In July, Sam Harris had a bad-tempered Twitter exchange with geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden over her criticism of Harris for having hosted Charles Murray on his podcast Making Sense. Usually, such social media bust-ups are inconsequential arguments, which leave a bitter taste in the mouth and add little, if any, value to the public square. But Harris and Paige Harden did something quite unexpected—after their spat, they sat down for a two-hour conversation to hash out their differences. It seems to have cleared some of the air and both participants deserve praise for this unusual but welcome departure from social media etiquette.
Of course, most of us don’t have world famous podcasts to act as disagreement-resolving fora. But honest, substantial conversation is always better than empty barbs and jibes—a lesson the social media world ought to imbibe, and quickly. And the Harris/Paige Harden discussion is a good example of what Harris’ podcast is all about: rigorous conversation that provides both enlightenment and pleasure.
Harris’ new book Making Sense: Conversations on Consciousness, Morality and the Future of Humanity is a collection of what he says are “some of the most satisfying conversations I’ve ever had.” Here, too, can be found exemplars of what public conversation ought to look like: great minds discussing big issues with honesty, clarity and rigour. As Harris puts it: “We have two options as human beings. We have a choice between conversation and war. That’s it.” Free expression and discussion are essential if we are to make any sort of progress.
In the book’s preface, Harris says that “we are living in a new golden age of public conversation.” He is referring to the pandemic of podcasting: an art of which I am myself a very amateur practitioner. Podcasts can be as full of nonsense and bile as Twitter, but the best of them provide a format in which people can discuss things at length and without inhibition. And, as Harris says, they often reach more people within hours than most books ever will over decades. The power of podcasts is not to be underestimated—which makes it especially important that we have good ones to listen to. Despite the often unfair criticism Harris frequently faces, his podcast is one of the best.
One might argue that a printed collection of podcasts is unnecessary given that the conversations are readily available online. But, for people who generally prefer print over audio, this book will be most welcome. And both Harris and his guests have refined and clarified their parts of the conversation for print—meaning that some of the nuance that can be lost in quick-fire conversation has been teased out and restored.
The conversations themselves are fascinating and enlightening. The topics covered include consciousness, epistemology, science, artificial intelligence, physics, history, politics, race and racism, free will and the future of the species. The guests are some of the best in their fields, people like Thomas Metzinger, Nick Bostrom, David Krakauer, Glenn Loury, Timothy Snyder, David Deutsch and Robert Sapolsky. These conversations are not lightweight and Harris is the perfect host: an expert in neuroscience, an intelligent man by any standards, and armed with his own original ideas, he is the equal of his guests and a stimulating partner for discussion and disagreement. This, I think, is what gives his podcast the edge over Joe Rogan’s—without meaning to denigrate the man, it is hard to think of him as an equal partner in conversation with some of the best minds in the world.
Another example of good faith, rigorous disagreement is Harris’ conversation with David Deutsch on Harris’ book The Moral Landscape, which argues that an objective, scientific morality is possible. In his introduction to this conversation, Harris relates that Deutsch wanted to discuss his issues with the book privately, but Harris insisted that “if he was going to dismantle my cherished thesis, I wanted it done in public.” I can’t think of many public figures who would say this so directly. We all pay lip service to the importance of testing our ideas, but most of us would probably stop short of cheerfully inviting one of the world’s top physicists to demolish our views. Harris, though, holds his own in the conversation itself—another testament to the quality of his mind.
All the conversations in the book are excellent, but my favourite is the one with Timothy Snyder on the history of tyranny. Snyder gives some sage advice—limit your social media and news intake and, instead, read books and converse with people: “Reading is a precondition of conversation, and conversation is something we very much need politically.” Hear, hear—how much public discourse might improve were we to disavow cancel culture and absent ourselves from Twitter!
This theme is taken up again in Harris’ conversation with Glenn C. Loury: an honest and forthright discussion of race and police violence in America recorded at the end of the Obama era and even more relevant today. At the beginning, Harris states that “we are now living in a culture that is addicted to outrage,” which makes conversation on thorny issues almost impossible. I concur. There are serious issues to be addressed, but we are so mired in addiction to outrage that we see progress as a measure of how many times we can own our Twitter enemies.
Much of this malaise is down to what Harris refers to as the “poison” of identity politics. Instead of discussing the complexities of race and policing in America, for instance, we are invited to deconstruct whiteness, to check our privilege and so on. This is tribal posturing, not honest or constructive conversation. Thank goodness for people like Harris and Loury, who try to conduct such discussions with sensitivity and seriousness.
Are such conversations only for great minds, though? No. As Max Tegmark says in his discussion with Harris on AI: such monumental changes to our society and way of being require input from all of us. We should not leave it to our tech overlords to develop and switch on artificial general intelligence without asking us! This goes for all the topics covered in the book: they affect every single person on this planet. And even if we don’t have the specialist mastery of the fields that these conversationalists do, we have a right to be consulted, as well as an obligation to think about these things. As David Krakauer puts it: “I believe in intelligence, and I believe in reason, and I believe in civilized discourse … we should be able to think about our devices as a community of civilized people, and make decisions.”
The conversations with Nick Bostrom and David Krakauer throw up questions about existential risk. Krakauer comments:
One reason so many of us are drawn to evolutionary thinking, to the ideas of Lyell and Darwin and Wallace, is that they give us a sense of what time can do. For me it’s extraordinary that over the course of billions of years, we’ve gone from a planet that looked like the surface of Venus, perhaps—and now it’s the Rolling Stones and Johann Sebastian Bach and Emily Dickinson. I think, as you say, that delicate, rare things should be preserved. And developing a tangible ethics for that is really vital.
Krakauer sees the long-term future of our species—as we voyage out into the universe and spread consciousness and exquisiteness to the stars—as both a beautiful idea and ethically important. To those who recoil at the fact that we are solely material beings living in a universe lacking anything supernatural or traditionally transcendent, I urge reflection on the beauty of this vision. What could be more amazing than that matter, through cosmic and evolutionary time and through naturalistic processes alone, could produce us? Consciousness, poetry and science all began as patterns of matter, knocked around for billions of years in cosmic conflagrations and then kicked into shape by evolution on our fragile pale blue dot. No supernatural story has such power.
I hope I have given a taste of the illumination and delight to be found in this book, which will challenge anyone who reads it to think more deeply about many things. But I think Harris’ most important contribution is his championing of intelligent public discourse and disagreement on the most important and fundamental issues. The Making Sense podcast is a cornucopia of such conversations and the Making Sense book a compendium of some of the very best. Harris is perhaps the greatest public conversationalist of our time, the foremost champion of discussion over war, an exemplar of the public intellectual. This book offers further evidence of that.