Twitter Q&A 4/29/13: #AskSamAnything

April 29, 2013

I will take your questions from 6-7pm (Eastern), Monday 4/29. Please use the Twitter hashtag #AskSamAnything to participate.

Possible topics include: the mind/brain, science v. religion, free will, moral truth, meditation, terrorism, consciousness, gurus and cults, publishing, lying, etc.

Note: If you are following the conversation live, you will need to keep refreshing your browser to watch it develop.

*  *  *
twitterJoe Goodrich ‏@josephgoodrich Thoughts on Islam and the Boston Bombing—and the press’ reaction to (avoidance of) the Islam connection?

This is probably worthy of a separate blog post. But, briefly, I have noticed a persistent failure to differentiate four general types of bad actor: (1) psychotics or people who suffer some obvious form of mental illness (e.g. Jared Loughner, James Holmes, Adam Lanza), (2) psychopaths or those whom we would generally describe as classically “evil” (e.g. most serial killers, Kim Jong Il), (3) psychologically normal people who do bad things because they are a part of a bad system or have poorly aligned incentives (e.g. many gang members, most soldiers fighting in unjust wars, certain business people), and (4) otherwise normal people who are captivated by some transcendent, divisive ideas. Some of these belief systems are merely political, or otherwise secular, in that their goals are exclusively a matter of bringing about specific changes in this world. But the worst are religious—whether or not they are attached to mainstream religion—in that they are energized by beliefs about otherworldly rewards and punishments, prophecies, magic, etc.

Obviously, a person can belong to all four types at once and have his antisocial behavior overdetermined. Someone can be both a psychotic and a psychopath, part of a corrupt system, and devoted to a dangerous, transcendent cause. But there are many examples of each type in its pure form. At the moment, I see no reason to think that the Boston Marathon bombers were anything but type (4)—which puts all the onus on their religious beliefs. And anyone who puts them in the same category as Jared Loughner and Adam Lanza, as many commentators have, is guilty of obscurantism. “Why are angry, disaffected men so prone to violence?” Wrong question.

twitterMark B ‏@emexbe What’s your opinion of panpsychism? A technically valid theory or scientifically impossible?

Possibly true, but probably unfalsifiable—and, therefore, probably vacuous in scientific terms. Is the sun conscious? There’s no reason to think so, but would I expect the sun to behave differently if its processes of nuclear fusion were associated with subjectivity? No. So, even if panpsychism were true, I would expect it to be undetectable.

twitterAdam Dorr ‏@adam_dorr You seem to avoid political morality. Care to engage? Is conservativism inherently less moral than liberalism?

I touch on this briefly in The Moral Landscape and Free Will. These views have different strengths and weaknesses. Depending on the context, one can be less in touch with reality than the other and conducive to greater harm. One of the virtues of liberalism is self-doubt and a willingness to consider the other person’s point of view. In the presence of antagonists who don’t have a point of view worth considering (e.g. psychopaths, religious maniacs), liberalism can be a recipe for masochism and moral cowardice. Conservatives tend not have this problem. But when conservatives are wrong, they often lack the corrective mechanisms of liberals. It’s hard to generalize, but it is worth noting that there is a structural asymmetry here: liberalism can be exploited in a way that conservatism cannot.

twitterMark B ‏@emexbe Have you and @danieldennett ever considered having a public debate about free will?

Yes, we are planning on it. But I can’t yet say when it will happen.

twitterTiny Klout Flag14joseph morris ‏@josephlmorris Do you think that truth has value in and of itself or is its value derived from its affect on well-being

This is actually a very subtle question—and my answer is pretty easy to misconstrue. But I think that (ultimately, when we get very clear about what we mean by these terms) truth is a slave to well-being. Which is to say that anything you can say about the value of knowing the truth (e.g. it’s so interesting, so useful, so beautiful, etc.) translates into a claim about the well-being of conscious creatures.

twitterOliver Rees Brown ‏@degodier How best to publish 1st book 4students my age on Humanism based on 4horsemen’s combined work+Pinker+much more

Please see my article, How to Get Your Book Published in 6 (Painful) Steps.

twitterTimSkinner ‏@_timskinner Is there a good strategy to help counter blasphemy laws endangering our international secular counterparts?

