Uncommon Sense

March 29, 2020

On the Religious Experience and More

On Amazon Prime (TV) there is a video series called “The Nature of Existence Companion Series,” volume one of which was on the topic of Existence and Purpose which I blogged about a day or so ago. The series continues and last night I watch a segment that touched upon religion.

The wide variety of respondents to the questions of the videographer resulted, again, in a wide variety of responses. Interestingly, speaking to the “why religion?” question, almost everybody spoke about the need for a religion coming from inside the people involved. No mention was made, well little mention was made, of the fact that the vast majority of people are born into a pre-packaged religion, one they didn’t create for themselves. Only a very few comments mentioned the role of religion existing as a control from without. This I think is a manifestation of this con, everyone seems to think that it came about from some need of their own, when that idea was inculcated through the con.

One of the most interesting and cogent responses came from a high priest of a Satanist sect. That’s right, they found a good speaker for the Satanist religion. This gentleman, and he seemed quite gentlemanly, clarified that Satanists were not devil worshipers, that there were few actual devil worshipers, mostly rebelling teens seeking to get attention and he hoped they would get help dealing with their issues, but Satanists were not them. (Well!)

This speaker made a very nice argument that religions classified some ordinary human behaviors as being sinful, specifically because people could be counted upon to not give them up. (One of the questions was did sin have to be deeds or could it be just thoughts . . . the responses were mixed.) Because people would not give up these quite ordinary behaviors, they were always left seeking absolution for those sins (“Forgive me Father, for I have sinned . . .”) and then, our Satanist concludes, “they own you.” Indeed.

Again, I was impressed by the ability of people to both (a) make shit up, and (b) not understand what they were saying. One “confrontational evangelist” brought out the old saw that “the wages of sin were death,” which is based upon the mistaken idea that Adam and Eve’s “sin,” aka disobedience, cost them their immortality. This is not what scripture states. Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden so that they would not eat from the tree of life, and thus live forever. But, gosh, that is such a great line it would be a shame to stop using it just because it is wrong. Plus, the error is compounded by the thinking that “Jesus” offers eternal life. Scripture states that we all live forever because we really are just meat wrappers for immortal souls. When we die (and we all get a death, not just sinners), the faithful take the up escalator to spend the rest of eternity, while the rest of us take the down escalator to spend the rest of eternity. What Jesus is offering is a Golden Ticket to “the Show” in Heaven.

That apologists err is not surprising. To err is human . . . (Alexander Pope) so that is to be expected, but the criterion used by apologists (apparently) is just whether a statement is effective, rather than is it correct and effect. This shows a certain laziness in the collective effort (there are college courses in apologetics) and also a commitment to truth that is malleable.

* * *

Other episodes addressed similar topics, all of which I responded to similarly. The range of responses was always there and always interesting. For example, when asked what the greatest threat to mankind was, most people said something along the lines of overpopulation or ecological collapse or people with evil in their hearts, but one quick response from a Catholic priest was “atheism.” I never knew I had such power as to threaten the existence of all humanity. <sigh>

I will expand a little on the question regarding whether sins need to be actions or can they be just thoughts. The thought police representatives were not what I would call the usual suspects, but many said “yes, thoughts alone can be sins.” But, we do not control our own thoughts, that is we do not create thoughts consciously, they seem to just pop into our heads. (An aside—when we read, another’s thoughts pop into our heads as we read them, and those thoughts differ from “our own” exactly how?) A number of respondents acknowledged this issue and addressed what happens to the thoughts that come to us and distinguished “sinful” versus “non-sinful” responses to those thoughts.

Another of the questions addressed free will and I was appalled at the lack of understanding shown. Quite a few of the respondents addressed the fact that our will is limited and we are not free to do impossible things. One respondent said we were not free to jump 250 feet up into the air. WTF? Most people understand free will as the ability to make choices that are available to you. Is this ability, to act from our own intentions freely or is it determined by physical stimuli. A number of the science types point out that determinism isn’t even possible because the physical foundation of reality is probabilistic, not deterministic, so to some extent our will must be free as there is no real alternative. (And folks, this should not always be laid at the lap of quantum mechanics even though it is the poster boy for non-deterministic behavior. Back in the nineteenth century there was huge resistance to the kinetic theory of gases because of the application of probabilistic math. This is because the religious educations of all western scientists were deterministic at the time.) A few actually addressed the question as one which shouldn’t be asked as answering it is a giant waste of time. (I tend to think that the question is premature and is therefore a giant waste of time, but it also might be a question we use to torment ourselves, amuse ourselves, whatever.

