Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Cultural lies — or partial truths? David Brooks, individualism, and communitarianism

April 25, 2019

“We’ve created a culture based on lies,” David Brooks says, and they’re the roots of our political problems. Hence we need a cultural revolution more than a political one.

Brooks is the best columnist of our time. Always thoughtful and thought-provoking; not stereotypically “conservative.” A pet theme lately is individualism versus communitarianism. Brooks sees them as oppositional and advocates for the latter over the former. Thus his recent column about cultural “lies.” (

Western societies have indeed entered an age of individualism (“hyper-individualism” Brooks says). That was not an option for most people in most times, given social and economic constraints. Conformism reigned. Those bounds were loosened by Enlightenment humanism — recognizing that what life is really about is for each individual to achieve fulfillment in his or her own best way. And giving many at least conditions of life that free us to pursue that happiness.

I celebrate this. I live it. Blessedly enabled to enjoy a good life according to my own conception — idiosyncratic though it may be.

Is individualism at odds with communitarianism, as Brooks keeps arguing? It can be. He’s right that in some ways individualism can go too far and undermine the social foundation for truly living well. Case in point: an anti-vaxxer, privileging her belief of what’s good for her kid over society’s good. Giving us an epidemic of measles, previously thought eradicated.

But the word that keeps coming to my mind — absent from what Brooks says — is balance. Neither individualism nor communitarianism is wrong. Both are good. We must balance the two. Healthy balance is, indeed, itself key to a good life.

Much of my own seems quintessentially solitary. I’m scribbling this essay lounging alone out on my deck, soaking up sunshine. I love this. Likewise, my involvement with coins, also very solitary. But not solipsistic. Most of what I do would be devoid of meaning for me if not embedded in a world of other people. What confers meaning on my numismatic doings is other people ultimately appreciating the coins. I write to communicate ideas to others.

Such balanced perspective is missing from Brooks’s catalog of alleged cultural lies. Here are his headings: career success is fulfilling; I can make myself happy; life is an individual journey; keep your options open; you have to find your own truth; rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people.

The last is a no-brainer. But none of the others is a lie; rather, they are partial truths. Nuanced by, but not refuted by, what Brooks says about them.

For each he sacralizes the social, with individuation subordinated to it. It reads as though he wants us all to live like bees in a hive. As though the Enlightenment and mass individual empowerment never happened, or were bad things. And we should go back to the conformism imposed by past constraints.

“Find your own truth?” Fine if your name is Aristotle, Brooks dismissively says; we mostly get our values from our societal context. And of course that’s true, but it’s not the whole story. Does Brooks seriously suggest thinking for oneself is never good? And “society” is always right? What about all those Germans who swallowed the values of Nazi society?

“Career success is fulfilling?” A lie? Brooks claims his making the best seller list “felt like . . . nothing.” Well — it wouldn’t have, for me, as an author, but maybe he’s a saint without an ego. But such success can admittedly be empty if that’s all there is to your life, with no human connectivity. No one on their deathbed says, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office,” yet most aren’t sorry they ever went. Many of us do get much fulfillment from work, it gives our lives meaning —  in great part precisely because of its larger social context. Utilizing our abilities productively is empowering, but we also feel we earn our pay because the work contributes to some greater good. Isn’t that the very thing Brooks urges on us?

Similar points apply to Brooks’s other “lies.” They’re not lies but partial truths — for each one he ignores something important.

The fact is that social life is integral to human existence. Just like bees evolved for hive life, we evolved for group life. However, there’s a lot more to us than to bees, and while community does fill needs for us, we also have needs as individuals. They’re not incompatible. We can strive to fulfill both.


Notre Dame and humanism

April 16, 2019

I was surprised at my depth of emotion at the news about Notre Dame (initially it sounded like total destruction).

I’m a humanist, for whom churches are monuments to unreason. When I heard it mentioned that de Gaulle, after liberation in 1945, went to Notre Dame to thank God, I said he should have thanked America.

Yet Notre Dame is for me very much a humanist monument. A monument to Man the doer, and his soaring ambition. The builders may have been moved by a concept of the sublime that was mistaken; but created something nevertheless sublime itself.

A great monument of human civilization. That was what hit me so hard. More than tragedies with lives lost. Lives come and go, and all must end some time. But Notre Dame is unique and seemed eternal. So integral to the Human story, to lose it is unimaginable.

Part of Notre Dame’s heritage, and part of that story, is Victor Hugo’s great 1831 novel — always conjured for me by the cathedral’s image. Conjuring up the world of its construction, and the world of the 1400s that Hugo depicted — worlds so remote from ours, so benighted and cruel, yet way stations on the road to our better, more humanistic one. Reading such a book makes me grateful for modernity. Soberly mindful of how perilously small is the distance between that past darkness and the brightness we inhabit now.

I was an innocent child when I saw on TV the 1939 Charles Laughton film. Its beginning, that is; I couldn’t watch more, so freaked out by Quasimodo’s deformity. I’d known nothing of such things. I was repulsed, but in turmoil over what it might be like to bear such affliction. The image, and how I experienced it, remain with me six decades later.

