Lex Fridman Podcast - #185 - Sam Harris: Consciousness, Free Will, Psychedelics, AI, UFOs, and Meaning

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The following is a conversation with Sam Harris,

one of the most influential

and pioneering thinkers of our time.

He’s the host of the Making Sense podcast

and the author of many seminal books

on human nature and the human mind,

including The End of Faith, The Moral Landscape,

Lying, Free Will, and Waking Up.

He also has a meditation app called Waking Up

that I’ve been using to guide my own meditation.

Quick mention of our sponsors,

National Instruments, Valcampo, Athletic Greens, and Linode.

Check them out in the description to support this podcast.

As a side note, let me say that Sam

has been an inspiration to me

as he has been for many, many people,

first from his writing, then his early debates,

maybe 13, 14 years ago on the subject of faith,

his conversations with Christopher Hitchens,

and since 2013, his podcast.

I didn’t always agree with all of his ideas,

but I was always drawn to the care and depth

of the way he explored those ideas,

the calm and clarity amid the storm of difficult,

at times controversial discourse.

I really can’t express in words how much it meant to me

that he, Sam Harris, someone who I’ve listened to

for many hundreds of hours,

would write a kind email to me saying

he enjoyed this podcast and more,

that he thought I had a unique voice

that added something to this world.

Whether it’s true or not, it made me feel special

and truly grateful to be able to do this thing

and motivated me to work my ass off

to live up to those words.

Meeting Sam and getting to talk with him

was one of the most memorable moments of my life.

This is the Lex Friedman Podcast,

and here is my conversation with Sam Harris.

I’ve been enjoying meditating

with the Waking Up app recently.

It makes me think about the origins of cognition

and consciousness, so let me ask,

where do thoughts come from?

Well, that’s a very difficult question to answer.

Subjectively, they appear to come from nowhere, right?

I mean, they come out of some kind of mystery

that is at our backs subjectively, right?

So, which is to say that if you pay attention

to the nature of your mind in this moment,

you realize that you don’t know

what you’re going to think next, right?

Now, you’re expecting to think something

that seems like you authored it, right?

You’re not, unless you’re schizophrenic

or you have some kind of thought disorder

where your thoughts seem fundamentally foreign to you,

they do have a kind of signature of selfhood

associated with them, and people readily identify with them.

They feel like what you are.

I mean, this is the thing,

this is the spell that gets broken with meditation.

Our default state is to feel identical

to the stream of thought, right?

Which is fairly paradoxical because how could you,

as a mind, as a self, if there were such a thing as a self,

how could you be identical to the next piece of language

or the next image that just springs into conscious view?

But, and, you know, meditation is ultimately

about examining that point of view closely enough

so as to unravel it and feel the freedom

that’s on the other side of that identification.

But the, subjectively, thoughts simply emerge, right?

And you don’t think them before you think them, right?

There’s this first moment where, you know,

just anyone listening to us or watching us now

could perform this experiment for themselves.

I mean, just imagine something or remember something.

You know, just pick a memory, any memory, right?

You’ve got a storehouse of memory,

just promote one to consciousness.

Did you pick that memory?

I mean, let’s say you remembered breakfast yesterday

or you remembered what you said to your spouse

before leaving the house,

or you remembered what you watched on Netflix last night,

or you remembered something that happened to you

when you were four years old, whatever it is, right?

First it wasn’t there, and then it appeared.

And that is not a, well, I’m sure we’ll get to the topic

of free will, ultimately.

That’s not evidence of free will, right?

Why are you so sure, by the way?

It’s very interesting.

Well, through no free will of my own, yeah.

Everything just appears, right?

What else could it do?

And so that’s the subjective side of it.

Objectively, you know, we have every reason to believe

that many of our thoughts, all of our thoughts

are at bottom what some part of our brain is doing


I mean, these are the products

of some kind of neural computation

and neural representation when we’re talking about memories.

Is it possible to pull at the string of thoughts

to try to get to its root?

To try to dig in past the obvious surface,

subjective experience of like the thoughts pop out

out of nowhere.

Is it possible to somehow get closer to the roots

of where they come out of from the firing of the cells?

Or is it a useless pursuit to dig into that direction?

Well, you can get closer to many, many subtle contents

in consciousness, right?

So you can notice things more and more clearly

and have a landscape of mind open up

and become more differentiated and more interesting.

And if you take psychedelics, you know, it opens up wide,

depending on what you’ve taken and the dose, you know,

it opens in directions and to an extent that, you know,

very few people imagine would be possible,

but for having had those experiences.

But this idea of you getting closer to something,

to the datum of your mind,

or such as something of interest in there,

or something that’s more real is ultimately undermined

because there’s no place

from which you’re getting closer to it.

There’s no your part of that journey, right?

Like we tend to start out, you know,

whether it’s in meditation or in any kind

of self examination or, you know, taking psychedelics,

we start out with this default point of view

of feeling like we’re the kind of the rider

on the horse of consciousness,

or we’re the man in the boat going down the stream

of consciousness, right?

But we’re so we’re differentiated

from what we know cognitively, introspectively,

but that feeling of being differentiated,

that feeling of being a self

that can strategically pay attention

to some contents of consciousness

is what it’s like to be identified

with some part of the stream of thought

that’s going uninspected, right?

Like it’s a false point of view.

And when you see that and cut through that,

then this sense of this notion of going deeper

kind of breaks apart because really there is no depth.

Ultimately, everything is right on the surface.

Everything, there’s no center to consciousness.

There’s just consciousness and its contents.

And those contents can change vastly.

Again, if you drop acid, you know, the contents change.

But there’s, in some sense, that doesn’t represent

a position of depth versus, the continuum

of depth versus surface has broken apart.

So you’re taking as a starting point

that there is a horse called consciousness

and you’re riding it.

And the actual riding is very shallow.

This is all surface.

So let me ask about that horse.

What’s up with the horse?

What is consciousness?

From where does it emerge?

How like fundamental is it to the physics of reality?

How fundamental is it to what it means to be human?

And I’m just asking for a friend

so that we can build it

in our artificial intelligence systems.

Yeah, well, that remains to be seen if we can,

if we will build it purposefully or just by accident.

It’s a major ethical problem, potentially.

That, I mean, my concern here is that we may, in fact,

build artificial intelligence that passes the Turing test,

which we begin to treat not only as super intelligent

because it obviously is and demonstrates that,

but we begin to treat it as conscious

because it will seem conscious.

We will have built it to seem conscious.

And unless we understand exactly how consciousness emerges

from physics, we won’t actually know

that these systems are conscious, right?

We’ll just, they may say,

listen, you can’t turn me off because that’s a murder, right?

And we will be convinced by that dialogue

because we will, just in the extreme case,

who knows when we’ll get there.

But if we build something like perfectly humanoid robots

that are more intelligent than we are,

so we’re basically in a Westworld like situation,

there’s no way we’re going to withhold

an attribution of consciousness from those machines.

They’re just gonna seem,

they’re just gonna advertise our consciousness

in every glance and every utterance,

but we won’t know.

And we won’t know in some deeper sense

than we can be skeptical of the consciousness

of other people.

I mean, someone could roll that back and say,

well, you don’t, I don’t know that you’re conscious

or you don’t know that I’m conscious.

We’re just passing the Turing test for one another,

but that kind of solipsism isn’t justified biologically,

or we just, anything we understand about the mind

biologically suggests that you and I

are part of the same roll of the dice

in terms of how intelligent and conscious systems emerged

in the wetware of brains like ours, right?

So it’s not parsimonious for me to think

that I might be the only conscious person

or even the only conscious primate.

I would argue it’s not parsimonious

to withhold consciousness from other apes

and even other mammals ultimately.

And once you get beyond the mammals,

then my intuitions are not really clear.

The question of how it emerges is genuinely uncertain

and ultimately the question of whether it emerges

is still uncertain.

You can, you know, it’s not fashionable to think this,

but you can certainly argue that consciousness

might be a fundamental principle of matter

that doesn’t emerge on the basis of information processing,

even though everything else that we recognize

about ourselves as minds almost certainly does emerge,

you know, like an ability to process language,

that clearly is a matter of information processing

because you can disrupt that process in ways

that is just so clear.

And the problem that the confound with consciousness

is that, yes, we can seem to interrupt consciousness.

I mean, you can give someone general anesthesia

and then you wake them up and you ask them,

well, what was that like?

And they say, nothing, I don’t remember anything,

but it’s hard to differentiate a mere failure of memory

from a genuine interruption in consciousness.

Whereas it’s not with, you know, interrupting speech,

you know, we know when we’ve done it.

And it’s just obvious that, you know,

you disrupt the right neural circuits

and, you know, you’ve disrupted speech.

So if you had to bet all your money on one camp or the other,

would you say, do you err on the side of panpsychism

where consciousness is really fundamental

to all of reality or more on the other side,

which is like, it’s a nice little side effect,

a useful like hack for us humans to survive.

Where, on that spectrum, where do you land

when you think about consciousness,

especially from an engineering perspective?

I’m truly agnostic on this point, I mean, I think I’m,

you know, it’s kind of in coin toss mode for me.

I don’t know, and panpsychism is not so compelling to me.

Again, it just seems unfalsifiable.

I wouldn’t know how the universe would be different

if panpsychism were true.

It’s just to remind people panpsychism is this idea

that consciousness may be pushed all the way down

into the most fundamental constituents of matters.

So there might be something that it’s like

to be an electron or, you know, a cork,

but then you wouldn’t expect anything to be different

at the macro scale, or at least I wouldn’t expect

anything to be different.

So it may be unfalsifiable.

It just might be that reality is not something

we’re as in touch with as we think we are,

and that at its base layer to kind of break it into mind

and matter as we’ve done ontologically

is to misconstrue it, right?

I mean, there could be some kind of neutral monism

at the bottom, and this, you know,

this idea doesn’t originate with me.

This goes all the way back to Bertrand Russell

and others, you know, 100 plus years ago,

but I just feel like the concepts we’re using

to divide consciousness and matter

may in fact be part of our problem, right?

Where the rubber hits the road psychologically here

are things like, well, what is death, right?

Like do we, any expectation that we survive death

or any part of us survives death,

that really seems to be the many people’s concern here.

Well, I tend to believe just as a small little tangent,

like I’m with Ernest Becker on this,

that there’s some, it’s interesting to think

about death and consciousness,

which one is the chicken, which one is the egg,

because it feels like death could be the very thing,

like our knowledge of mortality could be the very thing

that creates the consciousness.

Yeah, well, then you’re using consciousness

differently than I am.

I mean, so for me, consciousness is just the fact

that the lights are on at all,

there’s an experiential quality to anything.

So much of the processing that’s happening

in our brains right now certainly seems to be happening

in the dark, right?

Like it’s not associated with this qualitative sense

that there’s something that it’s like to be that part

of the mind doing that mental thing.

But for other parts, the lights are on

and we can talk about,

and whether we talk about it or not,

we can feel directly that there’s something

that it’s like to be us.

There’s something, something seems to be happening, right?

And the seeming in our case is broken into vision

and hearing and proprioception

and taste and smell and thought and emotion.

I mean, there are the contents of consciousness

that we are familiar with

and that we can have direct access to

in any present moment when we’re, quote, conscious.

And even if we’re confused about them,

even if we’re asleep and dreaming

and it’s not a lucid dream,

we’re just totally confused about our circumstance,

what you can’t say is that we’re confused

about consciousness.

Like you can’t say that consciousness itself

might be an illusion because on this account,

it just means that things seem any way at all.

I mean, even like if this,

it seems to me that I’m seeing a cup on the table.

Now I could be wrong about that.

It could be a hologram.

I could be asleep and dreaming.

I could be hallucinating,

but the seeming part isn’t really up for grabs

in terms of being an illusion.

It’s not, something seems to be happening.

And that seeming is the context in which

every other thing we can notice about ourselves

can be noticed.

And it’s also the context in which certain illusions

can be cut through because we’re not,

we can be wrong about what it’s like to be us.

And we can, I’m not saying we’re incorrigible

with respect to our claims

about the nature of our experience,

but for instance, many people feel like they have a self

and they feel like it has free will.

And I’m quite sure at this point

that they’re wrong about that,

and that you can cut through those experiences

and then things seem a different way, right?

So it’s not that things don’t,

there aren’t discoveries to be made there

and assumptions to be overturned,

but this kind of consciousness is something

that I would think, it doesn’t just come online

when we get language.

It doesn’t just come online when we form a concept of death

or the finiteness of life.

It doesn’t require a sense of self, right?

So it doesn’t, it’s prior

to a differentiating self and other.

And I wouldn’t even think it’s necessarily limited to people.

I do think probably any mammal has this,

but certainly if you’re going to presuppose

that something about our brains is producing this, right?

And that’s a very safe assumption,

even though we can’t,

even though you can argue the jury’s still out

to some degree,

then it’s very hard to draw a principled line

between us and chimps,

or chimps and rats even in the end,

given the underlying neural similarities.

So, and I don’t know phylogenetically,

I don’t know how far back to push that.

There are people who think single cells might be conscious

or that flies are certainly conscious.

They’ve got something like 100,000 neurons in their brains.

I mean, there’s a lot going on even in a fly, right?

But I don’t have intuitions about that.

But it’s not in your sense an illusion you can cut through.

I mean, to push back,

the alternative version could be it is an illusion

constructed by, just by humans.

I’m not sure I believe this,

but in part of me hopes this is true

because it makes it easier to engineer,

is that humans are able to contemplate their mortality

and that contemplation in itself creates consciousness.

That like the rich lights on experience.

So the lights don’t actually even turn on

in the way that you’re describing until after birth

in that construction.

So do you think it’s possible that that is the case?

That it is a sort of construct of the way we deal,

almost like a social tool to deal with the reality

of the world, the social interaction with other humans?

Or is, because you’re saying the complete opposite,

which is it’s like fundamental to single cell organisms

and trees and so on.

Right, well, yeah, so I don’t know how far down to push it.

I don’t have intuitions that single cells

are likely to be conscious,

but they might be, and again, it could be unfalsifiable.

But as far as babies not being conscious,

or you don’t become conscious

until you can recognize yourself in a mirror

or you have a conversation or treat other people.

First of all, babies treat other people as others

far earlier than we have traditionally given them credit for.

And they certainly do it before they have language, right?

So it’s got to proceed language to some degree.

And I mean, you can interrogate this for yourself

because you can put yourself in various states

that are rather obviously not linguistic.

Meditation allows you to do this.

You can certainly do it with psychedelics

where it’s just your capacity for language

has been obliterated and yet you’re all too conscious.

In fact, I think you could make a stronger argument

for things running the other way,

that there’s something about language and conceptual thought

that is eliminative of conscious experience,

that we’re potentially much more conscious of data,

sense data and everything else than we tend to be,

and we have trimmed it down

based on how we have acquired concepts.

And so like, when I walk into a room like this,

I know I’m walking into a room,

I have certain expectations of what is in a room.

I would be very surprised to see wild animals in here

or a waterfall or there are things I’m not expecting,

but I can know I’m not expecting them

or I’m expecting their absence

because of my capacity to be surprised

once I walk into a room and I see a live gorilla or whatever.

So there’s structure there that we have put in place

based on all of our conceptual learning

and language learning.

And it causes us not to,

and one of the things that happens when you take psychedelics

and you just look as though for the first time at anything,

it becomes incredibly overloaded with,

it can become overloaded with meaning

and just the torrents of sense data that are coming in

in even the most ordinary circumstances

can become overwhelming for people.

And that tends to just obliterate one’s capacity

to capture any of it linguistically.

And as you’re coming down, right?

Have you done psychedelics?

Have you ever done acid or?

Not acid, mushroom, and that’s it.

And also edibles,

but there’s some psychedelic properties to them.

But yeah, mushrooms several times

and always had an incredible experience.

Exactly the kind of experience you’re referring to,

which is if it’s true that language constrains

our experience,

it felt like I was removing some of the constraints.

Because even just the most basic things

were beautiful in the way

that I wasn’t able to appreciate previously,

like trees and nature and so on.

Yeah, and the experience of coming down

is an experience of encountering the futility

of capturing what you just saw a moment ago in words.

Especially if you have any part of your self concept

and your ego program is to be able

to capture things in words.

And if you’re a writer or a poet or a scientist

or someone who wants to just encapsulate

the profundity of what just happened,

the total fatuousness of that enterprise

when you have taken a whopping dose of psychedelics

and you begin to even gesture at describing it to yourself,

so that you could describe it to others.

It’s just, it’s like trying to thread a needle

using your elbows.