One respondent came up with what I will characterize as Pascal’s Wager for Free Will. This is fascinating. He argued this: it would be a real tragedy if we had free will to act as if we did not. (Think about it and you will agree.) Conversely, if we do not have it and act as if we did, there is no harm, so we should act as if we did have free will. QED This seems to be a Gordian Knot question being answered in an Alexandrian fashion.

Again, if you are a philosophy nerd, this is a fascinating collection. (I stop watching and switch to watching something else and then find myself back watching this. I wonder if there is a 12-step program for philosophy addicts.)

August 13, 2019

Free Will and the Problem of Evil

Filed under: Morality,Philosophy,Reason — Steve Ruis @ 9:49 am
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If you are unfamiliar with the “Problem of Evil” the earliest record we have of it is from the philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BCE) and it goes like this:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence comes evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

Among all of the arguments for the existence of a god or gods, this is the most powerful one against the existence of a god or gods, so this is a favorite of atheists.

The apologists have many answers (many) but the first and foremost was the defense of Free Will, which goes like this:

God gave mankind free will and if one human wants to harm another God can only prevent that by taking a way his free will, something of greater value, so He does not do that.

Basically people doing evil is a tradeoff for free will. Many atheists take the approach to grant that this is a good argument, but then point out that this only addresses evil created by humans, not by other animals or Nature (earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions, landslides, etc.)

This is a mistake, actually several mistakes. The Free Will Defense is bogus. The comment is usually made that without free will, we would all be a bunch of robots, acting only as god wants us to. WTF? Making a jump from not having a desire to do evil to being a mindless robot is ridiculous, in the extreme. The idiocy is the claim that all free will is being taken away, not just the will to do evil.

Most people alive today choose not to do evil. Heck, I go further and try not to suck! But think about this. If you were to go up to a neighbor and suggest they help you kidnap neighborhood children to torture and kill them, what response do you think you would get? At a bare minimum it would be a visit from the police. Most people have no desire to do evil. Now, if “God,” the “Creator,” created us without the will to do evil, how would we know? How would we differentiate between that dislike and say a dislike of pizza with pineapple on it, or a dislike of the New York Yankees or any other distaste we possess? How would we come to the conclusion that we were nefariously programmed not to do evil, but having an intense dislike of poetry or sports is “normal?” Would scientists immediately start work on how to remove this ridiculous restriction of our autonomy?

If we all had a severe eschewing of evil, how would that improve our lives? No Hitler. No Pol Pot. No autocrats at all. Put all of that (Think about it!) on one pan of a balance and on the other put “not having free will to do evil, but having free will in every other circumstance.” How does your balance move? Mine slams down under the weight of the immense amount of good created from the setting aside of an ability the vast majority of us do not want in the first place!

The Free Will Defense for the Problem of Evil is bogus, a piece of deepity that is ridiculous. (It sounds deep but is actually shallow.) If you were to survey a million people today with the question: “Should we universally give up the ability to do evil, to prevent all of the human caused evil in the world, with no side effects?” How many “no’s” do you think you would get?

So, dismiss the Free Will defense for what it is, then move on to address natural evils. (This is exactly how a world would be if there were no supernatural creator and we just had to live with it.)

May 6, 2019

A Minor Thought on Free Will

Filed under: Philosophy — Steve Ruis @ 11:57 am
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I have been reading Robert Wright’s wonderful book “The Moral Animal,” which I recommend to you as a source book on evolutionary psychology. (I haven’t finished it, so no book report, yet.) Here are a couple of excerpts:

“One could go further and suggest that folk psychology itself is built into our genes. In other words, not only is the feeling that we are “consciously” in control of our behavior an illusion (as is suggested by other neurological experiments as well); it is a purposeful illusion, designed by natural selection to lend conviction to our claims. (This is in a chapter on deception and self-deception. SR).

“For centuries people have approached the philosophical debate over free will with the vague but powerful intuition that free will does exist; we (the conscious we) are in charge of our behavior. It is not beyond the pale to suggest that this nontrivial chunk of intellectual history can be ascribed fairly to natural selection—that one of the most hallowed of all philosophical positions is essentially an adaptation.”

This just reinforced in my mind the problem with all discussions of free will. The vast majority of the claimants are talking about conscious free will while the vast majority of our behavior is unconsciously governed.