As an adult I read the book. What Hugo did was quite extraordinary: portraying so outwardly grotesque a creature as nonetheless truly human. With feelings we can all relate to, if anything heightened by his deficits. How profoundly this broadens one’s take on what it means to be human, upon the human condition. How it moves one to grasp some kinship to even the most alien-seeming people. Whenever I think about the world’s unfortunates, I think of Quasimodo. If he could feel as he felt, what must they feel? No less than what I do; probably more.

The novel’s final chapter — with its searingly ironic title, “The Marriage of Quasimodo” — is indelibly inscribed in my soul. Lincoln spoke of “the last full measure of devotion.” That’s what Hugo illustrated here, with an image whose piteous power may be unsurpassed in all of human art.

This is why Notre Dame in flames brought tears to my eyes.


My pro basketball experience

March 31, 2019

This pic of me at the game didn’t come out so good

Last Sunday we went to Boston for a Celtics game. I’m no sports fan. In fact, the last pro sports event I attended was a Dodgers baseball game. When they were still in Brooklyn (and Ike was president).

But my wife is a basketball aficionado, and we’ve been hosting a gal from Somaliland who plays it in high school. So I went with them.


I really enjoyed the fan-cam and people’s reactions seeing themselves on the jumbotron. Most didn’t immediately realize they were having their fifteen nanoseconds of fame. A few never did, eyes glued to their phones. Most did exuberant dancing and arm-waving. One woman grabbed her husband’s head and kissed him on the lips. But I thought the most romantic one was the gal holding up a sign saying, “Marcus Smart will you marry me?” — until (silly me) I learned Smart is a Celtics player, not (presumably) her inamorata.

The game itself was less entertaining. Very much the same thing repeated over and over. Speaking of repetition, the jumbotron kept showing the word “DEFENSE” in giant block letters crashing down and crushing a bunch of what appeared to be pick-up sticks. And the crowd would duly pick up the chant, “DEFENSE! DEFENSE!” I waited, in vain, for a little offense; especially as the Celtics’ defense was being crushed by the San Antonio Spurs.


They lost 486 to 9. Or something like that.


I am no basketball expert. Yet I could have advised one thing to improve their score: doing free throws underhand (“granny style”) rather than overhead. Studies have in fact been done, and it’s proven that the former gives a higher success rate. Yet players universally ignore this. Why? They think it looks girly, not macho. So Vince Lombardi was actually wrong — winning isn’t the only thing.


Anyhow, some fans were deflated by the Celtics’ drubbing. Some even left early, in disgust, or perhaps to avoid the traffic crush. But most seemed to have a good time nevertheless. Even sports nuts ultimately understand that these games are Not Really Truly Important. They’re harmless. At least we no longer gather in stadiums to watch combatants literally kill each other. And at least these Celtics fans wore green hats, not red ones, and their chants weren’t hateful.

And I achieved my own personal goal for the evening: home and snug in bed by 1:30 AM.

Szukalski: the glory and strangeness of the human experience

March 18, 2019

We stumbled upon this fantastical Netflix documentary: Struggle — The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski.

Glenn Bray stumbled upon a fantastical volume in a bookstore in 1968. Bray was into various artsy stuff. This book, published in 1923, contained work by a Polish artist, Stanislav Szukalski, whom Bray had never heard of — and it blew him away. He showed the book to anyone who would look.

Then in 1971, in another California bookstore he recognized a Szukalski poster. Inquiring, he was told it was a gift from the artist, still living — in fact, quite nearby!

In obscurity. His monumental artistic career forgotten. Bray became the nexus of a new friendship circle around him, filmed many hours of Szukalski holding forth, and eventually published a book trying to revive interest in him. This documentary was produced by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Stanislav Szukalski (1893-1987) was born in Poland, coming to America as a child. An artistic prodigy, primarily in sculpture, he became a leading figure in the 1920s Chicago avant garde art scene. What’s shown in the film is fantastic and fantastical. Not effete mannered works but their antithesis — bold dramatic images that grab you by the balls. (Or by the —– if you are female.)

Szukalski’s style was much influenced by ancient Mesoamerican art. But Polish identity was also central. Repeatedly traveling back and forth to Poland, he saw himself as the inspirator for a Polish national renaissance. His country had only gained independence after WWI, then becoming a nationalistic authoritarian state. Szukalski fit right in, his works infused with grandiose mythologizing. In the 1930’s, summoned by the regime to become its artistic star, he moved (seemingly) permanently back to Poland. Flooded with commissions for stupendous works, he became a revered national icon.

Even the German regime took notice and solicited Szukalski to immortalize Hitler. He agreed and pocketed the check; then delivered an image of Hitler in a ballerina costume. The Germans were not amused.

Yet a darkness seemed immanent in the film, and it duly materialized. In Poland Szukalski published a virulently anti-semitic periodical. The film-makers hadn’t known this when they’d started. Actually, Szukalski seemed to exude contempt not just for Jews but for all other artists, and indeed for all other humans apart from himself and his beloved wife Joan.

