On Making and Perpetuating Our Own Problems

“[N]obody feels as much like a nobody as an immigrant does. And you can engage with a great power like the United States simply by throwing a bomb. You can declare war on the United States. And the amazing thing about it is that the United States will accept the declaration of war. We respond to terrorism by treating it not as a crime, but by treating it as war. So someone like Tamerlan [Tsarnaev], who feels small and insignificant, can suddenly claim a sense of belonging to a great, big effort—and a place in history.”

Masha Gessen, Interview with David Greene on NPR.

On Exemptions to Laws for “Religious” Reasons

If everybody were allowed conscience exemptions from ordinary general laws, then exemptions would make sense—but we might as well give up any pretense to the rule of law.

When people are only allowed exemptions to ordinary general laws for “religious” reasons, then either we’re already halfway down the road to giving up the pretense of the rule of law, or we are nakedly giving some people special privileges because they present their moral judgments, and express their moral sentiments, in “religious” terms.

Maybe giving some people that special privilege of exemption is a way of ensuring that only “religious” people have the full array of choices as citizens, while people whose moral sentiment and judgment operate on other terms have some lesser standing within the law.

Or maybe allowing the special privilege of exemption from ordinary general laws disincentivizes the holders of that privilege from engaging, in their capacity as citizens, with the process of shaping public policy. Why bother to express your preferences in the public sphere when you have the privilege of enacting them individually, and without legal consequence, on your own?

There might be some middle ground, by which reasonable exemptions may be granted for reasons that do not require classifying people according to the terms and methods of their morality, and so that exemptions are rare enough that nobody worries about how they affect the integrity of the rule of law. But I have never heard an argument for such a system. Until I do, my lot stays with the opponents of exemptions.

Free Will

A: Free will is an illusion. Everything is determined causally.

B: Those assertions are unrelated. If an exercise of free will were uncaused, then the act would be random, not free. So of course everything is determined causally.

A: Isn’t randomness the complete absence of constraint, and therefore complete freedom?

B: Only if you define freedom as the complete absence of constraint. But then you have made freedom into literal incoherence; you are saying that I have the greatest freedom when I am behaving in ways that are wholly unstructured.

A: Yes. But you are not behaving that way, therefore you are not free; your actions are constrained by causes.

B: Why should that mean free will is an illusion? Can’t a person make a decision that is constrained by causes and still be free?

A: Of course not! How can a constrained decision be a free one? If there are causes that result in some act, even if those causes look like a “decision,” and all of those causes are consistent with physical laws, then how could anything have been different? The purported decision is just events playing out in the only way they could have played out.

B: Ah, but you’ve smuggled in an assumption about the nature of causation, which is that any one cause can only have a single effect. If one cause might have several different effects, then there is a range of possible outcomes, in which the locus of decision may reside.

A: I did no such thing; I said right there in the open that all of the causes would be consistent with physical laws. Those laws are only laws because they are predictable, and they are only predictable because each cause is linked to a single outcome.

B: You overstate the nature of physical laws. Aren’t most predictions actually statistical rather than simply mechanical? And isn’t that especially true for the kinds of things we’re dealing with when we talk about free will, namely complex systems like human organisms?

A: Some predictions are statistical, yes, but they must arise from mechanisms that behave as you suggest, where each cause is connected with a single result. Maybe those mechanisms are tiny, and there are trillions upon trillions of them aggregated to yield an animal like humans, so that it would be very difficult to sort out each individual cause and effect, but each of those mechanisms must be constrained by physical law.

B: Now you’ve crossed into the realm of faith. You’re assuming something about the nature of things that hasn’t actually been observed or determined: that everything in the universe, down to the smallest scales, behaves mechanistically or classically, and that the statistical nature of predictions is just an artifact of having incomplete information about all of those mechanistic causes and effects. But you can’t actually identify all of the mechanisms whose existence you assume. And you’re still just assuming, rather than demonstrating, that every cause has only one effect.

A: It sounds like you have fallen for the silly idea that because the quantum realm is described statistically (for now), that somehow that indeterminacy has worked its way into the visible world. But even assuming you were right, you haven’t identified a mechanism either by which that might occur. How is it possible that quantum indeterminacy would give rise to multiple effects from a single cause in the visible world?

B: I don’t think you need to go down to the quantum level to find indeterminacy. How about just with chemistry? Don’t we see there just the aggregation of incalculable events into results that can only be predicted statistically? Why should we assume that it’s possible ever to have a non-statistical account of those results? It’s complexity that gives rise to indeterminacy, because there are more opportunities for randomness in systems that are more complex. Anyway, so neither of us has identified a mechanism, either for free will or for hard determinism. In that case, why should anybody believe that thinking about free will in terms of physics or chemistry should yield any useful information?

