In December, Daily Wire Editor-in-Chief Ben Shapiro appeared on stage in San Francisco with noted atheist Sam Harris and the brilliant mathematician Eric Weinstein to discuss various issues, foremost among them Harris’ insistence that free will does not exist and Shapiro’s rebuttal to that position.
The two-hour event was later broadcast on Harris’ podcast, which you can hear below. Here are some excerpts from the discussion centering on Shapiro and Harris’ battle over free will:
Harris: Can’t we just chart a course toward greater fulfillment, greater peaceful collaboration based an intelligent analysis of what it is to be social beings?
Shapiro: I don’t think you can unless you’re willing to acknowledge that reason, the capacity to choose, the capacity to act in the world, that these things exist and that has to be done based on an assumption because you’re opposed to some of these things; you don’t think free will exists.
Harris: Yeah, but I also don’t think you need free will to live a moral life.
Shapiro: I’ve never really understood that position so we’ll have to get into it. To me, if you’re going to have a conversation with someone and convince them, you have to agree on the value of reason. The value of reason is not something that evolutionary biology suggests. What does reason have to do with evolutionary biology per se? It’s a mode of action that is more likely to preserve your species. It doesn’t create objective truth. The notion of an objective truth that exists apart from you and it exists whether or not you are living, this not something that can necessarily be gathered from science alone. You have to make certain assumptions about the universe and the way that your mind reflects what is present in the universe, as Kant would argue.
Harris: It’s true that an evolutionary perspective on ourselves suggests that we have not evolved to know reality perfectly. If you believe that we are apes that have been selected for — and all of our cognitive architecture is built by virtue of its adaptive advantage in evolutionary terms, yes, it’s hard to believe that we are perfectly designed to do mathematics or anything else that is —
Shapiro: But you do feel that we can still gather objective truth.
Harris: But even that picture suggests a wider context of minds more powerful than our own that could have evolved or our own future minds.
Shapiro: Why would you appeal to minds that have not yet evolved or future minds as opposed to a Creator who just put us here with certain capacities?
Harris: Because that, I would argue, we don’t have any evidence for. What we do have evidence for is that we’re here, we understand a lot about the mechanism that is operating now that got us here that is causing us to be the way we are; we can see our relationship to other life forms; we know that you look at chimps that share 99% of our DNA and they obviously share a lot of the evolved precursors of our own social and cognitive architecture; but they have no idea of what we’re up to, right. So they’re cognitively closed to most of what we’re doing and most of what we care about and by analogy we know that we could be cognitively closed to what we might be capable of in a thousand years now. That our sense of what engagement with the cosmos —
Shapiro: But I guess the argument is that if you’re arguing that we’re cognitively closed to certain things, then why are you arguing which specific things we’re cognitively closed to?
Harris: I’m just saying that once you admit it’s possible to not know what you’re missing, factually, ethically, spiritually, in any domain of inquiry, it’s possible to come up against a horizon line where the known meets the unknown.
Shapiro: You’re sounding religious here. (laughter)
Later in the discussion, Shapiro focused on the gap between the atheist’s insistence that knowing facts without the guidance of a transcendent morality could lead to a moral system. Harris recalled speaking with Rick Warren, whom he said argued that without God people would just be raping and killing each other. Harris claimed Warren said that without a belief in Hell, Warren himself would act in such a way.
Shapiro said he didn’t agree with everything Warren said, but he did believe that a scientific materialist worldview could not construct a moral system because “is” has nothing to do with “ought.” He continued:
Science is about “is” and has no capacity to say anything about “ought” other than constructions that are based in a notion of free will that you yourself reject.
Harris responded, “If that were true, how would you explain the moral character of my life? I mean I’m not raping and killing people. I live a life that you would recognize to be ethically well-structured.”
Shapiro answered, “As I just said moments ago, I don’t think you have to be a religious person to lead a moral life. I do think that there has to be a religious underpinning to a moral system because I don’t think you can, you’re using terminology that is based on certain assumptions about human nature that I’m not sure that you are recognizing that you reject.”
