Sam Harris Answers More of Your Questions September 22, 2011

Sam Harris Answers More of Your Questions

Back in June, Sam Harris answered some popular questions from the Reddit crowd.

The questions didn’t stop, though, and he’s back for Round 2:

Here’s the guide to the good stuff:

1. Eternity and the meaning of life 0:42
2. Do we have free will? 4:43
3. How can we convince religious people to abandon their beliefs? 14:52
4. How can atheists live among the faithful? 19:09
5. How should we talk to children about death? 21:52
6. Does human life have intrinsic value? 26:01
7. Why should we be confident in the authority of science? 30:36
8. How can one criticize Islam after the terrorism in Norway? 35:43

9. Should atheists join with Christians against Islam? 41:50
10. What does it mean to speak about the human mind objectively? 45:17
11. How can spiritual claims be scientifically justified? 50:14
12. Why can’t religion remain a private matter? 54:52
13. What do you like to speak about at public events? 58:09

If you haven’t picked it up yet, Harris’ new ebook is called Lying.

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  • justine

    Is there a way to get his book as a pdf or epub for my nook?  Kindle books are incompatible with the nook, but for $1.99 I would buy it in a heartbeat. 

  • Rich Wilson

    Is there a way to get his book as a pdf or epub for my nook?
    (or you could buy the kindle version, toss it, and get the ePub from the bay of pirates)

  • Anonymous

    This is an old Q&A. He did this a month ago. 

  • Anonymous

    BTW, here is my Review of Lying by Sam Harris – 

  • Harris is wrong on so many issues.   Everything from the basis for morality, to economics, to torture that I can’t take him seriously.   Sometimes he comes out with some nice one liners but mostly it’s embarrassing.

    Take this sentence at 5:20: “Most people most of the time feel  very clearly that they have, that they are the authors of their own actions that they are the thinkers of their thoughts and the intenders of their intentions.”

    I’m sorry but that’s just a laughable statement.    Who then is author of my actions, and the thinker of my thoughts if not me?  God?  The universe?   Society?  Leprechauns? Society?  Obama?  Sam Harris?  Nobody?

    Hearing him say stuff like that makes me wonder how dense he’s got to be.   Does he not understand what those words mean?  

    He goes on to say that “The brain manufactures … that which you are the mere witness”

    Which makes me want to ask him “Who is this ‘you’ that you are referring to that is separate from my brain”.   

    My brain is a part of me.  If my brain “manufactures” my actions then by definition I manufactured those actions.   As surely as if part of me, my fist, were to punch someone that would mean that I punched someone.

    Furthermore this conscious “witness” he refers to as “you” is also manufactured by this same brain according.  There is no duality here.  It’s all me.

    Even if we dispose of the rest of my body and only speak of the brain.    He’s talking about the brain authoring actions and then somehow deceiving itself that it is the author of those actions.       That would only make sense if it were important to the survival of the individual on a daily basis to distinguish parts of the brain and call some segment of it, the part responsible for producing consciousness, “me”.   Yet we don’t refrain from saying “Why’d you kick me.” when we get kicked in the shin instead of this fraction of the brain he labels “me”.   

    Sorta makes me wish he tried to explain this to some bully.   The bully
    would then punch him in the nose while he’s making the argument.   When
    Harris objects “Why did you punch me” the bully retorts either “What’s
    this you and me stuff you are speaking of?” or “That wasn’t me that did
    it.  It was this brain.  I’m merely an innocent witness.”

    I made the choice to respond to his video.   I am the author of this text and the thoughts behind it.   I’m also making the choice not to proofread so I am also the author of any spelling and grammar mistakes.

    What I find particularly appalling his attempts to give some scientific authority to what are in fact his own personal tastes.   For example his personal desire is to construct a morality based on the utilitarianism of the reduction of suffering.   We don’t need science to know people suffer or to judge suffering.   Being able to more accurately scale suffering via neural probes or MRIs does not address the faults with utilitarianism.

    So far what I’ve heard him suggest appeals to me as much as Marx’s supposedly scientific socialism.


  • In short, Harris doesn’t properly distinguish between the issue of free will and dualism.   What he really should be attacking is dualism.   It’s as if he is arguing whales don’t exist because some people believe them to be fish.    Perhaps those people are just wrong about the nature of whales.

    I don’t know if I am surprised by his failure here or not.  I’m surprised because he can in fact be very intelligent in his thoughts.   I’m surprised because he specifically has a degree in philosophy.   I’m not surprised because he’s such a young whippersnapper.

