Intro. [Recording date: January 12, 2023.]
Today is January 12th, 2023, and my guest is neuroscientist, philosopher, and author Sam Harris. He hosts the podcast Making Sense and is the creator of the meditation app Waking Up.
Sam recently hosted me on his podcast Making Sense, and he graciously invited me to change places at the table and let me interview him. Sam, welcome to EconTalk.
Sam Harris: Hey, great to see you, Russ.
Russ Roberts: I want to let parents listening with young children know this conversation may stray into adult themes, so feel free to vet it before sharing.
Russ Roberts: And our first topic, Sam, is you. Give us a thumbnail of how you came to be where you are, with an incredibly popular podcast, an incredibly popular meditation app. How'd that happen?
Sam Harris: Well, I started as a writer. And, I started kind of in an unconventional spot there because I wrote my first book in the middle of what should have been my Ph.D. [Doctor of Philosphy] thesis beginning. I had just finished my research doing fMRI [functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging] scanning of people at the Brain Mapping Center at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles], and--actually, no, sorry, I just finished my coursework and I was beginning my research.
And, then September 11th happened and I wrote my first book, The End of Faith. And, that proved so controversial, and the conversation around those issues was so rich and interesting that I quickly wrote a second book in response to the pushback there, Letter to a Christian Nation. And that, essentially sidelined me for about four years during my Ph.D. I had a toe in the lab, but barely a toe for four years. So, I took nine years to finish my Ph.D., and that's really what writing was doing to me during that time.
But, it was really on the basis of my writing platform that I launched my podcast and then subsequently the Waking Up app.
So, I was fairly early to podcasting. I had been a guest on a few podcasts. I had been a guest on Joe Rogan's podcast and I think Tim Ferris's; maybe one or two others. And I just thought, 'Well, this is interesting.' If you had told me that I might one day go into radio, I would've told you you were insane. But, something about the medium made it seem different.
And so, I just started recording pieces of audio. Initially they were solo audio riffs or essays, and I was releasing those sporadically without really even thinking that I had a podcast. And, then at a certain point, I was interviewing other people more or less once a week, and I had a podcast in earnest. And that's how it started.
Russ Roberts: What have you learned from being a podcaster? Have you changed in any way?
Sam Harris: Well, personally, I've learned about the power of incentives, because as much as I've wanted to get back to writing books, having a podcast has shown me that--this won't surprise you as an economist--but like virtually everyone, I am a creature of incentives, and all of the incentives are aligned away from writing books at the moment. Podcasting is easier, I reach many more people, and it's a better business.
So, for me to go back to writing and embrace the opportunity cost of writing at the moment, I really have to decide, 'Well, I don't care about doing the harder thing. I'm happy to do the harder thing. I don't care about reaching fewer people. I don't care about it taking much longer to reach those fewer people. And, I don't care about losing money.'
So, all the incentives are wrong for writing my next book. So, as if by magic, I haven't done that.
I think I will ultimately do it, because I think writing is just a muscle. As a thinker, you need to work and you really don't think as clearly as you can unless you're writing your thoughts and finally producing the sentence that you think is the best version of any specific thought.
So, that is a loss to me, but it's been great. I mean, podcasting is, as you know, so different from writing because you're not doing it alone. You know, you and I are having a conversation now and we have an excuse to have this conversation. And, the truth is, it's a conversation I'd want to have anyway for free, right?
So, it's really an amazing opportunity to use media to help the people who want to hear these conversations and to have fun ourselves. I feel immensely lucky.
Russ Roberts: But, has it taught you anything? I mean, you could have read the books of all your guests. Many of them write books.
Russ Roberts: Do you find talking to the rather diverse range of people that you speak to, does it affect you in any way? Has it affected your thinking?
Sam Harris: Yeah, certainly. Because, you know, as a writer, I'm not someone who interviews people for the most part by way of research. I obviously read a lot of books to be a writer of non-fiction, but there is something about talking to smart people and having them push back against your views in real time that is--it's something you can't really supply for yourself in the same way.
I mean, reading a book, I guess, provides that. I mean, it is conversational in a way, but--I don't know. I think it's incredibly useful to be in dialogue and to have the time-course of one's feedback be shorter and shorter.
When you write a book, it takes you a year or more to write it. It then sits with your publisher for 11 months or so, and then it goes out into the world, then you get some feedback if people review it or people react to it. But, the time-course of correction and fertilization of further conversation is so slow. They're almost not even analogous processes, even though they're quite similar: that, the time-course changes everything.
Russ Roberts: Yeah: I never thought about that. I often will get on a topic and interview a series of people in clumps. You know, I'll read somebody's book, and then three weeks later or a month later, I'll interview a person on the other side, or a related theme.
Like you, I'm very interested in consciousness, so I've done a bunch of interviews on that. And I've never thought about the fact that, you know, you read a book about consciousness by an author and then maybe you read another one down the road that has a different take, different perspective. But in podcasting, you're almost inevitably doing it over a relatively short period of time. And then you're in dialogue rather than in your own head, the way you would be as a reader with diverse ideas or different takes or perspectives. And, I guess it quickens the pace.
Russ Roberts: One of the things I find extraordinary about podcasting for a long time, as you have, is how many connections I see between topics and episodes that don't necessarily seem related.
And, when those are coming quickly and you're seeing those connections, I find it--people claim to learn things from me, which I appreciate, but I've learned so much from being an interviewer, not just from the content I've consumed to prepare for them, but to have that conversation like we're having now, and to have it--it's 8:00 at night here in Jerusalem, and it's 10:00 in the morning in California where you are, and--well, that's a miracle.
Russ Roberts: So, it's not just nice to have the conversation: if we weren't podcasting, we probably wouldn't be talking. And so, it is very special.
Sam Harris: Yeah. Well, that's--what I've appreciated about it most, really, is writing is such a solitary endeavor. And podcasting, especially if you're mostly doing interviews, is a completely different experience, because you now have a venue to invite people to. And, you're helping them. You're helping them launch their books in many cases.
But, it is just like this guilty pleasure, to be able to talk to the smartest people in the world about anything.
And, when you have a successful podcast, you're not really asking a favor of them: you're doing them a favor, if anything. And so, it's wonderful to be able to do.
And, it's just good company. Right? You just get to meet people you wouldn't otherwise have an excuse to meet. I wouldn't reach out to even a favored author just to reach out to them, but because I have a podcast and because their publicist may have even hurled their next book at me, it's just that we're naturally thrown together in conversation. And, yeah, it builds relationships. It's quite amazing.
Russ Roberts: Just for the record--I just want to get this down on January, 2023--I want to interview Tom Stoppard and Mark Knopfler, and I can't get to them. So, if anybody out there knows how I can get ahold of them--mark Knopfler is my favorite songwriter and guitarist probably of all time, and Tom Stoppard is my favorite playwright. And, it's possible.
Sam Harris: It is possible. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Like you say--normally you'd say, 'Well, you can go watch him in concert, or go to one of his plays,' but otherwise, that's it. But, I have a dream that if they knew I wanted to interview them, they might come on. Either of them. Maybe both. Maybe both at the same time.
Sam Harris: Even odds, I would say, for those guys. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: How much time do you spend reading? Not for podcasting, just in general.
Sam Harris: Well, that's a hard line to draw because I have, to a significant degree, designed my podcast around what I feel like reading next, right?
Russ Roberts: You do--
Sam Harris: So, I just decide what I want to read. And then the afterthought is, 'Oh, wait a minute, if this person's alive, I might be able to talk to them.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Why not?
Sam Harris: And so, there's significant overlap between what I'm reading and what I'm reading for work.
Again, this comes back to being immensely lucky and feeling just pure gratitude for the existence of this medium.
And, it is psychologically inscrutable to me that it seems so different from radio. Like, I'd never--superficially it is the exact same thing. This is just radio on demand, right? But, I couldn't have imagined going into radio, and I still don't feel I'm in radio now, and yet basically this is delayed radio.
Russ Roberts: You know, when I started, I told my dad I was going to go for an hour. That was my goal: an hour each episode. And, he and many, many others said, 'Oh, no, no, no, audio--10 minutes is an eternity.'
Russ Roberts: 'Three minutes is a typical thing.' And, like, 'NPR [National Public Radio] might do a 10-minute segment, but no one is going to listen to an hour.'
