Accept responsibility for your beliefs please!

The recent brew-ha-ha about Phil Whoever in Duck Dynasty has once again brought into my field of view, in ways that are impossible to ignore, how incredibly amoral belief in God can make people about a great many things. The way they just offload their beliefs onto God and deny all other association with them is just downright disgusting to me. It goes something like so:

  • Say some horribly hateful thing.
  • Claim it is your religious belief.
  • When pushed on the issue and it’s pointed out how horribly hateful a person that believes that must be, claim you’re just saying what God told you.

Hooray! You’ve just managed to express completely bigoted and hateful beliefs while justifying to yourself that you’re not a bigot. The rest of us though are not buying it at all and in fact I for one find this level of dishonesty much more disgusting than the ignorant belief itself.

Let’s skip for now the whole homosexual thing because what the Bible says about homosexuals is not actually all that bad, not for the Bible. It just claims that they are abominations that should be executed by stoning. Instead, there is another passage that I think represents a much more disgusting paradigm: Psalm 14:1.

The fool says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good.

What this means to a great many people who read this passage (let’s set aside whether it actually means that, it’s not important) is that people like me, atheists, agnostics, skeptics, humanists, … a long list … are inherently evil and incapable of doing anything good. This is the essence of bigotry right there, it’s hard to come up with a more definitive example. The generalizing of a group of people who differ from you in some way, such as religious belief, and categorizing them as evil, or disgusting, or subhuman, or whatever is what everyone means when they say, “bigot.” If you believe that this statement in the Bible is true, you are one.

I don’t believe in a soul that is separate from the body it inhabits. There is no mind/body distinction for me. As I explain in other articles in this blog, though we can hypothesize what it would be like to have a murderer’s genes, his past, and his thoughts and realize I’d be no different this is actually an incoherent thought. If I had those things, and not my own, I would be that murder and not me. What we believe is what we are. Doesn’t matter why it’s believed, what process governs those thoughts–that is what makes us something unique. So to me, what you believe is who you are and there’s no extra soul or something that can be dirtied by current beliefs that somehow redeems the person from them. A person who wants redemption needs to work for it–they need to change themselves.

I explain that to show just how much stock I put into a person’s beliefs. A person who believes it’s OK to murder is a person who believes that. That is who and what they are. That is their essence and one need not look any further than that to find who and what they are. They may have other redeeming qualities, but they are still a person who believes murder is OK.

Likewise, a person who believes that you can equate skepticism with that kind of evil and worse is that kind of person. That is who they are. They are not something else waiting to come out. Although I can respect the honesty of someone willing to come right out and say that’s what they believe, and therefor who they are…that is totally lost when they then turn around and disown that by saying it’s just their “religious” belief–that they just believe it because God says so. Not only does that not let them off the hook, it demonstrates a total lack of spine. As if the holding of the belief as religious and sacred means it’s less a part of who you are than if you’d come to the conclusion on your own. It’s ridiculous.

I used to believe in God and I used to believe in the God described in the Bible. It is possible to do so and not be that kind of bigot. One might be inclined, as I was, to doubt the veracity of the Bible as containing only God’s statements and not being one interpretation of God’s intent by man. Passages like Psalm 14 do not have the same impact on such a person, they’re not inclined to believe it only to admit that yes, the Bible does indeed make that statement–I do not agree. Even if you believe the veracity of every word in the Bible though, it’s reasonable and feasible to step back from some of its claims. “The Bible says that, I believe that’s what God said, I don’t understand it and can’t agree with it from my perspective. I believe that perspective is probably flawed or I would not assume God is good.” Both of these are entirely different from, “You are a fool! You don’t believe in God. You are thus an evil man. It says so clearly right here is Psalm 14 and it is definitely true. I believe it to be true at the very core of my being. I will make sure everyone knows that this is what I believe…but when put to task I’ll claim that I don’t judge people, only God does.”

That is what I hear when someone claims to hold this or than belief because it’s what God says. That’s what I hear when people try to tell me that it’s just their religious belief, it doesn’t make them a bigot. If that’s what you think God thinks then you’re telling me God is a bigot, and you are telling me that you stand with him in his bigotry. An honest person admits this. They don’t say something hateful, spiteful, and cruel and then flip around like a coward. People that do that measure lower on the morality scale than complete nasties like the WBC or KKK.

