Thursday, November 23, 2017

Sam Harris Free Will Thought Experiment

Tooling around youtube I came along this video of a an exercise Sam Harris offered as a practical refutation of free will.

The exercise Harris advocates is essentially this: He asks you to think of a city, any city, in the world, without any constraints. Once you have done so, Harris claims that this choice, if anything, would be an example of the exercise of free will. He then proceeds to debunk the choice as free by arguing that it wasn't really free. I won't rehearse all the reasons he provides (the video is only about 6 minutes), but his arguments all boil down to showing that the choice must have had a cause, even if we are unaware of the cause. For instance, you may have chosen Paris as your city because it happened to bubble up out of your subconscious, and that bubbling was a function of the fact that you once travelled to Paris and have fond memories. The point is that we mistakenly think the choice was "free" because we think we chose it arbitrarily, when in actuality the cause was driven by psychological factors of which we were simply unaware.

Harris's exercise involves a typical misunderstanding of what is meant by "free will", or rather, what the classical philosophers meant by calling man free. They did not mean that human will is an uncaused caused, which is what Harris seems to think it must mean. That would simply be to mistake man for God, Who is the only possible uncaused cause.

Man's will is classically understood to be free not because it is uncaused, but because it can have rational causes rather than irrational ones. Specifically, man can rationally judge means and the relationship of means to ends, and choose a course of action based on that judgement. (This is what Plato meant by saying "the truth shall make you free.") It is in the exercise of rationally considered action that man's freedom is manifest, not in the allegedly arbitrary choice of a meaningless selection as in Harris's exercise. A classical philosopher would not dispute that the choice made by a person in Harris's exercise is not free - in that sense, Harris is not showing anything new. But they would point out that they never thought such a choice was free in a significant sense in any case.

To flesh these points out, consider the difference between a beaver building a dam and a man building a dam. The beaver builds a dam by instinct. When it hears the sound of running water, it attempts to stop the sound by piling sticks and mud on it - even in cases where it makes no sense to do so. (For example, playing the sound of running water beneath a concrete floor will cause beavers to pile mud and sticks over the sound on the dry concrete). The beaver builds the dam the same way every time, by piling up sticks and mud, and will keep building them the same way.

The beaver is not free in its dam building. It's not free when it builds the dam (the end), because it simply starts building a dam at the sound of running water, nor is it free in how it builds (the means), for it does it the same way every time by piling up mud and sticks.

Now consider man building a dam, for example Hoover Dam. Man did not build this dam because he happened to hear the sound of running water once and automatically started piling sticks on it. The dam was built after a long, rational consideration of ends that might be achieved with the dam - hydroelectricity and the recreational possibilities of Lake Mead among others. Once the end was selected, the means were then considered. The dam could be build out of a variety of materials and in a variety of places. Concrete for the material was selected and a particular spot on the Colorado river was chosen - and not because an engineer picked the location "freely" by just letting a location pop into his head, but as the result of a detailed investigation of hydrology and the anticipated consequences of various locations.

Eventually the construction began and the Hoover Dam was built and it stands as a monument to the freedom of man, which means the freedom to know the truth and to act according to it. It doesn't mean to act in some purely arbitrary manner. That is the degenerate freedom that has unfortunately become the vision of freedom of that has captured the imagination of modern man.

Know the truth and it shall make you free.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Daniel Dennett's Latest

Thomas Nagel reviews Daniel Dennett's latest book here in the New York Review of Books. I've read most of what Dennett has written and this book doesn't seem to break much new ground, so I don't think I'll plunk down the $15 for it.

Dennett references Wilfrid Sellars's distinction between the "manifest image" and the "scientific image", which correspond to the everyday view of the world and the scientific view of the world. Nagel quotes Dennett describing the manifest image as:
full of other people, plants, and animals, furniture and houses and cars…and colors and rainbows and sunsets, and voices and haircuts, and home runs and dollars, and problems and opportunities and mistakes, among many other such things. These are the myriad “things” that are easy for us to recognize, point to, love or hate, and, in many cases, manipulate or even create…. It’s the world according to us.
while the scientific image is:
is populated with molecules, atoms, electrons, gravity, quarks, and who knows what else (dark energy, strings? branes?).
According to Dennett, the scientific image describes what the world is really like, while the manifest image is just how the world appears to us, a set of "user illusions" evolution has equipped us with to get on with the world. Nagel doesn't mention him but Kant is lurking behind here, as he always is with Dennett.

