Book Review – Making Sense: Conversations on Consciousness, Morality and the Future of Humanity


Making Sense: Conversations on Consciousness, Morality and the Future of HumanityMaking Sense: Conversations on Consciousness, Morality and the Future of Humanity by Sam Harris
5 of 5 stars

This book is the concise summary of Sam Harris’s podcast conversations with number of influential thinkers of our time. The common theme in Sam Harris’s works is to debunk the notion that there is anything like Free Will and he says in the preface again of this book that most of the evil in our world—all the needless misery we manufacture for one another—is the product, not of what bad people do, but of what good people do once in the grip of bad ideas.

The first conversation is with David Chalmers who is the resident philosopher at New York University and at the Australian National University, Chalmers is also a co-director of the Centre for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness at NYU. The dialog centred around the hard problem of consciousness and future of AI. David makes very interesting observations in the course of this discourse. At one point he observed that if we built a robot that could do all the things we can, it seems that at no point in refining its mechanisms would we have reason to believe that it was conscious, even if it passed the Turing Test. It seems increasingly likely that we will build machines that will seem conscious, and the effect could be so convincing that we might lose sight of the hard problem. In discussing the problem of other minds, he wondered how do you know that anybody apart from yourself is conscious? Descartes said, “Well, I’m certain of one thing: I’m conscious. I think, therefore I am.” That only gets you one data point. It gets me the me being conscious—and only being conscious right now, because who knows if I was ever conscious in the past? Anything beyond right now has to be an inference or an extrapolation. A similar pertinent point was made by him on evolution that the very fact that you can make sense of it immediately raises questions like “Why aren’t we zombies?” Evolution could have produced zombies; instead, it produced conscious beings. Why didn’t evolution produce zombies? If there were some function we could point to and say, “That’s what you need consciousness for; you couldn’t do that without consciousness,” then we might have a function for consciousness. But right now, for anything we actually do—perception, learning, memory, language, and so on—it sure looks as if a whole lot of it could be done unconsciously. The whole problem of what consciousness is doing is thrown into harsh relief by the zombie thought experiment. Another interesting idea, he said is that consciousness may be present at a fundamental level in physics. This corresponds to the traditional philosophical view called panpsychism—the view that basically everything has a mind where mind equals consciousness. Thus, every system is conscious, including fundamental physical systems like atoms or quarks or photons.

Next conversation is with David Deutsch who is a visiting professor of physics at the Center for Quantum Computation at the Clarendon Laboratory of Oxford University, where he works on the quantum theory of computation, and constructor theory. The conversation further explore the nature of knowledge and the implications of its being independent of any specific, physical embodiment. David says that the way he think of knowledge is broader than the usual use of the term—and yet, paradoxically, closer to its common sense use. Knowledge is a kind of information, which is to say that it’s something that is one particular way and could have been otherwise; additionally, knowledge says something true and useful about the world. Knowledge is in a sense an abstraction, because it’s independent of its physical instantiation. One can speak words which embody some knowledge and can write them down. They can exist as movements of electrons in a computer, and so on. So knowledge isn’t dependent on any particular instantiation. But it does have the property that when it is instantiated, it tends to remain so. He mentioned about Karl Popper’s concept of knowledge as not requiring a knowing subject. It can exist in books, or in the mind, and people can have knowledge they don’t know they have. He further adds that among the rational approaches to knowledge, there’s an important difference between science and things like philosophy and mathematics. Not at the most fundamental level, but at a level which is often of great practical importance. That is, science is the kind of knowledge that can be tested by experiment or observation. He hasten to add, that doesn’t mean that the content of a scientific theory consists entirely of its testable predictions; the testable predictions of a typical scientific theory are a tiny sliver of what it tells us about the world. Karl Popper introduced this criterion, that science is testable theories and everything else is untestable. Another point he mentions is that Empiricism as the idea that knowledge comes to us through the senses is completely false: all knowledge is conjectural. It first comes from within and is intended to solve problems, not to summarize data. But this idea that experience has authority, and that only experience has authority—false though it is—was a wonderful defence against previous forms of authority, which were not only invalid but stultifying. But in the twentieth century, a horrible thing happened, which is that people started taking empiricism seriously—not just as a defence, but as being literally true—and that almost killed certain sciences. Even within physics; it greatly impeded progress in quantum theory. Science is a way of dealing with theories regardless of whether or not one believes them. One judges them according to whether or not they’re good explanations. When Harris contended that Evolution hasn’t designed us to fully understand the nature of reality, David refutes that notion and says that there is no hardware problem in understanding the nature of reality and there is the universality of computation. Information can only be processed in basically one way—with computation of the kind invented by Babbage and Turing. We already know that our computers are universal, in the sense that given the right program, they can perform any transformation of information whatsoever, including the creation of explanations and other knowledge. Now, there are only two possible limitations to that. One is the lack of computer memory—lack of information-storage capacity—and the other is the lack of speed, or the lack of time. Apart from that, our computers, and our brains, and any computers that will ever be built or can ever be built anywhere in the universe, have the same repertoire. That’s the principle of the universality of computation. He concluded that problem is more on software side i.e. for almost the whole of human existence, humans had the ability to be creative and to do everything we’re doing. They just didn’t, because their culture was wrong. He concluded that real truth is that science isn’t based on empiricism, it’s based on reason, and so is morality. So, if you adopt a rational attitude toward morality, and therefore say that morality consists of moral knowledge—and knowledge always consists of conjectures, doesn’t need a basis, only needs modes of criticism; and those modes of criticism operate by criteria that are themselves subject to modes of criticism—then you come to a transcendent moral truth. If all knowledge is conjectural and subject to improvement, then protecting the means of improving knowledge is more important than any particular piece of knowledge.

