Sam Harris on Dave Rubin’s new show

Do you have two hours and 18 minutes? Probably not, but in case you do, here’s the first episode of the new, crowd-funded “Rubin Report”, which is clearly meant to be a progressive show that’s opposed to Regressive Leftism. Its motto, at least for the season, is “Make American sane again.”

Dave Rubin got Sam Harris as his first guest, and here’s their conversation. There’s a 5-minute introduction, so if you want to skip the encomiums for patrons, and request for new donations (you can donate here), start at 5:00 (note the bottles of wine and spirits strewn all over the set). I’ve only listened to snippets, so I won’t comment, except to say that these are two articulate people, and it’s a good listen.  There’s also a bit about free will in the second half.

About an hour in, Harris explains why we must talk about the religious aspect of terrorism. It’s a very good argument, and a firm rebuttal of those who claim that we should by all means ignore or even deny that connection.  There’s a bit of discussion of Hillary Clinton, and then a segue to the free will discussion starts at 1:18:22. If you’re not familiar with Sam’s take on free will, or his differences with compatibilists like Dan Dennett, this bit will be useful.

h/t: Grania


  1. Ken Elliott
    Posted July 16, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    How coincidental. I just finished listening to the new Rubin Report and came here to catch up on WEIT. I love it when favored paths collide.

  2. Posted July 16, 2016 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    I watched this last night and tw**ted a summary of the point from the second hour that hit home the most for me:

    Also, I am not at all surprised that with meditative practice comes this insight of no free will, which is similar to no-self. I lived and meditated for three years at San Francisco Zen Center from 2004-2004.

    • Posted July 16, 2016 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      2004-2007, that is

      • Ken Phelps
        Posted July 16, 2016 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

        Well I can see how ’04 to ’04 at a Zen center could *seem* like three years…

  3. Posted July 16, 2016 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    This chant is said every morning at SFZC.

    Putting aside the obvious Eastern infusion with mythic representation (some of the language cringes me), I notice that consciousness is given NO more weight than anything else, that is there is NO free will. I’m particularly smitten by the “no object of mind” and “no mind consciousness,” which don’t mean that we don’t usually experience our thoughts as real; “we” just don’t author them. Of course, this doesn’t address the etiology of thought nor the neurological precursors to the sense of “choice,” but it’s an insight from the domain of the humanities that supports no free will:

    Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, when deeply practicing prajña paramita, clearly saw that all five aggregates are empty and thus relieved all suffering. Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form. Sensations, perceptions, formations, and consciousness are also like this. Shariputra, all dharmas are marked by emptiness; they neither arise nor cease, are neither defiled nor pure, neither increase nor decrease. Therefore, given emptiness, there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of mind; no realm of sight … no realm of mind consciousness. There is neither ignorance nor extinction of ignorance… neither old age and death, nor extinction of old age and death; no suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path; no knowledge and no attainment. With nothing to attain, a bodhisattva relies on prajña paramita, and thus the mind is without hindrance. Without hindrance, there is no fear. Far beyond all inverted views, one realizes nirvana. All buddhas of past, present, and future rely on prajña paramita and thereby attain unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment. Therefore, know the prajña paramita as the great miraculous mantra, the great bright mantra, the supreme mantra, the incomparable mantra, which removes all suffering and is true, not false. Therefore we proclaim the prajña paramita mantra, the mantra that says: “Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Svaha.”

    • Ann German
      Posted July 16, 2016 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      I like to imagine, when singing this chant, that “svaha” means “far out!!!” ha

      • Posted July 16, 2016 at 5:41 pm | Permalink


        It rings like “so there!” (with a finger snap) to my ears, but I think the meaning is closest “well said” or “so be it.”

    • Alpha Neil
      Posted July 16, 2016 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      “Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Heres Tom with the Weather.” Bill Hicks

      • Posted July 16, 2016 at 5:46 pm | Permalink


        “Tom with the Weather”

      • Posted July 17, 2016 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

        Someone once said to me, “The two most important things? Genes and the weather.”

        Here comes so-and-so’s genes down the pike of history with a hurricane.

  4. Posted July 16, 2016 at 2:00 pm | Permalink


  5. Posted July 16, 2016 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    I have some questions for the Incompatiblists around here (I side with the Compatibilists).

    Let me nail you down first.

    1) We all agree that things are determined* and that our thoughts come out of nowhere are not produced by some ghost that can push electrons around.

    2) Unlike Compatibilists, you hold that the idea of (Free) Will — properly understood — is useless and should be dismissed.

    3) Unlike Compatibilists, you are against redefining (Free) Will to be comtabile with our intuitions, and you maintain that Compatibilists engaged in word-jugglery when we try this.

    Here are the questions:

    What is coercion?