As is typical with Dennett, what is most important is not what he says but what he leaves out. In his description of the manifest image, in particular, we can include not just homeruns and haircuts, but also telescopes, microscopes, voltmeters, scientific conferences and the scientific method. In other words, it's only through the manifest image that the scientific image is even possible or has meaning. The relationship between them is not that of equals, but of priority: The manifest image is prior to the scientific image both logically and temporally. Thinking you can undermine the manifest image with the scientific image is like thinking you can observe real bacteria with a fake microscope.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Harari on Polytheism vs Monotheism

I've been reading Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It's a "hot" book: #434 on Amazon overall and #3 in general anthropology. It's also a laughably tendentious treatment of human history from a secular perspective. Christianity and monotheism in general is bad, bad, bad and polytheism good, good, good. The author even has a problem with civilization itself, the early chapters arguing that the transition from a simple hunter gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural one was a disaster for all concerned. It's very much Rousseau in spirit although the venerable Swiss is given no credit for originating this line of thought.

In this post I'd like to focus on what Harari has to say concerning polytheism. He first notes (correctly) that polytheists, although they believe in many gods, nonetheless generally believe in a single, unified power behind the gods. It is the nature of this supreme power that is the essence of polytheism:

The fundamental insight of polytheism, which distinguishes it from monotheism, is that the supreme power governing the world is devoid of interest and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans. It's pointless to ask this power for victory in war, for health or for rain, because from its all-encompassing vantage point, it makes no difference whether a particular kingdom wins or loses, whether a particular city prospers or withers, whether a particular person recuperates or dies. The Greeks did not waste any sacrifices on Fate, and the Hindus built no temples to Atman.
The only reason to approach the supreme power of the universe would be to renounce all desires and embrace the bad along with the good - to embrace even defeat, poverty, sickness and death. Thus some Hindus, known as Sadhus or Sannyasis, devote their lives to uniting with Atman, thereby achieving enlightenment. They strive to see the world from the viewpoint of this fundamental principle, to realize that from its eternal perspective all mundane desires and fears are meaningless and ephemeral phenomena. 
Most Hindus, however, are not Sadhus. They are sunk deep in the morass of mundane concerns, where Atman is not much help. For assistance in such matters, Hindus approach the gods with their partial powers. Precisely because their powers are partial rather than all-encompassing, gods such as Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati have interests and biases. Humans can therefore make deals with these partial powers and rely on their help in order to win wars and recuperate from illness. There are necessarily many of these smaller powers, since once you start dividing up  the all-encompassing power of a supreme principle, you'll inevitably end up with more than one deity. Hence the plurality of gods. 
The insight of polytheism is conducive to far-reaching religious tolerance. Since polytheists believe, on the one hand, in one supreme and completely disinterested power, and on the other hand in many partial and biased powers, there is no difficulty for the devotees of one god to accept the existence and efficacy of other gods. Polytheism is inherently open-minded, and rarely persecutes 'heretics' and 'infidels'.

The first thing to say about this treatment is that it is entirely reasonable; in fact, we might go so far as to say that what has been described is the 'natural' religion of mankind - the way man would almost inevitably think about religion if left to his own devices. And, indeed, as Harari points out, it is the way most men have thought about religion in most times and places, from the ancient Egyptians to the Chinese, to the Indians, to the Aztecs and the Romans.

Jews and Christians do not disagree with the logic of polytheism, and probably would have followed the natural inclinations and reasoning of everyone else - except that the polytheist position contains a small hole in it: "The supreme power governing the world is devoid of interest and biases, and therefore it is unconcerned with the mundane desires, cares and worries of humans." Suppose that the supreme power, although devoid of interests and biases, nonetheless takes an interest in men? An interest men never asked for, expected, or even wanted, but that nonetheless occurs? Suppose this supreme power keeps pestering man even though we'd rather be left alone? That story, the story of the supreme power pestering an obscure ancient people into a relationship with Him, for reasons mysterious to us, is the real story of the Old Testament.

Suppose further that the supreme power not only pesters man from afar, but does the unthinkable and takes on the form of man and appears among us as a man among men - not because of any interest or biases He might have, but because He loves us. In other words, the supreme power pestered the ancient Jews and appeared in the form of Christ for our sakes, not His own.

This is an idea "unnatural" to man, and its unnaturalness is one reason I believe it. The fact that the supreme power, Atman or Jehovah or Fate, would act purely in our interest rather than His own is a thought that simply doesn't occur to us. That He would appear among us, voluntarily suffer, die and be buried by us, is also another idea that wouldn't occur to us. The only way the idea entered into human history is because it happened.

