>> Welcome everyone to an Authors at Google talk.
We are very pleased to have Sam Harris here.
And to introduce him, we have Jed Salazar.
>>Jed Salazar: Hi everyone.
I'd like to welcome Sam Harris to Google Santa Monica.
And to give you a little bit of background about Sam Harris.
Sam Harris has written two bestselling books -- "The End of Faith" and "A Letter to a
Sam has appeared on, has appeared on countless shows and has written many publications.
He received his degree from Stanford in philosophy, has studied religion for many years, and most
recently has received his PH.D in neuroscience from UCLA.
Sam is also a co-founder and CEO of the Reason Project which is a non-profit foundation devoted
to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society.
And without further ado, I'd like to welcome Sam.
>>Sam Harris: Well thank you Jed, and thank you for the invitation to speak here.
It's an honor to speak here.
I'm gonna be giving a talk I've never given before.
So you will have the luxury of telling me whether I made any sense at the end.
Hopefully I'll leave a good chunk of time for a conversation.
I'm gonna speak about human values and about morality and how we can understand these scientifically
and in fact not only understand descriptively what people are doing in the name of morality
and human values, but actually come up with scientific answers to moral questions.
It's widely believed that there is no way of doing this.
That the most important questions in human life -- like what to live for and what to
die for and what constitutes a good life -- are by definition outside the purview of scientific
And so I'm gonna try to give you a framework for seeing that that's not so.
But it's believed that, that facts and values are distinct and dissimilar kinds of things
-- that our talk about one does not translate into talk about the other.
There's no description of the way the world is that can get you to a description of the
way the world ought to be.
And that's, we have David Hume and G. E. Moore and Karl Popper in philosophy telling us that
And most scientists have simply swallowed that philosophy whole.
I'm gonna argue that that's not true and that it's crucial that we see that it's not true.
Because it seems to me the only way we can get to a world in which we converge on the
same kinds of moral, environmental, political, social solutions to global problems -- the
only way we can get there is to have some kind of universal framework for talking about
right and wrong and good and evil.
And what we've been left with, what this fragmentation of our discourse has given us, is that it
has delivered us into a world where the only people who claim to be moral experts -- indeed
the only people who claim that there's such a thing as moral expertise are religious demagogues
of one or another flavor.
And this has shattered our world into these separate moral communities where there is
just no, there's nothing for a fundamentalist Christian to say to a Islamist to bridge their
mutually incompatible world views.
And so I wanted -- I'll talk for a minute about why religion can't be the repository
of our moral wisdom and our notion of the good life.
But, the crucial bit to take on board at this point is that, it's only religion that is
saying that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions.
And the scientific community has more or less said, "You're right.
Science and reason can never give you a universal framework for moral questions."
Now we should have been able to see that religion wasn't gonna give us a universal framework.
Because as Bertrand Russell pointed out over a century ago, there's such a bewildering
number of religions on offer, making mutually incompatible claims about the nature of reality
and how to live within it that even if we knew one of our religions was perfectly true,
even if we knew this was God's multiple choice exam, is it A) Hinduism B) Buddhism C) Shamanism.
There are so many religions that every believer should expect damnation purely as a matter
So it seems to me that should end the argument.
It hasn't, but in any case, Russell had that right.
Another way to see that religion isn't tracking reality as it is, is this is a world map of
You can see that this is not the way genuine knowledge should be partitioned in our world.
It shouldn't follow national or political boundaries.
Take India as an example.
India, Nepal, the main places on earth where they seem to have discovered that there's
not just one god of Abraham to worry about, but there's a multiplicity of god.
There's thousands and thousands of Gods.
What are the chances that they, among all the earth's people, have discovered that the
elephant headed God Ganesh really exists and needs to be propitiated?
Does anyone think this is the way human knowledge is developing?
I don't think so.
In any case, the contradictions between faiths are only one of the problems.
And within any faith, you have impressive patterns of contradictions.
So this is an image of contradictions within the Bible – both the Old and New Testament.
And every arc is a verse that contradicts another verse and the grey bars, or the depth
of the grey bars indicate the number of verses in each chapter of each book.
And these are real, these are deal breaking contradictions.
These are John the Baptist was in prison when Jesus went into Galilee, John the Baptist
was not in prison when Jesus went to Galilee.
These are moments when the text refutes itself.
And then there's the inconvenient fact that some of the easiest moral questions that we
have ever had to solve religion gets wrong.
The Bible and the Koran both support slavery.
There's absolutely no question that theology was on the side of the slave holders during
our long effort to get rid of slavery as Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy pointed
out. Slavery was established by the decree of Almighty
God -- it's sanctioned in the bible in both testaments from Genesis to Revelation.
This is true.
There's no one of any flavor of Christian, Muslim or Jew who can deny that fact intelligibly.
And so it seems to me that if the easiest and most significant moral questions are not
solved by these scriptural traditions, in fact are where we get the wrong answer, from
We have to recognize that our moral wisdom is not coming from these texts and when you
go to the texts and pick and choose the wise bits, as you have to, given what's in them,
when you notice for instance that the Golden Rule is a very wise moral precept and we should
take that on board, and then you notice that there are other rules, like if a woman is
not a virgin on her wedding night, she should be stoned to death on her father's doorstep.
That rule hasn't aged very well.
That process of picking and choosing is clearly something that we bring to the text.
This is not -- we're not getting it from the text, we are having to bowdlerize the text
based on our own moral intuitions and based on a larger conversation about the nature
of human flourishing and human well being.
You can also see that this gap between facts and values looks a little suspicious when
you look at how we talk about facts and values.
We talk in terms of belief.
We believe things about the nature of reality.
We make assertions about what is so in the world.
We make assertions about facts, we form scientific beliefs and this includes history and journalism
and any other type of conversation where we're saying how the world is.
But we also form beliefs about values.
We talk about morality and meaning and spiritual principles and it's often thought that these
are radically different acts.
But I have thought for a long time that belief is in some sense content neutral.
So that to make a claim about say chemistry, water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen
is very much like making a claim in ethics -- like it's good to be kind to children.
This may not, this is certainly not intuitive for most people, but this is the way it has
seemed to me for quite some time.
