Welcome to another episode of Conversations with Coleman. I’m your host Coleman Hughes. My guest today is Sean Carroll. Sean Carroll is a theoretical physicist specializing in quantum mechanics, gravity and cosmology. He’s a research professor in the Walter Burke Institute for Theoretical Physics in the California Institute of Technology Department of Physics. He has been a contributor to the physics blog, Cosmic Variance and has published in scientific journals such as Nature as well as other publications including The New York Times, Sky and Telescope and The New Scientist. Sean has his own podcast called Mindscape, which I listened to and highly recommend. And it was in fact one of his episodes that inspired me to reach out to him. Sean did a podcast about how he approaches morality as someone who doesn’t believe in God, who believes questions of right and wrong are socially constructed but nevertheless important. And he used the examples of vegetarianism and racial and gender-based bias in society. And he did something like a 90 minute podcast on the issue. And I found that I appreciated his approach, but actually disagreed with him both on the question of vegetarianism and on the question of how prevalent bias is in society. So I reached out to him in the hopes of having a good conversation and overall we did, but I did make one mistake here, which was that I re-listened to his long podcast just before doing our podcast and when we got to the issue of how much racism exists in society and his attitudes on that, I was trying to draw out the version of his arguments that I had heard and vigorously disagreed with when listening to his solo podcast, but I wasn’t fully drawing it out to the extent that I had expected. And so I ended up sort of seeming to talk past him rather than talk to him. You can probably detect that in the last 20 minutes or so of the podcast. I came into the podcast with expectations based on his articulation of his views prior and those expectations weren’t quite what I met. And I think I had a hard time adjusting to that in real time, which was a mistake and a lesson for the future, but it ended up being overall a good and useful conversation. So I still decided to release it and ultimately you can be the judge. So without further ado, Sean Carroll.
CH: Sean–thanks for being on the podcast.
SC: Sure. Thanks for having me Coleman.
CH: Before you get started, can you just give people a little short summary of how you got into physics and how you got into science writing?
SC: Yeah, you know, I was one of those lucky or, unlucky kids when I was 10 years old, I got fascinated by the Big Bang, black holes, all that cool stuff, quarks–little particles, quantum mechanics. And as far as I can remember, it was not from any person or any science fiction show, I just started reading those books in the library for some reason. I hung out in our local public library in lower Bucks County, Pennsylvania. And I decided that’s what I want to do for a living. And it wasn’t, you know a straight line, but and I don’t recommend that people decide what they want to do for a living when they’re 10 years old, but I’m what I’m doing is pretty darn close to what I thought I wanted to do. But I was always interested in many things at once. I’m always a short attention span kind of person so um, I’ve always been active in trying to spread out from not only doing the academic, refereed physics literature kind of writing, but other kinds of writing, both popularizing physics and getting into philosophy and other areas.
CH: Excellent. So uh, the reason I I I wanted to have you on was because you you have a podcast called Sean Carroll’s Mindscape, which I highly recommend to people. It’s one of my favorites, and you you have really interesting conversations with physicists, philosophers, scientists of all stripes. You had Wynton Marsalis on, which was one of my…
SC: I did.
CH: Yeah. I used to I used to….
CH: …be one of his students at…
SC: Oh! I didn’t know that.
CH: Yeah, at the at Juilliard Jazz. I’m a trombonist and he was, he, I went the year that he took over the program.
CH: So I got to know him a little bit and it was really interesting to hear you talk to him about the intersection to the extent that that exists of jazz and physics,…
CH: …is really cool.
SC: I really wanted to talk about music but you know, he he as you might know, he wanders all over….
SC: He has opinions about everything.
SC: So I learned that was a that was one of the earlier podcast episodes that I did and I learned early on that the people who you want on your podcast or people who are good at talking no matter what they’re going to be talking about.
CH: Mm. Mm.
SC: So that was a fun episode.
CH: That’s a good lesson for me, too.
CH: So you did this episode recently called, um I think it was called “On Morality and Rationality,”…
CH: …in which you you talked about your kind of the way you look at ethics, right and wrong, from the point of view of someone who doesn’t believe in God, right?
CH: It just, kind of secular morality, and you you talk about that in your book The Big Picture as well. You know, how do we create, you you know, is it is it true that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality in the same way that there’re right and wrong questions to say, you know physics and mathematics. and in what sense can we can we navigate that territory. And you did you took these two case studies, you know to try to apply that ethical framework to the real world and one was ah, vegetari-, the ethics of eating meat and the other was, you were kind of using the quote-unquote “intellectual dark web” as a case study on identity politics, and you know the degree to which different identity groups have been oppressed. How should we respond to that? Ah…What are the, what is true, in the realm of you know, the level of bias different groups are facing today? How do we respond to that etcetera? So, I was you know, I thought there was a lot that I agreed with that you said, and there was a lot I disagreed with. And I thought it would, I really liked the approach you took to it. It was it was very you know that you were kind of trying to demonstrate the way you thought I think was more important than the conclusions you necessarily came to. And I thought it would be good to reach out to you and kind of touch both of those issues perhaps. Um… so maybe, so…
SC: Let me just jump in to agree with you…
SC: …and I’m happy that you caught that in the sense that really what I care about more than agreeing or disagreeing with me because like I said at the beginning of that episode, there’s probably very few people who agree with me on everything I’m going to say in that episode, but I do think that as secular people trying to live moral lives, for those of us.who are fit into that category, it’s important to show our work when it comes to morality and ethics. I think a lot of morality and ethics is still driven by impulse, you know by intuition, by how you were raised. And doing it intellectually and rationally, it is hard (indistinguishable- 2-3 words) it’s very difficult to be right, but I at least want to you know talk about how I get to where I get to…
SC: …and start that conversation or continue it on anyway.
CH: Excellent. So maybe we should start with the ethics of eating meat. Do you…
CH: …want to give a summary of why you think you know, vegetarians who have an ethical position against eating meat are getting it wrong?
