Like leaves in the wind…

Marginally sensible thoughts about philosophy, religion and love… oh, and about movies too.

Month: January, 2012

One thing appeasers need to stop saying

[Note, in case anyone cares: this was supposed to be published during Christmas eve, the day the criticized article was itself published… but I forgot to publish the saved draft. In any case, I think it is still worth posting, lateness aside.]

The Christmas season is, supposedly, a time for peace and jollity.  I don’t agree with that nor do the several people that commit suicide with Christmas carols in the TV as their background music. But my holiday misanthropy and the excruciating depression that only this festivity can bring are arguably minority approaches to what the day is about. So fair enough, let’s accept the majority’s beliefs for granted, no matter how corny, and say that Christmas is all about peace and joy and presents, and family and overeating, and in some cases, believe it or not,  about God.

Consequentially, for some of those who believe this, seeing people of different religious  beliefs being nasty to each other during these days is an invitation to try to do something to make that stop. That is a very noble thing to do, I guess, and if the feeling is sincere, I don’t have the slightest intention of making that feeling disappear. However, in this case there are people who want to help but do it wrong;  and also people that pretend to want to help, when in reality they want to get something else out of it. Not that they are exhaustive possibilities… there are also those that kind of want to help but that also want to get something out of it, for example.

And I’m not sure where to put a guy called Gladstone, who writes for Cracked, the humor website. I’m sure he is not in the group of those who are sincere and helpful, but I am still unsure if I should place him with those that are sincere and unhelpful, or those that are insincere and want to get something else out of it. I am not a mind reader anyway,  but I am in this dilemma because today he published an inane piece of  appeasing babble with the (at least) explicit purpose of narrowing the distance between believers and atheists regarding the way they express themselves about each other by telling them what they need to stop saying. And I am in a dillema because I cannot figure out if he really wants to help or if he wants to smugly tell the nasty fundies and the angry atheists how above he is from all their crap to feel diplomatic and to make people think of him as a very humble and kind person.

But let’s take a look at what he says. Maybe after dissecting his arguments we will be able to place him where he belongs. He starts with this:

For a moment, take a step back and forget all the ideas that come to mind when you hear the word “God.” Forget about organized religion and everything that flows from it. No Jesus or Buddha. No corrupt religious figures abusing their positions to raise money or shelter sin. No holy wars or persecutions based on humanity’s flawed understanding of divine intent. None of it.

Kind of hard to do, you know? Even as a matter of mental experiment it is pretty difficult for me or for anyone with a tiny bit of moral consciousness to forget about all the evils that have been committed in the name, not only of religion, but of God himself. But lets try, for his argument’s sake, and let’s also grant him that there is such a thing as a non-flawed understanding of a non imaginary divine intent. He urges us to think of God as:

Just a force in the universe, not only more powerful than humanity, but greater than anything we have known. Something beyond mere biology with the ability to create worlds and predetermine tomorrow’s history. By definition, it’s almost too much to comprehend, and, not surprisingly, I have trouble accepting the existence of such a power. But that’s not the same as saying God doesn’t exist.

After all, God — like the Loch Ness Monster or that Canadian girl I lost my virginity to junior year — can neither be proven nor disproven. And given that, it always seems to take an act of both extreme faith and arrogance to mock the very notion of a God or to tell others you know precisely what He is thinking.

I don’t think he understands what “by definition” means, but let’s ignore that as well.  What we can’t ignore is the astonishing assertion -well, astonishing for a wooly minded appeaser- that God, the Loch Ness Monster and his immaginary Canadian girlfriend are basically the same from an epistemological point of view: they are all impossible to prove or disprove, and this, of course, makes atheism just as arrogant and as blind in its faith as the religious individuals that claim to know the mind of God. It is astonishing because, like I said, it puts God, the Loch Ness Monster and his made up Canadian deflowerer on the same epistemological level, but unfortunately for him, it is not the level a person like him would like to put God: if he wants to show, contra “arrogant” atheists, that belief in God is not unreasonable, it is completely puzzling why he would put it next to a well known hoax and a facetious sexual fabrication. Is he saying then, that it is as reasonable to believe in God as much as it is reasonable to believe in the Loch Ness Monster? Really? However you try to interpret this he comes up as careless at best. Or well-mindedly stupid, you choose.  This, whatever he pretended with it, does not help the case for faith.

But that doesn’t stop people. And while I can accept whatever’s in people’s hearts, there’s no reason the rest of us have to keep hearing about it. Here are the four things about God I’ve heard enough of from both atheists and the devout.

Oh, poor him. He is tired of having to hear from “in your face” atheistic people like me or from “quit that shit or you’ll burn in hell” religious minded folks not necessarily telling him what we believe or disbelieve in, but of merely expressing it where he might stumble upon our unsophisticated and hateful views. Of course that won’t stop him from telling us what he believes about us.