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The is-ought problem

IMHO the is-ought problem is inflated beyond usefulness or validity. If morality can be said to be objective then obviously it is something. “Ought” then specifies a judgement about what one needs to do in order to behave in a way that is moral.

The problem comes when people perform category errors such as assuming that because something is natural it is moral, or that because something is legal it is moral or visa-versa. What I mean to say is that it’s not actually an is-ought problem, it’s a problem of conflating topics and confusing ethics and/or morality with some other subject that may or may not be at all related.

Further, both “is” and “ought” apply to multiple subject matters. A person ought to save money so that they’re not broke if something horrible happens and they end up out of work. Saving money is providing for emergency situations. Likewise, a person perhaps ought to tell the truth in order to be considered moral and trustworthy. Telling the truth is a way to garner trust and that at least seems to be a big part of what the word “moral” means (and therefore is).

In the end, morality is something. What we need to establish is what is generally meant by “moral” and what, if any actual rules can be extracted from that definition. Perhaps there are none and it’s all a subjective preference based on culture and personal, emotional views. Maybe there are and we can conclude that there’s an objective, definite difference between people who behave morally and those who don’t no matter what their personal preference might be. Either way, this has nothing to do with “is” or “ought”.


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Infinite time

There’s a common argument often used to “prove” that God must exist.  It generally starts with the assertion that there can be no infinite regression of causality, meaning that if we go back in time and watch all the events unfold, all the causes that created their effects, then at some point there must be this first cause which can’t itself have been caused. The argument for this premise is false.

The argument that there can’t be an infinite series of past events goes something like so:

  1. Assume that there is an infinite series of past events.
  2. There is an event infinitely long ago.
  3. It would take an infinite amount of time to get from that point to this point in time.
  4. Ergo the premise is false.

Step two is the flaw in the argument.  If there’s an infinite series of events stretching back in time, this does not mean there is a particular event that was infinitely far back.  In fact, that statement is utterly incoherent.

To explain this, I think it worthwhile to consider a mathematical equality:

.999… == 1

 At first glance it seems to be intuitively false.  How can .999… be the same value as 1?  Well, it’s true.  Here’s the proof:

1 / 3 = .333…

1 = 3/3 = (1+1+1)/3 = 1 / 3 + 1/3 + 1/3 = .333… + .333… + .333… = .999…

I have to admit that when I first ran into this proof I asked the utterly inept question, “What about the last .000…1?  Doesn’t 1 – .999… = .00….1 with a 1 infinitely far in the back?”

Truth is that there isn’t one!  Thinking that there is fails to understand infinite regressions.  If the sequence terminated then it would not be infinite.  There’s no final anything…no infinitely far back 1.

The same is true for infinite sequences of causality or time.  Pick any infinitely far back point in time and there’s an infinite sequence of time before it.  Not only that, but you’ll find that if you pick any point of time in the past…ANY point in time…the sequence is no longer infinite; there in a defined length between any two points in time.

Another way to think about it is to recognize that it’s question begging.  If there’s a point in time infinitely far back, and the sequence itself is infinite, then that point in time also could never be reached, ergo it’s not there either.  So by using that point as a premise the conclusion is question begging.

Not to say that there IS an infinite series of causes all the way back for eternity in the past, but there could be.  There’s nothing to conclude that it couldn’t be that way.

I think though that this probably isn’t the case.  The arrow of time hypothesis makes some sense to me and if it’s true then time doesn’t work like we think it does, we just observe it as a linear progression of events because entropy dictates it’s the only way that actually is observable…thinking creatures can only perceive the sequence of time in correlation with increasing of entropy.  There actually IS no past or future, only our perception of one.  If this is true then the question itself makes no sense.

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Having an “open mind”.

When I was a child I was taught not to discount anything.  This included things like my parents’ chosen religion of course, but also other things like ghosts, UFO’s, channeling, Big Foot and a whole lot of other nonsense.  I wasn’t taught TO believe in these things, but I was encouraged to pay them a lot more credibility than they deserved.  You see, my parents wanted me to be “open minded” about such things.

