Sam Harris - Taking the Redpill on Freewill | Joe Rogan


5 years ago



Sam Harris

8 appearances

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and author of the New York Times bestsellers, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The Moral Landscape. He is the host of the podcast “Making Sense" available on Spotify.


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Well, so taking the red pill on free will makes you much more forgiving of a lot of this stuff. Yes. Because you see just everyone is an open system. No one authored themselves. Right. No one created themselves. No one can directly regulate the effect of every influence that they had or didn't have. You know, it's like you are the totality of what brought you here. I mean, the universe has sort of just pushed you to this point in time. And the only thing you've got is your brain and it states and that is based on your genes and the totality of environmental influences you as a system have had working on you up until this moment. And so the next words that come out of your mouth are part of that process. Now some people find this to be a frankly demoralizing picture. I think, well, okay, well, you're telling me I'm just a robot. But you're a robot that is open, continuously open to influence, to influence of internally based on its own processes. I mean, there's like there's top down control of executive function in the brain to your emotional life, say, and you're continually open to the influences of culture. Right. You know, culture is this operating system that you're interacting with in each moment. And whatever is getting in can change you in radical ways very quickly. I mean, there's no telling how much you can change on the basis of one new idea coming your way. Right. And I would argue that that process of change, I mean, if I say something that changes your view on anything, that's not evidence of free will. That is evidence of just yet more causality. I mean, you don't pick the changes that come your way. If I get you to see something that you didn't see a moment before, you're not responsible for the fact that you didn't see it a moment before. And you're not responsible for the fact that you now see it. It's just like the dominoes just kept falling, right? Right. But it does give you this far more patient sense of one, just, you know, all the causes and conditions that have created this odious behavior you're now disposed to react to in the world. Right. Like you can, everything on some level is more of a force of nature than it is something that you need to take personally. It's like if there's a hurricane blowing outside, we don't respond to it the same way we would respond to, you know, Al Qaeda dropping a bomb on us, right? It might create the same amount of damage. But in the latter case where we have an identifiable agent, right, we feel like, okay, now we're in the presence of human evil and we have to go kill these motherfuckers, right? Now we may have to kill them, right, because that may be the only way of putting out this, you know, stopping the damage they're committed to causing. And we would kill hurricanes if we could kill them, right? I mean, we would, you know, we would nullify them. But the feeling we have in both cases is very different. The feeling you have attributing ultimate authorship to a person's behavior is super narrow psychologically and ethically. And it's, you know, the feeling of vengeance, right? Like you don't, you don't, you have a, this feeling of vengeance is so natural to get triggered in response to a person. It's not natural in response to a wild animal who may have done something terrible, right? I mean, like you would, like, I mean, there have been examples of this where people have taken vengeance on animals and it just looks like a kind of moral dysfunction on the part of the people who did it. I mean, there's a famous picture of an elephant that got hung from a railroad crane, I think back in the twenties, right? So like the circus elephant escaped and it ran, you know, it just rampaged through the streets and it trampled, you know, a few people. And the people in the town, I don't know where this was, it was in Baltimore someplace, were so outraged that they decided to lynch the elephant, right? And yet that's, there's something uncanny about that sort of misappropriation of agency to an elephant. I mean, what is a mistreated circus elephant going to do when it gets out and it's terrified and it's trying to get away from people. It's going to trample a few people. So we have a very different set of books we keep ethically for humans and some of it's understandable, some of it's inevitable, but a lot of it gives us moral illusions that we don't need to have. And it gives us a kind of just an inability to take stock of all the variables that are actually guiding human behavior and react to them and mitigate them and disincentivize them intelligently. I mean, punishment makes sense not because people really, really deserve at bottom whatever their punishments are. It doesn't make sense in a retributive paradigm. It makes sense if it's the best tool to discourage dangerous behavior and it works, right? So it's like, if you're going to punish people for things they can't control, well, that's stupid, right? Because as much as you punish them, you're not going to moderate the behavior. So you have to punish people for things that are actually under voluntary control. And it only makes sense if it's the only tool to do the job. And if the moment you had, I mean, this is like, I may have brought this up last time we spoke about free will, but this is really the sort of reductio ad absurdum of where most people are on this topic. The moment we really understand human evil at the level of the brain, the moment we understand psychopathy say, which is, I mean, maybe that's not the totality of evil, but that's, you know, certainly center of the bullseye. Once we understand psychopathy is a neurological condition that's governed by genes and environment and we can actually intrude at the level of the brain to mitigate it. So like psychopathy becomes a disease, right? It becomes a, an injury syndrome, right? That we can fix. And let's say it's a very simple fix. Let's say it's a pill, right? Let's say it's just a neurotransmitter imbalance in the presence of that breakthrough. We will feel very differently about that species of human evil. We will not judge it in the same way. Because what will happen is you'll give people the pill and they'll say, fuck, I can't believe I was that dangerous asshole. Like like, thank you for like, like I, I'm as horrified by who I was before you cured me as you were. And so psychopathy in the presence of a cure for it would look much more like diabetes than it looks like evil in