And, boy, were they wrong. People, of course, will listen for two and three and four hours.
There's a demand for longer and longer podcasts. And, that is--the obvious reason: it's very different from radio. It's an extended--it's kind of the difference between a miniseries and a sitcom. It's just a different phenomenon, even though on the surface they're somewhat similar.
Sam Harris: Well, just on that point--and again, I find this is also psychologically somewhat inscrutable: Not having a schedule and not having a hard time-limit to an episode, it actually changes the conversation significantly.
I mean, even in a radio segment where you have a full hour, the fact that you have exactly an hour changes the conversation. Even just a freewheeling conversation that happens to end at 59 minutes, I feel is very different from a conversation that has to end at 59 minutes.
So yeah, there's something about it being on demand. There's the fact that everyone has found all of these interstitial moments in their lives--while they're commuting or doing the dishes or whatever it is, working out--where they can listen to audio: that sort of multitasking phenomenon.
I think it's--yeah. I mean, this feels like the golden age or a new golden age of audio, and I'm just very happy to have benefited from it.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I say it's the golden age of curious people, for curious people. And, it's also the golden age for visual storytelling--the opportunity to tell--you know, Hollywood's struggling, but everything else is phenomenal.
Sam Harris: Yeah. Yeah.
But, the thing about audio is--
Russ Roberts: I'm just going to add--
Sam Harris: Everyone has found an extra 90 minutes in their day, it seems, and that really is a matter of audio over video. I mean, I guess once we have perfectly self-driving cars, maybe video will supersede audio there. But short of that, just speaking personally, I take long walks and I'm listening to audiobooks and podcasts, and it's fantastic. I mean, I get two hours of walking and two hours of listening to your favorite information. It's--I don't know who I was 10 years ago, but I wasn't doing that, so--
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: I'm just going to add--I didn't think about the open-endedness of the 59-minute point. Having moved to Israel--and I wrote about this recently, I'll put a link up to it--but when you first get here, you think the service in the restaurants is awful.
Russ Roberts: People bring you the food, the waitress or waiter, and then they disappear and they don't come back. They don't say, 'Can I get you anything else? How's the food?' And in America, when I come back to America now, it's startling how often--
Sam Harris: They badger you every two minutes. Yeah. They just badger you every two minutes. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Oh, yeah.
But, the key difference is that they don't bring you the check here. And, you have to go find them, usually--
Russ Roberts: Wave them down, or go out and get it.
And, Americans find this frustrating. Israelis, when they go to America, find it shocking that the check shows up unasked for, which they clearly see--and correctly--as an invitation to leave.
Russ Roberts: Whereas in the Middle East, which is where I live, meals are open-ended. And, you can sit in a café--and you can do this in America, too, but it's just blatantly clear here for not just coffee shops, but other types of, many types of restaurants--you can sit there for as long as you want with your friend and no one's going to bother you.
And, it changes the nature of conversation when you don't feel like you have to hustle along.
Russ Roberts: It's a great answer.
Russ Roberts: I'm going to suggest that you are an example of a phenomenon that I think is a new phenomenon. If I had to describe you, I'd say you're a public intellectual. That's one phrase that people would use.
It's a phrase I don't like, personally. I'm not sure why I don't like it. I've never liked it when it's applied to me.
But, you're something more than that. I would describe you as a secular preacher. An atheist rabbi. You're in a small group with Jordan Peterson. I don't know who else you'd put in the group. But, people don't just listen to you because you're smart. They don't just listen to you because you're interesting and entertaining. They look to you for meaning and guidance.
Russ Roberts: Am I right? And, what does that feel like? How did it come about? And, what are the upsides and downsides of that?
Sam Harris: Well, I think it's a matter of the kinds of topics I've focused on. It's a matter of what I have found interesting and what I have made my areas of relative expertise, just because I've spent so much time focusing on these questions.
I mean, I'm just interested in the nature of human subjectivity; how our scientific understanding of ourselves is increasingly encroaching on ancient ways of deluding ourselves about ourselves, I would say, to say something underhanded about religion.
Sorry; we may get into that.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I'll come back to that.
Sam Harris: So, just how can we live the best lives possible in light of the fact that we all are going to lose everything we love in this world?
And these are the deepest questions of, you know: What are you as a being in this world, and what should you do given the full range of wonderful and terrible experiences on offer? And, given the fact that impermanence reigns, right? You can't hold onto anything in the end.
How is it possible to be fulfilled and to live a good life within those constraints? And, what can we know about how to do that wisely? And, how can we know when we're making obvious and needless errors? And, how do we mitigate human suffering? And, what does science have to say about all that it?
And, how do we have a conversation about what we believe to be true about all of that, that is increasingly useful and open-ended and tracking of reality rather than spiraling into some awful and divisive state of delusion and fractiousness and failures of cooperation and failures to solve absolutely necessary coordination problems?
And so, that's where I've focused. And, the nature of that focus is, really, by definition interdisciplinary. I've never respected the boundaries or apparent boundaries between fields of knowledge. I'm a big fan of the notion of consilience or the unity of knowledge.
I think much of our partitioning of domains, you know, the wall between neuroscience and philosophy of mind, say, or economics, is really--those partitions are enshrined by two things. One is it's hard to be a polymath. Right? There's just too much to know. And, that's a natural partition perhaps. But, there's some very smart people who can traverse all of those boundaries, and that's wonderful.
But, the other reason is just the architecture of the university and the nature of bureaucracy, and just the laziness born of the norms that grow up around that.
I do consider myself more of a generalist than a specialist at this point, I think, of necessity. And so, I don't discount the need for specialization. Some people specialize so fully that, of course, their career intellectually is going to observe the obvious boundaries between, let's say, molecular biology and everything else. But, I do think there's a role for--and, I don't shy away from the phrase, 'public intellectual.' I think it sounds pretentious when applied to oneself. But like you, I don't have a better name for the work that certain people do trying to integrate various fields of knowledge and make those integrations useful to the general public. I just think that's a good role.
And, importantly, it's not the role of a journalist. Right? Or it's not the role of a mere journalist. I mean, in journalism--not to denigrate journalism, I think we absolutely need more of it--but, I don't consider myself a journalist, even when I'm trying to present a factually accurate picture of something that's happened or what's been said, etc.
I do have my own point of view on a wide variety of topics, and I try to, if for no other reason than avoid embarrassment, I try to have a well-informed point of view on those topics. And, that's not quite the same thing as journalism.
Russ Roberts: I noticed in that summary that you said, 'What we can learn from science about a life well-lived.' You didn't say it quite like that, but about the human experience.
You did not mention art or fiction or other things.
Was that deliberate?
Sam Harris: Yeah, that was perhaps just the burden of long-winded grammar.
But, no: ironically, I think, if anything, recent developments in culture and the overwhelming influence of technologists at the moment, suggests to me that the relevance of the humanities to our intellectual lives has never been more pressing. Right?
I think what we're suffering from now are the outsized influence of many smart people who don't have much of an education in the humanities, who haven't read enough good books. You know, you've got a lot of people in Silicon Valley who have read a lot of science fiction and too much Ayn Rand, and they have this enormous influence on culture, if for no other reason than that they've built the tools that are dictating so much of what is said and done at this point.
So yeah, I think there's much more to a picture of the human circumstance and how we respond to our existential concerns than a narrowly scientific one.
But, I would say that when getting our heads straight about a topic matters, rationality is the essential tool for us to use.
So, rationality obviously suggests a larger footprint than lab-coated science, but it is distinct from mere aesthetics and the mere creation of beautiful fictions, and it's certainly distinct from wishful thinking and tribalism and frank bias.
So, I do think that--I say in one place, I think it might be my first book--I talk about us really needing to navigate by love and curiosity. And, I believe I say this: I think of reason as the guardian of love. It's often alleged that there's something cold about rationality or that it's the opposite of many things we care about. But, more and more, I view it as the guardian of everything we care about.
I just think that the moment you give too much scope for the irrational and the specious, you just start to bump into hard objects in the dark. And, I mean, reality has a structure, and insofar as our conversation with one another can be truth-tracking and consistent, that allows us to avoid the most unpleasant collisions, both with one another and just the way the world is, however it is.
