The Green New Deal

February 18, 2019

Green Nude Eel

It’s green. It’s new. And it’s a deal. What’s not to like?

Ah, the power of words. These three do make for a potent combo that’s caught the zeitgeist of today’s Democratic party. Don’t even try running for president if you’re not for the GND.

Columnist David Brooks writes that while “[t]he productive dynamism of capitalism is a wonder to behold,” this doesn’t today give the middle class, and the less skilled, economic security; nor help address “social decay.” Democrats in particular are increasingly disenamored of free market economics, blaming it for inequality and also seeing capitalism as the culprit behind climate change.

Their Green New Deal is intended as a response for all this. It envisions broad-scale government mobilization to reduce carbon emissions — to zero within a decade or two — with jobs-for-all thrown in.

Climate change is real, human activity is a cause, and the ill-effects will be costly. But the GND is a bad answer, for several fundamental reasons.

First, it does behoove us to reduce planet-warming carbon emissions, to the extent it’s reasonably possible. (Leaving the Paris agreement was brainless.) But zero is not reasonably possible (given existing or foreseeable technology) without sacrifices vastly disproportionate to the resulting climate benefit. Climate zealots seem to regard economic growth, indeed wealth itself, as an evil, urging us to scale back our lifestyles. (As though humankind is a criminal deserving punishment.) Yet these are the same people who bemoan inequality and poverty. They seemingly imagine both reversing economic growth yet also redistributing its fruits.

Economic growth, in recent decades, has in fact tremendously reduced world poverty. We shouldn’t want to reverse that, which zeroing out global carbon emissions would currently require. Indeed, the costs of basic poverty, to human well-being, far exceed climate change’s potential damage. Moreover, to deal with that damage, we’ll need the resources economic growth provides. So we must accept some temperature rise, as a necessary price to sustain our economies and global living standards.

In fact it’s not a choice. Because rising temperature is already baked in, even if emissions are cut to zero. Global warming will still continue, just a little less rapidly than if we do nothing. Thus the hair-on-fire zealotry for emission reduction is misplaced.

But if we really want to reduce emissions, nuclear power produces none. Yet greens ignore that option because . . . well, because it’s “nuclear.” (Dangerous? Fossil fuel power generation is estimated to kill around 20,000 Americans annually with lung disease. Nuclear power’s U.S. death toll: zero.)

And if we really want to stop warming, we’d have to consider geo-engineering initiatives to cool the planet. It could be done, maybe even cost-effectively. But climate zealots oppose even researching such options, because it would undermine their emissions fixation and (the horror!) enable economic growth to continue. So the GND ignores geo-engineering too.

Meantime, absent action to reverse otherwise inevitable warming, our main focus should be not on largely futile emissions reductions but, rather, preparations to combat warming’s effects. This the GND also ignores.

But meantime too, if we do insist on emissions reduction as the aim, economics gives us a clear answer for achieving it: to reflect, in the prices of things, the societal cost of their associated climate impacts. That is, a carbon tax. It would give people proper price incentives to reduce carbon and seek alternatives. (A scheme of emission permit trading would be somewhat analogous.)

However, efforts to enact a carbon tax have gone nowhere. Well, nobody likes taxes. But recently, a group of leading economists proposed, in the Wall Street Journal, a carbon tax whose revenue would be rebated via a universal dividend. That wouldn’t negate the tax’s carbon-reducing incentives, thus a win-win.

But the Democratic lefties behind the GND aren’t interested in such economic rationality, using markets and creating incentives to do right. Instead they want government giving us marching orders. Government would design and create massive new energy and transport infrastructures (“air travel stops being necessary”). These gigantic command-and-control institutions would replace much of what we’ve got now. Including most of our cars. There may also be a job for anyone unemployed (no skills needed, presumably).

This hugely consequential policy package is not the product of a careful broad-based consultative process. While lefties and greenies have long been talking in general on such lines, the GND seems to have been slapped together on the fly, on the back of an envelope, in a very short time, by a few members of Congress (including the over-hyped and under-experienced AOC). Paying for it all is another thing left unaddressed.

Brooks says the GND reflects “a faith in the guiding wisdom of the political elite,” with technocratic government planners in effect mastering the running of a huge and enormously complex part of America’s economic machine. How often must we see such hubristic faith come to tears? Remember the Solyndra fiasco? That was just a teensy foretaste of what the GND envisions. And Soviet central planners too fantasized being economic masterminds. Brooks wryly notes that the GND comes from “people who couldn’t even successfully organize the release of their own background document.”

