The more I read about free will the more I feel that it is a modern invention. I don’t mean to claim that this is cut and dry, but as the image accompanying this post suggests, Sophocles’ story of Œdipus Rex is precisely about a man attempting to escape his fate. Without getting mired in a discussion about the distinction between fate and determinism, we understand that the plight of Œdipus is set in stone.
As I said, I am simplifying as I know there are authors debating free will before this, but it is also known that many people simply believed that their lives were governed. I suspect that in certain slave societies this might be a source of comfort. If Buddhist thought that life is suffering holds true, what better consolation than it was just meant to be, I might as well just make the best of it.
Enter Christianity and Aquinus. Their god may have set things up, but there can be no notion of growth or responsibility without free will, so we’d better create a narrative around this. How an omniscient creator can not know every possible plotline and twist remains a question, though rationale akin to retrograde motion has been suggested to accommodate it. Now, it seems that we’ve got a little less determined and a little freer if I think of it as a zero-sum game.
By the time Kant enters the picture, he rather spills the beans on the whole narrative. Perhaps riffing on Voltaire’s quip, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him‘. Kant tells us that if we need to blame people and presume responsibility, then we need to assume free will. And so we did.
In this day and age, most people have been marinated in this worldview, so it’s difficult to see outside of this frame. The rhetoric of free will has been particularly effective. Though we have evidence of free will not being dominant in some cultural conversations, we have little idea in preliterate societies. I’d be interested to gain additional perspective from historians or anthropologists. Some may have already been published. I’ve already been so overwhelmed with the deluge of information and opinions to date. I’ve learned much and have been introduced to many new scholars. As I wrote the other day, this is somewhat daunting. I wish I were a grad student and could justify spending so much time trying to justify my position.
The Appointment in Samarra*
There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
I love this story of fatalism. Originally from the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a, it’s a story about one attempting to alter their determined fate. An interesting side-comment on the original version. The last line attributes fate to the servant’s feet.
A man’s feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted
Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a
This interpretation would allow for the feet to be determined but in conflict with the intellect and reason of the head, much as is said about the conflict between the head and the heart. It could be argued that the only fate this accounts for is that of death, but that’s well beyond my scope of inquiry.
Some people seem to not quite grasp the distinction between constructed and unreal. Many things are human social constructs, from money to states and countries, to nations, to governments, to ethnicities, and to gender. Even sex. All of my favourite weasel words are constructs.
But there’s a difference between money and unicorns. No amount of money can buy you a unicorn. This is the difference between fiction and figment. We can say that money is ‘real’ insomuch as it affects our everyday lives. We transact. We buy things. We sell things. It’s an agreed-upon medium of exchange. Without going into details, long before cryptocurrency, most money is in the form of computer bits and bytes—rather it has no form. The currency and coins we can touch are a small fraction of the money that exists. The money behind your credit card or debit card is not banknotes—and it’s not gold. When a central bank wants to create money, it simply has to type a number in a computer register and press enter, and it exists.
So whilst each of these is pretend, some things are manifest in our ‘real’ world and have real-world implications. Not so much for unicorns and fairies.
* The Appointment in Samarra as retold by W Somerset Maugham (1933)
As I research the agency/free will quandary, I am finding a lot of common minds, as it were. On the free will versus determinism spectrum, I can’t say without reservation that I accept determinism or indeterminism, for that matter, but I can say that free will is weak tea. Causa Sui comes into play, but I’ll get to that.
As an aside, similar to the theism versus atheism debate, keep in mind that this debate hinges on free will taking the privileged position occupied by theism. When discussing compatibility versus incompatibilism, it’s whether determinism is compatible or incompatible with free will. I feel that the privilege of free will in this debate is telling insomuch as it reveals a bias on preferred perspective.
If you’ve been reading, I like what Derk Pereboom has to say, but I feel we have a bit of a gap in our accord. But I’m very partial to Galen Strawson’s line of argumentation that doesn’t rely on determinism to declare the free will argument pointless. I believe that there is space to fill in some gaps in his position regarding social responsibility, and maybe there are no gaps; I just am not yet familiar enough with his position. From a strictly deterministic position, I find Robert Sapolsky’s position appealing, but it still ends up being a pissing match. To be fair, I think any position will be a pissing match. I’ll elaborate on this next before I touch on causa sui.
Losing My Religion
In my book, free will is an anachronistic vestige of religion. Not to go too far down a Foucauldian path, religion is a power play. As religion constructs gods, it also constructs notions of free will. Power structures like to leverage these concepts for their own ends.
Interestingly, religion first gave us determinism—at least the Abrahamic monotheistic varieties—, but it needed to construct free will or it would have undermined its ability to cast blame and guilt. When science matured, it said, ‘Hey, hold on there. There’s no room for gods in physics. Everything has a cause and was determined at the start. Your intuition was right at the start. Free will is bollocks.’
Finally. Causa Sui is the Latin name for a self-caused cause, one that is not the result of prior events. Here is where I really like Galen Strawson’s account. His argument is premised on 4 factors, the first of which is what you do flows from the way you are.
In essence, you’ve somehow got to get to be responsible for being the way you are, but you can’t you can’t get back behind yourself in such a way as to be responsible for the kind of person you are. You’ve got to somehow have chosen it, but you can’t choose it unless you already exist as a creature who has preferences.