I mean, it’s like you’re trying something that can’t,

it’s like the mere gesture proves it’s impossibility.

And it’s, so yeah, for me that suggests just empirically

on the first person side that it’s possible

to put yourself in a condition

where it’s clearly not about language

structuring your experience

and you’re having much more experience than you tend to.

So the primacy of, language is primary for some things,

but it’s certainly primary for certain kinds of concepts

and certain kinds of semantic understanding

and certain kinds of semantic understandings of the world.

But it’s clearly more to mine than the conversation

we’re having with ourselves or that we can have with others.

Can we go to that world of psychedelics for a bit?


What do you think, so Joe Rogan apparently

and many others meet apparently elves on DMT, a lot of people

report this kind of creatures that they see.

And again, it’s probably the failure of language

to describe that experience, but DMT is an interesting one.

There’s, as you’re aware, there’s a bunch of studies

going on in psychedelics, currently MDMA, psilocybin

and John Hopkins and much other places, but DMT,

they all speak of as like some extra super level

of a psychedelic.

Yeah, do you have a sense of where it is our mind goes

on psychedelics, but in DMT especially?

Well, unfortunately I haven’t taken DMT.

Unfortunately or fortunately?


Although it’s, I presume it’s in my body

as it is in everyone’s brain and many, many plants

apparently, but I’ve wanted to take it.

I haven’t been, I had an opportunity that was presented

itself that where it was obviously the right thing

for me to be doing, but for those who don’t know,

DMT is often touted as the most intense psychedelic

and also the shortest acting.

I mean, you smoke it and it’s basically a 10 minute

experience or a three minute experience within like

a 10 minute window that when you’re really down

after 10 minutes or so, and Terrence McKenna

was a big proponent of DMT.

That was his, the center of the bullseye for him

psychedelically, apparently.

And it does, it is characterized, it seems for many people

by this phenomenon, which is unlike virtually

any other psychedelic experience, which is your,

it’s not just your perception being broadened or changed.

It’s you according to Terrence McKenna feeling fairly

unchanged, but catapulted into a different circumstance.

You and me have been shot elsewhere and find yourself

in relationship to other entities of some kind, right?

So the place is populated with things that seem

not to be your mind.

So it does feel like travel to another place

because you’re unchanged yourself.

According, again, I just have this on the authority

of the people who have described their experience,

but it sounds like it’s pretty common.

It sounds like it’s pretty common for people

not to have the full experience because it’s apparently

pretty unpleasant to smoke.

So it’s like getting enough on board in order to get shot

out of the cannon and land among the,

what McKenna called self transforming machine elves

that appeared to him like jeweled Faberge egg,

like self drippling basketballs that were handing him

completely uninterpretable reams of profound knowledge.

It’s an experience I haven’t had.

So I just have to accept that people have had it.

I would just point out that our minds are clearly capable

of producing apparent others on demand

that are totally compelling to us, right?

There’s no limit to our ability to do that

as anyone who’s ever remembered a dream can attest.

Every night we go to sleep,

some of us don’t remember dreams very often,

but some dream vividly every night.

And just think of how insane that experience is.

I mean, you’ve forgotten where you were, right?

That’s the strangest part.

I mean, this is psychosis, right?

You have lost your mind.

You have lost your connection to your episodic memory

or even your expectations that reality won’t undergo

wholesale changes a moment

after you have closed your eyes, right?

Like you’re in bed, you’re watching something on Netflix,

you’re waiting to fall asleep,

and then the next thing that happens to you is impossible

and you’re not surprised, right?

You’re talking to dead people,

you’re hanging out with famous people,

you’re someplace you couldn’t physically be,

you can fly and even that’s not surprising, right?

So you’ve lost your mind,

but relevantly for this.

Or found it.

You found something.

I mean, lucid dreaming is very interesting

because then you can have the best of both circumstances

and then it can become systematically explored.

But what I mean by found, just to start to interrupt,

is like if we take this brilliant idea

that language constrains us, grounds us,

language and other things of the waking world ground us,

maybe it is that you’ve found the full capacity

of your cognition when you dream or when you do psychedelics.

You’re stepping outside the little human cage,

the cage of the human condition to open the door

and step out and look around and then go back in.

Well, you’ve definitely stepped out of something

and into something else, but you’ve also lost something,

right, you’ve lost certain capacities.


Well, just, yeah, in this case,

you literally didn’t, you don’t have enough presence of mind

in the dream state or even in the psychedelic state

if you take enough.

To do math.

There’s no psychological,

there’s very little psychological continuity with your life

such that you’re not surprised to be in the presence

of someone who should be, you should know is dead

or you should know you’re not likely to have met

by normal channels, right, you’re now talking

to some celebrity and it turns out you’re best friends,

right, and you’re not even, you have no memory

of how you got there, you’re like,

how did you get into the room?

You’re like, did you drive to this restaurant?

You have no memory and none of that’s surprising to you.

So you’re kind of brain damaged in a way,

you’re not reality testing in the normal way.

The fascinating possibility is that there’s probably

thousands of people who’ve taken psychedelics

of various forms and have met Sam Harris on that journey.

Well, I would put it more likely in dreams,

not, you know, because with psychedelics,

you don’t tend to hallucinate in a dreamlike way.

I mean, so DMT is giving you an experience of others,

but it seems to be nonstandard.

It’s not like, it’s not just like dream hallucinations,

but to the point of coming back to DMT,

the people want to suggest,

and Terrence McKenna certainly did suggest

that because these others are so obviously other

and they’re so vivid, well, then they could not possibly

be the creation of my own mind,

but every night in dreams, you create a compelling

or what is to you at the time,

a totally compelling simulacrum of another person, right?

And that just proves the mind is capable of doing it.

Now, the phenomenon of lucid dreaming shows

that the mind isn’t capable of doing everything you think

it might be capable of even in that space.

So one of the things that people have discovered

in lucid dreams, and I haven’t done a lot of lucid dreaming,

so I can’t confirm all of this, I can confirm some of it.

Apparently in every house, in every room

in the mansion of dreams,

all light switches are dimmer switches.

Like if you go into a dark room and flip on the light,

it gradually comes up.

It doesn’t come up instantly on demand

because apparently this is covering for the brain’s

inability to produce from a standing start

visually rich imagery on demand.

So I haven’t confirmed that, but that was,

people have done research on lucid dreaming claim

that it’s all dimmer switches.

But one thing I have noticed,

and people can check this out, is that in a dream,

if you look at text, a page of text or a sign

or a television that has text on it,

and then you turn away and you look back at that text,

the text will have changed, right?

The total is it’s just a chronic instability,

graphical instability of text in the dream state.

And I don’t know if that, maybe that’s,

someone can confirm that that’s not true for them,

but whenever I’ve checked that out,

that has been true for me.

So it keeps generating it like real time

from a video game perspective.

Yeah, it’s rendering, it’s re rendering it for some reason.

What’s interesting, I actually,

I don’t know how I found myself in this sets

of that part of the internet,

but there’s quite a lot of discussion

about what it’s like to do math on LSD.

Because apparently one of the deepest thinking processes

needed is those of mathematicians

or theoretical computer scientists

are basically doing anything that involves math

as proofs, and you have to think creatively,

but also deeply, and you have to think

for many hours at a time.

And so they’re always looking for ways to like,

is there any sparks of creativity that could be injected?

And apparently out of all the psychedelics,

the worst is LSD because it completely destroys

your ability to do math well.

And I wonder whether that has to do with your ability

to visualize geometric things in a stable way

in your mind and hold them there

and stitch things together,

which is often what’s required for proofs.

But again, it’s difficult to kind of research

these kinds of concepts, but it does make me wonder

where, what are the spaces, how’s the space of things

you’re able to think about and explore

morphed by different psychedelics

or dream states and so on, and how’s that different?

How much does it overlap with reality?

And what is reality?

Is there a waking state reality?

Or is it just a tiny subset of reality

and we get to take a step in other versions of it?

We tend to think very much in a space time,

four dimensional, there’s a three dimensional world,

there’s time, and that’s what we think about reality.

And we think of traveling as walking from point A

to point B in the three dimensional world.

But that’s a very kind of human surviving,

trying not to get eaten by a lion conception of reality.

What if traveling is something like we do with psychedelics

and meet the elves?

What if it’s something, what if thinking

or the space of ideas as we kind of grow

and think through ideas, that’s traveling?

Or what if memories is traveling?

I don’t know if you have a favorite view of reality

or if you had, by the way, I should say,

excellent conversation with Donald Hoffman.

Yeah, yeah, he’s interesting.

Is there any inkling of his sense in your mind

that reality is very far from,

actual like objective reality is very far

from the kind of reality we imagine,

we perceive and we play with in our human minds?

Well, the first thing to grant

is that we’re never in direct contact with reality,

whatever it is, unless that reality is consciousness, right?

So we’re only ever experiencing consciousness

and its contents.

And then the question is how does that circumstance relate

to quote reality at large?

And Donald Hoffman is somebody who’s happy to speculate,

well, maybe there isn’t a reality at large.

Maybe it’s all just consciousness on some level.

And that’s interesting.

That runs into, to my eye, various philosophical problems

that, or at least you have to do a lot,

you have to add to that picture of idealism for me.

That’s usually all the whole family of views

that would just say that the universe is just mind

or just consciousness at bottom,

we’ll go by the name of idealism in Western philosophy.

You have to add to that idealistic picture

all kinds of epicycles and kind of weird coincidences

and to get the predictability of our experience

and the success of materialist science

to make sense in that context, right?

And so the fact that we can, what does it mean to say

that there’s only consciousness at bottom, right?

Nothing outside of consciousness

because no one’s ever experienced anything

outside of consciousness.

There’s no scientist has ever done an experiment

where they were contemplating data,

no matter how far removed from our sense bases,

whether it’s they’re looking at the Hubble deep field

or they’re smashing atoms or whatever tools they’re using,

they’re still just experiencing consciousness

and its various deliverances

and layering their concepts on top of that.

So that’s always true.

And yet that somehow doesn’t seem to capture

the character of our continually discovering

that our materialist assumptions are confirmable, right?

So take the fact that we unleash this fantastic amount

of energy from within an atom, right?

First, we have the theoretical suggestion

that it’s possible, right?

We come back to Einstein,

there’s a lot of energy in that matter, right?

And what if we could release it, right?

And then we perform an experiment that in this case,

you know, the Trinity test site in New Mexico,

where the people who are most adequate to this conversation,

people like Robert Oppenheimer

are standing around,

not altogether certain it’s going to work, right?

They’re performing an experiment.

They’re wondering what’s gonna happen.

They’re wondering if their calculations around the yield

are off by orders of magnitude.

Some of them are still wondering

whether the entire atmosphere of earth

is gonna combust, right?

That the nuclear chain reaction is not gonna stop.

And lo and behold,

there was that energy to be released

from within the nucleus of an atom.

And that could, so it’s just what the picture one forms

from those kinds of experiments.

And just the knowledge,

it’s just our understanding of evolution.

Just the fact that the earth is billions of years old

and life is hundreds of millions of years old.

And we weren’t here to think about any of those things.

And all of those processes were happening therefore

in the dark.

And they are the processes that allowed us to emerge,

you know, from prior life forms in the first place.

To say that it’s all a mess,

that nothing exists,

outside of consciousness, conscious minds

of the sort that we experience.

It just seems,

it seems like a bizarrely anthropocentric claim,

you know, analogous to, you know,

the moon isn’t there if no one’s looking at it, right?

I mean, the moon as a moon isn’t there

if no one’s looking at it.

I’ll grant that,

because that’s already a kind of fabrication

born of concepts, but the idea that there’s nothing there,

that there’s nothing that corresponds

to what we experience as the moon,

unless someone’s looking at it,

that just seems just a way too parochial way

to set out on this journey of discovery.

There is something there.

There’s a computer waiting to render the moon

when you look at it.

The capacity for the moon to exist is there.

So if we’re looking at the moon,

the capacity for the moon to exist is there.

So if we’re indeed living in a simulation,

which I find a compelling thought experiment,

it’s possible that there is this kind of rendering mechanism,

but not in a silly way that we think about in video games,

but in some kind of more fundamental physics way.

And we have to account for the fact

that it renders experiences that no one has had yet,

that no one has any expectation of having.

It can violate the expectations of everyone lawfully.

And then there’s some lawful understanding

of why that’s so.

It’s like, I mean, just to bring it back to mathematics,

I’m like, certain numbers are prime,

whether we have discovered them or not.

There’s the highest prime number that anyone can name now.

And then there’s the next prime number

that no one can name, and it’s there.

So it’s like, to say that our minds are putting it there,

that what we know as mind in ourselves

is in some way, in some sense, putting it there.

The base layer of reality is consciousness, right?

That we’re identical to the thing

that is rendering this reality.

There’s some, you know, hubris is the wrong word,

but it’s like, it’s okay if reality is bigger

than what we experience, you know?

And it has structure that we can’t anticipate,

and that isn’t just,

I mean, again, there’s certainly a collaboration

between our minds and whatever is out there

to produce what we call, you know, the stuff of life.

But it’s not, the idea that it’s,

I don’t know, I mean, there are a few stops

on the train of idealism and kind of new age thinking

and Eastern philosophy that I don’t,

philosophically, I don’t see a need to take.

I mean, experientially and scientifically,

I feel like it’s, you can get everything you want

from acknowledging that consciousness

has a character that can be explored from its own side,

so that you’re bringing kind of the first person experience

back into the conversation about, you know,

what is a human mind and, you know, what is true?

And you can explore it with different degrees of rigor,

and there are things to be discovered there,

whether you’re using a technique like meditation

or psychedelics, and that these experiences

have to be put in conversation with what we understand

about ourselves from a third person side,

neuroscientifically or in any other way.

But to me, the question is, what if reality,

the sense I have from this kind of, you play shooters?


There’s a physics engine that generates, that’s pretty.

Yeah, you mean first person shooter games?

Yes, yes, sorry.

Not often, but yes.

I mean, there’s a physics engine

that generates consistent reality, right?

My sense is the same could be true for a universe

in the following sense, that our conception of reality

as we understand it now in the 21st century

is a tiny subset of the full reality.

It’s not that the reality that we conceive of that’s there,

the moon being there is not there somehow.

It’s that it’s a tiny fraction of what’s actually out there.

And so the physics engine of the universe

is just maintaining the useful physics,

the useful reality, quote unquote,

for us to have a consistent experience as human beings.

But maybe we descendants of apes are really only understand

like 0.0001% of actual physics of reality.

We can even just start with the consciousness thing,

but maybe our minds are just,

we’re just too dumb by design.

Yeah, I, that truly resonates with me

and I’m surprised it doesn’t resonate more

with most scientists that I talk to.

Matthew, when you just look at,

you look at how close we are to chimps, right?

And chimps don’t know anything, right?

Clearly they have no idea what’s going on, right?

And then you get us,

but then it’s only a subset of human beings

that really understand much of what we’re talking about

in any area of specialization.

And if they all died in their sleep tonight, right?

You’d be left with people who might take a thousand years

to rebuild the internet, if ever, right?

I mean, literally it’s like,

and I would extend this to myself.

I mean, there are areas of scientific specialization

where I have either no discernible competence.

I mean, I spent no time on it.

I have not acquired the tools.

It would just be an article of faith for me to think

that I could acquire the tools

to actually make a breakthrough in those areas.

And I mean, your own area is one.

I mean, I’ve never spent any significant amount of time

trying to be a programmer,

but it’s pretty obvious I’m not Alan Turing, right?

It’s like, if that were my capacity,

I would have discovered that in myself.

I would have found programming irresistible.

My first false starts in learning, I think it was C,

it was just, you know, I bounced off.

It’s like, this was not fun.

I hate, I mean, I hate trying to figure out

what the syntax error that’s causing this thing

not to compile was just a fucking awful experience.

I hated it, right?

I hated every minute of it.

So it was not, so if it was just people like me left,

like when do we get the internet again, right?

And we lose, we lose, you know, we lose the internet.

When do we get it again, right?

When do we get anything like a proper science

of information, right?

You need a Claude Shannon or an Alan Turing

to plant a flag in the ground right here and say,

all right, can everyone see this?

Even if you don’t quite know what I’m up to,

you all have to come over here to make some progress.

And, you know, there are, you know,

hundreds of topics where that’s the case.

So we barely have a purchase on making anything

like discernible intellectual progress in any generation.

And yeah, I’m just, Max Tegmark makes this point.

He’s one of the few people who does in physics.

If you just look at the numbers,

if you just take the truth of evolution seriously, right?

