Steven LEVITT: Sam Harris came to prominence in 2004 with the publication of his first book The End of Faith. It was a harsh criticism of organized religion. And it spent 33 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. He’s got a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience and he’s been described as an evangelical atheist. So how is it even possible that 15 years later, Mind Body Spirit magazine identified him as the 13th most influential spiritual person on the planet?
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
LEVITT: I think like a scientist, I view the world through the lens of data, skepticism, and hypothesis testing. I’m not the slightest bit religious. In spite of that though, I have to confess I’ve always been curious about spirituality, but I was embarrassed about it. And I kept that curiosity to myself because I felt like there was no place for spirituality in the scientific mind. Well, that all changed when I read Sam Harris’s amazing 2014 book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. It’s a rigorous scientific exploration of spirituality, and it made him the thinking person’s guru. The subsequent release of the wildly popular Waking Up app, his 2020 book Making Sense: Conversations on Consciousness, Morality, and the Future of Humanity and his Making Sense podcast have further cemented his guru status. I’ve never spoken to Sam Harris before, and I’m so curious to see what he’s like, will he talk like a scientist or a guru? Will he be full of ego or free from ego?
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Steven LEVITT: I can’t tell you, Sam, how much I’ve been looking forward to getting to talk to you after reading so much of your amazing work.
Sam HARRIS: Oh, nice. Thank you. It’s a pleasure.
LEVITT: I know lots of scientists, and I find it easy to talk to neuroscientists. And I know lots of people who are students of meditation and mindfulness. And I know how to talk to them. And I know how to talk to atheists. I know how to talk to bestselling authors, but I talk to them all differently. And I’m not sure how I’m going to talk to you because you’re all these things rolled into one.
HARRIS: How to talk to a Venn diagram — that’s the problem.
LEVITT: Exactly. So, you have this sort of intimidating effect on me. Do you think you have that effect more generally, or is that something weird about me?
HARRIS: Certainly, there’s no reason for it. But I’ve spent a lot of time criticizing what I consider to be bad ideas. So many people come into a conversation at least trying to take the other side of issues, so that negative halo accompanies me into many conversations. But it need not because there are many things that I’m simply “for” rather than “against,” and meditation, neuroscience, rationality are among those things.
LEVITT: I’m surprised that people try to take an adversarial stance because it’s always been my view that when I’m talking to someone super smart, it’s better to try and find the common ground rather than to try to pick a fight that I’m likely to lose.
HARRIS: Yeah, my appetite for debate has diminished more or less along with the realization that it doesn’t work all that well. It’s really hard to change people’s minds in real time. People tend to change their minds in private. I think I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve witnessed somebody fundamentally change their mind, which is to say, relinquish fairly core, cherished beliefs under pressure in the conversation itself. It’s like witnessing a supernova burst or something — it just doesn’t happen very often. So insofar as the goal is to have satisfying conversations, it’s usually the wrong strategy.
LEVITT: Yeah. I’m surprised to hear you’ve ever convinced anyone to change a core belief. I can’t think of a case I’ve ever been that persuasive. Yeah, I gave up on persuasion a long time ago. Maybe a great place to start today is with the topic of lying. And that’s one that you’ve written a book about. Can you just explain your stance on honesty and lying?
HARRIS: Yeah, well, it’s uncontroversial to say that lying is often wrong and often gets you into trouble and is a kind of engine of chaos in relationships. But still, most people think that there is a fairly vast scope for more benign forms of dishonesty. And there’s this notion of a white lie, which many people think exists and is not only benign but necessary. Sometimes you have to lie to people because you care about their feelings. That’s the way most people come to the topic. But when I was a freshman in college, I took a course which was more or less a quarter-long examination of white lies and the psychological and social costs of telling them. And it really is one of the few things in my life where I can remember coming into a room and leaving the room a different person. And ever since, I’ve been convinced that you more or less never want to lie, except in cases where violence is appropriate. So, you know, you can lie in self-defense. That’s just to say that it’s ethical when your relationship with the other person has totally broken down. You can’t presume any possibility of collaborating with that person or cooperating with them or reaching them. And so if the Nazis come to the door and ask if you have Anne Frank in the attic, yes, you can lie. But I think in every other case, the idea that lying is benign is an illusion. And so, for now more than 30 years, I’ve had a conscious commitment in my life to just — never lying. And it’s been immensely clarifying. There’s so much cognitive overhead required when you’re telling lies all the time.
