Class Warfare Blog

March 27, 2018

Determinism and Free Will

Filed under: Economics,Philosophy,Science — Steve Ruis @ 12:10 pm
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I have written more than a little about free will and this post is a supplement to that. I have been reading a little about the alternatives to free will, primarily determinism, which is a claim that every decision we make is caused by events outside of our control. I have no problem with that argument, just the driving of it home saying that Determinism Rules, Dude! I think this is yet another example of human exuberance to come up with an answer when we are not yet ready for one. This is my position of free will, too. I think most decisions are made sub- or unconsciously and we understand so little about those processes that to exclude them from discussions of free will thwarts any chance at a reasonable conclusion.

So, are all of our decisions caused? Are our behaviors ruled by the “cause and effect” that works so well in the sciences?

I have been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s works. I just finished “Fooled by Randomness” and have started “The Black Swan.” Mr. Taleb (he has a Ph.D. but doesn’t flaunt it) got his start as a financial instruments trader. He points out over and over, that most human activities are ruled by chance, yet we stubbornly refuse to admit that, seeing systems and patterns in behaviors and numbers that we believe show underlying structures that make things like the stock market predictable. He points to daily stock market reports, an example of which is “the market tumbled 1.7 points today, reacting to the announcement that blah, blah, blah.” He says that statements like this makes financial reporters entertainers rather than journalists. The market indices fluctuate during the day and from day to day. All of them fluctuate more than 1.7 points per day, so a change in any index of 1.7 index points cannot be distinguished from noise. Yet we insist on ascribing reasons to these fluctuations. We also know that the ocean’s tides rise and fall twice a day, so measuring the height of the water depends on what time you measure it. We also know that waves create artificial highs and lows that will move a float up and down in mere seconds. No oceanographer would mistake these normal fluctuations for changes that require action (like sea level rise), but we often do in settings like the stock market.

Our brains were shaped by evolution to do some amazing things. Unfortunately some of these things are counterproductive. For example, we judge the likelihood of something happening by the frequency we encounter that thing. This worked really well when we only encountered things in real life, like when was the last time you witness a murder directly, for example? But, we see the evidence of crime after crime on the nightly news day after day and conclude crime is on the increase; it is not; crime reporting on the news is on the increase, crime itself is decreasing and has been for decades. So, it is easy to fool ourselves using our very best mental skills.

One of our strongest mental skills is pattern recognition. It is so strong we see patterns where none exists, even in sets of random dots and numbers. In the case of financial markets we are making an even bigger mistake. In science we postulated first that invisible entities controlled the behavior of natural phenomena (spirits and ghosts). We then had a bunch of people argue that natural phenomena obeyed laws (the law of gravity, conservation of energy, conservation of momentum, etc.) and that the behaviors of physical objects was predictable based upon these laws and so they were! (Damn!) So, we came to believe in physical cause and effect. Now if we apply this belief to social systems, like financial markets and free will, will it also work? Well, the physical laws have an underlying structure that supports those laws existing. Do morals and financial markets and the like have such a basis? I do not think so, but more importantly, if there is it hasn’t been demonstrated that there is. In order to prove that nature was based upon laws, a whole lot of predictions had to be made and prove out to be right before people accepted that a root foundation for physical laws existed and could be relied upon.

But financial markets, well that’s another story. After every catastrophic collapse of some market or other, the market gurus go around and find one of their kind who predicted that the collapse would happen, and hype them as someone with special knowledge. The problem is that at any point in time, every possible outcome is being predicted and no matter what happens, you can find somebody after the fact that will have predicted correctly. This is not a successful prediction. In science, once you work out the laws involved, you can teach them to others and everyone ends up making correct predictions, not just a person here or there.

Human overreach in pattern-recognition puts, I suspect, too much faith in cause and effect, the underlying mechanism of determinism. We know that quantum mechanical effects are far from cause and effect rooted. We know that a great deal is “caused” by randomness. (If you go out to dinner, you are going to eat something. If you go to an Italian restaurant, you are very likely to eat something Italian. If …). Are we ready to conclude that free will is an illusion and all things are determined by cause and effect? I do not think so.


December 18, 2017

Where Do Thoughts Come From?

Filed under: Philosophy,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:31 am
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My free will post has suggested a couple of follow-ups. One such topic is the illusions of consciousness. A common manifestation of one of these is the general idea that we control our thoughts, that we create our own conscious thoughts, well, consciously.

It ain’t so, I am afraid.

Any one who has spent time learning to meditate can attest to this. Part of meditation is clearing one’s mind of thoughts, to experience some “peace of mind,” as it were. This is a bitch, if you will excuse the expression. Our consciousness essentially bubbles with unbidden thoughts. If we create them, why can we not just turn them off?

The simple answer is we can’t because “we” do not create them. The obvious question then is, “Well, then who does?”

