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Announcements | Book News | Ethics | Philosophy | Publishing | January 26, 2015

On Being Right about Right and Wrong

An Interview with Michael Shermer


Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, the host of the Skeptics Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His latest book is The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom.

Michael was kind enough to answer a few questions by email:

Consciousness | Economics | Ethics | Neuroscience | Philosophy | January 16, 2015

Can We Avoid a Digital Apocalypse?

A Response to the 2015 Edge Question

(Photo via Armand Turpel)

It seems increasingly likely that we will one day build machines that possess superhuman intelligence. We need only continue to produce better computers—which we will, unless we destroy ourselves or meet our end some other way. We already know that it is possible for mere matter to acquire “general intelligence”—the ability to learn new concepts and employ them in unfamiliar contexts—because the 1,200 cc of salty porridge inside our heads has managed it. There is no reason to believe that a suitably advanced digital computer couldn’t do the same.

It is often said that the near-term goal is to build a machine that possesses “human level” intelligence. But unless we specifically emulate a human brain—with all its limitations—this is a false goal. The computer on which I am writing these words already possesses superhuman powers of memory and calculation. It also has potential access to most of the world’s information. Unless we take extraordinary steps to hobble it, any future artificial general intelligence (AGI) will exceed human performance on every task for which it is considered a source of “intelligence” in the first place. Whether such a machine would necessarily be conscious is an open question. But conscious or not, an AGI might very well develop goals incompatible with our own. Just how sudden and lethal this parting of the ways might be is now the subject of much colorful speculation.

Consciousness | Ethics | Free Will | Meditation | Philosophy | Self | Violence | December 16, 2014

The Very Bad Wizards Interview #1

Sam Harris, David Pizarro, and Tamler Sommers talk (and then talk some more)

0:00-47:00—Intro and costs and benefits of religion

47:00-1:17:00—Drugs, the self, free will

1:17:30-end—Blame, guilt, vengeance, moral responsibility

David Pizarro is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. His primary research interest is in how and why humans make moral judgments, such as what makes us think certain actions are wrong, and that some people deserve blame. In addition, he studies how emotions influence a wide variety of judgments. These two areas of interest come together in the topic of much of his recent work, which has focused on the emotion of disgust and the role it plays in shaping moral, social, and political judgments.

Tamler Sommers is an associate professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of Houston with a joint appointment in the Honors College.  He is director of the Honors minor Phronesis: A Program in Politics and Ethics.  His research focuses on issues relating to moral responsibility, criminal justice, honor, and revenge.  Sommers is the author of two books: Relative Justice: Cultural Diversity, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility (Princeton, 2012) and A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain (McSweeney’s, 2009).  He received his PhD in Philosophy from Duke University in 2005.



I recently sat down with Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks to discuss my most controversial views about Islam, the war on terror, and related topics. It was, of necessity, a defensive performance on my part—more like a deposition than an ordinary conversation. Although it was a friendly exchange, there were times when Cenk appeared to be trying very hard to miss my point. Rather than rebut my actual views (or accept them), he often focused on how a misunderstanding of what I was saying could lead to bad outcomes—as though this were an argument against my views themselves. However, he did provide a forum in which we could have an unusually full discussion about difficult issues. I hope viewers find it useful.

Having now watched the full exchange, I feel the need to expand on a couple of points:

Announcements | Ethics | Publishing | October 20, 2014

Just the Facts

A Response to a Charge of Plagiarism

1. C.J. Werleman, a writer for Salon and Alternet, has made a habit of publicly misrepresenting my views.

2. When I first noticed this behavior, I contacted him, initiating a brief and unpleasant email exchange.

3. After that exchange, Werleman went on to misrepresent my views with even greater fervor.

4. Werleman was subsequently discovered to be a serial plagiarist.

5. His response to this public humiliation was to accuse me of being a plagiarist too. Specifically, I am alleged to have plagiarized the work of Mark Steyn.

Let me briefly illustrate how this works. Although I could cite hundreds of examples from the past two weeks alone, here is what I woke up to this morning: Some person who goes by the name of @dan_verg_ on Twitter took the most easily misunderstood sentence in The End of Faith out of (its absolutely essential) context, attached it to a scary picture of me, and declared me a “genocidal fascist maniac.” Then Reza Aslan retweeted it. An hour later, Glenn Greenwald retweeted it again.

That took less than two seconds of their time, and the message was sent to millions of people. I know one thing to a moral certainty, however: Both Greenwald and Aslan know that those words do not mean what they appear to mean. Given the amount of correspondence we’ve had on these topics, and given that I have repeatedly bored audiences by clarifying that statement (in response to this kind of treatment), the chance that either writer thinks he is exposing the truth about my views—or that I’m really a “genocidal fascist maniac”—is zero. Aslan and Greenwald—a famous “scholar” and a famous “journalist”—are engaged in a campaign of pure defamation. They are consciously misleading their readers and increasing my security concerns in the process.

sam harris ben affleck bill maher

My recent collision with Ben Affleck on Bill Maher’s show, Real Time, has provoked an extraordinary amount of controversy. It seems a postmortem is in order.

For those who haven’t seen the show, most of what I write here won’t make sense unless you watch my segment:


So what happened there?

I was recently interviewed onstage at George Washington University by Michelle Boorstein, a religion reporter for the Washington Post. The next day, Boorstein published an article summarizing our conversation, in which she excerpted a few quotations that made me appear somewhat sexist. I believe that these quotations are accurate, but they are also incomplete and misleading. Boorstein seemed to anticipate that they would spark a little controversy, and they have.

