News Bits

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 4, 2010 in News

Here is another update to my ongoing dialogue with Richard Carrier about the reliability of testimony as a source of knowledge.

I updated My Favorite Podcasts.

See? Even Time Magazine agrees we don’t have free will. Case closed. :)

“We have the fossils. We win.” (the bumper sticker)

Bible scenes, as seen from space.

The New Testament: a conversation between God and Jews.

40% of Americans Believe Jesus Will Return by 2050. We are so fucked. Quoting Scar: “I’m surrounded by morons.”

I used to spend a lot of time reading shitty self-help books (aka “self-help books”). But I like this list: 10 Things Science Says Will Make You Happy.

Via Pharyngula, here is a quote from a newer edition of the same Bob Jones University Press “science” textbook I had in middle school:

Electricity is a mystery. No one has ever observed it or heard it or felt it… We know that it makes light bulbs shine and irons heat up and telephones ring. But we cannot say what electricity itself is like.

We cannot even say where electricity comes from. Some scientists think that the sun may be the source of most electricity. Others think that the movement of the earth produces some of it. All anyone knows is that electricity seems to be everywhere and that there are many ways to bring it forth.

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Justfinethanks July 4, 2010 at 8:01 pm

See? Even Time Magazine agrees we don’t have free will. Case closed. :)

I’m a little shocked that a mainstream publication actually presented some of the scientific evidence against free will. The idea that fee will isn’t true is so shattering to people, I thought that these sorts of facts would be condemned to only be read in obscure journals.

But the comments, which don’t seem seem to understand the implications of the evidence against free will

Like:

About time these people started recognizing that the results of these experiements are not evidence of an absence of free will. If anything, the reverse is true. Any deviation from mindless adherence to outside manipulation should be good evidence that free will exists.

and

We have the ability (with work) to become aware of our unconscious influences and desires. That is free will. That makes us human.

Suggests that free will belief is going to be like a new creationism, where people believe in it not just in spite of no evidence in its favor, but in spite of powerful evidence to the contrary.

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Charles July 4, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Electricity is a mystery. No one has ever observed it or heard it or felt it… We know that it makes light bulbs shine and irons heat up and telephones ring. But we cannot say what electricity itself is like.

Good grief.

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Jake de Backer July 4, 2010 at 9:01 pm

The New Testament: A Conversation Between God & Jews link is down.

J.

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noen July 4, 2010 at 9:17 pm

justfinethanks
“The idea that fee will isn’t true is so shattering to people”

And yet you continue to act as though you were free. Why is that?

“”These are stimuli that people are conscious of — you can feel the hard chair, the hot coffee — but were unaware that it influenced them.”

That’s not really determinism is it. The article uses the word “influence” several times. Only free agents can be influenced. The rack and pinion in my car’s steering mechanism don’t “influence” whether the wheels turn left or right, they determine it.

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Taranu July 4, 2010 at 9:39 pm

The link to: “The New Testament: a conversation between God and Jews” doesn’t work :(

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Zak July 4, 2010 at 9:41 pm

Taranu & Jake,
Here is the link to the convo between God and the Jews…

http://www.collegehumor.com/article:1805812

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Justfinethanks July 4, 2010 at 10:00 pm

And yet you continue to act as though you were free. Why is that?

Well, two questions.
1) How is that?
2) How is that relevant?

(Of course if the second question isn’t properly addressed, then it’s not really worth bothering with the first)

To say that “you claim to believe X but your behavior is inconsistent with your professed belief” is an ad hominem, and therefore irrelevant to whether or not X is actually true. I could happily concede that my behavior is totally inconsistent with my belief in determinism (which I don’t, for the record), but it would not follow that determinism is false.

So, how is your accusation that I “act free” relevant to whether or not free will or determinism is true?

The article uses the word “influence” several times. Only free agents can be influenced.

That seems like an odd claim. It’s fairly obvious, for example, that the gravitational pull of planets has a lot of influence on the directions that meteors travel, but that doesn’t mean that meteors are free agents.

But even then, it would be inaccurate that say that planetary gravity “determines” the direction of meteors, as there are other factors (like solar gravity or the meteor’s own velocity and prior direction) that play an influential role.

Even your example is a bad one. The steering system simply plays an influential role in wheel direction. You forgot another influential factor: the person turning the wheel.