    After all, we are always forced by the circumstances and we should just get rid of the Free Will idea altogether, what is it when people are forced by another person to do something, and why is this wrong?

    Absent “Free Will”, how do you communicate wishes, hopes, wanting, deciding, etc, without “word-jugglery”

    After all, it seems inconsistent to be strongly against bringing our intuition of will in line with determinism, and calling this a trick or wishful thinking, but then doing the same kind of doctoring yourself, just instead of “fixing” the intuiton of the Free Will, you fix the other words by redefinition.

    • Isaac
      Posted July 16, 2016 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

      Coercion is simply the use of force to induce a desired behavior.

      Even incompatibilists like Sam and myself admit that there is a difference between voluntary and involuntary actions, but this is not what people mean by free will.

      Even when you’re not being coerced, all your actions are the product of previous causes of which you’re not aware. So no free will regardless.

      Compatiblists conflate free will with volition.

      • Posted July 16, 2016 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

        What is volution, then? It looks like word jugglery again, if it is what mysteriously seem to originate in a mind, and which we would normally call Will. Why can we redefine volition, but Dennett is wrong when he treats Free Will this way (as I understood it, that is). Whether you update volution or free will to be in line with intuitions looks arbitrary, and smells like Compatibilism to me.

        • Isaac
          Posted July 17, 2016 at 10:31 am | Permalink

          Here’s the distinction:

          People think of free will as our ability to choose, an ability that is unconstrained by the workings of our brains. This is why we harbor feelings like hatred and revenge. We feel that people with working brains who do bad things could have done differently but decided not to, and that is why we must punish them, as opposed to people with defective brains whom we exonerate because their brains made them do it.

          Compatiblists and incompatiblists alike understand that this view is erroneous.

          Incompatiblists then say, ‘There is no free will, period.’

          Compatiblists say, ‘Well, that kind of free will may not exist, but surely the guy with the functioning brain had more control of his actions than the guy with the defective brain.

          The compatiblist then discounts the meaning that ‘free will’ has to most people, and redefines it so that it aligns with this subjective feeling of control that people with working brains have, but people with defective brains presumably don’t.


    • Scott Draper
      Posted July 16, 2016 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

      “What is coercion?”

      Coercion is a label we give to a force that is compelling some action when we consider the force to be unjust. You’re right, it’s no different in kind from any other force in our environment, other than the ethical judgement we apply to it.

      “how do you communicate wishes”

      Wishes are just emotional states that are caused by forces beyond our control.

      • Posted July 17, 2016 at 12:42 am | Permalink

        But what distinguishes these situations:
        1a. Alice “decides” to get chocolate ice.
        2b. But her older brother Bob forces Alice to pick vanilla.

        If we go about this radically, and I take the Incompatibilists by their word that they want to do away with this illusion of Free Will and allow no word-jugglery, then what exactly makes one situation different from the other? I think this is where Dennet says the intuition of a will is meaningful, because we do distinguish between different forces and have words for that. The word-jugglery is — on the contrary — redefining everything else. It strikes us as obvious (as treacherous this is) to collapse it as “just” force of nature acting on Alice, resulting in one case in vanilla ice cream, and chocolate in the other. We cannot even say, one “choice” was by Bob, since Bob did not choose anything, he just did.

        And what about this:
        2a. Charly is severely disabled, and Dory cares for him and feeds him. Charly thus doesn’t _______ what to eat.
        2b. Alice, four years old, wants to travel the world alone, but her parents are against it, because she doesn’t yet have _______.

        In one case a person misses a feature humans commonly have, namely being able to decide. Dennett can insist here that this obvious need to name this quality fits the bill of Free Will (properly understood) well enough, since we are always trapped within the physical system called reality and it’s moot to imagine “dial back time” scenarious. After all, people do pick different things when presented with choices within our reality (i.e. real people do go for chocolate two times, but may pick vanilla the third time).

        We run into the same problem as above, because we must redefine such concepts as choice and decide, too. A decision is then going through the determined notions and “deciding” has to do with informational asymmetry. In this case one person has exclusive knowledge about the course of events for some time, until they act-make-it-known. To me, it gets really funky to apply a rigorous Incompatibilist program. So what is happening is that Dory does the thing for Charly, and she neither really decides, she knows just earlier than anyone else what they will have for dinner (this is what we conventionally call “deciding”).

        The second example gets even funkier. Now Alice has the Thing Formerly Known As Will (TFKAFW), but this thing doesn’t have a property that makes her capable to act on it as she ______ [wants] to. Sure, we have linguistic shortcuts, like she is not mature enough, doesn’t have fancy “Mündigkeit” but this seem to merely obscure the matter, since when you look into these terms, some idea of TFKAFW is always in there somewhere.