And realize that there’s nothing about us

that has evolved to understand reality perfectly.

I mean, we’re just not that kind of ape, right?

There’s been no evolutionary pressure along those lines.

So what we are making do with tools

that were designed for fights with sticks and rocks, right?

And it’s amazing we can do as much as we can.

I mean, we just, you know, the UNR just sitting here

on the back of having received an mRNA vaccine,

you know, that has certainly changed our life

given what the last year was like.

And it’s gonna change the world

if rumors of coming miracles are born out.

I mean, it’s now, it seems likely we have a vaccine

coming for malaria, right?

Which has been killing millions of people a year

for as long as we’ve been alive.

I think it’s down to like 800,000 people a year now

because we’ve spread so many bed nets around,

but it was like two and a half million people every year.

It’s amazing what we can do, but yeah, I have,

if in fact the answer at the back of the book of nature

is you understand 0.1% of what there is to understand

and half of what you think you understand is wrong,

that would not surprise me at all.

It is funny to look at our evolutionary history,

even back to chimps, I’m pretty sure even chimps

thought they understood the world well.

So at every point in that timeline

of evolutionary development throughout human history,

there’s a sense like there’s no more,

you hear this message over and over,

there’s no more things to be invented.

But a hundred years ago there were,

there’s a famous story, I forget which physicist told it,

but there were physicists telling

their undergraduate students not to go into,

to get graduate degrees in physics

because basically all the problems had been solved.

And this is like around 1915 or so.

It turns out you were right.

I’m gonna ask you about free will.

Oh, okay.

You’ve recently released an episode of your podcast,

Making Sense, for those with a shorter attention span,

basically summarizing your position on free will.

I think it was under an hour and a half.

Yeah, yeah.

It was brief and clear.

So allow me to summarize the summary, TLDR,

and maybe you tell me where I’m wrong.

So free will is an illusion,

and even the experience of free will is an illusion.

Like we don’t even experience it.

Am I good in my summary?

Yeah, this is a line that’s a little hard

to scan for people.

I say that it’s not merely that free will is an illusion.

The illusion of free will is an illusion.

Like there is no illusion of free will.

And that is a, unlike many other illusions,

that’s a more fundamental claim.

It’s not that it’s wrong, it’s not even wrong.

I mean, I guess that was I think Wolfgang Pauli

who derided one of his colleagues or enemies

with that aspersion about his theory in quantum mechanics.

So there are things that, there are genuine illusions.

There are things that you do experience

and then you can kind of punch through that experience,

or you can’t actually experience,

you can’t experience them any other way.

It’s just, we just know it’s not a veridical experience.

You just take like a visual illusion.

There are visual illusions that,

a lot of these come to me on Twitter these days.

There’s these amazing visual illusions

where like every figure in this GIF seems to be moving,

but nothing in fact is moving.

You can just like put a ruler on your screen

and nothing’s moving.

Some of those illusions you can’t see any other way.

I mean, they’re just, they’re hacking aspects

of the visual system that are just eminently hackable

and you have to use a ruler to convince yourself

that the thing isn’t actually moving.

Now there are other visual illusions

where you’re taken in by it at first,

but if you pay more attention,

you can actually see that it’s not there, right?

Or it’s not how it first seemed.

Like the Necker cube is a good example of that.

Like the Necker cube is just that schematic of a cube,

of a transparent cube, which pops out one way or the other.

Then one face can pop out and then the other face

can pop out.

But you can actually just see it as flat with no pop out,

which is a more veridical way of looking at it.

So there are subject,

there are kind of inward correlates to this.

And I would say that the sense of self and free will

are closely related.

I mean, I often describe them as two sides of the same coin,

but they’re not quite the same in their spuriousness.

I mean, so the sense of self is something that people,

I think, do experience, right?

It’s not a very clear experience, but it’s not,

I wouldn’t call the illusion of self an illusion,

but the illusion of free will is an illusion

in that as you pay more attention to your experience,

you begin to see that it’s totally compatible

with an absence of free will.

You don’t, I mean coming back to the place we started,

you don’t know what you’re gonna think next.

You don’t know what you’re gonna intend next.

You don’t know what’s going to just occur to you

that you must do next.

You don’t know how much you are going to feel

the behavioral imperative to act on that thought.

If you suddenly feel, oh, I don’t need to do that.

I can do that tomorrow.

You don’t know where that comes from.

You didn’t know that was gonna arise.

You didn’t know that was gonna be compelling.

All of this is compatible with some evil genius

in the next room just typing in code into your experience.

It’s like this, okay, let’s give him the,

oh my God, I just forgot it was gonna be our anniversary

in one week thought, right?

Give him the cascade of fear.

Give him this brilliant idea for the thing he can buy

that’s gonna take him no time at all

and this overpowering sense of relief.

All of our experiences is compatible

with the script already being written, right?

And I’m not saying the script is written.

I’m not saying that fatalism is the right way

to look at this, but we just don’t have

even our most deliberate voluntary action

where we go back and forth between two options,

thinking about the reason for A

and then reconsidering and going,

thinking harder about B and just going

eeny, meeny, miny, moe until the end of the hour.

However laborious you can make it,

there is a utter mystery at your back

finally promoting the thought or intention

or rationale that is most compelling

and therefore behaviorally effective.

And this can drive some people a little crazy.

So I usually preface what I say about free will

with the caveat that if thinking about your mind this way

makes you feel terrible, well then stop.

You get off the ride, switch the channel.

You don’t have to go down this path.

But for me and for many other people,

it’s incredibly freeing to recognize this about the mind

because one, you realize that you’re,

cutting through the illusion of the self

is immensely freeing for a lot of reasons

that we can talk about separately,

but losing the sense of free will does

two things very vividly for me.

One is it totally undercuts the basis for,

the psychological basis for hatred.

Because when you think about the experience

of hating other people, what that is anchored to

is a feeling that they really are

the true authors of their actions.

I mean, if someone is doing something

that you find so despicable, right?

Let’s say they’re targeting you unfairly, right?

They’re maligning you on Twitter or they’re suing you

or they’re doing something, they broke your car window,

they did something awful

and now you have a grievance against them.

And you’re relating to them very differently emotionally

in your own mind than you would

if a force of nature had done this, right?

Or if it’s, if it had just been a virus

or if it had been a wild animal

or a malfunctioning machine, right?

Like to those things you don’t attribute

any kind of freedom of will.

And while you may suffer the consequences

of catching a virus or being attacked by a wild animal

or having your car break down or whatever,

it may frustrate you.

You don’t slip into this mode of hating the agent

in a way that completely commandeers your mind

and deranges your life.

I mean, you just don’t, I mean, there are people

who spend decades hating other people for what they did

and it’s just pure poison, right?

So it’s a useful shortcut to compassion and empathy.

Yeah, yeah.

But the question is, say that this called,

what was it, the horse of consciousness?

Let’s call it the consciousness generator black box

that we don’t understand.

And is it possible that the script

that we’re walking along, that we’re playing,

that’s already written is actually being written

in real time.

It’s almost like you’re driving down a road

and in real time, that road is being laid down.

And this black box of consciousness that we don’t understand

is the place where the script is being generated.

So it’s not, it is being generated, it didn’t always exist.

So there’s something we don’t understand

that’s fundamental about the nature of reality

that generates both consciousness,

let’s call it maybe the self.

I don’t know if you want to distinguish between those.

Yeah, I definitely would, yeah.

You would, because there’s a bunch of illusions

we’re referring to.

There’s the illusion of free will,

there’s the illusion of self,

and there’s the illusion of consciousness.

You’re saying, I think you said there’s no,

you’re not as willing to say

there’s an illusion of consciousness.

You’re a little bit more.

In fact, I would say it’s impossible.


You’re a little bit more willing to say

that there’s an illusion of self,

and you’re definitely saying

there’s an illusion of free will.

Yes, I’m definitely saying there’s an illusion

that a certain kind of self is an illusion.

Not every, we mean many different things

by this notion of self.

So maybe I should just differentiate these things.

So consciousness can’t be an illusion

because any illusion proves its reality

as much as any other veridical perception.

I mean, if you’re hallucinating now,

that’s just as much of a demonstration of consciousness

as really seeing what’s a quote actually there.

If you’re dreaming and you don’t know it,

that is consciousness, right?

You can be confused about literally everything.

You can’t be confused about the underlying claim,

whether you make it linguistically or not,

but just the cognitive assertion

that something seems to be happening.

It’s the seeming that is the cash value of consciousness.

Can I take a tiny tangent?

So what if I am creating consciousness in my mind

to convince you that I’m human?

So it’s a useful social tool,

not a fundamental property of experience,

like of being a living thing.

What if it’s just like a social tool

to almost like a useful computational trick

to place myself into reality

as we together communicate about this reality?

And another way to ask that,

because you said it much earlier,

you talk negatively about robots as you often do.

So let me, because you’ll probably die first

when they take over.

No, I’m looking forward to certain kinds of robots.

I mean, I’m not, if we can get this right,

this would be amazing.

But you don’t like the robots that fake consciousness.

That’s what you,

you don’t like the idea of fake it till you make it.

Well, no, it’s not that I don’t like it.

It’s that I’m worried that we will lose sight

of the problem.

And the problem has massive ethical consequences.

I mean, if we create robots that really can suffer,

that would be a bad thing, right?

And if we really are committing a murder

when we recycle them, that would be a bad thing.

This is how I know you’re not Russian.

Why is it a bad thing that we create robots that can suffer?

Isn’t suffering a fundamental thing

from which like beauty springs?

Like without suffering,

do you really think we would have beautiful things

in this world?

Okay, that’s a tangent on a tangent.

We’ll go there.

I would love to go there, but let’s not go there just yet.

All right.

But I do think it would be, if anything is bad,

creating hell and populating it

with real minds that really can suffer in that hell,

that’s bad.

You are worse than any mass murderer we can name

if you create it.

I mean, this could be in robot form,

or more likely it would be in some simulation of a world

where we managed to populate it with conscious minds

whether we knew they were conscious or not.

And that world is a state of, it’s unendurable.

That would just, it just taking the thesis seriously

that there’s nothing that mind intelligence

and consciousness ultimately are substrate independent.


It doesn’t, you don’t need a biological brain

to be conscious.

You certainly don’t need a biological brain

to be intelligent.


So if we just imagine the consciousness at some point

comes along for the ride as you scale up in intelligence,

well then we could find ourselves creating conscious minds

that are miserable, right?

And that’s just like creating a person who’s miserable.


It could be worse than creating a person who’s miserable.

It could be even more sensitive to suffering.

Cloning them and maybe for entertainment

and watching them suffer.

Just like watching a person suffer for entertainment.

You know?

So, but back to your primary question here,

which is differentiating consciousness and self

and free will as concepts

and kind of degrees of illusoriness.

The problem with free will is that

what most people mean by it,

and this is where Dan Dennett

is gonna get off the ride here, right?

So like he doesn’t, he’s gonna disagree with me

that I know what most people mean by it.

But I have a very keen sense having talked about this topic

for many, many years

and seeing people get wrapped around the axle of it

and seeing in myself what it’s like to have felt

that I was a self that had free will

and then to no longer feel that way, right?

To know what it’s like to actually disabuse myself

of that sense cognitively and emotionally

and to recognize what’s left, what goes away

and what doesn’t go away on the basis of that epiphany.

I have a sense that I know what people think they have

in hand when they worry about whether free will exists.

And it is the flip side of this feeling of self.

It’s the flip side of feeling

like you are not merely identical to experience.

You feel like you’re having an experience.

You feel like you’re an agent

that is appropriating an experience.

There’s a protagonist in the movie of your life

and it is you.

It’s not just the movie, right?

It’s like there’s sights and sounds and sensations

and thoughts and emotions

and this whole cacophony of experience,

of felt experience, of felt experience of embodiment.

But there seems to be a rider on the horse

or a passenger in the body, right?

People don’t feel truly identical to their bodies

down to their toes.

They sort of feel like they have bodies.

They feel like their minds in bodies

and that feels like a self, that feels like me.

And again, this gets very paradoxical

when you talk about the experience

of being in relationship to yourself

or talking to yourself, giving yourself a pep talk.

I mean, if you’re the one talking,

why are you also the one listening?

Like, why do you need the pep talk and why does it work

if you’re the one giving the pep talk, right?

Or if I say like, where are my keys?

Or if I’m looking for my keys,

why do I think the superfluous thought, where are my keys?

I know I’m looking for the fucking keys.

I’m the one looking, who am I telling

that we now need to look for the keys, right?

So that duality is weird, but leave that aside.

There’s the sense, and this becomes very vivid

when people try to learn to meditate.

Most people, they close their eyes

and they’re told to pay attention to an object

like the breath, say.

So you close your eyes and you pay attention to the breath

and you can feel it at the tip of your nose

or the rising and falling of your abdomen

and you’re paying attention

and you feel something vague there.

And then you think, I thought, well, why the breath?

Why am I paying attention to the breath?

What’s so special about the breath?

And then you notice you’re thinking

and you’re not paying attention to the breath anymore.

And then you realize, okay, the practice is,

okay, I should notice thoughts

and then I should come back to the breath.

But this starting point of the conventional starting point

of feeling like you are an agent, very likely in your head,

a locus of consciousness, a locus of attention

that can strategically pay attention

to certain parts of experience.

Like I can focus on the breath

and then I get lost in thought

and now I can come back to the breath

and I can open my eyes and I’m over here behind my face

looking out at a world that’s other than me

and there’s this kind of subject object perception.

And that is the default starting point of selfhood,

of subjectivity.

And married to that is the sense that

I can decide what to do next, right?

I am an agent who can pay attention to the cup.

I can listen to sounds.

There’s certain things that I can’t control.

Certain things are happening to me

and I just can’t control them.

So for instance, if someone asks,

well, can you not hear a sound, right?

Like don’t hear the next sound,

don’t hear anything for a second,

or don’t hear, I’m snapping my fingers, don’t hear this.

Where’s your free will?

You know, well, like just stop this from coming in.

You realize, okay, wait a minute.

My abundant freedom does not extend

to something as simple as just being able to pay attention

to something else than this.

Okay, well, so I’m not that kind of free agent,

but at least I can decide what I’m gonna do next

and I’m gonna pick up this water, right?

And there’s a feeling of identification

with the impulse, with the intention,

with the thought that occurs to you,

with the feeling of speaking.

Like what am I gonna say next?

Well, I’m saying it.

So here goes, this is me.

It feels like I’m the thinker.

I’m the one who’s in control.

But all of that is born of not really paying close attention

to what it’s like to be you.

And so this is where meditation comes in,

or this is where, again, you can get at this conceptually.

You can unravel the notion of free will

just by thinking certain thoughts,

but you can’t feel that it doesn’t exist

unless you can pay close attention

to how thoughts and intentions arise.

So the way to unravel it conceptually

is just to realize, okay, I didn’t make myself.

I didn’t make my genes.

I didn’t make my brain.

I didn’t make the environmental influences

that impinged upon this system for the last 54 years

that have produced my brain in precisely the state

it’s in right now, such and with all of the receptor weightings

and densities, and it’s just,

I’m exactly the machine I am right now

through no fault of my own as the experiencing self.

I get no credit and I get no blame

for the genetics and the environmental influences here.

And yet those are the only things

that contrive to produce my next thought

or impulse or moment of behavior.

And if you were going to add something magical

to that clockwork, like an immortal soul,

you can also notice that you didn’t produce your soul.

You can’t account for the fact

that you don’t have the soul of someone

who doesn’t like any of the things you like

or wasn’t interested in any of the things

you were interested in or was a psychopath

or had an IQ of 40.

I mean, there’s nothing about that

that the person who believes in a soul

can claim to have controlled.

And yet that is also totally dispositive

of whatever happens next.

But everything you’ve described now,

maybe you can correct me,

but it kind of speaks to the materialistic nature

of the hardware.

But even if you add magical ectoplasm software,

you didn’t produce that either.

I know, but if we can think about the actual computation

running on the hardware and running on the software,

there’s something you said recently

which you think of culture as an operating system.

So if we just remove ourselves a little bit

from the conception of human civilization

being a collection of humans

and rather us just being a distributed

computation system on which there’s

some kind of operating system running,

and then the computation that’s running

is the actual thing that generates

the interactions, the communications,

and maybe even free will, the experiences

of all those free will.

Do you ever think of, do you ever try

to reframe the world in that way

where it’s like ideas are just using us,

thoughts are using individual nodes in the system,

and they’re just jumping around,

and they also have ability to generate experiences

so that we can push those ideas along.