LEVITT: Unlike you, I have not had a 30-year commitment to telling the truth. I value the truth. I value honesty. But I do lie sometimes. And in particular, I found myself in a time where I had recently been divorced and I had four kids and I had a new girlfriend, my now-wife, who lived on a different continent. And my ex-wife got breast cancer. And I had all of these demands on me. And on a number of occasions — I’d say like five occasions — I very thoughtfully decided that I was going to tell a major lie because I couldn’t figure out a way out of my situation other than that. And the interesting thing is that my wife, Susanne, is incredibly intuitive and has an unbelievable memory. And each of those five lies — in some cases, it took six months to a year — but in each of those cases, I got caught red-handed. So, I just decided after that whatever inclination I had to lie, it just didn’t pay in this particular situation, which is a different way into the problem than the one that you took. Would you say the reason you don’t lie — is it a moral principle, or is it because you think it just serves your purposes better?
HARRIS: Well, mostly it’s totally aligned with my self-interest in terms of how I want to be with other people. So, I have all these feelings and thoughts and beliefs and opinions, and I do all these things in private. And then I’m talking to people. And at every moment, the conversation threatens to expose this gulf between how I want to seem and how I really am. So, integrity is really a matter of closing that gulf. Now, keeping secrets is its own topic. To be honest is not to say that you can’t keep secrets or that you can’t conceal information. You can just be honest about it. If someone asked me how much money do I have in my bank account? The truth can be, “I don’t want to tell you. I don’t trust your motives for asking.” So, you can deny people access to information and not lie to do that. But the larger goal is to not want to keep two different sets of ethical books, right? Where it’s like I have my ethics for my friends and family and the people I love. And then I have the ethics for strangers or people who I haven’t yet formed a connection with but who I might form a connection with. And then all of a sudden, I’ll have to rewrite my ethical code in front of them. If you could make one change in your life that guarantees you won’t have something absolutely mortifying happen that could have been easily avoided, a commitment to not lying is — I can’t think of any longer lever to pull than that.
LEVITT: I’m guessing people listening to this are saying, “Oh, that’s obvious.” But I, actually, think it’s really radical. And the more that I delved into your book and the more I thought about my own inner dialogue versus the external impressions that I try to give to people, the more terrified I got of your approach to radical honesty. I’m still thinking about it. I’m still debating it. And one of the things that I find most challenging about it is thinking about the transition from the world I’ve been in, where I haven’t lived radical honesty, to one where I would. So, I’ve got this huge stock of partial truths or untruths that I’ve laid out. Do you have a strategy for overcoming that? I mean, because once I got over that, I think I might be able to handle it, but I can’t really figure out how to get over that hump.
HARRIS: Right. You’re trailing this kind of endless tale of mendacity that you’re going to have to correct for. So one clarification — there is this phrase that some people use, “radical honesty.” That’s not how I would describe what I’m up to. There is a callousness that creeps into their discussion of how committed you should be to being honest. A commitment to the truth isn’t a commitment necessarily to saying every true thing about everything, no matter how alarming or unwelcome it would be. That’s not what I’m advocating. It’s not that you have to helplessly kind of vomit up your opinions in every circumstance so that everyone knows exactly how judgmental you are and how much you don’t like the way they look or don’t like the food they served. You can have some discretion and civility. So, I allow for the fact that there are certainly situations where it’s awkward to tell the truth, or it’s important to find out just what part of the truth is worth telling. The cleanest example for me is, as a parent, you should tell your kids, you know, about the world, when they ask and it’s obvious you should be telling them age-appropriate truths, right? My daughters are now 6 and 11. I’m only aware of having ever once told a lie to one of them. I was kind of ambushed by a question that I just couldn’t think on my feet fast enough to get to a truth that was admissible. So, I found myself lying.
LEVITT: I’ve been surprised at how readily people make up things like Santa Claus. I find it disturbing that we lie to kids so happily about Santa Claus and we just wait for the moment in which they understand that it’s a lie and then everyone just moves on. It’s definitely, to me, an odd social construct we’ve made.
HARRIS: That was literally the most common question I got in response to my book, Lying, is what about Santa Claus? People who remember what it was like to find out that Santa Claus was a fiction and that their parents had been lying to them all that time and how disturbing they found it. And it’s just so unnecessary. The idea that Christmas wouldn’t be fun but for the fact that you tell this lie to kids. No kid wants to be the last kid in class who still believes in Santa Claus, right? It’s worth rethinking even Christmas.
