Thursday, November 23, 2017

Sam Harris Free Will Thought Experiment

Tooling around youtube I came along this video of a an exercise Sam Harris offered as a practical refutation of free will.

The exercise Harris advocates is essentially this: He asks you to think of a city, any city, in the world, without any constraints. Once you have done so, Harris claims that this choice, if anything, would be an example of the exercise of free will. He then proceeds to debunk the choice as free by arguing that it wasn't really free. I won't rehearse all the reasons he provides (the video is only about 6 minutes), but his arguments all boil down to showing that the choice must have had a cause, even if we are unaware of the cause. For instance, you may have chosen Paris as your city because it happened to bubble up out of your subconscious, and that bubbling was a function of the fact that you once travelled to Paris and have fond memories. The point is that we mistakenly think the choice was "free" because we think we chose it arbitrarily, when in actuality the cause was driven by psychological factors of which we were simply unaware.

Harris's exercise involves a typical misunderstanding of what is meant by "free will", or rather, what the classical philosophers meant by calling man free. They did not mean that human will is an uncaused caused, which is what Harris seems to think it must mean. That would simply be to mistake man for God, Who is the only possible uncaused cause.

Man's will is classically understood to be free not because it is uncaused, but because it can have rational causes rather than irrational ones. Specifically, man can rationally judge means and the relationship of means to ends, and choose a course of action based on that judgement. (This is what Plato meant by saying "the truth shall make you free.") It is in the exercise of rationally considered action that man's freedom is manifest, not in the allegedly arbitrary choice of a meaningless selection as in Harris's exercise. A classical philosopher would not dispute that the choice made by a person in Harris's exercise is not free - in that sense, Harris is not showing anything new. But they would point out that they never thought such a choice was free in a significant sense in any case.

To flesh these points out, consider the difference between a beaver building a dam and a man building a dam. The beaver builds a dam by instinct. When it hears the sound of running water, it attempts to stop the sound by piling sticks and mud on it - even in cases where it makes no sense to do so. (For example, playing the sound of running water beneath a concrete floor will cause beavers to pile mud and sticks over the sound on the dry concrete). The beaver builds the dam the same way every time, by piling up sticks and mud, and will keep building them the same way.

The beaver is not free in its dam building. It's not free when it builds the dam (the end), because it simply starts building a dam at the sound of running water, nor is it free in how it builds (the means), for it does it the same way every time by piling up mud and sticks.

Now consider man building a dam, for example Hoover Dam. Man did not build this dam because he happened to hear the sound of running water once and automatically started piling sticks on it. The dam was built after a long, rational consideration of ends that might be achieved with the dam - hydroelectricity and the recreational possibilities of Lake Mead among others. Once the end was selected, the means were then considered. The dam could be build out of a variety of materials and in a variety of places. Concrete for the material was selected and a particular spot on the Colorado river was chosen - and not because an engineer picked the location "freely" by just letting a location pop into his head, but as the result of a detailed investigation of hydrology and the anticipated consequences of various locations.

Eventually the construction began and the Hoover Dam was built and it stands as a monument to the freedom of man, which means the freedom to know the truth and to act according to it. It doesn't mean to act in some purely arbitrary manner. That is the degenerate freedom that has unfortunately become the vision of freedom of that has captured the imagination of modern man.

Know the truth and it shall make you free.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Daniel Dennett's Latest

Thomas Nagel reviews Daniel Dennett's latest book here in the New York Review of Books. I've read most of what Dennett has written and this book doesn't seem to break much new ground, so I don't think I'll plunk down the $15 for it.

Dennett references Wilfrid Sellars's distinction between the "manifest image" and the "scientific image", which correspond to the everyday view of the world and the scientific view of the world. Nagel quotes Dennett describing the manifest image as:
full of other people, plants, and animals, furniture and houses and cars…and colors and rainbows and sunsets, and voices and haircuts, and home runs and dollars, and problems and opportunities and mistakes, among many other such things. These are the myriad “things” that are easy for us to recognize, point to, love or hate, and, in many cases, manipulate or even create…. It’s the world according to us.
while the scientific image is:
is populated with molecules, atoms, electrons, gravity, quarks, and who knows what else (dark energy, strings? branes?).
According to Dennett, the scientific image describes what the world is really like, while the manifest image is just how the world appears to us, a set of "user illusions" evolution has equipped us with to get on with the world. Nagel doesn't mention him but Kant is lurking behind here, as he always is with Dennett.

