Sam Harris's Blog, page 7
February 15, 2017
In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris answers questions from listeners about his conversation with Jordan Peterson, the reaction to Milo Yiannopoulos at U.C. Berkeley, the “Muslim ban,” the echo chamber of social media, Trump’s lies, the value of the humanities, the ethics of ending aging, whether consciousness can be an illusion, evolution and morality, free speech and other topics.
February 4, 2017
January 31, 2017
In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris and Joseph Goldstein answer questions about the practice of mindfulness. They discuss negative emotions, the importance of ethics, the concept of enlightenment, and other topics.
January 30, 2017
A conference at Asilomar organized by the Future of Life Institute
Panel discussion moderated by Max Tegmark, including Elon Musk, Stuart Russell, Bart Selman, Ray Kurzweil, David Chalmers, Nick Bostrom, Demis Hassabis, Sam Harris, and Jaan Tallinn.
January 29, 2017
President Trump has had a busy first week in office, displaying the anarchic grandiosity, callousness, and ineptitude of which he seems uniquely capable. He is every inch what we knew him to be: a malignant Chauncey Gardiner. And now our institutions have begun to shudder at his whim. The fact that atheists like me can’t find the time to worry about the religious crackpots he has brought with him into power is a measure of how bad the man is. Christian fundamentalism has become the least of our concerns. Our democracy has been engulfed by a hurricane of lies.
Many readers have asked me to comment on the president’s executive order suspending immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries. I believe I’ve stated my positions on the relevant topics fairly clearly. But perhaps a brief summary is in order.
1. I did everything I could to make the case against Trump prior to the election (while many of the liberals now attacking me for enabling his “Islamophobia” actively undermined the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, even in the final days of the campaign).
2. I think Trump’s “Muslim ban” is a terrible policy. Not only is it unethical with respect to the plight of refugees, it is bound to be ineffective in stopping the spread of Islamism. As many have pointed out, it is also internally inconsistent: It doesn’t include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, or Lebanon, any of which has been a more fertile source of jihadist terrorism than several of the countries Trump named.
3. However, most of what is being said in opposition to Trump’s order is thoroughly contaminated by identity politics and liberal delusion. The Left seems determined to empower the Right by continuing to lie about the problem of Islamism. As David Frum recently wrote, “When liberals insist that only fascists will defend borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals won’t do.” I have been saying as much for more than a decade—and am vilified by my fellow liberals whenever I do.
4. It is perfectly possible—and increasingly necessary—to speak about the ideological roots of Islamism and jihadism, and even about the unique need for reform within mainstream Islam itself, without lapsing into bigotry or disregarding the suffering of refugees. Indeed, when one understands the problem for what it is, one realizes that secular Muslims, liberal Muslims, and former Muslims are among the most desirable allies to have in the West—and, indeed, such people are the primary victims of Islamist intolerance and jihadist terror in Muslim-majority countries.
5. If liberals who refuse to speak honestly on these topics continue to march with Islamists, denigrate free speech, and oppose the work of the real reformers in the Muslim community, they will only further provoke and empower Trump. And Trump, in turn, will empower Islamists the world over by threatening the civil liberties of all Muslims within his reach.
6. The next acts of jihadist terrorism to take place on American soil will most likely be met with terrifyingly blunt (and even illegal) countermeasures by the Trump administration. If all that liberals can do in response is continue to lie about the causes of terrorism and lock arms with Islamists, we have some very rough times ahead.
7. If you are listening to obscurantists like Linda Sarsour, Dalia Mogahed, Reza Aslan, and representatives of CAIR, and denigrating true secularists and reformers like Maajid Nawaz, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Raheel Raza, and Sarah Haider, you are part of the problem.
Nothing that I have said or written about Islam, the war on terror, or even “profiling” stands in contradiction to these points.
What we need, above all, is a new center to our politics—one that defends secularism, science, and free speech against their enemies on both the Left and the Right. And now we each must choose between supporting that civilizing project or joining in the chaos to come.
January 23, 2017
I recently interviewed the psychologist Jordan B. Peterson on the Waking Up podcast. As I said at the beginning of our conversation, I’d received more listener requests for him than for Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Edward Snowden—or, indeed, any other person on earth.
The resulting exchange, however, was not what our mutual fans were hoping for. Rather than discuss religion and atheism, or the relationship between science and ethics, we spent two hours debating what it means to say that a proposition is (or seems to be) “true.” This is a not trivial problem in philosophy. But the place at which Peterson and I got stuck was a strange one. He seemed to be claiming that any belief system compatible with our survival must be true, and any that gets us killed must be false. As I tried to show, this view makes no sense, and I couldn’t quite convince myself that Peterson actually held it. The response on social media suggests that most listeners found our exchange as perplexing and frustrating as I did.
The main criticism directed at me has been that once we hit this impasse, I wasn’t a gracious enough host to let the dialogue proceed to other topics. I understand this complaint (and even anticipated it during the dialogue itself). But I feared that if we moved on to discuss the validity of religious faith, the power of myth, the reality of Jungian archetypes, or any of the more ethereal topics for which Peterson has become a celebrated exponent, without first agreeing on how sane and reasonable people can differentiate fact from fantasy, we were doomed to talk past each other with every sentence.