A: The difference is that my absent mechanisms—those trillions upon trillions of events that are beyond useful calculation—are inductively consistent with everything people have accomplished in studying the physical world, in which our understanding just gets more detailed, and our predictions more accurate, while your absent mechanism—visible free will somehow arising from indeterminacy in complexity—is contrary to even the statistical approach that you keep talking about: what makes statistics useful is that all of the messiness gets washed out when the number of underlying events is increased. So the more unobservable events we’re aggregating, the less likely that any few events turning out differently than expected if they were observable will have any effect on the visible whole.

B: Even if I agreed with you, you’re not really arguing a scientific proof that free will is an illusion; you’re arguing about the nature of scientific knowledge—or rather about the nature of future, as yet unknown, scientific knowledge. And that’s a philosophical argument, not a scientific one. Maybe the course of scientific inquiry will continue, and maybe it will lead where you believe it will lead. But you can’t know that it will; you just have a hunch. So what if I have a hunch that will lead elsewhere, based on the brute fact that, regardless of mechanism, we all seem to experience a process of making decisions? Don’t our different hunches mean we have on our hands a question that is clearly unresolved by science? Surely you agree that we seem to make decisions.

A: Why should we think that we really are making decisions just because it seems that way? And, at any rate, if our purported decisions are constrained by causation, then how can they possibly represent free will?

B: Why shouldn’t the phenomena we experience be evidence that we’re experiencing phenomena? Do you really mean to suggest otherwise? And you’re still hung up on the idea that free will is not free unless it is wholly unconstrained and uncaused. But surely there’s a middle ground between incoherence and hard determinism.

A: How would a middle ground like that work? There would need to be some outside influence, which means you’re introducing some kind of supernaturalist dualism.

B: Certainly not. All you need is indeterminacy, like I said before. If some causes can have multiple effects, then it’s possible for things to be different.

A: But you also said that indeterminacy would be incoherence. So are you saying that the process of making a decision is no better than a process of flipping a coin?

B: No, but the indeterminacy allows for different possibilities, within which people are able to behave differently depending on the choices they make, but still constrained by causation. That is, nothing is uncaused, but some causes might have multiple effects.

A: Now we’ve just gone in a circle. And if indeterminacy is the only means of introducing choice, then how can a “free” organism like a human possibly have any desires to drive its choices? In other words, if indeterminacy, or having several possible results from a single cause, means that things can go differently, then aren’t you assuming some kind of decider that stands at a causal crossroad and chooses a path? If so, then, again, you’re introducing a supernatural force.

B: No, what I’m saying is that an organism with multiple paths will already be affected with desires, which will automatically lead it down a particular path.

A: But where do those desires come from?

B: From other causes.

A: Are you saying our desires are affected with indeterminacy, too?

B: Why not?

A: Then how do you argue for the possibility of moral improvement? How can people cultivate “better” desires and make “better” choices of they’re constrained by causes? And how are they going to know what is better if the only means of decision is based on the introduction of indeterminacy? Shouldn’t we expect complete moral relativism?

B: No, what we should expect is what we see. People have some general similarities in underlying desires and moral instincts, but they implement those in a variety of ways. And we should expect those differences ultimately to aggregate into circumstances that become the causes of late decisions, by which people imitate strategies that seem to be successful at bringing other people into a happy condition.

A: Wouldn’t that mean, then, that there would be less and less free will in the world, as people ultimately converge on the perfect existence?

B: Certainly not! Because while all of these things are going on with people, their environments are changing, too. So the things that might make people happy in one situation might not work in another. The indeterminacy is like randomness in gene mutations: most of the time it just means people make stupid decisions. But sometimes it means that people stumble upon a better way, and that becomes a model for imitation by others—a cause that constrains the behavior of those others.

A: All of that is well and good, but you’re still assuming that indeterminacy really affects the visible world without violating the laws of physics.

B: Yes, and why shouldn’t we assume that? We are surrounded by chance and randomness all the time. But if free will is just an illusion, and everything that happens is what must happen, with no other real possibilities, and no indeterminacy, then why should anybody advocate the position that free will is an illusion? Do you really believe that people will be persuaded, or are you just compelled by deterministic causes?

A: Does it make a difference?

B: Sure. If you are just compelled by deterministic causes, then so am I, and we are both wasting our time. But if you believe that persuasion is possible, then you must believe that the universe has some tendency toward a goal of disclosing real truth—for example, that free will is an illusion.

A: If you think that the behavior of one person can cause another person to imitate it for greater success at happiness, then why should you have a problem with the idea that I might hope to persuade you?

B: Because where do you get that hope? Did you decide to have that hope?

A: Maybe I got it from the person that persuaded me?

B: And then where before that? Are you saying that nobody ever just thought of the idea that free will is an illusion, that it must have arisen because of deterministic causation, because that is the only way anything arises?

A: Yes, exactly.

B: So how do you know that “free will is an illusion” is the correct description of reality?