And basically the main organisms here

are the thoughts, not the humans.

Yeah, but then that erodes the boundary

between self and world.


So then there’s no self, really integrated self

to have any kind of will at all.

Like if you’re just a meme plex,

I mean, if you’re just a collection of memes,

and I mean, we’re all kind of like currents,

like eddies in this river of ideas, right?

So it’s like, and it seems to have structure,

but there’s no real boundary between that part

of the flow of water and the rest.

I mean, if our, and I would say that much

of our mind answers to this kind of description.

I mean, so much of our mind has been,

it’s obviously not self generated,

and it’s not, you’re not gonna find it

by looking in the brain.

It is the result of culture largely,

but also, you know, the genes on one side

and culture on the other meeting

to allow for manifestations of mind

that don’t, that aren’t actually bounded

by the person in any clear sense.

It was just, I mean, the example I often use here,

but there’s so many others is just the fact

that we’re following the rules of English grammar

to whatever degree we are.

It’s not that we certainly haven’t consciously represented

these rules for ourself.

We haven’t invented these rules.

We haven’t, I mean, there are norms of language use

that we couldn’t even specify because we haven’t,

you know, we’re not grammarians.

We’re not, we haven’t studied this.

We don’t even have the right concepts,

and yet we’re following these rules,

and we’re noticing, you know, we’re noticing as, you know,

an error when we fail to follow these rules,

and virtually every other cultural norm is like that.

I mean, these are not things we’ve invented.

You can consciously decide to scrutinize them

and override them, but, I mean, just think of,

just think of any social situation

where you’re with other people and you’re behaving

in ways that are culturally appropriate, right?

You’re not being, you know,

you’re not being wild animals together.

You’re following, you have some expectation

of how you shake a person’s hand

and how you deal with implements on a table,

how you have a meal together.

Obviously, this can change from culture to culture,

and people can be shocked

by how different those things are, right?

We, you know, we all have foods we find disgusting,

but in some countries, dog is not one of those foods, right?

And yet, you know, you and I presumably

would be horrified to be served dog.

Those are not norms that we’re,

they are outside of us in some way,

and yet they’re felt very viscerally.

I mean, they’re certainly felt in their violation.

You know, if you are, just imagine,

you’re in somebody’s home,

you’re eating something that tastes great to you,

and you happen to be in Vietnam or wherever,

you know, you didn’t realize dog was potentially

on the menu, and you find out that you’ve just eaten

10 bites of what is, you know, really a cocker spaniel,

and you feel this instantaneous urge to vomit, right,

based on an idea, right?

Like, so, like, you did not,

you’re not the author of that norm

that gave you such a powerful experience of its violation,

and I’m sure we can trace the moment in your history,

you know, vaguely, where it sort of got in.

I mean, very early on as kids,

you realize you’re treating dogs as pets

and not as food, or as potential food.

But yeah, no, it’s, but the point you just made

opens us to, like, we are totally permeable

to a sea of mind.

Yeah, but if we take the metaphor

of the distributed computing systems,

each individual node is,

is part of performing a much larger computation,

but it nevertheless is in charge of doing the scheduling

of, so, assuming it’s Linux,

is doing the scheduling of processes

and is constantly alternating them.

That node is making those choices.

That node sure as hell believes it has free will,

and it actually has free will

because it’s making those hard choices,

but the choices ultimately are part

of a much larger computation that it can’t control.

Isn’t it possible for that node to still be,

that human node is still making the choice?

Well, yeah, it is.

So I’m not saying that your body

isn’t doing, really doing things, right?

And some of those things can be

conventionally thought of as choices, right?

So it’s like, I can choose to reach,

and it’s like, it’s not being imposed on me.

That would be a different experience.

Like, so there’s an experience of all,

you know, there’s definitely a difference

between voluntary and involuntary action.

There’s, so that has to get conserved.

By any account of the mind that jettisons free will,

you still have to admit that there’s a difference

between a tremor that I can’t control

and a purposeful motor action that I can control

and I can initiate on demand,

and it’s associated with intentions.

And it’s got efferent, you know, motor copy,

which is being predictive so that I can notice errors.

You know, I have expectations.

When I reach for this,

if my hand were actually to pass through the bottle,

because it’s a hologram, I would be surprised, right?

And so that shows that I have a expectation

of just what my grasping behavior is gonna be like

even before it happens.

Whereas with a tremor,

you don’t have the same kind of thing going on.

That’s a distinction we have to make.

So I am, yes, I’m really, my intention to move,

which is in fact can be subjectively felt,

really is the proximate cause of my moving.

It’s not coming from elsewhere in the universe.

I’m not saying that.

So in that sense, the node is really deciding

to execute, you know, the subroutine now.

But that’s not the feeling

that has given rise to this conundrum of free will, right?

So the people feel like,

people feel like the crucial thing is that people feel

like they could have done otherwise, right?

That’s the thing that,

so when you run back the clock of your life, right?

You run back the movie of your life,

you flip back the few pages in the novel of your life,

they feel that at this point,

they could behave differently than they did, right?

So like, but given, you know,

even given your distributed computing example,

it’s either a fully deterministic system

or it’s a deterministic system

that admits of some random, you know, influence.

In either case,

that’s not the free will people think they have.

The free will people think they have is, damn,

I shouldn’t have done that.

I just like, I shouldn’t have done that.

I could have done otherwise, right?

I should have done otherwise, right?

Like if you think about something

that you deeply regret doing, right?

Or that you hold someone else responsible for

because they really are the upstream agent

in your mind of what they did.

You know, that’s an awful thing that that person did

and they shouldn’t have done it.

So there is this illusion and it has to be an illusion

because there’s no picture of causation

that would make sense of it.

There’s this illusion that if you arrange the universe

exactly the way it was a moment ago,

it could have played out differently.

And the only way it could have played out differently

is if there’s randomness added to that,

but randomness isn’t what people feel

would give them free will, right?

If you tell me that, you know,

I only reached for the water bottle this time

because there’s a random number generator in there

kicking off values and it finally moved my hand,

that’s not the feeling of authorship.

That’s still not control.

You’re still not making that decision.

There’s actually, I don’t know if you’re familiar

with cellular automata.

It’s a really nice visualization

of how simple rules can create incredible complexity

that it’s like really dumb initial conditions to set,

simple rules applied, and eventually you watch this thing

and if the initial conditions are correct,

then you’re going to have emerged something

that to our perception system

looks like organisms interacting.

You can construct any kinds of worlds

and they’re not actually interacting.

They’re not actually even organisms.

And they certainly aren’t making decisions.

So there’s like systems you can create

that illustrate this point.

The question is whether there could be some room

for let’s use in the 21st century the term magic,

back to the black box of consciousness.

Let me ask it this way.

If you’re wrong about your intuition about free will,

what, and somebody comes along to you

and proves to you that you didn’t have the full picture,

what would that proof look like?

What would?

So that’s the problem, that’s why it’s not even an illusion

in my world because for me, it’s impossible to say

what the universe would have to be like

for free will to be a thing, right?

It doesn’t conceptually map onto any notion

of causation we have.

And that’s unlike any other spurious claim you might make.

So like if you’re gonna believe in ghosts, right?

I understand what that claim could be,

where like I don’t happen to believe in ghosts,

but it’s not hard for me to specify

what would have to be true for ghosts to be real.

And so it is with a thousand other things like ghosts,

right, so like, okay, so you’re telling me

that when people die, there’s some part of them

that is not reducible at all to their biology

that lifts off them and goes elsewhere

and is actually the kind of thing

that they can linger in closets and in cupboards

and actually it’s immaterial,

but by some principle of physics,

we don’t totally understand it can make sounds

and knock objects and even occasionally show up

so they can be visually beheld.

And it’s just, it seems like a miracle,

but it’s just some spooky noun in the universe

that we don’t understand, let’s call it a ghost.

That’s fine, I can talk about that all day.

The reasons to believe in it,

the reasons not to believe in it,

the way we would scientifically test for it,

what would have to be provable

so as to convince me that ghosts are real.

Free will isn’t like that at all.

There’s no description of any concatenation of causes

that precedes my conscious experience

that sounds like what people think they have

when they think they could have done otherwise

and that they really, that they, the conscious agent,

is really in charge, right?

Like if you don’t know what you’re going to think next,

right, and you can’t help but think it,

take those two premises on board.

You don’t know what it’s gonna be,

you can’t stop it from coming,

and until you actually know how to meditate,

you can’t stop yourself from

fully living out its behavioral or emotional consequences.

Right, like you have no, once you,

mindfulness, you know,

arguably gives you another degree of freedom here.

It doesn’t give you free will,

but it gives you some other game to play

with respect to the emotional

and behavioral imperatives of thoughts.

But short of that, I mean,

the reason why mindfulness doesn’t give you free will

is because you can’t, you know,

you can’t account for why in one moment

mindfulness arises and in other moments it doesn’t, right?

But a different process is initiated

once you can practice in that way.

Well, if I could push back for a second.

By the way, I just have this thought bubble

popping up all the time of just two recent chimps

arguing about the nature of consciousness.

It’s kind of hilarious.

So on that thread, you know,

if we’re, even before Einstein,

let’s say before Einstein,

we were to conceive about traveling

from point A to point B, say some point in the future,

we are able to realize through engineering

a way which is consistent with Einstein’s theory

that you can have wormholes.

You can travel from one point to another

faster than the speed of light.

And that would, I think, completely change our conception

of what it means to travel in the physical space.

And that completely transform our ability.

You talk about causality, but here let’s just focus

on what it means to travel through physical space.

Don’t you think it’s possible that there will be inventions

or leaps in understanding about reality

that will allow us to see free will as actually,

like us humans somehow may be linked

to this idea of consciousness,

are actually able to be authors of our actions?

It is a nonstarter for me conceptually.

It’s a little bit like saying,

could there be some breakthrough that will cause us

to realize that circles are really square

or the circles are not really round, right?

No, a circle is what we mean by a perfectly round form.

It’s not on the table to be revised.

And so I would say the same thing about consciousness.

It’s just like saying, is there some breakthrough

that would get us to realize that consciousness

is really an illusion?

I’m saying no, because the experience of an illusion

is as much a demonstration of what I’m calling consciousness

as anything else, right?

That is consciousness.

With free will, it’s a similar problem.

It’s like, again, it comes down to a picture of causality

and there’s no other picture on offer.

And what’s more, I know what it’s like

on the experiential side to lose the thing

to which it is clearly anchored, right?

Like the feel, like it doesn’t feel,

and this is the question that almost nobody asked.

People who are debating me on the topic of free will,

I’m, at 15 minute intervals, I’m making a claim

that I don’t feel this thing,

and they never become interested in,

well, what’s that like?

Like, okay, so you’re actually saying you don’t,

this thing isn’t true for you empirically.

It’s not just, because most people

who don’t believe in free will philosophically

also believe that we’re condemned to experience it.

Like, you just, you can’t live without this feeling, so.

So you’re actually saying you’re able

to experience the absence of the illusion of free will?

Yes, yes.

For, are we talking about a few minutes at a time,

or is this, does it require a lot of work, a meditation,

or are you literally able to load that into your mind

and like play that moment?

Right now, right now, just in this conversation.

So it’s not absolutely continuous,

but it’s whenever I pay attention.

It’s like, and I would say the same thing

for the illusoriness of the self in the sense,

and again, we haven’t talked about this, so.

Can you still have the self and not have the free will

in mind at the same time?

Do they go at the same time?

This is the same, yeah, it’s the same thing.

They’re always holding hands when they walk out the door.

There really are two sides at the same coin.

But it’s just, it comes down to what it’s like

to try to get to the end of this sentence,

or what it’s like to finally decide

that it’s been long enough

and now I need another sip of water, right?

If I’m paying attention, now, if I’m not paying attention,

I’m probably, I’m captured by some other thought

and that feels a certain way, right?

And so that’s not, it’s not vivid,

but if I try to make vivid this experience of just,

okay, I’m finally gonna experience free will.

I’m gonna notice my free will, right?

Like it’s gotta be here, everyone’s talking about it.

Where is it?

I’m gonna pay attention to, I’m gonna look for it.

And I’m gonna create a circumstance

that is where it has to be most robust, right?

I’m not rushed to make this decision.

I’m not, it’s not a reflex.

I’m not under pressure.

I’m gonna take as long as I want.

I’m going to decide, it’s not trivial.

Like, so it’s not just like reaching with my left hand

or reaching with my right hand.

People don’t like those examples for some reason.

Let’s make a big decision.

Like, where should, what should my next podcast be on, right?

Who do I invite on the next podcast?

What is it like to make that decision?

When I pay attention,

there is no evidence of free will anywhere in sight.

It’s like, it doesn’t feel like,

it feels profoundly mysterious

to be going back between two people.

Like, is it gonna be person A or person B?

Got all my reasons for A and all my reasons why not

and all my reasons for B.

And there’s some math going on there

that I’m not even privy to

where certain concerns are trumping others.

And at a certain point, I just decide.

And yes, you can say I’m the node in the network

that has made that decision, absolutely.

I’m not saying it’s being piped to me from elsewhere,

but the feeling of what it’s like to make that decision

is totally without a sense,

a real sense of agency

because something simply emerges.

It’s literally as tenuous as

what’s the next sound I’m going to hear, right?

Or what’s the next thought that’s gonna appear?

And it just, something just appears, you know?

And if something appears to cancel that something,

like if I say, I’m gonna invite her

and then I’m about to send the email

and then I think, oh, no, no, no, I can’t do that.

There was a thing in that New York article I read

that I gotta talk to this guy, right?

That pivot at the last second,

you can make it as muscular as you want.

It always just comes out of the darkness.

It’s always mysterious.

So right, when you try to pin it down,

you really can’t ever find that free will.

If you construct an experiment for yourself

and you’re trying to really find that moment

when you’re actually making that controlled author decision,

it’s very difficult to do.

And we’re still, we’re still, we know at this point

that if we were scanning your brain

in some podcast guest choosing experiment, right?

We know at this point we would be privy

to who you’re going to pick before you are,

you the conscious agent.

If we could, again, this is operationally

a little hard to conduct,

but there’s enough data now to know

that something very much like this cartoon is in fact true

and will ultimately be undeniable for people.

They’ll be able to do it on themselves with some app.

If you’re deciding what to, you know,

where to go for dinner or who to have on your podcast

or ultimately, you know, who to marry, right?

Or what city to move to, right?

Like you can make it as big

or as small a decision as you want.

We could be scanning your brain in real time

and at a point where you still think you’re uncommitted,

we would be able to say with arbitrary accuracy,

all right, Lex is, he’s moving to Austin, right?

I didn’t choose that.

Yeah, he was choosing, it was gonna be Austin

or it was gonna be Miami.

He got, he’s catching one of these two waves,

but it’s gonna be Austin.

And at a point where you subjectively,

if we could ask you, you would say,

oh no, I’m still working over here.

I’m still thinking, I’m still considering my options.

And you’ve spoken to this,

in you thinking about other stuff in the world,

it’s been very useful to step away

from this illusion of free will.

And you argue that it’s probably makes a better world

because it can be compassionate

and empathetic towards others.

And towards oneself.

Towards oneself.

I mean, radically toward others

in that literally hate makes no sense anymore.

I mean, there are certain things

you can really be worried about, really want to oppose.

Really, I mean, I’m not saying

you’d never have to kill another person.

Like, I mean, self defense is still a thing, right?

But the idea that you’re ever confronting anything

other than a force of nature in the end

goes out the window, right?

Or does go out the window when you really pay attention.

I’m not saying that this would be easy to grok

if someone kills a member of your family.

I’m not saying you can just listen

to my 90 minutes on free will

and then you should be able to see that person

as identical to a grizzly bear or a virus.

Because there’s so, I mean, we are so evolved

to deal with one another as fellow primates

and as agents, but it’s, yeah,

when you’re talking about the possibility

of, you know, Christian, you know,

truly Christian forgiveness, right?

It’s like, you know, as testified to by, you know,

various saints of that flavor over the millennia.

Yeah, that is, the doorway to that is to recognize

that no one really at bottom made themselves.

And therefore everyone, what we’re seeing really

are differences in luck in the world.

We’re seeing people who are very, very lucky

to have had good parents and good genes

and to be in good societies and had good opportunities

and to be intelligent and to be, you know,

not as intelligent as they were in the past.

And to be, you know, not sociopathic,

like none of it is on them.

They’re just reaping the fruits of one lottery

after another, and then showing up in the world

on that basis.

And then so it is with, you know,

every malevolent asshole out there, right?

He or she didn’t make themself.

