Saturday, May 3, 2014

Freewill, The illusion of

For every choice, there are perceived factuals which are weighed by the chooser. Counter-factuals could alter the choice, depending on the nature of the counter-factuals. The previous experience and current psychological state (including desires) of the chooser are beyond their choice. Fatuals that are not perceived do not weigh into the choice. There is a choice that is made but under a given set of perceived factuals and psychological state the chooser could not choose differently. "I could if I wanted to." But you don't want to. That would be a different psychological state.

For every choice I've ever made I can imagine circumstances which would have caused me to choose differently. Feeling how I felt, wanting what I wanted and knowing what I knew I could not have chosen differently. If there had been a different feeling, desire or understanding then the choice made would have been subject to those influences.

There are times when I don't know why I make the choices I do. But the spontaneous or capricious nature of the choice don't make my choice less deterministic. If anything these mysterious choices suggest that feeling and desire are capable of operating with minimal influence from an understanding the circumstances.

When I do something random this does not suggest that I am exercising free will, rather I'm responding to (usually) ineffable stimuli. When i do something deliberate I am reacting to better identified, better considered stimuli. In all cases I am beholden to environmental, physiological and psychological influences.

Each feeling, desire and perception of circumstances is another bit of coercion steering us to a resulting choice. There may be no outside agent twisting our arm, the choices we make may be our own, but it is a mistake to think that for a given set of circumstances we are able to make more than one choice.

Saturday, March 1, 2014


What is Morality and where does it come from?

It’s usually best to begin by defining confusable terms.  In this case I’m using “morality” and “morals” to simply refer that part of us that seeks to act fairly, kindly or altruistically.  It is the innate desire to do right.  We may have rules, laws, social conventions and other codified ethics.  But the feeling, the underlying motive, the meta-ethic is “morality.”  This definition may seem to be inconsistent with traditional usage.  By this definition many activities traditionally identified as immoral seem to be dismissed or perhaps still are immoral but for different reasons.

In order for an entity to be a moral agent it must have subjective experience and empathy. 

The subjective experience is a matter of environmental factors generating preferences in us.  Things that tend to damage us tend to feel uncomfortable or painful.  Things that tend to increase our safety, survival and reproduction tend to feel comfortable or good.  Without this subjective experience it would be difficult to justify any claim of one thing or state being better than another.  We would still have considerations of practicality.  For instance we might realize it is better to keep both arms than to lose one.  Or we might consider it is better to be alive than dead.  But without subjectivity in our experience we would not develop spontaneous preferences.  Without our own subjective experience it would be difficult to appreciate the subjective experience of others.

As biological organisms we have needs and constraints and as a result: drives.  Food, water and breathable air cover our most basic individual needs.  Since we are mortal, we as a species need to reproduce as well.  We require an environment that is neither too hot nor too cold with a fairly narrow ideal temperature range.  We can refer to Maslow’s Hierarchy for an extend list of less basic needs.  But the required resources available to satisfy these needs (and/or our ability to gather them) are limited.  We typically find ourselves in competition with each other and other organisms for the resources to satisfy our needs.

We have the ability and tendency to recognize, anticipate and appreciate the subjective experience of others.  It’s difficult to say whether (or to what degree) this empathy is genetic versus cultural (nature vs. nurture.)  The physiology of mirror neurons supports genetics but I wouldn’t expect that to be the whole story.  Additionally we are social creatures.  There are many species of social creatures all of whom have little or no culture.  Whether empathy gave rise to our social drives or our social drives gave rise to our empathy is subject to speculation.  (“Empathy gave rise” is far more plausible.)  But in humans social drive and empathy don’t seem to scale in one-to-one correlation.

Subjectivity and empathy make us moral agents: entities capable of recognizing, anticipating and appreciating the subjective experience of other subjective entities, even where that capacity is not reciprocal. For instance we would be able to appreciate the suffering of a komodo dragon but we should not expect it to appreciate our suffering.  The dragon is not a moral agent.  What about a baboon or gorilla?  These are creatures that appear to appreciate the subjective states in others of their own kind, at least of their own group.  If they attacked a human they would probably have a fair understanding of the suffering their human victim would experience.  But would they care, or rather could they care?  The answer seems to rely on previous interaction, on established relationships and on the situation at hand.  Moral agency in non-human primates appears to be present but stifled.

