At a moment when public discourse seems increasingly split between the virtue-signaling left and the dog-whistling right, Sam Harris inhabits what some call the radical center. A philosopher, neuroscientist, critic of religion and defender of controversial thinkers under siege, he is more or less equally dubious of Donald Trump, Islamic fundamentalism, identity politics and liberal sanctimony. If you believe deeply in something—from God to Kanye—chances are Harris has a pin to pop your balloon.
With his 2004 best-seller The End of Faith, Harris found himself part of another group of agitators: the so-called Four Horsemen, a loose affiliation of atheists including Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens. In his 2010 book The Moral Landscape, Harris argues that science is the key (the only one, really) to understanding morality and well-being. Promoting 2014’s Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion on HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher, he argued to a beet-faced, table-pounding Ben Affleck that radical Islam is a global menace. The actor accused Harris of being “gross” and “racist”; Harris later said Affleck was likely roided up from his latest Batman gig.
A student of Buddhism and meditation, Harris rides through such rages with unnerving equanimity, as in a 2018 public showdown with Vox.com founder Ezra Klein on the debate around race and IQ. In a nutshell, Harris said there could be a link; Klein called that theory racist. (Klein himself sat for a Playboy Interview, with the same writer who spoke with Harris, for our May/June 2017 issue.) “To Harris,” Klein said in a follow-up post, “identity politics is something others do. To me, it’s something we all do, and that he and many others refuse to admit they’re doing. This is one of the advantages of being the majority group: Your concerns get coded as concerns; it’s everyone else who is playing identity politics.”
Samuel Benjamin Harris was born on April 9, 1967 in Los Angeles. He won’t confirm many personal details, citing family security concerns, but he is happy to reveal that he first experimented with MDMA while he was a student at Stanford University and that he experienced a spiritual epiphany. He left Stanford midway to study mysticism and Eastern religions in Asia, returning to get a degree in philosophy in 2000. He later received a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA.
These days Harris is among a new breed of public intellectual. Unattached to any particular institution, platform or even doctrine, he lectures, writes and tweets wherever his millions of followers show up to listen. His award-winning Waking Up podcast is in its eighth year, and January marks the debut of a new series, Experiments in Conversation, involving a range of leading thinkers and a live audience. Harris is married to Annaka Harris, a mindfulness teacher and author of the children’s book I Wonder; they have two daughters.
Playboy Contributing Editor David Hochman, who last interviewed Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards for the magazine, spent a Saturday afternoon with Harris in West Hollywood. Dressed in a button-down shirt, dark blazer and jeans (“picture Ben Stiller as your dissertation advisor,” Hochman says), Harris was Zen calm but ready to rile.
“Sam is a true intellectual product of our moment,” Hochman says. “He’s like a walking version of the internet, except without the annoying video buffering and pop-up ads. He harbors no regrets but admits to imbuing some of his arguments with ‘a little too much topspin.’ He can come off serious at first, but once he gets rolling, he’s dazzling as a thinker who’s fearless in his beliefs and also quite persuasive. He’ll present an idea on culture, politics or sex that makes you go, ‘Wait—no, no.’ But hear him out and you often find yourself thinking, Okay, I see your point. So it made sense to start with a question about the points that people tend to miss.”
I’m interested in how we think about problems and how we can talk about them, right? My interest in the thing I’m talking about is often one level removed from the thing I’m actually talking about. It’s like a meta level of interest, but I’m being mistaken as somebody who is just really interested in that thing. Let’s take torture: My interest is not in torture per se. I’m interested in ethical bedrock. Now, to even entertain the efficacy of torture brands you as a moral monster, but the cost of doing business in times of war demands that we get it right. In ethical terms, the collateral damage of dropping bombs could be far worse than, say, a case of justifiable waterboarding. The same goes for the conversation about race and IQ. My interest is not in measuring intelligence, much less measuring differences in intelligence between groups. I have zero interest in that. I am concerned about the free-speech implications of where we’re going with all this and the fact that people like the political scientist Charles Murray are being de-platformed in the pursuit of intellectual honesty on the subject.
The example I often use is, if we want to get to ethical bedrock, we should be able to say things like “Why can’t you eat babies? There are sometimes extra babies in the world, and they’re full of protein. Can’t we eat them?” This is not a conversation about eating babies; this is a conversation about how you can close the door to this idea that we both recognize as repellent and why we recognize it that way. But there are people out there who will say, “Hey, Sam Harris is that guy who wonders why we can’t eat babies.”
