Sam Harris, Polarization, The Afterlife: Q&A 26/08/22
Your questions answered
I’ve started publishing audio recordings of my most popular essays, which are available exclusively to paid subscribers and can be found under the “podcast” tab on the front page, here. So far, four are up. More will come.
As you’ll recall, I’ve also been offering my paid subscribers three questions per month. Unfortunately, I’m now receiving so many questions that answering them is starting to eat into the time I’d use to produce articles. So, from now on, I’m going to reduce the number of questions to one per person per month. (Founding Members can ask one per week, and will receive more detailed answers.)
At the end of each month, I publish the month’s questions and answers that I think readers will find most interesting. If you didn’t guess it, that’s the purpose of this post.
The questions and answers below have been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.
What is your take on Sam Harris' claim that suppressing the Hunter Biden laptop story was justified to prevent the re-election of Trump?
(Context: the question refers to Sam’s statements on this recent podcast appearance)
I've been a fan of Sam's for nearly two decades, and he recently became a paid subscriber to my Substack, so it's hard for me not to be biased here, but I'll try to be as objective as my humanity allows.
Sam is, like all good thinkers, a provocateur. It's his job to encourage debate. He's provoked theists, atheists, leftists, and, now, rightists.
One of the ways Sam provokes people is with his rhetorical use of hyperbole. In the interview you speak of, when he's discussing the Hunter Biden laptop story, it's clear he's in “hyperbole mode” from his language (Biden's corruption versus Trump's is "like a firefly to the sun," "Hunter Biden literally could have had the corpses of children in his basement, I would not have cared.")
I think one reason Sam was speaking in such a loose manner was the relaxed and casual format of the interview, which appears to have been in his home. He was talking with his interviewers as one would idly chat with friends, so precision was not high on his list.
When you couple this with the fact that he was trying to be provocative and interesting for the interview, and that he wasn't given time to elaborate much on any of his points, it’s hardly surprising that the views he expressed were a mere caricature of what he really thinks.
To see how poorly Sam's remarks in that interview reflect his actual views, one only has to look at his oeuvre: he’s spent his life attacking authoritarian ideologies like Islamism and wokeism, and each time, he’s reinforced his support of democracy and his hostility to censorship. Therefore, the attempts by the raging online mobs to portray him as an enemy of democracy and a friend of censorship are disingenuous; they require us to reject the testimony of two decades of his talks and writings, while accepting the testimony of a single off-hand discussion.
So if Sam's views were not articulated clearly in that one interview, what was he really trying to say?
It seems to me that he was looking at the problem practically. We know that Russia interfered on Trump’s behalf in the 2016 and 2020 elections by flooding the West with disinformation and by inflating stories out of proportion (e.g. Hillary's emails). So if you're making decisions at Twitter, and you're told that a news story incriminating the Biden family has suspiciously emerged days before the election, and that there's a nontrivial likelihood that it has been engineered by an actual despot (Putin) to aid the election of a wannabe despot (Trump), what do you do?
It's easy to say you'd allow it, and that's probably what I'd do, hesitantly. But allowing a foreign country to interfere in your elections is antidemocratic, so this isn't a simple case of democracy vs censorship. Pure liberalism is insufficient to protect liberalism (see: Weimar Germany), so, in the messy real world, sometimes small tyrannies are needed to prevent greater ones. I made this same case against Alex Jones in 2018: would you allow a professional fabulist to publicly lie about people and unleash his army of millions of followers to harangue and abuse them in the real world? Or would you curtail his freedoms, ensuring freedom for his victims?
Now, I disagree with Sam even on this charitable interpretation, because, in my view, any unaccountable system designed to tip the scales in favor of a certain political outcome—even one created as a corrective to other such systems—is ripe for abuse. (My own solution to disinformation can be found here.)
Despite this, I think my interpretation of Sam's views helps to show that the issue is far from black and white (or pro-democracy and anti-democracy). It’s clear Sam himself understands the complexity of the issue, which is why he expressed misgivings about his position (“it’s like a coin toss to me”), which was conveniently ignored by his critics.
Regardless of how accurate my interpretation of Sam's views is, it's ironic that the mobs who are polluting his Twitter replies with vitriol, telling him his career is over, think they're for free speech and against cancel culture. It's also telling that they accuse Sam of being anti-democratic while defending a guy who refused to accept defeat after losing an election. It’s another reminder that many anti-woke “freethinker” types are not that different from the people they rail against.
In the end, Sam's mind, like any mind, is a galaxy of thoughts, so it will always contain ideas you don't like. But to find one of these ideas, and then to condemn the entire galaxy for it, displays a mean-spiritedness that is becoming too common. The angry mobs who are "done" with Sam because of one off-hand comment were never supporters of his, or even remotely familiar with his work, and, to be honest, it's good for Sam that he's purged himself of their attention.