We need to blaspheme wherever necessary, publicly and without apology, criticize anyone who takes offense—and ridicule those who pretend to take offense.

twitterGlenn the Technomage ‏@bluedream Are you planning on writing a book exploring spirituality without superstition?

Yes, that’s my next book. The manuscript is due in a month (as you can see, I’m procrastinating). It will be out next year.

twitterAnton Vikström ‏@Anton_Vikstrom How square the “illusion of the self” with, in meditation, simply *observing* the stream of thoughts?

If you observe the stream of thoughts closely enough, you will see that there is no self doing the observing.

twitterAlan Litchfield ‏@MalcontentsGamb How can you establish that there are moral facts to be known? Can you give us an example (or two) of a moral fact.

It is a fact that this universe admits of an extraordinary range of pleasant an unpleasant experiences for conscious creatures. It is also a fact that movement in this space is constrained by the laws of nature (whatever they turn out to be). Forget, for a moment, that you ever heard the word “morality.” Just admit that we have a navigation problem on our hands: If we go too far in one direction, things reliably get very unpleasant (and not the kind of unpleasant that has a silver lining); go in another, and everyone gets really happy, creative, fulfilled, etc. These differences exist and movement is possible. Now let’s recall this word “morality”: if you don’t think that it would be immoral to move everyone downward into hell, or moral to move them upward in collective flourishing, I don’t know what you’re talking about.

twitterBryan Goodrich ‏@bryangoodrich Morality is about brain states, how does this apply to ethics of future people (e.g. genetic manip, unborn) or the environ?

I wouldn’t say that morality is about “brain states”—I would say that it relates to the actual and possible states of conscious minds. So if computers of the future become conscious, they will be part of the moral landscape.

The question of our ethical connection to the unborn and to the never-to-be born is an interesting one. We clearly must place some value on possible states of suffering and well-being. For instance, why would it be bad to painlessly kill every person currently alive in his or her sleep? We can’t say it would be bad because of all the suffering it would cause—because everyone would die painlessly and there would be no one left to grieve. The immorality must relate to the potential states of future happiness that would be cut off by such an act. If you believe, as I do, that human life is, on balance, extraordinarily beautiful and well worth living, you must think that ending all human life would be bad, even if it could be done painlessly.

In my view, the value of the environment is reducible to the value it has for all the conscious creatures in it (both actual and potential). For a rock or a stream to be valuable, I think it must be valuable to some actual or possible creature. This doesn’t require that the creature be aware of this value—you and I surely have compounds in our bodies that are absolutely integral to our physical and mental well-being that science has not yet discovered. But value must matter to someone, somewhere, somehow—at least potentially.

twitterRobert Bauer ‏@RobertBauer18 Do you think that people like Chomsky and Greenwald actually believe their own myopic views?

I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt.

twitterpeter walsh ‏@speciesisminart Moral Landscape says value the well being of conscious creatures – only to solely focus on humans. Why?

My argument applies to all conscious creatures, to the extent that they are conscious. I focus on humans because we are most concerned about ourselves, and I believe we are right to be, given that we seem to experience the widest range of conscious states. But I do think we should be very concerned about the suffering we impose on other animals—and brain-to-body ratio seems a reasonable basis upon which to organize our intuitions on this front (e.g. we should be more concerned about chimps than about chickens).

twitterAdam Simoneau ‏@AyJaySimon To what extent do you agree w/ S. Levitt’s assertion that no proposed gun control measures will do much good?

I basically agree with Levitt about this. You can listen to his discussion of gun policy here.

twitterJakub Kuźmiński ‏@AeternitasManet What did you learn from Christopher Hitchens?

One thing he taught me is that there are times when outrage is the only appropriate emotion—and not to express it at such moments is a moral failing.

twitterJefferson Grizzard ‏@JeffGrizza Does your stance regarding free will affect your actions from day to day, or are its implications strictly societal?

My view about the illusoriness of free will makes it easy to let go of anger/hatred. I occasionally get angry, of course. There are people who behave in ways that I find despicable. But I can (ultimately) see their behavior as impersonal—even when it is directed at me personally. That doesn’t mean that I suddenly become trusting of everyone. I know that certain people can be counted upon to misbehave. But so can grizzly bears. We can fear grizzly bears and take steps to protect ourselves from them, but it makes no sense to hate them.

twitterJefferson Grizzard ‏@JeffGrizza If the self is an illusion, who or what is witnessing that illusion?


twitterAnjo Bacarisas PA ‏@JoBacarisas How do you define the secular spirituality?