Russ Roberts: Obviously--and we had a great conversation on your podcast recently on some of these topics, but not so much on this--and underlying it is that you are one of the most famous atheists in the world. And, I live a committed Jewish life, meaning--I like to call it serious, meaning I pay attention to Jewish law. And, I make more room in my life--I think, but maybe not--for what I would call the mystical. I don't call the mystical the irrational. I agree with you on that. I think irrational and emotional can be a great danger.
But, I also think there's a great danger to reason in that it's hard for us to remember that--I like Richard Feynman's version: 'The most important thing is not to fool yourself, and you're the easiest person to fool.' And so, I'm very wary it's my Hayekian side and to the extent I understand the philosophy of Charles Peirce and the pragmatist, a recognition that reason is an incredibly powerful tool that, if worshiped, can lead to great danger also. I don't know if I've ever quoted this on the program but Annie Lamott says, 'God's name is not-me.' And, whether you believe in God or not, a serious religious person has a humility--should have, I believe--a humility about them in the face of the transcendent, the universe, whatever you want to call it. And again, even if you don't believe in God, in the face of the tiny-ness of the human mind and our human existence.
And, I think the risk of the other side, the over-trust in reason is to put humanity on a pedestal. And that hasn't turned out very well historically. So, that would be my pushback. You want to react to that?
Sam Harris: Yeah. Well, I agree with that. I'm not quite standing where you're pushing back, because I do view reason, rightly conceived, and I view mysticism/spirituality rightly conceived as two modes in which we transcend the self. Right? So, self-transcendence I think is the center of the bullseye for so many things we care about, whether it's acknowledged generally or not.
But, when you look at what it means to live an ethically good life, when you look at what it means to live a rationally coherent life or to create a rationally coherent worldview, and when you look at what it means to occupy the furthest reaches of psychological wellbeing--and, I would argue normativity--I think transcending the ego, transcending the selfish, self-directed, narcissistic illusion of 'it's me in'--the primacy of 'me in here,' the subject who was thinking and seeming to author his own thoughts--that transcendence is the whole point of being alive in the end.
And, when it happens to you in a haphazard way or you are lured into experiencing it through some agency outside yourself--let's say you take a psychedelic drug, or you have some profound experience of falling in love, or some collision with natural beauty, or you're a scientist who discovers something and that discovery overwhelms you with awe--and, these are glimpses of a bigger view of mental life that is I would argue intrinsically pro-social, and it's the basis for compassion, real compassion rather than pity or some simulacrum. And, it really is just--this is the good stuff in life: falling in love, caring about others as much or even more than you care about yourself, or even just seeing your own selfishness become inseparable from a seemingly selfless desire to better the lives of other people--what you most selfishly want is for other people to succeed. Right? That's making you happy.
So, this opposition--the apparent opposition between selfishness and selflessness--breaks down under these conditions.
So, yeah, I would just say that rationality is one--I mean they're different. Rationality is not the same thing as mysticism. But, I wouldn't say that mysticism or spirituality, rightly conceived, is irrational.
What I'm calling irrational is to believe things that are obviously wrong or for which you have no good reasons for belief. And, to be believing two things strongly in various moments that cannot be reconciled with one another, so there would be an obvious contradiction with yourself, and to not notice that; to be dogmatic and to be unavailable to better arguments and better evidence in future conversations.
So, something like dogmatism is worth focusing on. Because, I view dogmatism as--and this is why traditional religion has come under such opprobrium in my discussion of it. I view dogmatism as intrinsically divisive, because it is the very posture of being inflexible and unpersuadable. And, just when you look at what it is to be dogmatic--and in religion, traditionally it's only in religion that being dogmatic is not considered a bad thing. That's not to say something as a dogma is not to even say anything invidious in religious terms.
Russ Roberts: A virtue.
Sam Harris: Yeah. So, the dogmas you hold--religiously and in any other mode of life--these are beliefs that you have decided in advance, by whatever process, and usually no process apart from receiving them on your mother's knee, these are beliefs that cannot be revised, that you are unwilling to revise. And that, far too often, you will be offended if anyone asks you to reconsider them.
So, you're entering every conversation saying, 'Yeah, I'm open-minded, I'm rational. The year is 2023. Happy to talk about anything. But, I have a list of beliefs over here that if you challenge them, I'm going to begin to hate you. And, I'm certainly not going to rethink any of them no matter how good your arguments are.' I consider that to be the fundamental, and obviously fundamentalist, religious sensibility. And, that I view as intrinsically divisive: it is intrinsically shattering of our epistemology. And, I do think we have to overcome that frame of mind where it exists, wherever it exists. And, it exists, especially in religious context, but it's--wherever it exists and it certainly exists in politics and elsewhere--I think it's the enemy of reason. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: I'll defend it a little bit, and then I want to reflect on it: it was a very thoughtful outline of the challenge of dogmatism. I wrote an essay on--I don't know if you've ever seen the show Come From Away, the musical?
Russ Roberts: It's a beautiful show, ridiculously beautiful show. It's about on 9/11 U.S. airspace was closed and a bunch of flights had to land in the middle of nowhere in Canada. And, the show is about how the tiny group of people who lived there rose to the occasion. And, part of the reason they rose to the occasion is that they had a tribal urge--they had a certain image of themselves--as, I'd say, resilient. Among other things, of course. Some of them not so attractive probably. But, that resilience carried through and it--to say it saved the day is an understatement for the people who landed there.
And, similarly, in a religious community that's effective, it's divisive--dogma is divisive--for the people outside the community. It's incredibly unifying and exhilarating for the people inside the community. If you've not been part of that, it's hard to imagine. There are very few movies or treatments of it that have captured it.
One of the things I've observed about Shtisel, which is about a religious community, is that they don't romanticize anything in that show about religious life. These are people just like you and me. And, they've got the same problems we have with their children, and their worries, and their anxieties, and their fears, and their dreams. And, they don't make fun of the religious aspect of it and they don't glorify it.
But, there is a glorious part to it when it works well. And there's a lot of negatives to it: I'm not going to defend fundamentalism. But I want to say something about--I just want to make that point. I agree with you, it's divisive. It does create an us/them mindset. But it does change the us in a very powerful way. And, it potentially doesn't necessarily harm to them, but it depends. There are many, of course, historical cases that it's otherwise.
So, I take your point. But, I'm thinking about my own life: I'm really into dogma. It's interesting. Right? For most of my life, I was a very hardcore libertarian--which is a very dogmatic perspective on economics. I became a religious Jew as an adult, around the age, in my mid-, early thirties. And I had two different dogmas. And, some people would tease me and say, 'How do you maintain both of those? They conflict.' I don't think they conflict. I don't think--that's not a really interesting question.
But, I think what's more interesting is: I don't really see them as dogmas anymore, in the sense that their frameworks I use, but I don't feel the same way I did about my economics views as I did 10 years ago. I'm still pretty free-market, but I'm not knee-jerk free market. Even if every answer I gave would be, 'Oh, but that's a free market.' But, somehow my experience of it is different.
And that would be true of my religious view as well. I have a Jewish practice, but I have lots of doubts. And, every serious Jew that I know--and I can't speak for Christianity or other religions, Islam--they have doubts. A lot of people I know have doubts. The framework is a way of living. And for me--and this is for another conversation, Sam, we'll have it maybe after I write another book--for me, it's a way of experiencing the transcendent and the wondrous and the awesome. And the us-and-them part is the least of it.
But, I agree with you that--all I'm really trying to say is that I think many people, their dogmatism is a shield. And, if you can learn to realize that it's just a shield--it's not truth, it's just the thing you carry through life to organize your thinking about certain things--I don't think it's as bleak as you paint it. But maybe there are others for which that's the case.
Sam Harris: Right. Well, let me just say that I think reasoning by analogy from Judaism is generally pretty misleading. I mean, I'm Jewish: I've obviously gone around this track many different times with people of very--really, every faith. And, there's something about Judaism--and we can talk about the historical and theological reasons why this is so-- that makes it an outlier with respect to the claims--kinds of pretensions of propositional knowledge it makes that go under the banner of faith. So, faith as a Jew is quite a bit more leavened, ironically, with doubt and pragmatism, and a circumspection when it comes time to making bold claims about what happens after death and the moral structure of the universe, and the behavioral imperatives of living within that structure. Unless you're going to talk about the ultra-Orthodox with whom I have not had much contact, but from afar I can see what they're up to.
