Experiments in Conversation: Sam, Ben, & Eric

[CONTEXT: Last night I had the privilege of attending a Sam Harris live podcast in San Francisco. He brought on Ben Shapiro and Eric Weinstein for a stimulating conversation. As might be expected, the topic of religion was much debated between Sam and Ben. This is my attempt to dissect some of that discussion.]

When listening to conversations such as these, I try to look at it through a certain lens. That lens is this: how to best restate a viewpoint to enable the interlocutors to converge on a point of agreement. At my peril, I will attempt to do this by clarifying Sam’s viewpoint to Ben.

Ben’s primary disagreement with Sam comes down to the is-ought problem (certainly something Sam has thought long and hard about). Sam attempted several times to relay his “navigation problem” view to Ben with little success. I think what Sam failed to state here (but I seem to recall him clarifying elsewhere) is that there is, at the root of his navigation problem view, a single “ought” that cannot necessarily be reconciled with an “is.” In my own words, that we ought to seek to build a global society which promotes the well-being of conscious creatures rather than steer towards a collective Hell of unending suffering for all beings.

I think there is no escaping the fact that there is an is-ought gap here that cannot be reconciled; however, that single gap allows us to place everything else worth caring about squarely in the “is” category. To put words in Sam’s mouth, “if we can’t agree upon this one ought, then what the hell are we even talking about here?” Intuitively, it seems to be a universally acceptable statement. Further, I would argue that Sam’s distinction between pure conscious bliss for all beings versus abject misery for all beings is essentially a rationalists/materialist definition of Good and Evil. Ultimately a subjective statement (one that can’t bridge the is-ought gap) but a statement that is as deeply rooted in science and reason as possible.

Here’s where I think Sam and Ben largely agree. They both broadly define Good and Evil in the same way. Their disagreement is both semantic and in regards to the source of that Good and Evil. Ben is never going to back pedal from his view that God started this whole moral process rolling. And Sam will never concede that starting the process with revelation is a good thing. This can make for tedious conversation.

In general, I think their conversations could be much more fruitful were the focus on the vectors, not the data points. Their agreement on principles runs very deep. This is more than enough to discuss interesting solutions to problems rather than nuances of epistemology. Additionally, I think Eric’s concept of Truth, Fitness, Meaning, and Grace could serve a useful vectors for such a dialog. My hope is to hear Sam and Ben speak again with a focus more on the trajectory of where we are going rather than getting bogged down in the details of where we have been.