June 4, 2012
Q&A With Sam Harris: The Christian right, radical Islamists, and secular leftists agree this atheist is America’s most dangerous man
June 4, 2012
Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, The Moral Landscape, and other best-selling works of moral philosophy and anti-religious polemic, first began to wonder about life after death at the age of 13, after his best friend was killed in a bicycle accident. He looked for answers in books about the occult and eastern religion, and then re-invented the 1960s for himself, experimenting with psychedelics and traveling to India and Nepal to study with Buddhist meditation masters. In college at Stanford, Harris studied religion, philosophy, and neuroscience and concluded that nothing spooky or mystical happens after people die. The idea of an Omniscient Being who demands obedience from his followers in exchange for the promise of life after to death was crap—the kind of crap that starts wars, condemns hundreds of millions of people to ignorance, poverty, and disease and has a pervasive and dangerous effect on public policy.
An expert polemicist—funny, logical, fearless, and sometimes impulsive—Harris also possesses the rarer qualities of psychological suppleness and a willingness to admit when he’s wrong. The son of a Jewish mother and Quaker father, he engages with the experiential components of belief in a deeply personal way. At the same time, he shows little patience for religious Christian leaders like Rick Warren, who Harris eviscerated in a public debate, or for Islamists, whose religion Harris regularly maligns in a way that has led both to outraged accusations of bigotry and actual death threats. Harris is equally unpopular with secular leftists, whose dogmas and pieties he also finds loathsome—starting with their sympathy for fundamentalist political movements like Hamas and Hezbollah.
I first met Harris eight years ago in a Venice Beach restaurant, where we were introduced by a writer for The Simpsons. While I recall being dubious about whether the 21st century needed a new Voltaire, Harris’ first book, The End of Faith, marked him as one of the most important public intellectuals of our generation, an 18th-century Enlightenment thinker in a 21st-century world riven by 14th-century conflicts. His fearless style of argument has had a cleansing influence in a public sphere whose normal room-tones—smarmy politeness and snarky careerism—suggest a lack of interest in or understanding of the worldly effects of bad ideas.
We met again last month by the pool at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles and talked for a while about our mutual interests, including meditation, the Gracie family, and the art of jiu jitsu and various figures in the martial arts, before moving on to Jehovah, Allah, and Poseidon, and the metaphysical uses of MRI technology. We also talked about what has always bothered me about his work—namely, my feeling that his demand for the strict application of reason to the psycho-dynamics of collective human experience might be its own form of dogmatism, which is deaf to the lived experience of the vast majority of humankind.
As a modern-day neuroscientist, is it weird that you spend so much time thinking about God and faith and free will and other questions that seem more appropriate for an Enlightenment philosophe living in Paris?
Beliefs really do matter. If you have a bus driver who really believes in the power of prayer, so much so that it affects his behavior—he’s willing to let prayer drive the bus from time to time and he’ll take his hands off the wheel because Jesus is really driving—all of a sudden beliefs matter, and this person is dangerous. And so the frontier between the privacy of your own representation of the world and its impact on the lives of other people is easily traversed and very difficult to specify clearly. And I think we need to talk about it.
Free will for instance seems like a completely abstruse 19th-century concern, except for the fact that a belief in free will does affect people’s moral intuitions. The retributive part of our criminal justice system is predicated on it. And so, the idea that people really deserve to spend decades in prison because they’re really evil and they are the true authors of their own evil, I think is impossible to cash out once you understand the human mind as an expression of neurophysiology, and neurophysiology as an expression of genes and environment, etc. It makes no sense scientifically.
Does any halfway literate modern person still imagine that there is a large person with a beard who lives in the sky and is watching us?
Ask Francis Collins. And if he believes that, what does Rick Warren believe?
Do you think that there’s something that’s basic in our DNA that causes us to have this God-emotion, and is it something that humans will—or should—outgrow?
I think there’s a range of human experience that is attested to by religion that is very positive and interesting and worth exploring. It’s possible to feel overwhelming love for all sentient beings and an overwhelming gratitude for being here in this moment, and to no longer feel separate from the universe. You’re riding around in your head looking at the world that is other than what you are, and that disappears. It’s around that phenomenology that you get ejaculations of the sort that created our religious literature. So, you have a Jesus who speaks like Jesus, and a Buddha who speaks like Buddha, and then you have their followers. And not all of the religious traditions are equipped to conceptually deal with that experience or to guide people toward it. And some are more or less cluttered with obviously crazy superstition and mythology. Religious dogmatism is the only dogmatism that gives someone a rationale not only to kill themselves and kill others but to celebrate the deaths of their children. I mean, this is the only thing that’s going to let you send your child out to clear a minefield happily.
I have to stop you there. My father, in one part of his life, was a political theorist who was very interested in political ideology, and so our house was stocked with books about Communism, Nazism, and Fascism. These ideologies were all explicitly anti-religious and quite murderous.
But also there speeches where Hitler referred to Jesus and gave his own rendition of what a good Christian was, and he was a Nazi. I mean, I see where you’re going with this…
The hard truth about political compromise: Two political scientists say we’re doomed to paralysis unless we give our enemies room to move
June 4, 2012
On paper, America looks like a nation of political compromisers. In surveys, the vast majority of us say that we’re tired of gridlock, and that politicians ought to compromise more to get things done.