I do not know and I do not think anyone else knows, but I can hazard an educated guess. It all stems from imagination. Imagination seems to be a mental ability that manifests itself in us creating a simulacrum of reality in our heads and then we can “imagine” or basically do experiments in that imaginary world with no real repercussions if “mistakes are made.” This ability leads to a much greater ability to survive and pass on our genes, aka evolutionary success. Consider an animal operating on instinct, that is hardwired mental programs. We are out of the African savanna, where humans evolved to our current form, and there is tall grass with a rustling in it a bit of a ways off. It could just be a gust of wind, or it could be a predator, moving through the grass coming their way. The animal becomes more alert, using vision and hearing to detect clues as to what it is. If there is no further disturbance, they go about their business. Predators, of course, learned from this behavior, learned to advance toward the prey stealthily … and then stop from time to time in utter stillness, to get the prey to ignore the stimulus of its approach. The prey animals, if they see or hear certain stimuli run away (the response is “fight or flight” and prey animals are better at the latter).

When we developed imagination as a mental tool, then we had more options. For one we could imagine that the disturbance was due to a wind zephyr and then imagine it was due to a predator. The consequences of the disturbance being due to a predator are far worse, so adopting a strategy of moving off now would be the most prudent. (This, of course, led us to believe in unseen movers and shakers we called spirits, demons, gods, etc.)

Now, if we were thinkers only in the conscious sense, we would have to stop what we were thinking, analyze the situation, run a few simulations through our imagination, and then act or not on what we learned. If this were the basis of the mutation/adaption that gave us imagination, we would have ended up in the bellies of predators too frequently and that mutation/adaption would have proved “non-viable” because it is too slow. Instead, our subconscious mental processing power kicks in to create all kinds of such things at a rate much faster than we can do consciously. (Remember, subconscious mental activities are the “fast” in Kahneman’s Thinking: Fast and Slow.) So, the subconscious “us” has the job of rapidly exploring myriad scenarios and alerting the conscious “us” if one of them reaches “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!” levels.

We have evolved to generate thoughts that correspond to real reality and imagined reality. So, these come at us fast and furiously. Most of these subconscious thoughts that leak into our conscious are ignored as they carry little weight. If something is really serious, we get signals we cannot ignore, including heart palpitations, sweating, panting breaths, etc. As I mentioned, we do not have much, if any, conscious control over our bodily functions.

Some of us are better at this and some are worse. If we are better at generating images, thoughts, patterns, etc. then we find meditating more difficult, because of the sheer volume of such things flitting about. If we are less imaginatively energetic, meditation comes easier. (One is not necessarily better than the other, just different.)

I suspect an individual’s creativity comes from an ability to access that river of thoughts and images and feelings that are running through our brains subconsciously. Those people will have more options for artistic expression or really any other form of expression.

This is all quite speculative, of course, but I suspect there may be a grain or two of truth in it. We will see as currently we are learning a great deal more about non-conscious modes of thought. (Thank you, inventors of brain scanners.) But do keep in mind that we do not yet know how memories are storied, a basic function of our mentality, so we are just at the beginnings of understand such subjects. We might even get a handle on whether there is such a thing as free will.

December 17, 2017

More on Free Will

Filed under: Philosophy — Steve Ruis @ 10:48 am

Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago argues that “determinism rules human behavior, and our “choices” are all predetermined by our genes and environment. To me, that means that the concept of “moral responsibility” is meaningless, for that implies an ability to choose freely.”

He goes on to argue “Nevertheless, we should still retain the concept of responsibility, meaning ‘an identifiable person did this or that good or bad action’. And, of course, we can sanction or praise people who were responsible in this sense, for such blame and praise can not only reinforce good behavior but is salubrious for society.” (His blog is well worth following for the topics of atheism, evolution, and society.)

I have commented before that I think discussions of free will are stunted by limiting them to conscious free will and that things will be very different if one includes subconscious and unconscious thinking into the mix.

Most people think of “free will” being demonstrated through choices we make that we could have made otherwise. So, we could have chosen A, B, or C and we chose B … but could have chosen A or C. Dr. Coyne argues, as do a great many other academics, that this is an illusion and that our choices are determined by outside stimuli and basically our brain structures that were developed through evolution/genetics.

I will now make an argument against this conclusion, but not in the normal way. I am going to make a legal argument that their conclusion is unwarranted. I will not say it is wrong, just that it is not yet acceptable.

When a case is made in court, or so I believe, based upon circumstantial evidence (and a great many are, contrary to popular belief), a valid defense can be  made by providing a different interpretation of the facts in evidence that is equally plausible, but different from what the prosecution claims. So, claiming a unicorn with a fairy riding it while toting an AK-47 as a competing narrative in the case of a shooting, has a complete lack of plausibility which rules it out, as would be “mysterious strangers did it” defenses. (This is the subject of a great many books, movies, and TV shows: e.g. The Fugitive. I think this is because we all can put ourselves in the position of someone unfairly accused, especially if we grew up with siblings.)

But if you can build a plausible case that counters their plausible case, so there is nothing to distinguish the one from the other, so “case not proved” is the verdict.

So, here is my argument. The determinists claim that if you are offered a choice between vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry ice cream for dessert, and you choose one, this seems like a free choice to you. In actuality, they say the decision was already made by your brain, based upon your heredity and life experience. (Obviously if you have never had ice cream before, the situation would be quite different, so we assume here that you are aware of the flavors of the three choices.)