There’s nothing wrong with having an open mind, but I believe that kind of open mind is way too open.  Ideas should all be met with healthy skepticism, not a default of, “Well, I suppose it can’t be proven not to be true so maybe it is.”  That’s letting your brains fall out.

When someone suggests an idea and claims it to reflect the real world we live in, we should expect them to provide some demonstration that their claim is true. When they start verbal vomiting about the “metaphysical”, the unfalsifiable, and the downright absurd expecting us to believe it we should treat with the same respect, or lack thereof, that they are treating us.  If they dare bring up the “divine” or “sacred” they deserve to be spat upon.

People like this are taking a massive shortcut. They are trying to assert their own ideas and moral claims without taking the responsibility of demonstrating them to the rest of us. What degree of arrogance it must take to expect someone to believe the same things you believe based on your say so! To expect someone to hold the same things as important because they “have to” — because it’s sacred!  

If someone expects you to share their values they need to pay you the respect of trying to convince you that they are true. We should withhold our beliefs until they do so and we should not respect those who would take the shortcut and brow-beat us with made up nonsense that can neither be demonstrated nor logically proven. The ability to believe in such things is not a valuable asset, it is a flaw in human nature.

An open mind is ready to be convinced, not crammed full of absurdities nor every claim someone purports is the truth.

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Discussions with Crazy Eddie

I enjoy a good, intellectual argument and I seek them out on a regular basis. Arguing is, I believe, a great way to get to know someone and also a great way to exercise your beliefs and assumptions against another mind. That said, I have disappointingly found most people mostly unqualified to have such arguments with me. Not because they are not intelligent, I think many probably are, but because they simply do not know how. With this in mind, here’s a list of do’s and don’ts in conversation that I often run into:


Tell me what I think. Ask me.
All too often I run into people who believe they know everything about what I think because of a label I accept. Labels such as ‘atheist’ or ‘liberal’. There is a huge and vast variation among thought in these philosophies (if you can call ‘atheism’ a philosophy) and it’s silly to tell someone they think one thing when they’re telling you that’s not true. Furthermore, there’s a lot of untruth that is spread about every philosophy or opinion a person can have.
Tell me what I am saying.

Sometimes I will miss-speak or say something that can be taken in a variety of ways. English as a language is often ambiguous. I will not hold it against anyone if they take me the wrong way but once I correct that mistake and say, “No, that is not what I meant,” you’ll not get anywhere with me by arguing about that with me. I’ll probably start wondering if you might be stupid.
Nit pick
Sometimes a person may have their facts a bit wrong or (referencing above) glaze over a complicated issue in a trivial manner when the details are not pertinent to the point. If I quote the wrong answer to “2+2” that doesn’t mean my thesis about computer science is wrong…it means I made a mistake. Sometimes it’s an important mistake that destroys my thesis, at which point I’ll refer you to the list of “do’s” below…
Tell me I’m wrong when I’m speaking in hypotheticals to introduce a line of reasoning
All too often to get a point across you must first speak in simple terms, which rarely reflect reality because reality is a complicated mother fucker. If I say something like, “If we assume a large group of people who all agree on everything,” don’t tell me that people don’t agree with each other on everything. I might start wondering if you might be stupid or illiterate.

There’s probably many more, but those are the ones that have bugged me of late.