Some of the free will advocates offer that if our will isn’t consciously free then we are just robots, with all of our behavior degraded down to chains of stimulus-response. I expect that this argument is simply a yearning for souls and being “special” and unfathomable. If we do, indeed, live in a material universe, then all human behaviors must break down into such chains, otherwise there would be no connection between our behavior and the environment around us. (Think of my people, out of touch intellectuals, who live in a world created entirely in their heads. How successful would such a being be biologically? Not at all I suggest. Such beings are only supported through the sacrifices and protections of others.)

This fear of having a robotic nature, I believe, is a failure of our imagination. We identify as “I” only our conscious thoughts because those are the only ones of which we are aware. In reality I think we are sub/unconscious beings with a conscious overlay, the existence of which offers benefits but whose origin is not completely explained as of yet (or if it is, I have not yet found it). If “I” is my subconscious or conscious plus subconscious minds, then I have free will . . . I think. (I think it is too early to conclude anything. We have talked about the topic for millennia; we are just now starting to understand what we are supposedly talking about.)

We are just starting to understand unconscious mental processing and until we do, no answer is in the offing to the question of whether wills are free. I think we can conclude that our wills are not conscious nor are they consciously free. But even that conclusion is shaky. For example, we are aware of our conscious thoughts . . . but where do they come from? Do we create them consciously? I don’t think so. This is a little like the paradox of our sense of sight. We see by means of light, but light itself is invisible (you cannot see a light beam from the side; e.g. a beam of blue light is invisible when view from a side, that is the light is not blue in itself). We think consciously by means of conscious thoughts but those thoughts are basically invisible/unsourcable, at least for now.

December 21, 2018

Update on Free Will

Filed under: Philosophy,Science — Steve Ruis @ 11:29 am
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Currently I am reading two books by authors with similar names neither of which I had heard before. I have already commented on Sam Pizzagati’s The Rich Do Not Always Win, an history of the early twentieth century that resulted in the largest middle class in American history. I strongly recommend this book as the rhetoric on both sides of the “wealth inequality” debate is quite illuminating.

The second book is by Michael S. Gazziniga entitled Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. This book is fabulous as it is written by a neuroscientist, one who is taking his fellow scientists to task in the free will debate.

I have previously argued that it is far too early in the scientific investigation of free will to come to any conclusion, certainly not one with such large ramifications as whether we have free will or all of our decisions being determined by physical causes. This author provides a piece of this discussion that I had not heard before and it is a lollapalooza.

He starts with addressing free will in the context of responsibility, the primary question is “Can we hold people responsible for their decisions?” (If not our criminal justice system is far worse off than it already is.) This is enough of a foothold on free will to proceed. After going over the neurological research that seems to apply to the question he makes the following argument: consciousness is an emergent property of brains possessing enough connections. This is not a revelation, most people buy into this conclusion. He then goes on to claim that emergent properties represent a disconnect from the basic physical conditions that create the property in the first place! If this holds up, then determinism is done for, toast, kaput, won’t apply, because there are quite a few layers of emergent mental properties stacked up that the basic physical entities (atoms, molecules, DNA, genes, etc.) will not be able to get through.

He gives as an example the building of a car. A careful designer can create a car with its engine, transmission, differential, wheels, tires, electronics, etc. that will perform pretty much exactly as designed. (I have just finished reading a book on the design of the most recent iteration of the Ford GT race car. It was designed to win the 24 Hours at Le Mans race … and did. This is an example of determinism, the whole being the sum of its parts.) But … you knew that was coming, didn’t you? … but none of a car’s physical parameters, its specifications, can explain … traffic. When you take automobiles and roads, traffic shows up as an emergent property and traffic cannot be predicted from nor can it be determined by any car’s design! And if this weren’t enough, the author claims that the emergent properties affect the original vehicles through feedback. For example, this souped up race car might overheat badly in beep and creep traffic, so has to have to be modified or just garaged and not driven on normal roads. (I haven’t finished this second part of his argument but basically he argues “that the mind, which is somehow generated by the physical processes of the brain, constrains the brain.” The mind constrains the brain. Think about that. (There are many examples of this happening, but like I said I haven’t finished this part yet.)

This argument about emergent properties blocking deterministic causes seems to blow the argument of free will v. determinism out of the water with determinism the loser. We have to wait and see if it holds up.