I offer a different scenario. Subconscious thinking is the “fast thinking” of Daniel Kahneman’s book: “Thinking: Fast and Slow.” For our purpose, I will avoid nuances and psychological professional distinctions and just characterize subconscious thinking as mental processing, aka “thinking,” of which we are unaware. So, when offered the choice, our subconscious mind processes memories to recall the flavors and assorted connected events associated with the three types of ice cream and comes up with a choice. It sends its verdict to us as a “hankering” or a desire for the choice we end up choosing. I have no idea how this processing is done, but I suspect it uses the same channels that are used for conscious thinking (the visual cortex for images, etc.) but uses a different “band” for those signals. (Scans show the same brain areas are activated when we imagine things as when we actually experience them, so there is some basis for this.)

I also do not know the criteria the subconscious mind uses for making its preference, but it does not matter, the choice could even be random. But it is entirely reasonable that this is not a stimulus-response function. This could be characterized as a choice, especially if when offered that choice in the past, the other choices were selected from time to time. (In my case I have selected all three at various times and places, and yes it does take into consideration the quality of the ice cream maker. Killer strawberry ice cream is scrumptious, mundane strawberry ice cream is atrocious.)

Would not the same choice be made over and over if it were simply a matter of a genetic predisposition for, say strawberry ice cream. Even if as a child I experienced a traumatic event that I associated with strawberry ice cream and hence never chose it voluntarily, there are myriad cases of people overcoming such hardwired dislikes.

Even if the choice is made randomly by one’s subconscious mind, this could very well be a free choice. Our subconscious minds are used to making such decisions, many times a day. Even the most rational decision making processes end up being made subconsciously. I remember researching stereo components ad nauseum. I think I enjoyed the process. But when it came down to making a buying decision, I jumped at one I could afford. I didn’t have any complicated tradeoffs such as 10% of bass response could be traded for 5 watts of amplification power (nobody does). We look at the data and then we decide on which choice feels the best. I have a hard time believing I have a genetic predisposition for stereo components, but let’s say I have a genetic predisposition for liking amplifiers that come in a nice wood cabinet rather than a stamped steel case (an aesthetic preference). How is that balanced out against having a Dolby Sound processor hardwired in? This is the problem with rational decision making: if there are genetic predispositions involved, that we have no control over, which of them trumps the others? What is the hierarchy? How does A get favored over B and C, D, E, F, G, H … when there are multiple stimulus-responses involved? We end up with a general “feeling” of “B is the right choice” but having a deterministic process for that seems hopelessly complicated.

I suggest a simpler process. Your subconscious mind simply keeps an emotion meter running while you examine the data of your choices. It then forwards the summary of such “feelings” to your conscious mind and a decision gets made … which, as Daniel Kahneman points out, can be overruled by “slow” thinking (but usually is not). Just how this is all deterministic is beyond me. (Critics of my argument will reply: obviously.)

So, my legal argument is that our subconscious mind, which is ever so much more capable of handling multiple inputs than our conscious minds (two, count ‘em, two things max can be juggled consciously—our conscious minds are like a dog with two tennis balls, occasionally it can get both in its mouth at once, but usually the act of picking up the other makes it drop the one it has), makes the decision and hands it to us. Since we do not know that subconscious processes are deterministic, then we cannot conclude the whole process is.

November 24, 2017

Harari Infuriates Again

I am working my way through “Sapiens” by Yuval Harari and I apologize for posting about it over many moons, but when I read something profound (or profoundly upsetting) I set aside the book for a bit to let the ideas percolate and see what gestates from that. (We do not create our thoughts, although we do give words to them to be able to communicate them.)

I have mentioned before what I perceived as perversity in Mr. Yuval’s book. This is another example.

He was pointing out that no one has natural rights, which is why we claim they come from some god or other. He quotes Voltaire (“There is no God, but do not tell my servant lest he murder me at night.”) and others as to the role religion plays in controlling the masses. He goes on to quote Talleyrand on why physical coercion alone won’t be enough to control people (“You can do many things with bayonets, but it is rather uncomfortable to sit on them.” and “A single priest does the work of a hundred soldiers, far more cheaply and effectively.”) and that religion is as or more useful than physical threat. Yuval concludes that some beliefs/memes, etc. are needed to keep people functioning as soldiers, e.g. honor, country, manhood, God (On our side!), motherhood, etc. and by extension as participating members of a stable society.

But then he goes on to consider the people at the top of the pyramid, the elites. He asks: “Why should they wish to enforce an imagined order if they themselves do not believe in it?” Okay, now we are cooking! He continues in the next sentence: “It is quite common to argue that the elite may do so out of cynical greed.”

Bingo … but …

Yuval then continues to dismiss this statement implicitly by perversely arguing that it could not be “cynical” because the Cynic philosophers had no ambition, and the elites do. This has to be willful obtuseness on the author’s part. Any dictionary would have told him that when ordinary people use the word cynical they are referring to it being “contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives,” not some harkening to the Greek philosophical school of the Cynics. He then goes on to conclude that the elites have to have their beliefs, too.