Back up your opinions
Very often I’ll write up a somewhat long essay or whatever that contains a thesis and my reasons. I very rarely go into a long diatribe without laying out why I think so. To have someone then say something like, “You’re wrong,” or, “Paine was right and thus…” (when I’m saying why I disagree with Paine) is somewhat silly. The only thought I have about that is, “Thanks for reminding me what your opinion is.” It tells me nothing, doesn’t pay respect to my reasoning (and is thus in my view a form of disrespect: “You’re wrong because I said so.” – yeah, fuck you too), and won’t change my mind of course…because you’ve given me nothing new to think about. If I’m saying why I disagree with someone you can probably bet that I’m familiar with what they’ve said so just saying they’re right or I’m wrong…you may as well just go masturbate. I honestly don’t care.
Know the difference between a fact and your opinion
Fact: The American Constitution has a 2nd Amendment that gives us the right to bear arms. Opinion: that means every tool and weapon that operates through the use of some sort of explosive ordinance to fling a projectile. Also an opinion: That means muskets. To make your opinion mean shit to me, beyond the, “that’s my friend’s opinion and I respect that he/she has one,” you need to show how the facts support it so that I can then decide if I can share that opinion.
Show why my error dismantles my thesis.
If my thesis is that everyone actually agrees that there needs to be some sort of gun control, for example, and that we just disagree on how much…telling me that there’s gun laws doesn’t exactly tell me why my thesis is wrong and if that’s followed up with a bunch of attitude the probably result will be that I’ll start wondering if you might be stupid and I won’t want to talk to you about anything remotely interesting anymore. Show why my error means that my entire thesis falls apart. Explain it to me, or give up the pretense of intellectual conversation.

Other tidbits

  • Saying “fuck” doesn’t mean my opinion became invalid. That’s stupid.
  • Telling someone they’re too young to understand is extremely rude and is an ad hominem. It doesn’t mean anything except indicate that you might just be stupid.
  • Saying someone is stupid is not an ad hominem unless you use it as the only form of rebuttal. Sometimes stupidity can be demonstrated.
  • Try to start a conversation by being a dick and you’ll probably get a less than intellectual response from me. You can try to use that to claim I can’t hold a conversation but the truth is that I simply don’t want to because, well…you’re being a dick.

Having a real intellectual conversation about things, and we clearly need more of them, is about instructing your opponent why they are in error. It’s not just repeating the same crap over and over or screaming your opinion the loudest or labeling and then discounting people without taking the time to listen. The only kind of conversations that interest me are the ones in why I get to share what I think with people who can respect that, who are willing to learn and who are also willing to instruct. If you can’t do those things then I’d much rather we just get drunk and talk about boobs or something. I find that kind of thing stimulating as well. What I don’t particularly like is having “friends” sit there and tell me what I think because I’m a “liberal”, call me liar, pound on me over trivial minutia that don’t seem to mean shit and generally disrespect me in every way. You may not know that’s what you do when you start acting like that, but it is.

There’s nothing wrong with just having different opinions and not wanting to talk about it. I totally respect that and again, we can get drunk and talk about boobs or something. If you do feel the need to talk about your opinions though, just know what I see the rules as. If you can meet them I’ll talk with you about them and you may find we learn a great deal from each other. If you honestly cannot then just hold your opinion, let me have mine, and stop fucking calling me names and shit.


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Comment to Vox Popoli


Every time I think I’ve seen the worse that the human race has to offer, someone says something so wicked and callous that I once again have to remember that there really isn’t any bottom to that pit.

I suppose I should thank you for being the person that reminded me of this fact today. Until now it had never even dawned on me that someone might argue that stoning rape victims creates less false rape accusations and is therefor good. I stand corrected and thoroughly shocked.

I’d also thought myself incapable of dismay regarding the future and soul of the human race. I did not think myself capable any longer of feeling melancholy or being depressed about how disgusting human beings are. You sir have reintroduced me to this feeling and I’ll probably spend the rest of the day thinking about the fact that the universe could very well be better off if a black hole simply swept through our system and swallowed our entire planet.

If the universe was just you’d find yourself at the mercy of people as disconnected from humanity as you are. I don’t know if I should feel good about the fact that it is not. While I do feel some small amount of forgiveness and mercy in my heart, another part of me feels that the resources available for living human beings are dwindling such that we should expect a human being to actually give society something worth a damn to justify their continued existence. I doubt very much that you could survive such a policy.

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It’s not out of your control

In my last blog I discussed why I wasn’t finding Sam Harris’s treatise on Free Will convincing and why I didn’t think that what he insists must be the topic of conversation has anything to do with Free Will. Contrary to what he and many other incompatibilists claim, that what compatibilists talk about is nothing like the Free Will that the average person thinks they have and wants, I have become more convinced that they are talking about something so utterly foreign that we wouldn’t even recognize it as anything we’d want. The concept of Free Will seems central to the ideas of responsibility, blame, and praise and these things are important to our common view of morality. What incompatibilists talk about is obviously to them central to these topics but seems to me to be clearly way out of scope.

