A significant Tweet yesterday, August 15, 2020, by one of the most respected researcher/writers in the world today, the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Sciences at Yale [the highest professorial position at Yale], MD, PhD, MPH and best-selling author, Nicholas A. Christakis. Known for his research on social networks and on the socioeconomic, biosocial, and evolutionary determinants of behavior, health, and longevity, in 2009 he was named to the “Time 100”, Time Magazine‘s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. In 2009 and again in 2010, he was named by Foreign Policy magazine to its list of top global thinkers. He’s also an all-around super-decent human being. A scientist and genuine bodhisattva.
And this is what the facts are telling him:
Why are all sane people changed, purified, transformed, or at least settled down from any disturbing mood, when they are out in “nature”? Why is this experience so medicinal, it appeals across cultures and times, and justly celebrated in every art that has ever been created?
Because, in nature, people sense that they are in the presence of “something” (even an experience, as “something”) which has no separate “I.” There is no ego there, whatsoever. After spending their day-to-day lives contending with the forces of other people and their compartmentalized “I”s, and constantly needing so much energy to navigate through that, nearly every hour of every single day of their lives, to be in the presence of “something” which has not one iota of anthropic mind, there is only great release, full letting go.
There is no “I” in the natural world.
And yet if you try to explain the Buddhist insight into the non-existence of “I,” people freak out or think it is some impossible concept to grasp. Something that needs retreat upon retreat stacked up to penetrate through.
But it’s as near as the front door to one’s own house. And yet — it’s even closer. It’s right where you are.
This is why, when someone would ask a persistent question, or refused to be guided toward finding an answer in themselves, in the depths of their own mind, Dae Soen Sa Nim would often say, “Go ask a tree. The tree will have a very wonderful answer for you!”
Studying for a master’s degree in comparative religions at Harvard Divinity School, you get equipped with various tools for revealing the core insights of the core teachings of the world’s major religions. Then you can spend the rest of your life being gobsmacked by the maddening nature of the nearly obscene differences and their attendant effects on history and human flourishing:
An insight which is central to all of the Buddhist traditions, and to cosmology, quantum physics and string theory, as well, in addition to mathematics, etc., and verified by anyone’s direct experience were they to just sit down long enough and look (or take psylocibin, or DMT, or LSD, etc.) — a statement of truth (not “belief”) about the nature of the universe itself, from atoms to black holes, about the very nature of “mind” and “reality”, as uttered by a meditator in the 5th-6th c. CE:
The paramount story that is totemically central to all three of the monotheistic traditions, celebrated and praised among these traditions’ highest scriptural tropes, a human ideal so worthy of emulation that the figure holding the dagger names the identity of all three traditions by the stamp of his willingness to kill, in the name of faith (Abrahamic), and which would lead to the killings of countless hundreds of millions along this very same theme, :
It is stunning in the extreme that the same species could come up with such absolutely opposite and completely incompatible insights into possible paths for human well-being. It boggles the mind utterly to realize what vastly different outcomes are produced by the claims made by just these two phrases, because they are not outliers. It is the very soul of meditation — as it is the soul of any branch of physics, or cosmology, or mathematics, et al. — to arrive at the realization that “reality” has no “inner” or “outer” or “middle”, no reducible “pure” or “impure” state. Yet the better share of humanity is taught to valorize the ideal of having such faith in things unseen — despite whatever rational, observable contradiction to the contrary — that one would even murder one’s own guiltless son to prove one’s fidelity to this complete and total ignorance. How many millions and millions have been similarly sacrificed on the altar of this pernicious myth, which is an offense to any rational mind? Some moldy-ass myths held over long past their sell-by date simply through the force of habit, fear, superstition, intellectual/spiritual laziness, and clinging to empty tradition. It blows my mind.
Because his excellent expressive powers are so rewarding to experience, it is worth quoting here, in full, the Afterword to Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation:
Humanity has had a long fascination with blood sacrifice. In fact, it has been by no means uncommon for a child to be born into this world only to be patiently and lovingly reared by religious maniacs, who believe that the best way to keep the sun on its course or to ensure a rich harvest is to lead him by tender hand into a field or to a mountaintop and bury, butcher, or burn him alive as offering to an invisible God. Countless children have been unlucky enough to be born in so dark an age, when ignorance and fantasy were indistinguishable from knowledge and where the drumbeat of religious fanaticism kept perfect time with every human heart.
In fact, almost no culture has been exempt from this evil: the Sumerians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Canaanites, Maya, Inca, Aztecs, Olmecs, Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Teutons, Celts, Druids, Vikings, Gauls, Hindus, Thais, Chinese, Japanese, Scandinavians, Maoris, Melanesians, Tahitians, Hawaiians, Balinese, Australian aborigines, Iroquois, Huron, Cherokee, and innumerable other societies ritually murdered their fellow human beings because they believed that invisible gods and goddesses, having an appetite for human flesh, could be so propitiated. Many of their victims were of the same opinion, in fact, and went willingly to slaughter, fully convinced that their deaths would transform the weather, or cure the king of his venereal disease, or in some other way spare their fellows the wrath of the Unseen.
In many societies, whenever a new building was constructed, it was thought only prudent to pacify the local deities by burying children alive beneath its foundations (this is how faith sometimes operates in a world without structural engineers). Many societies regularly sacrificed virgins to ward off floods. Others killed their first-born children, and even ate them, as a way of ensuring a mother’s ongoing fertility. In India, living infants were ritually fed to sharks at the mouth of the Ganges for the same purpose. Indians also burned widows alive so that they could follow their husbands into the next world. Leaving nothing to chance, Indians also sowed their fields with the flesh of a certain caste of men, raised especially for this purpose and dismembered while alive, to ensure that every crop of turmeric would be appropriately crimson. The British were actually hard pressed to put an end to these pious atrocities.