The key word in “cynical greed” is greed, not cynical. And he sloughs off the greed aspect because, well, what? Getting too close to criticizing the elites can be dangerous? He just leaves it hanging.

Of course, the elites have their beliefs and memes. This is how they communicate without having a Central Committee somewhere issuing orders. The elites believe: that because they are wealthy (or pious) they are special; they are better than the hoi polloi because they show mastery over their environment (through their wealth and power it gives them); because they are better, who better to determine the course of society, to lead. Their wealth is a manifestation of their innate abilities in all things, even if they inherited their wealth. Obviously, the elites have their beliefs and memes.

But beliefs and memes aren’t motives. Greed is a motive. It needs no beliefs or memes to support it. Why do you think it is that religions condemn greed? Because this is what the elites want the masses to believe. First, they do not want competition. If religions preached “Greed is Good!” (The Church of Gordon Gecko?), more people would practice it and the ranks of the elites would swell and there would be less wealth in a share. Second, the elites do not believe greed is bad and they want the masses to think that if the elites appear to be greedy, that they will be punished … by the god(s). As long as the masses take no action upon themselves, the elites are good with that. Accepting divine punishment is perfectly fine if you don’t believe in divines.

The correct follow-up to “It is quite common to argue that the elite may do so out of cynical greed” is “This is indeed the simplest answer … but the elites need a way to communicate with others in their class, so beliefs and memes are shared as a form of signaling.”


November 14, 2017

It Is a Life and Death Matter

Sam Harris was discussing his book “Waking Up” with a prelate and I heard him refer to: “the fundamental mystery that life is impermanent.”

Uh, that’s a mystery? (Wait a minute, I gotta go look up the definition of mystery … okay, I am back; I was right, a mystery is “something not understood or beyond understanding” in this context.)

What’s mysterious about it, life being limited, that is? Everything around us that lives, dies. Every example we have ever seen of a life form shows this pattern: birth—life—death. We may not understand exactly why this is so but we do understand that this is so.

To fight against this is to essentially say that one does not want the rules of the universe to apply to them or their loved ones and a few paying sponsors, whatever. Think about it. Life has been on this planet for almost four billion years. In all of that time, everything that has lived has had this pattern. It is as normal and natural as anything can be.

Apparently Dr. Harris’s meditation practice hasn’t led him to acceptance yet. Or if it led him to a belief that life is an illusion, I hope he reports out on what is there rather than the illusion.

We are born, we live (more or less well) and we die. The after life, I suppose, is just like the before life. Do you remember the before life? No? Then I do not suppose you will remember the after life, either. At least it will be quiet and peaceful.

October 17, 2017

Coming Together, Coming Together, Things are Coming Together

My recent posts on greedy elites and education “reform,” led me to Bertrand Russell. (Don’t ask how. I read too much, understand too little, and make connections endlessly.) A book of Russell’s still worth reading is Free Thought and Official Propaganda, written I believe in 1922. Propaganda, the term, had just been invented and modern propaganda, to which Russell refers, was also recently born. Here are a few juicy tidbits:

“It must not be supposed that the officials in charge of education desire the young to become educated. On the contrary, their problem is to impart information without imparting intelligence. Education should have two objects: first, to give definite knowledge—reading and writing, languages and mathematics, and so on; secondly, to create those mental habits which will enable people to acquire knowledge and form sound judgments for themselves. The first of these we may call information, the second intelligence. The utility of information is admitted practically as well as theoretically; without a literate population a modern State is impossible. But the utility of intelligence is admitted only theoretically, not practically; it is not desired that ordinary people should think for themselves, because it is felt that people who think for themselves are awkward to manage and cause administrative difficulties. Only the guardians, in Plato’s language, are to think; the rest are to obey, or to follow leaders like a herd of sheep. This doctrine, often unconsciously, has survived the introduction of political democracy, and has radically vitiated all national systems of education.

Ah, Russell points out the current effort in education reform is to confine public education to depart only information, for the sole purpose of getting a job, but not to get citizens who think for themselves, because that undermines the urge to obey the elites and we just cannot have that. (Remember this is 1922.) He also says:

We are faced with the paradoxical fact that education has become one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought. This is due primarily to the fact that the State claims a monopoly; but that is by no means the sole cause.”

Russell was concerned that the state, the “government,” as an instrument of the elite rather than the people, might follow totalitarian aims and reduce education to the “acquiring of job skills” or as Russell states, mere information. (The Republicans then current were not like the Republicans now or he would have been running around with his hair on fire.)

Bertrand Russell is also concerned about government by the big lie, fueled by big money.

“The art of propaganda, as practised by modern politicians and governments, is derived from the art of advertisement. The science of psychology owes a great deal to advertisers. In former days most psychologists would probably have thought that a man could not convince many people of the excellence of his own wares by merely stating emphatically that they were excellent. Experience shows, however, that they were mistaken in this. If I were to stand up once in a public place and state that I am the most modest man alive, I should be laughed at; but if I could raise enough money to make the same statement on all the busses and on hoardings along all the principal railway lines, people would presently become convinced that I had an abnormal shrinking from publicity.”

