Helen Pluckrose interviews Sam Harris

July 12, 2021 • 11:45 am

Here’s another in Helen Pluckrose’s series of interviews with humanists and rationalists, presumably intended to bring attention to her new site Counterweight, part of whose mission is to defend those unjustly accused or mobbed. This interview is 17 minutes long and Sam is, as usual, extremely eloquent. The guy speaks in publishable paragraphs.

You should listen to it; it will hearten you.

The discussion begins with free speech, which Sam defends along John Stuart Mill-ian lines: as a general principle, not just as adherence to the First Amendment. Free and untrammeled speech is, he says (as did Mill), the only way we have of winnowing truth from falsehood, though sometimes it can’t do the job.

Here are a few of Sam’s quotes I’ve transcribed from the interview.

“Apparently we now have a generation of people who think that their capacity for outrage, their capacity to feel offended, is itself evidence for the rightness or wrongness of any given principle or idea or a set of values. The “Ick Factor” is ruling our epistemology now, and it’s getting so finely calibrated that we terms like ‘microaggressions’ and ‘speech is violence’ and this reconception of harm that has made everyone as thin-skinned as they can possibly be, and as performative as they could possibly be. . . “

On the effect of social-justice “mobs” in quashing speech:

“Grownups should be able to talk about more or less everything with a cool head and not endlessly castigate one another for merely thinking out loud.”

“One of the things that’s so pernicious about this silencing effect is that it creates an illusion of consensus where you have the most voluble and hysterical activists taking up most of the oxygen and successfully cowing other people into silence for fear of the reputational damage that awaits them if they open their big mouths on any number of topics, race being only one.”

He further discusses the “asymmetric advantage” of woke activists: it’s far more costly to be accused of being racist and transphobic acts or statements than to say the sensible things that “run counter to this moral panic.”

At 9:34 the discussion gets into race. Sam of course admits the existence of racism, but argues that our goal should be to eventually make skin color equivalent to hair color: a trait that nobody cares about and that needn’t be the object of “equity.”  That day, I suspect, will be a long time coming.

Finally, there’s this quote:

“Racism exists in some places, but doesn’t exist everywhere, and it is being claimed to exist everywhere and is being found everywhere in what is clearly a mass hallucination. And this hallucination is being defended by people who are highly incentivized to defend it; and the level of dishonesty and callousness that surrounds this whole enterprise is just appalling. Genuinely good people, who everybody knows are not racist or sexist or transphobic, are being sacrificed to this new religion.”

In the end, he holds out the possibility that lawsuits against companies or institutions may be powerful ways to put the kibosh on the “mass hallucination” of the new religion.

After hearing this talk, I keep wondering why Sam is so demonized by a certain segment of the Left. Yes, I think he was wrong about objective morality, but he’s eminently sensible and surely does more good than harm. Yet he, and that other paragon of eloquence, Steve Pinker, are among the most demonized members of the anti-woke Left. Perhaps it’s just because they are anti-Woke, and won’t truckle to the mob.

h/t: Paul

A new podcast: Dawkins on how to write popular science

July 4, 2021 • 12:30 pm

This morning I was interviewed by Iona Italia on her “Two for Tea” podcast, designed to enlighten listeners as well as to support Areo Magazine, of which Iona is Editor-in-Chief. The podcast has featured guests with expertise on science, religion, humanism, philosophy, freedom of speech, and so on—much like the contents of Areo—and has been running for three years.

My interview should be out in a few weeks, but the last half of it will be for subscribers only. You can become a patron here; the $1/month memberships are sold out, so your minimum contribution is $5 a month, though I’m told that if you’re poor you can get a one-time $1 link. And, at any rate, the first half is free. I’ll post a link when it’s up.

While looking at who’s been interviewed, I saw that the latest episode (second link below), features Richard Dawkins, talking mostly about the themes of his new book on science writing (first link below). It’s Richard’s version of Pinker’s A Sense of Style, I guess, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he has to say on his philosophy of writing popular science. Some of his books, like The Blind Watchmaker, represent, to me, a near-perfect fusion of lyricism and science. And although I can’t aspire to write anywhere near as well as he, he’s been a role model of both clear and moving science exposition. You can order the book from Amazon by clicking on the link below.

