Intro. [Recording date: January 12, 2023.]
Today is January 12th, 2023, and my guest is neuroscientist, philosopher, and author Sam Harris. He hosts the podcast Making Sense and is the creator of the meditation app Waking Up.
Sam recently hosted me on his podcast Making Sense, and he graciously invited me to change places at the table and let me interview him. Sam, welcome to EconTalk.
Sam Harris: Hey, great to see you, Russ.
Russ Roberts: I want to let parents listening with young children know this conversation may stray into adult themes, so feel free to vet it before sharing.
Russ Roberts: And our first topic, Sam, is you. Give us a thumbnail of how you came to be where you are, with an incredibly popular podcast, an incredibly popular meditation app. How’d that happen?
Sam Harris: Well, I started as a writer. And, I started kind of in an unconventional spot there because I wrote my first book in the middle of what should have been my Ph.D. [Doctor of Philosphy] thesis beginning. I had just finished my research doing fMRI [functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging] scanning of people at the Brain Mapping Center at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles], and–actually, no, sorry, I just finished my coursework and I was beginning my research.
And, then September 11th happened and I wrote my first book, The End of Faith. And, that proved so controversial, and the conversation around those issues was so rich and interesting that I quickly wrote a second book in response to the pushback there, Letter to a Christian Nation. And that, essentially sidelined me for about four years during my Ph.D. I had a toe in the lab, but barely a toe for four years. So, I took nine years to finish my Ph.D., and that’s really what writing was doing to me during that time.
But, it was really on the basis of my writing platform that I launched my podcast and then subsequently the Waking Up app.
So, I was fairly early to podcasting. I had been a guest on a few podcasts. I had been a guest on Joe Rogan’s podcast and I think Tim Ferris’s; maybe one or two others. And I just thought, ‘Well, this is interesting.’ If you had told me that I might one day go into radio, I would’ve told you you were insane. But, something about the medium made it seem different.
And so, I just started recording pieces of audio. Initially they were solo audio riffs or essays, and I was releasing those sporadically without really even thinking that I had a podcast. And, then at a certain point, I was interviewing other people more or less once a week, and I had a podcast in earnest. And that’s how it started.
Russ Roberts: What have you learned from being a podcaster? Have you changed in any way?
Sam Harris: Well, personally, I’ve learned about the power of incentives, because as much as I’ve wanted to get back to writing books, having a podcast has shown me that–this won’t surprise you as an economist–but like virtually everyone, I am a creature of incentives, and all of the incentives are aligned away from writing books at the moment. Podcasting is easier, I reach many more people, and it’s a better business.
So, for me to go back to writing and embrace the opportunity cost of writing at the moment, I really have to decide, ‘Well, I don’t care about doing the harder thing. I’m happy to do the harder thing. I don’t care about reaching fewer people. I don’t care about it taking much longer to reach those fewer people. And, I don’t care about losing money.’
So, all the incentives are wrong for writing my next book. So, as if by magic, I haven’t done that.
I think I will ultimately do it, because I think writing is just a muscle. As a thinker, you need to work and you really don’t think as clearly as you can unless you’re writing your thoughts and finally producing the sentence that you think is the best version of any specific thought.
So, that is a loss to me, but it’s been great. I mean, podcasting is, as you know, so different from writing because you’re not doing it alone. You know, you and I are having a conversation now and we have an excuse to have this conversation. And, the truth is, it’s a conversation I’d want to have anyway for free, right?
So, it’s really an amazing opportunity to use media to help the people who want to hear these conversations and to have fun ourselves. I feel immensely lucky.
Russ Roberts: But, has it taught you anything? I mean, you could have read the books of all your guests. Many of them write books.
Russ Roberts: Do you find talking to the rather diverse range of people that you speak to, does it affect you in any way? Has it affected your thinking?
Sam Harris: Yeah, certainly. Because, you know, as a writer, I’m not someone who interviews people for the most part by way of research. I obviously read a lot of books to be a writer of non-fiction, but there is something about talking to smart people and having them push back against your views in real time that is–it’s something you can’t really supply for yourself in the same way.
I mean, reading a book, I guess, provides that. I mean, it is conversational in a way, but–I don’t know. I think it’s incredibly useful to be in dialogue and to have the time-course of one’s feedback be shorter and shorter.
When you write a book, it takes you a year or more to write it. It then sits with your publisher for 11 months or so, and then it goes out into the world, then you get some feedback if people review it or people react to it. But, the time-course of correction and fertilization of further conversation is so slow. They’re almost not even analogous processes, even though they’re quite similar: that, the time-course changes everything.
Russ Roberts: Yeah: I never thought about that. I often will get on a topic and interview a series of people in clumps. You know, I’ll read somebody’s book, and then three weeks later or a month later, I’ll interview a person on the other side, or a related theme.
Like you, I’m very interested in consciousness, so I’ve done a bunch of interviews on that. And I’ve never thought about the fact that, you know, you read a book about consciousness by an author and then maybe you read another one down the road that has a different take, different perspective. But in podcasting, you’re almost inevitably doing it over a relatively short period of time. And then you’re in dialogue rather than in your own head, the way you would be as a reader with diverse ideas or different takes or perspectives. And, I guess it quickens the pace.