SC: Sure. Um, you know, there’s different ways of having an ethical position against eating meat and uh some are more practical, more instrumental, more about the effects on the environment or the you know, the cruelty to animals and I am very sympathetic to those arguments. I agree with the arguments, but as a strategy of responding to the situation, let you know, let’s say the situation that cattle create a lot of ah greenhouse gases, right through their burps… (chuckles) You know, that’s true. And that’s that’s something we should do something about. I just don’t think that not eating meat is the right strategic response to that. I think that what you’re objecting to is something other than the ethics of eating meat. You’re you’re objecting to the way the farming is done. And I think that there’s, if you want to fix that situation, then probably there are more effective strategies than just not buying meat and eating it yourself. The trickier one is there are, is another set of people who become vegetarians because they simply think that killing animals is wrong, killing animals for food is wrong for more straightforwardly ethical reasons that are not sort of via this intermediary of the environment, just the actual act of killing the animal they think is wrong. So that’s that’s a fascinating question. You know, what no matter where you come down on it. This, I think I like talking about it because it strikes to the heart of naturalistic morality, naturalistic in the sense of not believing the supernatural, not naturalistic in the sense of you know, going out into nature and enjoying it. Um. And in fact, I would argue that you know, what you should be thinking about is why is it immoral to kill people? (chuckles) I do think it’s immoral to kill people, but once you’re not religious, I mean once you don’t have, even for me, I’m not even a moral realist. I’m not a moral objectivist, right? So I think that morality is constructed. I think that human beings invent their version of morality. So if someone says killing people is wrong, I’m gonna agree with them. I’m gonna say, “Look you have to explain to me why killing people is wrong. You know, it’s not that the people I kill are going to go to hell after they die. And once they die, they’re gone as far as I’m concerned…
SC: Um….You can imagine a thought experiment where there’s only one person in the world and no one knew them. They had no friends or anything like that so no one else would suffer if they die. Is it wrong to kill them? And there could be an argument that says, you know, “if you killed them, they wouldn’t know about it. They’re dead.” You know, there’s no them to be suffering and therefore, maybe it’s not wrong. I like don’t think that’s right. But I think that has to be a position that’s on the table. I think it’s more right when that same kind of logic is applied to animals. I think that the reason why killing people is wrong, um there’s, it’s a subtle thing and it’s not just that other people will be sad. It’s that you can be sad right now if you think that you might be killed in the immediate future. Like I’m more sympathetic to thinking that if literally everyone was killed instantly and had no idea it was coming, you know, is that morally wrong? I think it is morally wrong, but it’s even though it’s sort of a much more terrible disaster, ah it’s harder to justify why it’s morally wrong. If you’re a naturalist…
SC: …it has to do with something about you know, the space of possibilities that you know, the set of future experiences that human beings could have would be dramatically limited if that disastrous scenario came true, but it’s all about the future, right? That’s that’s my main point is that the reason why killing things is wrong is not because they will suffer after you kill them. It’s because the anticipation of not being around or the anticipation of dying is a moral wrong or at least is something that ethically we would like to avoid as much as possible, and that’s where I think animals are different. I don’t think that animals share that same conception of the future that human beings do. And as I say in the podcast, um, that’s a scientific question in some sense and I could be wrong about it, you know..My best understanding of the cognitive capacities of cows is that you know, they know they don’t worry that you might kill them, you know? If you, if they see that you are killing them, or if they get into a situation where clearly they’re in danger, they will feel bad. But you can’t, you know, explain to them using language that tomorrow they’re going to die. And I think that’s a crucial difference between animals and human beings. Um.The the there has to be a dividing line somewhere. Most people think that eating plants is okay. Somewhere on the continuum from non-life to conscious human beings where we say, “Okay, here’s who you can’t kill, just to eat them.” For me, I draw the line at organisms or species that have the capacity to envision the future and imagine it and feel bad about not existing in it. And that’s why I say that killing human beings is not right, but killing animals, especially for food is, there’s no moral reason not to do that.
CH: That’s interesting. So I’ve always I guess, I became a vegetarian around 15 or 16 I think partly to impress my then girlfriend…
CH: (chuckles) …and partly…
CH: …because I saw those series of Netflix documentaries where the cows are screaming and they sound kind of disturbingly human and there’s…
CH: …like this disgust. And then later, I read Peter Singer’s book, at what’s it called Animal Revolution, I think.
SC: Animal Rights or something like that.
CH: …something like that. Yeah that it was sort of one of the books that launched…
CH: …the animal rights movement and I’ve you know, I haven’t been a vegetarian for probably three years at this point. I I eat meat at almost every meal, but I still am persuaded by the the argument that vegetarians make from from an ethical perspective. And I think you’re the the approach you’re taking is right, which is the same way I think. Killing people is wrong. But as secular people we have to figure out why because we have to get the principal right so that we can apply it fairly in other circumstances or else we’re just gonna to be lost at sea here.
CH: Um. But the reason I have felt that killing something is wrong has very little to do in my mind with whether that being can envision it’s it’s life in the future. Perhaps that’s a small small component of it. For me, it’s always been about the canceled flourishing, the flourishing that would have otherwise happened had the thing not been killed. So for example, I think it’s much worse to kill a baby than it is to kill an 80-year-old because the flourish-, the years of flourishing if you could almost view it, you know, mathematically are you’re taking much more away from the baby than you are from the 80-year-old if you were given that choice. And that’s where I locate the ethical problem with killing humans. It’s not in the pain of killing because imagine if we did like the Avengers and Thanos snaps his finger and we all disappear painlessly. Still, there has to be something wrong with that. Imagine if we were, as you said, we were all the types of creatures that couldn’t envision our future and we all died painlessly. Presumably there has to be something wrong with that. I really think it is about the the flourishing that would otherwise have happened that is not going to happen. And to the extent that an animal has a life that is net positive, which is itself debatable., uh I I guess the reason it’s bad to kill is because you’re canceling the life it otherwise would have had. So what what do you make of that rationale?
