Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Sam Harris

The twilight of the skeptics

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A few years ago, I was working on an idea for a story—still unrealized—that required a sidelong look at the problem of free will. As part of my research, I picked up a copy of the slim book of the same name by the prominent skeptic Sam Harris. At the time, I don’t think I’d even heard of Harris, and I was expecting little more than a readable overview. What I remember about it the most, though, is how it began. After a short opening paragraph about the importance of his subject, Harris writes:

In the early morning of July 23, 2007, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, two career criminals, arrived at the home of Dr. William and Jennifer Petit in Cheshire, a quiet town in central Connecticut. They found Dr. Petit asleep on a sofa in the sunroom. According to his taped confession, Komisarjevsky stood over the sleeping man for some minutes, hesitating, before striking him in the head with a baseball bat. He claimed that his victim’s screams then triggered something within him, and he bludgeoned Petit with all his strength until he fell silent.

Harris goes on to provide a graphically detailed account, which I’m not going to retype here, of the sexual assault and murder of Petit’s wife and two daughters. Two full pages are devoted to it, in a book that is less than a hundred pages long, and only at the end does Harris come to the point: “As sickening as I find their behavior, I have to admit that if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him: there is no extra part of me that could decide to see the world differently or resist the impulse to victimize other people.”

I see what Harris is trying to say here, and I don’t think that he’s even wrong. Yet his choice of example—a horrifying crime that was less than five years old when he wrote Free Will, which the surviving victim, William Petit, might well have read—bothered me a lot. It struck me as a lapse of judgment, or at least of good taste, and it remains the one thing that I really remember about the book. And I’m reminded of it now only because of an excellent article in Wired, “Sam Harris and the Myth of Perfectly Rational Thought,” that neatly lays out many of my old misgivings. The author, Robert Wright, documents multiple examples of his subject falling short of his professed standards, but he focuses on an exchange with the journalist Ezra Klein, whom Harris accused of engaging in “a really indissoluble kind of tribalism, which I keep calling identity politics.” When Klein pointed out that this might be a form of tribal thinking in itself, Harris replied: “I know I’m not thinking tribally.” Wright continues:

Reflecting on his debate with Klein, Harris said that his own followers care “massively about following the logic of a conversation” and probe his arguments for signs of weakness, whereas Klein’s followers have more primitive concerns: “Are you making political points that are massaging the outraged parts of our brains? Do you have your hands on our amygdala and are you pushing the right buttons?”

Just a few years earlier, however, Harris didn’t have any qualms about pushing the reader’s buttons by devoting the first two pages of Free Will to an account of a recent, real-life home invasion that involved unspeakable acts of sexual violence against women—when literally any other example of human behavior, good or bad, would have served his purposes equally well.

Harris denies the existence of free will entirely, so perhaps he would argue that he didn’t have a choice when he wrote those words. More likely, he would say that the use of this particular example was entirely deliberate, because he was trying to make a point by citing most extreme case of deviant behavior that he could imagine. Yet it’s the placement, as much as the content, that gives me pause. Harris puts it right up front, at the place where most books try for a narrative or argumentative hook, which suggests two possible motivations. One is that he saw it as a great “grabber” opening, and he opportunistically used it for no other reason than to seize the reader’s attention, only to never mention it ever again. This would be bad enough, particularly for a man who claims to disdain anything so undignified as an appeal to the amygdala, and it strikes me as slightly unscrupulous, in that it literally indicates a lack of scruples. (I’ll have more to say about this word later.) Yet there’s an even more troubling possibility that didn’t occur to me at the time. Harris’s exploitation of these murders, and the unceremonious way in which he moves on, is a signal to the reader. This is the kind of book that you’re getting, it tells us, and if you can’t handle it, you should close it now and walk away. In itself, this amounts to false advertising—the rest of Free Will isn’t much like this at all, even if Harris is implicitly playing to the sort of person who hopes that it might be. More to the point, the callousness of the example probably repelled many readers who didn’t appreciate the rhetorical deployment, without warning, of a recent rape and multiple murder. I was one of them. But I also suspect that many women who picked up the book were just as repulsed. And Harris doesn’t seem to have been overly concerned about this possibility.