And yet, in practice, when it comes to any particular compromise—on immigration, on taxes, on health care—we’re often against it, no matter which side we’re on. We consistently vote for politicians who swear to stand by their principles no matter what, and boot compromising politicians out of office. It’s no wonder that some politicians can’t even bring themselves to acknowledge the possibility of comprising. (In 2010, when pushed to say “compromise” by the journalist Leslie Stahl, John Boehner said, “I reject the word.”)Increasingly, this hardened attitude represents a danger to democracy and the economy. (Think of last summer’s debt-ceiling standoff—likely to be reprised this summer.) And it stems, according to two political scientists, from our failure to understand what compromise really is. In their new book, “The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It,” Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson argue that Americans have an inaccurate view of compromise. In particular, they say, we vastly underestimate the costs of rejecting it.
Nowadays, they write, we have a simplistic view of compromise. We tend to think of compromise in terms of settling for less: We want two scoops of ice cream, but settle for one. That might describe what happens when you and your spouse compromise over the size of a new television—but it doesn’t work, the authors show, when it comes to politics. Political compromise requires more than settling; it requires actually letting the other side make progress on its agenda, even if you find that agenda repugnant. Even worse, political compromises are often incoherent. A compromise on immigration, for example, might mean combining ideas that seem to work against one another, like amnesty for illegal immigrants and strict rules criminalizing illegal immigration.
All of this makes it tempting to believe that we can do without compromise. But, Gutmann and Thompson warn, the alternative is worse. A vote against compromise might feel like a vote for purity, for boldness—but it’s actually a vote for the status quo. In a democracy where people disagree on fundamental questions, no-compromise politicians create logjams, not progress. So when we vote for hyperpartisan politicians who promise to save us from the pain and frustration of compromise, what we are really doing is voting, repeatedly, for nothing to change.
Gutmann, currently president of the University of Pennsylaniva, and Thompson, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard, have written extensively on the role that reasoned debate can play in the democratic process. Now, in this new book, they’re hoping to expose what has gone wrong with compromise in America, and to explain how we might fix it. They propose a variety of remedies, like better civic education, campaign reform, and requiring politicians to live together in Washington for more of the year. But, they write, voters need to clean up our act as well: We need to accept the challenging realities of compromise, and start rewarding politicians for compromising, instead of punishing them.
Gutmann and Thompson spoke to Ideas via telephone from their respective offices in Philadelphia and Cambridge…
Imagine you are offered a trustworthy opportunity for immortality in which your mind (perhaps also your body) will persist eternally. Let’s further stipulate that the offer includes perpetual youthful health and the ability to upgrade to any cognitive and physical technologies that become available in the future. There is one more stipulation: You could never decide later to die. Would you take it? Metaphysician and former British diplomat Stephen Cave thinks accepting such an offer would be a bad idea.
Cave’s fascinating new book, Immortality, posits that civilization is a major side effect of humanity’s attempts to live forever. He argues that our sophisticated minds inexorably recognize that, like all other living things, we will one day die. Simultaneously, Cave asserts, “The one thing that these minds cannot imagine is that very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable. Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible. This is what I will call the Mortality Paradox, and its resolution is what gives shape to the immortality narratives, and therefore to civilization.”
Cave identifies four immortality narratives that drive civilizations over time which he calls; (1) Staying Alive, (2) Resurrection, (3) Soul, and (4) Legacy. Cave gracefully marches through his four immortality narratives citing examples from history, psychology, and religion up to the modern day. “At its core, a civilization is a collection of life extension technologies: agriculture to ensure food in steady supply, clothing to stave off cold, architecture to provide shelter and safety, better weapons for hunting and defense, and medicine to combat injury and disease,” he writes.
In the Staying Alive narrative Cave opens with the quest of the First Emperor of China to find the elixir of life but lands us soon the 21st century where transhumanists aim to use modern science to finally achieve the goal of perpetual youthful life. He notes that in the last century, humans have in fact doubled average human life expectancy.
Why not simply repair the damage caused by aging, thus defeating physical death? This is the goal of transhumanists like theoretical biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey who has devised the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) program. SENS technologies would include genetic interventions to rejuvenate cells, stem cell transplants to replace aged organs and tissues, and nano-machines to patrol our bodies to prevent infections and kill nascent cancers. Ultimately, Cave cannot argue that these life-extension technologies will not work for individuals but suggests that they would produce problems like overpopulation and environmental collapse that would eventually subvert them. He also cites calculations done by a demographer that assuming aging and disease is defeated by biomedical technology accidents would still do in would-be immortals. The average life expectancy of medical immortals would be 5,775 years. Frankly, I will be happy to take that.
Resurrection is his next immortality narrative. Of course, the most prevalent resurrection story is that of Jesus of Nazareth 2,000 years ago. The New Testament explicitly states that one day every individual will once again live in his or her real but improved physical bodies. Physical resurrection is also the orthodox belief of the other two Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Islam. Thus, Cave notes, half of the world’s population officially believes in the future resurrection of their physical bodies. He adds, however, that many Christians, Jews, and Muslims actually subscribe to another immortality narrative, Soul.
Cave identifies three major problems with the Resurrection Narrative: the Cannibal problem, the Transformation problem, and the Duplication problem. Briefly, if resurrection is to mean anything, it must mean that a specific individual is brought back to life. The question is what happens when atoms have been shared by more than one person: Who gets to use the specific nitrogen and carbon atoms when everyone is brought back to life? I don’t think that that is much of problem since atoms are interchangeable and presumably God could simply put any random carbon and nitrogen atoms back in the same places they were in your physical body. They needn’t be the exact same atoms that you had when you died…