Chris Anderson: Welcome to the TED Interview. I'm Chris Anderson, and this is the podcast series where I sit down with a TED speaker and we get to dive much deeper into their ideas than was possible during their TED Talk.
My guest today is Sam Harris, philosopher, neuroscientist, author, podcaster. Sam has been at the heart of many of the most provocative conversations out there today. Politically, I would place him at what you might call the radical center, a stern critic of Donald Trump, but also of political correctness, for example. He has infuriated people on both left and right in almost equal measure, but he has also delighted many, many people because of his clarity of thought and his fearlessness in how he expresses those thoughts. Sam's podcast, "Waking Up," is superpopular — I'm a regular listener — and he's also famed for his book called "The Moral Landscape." That was the subject of his first TED Talk.
Sam Harris (from TED2010): Most people, probably, here, think that science will never answer the most important questions in human life, questions like what is worth living for, what is worth dying for, what constitutes a good life. So I'm going to argue that this is an illusion, that the separation between science and human values is an illusion, and actually quite a dangerous one at this point in human history.
CA: So the debate is over the nature of morality. Specifically, is there such a thing as objective moral truth? Or is morality inherently subjective, in which case all moral statements are ultimately just statements about the values an individual or a culture happens to hold? So let's give an example here. I mean, look, if I say something like, "It's wrong to lie," or "We should all stop eating animals," are those ultimately just your personal moral values? Or might there be a sense in which they can objectively be judged to be true or false? If you believe in God, there's an easy enough answer to this question. Good is what God has revealed to us is good. He's created human beings with consciences and with a holy book that sets out what is right and what is wrong. But most modern philosophers, academic scientists, don't think you can outsource morality to God. They would say there is a fundamental difference in the world between facts and values. Facts are statements about the real world. They can be true or false. Values are human creations. They differ between different cultures. We can debate them, but ultimately, there is no objective arbiter of the truth of a moral statement.
What's interesting about Sam Harris is that although he definitely doesn't believe in God, he does believe that statements about moral values are ultimately objective statements. In his view, we can discover the truth about those statements through an ever-deeper knowledge of science — of psychology, for example, of how human societies operate — and the exercise of reason. There's a lot at stake here. If Sam Harris is wrong, and the majority of scientists and philosophers are right, then it's hard to see how there can be such a thing as moral progress. If a moral system is simply the subjective values that a culture creates, it puts a limit on how much you can argue against views you disagree with, like the sanctity of life or child marriage. You just have no real answer to the position, "Look, this is what I and my family going back generations choose to believe."
If Sam Harris is right, on the other hand, it becomes possible to argue that certain cultural values are objectively wrong and must be changed, and to present real evidence as to why that might be so. And looking forward, it impacts how we build ethical decisions into the technologies we're creating, like machine learning, artificial intelligence, social media algorithms, self-driving cars. There is much to ponder here. It's not just a philosophical argument. Is as important a conversation as there is. So let's go. Sam Harris, welcome.
SH: Thanks, Chris. CA: Sam, let's start here. How can you build morality out of mere reason and science? And perhaps you could even start by defining what morality even is.
SH: Well, I would say that it is anchored to the fact that we are in relationship with one another. So if you're in a universe of one, if you're on a desert island, the ethics of your living don't come into play, because there's no other conscious system that can be affected by what you do. So if you're truly alone and can't harm or benefit anyone, then we don't really talk in moral terms, we talk just in terms of well-being.
CA: So a moral system is the rules by which we should treat each other or not treat each other. How do you create the rules by which to treat each other? I mean, how do you build a moral system from the ground up?
SH: Just imagine that we have no notion of "should" or "ought." There's nothing we should do. This thought has not occurred to anyone yet. And even the notion of right and wrong and good and evil hasn't occurred to anyone. We just find ourselves in this universe, and this circumstance which we didn't create is one in which conscious minds like our own are susceptible to a vast range of experiences. And some of these experiences suck. Right? Unambiguously. And if you doubt that, just imagine having every variable that conspires to make you miserable turned up to 11. So if you doubt this, go to a hot stove and put your hand on it. That is a powerful philosophical argument. The experience you will have there is deeper than your doubts about whether morality can be anchored to reason. And if you think, "Well, it only burns my hand because my mind and body are constituted in such a way, well, yeah, that's precisely the point. I'm saying that every possible mind is susceptible to a range of experiences, given the physics of things. We don't know how consciousness is actually integrated with physics. That's a mystery, but there is some relationship, and we live in a universe where conscious minds have a range of conscious states, and some of these states are better than others, and I think that claim, that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad, and that every other state of the universe is better, I think that is as rudimentary a claim as we ever make in reasoning about anything. It's as rudimentary as "2 plus 2 makes 4." It's as rudimentary as "events have causes." It is bedrock, and we know there are many other conditions on offer which are far better than that. Some are sublimely rapturous and filled with beauty and apparent meaning and all the satisfaction that the luckiest people we know, and ourselves in our best moments, have enjoyed while alive. And so what I would argue is that what we have on our hands is a navigation problem. We are navigating in the space of all possible experiences, and so —
CA: Let me push on one sort of philosophical point back there. In describing the worst possible state for all people, though, couldn't two different people look at two universes and disagree about which one was actually a worse state? In one, let's say, everyone was making this God Almighty mess, they were just creating mud everywhere, it was the ultimate pigsty, and it was disgusting to look at. And in another, there were people being hurt really badly, but there was also this beautiful artwork in the sky that was somehow some creation of perfection. Like, people could disagree about which of those two was the worst, couldn't they?