As is typical with Dennett, what is most important is not what he says but what he leaves out. In his description of the manifest image, in particular, we can include not just homeruns and haircuts, but also telescopes, microscopes, voltmeters, scientific conferences and the scientific method. In other words, it's only through the manifest image that the scientific image is even possible or has meaning. The relationship between them is not that of equals, but of priority: The manifest image is prior to the scientific image both logically and temporally. Thinking you can undermine the manifest image with the scientific image is like thinking you can observe real bacteria with a fake microscope.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Harari on Polytheism vs Monotheism

I've been reading Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It's a "hot" book: #434 on Amazon overall and #3 in general anthropology. It's also a laughably tendentious treatment of human history from a secular perspective. Christianity and monotheism in general is bad, bad, bad and polytheism good, good, good. The author even has a problem with civilization itself, the early chapters arguing that the transition from a simple hunter gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural one was a disaster for all concerned. It's very much Rousseau in spirit although the venerable Swiss is given no credit for originating this line of thought.

In this post I'd like to focus on what Harari has to say concerning polytheism. He first notes (correctly) that polytheists, although they believe in many gods, nonetheless generally believe in a single, unified power behind the gods. It is the nature of this supreme power that is the essence of polytheism:

The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interest and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans. It's pointless to ask this power for victory in war, for health or for rain, because from its all-encompassing vantage point, it makes no difference whether a particular kingdom wins or loses, whether a particular city prospers or withers, whether a particular person recuperates or dies. The Greeks did not waste any sacrifices on Fate, and the Hindus built no temples to Atman.
The only reason to approach the supreme power of the universe would be to renounce all desires and embrace the bad along with the good - to embrace even defeat, poverty, sickness and death. Thus some Hindus, known as Sadhus or Sannyasis, devote their lives to uniting with Atman, thereby achieving enlightenment. They strive to see the world from the viewpoint of this fundamental principle, to realize that from its eternal perspective all mundane desires and fears are meaningless and ephemeral phenomena. 
Most Hindus, however, are not Sadhus. They are sunk deep in the morass of mundane concerns, where Atman is not much help. For assistance in such matters, Hindus approach the gods with their partial powers. Precisely because their powers are partial rather than all-encompassing, gods such as Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati have interests and biases. Humans can therefore make deals with these partial powers and rely on their help in order to win wars and recuperate from illness. There are necessarily many of these smaller powers, since once you start dividing up  the all-encompassing power of a supreme principle, you'll inevitably end up with more than one deity. Hence the plurality of gods. 
The insight of polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance. Since polytheists believe, on the one hand, in one supreme and completely disinterested power, and on the other hand in many partial and biased powers, there is no difficulty for the devotees of one god to accept the existence and efficacy of other gods. Polytheism is inherently open-minded, and rarely persecutes 'heretics' and 'infidels'.

The first thing to say about this treatment is that it is entirely reasonable; in fact, we might go so far as to say that what has been described is the 'natural' religion of mankind - the way man would almost inevitably think about religion if left to his own devices. And, indeed, as Harari points out, it is the way most men have thought about religion in most times and places, from the ancient Egyptians to the Chinese, to the Indians, to the Aztecs and the Romans.

Jews and Christians do not disagree with the logic of polytheism, and probably would have followed the natural inclinations and reasoning of everyone else - except that the polytheist position contains a small hole in it: "The supreme power governing the world is devoid of interest and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans." Suppose that the supreme power, although devoid of interests and biases, nonetheless takes an interest in men? An interest men never asked for, expected, or even wanted, but that nonetheless occurs? Suppose this supreme power keeps pestering man even though we'd rather be left alone? That story, the story of the supreme power pestering an obscure ancient people into a relationship with Him, for reasons mysterious to us, is the real story of the Old Testament.

Suppose further that the supreme power not only pesters man from afar, but does the unthinkable and takes on the form of man and appears among us as a man among men - not because of any interest or biases He might have, but because He loves us. In other words, the supreme power pestered the ancient Jews and appeared in the form of Christ for our sakes, not His own.

This is an idea "unnatural" to man, and its unnaturalness is one reason I believe it. The fact that the supreme power, Atman or Jehovah or Fate, would act purely in our interest rather than His own is a thought that simply doesn't occur to us. That He would appear among us, voluntarily suffer, die and be buried by us, is also another idea that wouldn't occur to us. The only way the idea entered into human history is because it happened.

Harari doesn't get this in his explanation for the origin of Christianity:
The big breakthrough came with Christianity. This faith began as an esoteric Jewish sect that sought to convince Jews that Jesus of Nazareth was their long-awaited messiah. However, one of the sect's first leaders, Paul of Tarsus, reasoned that if the supreme power of the universe has interest and biases, and if He had bothered to incarnate Himself in the flesh and to die on the cross for the salvation of humankind, then this is something everyone should hear about, not just the Jews. It was thus necessary to spread the good word - the gospel - about Jesus throughout the world.
But we've already learned that the supreme power of the universe doesn't have interests and biases. At least this is what people always and everywhere naturally think. And why would Paul believe that this supreme power would, even if he did have interests and biases, humiliate himself by becoming a man and suffering and dying at our hands? That conditional is the crux of history - but Harari glides over it and onto the unexceptional point that if in fact one believes this happened, it's something the rest of humanity should hear about. There is a glimmer of insight at the end of the quoted text that Christianity is not fundamentally a view of the world, or a deduction based on the nature of the supreme power or the possibility that lesser deities might be open to influence, but news, i.e. an unexpected irruption of the supreme power into history. This news spreads within decades across the Roman Empire and within a few centuries captures the hearts and minds of Western Civilization, a massive upending of history that Harari can only remark is one of the "strangest twists" in history. It is indeed the strangest twist in history; perhaps because in it there was more going on than mere history?

