Friday, October 19, 2012

Do we have free will?

I find myself watching a video of Sam Harris, talking about Free Will.  It's an interesting topic... and he basically makes the claim that "free will is illusory" - a statement I think I'm more-or-less prepared to accept.  But along the way, he makes some statements that I'm really unsure about.  Here's the video, in case you want to stop and see for yourself first (note: it's long - over an hour):

I haven't (yet) read his book on the topic, so maybe he explains things more carefully there, but as presented in the video, I have some uncertainty about whether his logic is sound.

For example, he says (a little over 31 minutes in):
The truth is we feel or presume an authorship over our own thoughts and actions that is illusory.  If I could detect all of your conscious thoughts and intentions and subsequent behaviors with a brain scanner some moments before you were aware of them, you would be rightly shocked, because it would undermine your sense that you are the prime mover of your inner life.  How can we be free, as conscious agents, if everything we consciously intend, was caused by events in our brain, which we did not intend, and over which we had no control.  We can't.  So what does this mean?
And in particular, let me pick a particular phrase which I take issue with: "over which we had no control".  Here's the thing:

To say that a conscious thought was caused by events in our brain, which we did not intend is not the same as saying we have no control.  And I assert that we may have some control.  In particular, it seems to me that if we have any choice at all (and perhaps he argues that we don't, but he does go on to say that choices do matter), then one choice we have is to use the principles (whether consciously or otherwise) of reinforcement to shape the unconscious inputs into our still-illusory notion of choice.  In a sense, we can become our own causes for future choices.  So while we may indeed not be able to fully control any individual choice, do we perhaps have a way to influence future choices?  If so, then his statement that our choices are something "over which we [have] no control" is erroneous, even if his broader statement that our notion of choice is illusory.

It surely warrants study... or perhaps the study has already been done, and I just need to read more.  If nothing else, though, I humbly request that Mr. Harris make more acknowledgement of the distinction between the two arguments that our thoughts are controlled by prior causes, and that we have no control over them.  Because these are, to my mind, different statements, and yet he seems to lump them together in one.

Perhaps I'll have more to say as I finish the video, and/or get the book and read it.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Bible Problems, installment the first

Bible Problems: Wherein, the Bible is read; and wherein, problems I find with it are reported (and hopefully explained).

What problems?  Why?

Well, problems of conscience, mostly - I find many things in the bible that I deem to be morally reprehensible to teach someone - especially as being the word of a deity, or otherwise words to live by.

Why?  Why go through this exercise?  Well, two main reasons:

  1. because various people over the years have recommended (to me, or to a general audience) reading it, if only for the literary experience and the cultural references... or for the "good stories"; and
  2. because any document that's read by so very many people, and preached from, and held up as being some glorious (even infallible) document... well... I figure it's useful to know what's in it.

So, I've actually tried a few times to read it in the past, and not gotten very far before I was so disgusted I couldn't continue.  Now, I figure I'll try once more, but with the added intention of documenting the things I find in it that I find problematic in one way or another.  Maybe, too, I'll get further through it, and have a broader base of knowledge about this cultural artifact.  Or maybe I won't.  Either way, I'll be sharing a bit of my experience with the world, in hopes that others find it useful to see my perspective on things.

I thought about putting this on my other blog (What Could Be Better), but I think it belongs here.  It's a personal experience, a journey, and sure to be a bit fractured, as I respond to various things.  Perhaps it'll end up generating some posts there over time, too, though.  Or, perhaps I again won't get through Genesis, and the long-scope project that I imagine this to be will be cut short.  Then again, I'll have a record of where I left off, in case I care to pick it back up some day.

Anyway, shall we begin?

Oh wait...

About my sources:

I suppose it's first and foremost important to declare my source, since there are so many versions of "the" bible out there.  Through whatever set of influences (I honestly don't know), I've come to a general notion that the King James Version (KJV) is... the best version???  Something.  Anyway, at least it's one well-read version... or really, I suppose there are several versions of KJV even, so I suppose it's several well-read versions.  Oy.  But, according to the above-linked source, it's public domain (in the U.S., anyway - not that I'm in the U.S. right now), so...  hoping there won't be any copyright problems or anything.  Whatever my reasons, it's what I'm using, for better or worse.  (If and when I compare notes with other versions, I'll talk about that... but probably I'll just stick to KJV.)