A: Because it corresponds with observations.

B: No it doesn’t! The pertinent observation is that we all seem to have free will!

A: To the contrary, the pertinent observation is that everything is caused.

B: And yet the world remains a mystery of chance most of the time.

A: That’s less and less true all the time, as we learn more. Look at how powerful we are now, compared to previous eras.

B: But what does it mean to be powerful if we have no ability to choose how to execute that power? That’s not powerfulness; it’s just difference. And of course the world remains a mystery of chance—that’s why every scientific result just leads to more questions!

A: But the mysteries are pushed back beyond the realm of ordinary human experience. Most of what we experience is fully explainable scientifically now.

B: Except free will. You’ve only assumed that free will is fully explainable. And I still don’t understand how you can believe that the idea “free will is an illusion” must have just arisen from deterministic causation and must also be true, and that you believe the people can be persuaded into that idea. If that’s the case, then aren’t you just saying that the universe has some underlying goal to disclose truths, like “free will is an illusion”?

A: No, I’m saying that just happens to be what happened.

B: So it’s just a random feature of the universe that free will is an illusion?

A: It has to be.

B: Then why must randomness and indeterminacy have disappeared? Is there no possibility for randomness ever again?

A: Not once the universe is set in motion. Then the laws of cause and effect take over, and everything is determined, from beginning to end.

B: Then we’re just wasting our time, because this whole conversation is already determined. Why bother?

A: Because we must.

B: But then that would be true of anything, and there would be no enjoyment of anything: we’re all just thrust along by necessity.

A: Not if the effects of some causes are that we experience pleasure.

B: But then say I know that. Now every time I experience pleasure, I’ll remember that this is just necessity, and the pleasure will disappear.

A: So maybe that is just the result of the cause of knowing, and pleasure is not for you.

B: In other words, ignorance is bliss. Then why would you torture people by introducing the idea that “free will is an illusion”?

A: How can I help it? Maybe the meaning of life is to be meaningless.

B: Or to be empty.


“The activity of thinking is as relentless and repetitive as life itself, and the question whether thought has any meaning at all constitutes the same unanswerable riddle as the question for the meaning of life; its processes permeate the whole of human experience so intimately that its beginning and end coincide with the beginning and end of human life itself.”

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 1998) page 171.

The Holiday Season

Ryan Bell is “Claiming Christmas for Humanism”: “whether or not Jesus was a real historical person, the legends about his birth and the counterintuitive announcement of peace and human flourishing make Christmas a beautiful humanist holiday.” (Go read the rest.)

Hey, in  a world where people salivate over Marvel, Disney, and Lucasfilm joining forces, with a culture that can support subversively and ironically humanizing phenomena like Comic-Con and Star Wars conventions, and when the ancient tradition of reimagining old stories is chugging along with renewed (rebooted?) strength, there’s no reason why a story involving infanticide, other-worldly messengers, gritty shepherds, exotic magicians, and a subvert-the-powers-that-be vibe can’t be added to the mix.

And for me, Christmas has only improved with distance from the culture of Christianity. There’s no reason to pretend that we’re still using the Christian liturgical cycle to order our society or maintain solidarity, so why not step back and look at what we actually do with Christmas? It’s part of a big, nearly-three-month cycle of U.S. culture that manages to sweep up lots and lots of our culture in a wide array of festivities and contemplations.

It begins in October with a celebration of horror, death, humor, and sex. Interestingly, the family vs. friends dynamic for this celebration is relatively fluid—if you have young kids, you’re with them; otherwise, do as you please! Either way, be sure to push the limits. Explore the fine line between horror and hilarity. Cosplay at the boundaries of the sense of self, and wonder at the natural totemism of a kid dressed up as a monster. If you’re not spending the evening with the kiddies, then transcend convention by drinking a lot, and getting laid while wearing a costume. Contemplate death. This one is about ritual decoherence.

Having blazed quickly through an overtly raucous existential combo, we move into a strange, more interiorized phase where we wrestle with a variety of problems: incoherence from deseasonalization through globalization (“harvest” means almost nothing to most people anymore, but we keep the imagery, which becomes ironic because most of us are engulfed in plenty year-round); the question of whether “Christmas” decorations should start to go up yet (which I interpret as a manifestation of guilt arising from the tension between our need for lengthy celebration and our drive to work as much as possible); and an obligation and a desire to express gratitude and contingency (which can sometimes be a challenging mental state to reach, given the year-round plenty that we’re also failing to make sense of), culminating in Thanksgiving, which is solidly a family event. No wild sex involved. This one isn’t about transcending conventions, but embodying them, getting our feet back on the ground after the haze of Halloween.

