Archive for the ‘Sam Harris’ Category

The Refuge of Honesty

September 22, 2011 Leave a comment

A new kindle single by neuroscientist and public intellectual Sam Harris argues that all lying harms relationships and society.

Lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others. It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness into a single act. It is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood. To lie is to recoil from relationship.

By lying, we deny others a view of the world as it is. Our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it often determines the choices they can make – and in ways we cannot always predict. Every lie is a direct assault upon the autonomy of those we lie to.

Several reviews of the 26-page Lying lament that his case for honesty isn’t very controversial. It is a gift of Harris’s writing to make the routine behavior of most people seem obviously wrong. In reality, most people casually lie and think it is o.k. and considerate to tell “white lies.” After reading his essay, I caught myself – more than I’m comfortable with – about to reflexively engage in minor deceptions to “benefit” other people. Who wants to hurt someone’s feelings, after all? But Harris builds his case on examining the consequences of lying and truthfulness, not on a Kantian prohibition removed from practical consideration.

I recommend you buy his $2 e-book and think it over honestly.

(cherry tree)

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Naked Meditation

May 15, 2011 11 comments

Sam Harris provides an introduction to meditation free of the superstitious vestments in which it’s usually dressed up.

As every meditator soon discovers, such distraction is the normal condition of our minds: Most of us fall from the wire every second, toppling headlong—whether gliding happily in reverie, or plunging into fear, anger, self-hatred and other negative states of mind. Meditation is a technique for breaking this spell, if only for a few moments. The goal is to awaken from our trance of discursive thinking—and from the habit of ceaselessly grasping at the pleasant and recoiling from the unpleasant—so that we can enjoy a mind that is undisturbed by worry, merely open like the sky, and effortlessly aware of the flow of experience in the present.

In his post he recommends The Experience of Insight by Joseph Goldstein. Here’s a snippet from my copy (pg. 51-52):

The first of these enemies, or hindrances, is sense desire: lusting after sense pleasure, grasping at sense objects. It keeps the mind looking outward, searching after this object or that, in an agitated and unbalanced way. It is in the very nature of sense desires that they can never be satisfied. There is no end to the seeking.

That seems about right.

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An Imperfect Argument

April 21, 2011 8 comments

I finally got around to watching the “Does Good Come From God?” debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig. There are a number of interesting aspects of this debate – Sam’s thoughts on it are here – but I want to challenge Dr. Craig’s foundational assumption, which I thought could have been more clearly undermined. Every apologist that wants to argue that morals come from God need to answer the Euthyphro dilemma: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” In other words, if God commands an evil act would it be good? If not, the good is clearly independent of God.

To escape this Dr. Craig asserts that God by his nature is perfect and good and cannot issue an evil commandment. But that just begs the question of what it means for something’s nature to be comprised of moral goodness. If kindness is by nature good then God – the divine commander in Craig’s view – is unnecessary for morality; we only need to refer to the good itself. Good by Craig’s logic is more fundamental than God – thus, Good doesn’t come from God.

Possibly even more problematic for his view is how “goodness” is defined by nature. If love and kindness is self-evidently a property of perfection and goodness, why again is God necessary for moral foundation? Staying true to theological tradition, his answer just pushes the question back a step. Let’s look at this game Craig plays: (I interjected some questions after Craig’s points – Craig never argues his positive case beyond these contentions) Seeing his arguments in print have a way of exposing their deficiency.

Where does good come from?

Craig: “Objective moral values are grounded in God.”

Skeptic: What if God commands something evil?

Craig: “Far from being arbitrary, God’s commandments must be consistent with his holy and loving nature.”

Skeptic: How do you know God’s nature is good?

Craig: “As St. Anselm saw, God is by definition the greatest conceivable being and therefore, the highest good.”

Skeptic: How convenient, but what defines goodness?

Craig: “He is by nature loving, generous, faithful, kind, and so forth.”

Skeptic: But why are those attributes morally “good”? Why aren’t hatred, jealousy, and cruelty “good”?

Craig: [God] is not merely perfectly good; he is the locus and paradigm of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature provides the absolute standard against which all actions are measured.”

Skeptic: You haven’t answered anything.

All these theological gymnastics illustrate the absurdity of the religious project. How does Craig or anyone else know that God is perfect or good by nature? How do we know perfection or goodness are defined in the way Craig says they are? If God’s nature (whatever that even means) was evil, would love still be good? If God really did issue morally obligatory commandments how would we be certain of their divine origin? As Dr. Harris points out throughout the debate, the bible repeatedly gets major questions of morality wrong (e.g. slavery) so we don’t have any obvious source to learn His commandments.