So our cultural divide is not a problem of left versus right?
Even when it’s not religious, we divide ourselves into religious sects. You’ve picked your house of worship and it’s very hard to see what’s wrong with your unshakable faith. And of course it’s all too easy to see what’s wrong with the other side, so you get into us versus them versus them versus them, and it never ends.
I think there are moves to make, which most people now decline, that could make the national conversation infinitely more productive—for instance, by not attacking the straw-man version of your opponent’s argument as opposed to what we now call “steel-manning” their argument. You see straw-manning on Twitter every second, and it’s led by Trump. People attack your position by misrepresenting your argument, thereby defeating it. Steel-manning is much rarer. It’s when you restate your opponent’s position in a way that he or she can’t find fault with. Your account might even improve their position. “I’m pro-choice and you’re pro-life. Let me tell you why I think you’re pro-life, and why you’re opposed to abortion.” At which point the person says, “You said it better than I could.” Then you can make an argument against that. That’s the only place to start. You have to do the work to understand the other person’s point of view. But that’s almost never done.
Something I deal with a lot is what I call “leftist mind reading,” where people pretend to understand your view or your motives better than you do. So no matter what you say, they engage in a game of telepathy—actually pseudo-telepathy—telling you what you believe even if it’s not accurate.
Even when it’s not religious, we divide ourselves into religious sects.
As a set of ideas, the link between Islam as a religion and suicidal terrorism worries me. But the person on the left who has taken issue with that will say, “Well, actually, you’re just racist. You don’t like people from the Middle East.” Or, “You were born Jewish, and you’re just caught up in your own identity politics.” God forbid you utter something that’s susceptible to the worst possible interpretation, and they’ll hold you to that interpretation no matter what else you say. There’s no room for “That came out wrong” or “That’s not exactly what I meant.” In public dialogue today, there’s no way to take your foot out of your mouth. There’s a lack of charity in these conversations, coming from both sides, where people want to hold each other in this very litigious way to the worst possible reading of whatever they say. Or worse still, they’ll lift something out of context to such a degree that it can be reasonably understood to have the exact opposite meaning of what you intended. This is how you score points in the new economy of reputation assault. Any blow you can land, you should land.
But why don’t these assaults work on Trump himself? The blows don’t land. Call him bigoted or sexist or corrupt and his base ratchets up the support.
This has been mysterious to many of us. Trump has managed to gather an audience of people who do not care about all the ways in which he’s obviously a morally damaged person. There’s something sociopathic about him. He’s just malignantly selfish; he lies with a frequency and velocity we have never seen in public life. It’s not just that he lies; he is fundamentally hostile to the truth. Most liars lie in a way that pays respect to the norm of truth-telling so as to be undetected. They insert the lie in the logical spot where the piece would complete the puzzle. Trump doesn’t care about the puzzle. He lies and then contradicts himself two seconds later. If it gets pointed out, no problem; he just keeps moving forward, and something like tens of millions of grown-ups in the country, according to polls, still think Trump can do no wrong.
Explain the neuroscience around giving Trump that pass.
Trump comes out of a space in the brain that doesn’t represent reality. It’s the same space that draws people to professional wrestling. Trump’s base doesn’t care whether Russia hacked the election; they just like watching the wrecking ball. For the most part, these are people who think the system has screwed them, so any change is something to cheer. That’s an intuition I can understand. If your life is terrible and you locate the source of that misery—the media, immigrants, Nancy Pelosi—then disorder from a guy like Trump just feels like it re-rolls the dice. Things can only go up from miserable, right?
First of all, I’m not even sure I could name who is in this so-called IDW. I mean, there are people who occasionally get mentioned as being in it whom I’ve never heard of or wouldn’t want to be associated with. But the core people—Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, evolutionary theorist Bret Weinstein and his brother, Eric, who coined the term—are people I enjoy having conversations with. To me it’s a tongue-in-cheek concept that others are more attached to than I am.