Yet maybe he should have been. Wright’s article in Wired includes a discussion of the allegations against the physicist and science writer Lawrence Krauss, who has exhibited a pattern of sexual misconduct convincingly documented by an article in Buzzfeed. Krauss is a prominent member of the skeptical community, as well as friendly toward Harris, who stated after the piece appeared: “Buzzfeed is on the continuum of journalistic integrity and unscrupulousness somewhere toward the unscrupulous side.” Whether or not the site is any less scrupulous than a writer who would use the sexual assault and murder of three women as the opening hook—and nothing else—in his little philosophy book is possibly beside the point. More relevant is the fact that, as Wright puts it, Harris’s characterization of the story’s source “isn’t true in any relevant sense.” Buzzfeed does real journalism, and the article about Krauss is as thoroughly reported and sourced as the most reputable investigations into any number of other public figures. With his blanket dismissal, Harris doesn’t sound much like a man who cares “massively” about logic or rationality. (Neither did Krauss, for that matter, when he said last year in the face of all evidence: “Science itself overcomes misogyny and prejudice and bias. It’s built in.”) But he has good reason to be uneasy. The article in Buzzfeed isn’t just about Krauss, but about the culture of behavior within the skeptical community itself:

What’s particularly infuriating, said Lydia Allan, the former cohost of the Dogma Debate podcast, is when male skeptics ask how they could draw more women into their circles. “I don’t know, maybe not put your hands all over us? That might work,” she said sarcastically. “How about you believe us when we tell you that shit happens to us?”

Having just read the first two pages of Free Will again, I can think of another way, too. But that’s probably just my amygdala talking.

Written by nevalalee

May 21, 2018 at 9:38 am

The divided self

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Julian Jaynes

Last night, I found myself browsing through one of the oddest and most interesting books in my library: Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I don’t know how familiar Jaynes’s work remains among educated readers these days—although the book is still in print after almost forty years—but it deserves to be sought out by anyone interested in problems of psychology, ancient literature, history, or creativity. Jayne’s central hypothesis, which still startles me whenever I type it, is that consciousness as we know it is a relatively recent development that emerged sometime within the last three thousand years, or after the dawn of language and human society. Before this, an individual’s decisions were motivated less by internal deliberation than by verbal commands that wandered from one part of the brain into another, and which were experienced as the hallucinated voice of a god or dead ancestor. Free will, as we conceive of it now, didn’t exist; instead, we acted in automatic, almost robotic obedience to those voices, which seemed to come from an entity outside ourselves.

As Richard Dawkins writes: “It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former, but I’m hedging my bets.” It’s so outrageous, in fact, that its novelty has probably prevented it from being more widely known, even though Jaynes’s hypothesis seems more plausible—if no less shattering—the more you consider his argument. He notes, for instance, that when we read works like the Iliad, we’re confronted by a model of human behavior strikingly different from our own: as beautifully as characters like Achilles can express themselves, moments of action or decision are attributed to elements of an impersonal psychic apparatus, the thumos or the phrenes or the noos, that are less like our conception of the soul than organs of the body that stand apart from the self. (As it happens, much of my senior thesis as an undergraduate in classics was devoted to teasing out the meanings of the word noos as it appears in the poems of Pindar, who wrote at a much later date, but whose language still reflects that earlier tradition. I hadn’t read Jaynes at the time, but our conclusions aren’t that far apart.)

Sigmund Freud

The idea of a divided soul is an old one: Jaynes explains the Egyptian ka, or double, as a personification of that internal voice, which was sometimes perceived as that of the dead pharaoh. And while we’ve mostly moved on to a coherent idea of the self, or of a single “I,” the concept breaks down on close examination, to the point where the old models may deserve a second look. (It’s no accident that Freud circled back around to these divisions with the id, the ego, and the superego, which have no counterparts in physical brain structure, but are rather his attempt to describe human behavior as he observed it.) Even if we don’t go as far as such philosophers as Sam Harris, who denies that free will doesn’t exist at all, there’s no denying that much of our behavior arises from parts of ourselves that are inaccessible, even alien, to that “I.” We see this clearly in patterns of compulsive behavior, in the split in the self that appears in substance abuse or other forms of addiction, and, more benignly, in the moments of intuition or insight that creative artists feel as inspirations from outside—an interpretation that can’t be separated from the etymology of the word “inspiration” itself.`