But, even so-called Conservative rabbis--their conservatism, that's a very misleading adjective when you try to compare it to a conservative Christian or a conservative Muslim orientation. I have debated--I was on stage, Hitch and I, I think this was this debate--Christopher Hitchens and I were debating Rabbi David Wolpe and his colleague Rabbi Artson, I think. And, at one point I said something that presupposed that the two rabbis--both of whom were Conservative, and Wolpe is definitely Conservative--
Russ Roberts: He's Jewishly Conservative, not--
Sam Harris: Jewishly Conservative. Exactly, yeah. Not at all. Right. So, again, this is just how misleading this term is.
I said something that presupposed that he believed in a God that can hear our prayers, which is just a plainly--plain vanilla, center-of-the fairway commitment of more or less any religious person in any other faith. Certainly a conservative one.
And, he turned to me and said, 'What makes you think I believe in a God who can hear our prayers?'
And, at that point I realized, 'Okay: the lines on the basketball court are not exactly where I thought they were.'
So, I mean, that's just--so, I would just caution you not to extrapolate from your experience as a Jew of whatever flavor to the experiences of 1.8 billion Muslims and 2.2 billion Christians, because in my experience they're at least rhetorically committed to far more strident assertions of knowledge about what happens in the invisible world of after-death.
Russ Roberts: Well, I think that's true of the Orthodox world and Judaism as well. And, it's certainly true of the ultra-Orthodox, but even in the so-called plain orthodox that would be true. And, I don't want to get into the--our listeners are not so interested in these distinctions.
But, I'll just say this: You wrote a book called Free Will. We might talk about it in a few minutes; we'll see if we get to it. But, I read it before this conversation because I'm very interested in the question, and it comes up now and then in all kinds of settings of course, on this program. But, a thoughtful person has to wonder about it, I think.
And, Maimonides, one of the great--most people would say he is one of the two or three greatest Jewish thinkers of Jewish history--he believed in free will. But Crescas, a rabbi of his time who I love, did not believe it at all. And, it turns out Crescas is the Sam Harris of the Middle Ages--I'll send you this thing, we'll talk about it another time. But, I will--I'll concede the point that there's some variety of practices in Judaism that may not be reflected in other religions. I'm not going to speak about them. You've had a lot more interaction with them than I have, certainly rhetorically for sure--
Sam Harris: Well, certainly you can say--this is how extreme it is. You can say you're Jewish, and your Judaism is incredibly important to you, but you don't believe in God. That is not a total non-sequitur in Judaism. It is a total non-sequitur in Christianity and Islam.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, agreed.
But, Orthodox Jews who pray to God think--many of them--the normative view is that God does hear their prayers. Then we have the challenge of why we are praying to a God who is at least normatively, omniscient, and knows what we already think. So, again, topic for another--I'm writing a book on prayer. Well, maybe we'll talk about it some time.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about meditation while we're on the topic of spirituality. Talk about the nature of your personal practice. How did you come to it and what does it mean to you?
Sam Harris: Well, I came to it--I was 18, I think, when I sat at my first meditation retreat. I'd come to it first through taking MDMA [3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, a.k.a. Ecstasy/Molly] maybe six months before I sat at my first retreat. I took MDMA; I had experimented with marijuana and maybe I had taken mushrooms a couple of times as a teenager, but I'd never done that in the context of thinking consciously about understanding anything about the nature of my mind. It was just for fun party drugs that teenagers were using at the time.
But, with MDMA, I was given it with the explicit framing: You might really learn something about yourself if you take this. So, it was really with that intention, and that was the set and setting of it. I was just sitting with my best friend. And, we took this drug, which at that point, this would've been 1985-ish, 1980 to 1986, maybe. And so, it had just become illegal, but just recently so. I think it became Schedule One in 1985. I'd have to look that up.
But anyway, MDMA, at that point--otherwise known as Ecstasy, now Molly--was being widely used in a therapeutic community as a tool of insight; and it leaked out of that community and got into my hands at that point. And so, I had an experience on the drug which will be familiar to many people who have taken it, but maybe not if you took it at a rave or a party or a rock concert. Again, I think one's intentions matter here. But, I had this experience of--for lack of a better phrase--unconditional love. It was an experience of not feeling high or altered or stoned, or it was certainly not a sense of my perception of the world being distorted. It was actually an experience of being sane for the first time in my life.
And I just felt, 'Okay, this is more real than what I've been tending to experience, this feeling I'm feeling right now.' This is not an artifact of pharmacology: This was a stripping away of features of my own mind or it's holding them in abeyance for the period of the drug's action, that were obscuring this state of being that should in principle always be available to me. That's what I came away from it feeling. Like, I had this experience of four hours or so where I lost all of my self-absorption, all of my self-consciousness, all of my concern for what other people think of me. And, I experienced just a perfect, free attention to both to care about others and to recognize that I do care about others, effortlessly. That my default is to want others to be happy.
And to really want them to be happy. Not just--it's not just--you're not just checking a box on an inventory of nice attitudes, but that my own happiness was bound up with theirs, right; and that that was love. And that it was a feeling I felt not just for the best friend who was sitting across from me in our living room, but I would have felt it for a stranger had he showed up at that moment.
It's just like--that was my default.
And so, it was a way of being. It was not a transactional feeling of love: I love you because of our history together. I love you because of how much fun I have in your company. No, it was a feeling of: Love is potentially the default state of consciousness in the presence of other beings struggling to be happy in this world.
And, it just went very, very deep. It was incredibly beautiful.
But, most important, it was a state of mind that on some level was totally foreign to me. It's not that I didn't love people. I love my mom. I love my friends. I love--I'd had a girlfriend or two or three at, probably by that point.
But, this was just the depth of it and its unity with my feeling of my own being--just, like, the core of my own subjectivity.
It was a proper spiritual/mystical experience, but one from which I came down. And, then having come down I was left to wonder, 'Okay, what do I do about this?'
And, that's the first thing or one of the first things one encounters when one faces that riddle, is: meditation in some form as a way of moving forward, rather than taking--you can't just keep taking drugs again and again and again. Some people attempt to do it that way, and obviously psychedelics are very much in vogue at the moment.
But, it was clear to me that if this was a feature of the human mind with or without drugs--and there was every reason to believe that's true because, you know, drugs don't cause the brain to do anything that the brain isn't capable of doing, right? All they can do is mimic neurotransmitters or change the behavior of neurotransmitters in one form or another. So, this is your brain, in one of its states, however it got there.
And so, I just became very interested in finding a path by which I could integrate that wisdom and that kind of feeling of wellbeing more and more into my life. And so, then meditation became a major part of my life. So, that's like half--a long-winded half-answer to your question.
As far as my meditation practice, briefly: I've practiced many styles of meditation but mostly in a Buddhist framework. I've spent a fair amount of time in India and Nepal studying with various teachers. And, they were not all Buddhist, but it's been mostly Buddhist. And, ultimately, I spent a lot of time doing Vipassana practice on silent--vipassana retreats, which I know you're familiar with. And, I had spent about a year on silent retreats, over the course of a few years. The longest retreat I ever did was three months at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and I did that twice. But, then I did multiple two-months, and one month, and many 10 days.
But, then ultimately I connected with a practice called Dzogchen, which is often considered the highest non-dual teachings within Tibetan Buddhism. And so, I spent a fair amount of time with Tibetan lamas who specialize in that practice--otherwise known as Dzogchen masters--studying that technique of meditation, and spent some time on retreat doing that as well.
But then, after I got that practice in hand, my experience of mindfulness changed in ways that I'm at pains to describe over at Waking Up, my meditation app, because I do think ultimately there's a very important difference between what I call dualistic and non-dualistic mindfulness. And, it's possible to spend a lot of time practicing dualistically in ways that are ultimately frustrating if you really are taken with the project of getting to the bottom of these things. And, ultimately encouraging of certain illusions, which can be painful.