Peterson and I ended the podcast on a civil note, and I promised to have him back if our listeners wanted us to attempt to address other topics. He has since tried to clarify his position in a series of emails, one of which he has read publicly.
Here is part of that text (as emailed to me), in which he speaks about the necessity of finding a basis for ethics (i.e., answering the question “How should we act in the world?”) within a Darwinian framework:
Here’s an answer: individually, such that the family thrives; at the family level, so that society thrives; at the societal level, so that the ecosystem thrives—today, tomorrow, next week, next year, and across time. That’s the ultimate Piagetian equilibrated state (and Piaget, by the way—although few know this—was trying to solve the problem of the relationship between science and ethics. That’s what drove him his entire life).
The individual who acts in this manner is the mythological hero, who confronts the unknown with attention and intent to communicate, who obtains the gold from the eternal dragon of chaos (an evolved representation of the predatory/promising domain beyond the safety of the campfire), and who distributes that gold to the community. He rescues the youthful virgin from the predatory reptile. That’s St. George. It’s the oldest story we know of. It’s in the Enuma Elish, the Mesopotamian creation myth, upon which the opening lines of Genesis are historically predicated. Can’t you see the evolutionary relationship?
That’s the archetypal hero. That’s first, a way of behaving; second, a representation of acting; third, a way of organizing society around that action and representation; fourth, a society that then selects, through masculine competition, for the best contender to that representation; fifth, what is selected for by women, who peel off the top of the masculine competition. They outsource the impossible cognitive task of mate selection to the male dominance hierarchy. A hero emerges at the top of the competition. He gets all the girls. Human females are mother nature, the selection apparatus, the choosy maters (that female chimps are not).
The archetypal hero is a super-meme. It has been around so long that we have adapted, biologically, to its existence, just as we have adapted in every way to the three hundred million year old dominance hierarchy, which is more permanent—more real, even from a strictly realist perspective—than such evanescent phenomena as amphibians, reptiles, and mammals: older even [than] trees. The closer you are to the archetypal hero, the more likely you are, at least as a male, to win the dominance hierarchy contest that makes you attractive to women.
If Dawkins was wiser, he would have been Carl Jung. An archetype is the ultimate meme.
I trust that these are the sorts of claims that Peterson would have made had we moved on from the narrow question of what makes a statement true (or more true than its rivals). And I have no doubt that many of Peterson’s fans will think that the above passage puts his view on firmer footing. I disagree. In fact, I’m pretty sure I disagree with most of what Peterson says here, insofar as I understand it. Has human evolution actually selected for males that closely conform to the heroism of St. George? And is this really the oldest story we know? Aren’t there other stories just as old, reflecting quite different values that might also have adaptive advantages? And in what sense do archetypes even exist? These quibbles aside, isn’t it obvious that most of what we consider ethical—indeed, almost everything we value—now stands outside the logic of evolution?
In the year 2017, the question “How should we act in the world?” simply isn’t reducible to Darwinism. In fact, most answers to this question arise in utter defiance of the evolutionary imperatives that produced us. Caring for disabled children would most likely have been maladaptive for our ancestors during any conditions of scarcity—while cannibalism recommended itself from time to time in every corner of the globe. How much inspiration should we draw from the fact that killing and eating children is also an ancient “archetype”? Overcoming tribalism, xenophobia, honor violence, and other forms of apish barbarity has been unthinkable for hundreds of millennia—that is, until now. And our moral progress on these fronts is the basis of our most enlightened answers to Peterson’s question.
We didn’t evolve to do science, or to build institutions that last for generations, but we must do these things to thrive. Thriving requires the survival of the species, of course, but it’s not reducible to that. Getting our genes into the next generation simply isn’t our only (or even our primary) goal—and it surely isn’t the foundation of our ethics. If we were true Darwinians, every man’s deepest desire would be to continually donate sperm to sperm banks so that he could sire thousands of children for whom he’d have no further responsibility. If we really viewed the world from the perspective of our genes, no other answer to the question “How should we act in the world?” would seem more fitting. I’ll let readers judge how closely this maps onto the human minds with which they’re acquainted.
Peterson believes that there is an inverse symmetry to our views on the relationship between facts and values. According to him, I see “ethics as nested inside scientific realism,” whereas he sees “scientific realism as nested inside Darwinian competition” (which he views in ethical terms). A clearer way of stating this is that he thinks I locate all values within a system of truth claims, whereas he locates all truth claims in a system that selects for a single value: survival. Hence our stalemate.
But I have always said that the scientific worldview presupposes the validity of certain values—logical consistency (up to a point), explanatory elegance, respect for evidence, and so forth. This is why I think Hume’s famous gap between “is” (facts) and “ought” (values) is misleading on the topic of morality. We can easily reverse direction and discover that we won’t get to “is” without first obeying certain “oughts.” For instance, to understand what the cause of an illness is, one ought to pay attention to regularities in the body and in the environment that coincide with it. (Additionally, we now know that one ought to emphasize material causes, rather than sympathetic magic or the evil eye.) Facts and values are connected.