And we did some FMRI work which seems to have borne this out.
We've put people in the scanner.
We gave them propositions to read to judge either true or false and then we compared
belief to disbelief.
And on the left you have all stimuli which gave us this very localized region of signal
in the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex and then we were able to break out some of our
individual categories of belief.
And here I break out mathematics and ethics which are perhaps the most different kinds
Mathematics was just mathematical equations that were true or false: 2+2=4 versus 2+2=5.
Ethics was statements like it's good to be kind to children versus it's good to beat
And while the overlap isn't perfect, it's by the standards of neuroimaging, it's quite
And I'm reasonably confident that we can say that the main reporter of belief in the brain,
this region of the frontal lobe is content independent.
And this region's involved in self-representation and reward.
And so when you make judgments of self-relevance, this is the region you get in other studies.
And so I think of belief as a kind of extension of the self.
When you believe a proposition, when someone says something and you think, "Yeah that's
true", you are in some sense taking it in hand as part of your cognitive emotional repertoire.
You're saying, "Yes I can use this, this is gonna inform my emotion and behavior."
There was a question after we did this study whether religious belief was distinct.
And so we ran another study.
We used religion in that first study, but we weren't able to break out the data.
So we did a study just on religious versus ordinary belief with -- and this time we selected
believers and non-believers.
So we had two separate groups of subjects and we gave them very simple statements to
The biblical God really exists versus the biblical god is a myth.
And so the atheists in our study would answer the factual question the same way as the Christians,
But they would be diametrically opposed on religious statements.
And we essentially got the same result.
This region of the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex is apparently the reporter of belief
in both Christians and non-believers on both religious and non-religious subjects, topics.
So what I propose to you is that belief is something -- is a way that we attempt to map
our thoughts onto reality, whatever reality is altogether.
And where we seem to succeed in this process, we call it knowledge, where our talk about
reality functions in such a way that it's reliable that it becomes a guide to the future,
where we have significant consensus, that we're making sense.
We're calling this knowledge.
There are other obviously a lot of our beliefs don't map onto reality in any, with any kind
And so we -- they're false.
You can see there's a region where beliefs are mapping on, but we don't call it knowledge,
and that's all of the beliefs people have about the world that are right essentially
It's possible to believe things for bad reasons, believe true things for bad reasons.
In any case, that's just to say that religion doesn't have some special corner on the market
of value based talk.
And there are many reasons to think that it is not the best source of value talk.
But the thing that religious people are right about, even the bible thumpers and the jihadists
of the world, people who we might be critical of in all other respects, they're right to
think that we need a universal morality.
And it's long been obvious that we need a universal morality.
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the UN tried to put forward a universal declaration
of human rights.
And the American Anthropological association in all its wisdom said, "This is a fool's
errand. There is no universal declaration of human rights because any effort to make
a universal notion of human value is merely to foist your provincial white colonial merely
local version of the truth onto the rest of humanity. It has no intellectual legitimacy,
So, but please notice this is the best our social sciences could do.
Essentially with the crematory of Auschwitz still smoking and this was in 1947.
So how have we gotten here?
Well, it seems to me we have a double standard in how we treat differences of opinion in
the moral sphere.
So you confront moral difference.
For instance, a difference of opinion between someone like the Dalai Lama and someone like
Ted Bundy, the Dalai Lama wakes up every morning thinking that maximizing compassion and helping
other people is an integral part of human happiness and this is what his attention is
purposed toward for the most part.
Then you have someone like Ted Bundy who woke up every morning trying to think of which
young woman he was gonna abduct and rape and torture and kill -- and I think he killed
something like 28 of them.
A difference of opinion.
I mean these are irreconcilable moral views.
Many people take this disparity to suggest that there is no ground truth.
There's nothing Ted Bundy can be wrong about and that the Dalai Lama can be right about.
That is -- that gives us any kind of moral bedrock.
They have a difference of opinion obviously.
He likes chocolate, he likes vanilla but no one is wrong in any deep sense that cuts to
the nature or reality.
Now notice that we don't do this in Science.
You take Physics, for example.
On the left you have Edward Witten -- he's a real physicist's physicist.
He's -- if you ask the smartest physicist's around, who's the smartest physicist around?
Half of them in my experience will tell you it's Ed Witten.
The other half will tell you they don't like the question.
In any case, Ed Witten's one of the patriarchs of string theory.
He thinks it's the greatest thing since sliced bread.
What would happen if I showed up at a physics conference and said string theory is bogus?
It's not my cup of tea.
It doesn't resonate with me, it's not how I choose to view the universe at the smallest
Well nothing would happen because no one would care and that's just the point.
My opinion does not count.
I'm not adequate to the conversation about string theory.
I don't have the mathematical expertise.
I don't understand string theory.
And this is what it is to have a domain of expertise.
Certain opinions can't count.
We have convinced ourselves somehow that in the moral domain, everyone gets a vote, that
Epistemology has to run by democratic principles.
Every opinion counts equally.
There's no such thing as moral expertise.
There's no such thing as moral talent.
There's no such thing as moral genius.
So I would argue that that's almost certainly untrue.
Another way we've gotten here is we look at certain moral dilemmas.
How many of you have seen the trolley problem?
This is kind of ubiquitous in philosophy and psychology at the moment.
So there's a trolley, a runaway car coming down the track.
If you do nothing it's going to hit 5 workmen on the track.
But you stand at the switch, and you can throw the switch diverting it so that it will only
hit one workman, saving a net 4 lives.
How many of you think it would be a good thing to do to throw this switch?
You're gonna save -- it's either 5 or 1, someone's gonna die.
Well, most people when you test this, something like 90% of people think that yes, you have
a moral obligation to throw the switch.
But when you describe it under another guise, now you stand at a -- on a foot bridge.
The same car is coming down the track destined to hit 5 people.
But you are beside a suitably large person whom you can physically push into the path
of the oncoming trolley.
And he will die, but he will stop the trolley.
Now I happen to think this is not so well posed.
We all have an intuitive physics which causes us to burn a lot of fuel wondering whether
he's really gonna stop the trolley.