Also, I want to point out that I'm not necessarily going to try to point out every possible flaw along the way - in fact, I'm going to do rather the opposite.  I'm going to attempt to read this as just literature, and ignore the problems... and then only report the ones that are so grating to me as to seriously interrupt that flow.


Now, truly, I'll begin:

The first problem I had that met this threshold was right there in Chapter 1 of Genesis - the first chapter of the first book.  Verse 26 (so Genesis 1:26) (paraphrasing to emphasize my objection; more on that later):
"God said... let ['man' - i.e. humans? or is it just men?] have dominion ... over all the earth"
Ugh.  OK, granted, we've done a pretty good job of following this particular edict (though I consider it to be an edict from... well, let's just say a source other than a deity), which may in some ways actually blind us to the meaning of it - it's so present around us all the time, that we rarely notice that it's there.  Like air - every once in a while, we rejoice in it, but mostly, we don't even notice.  But I notice (less often than I could, I'm sure), and I see it as something not to rejoice about.

To take dominion over something... well, one definition is "absolute ownership".  Ownership?  Really?  We own the earth?  We certainly pretend to - if only in (more or less) small chunks at a time. But really?  Absolute ownership over the whole earth?  What does that even mean?  Well, I suppose there are various types of ownership... among them, slavery.  So, the earth is our slave?  Well, we certainly treat it that way sometimes - like it's there only for our benefit, and we can do whatever we want to it without any concern for the consequences.  But since any one of us usually only "owns" (at most) a small piece of it, we end up with "The Tragedy of the Commons", wherein we trash the planet, to the detriment of all of us.

Hmm, I genuinely wonder if my readers will be making the connections I'm making here (or at least following the ones I'm expressing).  If you think you might not be, I encourage you to read a book called Ishmael (which can be found (insert shameless commercial plugging) at Powell's, Amazon, and probably your favorite local book retailer or library (ok, there's a little shame in it, so I'm tempering it a bit)).  I honestly found the writing style to be a bit annoying at times (in particular, I found the protagonist (well, one of two, I suppose, and I don't mean the eponymous one) to be a bit of a dolt – though, perhaps that's important to the storytelling, I don't know - I do imagine it to be intentional).  But it's one of those books that's profoundly influenced the way I see certain things, and I really would like it if more people would read it (and/or its follow-ups, The Story of B [Powell's, Amazon] and My Ishmael [Powell's, Amazon]).

At any rate, I think the idea that humans (and especially if you take it as only men) "own the earth" is hugely problematic, and I think one major place that people in society get this idea is through the above and other similar passages from the bible.  I'm sure I'll report on more of them, as I find them.

Oh, hey, look... it didn't take very long.  Two lines later (so I guess it could be argued it's part of the same passage?), we have this (this time quoted fully - not so much to avoid quoting out of context (I believe that if I'm making any distortions, it's only a distortion of emphasis, not of intended meaning, and anyway I'm linking to context), but rather because I think pretty much the whole thing is worth exploring):
"And God blessed them [the humans], and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."
OK, so, breaking it down, since there are so many problems here:

  1. "be fruitful and multiply" - Yes, this is arguably good for our species.  Certainly, reproduction is a part of surviving as a species.  Still, when said this way, it puts it into the form of an absolute, which it may not be.  There are times when some species specifically don't multiply (e.g. "Some animal species seem to ... refrain from mating when they find themselves in a crowded environment"), because, well, there's this concept called carrying capacity which describes the limits that an environment (e.g. our earth) has to provide resources for a population.  (Somewhat of an aside, but I personally expect that humans have far exceeded the long-term carrying capacity of our planet, and that we'll be experiencing a severe population crash, likely within my lifetime.  I'm looking forward to that... with dread.)
  2. "replenish" - meaning what, exactly?  What replenishing is needed, here?  Within the context of the story, these were the first humans, so do they mean to plenish?  Or are the fruitful humans meant to replace stocks of other animals?  Were other animals lacking?? The problem I have here, at its core, is the notion that I see as implicit in this that humans would become the main living thing on earth.  Which... well, I refer you again to Ishmael, and shan't recount all the reasons why this is a problem here.  Perhaps in some future post.
  3. "subdue [the earth]"...  Again with the dominance thing.  Also, to subdue something is to be in combat with it.  To be in combat with the thing upon  which your very life depends strikes me as... well, shall I be polite and simply say a misguided choice?
  4. "have dominion ... over every living thing".  See the previous item.  Ugh.
And I even skipped mention of the part about blessing, because, well... because until more of these other arguments are clear to my readers, it's too hard to explain why I have a problem with that.