But let’s read what bothers poor Gladstone, from bad to worst, as is usual with Cracked articles:

#4. Devout: God hates X

He starts in a sensible tone, criticizing the devout who don’t waste time in telling the world how much their God hates something or someone and that therefore that something or someone should be banned/killed/stoned/sent to hell etc.:

[…] there’s another problem with defining your faith by who your God despises: How do you know? Some of you would say, “Because the [INSERT HOLY BOOK HERE] tells me so.” […]

But even giving you and your Holy Book the benefit of the doubt, there’s still a problem: You’re still you. Just some dude. Are you so impressed with yourself or so intellectually uncurious that you think you perfectly understand the will of God just by reading a book?

The point is simple and I won’t disagree with it, it is, basically: how the fuck do you know that is true? And if faith tells you that, why the fuck do we have to take you seriously? A fine point atheists have been making for a while, by the way. The problem is that, for Gladstone’s purposes it doesn’t work. If he wants to save  faith, he can’t criticize what people, by faith, ultimately, believe that their God tells them to hate. He can’t have it both ways and if he wants to argue that there are good faith statements and bad ones, he should offer a criterion for making the distinction. He sort of does that when he says that:

Having a one in four chance of being wrong about God is not that big a deal if you’re telling people God loves them, but you don’t really want to throw stones with those kinds of odds.

We can call that the “criterion of no damage”: if some statement informed by faith or by scripture says something that causes happiness or pleasure it is permissible, but otherwise it is not. Therefore it is not permissible to say “God hates X”. And that is a ll well and good (and can actually be generalized in ethics for normative judgments), but the problem is that if we grant faith a real knowledge status (as opposed to a “you just pulled that out of your ass” status) we have no way of stopping people who claim to know things by faith from saying things like “well, sure, the criterion is nice and all, but my God tells me that it would be  for the greater good of mankind if the jews and the heathens were exterminated”. And Gladstone, most likely unwittingly, seems to concede:

Unless, of course, you think the New Testament, the Koran or whatever other holy text you follow is impervious to misinterpretation. Then, of course, carry on with your God-sanctioned hatred.

And of course the religious have never said that, right? There have never been interpreters of holy texts self-proclaimed and accepted by the religious, by faith, as inerrant, right?

#3. Atheist: God is not great

He starts, predictably,  with  an attempt at clever snark directed at the recently departed Christopher Hitchens:

God Is Not Great was the 2007 anti-religion book by popular atheist and author Christopher Hitchens. Last week, Hitchens — known for his intellect, eloquence and insufferable arrogance — achieved his life-long goal of becoming God by ceasing to exist.

Hitchens might have been arrogant now and then, and insufferably so mostly to those he targeted, but at least he had something to be arrogant about. In any case, he was always able to defend himself, and even in his post mortem non-existence one could find pages of actually clever arguments that would make anyone realize that Gladstone, on the contrary, is the arrogant and insufferable twit,  so let’s not make a fuss about that. What is interesting is his incomprehensible “witticism” about Hitch becoming God by ceasing to exist. Is inexistence exclusive to gods now? Did Hitchens turn into a fairy and a chupacabras too? I’m seriously doing my best to find sense or humor in that, but I can’t find any. But more aggravating -and slanderous- is the idea that Hitchens wanted to become God by denying his existence. Anyone who read or listened to him with a minimum of care would know that his attack was not only directed at God as a metaphysical reality, but, famously, to the very idea of the God-like if it meant having supernatural or earthly dictatorial or totalitarian powers over even just one single and lowly person. Hitch knew very well that he was going to die and that it was going to be it -if “he” was going to become anything, it was lifeless matter and nothing more.

I take issue with how deliberately and needlessly provocative the phrase [“God is not great”] is.

Well, too bad for Gradstone, but that’s not our fucking problem: no one has a right not to be offended. If we choose to be deliberately provocative and offensive for stylistic or any other reasons religious and appeasing people will have to learn to grow a thicker skin.

Also, how illogical. “Hey man, this God you believe in that I totally don’t believe in? Yeah, well, he sucks!” Kind of tries too hard, y’know? I mean, after all, if chicks think you’re a badass for saying your old man or your High School principal sucks, then, wow, imagine what a rebel you are for saying God sucks.

This is just stupid. First, even if an idea is false, its content can be criticized. Of course we atheists don’t believe in the actual existence of a God referred to by any notion or idea of “God”, but we can still tell those who believe in him how false, stupid, incoherent and immoral that idea of God is without unwittingly affirming his existence. No contradiction there, if that is what he meant when he said it was “illogical”.  Second, it is a strawman if he thinks Hitchens or even most atheist say things like that because we want to impress “chicks”. We don’t say them because we want to seem “badass” but because we believe them to be true. The fact that it is indeed a badass  thing to say and that smart “chicks” agree with that is a bonus.