So, what do you think? Is consciousness and therefore free will determined such that we actually have only the illusion of free will and making our own choices, or is making conscious choices an emergent ability not determined by physical inputs to our brains? (The author explains why we all have the perception of an “I” making decisions by the way, even though “I” does not exist.”


August 5, 2018

Free Will and Neuroscience … at Odds?

Filed under: Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 9:13 am
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I have written quite a bit about Yuval Noah Harari, who is an Israeli historian who has written the bestselling book Sapiens, which examined the course of early human history. Now that he is a public intellectual of some note, what he says carries weight. In a recent interview in The Guardian, he is quoted as saying:

This is why your feelings are the highest authority in your life and also in politics and economics – the voter knows best, the customer is always right. Even though neuroscience shows us that there is no such thing as free will, in practical terms it made sense because nobody could understand and manipulate your innermost feelings. But now the merger of biotech and infotech in neuroscience and the ability to gather enormous amounts of data on each individual and process them effectively means we are very close to the point where an external system can understand your feelings better than you. We’ve already seen a glimpse of it in the last epidemic of fake news.

I do not want to address the topic he is zoned in on, just one of his toss off lines, namely “Even though neuroscience shows us that there is no such thing as free will.”

I would hope that this is something an historian might say and a scientist would not. (Actually I hope that an historian would be even more circumspect than a scientist, but that is just me being an eternal optimist.) There is an argument one can make, a fairly strong argument, that free will isn’t free, that we live in a deterministic universe, one full of just causes and effects. But the line Harari uses sounds like a fact, like something proven that we should accept.

I believe that any conclusion, at this point, regarding free will is premature and I offer an example for your consideration.

In the recent conclusion of this year’s World Series of Poker, the finalists played “head-to-head” for ten hours. There were 199 hands of Texas Hold’em played this way. The final nine players played 300 hands to reduce the field to the final two. So, ask yourself: was every decision of the two finalists made deterministically? Did the cards and the situation determine every decision made? If you answer “yes” you are a determinist who believes there is no such thing as free will.

I cannot accept this explanation right now as I have seen a top player throw away the winning hand at one point (he had a flush) because he missed seeing it. So, was the hand determined by the fact that he didn’t see the flush in his own hand? His hand was, I suggest, but what pray tell is the cause of that effect? I think you can speculate for days and not really answer the question. He was fatigued? Maybe. Was he was focused on other things? Maybe. Did his eyes have a glitch in visual processing in his brain? Maybe.

I think the identification of the cause and the effect is at the crux of making a claim of a deterministic universe and I still see this as an inexact procedure.

Most determinists conclude the universe is this way because of problems with the “other way,” the way of free will, being able to decide “otherly.” But that doesn’t automatically make determinism the correct way by default, not unless you can show what determines what in an unbroken chain leading to decisions over and over.

Poker players get the same hand (roughly equivalent to exactly equivalent hands) quite a number of times. Occasionally they get the same hand two or three times in a row. (In Texas Hold’em, the player’s hand is only two cards.) I have seen players play the same hand completely differently, one time aggressively and one time passively. They change their playing persona from time to time (from being “tight” and only playing premium hands to ATC, Any Two Cards will do). They change the conditions they will play hands from time to time. One player of note changes his approach based upon what time it is. There are many subtle things going on, but my point is how to answer the question “what are the causes for each of these decisions?” Is there no room for “the fog of war” in which decisions get made haphazardly? Why are some of the decisions made perplexing even to the players who made them (they cannot explain why they did what they did)? What role does fatigue play? Frustration? Hope?

I am not saying that all of these decisions (200 hands, each player makes 6-10 decisions per hand in the final stage alone) cannot be deterministic but I do not yet see that they have to be.

A basic problem I have is with the microscopic slicing of holistic processes. Consider a golfer’s swing. Coaches, using their eyes and high speed video, have broken down golf swings into finer and finer bits. They talk about the bits ad nauseum. But really, what real difference is there between a back swing to 90° from the ground and one that is 89° from the ground? Each golfer’s swing is unique with common elements, but none of the fine slices is necessary as some very accomplished golfers do without them. If you look at finer and finer slices, you get farther and farther away from things that really affect the outcome.

