I’m archiving a bunch of my previous features/interviews here for posterity. This interview was conducted in 2011. Not transcribed here was an extended chat about my writing and video production projects. Sam signed my copy of The Moral Landscape with a note which reads: “With high hopes for your own work!” Talk about pressure…
How did you discover your opposition to religious faith?
It wasn’t so much that I discovered it. I’d never had any religious faith of any kind, and then I saw it shaping public policy and causing such bizarre and harmful behaviour, and so a criticism of it formed more or less instantaneously. Especially on September 11th 2001. It was clear that this was a religious problem over merely a political one. I’d spent a lot of time thinking about religious experience and being interested in “spiritual”, and what purports to be the good parts of religion. I’d always been interested both intellectually and experientially engaged with, but just not in a faith-based, belief context.
I’m quite sympathetic with the truly interesting religious literature such as St John of the Cross, the desert fathers, any mystical literature within Christianity or Islam, or when I read the poetry of Rumi. I know what these people are talking about. The religious language that captures that positive end of the spectrum of human experience is appropriate, but unfortunately is invariably interpreted within the context of certain metaphysical beliefs that are completely unjustifiable. The irony is that I feel like I connect with that literature more than nine out of ten people for whom religion seems indispensable. Most Christians I meet are not people who are trying to emulate the experience of Meister Eckhart.
I view popular religion as a perversion of an ancient opportunity. The opportunity is that it’s possible to transform human life to some significant degree, to have insights into your own subjectivity that can lead you to become a different person, and that it can connect with one’s ethical life. I don’t doubt that it’s possible to be like Jesus and to love your neighbour as yourself. That’s probably a fair description of a state of consciousness that it’s possible to inhabit.
How did you come to be one of the so-called Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse?
In publishing The End of Faith, the first of the so-called “new atheist” books. More than anything else it’s been a publishing phenomenon including five books. The End of Faith, then The God Delusion, then Letter to a Christian Nation, then Breaking the Spell, then God is Not Great. They were all viewed as a single wave of heresy taking the public world by storm. We’ve since been treated like a four-headed atheist by our detractors, as well as sometimes by our fans. To some degree that’s useful because we align pretty closely in our criticism of religion and it’s given more momentum to each book. But it was not a collaboration until later, when we discovered we were all out there together making the same noises.
I’ve always found there to be something ridiculous about the phrase “new atheists”. Our tagline at The Freethinker is now “New Atheists Since 1881”.
Of course there’s absolutely nothing new about it. We both recognise atheism as the default position, and as such it can’t possibly be new.
There are some new wrinkles raised by our books, however. One is a special focus on the problem of religious moderation. This tends to confuse people because on its face, from the atheist point of view moderation is objectively better than fundamentalism, it’s a movement in the right direction clearly, and probably in pragmatic and political terms the best we can hope for. But there is an insidious role played by the moderate because through their opposition to criticism of religion they make it difficult to combat the truly devout who are misleading their children with thoughts of hell or dividing the world into separate moral communities and so on.
Regarding your new book, The Moral Landscape, how would you define the central thesis, and how does it challenge the prevailing moral zeitgeist?
The central thesis is that moral truths exist; that the split between facts and values is a sign of philosophical confusion and that therefore we can understand moral truths, right and wrong, good and evil in the context of science; that morality is now but will more obviously become a branch of the sciences of mind, just as medicine is a branch of life science. If you understand the human body, you are by definition understanding how it can be sick or how it can be healthy. There’s no extra story you have to tell.
Do you think philosophy has actually made it more difficult to talk about these things? In one of your footnotes, you wrote that you felt like the use of philosophical jargon such as ‘cognitivism’, ‘non-naturalism’, ‘deontology’ and so on, has served only to increase the amount of boredom in the universe.
I do think so yes. I’ve gotten quite a lot of heat for this, because academic philosophers obviously feel that they’ve been unfairly denigrated or ignored. The truth is that I wasn’t saying that the literature bores me. I was saying that it bores most people, which it objectively does, as can be seen in how few people actually read it. My goal was to communicate with as wide a readership as possible, not to pander or to sell books, but to say something useful. I feel that much that has been said in philosophy seminars on the nature of moral truth is needlessly turgid and misleading. But it could be made more accessible and brought into a contemporary discussion of science without following around on the corpses of all these old arguments. For some reason, every discussion of moral truths has to start with Kant and Hume, or Plato and Aristotle. We end up as if we’re playing tennis between two opposing sides as though they were evenly matched. That’s why I hesitated in announcing myself a consequentialist, as it confuses all of the people who think that there are long-standing stalemates between it and rival views, many of which I believe to be confused.