LEVITT: One of the first times I ever really reflected on honesty was when I was in high school and a good friend of mine’s mother had a stroke. And whatever impact the stroke had, it just released all of her inhibitions. And from that point on, she said whatever came into her head. And it struck me as the worst possible curse. One of the things I did after reading your book was just track my own daily interactions and how many little lies I told and how my reflexive response in many situations was to create little lies. And it was disturbing. And I really haven’t resolved it yet. So, I don’t know if I should thank you for that or not. I think maybe I was better off before I read your book.
HARRIS: Good luck. Yeah.
LEVITT: I’d love to talk about your book, Waking Up, and I’m going to say something that I literally have never said before about any book, and that is that I think Waking Up is important. And it’s important in the sense that I think it can have a large and a positive impact on many people’s lives. And let me explain where I’m coming from. So, I think there are many people like me who identify as scientists, who believe in the scientific method and have been raised in terms of evidence and rationality. And implicitly or explicitly, somehow the scientific community derides spirituality and it diminishes spirituality. And yet, my own experiences suggest that there’s a really powerful role for spiritual pursuits in life. And while there are, I’m sure, thousands of books on meditation and mindfulness, your book, Waking Up, is the only one I’ve ever run into that I could read through my scientific mind and not feel embarrassed about thinking that I could pursue spirituality. Does that reading of your book resonate with you at all?
HARRIS: Yeah, yeah. That is certainly its purpose. Spirituality is a loaded term. We don’t have a great term for what the most positive end of human psychology should be called, right? But we want to explore this range of human experience. We want to understand it scientifically. We want to access it personally. On the most basic level, as a matter of experience, all we have is our minds, right? Happiness and suffering are mental events and that opens the door to various possibilities. One is that the changes you make in the way you pay attention to the world and to the content of your own experience and the contents of consciousness — that it’s possible to make real changes in your relationship to experience itself, and to suffer less, and even not at all in circumstances that would have otherwise caused you an immense amount of pain. And to find joy and beauty and connection in places that you were unable to even notice before. And there’s a training that allows for that. And meditation is sort of the generic term for that. But all of this can be hypothesis-driven and empirical, and nothing needs to be assumed on insufficient evidence. So, it all potentially falls within the space of a first-person science. And so, my goal in writing the book and subsequently releasing the meditation app by the same name, is to convey that. We should have a 21st century conversation about the deepest possibilities of human well-being.
LEVITT: And if I try to dumb down what you said, I think your main point is that there’s a lot of evidence for practicing various techniques like meditation, which will then lead you to experience the world in a way which is more fulfilling and gratifying and less troubling and disturbing than if you don’t do it. Is that a fair summary of your view of the world?
HARRIS: Yeah, and I would just point out that 150 years ago, the only person lifting weights was the crazy guy in the circus with the handlebar mustache and leopard skin singlet, right? And yet, we all now know that physical exercise is one of the best things you can do. And most of us have found a way to not just tolerate it, but actually love it. But the notion of mental training is fairly esoteric and has to be argued for. And one difference is that you can’t see the results in quite the same way. The body admits an immense plasticity, and given commitment and native talent and good luck, you can make some serious changes in your physical body. But most people feel like their minds are more or less whatever they wound up with when they stumbled into adulthood, right? They understand that they can get educated and they can learn new facts. But the idea that through training, you could really change your mind, that’s not understood. And it’s not helpful, frankly, that the people who’ve done this work traditionally have always done it explicitly in a religious context. We do have to break it out of these traditional framings because we should be able to use all of the world’s literature and the millennia of conversations that have been had about the mind or anything else, about what works and what makes sense. And if you’re willing to do that, you find that there has been a kind of perennial philosophy, that has converged on a few points and one being that the sense of self, the sense that there’s a subject in the head — the ego, as we often call it in the West — it is an illusion that can be cut through, and cutting through it is quite a relief. It’s not the only purpose of meditation. It’s not really the low-hanging fruit of meditation. But it really is the core insight. It can be argued for neurologically. I mean, there’s no place in the brain for your ego to be hiding. It’s also there to be experienced every bit as much as the optic blind spot is there to be recognized. Someone can teach you in three minutes how to see your blind spot. The same is true of meditation, it’s just — it requires more training.