The Economist moreover points out that the GND’s governmental behemoth would entail a massive redistribution of political and economic power, making big winners and losers. Lobbying and special interests will go into overdrive. While actually, the GND “largely dispenses with analysis of the costs and benefits of climate policy. It would create large opportunities for rent-seeking and protectionism, with no guarantee that the promised climate benefits will follow. [And with] growth-throttling taxes and dangerously high deficits” too.

Is this “Socialism?” The word doesn’t merely mean anything government does (libraries, road building), as some disingenuously suggest. It’s government taking over functions that, in a free economy, nongovernmental actors perform. And while lefties like to call it “democratic socialism,” such concentration of power is quintessentially anti-democratic and elitist.

This is the platform Democrats seem eager to run on.

Republicans, having destroyed their own brand with lies, bigotry, and thrall to a very bad man, have also managed to radicalize the Democrats into being the party of the GOP’s worst nightmare. When Democrats consolidate power — which Republican horribleness makes likely — “the era of big government,” that Bill Clinton said was over, will be back with a vengeance.

I dream of Election Day 2020 as a triumph of good over evil. But it may instead be a Hobson’s choice between Trumpian evil and everything about the left I’ve always opposed.

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Sex, religion, and perversion

February 14, 2019

It started with civilization’s Middle Eastern beginnings, with the idea not that sex is dirty, exactly, but that afterwards you had to cleanse yourself, as part of an overall purification, before communing with the divine. But, as people will, some eventually carried this idea to an extreme, seeing sex as indeed dirty altogether.

There was a slight problem, inasmuch as sex was necessary for procreation (which everybody thought good). Well, okay, they said, so sex is acceptable but only for making babies, not to gratify lust. This is the Adam-and-Eve story. God did tell them to be fruitful, but Adam’s sin was doing it lustily rather than mere dispassionate fulfillment of duty. And note that it’s usually called Adam’s sin. There’s a reason. Ancient peoples didn’t read their biology books. They thought impregnation entailed a miniature person, in the sperm, being seeded into the woman’s body. They didn’t understand her genetic contribution. So while Adam’s “sin” was transmitted down the generations via repeated lustful couplings, that was only through the male line. Thus, voila, Jesus — immaculately conceived without sperm — was born free of original sin! Neat!

Eventually though, the Church realized this didn’t square with biology. So to fix the story, they belatedly (in 1854) posited that Mary too was — somehow — herself immaculately conceived.

You might be confused here, thinking the original sin was not lust but disobeying God by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Same thing, said Saint Augustine (around 400 AD). The whole convoluted nonsense about “original sin” is traceable to him. Because he was tortured by his idea that the lust he himself experienced was a dirty sin that kept him from true communion with God. And, as Augustine’s legacy, Christians to this day torture themselves over this.

This attitude is itself a kind of sexual perversion. It loads ordinary, natural sex acts with a meaning and significance that make no sense. And, by the way, if humans were made in God’s image, does She feel lust? How does she handle it?

But actually we are products of biology. Even if you close your eyes to evolution, you cannot close them to biology, and the role of genes — with their be-all and end-all the promotion of reproduction.

One thing an organism needs to do to reproduce is to eat. Obviously. But (with very few exceptions) organisms aren’t smart enough to realize that. They need to be programmed by genes to eat; otherwise they’d just die without knowing why. So genes make organisms feel hunger, and feel good when eating.

What has this to do with sex? Everything. Would organisms even think of copulating (a pretty bizarre activity, really) if not biologically programmed to feel the analog of hunger, i.e., lust, and to feel good when satisfying it?

Nobody thinks hunger and eating are dirty or sinful. That would be nuts. So by what logic are the analogous lust and sex deemed sinful? Only by Augustine’s very twisted thinking.

Well, sex does bring a second person into the picture, which complicates matters. There’s always the key principle against gratifying oneself at another’s expense. So rape is a sin. Likewise assuaging hunger by eating another person. But that wouldn’t mean feeling hunger, or sexual desire, are themselves wrong. Only gratifying them in wrongful ways could be. (Which we don’t need God to tell us.)

Yet we so get our knickers in a twist over lust. The irrationality is exemplified by masturbation. Here (generally speaking) there’s no issue of harm to others.

An offense against God? Of course there’s no God, but even if there were, what kind of perverted human logic imputes to her a disapproval of self-gratification? What kind of perverted God would create us with powerful sex drives and punish us for expressing them in harmless ways that come naturally? It’s all hopelessly fucked up.

The ancient idea that conversation with the divine requires purification eventually got transmogrified into the Catholic Church’s priestly celibacy. As though sex is so profoundly dirty that no amount of pre-liturgical cleansing could suffice, hence our interlocutors with divinity must abjure sex altogether. So crazy extreme is this idea that the unsurprising result is to attract into the priesthood a disproportionate share of men whose own relationships with their sexuality are messed up.