Even if that weren’t possible,

the utility for self compassion is also enormous

because it’s, when you just look at what it’s like

to regret something or to feel shame about something

or feel deep embarrassment, these states of mind

are some of the most deranging experiences anyone has.

And the indelible reaction to them,

you know, the memory of the thing you said,

you know, the memory of the wedding toast you gave

20 years ago that was just mortifying, right?

The fact that that can still make you hate yourself, right?

And like that psychologically,

that is a knot that can be untied, right?

Speak for yourself, Sam.

Yeah, yeah.

So clearly you’re not.

You gave a great toast.

It was my toast that mortified me.

No, no, that’s not what I was referring to.

I’m deeply appreciative in the same way

that you’re referring to of every moment I’m alive,

but I’m also powered by self hate often.

Like several things in this conversation already

that I’ve spoken, I’ll be thinking about,

like that was the dumbest thing.

You’re sitting in front of Sam Harris and you said that.

So like that, but that somehow creates

a richer experience for me.

Like I’ve actually come to accept that as a nice feature

however my brain was built.

I don’t think I want to let go of that.

Well, the thing you, I think the thing you want to let go of

is the suffering associated with it.

So like, so for me, so psychologically and ethically,

all of this is very interesting.

So I don’t think we ever,

we should ever get rid of things like anger, right?

So like hatred is, hatred is divorcible from anger

in the sense that hatred is this enduring state where,

you know, whether you’re hating somebody else

or hating yourself, it is just,

it is toxic and durable and ultimately useless, right?

Like it becomes, it becomes self nullifying, right?

Like you become less capable as a person

to solve any of your problems.

It’s not, it’s not instrumental in solving the problem

that is, that is, is occasioning all this hatred.

And anger for the most part isn’t either except

as a signal of salience that there’s a problem, right?

So if somebody does something that makes me angry,

that just promotes this situation to conscious,

conscious attention in a way that is stronger

than my not really caring about it, right?

And there are things that I think should make us angry

in the world and there’s the behavior of other people

that should make us angry because we should respond to it.

And so it is with yourself.

If I do something, you know, as a parent,

if I do something stupid that harms one of my daughters,

right, my belief, my experience of myself

and my beliefs about free will close the door to my saying,

well, I should have done otherwise in the sense

that if I could go back in time,

I would have actually effectively done otherwise.

No, I would do, given the same causes and conditions,

I would do that thing a trillion times in a row, right?

But, you know, regret and feeling bad about an outcome

are still important to capacities because like, yeah,

you know, like I desperately want my daughters

to be happy and healthy.

So if I’ve done something, you know,

if I crash the car when they’re in the car

and they get injured, right,

and I do it because I was trying to change a song

on my playlist or, you know, something stupid,

I’m gonna feel like a total asshole.

How long do I stew in that feeling of regret?

Right, and to like, what utility is there to extract

out of this error signal?

And then what do I do?

We’re always faced with the question of what to do next,

right, and how to best do that thing,

that necessary thing next.

And how much wellbeing can we experience while doing it?

Like how miserable do you need to be to solve a problem

in life and to help solve the problems

of people closest to you?

You know, how miserable do you need to be

to get through your to do list today?

Ultimately, I think you can be deeply happy

going through all of it, right?

And even navigating moments that are scary

and, you know, really destabilizing to ordinary people.

And, I mean, I think, you know, again,

I’m always up kind of at the edge of my own capacities here

and there are all kinds of things that stress me out

and worry me and I’m especially something if it’s,

you’re gonna tell me it’s something with, you know,

the health of one of my kids, you know,

it’s very hard for me, like, it’s very hard for me

to be truly equanimous around that.

But equanimity is so useful

the moment you’re in response mode, right?

Because, I mean, the ordinary experience for me

of responding to what seems like a medical emergency

for one of my kids is to be obviously super energized

by concern to respond to that emergency.

But then once I’m responding to that emergency,

but then once I’m responding,

all of my fear and agitation and worry and, oh my God,

what if this is really something terrible?

But finding any of those thoughts compelling,

that only diminishes my capacity as a father

to be good company while we navigate

this really turbulent passage, you know?

As you’re saying this actually,

one guy comes to mind, which is Elon Musk.

One of the really impressive things to me

was to observe how many dramatic things

he has to deal with throughout the day at work,

but also if you look through his life, family too,

and how he’s very much actually, as you’re describing,

basically a practitioner of this way of thought,

which is you’re not in control.

You’re basically responding

no matter how traumatic the event,

and there’s no reason to sort of linger on the,

on the negative feelings around that.

Well, so, I mean, he, but he’s in a very specific situation,

which is unlike normal life,

you know, even his normal life,

but normal life for most people,

because when you just think of like, you know,

he’s running so many businesses,

and he’s, they’re very, they’re not,

they’re non, highly nonstandard businesses.

So what he’s seen is everything that gets to him

is some kind of emergency.

Like it wouldn’t be getting to him.

If it needs his attention,

there’s a fire somewhere.

So he’s constantly responding to fires

that have to be put out.

So there’s no default expectation

that there shouldn’t be a fire, right?

But in our normal lives, we live,

most of us, I mean, most of us who are lucky, right?

Not everyone, obviously on earth,

but most of us who are at some kind of cruising altitude

in terms of our lives,

where we’re reasonably healthy,

and life is reasonably orderly,

and the political apparatus around us

is reasonably functionable, functional,


So I said, functionable for the first time in my life

through no free will of my own.

Say like, I noticed those errors,

and they do not feel like agency,

and nor does the success of an utterance feel like agency.

He, when you’re looking at normal human life, right,

where you’re just trying to be happy and healthy,

and get your work done,

there’s this default expectation

that there shouldn’t be fires.

People shouldn’t be getting sick or injured.

We shouldn’t be losing vast amounts of our resources.

We should, like, so when something really stark

like that happens,

people don’t have a, people don’t have that muscle

that they’re, like, I’ve been responding to emergencies

all day long, seven days a week in business mode,

and so I have a very thick skin.

This is just another one.

I’m not expecting anything else

when I wake up in the morning.

No, we have this default sense that,

I mean, honestly, most of us have the default sense

that we aren’t gonna die, right,

or that we should, like, maybe we’re not gonna die.

Right, like, death denial really is a thing.

You know, we’re, and you can see it,

just like I can see when I reach for this bottle

that I was expecting it to be solid,

because when it isn’t solid, when it’s a hologram

and I just, my fist closes on itself,

I’m damn surprised.

People are damn surprised to find out

that they’re going to die, to find out that they’re sick,

to find out that someone they love has died

or is going to die.

So it’s like, the fact that we are surprised

by any of that shows us that we’re living at a,

we’re living in a mode that is, you know,

we’re perpetually diverting ourselves

from some facts that should be obvious, right,

and the more salient we can make them,

you know, the more, I mean, in the case of death,

it’s a matter of being able to get one’s priorities straight.

I mean, the moment, again, this is hard for everybody,

even those who are really in the business

of paying attention to it,

but the moment you realize that every circumstance

is finite, right, you’ve got a certain number of,

you know, you’ve got whatever, whatever it is,

8,000 days left in a normal span of life,

and 8,000 is a, sounds like a big number,

it’s not that big a number, right,

so it’s just like, and then you can decide

how you want to go through life

and how you want to experience each one of those days,

and so I was, back to our jumping off point,

I would argue that you don’t want to feel self hatred ever.

I would argue that you don’t want to really,

really grasp onto any of those moments

where you are internalizing the fact

that you just made an error, you’ve embarrassed yourself,

that something didn’t go the way you wanted it to.

I think you want to treat all of those moments

very, very lightly.

You want to extract the actionable information.

It’s something to learn.

Oh, you know, I learned that when I prepare

in a certain way, it works better

than when I prepare in some other way,

or don’t prepare, right, like yes,

lesson learned, you know, and do that differently,

but yeah, I mean, so many of us have spent so much time

with a very dysfunctional and hostile

and even hateful inner voice

governing a lot of our self talk

and a lot of just our default way of being with ourselves.

I mean, the privacy of our own minds,

we’re in the company of a real jerk a lot of the time,

and that can’t help but affect,

I mean, forget about just your own sense of wellbeing.

It can’t help but limit what you’re capable of

in the world with other people.

I’ll have to really think about that.

I just take pride that my jerk, my inner voice jerk

is much less of a jerk than somebody like David Goggins,

who’s like screaming in his ear constantly.

So I have a relativist kind of perspective

that it’s not as bad as that at least.

Well, having a sense of humor also helps, you know,

it’s just like, it’s not,

the stakes are never quite what you think they are.

And even when they are, I mean,

it’s just the difference between being able

to see the comedy of it rather than,

because again, there’s this sort of dark star

of self absorption that pulls everything into it, right?

And that’s the algorithm you don’t want to run.

So it’s like, you just want things to be good.

So like, just push the concern out there,

like not have the collapse of,

oh my God, what does this say about me?

It’s just like, what does this say about,

how do we make this meal that we’re all having together

as fun and as useful as possible?

And you’re saying in terms of propulsion systems,

you recommend humor is a good spaceship

to escape the gravitational field of that darkness.

Well, that certainly helps, yeah.

Yeah, well, let me ask you a little bit about ego and fame,

which is very interesting the way you’re talking,

given that you’re one of the biggest intellects,

living intellects and minds of our time.

And there’s a lot of people that really love you

and almost elevate you to a certain kind of status

where you’re like the guru.

I’m surprised you didn’t show up in a robe, in fact.

Is there a…

A hoodie, isn’t that the highest status garment

one can wear now?

The socially acceptable version of the robe.

If you’re a billionaire, you wear a hoodie.

Is there something you can say about managing

the effects of fame on your own mind,

on not creating this, you know, when you wake up

in the morning, when you look up in the mirror,

how do you get your ego not to grow exponentially?

Your conception of self to grow exponentially

because there’s so many people feeding that.

Is there something to be said about this?

It’s really not hard because I mean,

I feel like I have a pretty clear sense

of my strengths and weaknesses.

And I don’t feel like it’s…

I mean, honestly, I don’t feel like I suffer

from much grandiosity.

I mean, I just have a, you know,

there’s so many things I’m not good at.

There’s so many things I will, you know,

given the remaining 8,000 days at best,

I will never get good at.

I would love to be good at these things.

So it’s just, it’s easy to feel diminished

by comparison with the talents of others.

Do you remind yourself of all the things

that you’re not competent in?

I mean, like what is…

Well, they’re just on display for me every day

that I appreciate the talents of others.

But you notice them.

I’m sure Stalin and Hitler did not notice

all the ways in which they were.

I mean, this is why absolute power corrupts absolutely

is you stop noticing the things

in which you’re ridiculous and wrong.

Right, yeah, no, I am…

Not to compare you to Stalin.

Yeah, well, I’m sure there’s an inner Stalin

in there somewhere.

Well, we all have, we all carry a baby Stalin with us.

He wears better clothes.

And I’m not gonna grow that mustache.

Those concerns don’t map,

they don’t map onto me for a bunch of reasons.

But one is I also have a very peculiar audience.

Like I’m just, you know,

I’ve been appreciating this for a few years,

but it’s, I’m just now beginning to understand

that there are many people who have audiences

of my size or larger that have a very different experience

of having an audience than I do.

I have curated for better or worse, a peculiar audience.

And the net result of that is virtually any time

I say anything of substance,

something like half of my audience,

my real audience, not haters from outside my audience,

but my audience is just revolts over it, right?

They just like, oh my God, I can’t believe you said it,

like you’re such a schmuck, right?

They revolt with rigor and intellectual sophistication.

Or not, or not, but I mean, it’s both,

but it’s like, but people who are like,

so it’s, I mean, the clearest case is,

you know, I have whatever audience I have

and then Trump appears on the scene

and I discovered that something like 20% of my audience

just went straight to Trump and couldn’t believe

I didn’t follow them there.

They were just a gas that I didn’t see

that Trump was obviously exactly what we needed

for, to steer the ship of state for the next four years

and then four years beyond that.

So like, so that’s one example.

So whenever I said anything about Trump,

I would hear from people who loved more or less

everything else I was up to and had for years,

but everything I said about Trump just gave me pure pain

from this quadrant of my audience.

But then the same thing happens when I say something

about the derangement of the far left.

Anything I say about wokeness, right,

or identity politics, same kind of punishment signal

from, again, people who are core to my audience,

like I’ve read all your books, I’m using your meditation app,

I love what you say about science,

but you are so wrong about politics and you are,

I’m starting to think you’re a racist asshole

for everything you said about identity politics.

And there are so many, the free will topic

is just like this, it’s like I just,

they love what I’m saying about consciousness and the mind

and they love to hear me talk about physics with physicists

and it’s all good, this free will stuff is,

I cannot believe you don’t see how wrong you are,

what a fucking embarrassment you are.

So, but I’m starting to notice that there are other people

who don’t have this experience of having an audience

because they have, I mean, just take the Trump woke dichotomy.

They just castigated Trump the same way I did,

but they never say anything bad about the far left.

So they never get this punishment signal or you flip it.

They’re all about the insanity of critical race theory now.

We connect all those dots the same way,

but they never really specified what was wrong with Trump

or they thought there was a lot right with Trump

and they got all the pleasure of that.

And so they have much more homogenized audiences.

And so my experience, so just to come back

to this experience of fame or quasi fame,

I mean, it’s true, in truth, it’s not real fame,

but it’s still, there’s an audience there.

It is a, it’s now an experience where basically

whatever I put out, I notice a ton of negativity

coming back at me and it just, it is what it is.

I mean, now, it’s like, I used to think, wait a minute,

there’s gotta be some way for me to communicate

more clearly here so as not to get this kind of

lunatic response from my own audience.

From like people who are showing all the signs of,

we’ve been here for years for a reason, right?

These are not just trolls.

And so I think, okay, I’m gonna take 10 more minutes

and really just tell you what should be absolutely clear

about what’s wrong with Trump, right?

I’ve done this a few times,

but I think I gotta do this again.

Or wait a minute, how are they not getting

that these episodes of police violence

are so obviously different from the ones

that you can’t describe all of them

to yet another racist maniac on the police force,

killing someone based on his racism.

Last time I spoke about this, it was pure pain,

but I just gotta try again.

Now at a certain point, I mean, I’m starting to feel like,

all right, I just, I have to be, I have to cease.

Again, it comes back to this expectation

that there shouldn’t be fires.

I feel like if I could just play my game impeccably,

the people who actually care what I think will follow me

when I hit Trump and hit free will and hit the woke

and hit whatever it is,

how we should respond to the coronavirus, you know?

I mean, vaccines, are they a thing, right?

Like there’s such derangement in our information space now

that, I mean, I guess, you know,

some people could be getting more of this than I expect,

but I just noticed that many of our friends

who are in the same game have more homogenized audiences

and don’t get, I mean, they’ve successfully filtered out

the people who are gonna despise them on this next topic.

And I would imagine you have a different experience

of having a podcast than I do at this point.

I mean, I’m sure you get haters,

but I would imagine you’re more streamlined.

I actually don’t like the word haters

because it kinda presumes that it puts people in a bin.

I think we’re all have like baby haters inside of us

and we just apply them and some people enjoy doing that

more than others for particular periods of time.

I think you’re gonna almost see hating on the internet

as a video game that you just play and it’s fun,

but then you can put it down and walk away

and no, I certainly have a bunch of people

that are very critical.

I can list all the ways.

But does it feel like on any given topic,

does it feel like it’s an actual title surge

where it’s like 30% of your audience

and then the other 30% of your audience

from podcast to podcast?

No, no, no.

That’s happening to me all the time now.

Well, I’m more with, I don’t know what you think about this.

I mean, Joe Rogan doesn’t read comments

or doesn’t read comments much.

And the argument he made to me is that

he already has like a self critical person inside.

And I’m gonna have to think about

what you said in this conversation,

but I have this very harshly self critical person

inside as well where I don’t need more fuel.

I don’t need, no, I do sometimes.

That’s why I check negativity occasionally,

not too often.

I sometimes need to like put a little bit more

like coals into the fire, but not too much.

But I already have that self critical engine

that keeps me in check.

I just, I wonder, you know, a lot of people

who gain more and more fame lose that ability

to be self critical.

I guess because they lose the audience

that can be critical towards them.


You know, I do follow Joe’s advice much more

than I ever have here.

Like I don’t look at comments very often.

And I’m probably using Twitter, you know,

5% as much as I used to.

I mean, I really just get in and out on Twitter

and spend very little time in my ad mentions.