    Yeah, my facebook picture is way out of date.

  • P. J. Reed

    Who then is author of my actions, and the thinker of my thoughts if not me?  God?  The universe?   Society?  Leprechauns? Society?  Obama?  Sam Harris?  Nobody?

    You said society twice.  Some Christians might tell you God, but we know that’s not right.  The real alternative that he’s arguing against is nobody.  There is no author for your actions — everything you do is the result of chemical reactions in your body that occur as a results of outside stimuli.  In other words, you have no free will; your actions all follow an unchangeable path which we could predict perfectly if it wasn’t also impossibly complex.  You may think you have free will, but that feeling is only a pleasant side effect of the chemical reactions going on in your brain.

    I think that’s the position he’s arguing against, and you calling him “dense” only indicates to me that you haven’t actually thought about any positions other than the one you assume to be true.

  • I actually first thought of the “nobody” response for my The Simpsons style bully and changed it to “brain” instead because I wanted to make further points.   [ See, I can give true explanations why I make choices that are not based on “illusions” ]  

    The determinist response of “nobody” does not address the compatibilist position [look it up].    In fact from my perspective it’s pretty silly to expect my actions not to be the result of prior events.   Doesn’t the bully in my example have to hear Harris before he decides to belittle and mock him?   Doesnt the fork in the road have to exist prior to the choice of which way to go?   

    Harris’s claim that I didn’t make a choice is in fact unintelligible.  ” I” in relationship to “the environment” did make the choice.    That’s a pretty obvious dividing line that incompatibilist determinists seem to ignore.  To argue against such a conceptual division would lead to even further paradoxes for my opponents.

    I’m a computer scientist and one of the goals of using 1’s and 0’s as the basis of hardware is to make computer memory and processors more deterministic than the world actually is.   This reduces the error that would be more likely in using a many voltage system to represent logic.  A brain that operates in a more deterministic manner is also less prone to error. 

     A predictable world is actually a more desirable state for the support of free will actors than one that is more “indeterministic”.    In a predicable world my choices have predicable outcomes.  

    Thus we can say a brain is more  not less responsible for it’s choices the closer we move to determinism (predictability).

    Brains that fire randomly and operate improperly and unpredicably (the insane) are actually held to a lower standard of responsibility.   Likewise we do not hold people responsible for circumstances they are not likely to predict.   A childe running in front of your car in front of a school, a school bus, or in a residential area, is a predictable event.   One jumping out the window of a moving car on the highway less predictable.    Thus we would tend to hold someone more responsible for hitting a child in the former circumstance than the latter.

    I could also touch on the whole issue of whether the claim that the universe as the whole is deterministic (or indeterministic) is even falsifiable.  There is a good case to be made that neither position is falsifiable.

    Besides does it really matter once a state of affairs is achieved whether it came about in a deterministic or indeterministic manner?    If the geiger counter goes off and I decide to flee what does it matter whether we prove it to be one or the other to the question of whether I have free will?  

  • BTW, I called him dense because despite being a smart guy he is being dense when it comes to this subject.    

    We divide the world up into objects (both animate and inanimate) because it makes perfect sense to do so.   One of the main points of the Selfish Gene is that individuals act as units.    If they act as units it certainly makes sense for the brain to model them this way.   It’s not an “illusion”.

    It’s only an illusion if you assume that it is possible to create a perfect model of the world.   However all models of the world are flawed, precisely because they must reside within the world they are modeling.

    If brains model of the world can be called an “illusion” because it abstracts away unimportant aspects of the world,  then every model is an illusion.

    The theory of gravity is an illusion because it doesn’t explain why animals can walk up hill.

    This is merely “the god of the gaps” in another guise.

    Our common sense model of the world that considers individuals as actors with self interested motives, and the ability to learn moral rules and abide by them, is in fact no illusion.

    His experments not only don’t give the correct answer, they don’t even ask the correct questions.

    His impulse detection experiment is relevant to the question of duality, not determinism or free will.

    From my perspective which already subsumes his, he looks dense.

  • manthing

    Interesting, the part on the meaning of life starts at 42.

