"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Friday, March 28, 2008

Christianity, American style

Or perhaps more accurately, Texas style.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Decision-making and rationality

The discussion on the post below is risking becoming a little too broad in my opinion – so I thought I'd try to focus the issue a little (for the time being).

I've stated on various occasions that the main problem I have with the concept of libertarian free will is its vagueness: Human decisions are, apparently, neither causally determined nor random. Yet quite what they are is never fully addressed. To me it seems that not only is LFW unprovable, it's not even describable either.

To this Alex has replied:

Which seems odd to me since you must assume it with every genuine deliberation you make. One would thing a persistent and ongoing experience of a certain phenomena would count for something.

But is this the case?

Does making a decision require that the decision-maker hold some form of LFW? Let's say that I'm faced with the decision of whether to have a final slice of pizza or not: The crucial factor here (all things being equal) is how hungry I am. If I'm hungry enough I will eat the pizza. If not then I won't. This decision doesn't require any grand supernatural view of human nature – it simply requires a dislike of hunger. What about deciding whether or not to buy 'The West Wing' on DVD: The crucial factors (again, all things being equal) are how much I enjoy the show and how much money I have to spare. These factors are determined by biology and environment – We don't choose whether we're hungry or not. We don't choose what we enjoy or get bored by.

The various factors that go into the decision-making process are usually quite numerous, but they all break down into a simple cost-benefit style of analysis. If the pros of joining my friends at the pub outweigh the cost then I'll join them at the pub. If it doesn't then I won't.

Under the determinist conception of decision-making the result is (putting randomness aside for the moment) entirely dependent on the circumstances. If the level of hunger is above a certain point the pizza will be eaten, if below then not. If the temperature outside is too cold then I won't pop out to the shops, if it's not then I will. This is because the individual is rational – they will act in the way that they see as best satisfying their desires (at that moment in time).

Libertarian free will, on the other hand, seems to conflict with this idea of rationality. Let's say there is an individual (Matt) who, being quite hungry, has just spent twenty minutes making dinner. The meal is done and Matt sits down to eat. However, the universe now splits in two: In the first (deterministic) universe, Matt A eats the meal. In the second (libertarian) universe, Matt B does not. Matt A's actions require little explanation, as they're perfectly rational – he was hungry, the food was ready and therefore he ate. Matt B's actions though seem quite odd. There was no reason for him not to eat the food, he simply chose not to. We cannot talk of his decision in rational terms – It was not the case that he wasn't hungry or that he had something better to do (as the cost-benefit analysis can't explain decisions in the Libertarian universe). So his decision must be irrational (yet at the same time meaningful).

As I can't reconcile this with my own experience of decision-making (I do things for a reason) my experience of deliberation provides no support for a non-deterministic theory.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Man and the Machine

There came a day when Man awoke. He was all alone with the machine. From the first day he knew he couldn’t live without it, for outside of the machine there was nothing. This isolation reminded him that, though he was free to explore, his freedom was limited. Whatever he was, he was bound to the machine. As Man pondered this he was assailed by a strange sensation — a deep longing that he couldn’t shake. “From where do I come? Where shall I go? To what shall I live?” And the most puzzling question of all, “What am I?” With these questions in hand Man entered the machine.

It was his hope that within the machine he would find the answers to his questions. With great zeal he began his work. As Man explored, he marveled at the complexity of the machine. At times he was overcome with it’s beauty. He would sit silent for hours just experiencing its wonder. “What does all this mean?” he would ask himself. But no answers were forthcoming.

As Man’s quest progressed he couldn’t help but think that the nature of the machine was such that only something like Man, only much greater, had crafted it. There was much that went on within the machine that seemed impossible if it were not by the work of such a being. For what seemed like an age, Man devoted considerable energy to pondering what such a being would be like and wondering why it created what it did.

With time Man came to see that he could manipulate the machine to achieve his own purposes. This was no small revelation, for now he was able to discover so much more than he had ever dreamed! Bit by bit he brought the machine under his control. With each new advance Man’s knowledge of the machine increased and with each discovery he was stunned by what he found. Phenomena that once seemed almost magical, now appeared to have deeper mechanisms that drove them. Man was so impressed by his discoveries that he no longer felt he needed to postulate a “super-man.” With the abandonment of a creator agency, Man returned to his task, but as he worked the questions he was seeking to answer were starting to feel strangely hollow. Or perhaps it was that the field of answers he had to choose from were now starting to feel a bit more absurd. No matter where he looked, all he found was more machine, more complexity, more noise, but no reason for their existence or workings. As wonderful as the machine seemed to be at times, he could find no point for its existence. It was just there, running on a track between an apparently pointless beginning and an ultimately meaningless end.

The more Man struggled to extract answers from the machine the more it began to lose the beauty he had once seen in it. It was as if the machine mocked him. In all its intractable mystery, it continued on its blind path with no care for the pleadings of the man within it. Frustrated with his attempts to find answers by examining the machine, he traced the long journey back to the place he had first experienced it’s beauty. In desperation he screamed with everything in him, “WHAT AM I?” All his strength gone, he fell to the ground, sobbing. His body shook as waves of anger and despair washed over him. All around him there was nothing but the whirr and click of a machine that took no notice of him.