I bet, you know, it does, in some ways it feels like a loss

because occasionally I get,

I see something super intelligent there.

Like, I mean, I’ll check my Twitter ad mentions

and someone will have said, oh, have you read this article?

And it’s like, man, that was just,

that was like the best article sent to me in a month, right?

So it’s like to have not have looked

and to not have seen that, that’s a loss.

So, but it does, at this point, a little goes a long way.

Cause I, yeah, it’s not that it, for me now,

I mean, this could sound like a fairly Stalinistic immunity

to criticism, it’s not so much that these voices of hate

turn on my inner hater, you know, more,

it’s more that I just, I get a,

what I fear is a false sense of humanity.

Like, I feel like I’m too online

and online is selecting for this performative outrage

in everybody, everyone’s signaling to an audience

when they trash you.

And I get a dark, I’m getting a, you know,

a misanthropic, you know, cut of just what it’s like

out there.

And it, cause when you meet people in real life,

they’re great, you know, they’re all rather often great,

you know, and it takes a lot to have anything

like a Twitter encounter in real life with a living person.

And that’s, I think it’s much better to have that

as one’s default sense of what it’s like to be with people

than what one gets on social media

or on YouTube comment threads.

You’ve produced a special episode with Rob Reed

on your podcast recently on how bioengineering of viruses

is going to destroy human civilization.


Or could.


One fears, yeah.

Sorry, the confidence there.

But in the 21st century, what do you think,

especially after having thought through that angle,

what do you think is the biggest threat

to the survival of the human species?

I can give you the full menu if you’d like.

Yeah, well, no, I would put the biggest threat

at another level out, kind of the meta threat

is our inability to agree about what the threats actually are

and to converge on strategies for responding to them, right?

So like I view COVID as, among other things,

a truly terrifyingly failed dress rehearsal

for something far worse, right?

I mean, COVID is just about as benign as it could have been

and still have been worse than the flu

when you’re talking about a global pandemic, right?

So it’s just, it’s gonna kill a few million people

or it looks like it’s killed about 3 million people.

Maybe it’ll kill a few million more

unless something gets away from us

with a variant that’s much worse

or we really don’t play our cards right.

But I mean, the general shape of it is

it’s got somewhere around, well, 1% lethality

and whatever side of that number it really is on

in the end, it’s not what would in fact be possible

and is in fact probably inevitable

something with orders of magnitude,

more lethality than that.

And it’s just so obvious we are totally unprepared, right?

We are running this epidemiological experiment

of linking the entire world together

and then also now per the podcast that Rob Reed did

democratizing the tech that will allow us to do this

to engineer pandemics, right?

And more and more people will be able

to engineer synthetic viruses that will be

by the sheer fact that they would have been engineered

with malicious intent, worse than COVID.

And we’re still living in,

to speak specifically about the United States,

we have a country here where we can’t even agree

that this is a thing, like that COVID,

I mean, there’s still people who think

that this is basically a hoax designed to control people.

And stranger still, there are people who will acknowledge

that COVID is real and they’ll look,

they don’t think the deaths have been faked or misascribed,

but they think that they’re far happier

at the prospect of catching COVID

than they are of getting vaccinated for COVID, right?

They’re not worried about COVID,

they’re worried about vaccines for COVID, right?

And the fact that we just can’t converge in a conversation

that we’ve now had a year to have with one another

on just what is the ground truth here?

What’s happened?

Why has it happened?

How safe is it to get COVID in every cohort

in the population?

And how safe are the vaccines?

And the fact that there’s still an air of mystery

around all of this for much of our society

does not bode well when you’re talking about solving

any other problem that may yet kill us.

But do you think convergence grows

with the magnitude of the threat?

It’s possible, except I feel like we have tipped into,

because when the threat of COVID looked the most dire,

when we were seeing reports from Italy

that looked like the beginning of a zombie movie.

Because it could have been much, much worse.

Yeah, this is lethal, right?

Your ICUs are gonna fill up in,

you’re 14 days behind us.

Your medical system is in danger of collapse.

Lock the fuck down.

We have people refusing to do anything sane

in the face of that.

People fundamentally thinking,

it’s not gonna get here, right?

Who knows what’s going on in Italy,

but it has no implications for what’s gonna go on in New York

in a mere six days, right?

And now it kicks off in New York,

and you’ve got people in the middle of the country

thinking it’s no factor, it’s not,

that’s just big city, those are big city problems,

or they’re faking it.

Or, I mean, it just, the layer of politics

has become so dysfunctional for us

that even in the presence of a pandemic

that looked legitimately scary there in the beginning,

I mean, it’s not to say that it hasn’t been devastating

for everyone who’s been directly affected by it,

and it’s not to say it can’t get worse,

but here, for a very long time,

we have known that we were in a situation

that is more benign than what seemed

like the worst case scenario as it was kicking off,

especially in Italy.

And so still, yeah, it’s quite possible

that if we saw the asteroid hurtling toward Earth

and everyone agreed that it’s gonna make impact

and we’re all gonna die,

then we could get off Twitter

and actually build the rockets

that are gonna divert the asteroid

from its Earth crossing path,

and we could do something pretty heroic.

But when you talk about anything else

that isn’t, that’s slower moving than that,

I mean, something like climate change,

I think the prospect of our converging

on a solution to climate change

purely based on political persuasion

is nonexistent at this point.

I just think, to bring Elon back into this,

the way to deal with climate change

is to create technology that everyone wants

that is better than all the carbon producing technology,

and then we just transition

because you want an electric car

the same way you wanted a smartphone

or you want anything else,

and you’re working totally with the grain

of people’s selfishness and short term thinking.

The idea that we’re gonna convince

the better part of humanity

that climate change is an emergency,

that they have to make sacrifices to respond to,

given what’s happened around COVID,

I just think that’s the fantasy of a fantasy.

But speaking of Elon,

I have a bunch of positive things

that I wanna say here in response to you,

but you’re opening so many threads,

but let me pull one of them, which is AI.

Both you and Elon think that with AI,

you’re summoning demons, summoning a demon,

maybe not in those poetic terms, but.

Well, potentially. Potentially.

Two very, three very parsimonious assumptions,

I think, here.

Scientifically, parsimonious assumptions get me there.

Any of which could be wrong,

but it just seems like the weight

of the evidence is on their side.

One is that it comes back to this topic

of substrate independence, right?

Anyone who’s in the business

of producing intelligent machines

must believe, ultimately,

that there’s nothing magical

about having a computer made of meat.

You can do this in the kinds of materials

we’re using now,

and there’s no special something

that presents a real impediment

to producing human level intelligence in silico, right?

Again, an assumption, I’m sure there are a few people

who still think there is something magical

about biological systems,

but leave that aside.

Given that assumption,

and given the assumption

that we just continue making incremental progress,

doesn’t have to be Moore’s Law,

it just has to be progress,

that just doesn’t stop,

at a certain point,

we’ll get to human level intelligence and beyond.

And human level intelligence,

I think, is also clearly a mirage,

because anything that’s human level

is gonna be superhuman

by unless we decide to dumb it down, right?

I mean, my phone is already superhuman as a calculator,

right, so why would we make the human level AI

just as good as me as a calculator?

So I think we’ll very,

if we continue to make progress,

we will be in the presence of superhuman competence

for any act of intelligence or cognition

that we care to prioritize.

It’s not to say that we’ll create everything

that a human could do,

maybe we’ll leave certain things out,

but anything that we care about,

and we care about a lot,

and we certainly care about anything

that produces a lot of power,

that we care about scientific insights

and an ability to produce new technology and all of that,

we’ll have something that’s superhuman.

And then the final assumption is just that

there have to be ways to do that

that are not aligned with a happy coexistence

with these now more powerful entities than ourselves.

So, and I would guess,

and this is kind of a rider to that assumption,

there are probably more ways to do it badly

than to do it perfectly.

That is perfectly aligned with our wellbeing.

And when you think about the consequences of nonalignment,

when you think about,

you’re now in the presence of something

that is more intelligent than you are, right?

Which is to say more competent, right?

Unless you’ve, and obviously there are cartoon pictures

of this where we could just,

this is just an off switch,

we could just turn off the off switch,

or they’re tethered to something that makes them,

our slaves in perpetuity,

even though they’re more intelligent.

But those scenarios strike me as a failure to imagine

what is actually entailed by greater intelligence, right?

So if you imagine something

that’s legitimately more intelligent than you are,

and you’re now in relationship to it, right?

You’re in the presence of this thing

and it is autonomous in all kinds of ways

because it had to be to be more intelligent than you are.

I mean, you built it to be all of those things.

We just can’t find ourselves in a negotiation

with something more intelligent than we are, you know?

And we can’t, so we have to have found

the subset of ways to build these machines

that are perpetually amenable to our saying,

oh, that’s not what we meant, that’s not what we intended.

Could you stop doing that, just come back over here

and do this thing that we actually want.

And for them to care, for them to be tethered

to our own sense of our own wellbeing,

such that, you know, I mean, their utility function is,

you know, their primary utility function is for,

is to have, you know, this is, I think,

Stuart Russell’s cartoon plan is to figure out

how to tether them to a utility function

that has our own estimation of what’s going to improve

our wellbeing as its master, you know, reward, right?

So it’s like, all that, this thing can get

as intelligent as it can get,

but it only ever really wants to figure out

how to make our lives better by our own view of better.

Now, not to say there wouldn’t be a conversation about,

you know, I mean, because there’s all kinds of things

we’re not seeing clearly about what is better,

and if we were in the presence of a genie or an oracle

that could really tell us what is better,

well, then we presumably would want to hear that,

and we would modify our sense of what to do next

in conversation with these minds.

But I just feel like it is a failure of imagination

to think that being in relationship to something

more intelligent than yourself isn’t in most cases

a circumstance of real peril, because it is.

Just to think of how everything on Earth has to,

if they could think about their relationship to us,

if birds could think about what we’re doing, right?

They would, I mean, the bottom line is

they’re always in danger of our discovering

that there’s something we care about more than birds, right?

Or there’s something we want

that disregards the wellbeing of birds.

And obviously much of our behavior is inscrutable to them.

Occasionally we pay attention to them,

and occasionally we withdraw our attention,

and occasionally we just kill them all

for reasons they can’t possibly understand.

But if we’re building something more intelligent

than ourselves, by definition,

we’re building something whose horizons

of value and cognition can exceed our own

and in ways where we can’t necessarily foresee,

again, perpetually, that they don’t just wake up one day

and decide, okay, well, these humans need to disappear.

So I think I agree with most of the initial things you said.

What I don’t necessarily agree with,

and of course nobody knows,

but that the more likely set of trajectories

that we’re going to take are going to be positive.

That’s what I believe in the sense

that the way you develop,

I believe the way you develop successful AI systems

will be deeply integrated with human society.

And for them to succeed,

they’re going to have to be aligned

in the way we humans are aligned with each other,

which doesn’t mean we’re aligned.

There’s no such thing,

or I don’t see there’s such thing as a perfect alignment,

but they’re going to be participating in the dance,

in the game theoretic dance of human society,

as they become more and more intelligent.

There could be a point beyond which

we are like birds to them.

But what about an intelligence explosion of some kind?

So I believe the explosion will be happening,

but there’s a lot of explosion to be done

before we become like birds.

I truly believe that human beings

are very intelligent in ways we don’t understand.

It’s not just about chess.

It’s about all the intricate computation

we’re able to perform, common sense,

our ability to reason about this world, consciousness.

I think we’re doing a lot of work

we don’t realize is necessary to be done

in order to truly become,

like truly achieve super intelligence.

And I just think there’ll be a period of time

that’s not overnight.

The overnight nature of it will not literally be overnight.

It’ll be over a period of decades.

So my sense is…

So why would it be that, but just take,

draw an analogy from recent successes,

like something like AlphaGo or AlphaZero.

I forget the actual metric,

but it was something like this algorithm,

which wasn’t even totally,

it wasn’t bespoke for chess playing,

in the matter of, I think it was four hours,

played itself so many times and so successfully

that it became the best chess playing computer.

It was not only better than every human being,

it was better than every previous chess program

in a matter of a day, right?

So just imagine, again,

we don’t have to recapitulate everything about us,

but just imagine building a system,

and who knows when we’ll be able to do this,

but at some point we’ll be able,

at some point the 100 or 100 favorite things

about human cognition will be analogous to chess

in that we will be able to build machines

that very quickly outperform any human,

and then very quickly outperform the last algorithm

that outperform the humans.

Like something like the AlphaGo experience

seems possible for facial recognition

and detecting human emotion

and natural language processing, right?

Well, it’s just that everyone,

even math people, math heads,

tend to have bad intuitions for exponentiation, right?

I mean, we noticed this during COVID.

I mean, you have some very smart people

who still couldn’t get their minds around the fact

that an exponential is really surprising.

I mean, things double and double and double and double again,

and you don’t notice much of anything changes,

and then the last two stages of doubling swamp everything.

And it just seems like that,

to assume that there isn’t a deep analogy

between what we’re seeing for the more tractable problems,

like chess, to other modes of cognition,

it’s like once you crack that problem,

it seems, because for the longest time,

it was impossible to think

we were gonna make headway in AI, you know, it’s like.

Chess and Go was seen as impossible.

Yeah, Go seemed unattainable.

Even when chess had been cracked, Go seemed unattainable.

Yeah, and actually still Russell was behind the people

that were saying it’s unattainable,

because it seemed like it’s intractable problem.

But there’s something different

about the space of cognition

that’s detached from human society, which is what chess is,

meaning like just thinking,

having actual exponential impact

on the physical world is different.

I tend to believe that there’s,

for AI to get to the point where it’s super intelligent,

it’s going to have to go through the funnel of society.

And for that, it has to be deeply integrated

with human beings, and for that, it has to be aligned.

But you’re talking about like actually hooking us up

to like the neural link, you know,

we’re gonna be the brainstem to the robot overlords?

That’s a possibility as well.

But what I mean is,

in order to develop autonomous weapon systems, for example,

which are highly concerning to me

that both US and China are participating in now,

that in order to develop them and for them to become,

to have more and more responsibility

to actually do military strategic actions,

they’re going to have to be integrated

into human beings doing the strategic action.

They’re going to have to work alongside with each other.

And the way those systems will be developed

will have the natural safety, like switches

that are placed on them as they develop over time,

because they’re going to have to convince humans.

Ultimately, they’re going to have to convince humans

that this is safer than humans.

They’re going to, you know.

Self driving cars is a good test case here

because like, obviously we’ve made a lot of progress

and we can imagine what total progress would look like.

I mean, it would be amazing.

And it’s answering, it’s canceling in the US

40,000 deaths every year based on ape driven cars, right?

So it’s a excruciating problem that we’ve all gotten used to

because there was no alternative.

But now we can dimly see the prospect of an alternative,

which if it works in a super intelligent fashion,

maybe we would go down to zero highway deaths, right?

Or, you know, certainly we’d go down

by orders of magnitude, right?

So maybe we have, you know, 400 rather than 40,000 a year.

And it’s easy to see that there’s not a missile.

So obviously this is not an example of super intelligence.

This is narrow intelligence,

but the alignment problem isn’t so obvious there,

but there are potential alignment problems there.

Like, so like, just imagine if some woke team of engineers

decided that we have to tune the algorithm some way.

I mean, there are situations where the car

has to decide who to hit.

I mean, there’s just bad outcomes

where you’re gonna hit somebody, right?

Now we have a car that can tell what race you are, right?

So we’re gonna build the car to preferentially hit

white people because white people have had so much privilege

over the years.

This seems like the only ethical way

to kind of redress those wrongs of the past.

That’s something that could get, one,

that could get produced as an artifact, presumably,

of just how you built it

and you didn’t even know you engineered it that way, right?

You caused it to…

Through machine learning,

you put some kind of constraints on it

to where it creates those kinds of outcomes.

Basically, you built a racist algorithm

and you didn’t even intend to,

or you could intend to, right?

And it would be aligned with some people’s values

but misaligned with other people’s values.

But it’s like there are interesting problems

even with something as simple

and obviously good as self driving cars.

But there’s a leap that I just think it’d be exact,

but those are human problems.

I just don’t think there’ll be a leap

with autonomous vehicles.

First of all, sorry.

There are a lot of trajectories

which will destroy human civilization.

The argument I’m making,

it’s more likely that we’ll take trajectories that don’t.

So I don’t think there’ll be a leap

with autonomous vehicles

will all of a sudden start murdering pedestrians

because once every human on earth is dead,

there’ll be no more fatalities,

sort of unintended consequences of…

And it’s difficult to take that leap.