The response to it is informatively deranged, because it has been attacked not just as right-wing but as a fascist cabal—like right of right. And yet I believe virtually everyone in the group is center or left of center or even well left of center. I would put myself at left of center. Someone like Bret Weinstein is as left as you can get on every topic. The only actual conservative I can think of is Ben Shapiro, and Ben and I disagree about almost everything. He’s an Orthodox Jew, he’s not in favor of gay marriage, and he questions climate change. But he’s committed to the same rules of intellectual honesty and to the same principles of charity with regard to other people’s positions. And yeah, some of my views and criticisms can definitely be attractive to certain people on the right who are looking to put another arrow in their quiver, but those people certainly can’t listen or read for very long before they become uncomfortable with the other things that I believe.
You believe liberals are too soft on defending America’s borders.
National borders make sense. Open borders would be a catastrophe. The moment you admit that you want borders, then you need a real information system that tracks everyone who comes across those borders, because you don’t want to let in jihadis. You don’t want to let in people carrying Ebola from a trip abroad. You need to know where people have been and why they were there and who they are, down to whether they have their vaccinations. And all of this, in principle, is coercive: It’s backed up by guns. There’s somebody standing there with a gun who is not going to let you jump the turnstile at passport control. Now, on the left, nobody wants to hear this. They basically say, “You are a racist asshole if you want to keep anyone out.” And if that is the view on questions like that, I think we’re guaranteed four more years of Trump, because at least half of our society has run out of patience with that.
I’m not even sure I could name who is in the IDW. To me it’s a tongue-in-cheek concept.
We have to become decoupled from identity politics and political correctness. There’s this growing assumption that you can voice a strong opinion about a segment of the population only if you are part of that segment. If I’m a white guy and the conversation turns to the topic of race and violence, it would be considered unseemly for me to offer a solution to the problem of crime in Chicago. That’s insane. The shootings in Chicago are just off the charts; it’s a war zone. Whatever the solution is, it likely has to do with generic enough factors of sociology and economics and policing that people should be able to talk about it regardless of the color of their skin. Whatever is true is true, and let the best idea win. But the idea that you have no standing to talk about these excruciating social problems unless you’ve personally suffered them? In fact, that’s exactly backward. If you have personally suffered these things, very likely you’re not the best person to talk about them. That’s what we mean by bias. As a survivor of rape, only I can talk about rape. Well, no, as a survivor of rape, let’s talk about how traumatized you’ve been by rape, and then we get into a very different conversation. Social policy is probably not best engineered by people who are so close to the problem that it has destroyed their lives. It’s all they can think about. They have no other perspective. They don’t want to hear another perspective.
Isn’t the point to give voice to social groups that have been traditionally silenced or marginalized because of their race, gender, religion, oppression and so on?
The problem is that public discourse is turning into an exercise in confirmation bias. With identity politics, you find your side of the argument and silo yourself in. It has become a kind of victimology that I describe as the unhappiest game of Dungeons & Dragons: You and all your people have these victim points in a sort of grievance Olympics. Your points trump other points, and that’s one reason we’re so politically dysfunctional. The left eats itself in a way that the right doesn’t. If someone makes the slightest misstep, they’re destroyed by the left-wing mob that is more woke than they are. There are literally cases of a Latina feminist lesbian professor not being woke enough for her students because she wants to keep teaching the classical Western canon. And this person essentially gets burned as a witch for not being left of left of left of left.
I’m 100 percent in favor of the core of the #MeToo movement. There are guys who have been behaving terribly, rapists and criminals who should be in prison. And then there’s this other area of intolerable sexual harassment and crudeness for which there has traditionally not been much of a sanction. Now there is, and that’s all good, right?
Is there a but?
But there’s a lot of confusing stuff to work out. Where are the boundaries? What’s the difference between somebody with Asperger’s who just doesn’t know how to flirt and somebody who’s a scary harasser? That could be difficult to sort out in an office. We’re still trying to navigate in this space, but I’m worried that the totally rational, ethical, defensible subset of concerns here is now an island in a sea of moral panic that’s going to do immense harm to good people.
There are the monsters on one side, where we have Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. They belong in prison. But then we’ve got Al Franken, who maybe is guilty of something worth worrying about, but it’s definitely not what the first guys did. And then over here we have Aziz Ansari, where it’s not even clear that this was anything other than a bad date. Things get more innocuous still when somebody makes a joke that two years ago everyone would have laughed at, and now this person’s worried about their career. Matt Damon said clearly that we have to make these distinctions, and for that he experienced a tsunami of pushback, which ended with him apologizing: “I’m not going to say anything more about this ever again.” Right. I mean, if Matt Damon isn’t secure enough in his career to not have to apologize for a completely reasonable thing, we have a problem, because he should be unsinkable.