And, I was in the grip of those illusions for the longest time, even practicing quite diligently. Even spending months at a time on silent meditation retreats, meditating 12 to 18 hours a day, I was still seeking to solve a problem that was fundamentally misconstrued, I would say. And it's not for want of guidance. I was studying with really great meditation teachers. But, there was a certain logic to that practice that I think is misconceived, and perhaps we can talk about that.
But anyway, so now I consider myself someone who practices very much in the spirit of what I would call Dzogchen practice, but there are other non-dual ways of coming at this, and Mahamudra practice is like that. And, I would argue within the outside of Buddhism, within the Indian tradition, Advita, Vedanta is articulate more or less on the same points and recommends more or less the same style of attention, although most Buddhists would hate that vasal[?] comparison. So.
Russ Roberts: Your description of MDMA reminded me of a couple things. One, Gary Greenberg was a past guest on here. In one of his books, he describes a similar experience--I can't remember which drug he was under the influence of--but of just vast love for anyone he was encountering. And earlier said, he said something like, 'The goal of life is self-transcendence.' So, you said something like that, right?
Russ Roberts: And, I always think of that as growing up. Growing up is about learning. I don't know if it just takes time, but it also might take some effort. It's learning that you're not the center of the universe.
It's really hard to learn that lesson. I have a new granddaughter. She's five months old, and she really is the center of the universe. And, it'd be perfectly normal for her to carry that view for many years into her adult life.
But, what I experienced--and it definitely came out of my silent meditation retreats. I don't have a very active practice of meditation now. And, I'm thinking of revitalizing it and maybe [?] will help me. But, what I was able to experience in the aftermath of the retreats I went on was a glimpse of what you're talking about-- a feeling of self-transcendence and a connection to other people that you weren't aware existed until it came upon you. And, you realized that much of your way of moving through the world was very narrow, and you had cut yourself off and left yourself unavailable to things that are real. And, I think, once you've tasted that, some people want to take the drug more often, some people want to meditate more often. For me, I only get a glimpse of it now and then. I find it very hard to maintain--and partly because I don't maintain the practice.
But, those retreats did have a permanent effect on me, which is fascinating in and of itself. They were only five days--a year apart--three times. And, practicing in those years--daily or often--an opportunity to see yourself in a different way, to see yourself connected to other people. And, as you said--you said it very beautifully--to imagine that their happiness could be paramount: not because it made you really happy; just because it's the way it should be. It's not even a--I wouldn't call it a rational thing.
For me, it was a time I saw someone go through a terrible trauma. I was on an airplane and this poor kid--teenager or young person--had to get off the plane before--the door had closed, but she had to get off the plane. And, it was clear that she--and I think she announced it because she was in a bad place--that she was on the way to get help with an addiction and she couldn't do it. And, she needed to get off the plane. And, a person on the plane saying next to me said, 'Can you believe that her parents sent her on this journey alone?' There was nobody restraining her. Nobody arguing with her. We were all doing what we could to get her off the plane. The challenge was regulations. And, the door had closed. And we did get her off the plane.
But, I thought: Can you imagine what kind of jerks her parents are? Like, that she's addicted and broken and can't move through life.
And that response, emotionally to me, was not available before I had done those retreats. I would've been annoyed: 'This is delaying our leaving.' And, I had a different experience.
And, I'm very grateful for that. I wish I felt it more often. I try to feel it as often as I can. But, I do think that we have access to that--through, I've argued fiction, therapy, meditation, religion--all, in theory, can help you transcend yourself. And, it is a fundamental opportunity for us as human beings because it's not that way we're hardwired.
Sam Harris: Yeah. And, I would say that there are gradations to transcendence, right? I mean, there are different modes in which we can transcend ourselves.
So, the ultimate mode for me is transcending the sense of--the very sense that there's a you--a subject in the center of your experience. That's the final illusion which is targeted very directly by meditation.
And, as I said in the beginning, and for the longest time, meditation can seem to ramify that sense of self--because you feel like a meditator. You feel like the one who is directing attention at the object of meditation. And, now you're becoming mindful and you're discovering it's hard to do that. And, you get lost in thought. And then you come back.
But there's this sense that you are behind the spotlight of consciousness--focusing it, and then failing to focus it, and then focusing it again. And it's there's--there's still you that is at the center of things.
But, there's different--leaving that aside--I mean, let's just take the self as it seems: There are obviously gradations of selflessness and selfishness and ways in which we can discover a bigger view of the project of becoming happy in this world that admits that we're, on some level, all in this together; and that another person's happiness--certainly a friend's happiness--is not in zero-sum contest with one's own. In fact, it can become very directly a reason for one's own happiness.
And, one of the worst revelations about the poverty of ordinary selfishness is to see those moments where one can't celebrate the success of a friend because one is envious, say, right? I mean, that is just the ugliest little wrinkle in the ordinary human psychology, which is just to feel diminished by the happiness of another--even one who you ostensibly love, right? Yeah.
And it's--so, we know that--just, again, this is not the highfalutin' esoteric claims of spirituality. This is just ordinary human friendship. We know that really being a friend requires that you actually want the best for your friends. And, that includes wanting them to be happy, wanting their hopes and dreams realized, and being able to smile and celebrate when those successes occur. Right?
And, when you find that you can't do that, with that cramp of self-concern and that false structure that suggests some kind of zero-sum contest there, that's the kind of thing everyone wants to transcend, really. Whether they think about it or not. It doesn't feel good, it doesn't feel right. And, it's the antithesis of love in that moment. I mean, love in that moment is--to use the Buddhist phrase--the ability to feel what's called sympathetic joy: just the actual, the contagion of sharing the joy that your friend is feeling at that moment.
And, we do this as parents. We do this fairly effortlessly with our own children. But somehow it becomes harder in other contexts.
And, clearly, mental health, ultimately--the norms of healthy, happy, rewarding, ethical engagement with other human beings--must push us in the direction of feeling that freedom to be happy with other people more and more. And to extend it: extending the circle of that even to strangers. I mean, even just to say, how do you feel when you see someone succeed on television, someone you're never going to meet, but, you know, someone who has just won the lottery? Right?
I thought--many people feel this quite effortlessly. And it's what's addictive about certain forms of media--I mean, we do feel the positive emotional contagion of when someone wins, we feel great for them. We don't feel diminished by it: We celebrate it. And, that's a wonderful thing.
But, we should notice where we fail to do that, and the consequential moments in which we fail to do that--I mean with, to take the case, the narrow case I just gave--of in with friends. And those are obvious opportunities for growth. And, that is far more ordinary than the esoterica of transcending the sense of subject/object dualism in meditation. But, it's along the same continuum, I would argue.
Russ Roberts: I can't help but think of Gore Vidal's quote--how much of it is tongue-in-cheek--'Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.' Not really the ideal, as you suggest.
And you know, Adam Smith had a lot of interesting observations about this: Our ability to sympathize with the joy of others and to empathize or sympathize with the grief of others. What he doesn't write much about, and what you're talking about, is the opportunity to change the way we respond to those moments in life.
I just want to mention, and I don't know if this is--you know a lot more about this than I do, so you can tell me if I'm wrong--but I find the modern emphasis on mindfulness to be rather empty. It's good to be mindful. It's a good thing. It's a tool. But, mindfulness by itself, which is often sold as a goal and as a good, and it's been mocked as Mc'mindfulness--the corporate meditation session. But, mindfulness by itself is not, to me, very interesting. It's what you're talking about. And meditation, correctly, either from a Buddhist perspective or Jewish perspective, or others that, again, those are the only two I know was a little bit about, they do something much more than telling you to pay attention. They're telling you about how you should move in the world. And, I think that is profoundly more important. Is that a fair critique?
Sam Harris: Yeah, well agree. Yeah. Well, even within Buddhism, mindfulness is just part of the path. I mean, it's just one of the eight folds of the eightfold path, right? Mindfulness. So, yeah, I think the project is much larger than paying attention. Paying attention is a necessary piece.
I mean, generally speaking, I would say there are two levels at which one needs to work on oneself. And, both relate to the nature of thought, because thought is really what captivates us and deludes us and anchors our sense of separateness. Right? So, it's this identification with thought that is the problem from the point of view of meditation.
But, it's not that there's nothing worth thinking about. And, it's not that thoughts don't matter.
