Book review Cognitive Science Philosophy Science

Making Sense (2020)

Making Sense (2020) is an accessible introduction to key topics & trends In current science, presented in the ancient epistemological format of the expert dialogue

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Making Sense (2020) is a collection of thirteen dialogues between podcast host Sam Harris and eleven experts. (Two of the experts feature in two dialogues each.) These experts are: behavioural and neural scientists; philosophers; physicists; one historian (Timothy Snyder); and one economist (Glenn Loury). Chief subjects of conversation are: consciousness, ethics, intelligence, artificial intelligence, self, free will, the neurobiology of behaviour, and the destiny of humanity and of the universe. These topics dominate most of the dialogues; the conversations with Snyder and Loury, though among the book’s most interesting, read like odd-men-out, thrown in for variety.

I will first address Harris’s own preoccupations and prejudices, which colour the book; then I’ll visit the book’s topics.

Sam Harris’s Preoccupations and Prejudices

Making Sense is a byproduct of the eponymous podcast which Harris has hosted since 2013, now featuring 225+ episodes. The podcast features a spectrum of experts; the book, for cohesion, has a narrower focus. Harris and his interlocutors revised the conversations selected for this book; the result is a series of conversations reasonably cohesive in content, and of a density better suited to reading than to listening. (On his podcast, Harris rambles awfully; for the book, he’s rewritten his own questions more succinctly: though he still takes up too much room for an interviewer.) The book preserves several features of the podcast, and of Harris’s work in general: his tendency to switch topics abruptly, his sense of humour (charitably characterisable as dad-who-tries-too-hard), and his preoccupations.

These preoccupations include: the primacy of intelligence; security threats posed by artificial intelligence; and specific stances regarding free will, the self, and consciousness:

(a) Harris is an intelligence elitist: he subscribes strongly to the idea that intelligence is a relatively fixed individual property that varies widely between individuals; that these differences are largely inherited; and that any reasonable society must acknowledge and provide for these differences. (Harris’s stance approximates that of Robert Plomin: a behavioural geneticist, a podcast guest, though not included in this book.) Harris’s preoccupation with intelligence takes him to bizarre extremes: in this book he argues, repeatedly, that if we invented AI more intelligent than us, then that AI’s welfare would matter more than ours, giving that AI the right to exploit us to its own ends. (As an afterthought, Harris stipulates that ‘it would be a pity, however,’ if this super-intelligent AI ended up lacking consciousness. Harris – a practising Buddhist and meditation poster-boy – fetishises consciousness even more than he does intelligence.)

(b) Harris insists on the urgent need for a concerted global plan for security threats posed by AI. In doing so, he snidely dismisses (unnamed) AI experts whose assessment of these threats is more optimistic than Harris’s own. (Note: Harris himself is not an AI expert.)

(c) Harris repeatedly attacks the concepts of both free will and self; both, he insists, are illusions; our eyes will be opened (i.e. we will be disillusioned) by practising meditation andor ingesting psychedelics: practices he recommends to his guests at every opportunity.

All three stances are supported by some or many of the relevant contemporary experts. None of these views is consensual. Readers may tire of Harris dredging up these subjects with almost every expert in this book, whatever the subject of conversation.

Harris also has the unfortunate habit of looking down his nose, often at experts specialising in the areas he’s pontificating on – and inviting his interlocutor to join him in this self-congratulatory pursuit. An illuminating instance occurs early in his conversation with philosopher Nick Bostrom. Harris complains: “There are more people working at my local McDonald’s, than are thinking about the really big problems [related to technology and security].” Bostrom, who’s spent large parts of his career studying just this field, replies, “That’s no longer true.” This doesn’t stop Harris from repeating this complaint, in almost the same words, later in the conversation.

As interviewer, it was perhaps inevitable that Harris’s flaws as a thinker and scientist would be spotlighted. Still, the book would have benefited from more rigorous editorial oversight to curb the incursions of Harris’s obsessions. If readers can suspend judgment on Harris’s hobby-horses – or skip over Harris’s diatribes – they will get more use out of the book.

Let’s move on to evaluating the book itself.

Accessible explications and nuanced discussions of specialised topics

Echoing the podcast, the book allows generous room for each dialogue to explore subjects intensively. For instance, the dialogue with Bostrom introduces explores two of Bostrom’s fascinating thought-experiments. The first examines the possibility that humans invent a technology so devastatingly destructive, that we must choose between catastrophe and ubiquitous perpetual surveillance. The second examines the possibility that we’re all simulations created by a plantet-sized computer operated by our remote descendants.