Harris argued that taking free will off the table does not “rob us of morality,” adding that “we still have a preference between an excruciating plunge into civil war and needless misery and building a viable global civilization where the maximum number of people thrive.” That led to this exchange:
Shapiro: You’re using a lot of active verbs for a person who is a product of environment and genetics.
Harris: No, but it’s all happening. We can build robots that act. I’m moving my hands now but I honestly don’t know how.
Shapiro: But is the robot moving the hands? The point that I’m making is when you say “we can discern, “ “we can build,” “we can create,” “we can decide,” who is —
Harris: Exactly like you speaking now, you don’t know how you follow the rules of English grammar.
Shapiro: I’m not arguing that you can’t make a convincing case that I don’t have free will; I’m arguing that you can’t make a convincing case you can build a civilization on lack of free will.
Harris: Take this case, the moral relevance of this, and Eric, I’d be interested to know if you agree with this; It seems to me that once you admit you either won the lottery or you didn’t on some level, that conveys a kind of ethical commitment or an ethical obligation that you wouldn’t otherwise have.
Harris: You can’t be the kind of person who then says, “Basically you’re on your own, you either make it based on your effort or not.” This goes to questions of should we have universal health care. It’s not just an economic answer.
Shapiro: You’re going directly from “is” to “ought” with no stop on the train at all. For literally decades, there were very wealthy and very sophisticated countries that took the premises that you are building upon and built some of the most repressive regimes in history.
Harris: But they had other things going on; they had bad ideas of economics; they had personality cults —
Shapiro: I agree with all of that, but the point that I’m making is that you are making definitive statements about value judgments with reference to a naturally selected interaction of biology and environment. I just don’t know how you are getting from one to the other. Do robots have morality, is what I’m asking you.
Harris: They certainly would if we built them to have conscious states that allow for suffering and well-being. That’s coming, and we’re going to have to ask that question.
Shapiro: So we can be God, but God can’t make us those kinds of robots, is that the argument?
Harris attacked the idea that principles propounded centuries or millennia ago should be adhered to, arguing that humanity should “Outgrow their religious provincialism.”
Shapiro responded, “I have a couple of quick responses to that: the best tools available are all predicated on assumptions that can only be made about human action and that you fundamentally reject. Again, things like reason, things like free will. Why are we having a conversation here tonight? Why did anyone show up here tonight?”
Harris answered, “Reason does not require free will. Reason requires having a mind that can follow an argument and can care about whether or not you’re following it.” This exchange followed:
Shapiro: But me responding to your argument is not a matter of choice at that point.
Harris: Reason is never a matter of choice; if I convince you —
Shapiro: Then why is reason superior to amygdala response?
Harris: It’s scalable; if I give you sufficiently good reasons for anything you will helplessly believe what I believe; it won’t be a matter of choice; you never choose.
Shapiro: But why are you giving me those reasons? Again, you’re giving me a lot of active verbs for a guy who has no capacity to choose himself. You’re using my language and then you’re building a house using the bricks that I’m giving you.
Harris did not address the question, simply repeating his claim that a person would “helplessly believe, etc.”
Shapiro stated, “You cannot have reason without making an assumption about the function of the human mind that is not evidenced by evolutionary biology or science.”
Harris turned to Weinstein, asking, “Eric, help me here.”
Shapiro pressed, “What I’m asking is why you think the firing of certain neurons is more morally appropriate than the firing of other neurons?”
Harris, “Sorry, I would be happy to get to that but let me just stick with reason for a second.” Then he stumbled on about adding oranges, prompting Shapiro to step in and state bluntly:
Here’s the problem, I think, and the disconnect we’re having. I’m not arguing that you don’t agree reason exists; I’m arguing that your whole mode of creating a societal morality is based on this reason. And you’re making a moral argument that reason is superior to any other method of eliciting a response. The way that you are talking about reason is that reason is basically a key and you stick it in the lock of my thinking and suddenly the door opens. I’m asking you: there are many ways to open that door, including using a battering ram, which has been the preferred method of most governments over history. You need to make an argument to me why it is more moral, how you are getting to the “ought” of reason without any appeal to a morality that exists beyond you, especially when you get to complex moral questions that are not two plus two equals four and are complex moral questions like what the tax rate should be.
Listen to the full discussion below: