Sam Harris

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Free Will | Consciousness | Neuroscience | Philosophy | The Self | April 5, 2012

Free Will and “Free Will”

How my view differs from Daniel Dennett's

free will

(Photo by h.koppdelaney)

I have noticed that some readers continue to find my argument about the illusoriness of free will difficult to accept. Apart from religious believers who simply “know” that they have free will and that life would be meaningless without it, my most energetic critics seem to be fans of my friend Dan Dennett’s account of the subject, as laid out in his books Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves and in his public talks. As I mention in Free Will, I don’t happen to agree with Dan’s approach, but rather than argue with him at length in a very short book, I decided to simply present my own view. I am hopeful that Dan and I will have a public discussion about these matters at some point in the future.

 
 

burkas

(Photo by Basetrack )

I recently had a very enjoyable three-hour conversation with Joe Rogan on his podcast, where the topics ranged from jihad to probability theory to psychedelics. But I subsequently received a fair amount of abuse online for a few things I said about Islam and our adventures in the war on terror. For instance, I appear to have left many viewers with the impression that I believe we invaded Afghanistan for the purpose of rescuing its women from the Taliban. However, the points I was actually making were rather different: I think that abandoning these women to the Taliban is one of the things that make our inevitable retreat from Afghanistan ethically problematic. I also believe that wherever we can feasibly stop the abuse of women and girls, we should. An ability to do this in places like Afghanistan, and throughout the world, would be one of the benefits of having a global civil society and a genuine regime of international law. Needless to say, this is not the world we are living in (yet).

The ferocious response to my discussion with Rogan about the war on terror has, once again, caused me to worry about the future of liberalism. It is one thing to think that the war in Afghanistan has been an excruciating failure (which I believe), but it is another to think that we had no moral right to attack al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the first place. A significant percentage of liberals seem to hold the latter view, and consider President Obama to be nothing more than a neocon stooge and Islam to be an unfairly maligned religion of peace. I regularly hear from such people, and their beliefs genuinely trouble me. It doesn’t take many emails containing sentences like “The United States and Israel are the greatest terrorist states on earth” to make me feel that liberalism is simply doomed.

 
 

free will sam harris

I briefly discussed the illusion of free will in both The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape. I have since received hundreds of questions and comments from readers and learned just where the sticking points were in my original arguments. I am happy to now offer my final thoughts on the subject in the form of a short book, Free Will, that can be read in a single sitting.

The question of free will touches nearly everything we care about. Morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships, feelings of guilt and personal accomplishment—most of what is distinctly human about our lives seems to depend upon our viewing one another as autonomous persons, capable of free choice. If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not “deserve” our success in any deep sense. It is not an accident that most people find these conclusions abhorrent. The stakes are high.

 
 

Book News | Publishing | Economics | February 20, 2012

Better and Better

An Interview with Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler

abundance diamandis


Peter H. Diamandis is the founder and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation and Co-founder and Chairman of Singularity University.  He is a serial entrepreneur turned philanthropist who has started more than a dozen high-tech companies. He has degrees in molecular biology and aerospace engineering from MIT, and an M.D. from Harvard Medical School. He has written a new book, Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, along with author and journalist Steven Kotler, whose articles have appeared in over 60 publications: including the New York Times Magazine, Wired, Discover, Popular Science, Outside, GQ, and National Geographic.

The book has received much advanced praise. Ray Kurzweil, inventor, futurist and author of The Singularity is Near, had this to say:  “This brilliant must-read book provides the key to the coming era of abundance replacing eons of scarcity. Abundance is a powerful antidote to today’s malaise and pessimism.”

Peter and Steven were kind enough to answer my questions by email:

 
 

Atheism | Religion | Christianity | February 16, 2012

Life Without God

An Interview with Tim Prowse

Without God Sam Harris

(Photo by H.koppdelaney)

Tim Prowse was a United Methodist pastor for almost 20 years, serving churches in Missouri and Indiana. Tim earned a B.A. from East Texas Baptist University, a Master of Divinity (M.Div) from Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri, and a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min) from Chicago Theological Seminary. Acknowledging his unbelief, Tim left his faith and career in 2011. He currently lives in Indiana. He was kind enough to discuss his experience of leaving the ministry with me by email.

 
 

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Sam Harris

(Photo by Peter Gordon)

After writing an article on the principles of self-defense, I was inundated with emails and Internet comments—many of which came from experts in the field. The response was very supportive, and I haven’t found anything of substance to amend in my original essay. However, I did take one criticism to heart: I don’t know enough about Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ).

I am now doing my best to rectify that problem. What follows is the first installment of what (I hope) will be an ongoing journal of my progress in BJJ. I suspect that many readers of this blog have no interest in the martial arts and will consider this an unfortunate departure from my main areas of competence. I am convinced, however, that training in BJJ offers a powerful lens through which to examine some primary human concerns—truth v. delusion, self knowledge, ethics, and overcoming fear. I hope some of you bear with me.

 
 

Atheism | Ethics | Religion | February 2, 2012

The Fireplace Delusion

fireplace delusion

It seems to me that many nonbelievers have forgotten—or never knew—what it is like to suffer an unhappy collision with scientific rationality. We are open to good evidence and sound argument as a matter of principle, and are generally willing to follow wherever they may lead. Certain of us have made careers out of bemoaning the failure of religious people to adopt this same attitude.

However, I recently stumbled upon an example of secular intransigence that may give readers a sense of how religious people feel when their beliefs are criticized. It’s not a perfect analogy, as you will see, but the rigorous research I’ve conducted at dinner parties suggests that it is worth thinking about. We can call the phenomenon “the fireplace delusion.”