In some cultures whenever a nobleman died, other men and women allowed themselves to be buried alive so as to serve as his retainers in the next world. In ancient Rome, children were occasionally slaughtered so that the future could be read in their entrails. Some Fijian prodigy devised a powerful sacrament called “Vakatoga” which required that a victim’s limbs be cut off and eaten while he watched. Among the Iroquois, prisoners taken captive in war were often permitted to live among the tribe for many years, and even to marry, all the while being doomed to be flayed alive as an oblation to the God of War; whatever children they produced while in captivity were disposed of in the same ritual. Certain African tribes have a long history of murdering people to send as couriers in a one-way dialogue with their ancestors or to convert their body parts into magical charms. Ritual murders of this sort continue in many African societies to this day.
Christianity amounts to the claim that we must love and be loved by a God who approves of the scapegoating, torture, and murder of one man—his son, incidentally—in compensation for the misbehavior and thought-crimes of all others.
It is essential to realize that such obscene misuses of human life have always been explicitly religious. They are the product of what people think they know about invisible gods and goddesses, and of what they manifestly do not know about biology, meteorology, medicine, physics, and a dozen other specific sciences that have more than a little to say about the events in the world that concern them. And it is astride this contemptible history of religious atrocity and scientific ignorance that Christianity now stands as an absurdly unselfconscious apotheosis. The notion that Jesus Christ died for our sins and that his death constitutes a successful propitiation of a “loving” God is a direct and undisguised inheritance of the superstitious bloodletting that has plagued bewildered people throughout history.
Of course, the God of Abraham was no stranger to ritual murder. Occasionally, He condemns the practice (Deuteronomy 12:31; Jeremiah 19:4-5; Ezekial 16:20-21); at other points, He requires or rewards it (Exodus 22:29-30; Judges 11:29-40; 1 Kings 13:1-2; 2 Kings 3:27; 2 Kings 23:20-25; Numbers 31:40, Deuteronomy 13:13-19). In the case of Abraham, God demands that he sacrifice his son Isaac but then stays his hand at the last moment (Genesis 22:1-18), without ever suggesting that the act of slaughtering one’s own child is immoral. Elsewhere, God confesses to inspiring human sacrifice soas to defile its practitioners (Ezekiel 20:26), while getting into the act Himself by slaying the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 11:5). The rite of circumcision emerges as a surrogate for child sacrifice (Exodus 4:24-26), and God seems to generally encourage the substitution of animals for people. Indeed, His thirst for the blood of animals, as well as His attentiveness to the niceties of their slaughter and holocaust, is almost impossible to exaggerate.
Upon seeing Jesus for the first time, John the Baptist is rumored to have said, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). For most Christians, this bizarre opinion still stands, and it remains the core of their faith. Christianity is more or less synonymous with the proposition that the crucifixion of Jesus represents a final, sufficient offering of blood to a God who absolutely requires it (Hebrews 9:22-28). Christianity amounts to the claim that we must love and be loved by a God who approves of the scapegoating, torture, and murder of one man—his son, incidentally—in compensation for the misbehavior and thought-crimes of all others.
Let the good news go forth: we live in a cosmos, the vastness of which we can scarcely even indicate in our thoughts, on a planet teeming with creatures we have only begun to understand, but the whole project was actually brought to a glorious fulfillment over twenty centuries ago, after one species of primate (our own) climbed down out of the trees, invented agriculture and iron tools, glimpsed (as through a glass, darkly) the possibility of keeping its excrement out of its food, and then singled out one among its number to be viciously flogged and nailed to a cross.
Add to this abject mythology surrounding one man’s death by torture—Christ’s passion—the symbolic cannibalism of the Eucharist. Did I say “symbolic”? Sorry, according to the Vatican it is most assuredly not symbolic. In fact, the judgment of the Council of Trent remains in effect:
I likewise profess that in the Mass a true, proper and propitiatory sacrifice is offered to God on behalf of the living and the dead, and that the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ is truly, really, and substantially present in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist, and that there is a change of the whole substance of the bread into the body, and of the whole substance of the wine into blood; and this change the Catholic Church calls transubstantiation. I also profess that the whole and entire Christ and a true sacrament is received under each separate species.
Of course, Catholics have done some very strenuous and unconvincing theology in this area, in an effort to make sense of how they can really eat the body of Jesus, not mere crackers enrobed in metaphor, and really drink his blood without, in fact, being a cult of crazy cannibals. Suffice it to say, however, that a world view in which “propitiatory sacrifices on behalf of the living and the dead” figure prominently is rather difficult to defend in the year 2007. But this has not stopped otherwise intelligent and well-intentioned people from defending it.
And now we learn that even Mother Teresa, the most celebrated exponent of this dogmatism in a century, had her doubts all the while—about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, about heaven, and even about the existence of God:
Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.
So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?
— addressed to Jesus, at the suggestion of a confessor, undated
Mother Teresa’s recently published letters reveal a mind riven by doubt (and well it should have been). They also reveal a woman who was surely suffering from run-of-the-mill depression, though even secular commentators have begun to politely dress this fact in the colors of the saints and martyrs. Mother Teresa’s response to her own bewilderment and hypocrisy (her term) reveals just how like quicksand religious faith can be. Her doubts about God’s existence were interpreted by her confessor as a sign that she was now sharing Christ’s torment upon the cross; this exaltation of her wavering faith allowed her “to love the darkness” she experienced in God’s apparent absence. Such is the genius of the unfalsifiable. We can see the same principle at work among her fellow Catholics: Mother Teresa’s doubts have only enhanced her stature in the eyes of the Church, being interpreted as a further confirmation of God’s grace. Ask yourself, when even the doubts of experts are taken to confirm a doctrine, what could possibly disconfirm it?
It has been more than a year since Letter to a Christian Nation was published, and the book has continued to draw steady fire. Much of the criticism leveled at it has been bundled with attacks upon my first book, The End of Faith, and upon other atheist bestsellers: especially Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great. In fact, Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, and I have been regularly assailed as though we were a single person with four heads. The accusations and arguments against us are always the same, and they always miss the point. Indeed, what is most surprising about debating the faithful is how few surprises there are.