Similarly, environment clearly has a powerful influence on your behavior, but it alone is not the determining factor. There’s a lot more that goes into it. But the fact that environment alone is insufficient to explain behavior doesn’t mean that it’s at all sensible to invoke free will.

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Taranu July 4, 2010 at 11:55 pm

Thanks Zak. It was hilarious

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David Iach July 5, 2010 at 3:42 am

Btw Luke, I don’t know if you mentioned this already, but what’s your take on free will? Do you believe in it or not?

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Reginald Selkirk July 5, 2010 at 4:38 am

Good grief. Charles

Did someone say qualia?

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Reginald Selkirk July 5, 2010 at 4:42 am

We have the ability (with work) to become aware of our unconscious influences and desires. That is free will. That makes us human.

Suggests that free will belief is going to be like a new creationism, where people believe in it not just in spite of no evidence in its favor, but in spite of powerful evidence to the contrary. Justfinethanks

Certain concepts are so popular that they will never be disproven, only redefined. God, soul, consciousness, free will – people so want to believe in these things that rather than accept disproof, they will find a new definition to circumvent contravening evidence.

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lukeprog July 5, 2010 at 6:34 am

David Iach,

I don’t think libertarian free will exists. As it happens, the next episode of my podcast is on this very subject.

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Zak July 5, 2010 at 6:57 am

Since we are on the topic of free will, I HIGHLY recommend the book, “The Illusion of Conscious Will” by Daniel Wegner. It takes on the issue from a more scientific (rather than philosophical) standpoint, and is really, REALLY interesting.

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noen July 5, 2010 at 7:07 am

justfinethanks
“1) How is that?”

Because you act as though you expect people to freely, rationally accept that they have no free will.

“free will belief is going to be like a new creationism, where people believe in it not just in spite of no evidence in its favor, but in spite of powerful evidence to the contrary.”

If there is no free will it’s silly to expect that arguments in it’s favor, “powerful evidence to the contrary”, would lead people to change their minds. Rational debate is only possible under the assumption that we have the capacity to freely change our beliefs when confronted with contrary evidence.

Communication itself is completely impossible. If we are fully determined then there is no subject, no self, there with beliefs, desires and feelings to communicate. These are all illusions, your sense of being an agent in the world is an illusion.

You didn’t get up this morning, take a shower, eat breakfast, turn on the PC and post a comment on a blog. Those events happened but it wasn’t you who did them. Everything you’ve ever done in your life, every thought, word and deed was predetermined for you at the moment of the big bang. You are a meaningless epiphenomena suffering under the delusion that you matter, you don’t.

“Even your example is a bad one. The steering system simply plays an influential role in wheel direction. You forgot another influential factor: the person turning the wheel.”

If determinism is true there is no person steering.

“To say that “you claim to believe X but your behavior is inconsistent with your professed belief” is an ad hominem, and therefore irrelevant to whether or not X is actually true.”

No, it isn’t ad hominem and it is the standard rejoinder to Solipsism. Solipsism is not really refutable. You can’t prove to a committed solipsist that other people exist. Your best argument against them is going to be showing the inconsistency of their behavior to what they profess to believe.

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Lorkas July 5, 2010 at 8:22 am

And yet you continue to act as though you were free. Why is that?

I have no choice but to act as though I have free will.

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Justfinethanks July 5, 2010 at 9:05 am

Because you act as though you expect people to freely, rationally accept that they have no free will.

Not freely (in libertarian terms) but I do expect them to rationally accept it. What you seem to be implying is that determinism and rationality aren’t compatible, and I wholly reject that notion.

If we are fully determined then there is no subject, no self, there with beliefs, desires and feelings to communicate. These are all illusions, your sense of being an agent in the world is an illusion.

I think you are confusing determinism with reductive materialism. If reductive materialism is true, then I suppose what you write is probably true, but it certainly doesn’t follow from determinism. If determinism is true, I can still have real beliefs, desires, and feelings, and I can still be an agent in the world, but I’m just not an agent who is an unmoved mover, who can influence objects in the world, but is somehow partially immune to objects influence on my own behavior.

You didn’t get up this morning, take a shower, eat breakfast, turn on the PC and post a comment on a blog. Those events happened but it wasn’t you who did them.

Again, I don’t see how that follows from determinism. To use another example from astral bodies, suppose an asteroid hit Earth. If an astronomer told you “The asteroid hit Earth,” would you charge back “No it didn’t! ‘Hitting Earth’ happened but it wasn’t the asteroid that did it, because the asteroid is simply determined by the laws of physics.” That’s clearly nonsense, as just because the asteroid is determined, doesn’t mean that it isn’t meaningful to speak of the actions that the asteroid takes.