Indeed, with more than just sexuality. There’s something deeply awry in the souls of men who ostensibly dedicate their lives to God’s work yet somehow convince themselves molesting choir boys is okay. Or that protecting rapists somehow serves God. Still holding themselves out as moral shepherds of their flocks. And what of the sheep who look to such men as their shepherds?

The Catholic Church may be a special case, but other faiths have similar fundamental hang-ups about sex. They condemn homosexuality as a sinful perversion, while loading up on guilt even over normal heterosexual feelings. Thus denying gays — and themselves as well — the right to feelings which cannot be willed away. Who are the real perverts?

Crime and punishment and sense and sensibility

February 10, 2019

Liberals oppose the death penalty. They’re really not even comfortable with the idea of punishment — “an eye for an eye makes the world blind.” Instead, forgiveness, rehabilitation, and redemption are watchwords.

Except when it comes to crimes against their political sensibilities. No concepts of forgiveness or redemption here. Instead it’s capital punishment — off with their heads! — civic heads at least, their offices, their jobs, their public trusts.

So it is with Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, whose 1984 yearbook page had a racist photo. Was it bad? Yes. Should we condemn it? Yes. Northam acknowledges as much. But is defenestration, the maximum penalty, appropriate? What of all he’s done since then for racial progress and advancing the interests of people of color? Does one decades-old picture trump everything? Where is the sense, the proportionality, the justice, in reducing a man’s entire life to literally this one photo?

Who among us has led a perfect life, a saint having never done a thing wrong?

Predictably, meanwhile, Republicans ascend to new heights of hypocrisy by piling on against Northam and jeering at Democrats over this.* There’s even an idiotic trope that it’s Democrats who are the racist party, the party of slavery even. Ignoring the last half century of history. As if the very raison d’etre of today’s Republican party isn’t to keep down people of color. Republicans bray for Northam’s head while their own Steve King, who recently defended “white supremacy” still sits in Congress — and their king of race-baiting sits in the White House.

The Northam episode, and Democrats’ extremist intolerance toward any such transgressions, are all of a piece with the left’s whole troubled relationship with freedom of speech and thought. They’re all about tolerance for differences, like sexuality and ethnicity — but not differences of ideas. We see it in political correctness enforced on campuses with Stalinist ruthlessness. Anyone expressing views outside their narrow canon is disgraced, demonized, punished, banished. Like Larry Summers booted out of Harvard’s presidency for daring to theorize that brain differences might lead fewer women into science. Or corporate chief Brendan Eich hounded from his job for having dared to support the wrong side in a public referendum on gay rights. The civic equivalent of capital punishment. Off with their heads.

How is this not exactly the kind of McCarthyism whose denunciation the left has worn as a badge of honor for six decades? They still lionize its victims — people blacklisted and unable to work because of their political opinions. Isn’t that exactly what they themselves did to Larry Summers and Brendan Eich? (But of course repression of the left is a dastardly crime. Repression by the left is all good.)

We see it as well in the excesses of “me-tooism.” Again it’s either you’re a perfect saint or off-with-your head, and nothing in between. No room for repentance, atonement, or redemption. No matter the severity of the offense, or its lack, there’s only one punishment, you must be stripped of your job and all public respectability. And so Al Franken was forced out of the Senate for behavior toward women far less egregious than Trump’s. (Though Sarah Sanders said there’s no comparison because Franken admitted wrongdoing while Trump called his accusers liars.)

It’s an irony that in one part of our culture civil standards are being enforced with Savonarolan severity, when elsewhere they’ve collapsed so far that we elected Mister “grab them by the pussy” as president.

And there he sits grinning and preening in the White House — this monster of depravity in every aspect of his existence — having the supreme shamelessness to tweet “Unforgivable!” about Northam.

* Click here to see a hyperbolic e-mail they sent me.

JCOPE — “Public Ethics?”

February 9, 2019

New York State has a “Joint Commission on Public Ethics.” It was created by the “Public Integrity Reform Act,” to “restore public trust in government.”

Percoco

Last year, Joseph Percoco, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s top henchman, was convicted of corruption, taking bribes. The trial also revealed that Percoco, after he’d left his state government post to run Cuomo’s political campaign, continued to extensively use his state office and telephone for political business, in violation of law, and right under Cuomo’s nose.

You might think the “Joint Commission on Public Ethics” might be interested in this. But you’d be wrong. This is Cuomo’s New York. The Commission’s members are appointed by the corrupt Governor and legislative leaders.

“JCOPE” refused even to hold a vote on whether to investigate the Percoco matter. A lawsuit was brought to compel JCOPE to hold such a vote. A judge thereupon ordered JCOPE to do so. Did JCOPE comply, and hold a vote? No, instead it appealed the ruling.