You’d somehow have to get to be the cause of yourself to take fundamental ultimate responsibility for yourself and therefore for your actions that flow from the way you are and therefore free will—indeed more responsibility and free will, and therefore we do not have free will.
In the diagramme, we see you, and the influence of external forces, but at no point are you ever responsible for your own actions. Even if you did make a so-called conscious effort to do something else, it would still be the result of one of these other sources.
Perhaps an inapt example would be for a homosexual person to ‘decide‘ to be a heterosexual person. This is not to say just to act like a heterosexual person, but to actually be attracted to the opposite sex. It should be obvious that this can’t be done, but if you are having difficulty, imagine the mirror example where you are a heterosexual person and you ‘decide‘ to be attracted to people of your own sex. Of course, this is akin to deciding that you like cilantro when you don’t, deciding you like Justin Beiber when you don’t, or deciding that you don’t actually enjoy chateaubriand when you do. Even if you manage to act the opposite of your sexual orientation, it is still not you who is responsible for the apparent change. It’s a response to social forces and external conditioning. You are the way you are because of the way you are. You’ve had absolutely no say in the matter.
So what’s the big deal? you might still be asking yourself. If you’ve just done something morally or legally “wrong” —emphasised by big bold scare quotes, you need to be punished or at least blamed irrespective of how you became you, right? Let’s ignore that I am a moral non-cognitivist at the start and pretend that this moral indignation is otherwise meaningful.
Quarantine Justification Theory
Let’s say that someone has done something outside the bounds of social acceptance in some milieu. To make it even easier to consider, let’s imagine for a moment, instead, an autonomous robot that was designed to seek glass and smash it. This robot has no conscience and no free will. It is just a robot programmed to break windows.
This robot has been unleashed on our community. In one sense, some might blame the robot for breaking the windows, but we know that whoever programmed this robot is to blame. But we don’t know who programmed it. What we do know is that we want to stop the robot from breaking more windows.
So we track down the robot and we disable it—or perhaps it’s designed in such a way that it can’t be turned off. Even though the robot is not to blame, it is a menace and we’ve collectively decided to disarm it or quarantine it. We build a glassless room and sequester it away so it can do no more damage.
Some people find this scenario a reasonable justification to quarantine the actor, but I think that this has at least one problem, I’ll mention two considerations I have.
Not a Robot
So, let’s revisit quarantine justification theory with a human actor, and let’s presume no causa sui. As we can’t blame the robot actor, neither can we blame the person actor. As with the robot, the goal is not to punish but to quarantine.
Not to Blame
Now let’s add a dose of reality. This human is not on a window-breaking rampage. Instead, s/he vandalised the window of a shop for some reason; let’s say that s/he was short-changed and wanted to exact damage equal to the shorted change. A police officer witnesses the act and takes the perpetrator into custody. What should the judge do? Remember, the person did not create themself, but s/he did the act s/he was accused of.
The image below shows two scenarios. In scenario A, you are integrated with society; in scenario B, you are quarantined. The question is what is the justification for quarantining you.
It’s difficult to argue that this person should be quarantined because this was a tit-for-tat response, not a rampage. It’s unlikely to happen again. One might try to argue that this person should be fined or, in line with quarantine, incarcerated to be made an example, thus acting as a scapegoat to serve as an external social pressure mechanism to disincentivise this retributive action. But this would ostensibly be punishing this person for something beyond their control.
We can even loosen the scenario to consider a person who has robbed a liquor store or kidnapped a child. These events are all too common, but there is nothing to suggest that a person will repeat this activity, so quarantine cum incarceration is hard to justify.
I can envision someone reading this thinking that we need to do something. We can’t let this person get away with it, but if you find yourself drifting in this direction, it’s your programming. You can’t help yourself. You don’t even have this degree of agency.
I haven’t given it enough thought, but it feels like this is similar to the dissonance when one grasps something intellectually, but instinctually or emotionally something just doesn’t sit right. Whilst you try to get outside of yourself, your programming doesn’t allow it.
* If you haven’t sussed it out quite yet, ‘cows are suey’ is how Google’s auto-generated transcript heard causa sui in an interview with Galen Strawson on this topic, and the rest is history.
All too often, I’ll read or listen to a book and place bookmarks with the best of intents to revisit and comment. yet either never to return or to return and not recall the context and not wanting to reread to regain it. I am going to attempt to document my reaction to Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. If you’ve read some posts here, you’ll understand that I am not a moralist, so I don’t expect to like the book or agree with it. I’ve already ready the forward materials, so I’ll return to comment on that before I get too far ahead. I have done this before at university, and it is decidedly slow progress and can chase one down rabbit holes—this one, anyway.
I have a habit of abandoning books in favour of others including dropping them outright. This is one of 16 I have in progress at the moment, some commenced as many as 5 years ago. To be fair to myself, many of those books are substantially completed. I feel I got the intended message—or at least got what I wanted out of them—, and I just haven’t read the final few chapters. In some cases, the book is an anthology, and I have been slogging my way through it. A few books I’ve read before and am reabsorbing the material, so I may decide not to re-read cover to cover. I just pulled a second reading book off the list to get to 16 from 17.
I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them.
— Baruch Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus, 1676
“Can we all get along?” — Rodney King
“Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out.”
