For Russ Roberts’ long-running EconTalk podcast fans, here is a chance to hear the tables turned as Russ responds to outstanding questions from another expert “OG” interviewer.
Sam Harris delivers by taking this lengthy conversation on this Making Sense podcast in many interesting directions. Harris opens with warm remarks about his experience of taking long walks while listening to the audible version of Wild Problems, Roberts’ most recent book. Decision-making is the overarching theme.
What if there is no right decision, no best decision to our most important circumstances in life? How well do we understand human flourishing? What about our own free will? The episode title is aptly named, “Steps in the Right Direction”.
1- Harris is interested in (wary of?) how economics is taught today. Russ discusses the shortcomings of the field as it has been defined and believes we should be looking at variables beyond the utilitarian calculus. Does he diminish or refine these two definitions?
- Economics is the study of choice under constraints.
- There is only one social science and we are its practitioners” (Stigliz)
2- A recurring theme of Roberts’ is to critique teaching at most educational institutions, particularly U.S. public education. He contests that the “passing on of information and knowledge”, ignores that the “mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled”. What approaches to learning does Russ argue are effective? To what extent do you agree or disagree with what leads to effective learning, of different subjects, by different learners, in different circumstances?
3- Wild problems and tame ones. What is worth thinking about? How does the story of Darwin’s cost-benefit analysis of marriage and his culminating decision illustrate Roberts’s counter to the “Max U” approach to problems?
4- Harris proposes that we might be better at making probabilistic judgments than we realize. We could get better at aggregating information to use the totality of information to apply to our future decisions. Are there other tools we can hone for improved decision-making?
5- Harris thinks we conquer moral ground the “more of us more of the time realize that caring about the suffering of distant strangers is being a good person,” and that we are in fact doing better with accepted moral norms as a general trend. Roberts is less enthusiastic about this outlook and uses the destruction of freedom of speech as a disturbing example. Where do you fall on the optimism continuum? Explain.
6- Harris and Roberts discuss meditation practice as one that leads to increased empathy, enhanced freedom, thoughtfulness, change, experience in the present moment, anger reduction and more. How do they relate the “paying attention” of meditation to what is free will (or the illusion of free will)?