        Out of sheer practical reasons, I regard one word-jugglery as permissable when Free Will is properly understood as a result of some computation in one’s mind, where the outcome at once is mysterious to us, yet always seem to come from us. I also regard it as a weak argument that our conciousness may “learn” about the outcome later than some neurosurgeon’s contraption. It is still the same mind, and it is expected that the wiring up to our own realization can take a little time. Rather, it would be odd if it wasn’t that way. If ideas suddenly popped into the conciousness without going through some wires, we would be compelled to believe in libertarian free will.

        • Scott Draper
          Posted July 17, 2016 at 12:45 am | Permalink

          “But what distinguishes these situations: 1a. Alice “decides” to get chocolate ice.”

          I already told you the answer.

          • Posted July 17, 2016 at 1:02 am | Permalink

            Your answer just moves the problem around, and you argue against liberatarian free will. But that is not the problem. In the conventional sense, Alice wants chocolate, but gets vanilla. Something is against her own will. Now, we get rid of this whole conception, so a new conception must be in its place (or if not, why is it unjust to begin with when she ends up with vanilla).

            Merely calling a heart a muscle doesn’t do the trick. This is simply naming things differently, i.e. the kind of word-jugglery that is not permitted.

            • Scott Draper
              Posted July 17, 2016 at 1:10 am | Permalink

              You’re making this too complicated.

              Forces beyond Alice’s control make her prefer chocolate to vanilla. Forces beyond Alice’s control forces her to accept vanilla.

              No difference with respect to free will.

              • Posted July 17, 2016 at 2:42 am | Permalink

                What is this mysterous “control” thing you mention? I know. 😀

              • Vaal
                Posted July 17, 2016 at 9:12 am | Permalink

                It is hard to see any coherence in the way
                some argue for incompatibilism. On one hand
                it’s like the concept of ‘control” is removed, since nothing and no one is purportedly really “in control,” but then it sneaks in again as a way of distinguishing
                one situation from another…as it must.

                And it’s weird how an individual’s part in controlling her behavior becomes invisible, where only the causes PRECEDING a decision are given relevance. As if the desires and deliberations of the individual were not a relevant cause of the action and hence becomes “invisible” to the idea of “control” or “me” making the choice. (btw, our desires don’t just pop out of nowhere, as if planted in there by non-sentient external causes. A great many of our desires arise from our own minds, from our consideration of
                our desires, and reasoning, which leads to new desires. For instance, my desire to get to work in a healthy manner came from my own consideration of a previous desire, and the desire for a bike came from my deliberations about a way to achieve my goal, and the desire to buy a bike lock and helmet came from my further deliberations about my bike…and on and on. It is ridiculous to try to locate all the control and causes of my desires and deliberations outside of me. And it’s equally bizarre if one acknowledges so many of our desires come from our own mind’s deliberation, to then say “but that isn’t really you authoring your desires and choice.”)

                Scott, from an incompatibilist perspective, how would you define “choice?”

                If you remove the word from our vocabulary on the grounds it doesn’t refer to anything real, then that will seem to be very problematic and what do you replace it with?
                It’s a word that actually conveys real information (e.g. to know that someone “had a choice” vs “did not have a choice” is used to convey real information about different situations in which a decision is made).

                On the other hand, if you are going to say “we could never have done otherwise” and from this premise retain the word “choice” then you will have re-defined that word away from it’s normal understanding (where choice
                implies one actually had options to do otherwise).

                But incompatibilists criticize compatibilists for redefining terms and concepts in just that way. So how do you get around this inconsistency? I’ve yet to see a cogent answer.

              • Scott Draper
                Posted July 17, 2016 at 10:56 am | Permalink

                I write computer programs that make “choices”, but how can you disagree that these choices are determined by factors outside of the computer program? The choices are determined by the code I write and the data that goes into the program.

                You place too much importance on the word “control”. I started to say “computer program’s control”, but thought that word was an unnecessary distraction.

            • Vaal
              Posted July 17, 2016 at 11:37 am | Permalink

              Thanks Scott, but that didn’t answer the question. The question I put was: if you want to start with an incompatibilist premise like “you could not do otherwise” how will you define “choice” (as it relates to human choice) in a way that preserves what people generally mean by having a choice? And if you can not do so, why wouldn’t you be guilty of the charge lobbed at compatibilists: re-defining words and core concepts in terms of the choices people think they have?

              As I’ve said, it seems to me only three options: You retain a robust sense of “could have done otherwise” and hence the word “choice” still makes sense in our language and the way we currently use it.
              If you do that, you are becoming a compatibilist.

              Or you re-define choice, and then it would be hypocritical to log that criticism at compatibilists.

              Or you get rid of the word choice…and replace it with…?

