I have wanted to do a blog post on Sam Harris for some time. I’ve had trouble sort of knowing where to begin. My first introduction to his work was his short book, or perhaps long essay, on free will. I found him to be an excellent thinker. Then I noticed that he was being attacked a lot by the left and I wanted to learn why. Like many great thinkers, they can seem unfeeling, and I do think there have been many instances where atheists like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris have been taking completely out of context. For them ideas are not something that can be handled in a sound bite. They like to break down arguments into their components and take a line of reasoning in a particular direction and test it out. And I can see why people find distaste for Dawkins at times, and after reading a lot of Sam Harris I can see why there is distaste for him as well. But I would say if you don’t like Sam Harris it’s because you haven’t really read what he has to say and have been going by what critics say about him, or you find what he has to say uncomfortable. He is critical of the left, even though he himself is clearly a liberal. Like me, he is against bad ideas. And he is very good at reasoning what is a good idea and a bad idea. In this era of identity politics it seems like there should only be us and them and Sam Harris is trying to find common ground. Trying to promote reasoned discourse. I connect with him for this reason, and I connect with him because he is scientifically minded, and I find him to be brilliant. That doesn’t mean that I always agree with him. I’ve come to a place in my life where I feel sure enough of my intelligence that I can even disagree with someone I find profoundly brilliant. I’ll tell you this much though, if you are a liberal, you do yourself a disservice if you’ve written him off. Whether you end up agreeing or disagreeing, if you want to be liberal and progressive, truly try to take in what he is saying and follow his logic, it will at the very least lead to some quality introspection. Proving him wrong through reasoned arguments will make you richer than dismissing him on an emotional level.
The main reason for this post is that I was listening to his podcast called Waking Up With Sam Harris, and there was a segment that was so wonderfully said that I had to transcribe it and share it. I know myself, my wife, and many that I know have been feeling this sense of complete disbelief at Trump’s win. Not that Republican’s won, but Trump in particular. It’s so obvious to many of us what a complete liar and con man he is, and he’s not even a good one. It makes 100% sense why many people would vote for almost any other Republican candidate, but in many ways Trump still remains a mystery to many. We can read story after story about why Trump won, but in the end, there is still this sense that many other politicians could have also had this appeal. Anyway, Sam Harris here simply breaks it down perfectly and provided structure to my disbelief in all this, and why I find Trump as such a dangerous person to be president of this country and why I worry about our future and wonder if we, as a nation, can head in the right direction once again. So without more of my rambling I wanted to share these words with you from episode #64: Ask Me Anything 6.
“There is a difference between truth and lies. There is a difference between real news and fake news. There is a difference between actual conspiracies and imagined ones. And we cannot afford to have 100’s of millions of people, in our own society, on the wrong side of those epistemological chasms. And we certainly can’t afford to have members of our own government on the wrong side of it. As I’ve said many times before, all we have is conversation…you have conversation and violence. That’s how we can influence one another. When things really matter and words are insufficient, people show up with guns. That’s the way things are. So we have to create the conditions where conversations work. And now we’re living in an environment where words have become totally ineffectual. This is what has been so harmful about Trump’s candidacy and his first few weeks as president. The degree to which the man lies, and the degree to which his supporters do not care, that is one of the most dangerous things to happen in my lifetime, politically. There simply has to be a consequence for lying on this level. And the retort from a Trump fan is “Well all politicians lie.” No. All politicians don’t lie like this. What we are witnessing with Trump and the people around him is something quite new. Even if I grant that all politicians lie a lot. I don’t know if I should grant that. All politicians lie sometimes, say…but…even in their lying they have to endorse the norm of truth telling. That’s what it means to lie successfully in politics (in a former age of the Earth). You can’t obviously be lying. You can’t be repudiating the very norm of honest communication. But what Trump has done, and the people around him get caught in the same vortex, it’s almost like a giddy nihilism in politics, you just say whatever you want. And it doesn’t matter if it’s true. “Just try to stop me”, is the attitude. It’s unbelievable.
Finding ways to span this chasm between people, finding ways where we can reliably influence one another, through conversation, based on shared norms of argumentation and self-criticism, that is the operating systems we need. That is the only thing that stands between us and chaos. And there are the people who are trying to build that, and there are the people who are trying to take it down. Now one of those people is people is president. And I really don’t think this is too strong. Trump is, by all appearances, consciously destroying the fabric of civil conversation, and his supporters really don’t seem to care. I’m sure those of you support him will think I’m just winging now in the spirit of partisanship. That I’m a democrat, or that I’m a liberal, but that’s just not the case. Most normal Republican candidates, who I might dislike for a variety of reasons like Marco Rubio, or Jeb Bush, or even a quasi-theocrat like Ted Cruz, would still function within the normal channels of attempting a fact based conversation about the world. Their lies would be normal lies, and when caught there would be a penalty to pay. They would lose face. Trump has no face to lose. This is an epistemological pot latch.” (Sam Harris then describes what a pot latch is: a Native American practice of burning up your prized possessions as a way of showing how wealthy you are). “This is a pot latch of civil discourse. Every time Trump speaks he’s saying, “I don’t have to make sense. I’m too powerful to even have to make sense.” That is his message. And half the country, or nearly half, seems to love it. So when he’s caught in a lie, he has no face to lose. Trump is chaos. And one of the measures of how bad he seems to me is that I don’t even care about the theocrats he has brought to power with him, and there are many of them. He has brought in Christian fundamentalists to a degree that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago, and 10 years ago I was spending a lot of time worrying about the rise of the Christian right in this country. Well it has risen under Trump, but honestly it seems like the least of our problems at this moment. And it’s amazing for me to say that given what it means and what it might mean to have people like Pence and Jeff Sessions and the other Christian fundamentalists in his orbit, empowered in this way. ”
Resist my friends.