It was at this time that something caught Man’s attention. A soft glow from deep within the machine flickered through a gap in the floor. Wiping his eyes, he peered between the metal plates. Nothing could have prepared him for what he was about to discover.

Far below him he could see a small monitor nestled deep in a tangle of wires and in it there was an image of himself. It was a birds eye view, as if a camera was positioned directly above him. He looked up, hoping to see what was watching him, but as he did he realized something that wasn’t quite right. The image of himself in the monitor turned and looked towards the ceiling a split second before he did. He turned back and looked into the monitor, then quickly, he turned away. Sure enough, the visage of himself moved before he moved his body. Every move he made the monitor displayed just prior to his enacting it! He would wave his arms or shake his head but his visage would begin it’s movements before he could get his body to react.

He was beginning to think the machine was reading his mind until the video began to gradually speed up. He watched himself peering through the crack, then lift himself off the floor and proceed to sit with his hands in his lap. Apart form a slight swaying from side to side, the image of himself simply sat motionless. This went on for quite some time until suddenly the screen flickered and went dark. Terrified, he lifted himself off the floor and sat up. With his hands lying limp in his lap, Man sat. He felt like he should run, or lift his arms, anything just to prove the video wrong. He could do that couldn’t he? He was a free creature after all... He was the originator of his actions, not the machine... Right? Long hours passed as he sat motionless; his body lost all feeling as the deepest truth he had yet discovered slowly saturated his being.

All this time, even now, this very second, his actions, his thoughts... He had never been controlling the machine; it had been controlling him. Why had he not seen it before? He had no autonomous existence. He was, and always had been, merely a part of the machine. His freedom, his experience—they were all illusory. He had never really been searching for answers to begin with—it had always been the machine. Never Man. Only the machine. In a single moment Man’s existence collapsed.

The machine devoured him, and all was silent.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

The atheist's choice

Humanists have a long tradition of drawing on literature, poetry and art to illustrate their arguments. Some use the works of Shakespeare, some use that of William Blake.

I'm going to use a late 90s science-fiction TV show.

'Cos that's how I roll.

For those who don't know, 'Babylon 5' was a series whose reach often exceeded its grasp – despite the low-budget and sometimes embarrassing dialogue it was never afraid to tackle philosophical and ethical issues and normally managed to say something interesting along the way.

In the following clip the main character, Sheridan, is caught between life and death (for reasons far too complicated to go into) where he's offered (again for reasons too complicated to go into) the chance to live – but only if he wants it enough.

The reason I've posted this clip is that the decision that Sheridan has to make here is, I think, based on perhaps the most important question that an atheist has to answer: Why should I live?

According to Alex, there is no good answer. We're simply complex units of matter in an indifferent universe. Whether we live or die makes no difference.

But to me this doesn't mean that there are no good answers, only that there are no good a priori ones. The atheist must confront the fact that the universe provides us no good reason to live: Kill yourself and, from the universe's point-of-view, it makes no difference whatsoever.

But that still leaves us with the possibility of good a posteriori answers. Atheists must decide for themselves whether life is worth living. We must look at what we know and how we feel and decide whether it's worth going on or not. It's a personal choice – not one that can be made by anyone else. For some of us this reason will come from our relationships with those around us, or from an appreciation of the aesthetic quality of life. For some of us no reasons will be found – though, given the only alternative, this is quite rare (and often the result of errors of thinking rather than genuine disregard for life).

Only once this choice has been made, once we've learnt to embrace life and “simply be”, can we get on with the business of living. (Although this isn't to say that once answered the question never re-appears: self-evaluation of this kind is likely to be a fairly constant feature of life on some level or other).

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Unwinding Cable Car

Trying to wrap up end of quarter papers, hence the relative silence. How bout a song then?

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Thought people might be interested in this...

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Saturday, March 08, 2008

Essential reading for nonbelievers (and believers)

I'm currently reading 'The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever', a collection of atheist thoughts on religion put together by Christopher Hitchens.

I say reading... this isn't really a book you sit down and read from cover to cover, it's more a book that sits on your shelf or bedside table to be dipped into every now and again in order to discover some new thinker or new insight on the topic of religious belief. The collection is certainly extensive – running all the way from Lucretius to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, with a wealth of famous (and not so famous) names between: Hobbes, Spinoza, Marx, Darwin, Lovecraft, Einstein, Russell, Sagan, Ayer, Dennett, Rushdie, Harris and many, many others. In each case a fragment of their comments on religion are presented. Not only does this book provide a neat overview of atheistic religious thought throughout the centuries, but it also provides a great springboard to all these various writers and their works.

At only £6/$12 on Amazon, it's also an incredible bargain. (Note: I've seen it on sale for almost three times that price in bookstores).

In fact, the only real criticism I can make of this book is its title, perpetuating as it does the idea that atheists have nothing better to do with their time than worry about religion. In my experience atheists break down into two main categories: Apatheists and antitheists. The former group, those who don't bother themselves with irrelevant metaphysical issues is by far the larger. It's the latter, those who regard religion as dangerous, that make up the selection in this book. As such it's better described as 'The Portable Antitheist'. Those looking in it for naturalistic and/or humanistic examinations of everyday life will be sorely disappointed.

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