Self-transcendence without divisive bullshit.

twitterJohn Snow ‏@JohnSno40182901 What are your thoughts on Sufism?

It’s a myth that there have been no intolerant Sufis. But Sufism, being the mystical tradition within Islam, has tended to be more benign and far more interesting than the religion itself. I have always loved the poetry of Rumi and the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I have practiced with Sufis, and I have no doubt that people have interesting insights and experiences chanting the Zikr, for instance. But insofar as these insights are interesting, they will be unintelligible in light of the Koran.

twitterAndy French ‏@andyfrenchie If we live in a multiverse and causality unfolds in all directions, how can we morally justify one action versus another ?

Well, if you share the hope that you live in one of the universes where you don’t suffer unnecessarily, you might want to act accordingly.

twitterAnti Life EFIList Ⓥ ‏@AntiLifeEFIL Is is not objectively better never to have been? What flaw is there in the nonexistent state?

It is impossible to eat pancakes there.

twitterTiny Klout Flag12Usman Mian ‏@UsmanMianMD Have u had many former Muslims credit you for being instrumental in their apostasy? I’m one!

Glad to hear it! I can’t say “many”—certainly not when compared to the numbers of Christians—but I do hear from them occasionally. I think this says more about the demographics of my readers than about specific religions.

twitterPhil Myth ‏@philmyth Have recently started exploring libertarianism and am wondering what your views on it are?

Again, labels can be misleading, but I’m a “libertarian” in the sense that I think that whatever can best be done in the private sector should be. And I believe that peaceful and honest people have the right to be left alone. Libertarianism rests on the acknowledgment that behind every law and every tax stands a loaded gun—i.e. if you don’t follow the law or pay the tax, men with guns will eventually show up at your door and haul you away to prison. Like most libertarians, I believe that the State should use such powers of coercion sparingly. Consenting adults should be able to do more or less anything they want (as long as they don’t harm others), and there is no such thing as a “victimless crime.” But I tend to break with libertarians on the following points: I believe that (1) certain important things cannot be accomplished by free markets (or cannot be best accomplished there); (2) too much wealth inequality is profoundly undesirable; and (3) Ayn Rand should be ignored.

twitterTony Earle ‏@EarleTony From your pojnt of view, what would be the 3 main reasons why religion is deleterious for people…

  1. It is false.
  2. It is intrinsically divisive (because it is false and, therefore, provides a very poor basis for agreement).
  3. It gives people bad reasons to be good, where good reasons are available.

twitterMike Anas ‏@MikeAnas What are the merits of silent & introspective mindfulness vs. mindful walking, eating, or other forms of focused attention?

They’re ultimately the same. But it can be easier to first learn mindfulness as a sitting practice. I didn’t discover that walking meditation was as powerful as sitting until about midway through my first 10-day retreat.

twitterOlsonic ‏@BruinsScience Curious about your thoughts on the responsibilities of your fans to defend you from unscrupulous media attacks. nota1manjob?

Thanks for asking. I don’t think “responsibility” is the word I’d use—but I would be very grateful if readers would direct people to my Response to Controversy page whenever they see someone distorting my views online.

twitterMark Lambert ‏@bootjangler11 What would it take to have a President of the US who was not afraid to declare his atheism or at least non-belief?

At least a dozen national polls showing that 60 percent of the population would happily vote for such a person. It will happen, but I doubt it will be in 2016.

twitterFelix Berglund ‏@Felix_Berglund Is it wrong to lie in negotiations?

The question more or less answers itself the moment you consider doing business with the same people again.

twitterAdam5365 ‏@Adam5365 What truly separates a pure conservative / true liberal as I (non party con) relate to most of your ideas

Interesting question—and it is one that is getting harder to answer. Obviously, it depends on whether a person is a social or fiscal conservative (or both), because the former position tends to depend on (unwarranted) religious beliefs. Generally speaking, if you think homosexuals should be free to marry and billionaires should admit that their wealth arises out of conditions that they did not create (political stability, good infrastructure, educated consumers, etc.), you are probably a “liberal” who will align with me on most questions—that is, until I tell you that Islam is more threatening than Anglicanism and that a person can be a responsible gun owner. Then you’ll call me a bigot and an NRA shill.

twitterNathan Edmondson ‏@EdmondsonNathan Is it fair to divorce the valuable practices of Buddhism from Buddhism? Theravada for example.