Harari doesn't get this in his explanation for the origin of Christianity:
The big breakthrough came with Christianity. This faith began as an esoteric Jewish sect that sought to convince Jews that Jesus of Nazareth was their long-awaited messiah. However, one of the sect's first leaders, Paul of Tarsus, reasoned that if the supreme power of the universe has interest and biases, and if He had bothered to incarnate Himself in the flesh and to die on the cross for the salvation of humankind, then this is something everyone should hear about, not just the Jews. It was thus necessary to spread the good word - the gospel - about Jesus throughout the world.
But we've already learned that the supreme power of the universe doesn't have interests and biases. At least this is what people always and everywhere naturally think. And why would Paul believe that this supreme power would, even if he did have interests and biases, humiliate himself by becoming a man and suffering and dying at our hands? That conditional is the crux of history - but Harari glides over it and onto the unexceptional point that if in fact one believes this happened, it's something the rest of humanity should hear about. There is a glimmer of insight at the end of the quoted text that Christianity is not fundamentally a view of the world, or a deduction based on the nature of the supreme power or the possibility that lesser deities might be open to influence, but news, i.e. an unexpected irruption of the supreme power into history. This news spreads within decades across the Roman Empire and within a few centuries captures the hearts and minds of Western Civilization, a massive upending of history that Harari can only remark is one of the "strangest twists" in history. It is indeed the strangest twist in history; perhaps because in it there was more going on than mere history?

Finally, Harari seems to embrace the contemporary conviction that tolerance is the highest virtue, and  prefers polytheists like the Aztecs or Hindus to intolerant monotheists like Jews and Christians. Tolerance seems admirable in the abstract, but perhaps not so much up close when we examine what polytheistic tolerance actually involves. As Harari notes, "In the Aztec Empire, subject peoples were obliged to build a temple for Huitzilopochtli, but these temples were built alongside those of local gods, rather than in their stead." He leaves unsaid that the subject peoples were also obliged to regularly send to the Aztec capital not only food and other goods, but also captives destined to suffer ritual human sacrifice. One reason Cortez was able to conquer the mighty Aztec Empire with a few hundred conquistadors is that the subject peoples were more than happy to join him in overthrowing the Aztecs, their "tolerance" notwithstanding. And in India, polytheists tolerated suttee (the burning of widows on the pyre of their husbands) for centuries until it was finally outlawed by the intolerant British.

The tolerant polytheist tolerates everything, the good and the bad. And nothing ever really changes, year after year, decade after decade, century after century. The intolerant monotheist, in the name of the supreme power, decisively intervenes in history in response to the supreme power's own decisive intervention in history: The result is the uniquely dynamic history of Western Civilization since the time of Christ.

Sunday, January 15, 2017


By Universalism I mean the position that all are eventually saved; in other words, that the population of Hell will be zero.

Edward Feser has had several back and forths with David Bentley Hart on the issue. My point here is not to enter the debate between Feser and Hart but to consider Universalism from a different perspective.

Let us suppose that Universalism is true, and that we know it is true. Then we know that everyone will eventually enjoy eternal bliss; in particular, I will eventually enjoy eternal bliss no matter what I do on this Earth. For me, at least, this is a very dangerous thing to believe, for I am always looking for reasons to remain in my sins, which I find quite comfortable even if I know intellectually that they are essentially bad for me.

I almost wrote "ultimately" bad for me, but that isn't quite right if universalism is true, for in that case no sin is ultimately bad for me, since I will ultimately enjoy eternal bliss. But even if that is ultimately true, it is nonetheless true that I know I would be objectively happier if I were not sinning rather than sinning.

There is no hurry, though, is there, if universalism is true? I might be more perfectly happy if I shed some of my sins, but I am not unhappy and in fact I'm quite comfortable as I am. So why stress out about confronting and conquering sin? Christ in the New Testament exhorts us to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow him. That's nice advice for someone with ambitions to be a saint, but I have no such ambitions. If I'm ultimately destined for eternal bliss, why go through all the hassle? As the Five Man Electrical Band sang - "Thank you Lord for thinkin' bout me, I'm alive and doin fine."

Sure, I might have to go through some pain in the next life before experiencing that eternal bliss, but that's all a little vague compared to the very real suffering and inconvenience involved with confronting sin in this life. I've never been one to seek out the hard road when the easy road is available - especially when I'm assured they both end up in the same place.