Born to be Righteous
I could have titled this book The Moral Mind to convey the sense that the human mind is designed to “do” morality, just as it’s designed to do language, sexuality, music, and many other things described in popular books reporting the latest scientific findings.
Straight away, I have a contention. The human mind is not designed to do anything. It has evolved and performs functions. Perhaps, this is just a matter of semantics, but it puts me on guard. Moreover, that it does morality doesn’t evaluate the relative benefit or if it should even be done. Without going down the aforementioned rabbit hole, language is a perfect example. We use language to communicate, but language as a social mechanism may be a secondary or tertiary function. As I’ve argued—even quite recently—, this is a reason I feel that language is insufficient for the purpose of conveying abstract concepts, like for example, morals and morality.
But I chose the title The Righteous Mind to convey the sense that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical, and judgmental.
A primary function of the brain is as a difference engine. This is what allows us to discern friend from foe, edible versus poison, and so on. Reflecting on Kahneman and Tversky, most (if not ostensibly all) of this is a heuristic system I process, which is good enough but only at a distance. Morals allow us to create in-group and out-group distinctions.
I want to show you that an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition. It is a feature of our evolutionary design, not a bug or error that crept into minds that would otherwise be objective and rational.
To my first point—not only his insistence on a design metaphor, but doubling down and declaring it as not a bug or an error—, this is disconcerting. And it may be a normal human condition, but so is cancer. The appeal to nature isn’t winning me over.
Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings—but no other animals—to produce large cooperative groups, tribes, and nations without the glue of kinship.
What Lies Ahead
Part I is about the first principle: Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.
If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense.
Haidt and I are much aligned on these points.
Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.
Not buying the ‘go with your intuitions‘ advice. Moving on.
…the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant … I developed this metaphor in my last book, The Happiness Hypothesis.
I’m not sure I am going to like this dualism, and I haven’t read The Happiness Hypothesis, so I’ll just have to see where he takes it. It seems like Haidt is a hardcore Traditionalist.
Part II is about the second principle of moral psychology, which is that there’s more to morality than harm and fairness.
This feels about right.
The central metaphor of these four chapters is that the righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors.
OK. Let’s see where this goes.
Part III is about the third principle: Morality binds and blinds.
I like this pair.
…human beings are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee.
Did he say bee? I agree with the chimp reference. Maybe this won’t be as bad as I thought.
A note on terminology: In the United States, the word liberal refers to progressive or left-wing politics, and I will use the word in this sense. But in Europe and elsewhere, the word liberal is truer to its original meaning—valuing liberty above all else, including in economic activities. When Europeans use the word liberal, they often mean something more like the American term libertarian, which cannot be placed easily on the left-right spectrum.10 Readers from outside the United States may want to swap in the words progressive or left-wing whenever I say liberal.)
Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? … You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.
— MATTHEW 7:3–5
I do find myself, probably too often, parroting this paragraph.
Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second
Central Metaphor: The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.
Where Does Morality Come From?
A family’s dog was killed by a car in front of their house. They had heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cooked it and ate it for dinner. Nobody saw them do this.
A man goes to the supermarket once a week and buys a chicken. But before cooking the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it.
The Origin of Morality
Quick reaction for now. Details to follow…
I’m not quite buying into Haidt’s attempt to parse the nature versus nature argument into three segments: nativism and empiricism whilst adding rationalism insomuch as rationalism is seen by many as ambiguous and not a mutually exclusive option. It feels as though he’s throwing up a rationalist strawman to take down. We’ll see where it leads
Nativism the theory that concepts, mental capacities, and mental structures are innate rather than acquired by learning.
Empiricism the theory that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience.
Rationalism the theory that reason rather than experience is the foundation of certainty in knowledge.
Let’s pick up on this later. I knew this would take a lot longer.
Curse YouTube and Drew—but in a good way. Drew created a video titled I took a Christian class about atheism. It was worse than I expected. Although I don’t find I need to engage with anyone to defend my atheism, I sometimes do. Perhaps, the devil made me do it. I’ve been an atheist for decades—literally for at least half a century. (Man, that’s revealing.)
The magic gods of social media tossed this gem in my face, and I was fated to watch it—a 45-minute video nonetheless. Who posts long-format content on YouTube these days? Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to watch the entire thing—at least without skipping ahead.
I jotted down my thoughts—on paper no less—as I engaged the content. But before delving into that, I want to say that Greg Koukl is a formidable communicator. He knows how to engage his audience. Drew, the Genetically Modified Skeptic, is a strong communicator himself, employing cogent logic in defence of atheism—well-considered and articulated. Although I was watching the clock—cuz 45-minutes; plus I was stopping to take notes. Capturing a couple dozen bullet points, I’d comment here instead of in situ. I’ll link from there to here when I’ve published my reaction.
Drew responds so well that, generally, I avoid stepping on his responses, with which I am in agreement. Instead, I share my own observations either on topics Drew did not address or that I have a nuanced take on.
Below are the points I make with a time reference to the clip. In some cases, the link starts earlier than the point I am addressing if only to provide a reader with context.
3:25 Greg points out that he is going to focus on areas where Christianity can make sense but atheism cannot.