I listened to the free 24 minutes of the podcast, and if you’re already very familiar with Dawkins you may not learn much that is new, but it’s a good way to spend an hour (or half hour) on a lazy Fourth of July. Here are the timestamps for Dawkins podcast, which unfortunately (if you don’t pay) stops right before the “literature and poetry” bit, which I’d much want to hear. I’d also like to know what his favorite book is.

At any rate, if you click on the screenshot below, you’ll go to the page where you can hear the first 24 minutes.


4:24 Why more non-scientists should take pleasure in science writing
6:15 Why it is important for scientists to write clearly
14:43 Continuously updated virtual reality
16:41 The genetic book of the dead
20:17 The extended phenotype
25:12 Literature and poetry
28:06 Misconceptions of the gene’s eye view
33:21 Misinterpretations of evolutionary biology and of Dawkins’ own work in particular
35:56 Defying our genes
36:16 Anti-Darwinian ethics
37:28 Threats to the understanding of science
39:20 Dawkins’ gift for satire
44:37 Dawkins’ own favourite work

While we’re at it, do note your favorite Dawkins book. If you’re into pure science, you might like The Selfish Gene or The Extended Phenotype, while if you favor popular science that’s a bit easier to read, you might like The Blind Watchmaker or Climbing Mount Improbable.


McWhorter on Maher

May 8, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Reader Paul called my attention to the appearance of John McWhorter on Bill Maher’s show last night, along with Rick Wilson, Rob Reiner and Elissa Slotkin. Here’s the whole one-hour episode, and the McWhorter segment extends from 7:35 to 22:10.  I haven’t listened to the rest. (For a five-minute segment, go here.)

It’s clear that Maher is a huge admirer of McWhorter, who doesn’t pull any punches in this interview (he says, for example, that the only use for Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility is “to keep tables from wobbling”). McWhorter also denies that most black people have internalized themselves as victims of a white-supremacist system.

A great Stephen Fry interview in the NYT (with free-will lagniappe)

May 6, 2021 • 12:45 pm

Is there anybody who doesn’t like Stephen Fry? He’s so genial, so learned, so witty, so open and honest, and so disarming that I can’t imagine not feeling affection for him. But he’s left Twitter from time to time because of nasty remarks, and I suspect that many religionists don’t like his atheism nor homophobes his homosexuality. But screw them; he’s great!

In this week’s New York Times Magazine, there’s a very good interview with Fry by David Marchese (click on screenshot). Every bit is worth reading, especially if you want to know what a polymath is like (Fry not only absorbs material like a sponge, but also has a compulsion to tell people what he learned).

There are tons of good and revealing things here: his view on the need for humor, his 15-year period of celibacy, an almost-unprintable story of Gore Vidal at the Savoy Hotel in London, and his view on free will. I’ll give just three quotes, one of which is actually pro-woke. Marchese did a great job on this interview; his questions are in bold and Fry’s answers in plain type.

Do you ever wonder where your old friend Christopher Hitchens would fit into things now? 

I do. I loved him. He was adorable company, but I was also quite scared of him. He was a much tougher figure than I. He didn’t mind being disliked. He didn’t mind being howled down even. He seemed to enjoy it. I can quite imagine Hitchens being on the same platform with a Ben Shapiro perhaps. But I can’t imagine him having come out on the side of Trump. Hitchens just had a style that suited America despite his Britishness. It was the swagger. I miss that the culture doesn’t have enough of these sorts of people. Toward the last year of his life, I would visit another one of them, Gore Vidal, in Los Angeles, where he had his house; it was so overgrown in the garden that it was dark inside. He would retell stories of his great rows with Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag and William Buckley. Their arguments could be mordant and full of venom, but they weren’t as unhappy as so many debates now. There was a kind of joy and pleasure in the fight. [Be sure to read Fry’s Gore Vidal story!]

