#FreeWillies

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Last week, in the wake of the People’s Climate March and the #FloodWallStreet protests that followed it, I was tweebating folks of the “voluntarist” persuasion of libertarianism about the alleged hypocrisy (or irony, at least) of environmentalists using the fruits of capitalism to communicate their presumably anti-capitalist ideas. This was something we used to hear a lot in the beginning of the #Occupy movement from Wall Street’s apologist-propagandists in the media and the grandstands they played to. The argument seemed to be, if you use it, you can’t complain about it. Interesting to me, those who take this argument seriously (and assuming anyone really does, it must be these people), they don’t seem able to see that they could be accused of a similar hypocrisy for criticizing the government when they benefit from government infrastructure, public safety and defense.

But that is not my problem with the voluntarists. My problem is with their fundamental stance, which was exemplified for me in a tweet from one “Jack”:

Jack ‏@oaaselect Sep 23

Did you get tricked into buying your device [meaning what I was using to Tweet with] or did you buy it voluntarily? @ChristofPierson @scooterpie61

via Twitter / Notifications.

On its face, this seems like a good question. The problem is, if you dig just a little under the face, the question falls apart. Do we really buy things “voluntarily”–of our own free will? Is it as simple as that? Consider the millions of people who broke records dumping their current phones for the iPhone 6 recently. Did all of those people need a new phone? Did they need the iPhone 6 in particular? Considering they were surviving fine without it until it went on sale, It’s hard to believe they did.. But the question is not did they need it, but did they want it? Did they buy it of their own free will?

Philosophically, free will is still controversial, of course. It’s a popular belief for obvious reasons, but the jury is still out on whether or not it’s fact. The very unpopular determinist position is that we are restricted to a very limited range of behaviors, based on any given stimulus, and the range shrinks the more habituated to these stimuli we become–unless we are insane, in which case, our behaviors can be frighteningly free-ranging and considered dangerous to society. Of course, just because this is an unpopular (because unflattering) point of view doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

I think it’s prudent to wonder, then, if the millions who ran out to buy the iPhone 6 all really “wanted” the phone or were responding as expected to a stimulus (“new Apple product,” or just,” latest gadget”) they’ve become habituated to reacting to in a specific way. There is no easy way of knowing, except maybe by comparing one’s own responses to these kinds of stimuli. Do we always buy what we want? Do we always take the job, or marry the spouse, or buy the house or car or gadget we want?  If I were a voluntarist–I mean, if voluntarism were something I thought I wanted to believe in–wouldn’t it be important to know if free will were something more than a wish or hope–in other words, a self-flattering illusion? Wouldn’t it be important to know if it were something more like an objective fact?

If it is more like fact, it certainly is not a simple one. But my conversation with these voluntarists was unsatisfying not just because of Twitter’s limitations as a forum for complex discussion. These voluntarists were not interested in complexities in the least. They were quite content with their received opinions about free will, the nature of “real capitalism’ (which according to them is something, unironically to them,  not of this world), or the right (or justice, if you will) of those who critique capitalism partaking in the gadgets the system produces. I have to wonder, who’s less liberated: the person within a system who sees its faults and says what those faults are, or the person whose ideology doesn’t permit more than a shallow understanding of the very thing they think they believe in.

Poof of Heaven: Eben Alexander’s Truth Problem

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Esquire magazine has a long article (available online for $1.99 for non-subscribers) in the August issue by Luke Dittrich investigating the claims of Eben Alexander, a so-called “Harvard neurologist” whose book Proof of Heaven purporting to describe his “near death experience” has been on the best-seller lists for almost a year.  (I wrote about the Newsweek article that preceded the book last year.) Of course Dittrich was unable to verify or falsify the central claim, that Alexander actually went to heaven while he was in a coma during a bout of bacterial meningitis. However, Dittrich did uncover a number of awkward facts about Alexander’s career as a neurosurgeon, including a history of malpractice suits (five in ten years) that eventually deprived him of his license to practice neurosurgery and which suggested to Dittrich a possible motive for Alexander to write the book besides a reportorial one.

Over at Huffington Post, Paul Raeburn has written a blog that admirably summarizes Dittrich’s article:

Dittrich comes as close as one could, without access to Alexander’s private thoughts, to showing that the book was a cynical effort to provide a new career — as a prophet! — for a neurosurgeon whose career was being consumed by malpractice suits. He was, Esquire‘s editors write in the deck, “a neurosurgeon with a troubled history and a man in need of reinvention.”

One of Dittrich’s most damning revelations (so to speak) concerns the story of one of Alexander’s own doctors who says, in contradiction of Alexander’s claim that the  e. coli bacteria that caused his meningitis also caused his coma, that she chemically induced the coma because Alexander’s involuntary movements made it impossible to operate on him. This would give the lie to Alexander’s contention that his brain had ceased all activity and that he essentially died on the gurney. It would also suggest (though Dittrich doesn’t mention the drug used to induce the coma–one major shortcoming of the Esquire piece) a likely chemical source for Alexander’s ecstatic vision.

Of course, believers will continue to believe, and as evidence of that, you need only look at the comments section on Raeburn’s blog. Continue reading

Sabbath Musings: The Reality of God

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The following is based on a post I made three years ago at MUBI.com, of all places. I happened to be rereading old posts there this morning, and I wanted to put this one down here so I could think more about it. I was in conversation with someone who had asserted that believing in God can be compared to belief in the future, which, even though it doesn’t yet exist, we believe in anyway. I begged to differ with the aptness of the comparison.