And I’ve become increasingly convinced that coming to terms with that divided self is central to all forms of creativity, however we try to explain it. I’ve spoken before of rough drafts as messages from my past self, and of notetaking as an essential means of communication between those successive, or alternating, versions of who I am. A project like a novel, which takes many months to complete, can hardly be anything but a collaboration between many different selves, and that’s as true from one minute to the next as it is over the course of a year or more. Most of what I do as a writer is a set of tactics for forcing those different parts of the brain to work together, since no one faculty—the intuitive one that comes up with ideas, the architectural or musical one that thinks in terms of structure, the visual one that stages scenes and action, the verbal one that writes dialogue and description, and the boringly systematic one that cuts and revises—could come up with anything readable on its own. I don’t hear voices, but I’m respectful of the parts of myself I can’t control, even as I do whatever I can to make them more reliable. All of us do the same thing, whether we’re aware of it or not. And the first step to working with, and within, the divided self is acknowledging that it exists.

Moss Hart’s train scene, or the importance of slowing things down

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George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart

In his famous theatrical memoir Act One, Moss Hart talks about the quiet scene that saved an entire play. The work was Once in a Lifetime, the first of his eight collaborations with George S. Kaufman, and although it was a classic comedy loaded with gags and funny lines, it died on the stage: at every performance, he could sense the audience growing more restless, and he ended up with three days left before opening night with no idea of how to fix it. Finally, Sam Harris, the producer, delivered a verdict: “It’s a noisy play, kid. One of the noisiest plays I’ve ever been around.” Harris continued:

Except for those two minutes at the beginning of the first act, there isn’t another spot in this whole play where two people sit down and talk quietly to each other…It’s a tiring play to sit through, kid. I can almost feel them begin to get tired all around me. That stage is so damn full of actors and scenery and costumes and props all the time they never get a chance to catch their breath and listen to the play. Sure they laugh, but I think they’re longing to see that stage just once with maybe two or three people on it quietly talking the whole thing over. Give them a chance to sit back themselves and kind of add the whole thing up.

Rocked by this advice, Hart went for a long, solitary walk through the moonlit night, and at four in the morning, the answer hit him. All it would require was one new scene, using an existing set—a train—where two of the characters could talk over what had happened in the plot so far. It would give the audience a breather, as well as a chance to consolidate the story, and it wouldn’t cost anything to stage, although it would require throwing away another set that had been built at great expense. Hart went to Kaufman with the idea the next day, and although it took some convincing, they finally went ahead with it. And on opening night, not only did the scene work wonderfully as a pause in the action, but it got an enormous reaction in its own right. Jokes got huge laughs; even straight lines seemed funny; and the rest of the play sped along on the resulting momentum, all thanks to one scene in which the audience, for once, had been given a chance to process what had happened and anticipate what came next. Hart concludes: “The vital scenes of a play are played as much by the audience, I suppose, as they are by the actors on stage.”

Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

There are a lot of lessons to be unpacked here, which is why I’ve devoted so much space to this story. (I owe my knowledge of it, incidentally, to a rather unlikely souce: Al Jean’s commentary track on the fifteenth season of The Simpsons, in which he notes that Hart’s story taught him to insert a quiet scene with Homer and Marge in bed, just talking over the plot, whenever an episode wasn’t working. It’s for insights like this that I continue to buy and listen to the box sets for later seasons, even after I’ve mostly lost interest in the episodes themselves.) The first is the obvious point that a movie, book, or play can’t consist of one manic high point after another: if a story is too exhausting, or too “noisy,” it’s only going to wear out the audience. So many action movies, for instance, consist of nothing but one big set piece after another, as if they’re terrified of allowing the viewer’s attention to stray for a second. The result is usually the opposite: the audience wearily regards every gunfight or car chase as more of the same. A break in the action allows us to decide how we feel about the story so far, instead of just reacting to one development after another, and by including moments of quiet, the high points can stand out, rather than degenerating into a blur of activity.