Ben Shapiro? I would like to think that Hitchens deserves a worthier opponent. And so does Marchese:

You mentioned Ben Shapiro.I’m not sure that people would agree that he’s quite the right comparison for Christopher Hitchens.

I mean, yes, I find Ben Shapiro abrasive. This anti-woke nonsense that he — a lot of it is disingenuous at best and malevolently blind at worst.There are people who have been denied any say in the way the world goes or even allowed a voice in expressing their experience, their stories, their lives, and it’s great that this is slowly being put right. It’s a shame that people of my background so often take it in a moaning way, as if it’s an assault on our gender and race.

He has a point, but I don’t think Fry fully realizes the excesses of wokeness. What would he say about Kimono Wednesdays being picketed at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, for instance? Or the demonization of the n-word to the point that you’re in trouble if you say a Chinese word that sounds like it? Or the accusation that yoga and lattes are aspects of white supremacy?

But let’s move on to free will.

You said earlier you’ve been reading philosophy. Is there a particular idea that you’re tickled by lately? 

I suppose the real biggie is free will. I find it interesting that no one really talks about it: I would say that 98 percent of all philosophers would agree with me that essentially free will is a myth. It doesn’t exist. That ought to be shocking news on the front of every newspaper. I’m not saying we don’t look both ways before we cross the road; we decide not to leave it to luck as to whether a car is going to hit us. Nor am I saying that we don’t have responsibility for our actions: We have agency over the body in which our minds and consciousness dwell. But we can’t choose our brains, we can’t choose our genes, we can’t choose our parents. There’s so much. I mean, look at the acts of a sociopath, which are performed with absolute will in the sense that he means to do what he’s doing, but he’s doing it because he has desires and impulses which he didn’t choose to have. Nobody elects to be a sociopath. The difference between us and them is one of degree. That certainly interests me. But, generally speaking, I suppose ethics is the most interesting. You do wonder if there are enoughpeople in the world thinking about the consequences of A.I. and technology.

Well, yes, lots of us talk about free will. But Fry, it seems, is misinformed, for he doesn’t seem to grasp the Dennettian view (common on this site) that we already have plenty of free will—the only kind worth wanting. Actually, Fry is of course is talking about determinism and contracausal free will here, and I suppose his emphasis on its being in the newspapers reflect the failure of the general public to fully grasp determinism, even though many commenters think that few people accept contracausal free will.

But don’t kvetch at me—Fry said it! Go tell him on Twitter that we really do have free will!

And read the rest of the interview; it’s a pure joy.

I met Fry only once: at the Hay Festival on the border of Wales and England, where I struck up a brief acquaintanceship with Tom Stoppard. I joined Stoppard at the table where he was having a smoke, and couldn’t resist the temptation to bum a smoke from the great playwright. Fry was sitting there, too, but didn’t know me, so I just basked in the Big Man’s greatness. It’s the closest I’ve ever been to such a table full of talent!

An interview with Dan Dennett on his work and life

March 19, 2021 • 9:00 am

From the philosophy section of Institute of Art and Ideas, we have a new 30-minute interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett. It’s basically about “the arc of his life”, and has some interesting revelations. I’ll just touch on a few points, but you should listen to it yourself.

  • Dan’s father was a spy who worked for the OSS, but Dan didn’t learn that until his dad died.
  • Dan says that most of his good ideas came from his Ph.D. thesis and postdoc, and since then he’s been largely “turning the crank” on (i.e., working out the consequences of) his early ideas.
  • Those good ideas involved “the intentional stance”, how learning takes place, and views about consciousness and the evolution of the brain. He doesn’t talk much about consciousness, though, and doesn’t mention free will once during the interview, much to my relief.
  • In new work, Dan says he and a colleague are extending the intentional-stance view down to the level of the cell, visualizing development as the consequences of “what the cell wants.” This isn’t like panpsychism, for Dan isn’t dumb enough to think that cells really have desires, but he’s looking at it as Dawkins looked at the metaphor of the “selfish gene”, gaining insight by imagining how genes would behave if they were selfish even though he realizes (and has repeatedly emphasized in the light of misinterpreters) that genes don’t have desires.
  • In my hearing of this interview, Dan doesn’t admit that he ever had a wrong idea. But he does say he’s worked to prevent misuses of his ideas.
  • Dan decries the truth-denial aspect of postmodernism as “intellectual vandalism,” but also ponders the question of whether some ideas or truths are too dangerous to impart to the world. I’ll leave you listen to that bit yourselves.
  • There’s a lot about religion at the end, with Dan arguing that it’s time for the world to “grow up and leave religion behind”. And he thinks many faiths are in fact doing this, stripping out the false claims and injurious morality and leaving the ceremonial bits—bits that he has no quarrel with.

