[Note this is Part 22 of a series of emails to Sam Harris.]
[TL;DR: While what Sam says about honesty in Lying is very helpful and well phrased, I find it unfortunate that he doesn’t address intellectual honesty in that book. I comment on a footnote on self-deception, briefly explore the subject of intellectual honesty in general and conclude by criticizing the way Sam has failed to publicly acknowledge arguments against his views. In a postscript, I give a recent example of an economic argument that he has been repeating for years while ignoring the expert consensus that it contradicts.]
I believe Lying is a little gem that literally everybody should read: Everybody is constantly affected by lies and the temptation to lie, and everybody can benefit from your clear thinking and writing on this subject. You explain the psychological benefits of consistent honesty very well (e.g. “Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. Knowing that we [have] told the truth in the past leaves us with nothing to keep track of”). At the same time, the way you deal with extreme scenarios is thorough and nuanced (e.g. your response to question 3 [which criticizes a commitment to telling the truth in potentially dangerous circumstances, e.g. when trying to hide a child from a murderer]: “It’s important to account for outcomes that are either much better or much worse than those you deem likely in this case”).
It’s almost always a good thing if the worst criticism that can be levied against a book is that it’s too short. However, you also point out that we tend to be far too lenient when judging acts of omission (as opposed to acts of commission).
I was disappointed not to read anything on intellectual honesty, especially considering the importance you have given to this topic throughout your work.
Not only do you not give intellectual honesty any attention in Lying, you even dismiss the importance of self-deception almost completely. In a footnote(!) you say:
“Some have argued that evolution must have selected for an ability to deceive oneself, thereby making it easier to mislead others [...]. But whether a form of self-deception exists that is really tantamount to ‘lying to oneself’ is still a matter of controversy. There is no question that we can be blind to facts about ourselves or about the world that we really should see — and the research on cognitive bias is fascinating — but the question remains whether we see the truth and unconsciously convince ourselves otherwise, or simply do not see the truth in the first place. In any case, truly believing one’s own falsehoods when in dialogue with others is tantamount to honesty. Thus, it seems that that we need not worry about self-deception for the time being.”
You must see that this is a false dichotomy. There are layers to our (self-)awareness, and there is a spectrum for how consciously or subconsciously we “convince ourselves otherwise” (i.e. “lie to ourselves”). Many of our psychological responses happen automatically; in a sense, we mostly “run on autopilot”, and our “awareness” is that which “corrects the course” in subtle ways moment to moment. This doesn’t merely have evolutionary benefits but is a logical necessity: We can’t afford to question everything from scratch every moment (it’s inefficient and highly dangerous to be that easily persuaded); on the other hand, it is very efficient to assume that our current model of the world (i.e. the way we model the world to ourselves) is highly accurate (after all, we have spent a lifetime perfecting it) and only in need of minor corrections. Of course, the downside is that if our model is indeed fundamentally flawed and in need of major revision, we have to penetrate layer after layer of psychological self-defense in order to effect it. In extreme cases, once somebody has been convinced that not changing their mind will earn them infinite and eternal pleasure, while changing their mind will bring them infinite and eternal pain, whether or not they consciously understand Bayesianism, their fundamentally Bayesian brain will always return the same response: The laws of logic and physics may be bent or broken, but their “faith” may not. That is the reason we consider it such an achievement (the greatest achievement in science, arguably) to be able to say: “I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years”.
Therefore, I would argue that intellectual honesty is not an advanced stage of honesty; rather, intellectual honesty is the foundation of honesty. This also means that all dishonesty begins with and is founded on intellectual dishonesty. While it is still honest to make an incorrect claim about which one is genuinely mistaken, “believing one’s own falsehoods when in dialogue with others” not only isn’t “tantamount to honesty” but rather is the foundation of almost all dishonesty. Only a psychopath truly believes that lying is ever “good” (it’s only “bad” if they get punished). Everybody else runs (mostly subconsciously) what they are about to say through a complex psychological web of mental and emotional trade-offs that in some cases allows them to tell themselves (more or less consciously), “this isn’t a lie because…”, or, “this lie is the the lesser evil because…”. In most cases, however, we don’t even think in terms of “lies” at all; instead, we find that subconsciously(!) resorting to a fallacy is the most efficient (least expensive, least painful) way to ward off any challenge to our worldview.
Unfortunately I don’t have any comprehensive or definite description of what you mean by “intellectual honesty”. I did find this quote from Letter to a Christian Nation:
“The core of science is not controlled experiment or mathematical modeling; it is intellectual honesty. It is time we acknowledge a basic feature of human discourse: when considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t.”
What I find most striking about the definitions of intellectual honesty that I have found is the importance they give to acts of omission. To be intellectually honest, it is not good enough to merely not falsify evidence; it is essential to not ignore or withhold evidence either. For example:
“Relevant facts and information are not purposefully omitted even when such things may contradict one’s hypothesis.” (Wikipedia)
“A person is being intellectually honest when he or she, knowing the truth, states that truth.”(RationalWiki)
I believe that you have never lied to me. This isn’t surprising given how little you have written to me so far. However, this doesn’t mean that I should conclude that in dealing with my emails you have been intellectually honest.