Or let’s look at Louis C.K., one of the funniest comics we’ve ever had, who’s now dealing with #MeToo accusations. I think he was unlucky in the timing. Everyone was viewing his situation through the lens of Harvey Weinstein.
The left eats itself in a way that the right doesn’t.
Well, unless there’s something I don’t understand about Louis C.K.’s situation, it seems nobody was coerced and nobody felt they couldn’t leave the room. Yes, the problem comes when there’s a power imbalance. The worst situation would be if he tried to do something to harm somebody’s career or discourage them from talking. That would be nefarious. But if you’re just talking about a guy who’s got this masturbation fetish and he’s asking people if he can masturbate in front of them and they say yes and he does it, that’s a world away from what is alleged about Harvey Weinstein. So then what happens to someone like Louis C.K.? Starve to death and never work again?
Do you think Roseanne should still have a TV job after her tweet last year comparing black Obama aide Valerie Jarrett to an ape?
There it’s harder. There are so many variables. Roseanne clearly was dealing with some mental health issues, popping Ambien all the time. If you saw her conversation in the aftermath with Joe Rogan you know she’s dealing with lots of chaos. You don’t know exactly whose thumbs were on her phone. She also claimed quite credibly that she didn’t even know Valerie Jarrett was black. Like, if you google Valerie Jarrett and look at the photos that come up, it’s not entirely obvious she’s black. That’s plausible. For me, strangely, the racism here is in the mind of the person interpreting the tweet. It’s like, okay, so you’re saying that black people look like apes? That’s how you’re going to read this? Because if Roseanne called her a horse, I think we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
But there are tropes in our culture that signify deeper meaning. There’s a history of African Americans being compared to apes and monkeys.
But that wasn’t necessarily what was in the mind of Roseanne at that moment. Or let’s look at what happened with Megyn Kelly getting fired by NBC. I don’t know Megyn Kelly; I don’t know what her actual beliefs are, but she tried to have a conversation about Halloween and why you can’t go out in blackface. She said, “When I was a kid, you could paint your face if you wanted and go out as Diana Ross.” Apparently she didn’t know that statement was radioactive. The term blackface didn’t link up in her mind with minstrel shows and all this other stuff in our culture we’re right to be very critical of. She just meant that if you’re dressing up as a character, light- or dark-skinned, why can’t you put makeup on to make yourself look like that character? That should absolutely be something we’re able to talk about on television. And you either have a good argument or you don’t. Kelly can then say, “No, that’s not what I meant. It’s horrible. The racism, the KKK—I disavow all of that.” Instead it becomes “You said you’re okay with blackface!” Even with a hostage-style apology, Megyn Kelly was doomed, which I think is wrong. I think in principle you should be able to come back from anything as long as you can show the path you took that has made you a different person. We need to have a better process for this. People who were murderers or neo-Nazis can talk about how they’re different now, and that becomes valuable in deprogramming other people.
That’s a super hard case. Pedophilia presumably has some neurological underpinning that we don’t yet understand. It’s interesting to notice that if we did understand its genetics and its neuroanatomy, then we could cure it, right? Maybe it turns out that every pedophile you’ve ever met has this special case of epilepsy, and if we could just zap this one part of the temporal lobes, they would be done. They might be gay, they might be straight, maybe they don’t like kids, but they feel the exact same way about pedophilia that you do, which is that it’s bad. We’ve got to solve that problem. Then we could just treat people and there would be no moral judgment at all.
But because we’re not there, we have this hugely moralistic way of thinking about it. In the case of the Catholic Church you have an institution that is cynically protecting its reputation by moving these people from parish to parish, knowing they’re going to revictimize kids. You’ve got an institution with billions of dollars suing people into silence. The church is bankrupting people who they know are legitimate victims, trying to discredit them on the witness stand and then gloating about their success. We have their files where they say, “We won even though we knew the cases to be legitimate.” It’s the quintessence of evil.
By the way, do you remember the moment when you determined that God doesn’t exist?