The Problem with Moderate Religion
Whenever nonbelievers like myself criticize Christians for believing in the imminent return of Christ, or Muslims for believing in martyrdom, religious moderates declare that we have caricatured Christianity and Islam, taken “extremists” to be representative of these “great” religions, or otherwise overlooked a shimmering ocean of nuance. We are invariably told that a mature understanding of scripture renders faith perfectly compatible with reason, and that our attacks upon religion are, therefore, “simplistic,” “dogmatic,” or even “fundamentalist.”
But there are several problems with such a defense of religion. First, many moderates (and even some secularists) assume that religious “extremism” is rare and therefore not all that consequential. But religious extremism is not rare, and it is hugely consequential. America is now a nation of 300 million souls, wielding more influence than any people in human history, and yet 240 million of these souls apparently believe that Jesus will return someday and orchestrate the end of the world with his magic powers. This hankering for a denominational, spiritual oblivion is extreme in almost every sense—it is extremely silly, extremely dangerous, extremely worthy of denigration—but it is not extreme in the sense of being rare. Of course, moderates may wonder whether as many people believe such things as say they do. In fact, many atheists are confident that our opinion polls are out of register with what people actually think in the privacy of their own minds. But there is no question that most Americans reliably claim to believe the preposterous, and these claims themselves have done genuine harm to our political discourse, to our public policy, and to our reputation in the world.
Religious moderation is the direct result of taking scripture less and less seriously. So why not take it less seriously still? Why not admit that the Bible is merely a collection of imperfect books written by highly fallible human beings?
Religious moderates also tend to imagine that there is some bright line of separation between extremist and moderate religion. But there isn’t. Scripture itself remains a perpetual engine of extremism: because, while He may be many things, the God of the Bible and the Qur’an is not a moderate. Reading scripture more closely, one does not find reasons to be a religious moderate; one finds reasons to be a proper religious lunatic—to fear the fires of hell, to despise nonbelievers, to persecute homosexuals, etc. Of course, anyone can cherry-pick scripture and find reasons to love his neighbor and to turn the other cheek. But the more fully a person grants credence to these books, the more he will be convinced that infidels, heretics, and apostates deserve to be smashed to atoms in God’s loving machinery of justice.
Religious moderates invariably claim to be more “sophisticated” than religious fundamentalists (and atheists). But how does one become a sophisticated believer? By acknowledging just how dubious many of the claims of scripture are, and thereafter reading it selectively, bowdlerizing it if need be, and allowing its assertions about reality to be continually trumped by fresh insights—scientific (“You mean the world isn’t 6000 years old? Okay.”), medical (“I should take my daughter to a neurologist and not to an exorcist? Seems reasonable…”), and moral (“I can’t beat my slaves? I can’t even keep slaves? Hmm…”). There is a pattern here, and it is undeniable. Religious moderation is the direct result of taking scripture less and less seriously. So why not take it less seriously still? Why not admit that the Bible is merely a collection of imperfect books written by highly fallible human beings?
Another problem with religious moderation is that it represents precisely the sort of thinking that will prevent a rational and nondenominational spirituality from ever emerging in our world. Whatever is true about us, spiritually and ethically, must be discoverable now. Consequently, it makes no sense at all to have one’s spiritual life pegged to rumors of ancient miracles. What we need is a discourse about ethics and spiritual experience that is as unconstrained by ancient ignorance as the discourse of science already is. Science really does transcend the vagaries of culture: there is no such thing as “Japanese” as opposed to “French” science; we don’t speak of “Hindu biology” and “Jewish chemistry.” Imagine a world in which we could have a truly honest and open-ended conversation about our place in the universe and about the possibilities of deepening our self-understanding, ethical wisdom, and compassion. By living as if some measure of sectarian superstition were essential for human happiness, religious moderates prevent such a conversation from ever taking shape.
Religion once offered answers to many questions that have now been ceded to the care of science. This process of scientific conquest and religious forfeiture has been relentless, one directional, and utterly predictable. As it turns out, real knowledge, being both valid and verifiable across cultures, is the only remedy for religious discord. Muslims and Christians cannot disagree about the causes of cholera, for instance, because whatever their traditions might say about infectious disease, a genuine understanding of cholera has arrived from another quarter. Epidemiology trumps religious superstition (eventually), especially when people are watching their children die. This is where our hope for a truly nonsectarian future lies: when things matter, people tend to want to understand what is actually going on in the world. Science delivers this understanding in torrents; it also offers an honest appraisal of its current limitations. Religion fails on both counts.
Hoping to reconcile their faith with our growing scientific understanding of the world, many believers have taken refuge in Stephen J. Gould’s quisling formulation of “non-overlapping magisteria”—the idea that science and religion, properly construed, cannot be in conflict, because they represent different domains of expertise. Let’s see how this works: while science is the best authority on the workings of physical universe, religion is the best authority on… what exactly? The non-physical universe? Probably not. What about meaning, values, ethics, and the good life? Unfortunately, most people—even most scientists and secularists—have ceded these essential components of human happiness to the care of theologians and religious apologists without argument. This has kept religion in good standing even while its authority has been battered and nullified on every other front.
The sacred literature of the hadith demands the murder of apostates, repeatedly and without equivocation. Is this edict ethical? Is it compatible with civil society?