But if you stipulate that he will stop the trolley, it still feels like a different problem.
This pushes our intuitions around.
People come away from this dilemma thinking there's no there there.
There's no way, you frame it one way, 90 people, 90% of people say yes.
IF you frame it another way, 90% of people say no.
There's no ground truth.
Now notice that we don't do this when we confront logical dilemmas.
How many of you know the Monty Hall problem?
How many of you know that you know the right answer to the Monty Hall problem?
OK, there's a few.
You're on a game show, you've got three doors.
Behind one is a new car, behind the other two are goats.
You pick door number one, and your host opens door number 2 revealing a goat.
He now gives you a choice to switch to door number 3.
So you pick door number 1, you can switch to door number 3.
How many of you think you should switch, that it's wise to switch?
How many of you think it's 50/50 and there's no reason to switch?
OK, well you should switch, and many people don't see that you should switch and even
when it's explained to them over and over again.
Do you have an answer to this?
>>Sam: What was that?
Sam: Well this is, in this case he's clearly not going to reveal the car with three doors,
and he's only revealed a goat.
>>Sam: OK, but he hasn't [Inaudible]
>>Sam: With those stipulations, in this case, let's assume those are valid.
People -- when you explain this problem to people, people are logically dumbfounded.
We have a very strong intuition that with two doors remaining, why would you switch?
There's a car behind one, there's a goat behind another -- we know this.
Two doors are closed.
You have a 50/50 chance that your first pick was right.
Well you don't you have a one in three chance.
And switching gets you to 2/3.
This is actually easier to see if you imagine 1,000 doors.
And you pick door number 1 and then Monty Hell invalidates 998 doors leaving door 576
that you have never thought of.
Should you switch to door 576?
Well, you had significant uncertainty when you made your initial choice.
The chance was 1/1000 that you pick the right door.
Here that remaining probability of 999 out of 1000, that collapses on the one remaining
It's obvious that you should switch.
But the point is for many people it's not obvious, even when they've had it explained
to them in terms of probability, they can fall back into this intuition of why, why
We don't leave this thinking -- well so there's no right answer to the Monty Hall problem.
There's no such thing as logical high ground.
This is not a domain where we can have objective knowledge.
So to give you a framework for thinking about how we can have objective knowledge about
It seems to me it arrives rather easily the moment you realize that human values, or values
of any kind reduce to a certain form of fact.
They reduce to facts about the experience of conscious beings, anything that can have
happiness or suffering, anything that can experience value on any level.
So, why is it when you see a piece of broken glass, you don't feel compassion, you don't
worry that there's some terrible suffering involved?
Because you don't think there's anything we can do to glass to make it suffer.
You don't think that's a domain of experience.
And if we care more about our fellow primates than we care about insects, which we do, it's
because we've drawn analogies, based on their behavior and their underlying neurology such
that we think they -- primates experience a broader range of possible happiness and
suffering than insects.
Now the important point here is that this is a factual claim.
This is a claim about which we can be right or wrong.
It's possible that we have misconstrued the neurology of ants, or we've misconstrued the
relationship between physical complexity and the possibilities of experience.
And if we've misconstrued those things, then maybe we'll have to revise our notion of possible
But again, the cash value of value is in terms of changes in conscious experience, actual
or potential changes in conscious experience.
And this is true, even if your values are focused on another life.
Even if you think that after death you're either gonna be consigned to some kind of
paradise for eternity or you're gonna wind up in hell for eternity.
Again, the thing you're worried about is the experience of anything that can suffer an
eternity of either kind.
Obviously it wouldn't be realized at the level of the brain in this case.
But whatever is doing the knowing is the thing you're worried about.
And clearly there's a continuum of human experience to speak exclusively about people now this
side of the grave.
There's a continuum of experience that we recognize and movement on this continuum is
There are right and wrong answers to how to move.
We know that you can live in a condition where basically everything that can go wrong does
You can live in a failed state where it's impossible to feed your children, where you
can't reasonably form an expectation of collaborating with a stranger because it's essentially a
war of all against all.
And we know it's possible to move rightward in this -- on this continuum to something
far more idyllic, something far more like the kinds of lives we live where we have the
freedom to have -- general freedom from violence, freedom to use our time, to get educated,
to pursue various interests, to enjoy our lives.
And no doubt this continuum extends further in both directions.
There are greater possibilities of human happiness, and greater possibility of human misery than
any of us have visualized, very likely.
And there are many levels of analysis for this continuum.
There's a level certainly to talk about the human genome and biochemistry and molecular
biology, especially given that fact that we are poised to meddle with our own genomes.
Any changes we make relevant to the possibilities of experiencing human well being are morally
And then in a much higher level of resolution, we can talk about economic systems and political
understandings and laws that govern financial institutions.
All of this materially affects human well being and there are right and wrong answers
to how those things will have consequences in our lives.
But the moment you're talking about human well being, you are of necessity talking about
changes in states and the function of the human brain.
So I would argue the mind sciences have a kind of a privileged role to play here and
that morality at some level is an undeveloped branch of neuroscience and psychology and
the sciences that treat our experience.
Because any change in our experience is we know being realized in the brain, and it is
impressively constrained by the facts at the level of the brain.
And so what I suggest to you is the moment you realize that there is a fact space both
actual and potential that governs human value and value of any kind, then I'm asking you
to visualize what I'm calling a moral landscape that has peaks and valleys where different
possible ways of being are realized.
And, one thing to notice is that there are many peaks, very likely.
There are probably many ways to be more or less equivalently happy.
There are probably many ways to organize a human community that could be quite distinct,
but nonetheless, allow for the same kind of human flourishing.
Now, why isn't this a problem?
Why doesn't this erode any sort of objectivity here?
Well, think of how we think about -- and again there are many different, obviously not just
two, there are many different peaks.
Think of how we think about food.
No one would ever be tempted to argue that there's one right food to eat.
But there is a right or wrong answer to the question of is this healthy food.
There's a real distinction between food and poison.
There are many, many things we can eat that are healthy to eat, that are appropriately
There are exceptions here.
Some people are allergic to peanuts and will die if they eat peanuts.
