A middle-aged man dreaming of the day when he can stop begging for scraps and write for a living.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Free Will vs. Determinism

This is a very tricky subject that delves deeper into philosophy than I'm really comfortable with. I enjoyed my introduction to philosophy class in college, and the professor clearly enjoyed debating with me, but I got turned off the topic when I started encountering people claiming Aquinas' Five Ways as proof that their god must exist since the concept is logically sound. The problem is that logically sound arguments don't always translate to physical evidence; just ask the Nineteenth Century scientists trying to verify cosmic ether.

So let's begin at the beginning. What is "free will?" The definition provided by that link gives us a good place to begin: “Free Will” is a philosophical term of art for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives. Summarized even further, it's our ability to make choices free from interference.

"Determinism" then is the polar opposite of free will. Again citing this link, Determinism is the philosophical idea that every event or state of affairs, including every human decision and action, is the inevitable and necessary consequence of antecedent states of affairs. Free will is impossible because we're necessarily bound by the choices and events that came before each choice.

The jury is out on this topic, with new evidence coming to light tipping the scales back and forth. The latest findings in neuroscience suggests that free will is just an illusion born out of biochemistry.

I still like the idea that I have free will, that the agency behind my choices aren't strictly determined by biochemistry and causality. I can choose to set myself on a different path if I'm determined to do so. However, I can't dispute the evidence leading to the answer that it is all biochemistry and causality.

Does that have to be the end of the conversation? Our brains are based on complex neurology that produces an emergent property we call consciousness. The foundation of our brains is really very simple and its components can be found in any creature with neurons. Can it be that free will is also an emergent property from the complex interaction between biochemistry and causality? Biology may make us prone to certain actions with causality boxing us into a series of choices, but we've seen how quantum effects collapse in the presence of an observer. We behave differently when we know we're being observed or tested than if we think we're acting on our own.

I think it's a hideously complex topic, and until we gain better understanding of the nature of consciousness itself we won't be able to answer this question with any accuracy. For now I'm going to continue to hold on to the comforting illusion of free will as a justification for holding myself accountable for my actions.

Update to the Tragedy

Fred Phelps is dead. It seems that Elder Drain was lying when he claimed on Sunday, "The source that says he's near death is not well informed."

My condolences to his family and friends.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Tragedy of Fred Phelps

With the rumours of Fred Phelps' impending demise the Internet (or at least the tiny corner I haunt) has been buzzing about what to do and how to do it. Fred Phelps is, after all, the founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church who go out of their way to provoke people until they react in such a way that the church members can sue. This is their primary source of income:

Fred Phelps and his small congregation provide WBC's funding; the group neither solicits nor accepts outside donations. In addition to this income, the church makes money by winning or settling civil lawsuits involving the church. During the 1990s, the group sued Topeka multiple times for failing to provide sufficient protection during its protests. Although they lost most of their cases, WBC did win $43,000 in legal fees in 1993. According to Shirley Phelps-Roper, they also won more than $100,000 in 1995 in a lawsuit against Kansas' Funeral Picketing Act, which they claimed violated their First Amendment rights. Because the Phelps family represents WBC in court, they can put the fees they win towards supporting the church.

While it seems that their primary purpose is to make money by suing people, I don't think it's fair to say that they don't genuinely believe in their mission which is to tell the entire world that they're all doomed to Hell. They especially target homosexuals and those who suppport homosexual rights. They've earned a widespread reputation for bigotry and intolerance to the point that the UK banned them from entering the country. They're an easy target for anti-theists like myself because their beliefs are so extreme and yet justified by the same sources and belief systems held by more liberal believers. Sure, you can tell me that you don't believe your god hates fags the way the Phelps and associates claim but you can't prove it to me with the same arguments that Phelps uses. One of you is mistaken and neither of you have any better to support your claim than personal bias.

Fred's son Nate broke with the group almost forty years ago and has been trying to counter their hate speech as much as possible as well as reveal the hypocrisy within the family. He claims that Fred Phelps abused his wife and children to maintain his authority through fear, and based on the message of hate he preached through his church I don't have much reason to doubt Nate. Now Nate is reporting that his father is near death although the church elders deny it. Furthermore, he revealed that Fred and his daughter Shirley had both been excommunicated from the WBC for the crime of suggesting that church members be nicer to each other. Fred was forced to move out of the church quarters where he'd been living and into a separate house in the same complex. As Nate puts it, “They took the one thing that meant everything to the man. That old man and his reason to exist have gone away.”

This brings me to the tragedy in Fred Phelps' story. The man built his life on fear and hatred. He was so successful at it that his name and church are both synonymous with it. He let it tear his family apart and now it's come back to bite him. I don't believe in karma except in the vernacular, and this is it. Even his own book told him "you reap what you sow."