But what special competence does a priest, rabbi, or imam have to judge the ethical implications of embryonic stem-cell research, family planning, or preventative war? The truth is that a person’s knowledge of a scriptural tradition is no more relevant to ethics than it is to astronomy. Representatives of the world’s religions can tell us what their congregations believe on wide variety of issues (and believe, generally, on bad evidence); they can tell us what their holy books say one ought to believe to escape the fires of hell; but what they cannot do—or cannot do better than butchers, bakers, and candle-stick makers—is offer an account of why these orthodox positions are ethical. Is it ethical to kill a person for changing his religion? I’d stake my life that the answer is “no.” But, according to a recent poll, thirty-six percent of British Muslims (ages 16-24) disagree with me. As it turns out, they are on firm ground theologically: for while the Qur’an does not explicitly demand the murder of apostates, the sacred literature of the hadith does, repeatedly and without equivocation. Is this edict ethical? Is it compatible with civil society? Is the reliance upon authority that has delivered this barbarism down through the generations even remotely compatible with science?
It is, of course, trivially true to say that religion and science are compatible because some scientists are (or claim to be) religious. But this is like saying that science and ignorance are compatible because many scientists freely admit their ignorance on a wide range of topics. To clarify these issues, it is helpful to remind ourselves that both religion and science are constituted by beliefs and their justification, or lack thereof. Is there a conflict between justified and unjustified belief? Of course, and it is zero-sum. Given that faith is generally nothing more than the permission religious people give one another to believe things strongly without evidence, a conflict between science and religion is unavoidable.
Religion and science are also in conflict because there is no way of disentangling religious and scientific truth-claims: the belief that Jesus was born of a virgin may be central to the doctrine of Christianity, but it is also an explicit claim about biology; the belief that Jesus will physically return to earth in the future entails a variety of claims about history, the human survival of death, and, apparently, the mechanics of human flight without the aid of technology. It is time that all rational people acknowledged that where claims about the nature of reality are concerned, there is only one magisterium.
The Empty Wager
The fundamental problem with religion is that it is built, to a remarkable degree, upon lies. I refer not merely to twenty-megaton displays of hypocrisy, as when Evangelical preachers get caught with male prostitutes or methamphetamine (or both). Rather, I refer to the daily and ubiquitous failure of most religious people to admit that the basic claims of the their faith are profoundly suspect. Mommy claims to know that Granny went straight to heaven after she died. But Mommy doesn’t actually know this. The truth is that Mommy is lying—either to herself or to her children—and most of us have agreed to view this behavior as perfectly normal. Rather than teach our children to grieve, and to be happy despite the reality of death, we nourish their powers of self-deception.
How likely is it that Jesus was really born of a virgin, rose from the dead, and will bodily return to earth at some future date? How reasonable is it to believe in such a concatenation of miracles on the basis of the Gospel account? How much support do these doctrines receive from the average Christian’s experience in church? Honest answers to these questions should raise a tsunami of doubt. I’m not sure what will be “Christian” about any Christians left standing.
Faith is like a pickpocket who loans a person his own money on generous terms. The victim’s gratitude is perfectly understandable, but absolutely misplaced.
Many readers of Letter to a Christian Nation have taken inspiration from Blaise Pascal and argued that evidence is beside the point and that religious believers have simply taken the wiser of two bets: if a believer is wrong about God, there is not much harm to him or to anyone else, and if he is right, he wins eternal happiness; if an atheist is wrong, however, he is destined to spend eternity in hell. On this view, atheism is the very picture of reckless stupidity.
While Pascal deserves his reputation as a brilliant mathematician, his wager was never more than a cute (and false) analogy. Like many cute ideas in philosophy, it is easily remembered and often repeated, and this has lent it an undeserved air of profundity. A moment’s thought reveals that if the wager were valid, it could justify almost any belief system, no matter how ludicrous or antithetical to Christianity. Another problem with the wager—and it is a problem that infects religious thinking generally—is its suggestion that a rational person can knowingly will himself to believe a proposition for which he has no evidence. A person can profess any creed he likes, of course, but to really believe it, he must believe that it is true. To believe that there is a God, for instance, is to believe that you are not just fooling yourself; it is to believe that you stand in some relation to God’s existence such that, if He didn’t exist, you wouldn’t believe in him. How does Pascal’s wager fit into this scheme? It doesn’t.
The reasons to doubt the existence of God are in plain view for everyone to see: everyone can see that the Bible is not the perfect word of an omniscient deity; everyone can see that there is no evidence for a God who answers prayers and that any God who would grant prayers for football championships, while doling out cancer and car accidents to little boys and girls, is unworthy of our devotion. Everyone who has eyes to see can see that if the God of Abraham exists, He is an utter psychopath—and the God of Nature is too. If you can’t see these things just by looking, you have simply closed your eyes to the realities of our world.
I have no doubt that many Christians find great consolation in their faith. But faith is not the best source of consolation. Faith is like a pickpocket who loans a person his own money on generous terms. The victim’s gratitude is perfectly understandable, but absolutely misplaced. Weare the source of the love that our priests and pastors attribute to God (how else can we feel it?). Your own consciousness is the cause and substance of any experience you might want to deem “spiritual” or “mystical.” Realizing this, what possible need is there to pretend to be certain about ancient miracles?
Sam Harris speaking with the Future of Life Institute, in May 2020. This entire talk is definitely well worth listening to.
Lucas Perry: One thing that I wanted to throw in here in terms of the kinetics of long-termism and emotional saliency, it would be stupidly optimistic I think, to think that everyone could become selfless bodhisattvas. In terms of your interest, the way in which you promote meditation and mindfulness, and your arguments against the conventional, experiential and conceptual notion of the self, for me at least, has dissolved much of the barriers which would hold me from being emotionally motivated from long-termism.
Now, that itself I think, is another long conversation. When your sense of “self” is becoming nudged, disentangled and dissolved in new ways, the idea that it won’t be you in the future, or the idea that the beautiful dreams that Dyson-spheres will be having in a billion years are not you, that begins to relax a bit. That’s probably not something that is helpful for most people, but I do think that it’s possible for people to adopt and for meditation, mindfulness and introspection to lead to this weakening of sense of “self,” which then also opens one’s optimism, and compassion, and mind towards the long-termist view.