So, there are two levels. There's the level at which we can change our thoughts and we can learn new things to think, and we can believe differently. And our beliefs matter, and they govern our behavior and they dictate the causes to which we are purposed and the goals we form and all of that. I mean, it's all thought. Thought is the thing that makes us human.
And thought--changing one's thoughts also gives one the power to reframe experiences and change one's relationship to them. So, you can transform your sense of wellbeing and your relationship to your experience and to the rest of the world by how you think. And so, all of that is--that's all very important to do.
And so, I mean, one example there, which I think is crucial for living a good life is to have an ethical code, and to decide very clearly on things like whether it's okay to lie. Your relationship to telling the truth or not is very, very important. And, to come back to what we were saying about dogmatism early on, this is an area--I don't consider this dogmatic, but it is, you can have a very strong heuristic. And, one very strong heuristic for me is that it's almost never the right thing to lie.
So, it's almost always going to complicate your life unnecessarily. It's almost always an expression of fear and selfishness and separateness. And, it is another one of these things that's intrinsically divisive and--
Russ Roberts: It's a violation--
Sam Harris: Yeah, I mean, there are many reasons--I wrote a book titled Lying, and it's just my analysis of all the reasons we have to decide in advance that it's generally not okay to lie.
Now, there's an exception to this, and I would just put lying on the--really, the first stop on the continuum of violence--that is appropriately used under conditions of self-defense or in defense of other people. So, I'm not a pacifist. I think pacifism, when you actually get to the bottom of it, is--it's actually an obscenely immoral view, and dogmatic commitment. So, Gandhi and pacifism--it's worth remembering--had him saying and saying things like he thought the Jews should offer themselves willingly to the crematory of Auschwitz so as to shock the conscience of their captors. So, it's just that that's the end game for pacifism.
And, that's not my view of an ethical world. I think at a certain point you have to start killing Nazis. And, if you're going to carve out a space in which it would be ethical to kill Nazis in self-defense, well then it would also be ethical to lie to Nazis before you start killing them. So, lying is: If someone knocks on the door and says, 'Do you have Anne Frank in the attic?' I think it is ethical to lie to that person.
But, in the normal course of events, I think lying is needlessly corrosive of everything we care about and sets people up for reputational destruction--or should: I don't actually think there's nearly enough opprobrium attached to being caught lying in our society.
So, that's all to say that that's the kind of thing that has to be thought about and reasoned about and argued about in advance. This is all the domain of thinking good thoughts in the end.
Mindfulness--and any other meditative instruction along those lines--is not a matter of thinking new thoughts or thinking about anything at all. It's a matter of noticing very clearly what is arising in consciousness in each moment, including thoughts and emotions and everything else.
The thing about mindfulness that is distinct from all of this is that it's not a matter of understanding anything conceptually. It's a matter of bearing witness to the mechanics by which we become entangled with thought, the way thought drags into view emotions, positive or negative.
And so, much of this is the mechanics of our own suffering, because so much of our conversation with ourselves is an unhappy one.
So, mindfulness ultimately is a matter of breaking this spell. And, it's not a matter of suppressing thought. It's not a matter of getting rid of thought. It's not a matter of viewing thought as the enemy. But, ultimately--and this is a statement of what the goal is from a contemplative point of view, this is invoking an analogy from the Dzogchen teachings--ultimately, thoughts become like thieves entering an empty house. There's nothing for them to steal, right? There's no implication for one's sense of wellbeing presented by the next-arising thought. It's just: there's no problem.
So, it really is--people form a false view of what meditation is about when they think. And, they're often taught this: that thought is the antithesis of meditation, or the antithesis of mindfulness, or the direct enemy of it. And it is--it's natural to think that and feel that because, in the beginning, what you're faced with is the profound distractability of your mind. It's just damn hard to pay attention to anything.
And so, it seems like thought is the enemy. But ultimately, thoughts are just arising all by themselves in this wider context of conscious awareness. And, there is no thinker in addition to the flow of thought. There's no subject authoring the thoughts. There's no--and the feeling that there is one is what it feels like to be thinking without noticing in that moment that you're thinking. Right?
So, one thing that implied by this--which I don't talk about all that much, but I think is true--is that even for non-meditators, even for people who have no idea what we're talking about now, the sense of self--the ordinary sense of subjectivity--is being interrupted all the time. It's just not being noticed to be interrupted there.
And, there's an analogy one could draw to the visual system. We all have this experience of--which is called a visual saccade, which is just our ordinary eye movements that occur something like three times a second as our eyes track over the visual scene. Our gaze is constantly lurching from point to point in the visual field. But, we tend not to notice this because our conscious awareness of scene is actively suppressed when our eyes engage each one of those motor movements. And, you can notice the difference here, when, rather than just let your eyes move naturally across the world, you can touch the side of one of your eyes or just one of your eyes, and jiggle it, however gently, and notice that that makes the world lurch around--when you move your eyeball with your fingertip. That's not a movement that your brain can correct for in the usual way. And so, then you see that, 'Okay, this is just jiggling the world when I jiggle my eye in that way.'
The reason why we suppress--the brain suppresses--vision during a saccade is that that would be happening every time you moved your eyes if you weren't doing that. But, the amazing thing is that we're actually functionally blind in these brief moments as we move our eyes, and we don't notice it. It goes uninspected.
And, I would say that much of our feeling of selfhood is interrupted in that kind of punctate way throughout the day. And, it's only in retrospect when we're reflecting on it or recoiling back into self, in relationship to others, that our sense of egocentricity, our sense of being truly centered in our experience becomes quite vivid. And, we're just very bad witnesses to all the changes there and all the perturbations and the interruptions. And meditation is the act of ultimately, consciously interrupting it in a way, becoming mindful of those gaps and even provoking those gaps deliberately with mindfulness.
Russ Roberts: Well, that sense of self--we're not going to get into this because it's a long other conversation--but the sense of self is very analogous to your views on free will: You argue we feel like we have free will, we feel like there's self directing our thoughts, but in fact you argue that that's not the case. Now, I'm intrigued by that, somewhat agnostic about it. And again, we'll talk about it maybe another time.
But certainly all of us have a feeling of daydreaming, mind-less-ly our minds flitting from topic to topic, and then suddenly we become aware again, not as meditators, just as the normal human experience--at least I think so--where you go, 'Oh, well, I'm thinking about a bunch of random stuff. I think I should figure out what I'm going to do this afternoon.' And, you sort of focus on that for a while. Then maybe your brain jumps somewhere else; and then you say, 'Well, it's depressing. I'm going to think about a pleasant memory.' And, you might go there.
And you do feel like you have some control over that. You might argue--I think you do--that that's an illusion. But, I think one of the challenges for people who come to meditation, especially from a Buddhist perspective, is that telling people they don't--that there is no self there, is--to say it's pulling the rug out from under them or opening a strange hole under the floor, a trap door, is the least of it. It's just a very alien idea. So, I think most people struggle because they feel otherwise, at least as beginners.
Sam Harris: Yeah. Well, there's two things. One, you're telling people that they're wrong in their most fundamental sense of their own being, and that's somewhat insulting. And, it also just sounds like bad news. Right? All of these words and phrases and concepts, especially in their Buddhist framing, sound depressing. I mean, to be told that selflessness or the elusiveness of the self is the final epiphany or the most important epiphany, to be told that you don't have free will, to be told that that emptiness is the ultimate reality--that all of this sounds spiritually gray and unfun.
Russ Roberts: It's a little bleak.
Sam Harris: Yeah. But, I would just say this is just the poverty of English translation here. I mean, I think the adjacent concepts, which are also descriptive, are things like unconditioned, open, free, centerless, uncontrived, unborn. I mean, these are uncontaminated, tranquil, peaceful, equanimous. I mean, there's other facets to this, this same object.
And, yeah, the--when you talk about what's left, when you're not confused by an illusion of your own subjective agency, it's not the feeling--it's not a feeling of powerlessness. It's a feeling of fearlessness. Right? The illusion of control is the thing that also gives you this pervasive sense of jeopardy, right? It's like, the fact that you're doing it, the fact that you're the man in the boat rowing in a frenzy, the fact that--it is such a relief to recognize that there is no boat: there's just the river, there's just the stream. There's no place from which you--the interview, the subject--is vulnerable, right?
