Author Review - Sam Harris
I'm considering a new format, instead of reviewing a single book, reviewing an author's broader work, or at least a facet of their work I find interesting.
I'll start with Sam Harris since he's popular enough that most of you probably heard of him, but obscure enough for many of you not to have read him, or at least not what I'd consider to be his best works.
I would like to take his books in order, I will start with a booklet he apparently wrote in college and edited in adulthood: Lying.
I think this sets the stage for his views on morality fairly well, it makes the case that one should never lie to people she doesn't consider to be an enemy.
It ends up making a bunch of assumptions like:
- People know when they are lying and aren't doing so subconsciously.
- We can easily determine what "the truth" is in regards to what we think.
- We can learn how to be more diplomatic by not lying, and thus not have our truth-telling uncouthness lead to us becoming outcasts from society and bereft of any friends.
Under these assumptions lying makes no sense. They never seem to be stated explicitly, they just kind of get "gathered" along the book to defend one or another edge case.
It also lacks a conception of basic ethics (what is "good"?) to back it up, but it seems that, like much of his work, it's grounded in simple pragmatic ethics. This book brings nothing new to the debate and is less sophisticated than a game-theoretical defence that someone like Kant might mount, and less thorough than even ancient texts around the subject. But unlike the above, it seems to achieve its intended purpose, you read the books and you feel like you should lie less, maybe you even spend 2 or 3 weeks trying not to lie at all.
This is a recurring theme with Sam Harris:
- Ignore previous work on the subject.
- Don't bother stating foundational assumptions.
- End up being very convincing.
I don't necessarily mean these as criticisms though, they might seem so to a certain type of individual, but I'd beg that individual to read further.
Next up, he wrote 2 bestselling critiques of religion, mainly the American evangelical kind. As someone that was raised an atheist, I never found the slightest bit of interest in reading those, based on the reviews I've heard from e.g. PEL, they don't provide any interesting/novel/solid arguments. Indeed, Sam himself seems to nowadays prefer citing Dennett's Breaking the Spell rather than his own work when he brings up atheism... which is almost never, since atheism is so early 2000s, and Sam is a man of the times, he wouldn't be caught dead talking about last years' edgy subjects.
Maybe they are "good" in the same sense that other Sam Harris books are though, in that they aren't the best rational argument against the thing they are arguing for/against, but they make a good job at convincing you in a holistic way to slightly shift your priors.
Then come his least popular but probably most relevant books:
I really want to say I've read the whole of "The Moral Landscape", because I tried giving it a shot twice, but I can't remember if I did.
The book tries to defend a system of ethics that is fairly common among a group of people that I find hard to define because I'm a part of. Namely a pragmatic gradualist take on negative utilitarianism.
The main argument is something like:
- We know what's really bad: pain, death, starvation, being shunned by everyone. If we had something like, oh, I don't know, a "critique of pure reason", we could probably even observe these things in an objective way, on like MRIs and EEGs, and correlate them with reality... and then we'll SCIENTIFICALLY know they are bad.
- And even though optimizing negative utilitarianism to its conclusion might lead in a weird place, we don't have to, we can just hop from one easy-to-reach maximum to another, gradually making the world "better than now", whether or not we ever get to "best" doesn't matter.
This goes on for like 40 pages... and then the question comes: "But what are some easy ways to decrease suffering?"
And then Sam starts complaining about religion, and about how catholic priests rape children and beat women, and about how catholic cardinals also partake in this hobby, and how the current pope is protecting them from the law, and how Muslims are engaging in genital mutilation and... Wait wait wait, has this become one of those "new atheism" books I'm always warned about? I think it did and I try to scroll ahead, but 50 more pages in it's just Sam complaining about religion some more, and by the end, I've basically just filed everything past the first few pages as "this is why religion is bad and you should not be religious and the world would be better without religion".
Overall it's a very bad book, and you should just read Peter Singer. Much like with his religion books, Sam doesn't even cite this when talking about ethics in his later books, he cites William MacAskill and Peter Singer.