the present case. And people aren't imagining what it would like, what it would be like to be there, what it would be like to actually fully understand the underlying neurophysiology here and actually have something, I mean, there's no guarantee we'll be able to, to deal with it in a simple way, but it's certainly possible. And I mean, the classic example is just like the Charles Whitman example where you have a brain tumor that's causing this aberrant behavior. In that case, everyone, everyone sees, okay, this is not evil. This is a brain tumor. That's the tower shooter guy. Yeah. Yeah. Back in 64, I think. And so, but in the same way that a brain tumor tumors exculpatory there, I think a full understanding of the underlying neurology would be exculpatory. Again, it doesn't mean you, in the meantime, before we get there, obviously we have to lock up dangerous people if there's no way to help them. But the more we see the causes, the more we view this in terms of just sheer bad luck, right? Like there are people who, when they're adults, are quintessentially evil, and they provoke the greatest feeling of vengeance from us. But if you just walk back their timeline, you recognize that at a certain, they were four years old at one point, right? They were the four year old who was destined to become this terrible person. It's an unlucky four year old. Right. You know? And so at what point, where's the bright line that says, okay, here's the point where it's appropriate to just hate this person and feel no compassion. And on the other side of this line, you should just feel compassion because this person's unlucky. There is no such line. And a complete understanding of this lifeline in scientific terms would obliterate any line you think you have. Right? It would just be this cascade of causation. And adding randomness to the picture doesn't help. Right? It's just, randomness is just somebody's in your brain rolling dice, influencing your behavior that way. Well, that doesn't give you the free will people think they have. So there isn't, there's ironically, there is what seems on some level deflationary of the gravitas of the human spirit for people opens the door to, at least in my view, a far more ethical and tolerant and patient and understanding view of human failings and human frailty. And then at that point, you can just have a conversation about what's pragmatic, what works, what helps people change? Like in this, this person over here who's doing terrible things, is there something we can do to make him a better person? Well, if there is, let's do that without all the judgment. Wouldn't it be amazing if that's how we treated these public shaming events? Like wouldn't, wouldn't it be amazing if we gave someone an opportunity to say, this is, this is what I did. This is how awful I feel about this. I would never do that again. I'm a different person. That was 20 years ago, whatever it was. And have everybody join in. Hey, anyone could be you. Thank you for being honest about who you are now. Thank you for evolving. Thank you for expressing yourself in a way that maybe other people who have also committed really on just unsavory or just unfortunate things in the past, unfortunate acts in the past, they can feel relieved by the fact that you've grown and evolved to become a better person. Oh yeah. And that you're, you're a different thing now and you are the product of all of your experiences. You're not, you're not this one thing. You're not stuck in who you were when you were 16 years old. If you were marking mark and you hit that guy with a stick, whatever, you know, whatever he did, you don't, you're not stuck in that spot forever. These don't mark, it's not a scarlet letter. It's not a mark on your forehead that you keep for life. Yeah, but the thing about the Liam Neeson incident, which I find so interesting is that there's a case where, I mean, what he's revealing about himself is, is pretty amazing, right? It's like, it's like he, he just decided, okay, we need a, I mean, a truth and reconciliation commission for who I used to be, right? And just volunteered this. And for me, like, like, you know, I don't actually understand that state of mind. I mean, there are many aberrant states of mind that I can understand. I certainly understand what it's like to, to want to harm somebody and to, you know, to feel vengeance and all that. But the instrumental violence piece, I don't understand. I've never felt like, okay, this type of person wronged me or someone close to me. So any, any person of that type will do, right? Like that, like, but that is such a problem. The world over in human history, that it is, it is just fascinating ethically for someone of his, you know, stature to reveal that about himself. And he put it in terms of, of, of honor. I mean, it was like, it was an honor. I mean, this is what, this is what, what is so dysfunctional about honor culture, right? This is what, this is what we see more in the South than anywhere else in the country. And this is what you see basically everywhere you go in the Middle East. This is what Islam inculcates to a degree that's fairly unmatched in, in its community. This notion of honor is, does link up with this tendency to find satisfaction in instrumental violence. Like, but when you, when you try to run that software on my brain, that just looks like madness, right? The idea that any other person will do, right, of a certain type. Right. That's just, you know, I don't, that resonates not at all, right? And so it's just damn interesting. And the fact that the lesson being taken from this seems to be, this is, this should be the end of your career for having talked about this in the way, and again, you know, apologies if there's some part of the story that I've gotten wrong or I'm not missing or missing, but it seemed to me that he was always counting this in the horror and amazement appropriate to the disclosure. Like, he can't believe he was inhabiting this state of consciousness. And you know, it's just an amazing thing to reveal about yourself. So yeah, and I'm sure he regrets every second of it. Yeah. And that's, that's the wrong fucking punchline. Yeah. Right. And what should happen is someone with a lot to lose should be able to say, you know how ugly a human mind can be? This is an experience I had, right? This is who I was. And you know how much I have to live for and how much I have to lose. We have to talk about this kind of mania that can get humming on a human brain, right? We see this every time you open the paper, you see someone in the grip of this kind of thing, right? It even happened to me, right? I think it's an amazing conversation to start. And the fact that the result is just, you know, an autodefé is the problem. We're trying to fight our way through it this morning.