There have been men like Fred Phelps throughout human history. In the last forty years we've been plagued with Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Billy Graham who preached similar messages of hate and bigotry but had more influence to spread it. All Phelps achieved was to make himself a laughingstock and further discredit the idea that there's nothing wrong with faith. Everything Phelps has done has been based on faith just like every other action taken on faith in human history. Sometimes it inspires people to do good things. Sometimes it inspires us to neutral actions. Sometimes it inspires us to horrible things. All of them are convinced that they're doing the right thing because they value faith over reality. There's no way to guarantee that faith will lead you in the right direction because they're using faith to measure the validity of their actions rather than reality.

Fred Phelps is probably going to die soon. I don't recommend picketing his funeral the way he disrespected others. I don't plan to dance on his grave. I have sympathy for his family whom I don't doubt love him very much. But I will breathe a sigh of relief when another purveyor of hatred finally ends his campaign of evil.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Who has the power of prophecy?

Lots of religions claim the power of prophecy, to make predictions of the future that will come true. The New Testament claims fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in various acts and events depicted of Jesus, but since the writers weren't themselves eyewitnesses we should dismiss that as attempts to shoehorn Jesus into messianic prophecy. Certainly, the Jews themselves aren't convinced.

I know of no religion that can legitimately claim the power of prophecy. All of the claims of prophecy fulfilled I've seen from Christians and Muslims are either so vague as to be meaningless or once again shoehorned by reinterpreting events to match the prophecy. Did you know that the Book of Isaiah predicted airplanes? Yup. A metaphor of people flying is meant literally flying although the prophecy somehow neglects to mention that the flying people are riding in a vehicle. Of course when the Bible records Jesus explaining how to distinguish a true believer, that's just metaphor and not meant to be taken literally. But I digress.

On the other hand, we do have access to a methodology that does allow us to make predictions that come true. It's not 100%, of course, because it requires humans to do the work supporting the conclusions. This method is called "science." What do I mean by that? Consider that in 1783 a humble English scientist named John Michell predicted the existence of black holes. It took us several generations before we could verify this, but he got everything right except one detail. That's better than any prophecy from the Bible I've ever seen, and it's no fluke. Scientists make accurate predictions of what we're going to find all the time, even when they're insanely difficult to verify. For example, it took physicists decades of research and expensive equipment to finally catch the Higgs boson based on the math worked out by Robert Brout, François Englert and Peter Higgs.

Does the existence of black holes or elementary particles like the Higgs boson have any mystical import? Do they herald the End Times or the arrival of an auspicious leader? Naturally, no. They're much more useful than that; they help us explain the natural world and verify the consistency of the results we can expect. The early calculations of Isaac Newton help us build faster, safer cars and transport food around our globe. The experiments in electricity led us to a world of possibility that wasn't possible before we learned how to harness it. Imagine what we can do as we learn more how to harness gravity or subatomic particles.

When a holy book begins to match that sort of predictive power, then I'll be impressed. Right now all I'm seeing in these claims of prophecy fulfillment is a lot of Texas sharpshooters.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Eager to be deceived

A little over a year ago I bought a car for my Lady to replace the very comfortable Acura whose transmission had started to eat itself. The new car was also a very nice car: a limited edition 1996 Mazda MX-6 (M-Series). She once owned a 1995 MX-6 and loved it, but her ex-husband killed it. Getting her another one was satisfying. Unfortunately, the mechanics I trusted let me down by recommending a car that was on its last legs.

Eighteen months and several thousand dollars in repairs later the car has finally given up the ghost. It started with a light rattle and occasional problem with stalling at stops. The mechanic at the dealership claimed they couldn't hear what I was talking about. Another mechanic said that it was a piston starting to slip that could go in four months or four years. A friend of mine who worked as a mechanic swore it was a lifter starting to fail and the repair should cost less than a thousand dollars. Then six months ago something broke and it got really bad but I didn't have the money to do anything about it. It sat in our parking lot until tax returns came in and I could afford to get it fixed. Only the official verdict is in: there's a rod slipping badly and while it hasn't wrecked the engine yet it will if it keeps running. Getting into the guts to replace the failing parts will cost more in parts and labor than I have, and Mazda no longer offers replacement engines for this model. Refurbished engines are likewise a dead end. It's a sad blow to me; I was really invested in making this car run again.

Here's my problem: I was told that the problem was likely a piston slipping and that it had a limited life. Once it finally got bad enough to take it off the road I should have surrendered the plates and sold it for whatever I could get right away, even if it was just to a salvage yard. But a friend told me what I wanted to hear, that it wasn't necessarily that bad and that fixing it should be affordable. I clung to that belief long after it was reasonable to do so. I irrationally wanted to keep the car because it meant something to my Lady, because I liked the car myself and because I'd already invested significant time and money into it that I didn't want to go to waste. I kept paying insurance on it so it would be ready when the car was fixed.

We're prone to bouts of irrationality like that. We don't want to accept that the person we love could do something wrong, that a cherished possession is unrecoverable or that a belief that's central to our self-identity is actually false. We're eager be deceived, and no one lies to us better than ourselves. Sometimes it's harmless; I'm just out a few thousand dollars this time. But self-deception can result in real tragedy. That's why it's so important that we test our beliefs against reality. Reality is always the final judge.