These points are not meant to be rhetorical or flip. I abandoned the Catholic faith after high school because I found it entirely irrelevant to my life. The upshot of my 70's Catholic education was that sin wasn't really a big deal, Jesus wanted to be my friend, and he was always willing to forgive anything - which, I presumed, would include ignoring him. So why not get on with the business of this world and then get back to Jesus sometime later?

It was only later when I began to understand that my Catholic "education" was no education at all that I began to rethink things. For me, the reality of sin and its eternal implications is the only reason to take Christianity seriously in the first place. If universalism is true, then sin is not (in Kierkegaard's terms) "eternally decisive."  Neither is our relationship to Christ in this life decisive. Follow him, reject him, ignore him, twice-a-year Catholic him, what does it matter? Ultimately, it won't.

I wonder if there is a mode of existence in hell that is universalist (this is NOT to claim that anyone believing in universalism is going to hell). But if universalism implies that there are no decisive eternal implications for a lack of a relationship with Christ in this life, why not in the next? Perhaps there are individuals in hell who recognize their sins but are comfortable in them, and tell themselves they will repent tomorrow, with tomorrow (naturally) never arriving. Maybe C.S. Lewis treated this idea in The Great Divorce. It's been a long time since I read that book.

I'm in danger of being one of those eternally procrastinating guys - which is why I find the idea of universalism a temptation to be rejected.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Dalrymple on "Spiritual But Not Religious"

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Berlin, Theodore Dalrymple has an interesting take at City Journal.

The money quote:

The reason (I surmise) that so many people claim to be spiritual rather than religious is that being spiritual imposes no discipline upon them, at least none that they do not choose themselves. Being religious, on the other hand, implies an obligation to observe rules and rituals that may interfere awkwardly with daily life. Being spiritual-but-not-religious gives you that warm, inner feeling, a bit like whiskey on a cold day, and reassures you that there is more to life—or, at least, to your life—than meets the eye, without actually having to interrupt the flux of everyday existence. It is the gratification of religion without the inconvenience of religion. Unfortunately, like many highly diluted solutions, it has no taste.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Pierre Manent on Western Civilization

From an interview quoted at First Things:

"We do not know when the trumpet will sound. I cannot answer you in the name of some “expertise”; I can only answer “by hope.” Christian hope is based on faith. I believe that, amid the crumbling of Western civilization, which has begun, the supernatural character of the Church will become, paradoxically, more and more visible. The hatred of the world will turn against it more and more clearly. More clearly than ever the fate of all will depend on the “little flock” of Christians."

Monday, July 4, 2016

On the Need for Socrates

That's what I do. I drink and I know things.
- Tyrion Lannister

There is always a need for Socrates. But at some times he is needed more than others.

Now is one of those times.

How can you tell? Because there is very little of a true philosophical spirit about.

The philosopher is a lover of wisdom. As Socrates teaches us, this doesn't mean the philosopher is a wise man. The philosopher is a pursuer of wisdom, and you don't pursue what you already have. So the philosopher is a man not wise who is driven in the attempt to become wise.

The man who is already wise is not a philosopher because he is not driven to pursue wisdom - he's got it already. The man not interested in wisdom is also not a philosopher - he is not wise but doesn't care to become so, and so he does not pursue it.

Both of these latter types are prevalent today. And both hate the philosopher, whom they (ironically) condemn as arrogant and useless.

It is part of received "wisdom" today that the great philosophical questions cannot be definitively answered. Does God exist? If so, what is His nature? What is the nature and content of true morality? What is justice? Is there life after death? Is man really free or just a slave of nature and its laws? What is the best way to organize society? And many others. The futility of philosophy.

The philosopher, allegedly, is the man who thinks he has answers to some or all of these questions. And if he has those answers, then those who disagree with him are wrong. And that is the substance of the charge of arrogance. How can he be so sure he's right and everyone else is wrong? What makes him so special? Shouldn't he be a little more humble? The arrogance of the philosopher.

And while he is out pretending to know what others don't, he could be doing something useful to actually contribute to society. Instead he whiles away his time contemplating questions that can never be really answered, and never producing anything of value. The uselessness of philosophy.

Anyone concerned that these charges might be leveled at him may be consoled that they were the same charges leveled at Socrates. They are the perennial charges against philosophers, and will always be leveled against him as long as man persists. And yet philosophers persist.