Sam Harris: That’s something that you get from reading Derek Parfit’s work. The paradoxes of identity that he so brilliantly framed and tried to reason through yield something like what you’re talking about. It’s not so important whether it’s “you”, because this notion of you is in fact, paradoxical to the point of being impossible to pin down. Whether the you that woke up in your bed this morning is the same person who went to sleep in it the night before, that is problematic. Yet there’s this fact of some degree of psychological continuity.
The basic fact experientially is just, there is consciousness and its contents. The only place for feelings, and perceptions, and moods, and expectations, and experience to show up is in consciousness, whatever it is and whatever its connection to the physics of things actually turns out to be. There’s just consciousness. The question of where it appears is a genuinely interesting one philosophically, and intellectually, and scientifically, and ultimately morally.
Because if we build conscious robots or conscious computers and build them in a way that causes them to suffer, we’ve just done something terrible. We might do that inadvertently if we don’t know how consciousness arises based on information processing, or whether it does. It’s all interesting terrain to think about. If the lights are still on a billion years from now, and the view of the universe is unimaginably bright, and interesting and beautiful, and all kinds of creative things are possible by virtue of the kinds of minds involved, that will be much better than any alternative. That’s certainly how it seems to me.
Lucas Perry: I agree. Some things here that ring true seem to be, you always talk about how there’s only consciousness and its contents. I really like the phrase, “Seeing from nowhere.” That usually is quite motivating for me, in terms of the arguments against the conventional conceptual and experiential notions of self. There just seems to be instantiations of consciousness intrinsically free of identity.
Sam Harris: Two things to distinguish here. There’s the philosophical, conceptual side of the conversation, which can show you that things like your concept of a “self”, or certainly your concept of a “self” that could have free will that, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. It doesn’t make sense when mapped onto physics. It doesn’t make sense when looked for neurologically. Any way you look at it, it begins to fall apart. That’s interesting, but again, it doesn’t necessarily change anyone’s experience.
It’s just a riddle that can’t be solved. Then there’s the experiential side which you encounter more in things like meditation, or psychedelics, or sheer good luck where you can experience consciousness without the sense that there’s a subject or a self in the center of it appropriating experiences. Just a continuum of experience that doesn’t have structure in the normal way. What’s more, that’s not a problem. In fact, it’s the solution to many problems.
A lot of the discomfort you have felt psychologically goes away when you punch through to a recognition that consciousness is just the space in which thoughts, sensations and emotions continually appear, change and vanish. There’s no thinker authoring the thoughts. There’s no experiencer in the middle of the experience. It’s not to say you don’t have a body. There’s every sign that you have a body is still appearing. There’s sensations of tension, warmth, pressure and movement.
There are sights, there are sounds but again, everything is simply an appearance in this condition, which I’m calling consciousness for lack of a better word. There’s no subject to whom it all refers. That can be immensely freeing to recognize, and that’s a matter of a direct change in one’s experience. It’s not a matter of banging your head against the riddles of Derek Parfit or any other way of undermining one’s belief in personal identity or the reification of a self.
I listened to this twice in one week.
An absolute masterpiece: essay-writing at its most sublime. This is gutsy, and wide-ranging, and clear as a laser. But it benefits best from being listened to twice. Too much depth, nuance, and an incredibly nimble build-out of understanding that only Sam Harris can do. We are all so lucky to have his vast intelligence, sensitivity, courage, and most of all, his neurotic bodhisattva heart.
Money quote: “Your capacity to be offended isnt something that I, or anyone else, should respect. Your capacity to be offended isn’t something that even you should respect. In fact, it is something you should be on the lookout for. All we have between US and the total breakdown of civilization is a series of successful conversations.”
This brand-new release is one of the best statements I have ever heard — EVER HEARD — on the essence of meditation, its “purpose” and ontological truth. Less than 10 minutes, it is the clearest, most intrinsically emphatic “call to action” for meditation from one of the world’s greatest living teachers of the nature of consciousness.
His books — among them especially The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, and Free Will — have had major impacts on my life: as much as providing any new information, it felt like meeting someone speaking many truths I had already felt, and had even spoken about publicly, yet in far less careful, far less informed, far less intelligent phrasing. The sober clarity of his thought-flow, his incisive wisdom, his stunning brilliance, his compassion for the suffering of others, his stark bravery, and his beautifully dry sense of humor are all things I connect with deeply. I often say to people that Sam Harris is the one thinker, writer, or teacher who I have never felt even the slightest disagreement with a single one of his words. Read that again: not just his ideas, but especially the way he says them, the very words he uses and the turns of phrase, the subtle emphases and stresses, the sly under-commentaries expressed in his deliciously sarcastic tone-range — I find and feel a far far more perfect, dismayingly perfected expression of things that I have vaguely, even brutally considered, yet never had the sobriety to express so well, with such calm and such balanced measurement and delicacy and pure intelligence as him. There is even shame in the listening: some part of the ego recognizes in him a person of my own generation, of my own culture and even with similar life-experience, a person who I would have/could have become had I been a person of less intemperate behaviors and addictions of thought, and emotion. What did Ralph Waldo Emerson say, in his 1841 essay, “On Self-Reliance”? “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”
Sam Harris is central in my little Pantheon of the truly greats who influence my view and expression of the minutiae of life in the universe, right up there with Emerson and Cioran, with Wallace Stevens, Thomas Mann, and Rainer Maria Rilke and Franz Kafka and a few others. Only above him stand the true cosmic Immortals: Mahler and Blake, Schopenhauer and Shakespeare, and Dogen Zen-ji.
Subscribing to Sam’s podcast beginning some 5 years ago has been one of the wisest investments I ever made. Gratitude without end for being in a world where Sam Harris speaks. So simple and clear and yet passionate, a true living Bodhisattva — Manjushri, wielding the sharp sword of wisdom.