              As to your computer code example: what if you write a code that essentially is a sort of AI, that allows that code to branch off from the choices YOU have determined for it in advance, discover and learn, start augmenting it’s own code, and creating new types of code, such that the computer is now making “choices” you never programmed, or even could have predicted? It would be more like giving birth to a human being: if I choose to have a child I know I will have been the cause of producing a mind that will make choices. But since that new person’s mind will be capable of making “it’s own” choices, it would not make sense to describe myself as “pulling it’s strings” or “in control” or “determining” that mind’s choices. How would it make sense to talk of a truly creative, AI-like computer program that mimics what we have, that it is all determined from factors “outside” the program, when factors INSIDE the program are
              determining/causing new choices? We wouldn’t say a father “caused” the choices of his son by deciding to create a child and by the same reasoning it doesn’t make sense to ignore all the creative factors in a program/mind that generate new decisions as always being “outside” and not “from” the system.

              • Posted July 18, 2016 at 9:58 am | Permalink

                I think the key is how the emphasis is placed on “could not have done otherwise”. It is true, that in an absolute jootsing-sense, someone could not have done otherwise, and in that sense, there is no choice, no deciding, no (free) will. However, within our physical system which we can never leave, people can do otherwise.

                The meaning is a subtly different anyway from our vantage point as within the physical system. The philosphers’ “could not have done otherwise” is strictly speaking unintelligble, because the experient is not repeatable in reality.

                “Could have done otherwise” refers to the everyday sensation that one could either go for vanilla, or for chocolate, and it is meaningful because there are situation where a person cannot make such “decisions” — either they are forced by someone, toy gun from the older brother to the head, or they are e.g. severely demeted etc. and cannot make such “choices”. “Doing things otherwise” is a product of our Theory of Mind.

                We can of course adopt the Out Of Reality stance, if only because we are motivated to force people to give up Libertarian Free Will. Perhaps it is an effective way. But when Incompatibilist argue that position, and complain about the word-jugglery, it follows that they must clean up their own act accordingly. What’s more, radical reductionist could apply the same incompatiblistic reasoning and practically tear down most “illusions”.

                Another question is whether minds are seen as epiphenomena. You can divide the mind into the computation and the “being aware of the computation” and then declare “aha! you decide nothing, not even in a narrow sense, your compution under the hood does this!”, but there is no good reason for this distinction. The brain still “thinks it”, even if our awareness lags behind a tiny bit.

  6. Joshua Thom
    Posted July 16, 2016 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    Without free will are we essentially automatons? Because that is what it seems like Sam Harris’ and Jerry Coyne’s argument distills down to.

    (Defenition below copyed from a google search)
    a moving mechanical device made in imitation of a human being.
    synonyms: robot, android, cyborg, droid, bot
    “assembly-line automatons”
    a machine that performs a function according to a predetermined set of coded instructions, especially one capable of a range of programmed responses to different circumstances.
    used in similes and comparisons to refer to a person who seems to act in a mechanical or unemotional way.
    “she went about her preparations like an automaton”

    • Scott Draper
      Posted July 16, 2016 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

      Automatons with a subjective experience.

      If you don’t like that, you have to present an argument as to how it could be otherwise. No one has been able to do that.

      • Joshua Thom
        Posted July 16, 2016 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

        I am not making a claim on what is or is not true. But I will say that I definitely do not like the concept of determinism and very much prefer the concept of libertarian free will. In the conversation between Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, I thought Sam’s argument made more sense. That doesn’t mean that I like it. I really do not like it at all.

        • Scott Draper
          Posted July 16, 2016 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

          I don’t blame you. What he says actually isn’t new. Schopenhauer in the 19th century said

          Man can do what he wants but he cannot want what he wants.

          What he meant was that that our wants seem to appear from nowhere…we can’t choose them.

          I don’t think this matters in how we conduct our daily lives, but it should make us less receptive to beliefs which involve people being tortured for eternity.

        • Posted July 17, 2016 at 9:23 am | Permalink

          Whether or not you like determinism, the fact remains that it’s true, so live with it.

          I don’t like the idea of mortality either, but I have to accept that I’m going to die.

          Wisdom begins with accepting what’s true.

    • Billy Bl.
      Posted July 16, 2016 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

      Clear definitions of just about everything are lacking, which is likely contributing to the variety of opinions, which is usually the case.

      • Billy Bl.
        Posted July 16, 2016 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

        But I enjoyed the video. I will always have 2 h 18 min for Sam Harris.

    • Posted July 17, 2016 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

      Determinism appears to be a condition of life on Earth.

      For that and that alone, I am glad to be determined–to be alive and capable of being in awe (albeit determined) of that fact.

      When I am no longer determined, I won’t know about it anyway.

      Yes, the state of being determined is preferable to the alternative.

  7. Wendy Lewis
    Posted July 17, 2016 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Dave Rubin,you and your crew have created an amazing project.
    I support you 100%!
    Keep it up,the world desperately needs rational voices like yours.

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