SH: Yes, what you're saying is true of my picture of morality in general, and that's why I called it a moral landscape, where you have peaks and valleys and some of these peaks could be equivalent and some of the valleys could be equivalent, but yet different. So you could have societies of people functioning by very different principles and moral intuitions and senses of what's right and wrong, and they could be enjoying equivalent states of well-being that are irreconcilable. So you could have an island of perfectly matched sadists and masochists, say, and they might be happy by their own lights, but we would look at them and say, "That's a completely bizarre and undesirable way of living." So there is a kind of moral diversity possible in my picture, but for this example, this thought experiment, just imagine that every conscious system in that universe suffers as much as it possibly can for as long as it can. So if you're telling me there's somebody who would consider a universe of dirt to be worse than a universe of painful torment, well then, that's the universe he gets. So however your mind is constituted so as to suffer to the ultimate degree for as long as possible, that's what you get in this universe.
CA: And so someone who said, "But suffering isn't the point, injustice is the point. So I think a worse universe than that is one where people may not be suffering, but there is greater injustice."
SH: Yeah, the reason why justice seems important to you is because it seems important to you. There's an experiential component to this.
CA: Right. One simple way, it seems to me, almost, of getting to your argument, is just to imagine a scientific comparison between: here are two universes, and they're actually identical in every regard, except that in one, one child is suffering, and in the other, that same child is not suffering. Control for everything else. And it feels like it's not a stretch to say, as a fact, that that universe where the child is not suffering is better.
SH: Yeah. So as long as you can give me the spectrum of better and worse, that's all I need. And there are several double standards here that people observe by default, which are the source of what I would argue is our confusion about morality. So one double standard is that even the most hard-headed scientist could use a totally different standard, and so to give you an analogy here, if you take something like physics as the prototypical case, so if someone shows up at a physics conference with his cockamamy view of physics that can't be integrated with standard physics, if someone wants to argue for a biblical physics, say, that person just doesn't get invited back to the conference. There's no burden upon mainstream physics to incorporate that view into physics, and no one would be tempted to say, on the basis of defining people who think that the earth is flat or they've invented some perpetual motion machine, or whatever it is, no one takes those claims seriously. And so it is with medicine. If someone came to a hospital or into a medical school and said, "Hey, listen, I have a totally different conception of human health, and it entails vomiting continuously and being in continuous pain and then dying soon. That's how I'm going to define health." This person is working with a conception of health that doesn't matter to us, for good reason. There are, obviously, controversies in science, and those are debated, even for decades, and sometimes, they overturn our standard conception of what is true, but the radical skepticism with respect to "maybe there's no such thing as science" and "maybe there's no such thing as truth," that doesn't continually undermine our conversation. Whereas with morality, it does. And so when you find another group behaving by a totally divergent moral code, a group like ISIS, say. So ISIS thinks that the best thing to do is kill apostates, kill blasphemers, throw homosexuals from rooftops, take sex slaves, and in the even best case, dying for the privilege of doing all this in an act of martyrdom. So this is their conception of a life well lived. And people look at this, in the West, and well-educated, over-educated, people with PhDs and people who have careers as bioethicists, people for whom thinking about what is good and right and beautiful in a Western context, that is their job, they look at this diversity of opinion and they say, "Well, who are we to say that this is wrong? All we can say is that we don't want to live that way, but it's mere preference." And then, this gets connected to a descriptive notion of how we got here. When you look at how our moral toolkit has evolved, we're social primates that have our morality anchored to certain emotions, like disgust and jealousy and a capacity for empathy, and we look at these evolved capacities and we say, "Well, there's nothing about the process that got us here that is causing us to track anything of substance about the way the world is. We're not in touch with reality when we're moralizing. We're just apes with preferences. And so these two things, the fact of moral diversity and the fact that much of our morality is anchored to these evolved, apish tendencies, those two things have led many, many smart people to believe that there's no there there, there's no truth with respect to right and wrong.
CA: I mean, by presenting the ISIS case there, you've started with the awkward larger implication of moral relativism. Most people wouldn't start there. They would say what they're protecting is, for example, if we discover a culture in the Amazon Rain Forest that's never been discovered, and we discover they have certain ways and certain moral preferences in how they run their society, who are we to judge and say our Western ways are better? But that kind of anthropology-driven moral relativism, as championed by people like Margaret Mead, becomes, quickly, kind of an absurd position where you can't say that, objectively, ISIS's views are wrong. That's just their culture. We can't say they're wrong. All we can do is fight them.