Russ Roberts: One of the things I find extraordinary about podcasting for a long time, as you have, is how many connections I see between topics and episodes that don’t necessarily seem related.
And, when those are coming quickly and you’re seeing those connections, I find it–people claim to learn things from me, which I appreciate, but I’ve learned so much from being an interviewer, not just from the content I’ve consumed to prepare for them, but to have that conversation like we’re having now, and to have it–it’s 8:00 at night here in Jerusalem, and it’s 10:00 in the morning in California where you are, and–well, that’s a miracle.
Russ Roberts: So, it’s not just nice to have the conversation: if we weren’t podcasting, we probably wouldn’t be talking. And so, it is very special.
Sam Harris: Yeah. Well, that’s–what I’ve appreciated about it most, really, is writing is such a solitary endeavor. And podcasting, especially if you’re mostly doing interviews, is a completely different experience, because you now have a venue to invite people to. And, you’re helping them. You’re helping them launch their books in many cases.
But, it is just like this guilty pleasure, to be able to talk to the smartest people in the world about anything.
And, when you have a successful podcast, you’re not really asking a favor of them: you’re doing them a favor, if anything. And so, it’s wonderful to be able to do.
And, it’s just good company. Right? You just get to meet people you wouldn’t otherwise have an excuse to meet. I wouldn’t reach out to even a favored author just to reach out to them, but because I have a podcast and because their publicist may have even hurled their next book at me, it’s just that we’re naturally thrown together in conversation. And, yeah, it builds relationships. It’s quite amazing.
Russ Roberts: Just for the record–I just want to get this down on January, 2023–I want to interview Tom Stoppard and Mark Knopfler, and I can’t get to them. So, if anybody out there knows how I can get ahold of them–mark Knopfler is my favorite songwriter and guitarist probably of all time, and Tom Stoppard is my favorite playwright. And, it’s possible.
Sam Harris: It is possible. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Like you say–normally you’d say, ‘Well, you can go watch him in concert, or go to one of his plays,’ but otherwise, that’s it. But, I have a dream that if they knew I wanted to interview them, they might come on. Either of them. Maybe both. Maybe both at the same time.
Sam Harris: Even odds, I would say, for those guys. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: How much time do you spend reading? Not for podcasting, just in general.
Sam Harris: Well, that’s a hard line to draw because I have, to a significant degree, designed my podcast around what I feel like reading next, right?
Russ Roberts: You do–
Sam Harris: So, I just decide what I want to read. And then the afterthought is, ‘Oh, wait a minute, if this person’s alive, I might be able to talk to them.’
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Why not?
Sam Harris: And so, there’s significant overlap between what I’m reading and what I’m reading for work.
Again, this comes back to being immensely lucky and feeling just pure gratitude for the existence of this medium.
And, it is psychologically inscrutable to me that it seems so different from radio. Like, I’d never–superficially it is the exact same thing. This is just radio on demand, right? But, I couldn’t have imagined going into radio, and I still don’t feel I’m in radio now, and yet basically this is delayed radio.
Russ Roberts: You know, when I started, I told my dad I was going to go for an hour. That was my goal: an hour each episode. And, he and many, many others said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, audio–10 minutes is an eternity.’
Russ Roberts: ‘Three minutes is a typical thing.’ And, like, ‘NPR [National Public Radio] might do a 10-minute segment, but no one is going to listen to an hour.’
And, boy, were they wrong. People, of course, will listen for two and three and four hours.
There’s a demand for longer and longer podcasts. And, that is–the obvious reason: it’s very different from radio. It’s an extended–it’s kind of the difference between a miniseries and a sitcom. It’s just a different phenomenon, even though on the surface they’re somewhat similar.
Sam Harris: Well, just on that point–and again, I find this is also psychologically somewhat inscrutable: Not having a schedule and not having a hard time-limit to an episode, it actually changes the conversation significantly.
I mean, even in a radio segment where you have a full hour, the fact that you have exactly an hour changes the conversation. Even just a freewheeling conversation that happens to end at 59 minutes, I feel is very different from a conversation that has to end at 59 minutes.
So yeah, there’s something about it being on demand. There’s the fact that everyone has found all of these interstitial moments in their lives–while they’re commuting or doing the dishes or whatever it is, working out–where they can listen to audio: that sort of multitasking phenomenon.
I think it’s–yeah. I mean, this feels like the golden age or a new golden age of audio, and I’m just very happy to have benefited from it.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I say it’s the golden age of curious people, for curious people. And, it’s also the golden age for visual storytelling–the opportunity to tell–you know, Hollywood’s struggling, but everything else is phenomenal.
Sam Harris: Yeah. Yeah.