Then we drop the interiorized stuff, jump into overt consumerism and gluttony, move temporarily away from the family (now’s the time for awkward office parties!), eat and drink to excess, listen to sentimental music, put up our most intense decorations of the year, and begin the terrifying slide back to the family core, culminating in the Christmas Eve—Christmas Day cycle that is so oddly syncretistic that one of the most common traditional threads is having distinct, family-unique traditions. (When does your family open presents? What food does your family eat? Does your family always go see a movie together? Attend church together?) Now that you’ve decohered into death, re-embodied convention, and spread yourself too thin, it’s time to hook back into your own nativity. This is the great star of the holiday cycle.

And then, finally, there’s a weird pause, where we’re all in this supersaturated state of peaceful (or is it just relieved?) afterglow for a few days, and the whole thing finishes with a bang-up party to celebrate the coming of the New Year. And it’s decidedly not a family-centered event: now is the time to get back with friends, let down your hair, and be relieved of the pressures and appearances of the family Christmas gathering. The New Year’s party has an interesting symmetry with Halloween in that sense, where humor and sex have survived the cycle, but horror and death are as far away as can be.

After all of that, go for a single jog or take a single trip to the gym, and eat healthily for a day or two, to symbolize your new resolve to live better, and then get back to work.

The End of It

“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old City knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them, for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed, and that was quite enough for him.”

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave Five: The End of It.

Wholehearted Bliss

“We know that the most blissful moments in our lives are those when we are swept up so deeply by an experience that it would never occur to us to check our e-mail. If we are fully in the moment, we wholeheartedly care about one thing and anxiety drops away. Wholeheartedness is great, but obviously we cannot be wholehearted if we thinking both ‘I like this baseball game’ and ‘It’s great that I’m being wholehearted.’ Then we have at least two thoughts.”

Eric Kaplan, Does Santa Exist? A Philosophical Investigation (Dutton 2014) pages 54–55.

Belief and Propaganda

Napoleon Crossing the Alps

“Would you like me to tell you, as one old friend to another, how it is you follow what the crowd hold in your ideas about things, instead of consulting the oracle of Reason? It is because you believe that there is something divinely inspired about it . . . because you imagine that the common consent of so many peoples down the ages, can only be the outcome of some manner of inspiration—vox populi, vox dei; it is because, being a theologian, you are accustomed to give up reasoning when you think you are in the presence of a ‘mystery.'”

Pierre Bayle, Pensées diverses . . . à l’occasion de la comète, § 8, quoted in Paul Hazard, The Crisis of the European Mind: 1680–1715, translated by J. Lewis May (New York Review Books 2013) page 179.

California Seasons

A mélange for the last Sunday in October.

“In the great Central Valley of California there are only two seasons—spring and summer. The spring begins with the first rainstorm, which usually falls in November. In a few months the wonderful flowery vegetation is in full bloom, and by the end of May it is dead and dry and crisp, as if every plant had been roasted in an oven.” [1]

“So has it been said by Tochihuitzin,
so has it been said by Coyolchiuhqui:
It is not true, it is not true
that we come to this earth to live.
We come only to sleep, only to dream.
Our body is a flower.
As grass becomes green in the springtime,
so our hearts will open, and give forth buds,
and then they wither.
So said Tochihuitzin.” [2]

Western Fresno County kit fox habitat in 1920. Photograph by Joseph Dixon from the archives of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley.

“Like robots last week
we slipped into the polls
to fling blindfolds at
the hand twitching
against the Pentagon,
finger hovered
over the bomb’s red button—
it never mattered
which face he wore.” [3]

“One day we must go,
one night we will descend into the region of mystery.
Here, we only come to know ourselves;
only in passing are we here on earth.
In peace and pleasure let us spend our lives; come, let us enjoy ourselves.
Let not the angry do so; the earth is vast indeed!
Would that one lived forever; would that one were not to die!” [4]

The same location as above, in 2001. Photograph from California State University Stanislaus, Endangered Species Recovery Program.

[1] John Muir, “Through the Foothills with a Flock of Sheep,” in My First Summer in the Sierra (Sierra Club 1988), page 1.

[2] Cantares Mexicanos, folio 14, v, quoted in Miguel León-Portilla, Aztec Thought and Culture, translated by Jack Emory Davis (University of Oklahoma Press 1990) page 72.

[3] Wendy Rose, “November 1980,” in Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology, volume 2, issue 2, page 158 (1980).

[4] Cantares Mexicanos, folio 26, x, quoted in Aztec Thought and Culture, above, page 73.

Strange Ideas with Large Numbers

The age of the universe, measured as the time elapsed since the Big Bang, is currently estimated at about 13,798,000,000 years.

In 2010, the world average life expectancy was 67.2 years.

That means the age of the universe is about 205,327,380 average 2010 lifetimes.

And the population of the world in 2010 was about 6,916,000.

So if about three percent of the people alive in 2010 had lived average lifespans consecutively, then together they would have lived the age of the universe.