To a lay reader, these thought-experiments may seem at first ridiculous. As the conversation develops them, they show themselves to be plausible and well worth grappling with. This conversation, like the others, allows room for the lay reader to understand the intricacies and repurcussions of these thought-experiments. Once the reader grasps these thought-experiments, and the ethical and scientific problems motivating their conception, their reality seems no longer remote.

Here lies the book’s strength: it gets the lay reader to seriously engage with apparently arcane, obscure concerns. These dialogues invite the reader to think, to read, and to complete the circle of their own cogitations by engaging in dialogues of their own. In an age where increasing specialisation of the sciences – and the veils of jargon in which many scientific papers, across disciplines, are shrouded – have created a chasm between the lay reader and current science – Making Sense alerts us to some key issues. These dialogues offer us some building-blocks for our understanding, a few vantage-points, and orient us to curiosity and concern, in order to continue our educations independently. For the chasm between science and the layperson is illusory. However ivory or cobwebby these scientists’ towers may seem, their concerns are intimately our own.

Synopses of some of the book’s frequently visited topics

On consciousness: Several conversations invoke the concept of “zombies” as deployed in philosophy: a creature resembling you and me, but ‘with the lights off inside.’ Philosopher/cognitive scientist David Chalmers argues that, at a given level of neural/cognitive complexity, consciousness appears to emerge inevitably. Neuroscientist Anil Seth discusses the subdivisions of the self, beginning with the interoceptive self that tracks body states. Seth questions whether we can ever separate embodiment from consciousness – echoing current ideas on the inextricable links between the kind of body we find ourselves in, and the kind of consciousness we experience. Chalmers and Seth and Harris offer a spectrum of contrasting views on the question: If a human being could upload his/her consciousness to a hard drive, would that hard drive’s ‘consciousness’ be identical to the human’s?

On the self: Philosopher Thomas Metzinger discusses his view of the self as a construct of convenience. He encourages us to note the large, frequent gaps in our consciousness (e.g. during sleep; during any engrossing activity) of the self as an uninterrupted, unchanging entity. The interruptions don’t seem to inetrrupt our illusion of the self as continuous and unchanging.

On free will: Neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky presents evidence demolishing our long-cherished notions of free will: advocating for humans completing the move (which he argues we’ve been making over centuries) of viewing criminal behaviour not as a choice but as an illness. Behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman also seems sceptical about our ability to make rational and deliberate choices.

On rationality: The Nobel Prize-winner who has studied irrationality for five decades claims that he himself, in his everyday live, has benefited little, if at all, from his own research. This confession is laudably humble — and also dismaying in its implication that knowing has modest impacts on doing. Kahneman himself expresses cautious optimism about nudging behaviour in slightly more rational directions. He discusses the split between the remembering vs. the experiencing selves as one of the origins of irrationality.

On racism: As a German growing up in WW2’s aftermath, Metzinger discusses the long history of European anti-Semitism that allowed Nazism to arise. Citing instances of the nexus between religion and the toleration/perpretation of violence — from Martin Luther down to the Catholic Church’s involvement in Nazi ratlines — Metzinger confronts his nation and his species with collective responsibility for atrocities.

Glenn Loury problematises the concept of ‘structural racism’ as a coverall explanatory term, and discusses ongoing research into police violence against African Americans. Loury’s approach to researching racism — factual, methodologically sensitive, and psychologically nuanced — is a model for how science can investigate such a topic: morally fraught, and therefore all the more demanding of scientific rigour.

On AI: Biologist David Krakauer insightfully and helpfully distinguishes between complementary vs. competitive ‘cognitive artefacts’ (a category spanning any technology from parchment to GPS). ‘Complementary technologies’ broaden our scope of action by engaging and developing our abilities. E.g. abacuses and sextants train us to think in new ways; in the long run, an abacus user develops a mental model of an abacus: no longer requiring a physical abacus, but still carrying away the improved computational speed and flexibility that the abacus helped him acquire. In contrast, ‘competitive technologies’ like calculators and self-driving cars take over cognitive functions: leaving us cognitively poorer, and dependent on the technologies for continued survival. Krakauer’s distinction can help readers navigate their own choices about which technologies to interact with, and how.

Making Sense is an accessible and engaging introduction for lay readers to several key topics and trends in current science. Harris’s insistence on riding his hobby-horses is a minor but perhaps unavoidable hiccup in an otherwise edifying reading experience. The total absence from this book of female experts, and of non-western experts, is a flaw that Harris can perhaps amend in his next book in this series. And, given the wealth of material he has generated on his podcast, I suspect Making Sense is to be the first in a flawed but valuable series.


Buy Making Sense here. To save paper, consider buying a Kindle or audiobook edition.

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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