Growing up, I was an atheist who didn’t know I was an atheist. I just thought religion was a sham and it was either crazy people, epileptics or liars who had managed to give birth to these institutions. I had read Bertrand Russell but didn’t know anything about organized atheism in the United States. Madalyn Murray O’Hair [founder of American Atheists] was not a name I would have recognized. But I was raised in a secular household where there was no talk of religion. I remember in my Great Works class at Stanford, which you had to take freshman year, we read the Bible. I remember haranguing the teacher: With all the great books we could read, why are we reading Leviticus? This is not the best of anything. It’s not the best philosophy; it’s not the best writing. It’s just ancient rigmarole that shouldn’t be informing our lives.
The Bible is just an accident of history. All these religious texts are just books that survived. I mean, someone had to win. We’ve got Plato, Socrates and Aristotle too, but does that mean they were the three best minds of that generation in Athens? Well, not necessarily. There could have been three other people who just didn’t get written about or whose books burned in the fire at Alexandria. It’s just historical contingency how we got what we got, and rather than fixate on that legacy, we should be equipping ourselves to produce the best ideas that we can. There are good parts of the Bible, things worth keeping. The Golden Rule is good—let’s keep that. But that appeared in other places too.
I mean, the flip side of this is you have to imagine how good a book could be if it were actually written by an omniscient person or deity. Forget omniscience even. If you and I decided today to write something and then broadcast it back 2,000 years, we could easily write something that would be miraculous had it been written 2,000 years ago. But there’s nothing like that in the Bible. All we would need to do is put in a paragraph about what we currently know about light and its relationship to electricity, what we currently know about the biological basis of inheritance and DNA, and you could see in a single paragraph that it was a miracle. If someone finds that tomorrow in an urn written in Aramaic, that would prove that the source was a supernatural author. Otherwise we could be doing this with Harry Potter.
How did taking ecstasy in college change your view of the divine?
It wasn’t until I took MDMA that I realized there are states of consciousness, like the one I just spent six hours experiencing, that explain somebody like Jesus and what it was like to be bowled over by being with him. And that’s how you could get a religion or a cult. It didn’t reset my views about the veracity of revelation, but it completely changed my sense of what the project was in terms of living a good life, because I knew I wanted to live more that way than how I had intended to live before taking MDMA.
Very rare. I’ve taken some edibles for sleep of late, with indifferent results. But I can go for years without smoking cannabis. I drink socially.
Would you be okay if your young daughters one day experimented with any of these mind agents? I wrote in my book Waking Up that if my daughters don’t try at least one psychedelic at some point in their lives, I would think they will have missed a very important rite of passage. I still think that’s true, though when the time comes, I’ll be wanting to curate that choice a little more heavy-handedly than I let on in that paragraph. I would follow Michael Pollan’s admonishment [from his book How to Change Your Mind] and take LSD under supervision. It is now becoming more professionalized, with psychotherapists actually doing this work.
Were you a nerd in high school?
[Laughs] No, I was successfully social in high school. I was a very good student, but I would have fun and party. I would get stoned on the weekends. In retrospect, it seems pretty balanced, though there was probably a little too much binge drinking. It wasn’t like the hookup culture you have now, but I had a few serious girlfriends.
While we’re on sex, what’s your view of pornography?
I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand, it’s totally fine and benign. Obviously there should be no laws against it. That’s just a straight-up free speech issue. I’m sure there are people working in the industry who are not casualties of it; they’re just really into sex and it’s a rational way for them to make money. They’re not addicted to drugs. They’re not being mistreated by anybody. They have healthy relationships. They weren’t raped by their stepfathers. It’s all fine. It’s not part of the symptomology of some immense psychological suffering.
And I’m sure the worst of the worst stories we can imagine are also true, where it’s about junkies getting their next fix, people being -coerced into situations, sexual slavery. You pull up a video on Pornhub and you don’t know what you’re looking at. It could be somebody who was kidnapped. This industry makes money based on everyone’s fascination with sex, and you could be supporting the worst people on earth who are victimizing people. So that’s the reality of the industry.
The truth is I’m agnostic about the afterlife part. Certain very strange things are possible.
Well, there are people who can look at pornography and it can be part of a completely healthy sex life, where they have healthy relationships and are happy. Nobody sees it as analogous to cheating on their partner or diminishing their sexual connection. A couple can watch it together and it improves their sex life. That’s the healthy version, but then there are obviously people who are addicted, who can’t have healthy relationships. It’s a stand-in for people who are not able to navigate social connections. And now you have 12-year-olds getting their sexual education by randomly seeing videos of grown-ups doing unthinkable acrobatic and demeaning sex acts. There’s something there that’s worth worrying about.