But my main complaint is that most purveyors of this sentiment don’t really have a beef with God. Even Hitchens’ book mostly tears apart the abuses of organized religion, particularly Judaism, Islam and Christianity. I’m surprised how often atheists conflate the two things. […]

Well, duh, of course that our main beef is not with an actual existing God, since we don’t believe he exists. We can still have a beef with the concepts of God, regardless of his existence.  Also, what is left of the disagreeable concepts of God if we remove all religious elements? Most definitions of God are completely intertwined with the religions that worship them. If you remove all dogma you are only left with something so abstract that it would barely pass as a recognizable God for anyone. I suspect that what he means is that by targeting religion we miss God. That would be a fair criticism if God really existed, because a real God and the religion that worshiped him would indeed be different things. However, we cannot grant him that without accepting that God is real, so his complaint begs the question in favor of the theists. Another thing is, like I said,  that even if we don’t grant their God real existence, we can still attack it as if it were real, by what the different concepts of God imply: if we are interested in the problem of evil, we can imagine a scenario where God exists and question why an omnibenevolent and omnipotent  God -if he really deserves to be called such, as a good portion of the religious believe- would permit such a thing to exist. If we cannot solve the problem in a favorable way, for example, we can call him either impotent, if he cannot do anything to eradicate evil; or evil himself, if he doesn’t want to.

And given how much we suck, why shut the door completely on the possibility of something in this universe being better, stronger and wiser? Something we could strive to be more like? It’s always seemed to me that the most virulent atheists — not mere nonbelievers, but those who claim to be positive about God’s nonexistence and openly hostile to anyone who could think otherwise — are incapable of believing there could ever be something greater than they. Not a lack of faith so much as humility.

Yawn. The old and tired idea that atheists want to deny God because they want to be Gods themselves. Let me repeat it in a very simple way that even a third rate comedy writer would understand: we do not fucking envy your (or anyone else’s, since he claims to not be sure of its existence)  fucking God; if we don’t believe in him it is because we don’t see any reason to think he fucking exists. So it is not about ego or power as much as it is about what is true. Humility and open mindedness is one thing and gullibility is another. Get it?

#2. Devout: God helps those who help themselves

Basically, Gladstone tells the devout to shut the fuck up about their beliefs because he finds them pretty stupid, callous and offensive. And telling those that are in pain or under serious difficulties that God won’t do anything to help them unless they help themselves is offensive, callous and stupid, don’t get me wrong, but again: he gives absolutely no reason to them as to why they should keep that to themselves, since he, again, wants to defend faith. If they believe that their God is such a callous bastard by faith, I don’t see how that would not stump him.

#1. Atheist: God is a fairy tale for morons

First the obvious:

There have been atheists of significant intellect: Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins, and the aforementioned Christopher Hitchens. But in what may come as a surprise to the Internet, not believing in God will not, in itself, make you smart.

Oh, If it wasn’t for Gladstone, I would have kept on believing that I’m smart because of my atheism and not the other way around. I think other atheists should be thankful too, since it is one of atheism’s most widespread beliefs that disbelief in God is the cause and sign of an intelligent mind… except that no atheist that I know believes that -and no intellectually respectable famous atheist believes that. So it is just another obvious strawman. It is not written  in any of our “holy books” that “The fool said in his heart: ‘there is no God'”, by the way.

And by the same token, faith need not be a sign of a feeble mind. But just mention God online and you’ll be mocked as a mental deficient awaiting the second coming of the “flying spaghetti monster.”

Sure, smart people can believe false and stupid things. We don’t deny that. If they think there is  any relevant difference between believing in the God of the Bible and believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster they are free to point it out. So far none of them has done it.

In support of this intellectual elitism, some atheists will say that skepticism is the sign of an active and curious mind — traits consistent with learning. Fair point. They will point to creationists and stem cell research protestors as people placing obstacles in the path of progress, and I’ll agree with that too. But there is a difference between questioning the stupidity of dogmatic, close-minded zealots perpetrating institutional abuses and simply mocking sincerely held religious beliefs by equating faith with stupidity.

Again, we care about truth, not merely about progress-compatible beliefs. If a false belief could bring great benefits to a society we would still bitch about it because we care about what is true, regardless of its consequences. And again, the fact that moderate Christians don’t simply reject most of what science and the theory of evolution say doesn’t mean that we cannot mock the rest of their beliefs, if we find them ridiculous and false, regardless of how sincerely and dearly they hold them.