We all know what a seeming insurmountability it is to grapple with the forces and effects of our own karma, or “mind habits,” as Dae Soen Sa Nim so tersely defined it. Even after years and years of practice. And even he clearly could not perfectly master it, in his own life, despite a great enlightenment and a really really really strong center. I know that I cannot yet master it!
Now, how about super-intelligent machines having karma wired into their very DNA? It is happening, because we make them. We are making AI, and we are wiring our karma right into it. This image that AI will somehow be just some benign force that drives our cars perfectly and detects cancer cells and kills them earlier is pure fiction.
Imago dei. In the image of god.
This article in today’s New York Times points to two things I have been saying in public talks about computers, AI, and the human mind. In short, AI definitely has “karma,” and therefore, we should definitely fear it.
In an article titled, “We Teach A.I. Systems Everything, Including Our Biases,” the Times reports that “Last fall, Google unveiled a breakthrough artificial intelligence technology called BERT that changed the way scientists build systems that learn how people write and talk. But BERT, which is now being deployed in services like Google’s internet search engine, has a problem: It could be picking up on biases in the way a child mimics the bad behavior of his parents.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/11/technology/artificial-intelligence-bias.html)
This article naturally made me worry. It makes me worry because I have already been worrying about this issue of AI a great deal, intuitively, and the latest developments in AI clearly confirm that that suspicion is merited. Several years of a latent, unspoken gloom was given flesh and bones by Sam Harris’s great TED talk on AI (“Can We Build AI Without Losing Control Over It?” — link below). Rather than newly informing me, Sam’s talk just confirmed — with facts and Sam’s extraordinary clarity — things already darkly suspected. His later conversation with Nick Bostrum, “Will We Destroy the Future?” just confirmed things. I am no specialist, and actually I don’t read much, but this AI is something I am definitely worried about. I am worried about it precisely as a student of meditation, a student of mind and its discontents.
And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image/b’tsalmeinu, after our likeness/kid’muteinu (Genesis 1:26–28)
In talks both public and private, I often use examples of digital performance/experience to describe aspects of the meditation experience. The operations of computers are a perfect way for explaining simply the operations of our minds because human minds have birthed computers, and we have given them the negative capacities of our minds just as much as we have designed the amazing functions that they possess. So, when people come with all sorts of questions about meditation practice or human psychology, it is so simple to answer their questions using the terminology and function of our digital ecosystem. In the past, teachers used examples from “nature” to explain mind and human nature; these days, humans are removed from nature, and connect far more readily to the examples drawn from their ubiquitous computer existence.
And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image/b’tsalmeinu, after our likeness/kid’muteinuGen 1:26–28
I often describe how complicated thinking comes from “keeping too many apps open” in our minds (and that meditation “shuts them down”); that Zen meditation is itself a very powerful “mind-hacking tool” that cuts through the normal barriers preventing a sense of spiritual/mental wholeness; that we constantly “download data” through the senses all day that, when not well integrated through a consistent meditation practice, makes us tired or run-down, scattered, edgy, stressed, or makes us give suffering to others in an uncontrollable way; that we are constantly downloading “malware”- and “computer-virus”-like thoughts through constant close-contact with other human beings in the modern world, and therefore must practice constantly in order not to be controlled by it all; that when we are attached to our thinking, we cannot “download” our true (innate) wisdom from the “cloud” of don’t-know. I talk about how, just as our computers perform much more slowly when there are too many programs open simultaneously, or when we are viewing a movie on the computer and try to do other computer functions at the same time, there is a slowing-down, even a crash, and how this is connected to the very ways we use our minds, overburdened with sensory stimulation and now “continuous partial attention.” I speak quite often how “karma” can be understood as something that we have “downloaded” from family or society and its many experiences.
I often talk about the fact that it is no mistake that it was a Zen meditation practitioner (Steve Jobs) who had the first intuition of the intuitive integration of human-machine functionality called the smartphone. Dae Soen Sa Nim used to also sometimes point to a student’s head and say “Your computer too complicated.”
It’s not a novel insight: Our minds function like computers because our minds designed computers. Our minds designed computers to function like them, to retain and process abstract bits of information as nearly as possible to the linear ways that we retain and process and act on them.
So, naturally, as a neuroscientist and serious, seasoned meditator, one of the great accessible speakers on the topic is Sam Harris. Forget the fact that I consider him — on a vast range of human insight — to be a modern Buddha who is, in every respect, a shining Jeremiah of our Age. But his TED talk on the subject in 2016 (nearly 5,000,000 views to date) presents the tersest explanations of the profound existential conundrum in which we now find ourselves. Everyone to whom I have introduced this emphatically prophetic talk has come away with eyes opened so wide they can only shiver at the horizons looming mercilessly forward into view:
The Future of Life Institute summarizes Sam’s thrust pretty well:
In the talk, [Sam Harris] clarifies that it’s not likely armies of malicious robots will wreak havoc on civilization like many movies and caricatures portray. He likens this machine-human relationship to the way humans treat ants. “We don’t hate [ants],” he explains, “but whenever their presence seriously conflicts with one of our goals … we annihilate them without a qualm. The concern is that we will one day build machines that, whether they are conscious or not, could treat us with similar disregard.”
Harris explains that one only needs to accept three basic assumptions to recognize the inevitability of superintelligent AI:
- Intelligence is a product of information processing in physical systems.
- We will continue to improve our intelligent machines.
- We do not stand on the peak of intelligence or anywhere near it.
Humans have already created systems with narrow intelligence that exceeds human intelligence (such as computers). And since mere matter can give rise to general intelligence (as in the human brain), there is nothing, in principle, preventing advanced general intelligence in machines, which are also made of matter.
But Harris says the third assumption is “the crucial insight” that “makes our situation so precarious.” If machines surpass human intelligence and can improve themselves, they will be more capable than even the smartest humans—in unimaginable ways.