But we can understand all of this within a rational discussion about chemistry and human
And no one would ever -- the fact that the set of all things that are food is still essentially
open ended and that never tempts someone to say there are no right and wrong answers to
questions of human nutrition.
So to with a, you can throw out an analogy to a game like chess.
It bothers people that certain moral precepts admit of exceptions.
So you take a precept like don't lie.
Right, is don't lie a good moral precept?
It's right most of the time, say.
But there are exceptions.
And people take this, the fact of the exceptions to suggest, "Well then there is no real objective
morality regarding lying."
Well, don't lose your queen is a good precept to take in chess.
If you want to play winning chess, it's something to keep in mind certainly most of the time.
But obviously there are exceptions.
There are moments where losing your queen is the only good move, or a brilliant move.
Chess is a domain of absolute objectivity.
We could in principle if not in practice diagram every possibly chess game.
And it is true to say that a move is a good move or a bad move in chess which brings us
to moments of moral diversity.
We are in a world where we must confront different answers to questions of morality.
Not everyone sees that don't lose your queen is a good principle in this particular chess
So you have someone like Sayyid Qutub, every Jihadist's favorite philosopher.
Certainly Osama Bin Laden's favorite philosopher.
He lived in the United States in for six months in 1949 in Greely, Colorado, and formed a
lasting impression of American culture.
He wrote that "the American girl is well acquainted with her body's seductive capacity.
She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes and thirsty lips.
She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks and in the shapely
thighs, sleek legs.
She shows all of this and does not hide it."
I mean it seems to me never before have we had one man's sexual frustrations so obviously
informing his philosophy.
And he is reported to have died a virgin.
In any case, looking at images of the time, we can feel his pain.
But, this is the genius that has given us this present instance of moral diversity.
And this is to take one variable among many.
What to do with women's sexuality, the problem, the great problem of female sexuality.
This is one answer to that question.
This is obviously reasonably common throughout the Muslim world.
This is an instance in Iraq among Shiites.
When you think of morality in terms of human well being, when you think of values in terms
of human well being, you can ask yourself, what are the chances that this is a -- represents
a peak on the moral landscape?
What are the chances that this is a good way to maximize human flourishing?
Notice this is not what we do in Western academic circles and intellectual circles at the moment.
I can assure you that if you go to a scientific conference, and you say something derogatory
about this, you have staked out a very edgy position from the point of view of secular
western intellectual life.
You have made a very controversial statement.
It is widely believed, as far as I can tell universally believed in academic circles that
while we may not like this, while we might want to say this is wrong in Boston or Palo
Alto, who are we to say that the proud denizens of an ancient culture can't force their wives
and daughters to live in cloth bags?
Who are we to say it's wrong to beat them, or throw battery acid in their faces or kill
them if they decline the privilege of living like this?
I mean I can't tell you what sort of bizarre collisions I've had in academic circles saying
something derogatory about life under the Taliban.
In any case, to say, to notice rather obviously that this is not a way to maximize human well
being is not to say that we in our own culture have struck the perfect balance.
That's not entailed.
This is what it's like to go to a newsstand these days.
It may for some of the guys in the room, it might require a degree in philosophy to figure
out exactly what's wrong with this.
But happily I have one.
In any case, this is, have we struck the perfect balance in our society?
Is this the perfect expression of psychological health with respect to the variable of female
sexuality and youth and beauty?
Ok, there's a continuum here, again with respect to only one variable where maybe we can find
a place on this spectrum that represents greater balance, where little girls and little boys
can grow up sort of less confounded by the prospect of becoming sexual adults.
My point is, clearly the left is not the right answer.
I mean you ask yourself questions like is this – is compulsory veiling a good way
to raise confident and contented women?
Does it raise more compassionate men?
Does it improve the relationships between boys and their mothers or girls and their
I think any reasonable person, not confounded by religious dogmatism would say very likely
But we know that our moral intuitions are actually not infallible.
We know that they're prone to illusions.
And I'll give you one instance of very clear moral illusion.
And this is why we need a scientific approach to morality.
We need to get behind our moral illusion.
So if I asked you how much you would help -- how much money you would give a child
in need and this is based on the work of Paul Slovic who ran this experiment.
People will give something near the limit of their generosity.
If I asked you how much compassion you feel, you will express based on self report something
near the limit of your compassion.
If I asked you how much you would give to help another child in need, now the girl's
Again, you'd give the same amount, and you would self report the same level of compassion.
But if I asked you in another circumstance how much you would help to give -- how much
you would give to children in need, both your self report of compassion and your material
generosity diminishes by about 20 to 25%.
Now this is clearly non-normative.
And if you care about a little girl, and you care about her brother, you should care at
least as much about the two of them.
Your altruism should in some sense be additive.
And it's not, it's actually quite the opposite.
And the more you add, the more altruism diminishes.
So that when you add enough, it just goes to the floor.
And this accounts for what Slovic has termed 'genocide neglect' which is something we're
all familiar with.
It's very difficult to care about a genocide.
Genocides are boring for some reason.
I mean the biggest problems in human life when you hear that a hundred thousand or two
hundred thousand or a million people were hacked to death with machetes in Rwanda, that
barely makes the news.
And yet, on the left, you may not be familiar with this image – it's about 20 years old
-- but baby Jessica fell down a well, her rescue dominated the news 24 hours a day until
she was rescued.
It was like four days of pulling her out of this well.
There was not a person who owned a television who was watching anything else.
So, this is literally an instance where a cat stuck in a tree can trump the needless
suffering and death of millions, based on how we allocate our attentional resources.
And so we are, we're clearly not well equipped to pay attention to the problems that we know
actually affect most lives in the greatest ways.
And so we need to find some way of getting behind our failures of intuition.
And we know, we have, this again does not erode the objectivity of the moral space because
we have very obvious failures in intuition elsewhere.
I mean this is just a visual illusion which should work for most of you.
But if you are normally sighted, you will almost certainly see the tower on the right
to be leaning further on the right than the tower on the left.
But these are identical photos.
It's a visual illusion.
The existence of visual illusions allows us to understand something about our visual system.
The existence of moral illusions I would argue should allow us to understand something about
our judgments of value.