The perversion of the Spaghetti Monster meme is a good example of how some, particularly on the Internet, have destroyed the distinction between thoughtful protest and mere mockery. In 2005, in reaction to the decision of the Kansas State Board of Education to permit the teaching of creationism as an alternative to evolution in public schools, Bobby Henderson wrote an open letter espousing his religious belief in a divinity known as the flying spaghetti monster. He demanded belief also be afforded equal time in the school system. The letter went viral and spawned a faux religion called Pastafarianism. An effective protest pointing out the ridiculousness of people’s subjective religious beliefs as a basis for scientific education. But now, for many, citing the spaghetti monster means only that religious people who are stupid enough to believe in God may as well believe in spaghetti monsters or leprechauns.

Again: who the hell said mockery is not permitted? The beauty of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is that it was not only effective as a  hilariously eloquent protest against the unconstitutional  stupidities of young-mind-poisoning creationists, but also as the perfect satire of religious beliefs in general. And the challenge still stands: name one relevant way in which belief in the God of the Bible is more reasonable than the belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You cannot absolutely disprove its existence, and as Gladstone himself said (how was he unable to notice this was going to bite him in the ass?), that would put His Noodliness in the same epistemological level as God and the Loch Ness Monster.

And that was it. That was his list and those were his arguments. When they were not blatant strawmen or obvious and uninteresting remarks any thinking atheist knows, they were pure condescension towards the kind of religious people he finds objectionable. In general, tone trolling of the worst kind: the kind that whilst riding on a very high horse, one pretends to take the role of the savior peacemaker, all in the name of humility and openmindedness itself, of course.  So right now I think that putting Gladstone in the smug and unhelpful side of the Christmas appeasers spectrum is the right thing to do.

So there: Gladstone is a smug and unhelpful wooly minded appeaser.

I suppose this is what happens when low brow humor websites try to get insightful and semi-serious about shit.With that being said, I can now, as the title promised, make my not so humble but not quite as smug suggestion about what appeasers like Gladstone need to stop saying:

#1. They fucking need to stop telling me what I (or for that matter, anyone) can or can’t say.

Just that.

Jerry Coyne on why we don’t have free-will

Jerry Coyne is an evolutionary biologist, but he is also very interested in the traditionally philosophical problem of free-will versus determinism and he writes regularly about it on his website. And a couple of days ago he wrote a piece for USA Today called “Why you don’t  really have free will“, where he concisely states his position on the issue, which has remained basically the same since he started writing about it. He opens with it:

Perhaps you’ve chosen to read this essay after scanning other articles on this website. Or, if you’re in a hotel, maybe you’ve decided what to order for breakfast, or what clothes you’ll wear today.

You haven’t. You may feel like you’ve made choices, but in reality your decision to read this piece, and whether to have eggs or pancakes, was determined long before you were aware of it — perhaps even before you woke up today. And your “will” had no part in that decision. So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will. And those New Year’s resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you’ll have no choice about whether you keep them.

Now, what can we say about this? Of course it is clear that Coyne is a free will skeptic if by free will we mean libertarian or contra-causal free will, that is, a sort of free will that is free because it is not constrained or determined by the laws of physics or by any sort of causality other than that of that exerted by the will or a  substance with agency faculties itself. So he is a de facto determinist in the broad sense of the word, but since there are different types of determinism, we have to notice certain things in his view so we can place him within a more specific strain of determinism.

The first thing to notice is that he is not only as skeptic regarding free will, but also regarding unfree will. This means that he not only denies that we have free will, the capacity to decide and act according to the dicta of an unconstrained faculty or power traditionally called will, but also that we have such a faculty as the will, understood broadly as the cause of our actions, decisions and choices. It is important to notice this because not all determinists are skeptics regarding the existence or of our possession of the will, since it can also be understood as a determined faculty, not just an unconstrained one as libertarists do. In particular, Coyne, doesn’t seem to deny the existence of a faculty or phenomenon called the will, he only goes as far as denying that if it exists and if we have it, it doesn’t function as the cause of our decisions and actions. Thus, if we have such a faculty it is only epiphenomenal. And of course it is necessary to understand what epiphenomenal means in this context. Here (because it has stronger meanings) it only means that it doesn’t have the causal powers that we think it has regarding  relevant phenomena, in this case, our actions and decisions.  That is what he means when he says that our will has no part in our decisions.

Thanks to this, we can place him already along a specific strain of determists called hard determinists, who not only deny free will in a libertarian sense, but also in a compatibilist sense. A compatibilist (or soft determinist) denies we have contra-causal free will, but not that we have free will understood as the determined faculty to choose and act in accordance to our also determined personality and desires.  Coyne cannot be a compatibilist (besides the reasons that he states below), because compatibilists are also committed to the effectiveness  of our will regarding our actions. This is so because if the will has no part in our decisions and actions, then we cannot be responsible for them, and compatibilists are also committed to the idea that we are morally responsible for our actions  in a way that would make us worthy of praise or blame for them, and at least intuitively, it doesn’t seem correct to say that somebody is morally responsible for an action that was not cause by his will. I won’t say why this is so here nor will I defend it  but I think this alone  is enough  to characterize Coyne’s position as a form of hard determinism.