And that epiphany relieves you of a pseudo-problem. It's not like you solved the problem you thought you had to solve. You recognize that the problem was misconstrued.
There's this story that I stumbled upon online--I think it's about 12 or 13 years old. I talk about it over at Waking Up. I just think it's one of the, it's a perfect found object to get at the logic of this thing. There was a tourist bus in some Scandinavian country that pulled into a rest stop, and there are about 30 people on it, and everyone gets off to enjoy the countryside and get some lunch. And, apparently there was one tourist, who was described in the story as an Asian woman, who got off the bus and for whatever reason changed her outfit at the rest stop.
And then, when everyone got back on the bus, someone declared that there was a missing passenger. They didn't recognize the Asian woman anymore in her new getup. And, there was an apparent language barrier. So, there was some controversy here. They're waiting for somebody who is not getting on the bus.
And, then this became some kind of moral emergency, right? And now there's a missing person. And so they form a search party. And this Asian woman who's dimly aware of the controversy around her and is now being told that someone's missing through some pidgin, mutual language joins the search party. And the search party is looking for her, right? And, this goes on into the middle of the night and helicopters are being readied for dawn patrol to look for this missing tourist. And, at some point, I think around 3:00 in the morning, I'm not sure what provoked the epiphany, but at some point she realizes that she's the missing tourist, and this whole fabrication unravels.
But, what's interesting to me there is that it is untrue to say that the missing tourist was found, right? The search was never consummated. The problem was solved, but it was definitely not solved by the logic by which the problem was stated. And, when you just think of what that's like, that the dawning of this false project and it's unraveling, there's something deeply analogous between that and the project of meditative epiphany. When you're looking for the self, you're convinced that your ego presents a problem and now you're trying to meditate your way out of that problem. And, there's this implicit sense that in some sense, the self that is the problem is going to be carried forward with that project--right?--that you are going to be able to get there from your starting point. And, that's a false assumption.
The project doesn't proceed by that logic, and it certainly doesn't reach fulfillment by that logic. The thing you think--at some level you recognize that you are seeking even in the mode of seeking as a meditator is a false point of view; and its falsity is your problem. The seeking itself--the seeking happiness by whatever mode--is tantamount to actively overlooking the thing you are in fact looking for.
There's a aphorism, I think, by this British writer who went by the name of Wei Wu Wei--I think he lived for a long time in Hong Kong. And it goes: "A man went in search of fire with a lighted lantern. Had he known what fire was, he could have cooked his rice much sooner." Right? It's like, you have the fire in hand and yet you're taking it in search of fire.
On some level, you're looking for what's looking. And, to really understand what you're about is to have the project unravel in an interesting way. And, you're left at your starting point, but in a transfigured condition.
And, what's interesting is that this insight is by definition coincident with any moment of consciousness. It doesn't require the pyrotechnics of a psychedelic experience. It doesn't require that the contents of consciousness change in any way. It admits of any possible change. It's not going to block any change. You can have this insight in the presence of any experience. But, it's orthogonal to the contents of consciousness. It is just a recognition of what consciousness is like when you have not constructed a false center by identifying with thought.
Russ Roberts: Two comments. You're talking about the self, or transcendent [?] self, from recognizing the self doesn't exist goes so against our culture in America, particularly in Silicon Valley. I know they're Buddhist threads in Silicon Valley, and mindfulness threads and meditation threads, but there's nothing more to me techno-centric than that guy rowing the boat and saying, 'Just needs a motor.' Or, 'He just needs better technique.' Or 'If he took nicotine, he could row better.' So much of our culture pushes us, I think, in a different direction.
The other thing I'm going to say, just an aside for any of my Hasidic listeners: I don't really understand this exactly, but it's so parallel. It's fascinating. The Mei Shiloach, who was a Hasidic thinker, argues that all of your good deeds are not your doing. They come from God's will. And all of your sins are not your responsibility. They too, come from God's will. And, the highest level of spirituality and connection is to recognize that, because then there's no you, just God.
Sam Harris: Yeah, I love that.
Russ Roberts: It's a very parallel concept.
One more question related to this issue of connectedness and self-negation: For me--and I started meditating quite late in life, and I would just tell listeners who are older, who are maybe interested in these ideas, you don't have to start when you're 18 or 21. You can make progress anytime in your life in self-awareness, whatever techniques you use. One of the things that I observed is that I did have more sympathy for other people and their predicaments. And, I often quote the line: 'Everyone's in a battle, so be kind.' And, I think when you take that to heart, you find yourself being less judgmental.
Sam Harris: I would say that's exactly the kind of example of changing one's thought and reframing that can be so ethically and psychologically useful.
It's just a very simple idea. You're driving in traffic and someone cuts you off, and you have this default contraction and clearly negative response, which now goes by the name of 'road rage'--which is strange in its own right. But, as an antidote to that, it's a very simple idea and it really does work. You just realize, you know nothing about the person ahead of you in this car. You can't even see them. This could be a 90-year-old woman for whom you should feel compassion. This could be someone who is racing to the hospital, late for the birth of their first child. You have no idea. And, just a modicum of charity and just agnosticism would leave--leaves you far less judgmental of all of that.
And, the biggest possible view is the one you just articulated, which is that ultimately nobody has made themselves. Even people who are behaving in flagrantly unethical ways are on some level the equivalent of wild animals. Right? If you see a grizzly bear eating people, well yes, you're going to respond. You're not going to think that's not a problem. You may kill the bear if there's no way to trap it. And, you may trap it, and then decide there's nothing to do with it but kill it. Or we might create a maximum security prison for bad bears. But, at no point along the way would we imagine that bears can be other than bears. And, one thing that dropping the illusion of free will does for you, ethically, is it cancels the logic of hatred of other people.
Like, we don't hate bears. As much as we might fear them, as much as we might respond violently to save ourselves or someone we love in the presence of a bear, at no point do you think that hatred is the right response. This is something that I talk about. I think I talk about it in my book Free Will, but I often talk about it when I talk about this subject--and just ask yourself the difference. If you were attacked by a man and he did something awful--let's say he cut off your hand, and so you're grievously injured--and this person gets caught, and now you're sitting at trial and you're hoping this person goes to prison for the rest of his life, or even gets the death penalty, depending on your beliefs. And, you could imagine seething with hatred for this person and for what he's done to you.
And, if you couldn't readily feel this way about yourself, imagine how you'd feel if he had done it to your child. There's some scenario where you could feel like hatred is a totally apt response, and a retributive conception of justice is the only mode ethically to be in. And of course, you'd want this person to be miserable for the rest of his life and to be ground to powder on some level. That's a very natural human response.
But, I would argue it's a response that's anchored to this notion of free will. And, we don't have this response to animals that might injure us in precisely the same way. So, if your child was injured by a grizzly bear, you might--if you could, you might have killed the bear at that moment. But, if the bear is caught and we're not having a trial for the bear, you're not going to spend the rest of your life hating and wishing suffering upon this bear. Right? It's a very different feeling of engagement with the agency of another.
Now, I'm not saying there's no relevant difference between humans and bears, and we can obviously talk to humans and seek to influence their behavior through education and persuasion, etc. But, certain people are not persuadable. Certain people are psychopaths. Certain people are not available to conversation. And, we naturally hate them.
I'm just saying that there's a psychological freedom that's available to us, and I think a greater ethical wisdom that's available to us, when we recognize that no one made themselves. And, if you had the same genes and same life experience and same environmental impingements, and therefore same brain and brain states as this other person, you would be that other person. Right? Helplessly behaving in these awful ways, yourself.
So, it's--again, I'm not saying everyone gets off by reason of insanity. I'm saying that hatred ultimately doesn't make a lot of sense. We would build prisons for hurricanes if we could because they're so destructive, but we would never hate them in the way that we hate other human beings.
Russ Roberts: I find that very powerful. I find it very powerful and persuasive on a personal level. And, by the way, I should mention David Foster Wallace's graduation speech, which is glorious and is sometimes available on the web, sometimes not, in various forms. There's a video version of it that's really quite spectacular. If it's still up, I'll try to find it. But--
Sam Harris: Why is it not always up? You're saying it gets taken down periodically?