Now it must be said to begin with that the question of how much freedom we have is really up for grabs at this point. I also know of at least some arguments that we do not have free will are challenging to say the least, but these are not incompatibilist arguments they are instead arguments about how much of what we call ourselves is involved in the decision making process. There are a lot of psychological influences in our lives and the question of how much we are guided by them rather than ourselves, and how much we are able to know this, are very interesting questions that have nothing whatsoever to do with determinism and are not predicated on a definition of the universe and of free will that renders the two incompatible.


I don’t believe it is fully necessary to know what determinism is before coming to an understanding of the general incompatibilist argument. All we need in order to begin is to imagine a being that knows everything that is ever going to happen. Most people don’t have to go very far outside their general view of the world to imagine this as they call this being “God”. The gist of the argument goes that this “God” knows everything that is ever going to happen. Knowing this of course he knows everything that you will do. Given that God knows everything you will do, you obviously can’t do otherwise. If you could do otherwise then God would have to be in a state of not-knowing about your future. Since your actions are pre-determined by God’s knowledge (we’re not talking about his “plan” here, just his knowledge) you are actually more like a robot that just does whatever it was preprogramed to do. You can’t do anything else but what your programming dictates.

Most, but not all, incompatibilist arguments follow this line of reasoning with a determination that you cannot be held responsible for your decisions since they are not yours. Since you are unable to decide other than what you are programmed to decide you have no choice to do otherwise. The respondent of my last blog reworded this a little bit and claimed that you have no viable choice, but it amounts to the same point. Since your choices are determined by Gods knowledge you cannot own the choice and what you don’t own you are not responsible for.

An introductory rebuttal

An alternative thought experiment can help us see that maybe there’s something wrong here.

Let us take away this “God” being for a moment and assume a world in which Free Will either exists or does not…we do not know at this point. In this world you witness a choice being made. It is not your own (and this is actually very important) but someone else’s. Nothing you are doing interferes with this decision being made but you know after it is made what the outcome was. Now, being the superman that you are, you travel back in time to witness this decision again.

Now we ask ourselves some questions:

Will the same decision be made?

Well, since whatever deliberation the mind of the individual went through to arrive at the decision will have not been altered we can say that it will. The only way in which this would not be true is if the decision was completely arbitrary, without reason, aimless, and random. Otherwise, reasons will be what they are and that all being the same…the outcome will not be any different than it was last time we watched this same decision be made.

Did your knowledge have anything to do with it? Since we can see that this knowledge did not exist the first time through we can see that it had nothing to do with it.

The most common response to this thought experiment is that it’s just a thought experiment. This is of course the truth of things, and none of the above is even possible in our universe (most likely anyway) so it’s hard to see what this says about anything. Well, the first thing to note is that so is the position I’m arguing against. We all use thought experiments to figure stuff out and the whole “perfect knowledge being” thing is a thought experiment only. Neither of them lays claim to reality. What my experiment shows though is that the main assumption of the first thought experiment is false: choices are determined by knowledge of outcome.

A problem with language

What went wrong in the first thought experiment? The main premises seem to be obvious. If “God” knows what you’re going to do then that’s what you’re going to do. Some might be tempted to begin going down a road that makes it possible for God to be wrong. That’s not really being honest to the problem though as we’ve posited a God that knows in the plain sense: its beliefs reflect fact. Let’s stay true to the problem here and say that no, God is not wrong; your decisions will be as he knows they will be.

Maybe there’s something wrong with the second thought experiment then. The premises again though seem to be obviously true. A choice is made without knowledge of its outcome, we travel back and watch the same choice be made again. We know what the outcome will be this time, it is as we know it will be, and yet nothing about how that choice came to be has changed.

I believe the problem comes from the language used in the first argument, and I purposefully removed that language this second time through. Here I have stated the argument in terms of what will happen: God knows what your choices will be, you are going to make those choices. Previously I stated the argument in terms of what can happen: God knows what your choices be and therefor you cannot chose otherwise. These are not at all the same statements and the incongruency of the two thought experiments seems to happen here, at the difference between “can” and “will”, for there is a difference.