My exchange with Boorstein in the Lisner Auditorium had been somewhat prickly, in fact. At one point, she flatly denied that a significant percentage of Americans are fundamentalist Christians. I cited poll results going back 80 years that suggest the number hovers around 45 percent. Boorstein then asserted her authority as a journalist, having focused on these issues, studied all the relevant polls, and written multiple articles explaining them to the public. According to her, the kinds of questions I claimed had been asked and answered, and upon which I based my case—Do you think God created humans in their present form? (46 percent); Do you think Jesus will return to earth in the next 40 years? (41 percent)—hadn’t been asked at all, and wouldn’t indicate a person’s actual beliefs even if they had. I found her remarks stunningly uninformed. I did my best not to let this derail the interview, but after we left the stage I told her that she had a professional responsibility to get her facts straight. She seems to have now paid me back in print.

ISIS

In his speech responding to the horrific murder of journalist James Foley by a British jihadist, President Obama delivered the following rebuke (using an alternate name for ISIS):

ISIL speaks for no religion… and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day. ISIL has no ideology of any value to human beings. Their ideology is bankrupt…. we will do everything that we can to protect our people and the timeless values that we stand for. May God bless and keep Jim’s memory. And may God bless the United States of America.

In his subsequent remarks outlining a strategy to defeat ISIS, the President declared:

Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not Islamic. No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim…. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way…. May God bless our troops, and may God bless the United States of America.

As an atheist, I cannot help wondering when this scrim of pretense and delusion will be finally burned away—either by the clear light of reason or by a surfeit of horror meted out to innocents by the parties of God. Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behavior and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder? It may be true that no faith teaches people to massacre innocents exactly—but innocence, as the President surely knows, is in the eye of the beholder. Are apostates “innocent”? Blasphemers? Polytheists? Islam has the answer, and the answer is “no.”

Ethics | Philosophy | Science | Self | August 27, 2014

“Dead babies are not an argument”

Commentary on Paul Bloom's "Against Empathy"







In recent weeks, Israeli bombs have rained down on Gaza, and images of the resulting death and destruction have inflamed world opinion. Never mind that the government in Gaza is run by Hamas, an avowedly genocidal organization that uses its own civilians as human shields. Nor does it matter that some of this carnage seems to have been caused by Hamas’s own rockets gone astray. To bear witness to the suffering of the Palestinian people is all: the sight of a lifeless girl pulled from the rubble, her inconsolable parents, the spokesman for UNRWA breaking down in sobs during an interview—every image presents its own moral imperative and settles the case. Israel stands convicted of evil.

Atheism | Debates | Ethics | Politics | Religion | Terrorism | War | August 12, 2014

Making Sense of Gaza

A Conversation Between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan

The following is an edited transcript of a 90-minute telephone conversation that took place on August 6, 2014. I hope readers find it useful.—SH



AUDIO TRANSCRIPT [Note: This is a verbatim transcript of a spoken podcast. However, I have added notes like this one to clarify controversial points.—SH]

I was going to do a podcast on a series of questions, but I got so many questions on the same topic that I think I’m just going to do a single response here, and we’ll do an #AskMeAnything podcast next time.

The question I’ve now received in many forms goes something like this: Why is it that you never criticize Israel? Why is it that you never criticize Judaism? Why is it that you always take the side of the Israelis over that of the Palestinians?

Now, this is an incredibly boring and depressing question for a variety of reasons. The first, is that I have criticized both Israel and Judaism. What seems to have upset many people is that I’ve kept some sense of proportion. There are something like 15 million Jews on earth at this moment; there are a hundred times as many Muslims.  I’ve debated rabbis who, when I have assumed that they believe in a God that can hear our prayers, they stop me mid-sentence and say, “Why would you think that I believe in a God who can hear prayers?” So there are rabbis—conservative rabbis—who believe in a God so elastic as to exclude every concrete claim about Him—and therefore, nearly every concrete demand upon human behavior. And there are millions of Jews, literally millions among the few million who exist, for whom Judaism is very important, and yet they are atheists. They don’t believe in God at all. This is actually a position you can hold in Judaism, but it’s a total non sequitur in Islam or Christianity.

Consciousness | Debates | Ethics | Neuroscience | Philosophy | June 6, 2014

Clarifying the Moral Landscape

A Response to Ryan Born

(Photo via M.Richi)

I’d like to begin, once again, by congratulating Ryan Born for winning our essay contest. The points he raised certainly merit a response. Also, I should alert readers to a change in the expected format of this debate: Originally, I had planned to have an extended conversation with the winning author, with Russell Blackford serving as both moderator and commentator. In the end, this design proved unworkable—and it was not for want of trying on our parts. I know I speak for both Ryan and Russell when I say that our failure to produce an acceptable text was frustrating. However, rather than risk boring and confusing readers with our hairsplitting and backtracking, we’ve elected to simply publish Russell’s “Judge’s Report” and Ryan’s essay, followed by my response, given here.—SH

Announcements | Ethics | Philosophy | Publishing | May 31, 2014

The Moral Landscape Challenge

The Winning Essay

(Photo via Steven Kersting)

Last August, I issued the following challenge:

It has been nearly three years since The Moral Landscape was first published in English, and in that time it has been attacked by readers and nonreaders alike. Many seem to have judged from the resulting cacophony that the book’s central thesis was easily refuted. However, I have yet to encounter a substantial criticism that I feel was not adequately answered in the book itself (and in subsequent talks).

So I would like to issue a public challenge. Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in under 1,000 words. (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $20,000, and I will publicly recant my view.

Several hundred of you entered this contest—which was an extremely gratifying turnout. The philosopher Russell Blackford judged the essays and picked a winner. Here begins my exchange with its author, Ryan Born.—SH

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