The face of public ethics in New York

But JCOPE has revealed that it is dropping its appeal, saying that it has now actually held a vote on whether to investigate.

Has JCOPE revealed the result of the vote?

Of course not.

(This is why you find a series of quotation marks in my first paragraph.)

Evolution by natural selection is a fact

February 5, 2019

My recent “free will” essay prompted some comments about evolution (on the Times-Union blog site.) One invoked (at verbose length) the old “watchmaker” argument. Nature’s elegant complexity is analogized to finding a watch in the sand; surely it couldn’t have assembled itself by random natural processes. There had to be a watchmaker.

This argument is fallacious because a watch is purpose-built and nature is not. Not the result of a process aimed at producing what we see today; instead one that could just as well have produced an infinity of alternative possibilities.

Look at a Jackson Pollock painting and you could say that to create precisely this particular pattern of splotches must have (like the watch) taken an immense amount of carefully planned work. Of course we know he just flung paint at the canvas. The complex result is what it is, not something Pollock “designed.”

Some see God in a similar role, not evolution’s designer but, rather, just setting it in motion. Could life have arisen out of nowhere, from nothing? Or could the Universe itself? Actually science has some useful things to say about that — better than positing a God who always existed or “stands outside time and space,” or some such woo-woo nonsense. And for life’s beginnings, while we don’t have every “i” dotted and “t” crossed (the earliest life could not have left fossils), we do know the basic story:

Our early seas contained an assortment of naturally occurring chemicals, whose interactions and recombinations were catalyzed by lightning, heat, pressure, and other natural phenomena. Making ever more complex molecules, by the trillion. One of the commonest elements is carbon, very promiscuous at hooking up with other atoms to create elaborate combinations.

Eventually one of those had the property of duplicating itself, by glomming other chemical bits floating by, or by splitting. Maybe that was an extremely improbable fluke. But realize it need only have happened once. Because each copy would go on to make more, and soon they’d be all over the place.

However, the copying would not have been perfect; there’d be occasional slight variations; with some faulty but also some better at staying intact and replicating. Those would spread more widely, with yet more variations, some yet more successful. Developing what biologist Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, called “survival machines.” Such as a protective coating or membrane. We’ve discovered a type of clay that spontaneously forms such membranes, which moreover divide upon reaching a certain size. So now you’ve got the makings of a primitive cell.

Is this a far-fetched story? To the contrary, given early Earth’s conditions, it actually seems inevitable. It’s hard to imagine it not happening. The 1952 Miller-Urey experiment reproduced those conditions in a test tube and the result was the creation of organic compounds, the “building blocks of life.”

That’s how evolution began. The duplicator molecules became genes (made of DNA). Their “survival machines” became organisms. That’s what we humans really are, glorified copying machines. A chicken is just an egg’s way to make another egg.

Of course DNA and genes, and Nature itself, do nothing with conscious purpose. Replicators competing with each other is simply math. Imagine your computer screen with one blue and one red dot. And a program saying every three seconds the blue dot will make another blue dot; but the red one will make two. Soon your screen will be all red.

A parable: A king wishes to bestow a reward, and invites the recipient to suggest one. He asks for a single rice grain — on a chessboard’s first square — then two on the second — and so on. The king, thinking he’s getting away cheaply, readily agrees. But before even reaching the final square, it’s all the rice in the kingdom.

This is the power of geometric multiplication. The power of genes replicating, in vast numbers, over vast time scales. (A billion years is longer than we can grasp.) And recall how genes are effectively in competition because occasionally their copies are imperfect (“mutations”), so no two organisms are exactly identical, and some are better at surviving and reproducing. Those supplant the others, just like red supplanted blue on your computer screen. But the process never stops, and in the fulness of time, new varieties evolve into new species. It’s propelled by ever-changing environments, requiring that organisms adapt by changing, or perish. This is evolution by natural selection.

Fossils provide indisputable proof. It’s untrue that there are “missing links.” In case after case, fossils show how species (including humans) have changed and evolved over time. (The horse is a great example. My illustration is from a website actually denying horse evolution, arguing that each of the earlier versions was a stand-alone species, unrelated to one another!)

We even see evolution happening live. Antibiotics changed the environment for bacteria. So drug-resistant bacteria rapidly evolved. Once-rare mutations enabling them to survive antibiotics have proliferated while the non-resistant are killed off.

Note that evolution doesn’t mean inexorable progression toward ever more complex or “higher” life forms. Again, the only thing that matters is gene replication (remember that red computer screen). Whatever works at causing more copies to be made is what will evolve. Humans evolved big brains because that happened to be a very successful adaptation. If greater simplicity works better, then an animal will evolve in that direction. There are in fact examples of this.