Your reviews have been critical of an unstated premise in your argument, in that we move from the descriptive fact, “pleasure/wellbeing is the preferable state of conscious creatures” to the normative injunction that “we should maximise the pleasure/wellbeing of conscious creatures”? How can a science of morality make a move from what is to what ought to be?
These questions, or the other one, ‘why might we have a duty to maximize the wellbeing of conscious creatures’, are linguistic tricks that seem to introduce this layer of doubt where I think none can exist. Here, I have an argument regarding the worst possible misery for everyone. If you consider what is meant by the phrase ‘the worst possible misery for everyone’, you can see we’ve hit moral bedrock. If we ought to do anything in the universe; if the word ought means anything; we ought to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone. There is no ought that is deeper than that. There’s no place to stand to ask, “but should we really avoid the worst possible misery for everyone?” It seems to open doubt in a direction that doesn’t exist. “Would it sometimes be good to allow that we experience the worst possible misery for everyone?” This is the worst suffering possible for as long as physically possible, it’s not like it’s going to come out good in the end, or that it serves a higher purpose, but that it is the worst possible outcome, or hell on Earth, if you will.
And if you have a different mind, your misery will be different from someone else’s. There could be a million different minima on the moral landscape. Whatever the worst is for you, given the possibilities of experience for a brain like yours, that would be it for as long as possible. To ask if it is really good to avoid that, or if we really ought to avoid it is analogous to saying something like, if we define the operation of mathematical equivalence, the equals sign, and take 2 = 2, but then ask but does two really equal two? It’s as if there’s an inflection you could put on the question that seems to open a space of doubt, which I would say simply doesn’t exist.
It’s interesting asking philosophically inclined people about your work. I’ve heard people ask, “Why would we want to maximise the wellbeing of conscious creatures?” as if it’s something lowly.
I was pleased to hear you call William Lane Craig out on it when he said, “All Sam is trying to do is maximise the wellbeing of sentient creatures on this planet!”
It’s amazing that someone could utter that statement without a hint of shame. I want to hear the alternative that attracts them. Lane Craig spat it out as if I was advocating the torture of children.
Here’s a Kantian thought experiment: Charity workers travel to Bosnia on egalitarian grounds to provide medical assistance and care – so for very noble reasons – but accidentally assist in the carrying out of ethnic cleansing. How are we to think of them through the lens that the moral landscape provides us?
There’s definitely a role for intention. What one intends to do is different from one inadvertently does in two senses. First, it gives an indication of what you’re inclined to do if given another chance. If you’re the kind of person who intentionally harms people, then if you’re placed in a situation where you can harm people you might act on it. If you harm someone accidentally because you’ve had a seizure or whatever, then you’re not that person we need to worry about. It’s morally salient from the point of view of relationships, but also from the point of view of your experiences. Intentions colour your conscious life. If you’re the kind of person who is intending to help people because you actually care about their wellbeing, and feel compassion, love people, are friendly and so on, that says a lot about what it is like to be you. If you’re the kind of person who is inadvertently helping people, or you’re helping people based on some ulterior motive to extract whatever mercenary gain you can get out of it in the end, then that also says a lot about what it’s like to be you. It affects the kind of emotional bonds you can form with other people.
One comparable fact is that positive intentions colour our lives in a positive way and conduce to our well being, and to our mutual wellbeing in social space. The friendlier we are, the more basis for trust we have for one another, because people are not ill intentioned towards one another. It’s not a zero-sum situation. That is just a better world for mostly everyone, most of the time. You can have situations whereby there’s a downside to that, say, where psychopaths can take advantage of friendly people, so we’d have to be on guard against psychopaths some of the time. There could be dips in the moral landscape, and we can imagine unfortunate places in the landscape, whereby in order to get to a higher place on the landscape we have to dip down to an unpleasant part. We could decide that there are just too many bad people in the world for us to be trusting and friendly as we are inclined to be, and that we must turn down the screws on our social liberties a little bit. We might have to endure a police state for five weeks or so because people are running amok. We can make sense of that as a means to a higher end, and we make calculations like that all of the time. This makes sense of how it’s not just a matter of immediate pleasure. We can make sacrifices and defer pleasure in the pursuit of deeper wellbeing in the end. The difficulty and frustration of learning to play an instrument, for example, can be unpleasant for a time, but it’s all in the service of acquiring the mental tools for something you couldn’t otherwise enjoy. There are many things like that.