SH: Well, I just want to plant a flag there, because you mentioned anthropology, which is a discipline which, 70 years ago, in the aftermath of World War II, explicitly said, the American Anthropological Association explicitly said, when the UN was trying to develop a universal conception of human rights, the anthropologists all lined up and said, "This can't be done. This is a fool's errand. There is no such thing as universal human rights." Think of how ethically questionable that position is. Like, there's no way to say that clitorectomies are a bad thing, say. It's pure delusion, the moment you link morality to the well-being of conscious creatures, in general, and people in particular. Once you draw the link between human flourishing and morality, which, I think, the link is very direct, and we can talk about that, but once you draw that link, to say there are no right and wrong answers here is tantamount to saying, "We will never know anything about human well-being. There will be no human psychology that can tell us how people flourish. There will be no sociology. There will be no economics. There will be no other discipline that can give us right and wrong answers." And that, I think, is wrong.
CA: So what you're saying is that the root from science to morality, as it were — you've described it as sort of a reason-based root. There's another root that people might give, which is a sort of an evolution-based route to morality, which would say that it's completely credible to believe that apes, and, certainly, our ancestors, evolved a conscience or perhaps multiple consciences, if you like, moral instincts that guided behavior which turn out to be really helpful for surviving or promoting group collaboration and so forth. But those instincts may be generally good and beneficial but may also be buggy, as we know that so many aspects of our psychology is just odd — like, it may have been fine-tuned for life a few million years ago. It definitely runs into all kinds of glitches in the world that we're in now. And I think what I hear you saying is that there's this incredibly important agenda of applying reason to the start point instincts that we have. And this, of course, is where it gets really hard. People do — I mean, Jon Haidt has spoken at TED and has argued that there are these different moral engines going on in people. Some people care much more about fairness or about happiness, others care more about honor or about purity or about justice. And I think you want to argue that you can use the tools of reason to bridge those gaps. Those are not fundamentally divisible chasms that can't be breached.
SH: Right. So there are two separate projects here, two ways in which science can weigh in on the question of morality. One is to help us descriptively understand how we got here, and that is an evolutionary story. That is a story that gets us talking about ourselves in terms of our history as social primates, and just observing as a matter of psychology and sociology and every other discipline that can be brought to bear on this, that people have emotions and intuitions, and various cultures have norms which everyone involved claim have something to do with morality. So there's a feeling of disgust that people have. Clearly its ancient origin is to be anchored to things like smells and tastes, and it protects the organism from pollution. But then, as we've evolved, we haven't evolved any new hardware. And so what we have built in terms of our morality, our norms and our sense of their violation is anchored to this same circuitry. So now disgust is doing a lot of work in the moral domain, in the political domain, and it's even — some neuroimaging work I did early on shows that these same circuits, in this case, the insula in the brain, are working to differentiate just truth and falsity, so that when you find a statement to be false, it seems to activate this same network. And based on culture, this can play out in very different ways. So you can find cultures where people find certain things disgusting which seem completely arbitrary to us, and therefore wrong. And then we find other things disgusting, and to take this down to something like food preference, there are cultures that eat dogs, and we find this absolutely disgusting. And many of us eat cows. The Hindus find that absolutely disgusting and sacrilegious. So clearly, we can't talk about the ultimate wrongness of eating cows or dogs. The conversation can't begin and end at what people find disgusting.
CA: You want to say it should be possible to make progress on that by bringing a Hindu and a Westerner together and let's have a conversation and look at what's actually at stake here, who's being reasonable, who isn't, and see if we can't change those feelings. And probably everyone listening can think of things that they were disgusted at at one point that they've maybe shifted on over time.
SH: But more generally, I want to make the claim that there's another project, which in principle is just as scientific as the first project of telling an evolutionary story of how we got here, and this project is to talk about what is possible for us. What states of conscious well-being are possible given the kinds of minds we have and given the kinds of minds we can someday have, based on changes, whether cultural or pharmacological or genetic or with neural transplants or implants? If we integrate our minds with technology, who knows what states of consciousness are on offer? Whatever is on offer, a completed science of the human mind would be able to tell us just how good it is possible to feel. The truths about us will be known scientifically, ultimately.
CA: So just as a scientifically-minded group of explorers could embark on a journey through a new landscape and try and figure out the smart way to navigate it, using measurement and reason and discussion among them, so a group of reasonable humans could navigate the moral landscape and figure out new possibilities, better peaks, as it were, that we might aspire to. That's a beautiful-sounding project, and certainly convincing to many people, but it runs into this problem quite soon, in practice, which is that from this start point, you are putting yourself onto a springboard where you can basically sound, for want of a better term, morally superior. You will say, "Muslims, your book is sick and promotes violence." And it provokes this really strong reaction among people that you are being discriminatory, that in some cases you've been accused of being racist, because of the strength at which people hear these views expressed. How could you persuade someone who is not in your world right now that these ideas are for them, and they're for all humans, they're not just for you. Is it possible to bridge?
SH: First, I should say that despite how undiplomatic I can be on this topic and seemingly unpragmatic and even inept in communicating these ideas in a way that people can hear them, people's minds are changed all the time, and even, in the most extreme case, I hear from fundamentalists, former fundamentalist Christians or former fundamentalist Muslims, people who have described themselves as this close to being jihadists, I've heard from these people and met them in person, whose minds have been changed by a totally uncompromising and tone-deaf and even apparently callous criticism of their beliefs.