Next talk is with Anil Seth who is a professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at the University of Sussex and founding co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science. The aim of the Sackler Centre is to translate an understanding of the complex brain networks underpinning consciousness into new clinical approaches to psychiatric and neurological disorders. Anil said that there is a distinction between consciousness and self-consciousness. Our conscious experience of selfhood is part of our conscious experiences, but is only a subset of those experiences. And then there are arguments about whether there’s such a thing as a “phenomenal” consciousness that’s different from “access” consciousness—where “phenomenal consciousness” refers to the impression we have of a rich scene before us which might exceed whatever we have cognitive access to, and “access consciousness” refers to the way in which the contents of consciousness can be flexibly deployed for a variety of different functions. Thomas Nagel put forward in his famous essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” which reads in part: Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon. It occurs at many levels of animal life, though we cannot be sure of its presence in the simpler organisms, and it is very difficult to say in general what provides evidence of it. Anil further says that the hard problem of consciousness has been—and rightly so—one of the most influential philosophical contributions to the consciousness debate for the last twenty years or so. It encapsulates the fundamental mystery that for some physical systems there is also an inner universe. For some systems, there is the presence of conscious experience, there is something-it-is-like-to-be that system. Whereas for other systems—tables, chairs, probably all current computers—there is nothing-it-is-like-to-be that system. What the hard problem does is push that intuition a bit further, to distinguish it from a set of so-called easy problems. The hard problem is understanding how and why any solution to the easy problem—any explanation of how the brain does what it does in terms of behaviour, perception, and so on—has anything to do with conscious experiences. So, the hard problem, this central mystery of why there is experience rather than no experience, gathers within its remit everything to do with phenomenology. He contends that there is no such thing as “direct perception” of the world or of the self. The idea of a controlled hallucination, or of a fantasy that coincides with reality, is simply to say that normal perception always involves a balancing act between sensory signals coming from the world and interpretations and predictions about the causes of those sensations. world. He cited the comment from his friend the musician and playwright Baba Brinkman—whom he worked with on The Rap Guide to Consciousness—put it beautifully: “What we call reality is just when we all agree about our hallucinations.” We (implicitly) expect our experiences of the outside world to change as we move around, but we somehow expect our experience of self to be stable. But without consciousness, there’s no meaning to anything. We could argue about whether conscious experience in general, for most creatures and most species, is characterized by an oversupply of suffering compared to beauty. In which case maybe ethically, it’s not a bad thing if we have non-conscious successors.