Clearly when it's important to see the world correctly, we manage to work around the limits
of our visual system.
Clearly we need to find some way of legislating and developing social and political mechanisms
that enshrines our better judgment and our real moral wisdom, and leaves us no longer
vulnerable to our moment to moment failures of moral intuition.
And so in closing, I would just say that it seems to me that one of the critical things
we need to do now as a species really is come up with a way of talking about the most important
questions in human life, talking about the space of morality and human values in a way
that truly transcends culture.
So that just as there's no such thing as Christian physics and Muslim algebra, there's no such
thing as Christian and Muslim morality.
We're just talking about human flourishing, and all the variables that influence it.
Thank you very much.
Jed: If we have questions, I'm sure Sam would be happy to answer them.
Sam: Do you want me to call on people or?
>> Hey, thanks so much for coming out.
I thought you did a really good job showing how we can use more scientific method to maximize
a value function like with your moral landscape.
However, I think you completely dodged the issue of where do you get that value function
>> to assume that maximizing happiness for the most people is the value function.
And I think, I mean I'm not disagreeing with that, but I think that you've dodged the philosophical
>>Sam: Right right.
>> that it seemed like you were going to address.
>>Sam: Well it's -- there are many wrinkles there as you suggest.
It's not obvious how you aggregate happiness claims and whose opinion trumps others.
How do you compare the one person's headache, or the headache of a million people to the
broken arms of five people, say?
There's mysteries there as to how you, what trumps what.
There's also, when you talk about population ethics, there are real problems in how do
you just add up utility function so that -- if you were gonna say, I don't know if you're
familiar with the work of Derek Parfit, the philosopher.
But he's done some very brilliant work on just the paradoxes that trying to aggregate
utility coughs up.
For instance, if you're gonna talk about just positive experience, if that's -- if just
more positive experience is the way you want to -- what you want to privilege, then you
should prefer a world of trillions of beings that have lives that are only barely worth
living, so a world of seven billion of us living in perfect ecstasy.
Because there's just more positivity net.
So that clearly doesn't work.
So then people want to say, well there's -- maybe you want average happiness.
You want to raise the average.
Well if all you want to do is raise the average, then you should kill all the unhappy people
And maybe kill everyone except the one happiest person, and then you will have raised the
average, and there's just one happy person left.
Clearly average is not the right metric.
So there are issues here.
My point however is that -- and this probably speaks to the core of your questions -- we
can't get confused between answers in practice and answers in principle.
Just because there may not always be clear ways to resolve these issues in practice doesn't
mean there aren't right answers.
If I asked you how many people on earth were bitten by a mosquito in the last 60 seconds,
it is obvious we don't have the answer to that question, and we will never have the
answer to that question.
It's also obvious the question is well posed and has a simple numerical answer.
So there's a difference between there just being no facts there to be known and there's
-- it's just being hard to know them.
>> I think I -- maybe I mis-phrased.
The, I think the core you missed is you tried to put -- posit this as an alternative to
values based on a religion and morals based on it where…
>> the value system is handed down from on high and these things are good and these things
However, you seem to just posit that maximum happiness, if that were measurable is the
value we should be seeking to achieve.
>>Sam: Well one thing I said.
>> And what's your -- what -- philosophically if you're trying to establish morality without
a higher being, what is your basis for saying that the value function is maximum -- like
in the game of chess.
>> We can solve the game of chess given that you don't want to be checkmated.
>> However, if you don't have that goal, like that goal has to be assumed.
So you have to assume that happiness is good for people or is the good that should be achieved.
Sam: Well no, I think that's a, that's a good question.
That actually speaks to this notion of a naturalistic fallacy.
G. E. Moore, this philosopher, gave us this idea of a naturalistic fallacy.
He said that whenever you attempt to find good in the world as a kind of natural property,
it's always open to this further question, well is that really good?
So what you're saying to me is I want to maximize human happiness.
There's a posi -- there's a way to look at that and stand outside and say, but is maximizing
human happiness really good and that's called Moore's open question argument.
I think the moment you see that, when you unpack what is actually being said there,
what that doubt actually means, I think it's clear that you are talking about -- that it
doesn't work for a well being, that it doesn't work for the well being of conscious creatures.
'Cause what you're asking is if I say maximizing well being is the basis for good and you say,
but is that really good -- , what you're really asking is -- is that instance of well being
obstructive of some deeper well being that you don't know about.
And so my value function is truly open-ended.
The challenge is not to -- I mean well being is like health.
It's a loose concept that is nonetheless and indispensible concept.
>>Sam: No I'm saying that whatever well being is altogether.
Ok let's say there are frontiers of well being we haven't discovered, as I think there are.
>> You're assuming though.
>>Sam: I'm assuming that there's nothing
>>Sam: Well, one thing I'm noticing is that anyone who says they have an alternate version
of value, their version is always parasitic on some notion of well being anyway.
So the jihadist who blows himself up in a crowd of infidels, right?
That seems to be like the ultimate repudiation of my way of thinking and what's worse for
your well being than strapping on the vest and blowing yourself up?
But when you look at what he's doing, he has a story, and his story is he's gonna wind
up in paradise for all eternity.
He's gonna get seventy of his relatives in there.
He's gonna further the Islamification of the earth.
All of these reduced to notions of the good and the notions of maximizing well being.
Getting to paradise and getting your family there too and helping the right religion spread
on the face of the earth is the ultimate way of trying to safe guard human well being.
>>Sam: Well, I've never, I've never encountered an intelligible alternative.
And if you're gonna say, 'Well listen, here's the -- I've got a black box here which has
the alternative, right.'
This is a version of value that has nothing to do with the effect on any possible conscious
OK, it has nothing to do with changes in state, in consciousness now or in the future.
But this is the real version of value.
It seems to me you have by definition a version of value that can't be of interest to anyone.
>>Sam: I mean, no -- anything that is conscious can only be interested in possible, actual
or possible changes in consciousness for them or for someone or something else.
And if you're gonna say, well I've got this thing over here that doesn't show up in any
of that space actually or possibly.
It seems to me that's probably the least interesting thing in the world, because it can't possibly
affect anything that anyone can possibly notice.