Category Error

A category error is what happens when you use terms that belong in one category in another. The term was invented by Gilbert Ryle in his book, The Concept of Mind, so it seems prudent to take an example he used to explain what it means:

John Doe may be a relative, a friend, an enemy or a stranger to Richard Roe; but he cannot be any of these things to the Average Taxpayer. He knows how to talk sense in certain sorts of discussions about the Average Taxpayer, but he is baffled to say why he could not come across him in the street as he can come across Richard Roe.

… [S]o long as John Doe continues to think of the Average Taxpayer as a fellow citizen, he will tend to think of him as an elusive insubstantial man, a ghost who is everywhere yet nowhere

Note that this quote may not be exact as my copy is in epub format and it looks like they used a character recognition scanner…I’m interpolating the computer’s mistakes.

So what is it that John Doe has done here that has confused him? We can see quite well the mistake he’s making and get a bit of a laugh out of it, but what exactly is John Doe confusing and what is he confusing it with?

What is Richard Roe? Richard Roe is an instance of a man, identified by the title “Richard Roe”. There is one particular Richard Roe and you can meet him on the street, shake hands with him, talk to him, etc.

What is the Average Taxpayer? The Average Taxpayer is a set of men identified by common characteristics…the main of which is that he pays taxes. You can’t meet the Average Taxpayer on the street because there’s no such person but a people. You could meet a person that falls into that category, and probably Richard Roe is such a person. You can’t meet the Average Taxpayer though because he/it is not in the category of individuals but is in the category of “set of individuals”.

What is “possible”?

The word “possible” means, “Capable of happening, existing, or being true without contradicting proven facts, laws, or circumstances,” according to the nearest online dictionary. Far be it from me to refer to the dictionary as an authority, and in fact I strongly disagree with many dictionary definitions of “God”, but the dictionary does come fairly close in most circumstances to the average use. This means that normal use of the word “possible” is perhaps relatively explained by the dictionary. Words are just symbols to intend meaning, so we can use them any way we want, but to convey meaning we need to either agree to what the words mean or explain (in agreed to meanings) what we mean my a term. In this case I agree with the meaning given by the dictionary and I believe it is the responsibility of those that would use it otherwise to define their meaning; in the meantime we must assume something like the dictionary is saying. I do wish to extend it though and dig down into what the definition means.

Basically when we say something is “possible” we mean that its, “…happening, existing, or being true…,” is among the set of universes that follows the same physical laws as our own. Truth be told, we actually mean a bit more than this because physical laws are not always part of the equation and we may pick and choose among them and is no doing add universes that are nothing like our own. So for example say I’m about to throw a lawn dart. Among the set of universes that we say are “possible” might be one in which I:

  1. Throw the dart such that it lands in the circle.
  2. Throw the dart such that it misses the circle.
  3. Really fuck up and throw the dart straight up such that it lands on my own head.

Since none of these “possibilities” violate the known laws of physics, they are all “viable” outcomes…meaning that they “could” happen. Alternatively we might say that among the possibilities is that I might throw the dart, it turns into a Unicorn, flies to the moon and back, shits on the circle, turns back into a dart, and lands at my feet. This scenario is so unlikely, based on our knowledge of expected outcomes, that we call it “non-viable” and in so doing we mean that it can not happen. This is a filter upon the overall set of “possibilites” that narrows it down to those future universes that are actually realistic.

All that being said, none of these future universes exist. These are all models that human minds create. When I throw my dart and the future unfolds, all of these alternative scenarios we invented are equally as real as the unicorn one–not to be confused with their “viability”, which conveys the obvious fact that the unicorn scenario so violates our understanding of reality that we can say no universe similar to our own would have that future. Although the set of possible futures is perhaps infinite, or practically so for human minds, the set of viable futures is smaller and the set of futures that are going to happen contains exactly one. Our “possible” is to our “future” as Ryle’s “Average Taxpayer” is to “Richard Roe”. If we continue to think of them as being in the same category we will be, like John Doe, forever baffled by the simplest of concepts.