But, the thing about audio is–
Russ Roberts: I’m just going to add–
Sam Harris: Everyone has found an extra 90 minutes in their day, it seems, and that really is a matter of audio over video. I mean, I guess once we have perfectly self-driving cars, maybe video will supersede audio there. But short of that, just speaking personally, I take long walks and I’m listening to audiobooks and podcasts, and it’s fantastic. I mean, I get two hours of walking and two hours of listening to your favorite information. It’s–I don’t know who I was 10 years ago, but I wasn’t doing that, so–
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Russ Roberts: I’m just going to add–I didn’t think about the open-endedness of the 59-minute point. Having moved to Israel–and I wrote about this recently, I’ll put a link up to it–but when you first get here, you think the service in the restaurants is awful.
Russ Roberts: People bring you the food, the waitress or waiter, and then they disappear and they don’t come back. They don’t say, ‘Can I get you anything else? How’s the food?’ And in America, when I come back to America now, it’s startling how often–
Sam Harris: They badger you every two minutes. Yeah. They just badger you every two minutes. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: Oh, yeah.
But, the key difference is that they don’t bring you the check here. And, you have to go find them, usually–
Russ Roberts: Wave them down, or go out and get it.
And, Americans find this frustrating. Israelis, when they go to America, find it shocking that the check shows up unasked for, which they clearly see–and correctly–as an invitation to leave.
Russ Roberts: Whereas in the Middle East, which is where I live, meals are open-ended. And, you can sit in a café–and you can do this in America, too, but it’s just blatantly clear here for not just coffee shops, but other types of, many types of restaurants–you can sit there for as long as you want with your friend and no one’s going to bother you.
And, it changes the nature of conversation when you don’t feel like you have to hustle along.
Russ Roberts: It’s a great answer.
Russ Roberts: I’m going to suggest that you are an example of a phenomenon that I think is a new phenomenon. If I had to describe you, I’d say you’re a public intellectual. That’s one phrase that people would use.
It’s a phrase I don’t like, personally. I’m not sure why I don’t like it. I’ve never liked it when it’s applied to me.
But, you’re something more than that. I would describe you as a secular preacher. An atheist rabbi. You’re in a small group with Jordan Peterson. I don’t know who else you’d put in the group. But, people don’t just listen to you because you’re smart. They don’t just listen to you because you’re interesting and entertaining. They look to you for meaning and guidance.
Russ Roberts: Am I right? And, what does that feel like? How did it come about? And, what are the upsides and downsides of that?
Sam Harris: Well, I think it’s a matter of the kinds of topics I’ve focused on. It’s a matter of what I have found interesting and what I have made my areas of relative expertise, just because I’ve spent so much time focusing on these questions.
I mean, I’m just interested in the nature of human subjectivity; how our scientific understanding of ourselves is increasingly encroaching on ancient ways of deluding ourselves about ourselves, I would say, to say something underhanded about religion.
Sorry; we may get into that.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I’ll come back to that.
Sam Harris: So, just how can we live the best lives possible in light of the fact that we all are going to lose everything we love in this world?
And these are the deepest questions of, you know: What are you as a being in this world, and what should you do given the full range of wonderful and terrible experiences on offer? And, given the fact that impermanence reigns, right? You can’t hold onto anything in the end.
How is it possible to be fulfilled and to live a good life within those constraints? And, what can we know about how to do that wisely? And, how can we know when we’re making obvious and needless errors? And, how do we mitigate human suffering? And, what does science have to say about all that it?
And, how do we have a conversation about what we believe to be true about all of that, that is increasingly useful and open-ended and tracking of reality rather than spiraling into some awful and divisive state of delusion and fractiousness and failures of cooperation and failures to solve absolutely necessary coordination problems?
And so, that’s where I’ve focused. And, the nature of that focus is, really, by definition interdisciplinary. I’ve never respected the boundaries or apparent boundaries between fields of knowledge. I’m a big fan of the notion of consilience or the unity of knowledge.
I think much of our partitioning of domains, you know, the wall between neuroscience and philosophy of mind, say, or economics, is really–those partitions are enshrined by two things. One is it’s hard to be a polymath. Right? There’s just too much to know. And, that’s a natural partition perhaps. But, there’s some very smart people who can traverse all of those boundaries, and that’s wonderful.
But, the other reason is just the architecture of the university and the nature of bureaucracy, and just the laziness born of the norms that grow up around that.
I do consider myself more of a generalist than a specialist at this point, I think, of necessity. And so, I don’t discount the need for specialization. Some people specialize so fully that, of course, their career intellectually is going to observe the obvious boundaries between, let’s say, molecular biology and everything else. But, I do think there’s a role for–and, I don’t shy away from the phrase, ‘public intellectual.’ I think it sounds pretentious when applied to oneself. But like you, I don’t have a better name for the work that certain people do trying to integrate various fields of knowledge and make those integrations useful to the general public. I just think that’s a good role.
And, importantly, it’s not the role of a journalist. Right? Or it’s not the role of a mere journalist. I mean, in journalism–not to denigrate journalism, I think we absolutely need more of it–but, I don’t consider myself a journalist, even when I’m trying to present a factually accurate picture of something that’s happened or what’s been said, etc.
I do have my own point of view on a wide variety of topics, and I try to, if for no other reason than avoid embarrassment, I try to have a well-informed point of view on those topics. And, that’s not quite the same thing as journalism. [More to come, 23:11]