So the moment you notice it, it's consciousness, and it's changes.
And all I'm saying is, what I've done is I haven't answered the questions of ethics.
I'm not claiming to have said, ok here's what's right and wrong.
I'm just saying here's the direction in which we can have a truly open- ended conversation
where we discover frontiers of human flourishing.
And not just human flourishing, the flourishing of anything that can flourish.
So if you guys build a computer that is conscious, or that we think is conscious, all of a sudden
we have an ethical conversation about how we should treat our computers.
If our computers suffer when we turn them off, then we have ethical obligation with
respect to our computers.
I don't think anyone is expecting that anytime soon,
In any case, all the hard work is still to be done is just -- the moment, it seems to
me the moment you notice you're talking about well being, then very different things start
Then you can't argue that gay marriage is the most important thing we should be talking
about in the political space unless you have an argument that gay marriage really is gonna
create immense suffering.
No one has that argument.
Everyone just says this is wrong, God doesn't like it so we're gonna burn 90% of our political
oxygen talking about that.
>>Jed: I think there's a question in the back.
>> So yeah, so I guess just to kind of take a slightly different perspective on this,
on the question that was just asked.
>> So the thing about science that's kind of interesting is it excels in the descriptive.
Mainly because usua -- in most sciences they'll have hard physical sciences that you think
The prime fitting function, the fitness function or the, you know, optimizing function is basically
kind of impartial.
In most cases it's nature itself, right?
So all you're trying to do is to discover what's already there, and you have a really
good way of testing which is tested against the data that you collect from nature…
>> And you see if you're right or wrong.
It's a natural, naturally given sort of like a judge of whether you did it wrong or whether
you're off base.
Similar thing can be seen with a lot of games like chess, right?
Where you have a set of rules that's well defined and whether you made the right move
or not, or whether you won or not, it's not really up to anybody's judgment, its…
>> as long as you agree to those rules that's there.
Same thing with mathematics, as long as you agree on the axioms up front of exactly what
kind of a system you're playing with, then everything is well defined from there on out.
Then, you know unless of course there's issues with the axioms themselves with Godel and
But you know, once you set things up, that system is self contained and…
>> enclosed, right?
The problem with ethics it seems to me is that -- and I think this gets to what he was
saying earlier is that you're kind of a -- there's no single agreed upon universally agreed upon
set --like function, ethics function to maximize, right?
So the function itself is sort of like a matter's kind of question.
That's up for grabs, right?
>> So we'll never really know, or maybe there is a way to know, but what's to say that if
you say OK, well science is going to figure this out.
We're going to say that some notion of well being that will kind of tease out in the future.
What's to say that's any better, or it's not a religion that's comparable to Christianity
or Islam or anything else.
Where instead of setting up a god, you set up a well being function, right?
>>Sam: Ok, well.
>>And that's the thing that you worship.
At the end of the day you're not really, you're kind of putting up a science, but it's not
really fully scientific in the same kind of a sense.
You're using scientific methods, but the principle on which you're actually trying to operate
the machinery of scientific inquiry itself could be based on a more dogmatic or kind
of religious kind of ambiguity.
>>Sam: Right, OK, that's a very well expressed concern.
I think you have again fallen into this double standard that I was trying to expose.
Based on intuitions that morality and well being and value are different from the rest
of scientific fact.
So again, the only thing I can do is try to nudge you with analogies and, for instance,
I just brought up the analogy to human health.
Notice you don't have this intuition about human health.
You wouldn't say well who's to say what human health is?
There is probably your health and my health, they may be completely incommensurable.
Cancer is cancer.
It's cancer here, and it's cancer in the highlands of New Guinea, and it's cancer whether people
have heard of cancer.
Now it's not that two culturally contingent conceptions of health don't affect our experience
of being sick.
It's like cancer having the word cancer mean so much in this society affects people when
they get cancer in a way that it's probably non-normative.
In any case, there's a biology of human health that we are trying to discover.
Granted, it's not like chess, the goal isn't predefined.
So it's open ended, and in fact if we can mettle with our biology in ways that completely
transform the possibilities of physical health, then physical health is truly undefined.
If someone like Aubrey de Grey is right, the biogerontologist who thinks that death isn't
aging, it's just an engineering problem that admits of a full solution.
If he's right, then we should be able to live indefinitely.
And therefore our current conception of health which is more or less something like if you're
80 years old and can walk around without much pain, you're healthy.
If you can expect to be 80 and walk around without pain, you're healthy.
Well, if Aubrey de Grey is right, we should be able to jog a marathon at age 1,000.
And it's a completely different conception of health, and yet each one of those conceptions
is still objective.
It's still, there's still, it's still, we're still talking about a space of right and wrong
answers and scientific understandings of causality.
And what I'm saying to you is that forget about words like morality and ethics, and
just talk about psychological and social flourishing.
These are facts about -- to speak of humans only now.
They're facts about the human brain.
Whatever I do, whatever happens to me affects my brain.
I can only affect you by affecting your brain in terms of your experience.
And there is, this is all fantastically complicated and culture is involved, but culture again
is being run on our brains and affecting our brains and being instantiated only at the
level of the brain if it's showing up at all.
So that a more maturing science of the mind, a maturing science that they can really describe
how positive and negative changes happen in human experience will of necessity discourage
right and wrong answer of what is good and what is bad.
Anyway, I hope that addresses the point, it's not -- this is the subject of my next book,
and obviously it's not, I can't deal with each little wrinkle in the space of an hour,
but I hope to over the course of 300 pages.
>> My question is…
>> My question now.
You're getting variations on the same question over and over again.
You're getting a lot of variations on the same question.
It seems to me you did a really good job of demonstrating that it would be very wonderful
if we could have a universal morality that we all agreed on.
What I didn't see is that you did the same level of job of convincing me that there is
a universal morality that you can put forth that you can get us all to agree on.
For example take the pictures of women you had.
When you've done this at academic conferences, you've wound up with heated discussions, and
I'm guessing you didn't wind up convincing the other people who disagreed with you that
your sense of what was right was the way that they should be looking at the world.