Even if a machine is no smarter than a team of researchers at MIT, “electronic circuits function about a million times faster than biochemical ones,” Harris explains. “So you set it running for a week, and it will perform 20,000 years of human-level intellectual work, week after week after week.”
Harris wonders, “How could we even understand, much less constrain, a mind making this sort of progress?”
Harris also worries that the power of superintelligent AI will be abused, furthering wealth inequality and increasing the risk of war. “This is a winner-take-all scenario,” he explains. Given the speed that these machines can process information, “[for one country] to be six months ahead of the competition here is to be 500,000 years ahead, at a minimum.”
So, the development of AI by human beings who, themselves, are nearly always under the operation and control of karmic softwares that they, themselves, neither perceive nor recognize, nor exert the least bit of control over, gives very little confidence to the prospect of the development of AI systems. You might like the way your Alexa or WhatsApp (I do!) or Google Translate (I DO!) function, but it does not equip even microscopically you for the immense — insuperable, as I see it — challenges and impossibilities of runaway technology. In fact, it humanizes and makes fatally convenient a tool which is far far too capable of running away with our very humanity than we are even remotely able to comprehend.
As these tools and technologies become ever-more essential for how we carry out our lives — from dictation to law enforcement — we erase the lines of clear perception and enter fully and irreversibly into the realms of our darkest impulses.
From the New York Times article today:
Researchers have long warned of bias in A.I. that learns from large amounts data, including the facial recognition systems that are used by police departments and other government agencies as well as popular internet services from tech giants like Google and Facebook. In 2015, for example, the Google Photos app was caught labeling African-Americans as “gorillas.” The services Dr. Munro scrutinized also showed bias against women and people of color.
BERT and similar systems are far more complex — too complex for anyone to predict what they will ultimately do.
“Even the people building these systems don’t understand how they are behaving,” said Emily Bender, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in computational linguistics.
So, as I said above, one of the nascent, insidious dangers of AI is that it has become just so normal to live alongside it with the same lack of apprehension as someone who has brought a cute little lion cub into their home as a novelty pet that might yet adapt to our domestic ways. I have serenely accessed (and benefitted from) Google’s search AI several times just in the speed-writing of these quick reflections (it’s hard not to feel a deep urgency about these things). AI lives in our pockets already. As a result, according to Sam, in the talk above, most people “seem unable to marshal an appropriate emotional response to the dangers that lie ahead.” And that worries me a lot more. This is really just another existential fuel for the burning fire of the Great Question. If anything fires up don’t-know, it’s this subject.
Reading the New York Times article this morning in the waiting room of the doctor’s office just inflames the possibilities further: if AI begins to “inherit” the biases — i.e., thinking-habits, “mind habits” (Dae Soen Sa Nim), meaning “karma” — of its flawed creators (who, themselves, “run” on reams of unexamined mind-habits), this is no longer the benign relationship to searches such as “How do I share Instagram Story to my WordPress blog?” queries. It’s hard enough managing our own in-built karmic tendencies, and then the countless mind-habit biases of the myriad humans in our ever-widening constellation of human relations, stretching from each one of us out to family, friends, partners (and their families), work colleagues, into sangha members, local community, national compatriots, fellow world citizens, right up into the dank reptilian recesses of a Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin, finger-on-the-button and tearing-up-cooperative-agreements-and-weapons-treaties.
The Lord with his own two hands created mankind; and in a facsimile of his own face. (2 Enoch 44:1–3)
We’ve been not so good at managing the karma-glitches in our software. As individuals, as a species, we have not come remotely close to being the true Lords of our own cause-and-effect behaviors. Our mind-habits dictate so much of the destruction of our health, our relationships, societies, and now even our entire biosphere. What if super-intelligent machines possess these blind mind-habits, too? Well, AI already possesses these karmic “glitches”, inherited from its masters.
I cannot urge with greater urgency Sam’s great conversation with Nick Bostrum (“one of the most provocative philosophers I can think of, ” Sam says), the Director, Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University. It’s a division of Oxford focused on the study of existential risk — the existential risks to human existence. It’s definitely must-listening.
They discuss public goods, moral illusions, the asymmetry between happiness and suffering, utilitarianism, “the vulnerable world hypothesis,” the history of nuclear deterrence, the possible need for “turnkey totalitarianism,” whether we’re living in a computer simulation, the Doomsday Argument, the implications of extraterrestrial life, and other topics. But it’s especially their discussion of AI that is most relevant. Here is the link, and you should set aside some time to hear their whole, absorbing, talk in its mouth-gaping entirety:
So, yes, I am worried about AI. Rather than just from a fear of tech, I have this worry from everyone’s experience of the lack of effort we put into examining and digesting karma, our mind-habits. This is my basic sense of things. It’s not a complete picture, and I claim no expertise or leading knowledge. I might even be pathetically uninformed, since I really cannot read books these days and prefer nearly always to spend the remaining hours available husbanding energy and enthusiasm for sitting meditation.
But, this NYT article really hit my Buddhist training right straight in the solar plexus today: AI is being developed, at breakneck speed, by a species which is notoriously blind to its own karmic tendencies, with the first country-tribe of these karmic-disasters to “reach the goal” instantly becoming the world-dominating force which would (potentially) reduce every other seeker — competitor and friend — into utter, irrevocable subservience. The incentives for “winning” are scary-immense; the outcomes for “losing” unforeseeable, and impossible to contemplate.
And as if this NYT article was not enough: Just very recently, the esteemed American documentary program, Frontline, presented this fascinating program called “In the Age of AI.” It describes the race between China and the USA to gain mastery in the field of AI. “Who arrives at AI first, controls the future,” many people say. I recommend a watching of this program for the latest insights into where this “karma” is all going — from surveillance capitalism of social media to the surveillance state of AI, which China is already implementing with “social credits,” use of AI face-recognition software of identify even jaywalkers, shame them with their picture posted instantly on a vast screen at the intersection, and fine them before they ever reach the other side of the street; and a face-recognition-only, cashless economy which tracks one’s every purchase, and which learns one’s behavior to predict models of one’s future behavior, choices, even thoughts and feelings.