And this is about more than just giving the audience a physical breather. The best works of art appeal to multiple parts of the brain, and there’s a sense of relief when a narrative that has been operating on an immediate, visceral level slows down to allow our more contemplative selves to join in on the fun. One of my favorite examples is the little scene between Indy and his father on the blimp in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which gives us some wonderful character moments—”I respected your privacy. And I taught you self-reliance“—as well as a briefing on where we’ve been and where we’re going, just before the chase begins anew. (It’s telling that both Hart’s train scene and Indy’s blimp scene take place on modes of transportation, as the characters find themselves in transit from one plot point to another. That’s shrewd story construction, since it reassures the audience that we’re still heading somewhere even as the plot applies the brakes.) And it’s a lesson I’ve tried to apply to my own fiction, which otherwise threatens to consist of one damned thing after another. If you’ve done it properly, everything else seems to play at a higher level. As Mahler says: “If you think you’re boring your audience, go slower, not faster.”

Written by nevalalee

October 15, 2013 at 8:14 am

Do novelists have free will? Part 2

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A page from my rough draft

When we look at how our minds really work, there’s a strong case to be made that free will isn’t as important as free won’t. We all have a strong intuition that we’re ultimately responsible for how we act and behave, but what we think of as our deliberate actions seem to arise from a stratum of the brain that isn’t normally accessible to conscious thought, and we often unconsciously set ourselves in motion long before we’re aware of making that choice. Benjamin Libet, whose famous experiment was the one that cast grave doubts on the idea of volitional control in the first place, proposed an elegant solution to this apparent problem: the role of consciousness is to veto certain proposals from the unconscious mind while approving others, sifting through and evaluating the possible actions with which it’s presented. This veto power, if it exists, necessarily takes place in a very short window of time, something on the order of a tenth of a second. But if you were to slow down the process and translate the results into a concrete, tangible form, you’d have something oddly similar to what an author experiences while writing a novel—except that the character you’re creating is yourself.

Writing fiction is certainly one of the most peculiar pursuits in which a human being can engage, but really, it’s not so different from any other kind of focused human activity. In theory, you have complete freedom to write whatever you want on the blank page, but in practice, it isn’t so straightforward. You can’t write a sentence without being constrained by the conventions of language, by your own abilities, and by your mood when you sit down at your desk. Ideas, both big and small, generally don’t arise from an effort of the will: they appear, mysteriously, from some shadowy part of the brain. Yet a good writer can influence even the factors over which he seems to have little control, less through what he does in the moment than by what he’s done at every moment before. You can improve your craft over time, increasing the range of possible sentences you’re able to write; you can develop habits that will allow you to write in any emotional state; you can even learn to generate ideas on demand. Or you can do none of this. Whichever way you go, though, you’ll find that your small, unconscious artistic choices are really determined by the seeds you’ve planted in the past—which is a lot like how it works in real life.

A page from my rough draft

Of course, that doesn’t bring us any closer to cracking the problem of free will. As Sam Harris might point out, and has, even if we can influence ourselves with our past behavior, that still doesn’t explain what influenced the influences. But there’s another stage in the writing process that does look a lot—at least to me—like the product of conscious choice, and that’s revision. “For artists, writing has always meant, in effect, the art of endless revising,” John Gardner says, and to the extent that a writer’s personality is expressed in his work, it’s in how he chooses to revise. First drafts are the id of the writing life: they’re rough, unconsidered, and as horrifying in their own way as the unwanted thoughts we encounter in dreams or in our less guarded moments. I suspect that the rough drafts of all writers at the same level of experience look more or less the same, which is to say, awful. In revision, though, you find yourself evaluating the choices you made the first time around, deleting the ones that don’t work and refining the ones that do, and the result, however far it may fall short of your intentions, comes as close to a fully considered action as a human being is capable of achieving.

My argument, then, is that free will in art is something that unfolds over time. Each choice we make may be accidental, serendipitous, or random when it first occurs, but it’s in the act of selecting, polishing, and editing, executed over the course of many months, that we start to find true freedom. And that’s the way it works in life, too. I may be the product of influences I can’t control or decisions I made without conscious deliberation when I was much younger, but it’s in my ongoing attempt to revise myself as a person—using the input of those hidden processes while also subjecting them to what feels like a higher level of consideration—that responsibility enters the picture. Free will seems to disappear the more closely we look at it, just as I’d have trouble explaining why I chose one word over another as I typed this sentence, but it emerges once we stand back to look at the system and its evolution as a whole. This kind of revision, with influences on the smallest scale affecting the larger which affects the smaller in turn, is something we all exercise from one minute to the next, and if it isn’t freedom, it’s close enough to make the distinction seem irrelevant. Because if writing is the art of endless revising, that’s true of life as well.