Another false argument against evolution is so-called “irreducible complexity.” Author Michael Behe claimed something like an eye could never have evolved without a designer because an incomplete, half-formed eye would be useless, conferring no advantage on an organism. In fact eyes did evolve through a long process beginning with light-sensitive cells that were primitive motion detectors, not at all useless. They did entail a survival advantage, albeit small, but it multiplied over eons, and improved by gradual incremental tweaks. So the eye, far from rebutting evolution, thus beautifully illustrates how evolution actually proceeds, and refutes any idea of intelligent design.

In fact, because our eyes did evolve in the undirected the way they did, they’re very sub-optimal. A competent designer would have done far better. He would not have put the wiring in front of the light-sensitive parts, blocking some light, nor bunched the optic nerve fibers to cause a blind spot. So we can’t see well in dim light. Some other animals (like squids) have much better eye design. And wouldn’t a really intelligent design include a third eye in the back?

Evolution by natural selection is the one great fact of biology. Not merely the best explanation for what we see in Nature, but the only possible rational explanation, and one that explains everything. As the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Handicapping 2020

February 1, 2019

Ninety-three candidates seek the Democratic presidential nomination. A slight exaggeration. But it’s a lot of them.

Many don’t really expect to win. But as the NY lottery slogan says, “Hey, you never know.” I remember hearing on the radio, “Former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter today declared his candidacy for president.” And saying to myself, “What makes him imagine he can get it? Fat chance.”

Some of today’s crop are really seeking the vice presidency. Hoping to make a good impression and get noticed. Yet the sheer size of the field makes that hard.

There’s been speculation that Hillary Clinton is running. Please, please, no! Though I certainly wish she were president now instead of Trump (and the rap against her was insanely exaggerated), politically Hillary is the rancid ghost of Christmas Past. Despite her obvious strengths, which would win her a big chunk of votes, I believe enough Democrats blame her for losing in 2016 that she could not possibly be nominated. While her just running would poison the atmosphere for Democrats.

More likely to re-run is Bernie Sanders. If you were him, why wouldn’t you? Sanders was idolized in 2016 by many Democrats, who also felt he was somehow cheated of the nomination (not so). Certainly he’d enter the race with a big rabid fan base. Remember the early 2016 primaries, with Trump able to rack up wins with like 30% of the vote because the rest was split among so many others. Bernie can benefit from a similar dynamic in 2020.

Then there’s Biden, who would likewise start with obvious strength. Though not as exciting to true believers as Bernie, he’d be a comfortable choice, benefiting from an aura of deep experience, reliability, and gravitas, especially in contrast to all the newbies. He would stand head-and-shoulders above them.

If either of those two doesn’t run, the other will have a huge advantage. If both run, it will probably really be a battle between them, with all the rest far behind.

Yes, both Sanders and Biden are pushing 80, and yes, many voices cry out for fresh blood. And if there were a lone fresh novelty candidate, like Obama was in 2008, he or she would do very well. But, again, this time the freshness mantle is divided among a whole bunch, all vying for pretty much the same votes. Unless one can somehow decisively break out of the pack, none can compete with Sanders or Biden.

Meanwhile, this is not the time to push boundaries with a novelty candidate. We’re in a profound crisis. America (and the world) might be able to recover after four years of this depravity, but not eight. For all his stupendous rottenness, Trump will be a tough, unscrupulous, vicious opponent, helped again by Russian lies. Democrats will need every voter they can get, and cannot afford to turn any off.

NO WE’RE NOT

And surely many will be turned off by a dour old Brooklyn Jew with the word “socialist” a giant albatross hanging around his neck. There’s a fantasy on the left that if they just properly explain socialism to Americans, they’ll hop on board. What a laugh. (George Lakoff, a leftist academic author from Berkeley, explains that it just doesn’t work that way.) Bernie would win Berkeley, Beverly Hills, and Boston; but not America.

(And please, no third party candidate to split the vote against Trump. This means you, Schultz. Whatever you’ve got, bring it to the Democratic primaries.)

A lot of people voted for Trump because they wanted a disruptor. After four years of that, some at least will want a return to normalcy. No more taking chances or flying leaps. Instead, a tried-and-true “safe pair of hands.” That still counts for a lot. It’s forgotten now, but Obama actually won in November 2008 because more people saw him as the sober, serious, capable man.

Do I have to spell it out any further?

Consciousness, Self, and Free Will

January 29, 2019

What does it really mean to be conscious? To experience things? To have a self? And does that self really make choices and decisions?

I have wrestled with these issues numerous times on this blog. Recently I gave a talk, trying to pull it all together. Here is a link to the full text: http://www.fsrcoin.com/freewill.html. But here is a condensed version:

It might seem that the more neuroscience advances, the less room there is for free will. We’re told it’s actually an illusion; that even the self is an illusion. But Daniel Dennett, in 2003, wrote Freedom Evolves, arguing that we do have a kind of free will after all.