 
 

Politics | Religion | Christianity | January 15, 2012

Your God is My God

What Mitt Romney Could Say to Win the Republican Nomination

Romney God Mormonism Religion

Governor Mitt Romney has yet to persuade the religious conservatives in his party that he is fit to be President of the United States. However, he could probably appease the Republican base and secure his party’s nomination if he made the following remarks prior to the South Carolina Primary:

 
 

Publishing | Physics | January 3, 2012

Everything and Nothing

An Interview with Lawrence M. Krauss

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Lawrence M. Krauss is a renowned cosmologist, popularizer of science, and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University.  He is the author of more than 300 scientific publications and 8 books, including the bestselling The Physics of Star Trek. His interests include the early universe, the nature of dark matter, general relativity and neutrino astrophysics. He is also a friend and an advisor to my nonprofit foundation, Project Reason. Lawrence generously took time to answer a few questions about his new book, A Universe from Nothing.

 
 

News | December 18, 2011

Hitch

Christopher Hitchens

The moment it was announced that Christopher Hitchens was sick with cancer, eulogies began spilling into print and from the podium. No one wanted to deny the possibility that he would recover, of course, but neither could we let the admiration we felt for him go unexpressed. It is a cliché to say that he was one of a kind and none can fill his shoes—but Hitch was and none can. In his case not even the most effusive tributes ring hollow. There was simply no one like him.

One of the joys of living in a world filled with stupidity and hypocrisy was to see Hitch respond. That pleasure is now denied us. The problems that drew his attention remain—and so does the record of his brilliance, courage, erudition, and good humor in the face of outrage. But his absence will leave an enormous void in the years to come. Hitch lived an extraordinarily large life. (Read his memoir, Hitch-22, and marvel.) It was too short, to be sure—and one can only imagine what another two decades might have brought out of him—but Hitch produced more fine work, read more books, met more interesting people, and won more arguments than most of us could in several centuries.

 
 

free will book cover sam harris

(Cover by David Drummond)

 

 
 

Book News | Publishing | Economics | Neuroscience | November 29, 2011

Thinking about Thinking

An Interview with Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman is an extraordinarily interesting thinker. As a psychologist, he received the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work with Amos Tversky on decision-making. Here is what Steven Pinker, my previous interview subject, recently wrote about him:

Daniel Kahneman is among the most influential psychologists in history and certainly the most important psychologist alive today. He has a gift for uncovering remarkable features of the human mind, many of which have become textbook classics and part of the conventional wisdom. His work has reshaped social psychology, cognitive science, the study of reason and of happiness, and behavioral economics, a field that he and his collaborator Amos Tversky helped to launch. The appearance of Thinking, Fast and Slow is a major event.

Kahneman was kind enough to take time out of a very busy book tour to answer a few of my questions.

 
 

Self-Defense | Violence | November 5, 2011

The Truth about Violence

3 Principles of Self-Defense

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(Photo by Pensiero)

As a teenager, I once had an opportunity to fly in a police helicopter over a major American city. Naively, I thought the experience might be uneventful. Perhaps there would be no crime between 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night. However, from the moment we were airborne, there was a fresh emergency every fifteen seconds: Shots fired… rape in progress… victim stabbed…It was a deluge. Of course, the impression this left on me was, in part, the result of a sampling bias: I was hearing nothing but incident reports from a city of 4 million people, most of whom would never encounter violence directly. (No one calls the police to say “Everything is still okay!”) Yet it was uncanny to discover the chaos that lurked at the margins of my daily routine. A few minutes from where I might otherwise have been eating dinner, rapes, robberies, and murders were in progress.

 
 

image

(Photo by h.koppdelaney)

The universe is filled with physical phenomena that appear devoid of consciousness. From the birth of stars and planets, to the early stages of cell division in a human embryo, the structures and processes we find in Nature seem to lack an inner life. At some point in the development of certain complex organisms, however, consciousness emerges. This miracle does not depend on a change of materials—for you and I are built of the same atoms as a fern or a ham sandwich. Rather, it must be a matter of organization. Arranging atoms in a certain way appears to bring consciousness into being. And this fact is among the deepest mysteries given to us to contemplate.

Many readers of my previous essay did not understand why the emergence of consciousness should pose a special problem to science. Every feature of the human mind and body emerges over the course development: Why is consciousness more perplexing than language or digestion? The problem, however, is that the distance between unconsciousness and consciousness must be traversed in a single stride, if traversed at all. Just as the appearance of something out of nothing cannot be explained by our saying that the first something was “very small,” the birth of consciousness is rendered no less mysterious by saying that the simplest minds have only a glimmer of it.

 
 

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(Photo by AlicePopkorn)

You are not aware of the electrochemical events occurring at each of the trillion synapses in your brain at this moment. But you are aware, however dimly, of sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, and moods. At the level of your experience, you are not a body of cells, organelles, and atoms; you are consciousness and its ever-changing contents, passing through various stages of wakefulness and sleep, and from cradle to grave.

The term “consciousness” is notoriously difficult to define. Consequently, many a debate about its character has been waged without the participants’ finding even a common topic as common ground. By “consciousness,” I mean simply “sentience,” in the most unadorned sense. To use the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s construction: A creature is conscious if there is “something that it is like” to be this creature; an event is consciously perceived if there is “something that it is like” to perceive it. ⁠Whatever else consciousness may or may not be in physical terms, the difference between it and unconsciousness is first and foremost a matter of subjective experience. Either the lights are on, or they are not.[1]

 
 

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