So, reading on...

Well, I have some problems with the "good" that this God fellow purports to see in all of this, having to do with a false dichotomy between good and evil that is another whole chapter to be written in this blog series (or go read about it in Ishmael).  But I'm hungry, and I'm tired of writing, so I'm going to take a break and go get myself some food.  Because, you know, "food is good".  (Or rather, food is useful for countering hunger, and for providing energy to the brain, etc.  Hmm, should I eat only herbs and fruits, as my meat?)

More later, I hope.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Hello out there...

To anyone who sees this... And, importantly, to a lot of people who mostly probably won't: Hello!

I'm thinking this morning of the many people who've touched my life in various ways... From the family I was born into, to some people I've recently started to think of as almost like family... From old friends to recent acquaintances... I've thought of a lot of you individually this morning. And I'm sure there are others that I'd be ashamed to have missed, if I tried to make a list.

Well, and I did try to make a list, in a way... I was going to send out an email... Maybe I still will, later. For now, though, I've decided (for reasons I don't have adequate words to make clear, so I simply won't explain) to abandon that plan, and just write something here. Something... That feels a little hollow, I fear, in its absence of specific content.... But which I hope you'll believe is full with emotion and thought behind the scenes somewhere.

So hello. Love and happiness to you all. Whether I spoke with you yesterday, or it's been years, or anywhere in between: You are missed.

Be well.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The problem with science, sometimes...

... Is that it (sometimes) throws out the baby with the bath water. So to speak. Like if someone claims that xyz practice is really great, because it helps clear your mind, teaches you to focus, and at advanced stages, you can fly... Well, sure, science is probably going to be able to fairly readily toss out the whole flying bit.

It might even be able to show that the practice is no better at clearing someone's mind or teaching focus than some other generic goofy practice. And maybe it's not. But that's maybe because the other goofy practice and the one being investigated both have some real effect at play. And even if that effect is a placebo effect, well... Science shows that the placebo effect is real, right? So... What do these practices have in common, really? If we study it in detail, and find the common link, can someone who knows what the science says still get the benefit? Can one get benefit from placebo that one knows is placebo? If not, but not knowing allows real benefit, then it seems to me that someone somewhere in science needs to make some sort of allowance for some of this stuff. Somehow. Carefully. But how? And is this done today?

Or, if we can benefit from known-placebos, then start handing them out.

Or something.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Chessa and Alison, meet Laura.

I don't expect most of my readers (do I have readers?) to have the slightest clue what this post title means. Maybe a few of you know me well enough to know the significance of those first two names in my life. Probably many who would bother to read this blog know the significance of the latter name. If not, that's easy to find. Well, today she gains a new significance. One importantly different, perhaps, from that of the former names... But that I expect to treat essentially the same.


So yeah, sorry, world, for the cryptic post. I just had to get that out. Somewhere. Somehow. And this was the best I could come up with.

Monday, February 6, 2012

On the road (wait, no, rails) again...

Well, I finally got things going, and got out of Seattle once more.  Not that don't love Seattle, mind you, but, you know, it was time to leave 5 months ago, and nothing really changed that, I'd just gotten sucked back in when I came back for something specific.

And now I'm in Portland.  Currently listening to an open mic at the 3 Friends Coffee House, which is actually quite enjoyable.  I've never really attended open mic events much, though I've heard about them, and they always sounded like a good idea.

It's a mixture of spoken word and music... and, this being the Pacific Northwest, it's progressive and interesting.

I think I might well be back; this appears to be a weekly thing.  Who knows, maybe I'll prepare something for spoken word next week????  We'll see.  Maybe the week after that.  ;)

Anyway, I miss my friends in Seattle, and I'm also glad to have gotten going again.  I think I was stuck there.  Glad I broke free.

The train ride was fun.  I ended up sitting across from someone who used turned out to have been my upstairs neighbor for a few years, though I don't think we'd ever met.  It may be a small world... but there's a lot more of it for me to see.

(P.S.  Check out the moon.  The moonrise was lovely... it's higher up by now, though.)