Other words that belong in the set category rather than instance category are, “could”, “can”, “might”, “can’t”, “option”, and any other word that portrays the future as having multiple instances. The word “could” is simply a past tense occurrence of “can”, which conveys that the future is uncertain and might unfold in any number of ways. You may begin now to see what the problem is with the conclusions in the “God” thought experiment: what will happen is in a totally different category from what can happen just like what did happen is in a different category from what could have happened.

Where choice fits in

Choice fits somewhere in the gap between “can” and “will”. Exactly where is not certain to me and I see much room for debate on how much “can” we really have in our lives. We have the ability though to see the universe not only in how it will unfold, but in how it can unfold. The more we know about the universe we live in the better we’re able to predict what can is really a “can” and not just fantasy. Within and in addition to this ability we are able to simulate ourselves in these alternative futures, to anticipate what it might be like to be in one future or another. We desire some futures over others; I for example desire a future where I am employed and can pay my bills more than a future that is not so. Provided as we are with all of these possibilities we are able to model our own real world actions in ways that reflect those actions we anticipate are necessary for the future we desire.

This is where people often will start balking and say, “Oh but you’re just playing with words, you still can’t do anything other than you are determined to do.” They might add to this that, “You’re not talking about the Free Will everyone cares about, the kind that enables responsibility.” In fact, these are indeed the two main responses I get.

The first part is hard to respond to. It indicates a total failure to hear the argument as they are still using words that I’ve shown fall into a different category than the category they are using them in. In so doing they imply something that is not valid, that seems to say more than it really does, and makes people think that they’ve shattered this illusion everyone cares about. Truth be told they aren’t talking about anything anyone cares about, but because they’re violating categories they’ll be forever baffled by this simple fact.

What they imply by saying that one “can’t” act in any other way is fatalism. It is this that people fear, and perhaps rightfully so. It implies that nothing a person thinks matters and this is simply so utterly far from the truth that it’s hard to reconcile. Our evolved, mechanic ability to anticipate possible futures and select among them very much steers the course the universe takes in the future. In as much as a rock falling will eventually hit the ground and damage both the rock and what it hits in some way, this modeling of alternate futures and selecting among them will force the future into a direction dictated by that deliberation in at least some way (clearly simply deciding something doesn’t make it so, and acting on that decision doesn’t either…but it helps). Unlike the rock though, which has no such ability to anticipate futures and will them into being, our ability gives us control. The rock falls. “Can” has no place in our discussion about it. We act. “Can” has everything to do with it.

It’s hard to say how one might go about convincing someone not open to the former line of reasoning. The only thing one can do is continue mentioning that “can” has no place in a discussion about a single universe. It only has place in a discussion of possibilities which are within the realm of our understanding of how the world works. Although some might claim that only one such possibility is “viable”, this is really flying in the face of language use and so will never be about anything the average person cares about. The average person cares whether the things going on in their mind affect the course of things to come, and they do.

Is this “free” though?

Which brings me to the final part of the discussion. Is what I’m talking about the kind of “Free Will” that people care about? What I am talking about is not a “contra-causal” free will, an ability to pop events into the universe that have no causes (note I didn’t use “create”). Our thoughts, our wills, our emotions, and our reasons all have their causes too. If I had perfect knowledge of the universe, and/or was able to observe the state transitions in your brain, I could anticipate your decisions. How can this be “free”?

First of all I think we have to ask ourselves what we mean by “free”. If we mean in an absolute sense, a sense in which we can do or think anything, and can decide what to think next, etc… I think we have to abandon this idea as absurd. Further, I don’t think anyone really does expect it nor do we feel like we’re exercising such power in our everyday lives.

We recognize and understand that many times our decisions are based on what we call “whim”; yet we do not cry over this or say it happened without our say so as that “whim” is part of what we self-identify with. Something came over me such that I wanted one thing over another. This is as close, I think, to what incompatibilists must expect of “free will” as anything and these are the decisions we’re the least attached to.