He “caps” these comments with “Propaganda, conducted by the means which advertisers have found successful, is now one of the recognized methods of government in all advanced countries, and is especially the method by which democratic opinion is created.” and “There are two quite different evils about propaganda as now practised. On the one hand, its appeal is generally to irrational causes of belief rather than to serious argument; on the other hand, it gives an unfair advantage to those who can obtain most publicity, whether through wealth or through power.

You can see that religion does not get off of Russell’s hook (its (propaganda’s) appeal is generally to irrational causes of belief rather than to serious argument). If these statements don’t describe the situation we are in currently, I don’t know what would. And, remember, he said these things almost 100 years ago.

The public school propaganda campaign has led people to believe the schools are failing (they aren’t. That teachers are failing to serve their students well (they aren’t). That poverty is not a barrier to accomplishment in school (it is). All of these lies were generated by propaganda machines with programs to sell.

Wake up people, before it is too late. The clarion call was sounded long ago. Awake! Awake!

August 16, 2017

God and the Imagination

I have been reading a fascinating book lately (Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life by Louise M. Antony, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition.) which has already prompted a post and my next three posts will be prompted by ideas read in that very same book. (I recommend that book to you if you are inclined to read philosophy/philosophers.)

This post comes from my response to a statement in Chapter 5: Life without God: Some Personal Costs by Daniel M. Farrell. You can tell from the book title that this is a series of writings by philosophers regarding their lives now that they have given up their god habit (or having never had one). This one is both poignant and informative in that the author was pursuing an avocation as a priest when he lost his belief. At one point he says this:

At this point, though, I want to briefly address the second question above: how might someone try to deal with the decision problems we’re concerned with here without having recourse to help from God, or religion, and what sorts of problems and challenges might he or she face? Begin with the question of how such a person might proceed, leaving difficulties with her procedure until later. Even this is not an easy question, and it would of course be ludicrous to suppose there is only one plausible answer. I can think of one answer, though, that strikes me as not only plausible but also as an answer that might help us with the question of why answers that are not based in some way on belief in God do not work for all of us. This is an answer that tells us to address the questions that concern us here by engaging in a certain kind of imaginative enterprise— by engaging in what we might call “thought experiments” of a certain sort. Specifically, it suggests that we should deal with the relevant questions— about how to arrange or “order” the things we value into some sort of life or life plan— by addressing such questions in a way in which many people in fact actually address them in everyday life: namely, by picturing or imagining one’s life as it might go, if one were to make certain choices over others, and then tentatively settling on the one that feels best.”

Here was someone who was in the habit of consulting his god whenever he had to make any kind of important decision. He commented that he also had more than a few spiritual advisors volunteering to tell him how their god wanted him to decide. (Apparently we can know the mind of God?)

My visceral reaction to this was that an intense religious upbringing was crippling. By offloading his decision-making process onto his religion, he did not develop what I would call a normal decision-making process until he lost his faith and then he was way behind the rest of us in that skill.

Many secular people think that we make most decisions through a concerted intellectual effort. We weigh the pros and cons and then pick the best option from among those we have carefully identified. Uh, … no. This is rarely the case, if ever. This is a fiction we tell ourselves about being rational people. Consider a mundane but important decision: buying a car. If one were to go about it intellectually, one would collect data that was important to us: costs, maintenance, safety statistics, cargo space, features that provide comfort to passengers and driver, etc. Then, … yes, what then? What you find is that one model of car is cheaper but another you are looking at has a higher Consumer Reports rating, while a third gets better gas mileage and has lower maintenance costs. How are these to be played off against one another?  Nobody, absolutely nobody, comes up with a rating system for each of these measures of values important to you. In addition, nobody works out a system by which each feature is rated as to its importance and then weighted as to how it affects the final decision. (Nobody.) I would especially like to see somebody evaluate how the color of the car gets factored in. People react very strongly to the color a car is painted (not the quality of the paint job, just the color). And what affect does the color have on anything of value? (Answer: none … but it does affect us.)

What we really do instead of this laborious, exhausting procedure is use our imaginations. (This is what they are for.) One’s imagination may even be running in the background while we are dabbling at data collecting and sifting. We imagine ourselves in that car, as driver or passenger, and imagine scenarios around that imaginary situation and then check out how it makes us feel. Feel? Yes, feel.

If we are a safety freak, we might imagine the car going into a skid and then you correcting that skid easily and safely. If we are into being noticed, we may imagine driving up at our high school reunion in our new convertible, oozing a picture of “success.” I think you can imagine more of these. (See, it works.) Basically we have to be comfortable “seeing” ourselves in that car doing our ordinary car things. This is what the test drive is for. Surely you do not think you are doing anything like a real test of anything with a test drive? You are trying it on for size and feel.