As with so much of technology, we’re running a psychology experiment on ourselves and we don’t know how it’s going to come out. It’s unnatural to have endless access to imagery of people. Pornography aside, this is something I completely missed in my dating life, but I don’t know what Tinder is doing to the prospect of finding meaningful relationships. It gives the sense that there’s always someone else behind the person you’re considering. It’s the paradox of choice, where you’re never satisfied because you have endless options.
Let’s change pace and do a lightning round. Am I wrong for grilling up hamburgers and hot dogs this weekend?
I think factory farming, as generally practiced, is indefensible. I think we should put economic pressure on the system to become as benign as possible. Ultimately that might mean everyone being vegetarian, but I don’t think being vegetarian is idiot-proof in terms of human health. I try to support the grass-fed, ecologically sound, cage-free version of everything I eat. And I’ve actually invested in a start-up called Memphis Meats, which is cell-culture-based—a so-called clean meat company start-up, which hopefully will get to scale. That would be meat that completely takes the animal out of the equation. You take a single cell from the cow that you want to turn into a steak—it’s literally a tiny muscle biopsy—and that then gets amplified and cultured. It’s not quite there yet. Last I looked, they had an $18,000 meatball, but apparently it tastes good and their cost is coming down.
Game of Thrones, Westworld, Breaking Bad, Mad Men. I like Ozark a lot. Darren Aronofsky, a great filmmaker, has a new show called One Strange Rock, which is basically his version of Cosmos.
Do you have any hidden talents?
I have a black belt in ninjutsu. Remember the ninja? However, that was in the pre-MMA era, when almost every martial art was a pantomime of fake violence. The training was very similar to Krav Maga today—not entirely useless but not 100 percent legit either. More recently, my midlife crisis took the form of getting into Brazilian jujitsu. I’m just a blue belt, though, and I keep getting injured.
I was never a Kanye fan and he’s a bit chaotic as a political commentator. I do not understand a person who looks at Trump and says, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I want my president to be.” That’s a strange mental space to live in.
Favorite Ben Affleck movie?
I thought Argo was good. I don’t think I saw his last Batman movie. As you know, Ben and I have a checkered history, but I don’t have anything bad to say about him as an actor or a director. He’s just not a religious scholar.
What do you sing in the shower?
I don’t really sing. I can chant. Mostly it’s Hindu music. I can hang out with the Hare Krishnas.
Mindfulness is about freeing yourself from certain patterns of mind so that you realize you are not your thoughts. I draw this analogy between the mind and kidnappers: It’s as though you’ve been kidnapped by the most boring person on earth and just forced to listen to this guy all day long. Literally, the conversation starts the moment you wake up and doesn’t end until you fall helplessly asleep at night. Mindfulness is an alternative to that, but it takes some training to get it. If you can notice a thought as a thought, if you can step back and relinquish your identification with that process and just notice it as a process, as a kind of automaticity in your mind, then you’re no longer a hostage.
How is your Waking Up meditation app different from all other meditation apps?
If you want to learn to meditate, there are half a dozen apps that will teach you, and they’re all well-made. My app is more intrusive. The real purpose of meditation is to recognize something about the nature of your mind. In the guided meditations I’m trying to get you to realize that, for instance, there’s no self in the middle of consciousness. There’s no thinker in addition to the thoughts that arise in your mind. Traditionally, that has been the very center of the bull’s-eye in a Buddhist meditation practice and for practitioners. But it’s something you can spend a lot of time meditating on and not notice.
Who is on your dream list of podcast guests?
I’d like to talk to Ed Witten, the physicist other physicists will tell you is the smartest physicist they’ve ever met. Filmmaker Deeyah Khan is a Muslim woman who made a documentary on white supremacy in the U.S. She’s like Kryptonite for neo-Nazis because she’s a gorgeous woman of color those guys want to bond with, but then she says, “Wait a minute. You want to throw me out?”