Russ Roberts: Well, the video version of it got taken down for a while and I couldn't find it. But, the speech you can find and it's in books. But he makes a similar point about road rage. And, he uses the: you're in line and the end of a long day and the cashier in front of you in your line is chit-chatting with some person, and you're annoyed because you're in a hurry. And, it's a brilliant rendition of this point. But--it hasn't aired yet, but, I recently interviewed--it will come out before this conversation--interviewed Vinay Prasad, the oncologist who has made a bunch of observations about--wrote a beautiful essay, an angry essay, a screed--about people in public health and educators and others who he feels failed their duty in the pandemic and did what was convenient or beneficial to them, safe.
And, he confessed on my program that he had written that in the aftermath of the Uvalde school shooting, where policemen failed to do their duty and enter the classrooms where shootings were taking place. And children died. And, in commenting on that, I unconsciously had put in a parenthetical phrase like, 'I can't really judge them because maybe if I'd been in their shoes, I might have done the same thing.' And, it raises the challenge that on an interpersonal level, I think we should be incredibly non-judgmental with our siblings and our spouse and our friends and our loved ones. But, at the public policy level, if we do not judge and condemn, if we always forgive because there's no free will, I think that comes at a cost. There's a benefit to it, by the way. But, I think there comes a cost. Do you agree?
Sam Harris: Again, I'm not standing quite where I think you think I am, there, because I do see quite a bit of scope for moral outrage at the public policy level. As people who have listened to my podcast will know, I've spent a lot of time condemning bad policy or what I think is bad policy and the people who purvey it, and also just condemning specific people who I think create an immense amount of unnecessary harm in our society. So, I've been incredibly critical of Donald Trump, and I think Trump and Trumpism have been awful for us. At no point does that entail a belief in his free will. I don't think Trump can be other than what he is. But I think it's just bad to have elected a person of those qualities and character to the highest office in the land. And so, it's a bad outcome.
That is, if we can steer away from future bad outcomes by reacting to this bad outcome--by criticizing it, by bemoaning it, by pointing to the various misconceptions about the world and what to do within it--that delivered us that outcome, then I do think outrage is an appropriate emotion by which to express those criticisms, often.
Again, it's not ordinary anger or hatred that attributes to people powers they don't have. But, it's a response to things that they've said and done, which at least admits of the hope of influence--like, that some people can be influenced. Some people can be persuaded; and some people have better judgment that can be appealed to.
And so, therefore, you take Vinay Prasad's criticism of his own field--of his fellow doctors--and, in particular, I would imagine, although I haven't heard your conversation yet, public health officials and epidemiologists and the CDC [Centers of Disease Control] and FDA [Food and Drug Administration]--implicit in his outrage and his expression of it is the hope that it will matter to someone. It will persuade someone, and we will not make the same mistakes next time. And, I do think outrage is appropriate. So, I wouldn't want to lose that emotional tool, because I do think certain things are emergencies to which we can respond.
Russ Roberts: Doesn't that conflict with the compassion I should feel for those people?
Sam Harris: No, no. Well, so, yeah, no, it doesn't--
Russ Roberts: Or that I would think you would suggest. I should feel for them.
Sam Harris: Yeah, no, it's just different modes.
So, the Uvalde shooting was an especially vivid and painful instance of this where--because I have very strong beliefs and fairly well-formed beliefs about circumstances of this sort. I've spent a lot of time studying human violence and training and the martial arts and with firearms. And, I've done several podcasts on these topics. And I've spent a lot of time with cops, and--etc.
So, when I saw Uvalde, it was a disaster on every level, and it was an expression of incompetence and failures of nerve on every level. So, I was as judgmental of what happened and didn't happen there as anyone. Right?
But, when I look at its aftermath--when I look at the cops who failed and who know they failed and who are now suffering under some kind of damaged selfhood--really, given the level of shame that they might feel in light of what they failed to do there--this was, after all, Texas. I mean, I thought, 'Irony of ironies.' I mean, you just see this; you could imagine some places this would happen, but you can't imagine it would happen quite this way in Texas. Right? And, this is the sanctum sanctorum of the religion of the Second Amendment. And yet, good guys with guns did absolutely nothing to save our children.
It's--I feel compassion for those guys. It's hard to imagine someone I would less rather be than the Chief of Police, whose call it was to not go in. He actually never made the call to go in. It was a border patrol agent who went in on his own and solved the problem--after 72 minutes, I think. I mean, it's just--you know--what an awful human experience to have. So, I do feel compassion for that person. He's suffering about whatever is going to happen to him as a result. I don't know that he's going to be prosecuted, or in any way.
But, it's interesting to consider the ethics around prosecuting people for crimes. This probably isn't the best example of this. But, there are many crimes that are atrocious. But, there are crimes that--they're often crimes of passion or they're such that you take one look at what's happened here and you know that the offender is never going to offend again. Right?
This is not a--this goes to the concept of moral luck, which is, I don't know if you've talked about it on your podcast before, but it's a very useful concept given to us by the philosopher Thomas Nagel. But, he pointed out in one of his essays that so much of human morality depends upon luck in ways that we find very difficult to integrate into our thinking.
So, we've all done things--let's say, behind the wheel of a car--that we've gotten away with, by pure luck. We've all had one drink too many, we've all been texting occasionally, we've all been fiddling with the radio when we shouldn't have. And, someone today somewhere is going to be doing one of those otherwise-benign things, but not get away with it. He's going to look at his phone for one second too long and kill someone in the crosswalk or kill someone's kid. Right?
And so then, what do we do in those moments? And, those people often get prosecuted, and we feel that they should, because we feel like the only way to deter this kind of negligence is to set an example of these people. And so, people who go to prison for having killed someone's kid in a crosswalk while texting.
But, it is interesting to consider the ethics of this, because you know--I mean, just imagine being someone who was texting with friends and you wind up killing someone's kid. The punishment in full is delivered right there. That person is already in hell. Right?
And now we're going to put them in prison. And, we're certainly not deterring them. I mean, the idea that they're going to be texting again seems pretty farfetched while driving.
So, it's an interesting thing to think about. I'm not saying we don't need to put people in prison for negligence ever; but, compassion is appropriate there. It's just awful to consider that happening. And we've all gotten away with that. So, it's just--we are that person. We're just the lucky version of that person. And so, compassion is appropriate.
Russ Roberts: Well, I had a lot of other questions. I was going to ask you about why you left Twitter, whether you're worried about ChatGPT, or do you think Dostoyevsky was right that if God is dead, everything is permitted? Can you imagine the possibility that God exists, but we'll have to wait for that--
Sam Harris: You want me to rapid-fire all of those within 90 seconds?
Russ Roberts: for another time. Oh--yeah, we'll do one of those rounds, when you get 10 seconds for each one. I hate that. You like that?
Sam Harris: I think I could hit all those very fast. Well, I could do it.
Russ Roberts: Okay, let's do it. Let's do it. Here we go. You ready?
Sam Harris: Okay. Yes. Ask me each one in turn.
Russ Roberts: Why'd you leave Twitter?
Sam Harris: Because it was making me a worse person.
Russ Roberts: Are you worried about artificial intelligence and ChatGPT?
Sam Harris: In the limit, I am worried about artificial intelligence. I think it's possible to create it in a way that is not aligned with our wellbeing. And, in fact, there may be more ways to do that. And, therefore there's ample reason to be worried.
I'm interested in ChatGPT. It's not quite at a spot where I think it's going to cancel too many jobs. But, ultimately I think we're going to have to integrate something that perfectly passes the Turing Test into our working lives. And, we have to figure out how to make use of the tool rather than have it ruin things for us. I just think it could be incredibly valuable and fun and we have to make room for it. It's a big problem. And, I don't think we're set up well to do it without some painful hiccups, but I think it's not going away.
Russ Roberts: Dostoyevsky said, in The Brothers Karamazov, that if God is dead, everything is permitted. I have a feeling you don't agree.
Sam Harris: I don't agree. No.
Russ Roberts: I do. Okay. Can you imagine the possibility that God exists?
Sam Harris: Of course. Yeah. But, I can also imagine the possibility that that Zeus exists and Poseidon and all of the other dead gods who we're not worried about. So, yes.
Russ Roberts: You're so open-minded!
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Sam Harris. Sam, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Sam Harris: It's a pleasure, Russ. Thanks again.