Next conversation is on the topic of Nature of Consciousness with Thomas Metzinger whose research centres on the analytic philosophy of mind, applied ethics, and the philosophy of cognitive science. He is a senior research professor at Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany, where he was previously a professor of theoretical philosophy and director of the research group on neuroethics and neurophilosophy. He rebukes the theory of nothingness and says that to make a cosmological analogy: it’s like the idea that everything, including the laws of nature, emerged out of nothing. Now, that may be true, but I’d argue that it’s the statement of a miracle. He explains his theory called the self-model theory of subjectivity described in his book called Being No One. What it says is that you have no self, but you have a self-model active in your brain, and it’s a naturally evolved representational structure that’s transparent. “Transparent” means you cannot experience it as a representation. Right now, as you’re listening to me, you’re identifying yourself with the content of your self-model. If you can rest for a while in a nonfragmented state, in an effortless form of mindfulness, you’ll have no sense of self. And then you’ll be jolted out of it by the next mind-wandering phase. This is the usual cycle for the meditator. The biggest problem in meditation is the meditator, as everybody knows. You’re trying to coax or manipulate yourself into something that’s rewarding. And that’s effortful. Perhaps some future generation, more integrated with its machines or which has been genetically engineered, will suffer far less and spend more time in awe at the beauty of the cosmos. On the topic of religion he minces no words that says that the explicit conscious knowledge of our own mortality has to do with the evolution of religion. Religions are what I call adaptive delusional systems; they help human beings deny their mortality.

Next topic on discussion does not fit in well with the other themes of this book but still was important topic to address. Timothy Snyder is the Richard C. Levin professor of history at Yale University and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. The conversation primarily focuses on his book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, but also touch on themes he further develops in The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. Harris asks Tim a pertinent question that why American’s at this moment are so blinkered and are being pulled by the tide of history in a very unlucky direction, toward the ruination of everything they care about. Tim says that there are three factors at play here. The first is the long-standing religious tradition of exceptionalism, the notion that Americans escaped from an evil old world into a pure new world, which is, of course, ridiculous on a whole number of fronts. The second is the obvious fact that in many ways they’re a world unto ourselves. The historians of American history rarely venture beyond American history, so you can hardly expect the American citizen to do so. And the third factor, and maybe the most relevant, is metaphysical laziness. He says Americans are not reading much and reading is a precondition of conversation, and conversation is something we very much need politically. On Racism he says that it is the suspension of the rational faculty and a perception of unfitness for intimate relations, a presumption about intelligence, an imputation of bad character—this kind of thing—vis-à-vis another person or group of people because of what one understands their racial identity to be.

Next conversation in the book is about the biology of good and evil with Robert Sapolsky who is a neuroendocrinologist and a primatologist. He is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. He is a gifted communicator of science as well as a top-flight scientist. About his domain he says that it’s a fascinating domain—the fact that the insular cortex, which tells you if you’re eating something rotten, also mediates moral disgust in us. That a part of the brain that does temperature sensing for you is also activated when you perceive that somebody has a warm or a cold personality. That the parts of your brain involved in pain detection in a literal sense also activate when you’re feeling empathic about somebody else’s pain. As often pointed out, evolution is not an inventor, it’s a tinkerer; it makes do with what’s already there.