This improvisational fiction is not unique to Craig. The latest issue of Time magazine chronicles the debate between evangelicals on whether hell really exists or not and if so what its nature is. No one seems to notice that no one has any clue. If it wasn’t so consequential, Time might as well have reported on the debate between my alarm clock and my iPod.

I’m so glad this isn’t an April Fool’s joke.

Sam’s blogging now. 

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Graciously Responding to Non Sequiturs

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Sam Harris parries a lot of weak criticism of his book and answers his more serious challenges.

The purpose of The Moral Landscape is to argue that we can, in principle, think about moral truth in the context of science. Robinson and Horgan seem to imagine that the mere existence of the Nazi doctors counts against my thesis. Is it really so difficult to distinguish between a science of morality and the morality of science? To assert that moral truths exist, and can be scientifically understood, is not to say that all (or any) scientists currently understand these truths or that those who do will necessarily conform to them.


[C]onsider the concept of health: should we maximize global health? To my ear, this is a strange question. It invites a timorous reply like, “Provided we want everyone to be healthy, yes.” And introducing this note of contingency seems to nudge us from the charmed circle of scientific truth. But why must we frame the matter this way? A world in which global health is maximized would be an objective reality, quite distinct from a world in which we all die early and in agony. Yes, it is true that a person like Alice could seek to maximize her own health without caring about the health of other people — though her health will depend on the health of others in countless ways (the same, I would argue, is true of her well-being). Is shewrong to be selfish? Would we blame her for taking her own side in any zero-sum contest to secure medicine for herself or for her own children? Again, these aren’t the kinds of questions that will get us to bedrock. The truth is, Alice and the rest of us can live so as to allow for a maximally healthy world, or we can fail to do so. Yes, it is possible that a maximally healthy world is one in which Alice is less healthy than she might otherwise be (though this seems unlikely). So what? There is still an objective reality to which our beliefs about human health can correspond.

A New Insight

January 18, 2011 3 comments

I love challenge. My competitive streak is widely known amongst my friends and I’ve become accustomed to others’ apprehension about playing even trivial games with me. Of course, others enjoy that side of me (if they’re on my team and like winning, for example). But that (honestly, good natured) aspect of me is a microcosm of how I seek much of the pleasure in my life. I seek gratification in attaining professional success, dreaming up novel or strong arguments, looking superficially good, finding a great romantic partner – for the most part, standard goals.

In my quest for strong arguments I find it useful to immerse myself in the arguments of contrary opinion. So I’ve been thinking about attempting a contrary path to pleasure for a while now. I’ve researched a bit on The Insight Mediation Center and am tempted to try it out. It seems so opposite me without being antagonistic to me that I think it might be a healthy new experience.

Honestly, this wasn’t me having an epiphany or me challenging myself by trying out creationism or communism. Among some other people I hugely respect, Sam Harris has been pushing nonbelievers to open themselves up to “spirituality” without the woo. In this otherwise unremarkable Nightline interview with Sam, it is revealed that he’s planning on writing a book on spirituality “devoid of God.” I couldn’t be more excited to read something like that.

Furthermore, in his response to Edge’s latest question, Sam explains how thought is the “primary source of human suffering and confusion.”

I invite you to pay attention to anything — the sight of this text, the sensation of breathing, the feeling of your body resting against your chair — for a mere sixty seconds without getting distracted by discursive thought. It sounds simple enough: Just pay attention. The truth, however, is that you will find the task impossible. If the lives of your children depended on it, you could not focus on anything — even the feeling of a knife at your throat — for more than a few seconds, before your awareness would be submerged again by the flow of thought. This forced plunge into unreality is a problem. In fact, it is the problem from which every other problem in human life appears to be made.

Andreas Kluth also frequently points out the benefits of a “still mind” – he even nominated Patanji, who expressed this notion, as the greatest thinker in history. Blogging demands a mind cleanse every so often as well.

Do any readers have any insights or advice they’d like to share about my search for a new perspective?

Fully Satisfied

November 7, 2010 13 comments

In an interesting portion of Derek Parfit’s brilliant work, Reasons and Persons, he considers an ethical problem in utilitarian philosophy. Allow me to use Parfit’s discussion of the mere addition paradox and the repugnant conclusion to expand on how I believe how the concepts of value, good and bad, and better and worse should be looked at. I’ll also explain why I think the mere addition paradox and the repugnant conclusion make some fundamental errors. I encourage everyone to read his book, but if you haven’t already it might be helpful to read this section on these problems from wikipedia.

When most people consider different moral situations they compare them as better or worse or one as good and the other as bad. When utilitarians do this they attempt to compare the well-being (or “happiness” or some other similar concept) of the people in each scenario. Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape is a good example of this – my discussion of it might help some readers follow the concept more clearly.  Simplistically speaking, well-being is what is valuable so if case A has more well-being than case B: case A is better.