Note: This answer was written before Sam clarified his comments in this video posted yesterday. I recommend watching it as Sam is obviously more of an authority on what he believes than I am.
Do you think Western societies are really more divided and polarized?
The word "more" is quantitative, so to answer the question we need a way to quantify polarization.
Depending on the measure we choose, we find different things.
This study measured polarization by the left-right makeup of each news outlet's audience, relative to the left-right makeup of the total population. It found that polarization, measured in this way, has not increased appreciably over the past few years.
Another way to measure polarization is with people's self-reported political views over time. The American National Election Study has asked people about their position on the political spectrum since 1972. In 2020 it found that the vast majority of Americans remain pooled around the center.
What these studies suggest is that, among the general US population, polarization hasn't increased. However, both of these methodologies offer extremely low-resolution views of the problem.
Firstly, the makeup of news audiences is not an informative measure of polarization, because many people consume news from outlets they disagree with politically (e.g. to dunk on them, or merely to check the weather or sports results). This is particularly true when those outlets dominate the media landscape (e.g. BBC, CNN, Fox News).
Nor are people's self-reported political views a good measure of polarization. This is because most extremists don't view themselves as extremists. They think they're moderate and reasonable, and that it's their opponents who are extreme.
A better method than asking people about their own position on the political spectrum is to ask them where they think their opponents stand. And polls that ask for this information tend to find that polarization has in fact increased.
For instance, this 2014 Pew survey of 10,000 Americans used a variety of questions such as "do you think the other side is a threat to the nation's well-being?" It found that each side's negative view of the other side has doubled since 1994. However, it also found that this increase is limited to a small proportion of the populace, and, in line with the other studies, that the majority of Americans have remained moderate.
Other research yields similar findings. This study used a system to rate decades of poll results for "affective polarization": the extent to which people of a political party view other parties more negatively than their own. It found that in 1978, the average American rated members of their own political party 27 points higher than those of the other major party. By 2016, the average American rated their own party 46 points higher.
The researchers found that this increase was not shared by other countries, suggesting that today's polarization is a particularly American phenomenon.
Furthermore, even among Americans, it appears to be a small minority who are being polarized. One straightforward way to measure polarization is by the proportion of social media users who engage in political conflict online. According to polls (such as this one), the vast majority of social media users don't care about politics, and, according to studies (such as this one and this one) the vast majority of online conflict is perpetuated by a small minority of toxic people. (I'm reminded of this fact every time I log off from Twitter and spend time in the real world, where everyone seems far less political.)
From all this information, a general pattern emerges:
Polarization has increased overall, but the increase is driven mostly by a small subset of the population: the most politically active people (particularly those in the US). Since the majority of Americans remain uninterested or disinterested in politics, it's probably not going to lead to a civil war like so many claim. There is, however, always the threat of the dictatorship of the minority, which, if allowed by complacency to gestate, could finally give the unpolarized majority who don't care about politics a reason to care.
Do you believe in an afterlife?
I'm an atheist and a physicalist, so I believe consciousness is a property of electricity coursing through the brain, just as an electronic display is a property of electricity coursing through circuitry. Ordinarily this would require me to believe that after death my consciousness will be snuffed out like a candle.
One of my favorite passages in all of literature is the opening of Nabokov's autobiography, Speak, Memory, in which he describes my provisional view of death:
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.
Put simply, physicalism would suggest that after death is experientially identical to before birth.
However, the more I learn about the universe, the more I realize how utterly bizarre it is, and that our intuitions about it are cartoonishly simplistic.
I'm very much a believer in a multiverse in which every possible scenario plays out in one universe or another. I believe this theory because of its explanatory power: it offers what is (to my limited understanding) the most coherent explanation for quantum weirdness such as supposed wave-function collapse. It also resolves the grandfather paradox (you don't go back in time, but sideways into another timeline identical to your own but "earlier"). Perhaps most importantly, a multiverse explains the fine-tuning argument, and indeed the origin of reality itself (I have much more to say about this, but, for now, will leave it at this):
Exactly what death means in an infinite multiverse is uncertain. If there are infinite Gurwinders, then when I die in this universe, my brain will endure in others, with precisely the same configuration. But whether my consciousness will carry over into another universe is unknown. (If you created a perfect simulation of your brain in this universe, would you simultaneously inhabit two consciousnesses?)
Furthermore, in a physicalist world it is likely that, in the far future, a machine will be created that will simulate every possible brain configuration, and thus every possible human being. What would that mean for us? Would we all one day awake into some kind of super-consciousness?
All of this is a long-winded way of me saying that I don't know what happens after death. I live my life as though this is the only one I'll have, but, in a cosmos as wild as ours, I expect anything. As Nabokov said, “Life is a great surprise. I do not see why death should not be an even greater one.”