Finally, Harari seems to embrace the contemporary conviction that tolerance is the highest virtue, and  prefers polytheists like the Aztecs or Hindus to intolerant monotheists like Jews and Christians. Tolerance seems admirable in the abstract, but perhaps not so much up close when we examine what polytheistic tolerance actually involves. As Harari notes, "In the Aztec Empire, subject peoples were obliged to build a temple for Huitzilopochtli, but these temples were built alongside those of local gods, rather than in their stead." He leaves unsaid that the subject peoples were also obliged to regularly send to the Aztec capital not only food and other goods, but also captives destined to suffer ritual human sacrifice. One reason Cortez was able to conquer the mighty Aztec Empire with a few hundred conquistadors is that the subject peoples were more than happy to join him in overthrowing the Aztecs, their "tolerance" notwithstanding. And in India, polytheists tolerated suttee (the burning of widows on the pyre of their husbands) for centuries until it was finally outlawed by the intolerant British.

The tolerant polytheist tolerates everything, the good and the bad. And nothing ever really changes, year after year, decade after decade, century after century. The intolerant monotheist, in the name of the supreme power, decisively intervenes in history in response to the supreme power's own decisive intervention in history: The result is the uniquely dynamic history of Western Civilization since the time of Christ.

Sunday, January 15, 2017


By Universalism I mean the position that all are eventually saved; in other words, that the population of Hell will be zero.

Edward Feser has had several back and forths with David Bentley Hart on the issue. My point here is not to enter the debate between Feser and Hart but to consider Universalism from a different perspective.

Let us suppose that Universalism is true, and that we know it is true. Then we know that everyone will eventually enjoy eternal bliss; in particular, I will eventually enjoy eternal bliss no matter what I do on this Earth. For me, at least, this is a very dangerous thing to believe, for I am always looking for reasons to remain in my sins, which I find quite comfortable even if I know intellectually that they are essentially bad for me.

I almost wrote "ultimately" bad for me, but that isn't quite right if universalism is true, for in that case no sin is ultimately bad for me, since I will ultimately enjoy eternal bliss. But even if that is ultimately true, it is nonetheless true that I know I would be objectively happier if I were not sinning rather than sinning.

There is no hurry, though, is there, if universalism is true? I might be more perfectly happy if I shed some of my sins, but I am not unhappy and in fact I'm quite comfortable as I am. So why stress out about confronting and conquering sin? Christ in the New Testament exhorts us to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow him. That's nice advice for someone with ambitions to be a saint, but I have no such ambitions. If I'm ultimately destined for eternal bliss, why go through all the hassle? As the Five Man Electrical Band sang - "Thank you Lord for thinkin' bout me, I'm alive and doin fine."

Sure, I might have to go through some pain in the next life before experiencing that eternal bliss, but that's all a little vague compared to the very real suffering and inconvenience involved with confronting sin in this life. I've never been one to seek out the hard road when the easy road is available - especially when I'm assured they both end up in the same place.

These points are not meant to be rhetorical or flip. I abandoned the Catholic faith after high school because I found it entirely irrelevant to my life. The upshot of my 70's Catholic education was that sin wasn't really a big deal, Jesus wanted to be my friend, and he was always willing to forgive anything - which, I presumed, would include ignoring him. So why not get on with the business of this world and then get back to Jesus sometime later?

It was only later when I began to understand that my Catholic "education" was no education at all that I began to rethink things. For me, the reality of sin and its eternal implications is the only reason to take Christianity seriously in the first place. If universalism is true, then sin is not (in Kierkegaard's terms) "eternally decisive."  Neither is our relationship to Christ in this life decisive. Follow him, reject him, ignore him, twice-a-year Catholic him, what does it matter? Ultimately, it won't.

I wonder if there is a mode of existence in hell that is universalist (this is NOT to claim that anyone believing in universalism is going to hell). But if universalism implies that there are no decisive eternal implications for a lack of a relationship with Christ in this life, why not in the next? Perhaps there are individuals in hell who recognize their sins but are comfortable in them, and tell themselves they will repent tomorrow, with tomorrow (naturally) never arriving. Maybe C.S. Lewis treated this idea in The Great Divorce. It's been a long time since I read that book.

I'm in danger of being one of those eternally procrastinating guys - which is why I find the idea of universalism a temptation to be rejected.