In 1939, Nazi aerial bombing obliterated much of Warsaw — including Szukalski’s studio, and with it, most of his lifetime artistic output. Two days later he literally crawled out from under the rubble. Eventually he and Joan arrived back in America; with nothing.

He was never able to put his public artistic career back on track, and spent the next half century in Southern California, subsisting mostly from odd jobs, never feeling at home.

Meantime the holocaust of WWII seemed to sear out his anti-semitism, turning him into something of a universalist humanist.

Meantime too, while his public artistic career did end, his private one did not. Szukalski spent four decades on his grand project, an effort to tie all of history together into one unified story, through art. He called it “Zermatism,” based on his idea that ground zero for the spread of human civilization was . . . Easter Island. (Actually one of the most isolated places on Earth.) He also believed we’re the product of primordial rapes by apelike yetis, accounting for all our ugly qualities.

This is pure crackpottery. Similar grand syntheses have long been a common enterprise for loopy autodidacts. That sad species was personified by Middlemarch’s Casaubon, who spent his life researching his projected masterwork, “a key to all mythologies.” When he died before completing it, his widow attempted to organize his notes and drafts, and found it all rubbish.

In Szukalski’s case, he produced homemade volumes filling a bookcase, with 25,000 pages and 14,000 meticulous and beautiful self-drawn illustrations. All identifying parallels among artistic images from disparate cultures. (Of course such parallels, even striking ones, are inevitable just from chance, if you compare many thousands of images.)

Yet his actual achievement remains. While much of his Polish output was destroyed, much was photographed, and other works survive elsewhere. A stupendous artistic legacy. Truly, Szukalski went from the sublime to the ridiculous.

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?

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.”

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: 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.


The Trump diaries

January 11, 2019

There’s two kinds of people. Strong and weak. Winners and Losers. I’m so strong and such a winner, biggest in the world, it’s so great. There was a German writer, Neechie, who said it’s masters and slaves; wrote about the “Ubermench.” That’s me!

I haven’t read Neechie, people have told me. I don’t read, reading is for losers who don’t already know everything, ha ha! Not for the Ubermench.

And the great thing about knowing everything — well, and being president — is that you can do anything and say anything, whatever you feel like. So the failing New York Times says it’s a lie. Who gives a shit? Not those stupid suckers out there who love me. You know what? It’s really because they wish they could be like me. Bunch of pathetic losers. What a joke!

Putin — now there’s a guy who’s strong too. I love that guy! Somebody disses him, Putin snaps his fingers, and that loser is gone. And I mean gone. What a shame we don’t have that in America. Boy, I’d have such a list!

And Xi Jinping, he makes those stupid Chinks worship him like a god. Practically licking his feet — cause he can snap his fingers too, you know. And it sure helps if you have a whole nation of dumb losers like China. Though Xi Jinping, that’s kind of a weak sounding name. Not like Trump, now that’s a real strong name. Trump! And Donald, not “Don!” Nobody calls me Don, I wouldn’t stand for it. All these weenie politicians using pal-sy names. Started with Carter. Calling himself Jimmy, not James, I mean, come on. Maybe Jim, okay, but not Jimmy. Like he’s a kid or something. What a wimpy loser. Not me!

Can’t believe I get away with all the shit I get away with. But God, I hate people who don’t grovel to me. Me, the ubermench! So unfair! Stupid losers.

I wonder what Obama is doing right this minute. That weakling laughed at me — at me — at that dinner. Not even white. Well, who’s laughing now!!

And that sniveling little Canadian twerp Trudo, what a loser. And that French guy, little Macron. Married to an old bag old enough to be his mother! In fact, she’s got a son older than him! I wonder if they actually fuck. I wish that little bitch Melania would let me fuck her. What a cushy deal she’s got, and she doesn’t even have to put out. As if there aren’t a million hot pieces of ass out there who’d fuck my brains out to be first lady.

One of the more tasteful photos of Melania

But what can I do? That’s the one thing I didn’t think of when I ran for president. All those Secret Service flunkies always there. How do I get any pussy in here? You’d think that would be one of the perks. So unfair! What kind of crap country have you got where the president can’t get pussy? I bet Putin gets it, served to him on a silver platter every day! No, gold, actually.

Consciousness, Self & Free Will — my talk 1/13

January 6, 2019

I will give a talk at the Capital District Humanist Society, Sunday, Jan. 13, 12:45 PM, Room 224 of Sage College Campus Center, Academy Rd & New Scotland Ave., Albany. (Nice refreshments!)

What does it really mean to have a self? Or feel that you do? Making choices and decisions? Philosophers have long wrestled with these problems. Some argue that neuroscience reveals the self and free will are illusions. A book by Daniel Dennett argues otherwise. My talk will resolve these issues once and for all.

Walls and ladders

January 3, 2019

Something there is that loves a wall.

A wall for keeping people out;

People who are not like us.

Of course they’re not like us;

They wouldn’t build a wall.

But wall lovers don’t conceive of ladders,

For raising people up, transcending barriers.

I lift my ladder up against your wall;

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.