SC: Well, I mean, I’m sympathetic. I think that it’s it’s not a crazy rationale. It’s sensible, but I worry that it leads directly to some conclusion like we should rebreed, like rabbits, we should have the largest number of people and other organisms existing just so they can flourish as as much as they can. In other words, I’m, unlike Peter Singer, I am very much not a utilitarian. I was a utilitarian. I went through that phase um and I’m not saying that you know one goes to that phase and grows out of it, but that’s what I did. Um, I just don’t think it works. If you take it seriously enough, there’s famously the repugnant conclusion ah that Derek Parfit talks about, but I think that’s just a specific example of a bigger problem that this idea that we should maximize some number that grows with the number of people in existence is just not conforming to my moral intuitions at all. Um, something to do with, you know, if I choose not to have a baby, ah in some sense, I have diminished the total amount of flourishing in this possible world as compared to another possible world where I have the baby. I think there is zero moral reason based on that argument to make me have a baby. And therefore if I believe that I don’t think that I can quite appeal to the argument that you put forward as to why um killing people is the wrong thing to do.
CH: Yeah, I do I do acknowledge it. It definitely you know, I’m also pro-choice and the you know, the canceled flourishing perspective does push pretty hard against the pro-choice position and even might advocate for a kind of pronatalist like everyone have…
CH: …as many babies as possible. But isn’t there a little bit of a difference there? Perhaps, when you’re talking about, you know, you having a baby presumably that is in zero-sum contest with your own flourishing, your own goals, right? Like if you had the baby it would be tougher to write your next book and that’s that’s like a deep value to you is increasing knowledge and explaining science to lay people and that would, that would make it very difficult. And then then you’re in this weird situation where you’re comparing the flourishing of the baby against your lost flourishing and you know. But but in the case, I suppose in the case in the case of an animal. Perhaps, it’s not that different because you’re comparing the flourishing of what–my eating meat, the taste of meat against the animal’s life and it seems…
SC: I mean like…
CH: And it seems like on its face a more, I’m comparing a trivial kind of delight against a life, but in a way it is the same kind of calculus now that I’m talking through it.
SC: Yeah, I think it is. I think it’s it’s ahhh more specifically like, you know, as you sort of we’re heading toward it’s hard to imagine actually quantifying these things, right? Like the the the loss of flourishing that I would have if I had to change diapers versus the gain of flourishing that that my child would have in living an entire life. I suspect that my loss of flourishing is smaller than the gain that they exist.
CH: Mm. Right.
SC: But also I think that it’s it’s a category error to think that there are some numbers we can attach to those and add them up and maximize them. I think that’s the real problem.
CH: Mm. Mm. So then do you do you endorse any kind of utilitarian reasoning or like in the simplest cases?
SC: I don’t.
CH: …even in like the “is it worse to kill five people more than rather than four?”
SC: You know, I I think that my personal moral views are in flux,…
SC: …like the more I think about it, the more I realize that the sloppy and unexamined moral as I was living by don’t ah really hold up to scrutiny. Um, you know, all things being equal, if two sets of people are going to die and one of them has one person and one of them has five people, sure. I’d rather have the one person die than the five…
SC: But I don’t think that I necessarily need some sort of utilitarian calculus to justify that. Um, I’m not quite a deontologist.either, in the sense that I don’t think that the thing, the way to be moral is to invent some once-and-for-all set of rules and just live by them no matter what. I’m I’m becoming closer to a virtue ethicist. Although I’m not quite a virtue ethicist, but I’m coming closer to the idea that you know, there are what we should think about are not either the consequences or the rules, but the sort of actions from moment to moment um in the context that they’re in. Are we trying to do good or are we not trying to do good? And that is intentionally vague because I think that the this search for perfect precision in morality is probably unattainable…
SC: …and I you know I think that we have we should face up to the fact we have competing moral impulses, and we might be led to ah favor one of them over the other depending on the circumstance and maybe that’s not wrong. You know, maybe that’s just the best we can do if we accept that morality is not math or logic or science, it’s something that we construct.
CH: So yeah, I want to talk about that because you know, I I I think I recall in the podcast you making the analogy that we we construct the rules of morality, not too dissimilarly from say the rules of basketball or baseball, right? Obviously, the stakes are higher.
CH: But, you know, can you give a summary of your view of what it is we’re doing when we talk about good and bad?
SC: Sure, just to fill in the baseball analogy. The idea was you know on the one hand clearly the rules of baseball are made up by us, right? No one thinks they’re out there in the laws of physics or inherent in the nature of logic, but on the other hand, they’re clearly not arbitrary either. Like if you said, you know, every third runner has to go backwards, people would be like, “No. That that makes the game worse.” These are rules that are invented for reasons. And I think that morality is the same way. It’s constructed, but the rules that we have for morality are constructed for reasons and those reasons are not objective, are not out there in the world in the absence of individual human beings. They come from number 1 our personal desires, number 2, our, you know rational reflection on those personal desires. We can override our immediate impulses by thinking about it. And number 3 by talking to other people and finding out what they want because we live in a social environment as well. And again, I’m becoming more and more skeptical of the idea that there is one final quantitative way to rigor- rigorously add these up and get the right answer. It’s more of a changing, ever chaotic, compromised, series of compromises between competing interests. And you know, I’m I’m increasingly of the opinion that that’s simply the way it is. It’s not like that’s a temporary mistake. That’s what we actually have to deal with when it comes to morality.
CH: I think there’s a large part of me that just can’t accept that because you know, I think a lot of people are thinking well, you know, yeah, there are reasons to have rules in baseball but the stakes are so low, you know, like we need some lodestar with morality. What is what is the thing? What is the ultimate reason that we we can tweak any given rule, right? But what are we measuring it against? What makes a bad rule bad? What makes a good rule good. It can’t just be a matter of opinion, right? It can’t just be a matter of opinion that uh or or or a matter of you know, consulting my beliefs and then talking with others and whatever, that the Holocaust was bad. There has to be some like anchoring, capital “O” objective reason why that was bad, right?