Next comes one of my favourite authors Daniel Kahneman who is an emeritus professor of psychology at Princeton University, and also an emeritus professor of public affairs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He received the Nobel Prize in economics for the work he did on decision making under uncertainty, with Amos Tversky. He first explains the concept of System 1 & System 2. He says that before starting with anything else, there are clearly two ways that ideas come to mind. If one say two plus two, then an idea comes to your mind. You haven’t asked for it, you’re completely passive, and something happens in your memory. If one asks you to multiply twenty-four by seventeen, you have to work to get that idea. So, it’s that dichotomy between the effortless and the effortful. And that is phenomenologically obvious—you start from there. How you describe it, and whether you choose to describe it in terms of systems or in other terms—that’s a theoretical choice. He says that theory is less important than the basic observation that there are two ways for ideas to come to mind. And then you have to describe it in a way that will be useful. What I mean by that is you have to describe the phenomena in a way that will help researchers have good ideas about facts and experiments to run. System 1 and System 2—it’s not dichotomy, and many people object to the terminology, but he said that he chose it quite deliberately. Next, he says that there are ways to solve societal problems. Around the end of World War Two, the social psychologist Kurt Lewin developed ideas about how you can change behaviour, and he distinguished two central ways of changing behaviour: You can apply pressure in the direction that you want people to go, or you can ask a very different question—why aren’t they going there by themselves? What is preventing them from doing what you think they should do? And then remove the obstacles. Make it easier for people. It’s perhaps the best psychological idea I know. This distinction between applying pressure, and making things easier, removing obstacles in the key here. Next, he talks about there’s another distinction he makes that is incredibly useful and troubling for those of us who want to be happy in this life: it’s the distinction between the “remembering self” and the “experiencing self.” selves. There is the self that is living your life, and it’s having all those experiences in real time. That’s the experiencing self. Then there is the self that comes to life when you ask someone what they think about their life, how happy they are, if their vacation went well—all of those retrospective questions—and this is the remembering self. So that leads to two conceptions of well-being. One is based on experience or the reality of experience, and the other is the construction that people have—that story that people construct about their life, and that they evaluate when you ask them a question. People actually want good memories. They want to be satisfied with their life. They’re not thinking of the future in terms of experiences, they’re thinking of the future in terms of anticipated memories. Well, if we could have both a happy life and good memories, that would be wonderful. But it turns out in the research on well-being that it’s not the same thing. The conditions that make you happy in your life, and the conditions that make you satisfied with your life, are different. What determines how happy you are is largely social. It’s spending a lot of time with people you love—and its actually friends more than children. But the conditions that lead people to be satisfied with their life are much more conventional. They’re about success.

Next Talk is with Nick Bostrom who is a Swedish-born philosopher with a background in theoretical physics, computational neuroscience, logic, artificial intelligence, and many other interesting topics. Officially he is a professor of philosophy at Oxford University, where he leads the Future of Humanity Institute. The talk delves in exploring Bostrom’s views on existential risk by focusing on three of his papers. The existential risk is concept of a risk either to the survival of Earth-originating intelligent life or a risk that could permanently and drastically reduce our potential for creating desirable future developments. In other words, a risk that could permanently destroy the future. The three papers on which this talk is based are 1) “The Vulnerable World Hypothesis.” 2) “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?” And 3) “Where Are They?” (which is analysis of the Fermi problem, asking where is the rest of the intelligent life in the galaxy). The first paper tries to identify the ways in which the world could be vulnerable, the types of black ball technology that we might invent from “the urn of inventions”. The first and most obvious way the world can be vulnerable is if there is some technology that empowers individuals to cause sufficiently large amounts of destruction. The second paper deals with the simulation argument which is a probabilistic argument that purports to impose a constraint on what you can coherently believe about the future and your place in the universe. It tries to show that at least one of three propositions are true. The first is that there is a universal pattern where virtually all civilizations at our current stage of technological development go extinct before reaching technological maturity. The second alternative is that there is a very strong convergence among all technologically mature civilizations in that they all lose interest in creating what he calls “ancestor simulations.” These would be computer simulations of people—such as their historical predecessors—detailed enough that the simulated creatures would be conscious. And the third alternative is that we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. The third paper “Where is everyone?” says that if we find multicellular life (and certainly anything more complicated than that) on Mars or elsewhere in the cosmos, that will be very bad news for us, because it would suggest that we are doomed. He arrive at this by considering the implications of an idea that Robin Hanson calls “the great filter.” The background here is Fermi’s observation that we have seen no sign of any extra-terrestrial life, let alone any space-colonizing extra-terrestrial life. Yet we know that there are a lot of planets out there, including ones that look like they should be habitable; and billions of billions of them are close enough that a technologically mature civilization could have had ample time by now to reach Earth or to make its presence known. Thus, we infer that between the formation of a suitable planet and the stage of development where an extra-terrestrial civilization spreads through the universe (in ways that would be perceptible to us) there must be one or more highly improbable steps, a “great filter.” Now we can distinguish two possibilities: either this great filter, this great improbability, lies behind us in our evolutionary past, and we’ve been lucky and made it through; or this great filter lies in our future, and at some point, between where we are now and the point where we’re spreading through the galaxy and beyond, it will put a stop to us. It could also be that there is a filter both behind us and ahead of us; but if there is a filter behind us then there’s no particular reason to think there’s one ahead of us, so in that case we may have pretty good prospects of becoming a space-colonizing supercivilization.