Also, I think deontologists – or duty-based philosophers – are just closet consequentialists, though they’d protest otherwise. If Kant’s categorical imperative had abysmal consequences, there wouldn’t be the slightest reason to think of it as a wise ethical precept. The same with the Rawlsian notion of fairness. I love Rawls, but it only makes so much sense because his reflection about the Veil of Ignorance, and how that thought experiment would lead even the most unpleasant people to agree to design a just society, is only brilliant because we have a very deep intuition that it will conserve everything we care about. I note in the book that if we discover that a perfectly fair society would actually lead to the suffering of many people, then we could just tweak the dial just a little on fairness; allow just a little corruption. In fact, that might be true. Perhaps a little corruption in our world or many possible worlds is actually better than a perfectly letter-of-the-law case, because it allows for a response to certain emergencies that wouldn’t otherwise be the case or so on. It’s conceivable. I think Rawls should give in to wellbeing at that point.
If we agree that someone can be wrong about what promotes their wellbeing, what is to stop, for example, a woman in Afghanistan to be sublimely happy in her subservient role, to truly enjoy her life in a Burkha, feels that disobedient women should have acid thrown in their faces, because everything she has ever read about women’s wellbeing she truly believes. If she’s internalised the claims of the Qur’an so well that her wellbeing is shaped by her understanding of how wellbeing should be sought, and as a result feels very happy most of the time, what position do we take in speaking with her?
That’s a great question. Before I answer, let’s think about the program of persuading her. It wouldn’t be necessary if she’s truly happier than I am, and I say it could be possible. There are people living in bizarre circumstances and in conditions of what we might call deprivation who could be sublimely happy. For the most part people are only in such situations to intentionally make sophisticated use of that deprivation, such as someone who goes to live in a cave for ten years to meditate. If you put an ordinary person in a cave for ten years they’re going to go out of their minds. But you can be in a cave bereft of anything an ordinary person would want in their life and be very happy, if you know what you’re there for. That doesn’t mean that shoving people in caves is a recipe for making people happy.
To the woman in Afghanistan, even if she – based on some personal idiosyncrasies of alignment between the dogma she’s been indoctrinated with and her psychology has managed to become very happy, that can’t be a peak on the moral landscape because, there many other ways to become that happy that don’t entail liking to throw battery acid in the faces of little girls, and that allow for the happiness of many other people who aren’t made happy in that way of life. So her happiness is coming at a price, and the entropy is being exported to the rest of society. So for example it’s perfectly possible for there to have been happy Nazis who enjoyed everything about what was going on in the Third Reich. I allow for pathological states of happiness. There are people who are made happy by sadistic pleasures, but that closes the door to other kinds of happiness that they can’t enjoy, and it, too, can’t be a peak on the landscape because it’s coming at the cost of other people’s suffering.
My concern is that the moral landscape, because of the fact that goods and bads can be realised in many different ways, that it allows for a kind of moral relativism. People can be taught to find all sorts of things pleasurable or painful, so we could have “Do you want to teach your children X or Y?” where X and Y lead to relatively equivalent subjective states of wellbeing.
It depends on what you mean by relativism. It does lead to multiple goods and bads, but it’s not anti-realist in the sense that there are no moral truths. There are real highs and real lows. You can have mistaken beliefs about how to get to the closest peak or avoided the closest valley. You can think you’re headed towards happiness and be wrong. It’s true that different minds or brains can experience different maxima, and that there’s always a question of whether we should change our brains to experience other maxima. That seems to cut deeper, because there’s a landscape of good experiences, which is possible given the way we are, but if you introduce the possibility of changing we are, we can ask whether it would be good to do that.
So the transhumanist project posits exactly this; that we can modify our brains to feel permanently happier and more fulfilled . Do you sympathise with this way of thinking?