SC: Well, that’s a lie (23:45; not sure of this phrase.).
CH: I, maybe it’s just a brute intuition I have…
CH: …you know, like I don’t…
CH: …I don’t want to negotiate. I don’t want to negotiate on the fundamentals. I feel like there has to be an anchor. No?
SC: I I do not feel that way. I used to feel that way. I changed my mind and maybe I’ll change mine back someday, but I think that there’s a lot of people who would agree with you, but there are very few people who could articulate an independent reason why.
SC: I think that basically what people are saying is that it is their preference that they would like to have an (chuckles while speaking) objective anchor and that goes back to my position that that’s where our morals come from is our preferences.
CH: So…I guess there’s a common problem in philosophy where you just, you’re making an argument and suddenly there’s nowhere left to go. You hit bedrock.
CH: There, you you hit a point where you have a belief that cannot and need not be justified further. And if we couldn’t rest it there then we would have a permanent problem of infinite regress with with every field including arguably, you know, the hard sciences, right? Like if you keep, if you’re the child who keeps asking “Why why why why why?” eventually even the smartest person in the world is going to have to tell you because that’s just like the most fundamental intuition I have and I can’t even conceive of what it would mean to doubt it, right? So is there a way in which you know with ethics, we can just say that something like I don’t know like like everything else equal pain is bad. Suffer- suffering is bad. Well-being is good. And I don’t have to justify further, like that is my bedrock, and and that’s and the the sense in which ethics will be objective is just the sense in which every other field where we hit bedrock is is objective.
SC: Yes so I don’t, I don’t agree.
SC: I think that there are differences the of course, it’s true that we do have, you know, some bedrock assumptions right?, in every field, science, math just as many as anything else. The difference is that in science, our bedrock assumptions are about things like the intelligibility of the universe, the relative ah reliability of our sense data when we look at the world, we’re not being fooled by an evil demon and so forth. Um. And we agree on those, but then the actual scientific conclusions from them are not presupposed by any ah particular assumptions that we’ve made, you know. Whether the universe is expanding or contracting is not part of our presuppositions nor does it follow from our presuppositions. It follows from presuppositions plus the data that we collect…
SC: Whereas and so we can get together and agree on those presuppositions and not agree on any specific scientific fact about the world. Whereas with ethics ah you can have a presupposition that you know “pain is bad.” All things being equal I think that sometimes pain is good. It’s very hard actually to mention a presupposition that we would really agree with…
SC: …but at least, let’s say there is one that you agree with. Maybe I don’t agree with it. Like there’s nothing you can do to talk me out of it and there’s likewise that part is, you know, the same as science in the sense that I can disagree that the world is intelligible, but then I’m just not doing science, right? But if I have a different moral presupposition than you do, I’m still doing morality, but I’ll reach different conclusions.
SC: So I think there’s a fundamentally subjective nature to doing morality that there’s just not for science.
CH: That yeah there there, there is something about that that is just so upsetting. I mean, it feels, it feels like if someone were to argue to me, “I actually just don’t have the intuition that the universe has to be intelligible” right? I would I would feel at a loss to communicate with them about basic facts about like the universe for example, and I wouldn’t know how to bridge that gap and it would be hard for me to come away with the feeling that they weren’t trolling me in some sense.
SC: (chuckles) Right. But if the the distinction I’m trying to make is that the presuppositions we need to get science off the ground are methodological right, not substantive. But to get morality off the ground we can have methodological presuppositions like we believe in logic; we believe in the law of the excluded middle, okay; we believe that syllogisms work and so (indistinguishable speech) substantive assumptions about what is right and what is wrong? That’s why you can’t derive odds from ends, right? So that’s the difference. Like in science, we don’t need those substantive assumptions to get science off the ground. And and again, you know, at the very least, even if we believed in all the presuppositions we need to do science, we need extra presuppositions to do morality and unlike the ones we need for science, people don’t agree on those presuppositions. And I so I I my my, I find my role here to be therapeutic that I’m, not with you, but I talk to people writing books and having podcasts and so forth, I’m like it’s okay, because I realize that my position here is a minority one. I’m not pressing the conventional wisdom. I’m saying look accept, this is a matter of accepting reality. I know for thousands of years people have tried to find objective grounding for morality. They haven’t succeeded. Maybe it’s because it’s not there.
CH: So what do you say to someone who would hear you and think like someone who’s just to kind of prototypical sociopath, but with an intellectual bent that likes to justify their own sociopathic behavior by reference to a kind of highfalutin nihilism, right?
CH: Do you feel like you that that that kind of view “I do what I want because I can and I can get away with it. And I’m just getting mine. And I’m just you know like, this is how the world works. And you come at me, you come at me telling me that I’m doing something wrong, but that’s your opinion. I’m, you could be living like me and I wouldn’t you know, it would just be a contest. And it would be, I wouldn’t be trying to find moral principles by which you’ve violated some rule. So I’m going to steal and get away with what I can while I’m here.” So, what, I mean, would that be compatible with your…what, like where could you stand to like judge such a person?
SC: It would be and you know think about it. All you have just done is described the real world.
SC: There are people like that. There are people who we can’t, you know argue and persuade their way to believing our moral systems and what we do is, those of us who happily do agree that murdering people is wrong and stealing is wrong, we invent laws and we arrest them and put them in jail. That’s just that what really happens in the world. And so I’m again. I’m about accepting reality here.
CH: Fair enough. Fair enough. So let’s ah, let’s talk about the the second case study you brought up was the intellectual dark web, um which is famously hard to define and describe, but…
SC: (Indistinguishable word or two) (chuckles)
CH: I am arguably a part of though I’ve never formally, you know, been a part of it. It’s hard to know what that is. So what…
SC: You don’t have membership card yet?