Free Will, however, is where he starts hitting onto something actually kind of unique to him. Initially, it seems like a perplexingly dumb book to anyone that's read even the tiniest bit of cognitive philosophy, it takes as subject a concept so fuzzy that I expect any room-temperature-IQ philosopher considers it "poorly defined".
Except that it isn't, in talking about "free will not being a thing" Sam is making a much more pointed allegation, something like:
"Free will" is this idea most of us have that there's some ghost/homunculus/god/whatever that is "controlling" our body and that this entity is not constrained by the laws of physical reality.
To which I reply: No, no, they don't.
But then Sam proceeds to remind us that punitive justice (as motivated by most people), basic ethical foundation (as motivated by most people), political theory (as motivated by most people) and so on ALL rely on this ghost-in-the-machine theory of mind.
And then you think about it more, and realize that even among philosophers a guy like Chalmers or Nagle is actually fairly niche and often cited just for association. Which are the philosophers people actually read, say the one that the vast majority of politicians have read? Well, for example, John Rawls.
Remember Rawls' "original condition," thought experiment? What most people take to be the underpinning of our commonly agreed upon political philosophy?... yeah, you're right, that makes no sense unless you assume you are a magical ghost that's just so happening to control a human body.
And suddenly you realize that a very very large swath of philosophy and thought in general, both modern and historical, might be labouring under this completely nonsensical model of the mind/self that we simply fail to notice.
By virtue of realizing this, you realize that you too are doing it.
Again, this is not something nonobvious that Sam is pointing out here, anyone reasonable "knows" that they are not a magical ghost controlling an automaton, but rather a biological entity inhibiting the physical world. But they "know" this at a very rational high-level, they "know" it in the same way someone that agrees with Kant "knows" they should probably not lie.
This book comes and hits your "system 1" over the head with the concept over and over again until you start to slowly shift your prior towards realizing that you were subconsciously using this view, and if you got rid of it, you'd be able to eliminate a lot of nonsensical thoughts and ideas.
If there is a book about atheism that atheists should read, I suspect it's this one, because it's very much an attempt at "convincing" people they should abandon a religious view of the world they never knew they held, and that they already don't endorse rationally, but yet it underpins most of their ideas and concepts.
However, once we start thinking about wanting to drop this felicitous perspective, or at least more easily recognize it and not let it influence any relevant actions, we run into a problem... how?
Here comes the third books in the series, "Waking up", in which Sam reveals he's secretly been a devout religious practitioner all along, and spent a large portion of his life practising ascetic and monastic Buddhism... and he thinks this is great, as long as you drop the Buddhism bit, because that's a religion and thus it's bad? But if you drop the Buddhism bit it's totally not religion anymore which makes it ok. Ok?
Apparently so, to my knowledge people have yet to notice this book and revoke his atheist edge-lord card.
So anyway, he ends up condensing the learnings from his experiences in a rather readable book that encourages a very non-committal and non-conceptual meditation style, devoid of the usual terminology, theology and other bullshit that comes with such practices. This is not at all novel, of course, it is presumably an unwritten right of passage for anyone finishing a neuroscience PhD to write a book about no-nonsense Buddhism/Hinduism, you can find hundreds of superficially similar books.
However, this is a book written by Sam, and the theme for his books thus far has been that they are very persuasive. This book is very persuasive. I've heard multiple incidences of people reading it to make fun of him, then setting up daily meditation practices as a result.
Akin to his book on ethics, this is 50% condemnation of religious practice, 50% relevant things. But at least the condemnations are funnier and more memorable. It includes the occasional sexual abuse, but also silly stories about enlightened teachers sneaking away to eat some beef during days when they are supposed to abstain from meat.
He follows this book up with another "Waking Up", this time it's an app, what's up with everyone wanting to make an app?
The business model of this app is getting you to pay ~10cents a day in return for a 20-minute audio segment of Sam talking for ASMR purposes, I found it to be a great sleep aid.
I am told these 10 to 20-minute segments, together with discussions with various individuals and a series of "courses" by some of those individuals (and by Sam himself) are also meant to help one meditate.