So it is a myth to say that someone can't be reasoned out of a position they weren't reasoned into. That's just simply untrue. People, through the hammerblows of reason, all the time come out of their dogmatism and their poorly considered views. Islam is, for whatever reason, especially politicized, and you reap a whirlwind of criticism on the left, politically, for pointing out its obvious issues, whereas Christianity, you know, on the left, I can criticize fundamentalist Christianity all day and will win plaudits from people on the left, but the moment that turns to Islam, people worry that this is somehow discriminatory. And that's just a double standard we have to notice, because it makes no sense.
And the issue is that all we have is human conversation by which to orient ourselves to these questions. The most important questions in human life are questions we have to be able to talk about, and we have a very large proportion of humanity that is saying, "OK, these questions, these most important questions, how to live, how to cause your children to live, and what to die for, these are questions that we're not willing to talk about rationally. These are questions upon which we have a book that was dictated by the creator of the universe for whom we have no evidence, which will be sacred until the end of the world. The book can't be edited, and all that's left for us to do now is to decide how completely we will be enslaved by the contents of this book. And if you say anything about this project that is disparaging or even skeptical, I will consider you my enemy." That's where we live. And it's completely insane, right? It is as though we were living in a world where people were doing this with the plays of Shakespeare or "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." That's how perverse and random it is. So it's appropriate to lose patience with the status quo.
CA: So this is such an interesting topic to me, because I'm thinking about this a lot in terms of TED, actually, in terms of TED speakers come to the TED stage. They're coming to try to persuade people of something, often. Sometimes those efforts succeed brilliantly, and sometimes they fail, and sometimes when they fail, they fail for unexpected reasons, not because the person said anything that wasn't true or reasoned in one way, but because they did things that provoked, unintentionally, a defensive reaction in the audience, and so communication didn't happen.
I guess my question to you is, let's say your project, essentially, is to spread the good meme of moral progress to the world. How do you do that? So there's reason, which is one way in which humans persuade each other, but most people suppress reason as their main listening tool, and are listening to other things: they're impacted by their emotions, by whether they trust someone, by whether they feel that there's a connection there. I just wonder whether there's a discussion — it's more like a tactical discussion — about how you would do best to persuade people who aren't Westerners, say, aren't liberal Westerners or whatever, that you are right, and that, yes, there may be some people who you have persuaded who have completely abandoned their faith, for example, and come over to a different way. But I think there may also be many other people, and I could be right or wrong about this — we haven't done a survey — who, they've heard you, they've heard the tone of some of what you've said, and rather than being persuaded, they've reacted against it because it has sounded scornful or disrespectful. Is that a danger?
SH: Well, first, I would point out that a person's capacity to be offended, the feeling of offense, is not an argument, and it's not a virtue. We all have this thing, and in many people, it is functioning like it is some kind of epistemological principle, like this is how I am going to judge the correctness of a view. I'm going to react to it, instantly. So if I say to you, "Well, there's good reason to believe that men and women differ biologically, start with the uterus and start counting from there. And the more science studies us and sex differences, we have discovered that this extends to human psychology and human cognitive abilities and interests." So you start linking those sentences together. People begin to get uncomfortable. Right? The discomfort isn't evidence of anything, with respect to it being true.
CA: Not evidence, but it is real, and the de facto impact of that may be that you lose part of your audience.
SH: But the point I'm making is that we have a project, collectively, seven billion of us, we have a project to get more and more people more of the time to become sensitive to cognitive and emotional reactions that are making conversation and clear thinking impossible. And this is one of them. The feeling you get, like, "I don't like the way this sounds," it's a logical error to move from that feeling to the feeling that this counts as evidence against the view.
CA: Correct. So let's agree that that's a logical error, but it might also still be a tactical error by you as the persuader to trigger that offense. In other words, if you could make the case a different way, why wouldn't you?
SH: Well, I do. I mean, depending on the situation, I make it every which way, and so I am certainly not a provocateur. I'm not saying the offensive thing just to get a rise out of people. Everything I say is sincere. I'm not giving it the topspin that makes it less accurate because I know I'm going to get a rise out of people. In any case, I think that there are enough people who are meliorous. There are enough people who are bending over backwards to not offend on these topics, and what we need are more and more people to say, "Listen, we can all be a little thicker-skinned than that, and we're paying a price for political correctness. We're paying a price for not being totally straight." And it is just a fact that, to talk about the narrow subject here, but this applies to everything. Everything is polarizing. It is a fact that we are paying an immense and generally unacknowledged — and, I would argue, totally unnecessary price — for respecting this concept of revelation, the idea that any one of our books has an origin that is not merely human. And the moment you put a little pressure on that belief, you're already in the territory of deeply offending billions of people.
