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Sam Harris reflects on his failure to have a productive conversation with Noam Chomsky.
(Photo via Simon & His Camera)
Sam Harris reflects on his failure to have a productive conversation with Noam Chomsky.
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For decades, Noam Chomsky has been one of the most prominent critics of U.S. foreign policy, and the further left one travels along the political spectrum, the more one feels his influence. Although I agree with much of what Chomsky has said about the misuses of state power, I have long maintained that his political views, where the threat of global jihadism is concerned, produce dangerous delusions. In response, I have been much criticized by those who believe that I haven’t given the great man his due.
Last week, I did my best to engineer a public conversation with Chomsky about the ethics of war, terrorism, state surveillance, and related topics. As readers of the following email exchange will discover, I failed. I’ve decided to publish this private correspondence, with Chomsky’s permission, as a cautionary tale. Clearly, he and I have drawn different lessons from what was, unfortunately, an unpleasant and fruitless encounter. I will let readers draw lessons of their own.
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In this episode of the Waking Up Podcast, Sam Harris talks about atheism, artificial intelligence, rape, public speaking, meditation, consciousness, free will, intellectual honesty, and other topics.
Sam Harris gets back in the VBW ring for another round on moral responsibility, ethical theories, and the grounds for our obligations to other people. Are we at a genuine stalemate when it comes to blame and desert? Is Tamler a closet consequentialist? Is Sam a closet pluralist? Why is Dave such a big Wagner fan? Plus, Twitter shaming: what is it good for? Settle in, get comfortable, pour yourself a drink, you’re in for the long haul on this one.
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:
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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.
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.
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.
I once participated in a twenty-three-day wilderness program in the mountains of Colorado. If the purpose of this course was to expose students to dangerous lightning and half the world’s mosquitoes, it was fulfilled on the first day. What was in essence a forced march through hundreds of miles of backcountry culminated in a ritual known as “the solo,” where we were finally permitted to rest—alone, on the outskirts of a gorgeous alpine lake—for three days of fasting and contemplation.
I had just turned sixteen, and this was my first taste of true solitude since exiting my mother’s womb. It proved a sufficient provocation. After a long nap and a glance at the icy waters of the lake, the promising young man I imagined myself to be was quickly cut down by loneliness and boredom. I filled the pages of my journal not with the insights of a budding naturalist, philosopher, or mystic but with a list of the foods on which I intended to gorge myself the instant I returned to civilization. Judging from the state of my consciousness at the time, millions of years of hominid evolution had produced nothing more transcendent than a craving for a cheeseburger and a chocolate milkshake.
I found the experience of sitting undisturbed for three days amid pristine breezes and starlight, with nothing to do but contemplate the mystery of my existence, to be a source of perfect misery—for which I could see not so much as a glimmer of my own contribution. My letters home, in their plaintiveness and self-pity, rivaled any written at Shiloh or Gallipoli.
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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
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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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I am often asked what will replace organized religion. The answer, I believe, is nothing and everything. Nothing need replace its ludicrous and divisive doctrines—such as the idea that Jesus will return to earth and hurl unbelievers into a lake of fire, or that death in defense of Islam is the highest good. These are terrifying and debasing fictions. But what about love, compassion, moral goodness, and self-transcendence? Many people still imagine that religion is the true repository of these virtues. To change this, we must begin to think about the full range of human experience in a way that is as free of dogma, cultural prejudice, and wishful thinking as the best science already is. That is the subject of my next book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.
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My recent collision with Daniel Dennett on the topic of free will has caused me to reflect on how best to publicly resolve differences of opinion. In fact, this has been a recurring theme of late. In August, I launched the Moral Landscape Challenge, an essay contest in which I invited readers to attack my conception of moral truth. I received more than 400 entries, and I look forward to publishing the winning essay later this year. Not everyone gets the opportunity to put his views on the line like this, and it is an experience that I greatly value. I spend a lot of time trying to change people’s beliefs, but I’m also in the business of changing my own. And I don’t want to be wrong for a moment longer than I have to be.
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I’d like to thank you for taking the time to review Free Will at such length. Publicly engaging me on this topic is certainly preferable to grumbling in private. Your writing is admirably clear, as always, which worries me in this case, because we appear to disagree about a great many things, including the very nature of our disagreement.
I want to begin by reminding our readers—and myself—that exchanges like this aren’t necessarily pointless. Perhaps you need no encouragement on that front, but I’m afraid I do. In recent years, I have spent so much time debating scientists, philosophers, and other scholars that I’ve begun to doubt whether any smart person retains the ability to change his mind. This is one of the great scandals of intellectual life: The virtues of rational discourse are everywhere espoused, and yet witnessing someone relinquish a cherished opinion in real time is about as common as seeing a supernova explode overhead. The perpetual stalemate one encounters in public debates is annoying because it is so clearly the product of motivated reasoning, self-deception, and other failures of rationality—and yet we’ve grown to expect it on every topic, no matter how intelligent and well-intentioned the participants. I hope you and I don’t give our readers further cause for cynicism on this front.
Unfortunately, your review of my book doesn’t offer many reasons for optimism. It is a strange document—avuncular in places, but more generally sneering. I think it fair to say that one could watch an entire season of Downton Abbey on Ritalin and not detect a finer note of condescension than you manage for twenty pages running.