The same is true for determinists. They talk about neuron A being connected with neuron B and if A is stimulated, then so will be B … see determined. This is too simplistic. Individual neurons in the brain have, on average, 1000 connections to other neurons, even as many as 10,000 connections. This is not like an electronic device in which we can trace the pathways of electrons through the conductive paths. The number of paths for neural impulses is completely mind boggling. The number of connections in a human brain (synapses) is a thousand or more times the number of stars in the Milky Way. One neuron does not lead to the next in an easy to describe chain, it leads to many, many nexts.

So, while arguments can be made that our decisions are determined, that argument hasn’t been completely made yet.

And I really wish public intellectuals would not state hypotheses as if they were facts. Instead of Harari saying “Even though neuroscience shows us that there is no such thing as free will …” he could have just as easily said “Even though neuroscience seems to be telling us that there may be no such thing as free will….”

June 21, 2018

Will Science Ever Solve the Mysteries of Consciousness, Free Will, and God?

The above title is that of an article in Scientific American (July 2018) by no one less than the inestimable Michael Shermer. The subtitle is “Are consciousness, free will and God insoluble mysteries?”

Even more fascinating is Mr. Schermer’s answer: yes!

Actually, this answer is quite puzzling. In his piece Mr. Shermer quotes British biologist and Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar who wrote: “Good scientists study the most important problems they think they can solve. It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems, not merely to grapple with them.” This, I think is correct. The scientific ego is boosted by actual results and so scientists shy away from problems deemed intractable, unsolvable. But, until one tries to solve a problem, how does one know whether it is beyond them? And, even if it is beyond us now, how can we know it will be beyond us forever?

I am of the camp that we will understand all three and, in fact, have good starts on all three questions. The problem is not the issues themselves completely (labeled as “final mysteries” by Shermer), but involves the attitudes of the audiences receiving the conclusions.

For example, if you came up with an ironclad proof that the Christian/Jewish/Muslim god did not exist, how many people would say “Well, dang, and all along I though God was real. Foolish of me, don’t you think?” And how many would say “I don’t not believe such secular nonsense!” (Go ahead, guess; I dare you!)

The audience here has a different standard of proof than scientists have. If you accept something as proven only when it reaches the standard of a mathematical proof, no scientific proofs could be had at all, but if you establish the level of proof to be as good as “the sun will come up tomorrow,” then the Christian, etc. god is proven to not exist already (in short, the claimed supernatural powers are in conflict with one another). This level of proof is good enough for scientists who use no divine mysteries in their works, even though they may still participate in their local church communities (which may have absolutely nothing to do with the existence of any god or gods).

Similarly, the general public will never accept the idea of a deterministic universe as they feel, that is feel in the first person, that they are “free” to make their own decisions. The idea that we are not free to do just that undermines all religions, social justice structures, etc. so do not expect the general public to accept that there is no such thing as free will. (I do not accept the deterministic arguments at this juncture as there are any number of problems with the current deterministic interpretations, including a signal-to-noise problem of immense size.)

It is rare that I find myself in disagreement with Michael Shermer, but one of the rock bottom principles in science is that authority has no place. So, in this case, our opinions differ.

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 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.

July 29, 2016

Free Will … Redefined

Most discussions of free will get up to their hips in philosophical fine points rather quickly, which is fine by me as I am somewhat of an armchair philosopher (even took some courses in college so I am a partly-trained real philosopher). But the author of God’s Gravediggers: Why no Deity Exists (Raymond Bradley) turns this on its head, very productively, I believe.Gods Gravediggers Cover

Many have pointed out that if free will doesn’t exist, then our criminal justice system has a big, big problem. If we are deterministically programmed to do certain things, either by our genetics or our upbringing or by the laws of nature, whatever, then we can’t be held responsible for our actions. Sure we killed that person, but they had abused us as a child and we suffer from an abuse syndrome (don’t know any impressive names for one, but I am sure someone out there does).

Mr. Bradley does us a service and turns this around. He suggest that our definition of free will should be the judicial one, not a philosophical one. When a judge says “You are free to go,” after being arrested and put on trial, you can choose what to do and nobody will stop you unless you violate some other law or tread on someone else’s prerogatives. While in custody of the authorities, your free will was significantly truncated. You could decide what you wanted to eat, but were limited to an “eat or don’t eat” choice of what was being served in the prison meal room. You could decide to exercise any time you wanted, as long as you could pull it off without disturbing your cell mate in the space provided (no touch football or soccer, for example). Yes, you still had significant parts of your ability to decide for yourself, but many other parts that you once had were taken away.

If a jury decides you are guilty of killing your neighbor’s dog, they are saying you had the ability to choose otherwise and did not, that your will was free.