We learn how to use our imaginations to help us with decisions as we grow up. This is why we daydream of having a new bike (I did.) or some new gewgaw. But, in reality most of this is done sub rosa; we are not even aware of it as it is done subconsciously. Our author was used to praying for “guidance” from his god and seeing how his god “felt” about the situation. If you are like me, you can probably see where this is going. The “guidance” was supplied by his own imagination in the channel he had created for it. When he lost his belief in his god, he also lost this channel of help for making decisions. He had to learn how the rest of us do it.

My second “Aha” moment came right on the heels of realizing that his religious education had partially crippled him was that his imagining faculty, a faculty that I believe distinguishes us as human beings (having a highly developed ability to imagine, not that we are the only one’s who can) … invented his own personal god to consult. Obviously, his education promoted what he ended up imagining, but if you desperately wanted a god to help you, your powers of imagining would help you create that being … in your imagination … including powerful religious experiences, that is feelings, that seal the deal for you.

The irony is that an imaginary god can cripple the use of imagination for mundane purposes.

An Addendum Most of our “important decisions” are probably not that important, they are probably just vexing. Regarding my “career,” the most important decision I anguished over was whether I would teach chemistry in a high school or community college. This is not like deciding whether to be a burger flipper or a brain surgeon or whether to have a dangerous surgery or not. Such decision happen only rarely in our lives. Most decisions are much more mundane. The distinction in my decision between the two options was not exactly big and whichever I decided I could be happy in it (unless I chose not to be). I used to joke that I chose college rather than high school because if I got frustrated I could swear at adults in a college. For all I know, that might have been the deciding factor. More likely it was the fact that it was easier getting qualified to teach in college.

August 15, 2017

I’m An Atheist and I’m Okay ♫ (A Sing Along!)

Filed under: Morality,Philosophy,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 12:50 pm

There is some benefit to having what is called a “cartoon mind.” In the midst of yet another tedious discussion initiated by a Christian troll, aka Internet Christian apologist, I hear in my mind’s ear the baritone voices of the Monty Python Flying Circus troupe singing not “I’m a Lumberjack and I’m okay,” but “I’m an Atheist and I’m Okay.”

The standard trope of these apologists is that without a belief in a god (their god, of course), our lives have no meaning, with no moral compass, leaving us depraved and adrift in society. Our standard response is that because we know our lives are limited, we enjoy them more and work harder to create something of value to us and those around us. The end result of this exchange of position statements is, of course, no greater understanding or appreciation. It is like a set piece, a joseki in a life. (How’s that for an obscure reference? Go ahead; look it up.)

So, I felt I owed it to my sense of fairness to examine the position of the apologists to see what I am missing, if anything. So, here goes. Their view is rooted in the belief that they possess something called an immortal soul. This, apparently, is one kind of “soul,” an entity which does not seem to be definable, not is there any evidence of its existence. All of that aside, this immortal soul lives on after they die. It doesn’t stay here apparently, but moves to one of two places: Heaven or Hell. Heaven is a place of indescribable joy and Hell a place of indescribable torment. I capitalize these place names to differentiate them from more mundane uses of the words and I say indescribable in each case because there is no coherent description of either place, nor are there locations for them other than vague references to “above” for Heaven and “below” for Hell. I believe these “directions” are based upon a common axis available to human beings. Because of gravity, we all possess a common reference direction of up and down. Left and right are much more confusing as they depend on which direction we are facing, not so for up and down. So, we map all kinds of things onto up-down axes. We say things like “I am feeling up today!” and “The Stock Market is down today!” when both of these things have nothing to do with up or down directions. Also, our social hierarchies are mapped so, therefore as we “elevate” our position in society, we find more people beneath us and fewer above, so the ultimate is being on top. Conversely as we sink down to depravity, we find fewer people beneath us, so the worst situation is to be at the bottom. Heaven equals top, Hell equals bottom, emotional responses are built in to these directions and locations.

So, how would I act if I believed in these things: immortal soul, Heaven, Hell, etc? If I truly believed these were real, I would be desperate to avoid an eternity of torment. I would spend every waking moment trying to figure out how to get to Heaven and avoid Hell. We are told, in addition to this, that their god has “a plan” for each of us. Some argue that this individualized plan directs us to both places for eternity, that the names of those destined for Heaven, and hence also Hell, are already known. This makes no sense whatsoever. If this were true, then I would have to do nothing, I could do nothing, to affect the fate of my soul. In addition, as much as I wanted to I could not convince myself that I knew where I was headed. Most Christians seem convinced that they and their loved one’s are going to Heaven, but if the list of names has already been written and no one knows who is on that list, this seems to be wishful thinking at best and delusional bullshit at worst.

So, such a system is unlikely and it is immensely cruel. To have a god who creates sentient beings but who also relegates some to eternal bliss and others to eternal torment, before they are even born, is not only bizarre but it is also deranged. So, I am going to assume that those particular Christians got that wrong.