Click on the screenshot to go to the interview.

McWhorter and Loury on the math gap

March 8, 2021 • 2:00 pm

Here’s a 15-minute segment of the latest Glenn Show, featuring Glenn Loury and John McWhorter. (To see the rest requires a Patreon donation). In it, both men take up the issue of the black/white race gap in academic achievement, and both seem to attribute it to the culture of African-Americans. That, of course, is anathema to antiracists like Ibram Kendi, who seems to has a feud going on with McWhorter.

McWhorter refers to Ibram Kendi’s dictum, one that I just read in his How to be an Antiracist book, that black students should be ranked on their “desire to know” rather than what they do know. McWhorter’s characterization of Kendi is correct, as Kendi says that there are “different ways of ranking” appropriate to each race, and that black students should be ranked not by achievement, which is a white criterion, but by things like their spunk and their desire to know. And yet despite that, Kendi also says that the idea of a black culture is an illusion, and that all races are equal in every respect, including culture, though there are some local differences. This is one of the contradictions I found in Kendi’s book. (I recommend that everyone read it, as we all need to know about the bibles of the anti-racist movement. You will learn some stuff, and it’s not all bad, but it’s truly Manichean in its worldview.)

Loury gets particularly exercised at the low performance of black students in mathematics (he’s an economist), and at people who say that math is not a Black Thing. At times Loury looks like he’s going to blow out an artery, almost yelling that the response of people like Kendi is to “denounce the entire corpus that your people are not mastering by saying that it’s somehow alien to, or in fact repressive to the essence of your people.”

McWhorter chimes in, adding that the notion that each ethnic group should be judged by a different set of academic standards is a view that is often raised, but “has never gotten any purchase”.  Loury and McWhorter both suspect that the achievement gap is caused by a subtle cultural factor connected with “what it is to be raised black”. And that view is absolutely opposed to the ideas of Kendi, who doesn’t think that black “culture” operates any differently from white culture. Kendi, I believe, would attribute the math gap to racist policies of the present put in place by the academic power structure.

Loury winds up extolling the universality and beauty of math, using as one example we should admire the fact that “there is no largest prime number.” The universality of mathematical instruction, he implies, means that there is no reason not to teach any group differently from any other, nor hold different groups to different standards.

I hope that Loury doesn’t have high blood pressure, as he’s going to get an aneurism if he keeps getting this exercised. Both men, as usual, are great speakers, uttering long disquisitions without a hitch. Their conversations are a thing to behold.

Ask me anything

February 14, 2021 • 9:00 am

I’m still doing writing that requires braining (for another assignment to be divulged), and although I have a science post scheduled for later today I thought I’d do a reddit-like “AMA”.

Readers are welcome to ask all sorts of questions, with the proviso that the questions not be really personal ones. Exceptions: my life in science, food, travels, perhaps some philosophy, or things of that ilk. I can’t guarantee to answer every question (assuming there are some), but I’ll have a look from time to time and satisfy people’s curiosity.

Oh, and please, nothing rude or uncivil (as always!).

FFRF interview with Anthony Grayling

January 17, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Here’s a new 25-minute interview of philosopher Anthony Grayling by Dan Barker, co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Anthony and Dan cover a surprisingly large area of ground in this short time (there’s the famous Ron Reagan’s “not afraid of burning in hell” commercial in the middle, which is still great), and rather than summarize what Anthony says, I’ll just write down the questions he fields:

What is your background? Why did you take up the study of philosophy? I did not know that Anthony grew up in what was then Rhodesia. His entrée into philosophy—and his explanation for why he never believed in God— are worth hearing.