That is what we can say based on the overview of his position. But it is a must for every philosopher or scientist interested in the problem to be clear about what he or she understands by free will. Coyne has always done so, and this is the way he understands the notion:

[…] let me define what I mean by “free will.” I mean it simply as the way most people think of it: When faced with two or more alternatives, it’s your ability to freely and consciously choose one, either on the spot or after some deliberation. A practical test of free will would be this: If you were put in the same position twice — if the tape of your life could be rewound to the exact moment when you made a decision, with every circumstance leading up to that moment the same and all the molecules in the universe aligned in the same way — you could have chosen differently.

I think Coyne is correct when he says that this way of understanding free will is the way most people understand it, that is, free will understood in a libertarian way. But as a definition of free will it is defective because it is too wide: as it is, it permits free will to be found in mere  indetermination, say, quantum fluctuations that would make a physically identical individual in identical circumstances to choose differently if the tape of life were rewound to the moment of the choice. This some libertarians would embrace, but not all of them, and certainly not any compatibilist nor any determinist. All of them would object to this possibility as not satisfactory, for a freedom of the will that made choices the product of a random fluctuation would not work as the basis of imputations of moral responsibility, and if free will is such a heavily debated issue it is because it is believed that moral responsibility no less is what is at stake. It is true that Coyne has already noticed this problem when he replied to this objection with ” My assumption here is, of course, that quantum indeterminacy at the moment of a decision cannot influence that decision.”, but that is not an assumption everyone makes, and as strange as the idea of free will residing in quantum indeterminacy may sound to him, he should make that assumption explicit when he pretends to define free will with  intention of being clear and easily understood. Anyway, provided this extra clause about the non randomness of free will, I think it is a usable definition.

But where is the evidence for the claim that we don’t have this sort of free will? Coyne offers “two lines of evidence”:

The first is simple: we are biological creatures, collections of molecules that must obey the laws of physics. All the success of science rests on the regularity of those laws, which determine the behavior of every molecule in the universe. Those molecules, of course, also make up your brain — the organ that does the “choosing.” And the neurons and molecules in your brain are the product of both your genes and your environment, an environment including the other people we deal with. Memories, for example, are nothing more than structural and chemical changes in your brain cells. Everything that you think, say, or do, must come down to molecules and physics.

True “free will,” then, would require us to somehow step outside of our brain’s structure and modify how it works. Science hasn’t shown any way we can do this because “we” are simply constructs of our brain. We can’t impose a nebulous “will” on the inputs to our brain that can affect its output of decisions and actions, any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program.

This, I think, is well supported by what we know about ourselves and our brain thanks to science, in particular biology and the neurosciences. And indeed libertarian free will, if we have it,  seems to require from us to “step outside of our brain’s structure” and modify how it works”, and indeed there is no evidence at all that suggests we are capable of doing that. And that is good enough, even if the libertarian defends free will as a faculty of a non-physical substance, or to say it more colloquially, an immaterial soul, because we don’t have any evidence whatsoever for the existence of such a thing either, without mentioning the severe metaphysical problems regarding mind-body causation that dualism would get us into.

All that is clear, but Coyne is defending – remember- not only that we don’t have free will, but that the will itself, if anything, is epiphenomenal, and this last line of evidence doesn’t give us reasons to suppose that the will has no causal powers regarding our choices and actions. For that we need more evidence, and Coyne finds it in relatively recent experimental neuroscientific discoveries:

Recent experiments involving brain scans show that when a subject “decides” to push a button on the left or right side of a computer, the choice can be predicted by brain activity at least seven seconds before the subject is consciously aware of having made it. (These studies use crude imaging techniques based on blood flow, and I suspect that future understanding of the brain will allow us to predict many of our decisions far earlier than seven seconds in advance.) “Decisions” made like that aren’t conscious ones. And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we’ve made them, then we don’t have free will in any meaningful sense.

Let’s suppose that the correct interpretation of said experiments is the one Coyne accepts. If it is indeed correct, then I think it follows that our will is epiphenomenal. How? Well, because when we talk about our will in the sense required for imputations of moral responsibility, we talk about it as necessarily conscious. If unconscious brain processes are the ones responsible for our decisions and actions, then then it is counterintuitive to say that they were really our decision and actions, regardless of them having taken place or having been caused in our brain. One could try to make the concept of “will”  to be wider as to include the unconscious processes, drives and instincts that might be the actual causes of our actions, but I think that would only be a cop-out and decidedly ad-hoc. Following this interpretation of the experiments it seems that the will, our conscious feeling of being the deciders and the movers in our actions is only that: a feeling that produces in us the illusion of agency. Therefore, it is to be regarded as an effect of the unconscious decisions that take place before we are aware of them, but not as the cause of the decisions as the feeling of willing makes us think, no matter how convincing the illusion is.