The philosophical spirit never quite dies out. For there is always someone, when the received wisdom  concerning the futility of philosophy is proclaimed, who asks the question - how do you know that? How do you know that the great questions cannot be answered? Isn't the dogma that they cannot be answered itself a Great Answer, an arrogant assertion that unjustifiably claims to know that every great thinker throughout history failed? Isn't it possible that someone, somewhere along the way, found at least some answers? How can I dismiss a great philosopher, a Plato, Aristotle, or Aquinas, without ever understanding anything of what he thought?

It's rather the philosopher who is humble, isn't it? For he proclaims himself to be ignorant, but doesn't have the gall to assert that everyone else - including everyone throughout history - must have been ignorant as well. How can one possibly come to this latter conclusion?

The one feeble argument made on its behalf is that philosophers still argue about the same questions they always have, and haven't produced any "results" the way science has, or any definitive answers settled once and for all. This is often thought to be a distinctively modern argument, but of course it was made in Socrates's day against him as well. One might call it the Argument from Disagreement, and it has a peculiar nature.

For one thing, it is self-fulfilling. Merely by disagreeing with a philosophical result, for whatever reason good or bad, I create disagreement and therefore evidence against the result. That certain philosophical results are still debated may only mean that some people are incapable of understanding them or be unwilling to accept them. And that incapacity and/or unwillingness surely can't prove itself merely by existing. It's not enough merely to note disagreement; it is necessary to show that any particular disagreement has a reasonable basis, and that means doing the work of actually understanding the arguments.  But then the whole point of the Argument from Disagreement is to dismiss philosophers without having to go through the work of actually understanding them.

For another thing, there hasn't always been disagreement among philosophers, and there are answers that have received general and enduring agreement. For instance, that harm to another may only be done in self-defense or through civil processes (i.e. a trial) is not something seriously questioned anymore (whereas one of the questions Socrates debated was whether morality consists in doing good to ones friends and evil to ones enemies, a live question at the time. It doesn't, Socrates answered, and his answers form the basis of much of what we take for granted with respect to morality, whether we know it or not).

Instead of the manifestly unsupportable conclusion that everyone in history must have been ignorant concerning the great questions, the philosopher only knows that he himself is ignorant. Whether others are ignorant as well is an open question, and he eagerly learns all he can from the greatest thinkers in the hope that maybe they actually did know something. (Spoiler: They did.)

Something Aristotle taught is that the truth is generally found between two extreme and opposing errors. And when the truth is lost, both the opposing errors become manifest. One of the errors, it seems, is thinking that the truth cannot ever really be found (and if we think about it, we could never reasonably believe this, because then it would constitute the truth we said we couldn't find.) The other extreme is thinking that the truth is found easily and without effort.

These extremes seem opposed, and they are, but they circle around and meet each other. For if we think the truth can never really be found, then all particular attempts to do so are necessarily futile, and we arrive at modern cultural relativism. I don't need to understand Confucius or Lao Tzu, Avicenna or the Bhagavad Vita because they must ultimately be as futile as Socrates and Aristotle. Justice and peace result from an acknowledgement of the relativity of culture, which masquerades as respect for all cultures, but is really a universal disrespect. If everyone would acknowledge that they can't know the truth, and that their way of knowing it is not and cannot be any more successful or legitimate than others, then the source of conflict would disappear. This degenerate form of humanitarian universalism is now culturally dominant, and it's easy to see it's appeal: It's a ready excuse to get out of the hard work of learning. The old Socratic way offered nothing but a lifetime of learning with no promise of result; the new degenerate universalism lets you do what you want without a guilty conscience.

But not really. Ultimately, that guilty conscience is why the philosopher is hated and why he is necessary. For man is a rational animal, meaning his nature is to know. The philosopher, merely by existing, reminds man of that basic fact of his nature and embarrasses him. The philosopher would not embarrass men if they did not already know, in a deep and hidden place, that they are meant to know yet they do not know. And he is hated because he exposes the easy answers that men have constructed to console themselves rather than face the truly terrifying fact that they don't have any idea who they are or what they are doing.

The modern existential philosopher might leave it at that, but he's a degenerate form. The best philosophers - starting with Socrates - offer hope that you might come to know what you are doing.

Let us, then, in the first place, he [Socrates] said, be careful of admitting
into our souls the notion that there is no truth or health or soundness
in any arguments at all; but let us rather say that there is as yet
no health in us, and that we must quit ourselves like men and do our
best to gain health-you and all other men with a view to the whole
of your future life, and I myself with a view to death.
 - Plato, Phaedo