CA: So that's true. So let me tell you a story about my own, sort of, engagement with both religion and Islam that sort of intersects with this a bit. My parents were missionaries. I grew up in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I grew up as a fundamentalist, born-again Christian, believed that my Christianity determined whether I'd go to heaven or hell. My father was in Pakistan for many years in the belief that unless he could persuade Muslims to accept Christ, that they would go to hell. This drove his whole approach to life, and he was, by his own measure, a deeply moral person. Instead of making money in the West, he was out there as a pauper trying to persuade people of this belief. Over many years, he and my mother got to know many Muslim families at much greater depth, and something kind of surprising happened. They found that many of them were deeply spiritual and shared a lot of the concerns they did. They were concerned for the poverty they saw around them. They obviously sacrificed for their families, and they worked hard, and they were incredibly hospitable and spiritual in the sense of the quest for something deeper than themselves. They found a connection to him, and slowly, his views shifted to believing that actually, Muslims and Christians quite probably worship the same God, just by different names and with different accompanying beliefs. But it was a monumental shift for someone who started from where he started. And his conversations with Muslims — he could go a very long way by starting from a position of respect, of emphasizing the good things that were there. So I guess my question for you is ... I hear what you say, and I believe what you say about your sincerity. You are very, very passionate about what you believe. What people sometimes hear is a withering scorn, which is very effective. In your TED Talk, I picked up one line you made about millions of Muslim women being trapped in cloth bags. And if you say that as opposed to a different way of interpreting, like we could say that I'm here trapped in a cloth bag around my body for different reasons. If there was a different story that said, "Look, there are so many things that are extraordinary about your tradition and your religion. There's this emphasis on mercy. There's this emphasis on compassion, on hospitality." Many, many Muslims spend so much of their lives trying to figure out how to make the world a better place. They're not focused on the stories around violence and so forth that are part of the Quran but arguably open to different interpretation. If you start from a different point, don't you have a better chance of persuading the silent majority of Muslims to take you seriously and to want to be part of the solution, as opposed to provoking them to say, "Uh oh, outsider meme coming in. Defend. Reject." And to close you out. And someone could argue that you make life harder for moderate Muslims because of that feeling of scorn for the whole enterprise.
SH: First, it's virtually never that I'm communicating scorn for people. It's ideas that I'm criticizing, and what you talked about with your family's experience in Pakistan and Afghanistan, none of that is surprising to me. There's a deeper principle here, that we're human beings. We are, on some basic level, running the same software, and culture is laid on top of that, but we have a deeper psychological capacity for empathy and ethical engagement and even spiritual insight, and I don't shy away from this concept of spirituality. I do consider myself a very spiritual person. And as you know, I've spent a lot of time practicing meditation, I've spent all told some years on silent meditation retreats, and I think that the contemplative life is something that we've only begun to think about in Western, scientific, rational terms, and it is a part of the spectrum of human experience that I think is undoubtedly there and worth understanding culturally. The problem is that the respect for tradition, and in particular, the respect for revelation, keeps us balkanized into these separate moral communities that do have irreconcilable differences. And so you pointed to the possibility of Christians and Muslims having a kind of rapprochement around: "We both worship the same God." You can't play that game with Hindus. The bridge from Christianity to Hinduism only runs in one direction. Hindus can say, "Well, Jesus is just an avatar of Vishnu," but the Christians can't look at Hinduism with its multiplicity of gods, thousands of gods, many of whom have — they're the most garish, fictional monstrosities, from the point of view of Christianity. You've got people worshiping monkeys like Hanuman or the elephant-headed gods like Ganesh. None of that makes any sense. It's all understood in a context of karma and rebirth that also makes no sense. Somebody's right and somebody's wrong and somebody's going to hell, if you believe these things. And there's no reason we should find ourselves in this circumstance for centuries more. And we just don't have the luxury of waiting for centuries to change our views on these topics.
CA: But sometimes, people, like yourself, I would say, and others, who criticize religion, they sound as if they are coming to it as if religion was a belief like, say, the belief that Jupiter is the biggest planet, that someone, if they were persuaded or shown how ridiculous an idea that was, would abandon it, and possibly miss —
SH: That does happen. That does happen. CA: It can happen. But I think it's a deeper thing that you're trying to overcome. I mean, as someone who grew up religious, it's not just a belief, it's a relationship. To let go of a belief in God is worse than getting divorced. It's a relationship with what you believe to be someone you've had a connection with your whole life. And so when — I think incoming critiques of it, yes, there is a discussion to have around reason, but it also feels like your core identity is being attacked, and I think when that happens to humans, a whole other set of defense mechanisms come into play.
And I guess what I wonder is, let's say we agreed that a world where religion did not play the dominant role that it does now could be a better world, how would you get there? It might not be a head-on assault on religion. It might be, like, if you look at what's happened with Christianity, a few hundred years ago, Christianity was at least as violent as the most extreme aspects of Islam today, and gradually, most Christians have just downplayed those interpretations of the Bible, those arguments. The people espousing them have lost cause. People, most people, don't need as coherent and consistent a worldview as you need, as I kind of feel like I need. Most people are able to embrace an element of contradiction, and to say, "I love the traditions here, and I believe in some of the core ideas of religion." Even with Hinduism, Christians and Hindus can unite on certain things. They can unite in an idea that life is about more than shopping. It's about the exploration of mystery and wonder and the divine and the pursuit. Perhaps God is all around us. Gods are all around us. Those two things don't have to be that different. They can agree on compassion as a core operating system value. I would argue it's possible that an approach that said, "I love that about your religion, that that is at the heart of it and that you do that. I'm uncomfortable with this. Can we talk about that?" But it starts from a position of respect for what is good. And arguably, the single biggest thing that religions do that fundamentally plays to the moral world you want is that they have persuaded billions of people that they should pursue the interests of others over themselves. And that, I think, is the hardest thing that the abandonment of religion hasn't really handled yet, is that by saying, "All those rules don't matter anymore. Find yourself. Follow your passion. Be your thing," we haven't inspired enough people yet to say, "As a core part of that, by the way, don't just live for yourself."