Group identity will strongly influence behavior in social creatures.  Our devotion to our many social circles varies.  Family tends to generate the strongest devotion but shared experience and ideology can create strong psychological bonds as well.  We find ourselves grouped with friends, neighbors, co-workers, civic groups, political groups, people with shared interests (environment, sports team, music genre/artists…), religious groups and others.  Our devotion to the people and groups we identify with can be based on familiarity.  But often we find ourselves devoted to an ideal, a cultural concept, which in turn reinforces our devotion to the related group and individuals.

From an evolutionary standpoint the power of cultural influences may seem difficult to reconcile.  But ceremonies and rituals almost certainly predated language and served to reinforce group cohesion. Behaviors that originally would have augmented kin selection and nepotism have long since become just as effective at dissolving family cohesion.  I make this claim in regards to potential rather than likelihood or necessity.  Families may share ideological beliefs or hold conflicting ideologies with varying degrees of dedication.  In the early millennia of cultural development it’s unlikely that there was any diversity.  So evolutionarily, the strength of cultural identity on group cohesion is not surprising. 

In considering the origins of morality we should remember that there are many social species aside from humans.  Schools, hives, prides, packs, herds and troops should make it immediately obvious that intelligence and culture are not prerequisites to cooperation.  Social instinct has appeased natural selection in many species. 

We tend to value individuals in our groups that contribute more resources to the group.  Conversely, individuals that contribute less are generally devalued.  And individuals who cheat jeopardize their perceived status as a member of the group through a waning of trust.  Our moral agency (subjective experience combined with empathy) gives us perception of whether interactions are generous or stingy, fair or unfair, kind or unkind, caring or callous, and generally good or bad.  We appreciate the experience of the individual in a way we think of as rights.  We appreciate our relationships and place in a group in a way we think of as roles and responsibilities. 

We need to execute some measure of selfishness to survive.  But given our limited ability to gather necessary (and otherwise desirable) resources as lone individuals, we also need some measure of selflessness, manifesting as cooperation.  The underlying drives for each are instilled by biology.  Like most biological systems the way things work, the ‘rules,’ tend to resemble self-balancing conditional algorithms rather than linear instructions.  We seek equity for ourselves and others.  We deplore inequity at our expense and also when others suffer unfairness.  The more closely we identify with others (an innate recognition of in-group status) the more sharply we recognize and care about their suffering and well-being.

As cognitive social animals we share information: culture.  But cultural information is highly subject to being incomplete, misleading or wrong (by degrees varying form not quite right yet functional to completely contrary to demonstrable factual reality.)  And yet what we learn from experience and from shared information influences how we perceive new experience and information.  We are entirely capable of doing the wrong thing while thinking we are doing the right thing based on existing beliefs.  Ideologies are particularly culpable but simple misunderstandings lead us astray as well.  We develop beliefs which bias us when considering new information which is added to our beliefs in cycles that allows us to convince ourselves of just about anything.

As a result the idea of Objectivism (philosophical morality theory) doesn’t quite make sense because it is based on subjective experience.  Relativism doesn’t quite work because there are some very basic, fundamental commonalities to the subjective experience, many of which can be misinformed by cultural beliefs hijacking our perception.  Emotivism doesn’t work for several reasons: we are always working with incomplete information, morality is a social issue as much as (if not more than) a personal issue and again mistaken beliefs can, perhaps must, skew our perception.

Tribalism presents another skew on morality.  Our empathy for others and disdain of injustice are stronger and consequently more motivating in-group, toward people we identify with, than for “those other ones” (out-group).  Us and them, worse us versus them, undermines our ability and willingness to support “them.”  Ideologies, proximity, appearance, etc. create counter-productive us and them barriers.

If there is any hope of anything resembling an objective morality it will be accessible only by a willingness and ability to consider our beliefs skeptically and strip away dubious opinions in order to find a balancing mechanism that supports individual rights and social responsibility based on common human subjective experience, empathy and a lust for fairness.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Science vs. Truth

Science doesn't tell us what is true. Science observes, measures, hypothesizes and then sets out to prove where and how it's hypotheses are wrong. The knowledge we gain is not truth but understanding. It allows us to make more reliable predictions. Through science we may know things better. But through science we may also know things even better tomorrow, next year, next century... we presume to not know so our understanding may improve. So we may make more more accurate predictions, perhaps new predictions, as new and/or better information becomes available.

"Truth" is a fool's goal. For any Truth that may be asserted do not terms and conditions apply? How then is this Truth? Certainly there are axioms. But in terms of how to live your life, how to treat other people, general civics, all "Truths" are conditional, multifaceted and rely on circumstances. When such a Truth is offered even the least skilled sophist should be able to identify how this alleged Truth is incomplete, hit&miss or independent of reality.