How can we be moral without a god? Here Anthony espouses the humanistic philosophy and ethics that so many of us are familiar with. I’m not sure this bit will persuade those who require a god to be moral without one, but it’s nice to hear it expounded by someone who not only believes in humanistic ethics, but also has thought about this for decades.

How do we make it through hard times without a god? I didn’t know this, but Anthony’s sister was murdered just after she was married. How did he cope with it? And how, in general, do we deal with any tragedy without the consolation of religion? Anthony’s answer involves compensating: doing something good to mend the world, which at the same time may mend you as well. I have found this useful, and did my most ardent volunteer work during the darkest times of my life. It really helps; it’s hard to think about your troubles when you’re helping people who are as bad off or worse off.

How does one find meaning in life without God? We had a long discussion about this five years ago on this website.  Anthony gives a good answer, one that involves both buttressing your relationships (“good relationships are at the very heart of good lives”) and either immersing ourselves in our rich human culture or helping others to do so. I found this one of the best parts of the interview.

The one bit that I found somewhat wonky in Anthony’s musings was his idea that the universe is justified by its having produced a species—us—that has created on balance more good than bad. (But what about all those other species that are the results of evolution as well?). He concludes that it’s our duty to add good to the world “for the sake of the universe.” This resembles religious Jews doing mitzvahs (deeds commanded by G*d) in the world to hasten the coming of the Messiah.

What can philosophy teach us about dealing with the pandemic? Here Grayling evokes Stoicism, which seems to be popular these days (Massimo Pigliucci is another advocate) and almost sounds like a form of Western Zen Buddhism; but here I’m out of my depth. Grayling also calls out the British government for its stupidity in dealing with the pandemic.

Why are we in this predicament?I refer to the pandemic here, and Grayling’s answer leads to his next topic:

Why is there so much science denialism throughout the world? Again, another good answer.

What is Grayling’s next book? He’s got one coming out this spring, and it’s relevant to the question just above. His book The History of Philosophy also comes out February 2, and I’m going to read that one for sure.

Voilà: the interview:


Obama on The Daily Show

December 16, 2020 • 1:15 pm

Here’s a 32-minute interview that Barack Obama gave to Trevor Noah on yesterday’s “The Daily Show”.  I’m not a big fan of Noah as a comedian, but he asks Obama some pretty good questions. The main subject, of course, is Obama’s new book (volume 1) and its contents. As I’ve commented before, one reason several reviewers liked the book is because it portrays (as Obama notes here), what it’s like for a more-or-less average Joe to become President. This may be humblebrag, but the part of the book I read, excerpted in the New Woker, does give the sense of what it would feel for one of us—with the chops and experience, of course—to deal with the quotidian duties of the Chief Executive.

Noah asks Obama whether America should fear the loss of our position as the “world’s leader”, and what it was like to deal with terrorism (the apparent subject here is Osama bin Laden, but his name isn’t spoken).

The part that led me to this interview was an article which describes how Obama, responding to Noah, addresses claims that the ex-President misspoke when he said that the “Defund the police” slogan of the Left may have help squelch the hoped-for “blue wave” last month. Obama’s claim came in this video segment below, and one can make a good case that arguments to reduce or even eliminate the cops could indeed turn off centrist Democrats or centrists proper.

Noah calls 2020 a “year of racial reckoning,” and at 18:13 Obama says he’s been misunderstood when people say he was against the race-related protests because he criticized the slogan “defund the police”: that he was indeed a fan of the racial protests of the summer. As he says, his source of optimism about the future of race relations was “the activism that we saw in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and Black Lives Matter”.

Then, exactly 21 minutes into the interview, Obama is asked about that criticism of “defund the police.” I quote him:

“I was making a very particular point around that, if we want to translate the very legitimate belief that how we do policing needs to change and that if there is, for example, a homeless guy ranting and railing in the middle of the street, sending a mental health worker, rather than an armed untrained police officer to deal with that person might be a better outcome for all of us and make us safer, right?

