Today we’re presenting the second installment of my wide-ranging interview with outspoken author, podcaster, philosopher, and recovering neuroscientist Sam Harris. Part one ran yesterday. If you missed it, click right here. Otherwise, you can press play on the embedded audio player or pull up the transcript—both of which are below.
In today’s installment, we discuss some of the experiences that shaped Sam’s perspectives and interests. His father was raised Quaker, and his mother was Jewish—but neither were at all religious, and Sam had a wholly secular upbringing. As a freshman at Stanford (where he and I happened to overlap as undergraduates), he recalls being irked by the special treatment he felt the Bible received in a required course on Western culture. However, he didn’t label himself an “atheist” at the time—although in retrospect, he essentially was one.
Everything changed when he tried the drug MDMA (which is more commonly known to its friends as “Molly” or “Ecstasy”). This wasn’t at a party or rave but part of a quiet exploration of the mind’s capabilities (more of a Timothy Leary experience than a Ken Kesey one, for those versed in the history of psychedelics).
This launched a 10-year hiatus from school. Sam got very deep into meditation during this period, as well as writing fiction (none of which has been published). He recalls, “If you had asked me what I thought the universe was like at that moment, undoubtedly some New Age gobbledygook could have come out, which I now view as quasi-religious. There’s a fair amount of confusion there. I’ve debated people, like Deepak Chopra, who still promulgate that kind of confusion.”
Sam eventually returned to Stanford, no doubt as the campus’ oldest junior, and completed an undergrad degree in philosophy. Increasingly fascinated by the nature of consciousness, he then executed a major pivot and entered UCLA’s PhD program in neuroscience. We discuss his research, during which he essentially created a “belief detector.” Today’s conversation ends with the release of Sam’s first bestselling book, .
Buy the ticket, take the ride
If you enjoy this installment and just can’t wait for part three (which will go up on Ars tomorrow), you can find it in my podcast feed, where it first appeared on September 12 of last year. The full archive of my episodes can be found on my site or right in your favorite podcast app by searching for the words “After On” (the podcast’s title). There you’ll find deep-dive interviews with other world-class thinkers, founders, and scientists—tackling subjects including robotics, cryptocurrency, astrophysics, drones, genomics, synthetic biology, neuroscience, consciousness, privacy and government hacking, and a whole lot more.
In case you’re interested, the show’s current episode is an interview with Martin Rees, who is Great Britain’s Astronomer Royal. Martin and I talk about the most eerie and violent phenomena in the known Universe. Specifically, gamma ray bursts in the violent department and fast radio bursts in the eerie department. We also spend a great deal of time discussing the existential risks society might face in the 21st century.
And with that, I hope you join me tomorrow here on Ars for part three of this conversation.
This special edition of the Ars Technicast podcast can be accessed in the following places:
https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-ars-technicast/id522504024?mt=2 (Might take several hours after publication to appear.)