CH: No, I don’t. I don’t have the secret handshake. But so what what is the intellectual dark web if you do your best to describe it and um you know, what…What do you think it gets right? What do you think it gets wrong? And why is it a good case study for for kind of secular ethics?
SC: Sure. So let me be very clear as I said in the podcast ah I’ve you know, my honest opinion about the intellectual dark web is I don’t care very much, like that was not the point to critique the intellectual dark web…
SC: …in any systematic or fair way. To do that would require me knowing a lot more about what they said and things like that and that was not my goal. My goal was to talk about you know, this whole constellation of issues about social justice and free speech and ah you know, racism and discrimination and things like that in by bringing up an example of people who I think I disagree with.
SC: And the way I disagree with them roughly speaking is the following: There are, let’s choose to pause it for the purposes of discussion that there are people called social justice warriors (SJWs) who, in their minds, are fighting against discrimination, against sexism and racism and homophobia and transphobia and so forth. And in the minds of other people they sometimes go too far strategically by you know, preventing other people from even giving their ideas and criticizing ah, going beyond criticizing to silencing people who they disagree with.
SC: So, how do we deal with such people because I’m someone I’m pretty much of a free speech, um ah, I’m fervently in favor of free speech. Let’s put it that way. I think that anyone, you know, if some set of people on a college campus wants to invite a completely crazy murderous speaker, they should be allowed to do so uh no matter what that person’s opinions are. So I’m pretty much on one side of the extreme spectrum when it comes to that. Therefore, I might disagree with some of these people, who we posited to exist called social justice warriors. Should the attitude towards such people be: “Look, these people are stifling free speech and free expression. They are my enemy.” Or should the attitude be: “Look, these people are fighting against racism and sexism. Um, I am in agreement with their goals.” (indistinguishable speech)…we disagree on…you know talk to them about how to do it better. And I fall into the second camp. And I take much of the IDW (intellectual dark web) to fall into the first camp.
SC: Look in retrospect, there’s certainly an argument to be made I should never have mentioned the intellectual dark web at all because I’m old enough and I’ve been around the internet long enough to know that once you bring up…Like for the vegetarian thing, I didn’t mention any names right? I just talked about the ideas and I got, you know, disagreement, push back on the ideas. I thought it would be helpful and you know more definite.to bring up some names to give examples of people I disagreed with, but I got almost zero intellectual engagement with the ideas in that part of the podcast…
SC: …because people would argue about the people…
SC: …that’s what they want to argue about. So I kind of don’t really want to argue about the people, but I know that I I brought it on myself, so I have only myself to blame.
CH: Let’s forget the intellectual dark web. Let’s just talk about…
CH: ..the issues. Um. Racism. Sexism. These are these are phenomena that almost every educated person, I think, wants to see go away.
CH: At least we would claim that.
SC: Well, I think, “every educated person” is too strong. There’s definitely educated people…
CH: That’s true. That’s true. ….who are energized in the opposite direction. That that’s that’s for sure. Ah,I don’t meet them once, very often what you know. We’ve done a fairly good job of relegating explicit “I want, black people are inferior,” people who believe that women are inferior, we’ve done a fairly good job of relegating them to the margins. There are people who perhaps believe that, but won’t say it, almost certainly… will sometimes say it in polls…
SC: Would you count the president of the United States as the margins?
CH: Arguably. Arguably. Um, I think we disagree, ah definitely on the question of whether unequal outcomes are a good measure of discrimination. So like when when I see that black people are for example, 13 percent of the population, but have far less.than 13 percent of the wealth, or are far less than 13 percent of CEOs, ah I don’t attribute that to discrim- discrimination. I mean, it could be a consequence of discrimination, but there are so many examples of disparities that large where discrimination is not the plausible explanation that I view, what, very disparate outcomes as the norm, right? So I’ll give perhaps a couple of examples to show you where I’m coming from. If we’re talking about, you know success at the highest levels of an occupation, where very few people will ever be this good, there have been times in the past decade and a half where every, like every song on the top 10 music charts in America was by a black person, right? If we’re talking about artistic achievement that goes around the world that inspires people musically, there’s just no questioning that there is a disparity that favors black Americans. And there’s also no question that the music industry was very racist, was roughly as racist as the rest of American society was for most of its history. When we see a disparity like that, we’re not tempted to posit that there is some pro-black bias, right? We’re, we’re, I think, I think most people are satisfied to know that it it so happens that black American culture has produced an outsized number of amazingly talented music producers and artists for reasons that I would argue are probably cultural and um you know are to be celebrated in my opinion. And you know, when you see, I’ll give another example, just maybe we’ll stick to the to the to the occupational point for now and perhaps get into other points like income and wealth in a second. But I saw you know, the NBA famously three-quarters black, but if you look at the women’s soccer team, I think there is one black women on the US team, right? So clearly genetics can’t explain the difference because all the genes that would make black people good at one sport would make them good at at soccer as well. Um…It’s also I mean, it’s unlikely to me that there’s like a lot of bias in the world of soccer that doesn’t exist in in the in the world of basketball. What is likely is to me is that growing up, you know, as a black kid, basketball was viewed as like what we do, that’s like our sport. They, like if you want to be in good standing with your your black friends, it’s better to be good at basketball than it is to be good at soccer, which was viewed as more of a white thing. That’s like a cultural thing. There might be a historical story to tell about why there is that cultural perference. And it’s of course not to suggest that there aren’t very many great black soccer players, but when you see a disparity of that kind at the top level, you know, I’m very hesitant to jump to bias. And I’m hesitant across the board to jump to jump to bias. So what do you make of ah that perspective?
SC: So uh, you know, I don’t think that I ever said that um outcomes are a good way…
CH: Mmm. Mm.
SC: …of measuring discrimination. I think I said the opposite of that, ah…
SC: I couldn’t care less about the outcomes, honestly.
