Making Sense with Sam Harris

Making Sense with Sam Harris


Self Description:
“Join neuroscientist, philosopher, and best-selling author Sam Harris as he explores important and controversial questions about the human mind, society, and current events.”

You simply can’t talk about this podcast without talking about Sam Harris.  He makes the show what it is, for better and occasionally (I’ll even say rarely) for worse.  I’m somewhat ashamed to say this, but it’s taken me years to get past the surface-level impression I gleaned from secondary sources regarding Sam Harris.  Mostly I thought that he was just another militant atheist making money off the back of New Atheism, and I was pretty much over that edgy fad after adolescence.  From these secondary sources, I refused to give Harris a chance and listen to who he actually is, and what his ideas are, from the man himself.  That’s a character flaw that I’m trying to get past.  Anyway, I was first exposed to Harris through another podcast I enjoy, The Tim Ferriss Show, and I’ve not looked back since.  So this review is in part a reminder that hearsay is hearsay, and that when it comes to your opinions on people and ideas, do your homework, tune out the talking heads, and verify for yourself so that you can form your own opinions.

Sam Harris is smart.  He’s definitely smarter than me.  And he’s probably smarter than you, too.  That’s the first thing.  The second thing he is is a brilliant rhetorician.  Probably the best I’ve ever heard.  The man’s ability to dissect an argument into its component parts, find the weak points, and attack without mercy (and, somehow, seemingly without emotion) is unparalleled as far as I’ve ever encountered.  What’s better is that he does it in a way that anyone can understand in an almost step-by-step manner, by both attacking assumptions as well as following conclusions to their logical (and often horrifying) ends.  Occasionally, Harris gets bogged down in these arguments to the detriment of the show, and so his unrelenting style is at times a double-edged sword.  But for the most part this is not the case, and the majority of the time he uses logical rhetoric as a means to an end--that end being truth and clarity.

Sam Harris is controversial.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t state that, too.  This, I believe, is also a product of his unrelenting style.  It’s a product of his intellectual honesty and sincerity as well.  Harris is controversial mostly because he is so unwilling to back down.  It’s not that he courts controversy, necessarily.  It’s more that, from his perspective, it would be dishonest to assert anything other than his perceived truth on any given matter--if he remained silent, that would be as good as a lie.  And much of the time, I find myself agreeing with him, not (I don't think) because of confirmation bias on my part, but because through the power of his logic he has won me to his side.  I feel fairly confident stating that Harris is, more or less, a classical liberal.  But he’s also won the chagrin of much of today’s liberal community by staking out controversial, politically incorrect positions on topics from Islam to race to gender, and he’s widely regarded by many to be Islamophobic and elitist.  On that, all I’ll say is give the man a chance to speak for himself, and remember that hearsay is hearsay.  Anyone can say anything about anyone else on Twitter with very few consequences, and cognitive biases have a way of turning untruths into truths so long as they’re repeated often enough and loudly enough.

Enough on that--let’s talk about the podcast itself.  Harris has a topically wide-ranging cast of guests on the show, and has something between an interview and a conversation with each of them.  What they talk about may be anything from spirituality (Harris is an avid meditator and a promoter of that activity) to politics to science and technology.  Regardless, it’s nearly always fascinating to witness Harris’ skill in teasing out fine, often technical points and fleshing them out for anyone to understand through analogies.  
Harris is an important thinker in today’s zeitgeist.  Not listening to the measured and methodical points he has to contribute on any given topic will come at your own expense.  You don’t have to agree with everything he says--I don’t--but to dismiss him out of hand would almost certainly be a mistake--one that I myself nearly made, and one I’ll do my damnedest not to make again.  

Note: since my original review of this podcast, which was previously called Waking Up with Sam Harris, it has changed its name to Making Sense with Sam Harris.

Notable Episodes:
I only recently started listening to the podcast, so I haven’t visited the whole backlog, but so far:

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2 Dope Queens