Response: Things do not have to make sense. This is a belief humans impose on the world. Even if one believes in a world of causes and effects, it does not follow that we have a privileged perspective into these causes. Some effects may be caused by any number of correlated and covariant factors, and to claim that A causes Z, because it’s expedient and somewhat linear over some more complex multifactor causal model, is weak tea. As humans, we want things to make sense. It’s effectively in our nature, but it doesn’t follow that the universe needs to comply with this need. Human psychology compensates knowledge and perception gaps with any number of tricks from Gestalt to apophenia. It may be comforting for some to use gods as putty to fill the cracks, though, in my mind, it’s rather Silly Putty.
3:35 Greg defines the terms theism and atheism. Drew points out the reduced, self-serving definitions Greg tries to slide by.
4:44 Greg tries to frame atheism as an assertion rather than an absence, so he can fabricate a strawman to attack.
Response: As Drew points out, this is sometimes, but not always, true. Here my thoughts (or soul, as the case might be—orthogonal, or otherwise) wandered to the Dawkins Scale, which parses atheism and agnosticism into a spectrum rather than a binary pair. Idiomatically, it’s a non-assertion. If you claim there’s a dog in my yard, it’s incumbent for you to provide evidence. If I claim, there is no dog in my yard, I am under no such obligation. Besides, my looking for evidence of a non-dog in my yard would require additional scrutiny. Perhaps it’s hidden.
Moreover, Greg attempts to make this a semantic issue. Drew points this out. For me, I reflected on the political situation where some cohorts within the US public decried Obamacare (AKA the Affordable Care Act or ACA) and yet were substantially supportive of its features. Obamacare acted as a pejorative to taint the act with negative connotations for Obama detractors. People’s cognitive faculties as deficient as they are, this was super easy—barely an inconvenience. Anarchism triggers the same sort of reaction. I attribute this to an unceasing negative propaganda/indoctrination campaign.
Response: Translation: We have subjective experience, and we are going to pose this as some objective reality.
9:40 Greg asks: Where did everything come from? What caused the beginning of the universe.
Response: Where is thy stuff? I don’t even need to engage this question directly because the chestnut of an argument he is presenting has a recursion problem. If everything needs a beginning, then God needs a beginning. This argument just kicks the can down the kerb. And ‘He just is‘ works just as well as ‘It just is‘. Nuff said.
11:25 Greg recounts a scenario where he purportedly asks a recently converted atheist, Do things exist? to which the subject responded affirmatively.
Response: The nature of existence and reality is not resolved science. ‘“Things” are perceived‘ is about the best we can get to at this moment in time, and this doesn’t even define things very precisely.
11:30Have things always existed? is the question posed next.
Response: I like Drew’s response here. Instead, I went to the definition of time because the notion of time is a social construct. It could be that there was a Biblical void from which the universe sprang whole cloth as depicted in the Genesis version or a Big Bang version. It could as well be that at some point time was invented. An imperfect analogy is the BCE-CE split. CE simply starts at year 1 and we’ve run with it. The universe doesn’t have an equivalent notion of BCE, but perhaps it’s similar to spinning up the universe as a virtual machine. There was a literal void of bits awaiting a cue to instantiate a VM universe. For all intents and purposes, this is the beginning of time for that virtual machine. In this example, we could extend the metaphor to a multiverse, or we could stay with a physical machine and virtual machine metaphor. Sure, the physical machine might be a god or another meta-universe—I refuse to say metaverse—, but the virtual machine has no insights earlier than its own time-zero.
The other things Greg’s approach misses are the notions of quantum mechanics and emergent properties. I won’t spend any time elaborating here.
Response: Without getting into the weeds of Kahneman and Tversky’s Systems 1 and 2, intuition and heuristics have a place, but they are very fallible for all but the most mundane of tasks. They are not very precise and are a poor foundation for any theory. I can feel it in my bones just doesn’t go very far—and that includes intuitions about reality
22:15The problem of evil is apparently the most common objection to the existence of God.
Response: This is a sophomoric position to adopt. Greg tries to frame this as an out-there objective reality affair as opposed to an in-there subjective, emotional problem. He posits that things in the world—including people—are inherently bad or evil. Again, Drew reframes this as a uniquely Christian problem. As for me, I don’t even believe in the existence of evil. Good and bad are functional yet still social constructs. Evil is just trebled bad with a metaphysical twist. The problem with evil is more of a problem with bad narrative than anything more substantive. Somebody created a storyline and didn’t run it by strong editors or continuity reviewers.
26:15 Lawmaker Transcendence: In order for there to be laws to be broken, there have to be laws…
Response: Knowing his intended audience, Greg keeps hammering on the objective reality nail. Whilst this may play well to the choir, as Drew points out, it’s not likely to score any points in a debate with atheists. Morals, as well as laws, are social constructs. And as universals, they don’t map as closely across cultures except at the most abstract of levels.
It should go without saying that even if there were a god passing out commandments, there would be no way to validate the authenticity of this exchange.
32:30 All people have souls… You are not just a piece of meat in motion
Response: Just rambling. I’m not even going to waste my time on this one except to redirect you to my previous response relative to human psychology and apophenia.
Response: This bit is juvenile, too. Here Greg explains that the soul is not the brain, that you can’t disassemble your brain to find thought. But, he doesn’t mind ignoring that your soul is nowhere to be found either. This feels quite similar to the need for a creator, but these evidentiary needs don’t apply to their positions. Drew’s computer analogy is apt here.