Written by nevalalee

July 25, 2013 at 9:01 am

Posted in Writing

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Do novelists have free will? Part 1

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Sam Harris

Recently, as part of a writing project I’m hoping to finish within the next couple of months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the problem of free will. Free will, like consciousness, is a phenomenon that seems perfectly obvious in our everyday life but increasingly elusive the more we try to pin it down. As David Eagleman points out in his book Incognito, science has long since established that much of what we think of as our own intentions and behavior arise from parts of the brain that aren’t immediately accessible to conscious thought. In the famous Libet experiment, for instance, subjects were told to flick a finger at the time of their choosing, while recording what they perceived as the exact moment at which they decided to move. What Benjamin Libet discovered was that readiness potentials associated with muscle movement could be detected in the brain about half a second before the subjects were conscious of having made the decision. Later tests have found similar brain activity as much as seven seconds in advance—which implies that consciousness, at least under some circumstances, is really just a way of retrospectively rationalizing actions we’ve undertaken before we’re even aware of it.

To some extent, we all know how this feels. This morning, for instance, while mulling over today’s blog post, I brushed my teeth, showered, shaved—and then brushed my teeth again. Why? I don’t know. My eye happened to fall on the toothbrush by the sink, and without any conscious input whatsoever, my “brushing my teeth” subroutine was absentmindedly activated for the second time in twenty minutes. Later, I made coffee and my morning omelet, and it’s safe to say that I was operating mostly on autopilot: I was watching my daughter and thinking about what I was going to write at the same time, so I was more than happy to outsource my breakfast to a different part of my brain. This kind of automation is a necessary part of survival, as well as basic happiness: I’d go crazy if I had to consciously think over each step of such routine activities, much less to remind myself to breathe twelve times each minute. It’s far less comfortable to acknowledge that higher levels of our actions and behavior may be equally out of our control, but the more we try to grasp what we mean by free will, the more it seems to slip through our fingers.

Samuel Johnson

Opponents of free will certainly have a strong case on their side. Every human thought or action arises from the firing of the brain’s neurons, which in turn are governed by the laws of physics, and attempts to explain consciousness by reference to quantum mechanics are really just a way of replacing one mystery with another. Go down far enough and we’re nothing but physical processes, and any event in the brain, big or small, can be traced back to another. Even if we’re willing to entertain the existence of a soul, this doesn’t solve the underlying problem of the unconscious roots of our influences and intentions, as Sam Harris notes in his little book Free Will: “If you don’t know what your soul is going to do next, you are not in control.” Harris writes elsewhere that most attempts to salvage the idea of free will begin with the premise that they want to prove, and that such efforts have more in common with theology than science or philosophy. And although Harris’s case is in some ways irrefutable, one is still tempted to respond to it in the same way that Samuel Johnson, in Boswell’s Life, replied to the doctrine of idealism:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it—”I refute it thus.”

It might seem equally quaint to point to one’s subjective perception of free will and say: “I refute it thus.” But that’s really all most of the arguments in favor of free will can do—and make no mistake, it’s a powerful piece of evidence. What Daniel Dennett has called “our important intuition that we are the authors of our moral decisions” is something we can’t easily dismiss. And although it’s far outside this scope of this blog to make a case one way or the other, I think it’s worthwhile to consider it through one particular lens: that of creative activity. At first glance, the act of writing a novel—or composing a symphony or executing a fresco—seems like a strong demonstration of willed, conscious activity: each book is a series of choices, executed over a long period of time and with a lot of reflection, constrained only by the artist’s ability. As much as any action in which human beings engage, the novel is an exercise in sustained consciousness that can take years to complete, and the result, however flawed it may be, can only be something that the author meant to do. Or can it? Tomorrow, I’ll be looking at the process of writing as an act of free will, and try to consider how much, or how little, it really explains.

Written by nevalalee

July 24, 2013 at 8:58 am

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