In a number of cases, such decisions are not so easy. People with diminished mental capacities and people who have been treated abusively their whole lives are sometimes found to be not guilty because of either temporary or permanent insanity. That is they were judged to no know the difference between right and wrong, and free will or no, they can’t be held accountable for their actions. In other words, their wills weren’t really “free” in this case.

This is to be expected because when it comes to any aspect of human behavior or abilities there are no sharp dividing lines. The law allows for decisions to be made in such circumstances, philosophy not so much. Philosophers, especially logical philosophers, want nice sharp lines of demarcation. Imposing such a requirement on a discussion of free will at best will result in a stale mate. Looking at things more pragmatically (we all think we have free will, therefore we do) may be much more productive. At least at first glance, it is.

I have been promising you a review of Everybody is Wrong About God by James Lindsay (which will be coming in parts) but one of Mr. Lindsay’s arguments is the battle over whether god (any god) exists has been settled and god lost. If you want confirmation of that battle and its outcome, read God’s Gravediggers. The author gives you both laymen’s (aka short) explanations as well as brick-by-brick tightly reasoned arguments for why even the concept of a god doesn’t hold water (or souls, or angels, spooks, pixies, gremlins, etc.). He also seems to cover all of the ground involved.

June 8, 2016

The Problem of Evil and Free Will

Filed under: Philosophy,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 11:34 am
Tags: , , , , ,

The topic of free will is being much discussed of late. Partially this is because of new scientific findings, but which is all to the good as it helps us understand who (or what) we are. However I am somewhat dismayed at the level of thinking employed. For example, one common use of the concept of free will is to provide room for “god” to wiggle out from under the Problem of Evil.

The Problem of Evil, if you are unaware, is this argument: if God is good (the Perfect Good), why does evil exist? It was given a strong voice by Epicurus as: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?

This argument is one of the strongest against the existence of a Judeo-Christian type god.

The wiggle room provided by religious apologists is that evil exists because their god wanted us to have free will. I will explore the motivation for that later, but currently the argument is: if we are not to be automatons, we must have free will and if we have the freedom to do good, then we must also have the freedom to do evil. (This is a variant of the “blame the victim” approach of many religions.)

This argument is quite bankrupt. Why, if their god was good and perfectly so, would he go out of his way to invent evil? Consider what the world would be like if the choice to do evil things were not available to us. Would we be deterministic puppets? Instead of us having myriad choices every day, half good and half evil, we would only have myriad good choices, no? Is this being a puppet? I would venture to say that you actually know some people like this. These are kind, gentle people who would not hurt a fly, are willing to help anyone in need, and never have an ill word to say about anybody. The idea of them making a choice that is evil is unthinkable. And they have the freedom to do anything that comes into their little minds, evil things not being among them.

Were the world to be so constructed, would we bemoan the lack of opportunities to do evil? I do not think so. There would still be any number of unfortunate happenings: forest fires, earthquakes, floods, landslides, shark attacks, dogs digging holes in your new lawn, etc. Misery and pain would not disappear. (Some apologists argue that pain has a biological function and if evil were not to exist, we would be imperiled because of the lack of pain as a guide. This is blazingly idiotic.) Compassion and generosity would still be choices we would need to make. Deliberate acts of humans to cause unnecessary pain and anguish, though, would not exist.

So, how would this diminish “God’s Plan”?

The inherent problem here is obscured by the apologists, partially because, I think, they find the missing part quite natural. The missing piece in the discussion is actually the unnatural part: according to them humans were created to worship their god, full stop, end of story. Some obscure this by saying, no we were created to “give God glory.” Of course, “glory” means “praise of a god or goddess.” In simple terms, we were created to be cheerleaders by a god with low self-esteem. We are needed to buck up the sagging ego of an all-powerful, all-knowing supernatural entity! And, we need to be able to choose to do that because if their god had created us to do that with no choice being involved on our part, well that would be too narcissistic! OMG!

My argument is simpler. we have free will (not limited to conscious decision making) because it is demonstrably one of our faculties. Why we have free will is kind of a silly question. Why can we think? Why can we fart with gusto? Why do Claussen Deli Style Hearty Garlic Dill Pickles taste so damned good? The unfortunate thing about philosophy is it is basically thinking about thinking (an inevitable consequence of sentience?). What we choose to think about is up to us. The fact that many cannot think their way of a wet paper bag is lamentable, though.

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