SC: What I think is the evidence for discrimination is the actual evidence for discrimination, you know, I mentioned in the podcast, the wealth disparity between blacks and whites, which is an outcome, but only to point out that we know exactly what ,where a lot of that comes from and it’s you know, discrimination. (chuckles) It’s…we have very good evidence for discrimination and ah both today and in the recent past. And since again what I was trying to get at in the podcast with the relationship between um ethics and morality and reason and rationality. What I was, the point I was trying to make was every person who has sort of sensibly thought about this admits that in the somewhat recent past discrimination was rampant and obvious, right? And you know one example I used was that universities like Princeton and University of Virginia didn’t let in women as recently as 1970. I was alive, you know? And when the University of Virginia had it’s debates about I mean women it was all about how you know, “the there goes the neighborhood. You know will never be taken seriously as an academic institution again…”
SC: …etcetera, etcetera. And I was trying to make the point that I think we should always imagine that bias is at the heart of things because human beings are not very rational…
SC: …and especially when we know perfectly well that people like us just a couple generations ago were very very explicitly discriminating against blacks and and women and gay people and trans people and so forth.and to imagine that that suddenly evaporated and went away seems to beggar belief in my mind. We’ve certainly moved in the right direction. We had you know, discrimination is not as okay as it used to be. I mean you mentioned music and you you correctly point out the music industry used to be very very racist and it wasn’t that long ago. You know, I was around in high school when MTV came on the air and they would not show black artists. You know, Michael Jackson couldn’t get on MTV…
SC: …in the early years and it was you know, that’s hilarious to us now. Um. And to think that the same attitudes that caused that just a few years ago ah, now don’t exist and don’t have an influence on the world…
SC: …I mean, maybe it’s true. But the argument I wanted to make is that shouldn’t be our starting assumption. You know, I really really think that when it comes to morality and ethics, one of the biggest responsibilities of a of an intellectual who wants to think about things rationally and and as as carefully and rigorously as possible is just start by admitting that we are bundles of biases, right? We are we are heuristics. We are system one, you know in um Daniel Kahneman’s categorization. Ah. Our our rational cognitive capacities are a tiny little driver of this big elephant that is our you know, unconscious processes going on beneath the surface. And so um it’s not that there aren’t disparities in you know, the number of CEOs or the number of basketball players who are white or black, it’s that when we’re hiring someone, whwn we’re promoting someone, when we’re deciding who’s going to coach our basketball team or whatever, um, we should always be worried that we and other people are discriminating, either either um sort of, you know, consciously or not,…
SC: Ah,I remember, what was it? Um… I’m going to forget the exact examples. But again, we’re not you know, you your formed by what was happening when you’re going up so my high school college days were in the 80s and it’s not just musicians, there was, there were no black quarterbacks when I entered high school. And there were general managers in the NFL who said very explicitly…
SC: like they just don’t have the ah the “necessities,” I think was a Al Capez’ (42:13; not sure if this is correct spelling of name) phrase…
SC: …for being a quarterback and now we’re like, “okay that was silly…”
SC: …and and we might want to say, “Well, we’ve gotten rid of that now because there’s plenty of black quarterbacks.” I just don’t believe that the attitudes that led to those statements that were said out loud just a few decades ago have completely gone away even though we don’t say them out loud anymore. So I think that our job as responsible intellectuals…
SC: …is to be super-duper self-examining…
SC: …about these things and and we might examine ourselves and examine society and come to the conclusion that in this particular example we’re talking about, there’s no bias going on. I’m happy to do that. But as a again a methodological strategy, I think that we should always foreground that possibility.
CH: So I agree with a lot of that. I think that I’m very sensitive to some of the consequences of…presuming bias or of um, an outside’s concern about bias. I mean, clearly racial bias exists. Racism exists. Frankly, I expect racism to exist always in the same way that I expect, you know murder to exist always, unless we can somehow engineer it away with like crazy totalitarian AI. But…
SC: Well once were uploaded into the Matrix, we can get rid of these things…
SC: …We’lll just have avatars that we can do whatever we want.
CH: Right. But I think there I think there are serious consequences to the over-emphasis that bias gets in our reason for explaining, for example wealth disparities. So ten-to-one wealth disparity. Uh, sometimes it gets, sometimes I see twenty-to-one, but usually the sober estimates I see are ten-to-one, wealth disparities between whites and blacks in this country. Pretty large. Not far, very far from an ideal circumstance. Clearly, this has something to do with ah, you know, a few hundred years of slavery, Jim Crow, you mentioned redlining in your podcast, ah the inability to get a mortgage loan to hand that house down to your children, see it appreciate in value for decades, which is the way many many white Americans and Americans in general have sort of conserved their wealth, or expanded their wealth over time, kind of accrued wealth passively. And black people were denied that in the 40s and 50s and and to a degree in the 60s. And we could argue to what degree kind of soft forms of discrimination happened in the 70s and 80s. But you know, there’s a there’s a couple concerns here that I think don’t don’t often get stated. All of that is true and yet, I think it’s still the case…I’m not persuaded that that the wealth gap would be anything close to one-to-one had that not happened. Right? Because if we look at for the the example I always site is there is a seven-to-one wealth gap, household wealth gap between Jewish households and and conservative Protestant households, right? That’s a large disparity and there’s no way of explaining it by reference to bias really, right? Because this country was built basically by and for Protestants. Jews faced a lot of kinds of subtle discrimination throughout the the 19th and 20th centuries. They were done no favors in this country. It wasn’t necessarily bad as bad as Europe, from which many of them came, but… My point being, large disparities of that kind are the norm. And in terms of multi-ethnic societies because different groups have, are very different in terms of certain measurable qualities like the average age, right? Like the average black American is 10 years younger than the average white American. So when we when we compare outcomes, it just seems silly