to define the foundational idea, it would probably be to minimize suffering. After that, I would say create meaning. People should have the opportunity and freedom to create meaning in their lives. I personally believe that happiness follows from meaning, not the other way around. A related question that I find fascinating is whether there is an objective morality or not. I think secular moral philosophers on both sides of the question have interesting arguments. Personally, I’m still agnostic.

In your conversation with Navid Modiri in the podcast Hur kan vi? you claimed that science has nothing to say about moral issues. Author and philosopher Sam Harris argues that science is central when taking a stand on moral issues. Is he wrong?
– Well, science can clarify which of two alternatives is the best to minimize suffering. But that minimizing suffering should be our moral objective, I claim, science can not say. Science can not define our moral values. On the other hand, it can say a lot about how we can achieve well-being, for example. Science can determine empirical questions, but we first need to agree on the moral axioms, such as that prosperity and well-being are desirable while suffering is not.

Sam Harris TED talk from 2010: Science can answer moral questions.
Sam Harris TED talk from 2010 “Science can answer moral questions“.

What seems to be increasing in popularity is postmodern truth relativism. Proponents claim that there can be several truths simultaneously even if they are in conflict with each other. They also claim that whether something is true or not is a matter of subjective interpretation rather than objective empiricism. This is probably something you object to?
– Absolutely! I think it’s a frightening view. In my book, I have an example of when I debated a teacher who claimed that creationism and evolution are just two different paradigms, but that is complete nonsense! This is actually a very dangerous attitude, because if there are only subjective truths, no one can ever be wrong. Everyone is right all the time. Objective truth is a prerequisite for us to be humble and acknowledge that we can be wrong. Just imagine how dangerous it would be if you could justify any action – no one can ever claim that you are wrong.

Which book would you like to recommend?
Exact Thinking in Demented Times: The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science (2017) by Karl Sigmund. It’s an incredible depiction of a dramatic time in history. Vienna was the intellectual center of Europe in the 1920s with names like Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Popper and Kurt Gödel. This philosophical association, the Vienna Circle, became a light in a time that was being darkened by fascism, Catholic fundamentalism and anti-Semitism. It can be described as a philosophical starting point that came to mean a lot to the analytical philosophy of the West and also to the development of quantum physics. I highly recommend it!

Christer Sturmark is reading the book Exact Thinking in Demented Times by Karl Sigmund, published by Fri Tanke.
Christer Sturmark is reading the book Exact Thinking in Demented Times by Karl Sigmund.

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