However, there are some who dispute this interpretation of the experiments. On line of argumentation, just as an example, is based on what is identified as methodological flaws or limitations regarding the experiments. The problem is that there is a subjective element in them, the individuals being tested, since they are the ones that have to report when they consider that they are conscious of being deciding or willing something. The idea of course is that the subjects may be wrong in their assessment of when that happens. Right now I won’t defend Coyne’s interpretation against these objection, but I will just say that I agree with him, and I think that it is the most natural and simple interpretation based on the data we have.

The fact that our experience of willing may be epiphenomenal regarding the cause of our decisions and actions does not mean that it is epiphenomenal regarding everything else. Coyne is aware of that, and he points out to a hypothesis about its possible evolutionary origins:

I suspect that they’re the products of natural selection, perhaps because our ancestors wouldn’t thrive in small, harmonious groups — the conditions under which we evolved — if they didn’t feel responsible for their actions. Sociological studies show that if people’s belief in free will is undermined, they perform fewer prosocial behaviors and more antisocial behaviors.

I am not sure of how plausible that hypothesis is, but if it is correct of course it wouldn’t mean that therefore the belief in free will is correct. It would be merely an instance of an useful false belief or illusion. I personally don’t like the idea of useful falsehoods because I care deeply about truth, but the question of whether that “naturally instilled” false  belief in free will is useful enough or even necessary for a harmonious society as for us to prefer most of the people to keep believing in it rather than them becoming skeptics is still open to debate.

After standard rebuttals to compatibilist attempts at saving free will be redefining it as to be compatible with physical determinism (with which I agree) , Coyne moves to what worries and has worried most of those that have ever thought about this, the “Sure, we maybe be physically determined, but then what? What does not having free will imply for our lives?” question. One of the possible answers and attitudes is nihilism:

One possibility is to give in to a despairing nihilism and just stop doing anything. But that’s impossible, for our feeling of personal agency is so overwhelming that we have no choice but to pretend that we do choose, and get on with our lives. After all, everyone deals with the unpalatable fact of our mortality, and usually do so by ignoring it rather than ruminating obsessively about it.

As a matter of what is possible for the average human being this is correct. Most of those who proclaim that is free will was merely an illusion then nothing would matter and therefore there would be no reason to do anything do not understand just how powerful the illusion is, and how powerful our drive to do things is. I think those that really believe they would simply stop doing anything if they come to realize they don’t have free will are fooling themselves. But fair enough, that is an observation of what would a believer in determinsim would or wouldn’t be able to do, and it is another question if nihilism would actually be the correct attitude in the face of determinism, whether unpracticeable or not.  Coyne doesn’t say much about that, but it is clear by the way he lives that he doesn’t think determinism entails nihilism. And as a free will skeptic myself I can say that it never even crossed my mind nor I ever felt that all that was and is important to me somehow loses its meaning just because I don’t posses a faculty of choosing without being determined to do so. To be sure, some beliefs about myself and others changed, but mostly for better.

But there are other implications that Coyne notices and that are worth discussing. The first one regarding religion:

 Many faiths make claims that depend on free choice: Evangelical Christians, for instance, believe that those who don’t freely choose Jesus as their savior will go to hell. If we have no free choice, then such religious tenets — and the existence of a disembodied “soul” — are undermined, and any post-mortem fates of the faithful are determined, Calvinistically, by circumstances over which they have no control.

This is correct. Whatever the religion, chances are that skepticism about free will is going to collide with one tenet or another of them. In mainstream Christianity it couldn’t be more obvious, as Coyne says, for free will is a basic dogma that makes the whole belief system collapse if it is proven false. Or if it doesn’t make it collapse, at least it makes the believer that wants to save it to revise it drastically. One form to save Christianity in the face of determinism, as Coyne notices, was Calvinism. There free will was abandoned, but it costed the Calvinists too much, and I doubt any Christian today could live with the revisions it made, because in favor of coherence with Gods omniscience -which indeed implies that we cannot be free, since God has always known what our choices were going to be-, it made the belief that God is omnibenevolent and all just untenable, since there is definitely nothing benevolent about a God that creates condemned individuals, since he has always known who will end up in heaven, but also who will inexorably end up and be tortured in hell for an eternity.

But the second implication is even more important and of general interest for all mankind, independently of their religious beliefs:

[…] the most important issue is that of moral responsibility. If we can’t really choose how we behave, how can we judge people as moral or immoral? Why punish criminals or reward do-gooders? Why hold anyone responsible for their actions if those actions aren’t freely chosen?

