“After On” Audio Series: Episode 6 of 8
Terrorism, super AI risk, and how Sam Harris became Sam Harris
I recently recorded a luxuriously unhurried conversation with author, neuroscientist, and public intellectual Sam Harris. Sam first entered the public eye with the release of his 2004 bestseller The End of Faith. A rumination on 9/11 and an endorsement of atheism (though that word is used precisely once in its text), The End of Faith peaked at #4 on the New York Times bestseller list. Sam’s subsequent bestsellers have included Letter to a Christian Nation, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, and the collaboration Islam and the Future of Tolerance.
To access our interview, either:
- Type “After On” into your podcast app’s search field, or . . .
- Click the “play” button at the top of this page, or . . .
- Click here, then click the blue “View on iTunes” button in the upper left corner of the page (requires iTunes, of course),
Today Sam occupies a unique patch of turf between neuroscience (in which he holds a Ph.D. from UCLA), morality, spirituality, atheism, and sharp-elbowed geopolitical debate. In this guise, he stars in the most viral video clip to ever emerge from a Bill Maher show (a high-bar accomplishment), which features a near brawl between him and Ben Affleck about Islamophobia.
Sam’s reach and prominence have skyrocketed over the past year-plus, due to the explosive popularity of his podcast (which shares its name with his book Waking Up). As he points out in our interview, even his most successful writing take years to reach a few hundred thousand people — whereas his podcast episodes connect with over two million listeners within hours of being published.
With this ballooning visibility has come expanding controversy. Sam outrages many on the right with his frequent screeds about President Trump, who he started denouncing early in the nomination cycle. He meanwhile tramples toes on the left with critiques of political correctness, and denunciations of the strident political orthodoxy in academia and elsewhere — even when he agrees with elements of that orthodoxy.
This stems from his position as a free-speech absolutist. Open debate, he maintains, is “the master value.” It’s our prime corrective mechanism for shedding error and moving toward enlightenment, however slowly and erratically. Progress is imperiled when unpopular views are stifled — be it the notion of a heliocentric solar system or the latest heresy denounced by the campus in-crowd. Harris is perhaps most criticized for his antipathy toward Islamic radicalism. Though critical of all religions, he contends that Islam’s association with present-day violence merits particular censure.
Sam and I discuss all of this. But we also spend about an hour considering the long path that made him into the person he now is. As it happens, he and I overlapped as undergrads at Stanford. But we didn’t know each other, as I was on a pre-yuppie track when he was about to drop out to spend eleven years meditating (and yes, that’s an exaggeration — but only a slight one). Whether you embrace or reject Sam’s perspective, his personal history is highly germane to it, and I believe it’s more fully explored in this interview than elsewhere.
This is the sixth audiocast in an eight-part series that I previewed to Medium members and am now podcasting. They all add context to my novel After On — but it is NOT necessary to read the novel in order to listen to and learn from them.AI Significant discussion of the book is delayed until the very last section of the audiocast, when my cohost (Tom Merritt) and I relate the interview to the storyline.
I’m increasingly likely to continue creating new episodes after the first eight are public. If I do, the podcast’s tagline and theme will be “unhurried conversations with thinkers, founders, and scientists.” If you like the sound of that, you may wish to subscribe. To do so, simply follow instruction set #1 or #3 at the top of this page.