39:10 Existential crisis is a problem for Greg and other Christians.
Response: Because Christians are wired the way they seem to be, any modality that severs the connection to meaning sets them off. Greg confuses hubris and ego for something more substantial, attributing meaning to it. As it happens, people also cherish their pets more than some random squirrel.
40:30 Humans feel guilty because humans are guilty.
Interestingly, there is a school of belief, psychologically speaking, that the default state of humans is one of anxiety, but given that I don’t give psychology any more credibility than religion, I’ll just leave that here. People feel guilty because they are indoctrinated to feel guilt. A hypothetical person raised on a desert island or in the woods, like Victor, the feral child of Aveyron, or in the jungle, like Tarzan or Mowgli, would not know guilt, empathy, shame, or any of a host of other social “emotional” responses.
All told, Greg raised nothing new nor offered any new support for Christian belief, let alone a broader theistic defence. Ostensibly, the approach he takes is more akin to choir preaching than any other rhetorical purpose. In the end, he’s promoting a smug superiority complex in believers. He understands that although people will accept blind faith rationale for religious belief—especially those indoctrinated from birth—that people do have a mild penchant for rationality. I don’t think most humans operate beyond a cursory level of reasoning, but it’s enough to exploit and construct social reflection mechanisms as part of personal image-building. This allows Greg to propose a homoeopathic logical, rational framework and have it uncritically adopted as being rational.
As for otherwise rational Christians, they likely see through the charlatanism, but since emotion proceeds reason, they are allowed to check out and compartmentalise this nonsense whilst otherwise simultaneously retaining the ability to process the most challenging and tortuous logical conundrum.
Would human extinction be a good thing for the good of the planet? We’re all familiar with the concept of the greater good, but what is the domain of the greater? We presume it to be the domain of all humans or at least our chosen in-group. But if we dilate the aperture, we might encircle the entire biosphere. In my experience, humans rarely extend the circle beyond themselves and barely even do that, opting to extend it to their race or tribe. Whilst some humans are not as self-centred as some narcissists and sociopaths, the radius doesn’t go too far.
Is one a misanthrope if one considers the greater good to be the earth devoid of the human virus? Perhaps, yes, if stated in those terms. But if one calculates that humans do more harm than good, doesn’t the cost-benefit calculus indicate that fewer people or no people would be better for the earth. I’ve long been fond of the late George Carlin’s routine where he proses that we don’t have to save Earth; the earth will remain long after humans no longer inhabit it. It’s been said that 99.9% of species that ever occupied the earth as no longer extant. Humans are past the mean duration of a species. Perhaps it’s time to move on.
I started to write this post some time ago after having had a discussion on antinatalism. Rather, I defended anti-natalism in the course of a conversation on the inherited notion that humans as sacred.
I supposed I am not a strict antinatalist, but neither do I feel that life is somehow sacred. Mine, of course, but except that. Just kidding. If you are reading, yours is, too. Just kidding, not you either. Interestingly, this ties into the post on the narrative gravity of the self.
As I write this in a world with a population of almost 8 billion people dominated by a handful and no picnic for that lot either, there are likely enough people already. I do feel that even if population trends continue upward—given offsetting depopulation trends in some regions—, humans will cap out at around 10 billion anyway. Perhaps in a Malthusian manner, but I am thinking in terms of deer herds and population limiting factors as expressed by equations like Xn-1 = rxn(1-xn).
Life does appear to have at least common characteristics and perhaps only one: the need to procreate. The second is the need to live, but that can probably be reduced to the need to live long enough to procreate. This is core to Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene theory. I like Robert Sapolsky’s treatment of the subject in Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst.
The concept of ‘sacred‘ is a religious vestige. I’m not sure why this needed to be codified, but religious dogma seems to capture the notion ‘thou shalt not kill’, as if it needed to be said. I won’t spend any time on the hypocrisy of the many people who espouse this edict.
It may be a valid position to consider me a misanthrope, but that’s probably overstated, but I’m generally not a fanboy. I guess what bothers me most is the hype and self-promotion. I don’t find it to be particularly inconsistent to see the small positive aspects humans bring and still consider them to be parasitic. This is a compositional challenge–a dimensional consideration that moves away from binary-trending heuristics, the age-old right and wrong, good and bad, good and evil, and on and on.
As with geocentrism, we put ourselves at the centre because this is how we experience life—inside out. All else seems to extend from this model, except there is no centre. It’s just our perspective. I experience life the same way. I’m no exception. Nonetheless, I don’t seem to need to cling to this central notion—this notion of centrality.
When all is said and done—when the last human has made their exit, there will be no epilogue or postscript, afterword, or coda. Humanity is a story in need of a narrator. The ongoing codicil will cease, and to copy-paste the high art of Monty Python’s parrot sketch:
E’s not pinin’! ‘E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!
I expect that consciousness is a human nominative concept. Like religion, it will become smaller as science encroaches. In 1994, David Chalmers presented his idea of the hard problem of consciousness in a lecture, Toward a Scientific Basis of Consciousness, but I feel this is more due to the insufficiency of language than anything else. To me, consciousness isn’t well defined. It’s like a medical syndrome. It’s just a grouping of seemingly related conditions that haven’t yet been parsed. In time, it may be determined that they weren’t even related in the first place. Apophenia and cognitive dissonance are two significant human biases that affect perception.