Yes. Just as it’s fair to take the crackers and wine from Catholicism

twitterBête Politique ‏@betepolitique Did Bruce Schneier convince you that racial profiling at airports was not a good idea?

You mean “profiling” (not “racial profiling”). No, he didn’t. Profiling is just another name for making judgments about people based on all of the statistical information we have available (and, no, it’s not another name for “bigotry”). We have limited resources to devote to security: The question is, should we allow highly trained people to use these resources intelligently, or should they be obliged to shine the spotlight of their attention at random? Granted, we don’t currently have highly trained screeners at the TSA, but we should. And the truth is, even untrained people are better at spotting potential terrorists than Schneier admits. In fact, most of us are better at noticing threatening people than we are at almost anything else we do—courtesy of evolution. I’m not arguing that we should give free rein to our latent xenophobia, but it is simply crazy to think that we can’t form fast, valid intuitions about the likelihood that a given person is about to kill everyone in sight, including himself. Again, my argument for profiling is really an argument for anti-profiling—that is, we shouldn’t waste time patting down people who stand no reasonable chance of being jihadists.

I agree with Schneier that random screening can play an important role in certain contexts, but it shouldn’t be motivated by political correctness. And I maintain that obviously wasting our security resources—as we do—is tantamount to putting innocent lives at risk. I say more about why I wasn’t convinced by Schneier here.

twitterOtto Olah ‏@ottoolah Hi @SamHarrisOrg, did you ever write about why not supporting the death penalty? I love your work!

Thanks. I haven’t written about my opposition to the death penalty at length—but my reasons can be gleaned from the general argument I present in Free Will.

twittermykamakiri ‏@mykamakiri1 What is the best meditation exercise to try for a curious beginner who wants to get a taste of its benefits?

If you have never meditated before, I highly recommend that you start with a practice called vipassana. I discuss it here: How to Meditate.

twitterNicholas Phillips ‏@zenmindz Is Vipassana different from Dzogchen? I find Vipassana often includes duality, and Dzogchen is non-dual.

Yes. The main difference is that you can start practicing vipassana from wherever you are—it’s a technique that anyone can learn. Dzogchen requires that you be able to recognize the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness (i.e. that you cut through the illusion that there is a thinker of your thoughts and an inner experiencer of your experience). So you can’t start Dzogchen until you can observe that consciousness, prior to thought, doesn’t feel like “I”—and the practice is nothing other than noticing this, again and again. I think vipassana is the perfect preliminary practice for Dzogchen.

twitterRasmus Pettersson ‏@RasmusP When’s your new book coming out?

It is currently scheduled for June 2014.

twitterFredrik Eggen ‏@fredrikeggen Why isn’t the argument ‘atheist dictators did not commit their deeds in the name of atheism’ used more often?

I use it a lot, but the point bears repeating: I don’t hold religion accountable for all the bad things that religious people have done. I hold it accountable for all the bad things they have done because of their religious beliefs. No doubt, there are atheists and secularists who have caused immense amounts of human suffering, but I know of no cases in which they did this because they valued empirical evidence over faith or found specific religious doctrines irrational. As I’ve said on more than one occasion, no human society has ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

Jens Kjær Jensen ‏@JensKjrJensen If, as you say, science is to be the main arbiter of morality, do you still see a useful role for philosophy in this area?

I wouldn’t separate them. Our truth claims should be guided by reason and evidence. There is no clear line between (good) philosophy and science.

twitterSam Edwards ‏@SamuelJEdwards How to find high quality meditation instruction that isn’t mired in dogma? Buddhism and Vipassana seem just as guilty.

It’s difficult. But in most contexts the dogma have no consequence. You can start practicing vipassana, for instance, without believing anything magical or superstitious. One can’t begin praying to Jesus that way.

twitterDouglas Borg ‏@doug_borg Some critics of A Moral Landscape say you do not addressing the is/ought problem. Are the critics missing your point?

Yes. I believe I have shown it to be a false problem (i.e. based on confusion). My critics continue to insist that I haven’t solved this false problem in the terms of their confusion. This is annoying and sends me sliding down the slopes of the moral landscape.