I would also consider talking to some quintessentially bad people just to see if there’s an interesting ethical conversation to be had. The Unabomber might be too far gone, but it would be fascinating to actually get into the head of someone like Bernie Madoff and try to figure out why he did what he did and what he thinks about it now. There’s a kind of uncanny valley phenomenon that happens ethically, where if you make someone bad enough, it’s fine to talk to them. Like you can interview Osama bin Laden or Hitler—great, no problem. You don’t have to waste time signaling to your audience, “Well, listen, I didn’t support Auschwitz.” But if you were to have Richard Spencer on your podcast, then you’ve given a platform to a dangerous asshole. That’s an interesting problem for me to navigate.
I’m very interested in the revolution we’re on the cusp of right now with intelligent machines and the way they’re going to transform our life. I can’t wait to see the implications of the outsourcing and improvement of our understanding of ourselves as we become more cyborg than we already are. When I look at how dependent I am on my phone, I can’t even remember what it was like to arrange to meet someone in public. “I’ll meet you at three.” And if that person didn’t show up? You would call their answering machine and hope they’d call in to check their messages. Now we just expect to connect with everyone instantaneously.
There are going to be so many binary changes like that, and I think they’re going to get weirder and weirder. The current picture of immunology, for example, is that we’re basically always getting cancer and we’re always fighting cancer. Cancer is just a sort of background noise problem we’re always dealing with. But at a certain point you might have nanobots detecting cancer. You’ll be able to look at your phone and see what your cancer levels are. We’ll look back on cancer the way we now look back on polio, as something that was absolutely terrifying.
The fact is, with so many things we don’t even know to ask the question because we can’t imagine what the shape of the answer would be. It’s not crazy to think that we could be among the last generations for whom aging is the default reality. I’m reasonably persuaded that you can view aging as a kind of engineering problem that can be solved. This is gerontologist Aubrey de Grey’s argument. We may not get there in our lifetimes or our kids’ lifetimes, but at a certain point you solve the problem. The universe may not care about us, but it’s not out to get us. And so there are problems we can solve that will stay solved. The sky really is the limit, which in that context will make getting hit by a bus or a flying car that much more anomalous and horrible.
It’s one of the reasons I think the left is so poised for embarrassment—because political correctness and identity politics and victimology can’t survive contact with all the information that’s coming from big data and genetics. We’re going to be inundated with information about human difference, but politically we know what the right answer is. Separating ourselves by identity can’t matter. We know we want political equality; we’re anchored there. So when we look for mean differences in populations, we’re guaranteed to stumble upon facts that are politically inconvenient.
That’s right. There are just lucky people and there are unlucky people, and we should be compassionately concerned about disparities in luck and trying to create systems that make it effortless for us to collaborate in ways that make the world better for everyone. We can’t rely on people to be saints or even want to become saints. We have to enshrine what people will agree to in the wisest moments at the level of our institutions and our laws and our systems so that in our weaker moments, when we’re selfish or bored or filled with anger or anxiety, we’re still running on rails and going in the right direction.
Incidentally, what if you’re wrong about God and the afterlife?
The truth is I’m agnostic about the afterlife part. I don’t know how consciousness arises, and therefore I don’t know if by definition it ceases when we die. I mean, we just don’t know. Certain very strange things are possible. It’s possible that we are in some kind of computer simulation right now. There are not-crazy arguments that could lead you to be open about that. Philosopher Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument is that we’re intelligent enough creatures to produce intelligent machines, and eventually, if we don’t kill ourselves first, we will produce simulated worlds in these simulated machines filled with creatures with a level of consciousness as it is in our human brains. And we’ll get better and better at this, and at a certain point simulated worlds by definition will outnumber real worlds—and not just by a small number, because there’s only one real world out there. They’ll outnumber the real world by trillions and trillions of times. So then you have to ask yourself if it is more likely that you’re in a real world or a simulated world. Then you can add alien civilizations, and we’re in a kind of computational space. Once the simulations get good enough, we can’t expect to know the difference between simulation and reality. That’s a way of talking yourself into assuming that it’s quite possible you’re in something like the Matrix already. If that’s true, well, then what would it mean to believe in God, and are we on the hard drive of some alien supercomputer?
Either way, do you plan on being cremated?
I don’t know. I don’t think it’s in my will. For some reason, I have a bias for burial just because I like the idea. I like cemeteries. I guess you could spread someone’s ashes, but it’s nice having a place where people can go to think about the person.
What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
A big number—1967 to 2267.