So, we still don’t see our karma, even as tribes, as societies, as nations, and as a species. I would not want even my best and clearest human friend armed with tools so infinitely absolute and unchallengaeable what AI clearly and demonstrably offers.
In the end, I am not a social analyst or commentator. These are just the ramblings of a meditator who has been left too long with boundless internet access in his hands, and a lifelong foreboding about the human condition and my own unwitting place in all of it, and how I got here, and what should be done about these unfortunate conditions so received. I will never pretend to be making some new or particularly piercing insight here, and on many points will probably be proven to be wrong.
Also, I am not just a Luddite, some anti-tech Buddhist monk so attached to “nature” and fearful of the benefits of these silicone-and-metal demigods. I grew up among computers — big big really heavy computers — long long before 99% of the population ever conceived of their existence or role in their lives. In fact, it was the sale and maintenance of advanced Wang Laboratories computer systems which funded my beloved after-school peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches with a cold glass of milk, Catholic school beating-sessions from nuns, alienated summers on Cape Cod seeking shade from a blinding sun and vague social stratifications, and Yale education among English aristocracy, Jews, gays, New York socialites, Hollywood move stars, children-of-prominent-intellectuals — all the things a northern Jersey boy never gets to know from danker childhood, yet grows to view with fascinations which shape and enrich him. My Father was a skillful salesman (and executive) with Wang — a company which was once considered a significant rival to IBM, before Wang decided (early 80s or so) that this new PC-thang would never catch on, regular folks would never make computers their own and buy them in such quantities for personal use in the home as to turn a profit. (And yet the explosion occurred, and Wang is now no more, and a company never dreamed of in those years is now the richest corporation in the world, and transmits these words to you while you sit on the toilet or on a subway.)
I do not rebel against AI because of any weak-flower rebellion against “the new,” and too-hard holding of the ancient, the traditional, the temple, the mystic, the “Zen.” Through my good Dad’s earnest paycheck, I am also a child of the computer.
But this alone is not the dilemma we are facing. It is not enough merely to question things from the point of view of the subject-object: AI is bad. AI is dangerous. AI threatens us.
AI does not threaten us, any more than this pen before me, this sound outside the window, or this cup of coffee on the desk threaten me/us. It is our own lack of insight into our own minds that is the greatest threat, and AI is merely its own best (worst!) catalyst.
Really, there might be no better words directing us to the heart of the most essential matter on this than Dae Soen Sa Nim. In his seminal book, Only Don’t Know, we have a collection of exquisite letter-exchanges between the Zen master and his Western students, how quaintly preserved for us in the pre-Internet amber of an intimate one-on-one letter coming to a master, and a one-on-one answer arriving to the student, albeit by several weeks of delay.
It is important to note that this exchange happens in the early 1980s: Steve Jobs’s dream is still, as yet, some years away. My own father’s computers have not entered the experience of regular people’s lives, much less the experience of an itinerant Zen master from Korea traveling through the strange, weird lands of post-Watergate America.
In this simple, yet priceless exchange, an American student asks about the compatibility of science with meditation practice. Dae Soen Sa Nim, as usual, like your UPC scanner at the supermarket checkout, he scans the issue and issues an insight which is so completely updated to the question in that moment that it is, almost digitally, one might say, calibrated to any question raised by AI or digital reality or anything else either dreamed of or not yet imagined by this babbling essay.
Dae Soen Sa Nim’s main point is this, and his answer has clear force for how we should view any of these reports about the “advance” or problematics of AI or anything: WHO is the driver?
We have consciousness, and this consciousness is like a computer. A computer does not work by itself; somebody controls the computer. Our consciousness also does not make itself work; “something” controls our consciousness. Then our consciousness makes science. So this something controls consciousness, and consequently science. This “something” is not science, not consciousness, but has consciousness and science. So I say to you, if you attain this “something,” you understand consciousness and understand science. The name for that is Zen.
So, AI does have karma. And we should definitely, clearly be absolutely concerned about that. The reason is because “karma” means mind-habits, and unexamined mind-habits nearly always produce suffering for others.
As usual, Dae Soen Sa Nim’s words about the present conundrum are clear, piercing, prescient, event prophetic.
This is it. Before developing better Alexas and better self-driving cars — all based on AI, for our convenience — we should really make effort to develop insight into the driver of these cars, the listeners of these automated sound-systems.
Yeah, I’m worried. I really don’t believe in human beings’ ability to safely regulate and perceive this stuff. The Chinese government is already employing its vast pools of personal-data, through algorithms and self-learning machines, to round up, imprison, and oppress a whole ethnic group, the Uighurs. In the Frontline documentary, we are told by leading authorities of the ways in which China is already exporting these manifest technologies, and their supporting infrastructure, to African countries.
If you think that Sam Harris might not yet qualify as true prophet of where we are going, I leave you with the mesmerizing soul-insights of Kraftwerk — prophets of an order way way beyond anything “predicted” by moldy biblical texts.
Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard
Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard
Business, Numbers, Money, People
Business, Numbers, Money, People
Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard
Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard
Business, Numbers, Money, People
Business, Numbers, Money, People
Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard
Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard
Crime, Travel, Communication, Entertainment
Crime, Travel, Communication, Entertainment
Kraftwek already saw where this was heading: “…Business, Numbers, Money, People… Crime, Travel, Communication, Entertainment.”
AI has karma. We should fear about it what we fear about our false understanding of our self. With this subject, as with everything: really, the way is just “only don’t know.” Instead of better better better tech ubiquity, who “controls” our mind-computer.
Entering the Temple of Apollo, in sacred Delphi, the ancient words call us to a truer path than chasing all this tech “knowing”: γνῶθι σεαυτόν. “Know thyself.” The road that leads to insight into not-knowing.