The religious say evil exists because God gave people free will. But can you really have free will if God is omniscient and knows what you will do? This equates to the concept of causation; of determinism. Laplace was a French thinker who posited that if a mind (“Laplace’s demon”) could know every detail of the state of the Universe at a given moment, it would know what will happen next. But Dennett says this ignores the random chance factor. And quantum mechanics tells us that, at the subatomic level at least, things do happen randomly, without preceding causes.

Nevertheless, the deterministic argument against free will says that everything your brain does and decides is a result of causes beyond conscious control. That if you pick chocolate over vanilla, it’s because of something that happened among your brain neurons, whose structure was shaped by your biology, your genes, by everything that happened before. Like a computer program that cannot “choose” how it behaves.

Schopenhauer said, “a man can do what he wants but cannot will what he wants.” In other words, you can choose chocolate over vanilla, but can’t choose to have a preference for chocolate. Or: which gender to have sex with.

And what does the word “you” really mean? This is the problem of the self, of consciousness, entwined with the problem of free will. We all know what having a conscious self feels like. Sort of. But philosopher David Hume said no amount of introspection enabled him to catch hold of his self.

Another philosopher, Rene Descartes, conceived mind as something existing separately from our physical bodies. This “Cartesian dualism” is a false supernatural notion. Instead, mind and self can only be produced by (or emerge from) physical brain activity. There’s no other rational possibility.

Let’s consider how we experience vision. We not only see what’s before us, but also things we remember, or even things we imagine. All of it could be encoded (like in a computer) into 1s and 0s — zillions of them. But then how do “you” see that as a picture? We imagine what’s been called a “Cartesian theatre” (from Descartes again), with a projection screen, viewed by a little person in there (a “homunculus”). But how does the homunculus see? Is there another smaller one inside his brain? And so on endlessly?

A more helpful concept is representation, applicable to all mental processing. Nothing can be experienced directly in the brain. If it’s raining it can’t be wet inside your brain. But your brain constructs a representation of the rain. Like an artist painting a scene. And how exactly does the brain do that? We’re still working on that.

Similarly, what actually happens when you experience something like eating a cookie, or having sex? The experience isn’t mainly in the mouth or genitals but in the mind. By creating (from the sensory inputs) a representation. But then how do “you” (without a homunculus) see or experience that representation? Why, of course, by means of a further representation: of yourself having that experience.

And according to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, in his book Descartes’ Error, we need yet another, third order representation, so that you not only know it’s raining, but know you know it. Still further, the mind also must maintain a representation of who “you” are. Including information like knowledge of your past, and ideas about your future, which must be constantly refreshed and updated.

All pretty complicated. Happily, our minds — just like our computer screens — hide from us all that internal complexity and give us a smooth simplified interface.

 

A totally deterministic view might make our lives might seem meaningless. But Dennett writes that we live in an “atmosphere of free will” — “the enveloping, enabling, life-shaping, conceptualatmosphere of intentional action, planning and hoping and promising — and blaming, resenting, punishing and honoring.” This is all independent of whether determinism is true in some physical sense.

Determinism and causality are actually tricky concepts. If a ball is going to hit you, but you duck, would Laplace’s demon have predicted your ducking, so you were never going to be hit? In other words, whatever happens is what had to happen.

Dennett poses the example of a golfer missing a putt who says, “I could have made it.” What does that really mean? Repeat the exact circumstances and the result must be the same. However, before he swung, was it possible for him to swing differently than he wound up doing? Or was it all pre-ordained? Could he have, might he have, swung differently?

Martin Luther famously said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Was he denying his own free will? Could he have done otherwise? Or was his stand indeed a supreme exercise of personal will?

Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, likened one’s conscious self to a rider on an elephant, which is the unconscious. We suppose the rider is the boss, directing the elephant, but it’s really the other way around. The rider’s role is just to come up with rationalizations for what the elephant wants. (This is a key factor in political opinions.)

And often we behave with no conscious thought at all. When showering, I go through an elaborate sequence of motions as if on autopilot. My conscious mind might be elsewhere. And how often have I (consciously) deliberated over whether to say a certain thing, only to hear the words pop suddenly out of my mouth?

A famous experiment, by neurologist Benjamin Libet, seemingly proved that a conscious decision to act is actually preceded, by some hundreds of milliseconds, by an unconscious triggering event in your brain. This has bugged me no end. I’ll try to beat it by, say, getting out of bed exactly when I myself decide, bypassing Libet’s unconscious brain trigger. I might decide I’ll get up on a count of three. But where did that decision come from?