I have challenged your beliefs about economics [see Part 6]. Eight months later, you still worry about “piracy”. If you think I am wrong, you could point this out (a few sentences and a link might be enough to point me in the right direction). If you are unsure or undecided, we could have a conversation about it. If you think I am right but fail to point this out to me and to your readers, then you are being intellectually dishonest. Given how much suffering bad ideas about economics cause in the world and given how many readers you have (and how much credibility they and everybody else would give to your statements if you did publicly change your mind), this is no small offence.
I have asked you for your help in learning more about my physiological condition [see Part 5]. I might not be the only one with those symptoms. Here is an opportunity for you to potentially ameliorate suffering and perhaps even advance neuroscience. You have been ignoring it for eight months.
I have given you many other topics to talk to me about (politics, epistemology etc.) [see the rest of this series, e.g. the criticism by Magnus Vinding], and many of my emails directly critique your work. Instead of being invited to a conversation by a Sam Harris enthusiastic about changing his mind (for the better), I have been running into a wall of silence.
I don’t think you should burn in hell for this. I do think that you shouldn’t get any sleep until you manage to rise to your own standard of intellectually honest discourse.
I would like to comment on something Sam Harris has said in a recent conversation with Joe Rogan. He talks about a scenario with “a perfect laborsaving device” that would create “one trillionaire” and “30% unemployment”. He blames our current “political system” for this.
I agree that it is possible to create 30% unemployment through political means even in spite of the presence of a powerful laborsaving device (the easiest way to do this is to simply set the minimum wage high enough). However, I suspect that he means to blame the “laborsaving” effect itself for the unemployment, which is an economic argument he has been making since at least 2011. While I have commented on this argument before (here), I’d like to address it again, because it illustrates the way he engages with constructive criticism. I want to make it clear that here I am not primarily criticizing his argument; rather, I am primarily criticizing the fact that whenever he has made this argument (after the 2011 blog post), he has failed to publicly acknowledge that his argument goes against the consensus among economists.
The first thing we should establish is that we don’t go to work to work but to get work done. This is probably most intuitive when it comes to the field of medicine: If we were to rid the world of all disease, old age and susceptibility to injury, this would create 100% unemployment among doctors. However, I think it is safe to say that doctors would retire with a smile on their face.
The second thing is that a laborsaving device that creates only 30% unemployment is not perfect: It’s only 30% effective. Those 30% unemployed would in fact be hired to help us achieve our goal of perfect laborsaving.
Note that a laborsaving device, that isn’t available everywhere instantaneously, still isn’t perfect, because it doesn’t include logistics. People would need to be hired to transport and install those devices.
You also run into a contradiction when you look at services: A perfect laborsaving device must be perfect at performing any service, but what about services that people would prefer to be performed by a human being (e.g. entertainment or nursing)? In those cases, the device in question would in some sense have to outperform human beings at being human. You can get into nightmare scenarios here of an AGI abolishing the human race in its attempt to better serve the human race, but you still have to be careful to keep your economic arguments clear and consistent.
Outside of such nightmare scenarios, the “best” and “most efficient” doesn’t completely abolish alternatives. Entertainment might be a good example: Even though people could exclusively watch Hollywood blockbusters, at least some of those people some of the time prefer to watch one person talking in front of a webcam on YouTube. Appreciate that every time this happens, every major Hollywood studio in the world has lost the competition with somebody who in some cases has (or started out with) no training, talent and/or resources. Some of them are now millionaires. Improvements in technology have not only not put them out of work, but rather created new employment opportunities for them.
The other problem is the belief that wealth destroys employment. Sam Harris, like a lot of people, has this weird notion of rich people transforming other people’s jobs into money — as though employment were some sort of natural resource being depleted by the rich.
You don’t become a trillionaire by impoverishing people. You can only become a trillionaire (through peaceful voluntary trade), if people choose to give you a trillion dollars in exchange for useful goods and services you provide — in other words by enriching other people’s lives with goods and services worth a trillion dollars to them. In fact, those goods and services must be worth more to them than not only the trillion dollars but everything else those trillion dollars could buy, if they are to choose to make that trade at all.
Since we are talking about a laborsaving device, those trillion dollars would not be spent only on consumption but on improving production processes. That is, our trillionaire makes the world’s production processes more efficient to a degree that is worth a trillion dollars in investment.
In summary, if laborsaving devices spread one unit at a time, every unit sold and installed constitutes an improvement to production processes that is no more a threat to employment generally than competition among companies is (i.e. individual workers will lose their old jobs but will also benefit from superior employment opportunities that in fact become available immediately as the new technology becomes available). On the other hand, if (perfect) devices are available everywhere instantaneously, then we will instantaneously have a technological Garden of Eden.
The point I want to emphasize here is that it should worry Sam Harris that it is possible for a public intellectual to know nothing about economics, to form beliefs about economics that are blatantly irrational and self-contradictory (e.g. equating “30%” with “perfect”), to go for years ignoring or dismissing all attempts by the experts in the field to correct those beliefs and still style oneself a champion of reason. He wouldn’t do this with string theory.
In my view, one of his greatest contributions to global conversation culture is coining the term “conversation disorder” and applying that term to religion. Unfortunately, when it comes to the conversation disorder that has been plaguing economics, he is part of the problem.