At core, consciousness might be functionally reduced to that of an interpreter. Some have posited that the only thing that exists is ‘information’, whatever that means, so there only needs to be an interpreter—a translater. If that interpreter is defined as consciousness, then so be it. This appears to lead us to a Cartesian place—though it doesn’t follow that the self or ego exists. This would be a second-order event.
Anyway, just rambling. As seems to be the case lately, I’ve got little time to develop my thoughts. At least I’ve captured them for now.
I was commenting elsewhere on morals and was directed to Jonathan Haidt and his work. Notably, the questionnaire at YourMorals.org, where you can get your own assessment and contribute data points to the body of work.
Full disclosure: I am not a fan of this type of survey, as I’ve mentioned previously. Still, I made an attempt. Better still, I’ve copied the questions to critique. There are 36 all tolled. Perhaps, I’ll respond to a dozen at a time. The next dozen responses are here. Generally speaking, they present each question and provide a Likert scale as follows:
Does not describe me at all
Slightly describes me
Moderately describes me
Describes me fairly well
Describes me extremely well
Standard fare. It starts off bad:
1. Caring for people who have suffered is an important virtue.
Why include an abstract concept like virtue? I don’t ascribe to the notion of virtue, so it’s an empty set. Given that, my response would be a 1. If I ignore the offensive nomenclature and assume it translates idiomatically into ‘beneficial for some target society’, then I still have to question what is meant by suffering, and how far does caring extend. Is it enough to feel bad about the homeless person, or does one have to care enough to provide sustenance and shelter? Talk is cheap.
2. The effort a worker puts into a job ought to be reflected in the size of a raise they receive.
This is fraught with all sorts of problems. In fact, it’s a reason why I consider myself to be a Postmodern. The inherent metanarrative is that societies are effectively money-based. I don’t happen to believe that, so I am again faced with responding to an empty set. Even if I attempt to abstract the ‘raise’ aspect to mean that effort represents input and output is a direct and (perhaps) proportional function, I am still left to wrestle with how this effort is measured and what could have been achieved had the others not been present.
Using a sports analogy—always a dangerous domain for me to play in—, what if LeBron James was to play an opposing team by himself? He needs the other team members. Of course, his teammates are compensated, too. But in his case, his salary is not only based on his athletic talent but on his celebrity power—rent in economic parlance. Perhaps LeBron makes a lot of baskets, but without the assists, he’d have fewer. And because he is the go-to guy, some other teammates might be sacrificing baskets as part of their winning strategy.
Finally, how do you measure the effort of an accountant, a janitor, and an executive? The question is fundamentally bollox.
3. I think people who are more hard-working should end up with more money.
On a related note, I can abbreviate my commentary here. Again, what is harder? Are we asking if construction workers should earn more than CEOs? More bollox.
4. Everyone should feel proud when a person in their community wins in an international competition.
Yet, again, an empty set and a sort of mixed metaphor. I don’t agree with the notion of identity and even less at scale—states, countries, and nationalities. Putting that aside, why should I derive pride (that cometh before the fall) because someone succeeds at some event anywhere? It’s facile. If the question was focused on whether I would be happy for that person, the answer might shift up the scale, but where would I have derived pride for that person’s achievements?
5. I think it is important for societies to cherish their traditional values.
First off, why? What values? Not to beat a dead horse, but what if my tradition is slavery? Should I cherish that? This is really asking should I cherish the traditions of my society. Clearly, it’s not asking if other societies should enjoy the privilege of cherishing theirs? From the standard Western vantage, many want to cherish their own, but not Eastern values of eating dogs or Middle Eastern values of burqaed women and turbans. Is this asking should the world subscribe to my society’s values? I’m not sure.
6. I feel that most traditions serve a valuable function in keeping society orderly
Speaking of tradition… We are not only dealing with the vague notion of tradition, we are discussing another vague concept, order, and elevating order over (presumably) disorder. Order connotes a status quo. And why is the superlative most present? Has someone inventoried traditions? I believe I am supposed to translate this as ‘I feel that the traditions I am familiar with and agree with help to create a society that I am content with’. Again, this betrays the privileged perspective of the observers. Perhaps those disenfranchised would prefer traditions like Capitalism and private property to be relics of the past–or traditions of two-party rule, partisan high court judges, or money-influenced politics, or politicians serving themselves and their donors over the people or Christmas.
7. We all need to learn from our elders
Learn what exactly from our elders? Which elders? The bloke down the block? That elderly Christian woman at the grocery mart? The cat who fought in some illegal and immoral war? The dude who hordes houses, cars, and cash at the expense of the rest of society? Or the guy who tried to blow up Parliament. I believe this is asking should we learn how to remain in place as taught by the privileged wishing to maintain their places.
8. Everyone should try to comfort people who are going through something hard
Define hard, and define comfort? This harkens back to the first question. Enough said. As far as lying is concerned, we should by now all be familiar with the adage trying is lying. Or as Yoda would restate it, do or do not, there is no try.
