Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sam Harris (a.k.a. Dr. Kall), A World Without Lies

I've recently been reading The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. Up to page 133, I found the book wanting but was in agreement with many of his ideas. The great exception up to that point was around Harris's view on Free Will. But I wasn't fazed. I'm used to being in the minority here. I find myself in a world where I'm surrounded by otherwise highly insightful people who are determinists. They range from the purest perplexing but rational versions, to the more mild mannered but less consequential compatiblists. I disagreed with some other stuff as well. But aside from his assault on Free Will, it was nothing major. And then, the other night, just as I was about to turn off my reading lamp, I was utterly bewildered by what hit me on page 133: A World without Lying?

In this section, Sam Harris imagines what future science will do for lie detecting. He imagines a world where technology has probed so deep into our thoughts that deception has become impossible. He imagines:

Just as we've come to expect that certain public spaces will be free of nudity, sex, loud swearing and cigarette smoke – and now think nothing of the behavioral constraints imposed upon us whenever we leave the privacy of our homes – we may come to expect that certain places and occasions will require scrupulous truth telling.

But he doesn't stop there. He imagines a most invasive society, one were the Fifth Amendment that protects us against self-incrimination has become a toothless tiger. He even suggests that the Fifth is a cultural atavism: 

[The] prohibition against compelled testimony itself appears to be a relic of a more superstitious age. It was once widely believed that lying under oath would damn a person's soul for eternity, and it was thought that no one, not even a murderer, should be placed between the rock of Justice and so hard a place as hell.

As I drifted into sleep, my thoughts drifted into a dystopic world, a world without white lies, without secrets. Before me stood Dr. Sam Harris, portable fMRI in hand, compelling my testaments in good conscience before the Law.

What Sam Harris fails to take into account in his book is that this scenario has been imagined before. His ideas in regard to lying and the Fifth Amendment illustrate more keenly than anything else up to page 136 what I find wanting in his book. He fails to explore the consequences of his interesting ideas in any greater depth. And I think I know why: Sam Harris is a man of facts, not imagination. His aversion to fiction undermines his otherwise interesting speculations. He assembles the relevant facts, but fails to combine them into an insightful whole. He makes no secret of his anti-fictonalist stance for a lack of a better word:

How has the ability to speak  (and read and write of late) given modern humans a greater purchase on the world? What after all, has been worth communicating these last 50,000 years? I hope it will not seem philistine of me to suggest that our ability to create fiction1 has not been the driving force here. The power of language surely results from the fact that it allows mere words to substitute for direct experiences and mere thoughts to simulate possible states of the world.

But what is fiction? Isn't good fiction the process of simulating possible states of the world? Or, at least, through allegory illustrating ideas relevant to such states? There is further evidence of his anti-fictionalist stance earlier in the book. From the last paragraph on page 46:

No doubt, there are still some people who will reject any description of human nature that was not first communicated in iambic pentameter.

I don't know if poetry is relevant to moral philosophy. I've speculated that it might be an effective way of communication relationships. But I suppose philosophy and science can do without poetry. What it can't do without is fiction. Even the most empirically confirmed scientific theories are born in the caldron of our imagination. And, contrary to Harris, I think it's the ability to tell more powerful stories that in part drove the evolution of language. Science and technology are not mechanical processes, but evolutionary processes driven by our ability to imagine the previously unimagined. Art drives science, just as science drives art. And technology is their fulcrum. Technology ties them together into a rising helix. 

The works of Jules Verne are some of the more obvious examples of how fiction fuels innovation. But there are many others, from the myth of Icarus to the works of Stanislaw Lem. And others have guided our evolution by speculating on our individual, social and political conditions. Like Dirty Hands by Jean-Paul Startre, or the Epic of Gilgamesh. The list of fiction that has contributed to human evolution is far too long to enumerate. Some of them, like Kallocain, are cautionary tales.

Kallocain was written in 1940 by the Swedish novelist and poet Karin Boye. It tells of a future where all aspects of an individual's life are lived in service to the Worldstate. The story is narrated by Leo Kall, a 40 years old idealistic chemist fully devoted to the state. He invents a truth serum that he believes will safeguard society against potential treason. Forced to answer truthfully questions about their deepest secrets and hidden intentions, disloyalty becomes an impossibility for subjects of the Worldstate . Kall believes he is doing good. But, faced with the possibilities of his own invention, he forcefully injects the truth serum into his wife who he believes is having an affair with his supervisor. The novel is an exploration of personal trust, love, intimacy  and all the other complex building blocks of society. 

But the point here is not to review Kallocain. Or support my belief that Karin Boye's speculations are deeply insightful. The point is that Sam Harris lacks the insight to realize that fictional stories are a crucial part our successful evolution. He should be more careful in investigating what others have imagined (not just empirically proved) prior to his writings. And be open to the possibility that some novelists and poets are as insightful, intelligent and astute as the best scientists and philosophers.

Cautionary fiction is a tricky beast. When something so revolutionary as completely accurate mind reading has not yet been achieved, it's hard to know exactly what will be the consequence. Must we repeatedly inject the serum before we fully comprehend its potential effect? What we do know is that abuses of so-called civil rights have had deeply corrosive effects on society in the past. Karin Boye wrote Kallocain as a reflection on what was happening around her at the time. When visiting the Soviet Union in 1928 and Germany in 1932, she had gained a closer understanding of what might happen when you begin fully subjugating humans to the state.

It's hard to imagine anything more invasive than reading someone's thoughts. To brush off the Fifth Amendment as atavism is quite narrow minded. Regardless of its origins, the Fifth has proven to be a good brick in the bulwark against egregious government behaviors. Defending civil rights is not about defending some nebulous personal authority to be the captain of one's ship for supernatural reasons. Civil rights are a safeguard against what is not in the interest of a successful social species.

I have little doubt that the day will come when we can use neural imagery to effectively "read minds". We read minds similarly, but less intimately, when listening, reading or watching someone's facial expressions. When the day comes where we can no longer hide behind a wall of stillness and silence, I hope We the People will have something akin to the Fifth Amendment to protect us against both our neighbors concerned foremost with their own interests and, self-reflectively, the state itself. And, last but not least, knowledgeable and well intentioned people like Dr. Harris.

[1] Italics by author.