However, the fact that some values lie at the foundation of our scientific worldview does not suggest that all scientific truth claims can be judged on the basis of the single (Darwinian) criterion of whether the claimants survive long enough to breed. On the contrary, this assertion is quite obviously false (as I believe I demonstrated throughout our podcast). We can easily imagine our species being outcompeted by one that has no understanding whatsoever of the cosmos. Would a lethal swarm of disease-bearing insects possess a worldview superior to our own by virtue of eradicating us? The question answers itself—because no insect could even pose it. Mere survival doesn’t suggest anything about the intellectual or ethical achievement of the survivors.
Some who listened to my conversation with Peterson thought that in objecting to his conception of truth, I was endorsing materialism or denying that the mind could play any role in determining the character of reality. But that isn’t the case. I was merely arguing that Peterson’s peculiar form of pragmatism, anchored to the lone value of survival, can’t capture what we mean by “truth” (or even what most pragmatists mean by it).
I remain open to further exchanges with Peterson. But given the volume of complaints I’ve received about our first podcast, I need to know that my regular listeners really want that.
So I’ve launched a one-question poll on Twitter. If you have an opinion on the topic, please take a moment to answer it:
Should @jordanbpeterson and I do a second podcast in which we attempt to discuss religion, atheism, ethics and other topics?— Sam Harris (@SamHarrisOrg) January 23, 2017
January 22, 2017
January 21, 2017
In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with psychologist Jordan B. Peterson about freedom of speech and the nature of truth.
Jordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and Professor at the University of Toronto. He formerly taught at Harvard University and has published numerous articles on drug abuse, alcoholism and aggression. He is the author of Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief.
January 15, 2017
In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with author Lawrence Wright about al-Qaeda & ISIS, Arab culture, 9/11 conspiracy theories, the migrant crisis in Europe, Scientology, parallels between L. Ron Hubbard and Donald Trump, the Satanic cult panic, and other topics.
Lawrence Wright is an author, screenwriter, playwright, and a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. His works of nonfiction include In the New World, Remembering Satan, The Looming Tower, Going Clear, and Thirteen Days in September. He has also written a novel, God’s Favorite. His books have received many prizes and honors, including a Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower. His most recent book is The Terror Years: From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State.
January 12, 2017
As I continue to increase the scope of my work—which currently includes podcasts, books, audiobooks, videos, public talks, an app, blog posts, op-eds, documentary and television interviews, and other projects—the time has come to expand my team. I’m now looking for a full-time creative projects manager.
As my creative projects manager, you will help oversee my various publishing channels, which include:
a blog that attracts more than 500,000 unique visitors each month
a podcast that was named one of “iTunes Best of 2015”; regularly ranks in the top 100 in the US, the UK, Canada, and Australia; and reaches a minimum of 300,000 listeners per episode
an email newsletter that goes out to more than 100,000 subscribers
a forthcoming app that will be a major new project for me in 2017, requiring continual development
live events for audiences of 500–2000 people (including lectures, daylong conferences, and podcast interviews)
social media accounts that have a combined reach of more than 1 million people
I will be bouncing ideas off you and seeking your advice. Working with me will also put you in contact with some very interesting people. However, you will also have to function as an executive assistant — keeping my calendar, sorting through the 34,000+ emails currently in my inbox, booking podcast guests, planning my live events, etc.
The job will undoubtedly change over time. In fact, one of your primary responsibilities will be to find ways to help me that I haven’t thought of yet. If you are the right person for this position, we will eventually need to hire someone to do all the things you shouldn’t be doing, and our team will grow.
You will be able to do most of this work from home and generally set your own hours. However, you will occasionally need to be available during the evenings and on weekends. Pay will be competitive.
You needn’t have read all my books or listened to all my podcasts, but it is important that you be very familiar with my work and committed to furthering it. If you’re not a fan of the way I tackle polarizing topics and cross boundaries between intellectual disciplines, this isn’t the job for you.
You must be highly organized and well-informed. You should be a careful reader, writer, and editor, and you must have a strong sense of design as applied to apps, websites, videos, book covers, etc. Whatever your background, you should already possess the skills and experience that will make you effective in this role.
You must have:
a real desire to help spread my ideas
at least 3 years of relevant work experience
excellent written and spoken communication skills
a high degree of comfort using common software packages and online tools (MailChimp, Excel, blogging CMS, social media analytics, etc.)
And at least one of the following:
a background as a software/web/app developer
a degree in a relevant academic field
experience in publishing (or other media), online marketing, or advertising
experience as an executive assistant
Please don’t apply for this position if your primary goal is to apprentice with me so that you can become an author, podcaster, science communicator, etc. To do this job well, you must actually want to be my creative projects manager.
If you think you’d be a good fit for this position, please complete the application linked below.
Wishing you all the best,
Creative Projects Manager Application