SH: Well, I think the need is to be able to talk about the most important questions in human life without losing our connection to one another, and we are not playing that game well. We need to able to hear people out, we need to be able to reason about everything, because reasoning is the only thing that scales. It's the only way of talking about a problem which stands the chance of being universalizable. And this is why identity politics is clearly a dead end. It can't be that this thing is important, and the whole world needs to take it on board, because you are you, or because you have the color of skin that you do, by accident. Whatever this thing is, if this is going to relate to our building a durable, cosmopolitan, pluralistic future together, this thing has to be true and important, because it's touching the way the world is, for everyone, on some level. It's touching some universalizable principle of human psychology and human flourishing and economics or whatever it is. And our religious provincialism doesn't do that. Our incompatible claims about revelation doesn't do that. The mere accidents of birth and skin color and gender don't do that.
And so we have to be able to reason as human beings very much in the style — to take John Rawls, for a second, he had this brilliant thought experiment, which was called "the veil of ignorance" or "the original position," where he asked us to imagine organizing a society such that we figure out what we think are just and fair arrangements between people, but we did this from behind a veil of ignorance where we don't know who we're going to be in that society. And this is a starting position where you then could imagine that whoever you are, whether you're a Neo-Nazi or a black person or a Muslim or an atheist, whoever you are, not knowing who you're going to be in this society, this is a heuristic that could allow people to converge on principles of fairness without them having to sort out their differences in advance.
CA: Right. From that veil, you could have a reasoned discussion about what would be the limits of inequality in a society, what would be the fundamental rights that you would want at a very minimum to have.
SH: Yeah. You don't know if you're high-IQ or low-IQ. You don't know where you will fall. And this is a principle that generally, I think, is unacknowledged, that we have to spend much more time acknowledging, which is that so much of this comes down to luck. Some people are so much luckier than other people. You're lucky to be born in the right place at the right time to the right parents with the right economic opportunities, and all of those switches can be toggled in the other direction, and you have none of that, and through no fault of your own, this is a massive lottery, and so much of what will make the future better is for us to care about the most shocking disparities in luck and correct for them collectively.
CA: And that John Rawlsian conversation seems like a beautiful thing, imagining that people, just using the tools of reason and fairness and discussion among them, you could come up to certain basic fundamentals of a society. For example, as soon as you have that discussion, everyone puts basic healthcare and education right at the high list that a society of course would do, because you want that at a minimum, to give yourself a chance, and you can build on many other things on top of it. And then, the tragedy of the present seems to be that certain discussions seem to get shut down before they can even start with the lines, "You can't say that to me because of who you are and who I am."
SH: Well, that's identity politics.
CA: And I agree with you that it's a tragedy. I have this picture of these sort of two different audiences, so from the view of someone speaking to an audience. There's an audience, here's the speaker and the people are watching, and their eyes are open and their arms are open and they're excited and they're listening. And the other audience where they've heard something, that means, "I don't know about you," and they're in protection mode. I think that there are strategies to provoke the opening of the arms and the listening, and one obvious question, I guess, is: Should we start every conversation, when there are different identity groups involved, with some kind of recognition of the biggest concerns of the other group? I wonder whether that's something we need to spend more time on.
SH: I think there are tricks, as you say, that are very useful and that we are paying a terrible price for not remembering enough.
CA: Let's not call them tricks. Let's call them wise maxims. (Laughs)
SH: Yeah, but it's something like, so many of these arguments occur with each side straw-manning the other. So you take the worst version of your opponent's view, one that he or she wouldn't sign off on, and you attack that, and that's totally unpersuasive. What we need is the opposite, the notion of steel-manning, which is now a term of jargon among us, where you prop up the best possible version of your opponent's view which they will not find fault with. So let me just summarize what I think you think, and then what you put into that place is perfect. That's the way to start one of these debates.
CA: Right. And I would add one more tweak to it, perhaps, Sam, which is not just, "that's the way you think," even before that, "this is the way that you feel," and I think that feelings are so fragile right now that people want that recognition first, almost, to feel that more human connection, not just an intellectual connection.