While this is not a book, this is close to what I'd have wanted out of a fully-featured Waking Up book. Sam finds and talks to the relatively saner practitioners of relatively saner offshoots of monastic (or ascetic) Buddhist and Hindu traditions, most of the time it ends up being just nonsense and interesting stories, sometimes interesting stuff comes out of it. Some of the guests that he liked a lot he invites to create "tracks", so now everyone can study Sam-Harris flavoured Zen Buddhism, or Meta Meditation, or Stoicism, or ahm, a weird spin-off of a branch of Dzogchen, or, ah, ah... contemplative Irish poetry?.
He also includes some mp3s of him talking about various meditation-adjacent subjects, which are in part just snippets from Waking Up and Free Will, or offshoots of those same ideas.
On the whole, I think this format suits him better than the book format, books seem to trigger some "argue why religion is bad for 100 pages" PTSD in Sam, this app doesn't.
Oh, and in 2015 he also wrote a book about why Islam is bad, or rather co-authored it with a moderate Muslim attempting to make Islam less-bad. Again, I doubt I'm the target audience here, so I've not read it.
His latest book is Making Sense, which contains excerpts from a podcast he hosts. I tried to listen to this podcast a few times, but I found that episodes fit into 2 categories:
- American politics
- Things that are already in the waking up app
I'm sure there are some oddballs here and there, but I haven't cared enough to check.
On the whole, Sam seems to have 3 "tracks" of writing that intersect:
His main theme seems to be that people are really misguided in the way they perceive the world and even themselves. I've been somewhat convinced by this hypothesis.
The "odd" thing about Sam is that he writes and does philosophy at a very "practical" level. Practical not in that his ideas are particularly pragmatic or easy to apply, but in that he writes for the idiotic part of your brain, for those ancient constructs that mainly handle making sure your liver produces the correct hormones to survive, not for the bits that are responsible for validating mathematical equations.
The main problem with philosophy is that you read it, and you find it convincing, in that it's well stated and hard to refute and insightful and... and you find you find your behaviour not changing one bit as the result.
Sam bypasses this problem by seemingly ignoring most of philosophy and not caring too much about refutation, and just coming up with systems that kind-of-work but can be very easily transmitted. I should make a disclaimer here that I'm not certain he feels that way, I'm actually fairly sure he doesn't, but that's the way I interpret his work, author dead and all.
My biggest gripe against his philosophy is that it uses a very naive version of determinism, which is so annoying I specifically wrote a short post explaining why it's wrong in painful details, and this deterministic framework is unnecessary for his ideas to make sense. But I guess that's a minor argument, and it's the kind of "system 2" argument that everyone's bound to have when reading Sam, and it kind of misses the point.
Overall I'd recommend Sam's Meditation-related works (Free Will and Waking Up) to anyone with a philosophical bent that hasn't gotten into meditation yet. If you have, his works might still be interesting, but not at all novel, just very persuasive.
I assume no religious people read my blog, and I can't recommend his work on religion as a surefire way to get rid of it, since I haven't read them, and even if I did, I don't know how being religious feels like. Still, I'd be willing to wager they might do better than some works by other authors. Better not in being more persuasive at a "rational" level, but in actually getting you to adjust whatever subconscious ideas are propping up your faith.
As for his political work... I don't know. About 2 or 3 years ago I decided US politics is a memetic hazard, and the more I see people under its influence the more dangerous to personal well being it seems. I guess someone like Sam wouldn't mind one way or another, he seems to have the kind of personality that thrives on endless social conflict. But I'm not sure what the target audience here is? Maybe people that are so far gone into politics for decoupling to be an option, and instead must find a way to get close to sanity while still consuming political content?
That's it, that's my quick take on Sam Harris's work, at least the bits I've read. Most authors I read give me varied subjects for conversation, but don't alter my day to day behaviour much. Sam is one of the few that has the opposite effect, and that alone is reason to cherish his works.
Published on: 2021-03-30