Parfit identifies what he sees as a paradox in certain cases using that framework. If we consider a greater sum of happiness (I’m using this term interchangeably with “well-being”) to be always better a repugnant conclusion could be drawn:

For any population of at least ten billion, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better, even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.

I dispute this conclusion and the existence of any paradox in appropriate utilitarian thinking. To make that case it is essential to understand that for something to have value it must be valuable to somebody. Sam Harris writes,

Consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What is the alternative? I invite you to try to think of a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings. Take a moment to think about what this would entail: whatever this alternative is, it cannot affect the experience of any creature (in this life or in any other).

For the purposes of our discussion let’s take for granted that well-being (or phrased another way, for life to go as well as possible) is the ultimate goal. You’re welcome to dispute that, but these problems within utilitarianism use that as a starting point. If you just completely reject all possible forms of utilitarianism then me resolving these paradoxes might be of little interest to you anyway. Feel free to read on if you’re curious though.

If something only has value if it is valuable to a conscious creature then well-being is only valuable subjectively (in the sense that it needs a subject to experience it). Well-being isn’t of value inherently or “for its own sake.” I’m not even sure what well-being could mean if it’s not a state of an actual being. So how do we approach measuring whether one situation is better or worse in terms of well-being? As Parfit argues, it’s not worse for more people to exist. Is it?

If I’m right and the goal is to maximize the well-being of conscious beings, do we have to conclude that more people existing is always better if there is more total well-being? Referring to the wiki page charts (“The group’s size is represented by column width, and the group’s happiness represented by column height”), would Z really be better or no worse than A?

File:RepugnantConclusion.svgThe reason why this isn’t a repugnant conclusion or paradox is because if we’re correctly using a utilitarian framework that holds consciousness to be the only proper domain of value we’re comparing the wrong things. Some questions don’t make sense even if they can be said. Consider the question, “What happened before time?” Even though it is difficult to grasp, physicists can explain that the question doesn’t make sense. Similarly, to compare total sums of or average happiness side-by-side doesn’t make sense – or at least isn’t what’s important.

There is no “better” or “worse” unless we ask, better or worse for whom? If we look at the mere addition problem and ask what’s better A or A+ you’ll see what I mean.


It is explained that, “In situation A, everyone is happy. In situation A+, there are the extra people.” The extra people lives have enough well-being that they are worth living. So is A+ worse than A? Most people intuitively think, “no, how could it be worse for more people to exist? Their lives are worth living, after all.”

But we haven’t established what is being compared. What is worse and worse for whom? As established before, we only need to consider the state of conscious beings. Something can’t just be “better” or “worse” in itself. So, you may ask, are the extra people “better off”? Well in A they didn’t exist, so you might assume that, yes, they are automatically better off by mere fact that they now exist and have greater than 0 well-being. As a corollary, are the extra people worse off in situation A? I say, no. Here’s where we get to the comparison problem. Nonexistence isn’t a “bad” state because nonexistent people don’t have consciousness. In fact, nonexistent people is a contradiction – nonexistent people aren’t people, they’re nothing. In fact, there is not even a “they.”

Let’s list some true observations. Everyone in A is at their max well-being; their situation is perfect. More people exist in A+, those extras could be better off. If everyone in A+ had the well-being of those in A, A+ would constitute a better situation for those within that world. Even though they are at a lower level of well-being, the extra people are not worse off compared to A because they don’t even exist in situation A. The extra people aren’t worse off in A because there are no extra people.

To help illustrate this consider what it would mean to conclude nonexistence is “bad” or “worse than existence.” We would have to conclude that we exist within an apparent infinity of badness because an unending number of nonexistent beings could exist but don’t. You would even have to conclude that the holocaust is trivial in terms of badness compared to the infinity of nonexistent beings. After all, the holocaust happened to a finite number of people and many of the victims who suffered were still able to experience well-being greater than 0.  Of course, that is a preposterous conclusion. Clearly, the holocaust is worse than nonexistence because nonexistence doesn’t happen to somebody; the holocaust does.