We should recognize that we already make some allowances for this problem by treating criminals differently if we think their crimes resulted from a reduction in their “choice” by factors like mental illness, diminished capacity, or brain tumors that cause aggression. But in truth those people don’t differ in responsibility from the “regular” criminal who shoots someone in a drug war; it’s just that the physical events behind their actions are less obvious.

This is absolutely correct: if we don’t have free will, if our decisions and actions were determined even before we were aware of them then imputations of moral responsibility and therefore of blame and praise seem to be unjustified and unfair. And as he notices, there is no relevant and robust differences between the criminals that get less harsh sentences for being mentally deficient than those who are mentally normal if we think the difference resides in the lack of or diminished free will in one, and the possession of it by another. None of them have it, and the legal system should recognize that and change things in accordance.

But not too radically if that means abolishing our punitive practices, as would seem to be the correct thing to do, because, according to Coyne:

[…] those [punishments] are environmental factors that can influence the brains of not only the criminal himself, but of other people as well. Seeing someone put in jail, or being put in jail yourself, can change you in a way that makes it less likely you’ll behave badly in the future. Even without free will then, we can still use punishment to deter bad behavior, protect society from criminals, and figure out better ways to rehabilitate them. What is not justified is revenge or retribution — the idea of punishing criminals for making the “wrong choice.” And we should continue to reward good behavior, for that changes brains in a way that promotes more good behavior.

I agree that showing that we don’t have free will makes of revenge and retributive justice in general unjustified practices, but I don’t agree with the idea that punishment would still have a legitimate use in a fair society that accepted that free will is only an illusion. I do agree that if determinism is true, then punishment can still be useful if we consider it a tool to determine the behavior of people for good ends, such as deterring them from committing crimes or the criminals from committing them again if they are released. The problem is that we would be punishing individuals that don’t deserve to be punished, and that is unfair. The standard defense for punishment in a world without free will, and that I think Coyne is endorsing here is a consequentialist one: an action can be ultimately good if its consequences are good or at least the good that comes from it surpasses the bad consequences. Here the bad consequences would be suffering for the punished criminal, the injustice in causing suffering in someone that doesn’t deserves it, and the action of using a person as a tool for deterrence rather than treating her as an end in herself. The greater good that comes from that injustice, they say,  is the deterrence of criminal behavior in general and also the possibility of the rehabilitation of criminals. A noted problem with the “deterrence defense of punishment” is that it would seem to justify really cruel and disproportionate punishments so long as they maximize the desired deterrence effect. But besides that objection, I don’t think punishment is necessary for this: if we, instead of using criminals as tools by unjustly punishing them we treated them as the carriers of an infectious disease, we could treat them in a humane way and also protect the rest of society. Just as carriers of infectious diseases are put in quarantine and therefore are separated from the rest of society as long as they remain dangerous without thinking about that as punishment or of them as deserving it, we could “quarantine” criminals in this way to protect the rest of society. This “quarantine” would be a deprivation of freedom without retributive or mainly deterring reasons. Deterrence would still be a byproduct of that quarantine of criminals, I think, because although its end is not punishing the criminal, it still causes enough suffering to work as a deterrent.  If there is an alternative that causes less suffering and that doesn’t make us behave unfairly while having the same advantages, I think we should prefer it. And I think Coyne would prefer it if he understood it.

He concludes his article thusly:

There’s not much downside to abandoning the notion of free will. It’s impossible, anyway, to act as though we don’t have it: you’ll pretend to choose your New Year’s resolutions, and the laws of physics will determine whether you keep them. And there are two upsides. The first is realizing the great wonder and mystery of our evolved brains, and contemplating the notion that things like consciousness, free choice, and even the idea of “me” are but convincing illusions fashioned by natural selection. Further, by losing free will we gain empathy, for we realize that in the end all of us, whether Bernie Madoffs or Nelson Mandelas, are victims of circumstance — of the genes we’re bequeathed and the environments we encounter. With that under our belts, we can go about building a kinder world.

And with this, I agree.

Arguably plausible New Year resolutions

There is something laughably pathetic about New Year resolutions, or at least there is something that makes us laugh contemptibly to our insides when someone tells us about the things they expect to accomplish throughout the brand new year, regardless of their petty triviality or their unaccomplishable grandiosity. I’m still not sure which one is the funniest or most pathetic, but my empathy lies with the grandiose: pathetic as they may be, there is something heroic and romantic about those who fail -even miserably- when trying to achieve great things. On the contrary, those who fail at the trivial are irredeemable -not only failures when it comes to getting shit done, but failures when it comes to realizing what shit is worth getting done.

I say all this because now it’s the time for me to become the object of laughs and pity, for I also have my list of New Year resolutions. And I don’t say this with pretensions of martyrdom -I’m not here to brag about the greatness of my vision and then think of me as a pathetic and misunderstood hero when everyone laughs at me or when I eventually fail. No, there is no great vision in any of my resolutions, and most precisely, nothing interesting in them or worth reading for anyone besides me. They all range form the petty to the basic -because for a while I have known that I lack the  basic abilities and qualities of a minimally decent person-,  and I, perhaps overestimating my willpower (I now believe that the will is epiphenomenal, but  just take it as a figure of speech), plan on fixing that this year.