SH: Yeah, although I would say that this dichotomy between reason and emotion, or the intellect and feeling, that is a bit of another one of these myths. It's certainly not the case neurologically, and I would say it's generally not the case experientially. None of this is divorced from emotion for me. When I'm talking, so that first TED Talk I gave for you, where I was talking about the moral landscape and how science can understand human values, and I'm a Spock-like character, I actually almost burst into tears at one moment. Go back and look at it. You'll see me, basically, have to come to grips with it, and I start to tear up — I'm talking about honor killing. And then, I ask you to imagine what it's like to be a father who believes that the family honor and male honor is so predicated on the sexual purity of the girls in the family that when his daughter gets raped, what he's moved to do is to kill her, out of shame. Just by stating that example, I virtually burst into tears. Now I'm reasoning in a cold and calculating way about what is right and what is wrong and the power of ideas, but this is all just a neuron away from a very energized and fraught and feeling-laden contest.
CA: But if your audience hadn't been the TED audience, say, but had been an audience in an Islamic country, there is an edit to that talk that could have made it much more effective, which is to start by saying, "Look, I understand the beauty and the idea of honor. I understand that you come from a tradition where family values are deeply respected, where you want to celebrate the purity of marriage. You don't want people engaging in widespread infidelity. You look at what's happening in the West and you're horrified by what you see. You're horrified by the movies you see. You don't want your society to be like that. I understand the beauty of that." And then, from there, you go, But you can't go from there to the horror of killing in defense of it.
SH: Well, I did sort of make that point even in that talk, but this is a point I do make. It's not hard to see the merit in the criticism of Western superficiality and materialism and blindness to what is sacred or possibly sacred about our appearance here. We have done a bad job, as you say, in secular culture, particularly in the West, in valuing something more than just gratifying one desire after the next. And so it can't all be a matter of getting nice tastes on your tongue and buying the most expensive watch you can afford.
SH: And yet, clearly, we need a deeper and truly universalizable conversation about what is most profound and what is possible here. And, again, this is where you have to draw the line and have to be uncompromising, I think. The idea that we will get to a good place by simply reducing our adherence to these irreconcilable claims of revelation, like getting Christians and Muslims and Jews to be just a little bit less fundamentalist more of the time, that that incremental effort is the endgame, I think that is clearly untrue, because the problem is there's an asymmetry here. There's an advantage to fundamentalism, always, because one, when you go back to the books, the books never tell you to be a moderate. They never tell you the problems with fundamentalism. And fundamentalism can always be rebooted by just merely adhering to the text, and there's something more honest about it. And again, this is where there's an asymmetry within every one of these traditions, where the fundamentalists are on firmer ground theologically than the moderates or the liberals, because they can always say, "Listen, I just want to know what the book says. I want an honest adherence to what is here on the page." And what that gets you is intolerable. You have to be doing some advanced, not entirely straightforward casuistry with the book to edit out the bad parts.
CA: Sam, let me pull you back almost to the start point of your position here. Your start point comes from recognizing that all that matters are things that happen to sentient beings. If an atom moves here or there in the universe, no big deal. If something suffers or enjoys something, that matters, and that's the anchoring view of the position. So that's, fundamentally, a statement about consciousness. And yet consciousness, I think in your view, certainly in mine, is the one big thing that we know about that science so far has miserably failed to give a really compelling explanation of, I would say. So you've got a view that science can get you to a rational view of right and wrong, of morality, that's anchored in a story about something that science really can't explain. How do you think about that? Is that a paradox? How should we think about it?
SH: As you know, I'm one of these people who believes there is a so-called hard problem of consciousness, that consciousness is unlike anything else we've attempted to study or understand scientifically, and it is simply a fact that the only evidence for consciousness in the universe is our direct experience of consciousness itself. But the flip side of that is that consciousness is the one thing that can't be an illusion. It's the one thing we can't be mistaken about. Consciousness, whatever it is, exists.
CA: I think, therefore I am.
SH: I think Descartes might have meant something very close to this, but consciousness is deeper than thought. And the "I am" part is also fishy, because I think the self is an illusion; the self is a construct. There's no stable, unchanging self carried over from one moment to the next.
CA: Something feels, therefore something is.
SH: Yeah. Something seems to be happening, and that seeming is what we mean by consciousness. So even if we're not actually doing a podcast now, and you're just dreaming that we are, even we're just brains in vats, if we're in the Matrix, we could be radically confused about everything, but whatever this seeming is, the fact that the lights are on, that is consciousness. The fact that there's a qualitative character to our appearance here, to being, and that some systems have it and probably some systems don't, and some parts of the brain have it and some parts of the brain don't — that is mysterious, but the fact that that is so is the one thing that isn't open to any possible doubt. And so it is a kind of paradox, because it is the thing that is doing all the understanding. We don't understand consciousness, but unless something appears in consciousness, it isn't an empirical datum to be taken into account at all.
CA: Is there any hope that, in the next 10 years, say, that we make material progress in understanding consciousness? I mean, it's been this riddle for thousands of years. It feels like, in some ways, that there's going to be dramatic new data points over the next decade as the machines we build start to exhibit what looks very much like conscious behavior. Do you think that's going to force us to make decisions, like the decision on whether the things we create are conscious or not, that there's huge implications of that. Do you think we'll be able to make a wise decision about that? Or will that just remain impossibly impenetrable?