Another group of Christians tell us that the path to Heaven is determined only by whether one believes that Jesus, a character in a passion play in the Christian’s book, is their god playing a role. If you believe that, you are going to Heaven. If this is true, why is there also a plan for each and everyone of us? Why should we strive to discover and fulfill that plan, should we not instead focus on believing in Jesus? Still others tells us that good works and deeds are the way to Heaven, but again these deeds/acts aren’t specified, just vaguely referred to as these are apparently part of the damned plan, again.

If I were to believe one of these variations, I would be terrified that there are competing variations and that I may have picked the wrong one. (They can’t all be correct, can they? What does it say about the deity of they are?) In this worldview, our lives are an eye blink of time, and eternity unimaginably long. Some of these religions claim there are mortal sins, unforgivable mistakes we can make, but do not counter this with a list of approved “acts” that will advance one’s position in line to go to Heaven. But then that group, at one point, sold “get into Heaven” licenses and “get out of Hell” licenses for money, so they do not seem all that believable.

When I observe ordinary Christians in our culture, do I see them scurrying around, desperately trying to determine their own soul’s fate? They have a few short decades at best to do this, so there is no time to waste. But, I do not see this. I see them complacently leading the same kinds of lives we atheists do. They have jobs, homes in the suburbs, they have kids (even though they know their children will be subject to the same cruel system), they worry about politics and taxes, and wonder whether their football team will win this year. So, there is a disconnect between what the officials of these various Christian religions claim is the case and what Christians actually believe (and act upon). The “believers” either don’t believe in all of “that stuff” or they believe they have a Get Into Heaven card they can play when they die. (I have yet to meet a Christian who believes they are going to Hell, have you?) So, is it “grab a Get Into Heaven card and then go about your life as you will”? Is that what I am seeing?

Now, that sounds cynical … because it is. It is taking an honest look at the behavior of these groups and comparing it with what is claimed as their beliefs. I wonder what they actually do believe? Is anyone aware of surveys of what the various sects of Christianity actually believe (or claim to believe)? If so, I would like to see those.

In any case, I am glad I do not have to live in the constant or near constant terror of the world as they see it. I do not have to spend every waking moment studying the Bible to see if I can figure out which acts are safe and which are not. I do not have to try to determine their god’s “plan” and follow it. I am glad to be an atheist because ♫ I’m An Atheist and I’m Okay,… ♫

April 27, 2017

Good and Evil? Meh.

I find the ideas of good and evil puzzling. In a world of almost infinite variation, these two absolutes continue to exist in people’s minds, often as an unnecessary dichotomy. Of course, there are organizations dedicated to their continued existence but, really, they are not useful terms, at least not to us. Mostly they show a lack of imagination or a desire to manipulate.

We are always trying to quantify things; that is normal for us. But we also tend to play one-upmanship in contests for status. There is a PGA commercial running now with famous golfers talking about how early they get to the practice range. The times quoted get earlier and earlier in response to what the others claimed until they are completely ridiculous. It was designed to show how competitive the golfers are and serves that purpose. It works, of course, because we have all played the game. (And please do not respond that this is a hyper-competitive, male-only game. Just listen to a group of mothers talking about their children and you will see the same process.)

So, when someone asks you “how bad was it?” There is a tendency to exaggerate. (I thought I was dying. Excruciating—worst hangnail I have ever had. etc.)

But like most things, these are just gradations on a scale. There is, for example, no “tall” or “short” or a clean dividing line between them. (I am tall enough to be in the top 3% of Americans in height, but when I played center in basketball in college, I was a puny shrimp.) Similarly, where are the dividing lines between “bad” and “evil” or between “good” and “bad?” These do not exist, for good reason. There are gradations of good and bad like there are of tall and short, but no absolutes.

What happens when we use absolutes, though, is we fall down a rabbit hole out of ordinary discourse. These absolutes do not acknowledge that there is a bit of everything in each of us. For example, by all accounts, Hitler was good to his mother.

By labeling things as “good” or “evil” we create categories based upon similarities that are not close to being exact. For example, do Adolph Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer belong in the same box?. Certainly not based upon their body counts. But both are simply labeled “evil.” Remember the “Evil Axis” of G.W. Bush? Such characterizations set people up for overly simplistic “solutions” to problems. As examples: We must oppose evil (because we are the good guys). We must oppose ISIS, it is evil. And, the ultimate: we must make war on terrorism! WTF? This makes no sense at all.

The terms good and evil exist as manipulators of human emotions and for no other reason. They are vague and unhelpful terms designed to be vague and helpful to those using them, to manipulate their hearers into doing their bidding.

When you next hear the term “all-good” or “ultimate evil,” think “all tall” or “ultimate short.” Those are about as useful as descriptors as the former.

April 12, 2017

Why Do People Ask Stupid Questions?

I was reading a book last night that listed several existential questions. You know the type: Why am I here? Why is anyone here? and so on. (This is the kind of academic question that was mocked by Bill Cosby’s brilliant bit ‘Why is there air?” The jock’s answer was that there was air to blow up basketballs, to blow up footballs.) But the last question struck me and not in a good way: “Am I just a robot or do I have a soul?”

Am I just a robot or do I have a soul?