Therefore, it should be more clear that A and A+ aren’t perfectly comparable. The difficultly arrises because of how our minds work. It’s kind of like the “don’t think of a pink elephant” problem. When someone tells you not to think of something, it is extremely difficult not to think of it. As such, to think of nonexistent beings makes us imagine beings. Arguing that it’s better for them because they’d not exist in the other scenario seems to fall into that type of cognitive illusion. Once we talk about “their” existence we can’t help but think of “them” as conscious beings. If a person isn’t in existence they can’t experience anything. Does a nonexistent person have worse balance or a worse sense of smell? No, no sense of balance or smell exists to be worse. Our brains are constructed in a such a way that we can easily personify something and empathize with it. If I asked if it was good or bad to be a rock, you might try to imagine yourself as a rock. Maybe you’d think that would suck. But if you can’t be a rock; once “you’re a rock” you wouldn’t be you. You wouldn’t be a you. It wouldn’t suck or be good or be bad. Rocks aren’t conscious so good and bad doesn’t apply.

Let’s think of this another way. If the goal wasn’t to maximize well-being but rather to completely satisfy our appetites (maximize the food in our stomachs) you might be able to better see the problem with the earlier comparisons. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume you can’t overeat. If you’re comparing it with well-being or happiness in your mind, let’s assume that the population change doesn’t have any effect on the well-being of the existing people. Let’s also assume that food (resources) is infinite – there isn’t a finite amount of available happiness either.


5 people stand in our house (existence). All 5 persons’ stomachs are full – we completed our goal.

Illustration by Drew Simenson

If 5 more people walk into the house with their stomachs 3/4 full just because there is more food in bellies overall doesn’t make the situation better.

Illustration by Drew Simenson

So calculating total food seems ridiculous. The extra 5 people certainly aren’t worse off either. It just means there is more work to be done; since it doesn’t require the original 5 people to regurgitate their food up to feed the new group of people it’s not worse for anybody. It is simultaneously a situation in need of improvement (giving charity to A+ would be useful but not to A) but not worse for anybody.

Does that mean we can’t compare the two situations from a third party perspective? No. Clearly if you had to decide which world you lived in assuming you’d be put in the same state of being as the others, situation A is better than A+.

I submit that it is neither good nor bad to simply add people to the population so long as it doesn’t affect the well-being of anyone else. It only makes sense to look at the conditions of each situation and ask what, if anything, we could make better.


If only two people, Adam and Eve, existed and they were perfectly happy would having a child be morally good or a moral obligation? Assume that their happiness isn’t affected positively or negatively by the addition of their child (far fetched I realize). A utilitarian could answer that it didn’t run counter to the goal because no conscious creature’s well-being was made worse by that decision. Therefore, I’d argue their choice to have a child wouldn’t be morally good or bad (assuming also that the child’s life would be worth living). They’d have no moral responsibility to others to have a child – there are no others. They only acquire moral responsibility to maximize the child’s well-being once, and if, they have a child. There would only be a moral obligation to have children if having those children helped increase well-being of other conscious beings that are currently in existence. Of course, once they popped into existence we couldn’t use them as slaves or something because we would now have to be concerned with their conscious well-being. People should have children only if they believe that they (and assuming others exist) and others would be happier/better off (in a broad sense) to do so (also with the caveat that the child’s life is “worth living”). Think of it this way: do you think people ought to have children if that means everyone is going to have worse lives?

Does any of this mean that if people were all perfectly happy it would be morally wrong to bring them into existence? No – look at the difference between A and A+ again. The extra people’s existence didn’t result in any loss of well-being for the first group.  So as long as the mere addition of extra conscious beings doesn’t ever cause more suffering to the initial group nobody is getting worse. The population in A is better off than the total population of A+. But again no one is worse off for those extra people to exist so it isn’t morally wrong to bring them into existence. The goal isn’t to keep well-being maximized for its own sake. It is to maximize the well-being of anybody who exists. Remembering that people experience life as an individual rather than a group also helps us keep this in perspective.


If this has implications for birth it also has implications for death. We don’t increase conscious creatures’ well-being by killing people off because that is lowering their well-being and will lower the well-being of their family, friends, and anyone that could have been helped by them directly or indirectly. I discuss a related topic here. On an extreme level, this also make it theoretically possible for voluntary human extinction to be a morally neutral or (in some more extreme cases) a morally good choice. For that to happen, it’d have to be actually voluntary and everyone would have to be no worse by refusing to have children. It is almost certainly impossible in practice however. I find it difficult to believe that people would truly be happier deciding to not have children – but if somehow that was the case, so be it.

If people left the stage after a reasonable run, in the fullness of time intelligence could evolve again (dolphin-people? chimp-people? orchid people?). And then, in due course, when this new species deciphered human books or reached the marker that might be left for them on the windless moon, they would know that man ended his dominion so that theirs might begin. Imagine, then, how they will regard us. It is, far and away, the greatest act of goodness ever contemplated, the ennoblement of a whole species; an act, almost, of angels.

Until that day we should be content to fill our bellies.

Special thanks to Drew Simenson for providing illustrations for me. To contract Drew about his graphic design work you can email him here.

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