[JAC note: you need to send a cop AND a mental health worker; that’s what’s done in this form of collaborative policing.]

“That, if we describe that to not just white folks, but let’s say Michelle’s mom, that makes sense to them. But if we say ‘defund the police,’ not just white folks, but Michelle’s mom might say, ‘If I’m getting robbed, who am I going to call and is somebody going to show up?’

” The issue here becomes ‘how are we translating and using language?’— not to make people more comfortable. . . The issue to me is not making them comfortable; it is ‘Can we be precise with our language enough that people who might be persuaded around that particular issue to make a particular change to get a particular result that we want—what’s the best way for us to describe that?'”

I think he’s right, and he has nothing to apologize for. It’s pragmatism, Jake. I can’t prove it, but I think the kind of extremism that prompted the Left’s “Defund the police” slogan (and in many cases defunding actually meant “abolishing”) did reduce the vote for non-Presidential Democratic candidates.

Finally, Obama talks about the “built-in advantages of the Republican party,” even though he says they’re definitely the “minority party.” He finishes off by asserting that he doesn’t miss the big stage and is simply satisfied with the job he did as President. There’s a moment in which he good-naturedly puts down Noah, and then finishes by describing what he’d consider his true legacy.

It’s a decent interview, and great to see a President with intelligence, humanity, and no need to bloviate and brag that he’s a “stable genius.” Let’s hope Biden can recapture at least a soupçon of Obama’s panache.

The FFRF exposes Amy Coney Barrett’s religious extremism

October 17, 2020 • 2:00 pm

In this video from the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s (FFRF’s) “Ask an Atheist” series, co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor and constitutional attorney Andrew Seidel, FFRF’s Director of Strategic Response, masticate the Amy Coney Barrett hearings, beginning with a legal analysis of Barrett’s testimony (until 11:30). Seidel, as always, is percipient and eloquent on the hearings.

Then Gaylor interviews Coral Theill (starting at 12:30), who once belonged to the group “People of Praise“, the Christian sect to which Barrett and her family still belong. According to reader Charles Sawicki, who sent me this link, Theill tried to testify at Barrett’s Senate hearings but was refused by Lindsey Graham.  Charles added this:

The ideas espoused by this cult makes the idea that Barrett is a member of SCOTUS much more worrisome. In particular, as a true believer, Barrett is “in submission” to her husband and cult leadership (that is she has to submit to their leadership).

At 34:00, Theill takes questions from both the moderators and the viewers.

Coral Theill’s description of People of Praise is absolutely spine-chilling.  The group is clearly a cult and the women members clearly “handmaids”. Fortunately, Theill has managed to make her awful life with PoP into something good, as she now advocates against abuse and promotes recovery from trauma.

I’d recommend going to the People of Praise website and see what they’re about. That and the Wikipedia article will tell you what we’re in for with Justice Barrett.  Given this information, it’s pretty clear that Barrett wouldn’t be a big fan of evolution. But that’s the least of our worries. Listen to the group’s views on the subjugation of women.

As for what this means for Barrett’s future decisions on the Court, I think you’d have to be in denial to think that she issue decisions that contravene her religious views. As one Jon Meador commented on the YouTube video:

Democrats are criticized for pointing out that Judge Barrett is biased due to her religious beliefs on the grounds that the “no-religious-test clause” bars asking those sorts of questions. The problem is her religious beliefs are the very reason she’s getting the job. Belief in god was not supposed to qualify or disqualify you. Here it’s what qualifies her; it’s the very reason she’s getting the job. Her lack of partiality is the very reason she’s getting the job. When you pick a jury, people with religious beliefs that affect their judgment as excused from service. They can’t serve as a matter of law. Here we have a “juror” picked because she’s a hardcore, right-wing, pro-life Catholic. I hope someone on our side will start filing motions to recuse these religiously-bigoted judges not because we’ll win (because we won’t) but because it’ll raise awareness and make a historical record.

If Barrett truly adheres to the cult’s guidelines, she’d probably be the first Justice to be a member of such a loony sect.

Thanks to Annie Laurie, Andrew, and especially the courageous Ms. Theill for putting this together.