No, it isn’t ad hominem and it is the standard rejoinder to Solipsism.

This is a little confusing to me. It isn’t an ad hominem because it’s the standard rejoinder to a position I don’t hold?

You really still haven’t explained how any given person’s behavior is relevant to the truth value of their beliefs. For example, let’s pretend a store keeper has the belief that 5 – 3 = 2. But whenever someone buys a three dollar item from them with a five dollar bill, he hands them back three dollars in change. In this case, the store keeper’s behavior is inconsistent with their their believe that 5 -3 = 2. But does that give us any reason to believe that this simple mathematical fact is false? No, at best it gives us reason to believe that the store keeper is a bit odd.

To put it syllogistically.

P1) You claim belief in X.
P2) Your action Y is inconsistent with X.
C) Therefore X is false.

Is clearly invalid, as P2 is an ad hominem. You might as well replace it with “You are a douchebag” and it would have equal relevance to the truth of X, since it’s only about my behavior, and not the actual strength of my belief.

But perhaps you are making a better supported argument, such as .

P1) You claim belief in X.
P2) Your action Y is inconsistent with X.
C) Therefore Y is evidence that you don’t truly believe in X.

This is a better argument, and I take this to be a more legitimate concern, as there may be legitimate moral reasons to frown upon someone who professes a belief they don’t actually believe. (This seems to be the route that Luke is taking in his continuing “Do Christians REALLY Believe?” series.)

However, if we are focusing strictly on the validity of truth claims and set aside the moral concerns, it still doesn’t matter. Because even if I (or a Christian) don’t really believe what we claim to believe, it doesn’t follow that our professed belief is false, and it may be the case that the belief that we hold in our hearts of hearts (as reflected in our behavior) is the actually false one.

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noen July 5, 2010 at 12:28 pm

justfinethanks
“What you seem to be implying is that determinism and rationality aren’t compatible, and I wholly reject that notion.”

Quite honestly I don’t see how. The very definition of a rational decision is one made by considering alternative actions based on valid arguments. How can an agent freely choose when that agent is incapable of choosing freely?

It just seems to me that free will is the precondition for any rational action. If the response is that my sense that is true is preconditioned then that is also true for you. You are no more capable of seeing the truth of X than I am in seeing that X is false. Hence any attempt by either of us to argue rationally for our side is futile. I’d get better results by putting a gun to your head… or even better still, injecting you with the necessary RNA encoded with the “correct” belief.

“If determinism is true, I can still have real beliefs, desires, and feelings, and I can still be an agent in the world”

I’d like to believe that but I don’t see how it is possible. This is why I reject the current dominant belief in cognitivism. I think it leads pretty straight away to the view that consciousness as epiphenomena and that seems unacceptable to me. For this reason I also like Searle’s critique of Dennett and his (Searle’s) argument that we all have the sense of “acting in the gap”. Like him I agree that it is a unsatisfactory argument but the alternative seems unacceptable to me.

“This is a little confusing to me. It isn’t an ad hominem because it’s the standard rejoinder to a position I don’t hold?

You really still haven’t explained how any given person’s behavior is relevant to the truth value of their beliefs.”

Because people dissemble. I mean, isn’t there a post above this one all about how Christians don’t really believe what they say they believe because they fail to act in a manner consistent with their beliefs? It is not an ad hom to point out one’s opponent is behaving inconsistent with their professed beliefs and then asking them to account for that. It would be different if one claim their argument was false on those grounds but I didn’t do that.

Bertrand Russel is said to have told a story about a famous woman logician who came to believe in solipsism. She allegedly wrote to him and said:

Dear Bertrand. I have recently become a solipsist and am enjoying it immensely. I wonder why more people don’t take it up.

I think we are justified in concluding she didn’t really believe what she claimed she believed. Likewise I think that if someone argues for determinism and it can be shown that the consequences lead to unsatisfactory results then I would think the person must either accept those results or seek a different solution.

Briefly: If someone says one thing and does another we are justified in demanding an explanation and/or doubting the veracity of their claims.

“This is a better argument”

Ahh, I probably should have read all the way down, oh well.