So there you go: stay if you want to be bored or contemptuously amused by a small individual’s goals and expectations, which I will now list (with no particular order of importance):

1- Read more: I fancy myself a good reader, but the truth is that I waste much time doing unimportant things when I could be reading about greatly important stuff. A book per week (200 pages) or at least 80 pages a day is my hoped minimum. That number of pages refers to the dense stuff, not pulp novels, of which I could read at least the double of pages per day.

2- Read less crap: a big chunk of my already insufficient reading consists in worthless internet stuff. If I must read garbage I will at least leave it for after my important reading is done.

3- Write more: not vacuous diary-style ramblings (i.e. this very entry), but well thought and well researched entries and essays. At least one good blog entry per week, and one good essay per month.

4- Write better: I fancy myself a good writer, but anyone competent who is reading this has noticed the flaws in my writing. I’m not sure I’ve identified all of them, but I need to start being much more careful both grammatically and stylistically. Most of all, I should tone down the style pretensions if they conflict with the clarity and coherence of the writing.

5- Finish the goddamned thesis: So far I have only written sketches of the main ideas, but I need to finish with my research and start thinking seriously about its structure and sequence of ideas and arguments. I must be clear, coherent and original, above all; I should make it be a thesis worth reading for all those philosophically interested in the problem of free-will, and damning for all those who still believe we have it.

6- Think better: sounds stupid and might be a reflection of my lacking intellect, but this is what I am trying to say: I don’t plan on becoming more intelligent, just to stop being careless and hasty: before thinking I have the right answer, I will think about the possible ways in which I am wrong or have committed a fallacy.

7- Be more charitable: intellectually speaking, I should stop being condescending or unfairly misreading thinkers of the opposite persuasion. Many of my worst mistakes come from reading uncharitably and the triumphantly declaring victory or philosophical dead-end.

8- Be more patient: philosophy is not easy and sometimes it requires long argumentative chains. I ought to give thinkers the benefit of the doubt before despairing and calling them hopelessly baroque or mere producers of convolution.

9- Research systematically: I should stop reading what I want, no matter how important in general, and read what I need to read for my particular purposes. Reading about the metaphysics of universals and about the nominalist reactions is fascinating, but that will scarcely help me finish my thesis on the problem of free-will.

10- Eat and drink better: eating less garbage and drinking less diet coke is necessary for my good health. Five meals a day will be better than my usual three huge and stupefying greasy meals. My metabolism be so slow now because of that.

11- Do more exercise: for good health mainly but also because I want my body to look better. Secondarily, my aim will be to both grow some muscle (but not enough to look bulky) and to get rid of the last traces of my slightly overweight past. My elasticity is also ridiculous, and I should start doing stretches.

12- Sleep better: more or at more reasonable times. This is possibly a big cause for my fatigue along with the bad eating.

13- Be more socially competent: which means doing my best to control my shyness, awkwardness  and anxiety in public contexts. It also means being less contemptuous towards the others.

14- Stop being boring!: Not much to explain here, but I understand and notice perfectly when I bore people, and I bore them often.

15- Stop being so insecure: A big part of my recent years has been devoted to hating myself, what I do and what I say. Also, by being suspicious about the affection of others: I should stop believing I’m unworthy of love or I will end up sabotaging my relationships.

16- Stop being cruel: a product of my insecurities and fears is cruelty. When I feel hurt I hurt. That is not the good way of handling things, which brings me to:

17- Stop being spiteful and resentful: as a matter of mere congruence, since I don’t believe in free-will and the justification of the reactive attitudes that go with it, I should do my best, if not to stop feeling these emotions, to stop acting on them as if they were justified.

18- Be more compassionate and empathetic: a big part of my philosophical “programme”  is a commitment to reduce as much suffering as I am capable of, with words or with actions. And for that it is crucial to be able to identify suffering, and I won’t be able unless I don’t turn my head away from suffering  and allow myself to feel what others feel  (as far as that is possible), no matter how different the subjects of suffering can be from me, or how far away they are from me.

19- Be less selfish: very related to the last point. I have to learn to distinguish when my own suffering is the lesser of evils, and act accordingly.

20- Don’t be a shitty friend: I should learn to appreciate the people that might earnestly appreciate me. And make amends with the friends I have let down.

21- Don’t be messy: I need to be more systematic in the way I order things and in the way I dispose of them. Maybe that way messes won’t grow as fast as they always do around me.

22- Finish watching LOST :)

23- Don’t be lazy: Good luck with that.

24- Don’t forget these resolutions.