It raises obvious concerns. There are so many more ways for things to go wrong than go right, and so we’re right to be cautious in the face of the most grandiose, ambitious and intrusive neurological changes to our selves. I certainly wouldn’t be the first person to volunteer to have my brain meddled with, just as I’m not going to be the first person to be on a rocket ride into space. Once they commercialise space travel, once the kinks have been worked out, and I feel confident it’s safe, I’d be more likely to want to. But if we stipulate that the technology really works, and it’s as straightforward as orthodontics, then that would be very different. They know how to do it, and there’s no downside. Curing depression could be as routine as straightening your teeth. It could be something like a helmet that you put on, turn a dial, and non-intrusively tune in any mental state you want. So one could get the Dalai Lama’s best mood, or Kim Jong Il’s feelings about the peasantry, whatever. We could converge on what we acknowledge to be the range of positive, desirable states to be in. But we might not converge perfectly, because we all have different brains.
But would this render talk of morality meaningless? Imagine someone permanently fixed at a peak on the moral landscape, and that nothing you could do to them would ever change that. Any invasion of their dignity, any grotesque thing you care to imagine, and it wouldn’t phase them, they’d just be happy, even if they were aware of it happening. There’s something perverse about that.
That’s a criticism of mystical pleasure in the contemplative life. There are contemplatives who, to some degree, fit that description – who can set themselves on fire and sit comfortably through it. And it’s true that the pleasure of having a truly concentrated mind is really exquisite, but in some cases can be isolating. And there is an unethical possibility in the midst of that contemplative ideal which is some kind of heroin addict version. It’s possible, but it’s clearly not sustainable on a societal level. Just imagine all of trying to do that. Or if it were delivered in pill form, we’d have to ask, “Would it be good for us all to take the pill and tune out?” And we could say, well maybe for an hour a day. We can’t do it permanently because it’s not materially sustainable. Our children would starve to death.
The other idea is that we’re all just kept on IV drips, just plugged into the matrix, experiencing the most pleasant dream ever. So there’s the question of how much we want our states of conscious to track reality, rather than the dream. I think that, short of the most outrageous science fiction project, it’s pretty clear that we want our states of consciousness to track reality in some pretty tight way. Perhaps not perfectly though, do we really want to know exactly what everyone thinks of us, and how we appear to them? Maybe we’d be less happy if everything in that domain was transparent. Perhaps a little bit of self-deception is good. There’s certainly psychological literature to back that up. Maybe we want to use the nature of our nervous system in such a way that it makes the fit between what we think is going on, and what’s actually going on a little loser than strictly accurate. It’s rational to entertain that possibility.
In the book, you say we’ve discovered that free will is illusory. What do you think accounts for the strong intuitions that we have as free agents?
Actually, I don’t at all feel that we have free will. I don’t share those intuitions. I presuppose free will in many ways. I’m aware of making choices, and am aware that those choices are effective. I’m aware that certain actions must be preceded by choice. But when I pay attention to what it’s like to be me, it’s pretty clear to me in those moments that free will is just what it feels like when you’re not paying attention to how thoughts and intentions arise in consciousness. You can’t be the author of your next thought. You no more author your next thought than you author the next thing I say. This next thought just arises, and you’re not in a position as a conscious agent to know why it wasn’t a different thought.
That makes me feel rebellious, like I want to think as many random thoughts as possible in an effort to feel free.
Right, but try doing that, think of the first person that comes to mind. Say you think of Einstein. Why didn’t you think of Heisenberg? I might as well have just typed Einstein into a computer in the next room and sent it to you. There were a million people you could have thought of, and Einstein appeared. I don’t see how that gives you any sense of freedom.
People may feel free, but people don’t recognise thoughts as thoughts. People think they are the thinkers of their thoughts. But that’s just what it feels like to be lost in the automaticity of thinking; the unnoticed conversation you have with yourself. Thought comes up from behind us and becomes us. It’s possible to detach from that process, and to decide, “I am going to be merely the witness to consciousness and its contents”, you do get into these very rarified states of meditation where there’s really no reason to do anything. What could possibly motivate you if you’re just witnessing every thought arise and disappear. It just so happens that it’s true of consciousness that that state of mind is intensely pleasurable. All of the troubles and neuroses that plague your life are predicated on your being lost in thought, and so when you’re no longer lost in thought, and you have this naked, open, expansive consciousness that feels rather wonderful, and is not being diminished by doubt and worry, you get all of the ecstatic, blissful, peaceful aspects of it. This is why people go into caves for ten years. They recognise that any form of happiness I can have that’s predicated on desiring or needing certain things is impermanent and requires constant attention. If we recognise that if it’s possible to find a level of wellbeing which is immune to vicissitudes, it’s got to be possible to find it in a cave.