LEVITT: I imagine a thoughtful skeptic might reasonably, after reading your book, say, “O.K., so I understand that the end goal, if I could achieve it, might be really valuable. But honestly, the path might be really long and maybe the payoff highly uncertain. Is this a worthwhile investment?” And what do you say to people if they challenge you like that?
HARRIS: Well, I don’t think the path need be long. It’s effectively long for many people because many of us don’t have great information about it when we start and we have false assumptions that aren’t sufficiently rebutted early enough. So, the path can be an exercise of one’s own confusion. And it’s also very often framed explicitly by religious beliefs that are, I would argue, unnecessary and distracting. I don’t know if I would have gotten deeply into meditation had it not been for an initial experience with psychedelics because I was very skeptical of anything in this area. And I don’t think I had any kind of great aptitude for it. But there really isn’t much to debate here. If your life depended on it you couldn’t pay attention to anything for the next 30 seconds without your attention wandering into thought, being captured by thought. You could be quite an accomplished and brilliant person. And yet, you do not have control over your attention in the way that you might think. And some people are so distracted that it takes some effort in meditation to even notice how distracted they are. And the payoff can come much more quickly than anyone is expecting.
LEVITT: So, let me just go back, because I’m not sure that people listening will know so much about your background. So, you clearly speak like a scientist. And I think anyone who is listening to you will understand that you’ve had scientific training and you’re highly intelligent. What people won’t necessarily know, though, is that you dropped out of Stanford and spent a decade pursuing these insights. Could you just tell us a little bit about that part of your life?
HARRIS: Yeah, yeah. So, I was at Stanford. And the reason why that’s relevant is that Stanford is has this policy of stopping out rather than dropping out. You can literally just disappear for 20 years and come back and the registrar never blinks. And so, that gave me a freedom that was important. I dropped out when I got really interested in meditation and just the nature of the mind. And I became interested in spiritual experience, for lack of a better word, based on an initial experience I had with MDMA, otherwise known as ecstasy. And so, I started reading books and then I found my way to a first meditation retreat and made many trips to India, Nepal, studying with various teachers. And in my 20s, I spent something close to two years on silent meditation retreats, mostly in a Buddhist context. At the end of that decade, I went back to Stanford and got my degree in philosophy. And I thought I would probably do a Ph.D. in philosophy but decided that I really just wanted a better education in brain science, because so much of my philosophical interest was essentially a matter of neurophilosophy. I never went into it thinking, well, I’m going to run a neuroimaging lab. It was more to get the intellectual tools in hand so that I could continue to think and speak and write about the nature of the mind.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt, and his conversation with Sam Harris. After this short break, they’ll return to talk about Steve’s own experiences with mindfulness.
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LEVITT: Before we get back to my conversation with Sam, I want to share a new segment we’re launching. We’re going to start fielding questions from you — yes, you the listener — and I will answer them on this podcast. Ask me anything. Questions about my research, beliefs, hobbies, or about something you heard on this podcast, and I might address it in a future episode. We want to hear from you, so don’t hold back. Email us your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And to kick off this new segment, I’m going to answer a few questions we got about our golf episode featuring Greg “The Shark” Norman and golf analyst Mark Brodie. If you haven’t heard that episode, you can find it in our archive. Now, I made the case that golf would be a lot more fun for amateurs if we changed the scoring system. Rather than just adding up strokes, like we do now, I would count scores differently. One question that someone asked is, “What’s a hole-in-one worth in your system?” And my answer to that is, whatever you wanted to be, I’d say like a million or seven million. A hole-in-one is a once-in-a-lifetime event. You should celebrate it. If you get one, my recommendation is walk off the course right there. Don’t hit another shot and don’t go back for a long time. Just savor the fact that you had a hole-in-one. And I would tell you: I once went bowling with Stephen Dubner, my friend and Freakonomics co-author, and I’m not a good bowler at all. I’m a pretty good golfer, but I’m a terrible bowler and lightning struck and I bowled 222, which is just absurd. Like I would never do it again in my life. And Dubner said, “Well, let’s bowl another ten frames.” “Are you kidding me? Not only am I not going to bowl more now, I’m literally never going to bowl for the rest of my life.” I retired from bowling and I have not bowled again in maybe the decade since we did that. That’s the answer to today’s question. And send me your question. I want to be able to answer your question on this podcast in the future. Now back to Sam Harris.