>>Now, speaking personally, when I look at my own morality, I truly believe I have a
built in ability to perceive and react to morality.
And when I ask why, and I look into the research that exists on it, there's research in evolution
on biological underpinnings from evolution theory as to why I would have that.
And indeed, you can find all sorts of research on altruism, on through kin selection you
can find all sorts of reasons…
>>Sam: Right, right.
>> why we have been built into these response.
But the same research that is suggestion causes for a biological underpinning that causes
me to feel moral feelings also explain why there should be between different social groups
There is no scientifically from an evolutionary perspective -- there's no difference between
able to feel morality and xenophobia towards outsiders.
>> They're explained by the same phenomenon.
>>So what I don't see that you're able to get past that.
I don't see you're able to produce a morality that's going to convince people that people
are going to buy into.
Sam: OK, great question.
Two points I want to pick up on.
First you have to distinguish between -- I'm not arguing that morality is based on evolution.
I'm not arguing that our current notion of human well being and flourishing and all of
our thinking about that is in any way tied to Darwinian principles because clearly most
of what we care about now is not.
If you're giving your children eye glasses or wearing sun screen, you're not disposed
to live in the world that your genes have made for you.
And there are many things that we have, that have been selected for like out group violence
and xenophobia that clearly are a main obstacle to human flourishing at this moment.
We have to get -- rape could have paid dividends to our ancestors is a good strategy to get
your genes into the next generation.
No one's going to argue that rape is therefore morally necessary.
So there's this separation between evolution and intelligent discussion about human flourishing.
And evolution simply can't see what we care about because we haven't evolved to have conversations
We haven't evolved to perfect democracies, we haven't evolved to build safer airplanes.
We've flown the perch that evolution has built for us.
And we have as you say these hard wired judgments that inform our moral life.
People find certain things disgusting.
And that kind of disgust circuitry plays into their moral judgments.
The question is given what we are, how do we maximize human well being?
And that question I'm arguing subsumes all the talk we should be engaging around right
and wrong and good and evil.
Now I'll tell you the kind of -- your opening question reminded me of the kind thing I do
get at a scientific conference.
For instance, talking about compulsory veiling, I said very much like I've said here, we know
that compulsory veiling is not a way of maximizing human well being.
Someone else at the conference, another presenter at the conference said, "That's just your
opinion. How can you prove that?"
I said, well I think morality reduces to human well being and this is obviously not a way
of maximizing human well being.
She said, "Well it's just your opinion."
I said, "Well let's make it easier.
Let's say we found a culture that was just removing the eyeballs of every third child,
Would you then admit that we had found a culture that was not maximizing human well being?"
And she said, "Well it would depend on why they were doing it."
Now understand this is a person who has a PhD in biology and a PhD in philosophy and
whose area of expertise is on the forensic use of science and all the ethical issues
And she had just given a talk on how troubled she was that we might be using lie detection
technology on captured terrorists because this would be a violation of cognitive liberty
because she had very fine grained moral intuitions about what is wrong to do to people, right.
And I'm asking if we found a culture that were removing the eyeballs of children, it
would depend on why they were doing it.
I said, "Well let's say they were doing it for religious reasons.
They have a scripture which says, every third should walk in darkness or such nonsense."
She said, "Well then you could never say that they're wrong."
This is not -- that is not a minority view in science and academia at this moment.
It seems to me we are hamstrung by this, this, this politically correct dogma which suggests
that we have to pretend to know so little about human well being.
We have to pretend to know so little about how people flourish that we can say absolutely
nothing in the face of moral diversity.
That all we can do is just take everyone's word for this is one flavor of morality, this
is another flavor.
They're all equally viable, they're all equally dignified.
And there's just no way we're ever gonna fuse our cognitive horizons or our moral horizons
on this subject.
Whereas we're aspiring to fuse it on every other subject.
We talk about human psychology and genetics and physics and then it's transcultural and
transnational and there's just one space to talk.
But if you're going to talk about human well being, we know nothing and we'll never know
anything in principal.
That, it seems to me is just, one it's just profoundly unlikely to be true given that
it's all happening at the level of the brain.
And two, it's a recipe for just the continued shattering of our world.
>> That's not what I'm trying to say.
I agree with you -- just not at the level.
However there's lots of arguments that there are many people like that.
>>You're not going to create the breaking of universal ground.
>>Sam: Well we don't have to convince every -- first, I know we're out of time, but this
This is great, by the way.
I don't take my adversarial stance as anything other than appreciation, because I love this.
It seems to me that we overstate the lack of consensus because there actually is a lot
of consensus on our most important moral intuitions.
I mean you take something like -- so there's two things.
One is consensus doesn’t really matter ultimately when you're talking about truth.
It's possible for everyone to be wrong, it's possible for one person to be right and to
never be recognized.
This is true everywhere.
It's true in physics, it's true in information processing and it's gotta be true in questions
of human well being.
But the truth is we have a consensus in morality that we don't have elsewhere.
So if I walk out on the street and I ask people, "Do you think the passage of time varies with
Time slows down the faster you go.
Well that's just special relativity, but most people aren't gonna believe that, right?
If I go out there and say, "Do you think human beings and lobsters have a common ancestor?
That's just evolution."
But we know how many people don't believe that, and on a good day, 25% of our neighbors
If I go out there and say, "Do you think it's good to be kind to strangers?
Do you think it's good to tell the truth most of the time? Do you think it's good to be
kind to children?
Those are massively well subscribed belief systems.
So what I would argue is that our core moral intuitions, what moves us is actually quite
similar from culture to culture.
And the thing that we don't have, and the thing that, the real challenge is we have
-- people are using the same morality, by and large -- things like veiling notwithstanding.
They're using the same kind of morality, but they've trimmed down their moral circle based
on some us and them ideology.
So that there's an in group and there's an out group.
There's an in group that they care about to which their morality applies.
So it's good to be kind to these children, but we can kill these other children because
they're not really people.
And so this is how you get the mystery of how under the Third Reich, you have perfectly
normal people willing to gas and kill unlimited numbers of other people in their day job.
And they go home and they still love their children, and they love their pets and they
listen to Wagner and they have normal lives.