However, even if the impetus for action arises unconsciously, we can veto it. If not free will, this has been called “free won’t.” It comes from our ability to think about our thoughts.

There’s a fear that without free will, there’s no personal responsibility, destroying the moral basis of society. Illustrative was a 2012 article in The Humanist magazine arguing against punishing Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer, because the killings were caused by brain events beyond his control. But “Free won’t” is a helpful concept here. Psychologist Thomas Szasz has argued that we all have antisocial impulses, yet to act upon them crosses a behavioral line that almost everyone can control. So Breivik was capable of choosing not to kill 77 people, and can be held responsible for his choice.

As his book title suggests, Dennett maintains that evolution produced our conscious self with free will. But those were unnecessary for nearly all organisms that ever existed. As long as the right behavior was forthcoming, there was no need for it “to be experienced by any thing or anybody.” However, as the environment and behavioral challenges grow more complex, it becomes advantageous to consider alternative actions. In developing this ability, Dennett says a key role was played by communication in a social context, with back-and-forth discussion of reasons for actions, highly enhanced by language. Recall the importance of representation. I mentioned the artist and his canvas. Our minds don’t have paints, but create word pictures and metaphors, multiplying the power of representation.

Another book by Dennett, in 1991, was Consciousness Explained. It said that the common idea of your self as a “captain at the helm” in your mind is wrong. It’s really more like a gaggle of crew members fighting over the wheel. A lot of neurons sparking all over the place. And what you’re thinking at any given moment is a matter of which gang of neurons happens to be on top.

Yet in Freedom Evolves, Dennett now winds up insisting that we can and do use rationality and deliberation to resolve such internal conflicts, and that “there is somebody home” (the self) after all, to take responsibility and be morally accountable. This might sound like positing a sort of homunculus in there. But let me offer my own take.

When the crewmen battle over the wheel, to say the outcome is deterministically governed by a long string of preceding causes is too simplistic. Instead, everything about that competition among neuron groups embodies who you are, your personality and character, constructed over years. Shaped by many deterministic factors, yes — your biology, genes, upbringing, experiences, a host of other environmental influences, etc. But also, importantly, shaped by all your past choices and decisions. We are not wholly self-constructed, but we are partly self-constructed. Your past history reflects past battles over the wheel, but in all those too, personality and character factors came into play.

They can change throughout one’s life, even sometimes from conscious efforts to change. And no choice or decision is ever a foregone conclusion. Even if most people, most of the time, do behave very predictably, it’s not like the chess computer that will play the same move every time. Causation is not compulsion. People are not robots.

Nothing is more deterministically caused than a smoker’s lighting up, a consequence of physical addiction on top of psychological and behavioral conditioning, and even social ritual. Seemingly a textbook case of B.F. Skinner’s deterministic behaviorism. Yet smokers quit! Surely that’s free will.

Now, you might say the quitting itself actually has its own deterministic causes — predictable by Laplace’s demon — whatever happens is what had to happen. But this loads more weight upon the concept of determinism than it can reasonably be made to carry. In fact, there’s no amount of causation, biological or otherwise, that predicts behavior with certainty. There are just too many variables. Including the “free won’t” veto power.

And even if Libet was right, and a decision like exactly when to move your finger (or get out of bed) really is deterministically caused — how is that relevant to our choices and decisions that really matter? When in college, I’d been programmed my whole life to become a doctor. But one night I thought really hard about it and decided on law instead. Concerning a decision like that, the Libet experiment, the whole concept of determinism, tells us nothing.

This is compatibilism: a view of free will that’s actually compatible with causation and determinism.

We started with the question, how can you have free will if an omniscient God knows what you’ll do? Well, the answer is, he cannot know. But — even if God — or Laplace’s demon — could (hypothetically) predict what your self will do — so what? It’s still your self that does it. A different self would do different. And you’re responsible (at least to a considerable degree) for your self. That’s my view of free will.

 

Trump trumped

January 26, 2019

While posturing as proud to announce a deal, that was typical Trump bullshit. In fact he totally capitulated. Got nothing. Not a thing more than was offered 35 days before. So all the pain and cost of the shutdown was for nought.

He actually blew it before it even started, with his loud declaration he’d be proud to shut down the government. This piece of idiocy self-disembowled his later predictable effort to blame Democrats, thus ensuring they wouldn’t yield to him.

So much for the “great deal maker.” This master negotiator couldn’t negotiate his way out of a paper bag.

This also proves that standing up to bullies works.

Having beaten him on the wall now, Democrats won’t give it to him later. His threat to shut the government down again on February 15, to get it, is hollow. You know the aphoristic definition of insanity — doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Now there are cracks in his previously monolithic support, as some are disgusted by his caving on his signature promise, and some begin to realize maybe they made a mistake putting faith in such a fraud. Polls now show 57% of Americans rule out voting for Trump in 2020.