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LEVITT: Reflecting back on the beginning of our conversation — where Sam tells me he’s been able to change the minds of a handful of people — I’ve been trying to think if anyone has ever persuaded me to change my core beliefs about something. And I literally can’t think of a single thing. I mean, people teach me stuff all the time. Stephen Dubner, he taught me how to tell stories, and my wife Susanne has helped me unlearn all sorts of crazy beliefs about relationships that I’ve carried my whole life. But I can’t think of a single case where anyone ever persuaded me to change my mind about anything. I tend to think of myself as being open-minded, but I’m starting to wonder, is that just self-delusion?
LEVITT: So, I’ve had a few experiences in my own life that really opened me up to the ideas that you are putting forth. The first was when I adopted my daughter Amanda. So, she was adopted from China. And one of the rules was that you had to spend two weeks in China with your daughter before you were allowed to leave the country and bring her home. And for reasons related to other children, my then-wife couldn’t come. And so, I went and did it alone. And I have to say, I dreaded those two weeks like almost nothing I’ve ever dreaded in my life. I just steeled myself to the idea of survival, that I would somehow have to get through these two weeks alone in China with this baby I didn’t know. And something completely unexpected happened, which is that I met her, and we spent those two weeks together, and I developed a love for her that I’ve never had before for any other human being on the planet. And it was, for me, a very spiritual experience. I was just completely committed to the moment. And every second of that time in China, my focus was on her. You know, I’m never quite sure I understand mindfulness very well. So, I guess I’m reaching out to get a sense of whether the story I just told you feels consistent with it or whether you think I’m misinterpreting that experience.
HARRIS: Well, it is definitely consistent with the demonstrable fact that how you pay attention to experience changes the quality of experience, right? So that is, the thing that gives us this feeling of profundity, meaning, awe, love. When you’re talking about it in the context of a relationship, it’s all gated by attention. And it’s just a fact that everyone’s attention is bound up in their thoughts, moment by moment. I mean, they’re having a conversation with themselves that is incessant. And that spell only gets broken for most people by what are recognized to be peak experiences — enough changes in the environment or in one’s expectations or beliefs that all of a sudden the reservoir of truly undistracted attention opens up and we feel a flow experience where there’s no distance between you and your experience anymore. And people tend to get that in athletics or sex or some aesthetic encounter with art. But generally speaking, we’re spending a lot of time looking over our own shoulder, somehow abstracted away from experience in the present, not really connecting with our lives in the present. So, an encounter with your daughter, like you just described, is one where the details of the present become so captivating that there’s no possibility of attention wandering. And that becomes profound.
LEVITT: I’m surprised to hear you describe flow and attention — really, you’re saying they’re two sides of the same coin. So, I’ve experienced “flow” myself in the context of both sports and academic pursuits. But my experiences with Amanda in China were nothing like the experiences I’ve had that I would call “flow.”
HARRIS: Having a concentrated mind is intrinsically pleasurable. And the more concentrated it gets, the more pleasurable it gets. And it can become just an ocean of bliss and very drug-like by paying sufficiently close attention to any arbitrary object. I mean, the breath is often one that’s picked because it’s always accessible and it’s just a repeated sensory experience. The person who thinks that the only way to have a deep flow experience is to get up at 4:00 in the morning and grab the surfboard and get out there and catch some really good waves, they’re mistaking the point of access. You can have that experience paying sufficient attention to anything. But mindfulness is actually an independent principal from that. Ultimately, mindfulness is about just noticing how experience is without trying to change it. So, you’re not actually even trying to cultivate an exalted state of mind or change anything about your experience. You’re just dropping back into the mode of merely witnessing what’s appearing on its own. Meditation can mean one of two things. It can be a kind of concentration practice, where you’re trying to produce a specific state of mind, or it can be what’s generally called an awareness practice, where you’re simply trying to be aware more and more clearly of what is arising on its own. You pay closer and closer attention to anything and all of a sudden, it becomes more and more like the best experiences you’ve had in life.
