The Buddha-like Deepak Chopra sits down with physicist Leonard Mlodinow, and Ira Magaziner discusses his work to lower the price of AIDS drugs at The Atlantic Meets the Pacific event
I write this just off several planes from San Diego, where The Atlantic Meets the Pacific finished up late Wednesday and provided those of us lucky to be there plenty to think about: I defer to and echo Steve Clemons's praise of the level of sessions, and hope you watched the sessions too, courtesy of the miracle of live streaming.
Like Steve, I enjoyed the first morning's counterpoint of the Buddha-like Deepak Chopra, leaning forward and extending his outstretched arms as if to his thousands of followers, and the physcist Leonard Mlodinow, who would dryly break in with spirituality-deflating remarks about what is and is not scientifically provable. Chopra: "Science is a fragmented view of the universe." Mlodinow: "I don't think scientists are banished to hell." It was an obviously choreographed but nonetheless enjoyable routine.
The crux of their debate is over whether or not science can explain consciousness, and Mlodinow made what seemed the most reasoned and least treacly summation when he said:
I say that science doesn't know how to define consciousness, but not that it can't. No one thinks he doesn't have free will. No one wants to hear that their loved ones have turned to dust after death and have rejoined the earth and they'll never be reunited. I do feel we're governed by physical laws.
James Bennet, our editor-in-chief, bravely moderated -- no easy task given how often these two are performing together on tour for their new book -- and managed to ask a provocative question about how to explain evil and intentionality. Chopra had a fairly Panglossian view:
If consciousness is infinite, it excludes nothing, and the question of good and evil remains. Collective psychosis gives rise to Hitler. This does not excuse evil. It says to us that we have a responsibility, because we have free will to favor the forces of evolution and kinship to the universe we came from. Morality is the undeniable expression of the inseparability of love, compassion, truth, beauty -- an idea that I relate experientially to the web of life. If I don't, that means I am evil.
He offered what sounded like an explanatory excuse for most people who are evil: they were abused as children.
Mlodinow was predictably more rational, reiterating that all behavior all behavior originates in the "laws of nature":
Evil doesn't come from randomness. It comes from evil people or a nervous system that doesn't have the same social spirit other human beings have. Religions never did a good job of explaining evil. Humans in the wild regularly murder each other far more often than we do today; societies today teach us love. I admire Deepak's writings about humanity and taking care of each other. I take both sides of human nature and hope for the best.
There were no applause meters, but I suspected who most members of the audience instinctively sided with.
On the last morning, I interviewed Ira Magaziner about his work at the Clinton Health Access Initiative and the remarkable work it has done to lower the price of AIDS treatment drugs and new vaccines and speed and streamline their distribution. CHAI (an appealing acronym to which the session introduced me) works closely with the Gates Foundation, creating an alliance to help put in place the initiatives and goals the foundation funds.
Using Gates's "balance sheet, which is quite ample," as Magaziner dryly put it, CHAI guaranteed a minimum volume of sales for developers of a new rotavirus vaccine so that it would be accessible to people who needed it in many countries. "Forward pricing," with tiers of price levels for the poorest, middle-income, and developed countries, played off CHAI's earlier success in focusing the minds of drug manufacturers to lower the price of AIDS drugs by working directly with the Indian factories that produce most of the world's pills.
Even more ambitiously, CHAI is committed, Magaziner said, to keeping to the same schedule for the rollout of new vaccines in Africa and Asia as in developed countries, rather than the usual five-year delay. This involves work with a whole range of developers, producers, providers, and governments in more than 35 countries.
This successful and innovative model of international comity among stakeholders with very different incentives and beliefs naturally led me to ask about Magaziner's experience trying to implement health-care reform in the years when his current boss and longtime friend was president. Magaziner held fast to his opening premise that the one thing he'd learned in Washington was to answer the question he intended to rather than the one that was asked. But then he said, pointing his finger for emphasis: Let me be plain. Health care in this country is not broken. We deliver the best care in the world, and quickly. What's broken is health care financing. Not enough people have access to that care. (It was such a clear sound bite and take-home message -- as I'd asked him to give -- that James Fallows immediately tweeted it.)