Science and skeptical inquiry do not tell us what is true, but rather what is not true or otherwise irrelevant.

"Truth" only gives us something to believe. "Truth" is the antithesis of enlightenment.

Monday, July 29, 2013

New Andy Thomson video, The Neuro-physiology of Religious Belief & Spiritual Practice

The Neuro-physiology of Religious Belief & Spiritual Practice: Dr. Andy Thomson on YouTube

I love Andy's work. *But* early in the video he claims there is one religion.  That was misleading.  Perhaps it was just poor wording.  But the implication was that all religions are variations of an original religion.  Behaviorally and ritualistically he makes a good case.  And if we define religion as a set of rituals the claim would be supported.  But I don't think anyone would characterize a set of rituals/behaviors as a religion without a belief component.  So he didn't quite deliver on the thesis.  That's a little disappointing.

Aside from that he has delivered another commendable talk.  There was some overlap with previous talks he's given (and why wouldn't there be.)  But there was a wealth of new (to me) ideas and supporting evidence.  I would recommend this video to anyone interested in motivations for religious behavior, evolutionary psychology or general interest in why humans engage in rituals.

As is often the case I found myself cringing at some of the audience's questions.  There is a trend I've hyper-actively detected in follow-up Q&A sessions.  It seems a great many questioners bring an agenda thinly veiled as a question.  i.e. (paraphrasing) Why are Muslims so extremely violent while we Jews are passive nerds?  *facepalm*

Anyway, I enjoyed and learned from the video.  I'll link his video page as well below.  If you want a better understanding of the psychological and sociological origins and mechanisms of religions these videos are not to be missed.  Go.  Watch.  Now.  :)

Andy Thomson videos

I welcome comments and questions.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Intelligent Design, the problem of evil and the fallacy of sin

The Thinking Atheist's video about the irony of Intelligent Design and the prevalence of evil.

The problem of evil is not a direct refutation of the supposition of Intelligent Design (ID). But it does undermine ID. How can we use the beauty and majesty we find in nature as evidence of an intelligent designer (allegedly benevolent) when beauty and majesty are the exception rather than the rule? The mishomonist (I just totally made that word up, ad hoc.) will claim that it is the sins of man that are to blame.

If we assume that is true then how can they (these mishomonist , these haters of man) avoid admitting that the current state of nature does not support ID? Further, what historical information do we have that indicates, or even suggests, that there was a time when beauty and majesty were the norm rather than the exception? Conclusion: Blaming the problem of evil on the sins of man is an admission that ID is not consistent with observable reality.

But do those who blame the sins of man even have a point? Again if we assume that man was designed, by a designer, and the result was sin, what does that tell us about the design? Is it possible, given a perfect designer, that the product could fail to work as designed? Even with the inclusion of free will (which also can't be substantiated) the designed being will operate, must operate, as designed. The temptations of the fruit of the tree knowledge of good and evil, and other alleged evils, are only tempting because of our nature... our allegedly designed nature.

Intelligent Design is intended to be an argument that supports the existence of a creator/designer based on the complexity of many lifeforms. But much of the offered complexity (especially flaws) is better explained by evolutionary legacies. From an engineering standpoint reducing complexity if generally preferable. So too, many biological systems would be improved by reducing complexity.

ID fails on its basic claim. It also fails in light of the problem of evil. It also fails in light of the allegation that the current rarity of beauty and majesty are due to the sins of man. And it fails even further based on the alleged failure (sin) of that which was designed.

None of this proves or disproves the existence of a supernatural intelligent creator. But it does make the notion of a theistic powerful benevolent caring interactive deity completely moot.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Who would be evil enough to make Hell?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Salvation, too little too late

I think it was Easter last year, a cousin of mine commented that she was thankful that even though we lowly humans are unworthy or undeserving, we can be made clean by Jesus' sacrifice.  It's bad enough that christians generally believe this supernatural legend but they misunderstand what they're supposed to believe.

**Are christians made clean by the sacrifice of Jesus?
 Blood magic. Many christians erroneously believe the blood of the lamb (the crucifixion of the Jesus character) makes us clean. Ancient Israelites sprinkled the blood of sacrificial lambs on the top of the ark of the covenant to create a barrier between the judgment of YHWH (or more directly the ornamental angels) and the contents of the ark. The contents (either the stone tablets/remnants of the ten commandments OR Aaron’s staff, mana and the broken tablets, depending on which part of the bible you’re reading) represent the sins of man. But the ritual was to intervene and shield the Israelites from judgment. As Judaism doesn’t hold an afterlife component, this covenant was to prevent YHWH’s immediate wrath rather than his eternal wrath.