LEVITT: I had a second experience, which I think relates to what you’re talking about, my then girlfriend and now wife, Susanne, decided that she was going to go to India for a month. And she has a lot of spiritual interests and she was going to pursue those spiritual interests. I had zero interest in spirituality. I had zero interest in India. I had zero interest in being gone for a month. And I decided to go for all the wrong reasons — insecurity, and lack of trust in her judgment to keep safe, and fearing she wouldn’t love me if I didn’t go. And to make things worse, she said that she would only let me go if I didn’t use any electronics on the trip. And for two weeks, I would wake up in the morning and I cannot think of a single thing ahead of me that holds any promise whatsoever. And then a little more than two weeks into it we missed a train. And as a consequence of missing that train, we had tremendous inconvenience. And I remember that I wasn’t bothered by it at all, and it just hit me that there was literally nothing that I could be doing that was better than waiting in the train station. And in a crazy way, it was completely liberating because I was completely content with nothing. And it sounds kind of corny, but for the next two weeks, I was probably happier and cheerier and smilier and more patient than I’ve probably ever been in my life. And this halo hung over me — really, for months. And still, if I work at it, I can bring myself into it. That was the experience for me that rattled me out of my cage of scientific rationality and brought me to Waking Up, to which I’m incredibly grateful to have discovered.
You talk in Waking Up about the very different roles of the right and the left sides of the brain. Could you briefly recount that discussion? Because it had a really profound impact on the way I thought about the world.
HARRIS: I mean, there are some results in neuroscience that are stranger than the strangest things in physics. And even neuroscientists find it just very difficult to integrate these facts into their perception of the human mind. But we’ve known for many decades now that the brain can be partitioned into islands of consciousness by a simple surgery. So, when you have a bad case of epilepsy, one of the final remedies for that is to sever the white matter tracts that connect the left and right hemispheres so as to keep the seizure activity localized to one half of the brain. Those surgeries are still done. And when you tested people who’d had the surgery, for the longest time, it seemed like they were unchanged, right, apart from the mitigation of their epilepsy. And so, people thought that, O.K., maybe the white matter tracts connecting the two hemispheres weren’t doing much of anything except holding the brain together. But when you tested them in a specific way, it revealed that actually when you disconnect the two hemispheres, you’re partitioning the person, the subject, and essentially creating two independent conscious subjects. And this can be revealed if you present a stimulus to one half of the visual field. So, let’s say the left half of the visual field —
LEVITT: So, you can only see it with your left eye?
HARRIS: It would be the left half of each eye. The left visual field in each eye — that information gets sent to the right visual cortex. And in the absence of a intact corpus callosum that connects the two hemispheres, it stays there. It doesn’t get sent over to the left hemisphere, so that the left hemisphere hasn’t seen what the right hemisphere has just seen. And in most people, the left hemisphere has more or less total control over language. The right hemisphere understands language and can be somewhat expressive, but for the most part, it’s mute. And you can interrogate the hemispheres independently in these very artificial experiments. The language-using left hemisphere, when asked, “What did you just see?” It’ll say one thing when something else was presented to the right hemisphere. But then you ask it, “O.K., well with your left hand, can you pick up the object that you may or may not have seen?” Well, the left hand is controlled by the right hemisphere, right? So, the left hand will reach out and pick up the object, let’s say it’s a key, that was just shown to the right hemisphere. And then when the subject is asked, “Well, why did you just pick up a key?” Again, now we’re talking to the left hemisphere. You know, it’ll just lie. The left hemisphere, when it’s left to its own devices, just makes up stories and seems to not suffer any internal sense of a need to be reality-tested. It just bulls****. And so, the left hemisphere would, without missing a beat, say something like, “Oh, because I lost my keys last week.” And we know that’s not why it picked up the key. Because we know we just flashed an image of a key to the right hemisphere, which the left hemisphere knows nothing about. So, it is fascinating work. And it leads very directly to the conclusion that consciousness can be literally cut in half with a knife and partitioned within a brain. And so, you can have these independent perspectives on the world. But it does possibly open the door to a kind of a quasi-Freudian sense that we may be somewhat partitioned already. Because even in an intact brain, there’s no illusion that we could have perfect connectivity across the hemispheres. I mean, there’s just no way that the data sharing is perfect. So, it’s quite possible — even likely — that there can be points of view within your own brain that you, the conscious witness of what it’s like to be you in this moment, aren’t sharing, like a kind of Venn diagram that’s constantly separating and coming together. It’s a picture of the mind that is deeply foreign. The self isn’t a unified thing. It’s a kind of illusion.
LEVITT: Have you thought at all about what we teach kids in school? I’ve begun to think we should be maybe teaching kids more life skills like, say, mindfulness, things they’ll actually use when they grow up.