9. I think the human body should be treated like a temple, housing something sacred within
Obviously, this one is total rubbish. Here, I don’t have a structure that makes it difficult to answer. I may have sprained my eye rolling it, though. This said, what is a temple treated like?
10. I get upset when some people have a lot more money than others in my country
This one is interesting. Whilst I don’t believe that countries or money should exist. In practice, they do. So on its face, I can say that I get upset when we are thrown into a bordered region and told we need to exchange paper, metal, plastic, and bits for goods and services–that some people have more and others have less primarily through chance.
11. I feel good when I see cheaters get caught and punished
Which cheaters? Cheating requires perspective and a cultural code. It can privilege the individualist over the communalist. This reminds me of the cultures that are more interested in ensuring that all of their members finish a contest than having any one win.
Academically, it is considered to be cheating to work together on an exam because the individual is being tested. Of course, the exam is on certain content rather than on the contribution of the human being.
Again, the question feels targeted at cheaters getting caught circumventing something we value. If someone cheats becoming assimilated into some military-industrial society, I will encourage and support them. If they get caught and punished, my ire would more likely be directed toward the power structure that created the need to cheat.
12. When people work together toward a common goal, they should share the rewards equally, even if some worked harder on it
I’ll end this segment here on another question of meritocracy. I think it’s fair to judge the authors as defenders of meritocracy, though I could be wrong. This feels very similar to some other questions already addressed. The extension here is about sharing the rewards, whatever that means. Are we baking a cake? Did we build a house for a new couple? Did we plant trees in a public park? Did we clean up litter on a parkway? Did we volunteer to feed the homeless? And what was the work? Again, how are we measuring disparate work? Did the chicken farmer work harder than the cow farmer? Did the carpenter work harder than the organiser?
If the remainder of these questions is different enough, I’ll comment on them as well. Meantime, at least know you know more why I have little faith in the field of morals. This does nothing to change my opinion that morals are nothing more than emotional reactions and subsequent prescriptions. I don’t mean to diminish emotions, and perhaps that might be a good central pillar to a vibrant society. I’ll need more convincing.
Is organised government already on the same downward spiral as organised religion?
Faith in government is low. Without exception, the system has weakened and is clearly broken. The same power corruption that is bringing down organised religion is weighing heavy on governments.
In the US, Canada, and the UK, governments have become polarising entities, and most participants don’t even try to practise statesmanship. Perhaps not the governments, per se, but the forces trying to wrest control. It’s usually us versus them. This has been going on for about half a century and accelerating. Regarding religion, we hear many say they are spiritual or have faith, but they eschew the structure of religion. What is the parallel for government?
Its easy to support the concept of government—or at least of governance—and still complain about the particular instantiation: Trump’s Republicanism is good, but Biden’s Democracy is bad, and vice versa. But I’ll argue that organised government as an institution is as fatally flawed as organised religion.
Government participation like that of religion attracts sociopaths and power-mongers. Are there acceptions. Yes. Are these people corruptable? Yes. Do the become corrupted? Some. Many simply become complacent.
In religion, some defend that they are spiritual but not religious. In politics, we have quasi- and pseudo- anarchists and Libertarians who just haven’t yet realised the source of their malaise, so they tilt Quixotically.
People haven’t quite sussed it out and can’t really seem to put their collective fingers on it, but it’s not governance most of us don’t like, it’s the misuse and abuse of power—as rendered by the NASCAR-themed political meme.
In the current environment, it’s ‘the other party’ that’s the problem. I hope that as with religion, we’ll see a turning point where people realise that it’s the system, the organisation, that’s the problem, not some aspect of it. It’s not a few bad apples. Like in a Stephen King novel, it’s the barrel that’s possessed. That barrel is the system.
Much of jurisprudence is based on logic founded on faulty premises of regurgitated theological concepts shrouded in naturalistic theory and pseudoscience. This is not about the defund the police social trend of 2020. This is to say that the justice system is smoke and mirrors writ large. It’s ostensibly built on anachronistic concepts such as volition, evil, soul, blame, and forgiveness that should be tossed into the dustbin of history along with phrenology, humours, and will.
The titleof this post is taken from Robert Spapolsky’s proposed chapter concept for Behave, published in 2017, where until now, it’s languished on my Want to Read list, having entered via the vector of my interest in behavioural economics. Chapter 16 was eventually published with the title of Biology, the Criminal Justice System, and (Oh, Why Not?) Free Will.
I’ve been writing for years about the nonesensical attachment to these notions, so it gives me comfort in solidarity to discover others who share, at least to some degree my perspective, knowing, of course, that this doesn’t make this perspective any more correct.
To be fair, I’ve held a low opinion of so-called justice (and government) systems pretty much since I was taught about them almost 50 years ago. In the US, much teaching is really propagandising about how fair these systems are and how peers and reasonable persons concepts make is superior. In my mind, those were the being failings. Later, when I hopped onto my language insufficiency bandwagon, it only fell apart more. Kafka’s The Trial represents the internal workings of most justice systems than the logic and reason of propogated but proponants.
Stopping here. Much to do. I recommend reading Behave. If you’ve read it, I’d love to see what you thought about it.
Full Disclosure: I consider myself to be a determinist. I looked for something like Dawkins’ spectrum of theistic probability to evaluate where one might be oriented on a scale of free will to determinism to fatalism whilst also considering compatibilism.