In christian mythology, Jesus is the new covenant. He does not make you clean. He makes you forgiven/un-judged. Or rather, his life/sacrifice is an offer of forgiveness.  But without acceptance that forgiveness is powerless. He does not make us so that we are sinless but he accepts the burden of our sin so that we are excused from judgment. He shields us from judgment just as the lamb’s blood on the ark shielded the Israelites from judgment.

As mortal, physical, subjective beings we cannot be perfect in the eyes of a perfect being. Even if we allow that YHWH is not a perfect being, we have to question the whole architecture of sinners striving to join the company of a being that cannot abide sin. Even the nature of sin must be questioned. Is it merely anything which separates us from YHWH, or YHWH’s will? Like most nonsense, it is so vaguely defined and unverifiable that it suits the whim of the user. Anyway, Grace does not make people perfect. It does not directly spiritually cleanse. It allows absolution and in so doing reduces the immediate burden of sin and consequently allows the sinner loosen the mutual embrace they have with sin. Absolution gives us hope. And the idea that a perfect being is trying to help us allows us to reach beyond the expectations we have made for ourselves. For some reason, it is almost universally easier for people to trust an unseen force than to trust themselves.

**Are humans worthy of salvation?
What about worth? Or worthiness? At least 1200 years after the amalgamation of the Israelites, YHWH instituted a policy change. I'm not against change, growth, improvement or correction.  I just expect there wouldn't be room for them from the timeless author of the universe.  Anyway, YHWH added an afterlife, or revealed that there is one. Why the change? The old plan wasn’t working, or wouldn’t work, with the afterlife component. And Judaism was for Israelites. Christianity was supposed to extend to gentiles as well. So before there was a messiah… those folks… well we are left guessing. Some interpret scripture in a way that everyone, including those who have never been exposed to the Jesus story, will be given the opportunity to recognize and accept the messiah on judgment day. Yeah, maybe. But it’s still pretty strange that YHWH would let things go on the way they did, as long as he did, and only cared about the Israelites before Rome captured Judea. Why is it that since that time it is important for people know about Jesus but before that time it was not? Were they less worthy? Looking at the Old Testament even the heroes were generally repugnant. Or maybe they didn’t need the good news as much as later humans. (I don’t think that’s it.) And oddly enough, it is YHWH’s chosen people that reject the supposed messiah. Shouldn’t they be most worthy?

YHWH has a history of being disappointed in humans. He had (even though he kinda makes the rules) to expel Adam and Eve from Eden. He killed everyone on Earth except the one good man and his family. But then that one good man, Noah, turned out to be a shameful sod. The one man worth saving from Sodom also turned out to be a drunk as well as incestuous. YHWH has a bad record of judging good character. Perhaps that explains televangelists. If we are worthy, from a divine perspective, the standard is very low, or very odd. But this all points to YHWH realizing late in the game that people are not good enough to serve the purpose for which they were created. Whose fault is that? Who made us the way we are, the way we’ve always been? Who made the world the way it is? The only way to hold YHWH innocent is to allow the deity to be omniscient about physics but a bit dim regarding psychology and sociology.

Defenders of the obviously fallible deity invoke the notion of freewill as the reason for everything that’s wrong with humans and humanity. But this falls apart for any of several reasons. Will we have free will in the afterlife? If so, then why is YHWH such an absentee deity now? If not, then why on Earth is it important now? We should also consider if we actually even have free will now? Sure we make choices but our choices are dependent on what we want and our understanding of circumstances. How much choice do we have over what we want? We may be able to prioritize but what do we base those priorities on? Calling this subjective feedback loop and algorithm “free will” may be a bit misleading.

So if we assume the Judeo-Christian creation myth and general Christian salvation belief is at all true, we find ourselves inadequate by design yet completely accountable for our shortcomings. If I design and make an airplane that won’t fly is it the airplane’s fault? That’s just ridiculous. Even if I give the plane intelligence and “free will” similar to our own: ridiculous. Even if I hold direct, verifiable correspondence with my creation it is still egregiously unjust for me to hold it accountable for the design flaws I conceived and implemented. Should I then decide that I have to destroy the failed airplane unless it believes I am my son and my son is the plane’s salvation? How does that make anything better? If I hadn’t screwed up (perhaps intentionally) the plane wouldn’t be in this predicament. If I hadn’t done such a bad job the plane wouldn’t need… forgiveness/un-judgment. Does it deserve salvation? I would say that more than salvation it unconditionally doesn’t deserve to be judged for its lack of flight.