I mean there's no way that all the people who were involved in the Third Reich were
This is the horror of that particular instance.
And it's the horror of any time you see mass numbers of people victimizing other people.
But what allows that to happen is this sense of certain people are not people.
So we have to expand the circle.
What we don't have to do is somehow convince people of a radically different morality.
Modulate a few things like what to do about women's sexuality and whether women should
be taught to read.
There are cultures that are pretty -- have some strange ideas about how to best set up
But, for the most part, nobody thinks that being terrible to your in group is what constitutes
a moral life.
So we need to broaden the in group.
>> So a question that I would have.
Well first of all a statement.
And that is it seems that you share some common ground about maybe some of the dangers of
moral relativism with the current Catholic pope.
I don't know if anyone's suggested that to you before.
>>Sam: Well no, but I actually suggested that early on.
The irony is that the people who -- the only people who agree with me and think there are
right answers to moral questions are the religious demagogues who think they have those answers
because they got them from a voice in a whirlwind.
I mean that's the -- and so I would argue they're right for the wrong reason.
>> So I mean, I guess a question is is if we, if the goal of your talk and maybe the
goal of I guess your mission is really –
It seems that it's something along the lines of is it possible to get people more engaged
with having like an active kind of moral I guess inner dialogue.
And then externalize that and have it with others.
And that's going to be at least some portion of what you want to do.
>>Sam: Yeah, well I want to break down the illusion that there is actually no dialogue
to have that can lean anywhere worth going.
And that's we have this sense that we just have to respect and tolerate difference, radical
In fact we have to tolerate intolerance.
We have to tolerate violent intolerance.
So you know, if a cartoon controversy, there's riots.
People rioting by hundreds of thousands over the earth.
People are dying.
The cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, I don't know if you know this in Denmark.
The guy who drew the most provocative of the cartoons -- provo -- not provocative at all,
it was a guy with a bomb shaped turban.
But, you know, he's being hunted in his own country.
A guy showed up in his living room with an ax the other night.
And literally every person with the name Kurt Westergaard in Denmark, there's like 87 of
them now need round the clock protection.
We are very patient with this kind of conception of differing conception of what constitutes
There are these anti-blasphemy laws trying to make their way through the UN at the moment.
So it's going to be illegal, someone like me could be -- get a knock on the door for
the unpleasant things he says about religion.
It seems to me, we need to, the moment we start talking about how human beings really
flourish, we can cut through a lot of this.
The moment we get, we're no longer confused by words like morality and we just simply
talk about psychological health, social health, physical health et cetera.
>> Yeah, I had a question.
I recently read a book by Edward O. Wilson – 'Consilience', where he made the argument
that science needs to encroach on the areas of arts and some other areas in curriculum.
And the scientific approach can be applied to those things.
And I'm wondering if the inevitable belief or goal is that science will basically be
intrinsic to every avenue of human life.
Be it something like you were talking about now like ethics, to something that today exists
completely devoid or outside of science.
Will that inevitably be rolled under the blanket of science?
And will we have answers for you know the things that we don't think that we can right
now, through science?
>>Sam: Yeah, yeah, well, it's not that we're always gonna consult the scientist or scan
our brains to make, to decide whether we want to go get some ice cream.
The desire for ice cream is something that's happening at the level of the brain.
We can understand it with greater precision at the level of the brain.
Even if we understood it perfectly, that's still not going to change our experience necessarily
of having ice cream or wanting ice cream or getting ice cream.
So there's practically speaking at the level of how we live and fall in love and what attracts
our attention in any moment a complete scientific understanding of all those processes, should
it be available.
Isn't it going to just keep us looking at brain scans and keep us out of living our
That's not the way science works.
I think there are interesting ways in which understanding things scientifically could
change our actual experience.
So, for instance, you know if [sigh].
I mean we have this, we use words like "love" say in many different contexts.
And we say, "I love my wife, I love my child, I love my dog, I potentially love other people
who I haven't met yet, I love ice cream."
We have different shades of meaning there.
Now, if we understood all of these -- if I could put you in the perfect brain scanner
and interrogated your brain as you went through all those different experiences, we might
find that some of those experiences are quite similar or quite different and line up in
ways with other experiences that would be rather counter intuitive.
And so that maybe we're using the wrong word.
And maybe were actually not noticing what we really are feeling in certain circumstances.
And this is not a brain scan analogy, but for instance people use words like embarrassment
and humiliation almost interchangeably.
But when there's been some work done on embarrassment and humiliation, these social emotions, and
it turns out there's a difference between embarrassment and humiliation.
If I told you a story about a prior embarrassment of mine right now.
It's gonna be a story that's gonna make you laugh very likely.
If I tell you a story where I was humiliated, genuinely humiliated, you might laugh, but
you're gonna be uncomfortable and you're gonna be ready to change the subject.
Now that's a shade of difference.
This is a way in which our social emotions kind of translate into discursive inter-subjective
The point is, this is something you might not know anything about, but it's still true.
So you could have gone through your whole life telling embarrassing stories, and telling
humiliating stories and sort of being vaguely aware of a difference in your audience, and
in you, but thinking the embarrassment and humiliation were the same thing.
And so, I think we could become much better observers of our inner lives with new concepts.
And that doesn't mean that science somehow is gonna be this -- overwhelm every other
kind of talk where we'll talk in terms of neurotransmitters and not use words like love
>> I was thinking more of like a ubiquitous accomplice to some of these other understandings.
Science just always having some input in these other areas.
>>Sam: Yeah, I'm a fan of the notion of Consilience.
I don't think that book has necessarily aged so well in every regard.
But the notion that there are actually no real boundaries between knowledge domains,
I agree with.
I think the boundaries are there by virtue of bookkeeping and university architecture
and just shortages of time.
I mean the fact that you can't -- it takes too much time to specialize in any one area,
to specialize in every area.
And knowledge is doubling every three years or five years in the sciences.
So if you knew everything today, three to five years from now you know exactly half
So that aside I think, there is just one space of facts to know and ways to talk about them
and beliefs to have them.
>> Does anyone on VC have any questions, anyone left?
All right, great, well thanks a lot Sam.
Sam: Yeah, thank you.