Another class of decision we make are over choices that require much deliberation. In these decisions we reason things out, we converse with ourselves for great lengths of time over the matter. The decision whether or not “Free Will” is a reasonable concept was such a thing for me, as was the decision that this assumed magical version is both absurd and not what people want was another. How much of my belief is based on reason and how much my reason is based on the belief are debates I’m willing to have, but these are the kinds of things that I feel most clearly identify me, these are the decisions I feel most involved in being a part of making and it must be said that if they are indeed as reasoned and deliberate as I hope them to be…they are utterly formulaic in their design, meaning they were calculated by in incredibly complex and powerful machine.

It is in this later class of choice that most people at least like to believe that their moral choices are within. Do I cheat or do I not cheat? Reasons for cheating: if I’m not caught I get into a better position than I would be otherwise. Reasons for not cheating: it’s immoral and if I get caught I’m so fucked it’s not funny. There is a lot of evidence that says this isn’t necessarily how it really plays out, and this is just a story we tell ourselves after the fact, but I don’t need to break away from causation to feel free here…I need to break away from psychology and have my decisions be even more rational and computational. I need my reason and my ethics to be involved.

I suppose there are certainly people out there who feel otherwise, who want all of their decisions to be based on something fundamentally outside of reason without which they feel trapped by reality, unable to exercise their will and guide the future into something they want to live in. I really have to debate with those that would claim that’s the most common view though. Certainly there are many people who, baffled as they are by categorical error, are terrified that a rational view of the world dictates that nothing they are matters and that the universe dictates to them what will be rather than the other way around. I don’t believe though that what they really want is at all hindered by reality and I am fairly certain that their fear is based utterly on misunderstanding and a misuse of words. Our choices matter. They are a part of what happens in the future. What you are thinking is not pointless; quite the opposite in fact.


Bringing this into focus with regard to a closer view of incompatibilist thinking we forego the “god” being we discussed above and replace it with physics. “For every action there is a reaction.” Determinism is very likely NOT true, but any freedom you’d care about cannot be saved by indeterminism (a universe with truly random events that are not caused). What determinism does is basically assert that because every event has a cause, which in turn had a cause, etc… and that every cause has one result, and this will have one result, etc… that the entire future of the universe, every event that will ever happen, is known and expressed in its current state.

To explain a bit better perhaps, consider a pool table. Pool balls behave in a very rigorous, determined manner. If you hit a cue ball straight on another ball, the queue stops and the momentum is directly transferred to the ball it hit. This is pretty much impossible to do, so you generally see balls bounce off each other in consistent directions based on the trajectory they were going in. A pool player becomes better by being able to recognize this determined action of pool balls and alter where he or she hits the queue ball in order to cause the rest of the balls to go where he or she wants them to. Add to this some strategy and the inability of the human brain to formulate ALL of the mathematics necessary to completely map out a position to win in one hit all the time…and you have a fun game. Underneath this uncertainty within human frailty though is very clear, very determined, and very certain outcomes.

Determinism says you’re a system of pool balls. Don’t take this metaphor too far though, as many do, because the difference between your brain and a pool table is similar to the difference between a round stone wheel and the fucking starship enterprise…way beyond that actually.

At any rate, when push comes to shove this amounts to the same thing as the omnipotent God and the same argument applies. “Can” is not the same as “will” and the place decisions are made are in the brains of agents (human beings). The emergent phenomenon of choice and possibility within the brains of human beings implemented by the bouncing around of atoms that have no such concept at all is difficult to fathom, yes…but not illusory.

Final thoughts

I hope that I have fairly represented the common incompatibilist view. I try not to belittle the view since while I believe it is mistaken, and based on flawed thinking, I am not one to say that they do so on purpose. Nothing frustrates me more than to have someone say to me, “Compatibilists like to bypass these issues by claiming…” It doesn’t really matter what follows after that since from the start you’ve proven that you’ve not reasonably reviewed the opposition. I’m not immune from these human deficiencies in reason though so if I’ve unfairly attacked a straw man, overgeneralized the position, etc…then that is my own lack of understanding. Although not entirely technically rigorous, I’ve attempted to remain true to my oppositions view and rebut it on its own merits rather than claim any kind of intellectual dishonesty or lack in its adherents’ parts. Obviously I think they are wrong, but not stupid (obviously some will be since there always is) nor guided by “likes” or “desires” for a particular side any more than I am.

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