I’d love to hear what others think about all this. Please leave a comment below if you’re so moved:

Continue reading

Noam Chomsky: “It’s institutional structures that block change.”

Keystone XL demonstration, White House,8-23-20...

Keystone XL demonstration, White House,8-23-2011 Photo Credit: Josh Lopez (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If yesterday’s post of Lawrence Lessig‘s TED talk on corruption gives you reason for optimism, you may want to check that after you read this from perennial thorn in the side of the powers that be Noam Chomsky, who writes of a peculiar distinction between the most “advanced” societies in the world today and those  least touched by technological “progress” as far as the threat of climate change goes:

So, at one extreme you have indigenous, tribal societies trying to stem the race to disaster.  At the other extreme, the richest, most powerful societies in world history, like the United States and Canada, are racing full-speed ahead to destroy the environment as quickly as possible.  Unlike Ecuador, and indigenous societies throughout the world, they want to extract every drop of hydrocarbons from the ground with all possible speed.

Both political parties, President Obama, the media, and the international press seem to be looking forward with great enthusiasm to what they call “a century of energy independence” for the United States.  Energy independence is an almost meaningless concept, but put that aside.  What they mean is: we’ll have a century in which to maximize the use of fossil fuels and contribute to destroying the world.

And that’s pretty much the case everywhere.  Admittedly, when it comes to alternative energy development, Europe is doing something.  Meanwhile, the United States, the richest and most powerful country in world history, is the only nation among perhaps 100 relevant ones that doesn’t have a national policy for restricting the use of fossil fuels, that doesn’t even have renewable energy targets.  It’s not because the population doesn’t want it.  Americans are pretty close to the international norm in their concern about global warming.  It’s institutional structures that block change.  Business interests don’t want it and they’re overwhelmingly powerful in determining policy, so you get a big gap between opinion and policy on lots of issues, including this one.

This seems to be a pretty important point, but it’s very difficult to know how seriously it’s being taken: The United States government does not have the species’ or the world’s best interests at heart. And it’s not just the Republicans, who are an easy target for American liberals,  that we have to blame. The fact is the Republicans are pretty much brain-dead and useless at this point. But are the Democrats really all that much better on this issue in particular? Continue reading

Loving Christianity Better Than Truth: The Craig-Price Debate

Craig Price

I’ve been watching and listening to numerous debates on YouTube between eminent atheists and Christian/theist apologists on subjects like “Does God Exist?”, “Does the Christian God Exist?”, “Did the Resurrection Happen?”, “What’s the Purpose of Life?” and so on. The debaters on the atheist side include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens and Richard Carrier (whom I wrote about in my last post),  and on the theist side (among others)  Dinesh D’Souza, Rabbi David Wolpe and, most eminent of all, William Lane Craig.

If I had to score the debates he’s been in, though I disagree with him about virtually every point he makes, I’d give by far most wins to the phenomenal Dr. Craig. As atheist and debate aficionado Mark Smith notes about Craig, “He usually wins his debates. However, he wins his debates usually due not so much to being a great debater (which he is), but rather from debating people who haven’t the slightest clue how to debate.” A non-Christian rooting for one of Craig’s atheist opponents and caring about the outcome will probably wind up feeling like a Red Sox fan did last season suffering another visit from the Yankees at Fenway. Continue reading

Why You Should Doubt the Historicity of Jesus

As Richard Carrier explains in this talk given at a skeptic’s conference at the University of Wisconsin at Madison last spring, most academics who are paid to think, write and teach about Jesus will tell you that, while it’s really impossible to know for certain if Jesus was a historical figure, even the most secular of scholars in the field agree with near certainty that he probably did exist in some form or other. The key word there, of course, is the weasel word “probably.” Carrier doesn’t say so here, but these scholars are also very impatient with the alternative idea that Jesus probably wasn’t historically “real,” even though the degree of difference in certainty between their position and Carrier’s (and my) position is virtually non-existent. What the “historicists” have that Carrier and I don’t have is numbers in the academy who agree with them. That’s all they have, and when you get right down to it, that isn’t much at all.

When people who believe in a historical origin for the Jesus story find out how shaky the theoretical ground really is under their feet, they sometimes turn the conversation to less discomforting terrain, stating, for example, that it actually doesn’t matter if Jesus was real at all in the way the Bible says he was or was just made up out of thin air. The point is the wisdom in the religion and the good (or evil) that it hath wrought–or more neutrally, the impact it had on the rest of history. I disagree that this evasion is a suitable response to the challenge posed by Carrier and other mythicists. Their challenge is not aimed at the content of the religion. It’s aimed at the methods of historical research and the question of whether Christian history should be treated as a special case from other types of history,  one where it is not permitted to get too close to the central questions about its origins.

If  you think whether or not Jesus existed in history is an interesting question,  you’ll probably find Carrier’s cogent presentation on reasons not to believe in it provocative, to say the least.  Let me know what you think in the comments below.

#Frankenstorm and the Way We Talk About Climate Change

Andrew Revkin, in his Dot Earth blog for the New York Times, has been writing a lot over the past few days about the relation of global warming/climate change to the ferocious late-season appearance of #Frankenstorm Sandy, which flooded lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, tore up the Jersey shore, killed some 40 people in the US and left more than 7 million on the East Coast with no power for several days (not to mention the overlooked damage it wrought in the Caribbean before smashing into Delaware on Sunday). Many of his readers (including climate activist Dan Miller) accuse Revkin (who is a science journalist and not a professional scientist) of taking too cautious a tack on climate change generally and on human responsibility for the increase of North Atlantic storm activity in particular. Continue reading