“However, if we are focusing strictly on the validity of truth claims and set aside the moral concerns, it still doesn’t matter. Because even if I (or a Christian) don’t really believe what we claim to believe, it doesn’t follow that our professed belief is false”

If determinism is true how could we ever know that the beliefs we hold are true?

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Atheist.pig July 5, 2010 at 12:55 pm

@noen
How about the view that “all varieties of free will that are worth wanting we can have in a deterministic universe”. Thats Dennett’s view btw. Do you believe the only possible alternative to ultimate free will is epiphenomenalism?

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Justfinethanks July 5, 2010 at 1:10 pm

The very definition of a rational decision is one made by considering alternative actions based on valid arguments.

That seems about right, and I feel that is what I have done (or at least tried to do). “Considering arguments and settling on the best one” is just an action that individual takes, like “dancing” is an action that an individual can take. I don’t see any reason to place “doing the foxtrot” in a kind of “compatible on determinism” type of action and “examining the validity of arguments” as a type of “not compatible on determinism” type of action. To say that “you can’t actually consider arguments on determinism” is just as confusing to me as saying “you can’t actually dance if determinism is true.”

You are no more capable of seeing the truth of X than I am in seeing that X is false.

Of course you are capable of doing so. On determinism you are capable of seeing the truth of a true claim in the same sense that an asteroid is capable of hitting Earth.

I’d like to believe that but I don’t see how it is possible. This is why I reject the current dominant belief in cognitivism.

Well, I think it’s important to separate theories of cognition from theories regarding the freedom of the will. Technically cartesian dualism could be true and determinism could still be true. So even if you reject a wholly materialist account of the mind, that might leave the door open for free will, but that alone isn’t enough reason to accept free will as true.

I’ll even grant this: it sure seems like I have freedom and make legitimate choices that are independent of any causal chain. But the problem is that there is a lot of scientific, empirical evidence from psychology and neuroscience against such a hypothesis, and none for it. Most defenses are libertarianism I’ve read are just attacks on determinism, and they simply never reference empirical evidence or studies the way that determinists do.

And as a result, I reject my inner feelings and accept the only conclusion demanded by the evidence.

It is not an ad hom to point out one’s opponent is behaving inconsistent with their professed beliefs and then asking them to account for that.

I suppose I agree, as long as you are making it clear that you are just making a moral claim (i.e. “You behavior ought to be consistent with your beliefs.”). It’s only when you start implying that such an inconsistency is relevant to the truth value of a belief when it turns into an ad hom.

Briefly: If someone says one thing and does another we are justified in demanding an explanation and/or doubting the veracity of their claims.

The first one, perhaps. The second one I think is clearly not the case. A person acting hypocritically has no bearing on the veracity of their claims.

If determinism is true how could we ever know that the beliefs we hold are true?

The same way we would know something is true if free will is true. If that belief follows from valid premises (deductively) or if belief corresponds with something that that appears true with predictable regularity (inductively) or if it is a hypothesis that better explains observed facts than competing hypothesis (abducitvly). It’s more complicated that, obviously, but that’s the best I could do in briefly answering such a broad epitsmological question.

You seem to be implying that determinism has implications for epistemology, and I don’t see why that is the case. As you can do you everything in a determined world as you could in a world with free will, including think, consider, examine, and deduce. I have no reason to believe any of those kinds of things presuppose free will.

If it helps, I’m a soft determinist (or compatbilist), and believe in a kind of “voluntary” free will (which is distinct from libertarian free will). This means that we can judge people and things based not just upon actions they could have taken in the actual world, but in hypothetical actions they could have taken if the conditions of the universe were different.

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MauricXe July 5, 2010 at 1:14 pm

You should add that Hitchens has cancer :(

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Jacopo July 6, 2010 at 5:19 am

Luke,

Don’t bother posting all that empirical evidence that shows that libertarian free will doesn’t exist. As someone with training in philosophy, I know how to wriggle out of the grip of absolutely any amount of evidence, however damning, with highly-trained logical gymnastics and rational backflips that would make Russian athletes cry in shame.

=p

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noen July 6, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Thanks justfinethanks. I’ll have to consider what you say for a while.

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Justfinethanks July 6, 2010 at 3:11 pm

I appreciate the consideration. If you want to read more up on it, the SEP has a good article on compatibilism.

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/

Compatibilism: it’s like Molinism for naturalists.

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lukeprog July 6, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Like Molinism for naturalists?

I protest. :)

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