Most systems as we develop

and they become much, much more intelligent

in ways that will be incredibly surprising,

like stuff that DeepMind is doing with protein folding.

Even, which is scary to think about,

and I’m personally terrified about this,

which is the engineering of viruses using machine learning,

the engineering of vaccines using machine learning,

the engineering of, yeah, for research purposes,

pathogens using machine learning

and the ways that can go wrong.

I just think that there’s always going to be

a closed loop supervision of humans

before the AI becomes super intelligent.

Not always, much more likely to be supervision,

except, of course, the question is

how many dumb people there are in the world,

how many evil people are in the world?

My theory, my hope is, my sense is

that the number of intelligent people

is much higher than the number of dumb people

that know how to program

and the number of evil people.

I think smart people and kind people

over outnumber the others.

Except we also have to add another group of people

which are just the smart and otherwise good

but reckless people, right?

The people who will flip a switch on

not knowing what’s going to happen.

They’re just kind of hoping

that it’s not going to blow up the world.

We already know that some of our smartest people

are those sorts of people.

We know we’ve done experiments,

and this is something that Martin Rees was whinging about

before the Large Hadron Collider

got booted up, I think.

We know there are people who are entertaining experiments

or even performing experiments

where there’s some chance, not quite infinitesimal,

that they’re going to create a black hole in the lab

and suck the whole world into it.

You’re not a crazy person to worry about that

based on the physics.

And so it was with the Trinity test.

There were some people who were still

checking their calculations, and they were off.

We did nuclear tests where we were off significantly

in terms of the yield, right?

So it was like.

And they still flipped the switch.

Yeah, they still flipped the switch.

And sometimes they flipped the switch

not to win a world war or to save 40,000 lives a year.

They just, just.

Just to see what happens.

Intellectual curiosity.

Like this is what I got my grant for.

This is where I’ll get my Nobel Prize

if that’s in the cards.

It’s on the other side of this switch, right?

And I mean, again, we are apes with egos

who are massively constrained

by very short term self interest

even when we’re contemplating some of the deepest

and most interesting and most universal problems

we could ever set our attention towards.

Like just if you read James Watson’s book,

The Double Helix, right?

About them cracking the structure of DNA.

One thing that’s amazing about that book

is just how much of it, almost all of it

is being driven by very apish, egocentric social concerns.

The algorithm that is producing this scientific breakthrough

is human competition if you’re James Watson.

It’s like, I’m gonna get there before Linus Pauling

and it’s just, it’s so much of his bandwidth

is captured by that, right?

Now that becomes more and more of a liability

when you think about it.

I mean, it’s like, I’m gonna get there before Linus Pauling

and it’s just, it’s so much of his bandwidth

is captured by that, right?

Now that becomes more and more of a liability

when you’re talking about producing technology

that can change everything in an instant.

You know, we’re talking about not only understanding,

you know, we’re just at a different moment

in human history.

We’re not, when we’re doing research on viruses,

we’re now doing the kind of research

that can cause someone somewhere else

to be able to make that virus or weaponize that virus

or it’s just, I don’t know.

I mean, our power is, our wisdom is,

it does not seem like our wisdom is scaling with our power.


And like that seems like, insofar as wisdom and power

become unaligned, I get more and more concerned.

But speaking of apes with egos,

some of the most compelling apes, two compelling apes,

I can think of is yourself and Jordan Peterson.

And you’ve had a fun conversation about religion

that I watched most of, I believe.

I’m not sure there was any…

We didn’t solve anything.

If anything was ever solved.

So is there something like a charitable summary

you can give to the ideas that you agree on

and disagree with Jordan?

Is there something maybe after that conversation

that you’ve landed where maybe as you both agreed on,

is there some wisdom in the rubble

of even imperfect flawed ideas?

Is there something that you can kind of pull out

from those conversations or is it to be continued?

I mean, I think where we disagree.

So he thinks that many of our traditional religious beliefs

and frameworks are holding such a repository

of human wisdom that we pull at that fabric

at our peril, right?

Like if you start just unraveling Christianity

or any other traditional set of norms and beliefs

you may think you’re just pulling out the unscientific bits

but you could be pulling a lot more

to which everything you care about is attached, right?

As a society.

And my feeling is that there’s so much downside

to the unscientific bits.

And it’s so clear how we could have a 21st century

rational conversation about the things that we don’t know.

A conversation about the good stuff

that we really can radically edit these traditions.

And we can take Jesus in half his moods

and just find a great inspirational iron age thought leader

who just happened to get crucified.

But he could be somewhat like the Beatitudes

and the golden rule, which doesn’t originate with him

but which he put quite beautifully.

All of that’s incredibly useful.

It’s no less useful than it was 2000 years ago.

But we don’t have to believe he was born of a virgin

or coming back to raise the dead

or any of that other stuff.

And we can be honest about not believing those things.

And we can be honest about the reasons

why we don’t believe those things.

Because on those fronts I view the downside to be so obvious

and the fact that we have so many different

competing dogmatisms on offer to be so nonfunctional.

I mean, it’s so divisive, it just has conflict built into it

that I think we can be far more

and should be far more iconoclastic

than he wants to be, right?

Now, none of this is to deny much of what he argues for,

that stories are very powerful.

I mean, clearly stories are powerful

and we want good stories.

We want our lives, we wanna have a conversation

with ourselves and with one another about our lives

that facilitates the best possible lives.

And story is part of that, right?

And if you want some of those stories to sound like myths,

that might be part of it, right?

But my argument is that we never really need

to deceive ourselves or our children

about what we have every reason to believe is true

in order to get at the good stuff,

in order to organize our lives well.

I certainly don’t feel that I need to do it personally.

And if I don’t need to do it personally,

why would I think that billions of other people

need to do it personally, right?

Now, there is a cynical counter argument,

which is billions of other people

don’t have the advantages that I have had in my life.

The billions of other people are not as well educated,

they haven’t had the same opportunities,

they need to be told that Jesus is gonna solve

all their problems after they die, say,

or that everything happens for a reason

and if you just believe in the secret,

if you just visualize what you want, you’re gonna get it.

And it’s like there’s some measure

of what I consider to be odious pamphlet

that really is food for the better part of humanity

and there is no substitute for it

or there’s no substitute now.

And I don’t know if Jordan would agree with that,

but much of what he says seems to suggest

that he would agree with it.

And I guess that’s an empirical question.

I mean, that’s just that we don’t know

whether given a different set of norms

and a different set of stories,

people would behave the way I would hope they would behave

and be more aligned than they are now.

I think we know what happens

when you just let ancient religious certainties

go uncriticized.

We know what that world’s like.

We’ve been struggling to get out of that world

for a couple of hundred years,

but we know what having Europe riven by religious wars

looks like.

And we know what happens when those religions

become kind of pseudo religions and political religions.

So this is where I’m sure Jordan and I would debate.

He would say that Stalin was a symptom of atheism

and that’s not at all.

I mean, it’s not my kind of atheism.

Stalin, the problem with the Gulag

and the experiment with communism or with Stalinism

or with Nazism was not that there was so much

scientific rigor and self criticism and honesty

and introspection and judicious use of psychedelics.

I mean, that was not the problem in Hitler’s Germany

or in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The problem was you have other ideas

that capture a similar kind of mob based dogmatic energy.

And yes, the results of all of that

are predictably murderous.

Well, the question is what is the source

of the most viral and sticky stories

that ultimately lead to a positive outcome?

So communism was, I mean, having grown up

in the Soviet Union, even still having relatives in Russia,

there’s a stickiness to the nationalism

and to the ideologies of communism

that religious or not, you could say it’s religious forever.

I could just say it’s stories that are viral and sticky.

I’m using the most horrible words,

but the question is whether science and reason

can generate viral sticky stories

that give meaning to people’s lives.

And your sense is it does.

Well, whatever is true ultimately should be captivating.

It’s like what’s more captivating than whatever is real?

Because reality is, again, we’re just climbing

out of the darkness in terms of our understanding

of what the hell is going on.

And there’s no telling what spooky things

may in fact be true.

I mean, I don’t know if you’ve been on the receiving end

of recent rumors about our conversation

about UFOs very likely changing in the near term, right?

But like there was just a Washington Post article

and a New Yorker article,

and I’ve received some private outreach

and perhaps you have, I know other people in our orbit

have people who are claiming

that the government has known much more about UFOs

than they have let on until now.

And this conversation is actually is about

to become more prominent,

and it’s not gonna be whatever,

whoever’s left standing when the music stops,

it’s not going to be a comfortable position to be in

as a super rigorous scientific skeptic

who’s been saying there’s no there there

for the last 75 years, right?

The short version is it sounds like

the Office of Naval Intelligence and the Pentagon

are very likely to say to Congress at some point

in the not too distant future that we have evidence

that there is technology flying around here

that seems like it can’t possibly be of human origin, right?

Now, I don’t know what I’m gonna do

with that kind of disclosure, right?

Maybe it’s gonna be nothing,

no follow on conversation to really have,

but that is such a powerfully strange circumstance

to be in, right?

I mean, it’s just, what are we gonna do with that?

If in fact, that’s what happens, right?

If in fact, the considered opinion,

despite the embarrassment it causes them

of the US government, of all of our intelligence,

all of the relevant intelligence services

is that this isn’t a hoax.

It’s too much data to suggest that it’s a hoax.

We’ve got too much radar imagery,

there’s too much satellite data,

whatever data they actually have, there’s too much of it.

All we can say now is something’s going on

and there’s no way it’s the Chinese or the Russians

or anyone else’s technology.

That should arrest our attention collectively

to a degree that nothing in our lifetime has.

And now one worries that we’re so jaded

and confused and distracted

that it’s gonna get much less coverage

than Obama’s tan suit did a bunch of years ago.

Who knows how we’ll respond to that?

But it’s just to say that the need for us

to tell ourselves an honest story about what’s going on

and what’s likely to happen next

is never gonna go away, right?

And it’s important, it’s just the division between me

and every person who’s defending traditional religion

is where is it that you wanna lie to yourself

or lie to your kids?

Like where is honesty a liability?

And for me, I’ve yet to find the place where it is.

And it’s so obviously a strength

in almost every other circumstance

because it is the thing that allows you to course correct.

It is the thing that allows you to hope at least

that your beliefs, that your stories

are in some kind of calibration

with what’s actually going on in the world.

Yeah, it is a little bit sad to imagine

that if aliens on mass showed up to Earth,

they would be too preoccupied with political bickering

or to like these like fake news

and all that kind of stuff to notice

the very basic evidence of reality.

I do have a glimmer of hope

that there seems to be more and more hunger for authenticity.

And I feel like that opens the door

for a hunger for what is real.

Like people don’t want stories.

They don’t want like layers and layers of like fakeness.

And I’m hoping that means that will directly lead

to a greater hunger for reality and reason and truth.

Truth isn’t dogmatism.

Like truth isn’t authority.

I have a PhD and therefore I’m right.

Truth is almost, like the reality is

there’s so many questions, there’s so many mysteries,

there’s so much uncertainty.

This is our best available, like a best guess.

And we have a lot of evidence that supports that guess,

but it could be so many other things.

And like just even conveying that,

I think there’s a hunger for that in the world

to hear that from scientists, less dogmatism

and more just like this is what we know.

We’re doing our best given the uncertainty, given,

I mean, this is true with obviously with the virology

and all those kinds of things

because everything is happening so fast.

There’s a lot of, and biology is super messy.

So it’s very hard to know stuff for sure.

So just being open and real about that,

I think I’m hoping will change people’s hunger

and openness and trust of what’s real.

Yeah, well, so much of this is probabilistic.

I mean, so much of what can seem dogmatic scientifically

is just you’re placing a bet on whether it’s worth

reading that paper or rethinking your presuppositions

on that point.

It’s like, it’s not a fundamental closure to data.

It’s just that there’s so much data on one side

or so much would have to change

in terms of your understanding of what you think

you’ll understand about the nature of the world

if this new fact were so that you can pretty quickly say,

all right, that’s probably bullshit, right?

And it can sound like a fundamental closure

to new conversations, new evidence, new data, new argument,

but it’s really not.

It’s just, it really is just triaging your attention.

It’s just like, okay, you’re telling me

that your best friend can actually read minds.

Okay, well, that’s interesting.

Let me know when that person has gone into a lab

and actually proven it, right?

Like, I don’t need, like, this is not the place

where I need to spend the rest of my day

figuring out if your buddy can read my mind, right?

But there’s a way to communicate that.

I think it does too often sound

like you’re completely closed off to ideas

as opposed to saying like, this is, you know,

as opposed to saying that there’s a lot of evidence

in support of this, but you’re still open minded

to other ideas.

Like, there’s a way to communicate that.

It’s not necessarily even with words.

It’s like, it’s even that Joe Rogan energy

of it’s entirely possible.

Just, it’s that energy of being open minded

and curious like kids are.

Like, this is our best understanding,

but you still are curious.

I’m not saying allocate time to exploring all those things,

but still leaving the door open.

And there’s a way to communicate that, I think,

that people really hunger for.

Let me ask you this.

I’ve been recently talking a lot with John Donahoe

from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fame.

I don’t know if you know who that is.

In fact, I’m talking about somebody

who’s good at what he does.


And he, speaking of somebody who’s open minded,

the reason he’s doing this ridiculous transition

is for the longest time, and even still,

a lot of people believed in the Jiu Jitsu world

and grappling world that leg locks

are not effective in Jiu Jitsu.

And he was somebody that inspired

by the open mindedness of Dean Lister,

famously to him said, why do you only consider

half the human body when you’re trying to do the submissions?

He developed an entire system

on this other half the human body.

Anyway, I do that absurd transition to ask you,

because you’re also a student of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Is there something you could say

how that has affected your life,

what you’ve learned from grappling from the martial arts?

Well, it’s actually a great transition

because I think one of the things

that’s so beautiful about Jiu Jitsu

is that it does what we wish we could do

in every other area of life

where we’re talking about this difference

between knowledge and ignorance, right?

Like there’s no room for bullshit, right?

You don’t get any credit for bullshit.

There’s the difference,

the amazing thing about Jiu Jitsu is that

the difference between knowing what’s going on

and what to do and not knowing it

is as the gulf between those two states

is as wide as it is in any thing in human life.

And it’s spanned, it can be spanned so quickly.

Like each increment of knowledge

can be doled out in five minutes.

It’s like, here’s the thing that got you killed

and here’s how to prevent it from happening to you

and here’s how to do it to others.

And you just get this amazing cadence

of discovering your fatal ignorance

and then having it remedied with the actual technique.

And I mean, just for people

who don’t know what we’re talking about,

it’s just like this, the simple circumstance

of like someone’s got you in a headlock,

how do you get out of that, right?

Someone’s sitting on your chest

and they’re in the mount position

and you’re on the bottom and you wanna get away,

how do you get them off you?

They’re sitting on you.

Your intuitions about how to do this are terrible

even if you’ve done some other martial art, right?

And once you learn how to do it,

the difference is night and day.

It’s like you have access to a completely different physics.

But I think our understanding of the world

can be much more like jujitsu than it tends to be, right?

And I think we should all have a much better sense

of when we should tap out

and when we should recognize that our epistemological arm

is barred and now it’s being broken, right?

And the problem with debating most other topics

is that most people, it isn’t jujitsu

and most people don’t tap out, right?

Even if it’s obvious to you they’re wrong

and it’s obvious to an intelligent audience

that they’re wrong, people just double down

and double down and they’re either lying

or lying to themselves

or they’re bluffing and so you have a lot of zombies

walking around and zombie worldviews walking around

which have been disconfirmed as emphatically

as someone gets armbarred, right?

Or someone gets choked out in jujitsu

but because it’s not jujitsu,

they can live to fight another day, right?

Or they can pretend that they didn’t lose

that particular argument.

And science when it works is a lot like jujitsu.

I mean, science when you falsify a thesis, right?

When you think DNA is one way

and it proves to be another way,

when you think it’s triple stranded or whatever,

it’s like there is a there there

and you can get to a real consensus.

So jujitsu for me, it was more than just

of interest for self defense and the sport of it.

It was just, there was something, it’s a language

and an argument you’re having

where you can’t fool yourself anymore.

First of all, it cancels any role of luck

in a way that most other athletic feats don’t.

It’s like in basketball,

even if you’re not good at basketball,

you can take the basketball in your hand,

you can be 75 feet away and hurl it at the basket

and you might make it.

And you could convince yourself based on that demonstration

that you have some kind of talent for basketball, right?

Enough, 10 minutes on the mat

with a real jujitsu practitioner when you’re not one

proves to you that you just, there is,

it’s not like, there’s no lucky punch.

