This article is about Sam Harris’ 127th Waking Up podcast in which he talks with Michael Pollan about his latest book, How to Change Your Mind, a New York Times bestseller that investigates the revolution now taking place regarding psychedelic drugs. On the podcast, Harris and Pollan discuss the psychological benefits of psychedelic drug use for those suffering from conditions like depression, addiction, etc., and the general benefits of its use for otherwise healthy people.
Note: I haven’t read the book, so my comments are restricted to what is discussed on the podcast. I also won’t be discussing potential societal/health problems regarding making psychedelics legally available to the public.
Claim 1: The main benefit Pollan and Harris focused on regarding the use of psychedelics among otherwise healthy people was their ability to distance one from the (illusory) self. Pollan talks about the drugs dissolving his sense of self, which was freeing in the sense that it gave him an alternative “way to be”, another way to react to what happens in his life. He realised he doesn’t have to listen to his ego all the time. Of course, being an experience, it fades with time and, as he recounts, shortly afterwards, his ego was back in full force. Nevertheless, the alleged benefit was that it had given him a glimpse of another way to live, a way that can be developed more robustly through meditation.
Sartre, in the opening chapter of his very challenging read, Being and Nothingness, cleaves existence neatly in two; what he calls being-for-itself and being-in-itself.
The in-itself is being. I don’t recall Sartre ever explicitly describing it as physical matter, but that is basically what it amounts to. The in-itself is characterised by three features: 1) it is in-itself, 2) it is what it is, and 3) it is. Respectively, these mean: 1) the in-itself is independent; i.e. it doesn’t depend on anything else to exist, 2) it doesn’t refer to itself; i.e. it isn’t self-reflexive, and 3) it is neither possible nor necessary. It isn’t necessary because it didn’t have to be, but neither is it possible because inert, non-conscious matter has no possibilities.
The for-itself, on the other hand, is consciousness. What does this mean? Consciousness is precisely not being. It is an empty, ‘massless’perspective on, or relation to, being. The for-itself cannot be grasped because it is not a being, it’s not a thing, it is precisely no-thing… which is not the same as saying it is an illusion or that it doesn’t exist at all. If you find this scientifically implausible, I challenge you to describe consciousness in a way that preserves what conscious clearly is, all while staying within the confines of naturalistic materialism.
For the purposes of this article, I will define consciousness as the subjective experience that somehow accompanies human cognition – that sense of self-awareness or the feeling that it is like something to be me.
Is Artificial Consciousness Necessary for AI to Pose a Threat?
To his credit, Sam Harris, in his podcast discussion with Max Tegmark, acknowledges that consciousness is the only thing that provides meaning in the universe (although he also denies there is such thing as a self and believes we are all fully determined; so square all of those ideas if you can) but is of the opinion that it is irrelevant concerning AI because an artificial super-intelligence can still destroy the human race, even if it completely lacks consciousness; that is, even if it is incapable of subjective experiences. As Tegmark puts it, if you’re being chased by a heat-seeking missile, you aren’t going to care whether it is experiencing anything or not. The end result will be the same either way.
So, for this article, I’m assuming that you have read Sam Harris’ book, Freewill. If you haven’t, it’s very short, more essay than book, and well worth a read because it raises some interesting points that any proponent of freewill needs to address sooner or later. In lieu of this, you could read my previous article which briefly outlines what I took to be his main ideas.
Somewhat surprisingly, I agree with much of what Harris says… if we assume determinism to be true; specifically, what he has to say about fatalism, quantum indeterminacy, compatibilism and moral responsibility. All of the above are often given as reasons for resisting determinism and Harris, quite correctly in my opinion, rejects them in this capacity. Continue reading →
At just 90 pages, Free, by Alfred Mele, is a light, easy to read, accessible refutation of the idea that scientists have proven freewill doesn’t exist. Mele tackles some of the scientific arguments typically offered in defence of determinism and succeeds in, while not strongly making a case for freewill, definitely dismantling the scientific case against it.
He begins by looking at Benjamin Libet’s now infamous experiments from the 80s in which he asked subjects to flex their wrists whenever they felt like it and report when they first had the intention to do so. On average, participants reported the urge to act around 200 milliseconds before the muscle burst. However, through EEG, Libet detected activity in the brain (called the readiness potential, (RP)) around 350 milliseconds before the subject reported the conscious intention. Libet concluded from this that our brains ‘make’ our decisions without any conscious input. Continue reading →
For a complete summary of Aping Mankind see the philosophy page at the Absurd Being website here.
If one word serves to describe Aping Mankind, that word would be ‘thorough’. Tallis’ book takes the reader on a detailed and rigorous trek through the latest attempts in science to explain consciousness. He focuses on what he calls, “neuromania” (the idea that the mind and the brain are the same) and “Darwinitis” (the idea that we are nothing more than animals), and produced a ‘take-no-prisoners’ refutation of the various claims made by his twin nemeses. Continue reading →