to me that we expect, that we kind of have this implicit presumption that, but for racism whether historically or today that those outcomes would be similar, right? Hispanics are 15 years younger on average than whites. So it’s even sillier. Right? Right, like if you’re comparing a group of 25-year-olds to 40-year-olds, you’re going to see much more crime in the other group. And if you attribute that implicitly all to some kind of, if that all seems like an indictment of society, you can ferment a lot of rage against the system that need not be there there. And I’ll finish up briefly. There was a, I was reading Nathan Glazer, the famous Harvard sociologist, who was writing about different ethnic groups in New York. He’s writing about the Jews and the Irish. He he grew up Jewish in New York. And he was saying, he made an observation which I thought was a good one, which is, if they had known the statistics on say the Irish domination of politics, um, the Jewish domination of businesses, right?, then the Irish would have felt deprived relative to the Jews in in business, in in terms of income. The Jews would have felt deprived relative to the Irish and the kind of immeasurable consequence to the social fabric in terms of making people feel like their people are being oppressed would have been up-regulated. And the the, you know, the fabric of the of the the kind of um, the very fragile fabric of a multi-ethnic city would have frayed. What I worry, especially when we talk about the race issue is that there are a lot of black people I think, who based on personal experience… Yes, they’ve experienced a few incidences of racism. I think most black people I know, including myself have, but have otherwise had, you know, had a lot a lot of opportunity in life. Very few reasons from the first person to feel a grievance against America, but when they read headlines talking about the ten-to-one wealth gap, always emphasizing, comparing outcomes of black people to white people in this way that is I think super simplistic and out of context of the fact that such disparities are the norm in multi-ethnic societies, I think it gives them a sense that their people are being oppressed. And it gives them this like deep grievance against the only
country they’ll ever live in and what that does to our politics is it makes them far more extreme on the left, and then the right, you know, we’re talking about reparations which is you know, a very unpopular, divisive issue in general, right? It’s not clear to me that that would happen outside of a context where we’re really pointing to these disparities so often and so so simplistically.
SC: Yeah, I mean. Look again I don’t, I’m not really focusing or interested in the outcomes.
SC: So there’s a lot of empirical issues in what you just discussed, whether or not emphasizing a certain thing has a certain impact on beliefs and certain groups of people. And those are hard issues that I don’t really pretend to have full full knowledge of. So again, the reason why I mentioned the wealth disparity is not because there shouldn’t be a wealth disparity. It’s because some of it is very clearly explicable in terms of direct discrimination. What I care about is the existence of discrimination, you know, whether or not that discrimination is the entire or even most of the explanation for this or that disparity I don’t care about.
SC: Like people always get on me this because I cuz I really try to fight for better treatment of women in science…
SC: …as a scientist myself. I see how few women are here and how badly they’re treated. And they say, “Well, you know, maybe there shouldn’t be 50/50 um women versus men in science.” I say, “I don’t care about that. I just want women to be treated the same as men.”
SC: I just want black people to be treated the same as white people and that difference like, you know, I want I believe in what, in that sort of the best version of the Enlightenment. I want people to be treated as who they are, not as some members of groups that they had no choice in being members of. And the social and empirical consequences of talking about that in a certain way, I think you can argue back and forth. There’s probably good arguments on both sides. Sociology is hard. You might be right, I just don’t know.
SC: But I think that racism is bad. I think that sexism is bad and transphobia is bad and those are obviously wrong…
SC: …and obviously prevalent…
SC: And and even, and you know to be fair, even in myself that you’re going along with what I just said before about recognizing the fact that we um are bundles of biases, we’re not completely rational. You know, our rational selves are a little tiny part of who we are. Ah, since the podcast episode that I talked about was about morality and rationality the point I was trying to make was, we should all be on the lookout for these biases inside ourselves.
SC: And I tried to say that at the end of it, we might self-examine very very rigorously and very very carefully and go you know what? No, I’m really not biased in this particular instance that we’re talking about, but it should never be the presumption. It should always be a conclusion that you know we work through by by imagining the worst and and ah trying to figure out what is the reality because that’s just empirically what has happened throughout history. So, I mean, maybe it’s just the difference in what outrages you the most, you know.
SC: I I I am outraged by the idea that we fall so short of the Enlightenment ideal of treating people equally…
SC: …and treating them on the basis of their accomplishments and abilities and what they do rather than you know discriminating them in a certain way. And I just see it all the time and I see it, you know, ironically I see you know, the women in science issue a lot more closely than the related issue of um ah, racism in science just because they’re zero black people around. So I don’t see racism in science…
CH: Mm. Mm.
SC: …because there’s no black people to be discriminated against.
CH: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
SC: Probably there’s some discrimination that goes into explaining that, but I don’t but I don’t know. But I see women being treated badly all the time. It’s just right in front of me…
CH: Now ah, and by the way, I’m far more likely to agree with you on the women science issue.
SC: Yeah, and so I mean and that’s so there’s a personal thing about you know, that just outrages me…
SC: …so much and it seems so fixable. And so that’s what I choose to emphasize.
CH: Know I, when it comes to, you know, the barriers women face in a a majority male environment, I think I see very much eye-to-eye with you know. I’ve I have enough women friends who have, who all have a story of like some challenge that they would never even have have thought of having to face…
CH: Yeah, so so that, I think we really see eye to eye on that issue. Um. Other thing I wanted to say is when it comes to this issue of bias, right?, I agree with you everyone is biased. But I I find that to be kind of a point that doesn’t get us very far in this conversation because I think it’s as possible to have a reflexive bias to want to downplay racism as it is to have a reflexive bias to want to “upplay” racism. Um, “upplay”? That’s not a word um.
SC: (chuckles) Play up.