Let’s lay some groundwork by establishing some definitions from most constrained to least:
Fatalism : a doctrine that events are fixed in advance so that human beings are powerless to change them
Compatibilism : a doctrine that maintains that determinism is compatible with free will
Determinism : a theory or doctrine that acts of the will, occurrences in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are causally determined by preceding events or natural laws
Freewill : freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention
It seems that freewill and fatalism are bookends with compatibilism attempting to moderate or synthesise freewill and deteminism. But it also seems that one’s selection may be contexual. Ultimately, this argument is fraught with semantic challenges insomuch as some underlying concepts are yet unresolved.
Crash Course Philosophy does provides a nice summary of the challenges in defending even compatibilist positions away from detemininism and even fatalism.
As this video notes, our choices may appear to be free, but it doesn’t take much effort to perform a 5-whys investigation to remove anything but homoeopathic amounts of agency.
Taking a short example, let’s look at the cases of the trial judges mentioned by Sapolsky (Behave) and Kahneman (Noise). Given all of the factors entering into sentences, prior offences, sex or gender of either the defendant or the judge, education, income, and so on, but far the largest factor in determining the length or severity of a sentence was the time between the sentencing and the judge’s last meal—effectively their blood glucose levels.
Some may argue that this is a short interval, but behaviourists would argue that a person now is a culmination of all of their experiences to date. That the decision of the so-called criminal to rob the liquor store (going for the stereotype here) was not the result of low blood sugar. This may be true, but there is still an unbroken chain of confluent events that brought them to that place.
From a culpabilty perspective, even absent true agency, the offender should still be incarcerated or whatever to prevent this behaviour from repeating. Of course, if you believe in rehabilitation, you are necessarily a behaviourist in soem shape or form: the idea is to effectively repattern experience impressions. The other problem is one of probability. That you did X once, are you lilkey to do it again? If not, then there is no further risk to society, as it were. Given the probability of recitivism—and some argue that mass incarceration increases the probability or attempting criminal actions post-release—, is this even an effective deterence? It’s time to get out of the rabbit hole.
From my position, it is impossible to reconcile experience and freewill. The best you can argue is that one is free in the moment—like some strange improv exercise, where you are shown a film that stops abrutly, and you are instructed to act out the remainder of the scene. Is this free, or is this extrapolating on your experience.
Skipping to fatalism, how probable is it that absolutely everything is determined. Reality is just a film we are both in and observing or experiencing, but all of it is already laid down. We are just unawares. Every strange plot twist and early exit was not only already scripted, but it’s already been captured. There is no room for improvisation or flubbed lines. There is no opportunity to go off-script. Even these words are predestined. Even unpublished thoughts were not meant to be published.
There is no way to test this sort of system from inside the system, and there is no way to get a vantage above it, so here we are.
The notion of determinism affords humans some modicum of agency, perhaps akin to one part in a trillion trillions. Practically, we are taking credit for a butterfly effect—and punishing for this degree of freedom. As Sapolsky has noted, most instances of perceived agency are trivial. We can ‘instruct’ finger movement with our brain. Ostensibly, we think: move finger; bend; point; stop. And even so, what was the cause of the thought to move the finger? Was there truly a non-causal event?
Cognotive dissonance ensures that we can’t allow ourselves to be NPCs or automotons. We have to omuch hubris for that. We must have some free will. Some religions say we not only have agency here in this life but that we chose the life to begin with. Even so, we’ve not seen the script in advance; we’ve merely chosen which lessons we want learnt.
So what about compatibilism? Sort of, who cares? Whilst I can define some interstitial state between free will and determinism, it seems that it would not be even tempered or would otherwise skew heavily toward determinism.
What keeps me from being a hard determinist is that I hold out hope for statistics, chaos, and stochasticism. One might argue in return, that these, too, are determined; we just don’t see the underlying connection. And that’s my cognitive cross to bear.
To be fair, it seems that the notion of free will or even compatibilism are secondary, let’s say, reactions to the need for culpability, for moral responsibility. Societies are built upon these notions, as are legal systems. Necessary ingredients to invent are:
Agency and Volition
Choice, Motivation, and Intent
Responsibilty and Blame
None of these actually exist, so they need to be invented and constructed in order to associate self-control to actions. In fact, we have insanity escape clauses to recognise that there are cases where control is lost, whether temporarily or permanently, or never had in the first place for any number of ‘reasons’. At core, these attributes are necessary to exert power in a society. The next goal is to convince the actors or subjects that these things are ‘real enough’— as the saying goes, ‘good enough for the government’.
Even if we accept these things at face value, the interpretation and processing of these are different animals still. The notion of Will itself is likely speceous or another fabricated notion. Perhaps, I’ll address Will on another day. Probably not, as all of this is distracting me from my language insufficiency work.
When I think about free will, it is foisted on humanity in the same manner as gods and religion. With gods, we have been defending against theism for millennia. The gods fetish and free will are inextricably linked. As with the chicken and egg connundrum, the question is whach came first. Is God a reaction to fee will, or is it the other way around. Did we create free will to allow for responsibility and then fabricate Supreme busy bodies to act as ultimate judges? Or did we create the gods and build out the myth of free will to accommodate punishment of deviant behaviour. Or are these just parallel constructions? Enquiring minds want to know.