If we’re not free agents, what does it mean, then, to be or to have an “I”?
It means less than we think. The I is a cognitive illusion. That’s why free will is an illusion; because the I that’s presumed to have it is an illusion. I’m not saying your body is an illusion, or your experiences are an illusion, but the sense that you have of being the subject of experiences, and not being identical to the flow of your experience. That’s the illusion. Most people feel that they are having an experience, like their appropriating it. As if there’s the experience, and then there’s them. Like you’re behind your eyes, as if you’re riding around in your head looking out at a world that is other than yourself. That feeling is subject to inquiry, and it can vanish, such that only the world remains.
What do you think of “I think, therefore I am”?
There are few famously influential sentences in western philosophy that more clearly enunciate a lack of introspective wisdom. It’s been the plight of the West for something like 2,000 years. From an Eastern point of view, that is just a confession of ignorance. Almost nobody in the West has figured out that there’s another point of view on thought. It always starts with thinking, as if it’s the only possible starting point, and that its status of something that grounds subjective truth can’t be questioned. In, “I think, therefore I am”, there is no I that thinks that thought. That is what it feels like to not notice that you’re thinking.
There’s a difference between experiencing something and understanding it conceptually. This thing you’re calling I, you must be feeling it in some way, or otherwise you wouldn’t be tempted to talk about it. You feel like a self, like an I, like a subject. By definition, it must be appearing within consciousness. If you could lose your sense of self, this is the thing that would have to be lost, such that you could say it felt different. The sheer fact that the I is appearing within consciousness proves that consciousness is prior to it, and deeper than it. As a matter of subjectivity, the fact that you experience, say an apple, proves that you are not identical to the apple. In the same way, that you experience this I proves that you are not identical with the I. This thing that seems like you is something you can notice appearing against the field of consciousness in the same way as the apple. The moment you look for the I in earnest, you can see it isn’t there. You can search for it in such a decisive way that its absence can be found. It’s not that the lights then go out, but that the sense of subject-object duality disappears, if only for a moment. Consciousness can persist without it. This is what Buddhism calls ‘emptiness’.
Without the notion of the I and free will, how do we hold people responsible for their actions?
It seems that people are dedicated to a really metaphysical notion of free will, that they really want to be able to judge people as the cause of their behaviour. If you find out that someone is not the agent of their actions, then it’s morally exculpatory. If you discover that everyone who acts badly has a brain tumour which causes them to act that way, then that is morally exculpatory. The truth is that people do have neurological causes which are equally salient, but not as easily described as a brain tumour. They have bad genes, bad parents that gave them bad synapses, bad ideas that give them other bad synapses. Their brains are doing it. They are not consciously thinking or acting in this way; they are the recipients of causes that they didn’t create. If changes were made to your brain such that it was similar to someone who will end up on death row for a crime, it isn’t your fault if you act upon them. This added piece of free will that’s not part of the causal stream is something extra, that’s metaphysical, that doesn’t make any sense. That’s what people want. And people don’t feel like they are caused by a stream of unconscious causes, though they are. We become like forces of nature, like an elephant who has escaped from a circus and stampedes, killing people. We don’t think “Oh, what an evil, murderous elephant, retribution is necessary.”
There are people who are the moral equivalents of wild animals because they have certain kinds of brains. I’m not denying the role of teaching and instructing people on how to behave. We have the capacity to learn and to reason based on self-reflection. The belief in moral responsibility has certain consequences. It’s not that we’re all not guilty by reason of insanity and there’s nothing to do. We should definitely be persuading people if we can. But if we attempt to get an honest picture of human behaviour, it’s not of purely free beings riding around in bodies, and pulling the levers. We can preserve everything we care about with someone like Saddam Hussein that would have justified putting him in prison for the rest of his life. Although, we would need to diminish the importance we place on retribution rather than rehabilitation or merely warehousing someone. That becomes especially obvious the moment you realise that there could be the prospect of a cure for evil. If you could cure people of psychopathy, it would make perfect sense to do that, and it wouldn’t make any sense at all to withhold it from them as some kind of punishment. The moment we have a cure, it reveals the fact it is a disease. If someone has a disorder whereby they don’t feel empathy, we should realise that they didn’t choose to be that way. We’d be insane not to cure it if we could. These people are evil because they have a neurological problem.