Next conversation in the book is with David Krakauer who is president and William H. Miller professor of complex systems at the Santa Fe Institute. His research explores the evolution of genetic, neural, linguistic, social, and cultural mechanisms that support intelligence. He says during the talk that information is mathematically a reduction of uncertainty. Similarly, intelligence is what we do that ensures that the problem is efficiently solved. Stupidity is a set of rules that guarantees the problem will take longer than chance to be solved, or will never be solved, and yet is nevertheless employed with alacrity and enthusiasm. Numbers are in some sense the lowest-hanging fruit in our mathematical education. There are many number systems in the world. There are ancient Sumerian cuneiform numbers, about four thousand years old. There are ancient Egyptian numbers. And here is a good example of stupidity in culture: western Europe, for fifteen hundred years, used Roman numerals—from about the second century BC well into the fifteenth century AD. Roman numbers are good at measuring magnitude, the number of objects, but terrible for performing calculations. What’s X + V? What’s XII multiplied by IV? It just doesn’t work, and yet for fifteen hundred years the human brain opted to deliberate over arithmetic operations using Roman numerals that don’t work. The consequence was that for much of their history Europeans could not divide and multiply. It’s extraordinary, because it’s unbelievably stupid when you realize that in India and Arabia, they had a number system. It started in India and then moved to Arabia. It was available by the end of the fourth century AD, and that is the system we use today, which can effortlessly multiply and divide numbers. He also raises an interesting question that is there a sense in which a certain culture has discovered a more efficient way of interacting with physical and cultural reality? He also contends that regardless, though, of whether or not there is intelligent life in the universe beyond our own planet, we have an intellectual obligation to populate it. That’s where I stand on the matter. If I have any kind of quasi-mythical belief system, it’s something to do with expanding the sphere of reason and sympathy into the world and beyond.

Last talk in the book is on future of humanity with Max Tegmark who is a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the cofounder of the Future of Life Institute. He is the author of Our Mathematical Universe and Life 3.0. He explains his views on reality as that something out there independent of him. He says that the Andromeda galaxy would continue existing even if we weren’t here, for example. The scientist says, very humbly, “Okay, if there’s some stuff that exists out there—physical reality, let’s call it—let’s look at it as closely as we can and try to figure out what properties it has.” If there’s confusion about it, that’s our problem and not reality’s problem. He next explains his concept of mathematical universe. The only difference between a quark and an electron is what numbers they have as their properties. And if you take seriously the fact that everything is made of these elementary particles that have only mathematical properties, then you can ask, “What about the space itself that these particles are in? What properties does space have?” Well, it has the property three, for starters—its number of dimensions. Which, again, is just a number. Einstein discovered that space also has properties called “curvature” and “topology,” but they’re mathematical, too. If both space itself and all the stuff in space have only mathematical properties, then the idea that everything is completely mathematical and we’re just a part of this enormous mathematical object starts to sound a little less ridiculous. He says that John Wheeler’s “It from Bit” is right — the concept that at some level the universe is a computation. Then he delves in Metaverse and says that there are a lot of hints now in physics that what we call empty space is also like that: It can freeze and melt and come in many different variants. And inflation is so violent that if space can take many forms, inflation will create each of those kinds of space—and an infinite amount of it at that. So if you go really, really far away, you might find yourself in a part of space where there aren’t six kinds of quarks, as there are here, but maybe ten kinds, that is a different universe altogether. He ends on optimistic note that for humans it’s our ability to design and upgrade our own software that has enabled humans to become the planet’s dominant species.

View all my reviews

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Science, Technology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.