Okay, I get the bit about “having a soul.” Souls are a variation on the “God of the Gaps” argument. The God of the Gaps argument is if there is any gap at all in our worldly knowledge, it is filled with “god” as an explanation for what we don’t know. Before we knew what lightning was we assumed it was caused by a god. That gap in our knowledge has been filled, so no more lightning gods are needed. (Sorry, Thor.) So, anything mysterious or puzzling about the nature of our experience as human beings and, yep, that’s caused by the soul.

Basically the idea of a soul is rather pathetic. It comes down to some very deep thinking (not). First off, no one wants to die. (The joke goes that there were people who wanted to die, but they died before passing on their genes, so we are the only ones left.) Innately, we want to keep living. But second, we all die. Even the people in literature who die and are brought back to life: Lazarus, Frankenstein’s monster, etc., eventually they all die (again?).

Let me take a moment out and concede that a number of people every year die and come back to life. “Being dead” is a medical diagnosis and such things can be got wrong. The consequences can be tragic. When his tomb was reopened, the philosopher John Duns Scotus (1266 – 1308) was reportedly found outside his coffin with his hands torn and bloody after attempting to escape. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) In fact, enough people were entombed who had not died that bells were installed in some mausoleums as well as various designs for “safety coffins” incorporating similar mechanisms were patented during the 18th and 19th centuries and variations on the idea are still available today. So “resurrections” are not necessarily imaginary. My point is, resurrected or not, everyone has eventually died.

And when we die, our bodies decompose. Our flesh molders away, leaving inert bones that, cartoons aside, never get up and dance again. Clearly no part of our bodies “lives on” so if there were to be a part of us that does live on, it must be invisible. So, souls stem from the facts that: no one wants to die (we all want to live on), everybody does die, and since no visible part of our bodies seems to survive, the part that does must be invisible. Voila, a soul is born!

Now, let’s look at the “just a robot” part of the question. Just a robot? This is a smear. This is a setup. This is a comparison like how much friskier your dog is than the dead dog over there. Just a robot?

Think about robots for a second. The term was invented by Karel Capek for a play he wrote in 1920, although organic versions can be identified going back to golems (a robot made of clay) and other creatures, but Capek’s play is the first instance of the idea of a mechanical robot in human literature. And in human literature robots stayed, through “Forbidden Planet” (a movie so bad it is good), and myriad science fiction books. Not long ago, though, “robots” started showing up in the news: robots that helped make cars, robots that did medical operations, etc. And fairly recently, we have been treated to robots for the home: robots that vacuumed our floors, robots who were pets, and the Japanese have been working on robotic people. (The sexual tastes of a significant number of Japanese men do not include the words “human” or “female” for some strange reason.) Soon, our cars are expected to be robots, driving us around like we are Ms. Daisy.

In just one hundred years robots have gone from the realm of imagination to household objects. Now, extend that line of development one hundred more years, then one hundred more and a couple of hundred more after that. Can you honestly say that “just a robot” would be a thing of derision? Such things could be physically more capable than humans and computationally more capable also. They may even achieve consciousness and we would then be debating their status in our societies (tool or slave?).

The phrase “Am I just a robot” exhibits a distaste for any description of human beings as being a product of biological evolution. But humans being biological constructs is a quite successful explanatory framework which has answered many, many questions about why we are the way we are and why we think the ways we do. This concept is the “go to” concept for scientific researchers looking for the roots of human health, disease, and behaviors. The reason for this is that it has been damned successful. You do not have to like it, but it is undeniable.

Have all human activities being explained through the “we are meat robots” hypothesis? Of course not. But we have been trying for only a little over one hundred years so far. Extend that line of development one hundred more years, then one hundred more and a couple of hundred more after that and we shall see. The categories of robot and human may not even remain separate. Currently there are research efforts to merge electronic modules into people’s bodies given the blind the ability to see and the immobile the ability to move. (Yes, now.)

So, what struck me originally with “Am I just a robot or do I have a soul?” is how are these two a dichotomy? Surely this question is at least multiple choice. Could not human beings be the result of an alien biology experiment? Could not human beings be an experiment of a god: creating conscious beings without souls to see if we missed them? Why is the list so small: I have a soul or I am a meat puppet.

Clearly, this is a false dichotomy. This is like the recent presidential election when we were presented with a choice of two individuals, neither of whom was at all desirable or suitable to be president. When you force a false choice such as this, the results are not at all helpful.

The question stacks the deck for us having souls. So why must we have souls? Well there is the argument (above) explaining the logic, but a more powerful urge is unveiled here. We have souls because we are special. (Cue the Church Lady.) Of all creatures, we are different. Not only are we different, we are better. We are better than those Neanderthals and other hominids because they didn’t have souls. Only we have souls. We have souls because a god loves us and wants us to live forever.

Pathetic, absolutely pathetic.

Right now people are debating the role of artificial intelligence (AI) in our society (as being on the path to artificial consciousness?—hey SkyNet was powerful enough to make Arnold Schwarzenegger an international star!). Maybe we are getting ahead of ourselves; maybe we should be spending a bit more time on the consequences of natural intelligence and the lack thereof.

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