HARRIS: Yeah, this does to some degree related to the degradation of philosophy. Somewhere around the middle of the 20th century, philosophy became almost entirely denuded of the traditional project of arriving at something like wisdom. It became a language game, largely. And as a matter of what you’d want to teach children so as to equip them to become adults, wisdom has to be on the menu. And wisdom can mean many things, but at least it means not suffering unnecessarily, right? I mean, just having some of internal guidance system that tracks the possibility of human flourishing and what prevents it in each moment. You can teach mindfulness in school. I would say five or six is the earliest you’d want to start. I mean, it’s amazing to see a room full of six-year-olds sitting in silence for 15 minutes — it’s like coming upon Stonehenge when we didn’t know it existed. And then they report back some genuine insights into their own subjectivity. It’s really quite amazing.
LEVITT: I’m sure a lot of people are looking to you to be some kind of a guru or through your app, there are thousands of people there looking to you for guidance. Do you find yourself slipping into guru mode? And if you do or you don’t, would it be a bad thing?
HARRIS: No, it’s quite a relief, frankly, to have found this technology by which to teach because it disentangles me from all the other ways in which one might show up as a teacher. And I’ve wanted to avoid those ways. I didn’t want that role in the world, really. I’ve had incredibly positive experiences with meditation teachers and gurus or Tibetan lamas. But I’m very clear about the extent of my experience and the limitations of it. I’m not ready to be anyone’s guru. But I’m also not confused about many of the things that many people are confused about. So, back to the Venn diagram, I’m not the best meditator in the world. I haven’t had the most experience. But I have an unusual amount of experience when you look at just the world itself. And likewise, I’m not the greatest neuroscientist in the world. I’m more of a moral philosopher or a philosopher of mind. But there are many books that to be a professional philosopher I should have read, which I haven’t read yet or will never read. So, I’m not the best at any one thing. But if you stack all of these things on top of each other, most scientists don’t have my experience in philosophy. Most philosophers don’t have my experience in science. And most philosopher-scientists don’t have my experience in meditation. But I’m under no illusions that I’m the final product of the ultimate fulfillment of this path.
LEVITT: You will. Maybe one day you will. You’re just not there yet.
HARRIS: Yes, then it’s going to have to be a long life indeed, I think.
LEVITT: Are you afraid of dying?
HARRIS: I mean, I think about death a lot. I guess I’m afraid of the chaos and discomfort that can surround dying. I’m not afraid of the loss of experience. And it’s strange that anyone would be. I mean, this is a point that obviously Lucretius made a couple thousand years ago. But if death is just the absence of experience, then that’s not something to be afraid of. But you can recognize that you’re not actually afraid of it either, because just think about your relationship to deep sleep, right? I mean, everyone gets into bed each night desperate to have the plug pulled on experience. And then you come back and you never really reflect on how strange it is to have been O.K. with the zeroing out of everything. And I think there is a lesson there for what it will be like to die. And it’s not to say that deep sleep is necessarily synonymous with a total zeroing out of experience — there’s everything else around death — the grief and the bereavement and the concerns about whether you lived your life in a way that you regret in any way, you know. But you can prepare for it in many ways. And I think the best way to prepare for it is to live a more and more mindful and self-examined life. That will create, in its wake, the least regrettable life.
LEVITT: I didn’t get a chance in our discussion to tell Sam that he is responsible for perhaps my weirdest hobby. Sam talked briefly in the conversation about how the left and right sides of our brains function almost independently. And now, for most people, only the left side of the brain is able to express itself through language. In his book Waking Up, he goes further, speculating on the possibility that the right side of our brain is more or less enslaved by the left side of our brain because we’re so dependent on language. After reading that, I started to pay attention to how deeply language impacts the way I interact with the world. Even when I’m alone, I use words constantly to describe everything I’m experiencing, talking to myself. So just for fun, I made it a hobby of mine to see whether for periods of time I could experience the world without using language. And it turned out with just a little practice, I got pretty good at stopping the constant banter in my head. I became able to, for instance, watch a car drive by me with its radio blaring and without the word car or radio or blaring coming into my head, I could just know that that’s what I saw. I’m not sure whether that distinction will make any sense to you or not, but I have to say I experience the world in a surprisingly different way when the words are absent. And it’s strangely enjoyable. And without Sam Harris’s influence, I would never admit that.
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LEVITT: I noticed you were ranked number 13 recently on a list of the most spiritually important people in the world.
HARRIS: I haven’t seen that list. That’s funny.