If he were smart he’d deep-six the whole wall thing and move on, hoping this fiasco might dim in memory by 2020. Otherwise he’ll just keep reminding voters of it. Only a fool would do that. Of course, that’s exactly what he is. Our saving grace. Imagine if we had a man this bad who actually knew what he was doing.

So now there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Though still much darkness along the way. At least we can hope his monument to ignorance, xenophobia, racism, and folly never does get built.

The shutdown, hostages, and humanitarian crises

January 24, 2019

Let’s see if I have this straight. The government is partly shut down because Congress can’t pass a bill authorizing the employees’ salaries. But they could and did authorize post-shutdown back pay for those workers. In other words, Congress voted to pay them for work they can’t do because Congress wouldn’t vote to pay them for it.

And Congressional Republicans won’t agree to that because Democrats won’t agree to a border wall — which Republicans wouldn’t agree to when they controlled both houses.

They say they won’t vote for a bill the President won’t sign. But Congress can override a president’s veto with a two-thirds vote. Republicans and Democrats could agree on a bill to simply reopen the government, and pass it over a veto. However, Republicans won’t do that because they’re now hostage to Trump; they fear losing the next primary to a challenger he backs. So much for checks and balances and co-equal branches of government.

Trump is holding the government, and 800,000 workers’ salaries, hostage to his demand for a wall — which, again, he couldn’t get during the two years his own party controlled Congress. Calling this blackmail is not a metaphor. He’s saying, “Meet my demand, or else these government workers get hurt.” In any other context, such extortion lands you in prison.

This is actually costing the government — and taxpayers — a lot more than the $5.7 billion Trump is demanding for his wall. It’s also exceeded by the cost — financial, material, emotional — to those 800,000 federal workers. A humanitarian crisis, to use his words. And it’s also exceeded by the hit to the overall economy.

The “great deal maker” triggered this mess with no strategy for getting out of it. So now we’re stuck like Brer Rabbit with the tar baby. The same might be said of our electing him.

Saying Democrats oppose border security, wanting “open borders,” is such a lie that the word “lie” is inadequate. Let alone saying they want criminals and drugs and terrorists to flood into the country. As if we have no border security, and only now must start on it.

And he says there’s now a humanitarian crisis at the southern border. As if for the past two years Republicans didn’t control the whole government without building a wall (and without a shutdown aimed at getting it). And as if the inflow of migrants isn’t in fact way down from prior periods.

And as if Trump’s foolish wall would matter, when the vast majority of migrants, and of drugs, come in through official border crossings and airports.

But there is indeed a humanitarian crisis at the border. It’s Trump’s cruel, inhuman treatment of migrants. Including taking thousands of children away from parents, often without even any tracking, so they’ll never again see their kids, penned in wretched concentration camps. A crime against humanity, to America’s everlasting shame.

Steve King, Trump, and the Republican white nationalist party

January 21, 2019

The sky has fallen on Iowa Republican Congressman Steve “Cantaloupes” King for the latest in his long train of racist rantings. “White nationalist, white supremacist . . . how did that language become offensive?” he queried.

Maybe because “white supremacy” means black inferiority, “white nationalist” means black subordination. And because such words were connected with putting African people in chains and into ships to enslave them. And with barbaric lynchings to terrify African-Americans into submission for the denial of their citizenship and human rights. That, Mr. King, is how such language became offensive to any decent person.

But my point is not to call out Steve King, which many others have done, including the Republican House leadership. They’ve condemned and punished King, as though his sentiments have no place in the party of Lincoln. It’s this hypocrisy I’m calling out. The party of Lincoln (my own former party) has now become the party of Trump — and of Steve King, whose words actually reflect its true nature. Trump has been silent about King. Today’s Republican party is, above all else, the white nationalist party.

A Chicago Sun-Times column by Laura Washington is headed, “GOP condemns Steve King’s racist remarks — and ignores Trump’s.” His racism is just one small notch below King’s. Here is a compendium of it: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/01/15/opinion/leonhardt-trump-racist.html.

This is by no means incidental to the Trump phenomenon, but of the essence. His presidential campaign actually grew out of his leadership of birtherism — the racist lie that President Obama was born in Kenya (where his mother never set foot). Careful analysis of polling data has shown that the one factor most closely correlated with Trump support is white racial resentment. It’s what got him elected. And his behavior in office shows his understanding that this (in the guise of the immigration issue) is the one supervening concern in his base that he dare not trifle with. His presidency’s bottom line.

If the people at our southern border did not have brown skins, we would not be hearing the word “wall,” and the government would not be shut down today.