  • If you study Buddhism a bit you’ll understand what is meant by “no self” and “no mind,” but without some understanding of Buddhist psychology, phenomenology, and cosmology you’re not likely to get the nuances. Join up with a local meditation group. As a computer programmer (like me) you should be able to appreciate the low-level workings of the mind as a wholly selfless process that generates the phenomena we identify as “me.” Moreover you’ll learn how to reprogram it at the pre-cognitive level, as opposed to only working at the neo-cortical level if intellect. Hint: the key is training of habit, something we do whether we know what we’re doing or not. De-conditioning the mind is the key to developing a “freer will” than we ordinarily have. Hope this opens up a new avenue of inquiry for you!

  • dezGusty

    42 IS the meaning of life 🙂

  • Not sure that addresses anything I’ve written, nor what your point is.  It’s quite clear that the self is a product of the brain as is consciousness.  That isn’t contradictory with believing we are the authors of our actions.I’m aware of these claims about Buddhism.  Just not sure of what value they are.  Seems to me that this freer state you speak of is actually a form of self deception.  Sort of like altering ones mind with LSD and expecting that to lead to a higher plane of reality.   Since the purpose of the brain is to model reality I don’t see how this is useful other than as a form of dissection for research. 

    I don’t see it as a way to make me “freer”.   In fact, “I” wouldn’t be “I” to be free.

  • Besides isn’t Harris supposed to be applying science to these questions, not Buddhism?

  • Besides isn’t Harris supposed to be applying science to these questions, not Buddhism?

  • It’s not about higher planes of reality, simply about letting go of past trauma and freeing the mind from the constraints of its prior conditioning. In regard to various prejudices against Buddhism (which is a very broad term I realize) in my view it is essentially a personal “scientific inquiry” into the state of one’s own mind. I can attest to the fact that the various practices established and refined over the past X thousand years do help one to let go and to “get over” oneself. And after a time it does make the artifice of the ego seem much more glaring. As for the “weird” experiences and ideas people get from meditation (hallucinations called makyo, for instance), I’ve been lucky that my instructors always say “forget about all that and just keep your attention on the practice.”

    It’s not at all about superstition. You yourself could invent your own means to scientifically inquire into your mind through silencing the intellect and simply observing it (surpassing Descartes in all respects, no doubt), but you might not know the pitfalls, which is why I would recommend concerted study.

    I don’t think it’s a caveat that Harris gets some insights into the cause-and-effect relationship of meditative practice to ego formation from Buddhism. When you analyze the material about mental states and the organs of consciousness, it turns out to be extremely accurate. There’s really no better authority on the nature of mind and consciousness at this time, coming from both an objective and subjective pov.

  • Ironic you advocating that someone  steal a book about why lying is bad.

  • Rich Wilson

    Ironic you thinking that actually reading a book you’ve paid, in a format suitable to your needs, is stealing.

  • I got no problem with what you are a saying.   If you are just trying to be helpful in giving me something to think about fine.   I actually believe it could give me a different perspective on the world. I don’t however have a need it would fulfill at this time.   If it works for you I have no problem with it.Follow dangeroustalks link and read how I dealt with one of my irrationalities in the comments: don’t however see how one can justify claiming that someone is not the author of their action, etc. that he was claiming.   I know what I believe about it and there are no inconsistencies and I’ve haven’t hear or read anything that bears out what he’s saying.     The flaws in standard Christian issues of free will are within their assumptions of duality, in the idea that there is a God who created everything, is all powerful and knows everything.My understanding of free will does not suffer from such flaws.   Nor is is some mere tinkering with their ideas, a kind of ad hoc evasion of truth as he’s implying.In fact I’m seeing quite a bit of fallacy in the arguments Harris makes on this and other issues.I learned about that free will testing impulse measurement experiment he is fond of before I ever heard of Harris.  There are quite obvious interpretations that do not naturally lead to his conclusions.

  • It’s not  ironic that you don’t understand copyright.    Your payment didn’t give you the ownership rights you think it did.   Suitability to your needs is besides the point.   It’s stealing even if you don’t recognize it as such.  You didn’t buy the right to convert to a convienient form.

    The fact that you need to remove DMR should be a big hint that what you are doing is shady.

    When you sign a contract for limited rights in order to get a copy you are in fact lying when you intended all along to convert to a more convinient media.  I think you can understand that.   So the irony I originally pointed out was even more direct.  

    Lying about your intent to make things more suitable for yourself in order to get a book arguing against lying.

    No big sin but still ironic.

  • Rich Wilson

    Wow.  I think Jack Valenti just had an orgasm.

    As for me I think I’ll get back to decreasing suffering and increasing well being.

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