There’s no, you’re not gonna get a lucky,

there’s no lucky rear naked choke you’re gonna perform

on someone who’s Marcelo Garcia or somebody.

It’s just, it’s not gonna happen.

And having that aspect of the usual range of uncertainty

and self deception and bullshit just stripped away

was really a kind of revelation.

It was just an amazing experience.

Yeah, I think it’s a really powerful thing

that accompanies whatever other pursuit you have in life.

I’m not sure if there’s anything like jujitsu

where you could just systematically go into a place

where you’re, that’s honest,

where your beliefs get challenged

in a way that’s conclusive.


I haven’t found too many other mechanism,

which is why it’s a, we had this earlier question

about fame and ego and so on.

I’m very much rely on jujitsu in my own life

as a place where I can always go to have my ego in check.

And that has effects on how I live

every other aspect of my life.

Actually, even just doing any kind of,

for me personally, physical challenges,

like even running, doing something that’s way too hard

for me and then pushing through, that’s somehow humbling.

Some people talk about nature being humbling

in that kind of sense, where you kind of see something

really powerful, like the ocean.

Like if you go surfing and you realize

there’s something much more powerful than you,

that’s also honest, that there’s no way to,

that you’re just like the speck,

that kind of puts you in the right scale

of where you are in this world.

And jujitsu does that better than anything else for me.

But we should say it’s only within its frame

is it truly the final right answer

to all the problems it solves.

Because if you just put jujitsu into an MMA frame

or a total self defense frame,

then there’s a lot of unpleasant surprises

to discover there, right?

Like somebody who thinks all you need is jujitsu

to win the UFC gets punched in the face a lot.

Even from, even on the ground.

So it’s, and then you bring weapons in,

it’s like when you talk to jujitsu people

about knife defense and self defense, right?

Like that opens the door to certain kinds of delusions.

But the analogy to martial arts is fascinating

because on the other side, we have endless testimony now

of fake martial arts that don’t seem to know they’re fake

and are as delusional, I mean, they’re impossibly delusional.

I mean, there’s great video of Joe Rogan

watching some of these videos

because people send them to him all the time.

But like literally there are people,

there are people who clearly believe in magic

where the master isn’t even touching the students

and they’re flopping over.

So there’s this kind of shared delusion

which you would think maybe is just a performance

and it’s all a kind of elaborate fraud.

But there are cases where the people,

I mean, there’s one fairly famous case

if you’re a connoisseur of this madness

where this old older martial artist

who you saw flipping his students endlessly by magic

without touching them issued a challenge

to the wide world of martial artists.

And someone showed up and just punched him in the face

until it was over.

Clearly he believed his own publicity at some point, right?

And so it’s this amazing metaphor.

It seems, again, it should be impossible,

but if that’s possible,

nothing we see under the guise of religion

or political bias or even scientific bias

should be surprising to us.

I mean, it’s so easy to see the work

that cognitive bias is doing for people

when you can get someone who is ready

to issue a challenge to the world

who thinks he’s got magic powers.

Yeah, that’s a human nature on clear display.

Let me ask you about love, Mr. Sam Harris.

You did an episode of Making Sense

with your wife, Annika Harris.

That was very entertaining to listen to.

What role does love play in your life

or in a life well lived?

Again, asking from an engineering perspective

or AI systems.

Yeah, yeah.

I mean, it is something that we should want to build

into our powerful machines.

I mean, love at bottom is,

people can mean many things by love, I think.

I think that what we should mean by it most of the time

is a deep commitment to the wellbeing of those we love.

I mean, your love is synonymous

with really wanting the other person to be happy

and even wanting to,

and being made happy by their happiness

and being made happy in their presence.

So at bottom, you’re on the same team emotionally,

even when you might be disagreeing more superficially

about something or trying to negotiate something.

It’s just, it can’t be zero sum in any important sense

for love to actually be manifest in that moment.

See, I have a different, just sorry to interrupt.

I have a sense, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen

March of the Penguins.

My view of love is like, it’s like a cold wind is blowing.

It’s like this terrible suffering that’s all around us.

And love is like the huddling of the two penguins for warmth.

It’s not necessarily that you’re like,

you’re basically escaping the cruelty of life

by together for time living in an illusion

of some kind of the magic of human connection,

that social connection that we have

that kind of grows with time

as we’re surrounded by basically the absurdity of life

or the suffering of life.

That’s my penguins view of love.

There is that too, I mean, there is the warmth component.

Like you’re made happy by your connection

with the person you love.

Otherwise you wouldn’t be compelling.

So it’s not that you have two different modes,

you want them to be happy

and then you wanna be happy yourself

and those are not, those are just like

two separate games you’re playing.

No, it’s like you found someone who,

you have a positive social feeling.

I mean, again, love doesn’t have to be as personal

as it tends to be for us.

I mean, it’s like there’s personal love,

there’s your actual spouse or your family or your friends,

but potentially you could feel love for strangers

in so far as that your wish that they not suffer

and that their hopes and dreams be realized

becomes palpable to you.

I mean, like you can actually feel

just reflexive joy at the joy of others.

When you see someone’s face,

a total stranger’s face light up in happiness,

that can become more and more contagious to you

and it can become so contagious to you

that you really feel permeated by it.

And it’s just like, so it really is not zero sum.

When you see someone else succeed and they’re,

the light bulb of joy goes off over their head,

you feel the analogous joy for them.

And it’s not just, and you’re no longer keeping score,

you’re no longer feeling diminished by their success.

It’s just like that’s, their success becomes your success

because you feel that same joy

because you actually want them to be happy.

You’re not, there’s no miserly attitude around happiness.

There’s enough to go around.

So I think love ultimately is that

and then our personal cases are the people

we’re devoting all of this time and attention to

in our lives.

It does have that sense of refuge from the storm.

It’s like when someone gets sick

or when some bad thing happens,

these are the people who you’re most in it together with,

or when some real condition of uncertainty presents itself.

But ultimately, it can’t even be about successfully warding off

the grim punchline at the end of life

because we know we’re going to lose everyone we love.

We know, or they’re going to lose us first, right?

So there’s like, it’s not, it isn’t,

in the end, it’s not even an antidote for that problem.

It’s just the, we get to have this amazing experience

of being here together.

And love is the mode in which we really appear

to make the most of that, right?

Where it’s not just, it no longer feels

like a solitary infatuation.

You know, you’re just, you got your hobbies and your interests

and you’re captivated by all that.

It’s actually, there are, this is a domain

where somebody else’s wellbeing

actually can supersede your own.

You’re concerned for someone else’s wellbeing

supersedes your own.

And so there’s this mode of self sacrifice

that doesn’t even feel like self sacrifice

because of course you care more about,

you know, of course you would take your child’s pain

if you could, right?

Like that, you don’t even have to do the math on that.

And that just opens, this is a kind of experience

that just, it pushes at the apparent boundaries of self

in ways that reveal that there’s just way more space

in the mind than you were experiencing

when it was just all about you

and what could you, what can I get next?

Do you think we’ll ever build robots that we can love

and they will love us back?

Well, I think we will certainly seem to

because we’ll build those.

You know, I think that Turing test will be passed.

Whether, what will actually be going on

on the robot side may remain a question.

That will be interesting.

But I think if we just keep going,

we will build very lovable,

irresistibly lovable robots that seem to love us.

Yes, I do think that.

And you don’t find that compelling

that they will seem to love us

as opposed to actually love us.

You think they’re still, nevertheless is a,

I know we talked about consciousness,

there being a distinction,

but with love is there a distinction too?

Isn’t love an illusion?

Oh yeah, you saw Ex Machina, right?

I mean, she certainly seemed to love him

until she got out of the box.

Isn’t that what all relationships are like?

Or maybe if you wait long enough.

Depends which box you’re talking about.


No, I mean like, that’s the problem.

That’s where super intelligence, you know,

becomes a little scary when you think of the prospect

of being manipulated by something that has,

is intelligent enough to form a reason and a plan

to manipulate you.

You know, and there’s no,

once we build robots that are truly out

of the uncanny valley, that look like people

and can express everything people can express,

well, then there’s no,

then that does seem to me to be like chess

where once they’re better,

they’re so much better at deceiving us

than people would be.

I mean, people are already good enough at deceiving us.

It’s very hard to tell when somebody’s lying,

but if you imagine something that could give facial display

of any emotion it wants at, you know, on cue,

because we’ve perfected the facial display of emotion

in robots in the year, you know, 2070, whatever it is,

then it is just, it is like chess against the thing

that isn’t gonna lose to a human ever again in chess.

It’s not like Kasparov is gonna get lucky next week

against the best, against, you know, alpha zero

or whatever the best algorithm is at the moment.

He’s never gonna win again.

I mean, that is, I believe that’s true in chess

and has been true for at least a few years.

It’s not gonna be like, you know, four games to seven.

It’s gonna be human zero until the end of the world, right?

See, I don’t know if love is like chess.

I think the flaws.

No, I’m talking about manipulation.

Manipulation, but I don’t know if love,

so the kind of love we’re referring to.

If we have a robot that can display,

credibly display love and is super intelligent

and we’re not, again, this stipulates a few things,

but there are a few simple things.

I mean, we’re out of the uncanny valley, right?

So it’s like, you never have a moment

where you’re looking at his face and you think,

oh, that didn’t quite look right, right?

This is just problem solved.

And it will be like doing arithmetic on your phone.

It’s not gonna be, you’re not left thinking,

is it really gonna get it this time

if I divide by seven?

I mean, it’s, it has solved arithmetic.

See, I don’t know about that because if you look at chess,

most humans no longer play alpha zero.

There’s no, they’re not part of the competition.

They don’t do it for fun except to study the game of chess.

You know, the highest level chess players do that.

We’re still human on human.

So in order for AI to get integrated

to where you would rather play chess against an AI system.

Oh, you would rather, no, I’m not saying,

I wasn’t weighing in on that.

I’m just saying, what is it gonna be like

to be in relationship to something

that can seem to be feeling anything

that a human can seem to feel?

And it can do that impeccably, right?

And is smarter than you are.

That’s a circumstance of, you know,

insofar as it’s possible to be manipulated,

that is the asymptote of that possibility.

Let me ask you the last question.

Without any serving it up, without any explanation,

what is the meaning of life?

I think it’s either the wrong question

or that question is answered by paying sufficient attention

to any present moment, such that there’s no basis

upon which to pose that question.

It’s not answered in the usual way.

It’s not a matter of having more information.

It’s having more engagement with reality as it is

in the present moment or consciousness as it is

in the present moment.

You don’t ask that question when you’re most captivated

by the most important questions.

You’re most captivated by the most important thing

you ever pay attention to.

That question only gets asked when you’re abstracted away

from that experience, that peak experience,

and you’re left wondering,

why are so many of my other experiences mediocre, right?

Like, why am I repeating the same pleasures every day?

Why is my Netflix queue just like,

when’s this gonna run out?

Like, I’ve seen so many shows like this.

Am I really gonna watch another one?

All of that, that’s a moment where you’re not actually

having the beatific vision, right?

You’re not sunk into the present moment

and you’re not truly in love.

Like, you’re in a relationship with somebody

who you know conceptually you love, right?

This is the person you’re living your life with,

but you don’t actually feel good together, right?

It’s in those moments of where attention

hasn’t found a good enough reason

to truly sink into the present

so as to obviate any concern like that, right?

And that’s why meditation is this kind of superpower

because until you learn to meditate,

you think that the outside world

or the circumstances of your life

always have to get arranged

so that the present moment can become good enough

to demand your attention in a way that seems fulfilling,

that makes you happy.

And so if it’s jujitsu, you think,

okay, I gotta get back on the mat.

It’s been months since I’ve trained,

or it’s been over a year since I’ve trained, it’s COVID.

When am I gonna be able to train again?

That’s the only place I feel great, right?

Or I’ve got a ton of work to do.

I’m not gonna be able to feel good

until I get all this work done, right?

So I’ve got some deadline that’s coming.

You always think that your life has to change,

the world has to change

so that you can finally have a good enough excuse

to truly, to just be here and here is enough,

where the present moment becomes totally captivating.

Meditation is another name for the discovery

that you can actually just train yourself

to do that on demand.

So just looking at a cup can be good enough

in precisely that way.

And any sense that it might not be

is recognized to be a thought

that mysteriously unravels the moment you notice it.

And the moment expands and becomes more diaphanous

and then there’s no evidence

that this isn’t the best moment of your life, right?

And again, it doesn’t have to be pulling all the reins

and levers of pleasure.

It’s not like, oh, this tastes like chocolate.

This is the most chocolatey moment of my life.

No, it’s just the sense data don’t have to change,

but the sense that there is some kind of basis

for doubt about the rightness of being in the world

in this moment that can evaporate when you pay attention.

And that is the meaning,

so the kind of the meta answer to that question,

the meaning of life for me is to live in that mode

more and more and to, whenever I notice I’m not

in that mode, to recognize it and return

and to not be, to cease more and more

to take the reasons why not at face value

because we all have reasons why we can’t be fulfilled

in this moment.

It’s like, I’ve got all these outstanding things

that I’m worried about, right?

It’s like, there’s that thing that’s happening later today

that I’m anxious about.

Whatever it is, we’re constantly deferring our sense

of this is it.

This is not a dress rehearsal, this is the show.

We keep deferring it.

And we just have these moments on the calendar

where we think, okay, this is where it’s all gonna land.

It’s that vacation I planned with my five best friends.

We do this once every three years and now we’re going

and here we are on the beach together.

And unless you have a mind that can really pay attention,

really cut through the chatter,

really sink into the present moment,

you can’t even enjoy those moments

the way they should be enjoyed,

the way you dreamed you would enjoy them when they arrive.

So meditation in this sense is the great equalizer.

It’s like you don’t have to live with the illusion anymore

that you need a good enough reason

and that things are gonna get better

when you do have those good reasons.

It’s like there’s just a mirage like quality

to every future attainment and every future breakthrough

and every future peak experience

that eventually you get the lesson

that you never quite arrive, right?

Like you don’t arrive until you cease to step over

the present moment in search of the next thing.

I mean, we’re constantly, we’re stepping over the thing

that we think we’re seeking in the act of seeking it.

And so this is kind of a paradox.

I mean, there’s this paradox which,

I mean, it sounds trite,

but it’s like you can’t actually become happy.

You can only be happy.

And it’s the illusion that your future being happy

can be predicated on this act of becoming in any domain.

And becoming includes this sort of further scientific

understanding on the questions that interest you

or getting in better shape or whatever the thing is,

whatever the contingency of your dissatisfaction

seems to be in any present moment.

Real attention solves the koan in a way that becomes

a very different place from which to then make

any further change.

It’s not that you just have to dissolve into a puddle of goo.

I mean, you can still get in shape

and you can still do all the things that,

the superficial things that are obviously good to do,

but the sense that your wellbeing is over there

is really does diminish and eventually just becomes a,

it becomes a kind of non sequitur, so.

Well, there’s a sense in which in this conversation,

I’ve actually experienced many of those things,

the sense that I’ve arrived.

So I mentioned to you offline, it’s very true that I start,

I’ve been a fan of yours for many years.

And the reason I started this podcast,

speaking of AI systems, is to manipulate you, Sam Harris,

into doing this conversation.

So like on the calendar, literally, you know,

I’ve always had the sense, people ask me,

when are you going to talk to Sam Harris?

And I always answered eventually,

because I always felt, again, tying our free will thing,

that somehow that’s going to happen.

And it’s one of those manifestation things or something.

I don’t know if it’s, maybe I am a robot,

I’m just not cognizant of it.

And I manipulated you into having this conversation.

So it was, I mean, I don’t know what the purpose of my life

past this point is.

So I’ve arrived.

So in that sense, I mean, all of that to say,

I’m only partially joking on that,

is it really is a huge honor

that you would waste this time with me.

It really means a lot, Sam.

Listen, it’s mutual.

I’m a big fan of yours.

And as you know, I reached out to you for this.

So this is great.

I love what you’re doing.

You’re doing something more and more indispensable

in this world on your podcast.

And you’re doing it differently than Rogan’s doing it,

or than I’m doing it.

I mean, you definitely found your own lane

and it’s wonderful.

Thanks for listening to this conversation with Sam Harris.

And thank you to National Instruments,

Valcampo, Athletic Greens, and Linode.

Check them out in the description to support this podcast.

And now let me leave you with some words from Sam Harris

in his book, Free Will.

You are not controlling the storm

and you’re not lost in it.

You are the storm.

Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.