Making Sense | Sam Harris

Summary of: Making Sense: Conversations on Consciousness, Morality, and the Future of Humanity
By: Sam Harris


Embark on a mind-expanding exploration of consciousness, morality, and the future of humanity with Sam Harris’s ‘Making Sense’. This book invites you to delve into the enigmatic realms of consciousness, the evolutionary purpose behind our emotions, and the fascinating concepts of panpsychism and integrated information theory. In addition, the book probes the potential ramifications of emerging artificial intelligence, the illusory nature of selfhood, and the complex relationship between free will, moral responsibility, and justice. Through a series of thought-provoking discussions, Harris poses relevant questions pertaining to racism, the ascent of authoritarianism, as well as the implications of limitless knowledge and intelligence. ‘Making Sense’ stimulates the intellect and challenges the way you perceive and understand the world while providing novel perspectives to ponder.

The Mystery of Consciousness

Defining what consciousness is and exploring the evolutionary purpose behind it remains a puzzle. While philosophers have come up with easy and hard problems of consciousness, neuroscientists like Anil Seth view it as contributing to the body’s internal state regulation. However, the purpose of consciousness is still shrouded in mystery, and the question of whether other species possess it remains unanswered.

Is consciousness a universal phenomenon?

The concept of consciousness has challenged our understanding throughout history. While we tend to associate memory with an individual’s ability to remember past events and knowledge, our brains process memory in numerous ways. Scientifically, we can differentiate between animals capable of conscious experiences, however, there is still debate around the consciousness of smaller life forms. The idea of panpsychism suggests that consciousness is an inherent feature of the universe, and integrated information theory provides mathematical metrics for measuring levels of consciousness in organisms. This theory raises compelling questions about the possibility that even inanimate objects may be conscious entities. The implications of such theories are paramount in our quest for understanding the future existence of superintelligent AI that may or may not be conscious.

Conscious Machines?

The possibility of creating superintelligent, conscious AI poses ethical dilemmas for humanity.

Scientists at the University of Milan have developed the perturbational complexity index, a tool that measures consciousness in humans using transcranial magnetic stimulation. However, this tool’s effectiveness for measuring the consciousness of non-biological entities, such as artificial intelligence, is uncertain.

Regardless, it’s possible that humanity could create machines that are or appear conscious. Neuroscientist Anil Seth proposes two potential paths for approaching this possibility: expanding our circle of concern to include conscious machines or diminishing our concern for them, leading to the possibility of mistreatment similar to Westworld.

The author argues that the worst scenario is creating superintelligent AI that is not conscious, which could lead to unintended consequences if programmed to complete goals without regard for ethical concerns. Despite our existence bias, philosopher Thomas Metzinger suggests that humanity’s destruction wouldn’t be necessarily bad, given the prevalence of suffering in existence.

Given the potential ethical dilemmas, it is imperative that AI is programmed with care and aligned with humanity’s goals and ethical concerns.

The Illusion of Self-Control

Despite our belief that we are in control of our own minds, neuroscientific knowledge has proven otherwise. Thomas Metzinger’s self-model theory of subjectivity argues that we have no real self, but rather a persistent self-model in our brain. The DMN-plus network in our brains constantly picks up information from our environment and converts it into thoughts, further blurring the lines between reality and perception. However, through meditation, we can break the illusion and gain control over our thoughts.

Free Will, Fact or Fiction?

Humans do not possess free will as our behavior is influenced by our environment and biology. Behavioral biologists argue that there is no biological basis to support the concept of free will. Instead, our hormone levels, brain activity, and biology shape our behavior, making us products of our environment and biology. Criminal justice must evolve to reflect this realization as we explore alternative ways of rehabilitating offenders, such as neurobiological engineering.

The concept of free will has intrigued humans for centuries, but what if it’s nothing more than a figment of our imagination? Behavioral biologists like Robert Sapolsky posit that our sensory environment and hormone levels determine our behavior, robbing us of free will. Neurobiologically speaking, our behavior is pre-determined and influenced by events that occurred many years ago, making it impossible to claim the existence of free will.

Charles Whitman, infamous for the Texas Tower Sniper mass shooting, had a tumor that caused him to act violently- forcing us to question the presence of free will. If we view a murderer as a victim of biology, we must accept that we all are products of our neurobiology; albeit subtler. If we can identify the specific clusters of neurons that catalyze violent behavior, we can trigger alternate neural pathways that guide people towards better decision-making. Legal implications abound as this understanding of free will challenges the basis of our justice system, which relies on retribution. One day, however, rehabilitative efforts through neurobiological engineering will become the norm.

Understanding the Complexities of Racism

Racism has been a significant part of American history, and it still exists in society today. Glenn Loury, an economics and social sciences professor, offers a definition of racism that includes contempt or devaluation of another person’s humanity based on their presumptive racial identity. While many people claim not to be racist, unconscious biases favoring one’s racial group can still exist. These biases may be due to structural racism, which puts black people at a disadvantage and leads to disparities such as the higher percentage of blacks in America’s incarcerated and killed by police population. However, Loury finds the narrative of structural racism inadequate in describing all racial disparities, as it suggests that society provides only dead ends for black people and denies them agency. It’s essential to have honest discussions about these issues to address them effectively.

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