CH: Play up racism. I mean so like from my perspective, I’m coming from like, I have all the cultural priors that would be associated with being somewhat of a quote-unquote social justice warrior and I I would kind of describe myself that way in high school. And um from my perspective at least, it’s been mainly kind of a painful struggle with my rational mind to to have a bit of the the other position. And when it comes to to you know, the the enlightenment position of treating everyone equally, right? This is part of what’s gotten me to to where I am, in terms of let’s think about something like affirmative action, right? If you think about who is it that is actually raising as much outrage as as is arguably merited over the question of how Asian Americans are treated ah applying to college, it’s definitely not the people decrying racism on the left. Al- almost not at all. That’s not to say that there are no blind spots on the right as well. There are. But like here we have an example of a policy that is just you know, it it’s nominally at least it was nominally nominally a kind of way of paying black people back for racism. Then it morphed into this quote-unquote “diversity rationale.” But it just it just is the case that you know, if you’re an Asian American applying to an elite school, the second you check that box rather than the white box or the African-American box, you’ve put yourself at a disadvantage just because of your race, right? That…we can argue about the ethics of that. But that seems to me the clearest example of a policy that sort of fits the bill for racism in the same way that the exclusion of Jews from the Ivy League. We look back on that now and say, “What were we thinking?” But are we not kind of doing the same thing with Asian Americans? How does that that really…how do you view that issue in light of your commitment to Enlightenment humanism?
SC: Yeah. So I I’m not in favor of discriminating against Asian Americans. Caltech doesn’t by the way. It’s one of the few places…
SC: …where there’s a bunch of Asian Americans here. They love Caltech and Caltech loves them back. You know, I agree with you that there can be biases completely in the other direction. I mentioned this in the podcast, like you can have a personality type that biases you towards seeing oppression everywhere, right? Even where, when it’s not there. And that’s another thing that we should guard against as as rational people. You know, we should try to be as self-honest, honest with ourselves as we can about where our our predilections, our our willingness to accept lazy easy explanations lead us even when the the reality is more complicated than that. That’s why you know, I had this, I mentioned this podcast I had with Paul Bloom, who is against empathy. He doesn’t like empathy because he thinks it works against rationality because we tend to empathize with people who are like ourselves, rather than people who are different.
SC: I think the opposite. I mean, I think well, I think I agree with that statement I just made. But I think that empathy is very important because it’s too easy to not appreciate the perspective of other people who are dislike us and therefore convince ourselves that we’re being rational, right?
SC: So I I think that you know, oppressor white people should try very very hard to understand what it’s like to be a black person. I think that you know, black people who feel they’re being oppressed should try very hard to understand what it’s like to be a a white person and so on. And and everyone when I say that, you know, people are biased, I don’t mean straight white males are biased. I mean everyone is biased.
SC: I completely think that there can be different things going on on other sides. And these again, you know, there’s empirical questions about how should that translate into a question of college admissions. Okay? I happen to be friends with a sociologist who did a whole study, you know wrote a whole book on ffirmative action. And ah it’s kind of an interesting story when you dig into it because affirmative action came about for not the best reasons in the sense that what you would like to do in an ideal society is just judge every single person by their merits and you know, make sure that there’s no racism or whatever. But how can you do that? Like in practice? Like how do you know that this particular admissions committee member is not biased in one way or the other for black people, against black people, for Asians, against Asians, whatever? So just as long as time-saving measure they said, “Let’s just have (indistinguishable speech). you know, throw a percentage of the incoming class African-American or whatever, like different universities did it differently. And miraculously it worked. You know, if you just want to know what is the cheapest, easiest, simplest, dumbest way to lift black people out of poverty, send them to good colleges. That works, you know, like even if it’s not completely meritocratic, the actual impact on the you know, life outcomes, the the prospective life outcomes in the future is enormous. And it’s you know, relatively cheap to do. So it’s not by any stretch, you know, the best possible thing that could have been done but, you know, it’s it was a pretty good compromise all things considered.
CH: Wait a minute. I’m very very skeptical. I’m skeptical here everyone. But what, what was, what was the evidence that affirmative action had an effect on black poverty?
SC: I mean, I could ah, it’s the book is called The Ironies of Affirmative Action by John Skrentny. You, you could read the book.
CH: Ok. Ok.
SC: Like study, they study the you know, future earnings etcetera of kids who went to school, compare them to their parents, longitudinal studies…
SC: ..that the usual sociological thing.
SC: Um. The word “ironies” is in the title because again, it was sort of, it worked by mistake in some sense, right? It was not the best possible thing that could have, could be done, but it was cheap. Um. But yeah, but you know, but again all of this is, you know getting into the weeds of real-world difficult sociology…
SC: …which I respect enormously. And people should take it very seriously, but is different than what my point was in the podcast which is, how should you be a good intellectual? How should you be rational while trying to be moral?
SC: And people on all sides of every issue should realize that they are subject to all sorts of biases. And if we agree on that, then we agree on what’s important.
CH: Can you tell us a little bit about your, you have a new book coming out soon, right? Am I right about that?
SC: I do. I don’t know when this podcast is coming out…
SC: …but September 10th is the release date for my next book called Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Space-Time. So we didn’t talk about this, but ah what my day job is doing quantum mechanics and um quantum gravity and theoretical physics. And so, I give a sales pitch for the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. And more importantly, you know, I try to give my fellow physicist a hard time…
SC: …for just not taking the foundations of quantum mechanics seriously enough as a discipline. A prominent feature of 20th century physics, where we figured out this most important theory that we have about the universe but then didn’t worry about what it meant.
SC: Like we in fact actively discouraged people from asking what it meant. And I think that 500 years from now, historians of science are going to look back at, at that episode of the history of physics and go, “What in the world were they thinking?” So I’m trying to fight against that tendency.
CH: Awesome. I can’t recommend ah Sean Carroll’s books enough to listeners of this podcast. You’re one of my favorite science writers. I think, anyone looking to learn how to write can use you as a kind of paradigm case of how to get it right, how to write clearly and concisely. Um. It’s really a beautiful thing. I look forward to your next book, and thank you so much for being on the podcast.
SC: Thank you. Thank you very much for the kind words and thanks for having me on. It was fun.
CH: All right.