SH: I think several things might occur, and it matters which universe we find ourselves in. I think it's hugely consequential that we might build conscious machines, machines that can suffer and machines that can experience well-being, and perhaps suffer unimaginably horribly in ways that we don't understand or experience well-being that exceeds our own. That, ethically, is of enormous importance. In certain cases, you could imagine it being the most ethically consequential thing that has ever happened in the universe. If we could build simulated worlds that are essentially hell realms and populate them with conscious minds, that could be the worst possible thing that we could do. And, I should point out, give us the same moral stature as the God of the Bible or the Quran, if he exists as believers believe he does. Which is to say, this is a completely psychopathic thing to do, to create a hell and populate it. So it matters if that's the case, if that's possible, and it certainly matters if we stumble into that circumstance not knowing we've even done it. We wouldn't want to do that on purpose. We wouldn't want to create hell on purpose, and yet it's possible that we could do it inadvertently, given just the physics of things. What I think is quite likely, and pretty undesirable from my point of view, is that we could lose sight of this being an interesting problem in the first place. We could build machines that seem conscious, that seem so credibly conscious to us far in advance of our understanding what consciousness is at the level of information processing. Our machines will all be passing the Turing Test. We'll feel in a relationship, helplessly thrust into a relationship with them. They'll make the right facial expressions. We'll design them this way because we'll want to interact with machines, at least in certain circumstances, that make us feel like we're in a relationship with another person. And it'll just be obvious to us that our robot servant is conscious because it seems so. And if we don't know — I mean, there's a perfect disjunction here — if we could build systems that are not conscious but seem conscious. And if we could build systems that don't seem conscious at all because we haven't built the interface for them to seem so, but they in fact are conscious.
CA: But perhaps Google is suffering right now with all that complexity of information processing that's going on and it's in woe at the dismal nature of all the searches that people are typing into it, and wishes that the input could be better.
SH: Yeah. It's hard to take that concern seriously, but something like that is certainly possible.
CA: Sam, precisely because we're building these machines, making them more powerful, at some point, we will have to make an effort to put human values into them, so we're going to have to decide what those values are. And even if you just look at it from that standpoint, it seems to me your work is incredibly important. These questions are incredibly hard to resolve, but at some point, we're building things that need to operate based on some kind of moral code. And so we have to bring more people into this conversation, we have to try and figure out a way of having it that pulls in as many people as possible, collaboratively and constructively, get past this horrible moment in history where truth is nothing, reason is nothing, and it's all just a fight.
SH: So this is philosophy on a deadline. This is one of the silver linings to the risk here, it's that being forced to build our values into technology that's becoming more powerful than we are will force us to ignore the academic quibbles here and acknowledge that there are better and worse answers to moral questions.
And to just take self-driving cars as one example, and again, it's a near-term example, it's already here, it's an engineering problem that we have to solve, and then, the question is: What moral biases and intuitions do you want to build into your robot cars? Do you want cars that run over white people preferentially because of all the white privilege in the world? Do you want cars that put the passenger's life at some greater risk, if we're talking about a trolley problem, where it's the one versus the five, or the one versus the 10.
CA: One child versus three old people.
SH: Exactly. And to not answer these questions is to answer them one other way by default. You either make your car blind to the differences between people or you make it sensitive to the differences, and so it's a forced choice. I think people have different intuitions about what the right answers are here, but clearly, there are wrong answers. There are clearly answers, and some of the traditional answers that you would get from a religion like Islam, for instance, I will bet will be judged wrong even by a majority of Muslims when this technology has to come online for everyone.
CA: And if they are judged wrong by a majority of Muslims, that may be an indication that people are incapable of moral reasoning across long-held differences.
SH: Yeah. And this has happened, as you pointed out, to Christianity in a very effective way. In Christianity, we're not tending to meet the Christians of the 14th century anymore, and that's because of what scientific rationality and secular politics and humanism and capitalism and just modernity in general has done to Christianity. And to some degree, the disparity we see between Christianity and Judaism and Islam now is because Islam a vast religion, it's nearly two billion people, and much of the Muslim world has not suffered the same centuries-long collision with modernity, and the collision it's suffering now is occurring over a much shorter time frame and without many of the same social and economic benefits being spread to these societies.
So we have to keep the endgame in view. The endgame has to be a viable global civilization that is pluralistic, cosmopolitan, tolerant of difference and yet convergent on the same answers to the most important questions in life. We can't be radically tolerant of difference.
CA: These ideas are for everyone, not for one group, for everyone, and you're ready to fight for that.
SH: I'm trying, with your help.
CA: Sam, it's been an absolutely fascinating conversation. Thank you so much for all your time here —
SH: Thank you.
CA: And I wish you the best.
CA: This week's show was produced by Sharon Mashihi with help from Kim Nederveen Pieterse. Special thanks to Helen Walters. Our show is mixed by David Herman, and our theme music is by Allison Leyton-Brown.
In our next episode, I'll be sitting down with Islamic scholar Dalia Mogahed, who will be arguing the exact opposite of some of what Sam just said.
Dalia Mogahed: See, I think there is a misconception that the terrorists are literalists. They actually do a lot of work to explain why their actions are a legitimate exception to the laws of Islam.
CA: That's next week on the TED Interview.
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